littlest gets the keys to the castle, uh-gain

We read to know we’re not alone.

~ William Nicholson, Shadowlands

Yesterday littlest love and I ventured out into a light rainfall for books and Betty’s Burgers.  I know.  What a perfect thing to do on a rainy Friday afternoon, right?  Well, when we get to the children’s section of our local independent bookstore, she notices a slim tall glass case with heaps of special books inside, books she loves like the hardbound collector’s editions from the fictitious Dr. Ernest Drake, renowned 19th century dragonologist.  These are beautiful oversized, jewel-encrusted books with pages of detailed “scholarly” notes, unearthed diaries and handwritten letters tucked into wax-sealed envelopes.  Pencil drawings and laboratory specimens like dragon scales and gilded unicorn hairs.  Imagine flipping through Professor Indiana Jones’ archeological notebooks and you’ve got the idea.  I have absolutely no clue what the books are about, but they are beautiful to look at and exquisite fun for imaginative children.

Littlest wants to see one of the books in the case, but there’s a notice taped to the glass that says, please ask a clerk for assistance.  So I send her off to ask the schlumpy shaggy man behind the information desk.  He’s casually talking to a woman with long silver hair in stretch pants and flip flops who looks as if she’s stopping by to say hello on her way to yoga or the organic farm.  I catch myself caught up in a Portlandia tableau as they both pause from their peaceful tête à tête to look down at her and smile.  The clerk moves out from behind the counter but continues to stretch his conversation with the woman into a reluctant schlumpy goodbye all while following littlest over to the case where he perfunctorily opens the door, takes the treasure out, and places it into her hands.  I’m caught up in this tranquil exchange, the gentle couple, the ease with which he moved from the desk to the cabinet and without any effort or even a glance helps my littlest love, when just like that!  Just as he turns to shuffle back toward his information desk a woman swoops down from out of nowhere and snatches up the book!  It was the clerk who caught me cheating!  It was HER!  Oh, no!  I thought.  What did we do now?  I’m here to buy books from you, the independent bookseller.  I promise!  No more Amazon.  Well this lady, she’s very calm and without a trace of humor, and people like that, you know, they scare me.  Sure, she has gobs of book recommendations, but all that thinking and judging going on underneath that center-parted mop of gray-brown curls.  Behind the blank stare.  We’re screwed.  She now has the treasure and looks down and says to littlest in a condescending voice, You know, these books are VERY special.  They’re collector’s items and not for looking at in the store.  People who buy them want them to be in perfect condition, so I will hold it for you and show you some of the pages.  Would you like that [little girl]?  Bwah Ha Ha Ha.  I knew in an instant, this was going to be good.

photo 3The book was called Monsterology and contains “scholarly” research on mythical creatures.  The persnickety clerk begins to flip a few pages for littlest, who starts in on her gently by recognizing just one or two of the so-called monsters.  Oh, is that a Kraken? she demurs.  The clerk needs to look and read a few lines before nodding her head.  Ooh, the Chimera . . . and look, littlest says pointing to another page, there’s a Hippogriff.  I watch the clerk take in littlest’s slight size and ask her what grade she’s in.  They chat about dragons a bit, and I can suddenly feel the molecules quicken between them as the clerk decides to walk us over to some dragon books she thinks littlest might like reading, but unfortunately she’s read them already.  With marked determination, the clerk adjusts her tact and heads for another shelf, maybe you’d be interested in this book?  It’s a slim illustrated anthology of Greek myths.   Well, littlest says trying not to hurt her feelings, we’re actually reading The Odyssey right now.

I could be dramatic and say the edges of the room blurred.  The din of the bookshop fell silent.  A beam of angelic light burst forth from the heavens and danced on their faces.  But they just stood facing each other there in the aisle surrounded on three sides by walls of books.  With all hint of condescension removed the clerk asks her, and what translation are you reading?  Robert Fagles, I offer from a few steps back, feeling a little self-conscious but loving it all.  Oh, that’s a good one.  I usually recommend the Fitzgerald for young readers, but Fagles is very good.  She pushes me aside with a returned gaze to littlest and asks her, how do you like the language in Fagles?  “I think it’s really poetic,” she says.  Now I’m starting to get used to what happens next, but it never ceases to make me smile.  The clerk takes the Monsterology book she had been keeping in her hands and says to her, I think you understand how truly special this book is.  I’m going to let you take it and look at it.  I think there’s an open bench over there under the window, and when you’re done if you decide you don’t want to buy it, just bring it back to me.


Immortals are never alien to one another.
~ Homer, The Odyssey

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seeking human kindness

People are overwhelmingly trustworthy and generous.  ~ Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

holding-handsSo as I mentioned in a recent post, littlest love and I have been reading The Odyssey together.  (Her idea, I swear!)  As much as this is an epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ adventures on his return home to his family in Ithaca, it is also a story of its people and their culture–the palpable interconnectedness between them and the divine, their sense of fate, destiny, their own humility and their obligation to honor one another with kindness and hospitality.  Part of the joy of any story is that imaginative act of being transported–and we are loving journeying through this mythical land of kings and goddesses, gilded palaces and warm Aegean breezes.  Homer’s seductive Dawn, with her rose-red fingers . . . .

So we’ve finally reached Book 4–the last chapter of Telemachus’ journey–and littlest has been attentively listening each night as Telemachus travels from one kingdom to the next in search of news of his father.  She loves the interplay between Athena and the mortals and I suspect enjoys imagining her in disguise among the courtly atmosphere.  And perhaps she’s even enjoying the language and the other-worldliness as much as I am.  The way Telemachus is cared for and welcomed. The way his hosts greet him with wide open arms and offer him seats of honor at their tables, the best cuts of meat, their finest wines.  Why, he’s even bathed and anointed by his royal hosts’ most beautiful daughters–and they don’t even know who he is!  He’s an uninvited guest–a complete stranger–and even when wandering into an elaborate wedding feast, the hosts drop everything they are doing and rush to greet him and offer him hospitality.  Help yourselves to food, and welcome! says Menelaus.  Once you’ve dined we’ll ask you who you are.  Does that even happen anymore?!  I suspect if you crashed a wedding banquet in Beverly Hills today, you’d be swiftly escorted to the curb.  No Cristal and caviar for you, and certainly no hot oil rub downs so sorry Charley.  Buh bye.  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

We certainly have devolved into a culture that is immediately suspicious of strangers and selective with our generosity, haven’t we?  I don’t pretend to offer any theories but only know that, even though I like to think of myself as charitable and kind, I have grown hardened to that woman walking up and down the median with the sign reading Help! Need bus ticket home. Only $50 short.  I look in her eyes and see the dark circles of addiction.  A hooded sweatshirt covers her stringy hair, but I can tell she’s only about twenty years old.  A bus ticket my ass, I’m thinking.  And I can watch everyone else thinking the same thing, too, as they turn away from her.  We tell ourselves,  If I give her money, she’s going to spend it on drugs.  But as I type this right now I know that I should be more generous with her, that even if I gave her money and she did spend it on drugs, the gesture alone would extend some kindness to her.  And if enough people did that, maybe she’d grow more hopeful . . . .  But yet I never roll the window down.  She’ll just mock me and call me a sucker,  I tell myself as I pull out of the grocery store parking lot and head off to pick up my daughter from school, a brown paper bag in the backseat piled high with canned goods bound for the local food bank.  As I drive past women like her, I often wonder, if only she held an honest sign that read Forgotten: need drugs to numb the pain, anything helps, would I be more generous?

I think we are a suspicious cynical people when it comes to strangers, especially strangers that seem in the most need of our help.  We are selective and direct our acts of charity to known communities and organizations rather than to unfamiliar people, I think because we don’t want to feel cheated or duped or vulnerable.  Reading Homer with my littlest love is making me wonder if there isn’t some small way we can try to let go of some of that fear and be more hospitable, kind and generous.  To look at the Homeless Vet Needs Work sign and see instead, Lonely and Cast Aside.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Craigslist Joe, which was about this very notion of hospitality.  In the film, unemployed twentysomething Joe Garner decides to travel the country for a month with no money or car or cell phone contacts.  He vows only to use the internet swap meet site Craigslist to connect with people in hopes he will find work, food and shelter from the strangers he meets.  It’s a spiritual quest of sorts intended to test our capacity for kindness and generosity.  Now, Joe looks nothing like a wan-eyed meth addict.  There’s nothing counterculture about him–no tattoos, no piercings, no patchouli or dread locks.  He’s a clean, well-educated suburban kid with a cameraman in tow, not to mention a two-parent safety net and a living room full of friends to welcome him home after this experiment is over, so of course he’s not bound to draw suspicion on the road.  While this may be a small flaw in the film, I don’t think it detracts from his journey in any way because what you see much more than him are the strangers he meets.

His plan is simple:  he looks for community on Craigslist, and once he connects with a person or group, he asks for their hospitality.  He answers all kinds of ads–advertisements for free dance classes, calls for open mic comedians, requests for tutoring or soup kitchen volunteers.  He shows up and participates in the activity and then hopes he can find someone willing to put him up for the night and share a meal with him.  What you see in the film is stranger after stranger inviting him into their home.  He also uses Craigslist to locate drivers looking for travel companions, and these take him from LA to Portland and Seattle, across to Chicago and then on to New York, down through Florida and New Orleans, and then back to San Francisco, which I am sad to say is the only city that shut him down and forced him to sleep on the street.  In each of these other cities, he meets kind and generous people who shelter and feed him.

Are we at a place in our society with you know the technology of the internet and websites and human interaction where we can take care of each other? ~ Joe Garner

It’s a remarkable concept for a documentary, and as I watched the film, I was conscious of how each of his hosts seemed a little off the grid, some more so than others.  They were eccentric or lonely or cast aside in some way and perhaps in need of his companionship.  They were people I would be suspicious of–POWs as I have been known to call them– pieces of work I’d size up and dismiss as too much trouble.  But Craigslist Joe was forced to put his trust in them and opened himself up to their stories, and we see instead of their strangeness, their kindness and humor and generosity.

Some of their interactions were deeply moving.  In New York at Christmastime, Joe decides to begin placing his own ads for volunteers so that he can provide assistance to anyone who needs it, and one of the best portions of the film is a scene where he and another volunteer visit the home of a woman dying of cancer who posted an ad asking for help of any kind.  They have no idea what they have signed up for and arrive at her apartment ready for anything, only to discover she is not only suffering from cancer but is a mentally ill hoarder with quite a story to tell.  When you witness the kindness they show one another, it will remind you that these sorts of meaningful encounters can only happen if we put aside judgment and instead are open and trusting and generous with one another.  Because aren’t we all in some way, each of us, holding a sign that reads Seeking Human Kindness?

Craigslist JoeThis was by far and away the most inspiring experience of my life–the generosity of people–the stories they shared–the connections I made in one month were so deep . . . just meeting everyone and telling them my story and the journey–having people invite a complete stranger into their homes and feed me and invite me to go out–it was truly inspiring to know that we can take care of each other.  ~ Joe Garner AKA “Craigslist Joe”

 

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in a dark, dark wood (no spoilers)

darkwoodruthwareMy summer is now complete. One romance? Check! One thriller? Check!

I recently began this audiobook in a dark, dark wood by Ruth Ware and could not resume my life until I made it through the last two nail biting hours. I pulled into my driveway one evening, reluctant to shut the story off, and made my way through the close of the day, but first thing the next morning, I grabbed my cell phone and gripped my blankets until it was over, stopping only for a few minutes to pad into the kitchen for a coffee refill or, well, air. I needed air because this is the kind of story that’s hard to listen to by yourself. You want to grab someone’s wrist or scream en masse in a dark theater.  Aaaack!! There is someone in the house? THERE’S SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE!! Who IS it? Get out of there! What are you DOing? Ware skillfully, slowly builds tension and sustains the mystery right up until the last two chapters. And for someone who seems quite good at detective-ing, I did not figure this one out! I had my suspicions and enjoyed the detective game, but while some of my hunches proved true, most fundamentally did not. It was WONDERFUL! If you’re an Audible subscriber, I highly recommend this storyteller’s version as Imogen Church offers a chilling narration. She provides distinctive voices for all the characters, which again were skillfully done. I especially liked her Northumberland Nurse and plan to call all my best friends pet and duckie from now on. I’m not sure how the novel would read on the page, whether readers would get impatient with the protagonist’s amnesia or grow weary of the manic machinations of the “hen party” organizer, who like a plucky sorority girl pulls them reluctantly into all sorts of cringe-worthy bachelorette games, but the audio version is cake. Go get some!


 

In a Dark, Dark Wood, By Ruth Ware (hardcover 320 pp)

Who can I trust if I can’t even trust myself?

from IndieBound.org

What should be a cozy and fun-filled weekend deep in the English countryside takes a sinister turn in Ruth Ware’s suspenseful, compulsive, and darkly twisted psychological thriller.
Leonora, known to some as Lee and others as Nora, is a reclusive crime writer, unwilling to leave her “nest” of an apartment unless it is absolutely necessary. When a friend she hasn’t seen or spoken to in years unexpectedly invites Nora (“Lee””?”) to a weekend away in an eerie glass house deep in the English countryside, she reluctantly agrees to make the trip. Forty-eight hours later, she wakes up in a hospital bed injured but alive, with the knowledge that someone is dead. Wondering not “what happened?” but “what have I done?,” Nora (“Lee””?”) tries to piece together the events of the past weekend. Working to uncover secrets, reveal motives, and find answers, Nora (“Lee””?”) must revisit parts of herself that she would much rather leave buried where they belong: in the past.

from an NPR Interview with author, Ruth Ware

On the book’s geographic setting

It’s Northumberland, which is quite far north, so it’s a cold place to live and it’s quite an isolated place to live. You know, it’s not like America — there’s not, you know, huge swaths of wilderness. But you can definitely be a long way from civilization and a long way from help. And a big part of — which I think is one of my own phobias — a big part of the book is that they’re out of mobile contact. Their cellphones don’t work. So immediately they’re kind of in this isolated situation where they can’t get help even if they want to.

On the glass house where the bachelorette party takes place, and the constant feeling the guests have of being watched

I think it came from having watched a lot of movies as a kid. Things like, you know, the Scream movies where there are teens and people in an isolated location and the camera is the eyes of the killer. And very often you get those shots where the camera is circling the house looking in through the windows. And it’s incredibly creepy to be sort of outside looking in at people who are being watched unawares. And as I was watching, my instinct would always be: “Close the curtains!” This whole movie would never happen if you just had blinds. And I suppose it was born out of that — the idea that you might want to shut the blinds, and not be able to.

On the mystery writers who have influenced her

I read a huge amount of it as a kid. You know, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sherlock Holmes. And I didn’t consciously channel that when I was writing, but when I finished and reread the book, I did suddenly realize how much this kind of structure owed to … Agatha Christie. And it wasn’t consciously done, but … I would say I definitely owe a debt to Christie.

“NEW YORK TIMES,” “USA TODAY,” AND “LOS ANGELES TIMES” BESTSELLER
An “Entertainment Weekly “Summer Books Pick
A “Buzzfeed” “31 Books to Get Excited About this Summer” Pick
A “Publishers Weekly “”Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers” Pick
A “BookReporter” Summer Reading Pick
A “New York Post “”Best Novels to Read this Summer” Pick
A “Shelf Awareness “”Book Expo America 2015 Buzz Book” Pick

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