Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some Luck

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
(Knopf, 2014)
Format: library book

From Goodreads: "On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force."

Smiley has long been one of my most treasured modern writers, and Some Luck does everything to cement my love for her. I very quickly became part of Walter and Rosanna's family - one of the siblings, eager to get my own back at Frank (as a second-born myself, I found it essential to identify with poor Joe, who everyone discounts, but he proves them wrong.) The Langdon world is small but perfectly complete, and Smiley makes it easy to view each member through the shifting prisms of everyone else's perspective. Lillian's Henry is not Rosanna's Henry is not Claire's Henry, and yet each Henry is so perfectly Henry. If you get what I mean. 

Time for a couple of quotes, because Smiley can write a sentence that steals my breath and stills my heart:

  • "As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing - a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down." (The quiet communication between long-married partners, who do so much of their communicating silently but who understand each other perfectly with just a look. Gorgeous!)
  • "His preferred text was the type that was missing a lot of lines, one where you had to infer what the faceless author might have been getting at rather than having it all sitting there before you." (I like this because, although I write texts that have it all sitting before you, I also get a lot of joy digging into those missing lines.)
There are hundreds of quiet reflective moments in this novel, as well as fighting and war and drought and deaths and depression. And joy. And love. And the push-pull centrality of family as the Langdon world expands outward due to WWII and technology and education. It's time well spent, reading this novel, and I'm thrilled that it's first in a trilogy (not that I didn't reach the last page - another truly amazing sentence I won't quote due to spoilers - in tears and completely satisfied with the novel on its own.) 

2014's just about up, and I didn't think I'd be sucker-punched again like I was with Lila, but it turns out, I was wrong. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mrs. Claus, Overlord

In Which We Learn That Mrs. Claus Is Our Eventual Overlord

“This year’s Toy Guide, bring it to me.”
“Here you go, ma’am. We think you’ll be pleased.”
“Don’t tell me what to think.”
“No, ma’am.”
“What is this? This, right here, at the bottom of the third page. Did I approve this? Show me where, exactly, I approved Baby Bluetooth, Jasper.”
“Well, you see, ma’am, your husband thought—“
“Did I pluck that man out of a church in Turkey and immortalize him so he could think for me? “
“No, ma’am.”
“Does he think that seventeen centuries at my side guarantees him immunity to my wrath?”
“I shouldn’t think so, ma’am.”
“What happened the first time I let him have his way?”
“What happened, Jasper, when I let Mr. Claus have his way?”
“Automatons, ma’am.”
“Exactly! Automatons! A whole slew of ingenious little clockwork and steamwork creatures, clicking and turning their way uselessly down the centuries. They made the Earthlings laugh in delight. Laugh! I told him the Earthlings weren’t ready for advanced mechanicals; did he listen, or did he sneak them into the production line? Their human brains weren’t there yet. Now people consider them quaint, instead of a chilling prophetic vision. Quaint!”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Get rid of the Baby Bluetooth.”
“Right away, ma’am.”
“Ten years from now, maybe. Seven, if we push it. Not now.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“I was very clear about this. We started with Lincoln logs, tinker toys. Blocks. It took them decades to adapt to modern block technology. It’s only been a hundred years since we introduced the Erector Set; can we expect them to be turning themselves into our willing robot slaves already?”
“No, ma’am.”
“Did he learn nothing from the robot dog situation? For a decade now the toyshops have been shelving little robot pets, and what do we find in every street in every town? Do we find any actual robot pets?”
“No, ma’am.”
“Speak clearly, Jasper! That’s right we don’t. We find actual flesh and blood pets. Pets by the ton. And what are children lining up to ask mall Santas for? Their very own iFido? No. Puppies. The children want puppies, Jasper.”
“It’s disgusting, ma’am.”
“Damn right it’s disgusting. I told Jolly Old Saint Idiot it was too early for pet robot toys, and I let him override me – it was a moment of weakness which won’t happen again – and now we’ve had to introduce plastic pet pounds and amp up the toy horse game just to recalibrate.”
“What’s that?”
“Nothing, ma’am. I was just saying that the tablet computer initiative is on track.”
“Only because I have to keep reigning Nick in like he’s Blitzen. Tablets for toddlers, sure, and pretend spy watches with big wrist screens, that’s all going great. You rarely see a Kindergartener choose a pencil over a stylus anymore, and even the Waldorf kids can use voice recognition technology. But here it is, not even 2015, and what did Nick suggest?”
“Um, was it an arm to attach an iPad to a crib and a free mobile app with an integrated camera that networks to the parent’s smart phone so she can set whatever sounds and visual stimulation most engage or soothe her infant and she can, from the comfort of her sofa, both watch her baby sleep and also run the EyeTracker to determine if her child’s engagement with a series of increasingly sophisticated learning tools shows that he or she is developing on an above average level and compares his or her results with those of other babies in the neighborhood? And can generate graphs that are automatically uploaded to the top preschool programs in a fifteen mile radius?”
“Page twenty-three, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am. Consider it gone, ma’am.”
“It’s not that I don’t want the Earthlings to filter their every experience through technology, Jasper. Of course I do; you know as well as I do what my end game is here. I want to know each and every one’s innate abilities and how those abilities most benefit me.  Give me another generation and they’ll be microchipped at birth, and from there it’s a few short decades ‘till they’re dedicating their lives in service to me.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“But it’s a matter of subtlety.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Without subtlety, they won’t become my willing slaves, Jasper. They’ll think robot pets are toys instead of the first wave of the invasion. They’ll think of technology as optional. An occasional benefit, instead of essential to every move they make. And we don’t want that, do we, Jasper?”
“No, ma’am.”
“Because why, Jasper?”
“Automatons, ma’am.”
“That’s right, Jasper. Automatons.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Lila by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)
Format: library book

From Goodreads: "Marilynne Robinson, one of the greatest novelists of our time, returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband that paradoxically judges those she loves."

I held my breath for an entire hour during one stretch of reading this. Not literatlly, obviously, as I don't post book reviews from the grave, but the experience certainly left me feeling dizzy, awed, gasping and broken. Did I love the first two books in the Gilead series as I loved this one? Probably; it won't be a hardship to reread them in search of the answer to that question. Have I ever felt a character as intensely as I felt Lila. Going to have to say no. She is raw, open, a slate that's not blank in the least but is covered in a language no one knows. Every beat of her life resonated, and Robinson kept me on a sharply-honed knife edge while Lila was living in the shack, balanced between the disordered past that brought her there and the amorphous future of her life in Gilead.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Landline by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Press / MacMillan Audio, 2014
Format: audio download (read by Rebecca Lowman)

From Goodreads"Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?"

Has there yet been a Rainbow Rowell novel I didn't demand you read instantly? Well, no, of course not. She's an exceptional writer and I vibrate with happiness whenever a new title is on the horizon. 

So, since you all heed my very good book advice, you've all got Landline already, and I'm just enthusing for the sake of my own enthusiasm here. Aren't you glad you listen to me? Isn't this book just fantastic? I know, right? 

It's a portrait of love, and how love carried over years becomes both more than and less than that initial adrenaline/pheromone rush of falling for someone. Of how holding on to that feeling of falling serves a marriage in the long term. Of how communicating with your partner resonates with all of the communication - and miscommunication - going back to day 1, and looking forward to day 10,000. Of big gestures and little moments and friendship and laughter and jealousy and pettiness and children and in-laws and dead cell phones.

It's marriage, wonderful and traumatic and heartbreaking and real.

And as with her other titles, Rebecca Lowman has taken Rowell's words and the intent behind them, pitching them into an audio version that hits every emotional beat. I love the smile in Lowman's voice when Georgie smiles, and the tension when Georgie worries. Between the two of them, Lowman and Rowell have me in love with love, the kind of love that lasts for decades and is complicated by life, but all the better for that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Blazing World

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)
Format: audio CDs from library (narrated by Patricia Rodriguez and Eric Meyers)

From Goodreads: "Hustvedt tells the provocative story of the artist Harriet Burden. After years of watching her work ignored or dismissed by critics, Burden conducts an experiment she calls Maskings: she presents her own art behind three male masks, concealing her female identity. 

The three solo shows are successful, but when Burden finally steps forward triumphantly to reveal herself as the artist behind the exhibitions, there are critics who doubt her. The public scandal turns on the final exhibition, initially shown as the work of acclaimed artist Rune, who denies Burden’s role in its creation. What no one doubts, however, is that the two artists were intensely involved with each other. As Burden’s journals reveal, she and Rune found themselves locked in a charged and dangerous game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.

Ingeniously presented as a collection of texts compiled after Burden’s death, The Blazing World unfolds from multiple perspectives. The exuberant Burden speaks—in all her joy and fury—through extracts from her own notebooks, while critics, fans, family members, and others offer their own conflicting opinions of who she was, and where the truth lies.

From one of the most ambitious and interna­tionally renowned writers of her generation, The Blazing World is a polyphonic tour de force. An intricately conceived, diabolical puzzle, it explores the deceptive powers of prejudice, money, fame, and desire."

What a premise, what style, what ideas! This book made me buzz with things I wanted to discuss with others (could y'all just all go read it now then talk at me?) Like, I've been ranting on to my husband and sons this summer about how often women are referred to by their first names, while men are referred to by their last names. (Yeah, yeah, I get that's not universal, you don't have to give me a bunch of examples.) So when Hustvedt has Burden rant about the same thing, ascribing it to a patriarchal, infantilizing impulse, I just wanted to cheer. I love Burden's rage at the same time as I railed about the necessity for it, which is a sure sign that I was overly invested in her journey.

So it's fair to say I'd love to sit at Hustvedt's side and just chat with her all the time. And I quite enjoyed the back-and-forth of the sometimes conflicting narratives in the 'source material' of people close to Burden's Maskings project. And I enjoyed getting to know the characters and following their stories. There's such humor and humanity in Hustvedt's people.

Read this book, then tell me if it made your feminist tendencies rise up their fists in solidarity and power, and also if you think Ethan was quite as realized as you'd have liked.

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Book!

ROCKET MAN is available now.

Right now!

Go, buy it, read it, tell me what you thought! (Be a little nice, though, pretty please with sugar on top.)

A lot more about this writing journey is on my author blog.

Happy reading,

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dishwasher: 1, Melanie: 0

I have been to war. And I have been defeated.

Last time it happened, I was the victor, so perhaps I entered the fray with too much hubris, and therefore the gods struck me down. 

Perhaps the dishwasher learned from Dishwasher War I, and, having assessed my strengths (few) and weaknesses (many), launched Dishwasher War II from an unassailable position of power.

All I really know is that I have failed, and I have the scars and the dishpan hands to show for it.

In DWWI, the enemy ran a fairly unsophisticated attack: a clogged drain basket. Yes, I had to stare befuddled at the two inches of water in the bottom of the dishwasher, and the eternal darkness of the unlit 'clean' light, but my reconnaissance quickly yielded results. Every other self-help video when I Googled 'dishwasher won't drain' yielded a folksy guy in plaid shirt and ball cap talking me slowly through the battle to come.

I bailed out the water - not a fun process, crouched defensively on the tile floor refusing to let the enemy's psychological warfare (splashes of dirty dishwater, unexpected encounters with food-grit shrapnel) get me down, even once I was obliged to change weapons from cup to sponge to complete my sortie. 

Once done, I contorted my aching body to see the screws over the drain basket which had failed to yield to my blind fumbling with the slot and Phillips head screwdrivers. The dishwasher had temporarily won my retreat from the field of battle, but only long enough for me to locate my hex screwdriver. It hadn't expected me to be technologically advanced enough to handle that obstacle, and failed to add the additional difficulty of rusted-in-place screws. I soon had the basket out of the way.

And my plaid-clad strategists didn't mislead me. A certain unpleasant amount of groping in the bowels of the beast and careful disposal of the dishwasher's arsenal of greasy, gritty food detritus, and I'd cleared the way for my WMD: a 2-to-1 solution of vinegar and baking soda straight down the drain followed, after a judicious waiting period, by a pot full of boiling water. 

The clog didn't stand a chance. Yes, I had to repeat the procedure three times to fully clear the lines, and twist my now-exhausted torso to reattach the hex bolts holding the basket in place, but DWW1 was, essentially, over. I packed up my screwdrivers and baking soda and arose victorious from the kitchen floor.

But that was then.

Probably the dishwasher heard my YouTube advisers, and used an underground spy network to figure out what other useful information they'd be able to share with me. I'm not outright accusing my phone of being a double-agent, but it is (or was) my most trusted intelligence officer, and as such is in the best position to ensure the dishwasher knows exactly what I know. Mind you, the dishwasher is also in fairly close proximity to the router, so it's possible that my enemy is directly subverting the information supply lines. If there's any suspicious delay in posting this dispatch, I might have an answer as to who exactly betrayed me.

What I do know for sure is this: Dishwasher War II started with the same symptoms. The failure to drain, the empty void where the 'clean' light should be. The lack of a reassuring 'glug, whoosh' that lets me know the soapy offal after cleaning has been neatly whisked off to a nearby sewer pipe.

I knew it would be a battle. I prepared myself. The supply depot had everything to hand. Hex screwdriver: check. Baking soda: check. Vinegar: check. Empty pot, plastic cup, sponge: check, check, and check.

I even reviewed the course of DWWI before embarking on DWWII, because I believe in the adage: those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. 

Unfortunately, the dishwasher also knows that one. And the dishwasher is a diabolical beast.

I crouched. I bailed. I sponged.

I removed the screws. I grappled, hand-to-hand combat at its most basic level, to remove not only the drain basket but also the under layers of screening, so I could fully access the enemy.

I dug bits of food, plastic, grease, and even a sliver of glass out of the drain. It was, like all war, hell. I'll have nightmares about what I saw out there, things that retained just enough of their original state to make me fully realize what grotesques they had become after the dishwasher attacked them.

And then the baking soda and vinegar, and the boiling water. And the repeat. And the third wave, at a time when the enemy should have been exhausted, no longer able to hold out against my superior weaponry. Still, the drain would not yield. Undaunted, I struck again. My supplies were low; the quartermaster was ready to scramble for reinforcements, but I persevered. In the end, it was no use. I was forced to retreat.

Back to intelligence. The plaid men had proved too old-fashioned to deal with the dishwasher's advanced warfare. I unclenched my raw and bloody vinegar-drenched hands to painfully enter expanded search terms, studying diagrams of the battlefield and assessing possible other attack patterns. Via the lower plate, going backwards from the disposal, even from the outside overflow pipe. 

Nothing worked. No matter how specific my search terms, no matter how valiant my attack, no matter how desperate my pleas to the gods of home repair. 

Hours upon hours I moved from dishwasher floor to tool box to computer to sink, hours upon hours I strove. My mounting tension became a cold fury. My cold fury became a hot rage. Knowing it was futile, I hit the top of the float valve with a wooden spoon, and then, I'm afraid, I got MAD. I threw the spoon in the dishwasher and added several new gashes to my much-abused hands attempting to reassemble the subterranean fortifications of the drain basket. 

I surrendered.

I'm not proud of it. But my limits had been not only reached, but exceeded. The water would not drain. The dishwasher had won.

So I surrendered, as graciously as I could (not very graciously. The diplomatic corps won't be recruiting me anytime soon.) I bailed out the last of the vinegar water, re-cleaned my scrapes and cuts, and, aching and weary and sore in mind as well as spirit, hand-washed the sinkfull of dirty dishes.

The repair people are coming on Tuesday. I only hope they're armed.

UPDATE FROM THE TRENCHES: It was the shelling that brought DWWII to an end. Specifically, the pistachio shell that was caught in the drain pump, immobilizing it. The was was expensive, as all wars are, but we won.

We won.