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October 2010

Did you think I'd forget?

"The only three people in a sleeping world, a rare trio of tomcats, they basked in the moon.

'What happened?' asked Jim, at last.

'What didn't!' cried Dad.

And they laughed again, when suddenly Will grabbed Jim, held him tight, and wept.

'Hey,' Jim said, over and over, quietly. 'Hey...hey...'

'Oh Jim, Jim,' Will said. 'We'll be pals forever.'

'Sure, hey sure.' Jim was very quiet now.

'It's all right,' said Dad. 'Have a small cry. We're out of the woods. Then we'll laugh some more, going home.'"

I got my annual re-read of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes in just under the wire this year. It was particularly nice to read it after learning more about Ray Bradbury, and it was spectacular reading it with my own new young boy sleeping in my lap. I hope he grows up to have both a little Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade in him.

So: there's my autumn wish for you. I hope you can get out of whatever woods you're facing this week, and that then you can have a small cry but still end up laughing on your way home.

At long last.

A new essay collection from David Rakoff!

I love, love, LOVE David Rakoff. I love him like I love William Langewiesche; without reservation but with more than a smidgen of awe. Whenever people extoll the virtues of David Sedaris, I always take care to suggest Rakoff to them as well--I like Sedaris, but for my money, Rakoff is the superior stylist.

Rakoff You only have to look at the cover of Rakoff's new book, Half Empty, to know that it will be a pessimist's dream: there's a warning printed right on it that says "No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages." The essays contained within vary by subject--from Rakoff's stature as a small child to his attendance at a porn convention to a bout with cancer (his third)--but they are all beautifully written.

The writing is one thing, but I also love Rakoff's tone. His book jacket declares that he's the guy who looks at things "through a dark lens," but I think you'll find that even at his bleakest he has a surprising gentleness. Consider this thought, as he muses on the things that people say to him when they find out he's being treated for a tumor:

"But here's the point I want to make about the stuff people say. Unless someone looks you in the eye and hisses, 'You fucking asshole, I can't wait until you die of this,' people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation many times over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let's all give each other a pass, shall we?" (p. 217.)


The last paragraph of that essay's even better, but I won't spoil it. If you've never read him, it's time.

Anglophiles, take note.

Any good Anglophile worth their salt should be reading Diana Athill's memoirs.

Athill A while back I read and loved her recent memoir, Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir, about, well, her coming end (she wrote the book while in her nineties), so when I saw a new title by her, Instead of a Letter: A Memoir, in my library catalog, I snapped it up.

Turns out this one was originally published in 1962, but you'd never know that from reading it--unbelievably, it's not dated in any way. It's a coming-of-age memoir; Athill describes her very British childhood (growing up on a country estate, Beckton, even though her parents had no money), her love affair with a family friend named Paul, her years at Oxford, the break-up of her relationship with Paul, her civil work during World War II, and her accidental plunge into the career for which she was destined (book editor).

The country estate and Oxford* alone should make Anglophiles take notice, but outside of those stories, this is a fantastically interesting narrative, although Athill is self-deprecating in the extreme. This was another one where I didn't bother bookmarking good parts, because the whole thing was so enjoyable.** Although, not always enjoyable in a frothy way--more in a "holy shit, that's exactly the way I feel" way:

"Common sense forbade me to consider myself old while still in my twenties, but I felt old, and once past my thirtieth birthday I began to accept the feeling as rational. Most of my thirties were overshadowed, when I allowed myself to notice it, not only by my forties but by my old age: by a sense that there was nothing ahead but old age, by an awareness of the disabilities of old age, a shrinking when I watched an old person stepping carefully, painfully on to the curb of a pavement..."

The paragraph gets more hopeful after that, I promise. But that is a feeling I've had a MILLION times.

*Speaking of Oxford, if you're not watching the Inspector Lewis mysteries on Masterpiece Mystery, you're missing out. Every time they show London or Oxford I get a little homesick, which is awkward, considering I'm not from there.

**Although not always easy to read. Readers should take note: unlike most politicians who act like they are, Athill actually IS a straight shooter; she speaks frankly of her interest in sex as a young woman, as well as an abortion she has. She's not explicit or anything, but I just thought you should know.

The finest Berry collection to date.

Berry I'm very unhappy that I have to take Wendell Berry's essay collection What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth back to the library; it's overdue. I may have to break down and buy it--not only is it a fantastic collection of essays, it will now forever be connected in my memory with a time I've found somewhat trying but also memorable. By which I mean, I read most of this book after 3 a.m. baby feedings, when CRjr actually agreed to go back to sleep and I stayed up for a few additional moments, just to enjoy the quiet, the sense of being untethered that being up in the middle of the night gives you, and a granola bar.

The collection consists of five essays written recently, in 2009 (or 2006, in one case), and ten essays written up to several decades ago (1985, etc.). All have to do, ostensibly, with the economy, but they all have that special Wendell spin: looking at the economy in terms of not only money, but in terms of lifestyles and choices, as well as land and community stewardship.

They are, of course, sensational, which makes it all the sadder that the people who need to understand his principles the most will never read them. I didn't even bother to bookmark great passages (primarily because that would have involved heaving my ass off the couch, and I've done enough heaving around of my body and another little body the past few weeks), but also because there's a great passage on nearly every page. Here, I'll just open the book at random and I'm sure I'll find one:

"But the 'free market' idea introduces into government a sanction of an inequality that is not implicit in any idea of democratic liberty: namely that the 'free market' is freest to those who have the most money, and is not free at all to those with little or no money. Wal-Mart, for example, as a large corporation 'freely' competing against local, privately owned businesses, has virtually all the freedom, and its small competitors virtually none." (p. 182.)

Okay, I cheated a bit. That's from the essay "The Total Economy," the entire text of which is as brisk as that paragraph. Buy this one. Hand it out to people you know. Give it as a gift. Or, if nothing else, get it from the library and read it at 3 a.m., and be comforted that Wendell Berry is out there still saying the things he's saying.

Small-town life: is it for you?

Somewhere in the fog of our first few weeks with CRjr I read a nifty little book titled Habits of the Heartland: Smalltown Life in Modern America by Lyn C. Macgregor. I really enjoyed it, but as I read it in bits and pieces, primarily around 3 and 6 a.m., and with only the amount of attention left over after worrying about the baby (Is he eating right? Is he gaining weight? Who is the genius who gave me a tiny little frail thing to care for?), you'll forgive me if I can't remember much of it.

It's more of a sociological treatise* than it is a recreational read, and it's published by the Cornell University Press, so it may not be for everyone who likes their nonfiction more drenched in narrative. But it was fascinating, and very accessible to read. Macgregor spent a fair amount of time living and working in the small-town community of Viroqua, Wisconsin** (population 4000 and change), and reports back on the very different social groups she found interacting there--from the "Alternatives" who consciously chose Viroqua for its small-town values and its Waldorf school, to the "Regulars," long-time Viroqua families and residents who live there because they have always lived there.

Anyone with an interest in community life and how groups of people REALLY interact might find a lot to consider here. It was also interesting enough to take my mind off pressing issues like baby poo colors and the efficacy of varying swaddling techniques, which I must say I appreciated.

*You know you're a total nerd for sociological treatises when you find yourself reading books like this and recognizing text references by author names alone--"Hm, Putnam, I wonder if she means his book Bowling Alone." Yes, she did. I LOVE sociological treatises.

**Another reason for my interest. You don't find a whole lot of book-length sociological nonfiction about Wisconsin.

Fine propaganda.

I can't really say I'm enjoying the title The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.

This is not to say it doesn't contain some good and helpful information. But it's produced by La Leche League International, and let me tell you, these people are propagandists of the most skilled order. I'll take their information, but the multiple "testimonials" sprinkled throughout the text are almost more than I can stand. Consider:

"When I was two, my mother came home from the hospital cradling two mysterious bundles wrapped in soft blue blankets. One was my new baby brother. She handed me the other. Underneath the folds of that soft blanket was a beautiful doll, which my mother explained would be my special baby...

Twenty-five years later I gave birth to my first child. The day I came home, I sat in our wooden rocking chair, and as I held my son close and nursed him, he opened his eyes to gaze at me. At once, an overpowering recollection of that early childhood memory returned, and tears began to flow as I realized, 'THIS is what I have waited my whole life to do!'" (p. 3.)

Oh, brother. And that's just the first chapter. Numerous quotes follow, saying things like "my baby found the nipple all by herself!" "Latching is magical!" "Breastfeeding is the only reason to go on living!"

Okay, I made that last one up. But you get the idea. Call me cranky (you won't be the first to do so, or the last) but I'm looking for the breastfeeding manual with quotes like this:

"Like everything else in life, at times breastfeeding's going to be pretty tricky, and at times quite annoying, but hey, it can be good for the baby, and sometimes you might get a kick out of it, so hang in there."

Can anyone suggest a book like that for me?

CRjr 1, CR 0

I just wanted to pop in and apologize for the lack of posting, but there's a good reason: CRjr is kicking my ass. In the nicest possible way, of course. Let me just say to all parents out there? I have ALWAYS underestimated you. Anyone who gets a newborn safely through the first few months of life is officially now my new hero.

But please do stay tuned. I hope to get back to posting in the next few weeks. Although most of my reading right now has to do with what to expect in the first and second months and the "womanly art of breastfeeding" (no joking--that's the name of the book) and most of my time is spent stumbling around in a stupor (when I'm stumbling around half-awake at 3 a.m. it actually, weirdly, makes me feel young again--I remember doing that a lot in college for "all-nighters" and recreation), I am fitting in some other reading, mainly when I can con Mr. CR into holding CRjr. That is an easy task--Mr. CR could happily, I think, hold the baby for 24 hours straight--but CRjr simply seems to require a lot of holding.

But I will say this, by way of a preview: if you're up at 3 a.m., ever, consider reading some Wendell Berry. There is no more soothing voice in the middle of the long dark night. Trust me on this.