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St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves

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Thursday, June 30, 2011
St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves by Karen Russell.

I love this collection. The stories are strange, but also swampy, sweaty, and salty in a particularly Floridian way. It's the most Florida thing I've read - there are a lot of authors who write about that oddball state; many novels of comic crime and overt corruption - but this is the closest I've read to my own Florida experience (age 4 - 17) living on the southern gulf coast. I don't mean actual things that happened to me (that would be weird), but in general otherworldly atmosphere and intangibles: water everywhere, fragrant orange blossoms, the swamp, the nighttime chorus of alligators and crickets, hot sand, giant shells, the salty crust that seawater leaves when it dries on the skin, the stomach lurch or serenity of being on a boat, the hazy heat of the sun, still water, hurricanes, the humidity, the boredom, the general hallucinatory quality of everyday experiences like being outside.

Of course it's not only Florida, or Florida alone in this book - there are ghosts, minotaurs, wolf girls, Insomnia Balloons, pirate treasure in a glacier, roller skating, and much, much more that isn't necessarily tied to geography. This book is pretty dark and definitely weird - I like that about it, but I know it's not for everyone - maybe too dark or too whimsical for some, but it hit me just right and helped me remember more than just the humidity and the bugs.

The first story in the book - Ava Wrestles the Alligator - became the basis for her recently published novel, Swamplandia!  Here she describes exactly what an alligator sounds like when you're alone in the humid dark. I love the quality of her descriptions:

The air hits me like a wall, hot and muggy. I run as far as the entrance to the stand of mangrove trees, and stop short. The ground sends out feelers, a vegetable panic. The longer I stand there, the more impossible movement seems. 
And then comes that familiar sound, that raw bellow, pulsing out of the swamp.
The cubed thing inside me melts into a sudden lick of fear. Something hot-blooded and bad is happening to my sister out there, I am sure of it. And the next thing I know I am on the other side of the trees, crashing toward the fishpond. It's a sensory blur, all jumps and stumbles -- oily sinkholes, buried stumps, salt nettles tearing at my flesh. I run for what feels like a very long time. One wisp of cloud blows out the moon. 
I wish I could say I gulp pure courage as I run, like those brave little girls you read about in stories, the ones who partner up with detective cats. But this burst of speed comes from an older adrenaline, some limbic other. Not courage, but a deeper terror. I don't want to be left alone. And I am ready to defend Ossie against whatever monster I encounter, ghosts or men or ancient lizards, and save her for myself.  
Me being me, I love the reference to "the brave little girls you read about in stories, the ones who partner up with detective cats."  There's definitely a dark fairy tale quality to many of these pieces, but I think when it comes right down to it, LIFE often has a dark fairy tale quality (which is why the tales endure). At times these stories reminded me of Kelly Link or Aimee Bender, but mostly they reminded me of nothing but themselves.

FIVE STARS from me, but if I hadn't grown up in Florida with alligators in my back yard, I'd probably give it four because I know she's just going to get better and better. Karen Russell is young and so talented -  I hope there will be many more books to come from her. I've got Swamplandia! lined up to read soon. I can hardly wait.
(read March 2011)

that time I locked the keys in the car

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011
hill top view (Ashland folly)
Remember when I did this, way back in April?  This was the view that made me pull the car over at the top of the hill. I think you can see the potential - the golden light on the Ashland Springs Hotel, the pink blossoms, the green rolling hills - I even think the crooked mailbox and the steep road add a little charm, although I wouldn't call it a particularly successful capture. There are too many wires and poles and the mini-van in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill (and geographic center of the image) isn't doing the photo any favors.

hill top view (Ashland folly)
Since there was a relatively painless solution ($$, but not trip-threatening $$$), I'm not sorry I stopped to try and get a picture. I'm sorry I locked the keys in, but fortunately the problem was solved before it did much more than get my heart pumping a little faster.

Since there is another potential road trip (cross-country!) on the horizon, I thought I'd better get some of these April trip pictures posted.

three good things

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Saturday, June 25, 2011
1) The sun is shining - and not like it has been, with a bank of ominous black clouds on the horizon - SHINING, blue sky in every direction shining. (I know this may not be an issue in most of the rest of the country, but I've been watching TV under a blanket for the entire month of june. That's just not right.)

2) My ipod just served up Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder, the beginning of which never fails to make me happy.

3) GREENS SAVED BY GOOD SAMARITAN BOWL: A local salad spinner full of cold water saved a bunch of wilted lettuce abandoned on the second shelf of a NE portland refrigerator - the lettuce plumped up so much it popped the lid off in the night. (This trick also works for wilted cilantro - all you need is a bowl, cold water, and time.)

summer solstice bicycle rapture

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
It totally happened! Or maybe those kids just ran to the backyard and let their bicycles fall where they may. 

I could make an argument for either. 


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Monday, June 20, 2011
Abandon, by Meg Cabot. Meet Pierce Olivera - she died, but only for a little while. She lives with her mom (who in a former life would have been on Real Housewives of New York, but in her current life lives in a big fancy house in Florida and works on saving the spoonbills), her dad lives in New York and is a big cheese in an oil company that recently had an accident in the very waters where the spoonbills live. Anyway - back to Pierce who was dead but isn’t anymore: she’s new in school - in a special section for problem students, because dying is a big deal even if it isn’t permanent. She’s trying to navigate social waters between her arty unpopular new friends and the surface-nice frat douches who want to make her one of their own. AND OH YES, let’s not forget her kind-of boyfriend from her time among the dead, John Hayden. (Get it? Pierce = Persephone/ John Hayden = Hades, if Hades had a super intense dark-eyed STARE and was also dreamy, etc.)

(For another take on Persephone and Hades, please scroll down and enjoy these Pomma Gran Grans.)


1) I read this just as Jesse St. James made his dramatic doorway-standing scarf-flinging return to Glee (while singing Rolling in the Deep with Rachel), so whenever John Hayden is on the scene in the book, I picture the dramatic nostril flare, hair toss, and skinny knit scarf of one Mister Jesse St. James, which adds a layer of  unintended hilarity. Or maybe he was the model all along: Jesse St. James… On a horse! Really mad! Haltingly thoughtful! Dealing with incompetent underlings in the underworld! SUPER INTENSE EYEBALL STARING, not understanding human-girl feelings, temper tantrum, wearing black, etc.

2) Abandon is the first of an intended trilogy, but even so I felt cheated out of some story - this felt like set up or a prologue and not a complete segment of the story in and of itself.

3) There are some flashbacks/time shifts that weren’t clear to me as I was reading them. It’s entirely possible that this is just my problem because my reading time was choppy during the opening chapters of the book.

4) Once Pierce is out of the Underworld and in high school, things got a lot more interesting. You’d think it would be the opposite, but no.

5) Cabot always does such a nice job writing the interstitial kindnesses and cruelties of teenagers.

6) Seriously, Jesse St. James.

7) So far I like how she’s written Pierce’s interactions with her main adult confidant. (To keep it vague…)

8) Yes! Supernatural/ paranormal story (which term is preferred?) that’s old-time mythology and not yet another round of vampires. (Although Jesse St. Hades is as pale and single-minded as any vampire. But he’s not a vampire, and that’s what counts.)

9) But still a lot older. Does he get some kind of death deity dispensation for pursuing a girl so much younger? It's one of those 20, but also hundreds of years old deals. (LIKE VAMPIRES.)  What are your thoughts on fated romance? Because it skeeves me out, but I also have to admit that back in my tween/teenager years I would have thought it was super romantic. (and less work! Because then as now, I'm lazy.)

10) Abandon is funny in a lot of places (not just Jesse St. James places), which is good because she's dealing with some heavy stuff. This book grew on me - the first few chapters I was harrumphing around, wondering where the Cabot sparkle* was, but then I got into it and am looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.  Three solid stars. (Read in May, 2011)

*Cabot sparkle is a verified phenomenon - it is how she has published aprox. 50000 books.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: forty new fairy tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. I loved this collection, even though it took me for everloving ever to read. After patiently listening to me alternately rave about the book and whine about how no matter how many pages I turned, I was always in the middle, a friend asked if it took longer because I had to switch gears between writers: 40 stories = 40 authors. I think that’s part of it and part of it is that there really are a lot of pages, but the main thing was the nature of the reading. Fairy tales are easy and hard - it all sounds familiar in a collective human knowledge way (once upon a time/ over the river and through the woods), but they can support so many layers of meaning or ring bells in deeply interior mental chambers that take a while to chime on the surface. (If ever!) I like the way some stories never fully reveal themselves - I think this partially submerged nature is one of the reasons that fairy tales are so resilient.

[Side note: can we talk about how somewhere along the line (WHERE?) the popular culture definition of “fairy tale” ("oh, it's like a fairy tale") came to mean a royal wedding, or a big wedding, or at least a wedding with white twinkle lights in the trees? Actual fairy tales seem to be less about matrimony and a big dress and more along the lines of transformation (of every kind you can imagine), inscrutable riddles, bad bargains, greed, blood, guts, gold, murder, untrustworthy (often bloodthirsty) parents, talking animals, poison, houses on chicken legs, curses, survival, death, and rampant vegetation. (And so much more, including the occasional wedding and big dress, but still.) WHERE? I don’t think we can lay it all at the feet of Walt Disney.]

This was a solid four star book for me - some stories were outstanding and some I didn’t like as well (not unusual for a collection), but there was only one that I skipped after a page. It was organized by region, which had it’s plusses and minuses: the European stories most familiar to me were in the middle, which meant I read what seemed like 15 swan stories in a row. I don’t know that organizing them any other way would have been better. (Alphabetical by author?) ANYWAY. I really liked it! When I was looking over the table of contents one last time before I had to take it back to the library - there’s a waiting list - I was reminded of how many really great stories there are in this book. You should read it.

Here are a few notes and quotes from various stories -some from the story themselves, some from the author’s afterword. I limited myself to five, chosen haphazardly from the initial twenty or so I wanted to quote. It was hard to pick!

Shelley Jackson - The Swan Brothers (Based on the Six Swans) - present tense second person out of sequence WONDERFUL. The sister who does the spinning required to turn her brothers back into people is referred to as The Performance Artist (she’s spinning in a gallery). The narrative is sliced through with related announcements like the following:


Women are trouble—if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches—watch out for witches. And their daughters.

You might be all right with kings, princes, and fathers, unless, as is usually the case, they’re under the influence of someone else, usually a woman. Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help—from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet.

You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them.

Children had better watch out. 

Timothy Schaffert - The Mermaid in the Tree (Based on The Little Mermaid). The world of this story, unlike many fairy tales, is populated with a lot of characters - we’re not in a lonely cottage in the woods, but rather the town of Mudpuddle Beach, which appears to be a seedy sort of seaside town. There’s a mermaid parade, black market demand for mermaid tongues and organs, Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misspent Youth, the convent of the Sisterhood of Poseidon’s Daughters, a flophouse, a casino, an amusement park, the Ink and Stab tattoo parlor, etc. 

This story was definitely one of my favorites, even as I worried that it was mega-lurid and why am I so drawn to these rundown carnival settings anyway, do I have some kind of peep-show problem, etc. But then I read the following in the author’s end-note and quit worrying because I had to order Schaffert's novel from the library immediately: “A mermaid suicide figures in the plot of a fictional children’s book at the heart of my novel, The Coffins of Little Hope. This fictional book, also called The Coffins of Little Hope, tells the tale of two wrongly accused sisters locked up in an all-girl criminal-orphan asylum, where fantastical threat lurks around every sharp corner. (This children’s book series within the novel inspires a slavish fandom and obsession among its readership that begins to reflect the dark and venal impulses of the series’ more despicable characters.)” It goes on, but I’ll stop because at this point I’m counting the hours until I can read it and feel a kinship with the obsessed book within a book readership. I hope this doesn’t reflect any dark and venal impulses on my part, but… fantastical threats are lurking! It’s on its way - I can’t wait. 

Aimee Bender - The Color Master (based on Donkeyskin) Heart eyes for this story!!! It’s in my top 5 for sure: “Our store was expensive, I mean EX-PEN-SIVE, as anything would be if all its requests were clothing in the colors of natural elements. The Duke’s son wanted shoes the color of rock, so he could walk in the rock and not see his feet. He was vain that way, he did not like to see his feet. He wanted to appear, from a distance, as a floating pair of ankles.” A FLOATING PAIR OF ANKLES. One of the things I love about Aimee Bender is that her writing style is so clean and straightforward while her ideas are wild and extraordinary.

Rabih Alameddine - A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper (based on Sleeping Beauty): “A plant of some kind sprouted and wound itself around the fairy godmother’s calf. Plants everywhere, on all sides, shoots, roots, trees, grass, hemlock, all entwined with poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac. All over, sprouting, shooting upward. Thistles, so many thistles, brambles, blackberry, and brier, sweetbrier, greenbrier. Within minutes, a tangled messy mass of impenetrable thorns encircled the tower, a deadly poisonous brier patch, a vast thorny wood.” Transitions, sexual awakening, sickness to health, sleep to waking, the present danger and pleasure of the green and growing world. An interesting twist (explained in the author’s note) is that “the main protagonist is neither the sleeper nor the waker,” which I realize I’ve never read in a Sleeping Beauty story before.

Neil Labute - With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold (Based on Rumplestiltskin): from the afterword “I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rumpelstiltskin story and its title character—he’s a nasty piece of work, but, for some reason, I feel for the little guy. After all, he does exactly what he promises to do and asks for only one thing in return; he keeps his promise when those around him break theirs and is publicly humiliated and sent shrieking off into the night (I suppose the fact that he’s asking for a baby as his prize does make some difference). Still, I love the “person who returns” in literature and “Rumplestiltskin” is a perfect example of revenge as a motif in the fairy tale. It’s also just a lot of fun, the whole damn story—I mean, he spins gold out of straw, for God’s sake!” That last bit is what I love about these stories - you get the revenge tale or a test or a journey, but you also get gold out of straw or shoes the exact color of rocks or an entire sleeping castle.

You guys, there are so many good stories in here! If you need more encouragement than these quotes and all my exclamation points, you could read this collection as preparation for the (at least) two fairy tale TV shows (with Buffy the Vampire Slayer pedigree) coming this fall: Grimm, set in Portland/filmed in Portland, co-executive produced by David Greenwalt; and Once Upon a Time, co-executive produced by the marvelous Jane Espenson.  And aren't there at least two Snow White and the Huntsman movies bubbling up on the horizon? Fairy tales never truly go away, but they do seem to be experiencing a high-profile revival. 

bright spot

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Saturday, June 11, 2011
the sun was out!
A week ago today, the sun was OUT. Not only was it out, it was out ALL DAY. Now if it would just do that for two or more consecutive days. (Looking out the window today I see some breaks in the clouds.  It could happen! Hope springs eternal.)

!!! I can't stand how beautiful and weird looking these iris are: tissue-delicate petals with visible veins and bristle-brush spiky bee-attracting tongues.

vase bubbles
I put an iris that my enemy (the SLUGS) had chewed off into a glass to see if it would bloom. It did! I also got these pretty bubbles.

coral bells
I love these orange stems and orange leaves. This is a huechera, aka coral bells. Later in the season it will send up slender stems with tiny little bell-like flowers on it.

poppy + bee
Industrious bee about his business.  A neighbor (not next door, but the next house down) has some hives and I'm always happy to see bees doing their thing. This is a poppy that grew up through the bricks on the little patio where I sit in the sun and read when there's sun.  I hope there's sun today!

oh you middle school marching bands

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Thursday, June 09, 2011
Due to schedules and boring work minutia, I was only able to watch about 10 minutes of the parade today - but that was totally enough time to hear this year's winner for perverse yet delightful middle school marching band song choice: Imagine some 10-14 year olds in matching uniforms marching down the middle of the street while they're playing the tuba and clarinet arrangement of... IMMIGRANT SONG.  Sublimely ridiculous! (I truly loved it.)

If you need an Immigrant Song refresher, please enjoy these viking kittens.

early mid-week report

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011
Work has been surprisingly (and exhaustingly) BUSY this week, which is why I haven't written any followup to that last late spring malaise post. Bullet point update since I should be asleep this very minute:

•the sun shone on the weekend and it really did cheer me up

•ROGUE ROTARY CUTTER: my sister took a slice off her finger with a rotary cutter*.  She had to go to the ER and be seen to since it a) hurt like a mofo and b) was bleeding so much. They couldn't do stitches, because the rotary cutter removed the parts you'd sew together. They put some magic bandage on it that promotes growing new flesh and healing and stuff.  (*Rotary cutter = one of those pizza cutter looking things, only sharp like a RAZOR and for fabric, not fingers! But now this rotary cutter has a taste for human flesh, which is concerning. Should we make it a little Hannibal Lecter mask? Keep it in a locked drawer?)  

•she's very proud that she managed not to get any blood on the fabric. 

•did you know they're bundling whooping cough boosters with tetanus shots now? (Filed under things I thought I'd never hear in the 21st century.)

• the Junior Rose Parade is tomorrow (right outside of where I'm working) which means a crazy day. I'm so tired already, but I'm sure the sight and sound of middle school funk marching bands will cheer me right up like they always do. 

More soon - I'm reading a ton and have much to say!

put your backpack on your shoulder

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Thursday, June 02, 2011
Today I was cleaning (washing dishes? sweeping? some glamorous task) while listening to music, AS ONE DOES. Measuring Cups by Andrew Bird came on and it was like a time machine to 2005. I was so sad and depressed then - I didn't realize how much until I felt better, later. As miserable as the day to day was back then, there was still a corner of my heart/mind optimistic for the future. Things are a lot better these days, but hearing this song made me aware that my spark of optimism about the future has dimmed. Maybe it's just the passage of time, or because life is generally pretty good now, or because I'm still bummed about not getting my library job on a regular/permanent basis. (should I be over it yet? It seems like I should, but obviously I'm not.)

Anyway - it's possible that I'm feeling low for some mood-swing reason and tomorrow I'll be feelin' fine. (particularly if the sun shines!) In the meantime, I'll try to cook up some improbable but fun to think about future schemes.

Here's a video of Andrew Bird performing Measuring Cups on French TV: