Reading

Oh, so that biography of Julia got much better. Perhaps as she got older there was less to speculate about.

And now I’m reading Let the Great World Spin. Probably you’ve heard something about it by now. Let’s just say, it’s better than I thought it was going to be. It opened with the two Irish brothers, one of whom is attracted to drunkery and god and becomes a monk and that’s just a story I don’t want to read about. Oh, and then there are prostitutes and heroin, another story in which I have zero interest. Or perhaps negative interest. But it actually gets better, and there are hopeful bits. I’m not quite finished, but I’d say it’s not the worst book in the world. And I think he actually does the voices of the fairly different characters pretty well — I guess it’s the old story of “we live and then we die and that’s life,” but it’s fairly well done.

There’s my ringing endorsement.

But I did read most of it on the plane ride home, and it did keep my attention. So, you know.

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Headache

So, I read Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing, which was good. It struck me as I was finishing it that he has written a book that is more a thriller than a mystery. It starts with a crime in northern Sweden but then roams all over the world. It reminded me of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, actually. But that’s not a complaint.

And now I’m reading the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, except I’ve made a brief detour into A Tale of Two Gardens, by Elspeth Thompson, an English garden writer who recently, sadly, committed suicide. But this book is full of little essays written for the Sunday Telegraph from an earlier period in her life when she’s just starting to build things up — a backyard garden, an allotment, and soon, I think, a garden in a little house by the sea. It’s making me feel better about my garden, which is still a mess, although getting better year by year. It’s making me realize that what I really need is an allotment — a little plot somewhere else to grown vegetables. There are a few in town, actually. It would be nice to have room for this flat of asparagus I’ve inherited but have nowhere to plant. I thought I’d found a corner, but underneath all the nasturtiums I found a rosebush, which I suppose I could rip out. But wouldn’t it be great to have room for potatoes and beets and pumpkins? It would, and I don’t, unless I get rid of a lot of flowers. And I like flowers.

I know — I need an allotment like I need a hole in my head. But what if I did it with someone, which would actually be more fun anyway.

Hmmm.

Anyway. M is entering the week before exams, which means she has all kinds of other exams and things due. It’s kind of hell, although it will be great once she’s on the other side. I think I am experiencing sympathetic grumpiness. And N is back from her travels and apparently had a great time. An elementary school friend of M’s is visiting to see if she wants to go to B, N’s school. Apparently N’s room is a total disaster, although her laundry is clean. The fact that she actually thought it was bad is either a sign of a developing maturity or else a sign that it is a mess beyond all human comprehension. Probably the latter. Anyway, I am missing her.

And my head hurts.

Thoreau

Just finished The Thoreau you don’t know : what the prophet of environmentalism really meant, by Robert Sullivan. I’m not sure it’s the best book. It’s a lot harder to write about a person than a place, I think. (I remember really loving his book on the meadowlands.) Especially if that person is himself a writer. I feel somewhat frustrated, as in “what is he trying to say, here?” Mostly I guess I feel like I have to go back and read Thoreau. And also I guess I also feel sad about Thoreau dying so young, having been sick most of his life, having the reputation of being a crank, not really having been a success in his life although you get the feeling that if he had lived another 40 years he would have been. Which seems so unfair. I guess especially because he did not have much else going on in his life — he never married or had children and sort of lived on the edge of financial insolvency for most of his life.

If you think of it differently, though — he was skilled with his hands and could dig basements, cut wood, build houses and garden. He wrote many things, at least one of which is still widely read. He had many friends. He was known — he gave readings here and there. He lived life on his own terms, I guess — if you discount the sadness of his brother’s death and the fact of his being so ill.

Still feels sad, though. Think I have to read some Thoreau.

Love

From Elif Batuman’s the Possessed. Since her parents are Turkish, she knows Turkish, and one summer in college, probably her sophomore summer, she is traveling around Turkey doing research for a new version of the Let’s Go guide to Turkey. She keeps meeting Turkish people who, when they hear that she is thinking of concentrating her studies on Pushkin, are incensed, and encourage her to study Turkish literature rather than Russian.

Looking back, I am surprised by how much I took to heart the words of people like this sergeant. If I didn’t actually believe in my responsibility to tell Americans the truth about Turkey, nevertheless I did feel it was somehow wasteful of me to study Russian literature instead of Turkish literature. . . . I already knew Turkish; it had happened without any work, like a gift, and here I was tossing it away to break my head on a bunch of declensions that came effortlessly to anyone who happened to grow up in Russia.
Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on all the least convenient things — and if the only obstacle in your way is a little extra work, then that’s the wonderful gift right there.

Bleh

My mother came to visit this weekend!

It was kind of a last minute thing. She spends March and April, or part of them, in Arizona where my grandmother lives and where she has a small condo. That’s about 90 minutes away by plane, so at the last minute she decided to come up for the weekend.

We had fun. Saturday we carefully examined Ikea (she’s thinking about redoing her kitchen), ate lunch, went to my brother’s house and then ate dinner. (There was a lot of eating involved. I feel like I need to go on a week long fast now.) Yesterday it was pouring, so we went into the city, saw the Cartier exhibit at the local museum and then drove around a bit, getting home just in time for another dinner with my brother at the Italian restaurant down the street.

It wasn’t ideal — K had to do taxes all weekend long. (This is sort of his choice — he refuses to hire someone. And honestly, I know it’s a pain, but I think he sort of enjoys it. He would not have enjoyed Ikea. And we brought him food.) And M was stuck up in her room trying to finish her 12 pieces of art. (She’s got 8 done now, and two more started, I think. They’re due next month some time.) But on the other hand, it sort of worked well.

For one thing, by some kind of fate I had cleaned the house pretty well last weekend, before I even knew she was coming. So that was not a problem — I didn’t feel like I had to run around and try to get the house clean for her while she was here. (Always so uncomfortable — here, you just sit on the porch for half an hour while I vacuum the house to make it fit for human habitation!)

Also, I think my efforts to get her out of the house for K and M actually paid off. It was fun to look at kitchens, and the jewelry exhibit was amazing. On a scale of 0-100 I rank at probably a 5 in interest in jewelry, but it was actually fascinating. Here’s what I learned.

  1. Diamonds are really shiny. And shiny in a really pretty way. They reflect light in all colors, so from across the room you catch gleams of all colors. They are really beautiful.
  2. Some of the pieces were quite beautiful in a different way. Not all the emeralds were cut to make them shiny — some of the gems were flawed, which made them interesting.
  3. They reused all kinds of stuff — old mughal emeralds that were not shiny and had “I serve Shah Somebody-or-other” were incorporated into a necklace for Mrs Somebody Merriweather Post, two 13th c. jade carp reused in a clock. I guess it makes sense — people are always bringing gems to jewelers and asking to have them reused in something else. Interesting, though.

The thing that can sort of drive me nuts when my mother visits is that she wants to help, but the helping is not always so helpful. I don’t really want her to reorganize my linen closet. I can’t help being insulted that she feels it needs reorganizing, and then I also can’t find the washcloths. And she’s hurt that I won’t let her help. And then I’m insulted that she thinks I’m so in need of help. Not good. Going out, though — no time to reorganize the linen closet. Plus fun. Much better idea all the way around.

So I’ve just taken her to the airport. I am sitting here drinking coffee. I really should go to the gym to work off the past five enormous meals, but I really would rather not . . . I have the new Henning Mankell novel, The Man from Beijing, and I could sit and read that for a while while I wait to take M to school.

Oh, I read a book that I want to talk about, but perhaps I should just recommend that you read. It’s The Possessed, by Elif Batuman. I don’t even know what to say. It’s sort of the story of being a graduate student in Comp Lit. It’s sort of the story of being Elif Batuman, who’s a Turkish American girl from New Jersey who decides to major in Literature, learn Russian, and then to go to graduate school. It is the story of the summer she spends in Samarkand learning Uzbek, and her trip to Yasnaya Polyana to give a paper at a Tolstoy conference. She’s amazingly funny, and smart, and I think if you’ve ever gone to graduate school, or maybe even if you’ve ever just read too much literature and started thinking of your life in terms of novels you might like it. She’s amazingly good at telling stories. I have a tenderness for the book because in certain respects she reminds me of me when I was young (although she’s much more successful at being a graduate student than I ever was), but it’s also so very funny. Really, you have to read it. It’s in paperback. It’ll take you two days.

Do you think I could just wear a large pyramid-shaped tent to work today?

Also, it is really raining. I’m glad — it’s good for the garden. The longer we can put off the months with no rain the better, if you ask me.

The real story is so much better

I wanted to show you a picture of the eggs M and I dyed, but it all seems too complicated. (It isn’t of course.) Let me just assure you that they are spectacularly beautiful. Mine are sort of batik eggs, with elaborated overlayings of different colors of dyes. M’s are a bit wilder. She tends to go for the striped effect.

Mine had some flowers and rabbits drawn on with candle wax. One of hers had a face, and another a landscape.

There. Now you don’t need a picture.

I’m getting the house clean, piece by piece. It started with the attic, and now the upstairs bathroom is spotless, and my bedroom is fairly clean, and the downstairs bathroom, too, except for the floor.

It does make a difference. Pretty soon I’m going to be one of those anti-clutter feng shui evangelists. But give me a couple of weeks first.

Yawn.

I’ve read some good books. Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World by Trevor Paglen is interesting and readable. The most interesting parts to me were the idea of actually going to the places that are blank on the map — there are actually a few in California, out in the desert, not far from Death Valley — and then the way the things that they are trying to hide can be traced — satellites, and mysterious aircraft — just because they do file some flight reports. It’s interesting. (It also reminds me a bit of my high school boyfriend who was obsessed with the idea that advertising was filled with subliminal messages. It probably is, but if you don’t look at it you’re pretty safe.)

I’m now reading The Thoreau you don’t know, by Robert Sullivan. I like Robert Sullivan. He seems to have all these crazy writing projects — there was one on the Meadowlands in New Jersey, which was great, and one on Rats, which I never read — but then he’s actually really thoughtful and smart. He writes a bit about Walden Pond and what’s near it now — an airport where the Beatles landed, and Gerald Ford and some pitcher who was flying in to negotiate with the Red Socks — and he says: “I don’t think the landscape, interspersed as it is with these new, seemingly un-Thoreauvian things, is any less Thoreau-related. I like to think the opposite: the human-touched landscape is a Thoreau landscape too.” It’s a book about what Thoreau was really like, and he was in fact a lot more normal and interesting than the usual picture we have of the crazy hermit who also went home for dinner at his mother’s house.

It reminds me of an article I read in the New York Times Magazine this week about Roman Vishniac, who took photos of Eastern European Jewry just before the Holocaust. It turns out that the photos that were published actually presented a distorted picture, in that they were only the pictures of the poorest and most dispossesed, and that he had taken tons of pictures that showed a thriving middle class, but because these were not the photos he had been sent to take, they’ve never been published. But they’re fascinating, and shed light on a vanished world. People are upset, though, because what they’ve thought was the whole picture turns out to only be a piece of the picture. The woman who’s in charge of getting the photos into a proper archive says, at the end of the piece, “‘What’s interesting to me is less Vishniac’s tendency toward mythology than the Jewish need to have those mythologies and the attachment they have to them, even in the face of evidence to the contrary,’ Benton says. ‘Why are people so attached to the other story? The real story is so much better.’”

Good night.

Day after

I still cannot seem to get readjusted to work.

I think what happened is that I started to look around, realized how much there is to do at home, started to get engaged, and then had to come back to work.

It’s actually somewhat stressful having two jobs (i.e. working, and then dealing with the house and the people in it). It’s also frustrating, because both here and there I can see how much there is to do, and if I had only the one place to dig in I could fix things so they’d run so much better. And in fact, require less effort to get along daily. But I never have the time to actually feel on top of things, either here or there.

Anyway. Now I’m leaving here to go pick up the car (at the garage again but really fixed this time), which means I’ll get home early, which means I could, in theory, do something about those 8 boxes I brought down from the attic.

Or, you know, sit on the couch and finish Old Filth. (Still saddish.)

Got to go.