31 July 2012

Are ALL Americans at risk of hoarding?

A while back I read A Perfect Mess, making me feel okay about disarray - it's productive and a sign of a my active, creative mind!  Yeah!

Last week I read E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley.  Oh boy, not the same good feeling.

Doctorow's Homer and Langley Collyer live in a brownstone on 5th Avenue.  Homer is blind, and later deaf, and Langley is a World War I veteran, injured by mustard gas.  He is well enough to care for Homer, but becomes a severe hoarder.  Over decades, the large, multistory home becomes a labyrinth of "stuff" with only narrow pathways.  The windows are shuttered, and all but a single door is blocked. They meet with a very sad end. One day in the 1970s the hoard topples on Langley, crushing him to death, and miserably, Homer, now quite old, blind, deaf, and trapped in the house, cries out in vain for Langley....

Public safety workers removed 140 tons of
stuff from the Collyer Mansion.
Homer & Langley is in the 1st person, purportedly a letter by Homer to a mysterious "Jacqueline" (you learn who she is toward the end).  It's a bit rambling but very believable, and tragic.  It wasn't Doctorow talking, it was Homer. 

Doctorow's Collyers are fictionalized, but the Collyer brothers were real.  They lived at 5th & 128th, and their hoard killed them in 1947.  It took weeks to clear away enough stuff to find both bodies.  They had amassed 140 tons of "collected items." I've heard that in the 1950s if your kids had a messy bedroom, you'd tell 'em that they were going to turn into the "Collyers."

I have a bizarre interest in hoarding.  Or maybe I have a fear of it.  I'm not alone, because there are television series that focus on hoarding (TLC seems obsessed with them).  Clean Sweep puts kind of a funny, quirky spin on hoarding.  Although there are very often tears involved in the cleaning-out process, the subjects always get a big, lavish home makeover.  And they all live happily ever after.  Hoarding: Buried Alive is a lot grittier, following individuals whose homes are truly dangerous, who can't use their kitchens, or their bathrooms. Who are often in rough shape financially, in poor health, and terribly isolated from their family & friends. These are people who need a lot more than a professional organizer; they need loving support from family, a clinician on site during the big "clean-out," as well as significant mental health treatment ("after care").  Even What Not to Wear gets in on the gamePart of the schtick is a segment in which Stacy & Clinton discard every single piece of (often junky) clothing that their victim subject owns so the lucky lady can go out and buy... OTHER clothes.

Just last week Time reviewed a book by UCLA researchers, exploring just how much STUFF Americans have: Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.  Even Yankee Magazine ran a recent how-to article: "Hide Living Room Clutter".  Not "reduce" it... "hide" it.  What is wrong with us?  When a true-blue YANKEE has a problem with clutter, what have we become?  We buy too much stuff, for ourselves, and our kids, we're given "free" stuff all the time (go to just about any public event and you'll get a promotional travel mug, pen, frisbee, flash drive, reusable shopping bag, t-shirt...) According to Time, "The UCLA researchers say  accumulating bigger piles of stuff may in fact decrease happiness and increase stress."
Did you know: there's even a subset of hoarding called bibliomania?  Not to be confused with bibliophilia, the LOVE of books.  However, bibliophiles are very often avid book collectors.  Where is the line between -philia and -mania?

Do you ever fret about having too much stuff?  How do you feel about it?

24 July 2012

The Name of the Wind

Now and then I get on a kick to re-approach a project in a VERY orderly fashion.  (I think that was my original intent with my "shelf project" - but then I just went offline with that.... don't worry, it ain't over 'til it's over.)

Feeling kind of ho-hum about The Shelf, I decided to sort my GoodReads "to-read" list by rating stars...  not a bad way to go, right?  I want other readers' suggestions!

Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind has a HUGE rating from tens of thousands of GoodReads members - something like 4.5 stars (out of a possible 5) putting it in the Top 10 on my "to-read" list. I ordered it from Interlibrary Loan (words cannot express how much I love this free service).  It arrived last week.  Phat.... I mean, FAT, man.  For real - this book is 650 pages long.  But so many people rave at how great it is!  I dive in.

It took me just a week to read it, the story carried me along, and I would lose track of time into the wee hours.

Here's my way-too-brief summary:
Set in a pre-industrial pseudo-European fantasy world à la Middle Earth, Kvothe (pronouned "Quoth") is a masterful lute player and the uber-brilliant, pre-adolescent member of a family of respected travelling troubadours.  An itinerant magician (or "arcanist") joins the group, taking Kvothe under his wing, teaching him rudamentary magic and inspiring him to go to "University" for further magical training.  But suddenly, the troupe meets a vicious, violent end, and the boy is entirely alone, left to fend for himself in a ragamuffin urban adolescence so unhappy, Dickens' Oliver Twist is positively JOYOUS in comparison.  After about 150 pages of that misery (and reasonable success as a pickpocket), the boy leaves the city intent on University.  Surpassing all odds, he gets in.  On scholarship.

Bullies abound, Kvothe is often broke or deeply indebted, he pines for a girl, he sings for his supper, he slays monstrous beasts, he survives agonizing physical brutalities (muggings, whippings, accidents, he nearly dies of exposure, suffocation, falls, fires... and on and on).  And so many minor characters.  If you read it, keep a list for yourself... I had a hard time keeping everyone straight.

photo courtesy "HarshLight" on Flickr

It's a little bit "Harry Potter's Hogwart's: The Undergrad Years" - they go out to the bars, see "bands," get hammered.  Rich kids snub the kids on "financial aid." There's work-study, dorms & dining halls.... and hooking up.  Yet Hogwart's has genuine charm, warmth, and is breathtakingly magical, with loving, loyal friends and sensible, kind faculty - whereas University feels like a cold, cruel and dangerous version of Oxford.  But hey, college is more rigorous than high school....

I liked it, but I would have loved The Name of the Wind if I read it in my late teens-early 20s.  It came out in 2007, right about the time that many core Harry Potter fans were entering college.  How perfect!  But sadly, even though it's an engaging story, it made me feel a bit old and grumpy.  Stuff & bother.  Bah, humbug!

My local library has Book Two (Two? Why is 650 pages not long enough to tell a story anymore?  You don't have to write Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu to be great.... brevity is the soul of wit).  I glanced at The Wise Man's Fear the other day.  It is 1,100 PAGES LONG.  Eek - too much, even for me.  I'll wait for the movie!

20 July 2012

The Age of Miracles

I like post-apocalyptic fiction.  In theory.

Photo courtesy chudo.sveta, Flickr Creative Commons.
A few weeks ago I heard Karen Thompson Walker interviewed on NPR about her debut novel, The Age of Miracles, in which the Earth’s rotation progressively slows.  Little do we realize that all life is dependent on that consistent 24-hour day.  At 26 hours it’s disruptive but not awful; at 46 hours, it’s quite a lot worse.  When the day is 60 hours long… and longer… it is toxic to all life on Earth.  The light is toxic, and so is the darkness. 

In coastal California, Julia is 11.  She's a lonely, kind of unpopular, upper-middle-class sixth grader, complete with the fickle girlfriends, the boy you’re too shy to talk to, life on the bus, the soccer field, the school commons. Even as the world is ending, Julia frets about bras, makeup, kissing, parties.  Her parents' fraying marriage, her aging grandfather. 
I read Miracles in less than 24 hours, and when I finished it around midnight last night – I was rattled.  I was afraid of the dark.

Since reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road several years ago, I can’t help comparing every other piece of post-apocalyptic fiction against it.  It is one of the best - and most terrifying - books I’ve ever read.  I chose not to see the movie. 

We live in a tenuous peace.  When society fractures, then crumbles, the most cruel and powerful men quickly gain the upper hand.  I believe McCarthy’s pessimistic scenario is the most likely one.

Conversely, Walker’s "Slow Earth" doesn’t seem nearly chaotic enough.  There are a handful of people who panic, others who high-tail it for the wilderness, but for the most part, life continues almost as usual.  As normal as possible, for as long as possible.

Julia's life is simply very safe; she is genuinely insulated from the chaos unfolding elsewhere because her family is "comfortable." Her parents (a doctor & a teacher) can stockpile nutritious food, buy a custom greenhouse complete with growlights, sheathe their home in steel to protect from solar radiation.  They are never threatened by crime. 

And then the narrative ends, before things get that bad.  Maybe mass human extinction was too gruesome for Walker (or maybe she's hoping NOT to freak out younger readers).

Would MY family be able to survive The Slowing? Wouldn't we all like to believe that we could? 

In the beginning we’d get along better than many others.  We’re frugal and creative.  But we're on the grid, and these systems are fragile.  Water, electricity, natural gas and communications would founder much sooner in reality than they do in The Age of Miracles.  Public safety, healthcare, and food would be scarce and costly.  A black market would develop.  There would be MUCH more violence and unrest than in Miracles.  People would become desperate very quickly - the television series The Colony illustrates this very well.  And didn't we see a glimpse of it during New York City Blackout of 1977 (massive looting and destruction)? Or during Katrina?

In a deteriorating economy, only the very rich, with liquid wealth or tradeable goods, would be able to transform their home into the necessary fortress.  The sad truth is that we would be vulnerable.  Not totally unprepared or helpless, but not rich enough to build a bunker.  A few assets that we wouldn't have enough firepower to protect.  How long could we really hope to stave off fearless, desperate marauders?

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a significant part of 20th & 21st century literature, and I’ve read a considerable number included on the GoodReads list.   The Age of Miracles, a much softer version of the end of the world, is enough to give me the willies.  But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to read more. 

Remember, the Mayan Apocalypse is coming!  Only 153 shopping days until December 20, 2012!

16 July 2012

The Big Read

Creating a nation of readers
The Big Read has announced their 2012-2013 grantees and the list of books for this year’s national reading project.  This is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts “designed to restore reading to the center of American culture.” Launched in 2004, it's a response to a precipitous decline in reading across America, especially "among the young" (I'm not sure if that means school-age or under-40).  Anyway, I do like the idea of a short list of books being read concurrently by thousands (millions?) of people all over the United States in a given year (besides The Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Gray).

I’m a little bit sad that not a single Maine library or institution is listed among the grantees this year, although in the last go-round Island Readers & Writers in Bar Harbor was a granted participant.  Hearty congratulations to our neighbors to the west, because Concord's Center for the Book at the New Hampshire State Library DID receive a grant!

Even without an official grant, we can all enjoy the list of suggested books.  Perfect for helping a book group choose their next book, or even for me to add to my own list.

Coming up later this week: I am just pages away from finishing Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind.  I’m so overtired because the book is about 650 pages and I’ve been reading into the wee hours (I lose track of time).  Stay tuned….

10 July 2012

Grammar Rant #1

Got Gotye?  Got him stuck in your head?  Think he's amazing?  Somebody thinks he could do better on his grammar:

Grammarly.com looks like a great service (if you worry about your proofing), but their Facebook page is a riot.  At least for grammar/spelling geeks like me.  I'll re-post some of their fun stuff from time to time.

Gotye, I love you, really I do, even if you've twisted fine-and-dandy "Gauthier" into a weird post-Modern spelling in the mistaken belief that we poor American sots would never pronounce it correctly. But I'm over your angst-y, mournful song.  Put on some clothes and release something else!  Making Mirrors is full of great tracks!

05 July 2012

The closest thing to experiencing another life...

Last month I discussed that readers of fiction have better social skills, because it strengthens "our ability to interpret and respond to those different from us."  These are two books that I appreciate, but situations which I'm grateful I will not experience: the antebellum South, and the segregationist South.

Octavia E. Butler's Kindred has been on my shelf for five or six years. I really loved Parable of the Sower, but until now, I hadn't read Kindred because the premise seemed, well, wacky: Dana, a black woman in 1976 Los Angeles, is ripped back in time to 1815 Maryland, saving the life (repeatedly) of Rufus Weylin, her white, slaveholding ancestor.  Kindred is hard to categorize, sometimes classified as African-American literature or sci fi.  Butler herself calls it "grim fantasy." 

Involuntary time-travel aside, the most terrifying part was the horror of being trapped in a society where you have no personal agency whatsoever.  Dana has no written proof of being a free black woman, so she falls into the default category of "slave." Her power in the past stems from her mysterious arrivals and disappearances, making the Weylin family fear her (although not enough; she is savagely beaten on more than one occasion), her knowledge of 20th century first aid (making the Weylins regard her as a healer), and that periodically, her 20th-century white husband is pulled back in time with her (where he pretends to "own" her, giving her a tiny bit of safety... but not much).  Rufus & Dana both distain and protect one another in an unsavory but mutual need for one another's existence. Kindred scratches the surface of revealing the terrible suffering endured by slaves.  Although it's an obscure book, it's also a vivid, award-winning classic of sci fi literature.

Onward to something a lot less obscure: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.  Now, I try very hard not to watch a movie-based-on-a-book unless I've read the book first.  Sometimes I make an exception, and sometimes I don't learn that it's based on a book until after I've seen the film (The Green Mile was an exception; The Reader and Revolutionary Road were, well, I have a girl-crush on Kate Winslet.  Rules be damned.)

When Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for her role as Minny Jackson, I was really bummin' that I hadn't shelled out for the book before Oscar season.  I kept looking for it "used," no dice.  But last week it was on the shelf at the library, so I scooped it up!  I read the book in just three days.

I LOVED The Help: the different narrative voices and their different perspectives on life, the solidarity among the black community, the nasty, mean white women, and Skeeter, the girl who is gawky, smart, and unpopular - and good, respectful, and brave.

Sadly, I think the black women in this novel have more in common with the black women in Kindred than they ought to, even though the story takes place more than 100 years later - this is the righteous outcry of the Civil Rights Era.  Even in 1962-64 Jackson, Mississippi, many black women are still trapped in servitude. Black men and women are the victims of violence, some of which we know about (Medgar Evers) most of which just went on, and never made "big news."  These women are victims of domestic abuse at home, and of their employers' lies at work, and especially of their employers' contempt.  It is an emotional book, but in the end, I felt a glimmer of hope for the characters whom I came to care about deeply.  They were brave enough to speak up, even anonymously, through Skeeter's book, and it gave them courage to take other steps to free themselves from various kinds of abuse & tyranny.

Some critics have said that The Help oversimplifies, even romanticizes the 1960s, particularly in regards to the way the maids care for and love the white children.  I disagree.  In the afterword, Stockett freely admits that a black woman who was "the help" at her house was someone who she loved & felt loved by, and this woman was a large part of the inspiration behind the novel.  Relationships are complex, and both Kindred and The Help explore this complexity.