November is Margaret Atwood Reading Month

1538481634614220282014I most emphatically do not like anything Margaret Atwood has written from The Handmaid’s Tale on. Oryx and Crake and subsequent books have become far too sci-fi for my taste, with a strong flavor of feminism and futuristic doom to boot.

But. Surfacing, The Cat’s Eye, and The Robber Bride are among three of my favorite books ever. (Particularly The Robber Bride which I have read at least three times.)

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So, when Naomi of Consumed by Ink announced that she and Marci are hosting a Margaret Atwood Reading Month, I jumped right in. They have many events scheduled, in which you can participate or not as you choose. The point is, I believe, to celebrate the great power of Atwood’s voice.

Needful Things by Stephen King (R.I.P. XIII)

“The world is full of needy people who don’t understand that everything, everything, is for sale…if you’re willing to pay the price.” (p. 82)

Isn’t that just what the Enemy would do? Trick you into believing that what you want is what you have to have? Trick you into paying anything for your obsession? Trick you into thinking that what you thought was worth everything, was really worth nothing? King’s plot is brilliant, for it shows how we are often taunted with promised pleasure almost too powerful to resist.

Eleven year old Brian Rusk has bought a Stanley Koufax 1956 baseball card from the shop, Needful Things. He can’t stop looking at it, checking it, taking one last peek to see that it is still there. “He recognized that it had become kind of an obsession with him, but recognition did not put a stop to it.” Because obsessions are not that easy to get rid of.

Ask Danforth “Buster” Keeton, who is addicted to gambling and buys a tin race track which magically reveals the winning horse. Or, Hugh Priest who is addicted to alcohol and buys a fox tail which reminds him of the joy of his youth, or even timid Nettie Cobb, who simply cannot let the Carnival glass lampshade out of her sight. Each person in Castle Rock feels that the thing they have purchased at Needful Things is now the one thing they cannot live without; surely this thing, they hope, is the answer to their yearning.

I am captivated by the way that King has portrayed addiction in this novel:

It was a pit with greasy sides, a snare with hidden teeth, a loaded gun with the safety removed. (p. 210)

He had discovered another large fact about possessions and the peculiar psychological state they induce: the more one has to go through because of something one owns, the more one wants to keep that thing. (p. 261)

But, the people of Castle Rock, Maine, are holding nothing but empty promises. Brian’s brother, Sean, can’t understand why Brian is so attached to a faded, dog-eared card bearing the name Sonny Koberg. And no one can understand why Hugh Priest gently and lovingly strokes a mangy, dirty piece of fur which was once a lustrous fox tail. Deputy Norris Ridgewick’s beloved Bazun fishing rod is nothing but a splintery bamboo pole.

For the people have all been deceived, by their own desires to be sure. But, also by Leland Guant, owner of Needful Things, who sells them what they desire with soothing words (“Because the devil’s voice is sweet to hear”), a compelling gaze, and a promise to play a little prank, a harmful little trick.

The “little tricks” build to such grotesque consequences that soon the town begins to self destruct. Castle Rock’s inhabitants are in the grip of their obsessions, and they will let nothing come in between the thing and their illusion of happiness.

“Perhaps all the really special things I sell aren’t what they appear to be. Perhaps they are actually gray things with one remarkable property—the ability to take the shapes of those things which haunt the dreams of men and women.” He paused, then added thoughtfully, “Perhaps they are dreams themselves.” (p. 370)

The Enemy and all his empty promises are portrayed so cleverly in this novel by Stephen King, who shows us in thinly veiled hints just who Leland Gaunt may be:

“Needful Things is a poison place and Mr. Gaunt is a poison man. Only he’s really not a man, Sean. He’s not a man at all. Swear to me you’ll never buy any of the poison things Mr. Gaunt sells.” (p. 553)

I was riveted to this book, almost as much as The Stand, because I am fascinated by the way King writes, pulling me immediately into the story, and into the era I knew when I was growing up. I also like the battles between good and evil, most of which I find are not entirely fictionalized, but very real indeed.

There’s a warning in this book, told several times over. Even if Stephen King knows it, which I suspect he does, he didn’t write it as plainly as this:

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. Jonah 2:8 (NIV)

R.I.P. VIII: The Books

Behold four of the books I have for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XIII. Always I will miss the input of Carl, who began the challenge long ago when I myself was beginning blogging; may I hazard a guess of 2006? Be that as it may, here we are thirteen years later. Feeling autumnal. Willing to ‘frighten’ ourselves with spirits and ghosts and eerie stories.

The Laybrinth of Spirits is the latest in the quartet which makes up the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is, frankly, just as involved and filled with characters as The Shadow of The Wind, a book in which I had to list all the characters on the inside back cover. But, there is an air of mystery, and an aura of the power of books, which melts my heart.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo is a retelling and continuation of The Legend of Sleepy Hallow told through the perspective of Ichabod Crane’s forbidden love. It will be published October 2, 2019.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell was first published last October, the paperback came out in March. It is described as, “An extraordinary, memorable, and truly haunting book.” –JoJo Moyes, #1 New York Times bestselling author and, “A perfect read for a winter night…An intriguing, nuanced, and genuinely eerie slice of Victorian gothic.” –The Guardian

The Hanging at Picnic Rock by Joan Lindsay is a 50th anniversary edition of a book which has been called, “A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.” Apparently, three girls go off climbing after their picnic, into the shadows of a volcanic outcropping, and never return.

And you? Have you any autumnal reading planned for this fall? For the R.I.P. XIII? (Sign up, if you haven’t already, by clicking here.)

How a sling changed more than my foot…

Don’t you hate it when people take pictures of their feet and post them? Usually, it’s on a beach somewhere, with a perfect pedicure on straight toes and a crashing surf in the background.

Those are not the kind of feet I have. Mine have been crooked all of my life, so much so that I am used to their irregularity. They don’t hurt very much anymore, as a general rule, until this plantar fasciitis thing kicked in.

I have been coping with that since February: icing, taping, stretching, wearing a compression sock (the equivalent of Spanx for your foot, but not any more comfortable), and taking NSAIDs. Nothing has helped.

You give me enough time, I’ll finally go see a doctor, and so with a walking tour planned for October, I thought this might be the time. Off I went last Wednesday.

“You have been suffering with this for far too long,” she said when she walked into the room where I was waiting. She gave me a cortisone shot, a Velcro sling, and an appointment in two weeks if I need it.

Wait. All of this pain has been going on longer than necessary? I have been suffering for months needlessly?

It seems like there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I mean, in between being a stoic, and being a big baby, is the place to be. It never really occurred to me that there were other options than endurance. But, now that I’m aware of that? I think that I will be more open to finding an avenue which doesn’t require gritting one’s teeth against every opposition.

Have you found that balance?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

 

Who are you? Why are you? What do you want? The problem is this—heading straight toward the miniaturist seems to make her disappear. And yet, she is so often there, watching and waiting. Nella wonders which one of them is hunter, which one of them is prey. (p. 190)

This novel caught my eye when it was first published in 2014, but it wasn’t until I saw that PBS is going to air a mini-series on it this Sunday that I decided to read it.

The Miniaturist is an interesting story, which reminded me a teensy bit of Rebecca in that it contains a young wife and lots of mysterious goings-on in her new household. The novel is set in Amsterdam, in the 1680s, and tells the story of Petronella Oortman who has left Asselfeldt to come marry Johannes Brandt. He presents her with a cabinet of nine rooms, much like a dollhouse of sorts, as he is a loving man albeit with his own limitations.

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Petronella hires a miniaturist to fill the cabinet, whose creations uncannily mimic what comes to fruition within Petronella’s household. We read to discover the identity of the miniaturist, we read to find out specifics of life in Amsterdam during the fifteenth century. It is not the kind of life lived so freely today, where almost any type of behavior is accepted and upheld, as we have no burgomasters passing judgement on every action we make.

Each character is carefully drawn, from Johannes (her husband), to Marin (her sister-in-law), Cornelia (the maid), Otto (the man-servant from Africa) and Jack, a handsome young man from England who betrays them all. There is an interesting concept of  “sugar loaves”, the sale upon which their lives depend, and I found myself fully immersed in this story which Jessica Burton so expertly told.

It will be interesting to see what PBS does with this novel come Sunday, September 9, at 9/8 Central. (You can see the minute and a half trailer here.)

My Midori Traveler’s Notebook…and the 5th Anniversary Edition of the Bullet Journal

Quite possibly you know of how much I adore my Midori Traveler’s Notebook. The leather’s lustre is almost divine now, after three years of constant use, and the insert for the daily diary, at least, is exactly how I like it.

And then there arrived in my inbox an announcement of the Bullet Journal’s special edition celebrating its five years of existence and fabulous success.

The cover is designed by Frederica Santorini, who lives in Rome. I have long admired her talent on Instagram (@feebujo) so it is especially lovely to have one of the limited editions of this journal.

But the best part of all is how we are reminded to “Do what works for you”, and that “Less is more.” In a world filled with the comparison that social media can cause, and the way that my culture tends to feel that “more is better than less”, I am grateful to be reminded of these truths.

I am looking forward to trying the Bullet Journal system in January 2019. How about you? Do you have a journal system of which you are quite fond?

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list) “You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.”

“I used to feel sorry for you bitches,” Jones said. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”

Life used to be just that straightforward to me. “You live the life you choose,” I thought.

To some extent, I still think that. I want to believe that we control our lives: work hard, have a home; take care of your body, don’t get sick. But the older I get, the more I realize that point of view is very simplistic.

Rachel Kushner shows us, in The Mars Room, how hard it is to be brought up with a dysfunctional mother in the poorest parts of San Francisco. How a childhood of zero chances can more often than not turn into an adult life with the same.

Her heroine, Romy Hall, has been a stripper in a club called the Mars Room. She leaves her son, Jackson, with her mother and tries to strike a balance between entertaining the men enough that they will pay her, but not so much that they stalk her. As one, in particular, does. Relentlessly following her even to another state when she tries to relocate to get away from him.

The way that she describes her childhood is sorrowful, heartbreaking stuff; it’s a life of sneaking into movie theaters, getting drunk on weeknights, fighting for a place in the world because no one’s going to make one for you.

Life in prison is not any better.

Romy is there with a minimum of two life sentences, along with other achingly drawn characters such as Conan, a transvestite, and Sammy Fernandez, who has a network of friends from being incarcerated several times before. We can see what a hopeless place of despair the women’s prison, Stanville, is. Even though these few form a family of sorts, there is no home for them. No comforts, no promise for the future, no hope.

The only thing that gives Romy the least bit of comfort is that her son has a chance for a good life. It is not too late for him, at least.

What Happened After Peet’s Today

I met some of my dearest colleagues for breakfast today, and after they had to skedaddle for some Problem Solving meeting, I decided I had time to stop at Peet’s Coffee. Because their ad for Vanilla Cardamom lattes worked its magic in my subconscious, and let me tell you: they are magical.

“We steep the cardamom in the milk,” the barista told me. “That’s what makes them so good.”

But that’s not what this post is about.

So then I went to pick up another matte red lipstick, as I’ve discovered Wet and Wild’s Stoplight Red is every bit as good (if not better) than MAC’s Ruby Woo, which, as I once heard described, is much like rubbing a rock over your lips.

But that’s not what this post is about, either.

Inside Wal Mart is one of the nicest men I know. He always smiles. He always says hello. He always has time to talk. He sits in his wheelchair and greets people. Really greets them.

“You must’ve gotten up early today,” I say. It is, after all, only a little bit past breakfast.

“I got here at 6:30!” he says, proudly.

“Well,” I say, “you’ve been blessing a lot of people since then.”

“What church do you go to?” he asks me then.

We discuss church for awhile, and other random things, and then as I turn to go I say what I always say before I say good-bye to people, “God bless you!”

And he says, “Let’s keep spreading His joy, all right?”

Let’s keep spreading His joy.

I was gobsmacked. Here is a man, early to his job at Wal Mart where he sits in a wheelchair because he can’t stand, or even move his arms very easily, and he says, “Let’s keep spreading His joy”?!

I know lots of able-bodied people who have no joy at all. None. Nothing to spread but gloom and a victim mentality.

But, this man? He has a lot to teach me.

He reminds me that joy isn’t dependent on circumstance, but attitude. And I want mine to be just like his.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

Calvin Wrobel is a boundary technician for the Air Force in Colorado. His job is to “look for weaknesses in the system, update firewalls, investigate possible security breaches.”

His friend Ted appears on his door on evening, having left Chicago because his girlfriend, Sabrina, is missing. And then a videotape is sent to a news agency depicting her gruesome murder.

How strange it is, to me, to be reading of horrific events in our recent history (from 9-11, to shootings in schools, to the violence we encounter every day on the news) in a comic book form. Yes, I know it’s a graphic novel. I know the subject matter can be serious even when it’s drawn with cartoon characters who have bland expressions. But, the overall effect for me is a little bit like Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What?

Are the judges just showing they can be advant garde? Or, is this work truly worthy of a literature prize? I feel like the boy in The Emporer’s New Clothes, the only one willing to declare the truth. “He’s naked!” becomes “It’s a cartoon!” for me.

And yet, the more I read, the more I could acknowledge the impact of this graphic novel. I do not think it should receive the Man Booker Prize, especially when compared with the astonishing writing of Donal Ryan and Michael Ondaatje. But, there is no denying that Nick Drnaso takes on contemporary America, the way that social media distorts truth, and the very real pain resulting from rampant murder in an extremely powerful way.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews “Trouble is the beginning of disaster.”

While I have been wasting my time with “thrillers” like The House Swap, and Something In The Water, extraordinary spy novels have been lying in wait for me to pick them up.

Red Sparrow is such a novel. Not since Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, or Trevanian’s Shibumi, have I been so entranced by actions of espionage. Especially since it concerns Russia, a country toward which I have held a certain fascination for most of my life.

“I started out by following orders, trying to develop him, just as he was developing me,” she said, physically shaking. “It was a race to see who would recruit the other first.” She still resisted, she was still hanging on to the lip of the cliff. This was an evasion, not an admission. (P. 315)

Dominika wanted to be a ballet dancer. She was thwarted from fulfilling her dream not because of inability, but because another jealous dancer had Dominka’s foot deliberately crushed, leaving her unable to pursue dance. When her father suddenly dies, her uncle manipulates her into joining the Service, and then sending her to Sparrow School where the students are taught how to involve men and women in “intimately compromising” tactics.

She is sent to Helsinki to pursue Nathaniel Nash, a spy for the CIA, who in turn is told to find what he can from Dominika. In a spider web of deceit and atrocities carried out by the Russian government, the two fall in love, yet Dominika returns to Moscow where she endures unbelievably horrific methods of interrogation as she is suspected of knowing more than she allows.

A myriad of characters play off of each other, from Putin to his marionettes, to members of the CIA and those willing to collude with them, which makes for a fascinating read of espionage under terribly dangerous conditions. The moles and the agents turn and deceive, disclosing facts where they can, but hiding many others in the hopes they will not be discovered.

I found this a breathless read, and already have the next book in the trilogy (Palace of Treason) lying in wait.