Sunday, August 31, 2014


When life lowers the hammer, when it starts raining heavily and darkly and metaphorically, when the kinds of grief that cannot be measured or explained tangle into Gordian Knots, and I cannot seem to find a way out that doesn't involve being someone other than myself, there is only one place to turn to. Poetry.

Unfortunately I only know, like, three poems.

My first two poems will not work for this. There is The Duino Elegies

"Who, if I shouted out among the hierarchy of angels, would hear me, and even if one of them took me to his heart I would perish before his stronger existence. For what is beauty but the beginning of a terror we can just barely endure." 

This is good if you are feeling that it's just all too beautiful and you're not sure how you feel about that. It is not so good for when it feels like your life is knee deep in bleak.

My second poem won't do either. 

 "There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold. The arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold."

This, The Cremation of Sam McGee, is good for a campfire, but not for a whole lot else. Fortunately it is very, very good for a campfire. 

So thank god that the third and last poem goes:

"Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a feast where all hearts opened, and all wines flowed."

It gets darker from there. 

It is fortunate that that one will do because it is all I've got left. I can just cuddle up with A Season in Hell. I keep that one line going and going. Me and A Season in Hell together through life. And I think my own dark thoughts in between.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Messing with me

Have you ever read any Karin Slaughter? Yeah, well, me neither. It's amazing how many authors' books I've been handling for years without ever once bothering to crack them open. And that's with me cracking open so many books that I've come to think of it warmly as my side job at the library.

But even with this, I know much about these unread (by me) authors. I somehow acquire a rough sense of what they write, I know the approximate level of their popularity, and, if their name comes up in conversation, in any context, images of their book covers and book spines immediately flash through my mind. It may be a product of sheer osmosis. After all, I spend most of my days with their books.

And that is how I knew someone was messing with the Karin Slaughter mysteries.

The first incident could have been a mere coincidence. I suppose I maybe thought that was the case at the time. But something about it registered in me.

I turned the corner of the S's in our mystery section. A book had dropped in an ungainly fashion from the third shelf. It lay sprawled awkwardly on the floor. It was by Karin Slaughter.

Fallen was its name.


Thinking, as I said, that it was likely an amusing coincidence, I nevertheless approached that section with consciousness and a wary eye the next day. Everything was on the shelf, which was good, but clearly something was amiss with one of the books, which was not so good. The book was standing in its space, but the top half was sort of piled on the bottom half, not quite whole. Mysteriously the book looked as if it had been snapped in half, like some immensely powerful person had bent it with massive force until it split. To this day I have no idea how this feat was accomplished. The book? By Karin Slaughter.

Broken was its name.

I brought this information to an array of colleagues and supervisors. No four alarm emergency was sounded, but there was much clucking of tongues and very general admonitions to keep an eye out.

Day three brought me to the Karin Slaughters once more, and this time everything looked fine. But I had a feeling that we weren't finished. I was sure that something would be wrong if I could only solve the puzzle. On a hint of a suspicion I removed one of the books. Pulling it out, the entire book fell to pieces in my hands, every page disassembled from the binding, no part of the book anymore attached to any other part of the book. It was a mess as it spilled madly out of my hands.


I brought these pieces of a book, this former book, this heap of a book, once Undone, now undone, and showed a manager. "Can we view our security system?" I asked. I was as eager to apprehend this book vandal as I was to see how this person preformed these acts of destruction. Long story short, reviewing security footage is considered a pretty big deal. It was decided we would look if there was one more act of book destruction.

At this point I don't know what drove me most, the search for justice, the amusing, game-like puzzles, or the mystery of how these elaborate word matched vandalisms were accomplished, but I was pretty ramped up to see what the mystery section had in store for me on day 4. I raced upstairs, combed the Karin Slaughter books carefully and methodically, and came up with... nothing. I was pretty disappointed. But then I realized I was underrating this bizarre master criminal. Something, just something had to be up. I decided I needed to stop and really think about it. So I did. I thought hard. Nothing. I raised my eyes to the ceiling to think harder and, I saw something. It was a little corner sticking out from on top of one of the hanging fluorescent light fixtures. Excited, I jumped up to try and grab it. Almost. I tried several more times. I think I almost knocked it once. I got one of our little black stools, but I couldn't quite get to it. I rounded up a taller person. Again, almost. Finally we had to go get a ladder to bring it down. Even then, it was curiously difficult to get a hold of. It was, of course, a Karin Slaughter book.

Beyond Reach.

I brought this up with the supervisors. Our hands were tied because there was no damage to the book. We needed another ruined book to act. There was nothing wrong with our copy of Beyond Reach.

I lost my enthusiasm. Clearly this person was too wily for us. I even sort of felt like the whole prank had probably run its course. Nevertheless, after a couple of days off, I figured I should check the Karin Slaughters one more time. Once again it seemed like there was nothing, just a rather usual, book sized gap. But I knew what book belonged there and what it meant.

Unseen, by Karin Slaughter, was nowhere to be found.

I no longer look carefully at the Karin Slaughters. You might even say I sort of hurry through them. But sometimes, up in the mystery stacks, I find myself, in off moments, just sort of feeling around. Like, as if one day my hand might light upon an invisible book, physical, but unseen. But to this day, I have never found it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Your Library Guide

Occasionally it occurs to me that not everyone is inured to the detailed workings of libraries. There are people out there, even ones who read my missives, who have not spent 20 years deep in the minutiae of library life, philosophy, politics, and operations. Whereas Jason Bourne may size up hundreds of details of risk in just the moment of entering a room, so I can walk into a library and sum up its collection, staff, and procedural limitations in mere seconds. Even not in a library I can give a nearly instantaneous general accounting of the reading materials in any room I'm in or have recently have been in just as Bourne can tell you where a gun is most likely to be hidden.

Because of this it can at times be difficult for me to imagine the confusion that people face in their encounters with libraries. Culturally, we the people are most acquainted with commercial institutions. We know what it means to be lured and sold to. We understand the spaces related to that. We also have an acquaintance with mystifying, machine like bureaucracies that insist on our participation and resent us at the same time. We even have a fair amount of peculiar overlap between the two. But the library is an unfamiliar creature to us. 

The library is a nearly imaginary glimpse of a reality in which we, collectively, as people, are not assholes.

Yes, that is a pungent way of putting it, but the collective endeavors of humanity, while presenting some amazing and much vaunted exceptions, are probably best described by the word "sick". I don't mean "sick" in the contemporary slang sense of "Wow, that nollie 360 heelflip was sick!", but more in the conventional usage of "Wait, they were put to death for skateboarding? But that's sick!" We the people hold within us the power to make a paradise, a wonderland, a garden. But unfortunately we have found thumbscrews irresistible and it's all sort of run away with us. 

But there stands the library, maybe a million of them in the world, like something from a really lovely passage in an Ursula K. LeGuin novel where you think "What a beautiful idea. If only something like that really existed in the world." Well, this one does, but it is so sweet hearted and visionary and better than us that it can be a trifle difficult to navigate. Plus it is entirely run by people who mostly live in that culture of marketing and bureaucracy and so perches precariously on the edge of them, ever in danger, ever compromising, ever trying to hang on.

Your library is real so it looks like the world. It is just another building, another government entitlement, a hard coded symbol of human culture. It is just a place in your city. It is not so fancy, or beautiful, usually. A lot of these books smell. Some of the workers there are friendly. Some are not. The library may or may not have what you wanted today. It might be noisy. It might be closed. It might let you down.

So it may be hard for you to see what is at hand when you go to a library. But I am a student of them, and I am here to tell you.

When you walk into the library, any open, free library, anywhere on earth, on any day at all, you walk into a miracle.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wee sized comedy for the children's room

Up at the Children's desk they keep an aquarium full of caterpillars and milkweed. When the caterpillars have gorged themselves on milkweed they like to hang from the ceiling of the aquarium. Presumably this helps them digest. I have become fond of these sleepy caterpillars and every morning I go into the kid's room to see how they're doing. Usually not too much is up, but today, disaster struck. 

I walked into the children's room, looked into the aquarium, and cried out in horror.

"Oh my god! Butterflies have gotten into the aquarium and they've eaten all the caterpillars!"

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The written joke

How many jokes do I make each day at the library?

One hundred forty-eight.

See, there was one. That was probably about average, in terms of sheer comedy. Did you miss it? It was where I gave a specific... oh, okay then.

Anyway, how often do I tell one of these jokes to you here?

Once every ninety-seven days.

Sometimes the joke I tell at the library is featured, as in, sort of, later on in this post (you'll see), but occasionally the joke is just dropped into a post because it's hanging around and easy to grab and fits in some greater scheme I've got going. Oh, I've got all sorts of schemes going on in these blog posts. Huge schemes. Big, big plans. But the main thing here is that all this means that I only tell you one out of every 14,356 jokes I make at the library.

So, naturally, you would think then that that joke would be really, really good.

Alas, it doesn't work like that. 

Most of my library jokes are highly contextual. They rely on everything being just so all around them. All the people have to be in the right place, the background meaning of the discussion has to be conveyed, and the array of lead set up lines have to be carefully trotted out and timed correctly. In life all this just happens. Here, setting up this elaborate stage reproduction is overwhelming. It is stiff, cumbersome and odd. It makes my quip look tiny in all the vast machinery of having it make sense. So I don't tell you hardly any of those jokes.

But every once in awhile I tell a joke that's more like, well, a joke. It's mostly free of context, or more likely it works without most of that context and so has an easy set up to it. But most of those jokes don't register with me. I tell it. If all goes well I get a laugh, and we are on to other things.

Besides, I have bigger fish to fry. Huge fish.

That is, unless something goes wrong with one of these jokes. What if I like the joke, but, in telling it around, I can't get it to work right. I rewrite it. It falls flat. I redesign it. I hunt down fresh co-workers to joke test. Maybe I finally get it. I tell it just right. I get the laugh, and, after all that repetition and labor, I remember the joke. If I really like it I might even tell you it, if I'm feeling that way.

"Which way?" you ask.

Whimsical, usually. Sometimes I feel just a little... whimsical.

But today I told a joke and I couldn't get it to work right. It had a weird sort of joke that was simultaneous with a pun and the whole thing was too hard to get. It was easy to get half the joke, and that caused people not to look for the second half of it, eager as they were for the part where they were being told a joke to be over. I fussed with it, but soon realized it might be a better joke written. Or, that's what I wanted to try.

But where, I wondered, could I put a written joke?

I couldn't think of anywhere.

So here is the joke:

I don't think it is a good idea that we check out video games to children. They are way too impressionable. I've seen problems already. We have been checking out tons of copies of Minecraft to these impressionable children, and now all the kids at our library are minors.


Hmm, maybe it still doesn't work. I think it's just too much joke in too small a space.

Unless, of course, you thought it was funny.

But I hardly dare to dream.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How I greet a cat

I am not a casual toucher. I do not reach over instinctively when I am talking to you and pat your upper arm as I make some warm point. Outside of my wife my inclination is to avoid physical contact with others. I am not overwhelmed by this aversion. If some man I found a library book for puts out his hand I will shake it without horror. I may hug an old friend after long parting. There is often some hand shaking when I am formally introduced to someone. But my main point is I do not gravitate towards touch. I do not seek it out.

Indeed of all the beings of this world (again, excepting my wife), there is no one and nothing freely ambulatory I seek contact with.

And then there are cats.

No matter if I am introduced to one in someone's house, or wander upon one randomly in the world, if they are open to it, and it is always their decision, I pet them. I pet them, I pat them, I stroke them. They rub against me, or purr, or lean, or just look inscrutable.

The great majority of cats I engage with are complete strangers to me. They, like me, may be wandering about the neighborhood. They may be traveling through my yard, or hanging out on their front stoop, or resting between wild hunts. I see a cat, and if the cat's inclination is not away from me, I abandon what I'm doing for a moment. I crouch down. I make some invitation, just looking, or rubbing a few fingers together, or a small click with my tongue. The cat, a complete stranger, darts over, but it is a cat, so there is always at least some sauntering in the darting. We pause near each other at a respectful distance. My hand moves slowly towards. It pauses until it is allowed. I pet.

We are dear friends for 30 seconds. We are old friends. We hang out on the sidewalk, or wherever we are.

And then, with only the smallest regret, we part, and go on.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Trying not to pretend

Someone told me the other day about Jackson Browne describing himself as a recovering people pleaser. This set off a complicated array of responses all at once in my brain. 

Does this happen to you? Someone tells you something, or you hear something, or someone asks you something, and there is no singular response in your brain. There is a constellation of responses in your brain. There isn't merely "Oh, I'm a people pleaser too." because that's just one of the stars in the constellation. It's true, but it doesn't exactly make sense on its own. It's part of a group. It belongs next to "How can a person play music for others and not be a people pleaser?" which belongs next to "Isn't there something at the core that's helpful and good and essential about people pleasing before it spins off into being self-abnegating and destructive?" and that stands next to "Where am I now on that continuum?" and that stands next to "I understand."

A constellation.

And like any constellation it can be hard to make sense of it. Its order is unique, complicated, and difficult to analogize. Yes, I guess the Big Dipper is a dipper (a dipper! Do we even talk about dippers to begin with? "If you'd like a cup of soup hand me over the dipper. No, no, not the little dipper, the Big Dipper", and the Big Dipper is just part of a constellation), but Libra, Cassiopeia, Lyra, they all have their stories and come with conceptions of what their cluster of stars is supposed to represent, but what was it Kurt Vonnegut said? "No damn cat, no damn cradle." Cassiopeia is a sprawled and ungainly "W", Libra is a terribly drawn house, Lyra some sort of necktie, and all of those only if you work at it. In the end if you want to learn those constellations you have to learn them on their own terms. No  picture defines them. They have no sense but their own.

And these are merely the constellations, finite, with only a set number visible in our skies. In life half the questions we hear, all our feelings, most of what we really think, is its own constellation. And these are infinite in number, all new like snowflakes and demanding learning and expression on their own terms. 

We are not visionaries, the world is mad, and so often, perhaps nearly always, we are forced, or defeated, to relent, to pick perhaps the brightest or clearest or easiest to see and explain star, and let that stand for our constellation, our answer, clear, expedient, explainable, and readily understood.

Perhaps that is people pleasing.

And then sometimes all those tiny, harmless quarter truths are too much for us. We are beset by hollowness and disconnection. The right person asks how we are and we dare to try to tell them. We look at the sky and into our souls. We write songs, poems, letters and dreams. We tell someone who we love what is deep in our hearts. We try to say the constellation. We find some way to say the whole thing.

Recovering people pleasers. But the world demands just the single star, and the quarter truths rise again to our knees, our waists, and we once more are overwhelmed. We reach for something bigger and then we go back to pretending. We fight and give in.

And then the morning light comes streaming in, and we get up and do it again.


Sunday, August 24, 2014


Some melancholy morning. It's gray and warm out, rising to its strange, steaming August heat. I walk in the staff entrance of the library and it's dark and empty though I know staff is scattered out in the building. The library is cool and quiet. I don't want to be here. I don't think I want to be anywhere today. But life has a way of pulling one forward. I empty bins because I don't have the energy not to. When the library opens I am out at the front desk for two hours. A minute before we open I sit down and look out on the big empty space. It is more quiet than a library. A place, books, sleeping computers, a morning. The lights go on. One of my colleagues opens the gates. A hundred people flood into the library with an urgency that's hard for me to understand today. Ten seconds and we have instant library. Add people and mix. We go from closed to the feeling that the library has been open forever, out of time, endless.

I help a lot of people. A man tells me Elvis died today. He wants to know what year. I tell him 1977. A long time ago he says. A long time ago.

Many of my colleagues are off on vacation so I work with a lot of substitutes. This increases the number of questions I answer, problems I solve. Easy questions, easy problems. I am subdued. Less jokes. Quiet smiles. Is this hard? I don't know if this is hard, but I am good at my job, such as it is. Today I am not sure how much that matters.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The contraption of joy

A week after vacation I am still struggling to adapt back to work at the library. But part of me understands that what I really came back with from vacation (besides tanned forearms and blog posts about flies) is the illusion that I was ever adapted to this. I wasn't. I was merely operating a vast array of working coping mechanisms, a bevvy of small tricks, elaborate complicated schemes and devices to create a sense in myself of semi enjoyable workdays. It is not my native work equilibrium, or my unhindered joy in library work and libraries that I am trying to get back to, it is a vast, bizarre, Rube Goldberg assembly of carefully balanced idiosyncrasies, a wild protocol of levers and knobs and interpretations of reality that has to be meticulously reassembled. Put another way, juggling two balls makes for a long, monotonous, hard to get through day, but put seven balls in play and there is challenge, intrigue, skill development, despair, thrills, dizziness, anxiety, comedy, emotional rushes, and blog posts.

Ah the blog posts.

I just have to get all these balls going, set up the contraption, load it with eggs and ice cubes and post it notes, small bean bags, and matches.

Here's how it works:

I have an hour of shelving. I can't enjoy that. It's tedious. And what's all that annoying whispering. And why are there so many books everywhere?

Step one: Pull out a book, the newest Bridget Jones one, and read it for a bit. Darcy is dead! Bridget is still funny. This concentration causes me to acutely understand that those patrons' whispering is bugging me.

Step two: Shelve closer to the whispering in order to try and hear them saying something incriminating. Perhaps I will be able to make fun of them later. It turns out to be a small child talking to her mother about cheese. It's cute! And though she doesn't really have the quiet part of whispering down yet, at least she's trying.

Step three: Which reminds me of a joke I told D. earlier that was so funny! What was it? I could make an easy blog post out of it. The more I can't remember the joke the funnier it gets. Soon it is frustratingly hilarious!

Step four: Shelve angrily and fast as I hopelessly struggle to remember. The rage shelving seems to deter patrons from using my aisle as a walk-through. This calms me down.

Step five: Calming down somehow gives me an idea for a blog post about adapting back to library work. I start writing it on post it notes, peering out of the spaces in shelves to make sure I have a safe workspace.

Step six: Peering makes me feel sneaky. I decide to speed shelve to even things out and thus feel like an honorable worker for a bit once again.

Step seven: Speed shelving as fast as I can I suddenly wonder what time it is. Gaaahh! (as Bridget Jones would say). It's lunch time!

Just keep them all going and everything will be okay.

So maybe this job isn't so bad in the end. But then, after all, I'm so well suited to library work. 

It's my nature.

Friday, August 22, 2014


Sorry about the trick title. I am well aware that all people are fascinated by the cities of Ohio, and that some of you will be disappointed to learn that "Cleveland" refers to the author of the book I'm going to discuss, not the city. Yes some of you may be inclined to throw this post down in disgust, but I'm guessing you won't be able to. "Fine" You will say. "It may not be about Cleveland, Ohio, but if the author's name is Cleveland he must be some kind of author!"

He's pretty good. Of all my vacation reading Cleveland Amory's The Cat Who Came For Christmas has been one of the real surprise pleasures. It is the author's story of rescuing a stray white cat on the streets of New York City and of their first year together.

I have been on a quest for The Great Cat Book for some time now. I have discussed how Great Dog Books exist, but The Great Cat Book remains strangely elusive. As a person enormously fond of cats and generally unhappy about dogs, this has always, even though I have my theories, been strange to me. And I would so dearly love to find a corrective.

About a third of the way through The Cat Who Came For Christmas I thought I could possibly, maybe, hopefully be in the presence of The Great Cat Book. The writer is a good one. He is distinctly charming. It is consistently about a specific cat (Polar Bear is his name) rather than being, as can be an occasional problem in cat books, about cats in general or about things around the cat under the guise of being about the cat. Nevertheless, despite being about Polar Bear the cat, it is also often about our author in relation to the cat and includes interesting things about his life as the head of an Animal Protection Organization. It never gets carried away about this though, and keeps it largely to how his personal and professional endeavors relate to his cat ownership. It includes just the right amount of cat lore, background on cats, and excellent quotes about cats. And furthermore, The Cat Who Came For Christmas regularly makes use of a charming conceit that involves discussions between Cleveland Amory and Polar Bear in which the cat is not ridiculously made to speak, but one in which he is presumed to make himself clear in a kind of heightened interpretation that mostly rings true and is quite acceptable the rest of the time.

So with all the ducks, er, kittens in a row, what keeps Mr. Amory's book from cracking into The Great Cat Book pantheon that currently consists of precisely zero books?

I am sad to say, the answer is Polar Bear the cat. Would I like this cat in person? Yes, sure, if I could get him to come out from under the sofa to talk to me. Do I like him in the book? Yes, he seems like a fine enough cat as cats go. But, remember, I am a cat lover. For greatness a cat book will need a memorable cat, a cat that defies type, expands type, undercuts type, and deepens type. Polar Bear the cat never really surprises us, or dazzles us. He is a cat, shy of strangers, fierce about his routines, capable of occasional charms, and not interested. A cat.

Mutt, from the great Farley Mowat book The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, a Great Dog Book, is an animal I will never forget. Polar Bear the cat is just one of those cats watching me balefully from some neighbor's from window as I walk in my city.

The Cat Who Came For Christmas rises on its many virtues, but it falls back to earth on its principle subject. It is still a fine and entertaining book, and I readily recommend it. Beyond itself and the engaging and interesting (but alas, more general) Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, there are precious few excellent cat books to choose from, making The Cat Who Came For Christmas all the more valuable. So read it indeed, and enjoy it, but know that the ultimate magic eludes it in the end, and the great crown of cat books remains, to my regret, unclaimed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mind made up

The vacation book I am currently in the middle of is Mama Makes Up Her Mind by Bailey White. These are short essays verging on short stories. It's non fiction and funny and clear, and you know she's making up a fair bit of it all, but you're willing to take it that embellishment is merely an ingredient. Just because there's a full cup of lying added in every once in awhile doesn't mean they aren't true stories. I mean if you like them. I like them.

I probably read this book a couple of times 20 years ago. It's mostly new to me, but in a very familiar way. When I listed Mama as one of the books I would be reading this vacation I alluded to Ms White's essays as being blog posts. And they do seem right up my alley, musing, watching carefully, the whole thing where you think it's a line, but it's a circle. But there's a bit more story to them. Sometimes they're almost like short, short stories. I've been aware lately, running through old posts of mine, that my blog posts are light on incident and story. Mine hew towards what I think about things, and all that story stuff, well, if you're not careful, it can take the ball right out of your hands.

I like the ball.

I think Bailey White likes the ball too, but she's willing to roll it down the hill more often. I prefer to throw it against a wall, or hurl it straight up into the air.

Well, either way, if it comes back to you, it's yours.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What I read for my summer vacation

Yes, right, the post vacation responsibilities. 

I have reported, as promised, on whether I saw mooses (it was all a trick to distract the nature gods, or, um, alternately, no). I have typed in all my handwritten blog posts and sent the paper copies to the National Trust For Pointless Storage in Bethesda, Maryland. I put away my boat which is now folded up under the basement stairs awaiting its comforting festoon of dead bugs. And, most recently, I reintroduced myself to fiction shelving at the library by crying a bit, staring blankly at a wall of books, and saying quietly to myself "Oh my god. I can't believe I do this every single day. It is the most boring... ohhh! What's this book?!!" 

But I have one small item of business left. 

On the first day of vacation I collected a small library of books for my vacation reading, and I cataloged them here on blog. Being away for a couple weeks from the massive, constant smorgasbord of reading that is the library I work at, gave me an opportunity to specifically see what I actually read for a short time. I am here to report today. I had 13 books that I listed, along with my prospects for reading them. I will re-list them here, and I will put my new comments in easy to read italicized bold (see how easy that was to read?).

Vacation books for 18 days (in no order)

1. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett 

I am, as you will see, on a strong Terry Pratchett kick. I consider this likely to be read.

Yes, I did, I read it. I always feel a small sense of pride finishing his books. I find most of them weirdly demanding and then occasionally as riveting and rewarding as literature can get, but, you know, only in unpredictable spots that I sometimes have to tough it out for. So, more like Tolstoy, oddly, than, well, Jasper Fforde.

2. Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Also likely to be read.

Yep, I read this too. Has the witches in it. I do best with the witches.

3. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

I am least interested in this one and expect my Terry Pratchett binge to fizz out here.

I am like a seer! I never so much as lifted this book.

4. Congo by Michael Crichton

Once upon a time I found his books super compelling, but never read this one, so I thought I might like to see...

Well, I still might like to see, but I never wanted to see while on vacation.

5. Hercule Poirot The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie

Read the first fifth or so of these before getting sidetracked. I feel there is a good chance I will read more of these.

Oddly I read the same first fifth of these stories (there are, like, 700 pages of them) and in each of those stories at some point I would say "Oh, I already read this one." And then I would finish it. I also read maybe the second fifth of these lovely stories.

6. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Looked good while shelving, but I consider it the absolute least likely to be read of all these books

What looks good while shelving is unrecognizably different than what looks good when one is picking something to actually read. Plus I did some background research on this book and it was very unconvincing. The consensus seemed to be that the author wrote a splendid book of short stories followed by this vastly less convincing or interesting novel.

7. How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn

Also pretty unlikely, but I am looking for some scenic magic I think.

I gave this a real try, maybe 40 or 50 pages worth. It gave me the feeling that it was sort of an iconic template for something familiar, something to do with working class family mining generational rifts in labor movement factory town type situations. And with that came the feeling that I somehow read it already 30 times and so desperately wished that someone in the book would do something different for once. For 40 or 50 pages they didn't.

8. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter

Also pretty unlikely, but I am looking for some scenic magic I think.

Oops. I researched and found that I had accidentally taken home a book by a truly terrible person! I was far too grossed out to read it.

9. The Cat Who Came For Christmas by Cleveland Amory

No, not a mystery, an eighties bestseller (though I would have guessed sixties!). I am still searching for the great cat book. It's like a quest!

Yes. I read it. I even wrote a blog post about it, but, briefly, it was charming.

10. Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

It seems like every single time I shelve in fiction, I shelve this book. I have finally succumb.

Succumbed to checking it out, but held firm in all other respects.

11. The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

Advance reading copy of an absolute favorite author's new book. I have had it, thanks to Marcus, for a couple weeks and have been holding off on reading it for the lake house. This is the single book I feel absolutely certain that I will read. It is the third in a fabulous YA series (Chronicles of Kazam), and I was going to read the first two in preparation, but, a. I can't find them though I thought I had them here somewhere, and, b. I remember them pretty clearly since I read them like four times last summer.

Yes, yes, and, predictably it was totally engaging. Uncommonly it ends on a cliff hanger, but, Mr Fforde, who rarely indulges too much in that sort of thing, has earned the right with me.

12. Mama Makes Up Her Mind by Bailey White

Late addition of a witty, tone rich nineties bestseller that I found laying around when I went to gather these books for this blog post. The book is basically blog posts, or, well, all right, short essays. I am surprised to see this is the only reread on my list.

I quite liked it. Wrote a blog post about it.

13. New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Surprise addition to the terrific urban fantasy series (Night Watch, which is curiously unrelated to my book number three!). Immensely and enjoyably Russian.

Yes, I read this with great pleasure. As good as I remember all the others. All aspects of it I find good, but the intense Russian flavor of it with all its philosophical bent is its very best quality.

These were also comments I had included: 

That's it, 13, and yet I am vaguely worried I don't have enough. I probably do have enough, but I also feel a strange compulsion to go pick up a copy of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. I don't know why. I thought I might like to reread them.

I think I wanted Cannery Row because I had a premonition I'd spend a fair amount of time on vacation at a dockside cafe, eating fish n chips in a place that, at peculiar times, felt amazingly similar to an old Northern Californian fishing village. I did read a few other things on vacation. Notably, Indivisible by Four by Arnold Steinhardt, which was a completely engaging memoir of life in a very well esteemed and successful string quartet. I read assorted short stories from a couple collections, of which only Faulkner's Rose for Emily stuck with me. I read other bits of things because it is impossible to stop me from doing that, and I might be able to dredge up some of them if I had to, but I think this will do well enough for my complete report.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Same and different

I don't know how we are changed. And I am not prepared, sitting by the great V of windows on our last morning at the lake house, to take any real look at that. But there is one kind of change I'd like to speak to. It suggests that we are immutable. That there is only acceptance, self-understanding, and the order of ourselves. Sideways, we are a block, but turned 45 degrees the world flows through us. It is essential change, yes, but, isolated, we are unaltered.

Of course, we are not isolated.

I only have a short time before we must pack up and leave the lake house for the year. And my attention is partly pulled by the last views of Lake Superior, with beautiful sweeps of wind made visible as they move along the surface of the lake.

So I'll just say this:

When I am home sometimes, late at night, I stay up too late fussing with my computer. In the basement, glowing lightly, I do one more read through, one more edit, one more search, one more bit of entertainment, one more... click.

At the lake house, however, I go to bed early. Altered perhaps by peace, I go to sleep a little after it is fully dark, and I awaken, well, a while after the light, when the flies tell me to. But after six nights of going to bed early, one night a long, slow thunderstorm rolled around in the north woods behind us, moved past our house, and eased onto the lake. Sitting in the full dark my wife and I watched it until she went to bed and I was alone. It was late. The storms had spread far out across the dark horizon. Every few minutes there was a brilliant flash of light. Depending on the source sometimes it was diffuse, sometimes it was thrillingly blinding, seeming, in my pop culture infused brain, to reveal all the skeletons of the world. Do pine trees have skeletons? It appeared that way to me. And sometimes, when the lightning struck, I could see it ribboning across the sky and down into the lake. This would be followed by slow thunder, deep and rising and oddly gentle.

I knew I needed to go to bed, but I couldn't tear myself away from my perch at the edge of the windows, gazing out eagerly into the deep night of the lakestorm.

"One more dazzling flash and I'll go to bed."

And then, wham and crash.

And then,

"One more dazzling flash and I'll go to bed."

On into the night.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What we were really looking for

Let us take a little trip into the great Boreal Forest. Here and there I have been reading things about this Boreal Forest, but only in passing, so I am not clear on what it is. But I'm pretty sure it extends from the end of our balcony, overlooking Lake Superior, all the way, uninterrupted, to just shy of the North Pole. If I decide at dusk not to look at our roaring fire, or at the hazy sunset glowing lake, I can look into a dense wall of trees, mostly pines. There is that one white birch just outside the forest, but that's like a marker for the beginning of the Boreal Forest. If I could see forever I could count all the pines in this single forest that runs from us to the top of the world. I could tell you the exact number of trees, but you could not understand it. No, I could not understand it either. The number is too big. They say there is one tree for every wave that ever rolled across Lake Superior's surface. They say there is one tree for every time anyone has thought of a forest. We have no idea what these numbers are. They are too large. I max out at the comprehension of numbers somewhere in the upper eighties. You may do far better than I, but believe me, you cannot handle these trees. 

So let's step into these woods. Only in summer, only if the mosquitoes are lying low, only for an hour, only if there aren't too many people, only if there is no rain, only if the trail is good, only if it is not too hot, and only by day.

We will take it exactly as it comes.

We are in the forest now. Forget the number of trees. Forget the North Pole. Forget the rain that is not raining. Forget the mosquitoes that are not biting. Forget the night. Forget the winter.

We are only here now, and there is only one thing for us now. Where is the moose?

There is not a single moment where we do not search for the moose. Why? We are not going to see a moose. No, this is the moose trick. A classic scheme of misdirection. We set the whole forest looking for moose, and the forest, in turn, forgets to hide itself.

No, not animals, no birds, no squirrels, no frogs, or minks, or bears, the Boreal Forest is empty today. All the animals of the Boreal Forest are on summer vacation. But keep looking for moose and there are yellow mushrooms and red mushrooms and mushrooms that look like the coral in the Great Barrier Reef. There are chasms and waterfalls and little berries you'd have to be crazy to eat. There are white trees and black trees, and holes that the world mysteriously disappears into, white flowers and leaves forever and red stone polished by water and the root of trees spelling out complicated ruminations on the edges of cliffs. My knees are weak. All these beautiful, marvelous, wonderful things with us in the Boreal Forest. All so helpful looking for moose that are not there.

And then there is one berry. Just one. I pick it. I think it might be a raspberry because it still might sort of be raspberry season. I roll the fruit in my fingers. I smell it. All the way into August it is not a raspberry, but a strawberry. I eat it.

THAT is what I was looking for. The trees may stand uncounted. The moose can relax now. We are done here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

All love and war

One of my pre vacation blog projects was to gather a concise library of books for my 18 days of vacation, catalog them (in a blog post), and then report back at the end on what I read. I was thinking of the project as a small, concise snapshot of my reading, a census, one that I so rarely have the opportunity to take amidst the absolute mad tumult of my reading life that I live among when I am closely tied to all the endless available wordlery of the library.

Not long ago I read about someone who calculated how many books they could, or would, be likely to read in a lifetime. I think the main point of this was that if one is so strictly limited by this number, this finite number, wouldn't one want to think very carefully about what one reads? There is a kind of obvious, virtuous sense in this, but it doesn't take long for my heart to start rejecting it. For all its magic and misery the whole of literature is neither that great nor that horrible. It is life. It is beyond any calculus. And even if it were calculable for some pure and diligent readers, my war has always been with just that. I am a youngest son, an acolyte of the trickster gods. I refuse calculation and sneak in to grab prime numbers from the jaws of accounting. I steal pieces of books, their secrets, their unguarded treasures. I follow the lessons of the old ladies at the side of the road. I know that good reading, the reading that makes you better, is about love.

Well, love and war. You have to fight to understand, to pull forth, to let go. You have to fight for love.

And a little stealing works for me too. If I can steal the heart of a book in 25 pages I will do it.

All these things are readily apparent to me as I spend a few days with my vacation reading.

And also it is clear that one blog post may not be adequate to report on all these books of my vacation. Each book fills me with blog posts. No, not book reviews, rather visions, cheats, tricks, opinions, love, and war.

I had 13 books lined up. I don't think I will write a post for each book, but I will for some, because they are talking to me, and I want to talk back.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

More superior things

I suspect that it is not possible to describe beautiful things. I may even have a go at it a couple of times in this essay, but I'll keep my senses about me; it will only be in the service of other things.

Today we saw the most beautiful thing ever. There are many most beautiful things ever, but they are not at all common. If you do not feel a thrill, a sense of unbelieving excitement, you are not seeing a most beautiful thing ever. The most beautiful things ever can be widely diverse and can come in a vast array of forms and through utterly disparate situations, but I have marked some commonalities. The main one is how when something crosses from dazzling and lovely to astounding and riveting and miraculous, when it becomes a most beautiful thing ever, it loses all comparability. All the billions and endless billions of most beautiful things ever stand together on the same celestial plateau, utterly and blissfully unaware of each other, and beyond even the possibility of competition.

Another intrinsic commonality of the most beautiful things ever is that they have to have steps to them. You may walk upon the most idyllic scene in the history of nature, but without steps it will be nothing more than a gorgeous view. The human ascent to the plateau of the most beautiful thing ever cannot be achieved in a single bound. It is too high for us. Our emotions and wonder must be elevated in stages and then exceeded.

I will give you a small, old example to explain.

Grape and I are backpacking in the Sierras with a collection of our assorted brothers of various quality. We have gone off in the afternoon alone from our camp to explore. We wander far afield up in the clear high country of the John Muir Wilderness, beyond the tree line. After a few hours of pleasant exploring the sky is starting to look fierce and ominous, so we reluctantly head back towards camp. We come up over a rise into a profoundly delightful little hidden alpine valley, a descending set of otherworldly grassy bowls, punctuated by luminous granite, vivid small ponds, and a multicolored snow of wildflowers, everything so weirdly gentle and fierce and clear and tidy and wild. We gawp at each other. "What paradise is this?" Our eyes ask. But it is like I said, it may be the most idyllic scene nature ever devised, but steps are required. So as we stand marveling a small herd of deer gambols playfully into the valley. Five of them. Our hearts hesitate and then burst. We struggle to assimilate reality. Now we are ready. Three perfect bolts of lightning crash out in the back of the valley behind the frolicking deer.

Most beautiful thing ever!

It is tempting to say that the most beautiful thing ever is not out there. It is purely in us. But, no, it is most emphatically out there. It's just that it is also in us. They have to talk to each other. I know that can sound strange, but our thrill has to converse with the events of the world and the events of the world must answer back.

Like I said, it doesn't happen often.

What happened today? Well, it is not possible to describe beautiful things, but here it is anyway, a story at least.

My wife said "I think it's raining." And for no reason I can really account for we were immediately thrilled by this. We leaped up. The sky was mostly sunny, but thick, heavy rain was falling in discrete and definite patches. This alone seemed like a great wonder. Rain fell abundantly on the east side of the house, pouring off the roof in a steady curtain. Rain did not fall on the west side of the house, but out in that direction, on the lake not far from shore, was another thick patch of rainfall. Lake Superior was calm and smooth but for that patch, a few hundred yards there and across, churned by abundant rain like it was swollen with a dense school of small, swarming fish. And as each huge raindrop fell on the water it burst into a bright flash of silver. The water was dancing and full of sparks and we were exclaiming excitedly and running out on our balcony to see better. When we got there there was a rainbow in the water. The rain patch spread and the rainbow flowed into the sky until the arc of it climbed back away further than we could see. And it ended before us, on the surface of they lake, in a pool of glowing golden light.

It was the most beautiful thing ever. 

Although that's kind of silly because you can't really compare it to anything. Hell, I can't even tell you about it, even if I just did.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Bad weather

Perhaps as we are to the people who live on the north shore of Lake Superior all year round, so are all these Sunday people to us. On Thursday or Friday or even Saturday we may see as few as three or two or one or even no boats in a whole day. Our vast and epic view of something so elegantly spare and enormous and quiet is hardly touched, a single seagull heading into Grand Marais is of remarkable interest. Not so on Sunday. At one point I could see eight different boats spread out across the waters. Granted that's among one or two hundred square miles that my eyes can cast over. But then that's the thing about spending a week here, for one day a person is just a wandering visitor, but after three days one really starts to take possession. These are my 200 square miles. Just you keep to yours and we'll have no problems.

I did make an early argument at our lake house in defense of sailboats, feeling they are picturesque and traditional to holiday, vast water views. I am even now willing to stick with this defense so long as the sailboats are sailing. Granted the breeze here has never come to anything more than pleasant, but I have yet to see a sailboat with actual unfurled sails. Every one I have seen on this trip has been motoring along at a steady clip, to or from Grand Marais, their tall masts emptily and pointlessly sticking into the sky. I have decided a sailboat that even has a motor is cheating. I know that this is a very firm rule, but I can't help it. The longer I'm here the higher my standards go.

And so Sunday is much taken with watching slow passing boats, most of them fishing, a few thinking about sailing, but deciding that that's way too much work. I'd rather just look at the lake, but the boats have a way of drawing the eye. So I go downstairs and grab a book on shipwrecks of Lake Superior. I idly read through that. And on a calm and perfect Lake Superior summer Sunday, I dream of storms.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

They're not all about flies

I am willing to accept defeat at some things, but I was not inclined to take my ill fated and pestilential inflatable canoe excursion onto Lake Superior as a defeat. Against an array of minor but solid enough obstacles my wife and I did manged to take my boat out onto the waters of Lake Superior and paddle it around for a bit. That the experience was a blur of biting flies, miserable sweatiness, and foot cramps did not make the trip into a failure. A thick portion of triumph was written into the endeavor by the mere act of setting onto the water and floating. That it was not fun, or serene, or comfortable just meant that I was well done with all that success when we hurriedly abandoned my boat, barely above the shore, and beat a hasty retreat into the sweetness of our rental lake home.

My mission was accomplished. I was finished, and happy to be so.

So it came as a surprise to me to find myself restlessly looking down on the lake from the great bank of windows in our cabin's long main room. The lake looked unrealy calm. The sun was out and alone in the sky, but not feeling the least bit fierce. Everything looked not grand or glorious or wild or compelling. It all looked very, very...pleasant.

And I thought "My boat is just sitting down there, all ready, and right near the shore. I can roll up the pant legs of my jeans. I can take off my shoes and socks down on the rocks."

So in just two minutes I found myself floating alone on the great lake. I am horribly tempted to say that the water was like glass, but it wasn't quite. It was wet for one, and slow, small swells would roll through it, too wide and gentle to feel, but barely visible. The water was peculiarly easy to paddle on, its lack of waves and winds and currents seemed to give every stroke a kind of magical perfection.

There were no flies. It was not hot or cold, a gently haze seemed to soften everything. It was quiet. My green glass view of a rocky bottom was perfectly clear until, traveling out, at some precise depth, through some trick of the light, I could not see into the water at all.

It gave me one of the strangest, floating, dazzling feelings in my stomach that I have ever had in any sort of wild place ever. Looking back to the shore was interesting; my house, the other houses, the engagingly rough shore, and the shape of the land, but it was the looking out and away that put strange music into quiet reality. That placid water, endless before me, flatter than any land could ever be, featureless, infinite, and with me alone. I was paddling into something so peculiarly close to nothing, immense, full of water and air and nothing more. I paddled into that nothing, and as I did I caught sight of some tiny bit of debris, drifted or blown far out from land. It was the smallest speck, only made visible by the unfaltering, uninterrupted cleanness of Lake Superior's surface. Drawn, human, to imperfection, I paddled towards it.

I think I expected somehow a chip of bark, some tiny jot of forest debris, but that is not what I found. There, however far from a distant shore, alone, utterly, was a fly, sleeping on the surface of the water.

I did not disturb it, and I paddled slowly towards home.