More than any other author, Salinger can make me feel seconds from crying, for either hilarity or sorrow.

I do not know how he does this.

I think it has mostly to do with his sets of siblings, his large families (the Glass family, the Caulfields), his struggles between siblings to understand each other or let each other go, and the fact that, always, at least one of the siblings is Tragically Absent. If this is the case, then probably I'll have to concede that not every one will "get" Salinger--readers raised as only children, or without the tricky netting of sibling rivalry and support (or they at least won't "get" him quite like I do)--but I do hope very much that I am wrong, and that Salinger's appeal is not quite that limited. This is merely what I love Salinger for--the siblings, and the fantastic writing.

RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAM & SO ON is the very last Salinger book, the one that I'd been hoarding, hoping against hope (and the laws of the universe) that reading this one wouldn't leave me utterly without an unread Salinger novel, but now...Alas. There are no more. I'll be stuck with rereading, it seems.

RAISE HIGH is also the last, and most conclusive, book dealing with the Glass family, whose members appear in Franny & Zooey, RAISE HIGH, and at least two of Salinger's Nine Stories. Also, RAISE HIGH (joy of joys!) approaches, at last, that most elusive Glass, Seymour.

This is a good order in which to read Salinger's books (three of them, I might interject here, are not novels but collections of either two or nine short stories): The Catcher in the Rye first, then Franny & Zooey, followed by Nine Stories and, lastly, RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAM, CARPENTERS, ETC. I offer you an order which allows the great overarching Glass family story to unfold.

I will not go into it much more, I think, so as not to rob first-time readers of certain surprises which can easily be blown in a summary. For example: who is narrating. And: what he has to say. I mention only that it is a delight to be offered an unpretentious bouquet of early-blooming parentheses: (((()))). For me, as a reader, that is truly a first.

(Oh, yeah, and God bless the Internet, but there's a site with tons of unpublished Salinger stories: it's not over! Hallelujah!)



Book Review: THE LOVELY BONES, by Alice Sebald

Ah! A refreshing break from the "what you think you know is wrong" books that I've been reading (and reading, and rereading) lately! Also, it is a book club selection for the book club whose meeting I am supposed to be attending at this very moment, but that, for reasons unbeknownst even to me, I am not. Hmm.

Anyway, Sebald's THE LOVELY BONES is an interesting contrast between innocence and corruption as the narrator, fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon, is raped and murdered by a neighbor in the first few pages of the book. How is it, then, that she's narrating? Why, she's narrating from heaven, an concept that Sebald uses to her characters' advantage to flesh out the story of the Salmon family in the years after Susie's death. She chronicles the various expressions of grief through Susie, who watches over them from heaven (and thus is granted an omniscient status that allows her to see and sympathize with the private thoughts of her parents and siblings) and struggles, at points, to intervene and reveal the identity of her killer.

This is a murder mystery working backwards, as we, the readers, know from the start every detail of the crime but can no more impress our knowledge onto the other characters than Susie can. The heavens revealed in Sebald's book are wonderful, and I was pleased that the story veered sharply away, at the last minute, from the predictable ending that I'd felt certain was coming. THE LOVELY BONES is a great book to throw in between Camus and Kafka because, though it does give you plenty to think about, it does not make your head ache from the strain of thinking.



A day of conquest! and joy! (and open mic)

Yesterday, around lunchtime, I got this mad idea that I ought to quit talking about "hypothetically" playing some "hypothetical" open mic nights and actually get off my duff and do it. So I called the Wild Buffalo and discovered, to my simultaneous horror and joy, that their open mic was that very evening. I immediately felt like throwing up.

But I took down the info and decided that I would be there at 7 p.m., well-tuned guitar in hand, for sign-up. I spent the rest of the afternoon agonizing over my three-song set list, humming through tricky spots in my songs, trying to commit my newest (and most favorite) lyrics to memory and also, occasionally, working. The nervousness came in waves.

Here, I will insert a flashback: in high school, I made weekly pilgramages to the now-defunct Cookie Cafe for their Wednesday night open mic with a few dedicated friends (of whom Mitch was one). We drank tea and tuned our guitars obsessively and hid behind our hair as we sang angsty power ballads about riotous teenage things. I always played too loud and sang too soft; I could never hit the high notes in public like I could in the quiet of my bedroom, and when I got nervous my throat went dry dry dry and quivered in what I hoped to pass as vibrato.

For the evolution of my thoughts on music, you might hop on over to an earlier entry, She returns to her guitar, and finds it likes her well enough, and then hop right back here, where I will leap forward several years to 7 p.m. last night, when I found myself timidly approaching the bar at the Wild Buffalo and accepting from the bartender a big red square of construction paper on which was printed the number 10.

10 meaning that I was the tenth person to arrive for sign-up, which meant that I would be left with either the very first spot or the very last.

And sure enough, those were my choices: dead first, or dead last.

I took first. And then I ordered a pint of Rogue ale and grabbed a table and began to tune my guitar.

By now, I was determined to have fun regardless of whether I bombed or not, and this worked much to my advantage when the announcer called his first act, "Thee-uh", to the stage for set-up. In the ten minutes before he mispronounced my name over the PA, I made four trips to the ladies' room, I thumbed through my notebook obsessively, double-checking lyrics, I tapped my toes and then, inexplicably, I calmed down. At which point Mitch leaned over to me and said, "Now I'm getting nervous."

"Here," I said, passing him my now half-empty pint. "Have some beer."

Now, jump-cut to me standing in blue spotlight on a quite nice stage, politely interjecting through the mic that my name is actually "Thay-uh" and then (deep, unsteady breath) beginning to play.

I didn't throw up, after all, and though my throat went instantly desert dry, I managed to sing nearly as loud as I do at home, partly because I could see Mitch sitting at the bar, watching and smiling, and I knew that he knew I could sing these songs, and somehow that worked to boost my confidence. In a nice reversal, my voice overpowered my pitifully amplified guitar. I felt like a rock star.

Really, I quite enjoyed myself, and when the announcer boomed omnisciently from the sound booth, "Let's hear it for Thee-uh!" I shrugged, and bowed, and exited stage right. And so open mic night was officially kicked off. Here are some highlights:

  • The second act turned out to be the guy who used to run the Cookie Cafe open mics (one of those odd Bellingham connections). He played an amazing rendition of "Rocky Raccoon" that I actually have stuck in my head right now.

  • I got a free beer for playing. Hoorah!

  • After the feature act (a phenomenal barbershop quartet named something like Double Deuce) sang "Fishers of Men," a rather interesting fellow with black-framed glasses, mad white hair and a walking stick hijacked the floor in front of the stage and began prophecying in a very loud voice something to the effect that every baby born nine months from today would be Jesus. This was greeted by shifty eyes, drunken laughter and a red spotlight, dramatically trained on the guy as the quartet cleverly talked him down and kept the crowd laughing. The bass said casually, "Well, I can see we'd better lay off the religious songs..."

  • An individual of dubious gender batted her (?) eyelashes at me and swatted my arm drunken- and/or playfully and told me I'd just have to stop staring at her, because I know how that makes her feel--at which point I believe I might have actually said something witty, because she giggled, swatted me again, and moved on, but I cannot remember what I said.

  • Because it was the announcer's birthday, he made the rounds with a tray of free cupcakes, which were delicious. Free cupcake, free beer. Good times.


Book Review: THE TRIAL, by Franz Kafka

One of my very favorite lines, in all the books I've lately read,* is Gregor Samsa's second exclamation upon waking one morning, in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," to find that he has somehow been turned into a large insect. His first exclamation: "What has happened to me?" His second: "What if I went back to sleep for awhile and forgot all this foolishness?"

That one line, "What if I went back to sleep for awhile and forgot all this foolishness," delighted me for weeks. I copied it out in my notebook, referred to it often and grinned, without ever being able to determine what it was about that one line that struck me so. Even now, looking back at that first page of "The Metamorphosis," I find it difficult to discern that line's appeal: something, I suppose, in the fact that Gregor is not quite alarmed, not horrified, nor resolved even to set this mess right--he is merely inconvenienced, a fact that is confirmed in the next paragraph, as Gregor bemoans choosing a career (he is travelling salesman) that requires the constant strain of rising early. He is concerned less with his buggish-ness than he is with the possibility that it might cause him to miss work.

THE TRIAL seems to operate on a similar level. I say "seems to" because I cannot claim certainty about which level, precisely, THE TRIAL operates on, and I will not try. Obviously, this review is based on how I--lowly undergraduate with nary a credit of Kafka to her name--read this book, and what I'm trying to say, delicately, is that I'm not sure what to think. I had a sense of being a part of something big and grand, but maybe that's because I've heard "Kafka!" shouted from the rooftops all throughout my short literary career, and so I am predisposed to think that my inability, at times, to understand him signifies very little about Kafka's failings. In short (though probably it's too late for that) I enjoyed THE TRIAL, though looking back I couldn't tell you what the hell happened.

To summarize the story, I present you with the first line: "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." For what, his captors cannot say. It just gets weirder from there, really.

*Another favorite is the chilling "Kill the spare," of Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire. Makes me shiver, every time.



I have princess feet!

It's true. My feet, if you could see them, are downright royal.

My bosses treated we office ladies to a spa day (yes, we are spoiled absolutely rotten), and so Debbie, Erin and I spent yesterday morning at the Chrysalis Spa as the warm and cozy recipients of pedicures and facials. I had never been to a spa before, never had a pedicure nor a facial, and so I positively melted.

Or not quite. Not at first.

My brain is on "constant chatter" mode these days, and it did not help that the night before our spa trip I got into a rousing philosophical discussion with my friend Paul. This discussion was fueled by a few glasses of wine, and by the time I made it home my head was all full of ideas--some of them swam peacably around my brain like little goldfish. That is the normal state of things: goldfish. Others of these ideas were downright vicious, like pirahnas, and these mean ideas attacked the pretty, gold ones, and there were scales and fins and fishy-idea carnage everywhere...

I'm sorry to get off-task, but you must understand that my brain can stage battles like this to an extent that I do not sleep, I ponder furiously, and no amount of aromatherapy candles and pleasant woodwind music can calm me down.

Even heated towels and green tea and steam had a tough time getting my mind to coast into relaxation, but there's just no denying the power of a facial. You're warm, you're cozy, the room is quiet and dark, and a lady with a soothing voice is rubbing all kinds of nice-smelling goop on your face and then wiping it off with a hot towel, then rubbing more warm goop on, then wiping it off. Blissful, really.

When the time came to re-robe and move on to the pedicure, I found it quite difficult to blink or wiggle my fingers, let alone leave the warm massage table, but somehow I managed, and while we sat in the sun room drinking tea, Debbie (who had already had her pedicure) rubbed her toes together and said gleefully, "I have princess feet!"

My feet had never felt particularly un-princessy to me, but by the time they'd been parafinned and jet-tubbed and buffed with all kinds of odd implements and my toes polished a dark, dark blackish purple, I understood. All afternoon I smirked to myself, remembering my dainty, soft, spotless toes and thought, princess feet. And, spoiled rotten.


Book Review: THE COMEDIANS, by Graham Greene

I give you the back of the book:
Like one of its predecessors, The Quiet American, The Comedians is a story about the committed and the uncommitted. The Negro, Doctor Magiot, is committed. His last letter to Brown, who tells the story, is a statement and an appeal by the committed -- by a man who has by his nature to share the terrible events of his time. But the Comedians have opted out. They play their parts -- respectable or shady -- in the foreground; they experience love-affairs rather than love; they have enthusiaisms -- like Mr. Smith for his vegetarian centre -- but not a faith; and if they die, they die, like Jones, by accident.
I cannot decide if that is the worst blurb I've come across, or the very best, but it certainly tells the interested reader nothing about THE COMEDIANS. In fact, until the very last page of the book, I had no idea at all where the "committed" and "uncommitted" business came in, but oh well. I bought the book because it said "Graham Greene" on the cover, regardless of the gibberish on the back, and I was well rewarded.

THE COMEDIANS is set in Haiti, amidst all kinds of political turmoil, and follows the rather uncommitted Mr. Brown as he struggles to run a hotel without guests, staff or money. When he finds the Secretary of Social Welfare dead in the hotel swimming pool of an apparent suicide, Mr. Brown and an odd assembly of characters (including Martha Pineda, Mr. Brown's mistress, the wife of an obscure South American ambassador; Mr. Smith, an American ex-Presidential Candidate who ran on the vegetarian ticket, and his formidable wife, Mrs. Smith; Jones, a pleasant but slightly shady recent arrival to Haiti who has aroused the curiosity of several governments; and Captain Concasseour, a leader in the politcal bogeymen, the Tonton Macoute) find themselves caught up in events comical, political and absurd.

Perhaps that is a more helpful summary, even if it is not much better.

I am quite infatuated with Graham Greene, really. He is just odd enough to appeal to me on a very deep level (as I'm quite odd myself), and his stories range from lovely and haunting to hysterically funny. He is sharp-witted; his locales are diverse and exotic, his characters fascinating. I desperately need more Graham Greene in my life--which is funny, because if you say his name fast, it sounds an awful lot like "gangrene". So it sounds like I'm saying "I desperately need more gangrene in my life," which I really don't.



Hearts and chocolate, cha cha cha!

I was the only girl in the flower shop yesterday. The rest of the patrons were anxious-looking guys placing orders for "something red" or "you know, not too Valentinesy" at quarter to six while covertly glancing at their watches, visibly assessing travel time between the flower shop and whatever cozy, candlelit restaurant they'd selected, after much heavy dropping of hints, for a romantic evening.

Mitch and I are generally pretty low-key about Valentine's (we've been known to forget it altogether), but last night we splurged on dinner at Chiribin's and a fancypants bottle of wine, and I had the delightful experience of presenting him with a single orange Gerber daisy and making him blush furiously. Our only code has been "no pressure"--as in, some years he'll get me something and it'll be all the sweeter because it was unexpected, and sometimes I'll embarrass him publicly by bursting into "You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You" at the dinner table, or making him haul around a heart-shaped cellophane balloon that says something great like "Sweetcakes" on it in white script (haven't done that last one yet, but you can bet it'll happen), and sometimes we'll do nothing at all.

I like it this way, particularly because I'm not the one being serenaded by off-key Dean Martin songs. I feel that Valentine's loses a bit of its appeal (you know, the spontaneous expressions of love) when certain gifts are expected, or hinted at, or openly requested. I'd rather have a silly handdrawn card out of the blue than a dozen roses on the fourteenth. But of course that's just me.


[A] "people's history" promises more than any one person can fulfill, and it is the most difficult kind of history to recapture. I call it that anyway because, with all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance.

That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction--so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements--that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.

All those histories of this country centered on the Founding Fathers and the Presidents weight oppressively on the capacity of the ordinary citizen to act. They suggest that in times of crisis we must look to someone to save us...And that between occasional crises everything is all right, and it is sufficient for us to be restored to that normal state. They teach us that the supreme act of citizenship is to choose among saviors, by going into a voting booth every four years to choose between two white and well-off Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions.
--p. 631
I would expect a book of this caliber to be depressing. I would expect it to have the sort of impact that makes me feel suddenly awake, but uneasy in my new knowledge and slightly guilty, because now that I know I must act. I would expect to feel as though I should do something important, now, but I would not know what to do. I'd feel more alert to injustice, but helpless in the face of it, and so I would say Yes, it was a great book. But it was depressing.

That is what I would expect from a book like this, A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, but of course I'd be sorely wrong. Though Zinn approaches American history with a sharp eye for injustice and is sometimes brutally revealing, sometimes graphic, the startling facts that he presents throughout his telling of the people's resistance (to poverty, to slavery, to genocide, to oppression far worse than any US History class I took ever suggested) never once left me feeling helpless.

In fact, it had quite the opposite effect: Zinn's telling is motivating, as it highlights the instances in American history where the people rose up and defied a system designed to hold them in their place, a system run by "impartial" laws geared toward the rich and by a Constituation whose "We, The People" only applies to white, male property owners. Whether or not the rebellions always won what they fought for, Zinn cites them as examples of what can be achieved with unity, and of the fact that people can unify across class and race and gender lines. Really, this is a history of protest and of people's movements.

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY is written well, so that it's easy to pick up, to follow, and not weighted down by statistics or grandiose statements, and even though it's a whopping 687 pages, I think it's one that everybody (and I mean that: everybody) should read, because it shows that we are more influential than our politicians would have us believe, and that we, the people, have far more power than our leaders would like us to realize.



Book Review: PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, by Joan Didion

This is my first foray into the literature of Joan Didion since analyzing Slouching Toward Bethelehem to death in a college workshop. Finally, I've forgotten which essay structure Didion favors; I cannot remember if she lists in threes or fours; I do know that she's a master of the paragraph-long, excellently puncuated--and thus prevented from running on--sentence, but her preference for colons (or is it semi-colons?) has finally stepped right out of my memory, and so I feel restored, ready to brave Didion again and see if she's every bit as wonderful as she was before we dissected, imitated, cut and pasted her essays in English 451.

She is. Hooray.

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS is a dark and imaginative, deceptively simple (or is it deceptively complex?) novel about Maria Wyeth, actress, mother, estranged wife, and her descent into...Hmm. Is she crazy, or isn't she? You decide.

The book whips right by--it's actually quite thin, though my copy was plumped up with generous margins--in short, sharply beautiful chapters, and it's set in the Mojave desert, with 120-degree days that Didion describes in agonizing, sweat-provoking detail. Read it outside, on a sunny day, when there is a slight breeze. Bring a glass of ice water, and a portable fan, just in case.



Book Review: THE FALL, by Albert Camus

Oh no. I hate to admit this. But: I didn't get it. Even finishing THE FALL, I did not understand it, though there were lines in the book that gave me chills because they rang either perfectly true or chillingly contrary to the notions I've accepted, the things that I believe. It is especially bitter for me to confess that this thin little book swept clear over my comprehension because it was given to me at the recommendation of a friend who named it one of his very favorite books. A recommendation like that always gives me extra incentive to read a book closely, especially when it comes from somebody who has rarely failed in the area of excellent recommendations, but in this case, I don't know what to think except that this friend is possibly much smarter than I am.

THE FALL is written as a confession, as the dominent side of a dialogue between two characters: Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator, a lawyer who once practiced in Paris, initiates a conversation with an unnamed man he encounters in a seedy bar in Amsterdam (the bar is called, oddly, Mexico City), and the conversation resumes over the course of several days, all told solely through Clamence's voice. No description, no opinion, no movement or narrative comes into the book save through Clamence's observation. Even the gaps in which the second man speaks are filled with Clamence repeating or responding to the man's expression.

By the end of the book, I took to reading out loud just so I could concentrate on the big ideas and, yes, big words, because I found the book getting further and further away from me. (This got a laugh out of my husband, who came home once or twice to find me curled up on the couch, reading Camus aloud to the cats.) I think I will have to reread The Stranger, wait a few years until I'm (hopefully) smarter, and try THE FALL again.


Book Review: WALKING ON WATER, by Madeliene L'Engle

You probably know Madeliene L'Engle as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, but she's written roughly a bazillion other books--everything from kids' fantasy, to memoir, to adult (sorry, "regular") novels, to nonfiction essays, and WALKING ON WATER: RELFECTIONS ON FAITH AND ART, written in 1980, falls somewhere in between those categories as one of her more meditative and openly Christian books (though all of her books explore Christian themes), and as my absolute favorite.

"Reflections on Faith and Art" means precisely that: a friend asked her to write some thoughts on what it means to be a "Christian artist" and she reluctantly sat down to do so, resisting firstly the notion that art could be cleanly divided into "Christian art" and "non-Christian art", and secondly the idea that it should be divided at all. Her words are clear and convicting on the many subjects that she eventually covers in WALKING ON WATER--at times she seems to veer very much away from "art" or "Christian", but the diversions are every bit as interesting as the main thread, as they touch on all kinds of things: the evolution of language, division within the Christian Church, the relationship between God and science, higher mathematics, the significance of names, and so on.

But her thoughts on art are plenty collected. She treats it as a holy endeavor, a gift given by God that must be maintained through discipline and practice, but that can transport both artist and viewer (or listener, or reader) to a place outside time, for a split second or for hours, depending on how long both parties remain willing. She also presents the fascinating idea that humans were intended to be much more than we are--that we should be able to move unfettered through time, or that we once could walk on water, but have forgotten how--and that the artistic process provides us briefly with a window into the nature we have forgotten as a consequence of the Fall.

L'Engle is brilliant and wise, and though she is two whole generations above me, I find her remarkably easy to relate to. WALKING ON WATER is one of my favorite books to pick up and read a single page, or a segment, or a chapter, whenever I'm feeling artistically (or spiritually) unmotivated. A friend got it just right in calling L'Engle's writing "quiet," because reading WALKING ON WATER creates in me a feeling similar to sitting by a still pond on a sunny day, or lying out on the grass and listening to all the small sounds of the world moving around me.


One cat goes missing but, to the relief of everyone, is quickly found

We had an interesting moment this morning when I realized that I hadn't seen Sparrow (one of our two cats) in quite a while. Hmm, thought I. Where could she be?

Well, our apartment is not big, so after we checked the closets, bed, nooks and crannies and so on, our search fueled by occasional plaintive mews from somewhere unidentifiable, we began to get a little worried. I was even set to peek outside on the odd and alarming chance that she might have somehow gotten out, when Mitch noticed that Gunner (other cat) was pawing at my dresser.

Mitch opened the drawer and found a wide-eyed Sparrow nestled in among my socks. Sheesh. At least it wasn't the oven or the dryer.


Books I reread often

"Often" = every couple years. Without further ado, I give you:
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
  • Travelling Mercies, Anne Lamott
  • Small Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
  • The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis
  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  • Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller
  • The Abhorsen trilogy, Garth Nix
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  • Harry Potter (any and all books available), J.K. Rowling
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris
  • Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Walking on Water, Madeliene L'Engle
  • A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken

Books that will make it onto the list, but have yet to be reread:
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Franny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger
  • Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
  • House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski


"Winning is a wonderful deodorant"

I've wanted to use that line since the end of the playoffs, when an NFL announcer dropped that gem in reference to the Seahawks. He finished with some breath-taking punchline like "...and it's smelling strong around here," but I'm afraid my recylced joke is no longer applicable, what with the Seahawks, ahem, losing the Superbowl and all.

We watched the game with my dad and step-mom (both die-hard Steelers fans, previously mentioned in an earlier entry, Who gives a crap about football?), with the idea that a little competition might liven things up a bit. After all, what fun is watching the Superbowl when everybody in the room is rooting for the same team?

I should've known, though. I should have realized that my feeble allegience to the Seahawks (the average duration of my NFL enthusiasm is roughly 7.65 minutes per year) is nothing compared to Karen's life-long devotion to her hometown team. This did not quite sink in, however, until the moment we walked into my parents' kitchen and beheld the dining room table, draped as it was with Steelers T-shirts and jerseys and Terrible Towels. The focal point of this black-and-gold display was a chocolate cake, complete with hand-frosted Steelers logo, beside a Virgin Mary votive candle.

Oh boy, I thought. Oh, boy.

As far as I could tell, though, in the moments that I glanced up from my book, it sure did seem like the Seahawks played a good game. But I must say this: "retirement." For the love of God, somebody please pass the message along to the Rolling Stones.


Book Review: ELIZABETH COSTELLO, by J.M. Coetzee

I wasn't aware that one author could win the Booker Prize twice, but apparently it can be done, because J.M. Coetzee's done it. If you couple that with a Nobel Prize in Literature, I'd say you've got some pretty impressive credentials. At what point does award-winning become excessive, I wonder?

ELIZABETH COSTELLO is one of Coetzee's more recent novels and it is a complicated book, structured in a series of formal addresses given by various characters on various subjects--each of the eight chapters is complete in itself, bracketed by narrative, but centered around an issue like animal rights, "the problem of evil", and so on.

This format is interesting for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that it leaves the reader to make her own decisions about each topic, as each lecture is received dubiously by its audience and critique is offered on each subject, by the characters speaking or by their audience, so that the author's bias and opinion are not readily divined. This gives the book an unsettling murkiness, and made me think a bit more than I cared to, in all honesty. I cannot even pretend that I understood half of what was being discussed.

Coetzee's writing is deliberate and powerful, and for this I loved the first two chapters, and the second to last, "The Gate," all of which relied more heavily on story than on lecture. As much as I loved the rhthym of Coetzee's voice, and however fascinating the ideas being presented, I found myself tempted to skip ahead through many pages of discussion to where the narrative thread picked up again.

Another dubiously good Coetzee book? Disgrace. Both are worth reading, though I could sum each one up in a single word: for Disgrace, I choose "depressing." For ELIZABETH COSTELLO, "intimidating." But don't let that scare you away.



She returns to her guitar, and finds it likes her well enough

I have been quiet for some time now. Though I made plenty of noise in high school, playing guitar and bass in a couple different bands and singing loudly (but not necessarily well), during the winter of my senior year I developed a problem in my wrists and collarbone that effectively sidelined me, off and on, for two or three years. Not until this last year have I really begun to play my guitar with any sort of enthusiasm, and not until this last summer have I taken up writing songs again, and not until now have I felt confident enough in both music and voice to consider doing anything with either of them.

Musicians are curious folk, and for the first time in a long while, I'm starting to feel like I might fit in with those curious folk quite nicely. The other night I found myself listening in on a conversation between my friend Sarah and a fellow we met, and ended up playing a game or two of pool with, at the Nightlight. They discussed his job (he was a welder), and when that topic petered out, he said, casually, "...but my real passion is music."

This is a trigger, a test, designed to perk up the ears of any musicians in the room. To mention that word, "music", at a party, in a bar, will bring a whole flock of newly-interested strangers your way in a matter of seconds.

I couldn't help myself. In a conditioned response, I asked, "What do you play?", and the conversation was off welding for good. I'm not sure it returned to anything non-musical for the rest of the evening.

Music is an odd little community, and if you can answer that question, "What do you play?", you're effectively in. The trouble with my hands ended my short but passionate career as a bassist, and though I often miss the fit of thick bass strings beneath my fingers, so sturdy, so substantial, I am growing accustomed to life as a guitarist--an acoustic guitarist, no less (I began on the electric, picked up acoustic as a last resort). The thinner, more delicate strings of my trusty Yamaha begin more and more to feel familiar, as I learn to treat my acoustic guitar as its own instrument, rather than as a different-sounding electric guitar--I learn to strum lightly, to pick out individual strings with my fingertips, to let my voice carry, unamplified, over the chords.

My friend Shawnee plays a mean guitar, she writes beautiful songs, and I envy her her pretty strum patterns, her lyrics, her lovely voice. Today, we spent the morning cross-legged on my living room floor, taking turns playing our own songs for each other, and it was strangely refreshing to notice that, though I was nervous, my voice didn't freeze up, my fingers didn't falter when it was my turn to play. We talked about doing some open mics together--each of us playing solo, but providing moral support for the other--or about putting on some small acoustic shows around town.

I would love to do that. Though my hands aren't entirely healed (in fact, they're aching now), neither are they holding me back, and so I feel brave, but humble, as these last few years of timid re-entrance into musicianship have made me re-think why it is that I write, and play, and sing, and for once I feel as though I have a good answer: because I like to. That's all.