The Good Reign

Tree worshipping Druids would feel right at home in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympics National Park.
Tree worshiping Druids would feel right at home in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympics National Park.

I talked to some relatives back East yesterday. They were chipping ice off the driveway, having icicle measuring contests (the unofficial winner: eight feet long), and trying to keep the kids from snowboarding off the roof.

I did my best not to gloat. I didn’t tell them about the camellias blooming at my doorstep. Or the primroses lighting up gardens all over town. Or the fact that Seattle just went in the record books for the warmest January in more than a hundred years.

I feel that Seattle has earned the respite. The first year we moved here the city was slogging through a stretch of record rain that made national news (forty days-plus without the ark). The next winter a series of windstorms, ice events and floods started me wondering if we’d been sold a bill of goods by the folks who had assured us Seattle’s winters were uniformly mild. The third winter a foot of snow paralyzed the city for more than a week. People were stranded at Sea-Tac for days at Christmas. And of course the city doesn’t keep a fleet of snowplows handy because, I guess, they bought into the same myth of the mild winter.

So this year, I was braced for whatever – earthquake, mudslide, volcano eruption. But it seems this was the payoff year. Gentle temperatures. Daily sunbreaks. Sometimes whole sunny days! It’s been pretty great.

I feel for my friends back east. It’s never fun to be snowed in after the novelty wears off and the electricity and heat go off as well. I know from personal experience that shoveling driveways builds character. But once that character is built, it can be a bit of a trial to have to keep rebuilding it every time the clouds roll in and dump another foot or two of snow.

Here in Seattle the average annual rainfall is 37 inches. That’s less than Virginia’s average of 45 inches, or Florida’s average of 54 inches. What makes Seattle different is that instead of summer thundershowers which dump an inch or two at a time, Seattle gets a steady, drizzling mist over an eight month period from October to May. It takes some getting used to. But considering some of the alternatives, there’s a lot to be said for gentle rain.

In “The Good Rain,” Timothy Egan’s remarkable history of the Pacific Northwest, he credits the unusual climate of this region for shaping its history. In modern times we like to think we are immune to climate. Insulated by air conditioning, heating, and increasingly elaborate water management techniques, we act as if we no longer need to consider the realities of geography. And this recent spate of blizzards has all the climate change skeptics fired up anew, claiming a few days of record snowfall is sufficient to overturn decades of slow and careful scientific data gathered worldwide.

Our human perspective is so limited. Many centuries ago, ancient cultures thought weather gods could be appeased by sacrifices. In our own time, the force of hurricanes, snowstorms and typhoons appears to be escalating. Whether or not global warming is responsible for the planet’s wild mood swings, it looks like we could be in for a rough ride in the coming centuries.

But if I have to choose between a snow shovel and an umbrella, I’ll take the umbrella.

Attuned to Hornby

Ever since he demonstrated an uncanny ability to portray the almost pathological obsessiveness of a certain type of male music fan in his novel “High Fidelity,” British author Nick Hornby has gone on to broaden the scope of his acute observation to include the frailties of marriage, the perilous borderland between childhood and young adulthood, and the bewildering moral minefield of the modern world.

In his latest novel, “Juliet, Naked,” Hornby weaves all of these themes into a compelling and immensely entertaining examination of a man’s obsessive interest in a reclusive rock musician, and how it unravels his life and marriage. Hornby’s portrait of Duncan calls to mind the almost painful excesses of devotion which the author revealed in “Fever Pitch,” his confessional memoir which detailed his lifelong love of football – the British version, what we in America call soccer. Hornby’s ability to empathize with characters who, for whatever reason, find their deepest connection to life through a kind of hero worship, allows him to make believable characters with whom the reader can sympathize.

“Juliet, Naked” exposes the kind of music fans who over-analyze every word and every recording of their idols, and the Internet-based communities who thrive on their own closed-circuit opinions. Hornby’s satisfying plot device takes off when Duncan’s long-time girlfriend Annie dares to post an opinion of her own on the website where he is considered to be the expert. The chain of events which follows sheds light on Duncan’s failure as an adult, and awakens Annie to the reality of the half-life she’s been willing to accept.

I have enjoyed all of Hornby’s novels. “About A Boy” – far superior to the film, and I liked the film a lot – “How to Be Good,” as thought-provoking as anything he’s done, and even “High Fidelity,” which is perhaps not as much fun as the movie with John Cusack (thanks in part to one of Jack Black’s finest moments), but nevertheless offers an astute assessment of the sort of man who ranks everything from songs to women in terms of “the top five.”

Anyway. If you are of a certain age you can’t help but relate to the story in “Juliet, Naked.” Many of us who grew up worshiping rock stars, imagining them as true artists with the ability to give voice to feelings we shared, have felt the letdown when those artists either lost their creative spark or revealed themselves to be only human.

But Hornby’s novel suggests that the value of great art lies not only in the passion with which it is created, but the passion with which it is experienced. And in that sense, “Juliet, Naked” offers a tonic antidote to idolatry.

Write Stuff

When I first read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a wise and wonderful book of advice for aspiring writers, I was encouraged by the author’s gentle nurturing approach. So many would-be authors falter after a few pages, daunted by the overwhelming task of building whole worlds out of mere words.

With humor and grace, Ms. Lamott reveals the simplest path to success. One step at a time. One word at a time.

It’s a lovely idea, and soothing in its way.

But although I’ve used that method, in the last couple of years I’ve also been trying a different approach. The organizers of National Novel Writing Month ( encourage hopeful authors of all ages and genres to throw caution and spelling to the winds, and write as if someone’s life depended on it.

The goal is fifty thousand words in thirty days. It helps to be slightly insane.

For some reason this system speaks to me. The craziness of it. The self-induced panic. The steadily mounting pressure. I find it strangely tonic.

Last year I managed to crank out a mediocre murder mystery in the time allotted. This year I started out with a kind of memoir idea. But one week into it I realized it was a mistake. I had to start all over. This meant fifty thousand words in twenty-three days.

Today I crossed the finish line. The book isn’t done. But it’s got muscle, bones, and some raw personality.
I can’t wait to see what it will do when it grows up.

We Came For The Vampires

A little more than a year ago I went on a road trip that wound through some of the more spectacular scenery here in the Pacific Northwest. We took in the view from Hurricane Ridge, watched orcas cresting in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and felt our own insignificance beside ancient trees in the Hoh Rainforest.

One sight that we more or less breezed through on a pit stop was Forks, the tiny hamlet on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula which, since the release of the film version of Stephenie Meyer’s chart-breaking bestseller Twilight has become something of a tourist hot-spot, especially for families with adolescent girls. Visitors now can enjoy seeing the high school where Bella, the awkward heroine, first encounters Edward, the sensitive but extremely macho vampire. They can also see other sites touted to be the actual places these fictional events occurred, although true Twilight aficionados will tell you the film was actually filmed in British Columbia, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

At the time of our road trip the Twilight books were selling like hotcakes, and I had brought the first volume along for something to read, and to see what all the fuss was about (and this was before the fuss really got its game on). As we drove slowly through Forks we saw one homely sign that touted a “Twilight Special” at a local motel, but that was about it. The Twilight fans had not been hit with the image of Robert Pattinson yet.

Not long ago we had dinner with some friends who have a daughter in the target market age, and they regaled us with an enthusiastic account of their recent pilgrimage to Forks, where they saw not only the house Bella lived in, and the school she attended, but the truck she drove, the house Edward’s family lived in, etc. etc. Clearly the Twilight tide has lifted many boats in Forks.

It’s become fashionable in certain literary circles to sneer at Stephenie Meyer’s writing, as if anyone could have done what she has, such as land a $750,000 contract during a pitched bidding war with the first book she ever wrote. Hah. I suspect most of those sneering may be feeling just a wee pinch of envy at the 75 million books Ms. Meyer has sold so far with her Twilight saga.

I read the entire series eventually, although I slowed down after the second book because it looked to me as if we were headed toward a conclusion that no mother could love (although Meyer is the mother of three sons, so clearly the ending felt right to her). But, although the end of book four ties things up squarely for the most part, my criticism remains. Perhaps some mothers would be pleased to see their daughters become vampires and suck happily ever after. But while I yield to no one in the readiness with which I can suspend disbelief in the most improbable fictions, when it comes to a mother’s love, I’m less flexible. I didn’t enjoy Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, because it was just too painful, but I wouldn’t deny the power of her observation and the truth of the emotions she puts on the page. The mother in Beloved commits a horrific act, but one that is consistent with a mother’s passion for her children. There’s a lot of passion in the Twilight series. But a mother’s love is nowhere in it.

Still, that hasn’t hurt sales. And the cross marketing continues to boldly grow where vampires have never gone before. This Christmas the hot Barbie dolls are the “Twilight” series, Bella and Edward in plastic, proving that reality still tops fiction for sheer wackiness.

There Is No “I” In Scream

I once went to a truly scary movie by accident. It was “Repulsion,” a riveting psychological suspense thriller starring Catherine Deneuve as a delusional young woman alone in her apartment, imagining the worst. There was very little actual blood, no monsters lurching, biting or slashing. The horror was all in the heroine’s mind, and Ms. Deneuve conveyed her terror with such conviction that I could hardly bear to sit through the entire thing.

So. Not such a big fan of the horror genre. That said, I appreciate a finely wrought suspense film or novel, and admire the mastery of Hitchcock, the snarky brilliance of Polanski. But I wonder sometimes about the current gentrification of horror. Tonight is Halloween, a holiday which once occupied a single day, and was celebrated mostly by children under the age of twelve. Now in this country, the only country where Halloween has undergone a kind of Hollywood makeover, the Halloween season lasts for the entire month of October, and adults throw themselves into it with far greater abandon than the kids. I know, because I was once one of the happy party people arrayed in wigs and sparkles and fake gore, where applicable, and it was fabulous fun.

But as I wandered past the Halloween stores in the malls near Washington, DC, last week, I found myself wondering if perhaps we haven’t taken the thing too far, and if so, why?

For myself I know that Halloween used to offer a kind of release, a temporary escape from the altogether more frightening and far more entrenched terrors of the modern world. I’d list them but I don’t see any point in Pox News. Maybe the reason Halloween has grown so huge commercially is that people are responding to the underlying paranoia that lurks like a poisonous gas beneath the surface of our slick technological confidence.

If only werewolves and vampires and zombies were all that we had to fear.

I just finished reading “Boneshaker,” a cool steampunk novel by Seattle author Cherie Priest which explores the ways in which we humans allow fears and rumors to keep us from taking positive steps to fix problems. I related to the novel not only because it was set in a kind of alternate Seattle, but because the heroine is a mother battling hordes of undead and fiendish psychopaths in addition to her own sense of inadequacy as she tries to make things right with her only son. I like a heroine who can kick ass when it’s called for, while still retaining a core of emotional vulnerability.

That’s just one reason I detest most of the “women-in-jeopardy” films and novels which purport to be entertainment. Women all over the world are in enough jeopardy, and have been since the days when they were considered chattel. To perpetuate barbaric attitudes and to depict them in such quantities that people get numb to the ideas embedded in them seems criminal to me.

However, if the annual crop of slasher films is any indication, clearly the hooligans are dictating the playbook these days. It seems a large number of people enjoy screaming in horror at the movies.

I guess I understand. In the face of of global warming, nuclear threats, terrorists and plagues, it’s easier to avert an imaginary disaster than to work to prevent the real thing. I could just scream.

Know Moore

I only recently delved into the works of the remarkable writer Lorrie Moore, who has won honors from the likes of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and awards including the PEN/Malamud. While her short stories deliver breathtaking insight and a marvelous comic touch, she also has the ability to extend her reach. I just finished reading her new novel “A Gate At The Stairs,” and it shook me to the core.

Moore can be hilarious and heartbreaking in the same paragraph, sometimes in the space of one sentence. In general, I think there’s far too much heartbreak in the world to go out of my way to encounter it in fiction, but Moore sugars the path with treats such as this week’s Great Sentence:

“Sarah’s cell phone played the beginning to ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ its vigorous twang not unlike a harpsichord at all, and so not completely offensive to the spirit of Mozart, who perhaps did not, like so many of his colleagues, have to roll about as much in his grave since the advent of electronic things.”

When Brevity Fails

In the years I wrote for a newspaper, my editor had a number of basic rules. Keep sentences short. Use simple words. Put no more than one idea in each sentence.

This system put a choke chain on my rambling verbosity, but, although I learned to keep it short, tight and focused during the decade I worked there, I never truly embraced the doctrine of “cut till it bleeds, and then cut a little more.”

Newspapers, struggling to survive even before the advent of global communications giants, online competition, and ubiquitous Twittering, have to make every column inch count. There’s no room, and certainly no budget, for fanciful prose. I respect that.

But it ain’t me, babe. I am a lover of sentences. I like ‘em long, cadenced, complex and poetic. Sometimes when I’m reading a novel I’ll come across a sentence that simply thrills me with its richness, its daring, its lift and style. People who want to cut to the chase all the time don’t get it. Reading is a journey. You’re supposed to look out the windows and take in the scenery. You’re supposed to try new foods, sample new experiences, be stimulated, renewed, and maybe even a little frightened by the grandeur and terror of it all.

Okay. I know, some of you might be skimming to the bottom even now. Well, that’s okay. Go on. I can’t make you love what I love. But for anyone who is mildly interested, I am starting a semi-regular feature on this irregular blog on favorite sentences. It’s possible some of them may be short. After all, context is everything. But I can assure you that many, if not most of them, will be the kind that would have made my former editor gnash his teeth and snort impatiently. Too bad, Lou. I’m free now. Free, do you hear?

And so, without further ado (hah), here is this week’s wondrous sentence. It comes from a short story by Joshua Ferris, who wrote the National Book Award Finalist novel “Then We Came To The End,” which is a deeply funny and insightful take on the twisted social hierarchy of the modern office. The sentence appeared in The New Yorker in a story called “The Valetudinarian” and it gave me chills. I feel that it delivers in one sentence, in a highly literary and more serious way, the message I hoped to convey in my light comic novel “Potluck.” As if. At any rate, here it is, this week’s Great Sentence:

“The infielder missed, and the ball went long, and when he saw that he was free for a run to third he jumped up and took off, despite the hairline fracture that would make itself known—through a pain that came with a dawning awareness of what lay in store—only later, long after he passed the third-base coach gesturing like mad and made it home, graceful as a dancer, bodiless, ageless, immortal, a boy on a summer day with a heart as big as the sun, with all his troubles, his sorrows, his losses, all his whole long life still ahead of him, still unknown, unable on that still golden field to cast its tall, unvanquishable, ever-dimming shadow.”

Recipes For Success

There are times in every parent’s life, in the dark silence of the night, when the ticking of the kitchen clock sounds like the slow tramp of some invading army which you know is going to lay waste to your precious crops, when you wonder if you will ever be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made with your children. Because, let’s face it, if you’re a parent, you’ve made mistakes.

This little pie tart came from Curio Confections, a charming new shop in Seattle that specializes in what they call "adventure baking," which sounds like a recipe for fun to me.
This little pie tart came from Curio Confections, a charming new shop in Seattle that specializes in what they call "adventure baking," which sounds like a recipe for fun to me.

Well, when I’m lying there trying to outrun the demons in my mind, I have, of late, found a new ally in the race, as if what was formerly a solo marathon has turned into a relay and the baton of guilt is lifted from my hands and whisked away on fresh legs. Because in the past few years since my children have left home, I have been getting occasional emails and phone calls that suggest I did some things right: apple pie, pizza, rolls, lasagna, tweed cake. They want my recipes. Okay, so all my finest moments seem to have originated in the kitchen. But hey, that’s better than nothing, right? And if it turns out that the best memories my children have of me are the things I cooked for them, well, that’s a kind of success.

Not everyone enjoys cooking, of course. I always have. But never more than when my children were young. There’s nothing like an appreciative audience to spur one to greatness. Or at least to reliable macaroni and cheese. So, as a person who values recipes and the sense of fulfillment that comes from preparing food for people you love, I was predisposed to like Julie Powell’s book, Julie and Julia, based on her year-long project of cooking her way through every recipe in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about the experience in a blog.

What surprised me about the book was how much of it wasn’t about cooking at all. Rather, it got into the hot steamy mess of marriage, and the dark realm where desire and despair do battle. It made me laugh. It made me sigh. It reminded me of my mother and her funny Julia Child voice which she would put on whenever she made Boeuf Bourguignon from her own tattered copy of the book.

The movie version of Powell’s book opened this weekend, and  I’m excited about it. I love Amy Adams in everything, and Meryl Streep is . . . wow, there really aren’t adjectives good enough to describe her. Let’s just say, I have complete trust in her. And this is what Julia Child, and recipes, and cooking that means more than merely satisfying hunger, is about.

These days you can go online and browse hundreds of recipes for anything from tamales to tarts, and some of them are good. I’ve tried them. But each time you try a recipe from an unknown source, you’re putting your trust in someone, somewhere, who may or may not share the same core values about what makes food memorable. This is why, when it all comes down, those of us who were lucky enough to have mothers who liked to cook always refer back to the way mom made this or that.

A recipe is not about taste or skill. It’s about trust. If you cook, you know what it is to feel elated when something works like magic, or betrayed when it doesn’t. Julie & Julia isn’t really about the huge amounts of butter or the marrow, or even the maggots, though all of these elements speak to the messy, greasy toil of preparing food. J&J is not about love of food but love itself. And that, my friends, is messy heart-breaking toil indeed, but, when it turns out well, somewhat miraculous, and worth all the effort.

I’m looking forward to the movie. If it doesn’t live up to the book it won’t matter. In a director’s hands a book is like a recipe, to be followed or ignored, and even the most slavishly correct adaptation can fail to generate the magic of the written word. Sometimes you have to change a recipe to make it your own. And if you’re very lucky, someone may one day ask you for it.

Sand Spell

The Sand Witch embraces all genres.
The Sand Witch embraces all genres.

The restful murmur of waves muted by gentle breezes, the occasional squawk of seagulls in the distance, the whisper of pages turning – it’s summertime and the reading is sandy.

Something there is about the beach that encourages even those who rarely lose themselves in a good book to give it a try. Sometimes the pulse of the reading nation seems to throb in synch with the dictates of whatever’s hot and fresh off the New York Times bestseller list, or Oprah’s even hotter book club.

A few years ago during our annual family beach gathering it seemed that everyone but me was reading “The Da Vinci Code.” I held out against them, firm in my disdain for conspiracy theories.

But this summer, I’m happy to report, the beach reading survey reveals a wonderfully diverse assortment of interests. I came away from the vacation not only slightly sunburned and exhausted, but inspired and renewed by the evidence of intellectual rigor in our culture. It gives me hope that books with actual paper pages will outlast the storm of technological doodads that seem determined to drive printed books into extinction.

Of course, at the beach, the flaws of systems which rely on delicate screens and keypads become all too clear. One false move and the combination of sand, saltwater and sunscreen can make short work of modern technology. At the beach, paperback books – lightweight, cheap, impervious to Coppertone or being buried in the sand – rule.

Here’s what our little band of sandy scholars was reading this summer:

Adele: “Irish Dreams” and “Sullivan’s Bond” by Nora Roberts
Michele: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens
Rick: “White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga and “West With The Night” by Beryl Markham
Lorrie: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer
Nick: “The Soloist” by Steve Lopez and “Ender’s Shadow” by Orson Scott Card
Brad: “Windmills of the Gods” by Sidney Sheldon and “4th of July” by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Fred: “The Active Side of Infinity” by Carlos Castaneda
Mike: “Potluck” by yours truly and “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo
Nikki: “Going Postal” by Terry Pratchett
Jay: “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill
Shannon: “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert
Keith: “The Majors: In Pursuit of Golf’s Holy Grail” by John Feinstein
Marcus: “Ranger’s Apprentice Book II: The Burning Bridge” by John Flanagan
Pearl: “New Moon” by Stephenie Meyer
Dave: “Roma” by Steven Saylor
Kathryn: “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Stout

And me? Well, I must confess, that although I did bring two books to the beach (“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt, and “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer) I couldn’t get myself to look at them while I was actually on the sand. Maybe if I lived closer to the beach, maybe if I were younger and more easily able to take it for granted. But for me, each summer seems to go by faster. A week at the beach disappears like a sigh in the wind.

I spent my vacation watching the waves sparkling under the hot sun. I read my books on the plane going home.

Zombie Chic

The enthusiastic reviews of the current bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by “Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith” encouraged me to buy a copy. I laughed when I first saw the book displayed in the window of a Capitol Hill bookshop. So clever, so droll, it seemed.

And yet. Now, having dutifully read through the thing, waiting for the moment when it would make me laugh, or smile, or even admire the inventiveness of Mr. Grahame-Smith, I find myself back where I started, at the title. The title is funny. The rest of the book, rather like its purported innovation, lifeless. Things happen, the plot plods along, more or less faithfully following the events of the original masterpiece, but the added element of zombie attacks thrown in at intervals is rather like a nudge with an elbow to a sleeping classmate who has been called upon to comment on last night’s reading assignment in English class.

On the back of the book the claim is made that Grahame-Smith’s reworking of the Austen classic “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Well, I suppose I should have realized from that telling phrase that the book was written by someone who never appreciated Austen and thus could hardly be expected to improve upon her work. And since I am one of those who reread Austen’s six novels regularly for pleasure, rather in the way that some other people might go to a spa for a lift, I should have guessed that, for me, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” would fall short of entertainment.

For me, reading “P&P&Z” was like reading a copy of a beloved text that had been cut up by some toddler with his first pair of scissors and then scribbled on by some novice graffiti artist. I have nothing against toddlers. And I respect graffiti as an art form and a means of personal expression which, like all art, can run the gamut from the extraordinary to the toddleresque.

But I guess I was hoping for a bit more sparkle, a bit more cleverness. Hell, even a touch of irony in these irony-rich times would have been welcome. But no. It was not to be. What we get in “P&P&Z” is a dogged reassembling of Austen’s components—all the characters are there, all the main plot points, etc.—without a spark of wit (unless your taste in humor is satisfied by the occasional quips about Mr. Darcy’s musket balls). Sigh.

The most amusing aspect of the entire book is the “Reader’s Discussion Guide” at the end, in which Grahame-Smith gleefully skewers the sort of stuffy essay questions that turn a lot of students against literature.

Oh well. The important thing is to get those kids reading, right? And if it means we have to butcher the classics and remove all the brains from the writing, well, perhaps that’s not all bad. It could have been worse.

But, it could have been so much better. Not all zombie fiction is lifeless and flat. Consider, for instance, the Discworld fantasies of Terry Pratchett, whose zombie Igor is fully fleshed out, wryly humorous and even a sympathetic character. We care about Igor.

What if Mr. Darcy had become a zombie in the course of the story, and had handled himself with a quiet dignity and self-deprecating humor, and Elizabeth had been irresistibly drawn to him in spite of his rotting flesh? Ah, the possibilities.

Still, I expect we haven’t seen the last of the brain-eating hordes. When a mash-up novel about a plague of zombies makes the New York Times bestseller list, can a sitcom about madcap zombies be far behind? Got brains?