Books by my bedside 2022/February

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Open copy of unusually wide but short hardcover book Anathema! Medieval scribes and the history of book curses

Autobiography of Janet Frame, To the Is-land (Volume 1) and An Angel at My Table (Volume 2)

Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses by Drogin, Marc

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by McWhorter, John

On Tyranny Graphic Edition: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Snyder, Timothy

Fiction

Young Adult

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Zoboi, Ibi

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, and a Very Strange Adventure by Evans, Lissa

New Kid by Craft, Jerry

Mystery/Thriller

The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway #1) by Griffiths, Elly

Maisie Dobbs mysteries The American Agent (#15) and To Die But Once (#14) by Winspear, Jacqueline

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia De Luce #8) by Bradley, Alan

Fantasy

A Darker Shade of Magic by Schwab, V.E.

Library paperbacks Darker Shade of Magic and Autobiography of Janet Frame stacked on bedside table with Kindle reader displaying Black Enough book cover

Reading Notes:

Making democracy great again: modern tyranny & WWII’s British endurance of the Blitz

Pardon me while I tie together my candy floss consumption of mystery novels (here, two of the more recent titles in the Maisie Dobbs series) with Snyder‘s On Tyranny. Ms. Winspear, Dobbs’ creator, has shepherded this particular character from the period just after The Great War to World War II and the Blitz. Invasions and bombings in the 1940’s segue tragically well to a slim, topical volume about tyranny released in 2021.

On Tyranny is the first “graphic novel” I’ve read that isn’t… um… a novel. I’d say “graphic non-fiction” would be a better if unwieldy label. These “twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century” present as a collection of illustrated brief essays.

There’s a whiff of Eric Hoffer‘s The True Believer to it.

Artist Nora Krug absolutely enhances Snyder’s message with her colorful yet slightly creepy style. I find such illustrations particularly haunting when a child-like medium communicates such portentous  messages.

Immersing myself in the fictional experience of Maisie Dobbs enduring the Blitz somehow prepared the fallow field of my mind for open conflict in Europe and the new Cold War dawning along with 2022. Perhaps oddly, I’m made hopeful by the reminder that our grandparents fought similar enemies—and won—in an earlier generation. This awareness sharpens my passion to work against fascism in every way I personally can.

The Maisie Dobbs stories—The American Agent in particular—draw in sharp relief that period when Great Britain stood alone against a fierce onslaught of illiberal governments on the continent. Personal sacrifices by individual English people were many, and the costs were high. It’s easy to forget that “America First” was a slogan used then by U.S. citizens who preferred to let the U.K. sink or swim under Hitler’s assaults alone.

Much of On Tyranny is difficult and distressing to read, but the author’s fundamental argument is against defeatist resignation and capitulation to lassitude. Snyder’s point is that we all must do our bit as citizens if we want to enjoy life in a free, democratic society.

I’m glad I requested this volume from the library when I did, because it was there on my shelf as my news feed filled with oligarchical Russian aggression against Ukrainian democracy.

I Buy Banned Books

Another graphic work I read this month—this one is actually a graphic novel!—was Jerry Craft’s New Kid. My thanks to the reactionary racist snowflake parents in Texas who tried to get it banned: I enjoyed it a lot. Any kid struggling to fit in as “the new kid” will identify with this protagonist. It would be the perfect gift for an artsy kid moving to a new neighborhood or school.

While I disagree totally with those who would ban Maus for children old enough to handle content as tough as genocide, I can at least understand why a depiction of nudity or inclusion of a few bad words frightens school board members in rural America.

This blog post considers a much more realistic reason McMinn County, Tennessee removed Maus from its Holocaust unit.

With New Kid, however? Frankly, unless you object to the very existence of brown people experiencing their own feelings in white spaces, there is nothing ban-worthy in the book. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, teach Critical Race Theory as some parent claimed in an article I read; CRT is never mentioned in the book, which mostly covers typical young teen “fitting in” anxieties at a new school.

New Kid does address how characters from different backgrounds respond to being a minority in a setting with a clear majority, it just does so by telling a normal kid’s story in a perfectly realistic way.

No conceptual legal framework required.

That book you can’t recall the title of…

Now I have to mention Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms. This is a bit of a younger kid’s book than most of the Young Adult stuff I’ve read lately. Why? Because it is a book my older teen read many years ago, then misplaced in our messy house, then couldn’t ever find again. He kept looking for it, though.

“What’s the name of that book…?”

It became one of his, “What’s the name of that book…?” novels.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms turned up way at the back of the bottom drawer of the younger sibling’s desk. Said sibling has never read the book so has perhaps just been hiding it like a wee punk these past few years. The desk in question was a mess of mighty proportions that got cleaned out during February school vacation week.

I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who does this “What’s the name of that book…?” thing. I’m a little sad that I’ve passed on my tendency to the habit to my eldest child.

Our best shared family example of this: The Valley of Secrets by Charmaine Hussey. My kid and I both found this story wildly unique and unforgettable, but neither author nor title sticks with us the way the moody atmosphere and lush descriptions did. We could both also ID it on the shelf by its distinctive leafy cover. Valley of Secrets will be appreciated by readers who relish a well-drawn world who can tolerate a slower pace to the “action” plot.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms is not, as my teen will tell you, “that Hugo Cabret book.”

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is the one about the kid living in the walls of the Paris train station. When my teen searched for Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms, people kept telling him he must be looking for Hugo Cabret.

There are, in fact, miraculous mechanisms—or, at least, magical ones—in this book about Horten, but, unlike Hugo, Horten himself is not the tinkerer-in-chief. Horten is a fairly average kid, kind of annoyed by his parents, and short for his age. He does move to a new to him town, discover an interesting family legacy that includes a bit of a treasure hunt, and meet new people. Some of those folks turn out to be friends, and others, foes.

Most of the magic in the novel is of the stage magician variety, but the story does dip into more mystical waters by the end.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms was a quick read for adult me, but I enjoyed it, devouring it in a single sitting on a snowy afternoon, and I’d say it scores relatively high on the freshness scale. It did not feel like all the other child–has-adventure novels I’ve read.

Anathema ain’t what it used to be

Merriam Webster definition of anathema, 2a, circled: a ban or curse solemnly pronounced by ecclesiastical authority and accompanied by excommunicationFinally, allow me to end with the delightfully specific Anathema!, a semi-scholarly history of the curses often penned into hand-written books by medieval scribes. Though seriously researched, I’d describe this book as more for fun than academic in tone. It’s also printed in an unusual short/wide format that made it feel rather special to read.

Crafting a book entirely by hand was a heck of a lot of work, of course, so the threat of excommunication—literal anathema—was deemed a reasonable one against any who might dare to deface or steal a precious tome inked by a scrivener.

Interestingly, book curses continued to be included in early printed volumes as well, even after the printing press made production somewhat less tedious.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Anathema! is its concluding observation that the librarian no longer has quite so much to hold over the head of his or her wayward reader now that the average person doesn’t literally fear the fires of hell.

Quote from Anathema (book curse history) describing the lack of fear curses now incite, and ending with modern library threat that merely "a fine of 5 cents per day will be charged"

Drogin ends the book with these lovely lines:

“Where once echoed the fury of God now lies an insipid whimper:

A fine of 5¢ per day will be charged…”

Can I call Krug’s work “Beavis & Butthead in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine” without giving a negative impression? I’d advise you to read the graphic edition of On Tyranny—or peruse the illustrator’s website—to judge for yourself if you’re baffled by my attempt to use my words to describe her pictures.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a multi-volume memoir that depicts the experiences of the author’s own family during the Holocaust. Spiegelman draws Jews as cartoon mice, Nazis as cats, Polish people as pigs, and Americans as dogs in the work. A school district in Tennessee removed the book from its eighth grade history curriculum purportedly due to one instance of cartoon “female nudity” and a handful of curse words.Detail from page 100 of Maus graphic novel of a palm-sized illustration that vaguely shows a female breast on a suicide victim

The nudity in question is a top-down view of bare breasts on a woman dead in a bathtub. It cannot by any stretch be viewed as erotic. The rough language in Maus doesn’t hold a candle to the obscenity which was Nazi behavior during the Holocaust.

I own a two volume, boxed Pantheon set of Maus I & II printed in 1986. My kid who home schools has Maus on his reading list.

Sending “filthy” photos to my kids when their chores demand attention

My kids have chores. They are both old enough now to lend a hand that’s actually useful. They ought to be able—and feel obligated—to assist in the smooth running of our household.

And, for the most part, they do. With some nagging required, absolutely, but they are good kids and reasonably helpful.Boy holding stick vacuum as if cleaning the floor

I’ve posted before about the best option I’ve found for keeping the kids on track with relatively less nagging: a chore checklist. Where I used to have one master list for the whole family, the enforced togetherness of the pandemic—and our loss of our usual paid help for the heavy cleaning—has prompted me to print a separate list for each kid, and even a new list* to remind my husband of the jobs I need him to cover.

For your reading pleasure, here are copies of my teen’s daily chore list and the middle schooler’s version. By all means, use them to prove to your own kids that they are not, in fact, the only children forced to help out around the house. Or, if your kids work much harder than mine, please let me know in the comments so I can educate my own wee punks the next time they complain about sweeping the kitchen.

And speaking of crumbs…

Visible dirt, crumbs and spills on white tile floorAm I the only mom in America whose family seems oblivious to visible schmutz on the floor?

If you peeked at the chore chart PDFs, you may have noticed that both kids are assigned to sweeping the kitchen tile once per day, and that it’s a totally separate job from plain old vacuuming which is also meant to include the kitchen. This isn’t because my standards are all that high; it reflects the reality that the dust bunnies threaten to outweigh we mere humans on a regular basis.

NZ Brush Co bannister brush used for sweeping up kitchen crumbsThe floors really are pretty filthy in spite of all of these assignments and my own quick swipes with broom, brush, or hand vac a few times each day. This fact leads inexorably to my new habit of sending the kids “filthy” photos via text message with disturbing regularity. Here are a few examples:

There’s hardwood with dust bunnies

dust, hair, and an old price tag on hardwood floor near chair leg

Corners with cobwebs very tricky to photograph spider silk, by the way

Cobweb formed in corner near door jamb over tile floor

And the supposedly “dusted” windowsill covered in not just pollen, but also an unused alcohol wipe still in its package that left a visible outline when shifted! Can that even be a mere week’s accumulation?Topical wipe covered in pollen on pollen-coated windowsill near outline from the shifted packet

I’ll spare you the picture of the toilet visibly in need of scrubbing. Even the teen objected to that disturbing image, asking me if sending it was really necessary.

“Do your chores,” I replied. “Believe me, I wish I hadn’t had to see it either!”

The word "dust" scraped onto a dusty black surfacePerhaps it is an extreme reaction on my part. Should I stop sending them the filthy photos?

Then again, here’s a squeaky clean picture that still led to nagging:

Bright blue plastic USB drive housing in pile of suds viewed through washing machine door

That turquoise blue plastic visible in the suds inside my washing machine is a thumb drive someone forgot to remove from his pocket before dumping clothes in the laundry.

Not sure that’s what’s scrubbing your files is supposed to look like…

A persistent, unequal distribution of household labor has pounded the mental and physical health of mothers during the COVID pandemic. The demands I place on my kids to shoulder their share of the load are my reaction to that. I think it is a rational one.

Sometimes, I give in to the urge to take over a job myself, unable to stand literally! on that sticky spot on the tile any longer, but, mostly, I squawk at the kids instead. It’s for my own benefit, of course, but it’s for their own good, too. Children who pitch in at home are going to become more useful adults. Printed instructions titled Housework is Hard! describing how to wipe kitchen counters and clean the microwave

Perhaps these boys I’m raising will grow up to be more equitable partners to their own spouses someday. That’s my hope. For the time being, I will keep nagging, provide clear instructions on how tasks can be done effectively, and remind my kids that they are valuable, contributing members of our family and household.

I’ll probably keep doing that via lots of dirty pictures.

* My husband’s list is pretty short as he already works something-teen hours per day in his full time job while also running a side hustle as a self-employed scientific consultant. I do need his help with the physically demanding tasks, such as vacuuming multiple floors with the full-size machine. (The kids just use the lightweight Dyson hand vacuum which doesn’t have the same power to tackle the *sigh* wall-to-wall carpeting as our plugged in, full sized Miele canister vac.) I’m not quite ready to watch the boys bash the woodwork with the machine, either.

DH’s new list does also include the task I need help with most: reminding the kids to do their own damn chores before he gives in to all of their demands for attention and snacks in the evening! It’s only fair that Dad take on his share of the nagging duties, though he’s better at science than he is at disciplining his own children.

For anyone who’d like to piggy-back on my step-by-step approach to getting effective assistance from older kids who might do a job half-heartedly without definitive instructions, here are links to PDF documents describing How to Clean the Microwave OvenHow to Wipe Clean the Kitchen Counter, and How to Clean the Bathroom. Inflict them on your own hapless helpers with my blessing!

Kitchen compost bucket solutions to tame the sticky stink

I’ll have to begin with the bad news: if you fail to take your compost out, eventually, there will be odors. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Fundamentally, we’re talking about the process of decay by which food scraps become nourishment for future cycles of growth. It’s all good, but you’ll notice there’s goo in good

Biology gets sticky and stinky. Mathematicians know it.food in kitchen compost pail including gummy bears, coffee grounds, oatmeal, and seeds

Having accepted that taking out the compost is at least as important as removing household trash, here are my simple ideas for a less messy, less smelly, less likely to leak composting experience.

I recommend:

  • an 8-10 quart food storage container with tight fitting lid
  • 4 gallon compostable liners for the kitchen compost pail
  • a household paper shredder
  • scrap paper and cardboard shipping boxes destined for recycling
  • 13 gallon compostable liners for the curbside bin

Snapware food storage bin and lid lined with UNNI compostable bag with cardboard

Continue reading

Vote your conscience, by mail or in person

In another one of life’s little ironies, the pandemic brought me around full circle to voting by mail this year.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the first state that made all voting into mail in voting. I cast my first ballot as an 18 year old college student via the U.S. Postal service from a few thousand miles away from home.Official Election Mail trademark authorized by US Postal Service

Voting exclusively by mail in my home state was contentious for a few years in the 1990’s, but voters overwhelmingly informed the legislature that they preferred the privacy and convenience of casting ballots remotely as of 1998.

Oh, yeah, and my birth state routinely gets double the turnout* for primaries and other less sexy elections, so enfranchisement is definitely a thing. To be clear, every type of individual achieved greater representation via mail in voting in Oregon. People of different ages, political affiliations, races, etc., all saw higher turnout in my state, and fraud has never been a significant issue.

As an Independent voter who eschews the false polarity of the American political parties, I believe in enabling the enfranchisement of every eligible citizen. When anyone acts to suppress another’s vote, I assume that group lacks natural authority or the right to wield power.

Mail in ballot envelope labeled State Election Ballot EnclosedToday, I dropped my completed ballot—and those of my spouse, mother-in-law, and father-in-law—into an official drop box outside our town’s City Hall.

I sent an email first to confirm that it was okay to submit a ballot on behalf of a family member! This year would be a terrible one in which to make a foolish logistical mistake that invalidates one’s ballot.

Turning in my envelope reminded me of how, the first time I voted, it felt a bit like I was missing something by not setting foot in a polling place. Having voted in person for a couple of decades now, I particularly missed receiving my “I Voted” sticker.I voted Election sticker - 1According to the Boston Globe, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I will trade the fleeting pleasure of a celebratory sticker for the enduring satisfaction of taking part in a democratic election, however. I’m exceedingly grateful that I live in a state where everyone is entitled to the peace of mind granted by access to absentee ballots in the midst of a worldwide health emergency.

I voted early in hopes of alleviating congestion at the polls on election day. I voted early because there are no close races on my ballot that require further study or reflection. Now, I will hope and pray that every citizen of age in America will be given his or her own opportunity to do the same thing, and to vote his or her conscience.

Here are two great things I’ve learned about as I’ve read up on the current election:

  1. In my state of residence, I can track my absentee (mail in) ballot online. Check your state’s web site or this CNET article and see how you can do the same where you live.
  2. Teens can pre-register to vote in many states as early as age 16. By doing so, they are less likely to forget this important civic duty in the run up to an election at a busy time of life, like being away at college for the first time.

Screen shot of ballot tracking page from state web site showing state electionYour opinions matter. Your vote counts. Exercise your right to be heard!

God bless America.

USA flag - 1

* Compared to states using more traditional, in person polling places, according to this OPB article. You can see for yourself at Ballotpedia that Oregon has exceeded average voter turnout in every election since 2002.

According to the comments, however, a lot of Massholes think my feelings are stupid!

When a teen sews on his missing button…

There’s something thrilling about being the parent of a teen. You remember when this full-fledged person was just an idea, then a helpless infant, progressing on to an imperious little child full of ambitions frustrated at every turn.

Then, suddenly—and nothing makes 18 years feel more like “suddenly” than parenthood!—you sit across the breakfast table from a competent, capable, amazingly functional human being.

It boggles the mind.

And yet, even the most extraordinary teen remains not quite completely mature.

I give you one result of my teen replacing his own missing button on a favorite pair of trousers.

Dozens of buttons strewn across wood floor

The child has gone to sea, and the mother finds this mess on the living room floor!

The heap is not even at his own desk, or piled on the dining table perhaps. No, my kid decided this spot smack dab in front of a door was the ideal place to dump out a quart sized Ziploc bag full of loose buttons.

Ahem.

The kid will be in a hurry to attend his advanced math class upon his return from the seaside, so there’s no chance the mess will be tidied away in a timely fashion. I could clean it up myself, but let’s pretend its a parenting high horse and not my physical limitations or sheer housewifely laziness that renders that option unpalatable.

I suppose I will look back on this incident with nostalgia in a few years when my “baby” has moved out on his own. Here’s hoping the buttons are put away by then. In my house, that’s not such a sure thing…

Literally! He’s bobbing in the ocean as I type this. He went to the beach for kayaking with his dad before his online math class begins in the early evening.