Backyard Labyrinth

June 1st, 2015

In our thirties, my husband G and I moved into our house in 2004 with our then 1yo son Drake, who was joined by little brother Guppy a year and a half later. This is the first house either of us had owned. Prior to that we’d lived in condos or apartments, and had never been responsible for a yard or a home. We had a very kid-friendly backyard, with a playset and a treehouse the former owner, an architect, had built upon a giant stump.

We did not distinguish ourselves, however. Within the first year, weeds took over the play area in the backyard. We waited so long to attend to them that they went to seed. Every year after that was an ongoing, losing battle with the weeds, the most difficult of which was the Canadian thistle, joined a few years later by the stinging nettle. I tried vinegar, we tried digging up the whole playset area. G removed a huge number of thick, stubborn roots, but still, they came back.

Two years ago, I leaned against the huge stump, and it moved. The termites had bored through it, and the bunnies had tunneled under it so that the only thing holding it in place was the tree house, which immediately became off limits to the kids. We had a treehouse removal party, (kind of like a reverse of the barn raising scene in that Harrison Ford Amish film, Witness), and the treehouse went off and became a hen house. But the stump remained, a huge, heavy albatross in our backyard.


We had a stump destruction party, with axes and Sawzalls, but the stump was harder to dismantle, even rotten, than we’d hoped. We had to call in a professional, with professional tools. to chop it to bits.

Removing the tree house got us the momentum in our backyard we needed. We were also helped by the advancing age of our sons, who rarely helped, but at least stayed out of the way and could play on their own without supervision. We got their OK to dismantle the playset, which G had always been prejudiced against. Encouraged by this, he finally took down the ugly chain link fence he’d vowed to get rid of in 2004. Removing the fence and the playset was superficially easy; the hard part was digging out the sunken concrete bases, but he did that. Then, we bought some tarps. A LOT of tarps. And we covered over all the thistle-y and nettle-y areas. We’ve been told by yard experts that if we leave the tarps there from spring to fall of this year, that the summer sun will bake the weeds down to their roots.

Up till a few weeks ago, the tarps were weighted with chunks of trunk, as well as a mix of bricks and paving stones that had come with the house or been used in various ways, like a bumpy, weed-choked patio, that we’d rescued them from. About a week ago, it occurred to me that I could put a labyrinth atop the tarps, and that I had to materials. Walking a labyrinth was something I did prior to having kids. After kids, though, taking a jaunt to walk quietly slipped down, then off, the priority list.

I found patterns online, at and The Labyrinth Society, measured my yard, and started to move the bricks, blocks, and trunk chunks around. This was more complicated than it looked for several reasons. One, a labyrinth is built off a base that is not in the exact center of the space to be used; it’s down and to the left. Two, once I had put in about four of the brick arcs I realized I should align it to weigh down the tarps, and had to start over.

The tarp surface isn’t ideal. The ground underneath is uneven from bunny tunnels and stump removal, plus hard and bumpy from numerous bits of wood. But, it’s not bad, plus, having a labyrinth would be way more attractive than having tarps covered with random stumpage.

It took almost a week to put it together, and I’m still tinkering with it. But we’re killing the thistles and nettles, plus I now have my very own labyrinth, that I can walk whenever I want, built from existing materials that I’ve been meaning to put to good use since 2004.


I’m a slow learner and a late bloomer, but I may finally be getting the hand of this “having a house” thing after all. It’s in no small part to my youngest being 9, though. I don’t think I would have had the energy any time before to do this.

Infinite Summer is Coming!

May 31st, 2015

I just finished Ulysses and am feeling v pleased w/self. Infinite Jest should be a walk in the park! Here’s the schedule for the Infinite Summer 2015 readalong, which starts around the summer solstice and finishes around the autumn equinox. It’s copied largely verbatim from the kind folks who did the original Infinite Summer in 2009, when I read IJ the first time. I highly recommend the group read, which is why I’m leading it here. I’m based in the Twin Cities, and many of the people who claim they’ll read along are here, too, but anyone can join in, either here on the blog in the comments or on Twitter, where we’ll be blogging at #TCInfiniteSummer.

Infinite Summer 2015 syllabus.

Date Page Percent Complete
Tue, Jun 23 63 6%
Tue, Jun 30 94 9%
Tue, Jul 07 168 17%
Tue, Jul 14 242 24%
Tue, Jul 21 316 32%
Tue, Jul 28 390 39%
Tue, Aug 04 464 47%
Tue, Aug 11 537 54%
Tue, Aug 18 611 62%
Tue, Aug 25 685 69%
Tue, Sep 01 759 77%
Tue, Sep 08 833 84%
Tue, Sep 15 907 92%
Tue, Sep 22 981 100%

At the end of each specified day, you should be at or past the given page number or location. The schedule denotes the Spoiler Line for any given day. For instance, on July 7th please confine your discussion to only those events that transpire on page 168 of the novel and earlier. The Spoiler Line will hold both on the posts here and on Twitter at #TCInfiniteSummer. If you find yourself ahead of the pack and eager to chat with like-minded overachievers, or if you’re already read Infinite Jest and wish to talk about the novel in its entirety, please do so privately.

A note about the endnotes: The above schedule does not take the endnotes into account. And as some endnotes are long (like, 14 pages worth of long), that means the actual amount of weekly reading will vary. But, you know, it’s like agreeing to always divide the check up evenly when dining with friends: you may have to chip in a bit more occasionally, but it’s better than haggling over the math.

A note about editions: As it turns out, all (physical) edition of Infinite Jest have 981 pages: the one from 1996, the one from 2004, the paperback, the hardcover, etc. A big thank you to the men and women in the publishing industry who were kind and/or lazy enough to keep things consistent.

TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

May 30th, 2015

Many people told me the book True Grit by Charles Portis was at least as awesome as either of the films, maybe even better.

Many people were right.

True Grit is a gem. It’s a whole book narrated by 14-year-old Mattie Ross, and Mattie is a joy and a wonder to spend time with. She’s smart, sassy, and tough.

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because she hears he has “true grit” but it’s Mattie that astonished me with her endless reserves of awesomeness as she goes up against all the many things (and men) she does.

Mattie is a heroine for the ages, and a terrific role model for everyone, not just girls.


May 29th, 2015

I saved Five Caught in a Treacherous Plot by Enid Blyton from my childhood. I remembered loving it, and wanted to read it to my boys.

It was a fun read aloud, and enjoyable to translate some of the archaic English bits for my boys, but ultimately it was rather a lame mystery, simplistic, with stereotypical gender roles. I actually think my boys, at 9 and 11 years old, were too old for it.

It’s a bummer when I revisit something I remember loving, and find the Suck Fairy got into it.

“Clutter Free with Kids”

May 29th, 2015

I checked Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker out from the library, hoping to get some insight into decluttering in an American family home, since one of my new favorite books, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, is written more for single people.

But Becker’s book is long on platitudes, and short on strategy, plus his strategies tend to be more in the kind that Kondo helpfully debunks, like doing a little bit, or one little thing, at a time.

Skip the Becker. Buy the Kondo.

“Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life” by Emily Nagoski

May 29th, 2015


I will be very clear. I think everyone should read Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski. This is a great book about female sexuality, and even if you have a good sex life, this book can and probably will make it better. It did for me.

The subtitle makes me abashed to admit reading this, because things were good in that department of the marriage. BUT, now they’re even better.

This book is a myth-busting extravaganza about all the dumb, wrong things we think about human sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. As Nagoski emphasizes, we all have the same parts, just differently organized. This book is like talking to a super smart funny friend who knows all about sex. I thought I knew about sex. Then I read this book and was embarrassed to find out all the things I thought that were wrong, or that I just hadn’t considered before.

I found out about it because my husband G. Grod read about it online. He read it first, then said I should. I started it, then went out and bought it, both so I could have our own copy (there are worksheets inside) and so the next person in the library queue could get it faster.

Four Graphic Novels, None of Which I Loved

May 29th, 2015

Thus, I might as well smush them into one post.

First, Wonder Woman: Flesh, which is volume five in the recent reboot written by Brian Azarello and illustrated awesomely by Cliff Chiang. Alas, Chiang was notably absent from most of the issues in this story, and without him it wasn’t as good. Also, one of the great things about Wonder Woman has been her feminist amazingness, which has been somewhat undermined in this storyline by making her just another of Zeus’ children.

Next, Fables: Happily Ever After, volume 21 and the penultimate one in this series. I feel at this point that it’s repeating itself, and has gone longer than it should have. Further, two of the short stories ended with characters’ fantasies of skinny hot women serving them. That’s just unacceptable, sexist, and wrong. If not for the basassery of Snow White, I would have ditched this series long ago. I will go through to the end, though, with fingers crossed for a strong finish.

Speaking of undermined basassery, I am very sad for the changes in character Jessica Jones as shone in the Marvel collection Jessica Jones: The Pulse. Jessica was a fierce heroine in her own series, Alias, but now she’s pregnant and Luke Cage’s girlfriend, and these seem to be her defining and limiting traits. The art in the first story arc was so bad I alternately wanted to laugh and cry. It improved for the final story, with them getting the original Alias band back together, but overall, this was a miss.

And finally, Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Gillen/McKelvie, which I picked up because I was enjoying their current series, The Wicked and the Divine. My appreciation of the latter has waned though. I find the art too static, and the story too reliant on magic and not enough on character development. That was true for Phonogram, and I liked it even less because rather than focusing on a pantheon of gods, as WicDiv does, it was about 90’s Britpop, which I don’t much care for. So, another miss, and a good reminder that I should probably check graphic novels out of the library rather than buying them.

So, four disappointing graphic novels in a row. I’m hoping for better things from the final collection of The Unwritten, which is on my bedside table.

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir

May 29th, 2015

I read The Martian by Andy Weir for one of my book groups, the Twin Cities’ Books and Bars. It was on a lost of best-of lists last year, but I’d heard some grumblings from other people who’d read it that it was more math and science than an actual sci-fi book. I found it a thumping good read, with one big caveat.

I found the science in this book of fiction to be a big strength. Many sci-fi books are vague on details. Weir is obviously a giant geek, and he loads them on, going into such detail that I was convinced of his science bona fides, and unsurprised to learn he was a programmer prodigy as well as a space nerd. That said, I actually skimmed many of the detailed science sections–I trusted him to get the details, while I just read ahead to see if and how his protagonist, the immature but mostly winning smart-ass protagonist Mark Watney, would survive when he was left for dead on the surface of Mars.

My one concern with the book was a blithe disregard (ignorance?) about race and sex. The character uses the word “rape” casually, and another time insults people by saying their mothers and sisters are prostitutes.

“Lighten up,” some people at the book discussion tweeted at me when I brought this up. But no, I will not. Rape is not a casual word, and joking about prostitutes is not OK. Further, Watney is CLEARLY a Mary-Sue character, meaning a projection of the author himself, so I can’t help but read this as Weir’s own take. It perpetuates bad attitudes in the same way that Jeremy Renner’s jokes about Black Widow being a whore do. These cheap jokes marred an otherwise good book. Rape and prostitutes are not joking matters. Period. The end.

ULYSSES readalong Ch 16: Eumaeus

May 25th, 2015


Welcome back, Ulysses friends; we’re in the home stretch! And we’re rewarded this week with a relatively straightforward chapter mostly about Bloom and Stephen hanging out in the wake of the bizarre events, real and imagined, of chapter 15, Circe.

Any thoughts on what this chapter’s song should be?

Bloom picks up Stephen, who says he’s thirsty, and they go to a cabman’s shelter since the bars are closed; it’s 1 a.m.

In the Odyssey, Eumaeus is the faithful swineherd of Odysseus’, and Odysseus and Telemachus meet up in this tent. Their loose analogs are Bloom and Stephen and there is no direct analog to the swineherd.

The style of the writing is loose and loopy–think of a student staying up too late to write a paper. It’s not the crisp intellectual prose of chapter 1.

Bloom, on how the stories are always about the husband coming home, never the wife on a journey:

Never about the runaway wife coming back, however much devoted to the absentee. The face at the window! (Vintageg 624)

Stephen, in a rare moment of empathy, and in one of his several points of departure from Bloom, who is nagging him about prostitutes:

Fear not them that sell the body but have not power to buy the soul. She is a bad merchant. She buys dear and sells cheap.

The Irish hero Parnell is mentioned throughout. His political career was wrecked after his affair with a married woman was made public. The questions of who is a hero and cuckoldry continue.

I enjoyed many of the sentences in this chapter, like this one about bad coffee:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee…

followed by:

Stephen…shoved aside his mug of coffee, or whatever you like to call it.

The chapter ends with Bloom inviting Stephen to his home. He’s thought variously of exploiting Stephen, first for his writing, and at the end for his good tenor singing voice. This is one of their points of disagreement. Bloom is thinking like an agent, Stephen like an artist. Still, though, they have more in common than not, and walk off looking like a married couple, sharing stories.

What did everyone else think of Eumaeus?

We only have two chapters, but 3 weeks to go! I propose we take next Monday off, and “meet” up again in two weeks to discuss 17, Ithaca, in full. That will give those who are behind time to catch up.

Schedule and past posts:

6/1/15 week off to catch up and read section 17
6/8/15 read then discuss and tweet section 17
6/15/15 discuss and tweet section 18 and the whole thing!
6/16/15 Bloomsday!

Past posts:

Week 1: books 1 and 2
Week 2: books 3 and 4
Week 3: books 5, 6
Week 4: book 7
Week 5: book 8
Week 6: book 9
Week 7: book 10
Week 8: book 11
Week 9: book 12
Week 10: book 13
Week 11: book 14
Week 12: book 15 part 1/3
Week 13: book 15 part 2/3
Week 14: book 15 part 3/3


May 20th, 2015

I read Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea for a parent/kid book group I attend. My 5th grader had already read the book in class, but enjoyed hearing it again. My boys enjoyed it more than I did. There are several students who narrate the book, about a school year with a new, enthusiastic, and sometimes unorthodox teacher. We know a tragedy happens, and the book circles around it for a long time before we find out what happened. I didn’t feel a drive to find out though, and I was very much bothered by the book’s implication that tragedies happen for a reason we don’t understand, but that if good things come out of them, then that’s why they happened.

Ahem. Bad things happen. Good things happen. Roll with the former. Celebrate the latter.

The different kids’ voices, stories and personalities were the book’s strength. Mr. Terupt himself, though, was left a deliberate cipher, with no family and little background. Apparently the follow up book/s explain this, but it was a significant, weird void in the first book that made me speculate that he’s in witness protection and the FBI got tired of him interrupting them, so they made his new name Terupt. But I don’t care enough to read the sequel, or even read reviews of them to find out what the deal is. Not my cuppa.


May 20th, 2015

After reading Citizen, and alongside reading Ulysses, I needed something enjoyable, and so finally got around to picking up Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight. A friend lent it to me some time ago, and I was reminded of it during my recent adventures in KonMari clearing. So I read the book, enjoyed it, and returned it to my friend. Voila, one fewer thing in my house. Yay!

This is a murder mystery where a teen girl dies, apparently of suicide, but probably not, since that’s the mystery. It’s told in alternating bits that switch time between the single lawyer mom, and the dead Amelia. This was a fast entertaining read. I thought early on that it was obvious what would happen, and I was very wrong, so the book did surprise me. What I liked best was the complex and creepy subculture of mean rich kids in NYC. What I liked least was the mother going on about her guilt over working in a career she clearly loved and was good at. This was a fast, engaging read with little to no subtext but well plotted and strongly finished.

ULYSSES readalong ch 15: Circe 3/3

May 17th, 2015


Stephen, prone, breathes to the stars. (Vintage 607)

The above illustration is by Jun-Pierre Shiozawa, who read Ulysses last year and started a project to illustrate it.

Welcome back, fellow friends and masochists, who continue to blaze and slog through Ulysses. Congratulations on making it this far! In my Vintage edition, we are over 3/4 of the way through, and this chapter, 15, Circe, was nearly a quarter of the book, pages-wise at least.

The song for this week is “Start Me Up”, by the Rolling Stones, which has a lyric that matches a passage I’ll quote below.

After the full-on masochistic fantasy of last week, I thought I’d reached my limit of being shocked by this book. But no, Joyce had further provocations in mind, as he brings us back to the erection of a hanged man, earlier referred to in the Cyclops chapter:

–There’s one thing it hasn’t a deterrent effect on, says Alf.

–What’s that? says Joe.

–The poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged, says Alf.

–That so? says Joe.

–God’s truth, says Alf. I heard that from the head warder that was in

Kilmainham when they hanged Joe Brady, the invincible. He told me when they cut him down after the drop it was standing up in their faces like a poker.

–Ruling passion strong in death, says Joe, as someone said.

–That can be explained by science, says Bloom. It’s only a natural phenomenon, don’t you see, because on account of the…

And then he starts with his jawbreakers about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon. (Vintage, 304)

Lo and behold, in the final third of the very long chapter 15, Circe, look what pops up again when The Croppy Boy is hanged. Forgive me for the naughty pun, but I don’t think Joyce would disapprove. Also, if I didn’t do it, reader Vince probably would.

He gives up the ghost. A violent erection of the hanged sends gouts
of sperm spouting through his deathclothes on to the cobblestones.
Mrs Bellingham, Mrs Yelverton Barry and the Honourable Mrs
Mervyn Talboys rush forward with their handkerchiefs to sop it

I must say, that’s an image I’d prefer to not have encountered.

And the other eyebrow-r

aising passage for me was:

Bloom, holding [Stephen’s} hat and ashplant, stands erect. A dog barks in the
distance. Bloom tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant. (Vintage 609)

If you, as I am, read Stephen’s ashplant as an extension of his phallus, then that is pretty explicit, and not necessarily the kind, fatherly figure of the rest of the passage.

As for the rest, we zip in and out of Bloom’s and Stephen’s brains. Stephen has an encounter with his dead mother, reminding me of the ghost scene in Gertrude’s closet from Hamlet.

The reality of this last segment was clearer to me, though, than in the earlier parts of the chapter, as Bloom pays for and looks out for Stephen, who ends the chapter drunk and passed out, but not beaten or in jail or robbed. The paternal care is emphasized by the appearance of Leopold’s dead son Rudy, as he might’ve looked if he’d lived.

What did everyone else think?

Join us next Monday 5/25 (yes, I know, it’s Memorial Day) for chapter 16, Eumaeus (the poor but loyal pig keeper of the Odyssey.) Just over 4 weeks till Bloomsday!

Past and future:

Schedule and past posts:

5/25/15 discuss and tweet section 16
(extra week to read the longer section 17)
6/8/15 read then discuss and tweet section 17
6/15/15 discuss and tweet section 18
6/16/15 Bloomsday!

Past posts:

Week 1: books 1 and 2
Week 2: books 3 and 4
Week 3: books 5, 6
Week 4: book 7
Week 5: book 8
Week 6: book 9
Week 7: book 10
Week 8: book 11
Week 9: book 12
Week 10: book 13
Week 11: book 14
Week 12: book 15 part 1/3
Week 13: book 15 part 2/3

Jung’s Letter to James Joyce on ULYSSES

May 17th, 2015

After reading chapter 15 of Joyce’s Ulysses for our pre-Bloomsday readalong, I noticed again some interesting sex and gender blending and switching in the text. It reminded me of Jung’s theory of anima/animus.

From Freud, Jung, and Joyce: conscious connections (via the Ulysses page on

Although, Joyce vehemently denied being influenced by the ideas of Freud and Jung, referring to them derisively as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, his writings indicate that not only was he very familiar with the substance of their ideas and theories but that he could also apply them when exploring the minds of his characters.

I also found (in what Jung refers to below as one of the zillion ‘peregrinations’ that reading Ulysses prompts), found this on Open Culture about Jung’s review of the book, his letter to Joyce himself after the review was published, and a little about their ongoing relationship after that (Jung treated Joyce’s daughter Lucia for schizophrenia.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter.

Over the course of reading and reading about this challenging (the MOST challenging) novel, I empathize with Jung’s struggle. That Jung would find it difficult and boring, but ultimately not only worthwhile but also deserving of singular praise, bolsters my spirits, and makes me look forward even more to the final chapter, Molly’s, which Jung says is “a string of veritable psychological peaches.”

CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine

May 15th, 2015

When I saw Citizen by Claudia Rankine on several best-of and award lists for 2014, then found it was published by local treasure Graywolf Press, I knew I wanted to check it out. Her poems and essays on race are necessary, if painful, reading in these fraught times where racism is so ugly and present in American life.

Hey you –

All our fevered history won’t instill insight,
won’t turn a body conscious,
won’t make that look
in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing

to solve

even as each moment is an answer.

Rankine is sometimes intimidatingly intelligent. Her prose is so erudite and her vocabulary so complicated, that it demands slow, careful reading, which is perfectly suited to the difficult, eye and soul-opening race problems she documents. This small book is big and important. While it was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, it was snubbed for consideration by the Pulitzer, an egregious oversight.

GOBLIN SECRETS by Will Alexander

May 15th, 2015

Goblin Secrets by Will Alexander had been on my kids’ shelf for a while. My 11yo, Drake, had started but abandoned it, and my 9yo Guppy was not interested, so I knew if we were going to read it I’d have to do it aloud, and by the end of the book everyone was fully engaged, and we finished in a big push one night because the boys needed to know how it ended.

This is a dark fantasy, set in a world called Zombay, with clockwork creatures, and goblin performers who are misunderstood and feared.

Our selves are rough and unrehearsed tales we tell the world.

Young Rownie, an orphan, runs away from his foster grandmother Graba to search for his older brother Rowan. He is taken in by a goblin acting troupe, but his defection causes more trouble than he’d expected.

Alexander has created a rich, complicated world. We were enthralled by it and Rownie’s adventure. An excellent read-aloud book for kids that’s satisfying for all ages.

MAN AT THE HELM by Nina Stibbe

May 15th, 2015

I loved Nina Stibbe’s debut, Love, Nina, and my husband said her first novel Man at the Helm, while much darker, had some of the same irreverent humor. Since he had it from the library, I decided to have a go.

It’s narrated by an adult woman recounting her childhood, but the point of view is sometimes too childish for an adult, and vice versa. A well-off family splinters with the father has an affair and the parents divorce.

My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel - a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.

The mother moves to an insular village, and struggles to raise her three children. The eldest daughter decides the family won’t be taken seriously without the titular man at the helm, so she enlists her younger sister, the narrator, to help find a new dad. Alas, the pickings are slim in the village, and much disaster ensues before we arrive at a happy-ish ending.

While much is laugh-out-loud funny, as was Stibbe’s previous book, much of this is terribly sad. The tone veers so wildly that it felt more accidentally unever to me than deliberately complex. Good, but…

THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood

May 15th, 2015

Margaret Atwood’s entry into the Canongate Myth series, The Penelopiad, seemed like an obvious addition to my reading list given my recent reading of Homer’s Odyssey and current reading of Joyce’s Ulysses.

From the book jacket:

In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope — wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy – is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumours, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of her maids.

In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged Maids, asking: ‘What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?’.

Before I read Atwood’s book, I was curious about her contention that they killing of the maids was mysterious. It is clearly stated in the Odyssey that the maids who are killed were sleeping with the enemy, and possibly spies.

What Atwood does is simple, but brilliant: she gives a background and history to the maids, gives backstory and motivation for Penelope, and fills in the “she said” of a historical story taken for granted. It hadn’t occurred to me, I’m abashed to admit, that the supposedly treacherous maids who were sleeping with suitors might have been doing so without consent. Odysseus treated them like property, not people. Atwood, giving voice to these women, is a sort of posthumous, fictional justice.

I also appreciated the voice Atwood gives to Penelope. While Penelope appears as a strong, vocal presence in The Odyssey, she is given even more agency, even more power, in Atwood’s take.

Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

This is a short but powerful complement to The Odyssey.

Things I’ve Learned about Books from KonMari

May 14th, 2015

Perhaps you are as sick of hearing about Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as my 9yo son Guppy is. He has been a less-than-enthusiastic participant in our recent attempts to clear stuff from our house. But even his resistance is a lesson, one to have less stuff to organize, and just enough that one can enjoy it but not be burdened by the having of it. Her method is called KonMari, and I’ve used it thus far to clear out clothing and books from our house. She recommends starting with clothes, then doing books, then “stuff”, then papers, then mementos, because this tends to be in order from least to most attachment issues.

Her books exhort the reader to keep the things that “spark joy” and give or move out those that don’t. What I found as I went through my books, though, were many books I didn’t want to give away for a variety of reasons: I knew the author, they’d been inscribed to me, I’d spent money on them, I’d received them as gifts. Many sparked guilt, or regret, rather than joy.

I noted that one bad habit of book buying I’d got into over the years was going to an author reading, buying books of theirs and having them inscribed to me, sometimes with a personal note. This is great if I loved the book and read it, but a burden if I never feel moved to read the book, or don’t like it. My solution was to either rip out the signed page, or black out my name and give away the book in the hope that someone else would be excited to find it.

With growing horror, I realized I’d been foisting this bad habit off on family and friends, too, buying personalized books as gifts that they might feel obligated to read, or reluctant to give away because of the inscription. I foolishly thought I was doing something cool by getting them signed; it didn’t occur to me I was sending something that could be a burden.

I make many book vows, as regular readers of this blog know. I’ve written before about the burden of books as gifts, but I didn’t take it to heart till I saw evidence of this on my own shelves, and witnessed my own guilt over gift and inscribed books.

I fervently hope I have finally learned the lesson to buy a gift with the recipient in mind, not an agenda or a ’should’ factor, and to make it as free of burdens as possible, with gift receipts, no inscriptions, and the assurance that it is freely given, for the person to do with it what they will.

Also, in future I hope I’ll attend author events simply to hear the author, and not feel compelled to buy the book, especially if it’s not one I plan to read next. And I don’t want to have it inscribed. I want to feel free to do with it what I will.

So please, if I’ve ever given you a book that doesn’t spark joy, I apologize, and do whatever you want with it. I’ll not be getting inscribed books for you again.

I did keep the small collection of books by people I know who might visit my house. Most of these do actually spark joy–the happiness I feel for friends who have published books.

What I found after I’d weeded out the non-joy-sparking books that had been inscribed or given to me, was that I had much lighter shelves, which allowed me to see better which books I really want to read soon. I’ve read, enjoyed, and returned one book a friend lent me last year. I read immediately one another friend lent me. And of the books I’ve bought in the past few months, I’ve read most immediately.

In fact, I think the only books I’ve bought since we’ve done the purge was one for 9yo Guppy, since he started it in the bookstore and wanted to finish, and my own copy of Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, which I wanted to have my own copy of to refer to and read again.

I’ll be interested to see if I gradually return to my old, book-acquisitive ways. But one of the benefits of the Kondo book and KonMari process are the changes in perception about buying and having stuff, and these changes feel like they’re takign place on a deeper, more permanent level than my many years of “book vows.”

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Van Dermeer

May 13th, 2015


I read Annihilation by Jeff Van Dermeer for The Morning News Tournament of Books. I’d heard good things from friends about this first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, but less good things about the trilogy overall. It was short, though, and sounded cool:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

The twelfth expedition is also all women, so this book was automatically going to pass the Bechdel test, a sort of lowest-common-denominator of a book or movie, in which the work contains two women who are named that have a conversation that is not about men.

I loved having a smart, scientist woman narrator, and the world the author describes is mysterious and fascinating.

I leaned in closer, like a fool, like someone who had not had months of survival training or ever studied biology. Someone tricked into thinking that words should be read.

The book does a great job setting up whether our narrator is reliable, how reliable, what is going on, and is it “real” or paranormal. But it didn’t sustain the momentum to the end, which was more a whimper than a bang for me. I’m writing this less than two months after I read it, and I cannot remember much about the ending, so it did not stick with me. I will not be reading 2 and 3 in the trilogy.

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

May 13th, 2015


I listened to Yes Please by Amy Poehler via, and I recommend listening to it. Not only does the charming and funny Poehler narrate, she has great guest stars like Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner as her dark side, her parents, and Seth Myers.

I was expecting a light, smart, funny book with bite like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Yes Please is bigger than those, though, both in size and scope. It covers Poehler’s life, from childhood outside Boston to the present, including her divorce from Will Arnett and the last season of Parks & Recreation, one of the best, sweetest shows I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. (But start with either the gay penguins episode, or season 3; it took a while to get its groove.)

It’s called Yes Please because it is the constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please. I love saying “yes” and I love saying “please.” Saying “yes” doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying “please” doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. “Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman. It’s also a title I can tell my kids. I like when they say “Yes please” because most people are rude and nice manners are the secret keys to the universe.

What I didn’t know about Poehler is how much she’s done to train up young talent. Additionally, while I was expecting, and enjoyed, the SNL and celebrity anecdotes, I much more appreciated her honesty about things like the difficulty and sadness of divorce, and the frequent forays into empowered feminism in practice. That should not have been a surprise coming from one of the founders of Smart Girls and A Mighty Girl.

Some friends have commented they were disappointed that it wasn’t as funny as Bossypants, but I really enjoyed it, and appreciated how much more it had to offer. My especial favorite was her metaphor for wanting an award: wanting the pudding, and her stories about learning to not want the pudding.

Poehler is an honest, funny person, and listening to the book was like spending time with a smart, funny friend.