Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Gentle Creatures

“Yes, the newspapers were right:  snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves…His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” 

While the daughters were here we watched two films, both of a certain mood and seeming, now, like crazy choices for the holidays. First,  “The Remains of the Day”,  a film that bowled Paul and me over when it first played in the theaters but which now, a decade later, felt impossibly heavy-handed compared to the ruminative, exquisitely balanced Ishiguro novel. And yet, when that bus drives away into the rainy night, taking with it  gentle, steadfast Mr. Steven’s last chance at happiness! Ai-eee! Merry Christmas! 

And then, two nights before Christmas, we watched John Huston’s last film, “The Dead”, the final scene of which turns me inside out every time.  Falling faintly and faintly falling…As the credits rolled one incredulous daughter said, “Why did they make that into a movie?”  A good question, actually.

“It can be a cruel world for the gentle creatures.” That’s from the Polly Horvath novel I’ve been reading this snowy afternoon. When my girls go back to their own brimming lives, I live, for a while, in two worlds–the one where I miss the hell out of them and the one where my neglected writing beckons. What I like to do during that time is write something that uses my brain but lets me  hold back  a  piece of my heart.  This time it’s a review of five middle grade books I enjoyed this year, and an hour or so ago I finished  Horvath’s “One Year in Coal Harbor”. How do I love this writer?  Too many ways to count, but especially her steadfast refusal to ever rush a plot or jump to a conclusion or make events follow a cohesive path or, for that matter, to always make  herself clear. Some things, I’m sure she’d be the first to assert, will never be clear and that is how it should be.

So, this passage is unusual. A mother is explaining to her daughter about life not being fair. The mother, who’s done some irrational things in her own life and for that reason is all the more trustworthy, lost her own mother to cancer when she was just a teen.  I’m sure this section moved me at least in part because of the unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut. But I think at any time I’d have found it worth quoting:

“Well, when she was dying I kept saying it wasn’t fair. She was such a wonderful person, everyone loved my mother. Well, most people did. She was such a beautiful poet and there was always a kind of awareness of the intrinsic sadness in everything when you were with her…And she said that she had come round to see that everyone’s fates were beautiful. Even the ones that seemed most horrifying. That you had to be careful who you said this to because most people didn’t understand and if you said you thought some child dying had a beautiful fate, well, they thought you were crazy or some kind of monster. But she said she could see it now. even her fate had a kind of luminous beauty to it. Peculiarly and absolutely her own. That what we give back to life is our own unique experience of it. ”  

Happy New Year.

Real Life

(Not that I could ever do a headstand, not in a million years)

For the past few days, I haven’t been able to do any real writing. I’ve done the final edits on an essay that will appear in February, and started gathering thoughts on a review I’ll do of the new Karen Russell collection of stories, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” (spoiler alert: terrific). I’ve prepared for and done an interview for something I’d  really love to get the chance at (!!)  On a walk I thought of the first line for a short story: “Lola was water skiing, a thing she would never attempt in her true, waking life.”

And there’s been a lot of “real” life: trips to the airport, subbing at the library, a birthday cake to bake, the cleaning up of cat vomit (who ate that sugar cookie, huh?), and much standing in lines while telling myself that the poor person behind the counter is the one I should feel sorry for.  

But no real writing. No startling myself with what I think. No unbidden tumble of images, or  sudden, lovely connection between disparate parts. No file rasping against my brain, no urge to stand on my head to see if that might dislodge the words I need. When you’re used to writing every day, not being able to sets the muscles twitching. In some weird way, your real life starts to feel inauthentic.  Where’s the core? What’s it all about, Alfie?

It’s a commonplace in writing workshops to say, “You don’t find the time to write–you make it.” Simple to say!  Lucky for us as we rush about, the stories remain curled up in their lairs, waiting.

I thought we’d survived the End of the World on 12-12-12, only to discover that no, it’s scheduled for 12-21-12. Meanwhile, this is is my least favorite time of the natural year anyway, with the dwindling, gray days and black, icy nights.  So it’s easy enough to go anti-jolly curmudgeon and  think about things like:

–My dining room ceiling which, after a plumbing near-disaster over Thanksgiving, is seriously considering falling in

–The empty house across the street which had its copper pipes ransacked, a much too familiar story here in Cleveland

–How much it costs to mail things and how long it takes for them to get there

–The enormous temptation to order all my gifts from the evil empire of Amazon  

–Et cetera

Lots of studies have confirmed what kids are all too happy to demonstrate to  parents: the bad times stick in the mind more strongly than the good. And yet, and yet.  Yesterday two things blew all the unpleasant stuff clean away, at least for now:  

–I got to hold a real, live copy of PHOEBE AND DIGGER.

–I found out all my kids, even the one who just started a new job, will get to come home for Christmas.

Sometimes short term memory is a lovely thing.

Raw Deal

For a couple of decades now, I’ve reviewed books for our newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It’s a wonderful gig. For one, I get paid to read—I mean! But even better, it forces me to read in a responsible, accountable, un-lazy way, which is not, trust me, true all the time.

How it works is: I go downtown to the paper’s offices, where Book Angel Karen Long ushers me into the book room, packed floor to ceiling with galleys whispering, “Read me! No, read me!”  I stand on a stool; I crouch low;  I pull out book after book, trying to decide if I’m qualified to judge it, and if I’m likely to enjoy it. Because, contrary to what people think, writing a bad review is a nasty, unsavory experience. (Okay, okay, now and then it can be wickedly satisfying).

Karen decides which of my choices best fit her pages, gives me deadlines, and off I go.  And nearly every time I write a review, someone tells me—in Zagara’s grocery store, at Cumberland Pool, in Phoenix Coffee—that they’ve read it. They almost always say they’d like to read the book, even if I’ve written a mixed review.

I’m no Oprah, bless her holy name, but I love knowing people not only read reviews but remember and think about them. And Cleveland lover that I am, I’ve been exorbitantly proud that our paper continues to publish original, not syndicated, book reviews, especially since there’s no ad revenue to be gained from them, the way there is with film.

No surprise, the Plain Dealer has been in financial trouble for years now, and things just got way worse. Its absentee-landlord, Advance Publications, has already made huge cuts and recently announced even more—not just cuts, really, but death blows. At best, it seems, the paper will go to three days. Subscriptions will dwindle, and it will die.

This is a pitifully common story these days, but the New York Times saw fit to cover it recently. The Times fought off its own obsolescence with a wonderful, subscription website, but according to Plain Dealer reporters, corporate Advance won’t let them do the same.

I’m from the days when you found your job and apartment in the newspaper. My family got not one but two papers a day. Every night my father would come home from the city with a copy of the NY Post, which my mother called a rag and I loved to peruse for the juicy columns and sexy cartoons. But things change. I get it. I’m actually a stalwart foe of nostalgia, yet it’s been painful to watch our local paper shrink. Sometimes I think I’m picking up a single section only to realize I’m holding the whole edition. I can’t imagine how we’re going to get our local news in the future. There’s a big difference between a trained journalist and a blogger. There’s an ongoing gap between what the NY Times (to which we also subscribe) deems news and what affects us daily in the Rust Belt. Last year the PD unearthed and relentlessly pursued a story of massive political corruption. It’s doing the same right now with what looks like a case of police homicide. Who’s going to do that in the future? Don’t even mention TV “news”.

I’m going down to the book room today. I’m expecting a funereal atmosphere, but I’m really looking forward to giving some very smart, dedicated people hugs.