Make It Scream, Make It Burn

Make It Scream coverMake It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays
Leslie Jamison
Little, Brown and Company (September 24, 2019)
273 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I ordinarily would not consider reading a book with a title like this, but I read at least two highly approving reviews of the book, and an Amazon review said the title had very little to do with the content of the book. The reviews I read said that the writing in this book of essays was excellent, and I’m always looking for great writing. So I bought it.

In the first half of the book the author writes about a variety of topics. She tells us about a whale whose song is at a very different frequency than that of any other whale, and who captured the imagination of thousands of people. She writes about social conditions in war-torn Sri Lanka. She describes how the Second Life virtual reality environment can give meaning to the lives of those whose circumstances in the physical world are less than optimal. She goes into detail about how James Agee’s article for Fortune magazine about sharecroppers in Alabama, which was never published, is so very different from the book he did publish, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

And can this woman write? Yes, she can. Here is an example of her marvelous prose, in which she describes Las Vegas:

quoteAll of Vegas tries too hard. But is it inauthentic? I’ve never thought so. If inauthenticity depends on pretending you are something you’re not, then Vegas has always been adamantly honest. It is all fake, all the time.

The second half of the book is different. She writes about her own life. As an individual in recovery, about failed relationships, about becoming a stepmother and trying her best not to be an evil one, and about her own high-risk pregnancy.

The writing is vivid and direct. Jamison is an accomplished essayist.

Trust Exercise

Trust Exercise coverTrust Exercise: A Novel
by Susan Choi
Henry Holt and Co. (April 9, 2019)
262 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.81

I had seen positive reviews of this book, and it was in my collection of Kindle samples. It was about the time I was ready to start a new book when I read that it had won the 2019 National Book Award for fiction. I decided that it was time to read it.

The plot line involves a high school for the performing arts and the school’s students and faculty, along with a group of visiting British theater students and their teacher. Those visitors are critical to the plot. The relationships among the characters get complicated, which moves much of the plot forward.

The structure of the novel is interesting. The first half of the book reads like a straightforward novel told in the third person. The second half of the book takes place thirteen years later and is told from the perspective of one of the characters who, in the first half, plays a secondary role. Interestingly, Choi alternates between the first and third person in this section. There are also flashbacks that explain why the character has put a rather heinous plan into action.

The novel ends with a sort of epilogue that takes the story a number of years into the future. Loose ends do not get tied up, but I nevertheless did not feel cheated. The characters and the writing left me with the feeling that the novel had accomplished what it set out to do.

Epiphany 2020

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, bringing the Christmas season to a close. So we move on to yet another new year. I have shared this in years past, but the feeling clings to me once again this year. That feeling is that I am ambivalent about how we express Epiphany in our lives and in our world. I want to believe Howard Thurman (on the right), but Auden (on the left) seems to be much closer to what I personally experience. Perhaps I can accept Auden as the quotidian reality and see Thurman as the aspirational goal.

However you see it, happy Epiphany and all the best in this new year

quoteWell, so that is that. Now we must
dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their
cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken —
and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be
taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.
There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up,
for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite,
having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted —
quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen
the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain
His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot
keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension
at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot,
after all, now
Be very far off.

—W.H. Auden, from For the Time Being
quoteWhen the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.

—Howard Thurman

Christmas tree redux (Christmas tree re-do)

Christmas treeTerry and I went to our (nearly) local Christmas tree farm a week ago Monday and bought our Christmas tree. We put it up and decorated it, including all of our Star Trek and NASA ornaments. On Saturday we were sitting in our recliners, minding our own business, watching Pioneer Woman on Food Network when [WHOP!] the tree fell over. Just like that. Seems the base was too small for the tree.

Terry went to Home Depot and got a new base which was too big. She went back and exchanged it for one that was (you guessed it) just right. We decided that we had had enough activity for one day and put off (re) decorating the tree until Sunday. On Sunday we did just that.

We’re happy with our (re) decorated tree, but that was excitement which we did not need.

Still, the tree is up and beautiful and solid now, and we are prepared to enjoy our Christmas.

Happy Christmas to you, wherever you are.

steak in rather than steak out

Rachael Ray’s premise for her 30 Minute Meals episode “Steak Out, Italian Style” is that if you are tempted to go out for a steak dinner you can just as easily make a great one at home. This episode tells you how.

Rosemary SteakNow I am not a big steak fan, you probably know that. But this dinner looked absolutely delicious, and I knew it was right up Terry’s alley. After I watched the DVR’d episode I brought it up via On Demand and showed it to Terry. She agreed that it looked great. I decided to make a go of it on Saturday.

It addition to rosemary steak, the meal includes Marsala mushrooms and waffle fries with Gorgonzola cheese sauce. Terry told me it was a “killer dinner,” and I have to say I was very pleased with the result. But a 30 minute meal? It definitely was not.

Now I did inadvertently leave out a couple of things. I forgot the wine for the mushrooms. (Yes, I forgot the wine in Marsala mushrooms.) And I was supposed to put crumbled bacon on top of the Gorgonzola cheese sauce. Totally spaced on that. But in reality neither were missed at all.

The comment at the beginning of the recipe on the web page says you should eat this in front of the television. Absolutely no way. This is a meal to be eaten with your significant other at the dining room table by candlelight, your faithful canine sitting on the floor nearby.

That’s what we did. It was marvelous.

On the Backs of Tortoises

On the Backs of Tortoises coverOn the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden
Elizabeth Hennessy
Yale University Press (October 29, 2019), 336 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $22.99

We often think of the Galápagos Islands as something pure and pristine that were undiscovered until Charles Darwin showed up on the Beagle. This book will disabuse you of that notion.

As it happens the islands were discovered very early on, and were a way station for ships making their way up and down the west coast of the Americas. While the Galápagos are today a national park in the country of Ecuador, there has never been an uncontested belief that the ecology should be preserved in its natural state. Some islands in the group have been used as penal colonies and some as military bases. One island was host to a failed utopian society experiment. In the present day we learn that some locals appreciate eco-tourism and others do not.

The author provides a balanced history of the region, dispelling many myths. Towards the end of the book she candidly relates her own experiences in the islands as a researcher.

Nothing is simple. Nothing is black and white. This book makes that clear.

that was the year that was

We did not do a holiday letter this year. It is the first time in recent memory that we haven’t done one. I was simply not up to it. Or, more accurately, I was not up to writing about things which I figured people would just as soon not read about.

calendar 2019I wrote in last year’s letter the harsh medication I was taking to shrink the GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumor) on my duodenum didn’t shrink it and that I would require surgery. I didn’t think that people would be interested in my three-and-half day hospital stay for the surgery in February and the fact that I was in three different rooms during that time. I thought it would probably be TMI to write about my setback in March which put me back in the hospital for the better part of a week, and which could have been entirely avoided had I been given more complete directions about eating slowly and thoroughly chewing my food. I doubted that friends and family would care to know that I had had a tube through my nose to my stomach or that the surgical people on Day 4 finally spoke to the gastroenterological people who did an endoscopic procedure and removed two pieces of mushroom that were causing the blockage (in conjunction with the normal post-surgical swelling).

Those are the kind of things that one simply doesn’t want to put in a holiday letter, but those things informed the first third of my year.

On the other hand, people might get a chuckle to read that as Terry was finishing up her physical therapy from her knee replacement surgery (right in advance of my own surgery) she told her team that she needed to be able to pick up a thirty-five pound dog and put it on the bed, since I would be unable to do so. The physical therapy team adjusted Terry’s routine to accommodate that. And folks might like to know that our thirty-five pound dog, Tasha, now fifteen-and-a-half years old, continues to thrive.

Friends and family might like to know that Terry, who went on leave from Horizon Solar Power in advance of her knee surgery, went back to work after I recovered from my setback and continues to enjoy her work as a permit runner. They might care to know that at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church we finally, after nearly three years, called a rector who is turning out to be the exact right fit for the parish. And perhaps they might also be interested that I continue to manage the web site and the weekly e-news for the church.

Those of you who are connected with me on Facebook probably saw this, but those who aren’t might like to know that after six months of not being allowed any red meat, my surgeon released me from that restriction in August. Terry immediately went out to In-n-Out and got me a Double Double. It was marvelous!  And I suppose people would be interested in knowing that a CT scan in September showed no sign of anything amiss in my digestive tract. Oh, and folks might be amused that Terry was jealous that my scar disappeared more quickly than hers, even though her surgery was four months before mine.

If you remember that I was an avid baker of bread after our kitchen remodel in Gilroy you might appreciate the fact that I am baking bread once again. Our oven died and the cost to fix it was nearly half the price of buying a new stove. We ordered a Samsung model with a grill burner and convection oven before my surgery. It did not show up until I was well on the road to recovery from my setback. A perfect time to relearn my bread baking skills.

So that is our year. We are enjoying our holiday season and are looking forward to getting our Christmas tree tomorrow, which we had to forego last year as Terry’s healing cyber-knee was not up to the task.

Very best wishes to you and yours this holiday season!