Archive for October, 2011


The war is over.

I heard it on the news.

“After nearly nine years, the long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year,” Obama said.

“Hurrah!”  I felt such joy.

“Isn’t that good news?” I asked the Relative.

“Yeah, if it’s really peace,” she said.

“Oh, I see what you mean, but they’re bringing the troops home.  Isn’t that great?”

I thought about running into the hall and cheering, but I wouldn’t want to alienate the staff at the Relative’s nursing home if they turned out to be Tea Party or something.  She has to live with these people.

The Relative doesn’t care about anything political these days. She has been moved from her home of 50 years to an assisted living facility to a nursing home. She only recently learned that her belongings and house have been sold.

She doesn’t care much about her personal options anymore, either.  An ice cream social in the activity room?  She made a face. Who can blame her?

She likes TV, but she doesn’t like the news.  Sometimes I insist, though. Hours of The View, General Hospital, and Dr. Phil make me feel I deserve a half hour of grown-up TV.

I am mysteriously worn out as soon as I walk in the door.

I’m glad I insisted on the news tonight.

Obama deserves the Nobel Prize he already won in 2009.

The reporters seemed slightly choked up.

More than 4,400 American troops have been killed, and more than 32,000 have been wounded in Iraq.

It’s finally time for me to go home.  I make sure everything is on the table:  TV clicker, call button, newspaper, lemonade, Halloween candy.

“See ya soon; had a lovely time.”

At home I throw everything I wore into the laundry because it stinks of disinfectant and wander into the kitchen in my pajamas.

Nobody has made dinner.

I say we’re just having sandwiches for dinner and tough.

A big peace celebration tomorrow maybe.

Maybe chicken cacciatori.

I’m waiting for someone to suggest pizza, but it looks as though chicken cacciatori will win.

So after dinner and an episode of my favorite TV show on DVD, I retire to the bedroom and write this entry on my blog, though I’m thinking of ending my blog, too.


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I was in the middle of Lily Tuck’s new novel when the e-book broke. The software for this particular book suddenly developed countless typos and would not allow the machine to turn the pages.  (The other books were fine.) The e-reader company asked me to archive the book so they could fix it:   it would take seven days.

Naturally I asked for a refund and bought the “real” book.  My husband pretends he had to push people out of the way to buy it.  “Hey, dude, this one is for my wife.”

Lily Tuck’s new novel, I Married You for Happiness, is graceful, taut, and spare, a pleasurable change from the sprawling historical novels penned by so many great literary writers these days. It is so perfectly wrought that I began to reread it as soon as I finished. This happens very seldom to me, and only with poetry, and it is fair to say that Tuck’s work might be considered almost a prose poem.

Tuck, winner of the National Book Award in 2004 for her novel, The News from Paraguay,  reveals a poetic and peculiarly tolerant sensibility as she relates the happiness, secrets, and doubts of her heroine.  Nina, a painter, spends the night beside her dead husband, Philip, a mathematician who, after his usual “How was your day?”, died in the bedroom before dinner.  The endocrinologist next door diagnoses cardiac arrest and tentatively agrees that she can wait till morning to report the death.  She has trouble believing Philip is dead as she remembers their youthful love in Paris in the ’60s,  their honeymoon in Mexico, where they viewed thousands of Monarch butterflies, their happy family life, and their shared fascination with the abstract.  The vibrant Philip’s lucid explications of mathematics add exuberance to the narrative.

There is also Nina’s hidden anger:  Philip dominates as a successful professor and researcher, while Nina is a relatively unsuccessful painter. It is clear from a conversation one night that Philip and their daughter, Louise, do not respect her art.

Art is everything to Tuck, as we see from her somewhat distant yet perspicacious voice and beautiful organization of short paragraphs sometimes broken into one- or two-lines.

I found myself fascinated by the talk of math and probability, though I took only the minimum of math in college.  Philip’s mathematics overlap with Nina’s abstract paintings, though her process is different–she starts with a line or image.  Yet she comprehends probability and numbers, which Philip plays with.  He and their daughter, Louise, play a game of flipping coins:  the probability is not, as you might think, for tails to come up after heads.  (But I can’t find that paragraph to quote it.)

Here is, however, a charming discussion about amiable numbers.  There are no quotation marks in Tuck’s text, but the first line is spoken by Nina.

Tell me again about the ones I like, the amiable ones.

“Amiable numbers are a pair of numbers where the sum of the proper divisors of one number is equal to the other.  220 and 284 are the smallest pair of amiable numbers and the proper divisors of 220 are–Philip shuts his eyes–1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55, and 110, which add up to 284, and the proper divisors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71, and 142, which add up to 220, do you see?”

Yes, I do.  Amazing, isn’t it?

I love this book.  Read it.

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There’s nobody here, nothing going on at 2:30 p.m.  It’s a cloudy, gloomy, chilly, windy Tuesday.

Stewart Square before the protesters.

Stewart Square Park, a small neighborhood park a few blocks east of the State Capitol in Des Moines, is a park of tents right now.  The Occupy Des Moines protesters moved here Friday night after Governor Terry Branstad evicted them from the Capitol grounds.

Crowded with brightly-colored one-and-two-person tents and a big tent in which a few people can gather, it is a cheering sight.  Forty to sixty people are camping here.  In an appropriate way, it resembles the homeless encampment near Gray’s Lake.   And I suppose some of the campers here are homeless.

There are a few small connected dome tents, linked by breezeways.  Safer to be together in the connected tents, I would think.  Especially since four teenagers attacked some of the protesters at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

The few people I see are definitely looking scruffy.  On the wishlist at a small information table, somebody scrawled, “A shower.”  Somebody else scrawled, “Food.”

A man with a beard hammers something.  There’s always a man hammering something at protests.  It’s something for the big tent, I think.

“We need another piece of wood.”

Balloons wave beside the unattended information table under a tarp.  There are phone chargers and raggedy homemade cardboard signs.

One sign says:


The bulletin board and other notes are a little disorganized.  It’s not quite what I expected.  I wanted to sign petitions and pick up flyers.  Instead, there was a single leaflet pinned to the board about the nuclear disarmament movement, which I would like to join; a note about a lost phone (or something); a schedule (not much listed till the chili dinner tomorrow); and the wish list.

This would be so much more effective on the grounds of the State Capitol.  Nobody is really going to notice them here.

Occupy Des Moines March Saturday

Not all protesters were in favor of the move.  They are now occupying a park that is out of the way.   Mayor Frank Cownie (Democrat) offered them the park after Branstad refused to renew their three-day permit.

One man told the Des Moines Register, “This is in direct opposition to the concept of occupation.  This is looking more like a family camp-out to me.”

I do know what he means.  At the same time, I understand why the majority didn’t want to stay and be arrested.  Thirty-two people were arrested on Sunday Oct. 9th because they didn’t have a permit to camp on the Capitol grounds.   And so the move to the park was sensible.

But, from my point of view, they need to organize more marches to get attention.  They are not visible here.

And it wouldn’t hurt to make some arty signs.

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Occupy Des Moines

“Tell me what democracy looks like.  This is what democracy looks like.”

The first week, I didn’t understand the purpose of the Occupy movement, though I loved the chant.

“They’re against corporate greed,” people kept saying, and I thought, What?  Who isn’t?  I had the impression the demonstrators were a naive bunch who wanted change but were less well-organized than the demonstrators of the ’60s and ’70s.

And newspaper coverage has been uneven.  I kept reading that the goals weren’t clear.  I even wondered, in a fit of middle-aged frustration with our country and our electronic culture, if multi-tasking had made us inarticulate.

I finally watched a few videos on YouTube to get an idea of what was going on.   This is a case where the internet amateur coverage is better than the local newspaper’s.

The goals ARE clear.  People are articulately expressing their frustration with the financial system, corporate racketing, unemployment, and political corruption.

The new Republican governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad (a horrifying person who appointed a lawyer who doesn’t believe in global warming as the director of the Department of Natural Resources), kicked Occupy Iowa demonstrators off the Statehouse grounds after their three-day permit to camp expired.  The liberal mayor, Frank Cownie, offered them a city park to stay in for the next week.

It’s a relief, isn’t it, that there are good people like Cownie out there?

I don’t demonstrate.  I did once.  In 1969, I attended the Moratorium to end the Vietnam War.   There was a candlelight march and the next day there were protests and workshops.  1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want no fucking war.

Then there were the women’s demonstrations.  Take back the night.  Keep abortion safe and legal.

Now I give money to political organizations instead.

But I’m absolutely behind the Occupy movement.

I started thinking about how Borders went out of business.  I remember the faces of those employees and miss them.  I would go downtown and chant their names like the dead if I thought it would do any good.

I’m in a panic over our Barnes & Noble because they’re expanding the Nook section and cutting back on the literature section.  Heads will eventually roll.

Government jobs, teaching jobs, writing jobs, factory jobs are being cut.

I considered going downtown to interview a few people, but the blog isn’t about that, is it?  It’s mainly notes about books.

Anyway, I’m too emotional to protest.

So it’ll be back to reading tomorrow.

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George Orwell & the Case of the Kindle

I love Amazon’s website, but I don’t own a Kindle.  There was a problem in 2009 when Amazon sold George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 as e-books without permission and then raided everybody’s Kindle to delete it.  I didn’t like the sound of that.

But now Orwell is available on Kindle, so the issue is dead.

So I should let it go.

The Kindles are now very cheap and I thought idly of buying one for Christmas.    I looked at the website and now have another Kindle-wrought problem.  The new $79 Kindle (with ads, alas) is advertised by a picture of a woman in a bikini reading.

I really don’t expect to see sexist ads at a BOOKSTORE.  An almost naked woman does not sell books to me.  So the Kindle is aimed at…?  Not women.

I can’t boycott Amazon.  It’s impossible.  They have all the books.  I order from them all the time.  The website is informative and easy to use.   If I want to look up something about a book quickly, it’s easier to find at Amazon than any other book websites. And, actually, I just went there to look up the National Book Award finalists and figure out which one is SHORTEST.  Yes, I’m reading so many long novels that I can’t possibly commit to a book over 250 pages.

So here I am criticizing Amazon…and I doubtless put Borders out of business by shopping there.

But when it came to buying an e-reader, even though Amazon is my favorite website,  I bought a Nook.

Crazy, I know.

It’s really a nice little e-reader.  I spent the afternoon outside reading on my Nook.

But sometimes you’re almost REQUIRED to own a Kindle.  I was all excited when I learned that Bloomsbury UK was selling out-of-print Monica Dickens as e-books.  But then I learned that you can only buy them for a Kindle.

Good God, what about all the Sony Readers and Kobos?  They don’t have B&N Nooks in the UK, but still…  it’s odd that the only format would be the Kindle.

WHAT’S ON MY NOOK?  This afternoon I was reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  I’m reading it as background for Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus.  Why?  Because they’re all three about dueling magicians.

When Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell came out in 2004, it had been advertised for MONTHS as the best new fantasy novel, 10 years in the making.  I bought it on the publication date (no lines here, though) and read part of it and gave up.  I was snoring because I didn’t really care about Jonathan Strange’s magic for Wellington, etc.  Clarke’s tale of magic is interwoven with English history.

Here’s what I think happened.  I wasn’t a big fantasy reader.  Then a few years after it appeared I started reading some fantasy classics:  Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania series, Tanith Lee’s White As Snow

And then I began to LIKE fantasy novels.

So now it’s a different experience.

I’m charmed by the 19th-century language and setting, the biblio-jealousy and timorous dullness of Mr. Norrell, who buys up all the magic books so he’ll be the only magician, the humor and decidedly masculine charm of Jonathan Strange, who accidentally becomes a magician, and the long footnotes, which are sometimes whole fairy tales in themselves.

I’m exactly halfway through it and will let you know if it goes downhill.  So far, it’s one of my favorite books of the year.  But don’t I often say that?

I’m really enjoying it.

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Playing Cards

The last time I was there, I complained.  It stank so badly I couldn’t stay in the room.  I  called for air freshener.  The aide immediately ran off to get it.  There was a stand-off between the nurse and me.

It smelled like a cage at the zoo.


What had happened was that I hadn’t visited the nursing home for a week.  No one had been there.

If you’re not there to visit, there is neglect.

There she was, unhappy and bedraggled.  Crying.  She had refused her shower, too.

Visiting the nursing home is my least favorite thing. I usually bring a huge cup of coffee, the drug of choice when I must watch Dr. Phil and the other horrors on daytime TV.

Until I decided to get tough.  Now the first thing I do is turn off the TV.

And if that means playing cards, well, I’ll do it.

So we played cards for three hours.  A children’s game.

“What’s the prize?”

“We’ve got some cookies, don’t we?”  She indicated the drawer in which she keeps her treats.  She was down to two cookies.

Oh my God, isn’t anyone else bringing her anything?

I called my husband to tell him I was staying for several hours and please to bring cookies when he picked me up.

I kept score to make sure she won most of the time.  When she can hang onto her thoughts, she wins.  Bridge was her leisure activity for 70-odd years.

We’re not playing Bridge.   Sometimes she forgets what game she’s playing.

“I’m not a good shuffler,” she says, and it’s true.  Better than my shuffling, though, after a lifetime of glazing over at the thought of cards.

I’ve never cared about games.  Throughout my childhood, while the Relative played Bridge, I sat in my room and read.  The Blue Fairy Book, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  The list goes on.

Downstairs, they bid no trump, ate peanuts, and drank coffee.

Maybe that’s where I got the coffee from.

I pretended not to see moves and hung onto my cards for dear life.  Sooner or later she had to discard and win.

Once she got mad when I showed her something she had missed .

“Don’t count that one.  I didn’t really win.”  She was chilly.

Sometimes the cards fall into place and I feel like a gypsy with Tarot. I look out the window and think about other things.  Occupy Wall Street.

I often read the newspaper right before I visit so I’ll have something to talk about.  I told her about Occupy Wall Street, the protestors’ camping in the park and at the Capitol, and she said, “It’s hard to change things.”

No real interest.

There are people on her floor who play other card games but she doesn’t want to play.  She doesn’t want to go out of her room.

She’s tired and it’s too much effort.  So I push her in her wheelchair downstairs to the little fenced-in park outside and we enjoy the green for a while.

It’s not occupying Wall Street, but they might spare a little thought for our enormously difficult trip through a door that’s too heavy for a person in a wheelchair without an attendant, and add humanizing eldercare to their list of demands.

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The National Book Awards judges announced the 2011 finalists.

I’ve already read three of them:  Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (excellent), Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife  (good), and Lauren Redniss’ Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (a “graphic” biography:  why bother?).

We’re planning to read several of the finalists in the next few weeks.

Fiction: Andrew Krivak (“The Sojourn”), Tea Obreht (“The Tiger’s Wife”), Julie Otsuka (“The Buddha in the Attic”), Edith Pearlman (“Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories”), Jesmyn Ward (“Salvage the Bones”).

Nonfiction: Deborah Baker (“The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism”), Mary Gabriel (“Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution”), Stephen Greenblatt (“Swerve”), Manning Marable (“Malcolm X”), Lauren Redniss (“Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout”).

Poetry: Nikky Finney (“Head Off & Split”), Yusef Komunyakaa (“The Chameleon Couch”), Carl Phillips (“Double Shadow”), Adrienne Rich (“Tonight No Poetry Will Serve”), Bruce Smith (“Devotions”).

Young People’s Literature: Franny Billingsley (“Chime”), Debbie Dahl Edwardson (“My Name Is Not Easy”), Thanhha Lai (“Inside Out and Back Again”), Albert Marrin (“Flesh and Blood So Cheap”), Lauren Myracle (“Shine”), Gary D. Schmidt (“Okay for Now”)

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