Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christmas Task

A wee bit of wishful thinking for Christmas:

The wind tears at my breath as I step outdoors, and I have to concentrate to breath. Exhaling's no problem, but inhaling, stealing a breath back, is a challenge. But as miserable as it feels, the noisy, fretful, wicked wind that drowns out all but the loudest noises and can cause untold and unexpected property damage is why I've chosen this night for what I'm thinking of as "The Task."

I raise my head and see it directly in front of me. My fist tightens around the steak knife I'm clutching like a dagger. I step forward out of the shelter of the porch and look up the street, scanning first one side and then the other. It's after 2 am; only tree limbs are moving. There are no lights in bedrooms or bathrooms. A car glides by on the cross street a block up, but I can't hear its engine over the wind. Good.

Then I'm running, and I can't hear the wind anymore, only my breath and my feet thudding across the street, up to the house opposite, and I raise my fist and drop the knife, slashing through the nylon fabric that tears, shredding more easily than I had hoped. And then I turn and run back, and am safe inside my own house before the inflatable Homer Simpson dressed as Santa has fully collapsed, never to curse our street again with his tacky, doofy grin.

I just hope next year they don't put up something worse.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bertie Sue is SENSITIVE, Y'all

Or picky. Whichever.

A year ago at just about this time, I made a sweater for Bertie Sue. I was inordinately proud of it, because, even if just a dog sweater, it was the first knitted object that I ever conceived of and knitted on my own without a pattern. And it was awesome.


I learned one important lesson while constructing that sweater: You should put the leg holes in where the legs end under the chest, not where they start up at the shoulder. This is an important feature for dog sweaters because doing it wrong adds a lot of unnecessary fabric across the chest and probably makes walking feel kind of funny. Miss Bert would consent to wear the sweater for trips in the car or to go outside for a quick potty, but she refused to go on walks while wearing the sweater. It may be that she is fashion conscious and the grab-bag quality didn't fit her personal style, but I think it's more likely that it felt strange to walk in.

So I cogitated on the problem for a while and decided that the best way to put the leg holes in exactly the right place is to leave them out altogether. Here is the result:

I found the purple mystery yarn in the yarn cabinet wound neatly into a cake with no label. No idea what that stuff is except that a flame test proves it to be an acrylic. (Bert won't be hanging out unattended in this sweater. That stuff melts.) The red ribbing is a design feature in the sense that I ran out of the purple mystery yarn and didn't have anything else to match or coordinate, so I decided to go with full-on clash instead. Embrace the ugly, people. The body is the honeycomb stitch most frequently seen of late in the Honey Cowl. The tummy is all ribbing so that if we manage to help Miss Bert lose the 5 pounds she needs to drop, it will still fit. I hope.

The innovation that made another dog sweater worth knitting is the single giant leg hole.

Sorry about the blurry photo, but that is an insanely difficult angle to photograph and that's the best I could get before Bert wandered off to see if Brew needed to have his rear end sniffed. (He did.)

So far, so good. She can run! She can jump! She can stroll leisurely up the block sniffing every third leaf!

Don't worry that Brewie might be chilly. He's always toasty in his ultra-hip fleece hoodie.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading Journal: Burial Rites

Hannah Kent's first novel, Burial Rites, was published this month by Little, Brown. I don't remember reading an early review or putting it on my holds list, but I must've done both, because it showed up in my box last Wednesday.

Once I had a chance to flip through it, I decided I wasn't going to like it. It's a fictionalized account of the months leading up to the 1830 beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person ever to be executed in Iceland. It uses available documentary evidence to provide the rough outline of a detailed story purporting to explain the circumstances surrounding Agnes's crime, the murder of the landowner for whom she worked as a servant. Using the character of a priest to draw out the story, Kent provides a fairly explicit and yet hum-drum view of the lives of poor women in nineteenth-century Iceland, which, of course, were no less difficult than the lives of poor women in any other part of the world in that era.

In other words, the conceit is identical to that used by Margaret Atwood in the brilliant Alias Grace, the story of a 19th-century Canadian servant sentenced to death for murdering her master. It's pretty audacious to blatantly imitate one of our greatest living authors, and I expected Kent to suffer in comparison.

I shall now eat my words.  

Kent's writing has a ways to go before she reaches Atwoodian levels of virtuosity, but her story telling instincts more than make up for it. In any case, Kent's straight-forward, one might say plain, style does service to her characters, people who, though literate and intelligent, live lives much too difficult and exhausting to engage in artistic pursuits that don't serve some useful purpose on the farm.

I found myself drawn into the details of running a farm in pre-Industrial Revolution Iceland, a climate an outsider might find much too forbidding to be worth the effort. From the window pane made of a pig bladder to the sleeping arrangements in the badstofa, Kent, herself an Australian, provides realistic but not excessive detail of what it meant to live and farm in a region where the weather can kill you 9 months out of the year.

And, more urgently, Kent tells the story that could belong to any poor woman servant from any era, including our own, subject to the whims of her "betters" and unable to fully act on her own desires and needs. The danger of stories like Burial Rites and Alias Grace is the temptation to classify these stories exclusively as horrors from the past. "That doesn't happen now," we tell ourselves. Yet of course it does. The bare fact of poverty in the 21st-century United States puts one at risk of victimization and exploitation; the risks for poor women are double. So when we read novels like Burial Rites, although it's oh so tempting to classify it merely as historical fiction, Agnes herself begs us to examine our own world in search of injustice and exploitation that, though perhaps better camouflaged, is no less prevalent. This is where Kent's novel truly succeeds.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An Open Letter to Minneha Elementary School Students and Staff

What a way to start the school year! You enter your classrooms excited to begin another year, and what do you get? A "scandal" created by people who don't seem to understand the purpose of education in general, let alone the mission of Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet in particular.

I'm sorry you had to take down your display depicting the Five Pillars of Islam. I hope you'll be able to replace it soon. You know better than many adults that learning about different religions is a great way to move toward a peaceful world. You know that pretending religion doesn't exist is a prescription for ignorance and bigotry later in life. You know that learning about a religion is not the same thing as believing. And your teachers know that the Supreme Court has upheld the right of public schools to provide education about religion at the same time that it rightly prohibits proselytizing in McCollum v Board of Education (1948) and in School District of Abington Township v Schempp (1963).  

So when it's time to do your unit on Islam later this fall, just like when you do your units on Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism, don't let the bullies intimidate you from learning. They're afraid because they don't know any better. You can be brave because you have knowledge.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Profound Metaphor of Significant Significance (but mainly dog training)

My dad came over this morning to do something mysterious to my stereo to make the classical station in Hutch come in more clearly. (And by "mysterious," I mean he stuck a piece of flexible, rubber-coated wire in the antenna port. The wire has a name, but I've already forgotten. Dad would want me to tell you that you should NEVER attach a wire coat hanger to your stereo. Not that I would ever consider that. Ahem.)

So, knowing that we were about to have company, I did what I always do to make Brewster more comfortable with visitors. The dogs got their harnesses on, and we went out for a mini-walk so we could meet Dad outside. Brewster is much happier to meet people outside on neutral ground than to have them come into his house. Bertie is always happy to meet new people so she runs up first to perform her official function as the Chez Furry Pants Welcoming Committee. (Obviously this special service is only for guests we already know are dog people and won't mind slobbery dog tongue.) Then in theory Brewster and I follow, Brewster gets to meet the guest if he's feeling brave enough, and then we follow the guest into the house so Brew doesn't feel like he's being chased. 

When Dad came by a couple of weeks ago, we did not do this very well. Or rather, I did not do it very well. Bertie ran up to Dad, and I held Brewster back to see how he would react. In the process of holding him back, I pulled back on his leash, putting tension on it. And there was the mistake.

The amount of tension on the leash makes a huge difference in how Brew reacts. When his harness is tight around his chest, he lunges forward and wants to attack. When there is no tension he almost literally seems like a different dog, a bit nervous and timid, but in no way aggressive or threatening. This is not just a Brewster thing. I learned in an obedience class that all dogs respond to tension in the leash by becoming tense themselves. Understanding this basic little factoid was what made it possible to successfully introduce Brewster to Bertie Sue way back when. 

So at Dad's last visit, when Brewster felt the tension in the leash, it caused tension in him, and he wanted to lunge forward. I knew that I was causing the problem, but I couldn't make myself stop doing it. I knew if I released the tension, he would charge up at Dad for just a second, and the image of snarling Brewster was just too much. I wound up holding Brewster the entire time Dad was at the house, afraid to put him down.

Today I was determined to do better--not that Brewster would do better, that I would do better. When Bert ran up to give Dad his hello kisses, Brewster and I kept right on coming. Brewster tried to pull forward, but I kept coming, too, so the leash was slack. And I swear to you I saw this thought bubble forming over Brewster's head: "You aren't going to pull me back? You mean I could actually run up and bite him if I want to? Um . . . I think I'll go check out this piece of grass over here. Here's a rock that needs to be sniffed. This dandelion must be peed on immediately." And Brewster spent the rest of the visit ignoring Dad entirely, which is fine because Bertie Sue hands out enough luvins for four dogs. I promise, no one has ever felt neglected since Bert came to live here.

Hence, today's moral. You've heard the saying that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it, or something like that. So it is with dog training: The trick to improving a dog's behavior often lies in the handler's willingness to change his or her own behavior. Brewster didn't do a single thing differently at today's visit versus what he did two weeks ago. I was the one who changed my technique to get different results. And, whereas two weeks ago, I spent my time restraining an angry little demon dog, today I spent my time reassuring a nervous but generally calm and certainly not dangerous sweet little angel of whom I am very proud. Worth it.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Knitter's Word Problem

Noelle accidentally knit an extra pattern repeat, including increases, on the yoke of the February Lady Sweater. She now has 235 stitches, but she only needs 227. Should she:

A. Tink back 470 stitches.

B. K2tog 8 times.

C. You know you can buy sweaters at Target, right?

Next week's problem: If Knitter 1 leaves the LYS at 10:45 am with a bag of Malabrigo and Knitter 2 leaves Michael's at 11:02 with a bag of Patons Kroy, they will have a violent and virulent disagreement on Ravelry about yarn quality at what time?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Here There Be Monsters, Y'all! No, really.

I've discovered the solution to the tepid second novel that critics' lore insists a promising young novelist will inevitably produce. Just wait and read the second novel first, and then go back and read the first. Earlier this year I read Arcadia, Lauren Groff's second novel. It was good. Darn good, in fact. So good it was one of the contenders in the Tournament of Books.

But I just finished The Monsters of Templeton, Groff's debut novel published in 2008, and it blew Arcadia right out of the water. Monsters has, well, a monster. A real one. We're not talking some metaphoric mental monster, but an actual, honest-to-god, lives-in-the-lake, and may-or-may-not-be-drowing-people monster.

And yes, okay, the monster is in fact symbolic of the monstrous secrets being kept in the town that surface at the same time as the monster. It wouldn't be lit-rah-cha if there wasn't any symbolism, of course. But Groff took what could've been an average novel on well-worn themes (daddy issues much?) and pulled the story-telling equivalent of lifting a rabbit out of a top hat. Except the rabbit isn't a boring old rabbit. It's a monster. A real, live monster, "huge, a heavy cream color that darkened to lemon in places. . . . It looked like a carp grown enormous, with a carp's fat belly and round eye, but with a long, articulated neck like a ballet dancer's and four finned legs, plump as a frog." When was the last time you got to read about a monster outside of a horror novel? Never, yeah?

On more, shall we say, traditional grounds, the novel is just as skilled as Arcadia. It looks at similar themes in terms of what constitutes a family, how perceptions and knowledge are formed, and what happens when a new reality intrudes. The main character, Willie Upton, searches her family's history to reveal her own "monsters," which for the most part aren't that monstrous, but really are only the departures from "authorized" history that happen in every family. As Willie explores her family's history back to her founding ancestors in the 18th century, Groff explores the quintessential American family in microcosm, and thus presents us with a portrait of our own American geniture. Although Willie is the protagonist who must live with the consequences, Groff lets each generation tell its own story and make its own confessions. Each generation's story is layered on another, not necessarily in chronological order, creating new understandings of what it means to be Willie Upton, and, for the rest of us, what it means to be a descendent of the American experiment—although that really sounds too grand for the immediate, intimate nature of this story.

As in Arcadia, Groff's prose is impressive. It manages to be exquisite and delicate without looking like she tried to make it exquisite and delicate. In the course of the week or so that I was reading Monsters, I found myself thinking in Groff's voice, the way you do when you're engrossed in a novel. Letting an author infect my brain like that is probably the highest praise I can give any writer.

So you must definitely read The Monsters of Templeton, not least because it is a relevant story told in beautiful prose. But mostly you must read Monsters because of the monster. How often as an adult do you get to read about a monster you can really believe in?

Oh, and the friendly if somewhat anal-retentive ghost. Did I mention the ghost? I can't believe I forgot to tell you about the ghost!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Because the hell-hound is adorbs.

You've read Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, right? You know, the comedic novel about Armageddon that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett coauthored and published 23 years ago? You've read that, right? I assume pretty much everyone except me has read it, and I just finished it, so I assume now everyone's read it.

But if for some reason you haven't gotten around to it yet, here are some reasons you might enjoy it:
  • Gaiman and Pratchett apparently loathe Queen as much as an approaching-middle-aged Midwestern woman—that is to say, me.
  • The vicious hell-hound sent from the underworld to accompany the preadolescent Antichrist has no choice but to become a lovable family pet—or else the Antichrist's dad won't let him keep it. "It had always wanted to jump up at people but, now, it realized that against all expectation it wanted to wag its tail at the same time."
  • It's got a lot of Sunday Morning theology beat (and Friday Night and Saturday Afternoon, for that matter). The young Antichrist wonders, "I don't see what's so triffic about creating people as people and then gettin' upset 'cos they act like people." Yeah, me neither.
  • An entire room of telemarketers is consumed by a huge demonic maggot consisting of millions of tiny demonic maggots. Seems okay, yeah? 
  •  A witch being burned at the stake manages to blow up her entire village in the process. Serves 'em right.
  • The Antichrist is unusually practical for an 11-year-old, not to mention astonishingly polite: "I don't want any more world than I've got. Thank you all the same."  
Here are some reasons you might not enjoy it:
  • There are so many references to Queen that you'll catch yourself singing "Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?" under your breath to yourself at least twice. And then you'll probably have to pay royalties to BMI or somebody.
  • That's really all I've got. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Next Stop: Amish Romance Novels

Letting your reading life be determined by your library holds queue makes for an interesting, if sometimes disconcerting, reading experience. There I was taking a leisurely and enjoyable stroll through Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, when NOS4A2, a story by Joe Hill about a vampire named Manx who feeds on children, showed up. It's a new release and therefore a two-week checkout with no renewal, so I dropped Agnes and found myself speeding down inscape highways and through mysterious covered bridges with Vic "Brat" McQueen as she tries to rescue her son from the evil Manx and his dominion, Christmasland. Talk about whiplash.

I can't say I particularly enjoy gruesome horror stories anymore, and certainly don't normally seek them out. But I had read an article about Hill and NOS4A2, and was curious enough to give it a shot. I wasn't going to beat myself up if I didn't finish, though. 

But here's the thing: Joe Hill is an excellent storyteller. It might be in his genes, since his dad is Stephen King. It's clear that Hill learned his craft by reading and re-reading and re-reading his dad. Would the similarities of style and tone have occurred to me if I hadn't known about the relationship? Probably. It really is very "Kingish." Hill acknowledges as much when he writes in the acknowledgments of "cruising [King's] back roads my whole life," and even said in an interview that he thought "it would be fun to goof on Stephen King a bit."

And here's another thing: Hill is better than his dad—or at least, shall we say, fresher. It's sort of like the difference between drinking the same iced tea you've been drinking your whole life, which is perfectly fine, and drinking raspberry iced tea with lemon—the same, but better, if you like that sort of thing.

But here's a third thing: The horrifying bits, unfortunately, are pretty much rote. You know in a book like this there's going to be a pretty fair amount of gore for anyone who inadvertently crosses Manx's path. And there is. When a dog is introduced midway through, you just know that dog isn't going to make it out alive, and it's probably going to be a pretty gruesome death. And it is. And that's where I lose patience. Yes, because it's a dog, and it shouldn't be any secret how I feel about thinking mildly hard-hearted thoughts about an animal, let alone actually hurting one, but also because there's plenty of real-life horror all around us, and fictional horror feels less like an escape and more like something that shouldn't be permitted to take up anymore space in my brain than absolutely necessary. That guy in Cleveland who kept those three women locked up for years? There's a child-eating vampire for you.

So, yes, Hill is a helluva writer and a helluva storyteller. By all means, check him out if you haven't already. I'm glad I did. But in general, although I'm not quite to the point of taking up Amish romance novels for my escapist reading, I think I'm past wanting to read about bone mallets and intestinal gristle for fun on rainy Sunday afternoons.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Towel Day

Edgar was my second cat. My first cat, Lucy, died when she was only a year old of unexplained liver failure. A couple of weeks after she died, I took her food to the Humane Society to donate, and when I turned around, there was a young cat staring at me from a cage at eye level. He so clearly wanted the hell out, so I took him home. That was November 1996.

Edgar was an attack cat. Ankles, knees, anything that moved was fair game. He was also and often simultaneously a snuggler. He's the only cat I've ever known who never got tired of being petted. He never got up and walked away. When his tail started switching back and forth, you knew it was time to stop moving your hand around, but you were not supposed to stop touching him. This made getting work done challenging.

When I called the Humane Society this morning to ask about euthanasia and cremation (our vet is closed for the holiday weekend), his tail suddenly started switching again. He'd been perfectly still all morning, and you would've sworn that he understood what I was doing and was objecting. But I spent the whole day with him, just sitting with him, and it wasn't a mistake. His back legs stopped working yesterday, and at first he could pull himself around, but he also didn't want to eat, hadn't eaten since Wednesday in fact, so today he was too weak to move on his own at all. Every once in a while he would struggle and I would sit him up so he could roll over onto his other side. That was all he seemed to want. He never purred today at all. I'm pretty sure this was the first day of his life when he never purred.

We spent the morning on the sun porch, and then when it got too hot I carried him in to my bed, and turned on the fans and opened the windows so he could keep smelling the fresh air, at the same time that I shut all the other windows in the house and turned on the AC to try to keep him cool.

My sister was supposed to pick us up at 4:30, and when I saw that the clock said 4:08, I thought I was going to throw up. I took a Pepto just in case. I still don't know how I did that, got Edgar into his crate, carried him into the car, and answered "yes" when the veterinarian asked if I was ready. I don't know how anybody ever does that because clearly I am NOT FUCKING READY. But Edgar was. He was mad as hell because he couldn't move, was mad as hell at being in an exam room, and he needed out. It was my job to get him out of that cage 16 years ago, and it was my job to get him out today.

I'm so glad I asked my sister to go with me. Seriously, the next time you have to put a pet to sleep, take my sister with you. She'll cry right along with you so you don't feel stupid. My arms were busy holding onto Edgar, so she couldn't hold my hand, so she held my leg instead. The most comforting thing that happened all day was my sister's hand wrapped around my shin while I had my arms wrapped around Edgar. I don't think she realized that.

The hardest part in any death for me is finally leaving the person behind. (Yes, person. I dare you to tell Edgar that he's not a person.) I was taken by surprise by that when my grandfather died when I was 12. He'd been sick for a while, and we'd spent a week in the hospital with him, and then at the funeral home and the church, and when the graveside was over and I realized that we were just going to walk away and leave his coffin, that's when I got really upset.

So today before it was time to go, I realized that was going to be hard, but I found a solution. I got the towel out of his crate and laid him on it. It made it okay to leave. I told the staff that I had left the towel, and they assumed I wanted it kept with him, but I told them they could wash it and use it. (The Humane Society can always use towels.) I just needed it to be there when I left the room, so he wouldn't be alone. And now I'm toting the towel he's slept on all day around with me. This is the towel that's been in his crate most of his life. At some point recently there was a laundry switch, and another old towel was the one that went to the Humane Society today and that I left with him. This is the one that's ridden in his crate for years, and is snagged and partly shredded. It's the one I think of as "Edgar's Towel." I can't make myself put it down yet. If anyone comes to my door tonight, they will find a red-eyed, red-nosed woman carrying around a ratty old towel.

The fact that it's Towel Day is not lost on me. I know where my towel is, and Edgar has his, too, so we're all going to be all right.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Kids These Days

I hardly know where to begin. Maybe my first stop should be a caveat about how the public institution where I spend a small part of my working life attracts patrons of all ages, from 1 to 101. Rarely does a day pass when some child does not throw a temper tantrum, an embarrassed caregiver desperately shushes said child, and some third person, usually someone over 50, remarks under his breath that in his day, children weren't allowed to behave so abominably.

The third person—or rather, people, because they are legion—drive me bats. I know perfectly well that in their day things were not so wonderful as they misremember. In their day, children threw just as many temper tantrums as they do now, and caregivers tried just as desperately to shush them. In their day the child was probably more likely to get smacked for misbehaving, but I'd rather listen to a kid scream until light bulbs shatter than see one get hit, so I'm glad I live in my day, not theirs.

So I have no patience for people who start their conversations with, "In my day. . . ."

And yet. In my day. . . . 

I wore my John today. John is the last in a long line of college tee shirts. I'm not sure why he's held up so well, maybe because the plastic or whatever it is his giant head is made of reinforces the fabric. For whatever reason, John is still with me. I love him dearly and will wear him until he's in tatters, when he will be placed lovingly into the storage tub with all my other favorite tee shirts that have become little more than fragments. I'm sure the Billie Holiday tee shirt will welcome him home as a long-lost friend.

Now you may not have noticed it—I know I certainly didn't at first—but this photo of John bears a superficial resemblance to another contemporary pop culture icon, a certain orphaned wizard we all know and many of us love. The first time I was in a grocery store and a 6-year-old pointed at my shirt and yelled "Harry Potter!" I was surprised, but not for long. It's the round glasses, you see.

So even though I hadn't been planning a pop culture lesson, I was a little more prepared when I wore John to after-school tutoring and five kids simultaneously pointed and screamed "Harry Potter!" (Seriously, they all scream. Harry Potter apparently engenders the kind of emotion in children not seen since teen girls fell in love with the Beatles themselves.) "No," I said, "This is a musician named John Lennon. When you get home tonight, ask your parents if you can listen to some music by the Beatles. No, not like the bugs. Seriously, just ask them. I'm not kidding." If even one child got to hear "I Want to Hold Your Hand" that night, I feel that I've made the world a better place.

This evening, though, when a 20-something clerk, a young woman with dyed black hair and a nose ring, a young woman who is clearly working so hard to be hip and alternative, looked at my tee shirt, my John, and felt compelled to comment on a recent Harry Potter marathon on TV, I was not prepared.

When did our culture get into this state? When did our young adults forget about the "long-haired hippies" who paved the way for their nose rings? When did the youth of today forget about the original "alternative" music? Where are their parents?! 

In my day, any teenage rebel worth her salt could recite the entire White Album. In my day, even when we were listening to Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers, we still remembered who our rock and roll ancestors were. In my day. . . . 


Something has to be done. I'm proposing that we all celebrate Beatles Day. July 10, the anniversary of the day the Fab Four returned to Liverpool after they "conquered" the United States in 1964, is the official Beatles Day, but I don't think we can wait until July. We need the Beatles now!

So find your Abbey Road CD, or dig through that old box of cassette tapes if you have to. If you have kids, please, please, for the sake of our future as a nation, as a culture, as a world, please sit them down and explain the British Invasion. Explain to them that the Harry Potter stories are great fun, but what John, Paul, George, and Ringo did was nothing short of revolution.  

Me, I'm going to start celebrating immediately. "Rocky" was always one of my favorites.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Reading Journal: The Good, the Bad, and the . . . let's just stop there.

Earlier this week I returned The Night Circus to store even though I was only about halfway through it. I was so disappointed. Everyone seemed to love it so, and I thought I would love it, but given that it took me two months to read 214 pages and there were still 170-some pages to go, love does not seem like the thing that was happening.

Morgenstern tried so hard to make the story elegant that it became nothing but caricature. It's supposed to be a battle between magicians, which sounds a lot more interesting than Morgenstern manages to make it—at least as far as I read. The illusions are too perfect, too intricate, the characters too exactly what you would expect of them. After a while the detailed descriptions of the magic contained in the circus become downright wearisome, and in the meantime I was longing to learn more about the characters outside their roles as performers. The only action I found compelling was Celia's refusal to let her father change her name. That happened on p. 11. I read 203 more pages waiting for someone to do something admirable and/or interesting. Yes, there's lots of magic and illusion, and it's all "Interesting," but none of it is actually interesting.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I get paid to read textbooks and student essays. No one is paying me to read novels, so when I'm reading "off the clock," as it were, I have the right to enjoy it. So I gave myself a little mental shake, retrieved my favorite bookmark, and back to the library it went.

Turns out I dropped Circus at exactly the right time because Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, happened to show up in my holds queue the very same day. (If you've already read it, visit the link just for the doll. I am going to need a Bernadette doll.)

Bernadette is everything Circus is not. Primarily that consists of being believably unbelievable, with characters who are loveable because they are interchangeably flawed and redeemable, sometimes one or the other moment to moment, usually both at the same time. The story of a misanthropic, semi-agoraphobic* famous architect and her family is constructed through a series of e-mails, memos, transcripts, articles, and other electronic ephemera. It looks like the stack of research someone getting ready to write a book would compile, not the book itself, and at first I thought that conceit would drive me batty, but I wound up sinking right in. It's an excellent way to execute sudden shifts in point of view. In fact, when Semple switched to traditional first-person narration at the end, it was a little disconcerting. It was the only off-note in what I am unashamedly calling a symphony of awesome.

Okay, I'll admit the ending of Bernadette is maybe not the most believable denouement in all of literature, but it works because you want it so, so badly. I was prepared for the story to end in the predictable, practical way. I would've understood. But when it took that one final twist, I was so pleased and excited that I literally gasped aloud. Bertie Sue, who is offended by all unexpected noises, even relatively quiet ones, woke up and gave me the glare of death. I'm seriously thinking of proposing her as the library mascot. Having been suitably chastised, I finished the rest of the book wearing a huge (silent) grin.

So, to conclude, The Night Circus: Skillful writing, really boring plot—or more probably an interesting plot poorly executed. If you're really into magic, read it just for the descriptions of the circus; otherwise, skip it and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell instead. Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Read it. Do you hear me? Read it!

*Yes, yes, I know.  

P.S. I had forgotten that Bernadette was one of the contenders in the 2013 Tournament of Books. That's how it made it onto my reading list in the first place. It lost its round to The Orphan Master's Son, which ultimately won the tournament. I suppose I'll have to it read now, though it doesn't sound like near as much fun.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Point

A week or two ago I read Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. It's a generally pleasing if somewhat meandering story set mostly in a mysterious vertical bookstore. But for about two pages, it became more than pleasing; it became magic.

When the story finally wound its way toward its focus, a secret society that appears at first glance to be devoted to books, I almost dropped Penumbra in the bathwater (the bath being where I do all my best reading). Suddenly I was not just interested, but entranced. It was no longer enough just to live the characters' lives along with them for as long as I could stand the hot water. I was now so engaged in the story that I was momentarily convinced that I, too, must found a secret society dedicated to the glory of the book! I found myself inspired to become part of the story in a way I have not been inspired since I was a kid. Of course turning the page brought disappointment. It turns out the society wasn't so much dedicated to books as to gaining immortality, with books simply the tool. Why would anyone want to be immortal? Blech.

But for that two-page moment, I was thrilled, plotting my own society. For a moment, my life seemed different. That's a feeling I remember from so long ago. The stories I read as a kid could capture me, and the fact that I couldn't pull the characters and their experiences off the page—or dive in with them—was almost anguish.

So when I read that bit in Penumbra, it struck me almost like a scent-memory, the same way that walking into my house in the winter and smelling the gas space heater in the basement invariably makes me think of my grandparents' house, or how the scent of rubbing alcohol gives me the shivers even though the nearest nurse brandishing a hypodermic is miles away, and I'm not scheduled to pay her a visit for months.

The first book that sprang to mind was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I have never wanted to live inside any story quite so much as I wanted to live with Claudia and Jamie in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I heard yesterday that Mrs. Konigsburg had died, I started thinking about that feeling, and wondering when I would experience it again. Penumbra is the first time I can remember feeling it, however briefly, as an adult. But as a child it was almost commonplace.

I wanted to journey toward Digitopolis with Milo, live in a boxcar with the Boxcar Children, get a group of friends to start our own business like the girls in the Babysitters Club, hang out with Turtle Wexler while we solved the mystery of Sam Westing's death, and rescue and raise a runty piglet just like when Fern saved Wilbur, among other adventures.  

For me the highest purpose of reading, beyond edification or self-improvement, is to simply become someone else for a little while. Occasionally one runs across folks who sneer that they don't read fiction because it isn't real. What, they ask, is the point? Poet John Ciardi answered that question so much more eloquently than I ever could: 
For a great book is necessarily a gift: it offers you a life you have not time to live yourself; and it takes you into a world you have not time to travel in literal time. A civilized human mind is, in essence, one that contains many such minds and many such worlds. If you are in too much of a hurry, or too arrogantly proud of your own limitations, to accept a gift to your humanity some pieces of the minds of Sophocles, of Aristotle, of Chaucer—and right down the scale and down the ages to Yeats, Einstein, E.B. White, and Ogden Nash—then you may be protected by the laws governing manslaughter, and you may be a voting entity, but you are neither a developed human being nor a useful citizen of democracy.
That's the point.

What characters would you bring to life if you could? All recommendations welcome!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

B-Doodles is All About the Love

LOOKIT! LOOKIT! LOOKIT! Dog a Day is a site by an artist who posts, well, a dog a day. Normally she does pit bulls, but right now she's doing a series of "Gotcha!" stories, so I sent her Brewster's story. That she picked him for yesterday's post, as an antidote to the the bombing at the Boston Marathon, is particularly wonderful. 

The post, which is a lovely introduction by the artist, and then my story about how I adopted Brewster, is here: Gotcha! Brewster.

B-Doodles in all his fuzzy glory by Laurelin Sitterly of Dog a Day Art.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dissertation Season

It's dissertation season again, and the panicked e-mails demanding and/or begging for editorial help are in full swing. If you are a graduate student looking for editorial help, or if you are a thesis or dissertation advisor recommending that a student get editorial help, keep the following information in mind.

1. I do this for a living (in other words, momma's gotta pay the bills), so:
a. To ensure I have a steady flow of income, I keep my schedule full for 4 to 6 weeks ahead of time. You may get lucky and catch me at a slow time when I can start work on your project immediately, but that's rare. Please contact me at least two weeks before I should begin work and at least six weeks before you want the project finished. Unfortunately, if you're supposed to submit at the end of this month (April 2013), it's too late for me to help you. 
Advisors: Don't wait until the last minute to inform your student that you won't accept the thesis or dissertation without a professional edit. Presumably you've seen multiple samples of your student's writing before the later drafts and have known for a while that he or she will need help. Waiting until 2 weeks before the submission date to tell the student that he or she needs editorial help is unfair. Ideally, all students should be made aware of the potential need for an editor very early in the dissertation process so they can both schedule and budget appropriately. 
b. If we've agreed on a schedule and a price, and then I don't hear from you again for several days or weeks, I will take other projects in the meantime and may no longer be available. If you have a delay, please keep me in the loop so I can keep a spot for you in my schedule. I have to keep working and can't sit idly while I wait for a project that may or may not show up.  
c. My services are dirt cheap in the context of what other professional editors charge, but cheap is a relative term. Right now, spring 2013, I'm charging between $4 and $4.50 a page depending on the level of edit. If your thesis is 100 pages (determined by word count), you can expect to pay at least $400. A budget of $50 will get you a slap-dash proofread from one of your friends. It will not buy a full edit from a professional copyeditor.
d. A slap-dash proofread is better than nothing, though, so if $50 is all you have, enlist your English major friend. (Everyone should have an English major friend.)
2. I am a professional, so:
a. This is not McDonald's, and you cannot simply order up an instant copyedit. Sending an e-mail with manuscript attached informing me of how much you'll pay and that you need it back by the end of the week is a waste of your time and mine. 
b. Please address me in a professional manner. Don't demand that I do your bidding; ask if I'm available for a new project. Remember that I am not your employee or an employee of your university.
c. When you e-mail me, tell me (1) when the project must be completed, allowing time for you to review my copyedit to accept or reject changes before your submission date; and (2) the expected word count for the full project. It's also helpful to attach a sample, a minimum of five pages. With this information, I can determine immediately if I can fit you into my schedule, and I can complete a sample edit for you to review so you can decide if you want to hire me. 
3. I love my job. If I can take your project, I will. If I turn you down, it's because my schedule is already full, not because I take your needs lightly. Know that I've done grad school myself. I do understand the poverty and the frustrations and the poverty. And did I mention the poverty? (I just now had to stop writing to take a call from the student loan people. They never call just to chat.) Even if I can't take your project, I wish you the very best of luck. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reading Journal: Quiet: The Power of Introverts

I celebrated St. Patrick's Day by shooting a lot of green stuff out of my nose. In the midst of being unfit for anything else, I had time to finish the second half of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012).

It's no surprise to me or anyone who has known me for more than a minute that I'm an introvert. After all, in the face of student loans and a mortgage I voluntarily quit an office job, which had me sitting almost directly in a traffic pattern and being interrupted every few minutes, to start the rather risky enterprise of freelance copyediting from my home office, where I could go weeks without ever talking to anyone besides my family and the clerk at the grocery store if I wanted to.

So enjoying a book that celebrates the introvert is obviously well within my wheelhouse, but I wasn't quite expecting to read a book that explained me to myself so clearly. Amid the discussion of brain chemistry and magnetic resonance imaging scans, the takeaway is that one-third to one-half of the population is like me. We enjoy parties as much as the next person, but we're likely to get tired and go home sooner. Public speaking may or may not cause abject terror, but regardless of whether we feel stage fright (I usually don't), we are more likely than our extrovert counterparts to plan our remarks ahead of time--which explains why I type out a full script every time I have to make a 30-second announcement in church. If we have jobs that require lots of interaction with co-workers and the public, even if we love and are passionate about what we do, we're likely to want nothing more at the end of the day than to be left alone to hibernate.

And whoever said planning ahead and a little judicious hibernation are bad things? I didn't pick up Quiet expecting a self-help book, but I did find validation for the way I prefer to approach the world as well as suggestions for how to make my, um, quiet approach more efficient and effective. In addition to the positive introvert attributes like the tendency to plan ahead and to work longer to solve problems before giving up (can you say stubborn?), Cain discusses the value of developing extrovert-style skills for particular, limited situations--and somehow that's easier to take when you're given permission to come home at the end of the day and be as quiet as you like. But she also emphasizes that extroversion as a personality type is in no way superior to introversion. Extroverts need to learn to channel their inner introverts as well, she argues. Enron and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown? You can thank the extroverts, with their tendency to accept the ideas of the person who speaks persuasively rather than intelligently, for that.

As for me, it was when I started working from home that I began to genuinely enjoy socializing. When I worked by myself all day, I found that rather than being drained by the end of the day, I was energized. The idea of facing a group of human beings didn't, for maybe the first time ever, make me feel slightly nauseated. Almost without noticing, I was suddenly a member of a knitting group, a church, a book group, a committee. And what's more, I enjoyed it! I had more commitments than I've ever had in my life, and instead of feeling overwhelmed and put-upon, I loved it.

In the last few months, my work situation has changed again. I've taught more on-campus classes recently (and I've never "performed" more energetically than when trying to keep a roomful of eighteen-year-olds engaged in grammar and composition), and that has drained a lot of energy and affected my social life. I've pretty much stopped participating in anything I'm not obligated to do partially because my work schedule has been so full, but also largely because the idea of sitting in a group of people and being expected to make conversation seems so exhausting. Now I've started a part-time job that has a good mix of time spent working with the public and time working behind the scenes on my own, plus a staff that genuinely values each others' need for a little quiet time on break. The unique thing about this crowd is that they respect the power of the book--if you're reading, they don't interrupt! I hope this job will complement my freelance work and teaching (online for the next two semesters), and make it possible for me to rejoin the world.

A friend recently asked me if I'm ever going back to knit night, and I gave her a flip answer that I don't remember now. The real answer is, I hope so. That part of my life is valuable. But I have to find a good work-life balance with plenty of down time to both work and play on my own. Being "in the world" is worth the energy it uses, but introverts like me can't do it without a reserve of energy to use in the first place. The beauty of Quiet is Cain's validation that, even in the midst of a culture that values the extrovert ideal above all else, my approach has been right for me all along.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Name is Bertie SueBell

Insert snackies here.
Hey, you guys! It is Me! Bertie SueBell! Guess what, you guys! It has been a WHOLE YEAR since I got my Forever Home! My MamaLady said I could use the clicky things to tell you all what I was thinking about, and what I am thinking about is snackies all my names. Most people only get one name, but I'm a special kind of person, so I've had a bunch. I used to have a name that nobody knows, and I'm not telling because it's not very important anymore. When I got lost and got sent to dog jail, things were going pretty bad. The HumanPeople at the jail weren't mean to me or anything, but I didn't like them very much, and they didn't have the resources to help a pregnant, scared, sick DogPerson like me. So some bad stuff was about to go down,* but then Mama Janet from Pals Animal Rescue got me sprung from the slammer! Mama Janet said I was beautiful (which is true) and she thought I would like HumanPeople better when I wasn't in jail anymore (which was also true), so she took me to her house and she said my name was Cricket. And sure enough, I wasn't scared anymore, and pretty soon I wasn't pregnant anymore either! Mama Janet took good care of me while I took good care of my puppy, and then when I got him all finished up, I moved to Mama Jean's house. Mama Jean called me Cricket Sue, and I liked that a lot, mainly because Mama Jean loved me a bunch, just like I was one of her own dogs.

I heard a rumor that some cats live here, too, but I haven't seen any.
But then I came to live with my Forever MamaLady, and she says my name is Bertie SueBell. She says I am named after Albert Einstein because of my crazy furs, but I think it's because I have all the smartnesses and lots of relativities like my Brother Brewster and my Aunt Maddie, who are Pals Dogs, too, and my Cousin Miles, who is not in our Pals Club, but is a good guy anyway. So I think Bertie SueBell is my best name so far, and I think I will keep it, even though sometimes the MamaLady yells, "Alberta!" in that screechy tone that means I'm supposed to quit eating cat poop in the yard. I mean, really, what does she think it's there for?

Here are me and Brewie not barking. Much.

But most of the time my name means good things. After all, I have important Bertie SueBell jobs to do now that no one else could do as well as me. Mainly I have to take good care of Brewie and the MamaLady. Brewie is a DINOS, which really just means he's a big ol' scaredy-dog, and it's my job to show him that it's okay to be brave and meet new people. Brewie watches what I do, so when I decide not to bark at someone, he knows he doesn't have to bark, either. When we go visiting somewhere, I always walk in first to show Brewie there's nothing to be afraid of. And when we go on walks together, I show him how to be brave when we walk past fences with dogs yelling at us, and we never yell back. Almost never. Mostly.

You can play Snuzzles in the grass, too.
And would you believe I even had to teach that Brewie how to play chase? When I first moved in, I kept running away and he would just sit there and stare at me. What a dork. But he figured it out eventually, and now we take turns chasing each other around the house. The MamaLady says it's a good thing the floors are already all scratched up, but I heard her tell someone that she'd rather have happy dogs and scratched-up floors than fancy floors and no dogs, so I run a lot to help her out. And Brewie even taught me something, even though I have much more smartnesses than him. He likes to play a game called Snuzzles, which is just rolling around in blankets and stuff, and I don't really get it, but Brewie likes it, so I roll around with him so he won't feel dumb for playing such a silly game all by himself, kind of like when you have to play Uno with your little brother, even though you'd rather be playing poker.

My most very important job.
I also take good care of the MamaLady by hanging out with her all the time in case she needs me to sit on her lap so she can give me good pets. It's a big responsibility, but I am up for the challenge. Sometimes she doesn't even know she needs me on her lap and I have to noodge my way on, but all my hard work is worth it. MamaLady says she feels better when she pets me, and I can see why because my furs are beautiful and soft now. She also says I help her by making her laugh all the time, even though I am very serious about all my important jobs. MamaLady says I should be the star of my own cartoon show, which I think is probably a very serious, important kind of show on the noisy box about how to be good at important DogPerson-type jobs.

I have all the beautifulnesses, too.

So I think that of all my names, I like the one I have now the most and I will keep it. MamaLady says that of all the Bertie SueBells in the whole entire world, I am the Very Best, and since I have all the smartnesses, I know she is right about that.

*A note from the MamaLady: Sometimes people are indignant or angry that the staff at the Wichita Animal Shelter was going to euthanize a beautiful, friendly dog like Bertie Sue. I think that's kind of silly. The staff at the Animal Shelter and the Kansas Humane Society work so hard to save as many animals as they can, and they have extremely limited resources. They simply cannot save every animal who crosses their threshold, and I have no doubt that Bertie Sue appeared to them to be aggressive. (Even in the best of times, Bert doesn't like to be bothered when she's resting and isn't shy about telling HumanPeople to Back Off.) It would've been too much to ask the WAS and KHS to invest the time and money into an aggressive mother dog who would have to nurse for six weeks and who might never be adoptable. So instead of being angry, I choose to be grateful that the WAS was able to get Bert off the street in the first place, and that here in Wichita we have an organization like Pals Animal Rescue that can step in and rescue at least a few of the dogs who can't do well in a shelter environment but can be rehabilitated in a home. Everyone worked together to get my Bertie SueBell to me and Brewster, and we're so glad they did. We need her!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Knitting on the Job

Yesterday I started a new job. It's a wonderful job. It's right up my alley, and the people I'll be working with seem to be pleasant, friendly people. Plus it's part-time, so I get to keep copyediting and teaching, too, which makes me very happy. As usual, I'll be very busy but what I won't be is bored.

I'd love to tell you all about this wonderful job. But then I'd have to kill you. Or, more likely, I would be fired. This excellent job happens to be for a branch of government, and it was explained to me this way: As a private citizen, I can say whatever I want about politics or anything else. As a government employee, I can't express an opinion on so much as the weather, let alone political or religious issues. That would have a bit of a chilling effect on the ol' blog. I don't write about politics or religion often, but I do on occasion have something to say, and you know I have some very specific opinions on controversial issues like dogs and yarn. So, although it seemed weird not to write anything at all about this major change, I've decided to keep quiet about the details of the new gig in this public space, even though I'm VERY EXCITED and want to tell you ALL THE THINGS!

I will tell you this: We have to wear ID badges on a lanyard, and there aren't any rules about what the lanyard looks like. I'm knitting mine.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Things Finished

First I used the wrong yarn, then I used the wrong needles. But I will not be thwarted, especially not by my own bone-headedness. I finished the hat.

Slouchy, hair-containing wondrousness.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Things Begun

I started the hat, but I didn't like my yarn, so I've been crocheting instead.

My favorite thing about granny squares is that you can combine the most hideous colors and no one even blinks. I don't know why that is, but it's true. Granny squares exist in an alternate universe where the standard rules of beauty don't apply. Which is not to say that there aren't some arrestingly beautiful squares out there, too. I'm just not skilled enough yet to make them. Give me a minute. . . . 


I started Wolf Hall, but I finally had to admit to myself that I just do not give a flip about sixteenth-century political intrigue. I also have a hang-up about historical novels. I love them as long as they place fictional characters inside real events, but when you start trying to fictionalize real people, I get antsy. Did that really happen? Is that what she would've said? And I start to resent Mantel coming along 500 years after the fact and trying to impose some sort of artistic theme or meaning on the lives that Cromwell and Henry and Wolsey and Anne and Katherine and the rest were likely just trying to get through.

Mantel's an entertaining writer, though. If you don't have my historical fiction hang-ups and you do have at least a minimum level of interest in sixteenth-century English politics, please enjoy yourself. Me, I've started The Tiger's Wife, because I think I probably will give a flip about "mysterious circumstances surrounding [a] beloved grandfather's recent death." And I'm a sucker for a "stunning debut novel." And it's been sitting on the to-read pile since last year and I'm getting tired of blowing cat fur off it.


I finished a copyedit and started another, because that's how that goes.


I started two classes, one of which will be done in two more weeks, and another that's a full semester.


I started several walks.

 Finished 'em, too. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


You may think you have problems. You may think your struggles about jobs and kids and finances and flat tires and bad roofs and skunks living under your deck are the worst problems that could happen to a person. But you know nothing. Nothing, I tell you.

I can't decide what to knit.

Should I start this purse?

Braided Cable Handle Tote by Amanda Silveira

Or this hat?

Wurm by Katharina Nopp

I bought the yarn for this cardigan . . .
Rimes the Reason by Jodie Gordon Lucas
(Let's please not talk about how much it bothers me
that the apostrophe is missing.)

. . . but I swore to myself that I wouldn't start it until I finished this pullover . . . 

Doreen by Berrocco Design Team

. . . which is basically done except that I need to rip out the first sleeve and make it longer, and finish the second sleeve in the first place, and seam the shoulders and knit the neck, but I don't have the right-size needles for the neck, and I don't want to buy them because I'll probably never use them again, and then seam the whole rest of the sweater, and really it's not looking good on wearing this one this year, even though it's so close to done.

And lest you think I got tired of making socks, I need to turn the heel on my fourth pair of these socks so they can go back in my purse to be worked during car rides and long waits in restaurants, doctors' offices, grocery stores, and so on, because I can knit basically anywhere at any level of inebriation, but turning a heel is math and the rest of the world generally frowns on crazed knitters yelling, "Shut UP! I am trying to COUNT!" at the frightened diners at the next table.

Sunday Swing Socks by Krystal Nyberg
Oh, and then of course there's paying work like grading papers and editing and such that needs to get done, too. So you can see my dilemma.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reading Journal: Arcadia

I couldn't sleep last night, so finally had the time to finish Arcadia (Lauren Groff, Voice Publishing, 2012).

It took me an unforgivably long time to figure out what Arcadia is about. The plot centers around a 1970s commune in up-state New York, as seen through the eyes of the first child born into the group, Bit Stone. Bit observes as the community at first thrives, then disintegrates when it becomes too heavy to support its own weight. The book concludes 40 or so years later, in a near-future dystopian landscape of virus pandemics and an irreparably damaged ecosystem. It's an engaging read simply as a narrative about community.

But what Arcadia is about finally hit me in a scene in which Bit, who has grown up to be a photography professor, is talking with a student who wants an A but has received an A-. Bit tells her, "An A means perfect. I've never had a perfect student. Nobody is perfect." My reaction to Bit's statement was entirely mediated by my inner English teacher. I've seen other teachers' rubrics that require 0 typos and 0 grammatical errors to earn a perfect score; these requirements make me angry. A student who works hard, who demonstrates an understanding of the material, who has clearly grown through the completion of an assignment, does not deserve to have points docked for an isolated misplaced comma. I can think of no better way to discourage a student from a love of learning and writing than to insist on perfection. Bit's requirements for perfection are even more stringent, so stringent that it's literally impossible to meet them. And he knows that. He has set his students up to fail. This is when I lost my patience with Bit Stone, and understood what Groff was trying to accomplish in the novel: an exploration of whether perfection is really perfect.

Groff's answer is, I think, no. Bit tries and fails to build the perfect community and the perfect family. The tragedy, Bit would have us believe, is his failure to achieve perfection, the failure of the community around him to cooperate. The failure is the charismatic commune leader's tendency to issue undemocratic edicts and duck actual work, the community members' failure to understand how to support themselves, his mother's failure to will-power her way through her depression, and Bit's own failure to cure his mother of her sadness. But Groff's idea of tragedy is Bit's failure to appreciate the versions of perfection that do exist, the perfection in the way his community does function.

At the same time, Groff wonders how we know who we are. Are our own identities self-created, created by the perceptions of those around us, or innate? When teenage Bit leaves Arcadia with his parents, he finds himself undone: "The warp of stories that had always blanketed him, his personal mythology, was invisible, so nobody knew him; no one knew he was the miracle baby, Little Bit of a Hippie, Abe and Hannah's boy; . . . they didn't know anything at all." And if no one knows the mythology, who is Bit Stone? He's just Ridley Sorrel Stone, "named for a town we never did see," just as no one in the Outside can see Bit as he sees himself and expects to be seen.

Perfection, Groff leads us to conclude, is, like our own identities, self-created. Toward the end of the novel, Bit's mother, echoing the perspective Bit's has taken throughout, bemoans the fact that if Bit hadn't had to take care of everyone else, he could have been an artist. Unexpectedly, Bit answers, "I am an artist." That moment of self-identification and self-awareness shows Bit as he has grown to be, a person who can create his own perfection when he needs to, and can accept others as he finds them.

These are just a few thoughts on a very meaty novel. I haven't even mentioned Bit's wife, Helle, whose experience of Arcadia is the nightmare inverse of Bit's, or the role that irreversible climate change plays in enhancing the novel's theme. There's enough material in Arcadia for several seminar-length essays. But I'll spare you, and answer the one question you care about:

Recommended? Yes.