Saturday, February 24, 2007

What I've Been Reading this week

This has been another pretty lousy couple weeks for reading -- I've been swamped at work, and actually having to bring work home (which I try to avoid). Plus, I've started to make friends here, so I've actually gone out and done stuff more. Not a bad reason to read a little less.

In any case, I finished that Sylvia Plath biography and I don't know what to say about it. I can't say I disliked it, but I still think that the author was seriously obsessed with Plath's sex life. I also feel like the book was far too much just a chronological list of every poem Plath every wrote and every date she ever went on. It also didn't feel very balanced -- it didn't have many quotes from other people or even from Plath herself, because the author didn't want to have to get approval from the Plath estate. It felt, I think, a little too soft. I dunno. I don't read many biographies.

The rest of the last couple weeks, I've really been just dabbling --reading a little bit of this book of poetry (Tony Hoagland, Mark Doty), a little bit of that guidebook to the Bay area, dipping into Plath's unabridged journals. Right now, I'm about 2/3 of the way through David Kamp's The United States of Arugula. Hopefully I'll have more to write about my reading next week.

Stranger in a Strange Land

It's amazing how foreign a place can seem even when it's a part of the same country you've lived in for your whole life. I mean, the people are more laid back and all, but it's really the landscape that's getting me right now.

Here's the thing: it's February. And it's spring. These two things simply don't go together in my mind.

I tried to deny it at first, telling myself that it was just a few rogue flowers that were coming out early. That even happens once in a while in bitter cold Michigan. But I can't deny it anymore. The world has burst into bloom around here, and it's absolutely gorgeous.

There is, of course, the usual spring assortment of daffodils and hyacinths and such. There are also these yellow trees that have just blown me away. It's like everywhere you go, there they are, spectacular balls of the brightest, sunniest yellow you can imagine. You can't even see that they have branches, the flowers are so thick. I've never seen anything like it. Spring trees everywhere else I've lived run more toward the pink-and-white spectrum. According to a former-arborist friend, the yellow trees are called Bailey's Acacia. I want to plant a whole grove of them outside my window, because every time I see one it makes me happy.

Of course, there are also various apple and cherry-looking trees in bloom. The apple blossom is Michigan's state flower, so I know those well. And Traverse City Michigan calls itself the cherry capitol of the world. I haven't gotten close enough to confirm what the blooms here are, but I'm pretty sure they fall into that family. I suppose some are probably plums, too. I don't think any of them are oranges or lemons -- I have seen trees citrus trees just full of fruit recently, so I suspect they bloom in the fall or something.

The wildlife is also a bit foreign to me. I mean, deer and squirrels look pretty much the same anywhere, and the mountain lion warning signs I saw while hiking last week didn't particularly faze me -- we have those where I hiked in northern MI as well. But Sea Lions? Just hanging out in the middle of tourist-central.? That's weird. And I'm dying to go see the whales and Tule Elk at Point Reyes (which I might do this weekend). Plus, tidepools!

The birds, though, are what I really don't recognize. I've seen a couple really gorgeous ones here on the ranch. Bright, bright colors (or swatches of color), no idea what they are. Even using my handy Audubon field guide to California, I haven’t been able to positively identify them.

One was absolutely brilliant blue, and sleek looking (so more like a robin’s feathers than a Bluejay’s) and a slim body. I suspect it was some kind of bluebird, but I don’t remember it having an orange belly like the bluebirds in my guidebook, and it seems like it was a bit sleeker.

The other is glossy black, also fairly slim, with one narrow swatch of brilliant red on each wing. Perhaps a redwinged blackbird? My guidebook says they actually have red and yellow, but these appeared to one have red.

And then last this gorgeous blush-colored bird. It looked kind of like a finch to me, a little bit chubby, only it was this pinkish-red all over and I've not seen a finch that looks like that before.

I think perhaps I need a better guidebook – this is one I bought for hiking when I was here on temporary assignment for a few weeks last fall. And it was good for that, since I didn’t know I would be moving here for good then and didn’t want to spend a lot of money, and also since I don’t like to carry too much with me when I’m hiking. But I think it suffers from trying to do too much – it includes everything from trees to snakes to fish to birds to flowers to furry creatures and so on. So in the end, nothing is covered in much depth. I’d love to have a more in-depth book each about birds, trees, and flowers, which are the things I mostly care about, anyhow.

And speaking of trees, I don’t know how I went 31 years without encountering Eucalyptuses (Eucalypti?). I mean, I know HOW, since they don’t grow in the east and all, but wish I hadn’t. They are quite lovely to look at, but even better, they smell great. I know people describe the smell as slightly medicinal, and that’s both right and so wrong, since medicine implies to me an overpowering generally icky smell. This is much more subtly – slightly minty and fresh and it just hangs in the air around the trees, especially when it's been raining. I noticed it a lot when I was hiking here this past fall, and now there’s this one place on my way home from work where I just want to slow down and open the windows to let the smell in. Fittingly enough, it’s the same place where my cell phone stops working, as if the Eucalyptus trees are marking some kind of boundary into the simpler, more nature-aware life I seem to be living since I moved here.

(although, it should be said, I've been told that the Eucalyptuses are actually a non-native species, introduced here by farmers as wind-breaks, and that they have crowded out some native species)

Anyway, I just got a new digital camera for my birthday, so I'm really and truly going to get pictures posted soon. Really.

Monday, February 12, 2007

This week's reading

This past week was a busy week at work, so I didn't get to do as much reading as usual. Here it is:

Kate Moses, Wintering -- The descriptions on the back cover annoyed the heck out of me. One reviewer says she's "never read a more womanly book." WTF does that even mean? Stupid reviews notwithstanding, I found this book to be quite lovely. It reminds me a bit of The Hours, basically doing for Plath's final days what Michael Cunningham did for Virginia Woolf's. I have never much liked Sylvia Plath's poetry, but I think that Moses does a really fabulous job of capturing the sadness and madness of Plath's final days, without over-sentimentalizing or hero-worshipping. Moses' imagery is really gorgeous, and I like the form of the book, which jumps back and forth in time (mimicking the lack of groundedness Plath herself must, like any seriously mentally ill person (or anyone, for that matter, whose marriage has just disintegrated), have felt in her final months. In fact, this book has piqued my curiousity about Sylvia Plath and led me to re-read The Bell Jar (which I like much more now than the first time I read it) and to dig into some Plath biographies.

Elisabeth Hyde The Abortionist's Daughter I'd heard some buzz here and there about this novel, so I picked it up and read the whole thing yesterday afternoon. It was a decent read, though a less substantial than I'd expected frome the buzz. Hyde's writing reminds me a bit of a less adept Jodi Picoult, and I wasn't all that surprised by the ending of the book (which is a mystery of sorts, in the same way Picoult's books are).

Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar The first time I read this book, I didn't much like it. Looking back, I think I was just too young for it (perhaps in 8th or 9th grade). I hadn't experienced enough sadness and strife in my own life to really connect with the characters' experiences in any personal way. Much the same thing happened with me with Catcher in the Rye, which is now one of my all-time favorite books, and I'm glad to be giving this book a second try as well. I'm only about halfway through, so we'll see what I think when I finish it.

Paul Alexander Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath I'm about halfway through this biography, which just happened to be the first one that came in through interlibrary loan. I don't know if it's the "best" one out there, but I'm enjoying it so far. I have to say, though, I think Alexander is a bit too obsessed with Plath's dating life for his own good. I swear, he lists out every single date Plath ever went on in the book, by name, to no good end that I can see. It's totally ridiculous. Anyway, I'll update on the book when I finish.

That's it for reading this week. On a completely unrelated note, there is a lavender convertible parked outside my office today. LAVENDER. And sort of metallic. It looks like something Prince would drive.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Stand By

It's been a busy busy busy week, so all the lovely posts that I've created in my head have unfortunately gone un-posted. It's finally Saturday, but I must clean my house this morning. We've had a lot of rain this week (and I'm a messy cook), so the floors are filthy.

In any case, here's a quick tidbit from life on the ranch:

Did you know that baby sheep are born with long furry tails? They're very cute, actually.

Here's a link: The top sheep on the left is the kind we have (don't their heads look like fuzzy white yodas?)

Unfortunately, as you'll see from the link, the lambs don't get to keep their cute tails -- they're "docked" to keep the sheep cleaner and prevent disease. This grosses me a out a bit. Especially now that I've learned that they do it is by tying a rubber band around the tail tightly enough that it atrophies and falls off. Yuck.

Hope no one was eating while they read this!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

What I've been reading 1/28/07 to 2/3/07

This past week was a good reading week. I read one novel that is definitely in my top 5 for the year and a couple others that were quite good, plus some new poetry and a short book of non-fiction.

Kate Mosse Labyrinth

I got this book through, recommended for people who enjoyed the Davinci Code and The Historian. While I didn’t fall in love with either of those books, I did find them both to be enjoyable. The DaVinci Code offered an afternoon’s worth of mindless diversion while I was flying somewhere that I now can’t remember. The Historian started off incredibly strong for me, then faded a bit as I went along, but I was glad I read it. So, anyhow, BzzAgent sent me my copy of Labyrinth and I read it right away. It didn’t grab me at first, but it did pique my interest more as it went along. In particular, I ended up really liking the two main female characters, Alice and Alais, both strong, intelligent women, and fairly compelling. The storyline, not as much. It was a bit convoluted for my taste – too many characters in too many different places and time periods. Actually, I guess that makes the title of the book pretty apt, huh; the book itself felt labyrinthine. Overall, I’d give it a B- or C+. I don’t feel like I wasted my time reading it, but it also won’t be making my favorites list. I am going to recommend it to my mom and sister, though. I think it’s more up their alley than mine.

Gail Tsukiyama The Samurai’s Garden

This book definitely ranks in the top 5 books I’ve read in the past year, and it was the perfect antidote to the overly convoluted Labyrinth. I picked it up off the shelves at work (have I mentioned that I love love love working for a company where I’m surrounded by books and book lovers?), though I’m not quite sure why it caught my eye. I’d never heard of the author before, and the book isn’t especially flashy on the outside. In any case, I’m very glad I did read it. Tsukiyama creates this world that is somehow incredibly lush but incredibly simple at the same time. There are really only 3 main characters, and not that big of a supporting “cast” either. Tsukiyama writes in this way that I can only describe as peaceful. Her language and images are quite lovely and reading this book made me feel incredibly calm and quiet and satisfied, like I’d just taken an especially relaxing yoga class.

Mary Lawson Crow Lake

Another one from the shelves at work. Very enjoyable, though I felt it was a bit heavy-handed in the foreshadowing department. Lawson spent most of the book hinting at this big, secret tragedy that ended up being presented in a rather anti-climactic way when it was finally revealed. I also was a bit irritated by being completely unable to place the book in time – the main character felt quiet contemporary, and was only meant to be 20-something, but the world of her childhood really felt like it was meant to have been 50 or 60 years ago. What I did love, though, was the sections of the book that were about the main character as a child. Lawson does a great job capturing that childhood naiveté toward the adult world, knowing that something is going on, but not really understanding what that something is. Plus, I love that the main character is this incredibly intellectual woman, who is so brilliant about the natural world but so un-brilliant about the relationships around her. I like that the book doesn’t slip into that “emotional women/distant men” thing that’s so cliché.

Tony Hoagland What Narcissism Means to Me

This is a book of poetry I ordered from Amazon after I heard one of his poems on an NPR podcast. I absolutely adored the poem from the podcast, and the book is good, but as a whole it didn’t quite live up to the poem. What I like about Hoagland is his sense of humor and the ordinariness of his subjects. He reminds me of Billy Collins in that way, except Hoagland is, even more than Collins, totally a creature of contemporary pop culture. He’s good, though. Recommended. Here’s a link to the poem I heard that led me to buy this book. It's called "A Color of the Sky"

Elizabeth Soutter Schwarzer Motherhood is Not For Wimps

Schwarzer writes a blog with the same name as this book (, which has me in fits and giggles pretty much every time I read it, so I ordered her book at the same time I got the Hoagland. As I expected, it made me laugh till I almost cried in places. I think I still like her blog better, perhaps because it’s more “right now.” I think Schwarzer's writing has also gotten better over the years, and everything in the book is from a couple years ago. In any case, I’m going to send this book off to a friend who just had her first baby – hopefully she’ll get a kick out of it.

Katharine McMahon The Alchemists Daughter

Picked up this one on sale at Target, out of their “Bookmarked” rack. They had a buy two get one free thing going on (I also got Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle and Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle, both of which I read last week). I think Target actually does quite a nice job selecting books for Bookmarked. Once you get past the inevitable chick lit crap, a lot of the fiction I’ve picked up there has turned out to be quite enjoyable, if not super-intellectual. This book was no different. I’m not usually a big historical fiction fan, because I often feel like the history somehow overrides character and plot development that has real depth to it. This book avoided that trap pretty well, though it did totally have the “gorgeous asshole husband sleeping with the wife’s maid” cliché. Actually, the book made me mad when I first started reading it. I was so pissed that the author had made the main character, Emilie, so naïve as to fall for that guy. It was so obvious, in some ways. Despite that, though, I ultimately got into the book, gained some respect for Emilie, and whipped through the whole thing in one day. I found myself hoping for a neat happy ending, and I didn’t quite get it. It was happy enough, though, and I liked that. Also, McMahon surprised me sometimes with these lovely turns of phrase that just came out of nowhere The book's upstairs and I don't feel like going after it, but I'll try to add a couple quotes later.

This afternoon, in between grocery shopping, house-cleaning, and getting to feed the sheep grain right from my hand, I started reading Wintering by Kate Moses. So far, it is quiet and lovely and sad and it’s making me long for something that I can’t quite identify. I’ll report on it once I’ve finished.