Battlegrounds

•January 16, 2013 • 2 Comments

Billy Lynn is an infantryman, a 19-year-old being celebrated, along with his other Bravo soldiers, for their recent wartime heroism.  Trouble is, he can’t quite get his young mind around why none of it makes any sense, although, by the end, it’s Billy’s maturity and clarity (even if a bit alcohol-soggy) that makes the most sense.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a heartbreaking book, one that takes place during a single, long day in Texas, specifically during a Dallas Cowboys football game.  Like the L. E. said, it should be required reading for all politicians.   (Horton Hears a Who should be, too, but that’s a different tangent.)  Fountain brings us into Billy’s head as he reconciles a fellow soldier’s death, an intoxicating redhead who will either break his heart or save it, a loving but polarizing family and one very large and amoral businessman, not to mention the constant stinging attention of well-meaning people who shout “thank you” at every juncture.  I think it’s Shakespearean at its core, given its time span and the universal themes Fountain tackles, together with some relevant – and modern – cynicism.  But I loved it for its sweet and gutsy hero and his buddies, all of whom are in an impossibly horrific situation…because after all the celebrations they have to go back to Iraq.  And they know they are already shattered.  And so, what we really have here is not a support-the-troops party, but a way to foster more support for a war that should never have happened.  Fountain has a great ear for male dialogue (one would hope) and the urgency of youth.  Read it.

My friend Teresa is a voracious reader, although she was anxious over my last recommendation: “Woman, on page 234 and still no action for the Major” her last text read.  She’s been taking very good care of my girls’ sparkly nails while absorbing and weighing in on those particularly intense complaints vibes that are a teenage girl’s mood swings.

Commiserating with Ramona that, yes, her mother never understands anything.

Commiserating with Ramona that, yes, her mother never understands anything.

We met 12 years ago while passing each other on the street, each of us holding a black-eyed twin (my mom and her friend were holding the other black-eyed twins next to us), and became fast friends based on our distinct and rare dumbfoundedness at how we landed in such an affluent and weird town.  She and her husband gave great parties – everyone in 6-inch heels and tailored shirts, tireless, moving from room to room, until the last diehards finally met in the center of the house, the window-free “party room.”  Teresa maintained there was money hidden there by the previous owner but they hadn’t been able to locate it yet.  Mr. Halfstory and I would just leave, overwhelmed by platters of Persian and Mexican food and good wine (the kind we get for gifts!), my natural social awkwardness finally exposing itself.  “Woman, why are you running away?”  she would ask me, appearing at my side, sparkly and bejeweled.  I would try and  explain our version of a night out:  sitting in the newer car clutching bottles of cold Red Hook, maybe squeezing in a short nap.  Hey, it was the only space unconquered by dog hair, cheese sticks and Playmobil weapons.  We knew where the kids were because they were pressing their faces against the living room window and we were parked in the driveway.  There are several women I would want near me in a battle (Annette, Jenn, Marcie, to name a few, mostly to keep me from poor decision-making tactics and uncontrollable emotions), and Teresa would most assuredly be among them.  “Woman, don’t even get me started on J. Lo.”

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Tell the clowns I’m gone

•January 7, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Clowns were never really my thing.  Truthfully, when I was a child they scared the beejezus out of me.  So when we took the kids to see my dad after 14 years of not seeing him, I had to warn them.  He has collected clowns all his life, something I discovered when I visited his office 32 or so years ago and discovered dozens of sad-faced clowns staring at me.  Shot glass collections I understand.  Spoons?  Sure, but unlikely we will be buddies!  Sea glass, I applaud.  Clowns.  Hmmm.  Anyway, his house – and maybe this is a generational thing – was a bit like staying overnight in a really clean thrift store.  He lives in a very small town in southern Oregon, where the population is pretty darn old and working families can’t see a future.  I have to say it’s unnerving to not see youth walking around with that particular immortal attitude they should have.  But then the drive up the coast was startlingly beautiful and startlingly sad: too many towns without employment.  Lots of people hanging out looking “sketch,” as the kids say.   Not my dad’s house, though.  “Share with me your sadness and I’ll share with you my joy,” the bathroom doorstop clown head proclaimed.  This was next to the life-sized Schnauzer figurine display.

That's Birdie the dog on his lap.

That’s Birdie the dog on his lap, chewing on a towel.

The Son and I took the above Birdie on a little sojourn around the block where we encountered many  – wait for it – Pomeranians barking at us from steamy picture windows while their owners parted the drapes and (probably) wondered if we were stealing mail.  I respect neighbors like this.  I consider myself the Mrs. Kravitz of my block and it made me think they had my dad’s back.  We turned the corner only to encounter more of the Pomeranian Mafia further down the block; stomping their paws like fists.  Birdie was freaked; we picked her up and scuttled back to Dad’s.

Around 3:30 a.m. I finished Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman.   Dad gets up anywhere from 3:30 to 5:00 and he was displaced from his ESPN-watching lounger by Mr. Halfstory and Ramona, curled into sleeping bags by the fireplace.  The bedrooms were not heated and at night it drops to a clown-friendly 30 degrees.  Wolves isn’t considered a teen book, although it has a teen protagonist.  It’s the early 80’s  and June’s uncle Finn has died from AIDS.  No one understood the disease then; it had insinuated itself, brutal and heartless, into an unsuspecting world.  Growing up in San Francisco, I remember listening to people – normal people, people I liked and respected – say they were afraid to be in the same room as someone with AIDS.  June deals with all this, an older sister who spends her time both torturing June and depending on her.  Finn was an acclaimed artist and the painting he leaves them – of June and her sister Greta – becomes a conduit for communication, for treachery and for redemption.  Along the way June has to face her own fringe-dwelling self, and she does this in and around New York City.  The setting is important, I think; no other City could absorb or consume all this and spit a person back out, intact.

I would very much like to have my girls read How to be a Woman, because I can describe it as both raunchy and intellectual, but they are probably still too young.  Two or three years from now it will make for some laugh-until-you-snort discussions.  The book is one of the better series of essays on feminism, and all it’s adjacent issues, right down to ruminations on correct underwear, childbirth and porn (not necessarily in the same essay; don’t be scared!)  It was an interesting book to think about while driving down the gorgeous Oregon and Northern California coast, myrtle wood bear sculptures and plaid jackets aside.  I concluded I would happily take a road trip with Ms. Moran; she would have juicy opinions about the 100-foot-tall Paul Bunyan and Babe statues we had the pleasure to see.

Jolly Holidays

•December 14, 2012 • 3 Comments

The Son asked me a question.  Hours before he’d been caught in a half-truth about homework, so he was careful with Tone.  “Mom, what do you want for Christmas?  And don’t say world peace.”

“I want you to get your learners’ permit.”

“Mom.”

“No, really.  I need you to drive your sisters around.  I’m tired and I need to start drinking at home.”

“Mom.  We’ve been over this.”

“Plus, you’ll feel better about yourself.”

“Oh my god.  Never mind.  Why can’t you answer like a normal person?”

“Fine.  A sweatshirt. Giants World Series.  Small.  And not the weird one with the big blocky letters.  The cool one with the big ‘2012’ on it.”

“Fine.”

I then harassed Mr. Halfstory about his Christmas spending habits.  Traditionally, and curiously, The Son has gotten short-changed while the girls rake it in like seasoned poker players.  Every year we both strive to buy thoughtful, meaningful gifts.  I even try to make things, which brings me back to the days when I used to nail cup hooks into shellacked wood pieces and beg my older brothers to use them as key holders.  My mom used to employ her fool-proof hand-made item: my brothers’ new tube socks she’d cut into Barbie sweater dresses, complete with roll down portrait collars.  No sewing required.  No wonder I staple my hems.

Then I discovered the hastily discarded, empty cardboard boxes in the “playroom.”  I am putting quotations around that word because no one actually plays in the playroom.  Originally, we imagined our kids happily conversing over chess games in there, or, as teenagers, sitting around in bean bag chairs, chuckling over their dumb parents.  (Actually, that might be happening.)  But probably not in the playroom.  The reason:  potato bugs.  No other explanation needed.

Mr. Halfstory spoils our children.  He hides gifts and “necessary” sports equipment because he knows I secretly think they can make it work with worn-out Converse and gym shorts.  Also, I believe the entire house should be cleaned before any ice cream is purchased or the internet activated.  We’ve come full circle from our respective childhoods.  His parents, wonderful though they were, ceded over his fashion choices to whatever he found left over on his bed from same sized friends.  He got a fresh Han Solo t-shirt out of that, come to think of it.  My mom, exclusive member of I. Magnin, took me back-to-school shopping every Fall…without any actual real money!  And yet…not only is Halfstory a deep-thinking and moral person, he is very well-educated, is a certified Fun Dad, and he has a career!  Plus he still likes all of us, even though we use all the money.  I’m thinking here of not bringing down the hammer so much, especially with the end of the world on 12/21.  Or was it 12/12?  I wish the Mayans had clarified this.

The playroom.  The box.  Don't ask.

The playroom. The box. Don’t ask.

Moving on. Here are some of my New Year’s resolutions:

Use things in freezer.

Listen.

Find out what’s in trunk of car.

Get through an entire CD without skipping anything.

Rediscover NPR.

Try not to be judgmental about craft blogs from Portland (not yours, Marcie).

Try not to be judgmental about Mr. Halfstory’s sports obsessions.

Try not to be judgmental about people with really nice houses.

Ok, try not to be judgmental.

Really, really listen.

Please note: I’m not skipping Christmas.  Because I have not yet finished the books I’m currently reading I thought I would make a short list of what I perceive are great gift books, just in case you are wandering around a book store somewhere without a clue.

Fiction:

This is Where I Leave You and/or One last Thing Before I Go

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

State of Wonder

White Teeth

Winter’s Bone

About a Boy

Untold Story

The Language of Flowers

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

The Long Night of White Chickens

Teens:

Revolution

Slam

Dreamland Social Club

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The Fault in Our Stars

Non-Fiction:

Here if You Need Me

The Possibility of Everything

Moneyball

The Wave

Seabiscuit

Rolls for everyone!

•December 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment
Rolls for everyone!

No animals were harmed in the making of these rolls.

My Uncle Pete, nearing 90, has not been feeling like himself lately.  We don’t get to see him often as he and my Aunty Inez live in San Diego.  This Thanksgiving I thought it would be nice to make Inez’s famous Filipino/Irish potato rolls, which she used to make at least once a week.  This way, they would both be with us, at least while we chawed down on the buttery flakiness that is this splendid bread.  If anyone wants the recipe, e-mail me!  I share.  They make something like four dozen rolls and, while somewhat time-consuming, you will not find a better friend to ham, or butter…or both.
Every weekend we visited Aunty, Uncle and the five cousins in Vallejo.  My mom needed to haul my three brothers up there so they could get some male discipline from Uncle (she was a single parent during those years) and so she could take a break from working and yelling and lay down somewhere with an aspirin and a cold washcloth (or maybe go out on a date, I can’t remember).  One male discipline example: if anyone mouthed off they would be kneeling on raw rice for a while.  Not too long, just enough time to reorganize priorities.  His daughter and I were usually on kitchen duty; we wouldn’t get punished anyway.  My girl cousin made sure she dished out some potent misery by ostracizing me with her straight hair and blonde friends.  But my four male cousins would take turns snapping us up in rollaway beds to play “Meet the Press”… which really meant spinning us around while trapped in the beds.  Good times.  I was lucky enough to have my Nana, who always let me talk her into taking the Greyhound bus to Vallejo.  Back then it was clean and civilized and I always got a Betty & Veronica comic book for the ride.  Funny thing is, we all got along really well, despite the ruckus.  And Aunty and Uncle loved us unconditionally, despite the very serious lines that must not be crossed.

I try to remember all these things while living here with the in-laws.  Sometimes it’s hard because, for instance, my house very often smells like a combination of onions, clams and rose neroli oil.  And it’s tough to bake away your depression when you cannot get into your own kitchen.  Then my head tries to pop itself off my shoulders!

So, I read.  And here’s what I’ve read this past week:

Chomp, by Carl Hiaason.  A teen book, but awfully funny for adults.  This is a great gift for your light-reading teen.  Hiaason brings Florida to your doorstep while inserting some important environmental lessons.  He writes about what he knows and he knows a lot about the wilds of Florida, and all the lovable, cagey eccentrics living there.  His kids are normal, smart and independent.  I can barely look at photos of reptiles but I was fascinated by all the snake and alligator facts.  Warning: there is an abusive adult in the book, so this is for age 12 and up.

The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton.  I really liked her other books, but you have to be patient with Kate.  She’s not afraid to string you along, doling out tidbits of mystery like a cheap hostess at a cocktail party.  She rewards you in the end, even if her revelations are not extraordinary; by the time you get to the end you’re swept up in the period and at least one or two of the characters.  This time around it’s a 60 year-old-actress trying to solve the puzzle of her mom’s secret past.  As a girl she witnessed her mother murder a stranger, but it was never spoken of again in her happy normal family.  However, I do admire her for using an “older” protagonist who’s not romantically attached.  And, if you’re looking for a serious escapist novel, this is a decent choice.

The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.   I love her rock-solid Quebec-based Inspector Gamache and the town he seems to always be investigating; it has more quirkiness and convoluted murder plots than anything Inspector Morse could dish up.  This latest entry brings you inside a remote monastery, where – surprise – a monk has been murdered.  Not only does this upset the calm among the brethren (is it calm or is it sinister?) it ripples the waters of an already precarious relationship between Gamache and Beauvoir, his underling detective. Penny is a good writer – and I’m really fussy about mysteries – but this one was really sad.  That said, I liked the monastery and monk life details and being inside the head of an addict, fiction though it is.

Sutton, by J. R. Moehringer.  Written by the author of The Tender Bar, this is a great choice for the bio-loving friend who wants to dip his/her toe into fiction.  Or the History Guy who knows too many facts about Prussia and wants to share.  I haven’t even finished it yet and I love it.  And I read biographies as often as I read computer manuals.  Part gritty crime novel, part romance, it’s a fine period piece about a criminal and what his sole motivation might have been.

 

Define Ruins

•November 17, 2012 • 3 Comments

Reading Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, is a bit like watching a lush Hollywood epic.  Flipping back and forth between glorious, outrageous 50’s Hollywood and present-day reality-show-poisoned Hollywood, Walter’s book spins two tales that eventually intertwine: a starlet waiting for love on an isolated Italian island and a producer’s assistant looking for integrity in an equally isolating and morally vacant movie studio.  It’s an ensemble piece, really; the symbiotic roles each character plays would be cardboard cutouts without each other.  I liked it, though, because it has everything: humor, absurd violence, decent bittersweet moments, a knee-slapping cameo by Richard Burton.  And who doesn’t like any book that skewers Hollywood, while also offering “Hotel Adequate View?”  After reading his book, I’d rather stay there than sip bubbly with Brad Pitt at Chateau Marmont.  Ok, maybe with Daniel Craig, but that’s a different post.  It did remind me to start being a real American mom and watch some old classics with the offspring.  If we’re not going to get them to Disneyland – and chances are looking slim, as they’re taller than us now and we’re still too cheap and lazy – I feel like I should  make them watch  Cleopatra and The Sound of Music and Gone With the Wind.  Or, at least expose them to Gene Kelly because, heaven knows, when will they ever see that kind of charisma and dancing?  Which brings up dancing.  Mr. Halfstory is solid in the beats department.  He’s the Groove Master, the guy who danced with all the girlfriends and wives willingly while his buddies used the international sign for “one more all around.”  But the kids don’t dance!  We tried but there was a lot of “can we stop now,” “I hate this music,” “please stop, Mom.” If they can’t dance, how will they move on to making scrambled eggs or understanding co-payments or knowing they should always turn down credit card offers?  Who knew you had to teach kids everything?  These are the shallow thoughts that run through my head, often at 2:00am.

Of course, this frivolity was crushed like a bug after reading the YA book, Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  It’s 1940 and 15-year-old Lina is seized by Russian soldiers and hauled off to Siberia, along with her mother and brother.  Being Lithuanian, they are despised by Russia and become several of countless victims of Russian NKVD (pre-KGB) atrocities.  While I wouldn’t recommend this book for the faint of heart, it’s incredibly detailed, meticulously researched and well-written…and completely appropriate for adult readers (as are many YA books).  I was astonished at how much I didn’t know about the oppression of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia before and during WWII.  I would recommend it for teens; it’s important to know how this chapter was successfully buried by both sides, for many complicated and heart-breaking reasons (and for the details on that, do read the afterward and author’s notes – it’s worth it).  That said, within the bleak Siberian landscape, there is beautiful romance and kindness.  So go out out and shake those kids out of their vampire stupor.  Please.

Photo Montage and then some

•November 3, 2012 • 1 Comment

Some notes from the World Series and the victory parade: Buster Posey and Brandon Belt, the most sincere pumpkins in Linus’ patch.  Mike Krukow, pimpin’ it and fired up at the parade!  Pablo: never wear orange pants again.  Marco Scutaro: here’s my cell number.  Sergio Romo: bold enough to advertise immigration in an election year and bouncing like Tigger.  Tim Lincecum: way to rock the Cobain sweater and be gracious when the chips are down.  Love the hardworking southern boys mixed with those professional Venezuelans.  Brandon Crawford: soft hands never looked so good.  Thanks for teaching kids how the game is played (I lifted that from my favorite commentator, Harold Reynolds, but I agree).

My idea of camping.

My relationship with the outdoors comes down to one sentence: I will try my best not to destroy you and you will keep your scaly creatures away from me.  And that’s pretty much it.  Once, at age 21 or so, my boyfriend took me to a close friend’s house in Amador County.  I was excited; this was a big step!  Perhaps we would get married!  Maybe the words “rustic” and “country” really described the decor more than the lifestyle!  Once we were on the back roads, he flicked off the headlights and screeched the VW bug to a halt.  “Did you see that guy with the chainsaw?”

Did I mention he was funny?

When our kids were born, Mr. Halfstory (who was not the aforementioned boyfriend, just for the record) and I chose to school our offspring in Nature’s Church: respect nature, revere it, visit it.  Do you think we’ve ever taken our kids camping to “see something bigger than themselves?”  We managed two days in Yosemite and, once, the grand micro climates of Maui, but nothing that ever involved a sleeping bag, a tin cup or standing in a pond.  The kids are great walkers but spectacular hurlers, so those lists of car vacations?  Erase and start over.  As for myself, the only thing that scares me more than sleeping in the wilderness are: underground parking garages at night and white vans without windows.

So it was with interest and some trepidation I read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  Let me just say, it made me want to hike, and then hike some more.  Reeling from the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, Strayed decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail alone.  She admits she is not prepared, although she’s done decent research, mindful shopping and has had shrewd conversations with REI personnel.  And she’s just really, exceptionally brave.  She’s an accomplished and straightforward writer, even though this was clearly and emotional, powerful journey for her.  I must say, some of the things she had to do – being calm in the face of a possible assault, drinking potentially toxic water – made this book a supreme page-turner.

I’ve become one of those people who posts pictures of cute dogs.

Then, I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, which was a satisfying and zany romp into a family of geniuses.  Bernadette (and I have my hand raised here, too) is being slowly irritated to death by Seattle and her life choices.  She has a brilliant, workaholic husband, a sweet and independent (also quite brilliant) daughter, and yet she cannot bring herself to have normal exchanges with people.  As someone who often falls out of bed pre-annoyed (Mr. Halfstory: “You woke up swingin’ today.”), I saw a lot of myself in Bernadette, minus the eccentric genius part.  Filled with rapid-fire and hilarious (and implausible) letters, e-mail exchanges, depositions and secret notes, it’s one of those novels you can’t put down; I have the dark circles to prove it.

What happens when the arguments stop.

Anxious landlubbers unite

•October 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Some people call it stomach flu; I prefer to call it a reverse cleanse.  And about this I will say no more because, well, I don’t want to drive you away.  My last word on this is that it was one of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a few weeks.  The others were: The Son, a Celtic looking fellow – being in his high school production of The Arabian Nights.  And, let me tell you, even if the kids sing like Aretha, speak like Meryl or is as charismatic as Brad, they’re still in high school, and therefore, earnest and disheveled like a bag of dirty puppies.  Except the girls had on some really awesome eyeliner.  And really, it was a very good production.  My other excuses: visitors, some minor family arguments involving the slamming down of handsets, poor attitude, and mostly, not a lot of riveting things to say.

I did finish a few books, though!  Monkey Mind, a Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith, is excruciating to read, as it conveys in grimy detail the roller-coaster nature of severe anxiety and its many, many manifestations.  What saves it, though, is the writer himself, who is so raw and willing to reveal all his neuroses you cheer him on and hope like hell you never go down that path.  He is also wildly funny and a good detail man: one example is how he describes what he thinks may have contributed significantly to his hamster-wheel brain: playing in his mother’s room, above her home office (she’s a therapist), hanging upside down over one side of the bed, rooting around underneath it for a lost toy, he hears an anxious patient confessing fears…through the heater vent.  As a kid who spent a lot of time alone, messing around my siblings’ rooms, my mom’s room, hiding during their hushed conversations, this spoke to me.  Plus: we have buckets of anxiety in our family.

As good as the book is, it’s also an exhausting one.  You can’t help but feel moved and hopeful as the author battles for a normal life, but his day is mighty long and that’s not to be taken lightly.

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan, has a great line toward the end of the book.  “After all, I have already taken the measure of my own insignificance, and I survived.”   The woman who claims this is Grace, stranded after a shipwreck in a lifeboat while crossing the Atlantic prior in 1914.  Very young, ambitious and decidedly not sweet, she is eventually tried in America as a co-conspirator to murder.  The book is her account of those events, and the unraveling of humanity in an overcrowded boat.  Rogan gives us some grim images and her knowledge of sailing and the sea is a huge help, although I tend to skim all the discussion of sails and hard tack and focus on whose hands are clutched around whose throat.   Full confession:  Mr. Halfstory, Ramona and I once went whale-watching in my desperate attempt to break out of a post-foot surgery funk.  Of course, when whale watching you do have to go where the whales live, but, truly, I skimmed the open ocean part of that equation, too.  So there we were, Ramona bouncing around the deck of the Sea Wolf (“Sea Beagle,” Mr. Halfstory muttered bitterly while throwing up over the rail or the rigging or whatever the heck it was), while I tried to keep water out of my cast and muttering “I will never see my other two children again,” and hoping that we did not see any enormous, boat-crushing leviathans.

Well, anyway, it gets fairly ugly in the lifeboat, and while the daily drudge of looking over the horizon for the ship that will never come gets tiring, well, that’s authentic, and Rogan keeps a swift pace.  Survival stories are only as good as the characters they plunk into an unforgiving landscape. This is worthy of a slot in the backpack…or an anorak pocket…or whatever it is sailors carry their stuff in.  I don’t know because I will likely never go on a boat again.