Book Review: THE COMPLETE STORIES, by Flannery O'Connor

Alright, it took me several months, but I finally finished THE COMPLETE STORIES of Flannery O'Connor. That's every published (and some unpublished) story that O'Connor wrote in her regrettably short life, all in chronological order, in a whopping 550-page trade-paperback-sized book (with a gorgeous cover, I must say).


I feel a glorious sense of accomplishment.

But if I feel great for finishing, I also feel quite challenged, because O'Connor's stories are not light stuff, by any estimation. Several stories end in gruesome, easily avoided but somehow fitting deaths, and most of the characters, while imagining themselves quite righteous and above the judgement of others, are royally selfish and irritating. Somehow, though, O'Connor draws out a bit of sympathy for these characters, all of whom are thoroughly developed and therefore very real and full of moments of weakness.

The best part of the entire book, though, is the fact that the stories get better and better--you can almost see her develop as a writer. While I loved the early stories (the first, "The Geranium," remains one of my favorites), I found myself drawn further and further into the stories as I went on, and the last ten (for the most part) were astonishing: particularly "Parker's Back" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge."

Set primarily in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, the stories touch on racism in a merciless sort of way--the tension between characters throughout the whole book is continual, erupting occasionally into stunning climaxes, and it creates an uneasy sense of foreboding in the reader that endures to the very finish of the book.

If you're less compulsive about finishing a book once started and reading everything in order than I am, this is still a wonderful book for flipping through and reading a story here and there. Each one is complete and troubling, while also ringing beautiful and true. You must, simply must, read at least one.


Because of course that sounds fascinating...

An ad on Yahoo Launch's main page: "See Pink play with her dogs on her new reality show."

Holy moley.

Why can't reality shows please just die?


Book Review: THE JOY LUCK CLUB, by Amy Tan

When she noticed me reading THE JOY LUCK CLUB, my friend Stacey asked, "That's one of those girl books, isn't it?" Yes, I had to admit, it definately is.

And, though I've thought a lot about it, I cannot figure out how this should detract from the book for me--but it does. For some reason, girl books just don't appeal much to me, and by "girl books" I mean books almost solely about women, where men are just husbands, brothers, and/or tormentors who rarely have a moment of interesting character-hood. By "girl books" I suppose I mean Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Girls' Poker Night (Jill A. Davis), The Memoir Club (Laura Kalpakian) (I'm noticing a club/sisterhood theme...) and several others that I read at somebody's suggestion, felt terrible for not liking and returned promptly to the bookstore for trade.

Which isn't to say that all books about groups of women are not to my taste--after all, I loved Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi) and The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston)--or that I didn't enjoy THE JOY LUCK CLUB. Amy Tan landed herself on one of the higher rungs of Girl Book-dom, but I just felt compelled to add a small rant about all those books with pink covers featuring some sort of beverage (wine, lattes and so on). The rant is finished and now we may move on.

Tan's definately a gifted writer, to the point where I will definately read more of her books, and I enjoyed being whisked right out of my white American experience and into that of several Chinese immigrant families--the way Tan tells it, in a series of small scenes, each narrated by either a mother or a daughter of the four families, layers the story beautifully, even if I lost track periodically of who was speaking. It's a gorgeous book, full of great descriptions and rich characters--all of whom, you may notice, are women. But I got a little choked up at parts, Tan's words were that strong.


Caught up

So, I've been playing oodles of shows lately, but now I'm in a little lull and it occurs to me that I don't post much about the shows themselves. I will do that now:

The past few weeks I've played a couple shows at Fantasia, one of which was a rowdy Ladies' Night that featured two poets (Anna Wolff and Jessica Lohafer, who was brilliant and hysterically funny), a woman on the autoharp (Stephanie Kontournos) who played old folk songs and sang in this rich, throaty voice, Kat the Unsinkable and her gorgeous voice and me and my guitar and my tamborine.

After that I played at Three Trees, all on my own, and it was wonderful--a small audience but an enthusiastic one (which I'd take over huge and indifferent, thanks), and now I'm gearing up for another show at Fantasia on the 11th.

But here's the exciting thing: I've had more fun arranging songs now that I get to play for an audience regularly. Arranging? Yes. See, I am my own percussion section, which makes for a whole lot of fun as I figure out where I can possibly snap my fingers, pound a beat on my guitar, and so on. I play the tamborine with my foot, and now?

Oh yes. Now:

I'm playing the egg shaker. Which means, at the craziest points, I am playing the egg shaker, the guitar and the tamborine, while also singing. It is such a weird rush--like amateur juggling. Inevitably I'll drop something, but what? And when?

Mostly I practice all this in my bedroom, yelping in frustration and laughing at myself in turns, which then starts Mitch laughing at me as I keep each song going for so long and then fumble, and the whole mess comes crashing down. It's great. It's especially colorful after a few glasses of wine.

So on the 11th expect color--a few new songs and one very, very old one (written when I was 16 and recently revived--and revised), and a new trick or two. I'm stupidly excited.

But all this is to say nothing of the lovely and bizarre encounters I've had with audience members--that is possibly an entry unto itself. No, it definately is. That will come later.


The perfect summer day


  • A lengthy breakfast of Mt. Bakery granola and fruit, black coffee and an almond croissant, all eaten with one hand while holding a book (The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan) open with the other.

  • A likewise lengthy perusal of my favorite bookstore, which is composed of several rooms (so many, in fact, that I somehow managed to lose my dad the last time we went to the bookstore together--after searching every possible room that I could find, including such unlikely sections as Popular Romance and Self-Help, I finally had to go up front and ask the clerk if he'd seen my dad. He had. He steered me to Music, where my dad was scanning How to Play the Blues Harp Today). In one of the rooms (containing Poetry, Women's Biography, Theater, Theology, Travel and more), the lights had been accidentally left off, and I snuck back in the darkest farthest backest corner for a few minutes, feeling the store big and silent and dark around me, the bookshelves looming and indistinct, before tracking down the aforementioned clerk and informing him about the outtage.

  • An afternoon at home with the kittens, practicing playing the guitar and the egg shaker at the same time (that's right--the egg shaker. And the guitar. At the same time) while the kittens climbed in my lap and attempted to nibble on my fretting hand.

  • A trip to the river with a sweaty, grumpy and fresh-off-work-from-the-farm Mitch, where we hiked out to a nice swimming hole and met Morgan and, by coincidence, Morgan's parents, and splashed and swam and floated in the current for a nice, long while. It was hot enough that we dried off in a matter of minutes after getting out of the water.

  • Stopping by the farm on the way home and harvesting salad greens, cherry tomatoes , cucumber and cabbage, to be used on Sunday for a scrumptuous farm-fresh lunch with friends.

  • Stopping by a berry farm after that and picking over some rather picked-over raspberries for a nice after-dinner treat that we later forgot to eat.

  • Spending the rest of the evening at home, drinking beer and eating veggie-rich quesadillas and playing with the kitties.

  • Going to bed sunburnt, slightly drunk and completely tuckered out.
  • 7.21.2006

    Book Review: THE ARCHIVIST, by Martha Cooley

    About this book I felt rather ambivalent. I'm not sure why. I bought THE ARCHIVIST based solely on the cover (rad) and the price (dirt cheap). Halfway through first chapter, however, I was ready to set the book down and back away. It was boring, I thought. I didn't care much for the characters, and it reminded me of an inferior version of Possession--all literary and scholarly, but without the pretty writing or interesting plot.

    So I did that age-old test to determine whether or not I should keep reading: I put the book down and asked myself a little while later if I was hooked--did I think about the book? Did I want to know what happened?

    I did. So I went back to THE ARCHIVIST and read the whole damn thing.

    And reluctantly, I was sucked in. I cannot explain it, but I ended up plowing through the book in a day or two, trying to figure out the entire time what it was about the book that kept me coming back.

    I never did put my finger on it.

    Did I like it? I don't know. Would I recommend it to you? I'm really not sure. Was it any good at all? I think so, but I don't know why. And while all this sounds like the criteria for a rating of 2, something keeps nagging me to give it a 3. But why? Pfff.

    RATING: 3


    Sick kitty no more

    At least, he's not puking and he's back to his spunky little Gunner-self. Hoorah!


    The first review of one of my shows...

    ...was written by my brother. A bit biased, yes, but dang if it ain't sweet. Here it is:

    I think God messed up on my sister.

    Okay, well he didn't mess up so much in her personality, talent, or integrity, but more on her packaging.

    I'm sorry, but she should be fat.

    Fat, and huge, and possibly black...well at least Melado.

    I can not believe the pipes on this girl.

    So for those who don't know, my sister is a musician. She plays guitar, sings, and stomps on a little tambourine with her foot all at the same time. There have been times where she's also been known to tickle the ivories, rock the bass, and bust out on the egg shaker. But nowadays she seems to be investing the majority of her energy into the first three, and I am consistantly amazed at the her talent.

    Since moving to Bellingham for the summer I have become a groupie for my sister. Playing in coffee shops, market places, and any other venue where the owner has heard her play because, honestly, that's all it takes for them to want to book her. I can only imagine what would happen if P. Diddy heard her. He'd want a reality show like *that. 'Course she'd have to ho it up a little.

    But I digress.

    She's been doing these shows and I think I've been to all but one of them and I am astonished at how EVERY time she plays she performs better and better. Integrating finger snaps, guitar drumming, and any other number of auxilary instruments into her performance, you can hear her songs evolve each time she plays them. I can barely talk on my cell phone and walk at the same time (without seious complications), let alone sing, strum, stomp, and snap all at once. It's incredible.

    So at last night's show at the Three Trees Coffee house (not the most performance condusive atmosphere, because while they did have a stage, some people *cou-employees-gh* didn't seem to think it was appropriate to censor the volume of their voices while in a tiny room with a live performer), she rocked the house with an hour and fifteen minute long set that sent a man back to Chigaco with a new found appreciation for the Bellingham music scene, left a coffee shop owner feeling like the next big live venue producer, and a family feeling very proud of their little girl (who's actually older than me).

    So I'm now going to take it upon myself to relay to all of y'all when my sister's next shows will be because everyone needs to hear this kid. Check out her myspace for a sample (she's my number one...go figure), but you haven't heard anything until you've heard her live.

    So while God may have messed up by not making my sister a fat, Melado woman he's certainly made up for it by cramming her tiny frame full of amazing vocal and songwriting talent, and making her one of the coolest people I know.

    I leave you now with a list of some of my personal favorite songs of hers (some of which I don't totally know the title to, because it's not like she announces the name of every one before she plays it):

    -All is Well
    -Gray and Cold
    -Red Shoes
    -That one about Morgan
    -That one about a city
    -And there are many, many others, but those are the main favs of mine.

    Sick kitty (cont.)

    Yup. He's still sick...Now we get to feed him pills, the poor guy.


    Sick kitty

    Nope, didn't get much sleep last night. Not with the boy cat, Gunner, throwing up twice an hour from 3 AM to 7 AM, at which point I finally rolled out of bed and called the Animal Emergency Center (but not before losing several hours of sleep 1) taking it in turns with Mitch to clean up after Gunner, and 2) fretting that Gunner had come down with some rare parasite that would quickly hop from him to Sparrow to Mitch to me and take us all out quietly before the vet opened for regular business hours on Monday).

    Instead of a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast and a walk to church, etc., Mitch and I wound up in the waiting room of AEC with an eerily quiet and wide-eyed Gunner tucked away in the back corner of his cat carrier. We shared the waiting room with a labradoodle, the labradoodle's young, quiet owner, and two sleepy looking ladies who informed us, in a lengthy monologue, that they saved abandoned cats and were here with two kittens who had heart trouble but had outlived even the doctor's most ambitious guesses ("Wouldn't last the month, they said, but here she is, a strapping six-month-old kitten!" and so on).

    By the time we got Gunner into the exam room and out of the carrier, he started in on his best contortionist tricks, wriggling out of arms and under hands and hopping from table to counter and (almost) into drawers. After the bit with the thermometer, he was quite distrusting, but once the assistant left to fetch the doctor, Mitch and I won him over with belly rubs and ear scratches and games so that when the doctor arrived Gunner was on his back on the exam table, paws up, purring at top volume.

    "He really is sick," we told the vet, "we swear."

    She checked him out, wrapped him up in what she called a "Gunner burrito" (a towel) and whisked him away to give him some shots. We took him home and he promptly threw up three times in the middle of the living room before disappearing behind a wingback chair for the better part of an hour--but now he's curled up on the couch with Sparrow, out cold. This is an improvement over the pacing and the melancholy lounging that he was doing this morning, and it is certainly an improvement over the regular puking. Hopefully this bodes well.


    Book Review: THE AMAZING ADVENTURES of KAVALIER & CLAY, by Michael Chabon

    I never quite know how to take it when somebody admits that, while they didn't enjoy a particular book, I might. In the case of KAVALIER & CLAY, two separate people, in two very different circumstances, said exactly that: "I didn't care for it much, but you might."


    The funny thing is, I really did. I loved KAVALIER & CLAY, and could not put it down for all of the four days it took me to tear through the whole book--the characters were completely engrossing, even when they (quite realistically) did things that I did not agree with and rather wished that they hadn't done. The scope of the book is tremendous, and when Chabon could have potentially lost my attention (Pearl Harbor) he held me fast by introducing a whole other fascinating plot line.

    KAVALIER & CLAY is chock full of comic books--the Golden Age of, the history of, the Rise & Fall of comic books--and vivid depictions of the artwork of Joe Kavalier, so beautifully described that I could see the panels of The Escapist and Luna Moth.

    For this big, all-reaching book Chabon was awarded the Pulitzer, and though I loved KAVALIER & CLAY and could not find a thing to criticize, I wonder what it was he was given the Pulitzer for--I'd be curious to find the critieria the judges used, because I was not certain that KAVALIER & CLAY was that grand. Perhaps it was something about capturing America in the midst of a war, and chronicling the attitude of Americans through the stories they choose to read--maybe something about an immigrant succeeding in America (living the Great American Dream), but at a great cost?

    In which case, then yes, KAVALIER & CLAY was quite deserving.

    RATING: 4

    An evening at Nimbus

    We don't leave the house much, and most times that is just fine. But the other night, after making plans with my brother that fell through, Mitch and I decided that an outing was in order and we headed out for the fanciest restaurant around in jeans and sneakers.

    Nimbus is a sleek, classy joint with red walls and a glossy black ceiling. There is a mirror behind the bar that makes the rows of bottles seem to extend back indefinately; the servers wear black pants and aprons and pretty shirts and they smile a lot. Perched atop what is currently the tallest building in Bellingham (The Bellingham Towers: 14 whopping storeys high, and soon to be surpassed by some 18 story monstrosity full of glass-fronted condos), Nimbus lets you look down on the tarpaper rooftops of the stores and offices and apartments of downtown Bellingham in a way that is a bit disconcerting at first: everything looks black and gray and industrial, but gracefully interrupted by trees and glimpses of the silvery bay and the watery violet silohettes of the San Juan islands.

    We pick a table in the bar and order pints of the very best beer around (North Fork stout). We sip our beer quietly and look out the windows, pointing out landmarks and remarking on how small the people, cars and houses are from Way Up Here. We also laugh at ourselves and our pretty little town: we are not that high up, after all.


    I feel like I know them now

    This morning, we helped my mom and stepdad move into a house that they own and have been renting out(through a rental agency) for the past two years. Here are a few of the things the renters left behind:

  • Various bits of broken crayons, in an assortment of colors

  • A journal titled "My Letters to You", which was stashed on the top of some cabinets in the laundry room.

  • An economy size bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila

  • A regular size bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila

  • A half-empty (or is it half-full?) bottle of marguerita mix

  • An unopened bottle of wine, complete with a fancy-pants corkscrew

  • A return slip for a $2500 engagement ring (purchased on credit) to Kay Jewelers. Reason for return? "Changed my mind."
  • Oo la la!

    New pictures of the guitar-in-progress:


    Book Review: THE HISTORY OF LOVE, by Nicole Krauss

    I bought this book on a whim (read: I like the cover, it's pretty), and was pleasantly surprised to find that THE HISTORY OF LOVE is not quite as cheesy and sentimental as the title suggests--in fact, it was very good, and not cheesy at all. Told from the perspective of several narrators, ranging in age from eleven-years-old to eighty, the large plot is laced loosely around a little-known book titled, you guessed it, The History of Love. Not until the last few pages does the story really come together in a beautiful, simple finale.

    Actually, THE HISTORY OF LOVE reminds me more than a little of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close--which makes sense, I suppose, when a Google search reveals that Krauss is, in fact, married to Jonathan Safran Foer. I won't go into the similarities between the two books, but for an interesting article on the duo, click here.

    I enjoyed HISTORY so much that I bustled off to the bookstore right after I finished it to see if the copy of her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, was still on the shelf where I'd seen it on Sunday: it was not. Neither was the last copy of The History of Love. Apparently, I'm not the only one rushing out to snatch up her books.

    RATING: 4


    A lesson in patience

    So. I mentioned having time off work. Usually, when I get these little pockets of blissful free time, I try and have some sort of goal, even if it's something fun and useless like "reread all six Harry Potter books" or learn to play "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" on the gee-tar (still haven't finished that one...). This week's goal? Record a three song demo CD, for promotional use only.

    Sounds simple. Right?

    As I realized this afternoon, after spending the better part of the day in front of the computer (gotta love the home recording set up) and emerging around 3 pm with not a single decent guitar track to show for it: no, not simple at all.

    It might be, if you have amazing ONE-two-three-four-ONE-two-three-four timing, but I notably do not. in fact, my strumming tends toward the bizarre and unpredictable, and, well, offbeat. Most of the recordings I've done to date are pretty basic: press record, play the song through, listen for any major mistakes and then export it to iTunes. I thought it'd be fun and different to actually sit down and record multiple tracks and use a metronome and add harmony and percussion and so on--I also thought that this method might make me braver about actually sharing some of my recordings.

    But whew. What work.

    Finally, around four o'clock (after a long walk, a milkshake and a pep talk to myself about lowering my expectations and shooting for one passable guitar track today, rather than three finished songs) I managed to scrape together a pretty decent recording that is, no, not finished, but quite nice. I'm happy. I'll finish it tomorrow morning, I think.

    What work, yes, but this is the sort of work I can easily get into. Tomorrow morning I've got a date with the computer, my guitar and a pot of coffee. I'm hoping to finish the second vocal track--that's all I'm shooting for. Anything else is extra.


    Book Review: THE LITTLE PRINCE, by Antoine de Saint Exupery

    I had never heard of this book until my friend Shawnee, as I was leaving her house, grabbed a well-travelled copy of THE LITTLE PRINCE off her bookshelf and pressed it into my hands, almost as an afterthought. She said, "Read this." And I did.

    I was pleasantly surprised. This is a children's book in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia are: easy enough for kids to read (or have read to them), but layered enough for adults to appreciate. Big lessons in little packages.

    THE LITTLE PRINCE is a strange story, one that oddly (and probably intentionally) resembles a dream--the narrator crashes his airplane in the desert and is visited by a weird little prince who is visiting the planet from his home-astroid. The prince teaches him many things about this world and many others, and the narrator is heartbroken when eventually...well. You read it. It'll take an afternoon.

    In fact, you can read it right now. Here is a link to a website where you can, miracle of miracles, read the whole book online: The Little Prince.

    Did I mention that the book is illustrated?

    RATING: 3

    Productivity -or- Time off is grand

    I have, more or less, a week off work. I say "more or less" because I do work on Thursday--but a one-day work week? Even I can manage that. Usually, time off turns me into a puddle: I spend whole days on the couch (or in the backyard, if it's nice) with a cup of cold coffee in easy reach and a stack of three or more books heaped on the ground beside me.

    This is lovely, but past a certain point that feeling of "Probably I should be ___________" (insert: cleaning my apartment, finishing the painting that I started three months ago, doing laundry, wrapping my step-mom's birthday present, etc.), which can ruin any number of perfectly slothful moments by drawing my attention away from the nice peaceful thing I'm doing and toward the thing I ought to be doing. As soon as that thought pops into my head I'm no longer enjoying my book--I'm arguing with myself about exactly why I should or should not be doing something Productive.

    "Productive": now there is a word that ought to be booted right out of the English language. I do not produce, thank you, no matter who benefits from my actions. The very thought makes me feel, well, automated.

    So, that is generally how my weekends proceed. Read, relax, guilt guilt guilt.

    This week, however, has been lovely. My schedule has been full of family dinners and dates with friends and shows and prolific practice time with my guitar. I have been, in the best and most relaxing way, productive: the apartment is relatively clean, as is most of the laundry, and this morning Mitch and I had breakfast at the Little Cheerful and then spent the early afternoon climbing the rocks and splashing in the sound at the state park. We have a date this afternoon for ice cream at Mallard. I'm also making my way through six (six! Count 'em) books right now. We even went to church, two weeks in a row.

    I feel sunburnt and rested. There is sand between my toes. Summer has, in full force, arrived.