Some other books I’ve been reading

Richard Price, Ladies Man (1978) — his third novel; depressed, horny young man in late 70s NYC working as a door-to-door salesman of home products in Greenwich Village.  This fascinated me — that he would stake out an apartment building and go door to door selling cleaning supplies and the like to bored housewives.  Manhattan was really different then.  His girlfriend is a failed/would-be singer who endures a disastrous open-mike night.  He walks in on her masturbating with a vibrator and screams at her, at which she leaves him and he sinks into depression and tries to pick up women at singles’ bars.  It is a wonderfully vivid time capsule of its moment although is marred by very dated culmination in the scary underworld of downtown gay bars/nightclubs (which he explores with old buddy who turns out to be gay; the sad thing is that I have a feeling that for its historical moment this whole episode may have passed for progressive).  Price is one of those consistently good writers; I have enjoyed many of his novels (e.g. Clockers, Freedomland).

It is ridiculous, whenever I read anything taking place around this time in NYC I always find myself thinking, “just scrape together some money for the down payment on an apartment and you will be set for life!!!”

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding — kind of amazing 1962 novel (in the New York Review of Books reissue series) about brilliant identical twin African-American sisters.  Movies like Rachel Getting Married and Margot at the Wedding must be ripping this off (the latter most obviously & explicitly).  Cassandra, working on her literature PhD at Berkeley, depressed and blocked, difficult and with a drinking problem, shows up for twin sister Judith’s wedding, which she proceeds to disrupt because she is frightened of losing the sororal/twin bond.  The novel switches halfway through to Judith’s POV.  A bit of an exhausting high-style stylistic performance, but excellent.

Denise Mina, The End of the Wasp Season — am in the middle of this now — excellent police procedural taking place in contemporary Glasgow.  Protagonist detective is pregnant with twins, dealing with sexism and other stuggles among her colleagues (a tiny bit in the Jane Timoney mode, maybe).

Alison Bechtel, Are You My Mother?  A Comic Drama.  The subtitle is necessary or you will get the children’s picture book in Amazon.  This got a rave review in the Sunday Times Book Review and a bit of a slam from Dwight Garner in the daily.  I’m somewhere in between — I agree with him that its celebrated 2006 predecessor Fun Home (which seems to have become a “canonical” graphic novel almost at the level of Maus or Persopolis) was better because it had much more of a story: this one is ultimately too much of a therapy diary about her relationship with her mother, which turns out to be just not as newsworthy as her narrative about her strange father.  I still liked it, though, and she’s a wonderful artist whose pages are always fun and appealing to read and examine.  It sent me to finally read Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (which she discusses; she then gets to Donald Winnicott via Miller) which I’d been meaning to check out since reading about David Foster Wallace’s obsession with it (his copy of it is extensively annotated with personal reflections, as this piece, well worth reading, explains).

Lloyd Alexander, The Book of Three.  Have been reading this to the kids.  The first in the Prydain series.  I have strong (though vague) memories of reading The Black Cauldron and The High King but I think I never read the others in the series, or at least not this one.  It’s fun although all the Welsh names are challenging to read aloud: Gwydion, Caer Dathyl, Achren, Melyngar, Dyrnwyn, Fflewddur Fflam.  I now realize that J.K. Rowlings’ Dobbie the House Elf ripped off not just Gollum/Sméagol but also Alexander’s Gurgi.

Dan Chaon, Await Your Reply — good, creepy fable of identity theft, (almost) worthy of Patricia Highsmith.

Piggy Swine: Maurice Sendak’s terrifying new book

[image nicked from

The great Maurice Sendak has just published his first new picture book in thirty years, Bumble-Ardy.

It’s very disturbing.  Bumble-Ardy is a young pig who has never celebrated a birthday.  Initially because his parents “frowned on fun,” then because they just forgot, then because they were all fattened up and eaten: “forged and gained weight/ and got ate.”  That pigs are raised to be eaten is a major subtext of the book– Sendak does not let you forget this.

After the slaughter of his parents, Bumble-Ardy goes to live with his nice aunt Adeline, who is planning a 9th birthday celebration for the two of them.  While she’s at work, however, Bumble-Ardy puts the word out to all his buddies, who show up for a big party; in Sorcerer’s Apprentice-esque scenes that take up much of the book, these “piggy swine” “broke down the door and guzzled brine / And hogged sweet cakes and oinked loud grunts / And pulled all kinds of dirty stunts.”  These scenes recall Where The Wild Things Are, but it feels less like a wild rumpus, more like a scary and out-of-control house party — you see one pig sucking the “brine” directly from a hose — that’s threatening to devolve into an orgy (what are these “dirty stunts” precisely?).  Note, in the image above, the pig holding the vaguely apocalyptic sign, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

The WSJ reviewer describes the scene well: “As soon as Aunt Adeline leaves for work, a masked and costumed mob descends on her house. We see a pig in clown clothes carrying a ventriloquist’s dummy, a pig carrying the mask of a stubble-chinned man, a pig disguised as a yellow-eyed squaw, and a pig wearing a piratical skull and walking on chicken’s legs.”  Many of the figures look like gangsters with their molls.

There’s something distinctly malevolent and decadent about the images of masked pigs bent on mayhem — their dull, glazed eyes staring blankly — which put me to mind of Eyes Wide Shut.

It gets worse, though, when Aunt Adeline gets home.  Given how downright creepy Bumble-Ardy’s party has become, we assume that she will shoo everyone away and restore order.  She does, but in doing so, she becomes the most disturbing figure in the tale.  In a frightening series of images, her face darkens, twists, and metamorphoses into what is in effect another horrible carnival mask, as she pulls out a large cleaver and tells the guests that if they don’t leave immediately “I’LL SLICE YOU TO HAM!”  Her comment makes you realize that when these “piggy swine” have been “swilling brine,” they may simply have been pickling themselves in preparation for slaughter.

Bumble-Ardy now, terrified, blubbers to his aunt that he promises he will never turn ten– a comment that feels over-determined considering that his entire immediate family was recently killed.  There’s a more cheerful final scene of reconciliation, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late for this fable to seem anything other than sheer vindictive nightmare.  We all know that the ovens in In the Night Kitchen hinted at concentration camps, but there the child’s fear of being devoured was buried a bit deeper, and transformed by a spirit of play and joy; here the fear that those one loves will be eaten, or will eat you, is right there on the surface (like the mother-figure’s rage).

The book is pitched to kids ages 4-7.  Holy moly, if my kids read this when they were 4 they would’ve had nightmares for months.

All respect to Sendak, a genius, and for the most part I’m with him that children’s lit could use a lot more Grimm, but I’d consider this one an envelope-pushing experiment in the genre more than something you’d actually want to read to your little tots before bed.

*A Wrinkle in Time* as Cold War fiction

[The cover art of the original Farrar, Straus & Giroux edition]

We recently got through Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in Time, her weird & great 1962 children’s book about 12 year-old Meg Murry, her precocious/genius 5-y.o. brother Charles Murry, and their travel through a time-space continuum to rescue their missing scientist father, who has been taken prisoner by a malign intelligence known only as IT upon the planet Camazotz.  (When I read this, Celie and Iris kept correcting my pronunciation of “Camazotz,” which I assume means they decided they way Sarah said it was correct.)*

[*By the way: we’d gone through a period of several months of not doing much reading out loud.  C&I are always in the middle of a book and so they often seemed happiest just to go to bed and do their own reading.  But I’ve been making an effort to bring back the family reading-out-loud as part of the mix.]

It turned out that I did not remember this novel very well.  I remembered Meg and her little brother Charles Murry, and I kind of remembered the three strange benevolent female Abbott and Costello-named seer/witch/ angel/beings who visit to help them — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who — but not much beyond that.

I was struck by how much of a Cold War novel this is.  Camozotz is Stalinist or Stasi, beyond the Iron Curtain, overseen by the “CENTRAL Central Intelligence Agency” and its literally all-knowing central intelligence, IT.  A friend commented to me that one of her strongest memories from the novel is of the town in Camazotz in which in front of every front door stands a boy bouncing a rubber ball at exactly the same time & in the same rhythm:

In front of all the houses children were playing.  Some were skipping rope, some were bouncing balls.  Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play….

“Look!” Charles Wallace said suddenly.  “They’re skipping and bouncing in rhythm!  Everyone’s doing it at exactly the same moment.”

This was so.  As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball.  As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball.  Down came the ropes.  Down came the balls.  Over and over again.  Up.  Down.  All in rhythm.  All identical.  Like the houses.  Like the paths.  Like the flowers.

They see a boy who is bouncing a ball irregularly, out of rhythm — his terrified mother runs out and pulls him inside.  Everyone lives in terror of the oversight of CENTRAL Central Intelligence and IT, which goes beyond Stasi methods in being able to read the thoughts and consciousness of all citizens of Camazotz, who possess “no lives of [their] own, with everything all planned and done” for them.  Meg’s brainwashed brother explains to her: “Why do you think we have these wars at home?  Why do you think people get confused and unhappy?  Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives.  I’ve been trying to explain to you in the simplest possibly way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with… that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient.”

In Meg’s final showdown with IT over the mind of her mentally enslaved brother, who now mouths Camozotzian platitudes, she engages in an ideological showdown with this cruel “living brain” on a dais, “a brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded.”  At one point the nationalistic Cold War allegory seems especially clear when Meg, as a method to resist IT’s mind-control, recites from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to self-evident!  That all men are created equal,” etc.  But in the end L’Engle emphasizes American virtues or principles less than Christian ones (L’Engle was a serious Episcopalian), as the power of love (more than freedom, say) is what allows Meg to defeat IT and wrest her brother away from ITS power.

The novel is strongly feminist in a way that I think made an impression of me as a kid.  Meg’s mother is as talented and dedicated a scientist as the missing father, and the kids often have to get their own snacks together in the afternoon because the mother is in the middle of an experiment in her home laboratory.  And when Meg finally reaches her father and frees him, she is cruelly disappointed that he can’t make everything OK.  One of the takeaways of the novel’s conclusion is that Meg must learn to solve her own problems; as she says to her father, “I wanted you to do it all for me…. I was scared, and didn’t want to have to do anything myself.” When they land back home on earth he’s lost his glasses and is kind of stumbling around, far from the heroic father Meg had fantasized.

Now onto A Wind at the Door

D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths

The girls have been very into the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, which Sarah got out of the library in hardback duplicate.  A little greedy, maybe, but the girls were so excited about it initially that they each wanted a copy to read in bed.  We’ve read through the whole thing and now at bedtime they’re taking turns each selecting a favorite story or two to read again.  Great, gruesome stuff.  Last night I read about Cronus devouring each of his first five children (Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia) out of fear they would overthrow him.  You can see the little babies glowing in his stomach — the drawings are wonderful, rather light and playful, sometimes with a touch of William Blake Songs of Innocence about them.  Cronus’s wife Rhea then tricks him and gives him a rock swaddled in baby blankets, and so the infant Zeus survives.  I think the girls relate to the Greek gods in their playfulness, tricks and plots, and perhaps also the occasional rage and fury.  They especially love the story of the baby Hermes tricking his big brother Apollo by stealing Apollo’s cows.  We all found the image of Apollo chasing him, while Hermes calls out “I’m just an innocent little babe!” or some such, hilarious.  They also especially liked the illustration of Pandora releasing the demons & imps from her box.  Very relatable for a 6-year-old.

I remember reading this book as a kid as well.  The D’Aulaires do a great job of making the stories accessible and appropriate for childen without bowdlerizing to excess.

I wonder how many Classicists were turned on to Greek mythology from it?

Recent movies: Bird & Magic, Redford and Dunaway, etc.

Our t.v. died a month or so ago — just stopped working.  Sarah’s dad had bought it for us at Best Buy for $500 in 2002 or so.  It was a 27″ and/but seemed huge — very bulky and room-dominating.  After some research on the Consumer Reports site I bought this 32″ flatscreen for $380 — it showed up in the mail, a lithe rectangle weighing maybe 20% of what our last one did, and basically just needed to be plugged in.

See?  Things may seem pretty messed up in the world, but at least t.v.s have improved.  We can watch the oil plume in brilliantly H.D. flat-screen detail.

Some of the movies we’ve watched recently:

Three Days of the Condor.  We’ve been using Netflix on-demand a bit lately.  Sarah wanted to see some sort of fun/ not too challenging thriller (no subtitles) and this is what we came up with.  She’d seen it years ago but it turned out literally only remembered the romance scenes between Redford and Faye Dunaway in her apartment — which have a somewhat creepy Stockholm Syndrome enjoying-your-abduction element, by the way.  (Redford carjacks Dunaway and makes her take him to her Brooklyn apartment, ties her up, and they sleep together shortly thereafter).  As the plot developed it started feeling more predictable, but I really enjoyed the first half, especially the depiction of 1975 NYC.  The movie has a funny Bovaryism theme with Redford as a C.I.A operative analyzing mystery novels, in a phony publishing-house front, for clues of international espionage.

The movie ends in front of the New York Times building with Redford telling the baddie that he’s given the whole story to the Times and so it should be in the next day’s paper.  The basic faith in the power of the mainstream press as a force for transparency and reform felt very foreign.

Mulholland Drive. I watched this a while ago but just had to mention how much it blew me away.  I’d seen it back when it came out but did not altogether remember how strange, scary, and amazing it is.  It topped some best of the decade lists — somewhat telling, maybe, that the most critically acclaimed film of the 21st century started out as a rejected t.v. network pilot.  (After the pilot was turned down, Lynch went back and added a second hour, which turns the movie into a kind of Mobius strip, folding back on itself.)

The Borrowers.  Am reading the Borrowers series to the girls (we’re into The Borrowers Afield now).  I’m trying to work out an argument that it’s an allegory of the mid-20th-century British welfare state.  Fascinating on class, with this miniature family of working-class Cockney types living in the floorboards of the grand house.  Anyway, I picked up the 1973 American t.v. version, a Hallmark Hall of Fame t.v. special, at the library.  I just watched a bit of this with the girls while reading the paper, but it seemed kind of creepy/spooky to me — the music reminded me of Rosemary’s Baby.

Very excited to learn, btw, that a Studio Ghibli anime version of the Borrowers is due out later this year!!

Step-Brothers.  Part of the Judd Apatow empire (he produced), with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as the 40 year old children of newlyweds Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen (both excellent).  This movie is surprisingly funny, possibly underrated.  It’s kind of one-joke but a good joke: Ferrell and Reilly both act exactly like 4th grade boys; you get the feeling they did some real research for these roles.  A sequel to the 40-Year-old Virgin in spirit — more male arrested development.  (Btw, I just checked and Steenburgen is 56 years old, which makes her kind of a stretch as a 40 y.o. Will Ferrell’s mother.)

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (HBO).  Loved this!  I was an avid Celtics fan in the 80s — went to a couple games every year in the years when the Celtics never, ever lost at home.  Bird was a poor working-class kid living next to the railroad tracks in a small nowhere town in Southern Indiana.  I’d forgotten that he actually enrolled at I.U. — left after a month or two, alienated and freaked out — went back home to French Lick to work in a grocery store.  His dad committed suicide soon after.  Larry obviously was/is a pretty weird individual.  Very private, prickly and socially awkward, the Hick from French Lick for real, unbelievably gifted and competitive.  Magic grew up in Lansing MI — incredible smile and charisma, a star from a young age.  He radiates happiness & pleasure in life whereas Bird seems to be trying to hold everything at arms’ length away from him.  When they met for the NCAA finals, Magic tried to seek him out to say hello and Bird totally snubbed him, refused to shake his hand.  “I probably did snub him,” Bird says now.  “I’m not into that lovey-dovey stuff.  I was there to win” (something like that).

The movie makes a good case that they became doppelgangers, rivals and enemies and eventually friends.   Bird says that the day he heard about Magic’ H.I.V. diagnosis was the worst day since his father’s suicide.  There’s an eerie shot of Bird playing the next day — he does a behind-the-back pass that the movie suggests was a secret homage to Magic.

The racial politics of the rivalry are complex and sad.  Bird does seem genuinely race-blind.  But as a Celtics player in racist Boston and the Great White Hope of the NBA trying to attract white fans, he’s enlisted in a racial drama not of his own making.  Cedric Maxwell comments of black basketball fans in Boston who’d root for L.A. — it was very hard to be a black Celtics fan in those days.

Bird mowed his own suburban Boston lawn every weekend: fans showed up to watch (he ignores them).  He eventually messes up his back installing his mother’s driveway in Indiana and suffers through in the final years of his career in agony.  Now he’s President of Basketball Operations for the Indiana Pacers and an NBA elder statesmen; I kind of enjoyed the recent ad in which he steals LeBron and Dwight Howard’s hamburgers and they have no idea who he is (extending the longtime meme of Bird as a white star in a black man’s game).  [*btw how can professional athletes live with themselves for promoting McDonalds???]

It’s been nice to see Magic’s halftime commentary during the NBA playoffs this month — good to see his enormous smile and that he seems to be doing well.

We Live in Public. Interesting documentary about a semi-forgotten internet pioneer of the 1990s, Josh Harris, who became a symbol of the excesses of the tech bubble of the era.  His hubris culminated in a couple of different Truman Show-esque experiments in living under total surveillance — first with dozens of volunteers in a giant loft in NYC, then just with his girlfriend.  He eventually loses everything and more or less disappears.  I found him to be a very creepy guy and was somewhat under-impressed by his supposed prescient innovations (as Sarah commented, what’s here that Philip K. Dick didn’t come up with years ago?) but it’s an compelling movie.

Food Inc. Finally got around to watching this last night (again, Netflix on demand).  Excellent doc.  Very well done, turns the rise of industrial food into a kind of thriller/horror movie with scary music.  Most infuriating part involves Monsanto’s copyrighted soybeans.  The beans are copyrighted intellectual property of Monsanto; our corrupt government, entirely in the pocket of Big Food, allows the transnational behemoth to behave like Disney with Mickey Mouse — no farmer is too small to be sued for doing what farmers have done for thousands of years with their crops.  If you are still in the habit of eating industrial meat regularly, watch this movie (although it does not rely much on total gross-out images of slaughterhouses and the like; it’s more about building a sustained argument).  [Btw this 2009 NYT article about “pink slime” in hamburger meat is what convinced me to never, ever eat another McDonald’s burger.]

Konrad Lorenz, Selma Lagerlof, & Nazi chickens

I recently read through (meaning skimming parts of it) an interesting book, Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Nico Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology (Chicago), by Richard Burkhardt, Jr., about how the study of animal behavior emerged from its former place as a sub-category of natural history to become a full-fledged science in the twentieth century.

With apologies for going straight to the most sensationalist aspects of the book, Lorenz’s accommodation to the Nazi regime, and the Nazis’ promotion of his work, was a bit shocking for me to discover (as someone with vague pleasant memories of reading King Solomon’s Ring in high school).  Lorenz was (for a time) a Nazi, notwithstanding his supporters’ attempts to cover this up or whitewash it after the war.  In a major 1938 speech in Bayreuth, he

proposed that the degeneration of instinctive behavior patterns in domesticated ducks and geese corresponded to the cultural and genetic degeneration of civilized man…. The danger to the race, he warned, lay in the undesirable types that proliferated under the conditions of civilization.  Summoning up an image with which the Nazis were obsessed, the naturalist who only a few days before had applied for the membership in the Nazi party likened degenerate members of society to cancerous cells in an organism: ‘Nothing is more important for the health of an entire people than the elimination of invirent types, which, with the most dangerous and extreme virulence, threaten the penetrate the body of a people like the cells of a malignant tumor.’

Lorenz’s arguments found favor with an important Nazi psychologist, Erich Jaensch, who drew on Lorenz’ basic claims in order to compare “the pecking styles and other characteristics of northern vs. southern races of chickens.”

[Jaensch] concluded that the differences between northern and southern races of chickens paralleled the differences between northern European and southern European races of humans.  Northern chickens pecked steadily and accurately while southern chickens pecked rapidly but impulsively and inaccurately.  This mirrored, he claimed, the calm, measured, and tenacious behavior of northern, Germanic types as compared with the restless, lively, and flexible behaviors of Mediterranean types.


Ethology did begin to improve in the post-National Socialism 1950s.

One non-Nazi-related detail that also caught my attention was that Lorenz credited his childhood love for animals, in part, to

Selma Lagerlof’s classic children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which was read to him when he was about six.   Nils is the story of a boy who is magically changed into the size of an elf and flies off on the back of a barnyard gander with a flock of wild geese.  By Lorenz’s account, the story led him to want to become a wild goose himself or, failing that, at least to have one…. In Lagerlof’s classic, wild geese are identified as clearly superior to their barnyard cousins.  Thus, beginning with the bedtime stories of his childhood, Lorenz was taught that wild animals are stronger and more admirable than their domestic relatives are.  This idea would feature significantly in his thinking for the rest of his life.

Because my daughters must learn of the superiority of the hearty wild Swedish goose to its emasculated domesticated cousin For some reason I felt compelled to get hold of a copy of Nils, which we read to the girls.  It’s a pretty great book, although at a certain point it kind of devolves into a Swedish travelogue in which Nils learns about each region of the country as he flies around on the back of his goose friend.  It’s an anti-cruelty book, among other things; Nils gets turned into an elf because of his mistreatment of farm animals, and he has to go through his adventures to learn a new comradeship with his feathered and furred friends.

Ballet, rainbows, magic, fairies, and jewelry

Sometimes it feels like we’re continually being hit up for money via the girls’ kindergarten.  What I don’t like about it is the sense that the school or the PTA are using the kids for fund-raising — invoking the nag factor to get us to pony up.  If they wrote directly asking if we could pay a certain amount per month to pay for extras the school can’t otherwise afford, we’d have no problem with that.  But the reading marathon, the contests, the Scholastic book orders (of which I presume the school gets a cut) get tiring.  Especially at this age when my daughters, at least, really do not understand money at all.  Or odds or probabilities.  We had several complete meltdowns around the Reading Marathon because they were convinced that they were going to get to ride in a limo (the final top prize for one student in the school).

So anyway, we weren’t prepared for the Scholastic Books order.  The girls came home with pieces of paper on which their librarian (I think) had written the titles and prices for three books each in which C&I had expressed interest.  These would cost a total of almost $50 and they somehow presumed it was a done deal that we’d be buying all of them.  Screaming, crying meltdown over this.  Finally we compromised and got one book each and one more to share.

I also am not too impressed with the books’ general level of literary quality.  I don’t think it’s a promising sign about a book’s merits when it comes with a cheap dollar-store style necklace included (that’s why they wanted the book, of course).  Actually to be fair, when I actually went to the sale with them set up in the library, they did seem to have good books mixed in with the necklace/book hybrids my daughters unfortunately gravitated towards.  Showing a 6-year old girl a book with jewelry included is not really playing fair.  Normally we’re pretty good at telling them that they can’t buy something, but somehow all the peer/school pressure involved here made it very difficult to manage.  Maybe part of what was galling about this was that Grandma Suzy had just shown up with a few bags of wonderful/classic children’s lit from the 1950s-70s, next to which these looked especially tawdry.

This is the book/necklace title.  Ballet, rainbows, magic, fairies, and jewelry, a potent brew: