Monday, May 31, 2010


I wish I had written a post about Bellwether by Connie Willis last night at 10:30 when I finished it. I am still loving it in retrospect, but last night I was so hopped up on happy juice from its ending (and really just the whole thing was a joy to read) that I ran downstairs and interrupted Ickie at work to gush about it, and then when I went back to bed, I was too excited to sleep, my brain just zipping around happily.

is an ideal quick, witty, and just-thought-provoking-enough summer read. It's the story of Sandy, a statistician studying fads (specifically, the origins of hair bobbing in the 20s), who works for the bureaucratic HiTek corporation in Boulder, Colorado. Colorado is the perfect setting to poke fun at quirky trends in the 90s--all themed restaurants and surly GenXers--and HiTek is a hilarious nightmare of mock-worthy management trends. Sandy meets Bennett, a chaos theorist seemingly immune to fads. It's a pleasure to follow Sandy and Ben's burgeoning partnership, as they have a deep intellectual connection as well as a shared sense of humor (and familiarity with the poetry of Robert Browning--Willis always gives literature a nod, which goes to show you that even scientists & mathematicians need it). Sandy and Ben's research misadventures are a hoot, and their exasperating coworkers make them even more likable by comparison.

Many of Willis's common themes appear in Bellwether; among them are chaos theory (with life events reflecting mental confusion), tip-of-the-tongue (or mind) sensation, a combination of sociological and scientific perspectives, and historical anecdotes that enrich the story. Each chapter begins with an excerpt about the life and death of a particular fad (most of them are quite amusing), and Sandy and Bennett spend much of their time making references to the circumstances in which famous scientists made discoveries/had epiphanies. There are several great "A-ha!" moments, and at least one pleasing final revelation I didn't see coming.

Writing a novel about fads and chaos theory is inspired. It's so completely original, don't you think? And writing it so well is even more impressive! The fads provide just enough low-brow appeal whereas the discussion of chaos theory is just enough physics to excite my ignorant brain. The resolution of the themes and characters is positively giddy-making! Thus far I have yet to be disappointed by my new favorite author, and I'm delving right into her short story collection, Fire Watch.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Marriage

I'm posting a selection from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "A Wedding Sermon from Prison" here which Ickie's parents read at our wedding, 10 years ago. I never fail to grow misty-eyed and choked up when I come to the last sentence. I am married to the man I most admire and have the most fun with, and I have every confidence that our marriage will be just as happy 40+ years from now (unless there's a zombie apocalypse, and even then, I think we'd make a nigh unbeatable team).

"God is guiding your marriage. Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.… As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

"God makes your marriage indissoluble. ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6). God joins you together in marriage; it is His act, not yours. Do not confound your love for one another with God. God makes your marriage indissoluble, and protects it from every danger that may threaten it from within and without; He wills to be the guarantor of its indissolubility. It is a blessed thing to know that no power on earth, no temptation, no human frailty can dissolve what God holds together; indeed, anyone who knows that may say confidently: What God has joined together, can no man put asunder. Free from all anxiety that is always a characteristic of love, you can now say to each other with complete and confident assurance: We can never lose each other now; by the will of God we belong to each other till death."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


This is the post wherein I seem to be referring to a common theme/experience among three books but in actuality I'm cramming three book reviews into one bloated post to catch up. But there is a similarity: I'm left with a feeling of unfulfillment at the close of each of these books, although not in a bad way, and for three different reasons. (Yes, I'm aware that "unfulfillment" is not a word, but I can't think of an appropriate synonym. Suggestions?)

Blackout, Connie Willis: Although Blackout has a cliffhanger ending, it's also an appropriate intermission in a two-volume series. Blackout is back in Willis's Oxford time traveling universe, of which you know I'm a fan from my posts on To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book. Blackout follows three young "historians" who've been sent to World War II to observe refugee children in the countryside, London during the Blitz, and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Of course, everything is all muddled and perilous, and then the "net" mysteriously closes and the protagonists are stuck. In her other time travel works, the Oxford theory is that "slippage" (ending up in a time different from one's coordinates) is the time continuum's way of self correcting and a sign that it's functioning properly. However, a new theory has emerged that slippage is a symptom of the time continuum breaking down--perhaps the historians will be trapped for good? Willis immerses this fast-paced adventure in fascinating historical detail, while considering its implications as a scientist and philosopher.

Lincoln's Dreams, Connie Willis: This book, published in the '80s, is a thematic precursor to Passage. Lincoln's Dreams is about a Civil War researcher who gets involved with a traumatized woman dreaming Robert E. Lee's dreams (FYI, I don't get the title either). Willis was mulling over similar ideas (the spiritual, psychological, and scientific meaning of dreams and near death experiences) in Lincoln but really succeeded in a well-rounded story and hypothesis in Passage. Lincoln is a shorter, slower, bleaker work, and though its conclusion is not poorly devised, it does leave the reader in the dark (both in mood and in information). Willis's SciFi spends more time in the social sciences than other works of the genre, and this one has it in spades: psychologists with varying dream theories, unhealthy romantic attachments, obsessive-compulsiveness, and unusual suicidal tendencies. The characters' experiences rang true, but I felt deeply sad at the close, not only on behalf of the protagonists but from learning so much about Robert E. Lee, Lincoln, and the misery of the Civil War.

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To, DC Pierson: This one is set in high school, so you clearly have all the psychological issues present, albeit less sophisticated. It's a story about social outcast Darren, who draws, and his best friend Eric, who doesn't sleep. It's one of a few stories that I feel genuinely portrays life in high school, minus the weird stuff--and it does get weird. If I split the book into thirds, the first part made me laugh very hard, the second part was agonizing and poignant, and the last part was positively nuts, with a sudden and (once again) indefinite conclusion. But if you were a nerd or a geek about anything in high school and were afraid the other kids would find out and mock you for it, I think you'll relate to these boys as much as I did (in spite of the sex, drugs, profanity, and poor parenting).

Okay, I've got a ton of extracted material below, but I promise they're worthwhile. Extract 1 describes Darren and Eric's work on their "movie trilogy and series of novels"; extract 2 describes the boys plotting revenge on Halloween; and extract 3 describes Darren's conflicting emotions when Eric confides to him that he doesn't sleep. I think, as a teenager, I spent most of my life feeling the way Darren does in extract 3.

"By October we have three notebooks full of concept art for TimeBlaze. By this time Dr. Praetoreous, instead of being the main character, is just another player in a universe of characters, including the Praetoreous family (each of whom is actually another version of Dr. Praetoreous in a different timestream, so there's cowboy Praetoreous and postapocalyptic Praetoreous and two-dimensional Praetoreous in a universe rendered in 2D), the Time Squad (the Temporal Ranger's extended posse of villains, rogues, and scoundrels from the outskirts of time), and an entire pantheon of gods drawn from the Greek, Aztec, Indian, and Chinese mythologies who have been summoned by The Man using Dr. Praetoreous's invention known as The Mortalizer....
I am proud of the way, in this one drawing, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl seems to be almost 3D, his feathered tail way off in the distance in the bottom right corner of the page and his semi-reptilian head roaring toward you in the top left as The Man stands passively at the top of an ancient South American ruin, directing the newly Mortalized god to go out and f*ck sh*t up."

"What we have on the kitchen counter five minutes later makes it pretty clear we've never gotten revenge on anybody. Half a dozen eggs leftover from two weeks ago when my dad made breakfast for a woman who stayed over on a Saturday night. Processed, individually wrapped yellow cheese slices because I feel like I remember seeing or reading about a prank involving cheese slices somewhere, but maybe it was an art project, not a prank. Some rope from the garage, just in case we have to rappel up or down something. Neither of us knows how to rappel, in fact I've always counted myself lucky that our school doesn't have that rope-climbing thing as part of PE like you see in movies. But rappelling seems like something you do as part of getting really excellent revenge. We could also use the rope to hang somebody in effigy, if we decide to go that way. But again, that's straying into art-project territory.
It also seems like a good time to spray-paint somebody's house or car, but we don't have any spray paint. We have a can of wood-staining stuff from the time my dad painted our deck. It's not even technically paint, and it's heavy as hell. Also, we have some flashlights.
'It looks like we're going to make an omelet,' Eric says, 'rappel in through somebody's window, and serve it to them.'
'You read my mind,' I say. Eric laughs.
We go out the door without much of a plan and everything in a paper grocery bag, becoming two of a ton of kids out tonight with some rotten eggs and bad intentions but probably the only ones with a can of Home Depot store brand chestnut wood stain."

"For a second I let myself live in a world where what Eric's said is the truth, where all the evidence that it's true isn't a pack of lies to be debunked. In this world my betrayal and confusion about how to feel about this kid is replaced with relief, and my heart swells and my brain practically explodes out of the front of my head at the idea that this is actually happening to me. Then I put one mental foot back into the mundane world of Eric being crazy or a liar or both, where we say 'yeah, sure, okay' even in response to the smallest stuff it's easy and low-stakes to believe. I go back and forth feeling my heart get either huge and kid-like or small and full of poison."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How I defended my child from an evil bird and lived to tell the tale...

Sure, I'm bookish, but that doesn't mean I'm unlikely to take action when the situation calls for it.

Actually, let me back up a bit.

I don't like birds. I like the idea of birds, and I like the sound of seagulls from far away, finches chirping outside my office window during the day, or the quasi-wild parrots in that Telegraph Hill documentary. But my most common reaction to birds is rage (when they wake me up at 4am and I stumble groggily, muttering obscenities, to close our bedroom window) or fear. It's not just because I've seen movies where flocks of birds inexplicably attack or spread typhus and/or zombie epidemics. There's something about their beady eyes, pointy beaks, chaotic flapping, and amoral nature that chills me to the bone. I can hear you responding, "But animals are not capable of moral understanding," and to that I'd say that birds seem LESS capable of it than mammals. I can usually read a mammal's mood. Mammals appear to have personalities. My cat, a selfish creature, is at least rational. I am the giver of food and the opener of doors, so if she wants Fancy Feast or to go out on the porch at dawn, it makes sense to jump on my bed and complain in my face.

I have a history with geese in particular. My dad and I were chased by a goose when I was about 3, and it's chilling to hear him tell the tale. A couple of decades later, I was stalked by vengeful Canadian geese, displaced by construction, at my office in St. Louis. One bided his time on our roof, out of sight, only to explode in a murderous frenzy and chase me through the parking lot as I ran to my car.

All of this to say, we have an evil Canadian goose in our park. It's the talk of our town, at least among the "library moms" whose preschoolers play at the park. Yesterday morning, when my son tired of the playground and toddled over to watch the ducks and seagulls, this black-headed, black-hearted avian fiend made straight for us. It stopped several feet away, stretched up to its full height, and looked at me like this:

Now, to its credit, this goose only showed up this week with an injured wing, so it's clearly feeling abandoned by its flock. I get that, but that doesn't justify his aggression toward me. Plus, our park is REALLY NICE for birds, insofar as people throw them so much food that they don't even bother eating all of it, and he's bigger than all the other birds, save one big white goose (that my friend named Howard).

As soon as I saw the goose glare and come for us, I picked up Ben and moved away (trying to maintain a calm and non-threatening demeanor). My diversionary tactics seemed successful, but the wicked creature outsmarted me by staking out a spot right next to my water bottle. I really needed the water in that bottle, and I refuse to be one of our town's littering troglodytes, so I had to draw the goose away from the bottle, then rush back to snatch it, all while carrying a squirmy 27-pound boy. Public Works watched the drama unfold from the safety of their vehicle.

When I arrived at the library later that morning and asked my compatriots about the homicidal goose, everyone piped in:
"I saw that goose yesterday! He was scary!"
"He's so out of place! My son kept asking why he was there."
"I saw a policeman trying to catch that goose earlier today! But it didn't work. The policeman lost."

I'm sad to report that, as of this morning, the Canadian blight has not only NOT been removed to a sanctuary or bird hospital, he has corrupted Howard. Both Howard and Canada went after us this morning, and after a narrow escape, I watched them chase and hiss at the poor duck couples for no justifiable reason--at least no reason I can conceive of in the human or goose world.