The New Kitten!

Kittens at the ARL

Kittens at the ARL

We went to the Animal Rescue League.

There are hundreds of cats pictured at the ARL website.  Naturally, I wanted to adopt them all:  Snickers, Ruffles, Ariel, Jasmine, Emma, Marley, Squeaks, Bella, Minnie, Ginger, Tippie, and the rest.

My husband was not interested in the new cat, so he sat in the ARL lobby, working on some papers.  “You’re getting a kitten, right?” He thinks it is easier to introduce kittens into a multi-cat household.

I wandered around the cat condos, peering into rooms full of cats, in love with all the cats: an adult tuxedo who sat on the floor with his nose to the glass, a gray kitten, a white kitten, a calico cat, a tabby, an orange cat…

The “hugs rooms” were full, so they told me I had to wait.  Well, I know how it is.  Potential adopters play with the cats, “trying them out,” sometimes for 20 minutes or so.

Me,  I never met a cat I didn’t bond with, so I didn’t need a hugs room.  I barged into a room full of cats and kittens in cages.  The sign said STAFF ONLY, but frankly I am a bit aggressive from my days as a freelance writer.  I once sidled into a room where Joyce Carol Oates was giving a reading, ignoring the usher who said it was full.  (I even found a chair.)

Fortunately, a middle-aged woman understood I couldn’t sit around all day.  She started taking kittens out of the crates, and at one point I was holding two black kittens.

“Oh, they’re both so sweet.”

“Two for $125,” she begged me.

“Oh, I’d love to, but my husband…”

He loves our cats, but doesn’t want too many.

Anyway, we adopted Polly, a skinny, lively black kitten.  She came home, popped out of her box, and immediately made herself at home.  “Wow, am I glad to be out of that cage!” she seemed to say.  We tried to keep her isolated awhile, as they suggest you do, but after 12 hours she ran out and made herself a member of the cat family.

She has spent some time in every room in the house.  She emerged from the basement with cobwebs on her face.  “Did you go to the cobweb store?”  I crooned as I washed her.

“Polly went to the cobweb store!” we say frequently.

She is curled up purring on my chest right now, and is interested in jumping on the keyboard, so I’ll say good-bye.

Our new camera isn’t compatible with my computer, so I can’t post pictures, but I think you can picture her.

P.S.   The ARL has a lovely TLC foster program, to “provide an interim in-home environment for pets who need special attention or a break from the shelter environment.”

If I lived alone, I would be a cat woman.  A friend lives with nine coddled, well-cared-for cats in an enormous three-bedroom apartment furnished with Adirondack chairs with cushions.  The idea is they can’t rip up the furniture.

Another friend used to have what I call a “cat house.”  Yes, she lived in one house, and worked in another house, where she also kept homeless cats.  It was a very peaceful place.  No idea how many cats she had.  Twenty?  It was very tidy and neat, not one of those houses on the news.

Well, our house isn’t big enough for that, but we are definitely cat people.

Have a great weekend!

Prizes, Literary Awards, etc.

Everyone in our family wins prizes.

There are prizes for everything.

There is best pie.  (I didn’t win that one.)

There are cross-country ski prizes.  (I didn’t win those.)

There are P.R. prizes.  (I did win one of those, though I don’t consider myself particularly adept at it.)

The only monetary prize I ever won was the Latin Prize in college.  I got $25, “enough for a bag of groceries,” as the chair of the department optimistically announced.

Mostly at our house we’ve won prizes for work.

Somewhere in boxes, I have several plaques and framed certificates.   I’m honored to have won them, but honestly?  One was a state award I can’t remember the name of.  The notification didn’t come until after the awards luncheon.

Once I was even a judge for a prize.  Let’s just call it Best Cake, though it wasn’t for a cake.  I took it very seriously, and suggested the prize should go to a superb baker I genuinely thought had made the best cake.   Everybody on the committee was  surprised I hadn’t nominated one of my friends.

“That’s conflict of interest,” I said.

Earnest, aren’t I?

I am fascinated by the big literary awards, especially the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, because I add the finalists and winner to my reading lists.

Before I began reading the Guardian and The Telegraph (is that “O frabjous day!” or “Oh woe!”?), my faith in the integrity of literary judges was unshakable.  Perhaps the witty opening chapter of Margaret Drabble’s novel, The Sea Lady, reinforced my conviction that awards had meaning. The heroine, Ailsa, a science book prize judge, is very pleased that her silver sequined mermaid-style dress complements the theme of the award-winning  book (it’s about fish).  But then she wonders,

Would it be suspected that she, as chair of the judges for the shortlist, had favoured a winner to match her sequined gown, and had pressed it for its triumph?  Surely not.  For although she was derided in sections of the press as an ardent self-publicist, she was also known to be incorruptible.  The sea-green, silvery, incorruptible Ailsa.  And her fellow-judges were not of a calibre to submit to bullying or manipulation.

Drabble served as a judge for the Aventis Science Book Prize in 2003.  She has, however, her doubts about the Booker Prize.  When a reporter at The Telegraph in 2011 asked about her never winning the Booker, she said,

“That’s because I won’t allow my books to be entered for it. The Booker is designed to make people cross with one another. Look what it did to Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. In the mid-eighties, I thought it was getting out of hand and how right I was. That was before my sister won [for Possession in 1990].”

James Wood, the very intellectual critic for The New Yorker, begins an article on James Kelman (in the Aug. 25  issue ) by chatting about his experience as a Booker judge in 1994, the year the prize went to James Kelman for How Late It Was, How Late.

He writes:

The decision was contentious. For most of us judges, the prize gave recognition to a significant and consistently challenging writer, whose experiments with vernacular speech and internal monologue had produced some of the most stubbornly interesting work in recent British fiction. To others on the panel, his novel was monotonous, unpunctuated, and foulmouthed. (“Every other word is ‘fuck’ ” was the usual reproach.) One of the judges marched out of the room, promising to denounce the decision to the media.

I loved James Kelman’s book.

There are so many stories about literary judge squabbles.

In the U.S. there seems to be less interest in literary prizes than in the UK. No bets, as far as I know. The nominees and winners are announced, but that’s about it.  I do know one wicked Pulitzer Prize story.  In 2012, the  board refused to award the prize for fiction:  the fiction jury had nominated David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Now what was that about?

Who didn’t like whom?

Hmm.

On the contrary, I haven’t heard much gossip about The National Book Awards, which are the closest thing to the Booker in the U.S.  (Do they run a tighter ship?)  In  2011, there was a mistake:   Lauren Myracle was phoned to say her book Shine was nominated for best Y.A. novel for the National Book Award.  It turned out the nominee was Franny Billingsley, author of Chime.

Oh dear.

Many of us–most of us?–are earnest, sincere, politically unaware readers who want the prizes to be just what they are–prizes.

More about books and less about the judges!

And here’s an R.E.M. song, nothing about prizes, but just because I haven’t posted an R.E.M. video in a while.  Enjoy!

Branch Library Bingo: Delia Ephron’s Sister Mother Husband Dog etc.

Delia Ephron

Delia Ephron

It must occasionally be difficult to be an Ephron.

There are four sisters: Nora, Delia, Amy, and Hallie.

Being a sibling is arduous, but throw stardom into the equation and you’ve got sister trouble.

Well, maybe a little.

The late Nora Ephron, author of a collection of columns about women, Crazy Salad, and the humor books I Feel Bad about My Neck and I Remember Nothing, was also a famous screenwriter and director.  My favorites of her movies are Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, both of which she co-wrote with Delia.   (Bet you didn’t know that.)

Delia, Amy, and Hallie are talented writers in their own right.

I found the “other” Ephrons through what I call “Branch Library Bingo.”  Although I buy most of my books (and remind me to stop doing that), there are some books I find through serendipity at the library.  I love Amy Ephron’s novels, and a few years ago I enjoyed her collection of essays, Loose Diamonds . . . and Other Things I’ve Lost (and Found) along the Way.

And I recently read Delia Ephron’s book of witty, gracefully-written essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.), just out in paperback.

If you like Helene Hanff’s books, you might very well enjoy Delia Ephron’s latest. Although Delia is plugged in to sisterhood, Hollywood, and New York, she is also bookish.

In “Collaboration,” Delia’s brilliant essay on co-writing screenplays with Nora, she says You’ve Got Mail was an especially good match for them.

We set it in the world of books.  We both loved books, had grown up in a house where books were worshipped.  In 1996, which this was, big chain stores were putting independent booksellers out of business, which was not only personally upsetting but gave us a perfect plot for the most important romantic comedy element:  Why can’t two people be together?  In this case, he was putting her out of business.  (How quickly things change–now Amazon is destroying the chains and the independents are staging a comeback.)  We both loved children’s books.  That’s why Meg Ryan/Kathleen Kelly has a children’s bookstore.  We set the movie on the Upper West Side of New York City, where we were both then living, in the same building as a matter of fact.  To collaborate, we had only to cross a courtyard.  Also we were both crazy about The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 movie on which You’ve Got Mail was based.

sister-mother-husband-dog1 delia ephronAs a movie-goer I have never considered the difficulties of screenwriting, but Delia’s description of the process is fascinating.  She and Nora took turns at the screen.  Sometimes Delia sent Nora off to make one of her excellent sandwiches, because Nora tended to look over Delia’s shoulder, and once said “No” after two words (or perhaps it was two syllables:  I can’t find the passage).  They emailed the final product to each other at the end of the day.

Delia and her sisters grew up in Hollywood, the daughters of famous screenwriters, Henry and Phoebe Ephron.  Both parents were alcoholics.  In her moving essay, “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother, ” Delia explains what it was like to have a mother with a career who at night turned into Hyde (of Jekyll and Hyde) and drank and fought with her husband.

At 14, Delia came home from school every day and read and watched TV in the sunroom.  Once her mother stood on the top of the steps to the sunroom and said, “I hope you never tell anyone what happens here.” Delia had no idea what she meant.  The fights?

Delia and Amy sometimes diluted the liquor to attempt to control their parents.

Delia writes,

“During the day things were fairly normal.  They got tense around dinnertime, sixish, when the first glasses of Scotch on the rocks were poured.  I was always trying to read the signs, the looks between them, jerky movements.  Were they angry?  What was coming?   Would tonight be one of those nights?  Should I finish my homework just in case?  (I was very responsible, as children of alcoholics often are.)

Delia’s essays on family life are insightful and unsentimental.  In the opening essay, “Losing Nora,” Delia meditates on her relationship with Nora and her death.  During Nora’s hospitalization for leukemia, they co-wrote a TV pilot. They were very close, yet there were the inevitable sister glitches:  Nora gave wonderful gifts, but sometimes returned Delia’s gifts to the store.  Once Delia bought a backpack purse for Nora, and then bought it herself after Nora returned it.

One of the most difficult things about the death of a famous person, she says, is that everyone thinks he or she owns that death.   Strangers commiserate with Delia, and then she must console them.

There is so much artificial intimacy these days, it’s not surprising there is postmortem intimacy.  The ubiquitous Facebook–full of real friends and fake friends.  All that thumbs up–it’s as if one is living in a perpetual cheering squad.

Some of the essays are humorous.  I loved “If My Dad Could Tweet”:  her father died in 1992, but she says he was “an uproar man” who would have been keen on tweeting.   He telephoned her at all hours of the day and night to gossip.  Once he called to say Nora had won the Pulitzer, and then he hung up.  (He got it wrong.)  She says that “mostly he was into bragging.”

In one of my favorite essays, “Upgrade Hell,” she writes about upgrades of Microsoft Word, iPhones, etc.,  that seldom improve life.  We’ve all been through it.

Delia Ephron’s writing is  clear and plain, and there are many outright brilliant passages.  I’m adding this to my Best of the Year sidebar.  By the way, she is also a novelist.

I was at my branch library yesterday.  It is the Amy and Hallie Ephron branch.  Delia and Nora are downtown…

Tim Winton’s Eyrie

Eyrie tim WintonI have immersed myself in contemporary fiction this month.

I’m obviously not a Man Booker Prize judge, and haven’t had to read 150 books, but I’ve gallivanted through several contemporary novels in an attempt to reconnect with the culture.  (I decided at some point that MasterChef and Dancing with the Stars were not enough.)

The Australian writer Tim Winton’s new novel, Eyrie, is a literary page-turner.  From the beginning, his spare, tough prose swept me away.  The hero, Tom Keely, an environmentalist activist,  has been unemployed for a year, his reputation slashed by a powerful politician.  The divorced, impoverished Keely  has moved from a lovely middle-class house to a hideous highrise.  Though we hear about his fury over the impact of the mining industry and his concern for endangered  birds, we don’t learn much about his former high-profile work.  That’s because he has fallen several class es, despite his mother’s attempts to help him.  Nowadays Keely drinks, does drugs, and blacks out.

And then he meets Gemma, a middle-aged woman he knew as a child, who, it turns out, is his neighbor.  Winton’s description of her is merciless and stark, though Keely finds her sexy.

The woman snorted and fished for something in her bag.  She’d been pretty once.  In her denim skirt and sleeveless top she seemed puffy, almost bruised.  Her dirty-blonde hair was dry and she had the kippered complexion of the lifelong smoker, but any man would still look twice.

Through narrative and dialogue, Winton evokes a vivid picture of Gemma, who, it soon becomes clear,  lives just barely on the right side of the law.  She is only a few steps above hooking.

In ’71, Keely’s mother and father, devout Christian converts, took care of Gemma and her sister during a rough period in their childhood.  Gemma has had a rough life: her daughter is in prison for drugs, her son-in-law is a crazed junkie, and she takes care of her six-year-old grandchild, Kai, a solemn boy with terrifying dreams.

Keely, who undoubtedly should have had children, becomes involved especially with Kai.  On nights when Kai is frightened to be alone when Gemma goes to work, Keely baby-sits.  This grim child loves to play Scrabble, but draws terrifying pictures and is clearly disturbed.

The book is not all about Keely’s downward fall, though.  Winton’s description of Fremantle, an unglamorous city near Perth, fascinates me.  I love city neighborhoods.

Even in small things Keely lives on the edge.  Instead of walking to a tourist neighborhood for good coffee, he goes to Bub’s, a small greasy neighborhood cafe where I for one would never drink the coffee.  Bub is kind, but not too personal, and gives him drinks for his hangovers.  Bub knows who Kelly is, but never mentions the past.

Bub never mentioned his public blow-up.  He had the discretion or perhaps the indifference of a bloke who’d torched a few bridges himself.  Today he seemed particularly harassed.  The Sunday crowd required a different level of energy–a lot of fluffy milk to make, for one–and he looked short-handed

When Keely takes a job there as a dishwasher at Bub’s, we really know he’s going down.  The trouble is that he chooses it.

This grim book takes a grimmer turn as we see Keely, who is in many ways a lost soul, determined to save Gemma and Kai, and squandering his own last chances.  This is a road we hate to see anyone go down.

Usually you try to get the hell out of these neighborhoods if you’re someone like Keely.

Sad, chilling, and very well-written.

Winton, an Australian writer, has won a number of awards.  He won the Miles Franklin Award four times for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1992), Dirt Music (2002) and Breath (2009). He  been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize, first in 1995 for The Riders and thenin 2002 for Dirt Music.  And, indeed, I’m surprised Eyrie didn’t make the longlist this year, but then I’ve read none of the contenders except  Karn Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Mainstream publishers, at least in the U.S.,  seldom publish novels about environmental issues, and certainly not about activists who take one misstep and get blasted.

If I were on the Man Booker Panel, I’d have pushed Eyrie for the longlist.

I will be writing about more new books very soon, so brace yourself.

Sauce Fest ’14 and the Tomato Time Machine

tomatoes-01We’re  up to our elbows in spaghetti sauce.

Tomatoes are boiling and brewing.

There are fewer than usual in the garden this year.

Poor garden.  I don’t know what happened. Nothing grew except kale.  I can’t even find the basil.

My husband says it’s because of the garage (smashed in a storm when a tree fell) and various sports injuries.  We didn’t tend the garden.

But my cousin and I celebrate Sauce Fest, the making of a year’s worth of spaghetti sauce, every August regardless. We make enough sauce to last a year and freeze it in quart containers.

Sauce Fest is kind of a girl thing.  We listen to old music and gossip.  It’s also left over from my “freak” past.  I have fond memories of making gallons of spaghetti sauce with a roommate while Blind Faith blasted on the stereo and flies flew in the back door, because we kept it open.   (One morning we found a possum in the kitchen eating cat food. Eeeeeekkkkk!)

My cousin and I always plan the music in advance for Sauce Fest. This year we are listening to Procul Harum, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix.   And after we watched a video of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (see below) during a break, we wished to God we had lived in London in the ’60s.

If we could get in a time machine, we’d wear mod clothes like Julie Christie’s, get our hair done at Vidal Sassoon (wasn’t that a salon?), go to rock concerts, hang out at bookstores, get books signed by Margaret Drabble and Kingsley Amis, and attend the Aldermaston Marches (anti-nuclear weapons).  We’d support ourselves by  freelancing rock criticism (sounds unlikely, but remember, we’re young and mod in the time machine) and fluffy ’60s ‘life-style pieces to the hometown newsaper, or why not the New York Times.   I mean we’re incredibly well connected…

Anyway, back to Sauce Fest.

There’s nothing much to making tomato sauce.  Drop tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, then plunge them into cold water and peel the skins. Sautée onions and garlic, then add chopped tomatoes, a generous dollop of red wine, one or two teaspoons of oregano, and a pinch of salt. Thicken with tomato paste.

We try different recipes, and it always turns out fine.

One of the highlights of the Fest is also the Tomato Trivia Tournament.  We each make up five tomato trivia questions.  As you can imagine, it’s hard even to come up with five.  I use the same ones every year.

Here are two classics.

“What’s ‘You like tomatoes, and I like tomahtoes.'”

“A Gershwin song, ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.'”

“What book with tomatoes in the title is set partly in a cafe in Whistle Stop?”

Fried Green Tomatoes?”

“That’s the movie title.  The book title is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

The last batch sauce is almost done, and my husband is the only one eating spaghetti for dinner.   My cousin and I are having ice cream.

It’ll be a while before I can eat a tomato.

And here’s the Procul Harum video.

More Summer Reading: Jill Tweedie’s Internal Affairs

I broke my resolution to read only contemporary writers in Auguast.  Don’t get me wrong:  I have spent hours in the world of Haruki Murukami’s bizarre philosophical science fiction novel, 1Q84; I have enjoyed the musings of the solitary writer heroine of Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down; have gotten to know the colorful residents of an assisted living facility in McCorkle’s Life After Life; and enjoyed a wild Latin teacher’s confessions in Robert Hellenga’s The Confessions of Frances Godwin.

Jill Tweedie Internal AffairsAll of these novels are excellent.  But an out-of-print twentieth century novel, Jill Tweedie’s Internal Affairs (1986), is one of the bolder, funnier books I’ve read this summer, perfect for a day when it’s 100 in the shade.  (We’ve had a few of these.)

Tweedie, a novelist and a columnist for The Guardian, died in 1993.  Her books are out of print.  I picked up a copy of this in London at Skoob.

Internal Affairs is a very funny satire about Western intervention in birth control in a Third World Country dictatorship.

My politics as a pro-Choice activist don’t quite match Tweedy’s heroine’s, and yet this book is so funny and well-crafted that I loved it.

Charlotte, the heroine, is an overweight, divorced, depressed abortion counselor.  She longs for a child, and let’s just say an abortion clinic is the wrong place for her to work. When she was pregnant, her husband insisted that she have an abortion, and afterwards they got divorced.  Charlotte has a drab life, and she does not enjoy the talk around the Water Cooler about their clients’ sexual antics, though the story of an addled woman who put her Dutch cap up her anus makes her wonder whether her ex could perform in that position..

Charlotte briefly dissuades one of her clients, Mrs. Waterman, from having an abortion. When Mrs. Waterman returns with a black eye and a changed mind, Charlotte tries to suggest alternatives.

“Couldn’t you manage by yourself?”

“No, I bleeding well couldn’t.”  Mrs. Waterman’s voice rose.  “I’ve got no training and there’s no jobs.  Tell you what, though.  I could  do yours.  How much do they pay you?”

Soon we are out of the dreary clinic.  Charlotte has an assignment to travel to tropical Sulanasia, a Third World dictatorship, in order to evaluate a birth control programme sponsored by the World Campaign for Small, Healthy, and Wealthy Families.  Sulanasia is so tropically hot that Charlotte fears shey’ll get “third-degree burns” from the car seat.   Miss Millichip, a translator, takes her to meet various bureaucrats who lecture straight from their brochures.  People even sing folk songs about birth control.

Oddly, it is not women, but men, who save Charlotte from Miss Millichip and help her see the real Sulanasia.  Kelly, an Australian photographer, takes her under his wing and tells her that she needs salt tablets when her fingers and ankles swell.  He also  introduces her to local restaurants and hotels.

Tweedie provides the sensory details that make us feel that we’re in the fictitious Sulanasia.

They caught one of the bedizened buses and rattled at breakneck speed through the neon lights of the town, Kelly bent nearly double under the hot tin roof, Charlotte squashed against a band of piratical Sulunasian youths, their foreheads brilliantly banded, their denims steel-studded.  She breathed in lungfuls of toxic fumes that magically cleared her muzzy head.  The pot-holes bashed at the floor of the bus, sending her reeling between warm body walls and unhitching her hair so that it fell down her back.  When she got out, running with sweat and half-crushed, she was laughing.

Now if only there were chickens on the bus, I’d have had the exact same experience as Charlotte (only in another Third World country).

But can Charlotte really see what’s going on in this foreign country?  Everyone in Sulanasia seems to be in the government’s pay.  Gradually her translator, Harry, becomes a close friend, and Kelly helps her understand that the birth control program is all about the money.

This is an upbeat comedy, reminiscent of Waugh’s Scoop.  Very, very funny and well-written.