decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Tommy and Coco at the window

I drove Ms. E to school this morning and dropped her off so that she could chaperone a group of her students on a three-day trip to the state science fair. She will be home again on Tuesday; until then it's just me and the cats. And it's funny, isn't it, how habits of separation and togetherness become ingrained? She was away so much last summer that I got very used to being on my own. But as we talked about this last night, we counted it up and determined that we had only spent one night apart since last August. One! An extraordinary amount of togetherness, well above what is normal for us. So I am out of the habit of spending time alone like this, and it did feel a bit strange when I got back to the house this morning. But it's good, too: I will write and read, take care of the house and garden, and prepare myself for some longer separations that are coming in the next few weeks.

Clematis after the rain

I finished Ali Smith's The Accidental last night, and I found it disappointing. The book had so much potential to be...well, not great--I don't think it could have been great, but it could at least have been interestingly weird. And in the end it did not manage even that. The book tells the story of a rather ordinary English family and the mysterious woman named Amber who talks her way in amongst them while they're on holiday, manipulates them, lies to them, and pushes various buttons for each of the various family members for as long as she's allowed to stay in their midst. The story had a lot of momentum at first (there were a hundred pages or so in the middle of the book when it came as close to being a page-turner as anything I ever read), but this all fizzled as the book wound down to its rather empty ending. I wanted more from this book: I wanted Smith to go farther and darker and weirder, I wanted more connections, I wanted the story to have more meat.

Next I will read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. I loved loved loved Olive Kitteridge a few years ago, which makes me fear that my expectations may be too high and I'll be disappointed by this one too. We shall see.

Cranesbill geranium

The garden is as imperfect as it always is, yet it is making me so happy these days. Clematis are blooming; coral bells are blooming; the hydrangea was not killed by its hard pruning just before a hard winter, but instead is growing back in compact and healthy and beautiful; tomato seedlings are becoming strong tomato plants; I am cooking with herbs from the herb garden. All of this, it seems, is enough to make me overlook the problems, the plants I am worried about, the ways in which I would like to invest time and money that I don't have at the moment.... So it is lovely right now and I will enjoy it.
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The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf's The Waves is a strange, lyrical, difficult, beautiful, and complicated book. Is it a novel? Woolf called it a "play-poem," and it seems to me that it is perhaps a mixture of all three forms: a novel that is built like a play, written in the form of a long prose poem. Or perhaps it's something else entirely. It is a book about consciousness, and like its subject, its true nature is slippery.

The Waves is made up of the entwined inner monologues of six characters, broken occasionally by short, italicized sections describing in careful detail a scene on the coast of England at various points from sunrise to sunset. These descriptive sections mark the passage of time in the lives of the six characters, but Woolf shows very little interest in the events of their lives. Some of them marry, some have children, some become lovers or poets or businessmen--where other authors would construct major scenes or whole plots out of any one of these events, Woolf gives them only glancing mention. Instead, Woolf focuses on the struggle of each of her characters to know themselves, to know others, to understand themselves in relationship to others, to understand the changing world and their own changing place in it. It is a book about the pain of identity: the first half (my favorite half, when the characters are young) is about the pain of forming an identity; the second is about the pain of one's inevitable isolation within that identity.

This was the most challenging book that I've read in quite a while, and although I wanted to love it in the way I loved To the Lighthouse last summer, I couldn't quite. I was blown away by Woolf's ambition and by her determination to write about those elusive elements of thought and experience that resist being set down in words. Her sentences are unfailingly gorgeous, she brings an equal, startling precision to her observation of both the natural world and the human psyche, and there are deep insights and moving moments in The Waves. But those insights and moments of emotional connection are often surrounded on all sides by abstraction, and I frequently found my attention drifting as Woolf's lovely sentences flowed past my eyes. Some days I had no trouble staying focused and connected to the narrative, but on others I continually found myself at the bottom of the page with no awareness of how I had gotten there. So although there is much to admire (more even than I have enumerated here! I have barely scratched the surface!), I remained stuck in admiration and never made the leap to love.

But this is not a book that reveals itself fully on a first reading. I know that I should return to it someday, and that I will experience it differently when I do.
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Cool and damp today, the weather feels like true spring after the run of early summer days with which we began the week. I have had a type of quiet morning that I really enjoy: puttering around the house by myself, straightening and setting things right as I go, doing some light chores, folding a basket of laundry, refilling the bird feeder... And now I am about to go have a type of afternoon that I don't enjoy: working my way through the pile of grading that must get done before spring break. But before I consign myself to that fate, a couple of photos:

Camellia in bloom
An incredibly mild winter and an early spring mean that my camellia is in bloom about three weeks earlier than it was last year.

Camellia on the windowsill--first cut flower of the year.
Of course I could not resist bringing a blossom inside. I love having flowers in the house and this is the first one this year.
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Our eighth week: a head of cabbage, a bunch of fennel fronds, a bunch of lacinato kale, a bunch of red beets with greens, two heads of fresh garlic, one quart of red potatoes, three fresh onions, and a big handful of green beans. I sense that a green bean and potato salad is in my future, perhaps with some chopped fennel fronds and a mustardy vinaigrette.
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I. Strawberries!

Fourth shipment, and the best one yet

We got strawberries in our CSA share this week! Very exciting. Every year, there is mention of the possibility of there occasionally being fruit along with the vegetables, but this is the first time it's ever happened. Mmm, beautiful strawberries. And it's not just the strawberries--we also got madly curling garlic scapes, a head of green romaine, a big bunch of curly kale, asparagus, a little cloud of pea tendrils, and green onions. An excellent shipment all around, full of a things I know I love (garlic scapes, asparagus, kale) and things that are new to me (pea tendrils!). I haven't investigated how to use the pea tendrils yet, and I'm assuming that they just go in salad, but I'd love to hear about anything you've done with them!

Pea tendrils - 4th shipment
Pea tendrils. See how pretty?

II. We know their dream: enough / To know they dreamed and are dead

I stayed up late last night to finish Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys. It is an ambitious book, 650 pages long and loaded with allusions to all sorts of Irish literature (Joyce, Yeats, the obvious nod to Flann O’Brien in the title…), but I don’t think it’s as great a work as it thinks it is. Still, it’s a book that hit me in all of my weak spots; I loved it despite its flaws. Having an Irish-American’s romantic fascination with the troubled history of Ireland and a queer girl’s love of seeing queer identities reinstated to times and places where they were erased, how could I have done anything but love this book?

The story revolves around three men living on the outskirts of Dublin: Jim Mack, Doyler Doyle, and Anthony MacMurrough. Jim and Doyler are teenagers, best friends who eventually become lovers. MacMurrough is older, a son of the local nobility, returned from England where he has just done two years of hard labor after being convicted of “gross indecency” with his chauffeur. Jim is really the central figure of the book, and he’s a heartbreaking character—a beautiful boy, a sort of holy innocent who moves through the novel radiating with the power of loving and being loved. I liked Jim for his devotion to and longing for Doyler, but MacMurrough was my favorite. I didn’t care for him at all when he first came on the scene—he seemed like just an obnoxious cynic who used Doyler as a bit of rough trade—but O’Neill gradually reveals his pain and transforms him into a meaningful character. Much of the first half of the novel is devoted to MacMurrough’s recovery from the experiences he had in prison, and his slow realization that being a man who loves men does not have to be a source of shame and horror, but could rather be understood—and maybe even embraced?—as an identity.

If you scratch the surface of O’Neill’s love story, you will realize that underneath the romance there is a novel about redemption. I loved the way O’Neill allowed redemption to flow through his story, each character elevating another in a sort of ongoing cycle. MacMurrough finds his redemption through loving and protecting Jim; by being faithful to Doyler, Jim redeems an old betrayal that poisoned the friendship between their fathers, etc. The obvious presence of the Church (it is an Irish novel, after all), with its narrow definitions of sin and redemption, effectively underscores O’Neill’s humanistic view.

O’Neill treats his historical material with far too heavy a hand. Jim and Doyler make a pact to swim to an island in Dublin Bay together on Easter, 1916; this necessitates a lot of repetition of the phrase “Easter, 1916,” and each time it’s like an elbow nudging the reader in the ribs. “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? On Easter, 1916? They don’t know but you do, right?” Yes, for god’s sake, I know. And of course it does happen, and O’Neill gives us the details of the Easter Rising, and the Rising is just as grandiose, dumb, brave, and botched as it always is, but whatever power accrues here comes only from the truth of the names and events; the connection to this particularly story feels artificial. If you want to read about the Easter Rising, read Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, or better yet, just read Yeats’s poem.

O’Neill’s prose also feels heavy-handed at times, Oirish in a way that Flann O’Brien would certainly mock. And why, if you’re going to write like that, would you invite that mockery by titling your book after At Swim-Two-Birds? Which reminds me that many of the allusions in the book seem to serve no purpose other than to show us that O’Neill has read Joyce and all the other Irish heavyweights, but so what?

And now I’m going to talk about the ending, so if you think you might want to read this book, avert your eyes from this paragraph. Oh, the ending. I didn’t like it, but I don’t know what else O’Neill could have done. When you send your characters into a war zone, as Dublin was during Easter week of 1916, you have only two choices: they can live or they can die. If everyone had survived and the book had ended with Jim and Doyler side by side, in love and refusing to give up the fight for an Irish Ireland, I would have felt like the ending was fake, unsatisfying, and impossible to believe. Because that doesn’t happen, I still find it unsatisfying and I’m annoyed that this is yet another gay love story that has to end in tragedy. Yet another Irish story that has to end in tragedy. So I suppose it’s no-win.

For all it’s flaws, though, it has some true strengths. If only O’Neill could have left out the sweep of history and stuck to what he’s good at. He draws wonderful characters, he’s great at the intricacies of the human heart, and he’s masterful at small moments, like the beautiful scene of Jim and Doyler in bed together for the first time, forswearing sex until their mystical swim, but luxuriating in each other presence, each other’s skin, or the different intimacies of Jim’s long talks with MacMurrough. I think you could probably make quite a good movie out of this book, and I’m a little surprised that nobody’s tried.
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Red scallions

We had a week off after our first, early shipment, but now the CSA season has begun in earnest! In our share this week we had about five large rhubarb stalks, a gorgeous bunch of mint, a bunch of red scallions, half a pound of cremini mushrooms, one head of green leaf lettuce, one head of green romaine, a container of itty-bitty baby radish greens, and a bag of mesclun mix (not pictured). After spending a few months eating produce that comes either from the freezer or from the grocery store, I always forget how beautiful straight-from-the-farm vegetables can be. I have a notion of documenting this year's share in photographs, but weekly pictures of vegetables might get boring in short order--both for me and for you! So who knows? This week there are photos; next week, we'll see.

And a question for you, friends: if you suddenly received an absolutely gorgeous, out-of-this-world fragrant bunch of mint, what would do with it? How would you really show off its flavor?

Second shipment - 5/19/11
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Neighbor's tree

What is it about spring that makes me want to do nothing but take photos? Perhaps it's the loveliness of these buds that appeared on my next door neighbor's tree, seemingly bursting into being sometime between last night and this morning. Our hawthorn tree has been slowly putting out leaves for weeks now, but the tree next door was utterly dormant until it was suddenly covered in these pink buds.

Or maybe it's the lightness of sitting around the house right now in bare feet and a linen t-shirt--finally free of all the winter layers. Or the lightness I feel knowing that tomorrow I will teach my last class of the semester. After that, I'll just have to wrap up the grading and then I'm done. Although I've been frustrated at times by the irregular schedule of this class, I've enjoyed it more than any other teaching gig I've had. I'll be glad to be done for the summer, sure, but I feel so much less end-of-semester burnout than I've ever felt before. But it will be good to be done--I've almost entirely shelved my own writing while I've been teaching, so it's time to start getting back to that.

New growth

Or maybe it's this little bit of loveliness: new leaves I spotted today on a plant I had given up for dead.

What else has been going on? )
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Front of house - 4/11

One of the many new things that I gained when we bought our house was a pair of window boxes. Despite nearly ten years of apartment living, none of my apartments in either Philadelphia or State College ever had window boxes. I've always thought that they were cute, though, so I'm excited to have them.

Windowbox - 4/11

Right now, they don't look very different than they did when we bought the house: both the little round shrub and the pale green foliage plant (anyone know what it is?) were planted by the previous owners. The arrangement is a bit stiff and formal for my taste--I'm fond of sprawling, messy gardens--but everything about the previous owners' style was stiffer and more formal than ours. I stuck some pansies in for color and to loosen things up a bit, but I haven't quite been able to bring myself to pull out perfectly healthy plants and do away with them! I guess they may not change much for a while, then.

Nevertheless, I brought the camera with me while out walking through our neighborhood today, and took some photos of some of my favorite window boxes. I'm always interested in what other gardeners do in this highly urban environment, and often impressed by the creativity I see when I pay attention.

Philadelphia window boxes )

Do you have window boxes? If so, show me!
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Grey and cool today, with the promise of rain in the afternoon. Promise or threat? We had an intense storm over the weekend; rain fell for hours, cycling back with renewed force after each brief slackening, turning to thunder and lightening in the evening. I was suddenly very aware of the age of this house, as though I could feel the water searching with prying fingers for any crack where it could enter. I don't think I've ever felt so strongly that a house was being put to the test by the weather. We passed the test, mainly--a few drips here and there, but otherwise dry.

Kitchen window

After the storm, I washed my kitchen windows, and I love how clear they are now. Even on a grey day I can see the difference. This is the sort of work I've been doing on the house lately: small projects, the sort I can finish in an afternoon. There are bigger project yet to be done, of course, but right now I like the feeling of completion I get from these tasks. Planting pansies in the window boxes, or doing a bit of deep cleaning, or painting a piece of furniture.

Read more... )
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[Photo by Jean-Louis Blondeau, NYT]

On August 7, 1974, after six years of careful planning, Philippe Petit strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and spent 45 early morning minutes walking, running, and dancing across. This event is the linchpin of Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin; it is the point around which McCann's several different narratives rotate, and (to mix my metaphors) it is the bright, extraordinary moment that sheds its light on all the ordinary moments that make up the novel. Let the Great World Spin is a novel of connection and, like David Mitchell's Ghostwritten or Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker, part of the purpose of the book is to expose the hidden relationships between events and characters that seem, at first, entirely unconnected. As the connections between different storylines and characters become clear, Philippe Petit's tightrope walk moves to the periphery and the stories begin to rotate around each other, bumping and jostling and creating more connections as they go.

But Let the Great World Spin is not only a novel of connection; it's also a September 11th novel. Since it's set in 1974, McCann writes less overtly about the 9/11 tragedy than other authors I've read (Pat Barker in Double Vision, Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but it's there nonetheless. No book that takes the Twin Towers as its central image can avoid the implication. McCann's approach to writing about 9/11 is interesting, and perhaps the most successful of any of the attempts I've read. His setting forces him to tell it slant, so he chooses instead to depict another disaster for New York: the homegrown disaster of life there in the 1970s. The most powerful part of the book is McCann's description of the South Bronx in the 1970s, an urban wasteland sprawling under the smoke of uncontrolled arson. Although a number of characters actually live in a housing project in the midst of this devastation, the grit seems realest when seen through the eyes of Solomon Soderburg, a judge who lives on Park Ave but in his courtroom comes into contact with every variety of human abasement on show in New York.

There's a lot of technical skill on display in Let the Great World Spin: McCann's prose style is usually quite good, and there are occasional sentences where it's great; he managed to make me believe in some of the most implausible links in this book of links between people and places; there were a few really lovely moments when we got to watch characters tiptoe gingerly out of the self and onto the tightrope of connection to another person. Yet for all that, the book never quite came to life for me. It took me a whole month to read, and I spent seemingly the whole month flip-flopping. I liked McCann's writing and then I didn't; I thought he had a lot to say and then I thought he had nothing to say; I liked the fact that every story arc lifted toward redemption and then I thought that was foolish and unrealistic. Endlessly back and forth. I've tried and tried to figure out why I was so ambivalent towards the book, but I haven't been able to hit on an answer. Was I resisting it? Was it just a case of wrong book at the wrong time? Or wrong book for wrong reader? I don't know. I don't think it's a bad book, and it is, of course, useful for me to read in light of my own book of interconnected storylines, but somehow it didn't sing for me.
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The sunlight was gorgeous in my kitchen this morning; it made all the ordinary objects in my house seem more beautiful that usual. Of course I couldn't resist taking pictures.

For [ profile] undergroundsea: my yellow pear tomatoes!

Three more )
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I was at home in Philadelphia this weekend, and on Sunday morning I took a walk around my neighborhood with the camera.

Blue windows on S. Orianna St.

More )
decemberthirty: (audubon spoonbill)
I. A picture of flowers

I went out to the deck to water my garden yesterday, and found that the red and white verbena had burst into bloom. I cut a few blossoms for the kitchen, and they were so cute that I had to take a picture. Perhaps tomorrow, once these have faded, I'll cut some of the purplish-white petunias that are also blooming right now.

II. A book about spirits

I'm currently reading Affinity by Sarah Waters. Waters's Fingersmith was one of the most fun books I read last summer, so I thought I would attempt to recapture that with another of her novels. Affinity is less suspenseful (thus far, at least) than Fingersmith but more nuanced--there are fascinating layers of unreliability at work here, and some very lovely writing. It took me 50 pages or so to really get into it, but now that I have I'm enjoying it quite a bit.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I. Recent reading

June Jordan's Poetry for the People edited by Laura Muller and the Blueprint Collective: I don't really know what to make of this book, or even how to describe it. The book grew out of the famous poetry class that June Jordan taught at Berkeley for many years, and it's something of a hodge podge. The book is essentially a compilation of materials for and by the class: student writings (both poetry and personal reflections), a sample syllabus, lists of classroom ground rules, tips for staging readings, etc. The book came out in the early nineties, and often feels a bit dated in some of its earnest political correctness and focus on identity politics. But June Jordan was an incredibly impressive poet and activist, and the book is definitely imbued with her sense of poetry as a real tool for change. It's an interesting book, I'm just not sure how useful it is unless you happen to be trying to initiate your own version of the Poetry for the People course.

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta: Oh my god, this book is so bad. Everything about it is bad. Perrotta's prose has no style whatsoever, I didn't care about the characters, there are preposterous holes in the plot...I could go on. Perhaps the worst thing about this book is the fact that every time something is done or said, Perrotta is right there, explaining it to us--there's no room for interpretation, imagination, or even involvement on the part of the reader. The other worst thing about it (too many bad things to pick just one!) is the way it gestures towards big topical issues (the power given to right-wing Christian fundamentalists, abstinence-only education, gay marriage) but refuses to take any kind of stance on those issues. They just sit in the book taking up space while Perrotta tiptoes around them trying not to offend anybody. Bah. My workshop professor perhaps described the book best: "It's like oatmeal. Or milquetoast... Oatmeal with milquetoast on top."

I Am a Pencil by Sam Swope: Every teacher and every writer who's reading this should go out and get this book. It's great. It occasionally veers a little into the sentimental, but it's still great. The book tells the story of how Sam Swope, a children's book author, spent three years teaching fiction and poetry to a class of elementary school kids in Queens. He followed the same class through third, fourth, and fifth grade, so he got to develop relationships with the kids over a long period of time and watch the changes in them as they grew up, worked with different teachers, etc. There is quite a bit of the students' writing reproduced in the book, and I was amazed not only by how good it is but also by how easily these kids are able to access their imaginations. This is also a super-quick read--I got through the whole thing in a day, and I'm no speed reader.

II. Birds!

I love my bird feeder. It's so much fun, and it allows me to indulge my interest in wild birds even when I don't have time to go hiking and look for them. I'm amazed at the variety of birds that I get, too! I regularly see juncos, chickadees, titmice, a mated pair of cardinals, nuthatches, and white-throated sparrows, but I've also seen house finches, blue jays, and today I even thought I saw a fox sparrow! (Fox sparrows are rather uncommon, and I wasn't able to be quite certain of my id before he flew away.)

A few weeks ago Ms. E came to visit and brought her camera, which allowed me to take some bird feeder photos. They're slightly dark because of being taken through the window, but a few of them came out pretty well.

More photos )
Nuthatch on the tree
Nuthatch on the tree
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