Archive for December, 2010

book of the year, decade, century so far

Another no-contest. A Place of Greater Safety is crazy-wonderful and amazing, but Wolf Hall was the first. About 200 pages in, I was no longer Rachel sitting in front of a novel. I was Thomas Cromwell walking to the Palace to meet the King.

That, in case you’re wondering, is why I read.

The life so short, the craft so long to learn.

novels of the year

All ladybooks. And it’s not like I didn’t read dudebooks all year; I did. It’s just that the ladies were all, oh, freer and looser and madder. They were all resurrecting the dead and overthrowing the state and having relations with animals. They were appropriating true stories and speaking with the voices of drunks and historical personages and even First Ladies! They were taking bold risks and those risks were paying off! Dudes are going to have to step up if they want to write like the ladies. You should read any of these but ideally all of them because they are each of them intricately constructed WORLDS UNTO THEMSELVES. So brilliant! Kudos, ladies!

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

A Japanese photographer assigned to Nagasaki after the bombing said this of the scene he surveyed: “I tried climbing up onto a small hill to look. All around the city burned with little elf-fires, and the sky was blue and full of stars.”


Patsy MacLemoore came to on a concrete shelf in a cell in the basement of the Altadena Sheriff’s department. Her hair had woken her up. It stank.

She had said she would rather die than come back here. She’d said that both times she’d been here before.

A Place of Greater Safety

The child particularly presented an insoluble problem. It seemed inaccessible to the processes of legal reasoning. He smiled at it, and it learned to smile back; not with the amicable toothless grin of most infants, but with what he took to be a flicker of amusement. Then again, he had always understood that the eyes of small babies did not focus properly, but this one – and no doubt it was entirely his imagination – seemed to look him over rather coolly. This made him uneasy. He feared, in his secret heart, that one day in company the baby would sit up and speak; that it would engage his eyes, appraise him and say, “You prick.”

The Haunting of Hill House

The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

The Little Stranger

I wasn’t a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it…

Niagara Falls All Over Again

Though both men are rotten marchers, they make it to the altar, where a minister opens a Bible in a chiding way; because there’s no good reason to be late to your own wedding, even if the bride is a pony. Which she is, a chubby, sway-backed roan pony whose hindquarters keep shifting – she’s not thrilled about the match either.


She sucked in her breath and waited; then, when they were close to the dock she saw that what she had thought was true: the house was a classic Fowler’s octagon.

“Wow,” she said.

“Pretty fine, isn’t it?”

“It’s not mentioned in the textbooks. There’s an index of houses like that.”

“Oh, we’re pretty cagey, up here…”

Blackout / All Clear

For a moment after the siren started its up-and-down warble, Polly simply stood there with the stockings box still in her hand, her heart pounding. Then Doreen said, “Oh, no, not a raid! I thought for certain we’d get through today without one.

We did, Polly thought. There must be some mistake.

American Wife

Have I made terrible mistakes?


Eggsnake is more longer than all around Room, we’ve been making him since I was three, he lives in Under Bed all coiled up keeping us safe.

worst book of the year

I read some stinkers – Solar was self-pitying crap! I Don’t Care About Your Band actually made me feel sorry for some douchey dudebros! That ain’t right! – but this was no contest.

…the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.


nonfiction books of the year

As usual, the number ten is completely arbitrary. Honourable mentions go to Logicomix, Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, The Indian Clerk, A Final Arc of Sky, The Marketplace of Ideas and Imperial Life in the Emerald City. But the following are all GREAT BOOKS.

Somewhere Towards the End

If you don’t have an old lady friend who is willing to be completely honest with you, that is a great misfortune, but this no-bullshit memoir by Diana Athill should fill some of the void. She is excellent on sex, race, writing and the indignity of growing old. She also wrote this unsparing article on her decision to move to a nursing home. It is all essential reading for aspiring crones.

River Town

I raced through everything else Peter Hessler has written this year as well, and consider him my most reliable informant on China – Country Driving is especially awesome on the manufacturing towns – but River Town is the place to start. Hessler’s two years as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, on the Yangtze, sets the context and introduces some of the characters who will reappear in his other books. Peace Corps sounds like murder, by the way. In a good way. Sort of. My friend Fred and his wife Susan are in Armenia right now. Something to think about for my post-sprog, pre-crone years?

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Do you like yourself? Do you feel good about your place in the world? Mountains Beyond Mountains will fix that! I have an occasional series on my professional Twitterstream (yes, I have a professional Twitterstream, I told you my life was absurd) called Inspirational Badass of the Day. Farmer’s schtick is the preferential option for the poor – ie, that we should treat all human beings as if they are human, not just rich people. REVOLUTIONARY STUFF. Between the earthquake and cholera, Farmer – whose Partners In Health was the first medical organization on the ground in Port au Prince – has amply earned his title of Inspirational Badass of the Year. He’s kind of an asshole, and a wiseass, too: one of his books on institutional poverty and the collusion of Western powers is called The Uses of Haiti. I love him. Go give some money to PIH. God knows they could use it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

OH HOLY FUCK this book made me sob like a little kid. Gender, race, cancer, grief, Big Science, poverty, families, the reporter’s responsibility to the truth, our responsibility to each other. My America, in all its fucked-up glory, from Wired to The Wire.

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

My America’s dark mirror. Progressives who suggest that there is nothing to choose between America and North Korea (yes, such people exist) find themselves on my shit list in short order. The USA is unquestionably fucked up, but there is no possible excuse for ignorance of conditions in North Korea. If you think you’re a hero of the resistance because you launched a DDoS attack on Mastercard? You really need to swallow your fucking ego and study some survivor testimony. Just sayin.

Nuclear Rites

What a surprise and pleasure this book was! Exemplary, imaginative anthropology field-work in the early nineties in Livermore. The nuclear test as a rite of passage for nuclear scientists. An anti-nuke activist turns himself INSIDE OUT trying to understand his own dark mirror. In my opinion this is what our great big monkey brains are FOR.

Songs of the Gorilla Nation

The much better neuro-atypical memoir about animal behaviour; also magnificently insightful on sex work, orientation, gender identity and parenthood.

The Language of Blood

The book that had me sitting at my favourite table in Atlas Cafe, waiting for my mechanics to finish an oil change, with tears running unchecked down my face, crying my guts out for a South Korean housewife I never met.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

I really am a death-obsessed little crypto-Goth, no? I can’t believe it took me this long when everyone I know adores Mary Roach. With good reason, as it transpires! Her little asides crack my shit up. Funniest book about human remains since The American Way of Death and The Loved One.

Winter Season

Department of Redundancy Department! See also Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, for the gymnastics and figure skating side of the All Beauty Is A Tool Of The Patriarchy story. Oh, young girls and your aspirations! Like Chum in shark-infested water! Christ.

riding lessons for the earthbound

Today we will learn about feel. This is another important skill in riding that I have been wrong about all my life. Turns out it’s not about keeping your hands still relative to the horse’s withers. It’s about keeping your hands still relative to the horse’s mouth.

Play along at home! You will need:

  • 1 seven-year-old girl with long hair, or similar

If you don’t have a seven-year-old girl, find your most over-scheduled and under-slept friend and borrow theirs.

Now, take your seven-year-old girl. Pick up a strand of hair from each side of her head. The strand should be about the thickness of a rein (that’s 15mm for civilized people, five-eighths of an inch for Americans.)

Ask your seven-year-old girl to throw her head about like a cantering pony.

You need to maintain the exact same gentle, consistent pressure on her hair. Too loose and the pony will run away with you. Too tight and the pony will get angry and buck you off (and your seven-year-old girl will speak sharply to you, or cry.)

You may notice that this is impossible, and requires precognition! Keep working on it. I am.

optimal husband speaks

Jeremy: “Obama will have betrayed us all if he doesn’t declare a National Day of Mourning for Delicious.

moral guidance

God-daddy G: “i don’t know why she needs a godfather when she already gets advice like “there has to be a way to overthrow the plutocracy without being a horrible rapey douchebag”. You HAVE TO LEAVE ME SOME WISDOM SPACE!”


optimal husband

like magic

Turns out I’ve been riding turns on the haunches wrong, all my life. You don’t halt, like you do for a turn on the forehand. You walk into it, open the inside rein, apply the leg aids, and Bella rocks back onto her hocks and does almost a half-pirouette. And then, when you are trying to ride a square corner at the trot, you try the same thing, and it works even better than a pure half-halt for getting her soft and collected. And then you try it at the canter, straight after and then straight before a pole on the ground, and athletic sweet pretty willing Bella is suddenly uphill and light as a feather in hand and turning on a dime, and you’re grinning so hard it hurts.

hey nonny nonny

Optimal Husband has hit the big Four Oh! (Don’t mention the four. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.)

Our marriage remains nerdcore. He remains Optimal.

nerdcore marriage on oprah

Me to Jeremy: And then she climbed the Harbour Bridge and laid a clutch of giant glowing green eggs.

J: Did she.

Me: Read it on Twitter. Must be true.

J: I never thought of Oprah having an ovipositor, but it makes sense.

Me: It totally makes sense!

J: You’ve got an ovipositor! You’ve got an ovipositor!


the literature of envy

While I quite liked all three books, I think it’s symptomatic of the pathology of the modern West that the protagonists of Franzen’s Freedom, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Lipsyte’s The Ask are all sad white men who orbit the uberrich like anxious and stupid moths. And they are all subjected to ritual humiliation, lovingly detailed. And did I mention that they are all transparent authorial stand-ins?

Ah, Bush’s America. Zombie Bush’s America, in fact, in which Cheney has a Cylon heart and the rest of us have a Democratic administration and everything’s getting worse, especially if you were shortsighted enough to be born in Iraq or Afghanistan. (What were you thinking?) People, by which I suppose I mean novelists, are very open about their envy these days. They document the dewy features and lithe musculature of the wealthy. They specify the exact brand of luxury crap they wish they could afford. (William Gibson’s especially ridiculous in this regard, but I’m letting him off because I have finally realized that he’s a comedian. Also he offers a vision of what an alternative life might be like, which none of the others do.) In Zombie Bush’s America there is endless shame in not being rich (for very large values of rich, note well; mere upper-middle-class-ness is the most shameful condition of all, HOW CAN I SHOW MY FACE) and no shame in admitting how abjectly ashamed you are. Quite the reverse. It’s as if Jane Austen approved of Lady Catherine de Burgh.

Of course the most revolting thing about this whole queasy ritual is that if the writer abases himself disgustingly enough, the amused uberrich will anoint him (yes, always a him) and he’ll get to be superrich himself. I’m going to be a prescriptive little bitch here and say that writers should not aspire to the condition of plutocrats; not because I hold writers to higher standards (ha!), but because NO ONE SHOULD.

how nerdcore marriages work

Julia is emerging as a systems thinker.

“Daddy, how does [x] work?” she is wont to exclaim.

“Daddy, how do brains work?”

“Daddy, how do TVs work?”

“Daddy, how do nerves work?”

“Daddy, how does a computer work?”

“Daddy, how do eyes work?”

Me: “Eyes?”

Julia, scornful: “I ASKED DADDY.”

oh, and

Winter Season has SO MUCH good stuff about gender as performance, a performance whose terms are set and whose execution is judged by the patriarchy and whose effect is to force women to compete for crumbs. So much! But I shall confine myself to quoting this bit:

About money: I really think we are the most ignorant paid people on earth. I’m sure we are constantly cheated and never complain. We are not trained to think financially. Money is only to pay for the apartment, to buy a fur coat and ballet clothes… When we have a need, we write a check. It’s the only way we know. All our excess money goes on clothes and bodily adornments. We live to adorn ourselves.

Oh and this bit:

My mother worries incessantly that I’m doing the wrong thing. Only those stage-door mothers who themselves dreamed of dancing professionally could forever continue to encourage their teary-eyed, injured, overworked little girls. Recently the mother of a young girl who was auditioning for the school took one look at the bleeding feet and gossiping children and ran out of the building with her daughter in tow. When I have a daughter, I too will keep her clear of competitive ballet schools.

nina, pretty ballerina

I read Toni Bentley’s Winter Season on the advice of Lazy, Self-Indulgent Book Reviews, a Tumblr blog that basically makes me redundant as a human being (she has an unfinished novel in a drawer, an Appendix QH mare called Bella, and she steals all my jokes about books and also is Canadian which is like being Australian only credible.) ANYWAY. Winter Season was written exactly thirty years ago. John Lennon got shot. The Iranian hostages were released. Bentley was 22 years old and one of seventy women dancing with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet.

That was a great day, the day my future was decided. I probably had an ice cream. If I didn’t, I should have. I remember saying to myself, praying to myself, “If I can only get in, I’ll be happy, I’ll be satisfied. I’ll never ask for more.” I did not realize what a deeply sad day it actually was — the end of a dream and the beginning of reality.

I did ballet from age about five to twelve. I was dreadful at it. The girls love my stories about being the snowflake who always did the step half a beat behind all the other snowflakes (I was special and unique! and precociously offbeat!) My mother bit her tongue until I confessed that I hated it and she confessed that I was terrible and we all had a big laugh and I got to go and learn to ride horses instead. But the first school I went to was a Serious school. (Janice Green, its draconian head, is mysteriously unGoogleable now.) I was exposed to that world: sweaty tights and ballet shoes, itchy pink leotards, examiners flying out from the Royal Ballet. And the sneaking knowledge that no matter how hard I tried, I was always going to suck at this.

Bentley made it to the top seventy in the world, and no further. Can you imagine?! She watches from the wings as Suzanne Farrell and Darci Kistler dance. She is ravished by their art and knows she will never be as good. She worships Balanchine as a god (he was a god, actually, as much as any human can be: the god of 20th century ballet), and he passively-aggressively fights with the union in order to avoid paying his dancers a living wage. Bentley starves herself. Her feet bleed. She has a cat because dancers can’t talk to human beings. The ballet fans are boring and obsessive and the dancers have nothing in common with anyone else.

The book, in other words, is fantastic. No 22 year old should be allowed to write this well. There oughta be a law! If this insidery-gossipy thing is the kind of thing you’re into, you will also adore Altman’s perfect late film about the Joffrey Ballet, The Company. It obsessed toddler-Claire for months.

shit for cunts

(There, that should prevent any NetNannyed corporate types from reading my blog.) Jeremy claims “Shit for Cunts” was the original title of the (slightly disappointing) Banksy documentary, now (slightly disappointingly) titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” And indeed, I was attempting to gift shop when I asked a couple of Borders employees where their science section was.

Me “I looked near Social Science and Philosophy and even Religion, but I couldn’t find it.”

Borders dude: “It’s on the top floor, right over in the back corner.”

Me: “I see. You couldn’t find anywhere more out-of-the-way?”

Borders lady, condescendingly: “Ma’am, it’s a big store.”

Me: “Sure, but there are three shelves of astrology right here. I’m just sayin’.”

Borders dude, seriously: “I am very sorry.”

He was nice, but I left anyway, and ordered the books I wanted off the Green Apple site instead.

people pay me large sums for my clever, and yet

I just realized a bunch of my summery clothes weren’t in any of the places I thought they were.

I investigated further and found a bag I hadn’t unpacked since we came back from Oz Farm.

Ambition to become absent-minded in my old age: amply fulfilled!

liberty bell

Bella is a bad horse! (1)

Bella is a very bad horse! (2)

She teleported sideways last night – alarmed by antics on the sidelines, not actually her fault and if I’d had a better seat, I might have stayed on. As it was I ended up flat on my back, looking up at her forelegs as she twisted in midair to avoid landing on my face.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t frightened at the time, and am not frightened in retrospect. If I’ve fallen off Bella twice it’s because I ride her more, trust her more and push myself harder on her.

So I got back on! As they say! The rest of the lesson was fun.

(1) Bella is a good horse.

(2) Bella may be the best horse in the world. Research is ongoing.

i have some difficulty with authority

I had to go to the Department of Homeland Security to get a stamp in my passport. It was one of those bitter cold rainy days. The security guard wouldn’t let me in until the family ahead of me was through the metal detector; then when he did let me in, he and his colleague laughed about the family and ostentatiously sprayed air freshener where they had been.

I said nothing. I shrank into myself and didn’t make eye contact.

I remember when the DHS logo was introduced, so it still looks fictional to me:

It scares me all the same.

A week later we had a work meeting about our health care options. There’s a Bush-era plan that lets young, rich and healthy people opt out of the general pool of employees, thus lowering their own health care costs at everyone else’s expense.

I was listening to the agent explain the plan, but I was also listening to the Republican talking points he had complacently absorbed, very much against his own self-interest; and I was simultaneously translating those Republican talking points into my own Marxist deconstruction of them.

I’ve been doing this a lot lately. It’s exhausting and disturbing. I lost my temper and walked out.

My difficulty with authority is that the older I get and the more experience I have with it, the harder it is to ignore the essential violence of the plutocratic state.