Johnathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Despite the book’s grim realism, I liked its insights, the flashes of recognition I experienced when I read the older characters’ dialogue. Like the Midwestern Enid Lambert, my grandmother says “it tickled me” as in “I got a kick out of it”. I’m not sure if Grandma would be tickled by Franzen’s depiction of a typical family from St. Jude (which I assumed was a cover for St. Louis, the author’s hometown), but I found the storytelling gripping and the characters three-dimensional. Personally, I feel more affection for this part of the world than the three Lambert children who fled when they sought more stylish lifestyles in Pennsylvania and New York. Still, the theme of regional ambivalence, the act of reflecting critically about your origins is an interesting one for this transplanted Missourian.

hot cheez doodles

Not long ago I read a passage from a 1989 journal which covered the summer before I went to Durham, England for a year. I was working in a local potato chip factory, an experience which inspired the following poem dated August 11:

“You smell like a potato chip!”

O mecca — hot cheez doodles

I lay them in their bed

hot snacks

so beautiful–

your wastage fills the waste bins

and we trail them to the dump shrine

wayfaring proletariat that we are.

O potato

O alienation

what are we breeding

the machine and I?

The Stories of English

I’m enjoying The Stories of English by David Crystal. When he wrote about Bede, Lindisfarne, and Durham, I got nostalgic for my Medieval Literature class at Durham University. I was 19, full of romantic notions — cobbled lanes and ancient cathedrals made me wild with delight. Our professor took us on a weekend trip to Lindisfarne, which was magical. We mis-timed our drive off the island and got caught in the incoming tide. Scholars lept out of cars to push them through knee-high water.

mime opportunity

Recently I finished reading Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. It was mostly pretty heavy going but worth it for the following quote: “Many scholars believe that language evolved to manage social interaction. Social actors can often benefit by communicating about who did what to whom, when and why . . . (Imagine People’s Court with a cast consisting only of mimes!) (144).

I liked ‘The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke’

I just finished this novel set in 1930’s Toronto. I enjoyed learning the social history of city streets I’ve seen. Though I don’t know very much about baseball, I cheered on Lucio as he threw the ball that hit the mysterious bird that had stolen Bloomberg the pitcher’s glasses. And when Lucio’s lover Ruthie hits the ball at a crucial game, I loved this description, “Ruthie’s swing starts, and it starts from the centre of her being. It starts twenty years before, when Abe and Sadie Nodelman (her parents) are trying to convince the Timothy Eaton Company to pay its employees a living wage. It starts some sixty years before that, when Marx writes of a spectre sweeping through Europe, with the streets of Paris on fire . . . ” (365)

face in the hill

One of my jobs is just a 25 minute walk away. You can go on a back road that features industrial and rural scenery. I try to be alert when I walk by a grassy bank because I’ve seen a lot of groundhogs there. Last week I thought there were no groundhogs about but when I looked carefully I saw the face of one creature perfectly framed in his hole. He looked back at me for a few minutes and then retreated.

More cultural revolution

Jan Wong’s Red China Blues delivered both entertainment and education. I like her direct sense of humor and honesty. The chapter on Tianamen Sqaure was especially moving. She actually observed the massacre from a Beijing hotel balcony on the north side of the square. I remember that June weekend in 1989 very well because my friend Mindy and I were at an Amnesty International conference in Chicago when the Tianamen atrocity happened. There was an impromptu protest march led by Chinese students at the University of Chicago.

balzac and prophet bells

The Toronto Public Library has had all kinds of holds turn up for me recently, so I’ve been turning lots of pages. I finished Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which was a hit with me. The heroes saved a violin from ideological destruction by saying the name of a tune was “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” I also liked The Prophet’s Camel Bell about Margaret Lawrence’s time in pre-independence Somali. She had a neighbor with a pet ostrich. The neighbor kid would greet the ostrich every morning with “Ostrich! Give news of yourself!” Marjan Satrapi’s Embroideries was a quick, funny read. Now I’m reading a book about Vietnam War Restister’s in Toronto. What next?

“I can just tell . . .”

I was leaning on the counter at a nearby Canada Post Office, addressing a package to Missouri, when a man strode up to the two cashiers with a letter. He was shocked at how much it cost to send it express to the States. “I don’t understand why it costs 23 dollars just to send an envelope. When you send things from the States it costs next to nothing. I just don’t get it. Why does it cost so much? It’s the same country.” The clerks didn’t know and when he left to get some cash they rolled their eyes at each other. One said, “He should call customer service. Don’t ask me.”

When I approached the desk to weigh the parcel, I asked the cashiers if they thought price-challenging guy was American. I was curious, as an American in Canada myself. The older clerk said, “Yes, I’m sure he was. I can just tell.” “Was it the attitude?” “Yeah, though you can’t say that about all Americans.” The younger postal worker, who turned out to be from North Carolina, agreed. I said, “I’m from Missouri. We’re pretty laid back, too.” I think it’s good to ask why, but not in a “this is how we do it in the States” way. And why did the guy seem offended that Canada was a different country with different postal prices? Did he think Canada Post had no right to set its own prices?

I saw the postal customer as I walked home. I wish I had worked up the nerve to ask him where he was from and how long he’d been in Canada. I imagine he could have told me a lot about his impression of Toronto and if he was going to pay the 23 Canadian dollars after all.

enron, the movie

I thought Enron might be on the boring side, but it really had me on the edge of my plush seat, leaning beyond the cup holders. What a medieval morality play! There were villains aplenty and not so many heroes. Is it really that easy to sell image and confidence over substance? Is it really only money that motivates people? I’d like to think it’s not true, but the sad thing is our society seems so spiritually bankrupt.

Aftermath

Joel Meyerowitz’s exhibit Aftermath: Images from Ground Zero is in Toronto. We saw it yesterday afternoon. As I studied the wreckage, a heavy numbness pressed on me, but the pictures of firemen and construction workers were comfortingly understandable. The grief in their eyes shows the way to feeling, even though it only hints at the trauma they experienced. When 9/11 exploded, I was living in Scotland. I felt so helpless and cut off, with the air space closed, phone lines overwhelmed. Seeing this exhibit made me feel more connected. I don’t always feel proud to be an American, but looking at the NYC emergency workers did make me feel proud.

The shredded buildings, smoky dusty hole in the ground also made me think about anger, how the feelings and beliefs of 19 men translated rage into action against twin symbols of power. I have heard that anger is like a shark, destroying the image of that which it hates. Burning testimony to the hellish power of fundamentalism of any kind — why do we persist in our illusions of heavenly reward?

another book

I recently finished Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden Lives of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. Parts of it seemed overly smug, like when Brooks talked about how gentle and tolerant her home country of Australia is. (Granted, she wrote it before asylum seekers sewed their mouths shut in an Australian detention camp, protesting their treatment.) But I learned more about the Prophet’s wives and how veiling wasn’t orginally meant to apply to all women.

puissance of assonance

For many years, boxes of my old books and papers have been waiting for me in the garage-studio next to my mom’s house. Since Stewart and I recently drove down to Missouri, the no-room-in-my-suitcase excuse no longer flew. One night during the visit I went through a folder of essays from my freshman composition course at Westminster. I found some truly purple responses to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Here is my all time favorite: “In line twelve, the puissance of assonance thrills the reader with the sound of ‘even to the edge of doom.'” In case the word doom isn’t puissant enough, I helpfully explain that “the edge of doom is an eternal abyss, one which a spiritual union can conquer.” I did tone it down in the final draft, but where’s the fun in that?

… by Catherine Raine