Kingsolver and Dickens Rage Against the Machine

At this moment in time—as far as I know, because I haven’t turned on the radio in the last quarter-hour—we’re between school shootings and the January 6th hearings, and thus this seems like a good time to wax eloquent (or try my best) at something other than current events.

            I realize, more and more, that I’m turning into my mother. The disintegration of the boundary between your parent and yourself is most prevalent, I suspect, in the over sixty crowd: there’s mom frowning in the mirror, there’s dad grousing about the heating bill, there’s mom baby-talking to the dog, there’s dad who’d rather eat ground glass than miss an episode of Jeopardy.

Evidence that I’m becoming my mom: today I took a pen in hand and made notes in the book I am currently reading. Sure, I’ve underlined here and there and sure, I’ve checked and starred and highlighted and etc for book reviews or presentations. But the sort of scribbling to which I now refer—2-cent analysis, reminders of who’s who, comparisons to other texts—well, the last time I did that was like 100 years ago when I was reading The Brothers Karamazov and is the type of marginalia that my mother, may she rest in peace, was so prone to that when I tried to sell some of her books to the used-book section of the bookstore in which I personally have worked for the last ten years, they refused to take because they were unsaleable.

The book I’m defacing? It’s called Demon Copperhead and is coming in October of ’22 and is by the deeply beloved Barbara Kingsolver and is, in my opinion, one of the best things she’s ever written. Admittedly, I’m only halfway through. But still. It’s a cereal book for sure meaning that you have to eat cereal when you’re reading it because you can’t stop to cook.

You’re going to love it. You’re going to eat it up. It’s droll and awful and it takes place in Appalachia where she lives and which she loves and, while I will give you $100 if I am wrong and she’s actually a Republican—which, no way in hell– she calls out Hilary Clinton for that “deplorables” remark. Because she is there to make those forgotten people in that dead-poor place—she’s there to make them seen. And not in the way President Dumbfuck did it, which he did by telling them they’re poor because a Black person or a Jew or a Moslem or a Latina took their stuff, rather than what’s true which is that it’s Manchin and his ilk don’t get me started. Anyhow, because Kingsolver is a wonderful writer, she doesn’t harangue like I do so don’t blame her for my inability to rein in my rage.

I’m going to back up for a moment and tell you that I have, in my long life, really loved Charles Dickens’s (yes. That’s how you make ‘Dickens’ into a possessive. Dickens’s. Believe it.) novels. I’ve read most of them and get this, I’ve read several of them aloud. It takes a while to read a novel by Dickens aloud, for they are lengthy. On the other hand, as each novel was published in serial form in newspapers, they were sort of meant to be read aloud.

When the excellent buyer at Flyleaf Books handed me Demon Copperhead and told me that it was “inspired” by David Copperfield, I was like, “great, I’ll read it” and then I started  it and now I’m geeking out all over the place.

Barbara Kingsolver is beloved in large part because she takes humanity’s social failures and weaves them throughout her deeply entertaining, funny, heartbreaking novels. She’s our Steinbeck. And, as I’m trying to explain: she’s our Dickens.

Dickens’s novels were all about the social ills he lived and saw. Everyone knows that. Our Mutual Friend: prisons. Hard Times: poverty. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield: the class divide especially when it comes to kids. And on and on. I feel like Barbara and Charles would have had a lot to talk about. He was a misogynist, sure, but likely he was smart enough to listen to a person of ideas, even if they did wear a skirt, which, I don’t know what Kingsolver wears. The fact is, that Dickens, while he might’ve been an ass to his wife, turned a whole lot of people onto the idea that child poverty is a thing.

Back to Demon Copperfield. So now I’m reading it and feeling chagrined at my privilege and my own rarified forms of bigotry.  As well as a little familiar with the place she’s writing about having, after all, been born and raised in North Carolina and thus seen the dire straits she writes about from the interior of my air conditioned automobile as I’m being moved from point A to point B. I mean: I’m old, I’ve seen poverty, but mostly the Piedmont kind, not the mountain kind. And they’re different in horribly different ways. That’s how the Republicans drive that wedge. They use the differences.

So all of the above is just a preface to tell you this: next week, my husband and I are going to a RAM clinic. RAM stands for Remote Area Medical which, if this really were the best country in the world, wouldn’t be a thing. RAM is a travelling medical clinic that slaloms across the US, from one poor community to another. Indian reservations, some inner-city stuff in the South and West, but mostly, by far, in Appalachia. The organization imports about a million volunteer dentists and opticians and GPs and veterinarians (!) and you can drive down from wherever you might live and sleep in your car for two nights to get a place in line so you can get your goddamn teeth fixed because Republicans don’t want poor people to have good medical treatment and my evidence for that? They keep voting against it.

            So Dave and I will go to a clinic and he’ll schlep tables and I’ll do intake (for alas, neither of us are medical people) and then we’ll go home feeling like we ‘did something.’

            So here I am, reading along in Demon Copperhead and feeling entertained and involved and delighted and so forth. And look at what I came to! On page 263! Demon’s talking about how he’s never been to the dentist though when he was little, his mother would “drive me to the free RAM clinic they have every year… People camping out in their cars for days to try and get in.” Which is accurate, as I have related above.

            One time I went to volunteer at a RAM in Grundy, Va which a) is where the writer Lee Smith hails from and b) is adjacent to some very poor places in these our united states. And yep, those people had indeed camped out in their cars for several nights in hopes of a space. It’s enough to make you want to storm the capitol except you know better.

            As I said, I don’t know nothing about anything medical so I do intake at the clinics. At this clinic, all the men looked alike: tall, indeterminate as to age, baseball caps, skinny as hell. All the women look alike too: overweight, hauling little kids in pajamas. Lots of evidence of addiction even to my unpracticed eyes. It’ll break your heart.

            Person after person sat in front of me: courteous, embarrassed, shy, so tired.

“Name?” I’d say. And then, “and what can we do for you today?” (You know, you try to be nice in a situation like that and not make it any worse for them.)

One young man—I’m pretty sure he was young—sat down in front of me. Maybe the thirtieth person I’d talked to that day. Most of them, I’d discovered, needed the dentist and when I thought about it I thought well, yeah, if you get appendicitis, you go to the ER and if your eyes are going, you go buy a pair of cheapo reading glasses, but if you’ve got a cavity? So the dentists were really popular.

I smiled at the young man who was gaunt and polite and who was sort of hiding under his baseball cap.

“And what can we do for you today?” I said.

“I need a dentist,” he said.

I nodded like I was a waiter at Sardi’s and he’d just told me he wanted oysters: like ‘excellent choice, sir!’

I finished up the paperwork and then looked up to give him directions and he said he said, very softly, “I’m scared.”

I was so surprised I almost gaped. I mean: it’s hard to be vulnerable, especially when you’re a man, especially when you’ve likely had to be tough for a good long time, especially in front of a stranger. My mama heart about exploded. I’d have hugged him except for the table between us.

So instead, I put my hand on his and patted it and said to him, “now don’t you be afraid, Honey. You are doing the right thing. You’re doing exactly the right thing.”

And he nodded and whispered his thank you. And then I lifted my hand and saw the tattoo on the back of his: a big honking swastika.

He went on his way. And as I drove home that evening—many hours to get home from remote little Grundy—I felt so much for him. This is what’s true: the only way that boy could feel like he had any control in the world was to hate something. He was a sweet boy, a polite boy, with his ma’ams. He’d been done wrong by society. And then some asshole with a golden toilet told him it was okay to blame it on Jews and Blacks and what have you. And that looked like hope to him.

Well, the world’s a complicated place. It’s June 8th as I write this. Tomorrow, the hearings begin. So far, the small fry in that insurrection are getting their asses handed to them. Fine. But it’s the people who told them who to hate—the rich people, with power and degrees from Princeton and Harvard—who need to be held accountable, who need to go to jail,  who need to stew in a horrible quiet place where they can meet their inner demons face on. I can think of a couple of books they ought to read while they’re doing their time.

This Way to the Egress

In the following paper, we offer a specific body of numerical data concerning the egression and ingression habits (into and out of their habitat) of a set of domesticated vertebrates. The vertebrates involved in our study co-inhabit, with their homo sapien custodians,  a suburban dwelling in the southern United States.

While not the thrust of this paper, which is merely to present the empirical data as it stands, we premise that the information supplied here may, if fully apprehended, have a benefic influence on those individuals who, due to their metacarpi, control the ingressions and egressions of the tamed non-anthropoids with whom they share their dwelling.

Timeline:

The data herein were collected Monday, January 24, 2022 through Sunday, January 30, 2022.

Materials:

One (1) slip of paper approximately 4 inches square (provenance: part of a gift presented to Principle Investigator on or around July 17, 2021);

One (1) pen, ball-point pen (provenance: token sent to PI in gratitude for a donation to ACLU).

Method:

For one week, each time the PI rose from a seated or supine position to a standing position in order to assist with the ingression and/or egression of one of the domesticated vertebrates, she would make a hatch-mark (also called hash mark/tally mark/tick mark) onto the slip of paper with the ACLU pen.

            For the purposes of gathering this data, the most rigorous possible methods were followed. For example: if PI rose to open a door for the purposes of egression, a single hatch-mark was employed EVEN IF THERE WAS AN INCIDENCE OF INGRESSION BY A SECOND VERTEBRATE SIMULTANEOUS TO THE EGRESSION OF THE FIRST.

Participants:

  1. Felis Catus; male; approximately 8 lbs; black, 7 years of age. Has inhabited aforementioned suburban dwelling since 2015. Proper name: Otto.
  2. Felis Catus: female, approximately 7.5 lbs; solid black; 7 years of age. Has inhabited suburban dwelling since 2015. Proper name: Dot.

(Note: Felis Catii are siblings who were found on the side of the road tiny and still unweaned. Possible relevance: extreme youth at abandonment may affect desire to believe that Mommy is on the other side of the door and then the other other side of it.)

  • Canis Lupus; female, approximately 55 lbs; fawn colored; 3 years of age. Has inhabited aforementioned suburban dwelling since March, 2020. Proper name: Winona (named by fosterer who, because of dark marking surrounding Canis Lupus’s eyes, was reminded of American actress Winona Ryder, known for her heavy use of mascara.)

(Note: Canis Lupus was a stray for at least the first year of her life. Possible relevance: long-term living in the elements may affect her desire to be out in them, while devotion to homo sapien custodian ((also known as Principle Investigator)) may affect desire to be simultaneously inside.)

Variables:

  1. Principle Investigator has been known to exaggerate. But not this time. Nope. What you are about to see is real.
  • On two of the days in this study (Monday the 24th and Saturday the 29th), there was snow on the ground. As the suburban dwelling is located in the south, vertebrates are not all that familiar with snow and it serves to unsettle their routines and, as well, unsettle their dainty-ass emotional health particularly the Felis Catii. (Possible relevance: an upset felis catus may be even pickier than usual if that’s even possible.)
  • On four of the days, the PI left the suburban dwelling for between three and four hours. During that time, it fell to PI’s colleague/mate to take care of the felis catii and the canis lupus: their needs and wants.

(Possible relevancies:

a) PI had neither notified colleague about the existence of the study nor asked him to take part in it meaning that colleague wasn’t even given the chance to participate in the study;

b) Colleague does not generally truck with the whims of the domesticated vertebrate co-habitators and wouldn’t have played along anyway;

c) If colleague hasn’t put in his hearing aids, he might as well be in a lead-lined room and thus would not hear scratching/mewing/whining not that he (colleague) would have picked himself up to do anything about it even if he had heard it.)

(Another possible relevancy: so let’s just say colleague did actually assist with egressions/ingressions a couple of times. Well, those datum points would not have made it into the data set which proves that not only is the following data correct, but in addition, if it’s not correct, it’s conservative. In other words: the actual numbers are probably EVEN HIGHER than our totals. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The Data:

Monday:

20 ingressions/egressions

Tuesday:

10

Wednesday:

18

Thursday:

12

Friday:

10

Saturday:

22

Sunday:

13

Total: 105 ingressions/egressions

Conclusion:

No wonder Principle Investigator is weary.

Applications:

None

(While perhaps not relevant to the specific data found here, it may be valuable to know the following: PI discovered that a careful and rigorous harvesting of data points as well as the act of recording said points was amusing enough to abbreviate the irritation at the ceaselessness of the vertebrates’ wishes to be wherever they weren’t.)

Note:

–No, PI cannot assemble or plan for the assembly of a self-service vertebrate door due to a variety of factors including:

            a) residence doors of main concern are the sliding glass type so you can’t cut a hole in them and insert a self-service pet door;

            b) residence wooden doors—the type that would lend themselves to the insertion of a self-service pet door– lead to unfenced areas filled to the fucking brim with squirrels, all of which are visible to Canus Lupus through windows and all of which Canus Lupus would like to have for supper. Any self-service door would prove ultimately irresistible to Canus Lupus who would:

1) break through the self-service door and likely demolish it as well as the rest of the door, and,

2) run around the neighborhood like a banshee, poop in the neighbors’ yards, and be declared a public menace before you could say boo.

So no, but thanks for the idea.

Thank you for your attention to my study. Should a new and zestily named pharmaceutical derive from my work, I’ll be sure to take you all out to dinner.

For Middle-Aged Ladies and Others

You want to help? Here’s how you can help.

Theoretically, we still live in a democracy, as long, that is, as President Bunker doesn’t dismantle it entirely with his next selfish, idiotic move. Sure, our voting rights are in peril. Thus has it been since the vote began. Poll taxes. Stuffed boxes. Gerrymandering. Not to mention the Putin bots. But despite those who want to trip you up as you attempt to do your civic duty, voting is still a thing in this country.

I’m old and cynical but I still believe that it’s not impossible to get some good people where they ought to be. Maxine Waters? She won an election. AOC? Got voted in. Val Demings? People voted for her and she won. The system is screwed up but every once in a while it works. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Supreme Court Justice who isn’t white and isn’t a crime against nature? (That was a little dig at Clarence Thomas, you’re welcome.)

This is a little off the point, right here, but grass roots politics, in my experience, seems to be the purview of the middle-aged lady. I really hate this. It’s so sexist. It’s just gross. What, my time’s less valuable than yours, Mr. Fancy Pants? What, you’re too important to make the calls, knock the doors, tweet the tweets, Mr. Big League? But whatever. I can’t let your, what–fear of failure?—hamper me in my efforts to make a better society.

Because what feels like “failure” is very often the name of the game.

Right now, we make phone calls. Right now, months before the election, we make calls and a Huge Percentage of them don’t go through—changed numbers, people who moved out of state, that weird busy signal you get when things aren’t as they should be. It feels like a huge honking Failure, a total waste of time to make these calls.

But you know what?

It’s absolutely not.

What you are doing when you get that busy signal is helping to clean up the phone records in preparation for the Big Dance. Every single sorrythisnumberisnotinservice you hear means one less wasted stamp to pay for, one less wrong number for a volunteer to call when the Rubber Really Hits the Road. That’s what you’re doing! You are preparing the garden for the bulbs! You are defrosting the chicken for tonight’s supper! You are measuring twice so you only have to cut once! Every single damn Failed Phone Call you make should make you shout hurray!

This is all to say this: figure out how to sit in your house and use your cellular telephone (or landline) for the good of our democracy.  In NC, you can get in touch with Neighbors on Call (neighborsoncall.org) to find out how to do it. You can sit outside if you’re not afraid of mosquitoes. You can put your feet on your dog, or, alternatively, your dog can sit in your lap. You can drink responsibly. You can do one of those facial mask things. Whatever! It’s up to you!

But remember: you sitting in your chair? And making calls for the Democratic candidates who will address some of the systemic racist inequities in our government and our culture? That’s you doing something.

Trump’s Lies

The Lies of Donald Trump: An Unsophisticated but Accurate If I Do Say So Myself Analysis

 

The Vanilla Lie

The Vanilla Lie is a straight-forward lie. Easy to make. Easy to disprove. Simple, if dangerous. But not a lot of fuss. A perfect example of the Vanilla Lie is the No I Didn’t Have an Affair with Stormy Daniels episode.

Everyone knows that Trump had an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels while a) he was not only married to Melania, but, in addition, b) Melania had delivered unto him a son four months previous. He had sex with Stormy and then, when she threatened to tell, he wrote a check for $130,000 to shut her up. He denies it. But everybody knows it’s true including, and this is an important point…including Trump himself.

He’s not the first president to have played around. Nor the first to deny that he did it when everyone knows he did it. I state the previous out of a sense of fair play. But it’s not my point. My point is to explicate the Vanilla Lie, to wit: Trump knew he did something naughty and he didn’t want to get caught. Easy peasy.

 

The Public Relations Lie

Trump is a PR dude first and foremost. He’s a spin doctor. Some pundits have called him a “cheerleader;” this, they say, is why he tells us that there are plenty of Covid19 tests when there are, in fact, not nearly enough. He knows there aren’t enough because, although he often acts mentally unsound, he’s certainly intelligent enough to hear a fact and take it in, even if he doesn’t like the fact. Surely he has been told (over and over and over) that there are not plenty of tests and thus he must know, somewhere in the depths of his brain pan, that there are in fact not plenty of tests.

But here’s the rub: while he may understand the fact of the test shortage, he actively and passionately does not want you to understand it. This is the cheerleader in him: the person who says, “rah, rah, go team go, we’re number one,” even as their team is going down the tubes, because it’s better, in their opinion, for all of us to think positive. There’ll likely be a better outcome, they think, if we all can “get behind” the lie. To Trump himself, this sort of lie is a good thing if it makes people feel better for a split second. (He also assumes, because he’s spoiled, that if he wants something, it’ll occur, but that’s not lying; that’s just dreaming.) (And, of course, he figures that it’s better for his campaign if things are good rather than bad—duh—and thus he’s looking on the bright side and hoping we are too.)

The problem, of course, is that many of us are adults and prefer information to pablum. We want facts so that we can prepare. We desire the data so as to be able to solve the problem. We deserve the truth rather than a buncha bullshit. Because, while a cheerleader may have his place in games…this virus here?  The running of a country? People’s lives and well being? Those things ain’t no game.

 

The Lie of Arrogance

The third type of lie is the Lie of Arrogance. The Lie of Arrogance is the most insidious and dangerous type of lie because the Lie of Arrogance is the lie that the liar believes himself. An obvious, though not-precisely-Trump-example is Brett Kavanaugh, who got too drunk to remember his misdeed, and then, because of an arrogance borne of privilege, was unable to believe that he had been capable of wrongdoing. He lied, but the first lie he told was to himself.

Trump’s lies of arrogance are epic. He’s the healthiest president ever to have graced the Oval Office. There were more people at his inauguration than at Obama’s. Mexico was going to pay for the wall. He thought the pandemic was a pandemic before anyone else thought it was a pandemic. The phone call was perfect. The malaria drug will cure Covid19.

 

Because of the way the psyche works, many of his lies begin as one type of lie and end up as another. He’s arrogant when he says that the US economy (pre-corona) was the best of all time, but this lie derives from his ignorance of history and economics. His claim that our elections are riddled with voter fraud (though study after study has proved otherwise) is a PR lie (for his base) but this lie derives from his belief that he knows all there is to know—arrogance at its apex. The aforementioned lies are easily disproved, but Trump is too sure of himself to believe that he could be ignorant of any fact. Ignorance, of course, is not a lie in and of itself, however, in a person who has the opportunity to learn but not the will, it does reflect a less than stellar intellect and a less than sterling character.

A nice example of the way one type of lie changes into another type is Trump’s claim that there are enough Covid19 tests for anyone who wants one. This lie began as a PR lie (as Rachel Maddow describes it, “happy talk”) but has recently morphed into a Plain Vanilla lie: the straightforward I’m-lying-to-get-out-of-trouble lie, in that Trump realized that if testing is kept to a minimum, the numbers of reported cases would be low, comparatively speaking. He doesn’t want to truth to get out because the truth hurts.

The fact is that if Trump were a complicated person, he still wouldn’t be good or interesting or worthy. What’s remarkable is that he’s so damn simple.

 

 

ARCs Furnish a Room

One of the best things about working as a bookseller is access, of course. Not only is one surrounded by books on the sales floor, but in addition, in the back room, there are the ARCs. Advanced Reading Copies abound. Publishers send us the books before they’re books: hardback-sized but bound in paper, with the future due dates printed on the back, along with a bookseller-friendly blurb. ARCs exist so that we booksellers can read the books in preparation for their debuts. The publishers (and authors, of course) hope that we will enthuse, wax eloquent, build anticipation.Image result for bookshop

Every bookstore has so many of these ARCs in the back that we could all build second stories by stacking them up, gluing them together, and slapping a roof on top. Image result for cash register toyThere are SO MANY. And no, we aren’t allowed to sell them, and even if we were, we wouldn’t, because bookselling is not a business that makes you rich in the first place, and if a bookstore were to sell an arc before its publication date, that bookstore would be shooting itself in the cash register in more ways than one.

Some books are so Big that they don’t require ARCs. It’s not like the new Harry Potter was going to need a concerted bookseller push in order to sell. Also, what if the surprises leaked. Thus: no advanced reading copies.

But most of the time, there are ARCs.

What this means is that I get to read the book before you do. That’s a perk of the job. Many jobs have perks. If you work in a restaurant, you might get to take home the leftover cheesecake. If you’re a surgeon, you likely get special attention when you get your gall-bladder removed.  If you’re the current president, you get to spend most of your time on the golf-course at the country’s expense. Whatever.

Image result for cheesecake

But ARCs pose more than just a perk. They are also a responsibility.

Any bookseller who’s in it to win it needs to know about a new book: not just that it exists but indeed, how it exists. The customer has questions.  Is it exciting? Does it enlighten? Is it too gory for my sensitive 13 year old? Is it saccharine? What’s it like? Will I like it?

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reading can be an emotional experience

Do  I want to spend my fleeting moments and my treasure on this book if it’s going to flit along the surface/not make me laugh/make me wince at the style (or lack thereof)/piss me off/etc/?

 

As you see, the bookseller’s burden is gigantic. We’re the frontline. We’re what’s between the author and obscurity. You write a book and see if you can sell it without us. Go ahead.

And so: we read ARCs. We read them and report on them and write about them. If we don’t like a book, we don’t finish it and we remain mum. Not everyone likes the same things.

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I myself like a little stream of consciousness with my tea and something new under the sun. Other people like A Gentleman from Moscow. If I only sold stuff I like, well then I’d refuse to show you books by Nicholas Sparks and instead show you the door. But I am a merchant and I’m not stupid. And also, I know that there are multitudes of wonderful readers out there reading multitudes of wonderful books and that therefore, I need not despair of the state of the written word.

One of my favorite memories is this: a young man walked into the store looking for a recommendation. Perhaps he was chagrined to find himself talking to me, a little grey-haired lady in a dress. If so, he didn’t let on and then we fell in love. He wanted something to read. Had he read The Pesthouse by Jim Crace? He had, and had loved it as had I. Could he deal with Lincoln in the Bardo? Of course he could. Did he know The Orphan Master’s Son? He thought it unsurpassed, so I relayed the story of how once, when the book’s author, Adam Johnson, came into the store to sign books, I had told him that his book made me want to throw up in the best possible way, and he’d laughed and shaken my hand. I observed to the young customer that he was a good reader (by which I meant of course, that he was a reader like me). Image result for milkmanI told him that I was going to show him something I kept only for good readers and he said, “Good. I want to go there,” which is a modern way of saying, “I’m ready.” then I put Milkman into his hands. He went away. Some months later he came in again and sought me out. I could tell that he wanted to hug me. But we kept things formal.

The above is simply to illustrate the immense power with which we booksellers are imbued. I hope it highlights, in some way, why it is that ARCs are serious business. We read so that you, my friends, may read.

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The Giant’s House is a really great novel

Anyhow, I am coming to the conclusion—not immediately, but in due course–of my bookselling career. This means that new ARCs will no longer flow into my house like they were riding the tide of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood which I read about recently in an ARC of Bowlaway, a novel by Elizabeth McCracken. 

What this means is that I’ll now have the pleasure of reading old stuff I’ve missed, the not-greatest-hit books, the quieter, less-known works by the writers I’ve read and loved. I look forward to Mishima and Murakami, to Pat Barker and Cormac McCarthy, to Atwood and Solnit and Dunmore and Woolf. But first, I’m going to revisit Jane Austen’s Persuasion, having just read about that novel in an arc of Rachel Cohen’s book Austen Years: A Memoir in 5 Novels. It’s pretty good, so far, and it’s due in May.

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St. John of God, Patron Saint of Booksellers

 

 

 

 

 

Bronson

Let’s talk about Bronson Alcott.

Maybe it’s a little weird that I’m interested in Mr. Alcott considering that his daughter, Louisa May, is the family celebrity. Lousia’s having a(nother) heyday right now, what with Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. I just heard an interesting discussion on NPR about the new movie, in which the scholars discussed the meta-ness of the film: how the publisher in the movie wouldn’t publish Jo’s book unless the heroine married at the end, which that’s likely what happened to Louisa May, who had to marry off her heroine in order to get her real book published.

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sincerely, Louisa

Apparently, much of the “marriage is an economic proposition” talk in the film comes from Louisa May’s personal letters and wasn’t in the book itself. Meta meta meta. I love that stuff.

 

It’s not so unusual anymore, for us to be interested in the non-celebrity family members of famous people. This, in my opinion, is often thanks to feminism. It’s similar to the history of wet nursing scholarship (about which I know some stuff): what  19th-century stuffed shirt gentleman scholar wanted to write about wet nursing? None, that’s who. Same with Alice James, the troubled and brilliant sister of William and Henry. Until some woman came along, who wrote about her? Nobody, that’s who. (That woman being Anna Robeson Brown Burr who edited Alice’s diaries, albeit poorly according to various reviewers.)

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Here’s a novel about Alice. Look who blurbed it!

 

And what about Dorothy Wordsworth? Ernest Selincourt wrote her biography in 1933. (He also taught Virginia Woolf nee Stephen when he was a professor in the Ladies Department of King’s College.) But after 1933? Here are the first names of the people who had something to say about Dorothy: Frances, Kathleen, Susan, Catherine, and Jo (which there’s another coincidence right there seeing as what we’re supposed to be talking about is Louisa May’s father). I digress, duh. I would also like to tell you that the Wordsworth brother and sister rambled around Scotland quite a bit.

(Once, on one of my own few rambles, I stayed in a small hotel where they’d stayed. There, framed, on the wall of the lounge, was Dorothy’s memory of the very inn in question. In the essay, she describes how she’d rather have hung out in the kitchen with the drovers and the carters than in the formal lounge, which was, as I can attest, slightly dreary.

 

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The Inveroran Hotel

 

When I arrived at the Inveroran Hotel, I was drenched due to how I’d just walked over a mountain in a tempest. I’m not sure when I’ve been more exhilarated. My whole body felt like a wide (wet) eye. I was wearing a cheap poncho which descended almost to my boots, and in the wind and torrent, it whipped around my ankles like Emily Bronte’s skirts must’ve done. It was extremely energizing and damp enough a walk that when I reached the inn, I poured the water out of my boots like they were twin pitchers.)

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good lord

 

So right here, I am turning the tables, albeit slightly, and instead of writing about an anonymous lady, I want to talk about a (now) (semi) anonymous man. Meet Amos Bronson Alcott.

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“A government, for protecting business only, is but a carcass, and soon falls by its own corruption and decay.” 

 

***Bronson wasn’t always anonymous, which means I have taken this comparison and stretched it way out of shape but whatever. He was, in fact, pretty damn famous for a lot of his life. He had a lot to say and people listened and he had friends in high places (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

***Bronson founded Fruitlands, a utopian community which lasted about 7 minutes, well, okay, 7 months. Still, its name lives on with those of us who are interested in utopian communities which I am enough that I wrote a whole novel about a made-up one (I called it Longmeadow) (I took the name from a dairy farm that supplied our school with those little cardboard school-lunch milk cartons of the past)

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what a relief

(now, they’re likely plastic but maybe I’m a cynic). So I got all interested in utopian communities and did some research. And that’s how I found out about Fruitlands. I am glad to say that unlike some of them which shall remain nameless (Oneida, oh my god) there wasn’t too much bizarre sex at Fruitlands but who knows really.

 

 

****Fruitlands enjoyed (probably not all that much) such a short tenure because Bronson was extremely highly principled (read: a dictator) and made a bunch of rules no one could actually follow. Like: no animal labor was allowed and no artificial lights (which meant no candles in pre-electricity times) and everyone had to be vegan, though the word vegan hadn’t yet been invented. download (1).jpegThe community failed, in large part, because the women (there were two of them, Mrs. Alcott and a lady named Ann) had to do all the women’s work and the men, who were supposed to tend the fields, spent most of their time philosophizing. Then, Ann ate a piece of fish and got kicked out of the commune.

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fish tacos…..mmmmm

 

***Bronson was an abolitionist and supported women’s rights except, apparently, when it came to what men did on a farm and what women did on a farm, which every woman knows that a man may work from dusk to dawn but a woman’s work is never done. No wonder Ann felt like she needed some protein, is what I have to say.

 

I’m not saying that I don’t like Bronson. I like him fine. I figure that between him and his wife Abby, they turned out a right nice young daughter.

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RIP

I just walked up to our nice independent trail shop and bought a new pair of hiking boots. They’re plenty nice and they’ll take me where I want to go. I tried on several pairs before I made my purchase. I tried on a bright-blue colored pair which usually I like bright blue? But I rejected them. I don’t care for too much whimsy in my boots. I have been known to wear sort of a lot of polka dots, and also tights with flowers on them, and also bloomers, so this is all just to say that I’m not afraid of dressing like a clown. But hiking boots? No. Hiking boots require a sober, can-do, undistracted kind of attitude. Bright blue will not cut it.

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whoa

 

After I selected my new boots, I gave the old ones to the kind trail shop sales-person and I asked her could she throw them out. She agreed to do it.

There were several reasons I left them at the store rather than tote them home.

Reason First: Recently, I’ve been “helping” (read: shrewishly cracking the whip) my husband clean out his workshop. His workshop is spacious, fairly well-lit, and absolutely inaccessible. This is because he collects stuff and then he puts it in there.

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everyone ought to have one

Now that he’s retired, I think it’d be good for him to have a room of his own and also a place to put together birdhouses and play with stamps and sort through old camping stuff and deal with his dad’s collection of woodworking books from the 1960’s and keep the old computer keyboards which he feels like he ought to plant with alfalfa seed to make high-tech chia pets and store a bunch of old crutches with disintegrating armpit rests and keep his old bus-driver work shirts which I recently learned he hopes to make into a sail of some sort with them and keep his hiking boots from 30 years ago when he walked on the Appalachian Trail.

 

Which reminds me that I just unearthed a blank book which we’d entitled: Stuff Dave Found Which We Kept and which listed such things as “a jar of mayonnaise” and “2 mops” and “ionic column later used in Addams Family play.” In the play, the column held a vase of fake long-stemmed roses which our Morticia arranged by snipping off the buds and arranging the stems, a la the tv show. originalThe column now resides in our living room and is currently holding a straw boater my dad bought for me in Key West 30 years ago. You can begin to see our problem with holding onto stuff. 

 

 

 

We rent a room in our house via Airbnb. It’s listed as “Cluttered in Carrboro” because that pretty much tells it like it is though recently I’ve begun to realize that with the non native-English speakers, I often need to define “clutter” which that’s pretty easy as all I have to do is gesture around the house.

Anyhow, this is one reason I didn’t want to bring my old boots home—the clutter problem.

Second: I’m getting old and my back hurts and I didn’t want to put them into my little daypack and carry them home.

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Third, and related to above: last year, Dave and I spent a long hot July week along with his brothers and sister and various assorted spouses cleaning out his mother’s house. We went through three industrial sized dumpsters—the 30 foot kind with the open top—and the house isn’t really all that big. It’s just that Dave’s mom had this marvelous combo of optimism (she wanted to do, and perhaps did do, All The Hobbies), and fear (there might never be another recipe for oatmeal cookies as good as that one in the 1971 Ladies Home Journal (so you’d better keep the whole canon) and if you don’t keep your bank statements from 1966, the bank might pretend they’ve never heard of you, and etc).

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prize-winning recipe

Due to the sheer volume of stuff we unearthed and threw away, I came down with a serious case of PTSD and I promised my own children that I would not make them go through what we’d just gone through.

 

Thus, I didn’t bring home my old boots.

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I loved those old boots. They took me east to west across England, and from south to north in Scotland. They got taken off and put back on a whole lot in Japan, like every time I entered a house and then left same. They took me from my home in Carrboro to my job in Chapel Hill, and then they walked me around as I shelved books.  They squeaked some. I wore them as I walked with my beloved dog in the mountains of NC and also on piedmont sidewalks. I wore them on the Appalachian Trail, and in cities, and to the movies, and with skirts. They weren’t terribly stylish, I never thought, but they were friendly, and they did what they were supposed to do. They got me, is how I felt about them. So RIP, old friends. And thanks.

 

 

 

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I live in the suburbs of the piedmont, but we own (so far, the closets of) a little house in the mountains, on a low mountain, or “knob” as the folks around here like to say. Granny’s Knob is what it’s called. We may, in fact, live in Granny’s house, as ours is by far the oldest and shabbiest on the road, but it’s fairly snug except for the stinkbug problem. But, as I’m not the type to let the perfect lie in the way of the good, we’re pretty happy with it. Plus, the monthly mortgage bill is cheap. Also, soon it’ll be beachfront property due to climate change and we can leave it to our kids who can sell it for millions.

Down in the suburbs, we have a fairly sizeable fenced-in back yard, which our Akita mutt uses to full advantage. She’s a fine dog. We found her as a little bitty thing in a box of pups in front of our local food coop. The dude who was trying to find homes for the puppies had been stymied at the shelter, due to overcrowding; a huge puppy mill—the sort that generates the type of little frufru dogs people seem to like– had been busted in the next state over, and the shelters for a couple of hundred miles around were full to bursting with traumatized Pomeranians and Malteses. So there was no room at the inn for these little Akita mutt puppies. Thus: the box in front of the coop.

One of our daughters chose her from among the litter and we took her home. We named her Pumblechook, after a character in Great Expectations. It’s nice to name your pets after minor literary characters, who are often beloved of their authors and need a little time in the sun. Pumble likes the sun plenty but, sad to say, doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain. Her coat is very thick: Akitas were bred to fight bears in the snow country of Japan, and so when she gets wet, she’s wet for days. And when she blows her fur? Lord God, there are not enough lint rollers in the world.

I take Pumble on walks but her leash makes me sad. Leashes, while necessary in the suburbs—especially for Pumble who wouldn’t mind eating any dog smaller than herself—are restrictive. Dogs are sorta ultra-refined wolves, right, and wolves like to run free.

For many years, I’ve entertained an elaborate fantasy about taking her off the leash; what would it be like? Would she stick around? Would she frolic and smile? Would she immediately bolt? My one daughter had a rescue Husky once; that dog spent every waking moment trying to get away, despite the fact that my daughter treated her like a visiting ambassador. Take the Husky to the dog park? She’d ignore the other dogs and patrol the fence line like an obsessed prison guard. I thought maybe Pumble off the leash would act similarly; she has been known to escape our back yard and wander the neighborhood officiously, the hair on the back of her neck at full stand.

You hear about how amazing a dog’s sense of smell is; how remarkable, their hearing. If that’s true, then how come all those stories of dogs getting lost and then found 1000 miles from home. Lack of intellect? Lack of loyalty? Looking for better chow?

Up on Granny’s Knob, I decided to try to make my fantasy reality. I put a baggie of cheese in my pocket and off we went, sans leash.  Pumble was amazed. Her eyes were wide; her breath came fast. We set off up the mountain. She ran ahead ten feet, looked back, trotted ten more feet, looked back. I called to her often and toasted her return. She began to run further ahead, looking back to either a) make sure I was with her or b) wonder why I wasn’t chasing her down.

But she stuck with me. Day after day, we’d go out together leashless, and walk the mountain. Once we found a possum skull. Often, I sang. On one day, for a couple of hours, I helped my husband haul logs from up the mountain. Pumble ran around, happy, until she came to a spot that was so extremely steep that she couldn’t get up the slope. She was obviously worried and, as she’s getting on to elderly, I decided to help her, though I too am getting on to elderly. At any rate, in a Laurel n Hardyesque chain of events, I climbed down the slope and pushed her up by her butt, while Dave hauled her by her collar. “We saved her life,” I declared. Dave snorted. And while I’m fairly sure that she could’ve found her way all by herself, a doubt lingers: while Pumble’s awfully nice, she may not be the sharpest tool in the box.

One day, towards the end of our stay, I veered off the path and got totally bogged down in what mountain people call a “hell,” which is a nigh impenetrable cage of mountain laurel. Once in, you can’t really get out. I mean, you can, but it takes fortitude as well as the adrenaline that comes with panic. While I was fighting my way through, I caught the look in Pumble’s eye. “Oh. My. God,” she seemed to be saying. “Come ON.” I’m not sure but I think I saw her shake her head at my predicament. Then, with a final glance, she disappeared completely.

Back at our house, Dave stood staring into space, axe in hand. “I lost our dog,” I announced. “You lost our dog?” he said. I nodded. He put down the axe and walked up the road some, calling. About ten minutes later, Dave and Pumble returned together. I gave Pumble the rest of the cheese in my pocket and praised her, my good prodigal dog. Then I made Dave lunch.

Tomorrow, we go back to the piedmont,  back to the leash and the fence. But until we return to the mountains, Pumble (and I) will live with our memories. Do dogs remember like that?

 

Kavanaughty

I believe Dr. Ford, of course. From the evidence I heard—uncorroborated, but totally credible—the truth is that Brett Kavanaugh, drunk out of his mind, assaulted her and attempted to rape her. That he didn’t succeed is likely due to the intensity of his drunkenness. I expect he was too stumbling-drunk to see the act through.

 

It makes perfect sense to me that Judge Kavanaugh believes he didn’t do it. He was likely so drunk he can’t remember. And he’s so arrogant that if he doesn’t want to believe it, he won’t. It doesn’t jive with his self-view. He doesn’t believe that a golden boy such as himself could have acted thus. He doesn’t have a confidence problem (which comes with an associated and often useful dose of self-doubt). He may not be lying about his assault of Dr. Ford; he just doesn’t remember doing it.

 

This is pure he said/she said. I believe her. Others believe him. The FBI did/did not do its job. The White House did/did not tamper with the investigation.

 

In point of fact: Kavanaugh is innocent until proven guilty and due to a conflagration of horrors, the truth is out there but inaccessible.

 

I don’t like Kavanaugh’s philosophies, his politics, his world-view. He’s a Republican dream-come-true. But here’s the truth: the Republicans got the chance to fill the seat. They’re filling it with the most useful (to them) candidate they can find. The total fury we Democrats feel about Merrick Garland is something that Republicans choose to overlook. They’re still mad about Bork. Maybe that’s what Kavanaugh meant when he said, “what goes around comes around.” We can hope that’s what he meant. We can hope that he was talking about the past not the future.

 

But here’s why he shouldn’t be confirmed.

 

It’s his partisanship. That’s all it is. That’s all we need to think about.

 

That’s all the Senate should think about. They can’t know for sure, beyond all doubt, about his drinking/his sexual aggressiveness/his capacity for violence.

 

But they can know this:

 

–he’s feels entitled to the position and this, in itself, ought to disqualify him;

–he believes that he was the victim of the actions of various Democrats and thus, cannot be trusted to be fair;

–he lied under oath about the fact that he had a drinking problem in college and high school;

–he’s unable, apparently, to keep his temper and thus, cannot be trusted to use logic and law, rather than emotion and rage when judging a case;

 

This ought to be a simple vote no.

Holynpoly

My local NPR station which is all I ever listen to—except I’m trying to listen to country music some in order to expand my horizons but so far, all I like is the ladies of country, but maybe give me some time—anyhow, my NPR station gives away vacations at its yearly pledge drives. I lust after one of those trips. They begin with a trip to Paris and then someone wins and you hear them scream, “you’re kidding,” to the guy who tells them they won. And then comes the Rome trip and then London–so they always play the London Calling song—and I always hope that they’ll call me. And then comes Australia and I shrug.

Dolly n Andy

 

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm about Australia lies in the fact that Captain Kangaroo kind of creeped me out when I was a kid.

one of our festive foods: delicious horseradish

Or, maybe it’s because I come from a long line of Eastern Europeans whose favorite vegetables were those of the root variety because that’s what grows where it’s cold. While my people may have sprung from the desert, they mostly ended up in the snowy fields of more northern lands– where we hung out for a couple of millennia—and which is why all our festive foods seem to be based on those that are grown underground where they’re protected from the frost. Anyhoo, with me, anyway, the temperature of our new homeland took and held fast. Some like it hot but I ain’t one of ‘em. My last name—or my dad’s—though of course it’s mine, too—translates to “a person from a cold village.” Which reminds me of how the Icelanders have taken a giant step into the future with their “dottir” and “son” surnames which why can’t we do that?

Also, I once saw a House Hunters International Extreme Something or Other Edition episode which showed a lovely young couple—he an Ozzie (which I just read is another way to say Aussie), she a Dane—who moved to some hellhole in the middle of the outback or the never never or whatever it is so that he could get a mining job and

Coober Pedy

since it’s always like 400 degrees there, the only way humans can survive is to live in caves underground which they build and then line with cement. Which, I don’t know about you, but I kinda like a window? I saw that episode like three years ago and I still think about that young rather waifish Danish woman and hope she was stronger than she looked on tv.

 

So maybe my apathy towards Australia is based entirely on climate. Could be.

But let me say this: I thought to myself, well gosh, Australia is a whole big continent and maybe they have all kinds of weather and what I think I know isn’t exactly what is fact? So I looked it up and in fact, the climate of the whole landmass seems to gravitate between quite warm and hellish. So now I feel all self-righteous.

Now: because my imagination is worn out like an old shoe, I tend to incline towards themes—because themes make life easier to digest– so this past week I had myself a little Australia fest. They banned plastic bags. They banned guns. What’s not to like? Not that Australia needs me and my approval. But hell, why not give it a chance, I said to myself.

My festival was comprised of a novel and a movie and in fact, I had a pretty good time.      Of Killers and Thieves (which is sort of a lame title but oh well), is by a young man named Paul Howarth and is due in February of 2018 which is any moment now unless President Dumbass puts us into the middle of a nuclear nightmare which, like, seriously? Is there no one to stand up and say, “President Dumbass, have you no decency, sir?” And by no one I mean no Republican who actually plans to stay in office?

 

To continue. Mr. Howarth’s novel which is his first, is a big-time page turner but it’s also damn good and maybe even important. Talk about Black Lives Matter. Lord, God.

Here’s a question. Which of the following is worse?

  1. kidnapping a bunch of people from their homes so they can do all the work you don’t want to have to pay someone to do which oh my god, of COURSE, the Civil War was about State’s Rghts. THE STATES’ RIGHTS TO KEEP BLACK PEOPLE ENSLAVED, THAT IS.

(And another thing: if, say, I was German and every day as I walked to my college classes I had to pass a statue of Goebbels? Well hell, yes, I’d be pissed. And hurt. And resentful. And then, when I grew up and became, say, an orthopedic surgeon, I’d have to be careful to treat my German patients just as carefully as I did my non-German patients because I was still pissed, all those years later, that they hadn’t taken down the DAMN STATUE OF SILENT SAM I MEAN GOEBBELS when they had the fucking chance.) (That this is a stretched comparison hasn’t escaped my eagle-eye but I’m guessing it’s not so out of shape that you don’t take the point.)

(In fact, I myself would be a crappy surgeon due to I panic, but my point is that certainly you’d like to think you always rise above the idiocy of others and turn the other cheek and be noble, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, but even orthopedic surgeons are just humans, and if one of them left her scalpel in somebody’s leg by mistake due to a lifetime of being pissed off, well, you see where I’m going. Which is the big fat stupid human cycle of who hurt who first.)

or

2) you invade a landmass and then go about trying to exterminate all the indigenous people which, hey, doesn’t that sound sort of familiar?

Answer: both are worse.

Anyhow, Of Killers and Thieves is about a white family scraping by in the Australia of 1880. Brutality and horror and violence abound like kangaroos hop. Which, like, can you call it gratuitous if it’s all absolutely true? Me, I have nothing against violence in a novel, nothing at all.

Pulitzer Prize dude, Adam Johnson

For example, The Orphan Master’s Son made me want to throw up and still does when I recall certain particular scenes, but I think it’s one of the best novels of the last five years. One time,  Adam Johnson who is the author of The Orphan Master’s Son came into the bookstore in which I bide some time and I told him that his book made me want to throw up and he said, “thanks,” and I said, “you’re welcome.” It was a pleasant exchange.

Speaking of North Korea which is what Orphan Master is about: the president of these United States is, as I write this, embarking on a tour of Asia with Melania, bless her heart. At the Women’s March, the best sign I saw said, “Free Melania.” Anyhow, like many Americans, I feel this uncomfortable sensation in the back of my throat—sort of like the marriage of a nervous giggle and a gag reflex—at the speculation of what Our National Embarrassment might say or do in front of the good people of Japan, say, or China. Maybe he’ll say, “What, rice again?” or “I bet she has a nice little figure under that hanbok,” or maybe, “Yes this chicken is okay, but not as good as P. F. Chang’s.”

gorgeous, hunh

 

available at Flyleaf Books

 

But back to Australia. I raced my way through Of Killers and Thieves and enjoyed it very much in the same way that you enjoy pulling a splinter out from underneath your fingernail. I recommend it heartily. It’s about race, is what it’s about, and while it reads in some parts like a wish rather than a reality, in the end it doesn’t leave you so hopeless that you want to go live in a cave lined with cement.

So the next part of my Australia-fest was a movie.  I watched Australia, the big epic blockbuster-that-totally-busted by Baz Luhrmann, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. It pretty much sucks but it has its good points, one of which is that it’s really long, which I like a long movie. It’s like that old joke about how awful the restaurant was: the food is terrible and the portions are tiny.

O Guo vors lands!

Anyhoo, the Kidman Jackman (see, in Iceland, there’s be “woman” somewhere around there) did what it could to keep the movie above water but it pretty much drowned under the weight of its efforts to be sweeping. But there is a cute kid actor. And horses. And lots of Australian scenery and, if you like the simplicity of cardboard characters and good vs. evil, it has a nice satisfying end. Just don’t ask too much of it and you’ll be okay.

 

The best part is the narration which is by the cute kid actor and is in the parlance of the blackfella (not my word). An interesting part of Australia is certainly the treatment of the Aboriginals which we used to call them Aborigines. Which reminds me: yeah, you go ahead and say “Se-vee-yah” for Seville and you go ahead and say “Buddha Pesht” for Budapest but howcum you’re not saying “Par-ee” for Paris, hm? But, I’m aware that there are linguistic chic-nesses just as there are in literature which, for example, Steinbeck is outre but he might come back.

Anyhow, often, movies and novels tend to treat the Aboriginals like happy peasants at one with their universe (Australia for sure does it, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert does it, Of Killers and Thieves does it to a much lesser extent, but it’s not entirely absent even there). Which is how the more innocent among us view the Native American tribes we endeavored so hard to destroy—as happy natives—when they killed each other plenty, just as much as we’ve all murdered our neighbors, and since the dawn of man. My point is that there’s probably not that many happy peaceful native tribes on this good earth anyway because why? Because everyone is just a person and people when stressed– which when are we not– are just assholes.

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veddddy interesting

 

My great loss of innocence re: the dearth of the simple happy peasant occurred over years but epiphanied one day in the shower (don’t ask me why) when I realized that the sweet rose-covered cottages of the English countryside were a) probably not rose-covered and b) probably packed with a widow and her children eating clay from their yard for lack of anything better.

And if you think about it, those happy English peasants, if they stole a loaf of bread? Or poached? They were probably either hanged or, if they were lucky, packed up on a boat and sent off to Australia. Like Pip’s sponsor in Great Expectations, remember?

Magwitch

 

Life’s a big circle, ain’t it. For better and worse.

Next theme: could be the Ozarks, cuz I’m reading Winter’s Bone which wasn’t that a great movie?

this kookaburra is eating a python