Thursday, February 28, 2008

again with the feeling lucky

Lately my reading has had a theme, "So Glad It's Not Me." I was feeling depressed, and what perks me up personally is not a comedy or a feel-good romance, but rather some down and dirty tales of other people's suffering. It's not exactly schadenfreude, but rather getting reminded of how fortunate I am.

In that genre, the Memoirs of Hellish Suffering, I must recommend the mindboggling "My Lobotomy" (2007) by Howard Dully (with Charles Fleming). Poor Howard Dully had the worst stepmother imaginable, who had him lobotomized when he was only twelve. This highly absorbing book tells not only about Dully's horrific childhood (right up there with Mary Karr's "The Liars' Club", that giant of the fucked-up childhood memoir genre), but also a lot about the history of lobotomies and the extremely strange man who did Mr. Dully's. Poor lobotomized little Howard first realized something was wrong about the operation when an audience of doctors at UCSF (where I gave birth to Iris Uber Alles and Lola, incidentally) booed his doctor off the stage. The doctor had taken Howard and two other lobotomized teens to use as living exhibits at a lecture promoting lobotomies, but the UCSF faculty was enraged at Howard's youth and interrupted the lecture.

Currently I'm reading "Tokyo Year Zero", a novel about a Japanese policeman in Tokyo in 1946. Although it's fiction, there's more than enough depressing historical fact to keep that one in the theme.

I think, though, it's time to wrap up this reading project, as real life is providing more than enough examples for me of How Damn Lucky I Am and How Grateful I Should Be. Over the weekend we learned that one of my husband's oldest, closest friends is severely ill. His previously unthreatening lymphoma has metastasized, and every day brings a new diagnosis: leukemia! Brain tumor! The poor man is only 40, the father of four year-old twins. In a completely inadequate gesture, we sent a gift basket to the hospital. The friend himself won't eat any of it (he's being kept under sedation), but we thought his loved ones conducting a bedside vigil could use some good snacks. Sending the gift basket caused a new dilemma: what to write on the card (even though it was optimistic to think the poor man would ever read the card, his wife and family would). Normally I am at no loss for words, but this was one time I felt tongue-tied. "Thinking of you" felt too cliched. Would "This sucks" be enough?

And then today we learned someone else we like has been facing a series of problems of a Biblical proportion. We knew one of his lovely and amazing daughters had an immune disorder, but we weren't aware that it had become much more serious. (She's only sixteen, poor girl, and having to undergo some gruesome treatments causing all her hair to fall out and also weight gain. That would be hard enough for an adult woman to handle, but a pretty teenager? So unfair). On top of that, his marriage has hit the rocks, and he lost his job. My God. Where does it end? We're having him over for drinks soon, but that seems so inadequate.

And meanwhile I'm enjoying nearly perfect health (a sore throat), a pleasant spouse (except for when the cats annoy him), two delightful children (apart from the occasional outbreak of intrasibling violence), and the companionship of far too many charming pets. I feel positively ashamed of my good fortune, so undeserved, really.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

where does she pick up these things?

I can hear five year-old Lola on the stairs softly singing, "Funky cold..., Funky cold.." I am dying for her to add "Medina." Where has this eighties speak come from?

In other Lola news, she has announced that "I have three Mama names" and that she may be referred to as "Lola", "Lisa", or "Cupcake." Her legal name, "Lucy", is viewed as a hateful slur akin to the n word. I shared this with eight year-old Iris, who said that the world would come to an end before she addressed her sister as "Lisa", but she would consider changing "Lucy" to "Luce-a", so satisfying close to "Losah" in Iris's mouth.

Friday, February 22, 2008

the silence of the Drunken Housewife, redux

The Sober Husband is off at a conference, being wined and dined and wooed by people who would dearly love to lure him away from his employer, St. Doggyo, and generally having his (already largeish) ego stroked. (I also have a large ego, but it doesn't get as much stroking, sigh, except in the home, where the children markedly prefer me to him. I always imagined that if we ever procreated together, the children would adore their candy-toting, funny and handsome father and despise their evil, controlling mother, but in reality, they're all about the lazy but authoritative Drunken Housewife).

I'm home with what feels like six thousand cats (it's not kitten season yet, but I've taken in an undersocialized feral cat from a different rescue group who couldn't get her adopted out and who then turned to that crack team of crazy cat ladies, my rescue group; plus a cat with a wonky eye and uncurable wheezing; on top of the regular cats; plus my ex-cat decided to move back in), two children, one usually screaming parrot, one aged rat in mourning (her cagemate passed away but yet lingers on in the freezer in a paper towel shroud encased in a ziplock freezer bag; owner Iris Uber Alles resists burial), and a quilt in progress, in a cluttered and disheveled house (I have been abstaining from housework on the rather questionable basis that my energy must be reserved for finishing this quilt, destined to be auctioned off to profit Lola's preschool).

What's most alarming is that at this moment, there is complete silence. God only knows what all those cats and children are up to. I just finished the Blood and Sand cocktails left for me by my husband so I would feel loved and nurtured in his absence, and I'm rather tipsy as I skipped lunch(I also skipped supper last night. I've been eating sporadically ever since the Great Food Poisoning Episode When The Blog Readers Came To Dinner, yet my weight loss remains slight. Incidentally Iris Uber Alles decided to read all the comments on the blog out loud today and, when informed that she'd met 2AM and Brown, let out a scream. I asked her to write a review of the blog readers in view of that strong reaction, but so far, no dice).

Silence, so scary, even to those of us feeling warm and relaxed due to the ministrations of Cherry Heering. I positively dread finding whatever those children and cats have got up to.

how to keep things in perspective

Lately my reading has taken a particular tone: histories of horrendous suffering. I started sliding into depression and dark thoughts lately, and what has pulled me out and got me back on stronger footing was reading accounts of suffering of a Biblical proportion.

This reading spree started with "The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival" (2007) by Stanley Alpert. This has just been released in paperback, and I strongly urge you to go pick up a copy. Poor Stanley, a Manhattan prosecutor, was abducted off the street by young thugs on a cold night before his birthday. His teenaged captors kept him in a filthy apartment for 25 hours while scheming to get the $100,000 in Mr. Alpert's savings account. Terrified for his life, for good reason (his captors kept him at gunpoint and threatened him and his family), Stanley tried to make friends with his captors with some surprising successes. When he was released, the cops didn't believe him at first, assuming Stanley had celebrated his birthday by going off on a coke binge and was making up a cover story out of embarrassment. This book was riveting. As someone who was the victim of a violent crime, I found Stanley's retelling of his feelings and reactions so true. (Thankfully my own crime didn't drag on for so long).

Later I quickly read "American Born Chinese" (2006) by Gene Yang, a graphic novel about a Chinese boy's hellish experiences in a suburban junior high, where he was only one of three Asian students. This is interspersed with the retelling of the Monkey King myth. I hated junior high myself and didn't enjoy revisiting it, but I did adore how Mr. Yang drew the Monkey King. Also, this is the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. Go, Gene Yang!

Then I settled down for several days with the true winner, an amazing achievement in the field of Horrific Memoirs: "The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910-1913" vols. I and II, (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. My God, how much suffering poor Cherry-Garrard endured. He starts the first volume out by noting that it's a bit late in being published because by the time he healed up from his Antarctic travails, he had to answer his country's call to fight in World War I, where he was severely injured. Of the two, he felt the Antarctic was worse than the trenches of France. I felt so sad for him, thinking that there was no peaceful old age in his future, what with the Battle of Britain lurking around history's next corner.

Cherry-Garrard was part of Scott's Last Journey. I had a vague memory that this expedition ended with just about everyone dead. After reading the book, I learned that it was just the actual small group of five who reached the South Pole who died, but there were plenty of close calls for the rest.

"The Worst Journey in the World" is actually, to Cherry-Garrard, not the entire expedition but rather a smaller expedition taken by himself and two others (and both of the others later died with Scott after reaching the South Pole). Dr. Wilson had set his heart upon obtaining fertilized Emperor penguin eggs on this expedition, which meant a small number of men traveling a great distance in the middle of the Antarctic winter to the penguin breeding grounds. The three men who did this, Wilson, Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard, suffered immeasurable hardships and gave themselves up for dead. Dr. Wilson became severely ill with scurvy on this journey (fascinatingly at that time, the cause of scurvy was not known, and Cherry-Garrard presented a number of theories for what could cause it), and he asked the others to save themselves and leave him for dead. They gallantly refused, and Bowers bravely set off alone to try to reach help. As Cherry-Garrard waited with the invalid in a tiny tent, he rationed out the food and waited to die as a blizzard struck. It seemed inconceivable that Bowers could have reached safety alone (but of course the reader knows that there's a whole second volume ahead, so our brave Cherry-Garrard clearly must be saved, and so he was).

The result of that horrific, insanely dangerous journey was that three fertilized and pickled penguin eggs were delivered personally by Cherry-Garrard (as the sole survivor) to the British Museum, where poor old Cherry was treated like a nuisance and made to wait for hours before anyone would deign to receive the eggs and give him a receipt. Cherry went into a nigh-homicidal rage at this treatment, having expected rather more to be hailed as a man who had nearly given his life for the expansion of knowledge. He reprinted in his book the eventual report made after the penguin embryos' dissection, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the contribution made to science was worth the horrific suffering it required.

Of course, "the Worst Journey in the World" occurs before the party actually sets off for the South Pole, only to discover that businesslike Amundsen had already planted a Norwegian flag there. Was the death of Scott and his companions worthwhile? The survivors of the expedition faced a lot of criticism for not having rescued Scott, and Cherry-Garrard devotes a large amount of volume II to explaining why the South Pole party was not saved (in a nutshell, the other men were largely emaciated, frostbitten and ridden with scurvy; it's not easy to rescue anyone in Antarctica; and by the time they realized the South Pole party wasn't coming back, it was too late anyhow).

I had heard of the heroic death of Capt. Oates before, but getting a sense for the man made it all the much more tragic. Capt. Oates was in charge of the poor ponies hauled down to Antarctica to haul supplies, and he was a hardworking, affectionate steward of those wretched animals. He became horrifically frostbitten and unable to proceed on the way back from the pole, and he requested that Scott, Wilson, and Bowers leave him for dead in his sleeping bag. They refused, and after a polite conversation (God, those Brits were so polite and genteel back in the days of Empire), Oates expressed the hope that he would die that night in his sleep. Disappointed at not having passed peacefully in the night and unwilling to risk his companions' survival, Oates said calmly the next morning, "I am going outside. I may be some time" and then walked to his death in a blizzard. Who among us would have that courage and sense of self-sacrifice?

There's nothing like a rousing tale of suffering to make one appreciate one's own life more. My own troubles fade in comparison with Cherry-Garrard's. Just to state a few: on his winter journey, Cherry-Garrard kept getting blisters... and the fluid inside the blisters would instantly freeze. Evidently walking upon little frozen icicles in side your very skin is agonizing beyond belief. Also, poor Cherry-Garrard was quite nearsighted, and it became impossible for him to wear his glasses in the most severe weather. The only time he complains about this is when his companions enjoyed the amazing aurora borealis at night, and he, poor nearsighted thing, was unable to make it out even squinting. (Oh, how I feel for him, my companion in astigmatism and myopia). Not to mention having to bury one of your closest friends...

Anyhow, if you are feeling down and wish to perk yourself up, I recommend heading for the nonfiction accounts of horrific suffering, rather than the romantic comedies or feel-good fluff. Next on my agenda: a memoir of a man forced to have a lobotomy as a 12 year-old by his evil stepmother (yes, really).

love, the Drunken Housewife

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

cry me a river

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an article about how white men feel left out of the current Presidential campaign. "It seems like someone else should be there", whined Dan Leihgeber, a smelter in a Youngstown steel plant.

Oh, please. Women and minorities have been feeling that way FOREVER. Women are actually the majority in this country, and we've been underrepresented for the entire history of this country. Do you think we feel represented when we look at the Republican party candidates, the Supreme Court, the Senate, governors, mayors of large cities, etc..?? Think about all the people of Asian and Latino descent: they have NEVER had anyone who looked like them in the White House or on the Supreme Court.

Sorry, precious. I just can't feel your pain on this one. Why not hang some framed pin-ups of the Federal Reserve chairman, Dick Cheney and Justice Souter in your bedroom for comfort?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

skoob skoob skoob

For once the name "Drunken Housewife" is a propos. I wrote these book reviews after getting moderately trashed at Las Ramblas (mother-in-law in town = time to self medicate). In the sober light of the morning after they aren't so bad. Enjoy!

I have not kept up with reviewing my reads here, and I know I won't remember all the books I've read this year. I don't mean that I've completely forgotten them, but some of them have entered a blurry sort of brainspace. It's scary to me, how much I read, when I stand back to look at it.

"The Cottagers" (2006) by Marshall Klimasewiski: a very intelligent and gripping literary novel about a peculiar teenager on a Canadian island who is obsessed with the wealthy summer residents. I loved this book; the plot goes in unpredictable directions. I only wish Marshall Klimasewiski will shave his horrible facial hair and get new glasses before publishing his next oeuvre, which leads me nicely to

"The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person In The World"" (2004)by A.J. Jacobs (the only non-fiction book on this list. I read a ton of non-fiction last year, and so far this year, I've been shoveling down novel after novel). Why did my stupid criticism of poor Mr. Klimasewiski's author photo make a nice segue? Because A.J. Jacobs forthrightly confesses that one of his books was rejected by a publisher because they considered him unattractive enough to represent the book. (Cheer yourself up, A.J. Jacobs, by taking in the unfortunate photo of the very talented Marshall Klimasewiski sometime).

It's distinctly weird to write about A.J. Jacobs, as he has stated in both "The Know-It-All" and "The Year of Living Biblically" that he googles himself obsessively. I'm not a stranger to authors finding my snarky remarks (indeed the irrepressible Ayun Halliday found my snarks within just a few hours of my writing them; I wish her children luck in getting one over on her), but it's different to write something with a reasonable expectation of the author reading it. I feel like a suck-up by saying that I love A.J. Jacobs and adored this account of the year he spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety (although he cops to skimming at times; for shame, A.J. Jacobs, for shame). This wasn't as deep yet snarky as "The Year of Living Biblically", which the Sober Husband and I enjoyed so much that we gave out a lot of copies for Christmas presents, but it satisfies. Jacobs is clever and obnoxious, but he wants to be wise and good. His epic attempts at self-improvement and inquiry are witty and thought-provoking.

"Taking Off" (2006) by Eric Kraft: I wanted to love this, as I have an affection for Eric Kraft stemming from "Herb 'n Lorna", which I read in the late '80s. I hated it. Mr. Kraft had an idea basically good for a novella or a short story, and he tried to spin it out and sell it as a hardback. I am so sick of seeing tiny little hardbacks with big fonts and overly-generous margins (and not-so-coincidentally tiny, undersized little plots). In this case, it's even more heinous because "Taking Off" is the first volume in a trilogy. What should be one short story is being spun out to THREE FRIGGING VOLUMES. Unforgivable, people, this is unforgivable.

"A Good and Happy Child" (2007)by Justin Evans: a very intelligent and gripping novel exploring the space between mental illness and religion. A boy is tormented by demons and in need of an exorcism... or does he simply need some lithium and perhaps a stay in a mental hospital? Is there room for extreme religious experience in the Prozac era?

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
(1964) by Roald Dahl: I picked this up for Iris Uber Alles, remembering it fondly from my childhood. It's much shorter than I remembered (evidently I read much more slowly back then). I love Roald Dahl, but sadly I think the book was ruined for me by seeing the movies. I liked the Willie Wonka of my childhood imagination better than Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp's versions.

"The Trouble Boy
" (2004) by Tom Dolby: a coming of age story, about a young gay college graduate in Manhattan in search of a boyfriend. Perfect reading for fag hags! I loved it, but don't expect depth;

"The Sixth Form" (2008) by Tom Dolby: another coming of age story from the talented Mr. Dolby (NOT the "She Blinded Me With Science" Dolby, by the way). Boys at an exclusive boarding school grapple with homophobia and fears of coming out, sexually predatory teachers, mothers with cancer, and college applications.

Addendum: I left out "Surveillance" (2008) by Jonathan Raban, a novel which is a bit short on plot but nonetheless worthwhile, about the reactions to the post 9/11 obsession with security and terrorism. What's not to love about a novel starring an overweight, stuttering journalist working on a piece for the New Yorker?

cosmopolitan five year-olds

Lola's friend Stella said at playtime, "Follow me, Lola! I know a great hotel in Paris!"

"Do they have massages?" inquired world-weary Lola.

Friday, February 15, 2008

the news I hear and the news I don't hear

Recently second grader Iris Uber Alles came home with big news: her friend K.'s dog had gotten into a fight with another dog. This was a big, serious event which clearly eclipsed other issues of the day. Apart from that, the only other news reported to me for weeks was that an overly greasy grilled cheese sandwich was served to Iris at lunchtime (that is a subject for a rant: the new cafeteria service is oh-so-full-of-themselves, constantly yammering on and on about "Healthy Choices" and charging an arm and a leg for the food on the basis that it is Fresh and Nutritious, but yet every meal I hear about is pathetically lacking in redeeming nutritious quality. I'm not wild about paying $8 for a meal consisting of a overly greasy grilled cheese sandwich, and when that is accompanied by an annoying amount of propaganda about We Are Teaching Your Child How To Eat, well, I'm nigh-rabid. On the other hand, I'm also still too lazy to get up every morning to pack the child a lunch).

Yesterday at the second grade play, a big topic of conversation amongst the parents was The Big Car Accident. One of Iris's very best friends (the little girl whose Halloween costume I sewed so that she and Iris would match) was on the way to school with her sister, driven by their father, when a car ran a stop sign and rammed right into their car. The car flipped over, and the girls extricated themselves, but as their father's arm was shattered in two places, he couldn't get himself out. The girls were unharmed and the police and EMTs arrived quickly, but the father is still in a lot of pain (his left shoulder and arm were truly frightening to behold).

I went over to Iris's friend I. to tell her how glad I was that she hadn't been hurt. Iris was by I.'s side, and I added as an aside to her, "I can't believe you didn't tell me this! Your friend got in a big car accident on the way to school!"

"I meant to tell you, but I forgot."

I suspect that if there had been a dog or cat in the car, Iris would have reported the story to me. Somehow if there isn't an animal in peril, it's just not news to her.

Monday, February 11, 2008

a fairy tale

Lola often likes to make up and act out stories for my benefit. The stories are generally about fairies falling in love and stalking each other and then getting married (I worry a little about Lola's future love objects).

Last night, though, Lola had a darker tale to tell, which came spewing out as soon as Iris was ushered off to bed (unjust as it may seem, the younger child has a later bedtime. The older child must leave at 7:45 AM to arrive at second grade on time, whereas the younger one doesn't have to be at pre-k until 12:30 PM. When Iris herself was in pre-k, she traditionally stayed up until eleven most nights, which scandalized other parents. Lola is put to bed at the more modest hour of ten, as her mother has aged significantly over the past three years). Earlier in the evening Iris and Lola had fought over whether Lola was permitted to quit their paper doll game ("Lucy! YOU HAVE TO PLAY WITH ME!! Lucy!! You know all those nice things I do for you? Well, I'M NEVER DOING THEM AGAIN!" I could not help bursting into laughter at that point which no doubt earned me a spot on Iris's enemy list).

Clearly that recent conflict was on Lola's mind as, standing on the foot of the queen-sized bed, she began her narrative. "Once there was a fairy. She had fairy parents and a MEAN, EVIL, BIG SISTER FAIRY. But the big sister died. They were all very happy! Any questions?"

"How did the sister die?"

"She got very old." Lola paused to reflect. "No, she got murdered! She died!" Lola bounced happily on the bed.

"How was the big sister evil?"

"When the big sister was born, the first words she said were, 'You will all die! I will kill you all!' They looked at her personal area, you know, where she pees, and they saw she was a girl. They named her 'Servant' because she was evil." Lola bounced more. To bring the point on home, Lola added the details that the evil fairy was three years older than the heroine fairy and the good fairy was born on October 1st, surprise surprise! The same day Lola was born! After the evil big sister was murdered, the good fairy and her parents were so happy, they just danced and danced.

Before Lola could bring her story to its traditional denouement, the marriage of the good fairy, the Sober Husband intruded and required Lola to adjourn for toothbrushing.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Iris Uber Alles wants to teach the Dalai Lama a lesson

One night this week I sat at the dining room table to oversee Iris Uber Alles's homework. Usually the Sober Husband is in charge of nagging eight year-old Iris to do her homework and practice the piano, so he was at loose ends, for once with nothing to do while I performed the nagging duties. He drifted off with five year-old Lola.

After a while, I heard a lot of giggling from the next room, which eight year-old Iris and I loftily ignored. Finally the Sober Husband called, "Look at us! Look at us!"

We looked. They were sitting cross-legged next to each other on the couch, hands on their knees with palms-up, pretending to meditate with blissed-out expressions.

We all have our own personal source of authority upon meditation in this home. I once meditated with the Dalai Lama (okay, it was in a crowd of thousands at a speech given by his Holiness, but it was still magical. You could have heard a pin drop while we all meditated; not a person whispered or fidgeted). Lola saw Pee Wee Herman pretend to meditate on an old "Pee Wee's Playhouse" episode. And Iris somehow learned the Right Way To Meditate at her school and will brook no differences. She swept into the room and corrected her father and little sister authoritatively. "You have to put your foot up here! And your other foot here! You're doing it all wrong!"

As Iris fruitlessly tugged at her father and Lola, trying to push them into proper lotus position, I tried to reason with her. "The Dalai Lama says you don't have to sit in any special position. You can sit any way you like."

"Well, the Dalai Lama was wrong!" Iris said acidly.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

only monkeys need apply

It's Chinese New Year, and five year-old Lola is enrapt. She pored over a Chinese horoscope chart Iris Uber Alles brought home from second grade. Lola was most taken by the description of those born in the Year of the Monkey: "Monkey people are very funny. They can always make people laugh. They are also very good at solving problems."

"Mommy, do you know any Monkeys?"

Sadly only my ex-husband came to mind, which I (a Dragon) kept to myself.

"I've been looking for someone to help me solve problems."

I suggested that Jim, her pre-k teacher, is good at problem-solving. "We could ask him if he was born in the year of the Monkey."

Lola carried the chart to her father (uselessly born in the year of the Horse). "Do you think Jim was born in the year of the Monkey? Do you know anyone born in the year of the Monkey?"

She sighed when her father was not helpful enough. "It's only I've been looking for someone to help me solve problems."

"What kind of problems do you have?" I asked. Lola was evasive. "Oh, just problems."

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

the silence of the Drunken Housewife

Yesterday was my day to work at Lola's pre-k. Oh, the joys of that liberal institution, the parent co-operative preschool. It's my sixth consecutive year of working at the co-op, and I'm ready to be done. (That feeling of counting-it-down and burn-out is mixed with plenty of guilt over not being as enthusiastic and involved for Lola, the way I was years ago for her big sister).

For a while, I supervised a group of twelve pre-k children playing freeze tag, which involved non-stop screaming (I am informed this was audible two blocks away). It was a beautiful day for once, and I am a firm believer that small children need to have the chance to tear around like radioactive mutants, and so I had to live up to my lofty parental ideals by standing in the midst of that hellish racket.

As if the freeze tag weren't enough, a number of the children cried at maximum volume. One fell down and hurt her hand (there was no visible injury, but she turned the volume on her crying up to 11). I rubbed her back and offered sympathy while she screamed a few inches from my ear. Another screamed in rage and frustration. A charismatic alpha child, this young boy was angry that the children wouldn't stop playing freeze tag to hear out his instructions on what they should be doing instead. I tried to explain to him that it's a lofty undertaking indeed to get twelve hyperactive five year-olds to shut up at once and listen, but discussion was fruitless. It was somewhat more helpful for me to sit in the dirt beside him and listen to him shouting, between noisy sobs and screams, about "they won't listen to me!"

Later we trudged on a long dreary field trip, and some of the little children were heightening their enjoyment of a rousing round of "red light, green light" by grabbing my aged rump on the "green light" command. "My butt is a private place! Personal and private!" I instructed the tiny miscreants.

By the time we got home, all I wanted was some peace and quiet. I wanted to finish my book ("Surveillance" by Jonathan Raban). Instead, Lola got upset (she often doesn't want to get out of the new-to-us Volvo and drags her feet, and Iris and I don't want to stand on the sidewalk waiting forever, a perennial conflict). She screamed her guts out for over half an hour. I was practically rabid.

The Sober Husband came home, and I instructed him to please talk as little as possible and not ask me what was wrong with Lola because NOTHING was wrong with Lola, Lola was FINE, and if I couldn't get some peace and quiet I was going to snap. A clever man, he shut up and fixed me a cocktail (a Blood and Sand, my current fave, popular back in the 1930's and perhaps the best use of the unduly obscure Cherry Heering spirit). After I'd had my drink and played a little Warcraft to unwind (and I turned the sound off on the computer for that, even though it makes it harder to play), I felt up to observing Super Tuesday by casting my vote for Barack Obama. The children got into a fight on the way back from the polls, meaning more noisy crying from Lola, which tends to echo around in a Volvo in an unbearable way.

At home, the Sober Husband put on a Klezmer CD he'd dredged up somewhere from the depths of hell, and he turned it up so loud that he allegedly couldn't hear my multiple screams of "CAN YOU TURN THAT DOWN NOW" which eventually became something more like "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD CAN YOU TURN THAT FUCKING NOISE DOWN." To me, that music is like the soundtrack for demented clowns, evil, evil clowns, and I fully expect that it will play in my damned afterlife. I fled upstairs with "Surveillance" and closed the door to the bedroom. Before I knew it, children were there, wanting to "watch Simpsons with Mama" (why do I have to be present for this? Evidently it's not satisfying to watch TV, if you don't have the captive corpse of poor old Mommy present in the room. The children fight viciously over who sits next to me, and oddly enough, it's unsatisfactory to everyone if I sit in the middle with one on each side. If there's no clear winner, then everyone is a loser). After Iris was banished to bed, Lola wanted to act out a story about a banal fairy who wanted to get married, which normally is very charming but by ten o'clock at night after a hard day was driving me crazy. By the time she went to bed, I was too sleepy to read. A silent room with a book: that was all I wanted, and I couldn't get it.

Fear not, gentle reader, for the sanity of your Drunken Housewife, as chronic insomnia has solved her problem. I've just enjoyed two consecutive hours of quiet, broken only by the raucous purrs and meows of the annoying cats. Silence. Beautiful silence. I was able to give "Surveillance" the quiet attention it so much deserved. The only sad part is that I know I'll pay for this idyll tomorrow, when I'm severely sleep-deprived, but oh God, the quiet is so beautiful. I wouldn't mind adding a few sounds to it, such as perhaps the happy sound of a klezmer CD snapping in half, but eh, I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

capsule book reviews

I recently read three amazing books, and astoundingly enough each of these accomplished works was a first novel.

"Fieldwork" by Mischa Berlinski (2007): a recent college graduate is at loose ends in Northern Thailand when he becomes obsessed with the story of a brilliant female anthropologist serving a life sentence in a Thai prison. This is one of the best books I've read in years: full of ideas, realistic characters (I love the way his missionaries talk in particular. A horrendous family argument sparked by one teenaged child's unauthorized viewing of "Star Wars" was brilliant), and atmosphere. It is mindboggling that something this perfect could be a first novel. Grade: A+.

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant (1997): I am probably the last middle-aged North American woman to get around to reading this beloved mainstay of Oprah's book club. My friend Kim I's copy sat around on my shelf for over a year before I cracked it open. Of course, like practically everyone, I loved it. "The Red Tent" is the retelling of the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah from the Old Testament/Torah. I loved the women's animistic rituals. My one complaint: Diamant didn't have a gift for dialogue. All of the characters spoke in the same voice. One could excuse that by saying that it was all supposed to be in the voice of Dinah retelling her life story, but still... Grade: A-.

"Them" by Nathan McCall (2007): the story of the gentrification of Atlanta's Fourth Ward, told by a middle-aged black loner who lives with his ex-con nephew in an old rented house. Barlowe hates white people and calls the cops when some white folks show up to look at the house next door. "They'd call the cops if I came into their neighborhood" was his reasoning. Little does he know that the white liberal wife finds this to be evidence of community looking out for one another, and it convinces her to buy this particular fixer-upper in a "rapidly-improving" neighborhood. What is the impact on an old, established neighborhood when suddenly white artists and young couples start buying up houses? The Fourth Ward residents have very different feelings about whether an espresso house with internet access is a welcome arrival that will be "good for the neighborhood"; the unemployed men who enjoy spending their days chatting don't feel welcome there.

"Them" gave me a lot to think about. My ex-husband and I were the only white people living in a particular largeish apartment building in the Western Addition back in 1987-88. Our block was best known for having been the place where the SLA held poor Patty Hearst captive in a closet (my own walk-in closet there was the best thing about the small, cockroach-infested apartment. I used to show it off to visitors and wisecrack, "Like the SLA, we took it for the closets"). We were part of the thin edge of the gentrification wedge. Back then, I was terrified to go anywhere alone in my neighborhood after dark. Now, in 2008, there are espresso bars, vegan restaurants, upscale cocktail bars, and expensive boutiques there. Reading "Them" has made me look at all this in a different way. I used to think this gentrification was all good; now I'm focusing a little more on the losses. In particular, the huge African-American church is gone, where we used to love to slouch by in our hipster all-black to see all the ladies' colorful Sunday hats and hear the singing. Where are those women and their hats now? The Chronicle reports that the black middle class is largely being driven out of San Francisco to the East Bay, and people like me have a hand in it. "Them" should be mandatory reading for all white liberals. Grade: A.