My Wife Is Funnier Than Me

Toni: “Why is it that every door-to-door Christian woman has thick ankles? And is badly dressed?”

Me: “I don’t know about the thick ankles, but I’d think they’re trying to dress plainly, sort of that humble Quaker thing. Or Puritan.”

Toni: “If Jesus didn’t want us to dress well,  He wouldn’t have made fashion designers.”

Me: “That’s a valid point.”

Toni: “If I was the King of the Universe, I’d want my people looking good when they represent me.”

Me: “So you’d, what, put them in a snappy uniform?”

Toni: “No, no uniforms — they can pick what they like, as long as it looks good on them. And they wouldn’t have thick ankles, that’s for sure. My disciples would be the best-looking people.”

***

Three in a row:

Me (Complaining about post-workout-exhaustion): I thought working out was supposed to make me stronger.

Toni: You are stronger. You don’t cry nearly as much as you used to.

 

Minutes later, in the car driving home — and apropos of nothing — she said:

“Do you think if small children were left out in the sun that they would be more likely to melt? I mean really small children. Like, new ones. Because their bones haven’t, you know, congealed yet.”

 

And then, trying to find good music on the radio, she punched buttons to get away from heavy metal screaming, and then Rod Stewart, and then Huey Lewis and the News — but nothing made her punch the button harder and faster than a few seconds of a small child’s voice as part of a radio commercial. Then, when I pointed that out, she said,

“Yeah.  There’s nothing I hate more than turning on the TV and seeing little kids talking. Or pooping. Or whatever it is they do.”

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Redwall Book II: Mossflower

Mossflower
by Brian Jacques

The second Redwall novel is a lot like the first.

Maybe a little too much like the first.

Don’t get me wrong: the most notable and important similarity is that these are both lovely books. This one is a distant prequel to Redwall; it tells the story of how the animals gathered at the place that would become Redwall Abbey, and decided to build that great haven. It is the story of how Martin the Warrior came to be the hero of Redwall, and how he got his mighty sword, the same weapon that Matthias searches for in Redwall. The writing is just as good, and just as sweet; these books read more like fairy tales than anything else, and it makes them great fun — though like the original fairy tales, they are not by any means bloodless, nor do all of the heroes make it to Happily Ever After. There are cute younguns, and amusingly crotchety elders, and the food still sounds delicious.

There are differences, too: in this, the villains are striking out from a castle, rather than trying to win their way into one; it changes the battles and the strategies, and that was well done. This one ranges farther afield, as our heroes quest to Salamandastron, the legendary volcano far to the east, in hopes of finding allies. That was also excellent, particularly the parts with the rabbits, whom I enjoyed tremendously in Redwall when there was only one pommy British fellow with long ears; in this book there are nearly a dozen, and every one is delightful.

But: you’ve still got a horde of weasels, stoats, and ferrets led by one particularly savage tyrant; the weasels, stoats, and ferrets are still clumsy incompetent buffoons who lose battles against the heroes because of their stupidity and cowardice. You still have the great, sinister predator — in Redwall it’s a serpent, in this one it’s an eagle — that threatens everyone who comes near. You still have the badger who carries the battle with its great strength. You still have the desperate quest for allies that goes far afield and comes back at the last second — with shrews, both times. You still have the one bird that is not really trusted but is extremely helpful. And of course you have the mouse who saves the day with a big sword and limitless courage.

I suppose I shouldn’t make too much of this; it is a series, after all, and therefore is going to have common threads that run through all the books. But this one felt a little too familiar, for all that the familiar parts were still delightful.

I’m hoping the next book will offer a little more variety.

Book Review: Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker

by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban wrote one of the fondest memories of my childhood: Bread and Jam for Frances. He wrote a number of books about an adorable young badger named Frances, actually, but Bread and Jam was the one I had, the one I remembered, the one that, as a picky eater, I related to.

So when I found out as an adult that Russell Hoban also wrote several acclaimed science fiction novels, well. There wasn’t really any question. Imagine if Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein wrote full-length novels. Wouldn’t you be curious?

So I looked them up, found out that the most famous one – the one that won the John W. Campbell award for best sc-fi novel in 1982 – was this one, and then I went out and bought a copy.

And then I tried to read it. And this is what I found.

“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs anyhow ther hadnt ben none for a long tyme befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.”

That’s right: the book is written in gibberish.

And it’s absolutely brilliant gibberish.

The story is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age novel. Very post-apocalyptic, as it turns out. Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old young man in the ruined aftermath of what used to be England, but is now a feudal society called Inland, people living in small walled communities, hemmed in by packs of wild dogs that hunt and eat any humans who stray too far from their fences. The language they speak and write is in fact English, but it’s an English that has changed as much from our language as our language did from Chaucer’s time. Their myths and legends are of us: the primary one seems to be about the discovery of atomic power with the splitting of the atom; though there is much more to it than that, as there always is in myths and legends. Their world cherishes these legends, but it is a largely oral society; the government, what is left of it, is primarily responsible for spreading the stories that are the basis of their mythology and morality, the Eusa story, which they share ritualistically through traveling puppet shows. The basic canon of the Eusa story is written down and therefore unchangeable, but with each puppet performance, the Eusa men find new aspects to focus on, new morals to be drawn from it, just like preachers with the Bible. The towns where they perform have their own interpreters of these hidden messages and allegories, called “connection men;” when the story begins, Riddley has just become one such, replacing his recently deceased father.

But Riddley only makes one connection: soon he feels an irresistible urge to travel outside the walls, where he seems to befriend a dog pack; this dog pack takes him to Cambry, where he discovers a secret: the Ardship of Cambry, one of the Eusa people. Born without eyes, isolated from all of society, the Ardship has a secret buried deep inside: the secret that brought down the old world, the world that had boats flying in the sky. And the current head of the loose government in Inland, the Pry Mincer Abel Goodparley, plans to tear that secret out of the Ardship, unless Riddley can help.

But maybe Riddley thinks that Goodparley is right. Maybe they have lost much that once existed, and maybe they should try to bring that back. But maybe those secrets are best kept hidden.

I realize now that the book is extremely well known, and that my discovery is not this forgotten novel but rather my own ignorance of it – the thing has over 5000 Amazon reviews, for cripes’ sake – but for me, this book was something of a revelation. It was also a real challenge. That language is freaking hard to read. It makes references to the society that preceded it, but that society, the society of the 1970’s, is in some ways lost even to us: it took me the whole book to realize that one of the phrases, used to describe thinking something through and coming to a conclusion, was “pull data and print out,” as in, “We discussed the matter, pulled data and printed out a plan.” We don’t even print out any more, so it was tough getting the meaning of that and a thousand other words.

But it’s beautifully done, nonetheless. Because the Ardship of Cambry is the Archbishop of Canterbury – but he’s also a man facing hardship, which point Riddley makes in the novel. And the Pry Mincer (Prime Minister) is a man who pries, but also one who minces words. Hoban didn’t just mess with the English language: he remade it. He created something new, and difficult as new things are, but also brilliant.

It’s a hell of a book. I need to keep it and read it again, and I want to do so. Maybe when I do, it will make more sense; on this first reading I felt like there were some pretty serious holes in the story, but there were parts that I just couldn’t understand. But hey: I couldn’t read Shakespeare and understand it all the first time, and the first time I read The Grapes of Wrath or Huck Finn or The God of Small Things, I didn’t fully appreciate them; great literature requires effort. I would call this book an example of that.

Small Things, Big Anger

It begins so beautifully.

“Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against the clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
“The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
“But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen.”

It’s so lovely: fatly baffled — what a phrase! Suffused with sloth and sullen expectation — what alliteration, what a way to draw out those sounds, slower and slower, exactly like a slow, sultry night time when you wait forever for coolness that never comes. Thrilled children — what a rhyme! And the sharp, glittering sunshine they snatch to play with — what an image! Immodest green and mossgreen — my God!

And though the tone is far darker, it ends with the same beauty:

“He held her against him, resting his back against the mangosteen tree, while she cried and laughed at once. Then, for what seemed like an eternity, but was really no more than five minutes, she slept leaning against him, her back against his chest. Seven years of oblivion lifted off her and flew into the shadows on weighty, quaking wings. :Like a dull, steel peahen. And on Ammu’s Road (to Age and Death) a small, sunny meadow appeared. Copper grass spangled with blue butterflies. Beyond it, an abyss.”

It’s magnificent. The clarity of the images, the remarkable insight into the symbolism of color and movement and the connections between life forms — he against the tree and she against him; oblivion flying away like a peahen, both of them dull and steel-colored; a sunny meadow appearing on the road of life in this small, lovely interlude, this moment of peace in the midst of turmoil and destruction and sorrow, leading to that waiting abyss. It’s amazing. I can’t read this book enough. I can’t teach it enough. I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a novel by a writer as poetic as Arundhati Roy, in her book The God of Small Things.

So then what the hell is this:

“He was a naked stranger met in a chance encounter. He was the one that she had known before Life began. The one who had once led her (swimming) through their lovely mother’s cunt.”

Wait, what? That’s the image, twin infants swimming through the birth canal? And that’s the word you want to use? Their lovely mother’s cunt? Why on God’s green and verdant Earth would you use that word, and that image, in that moment? Admittedly, the very next line connects this passage to the idea of jarring discord, to paradox and conflicting feelings — “Both things unbearable in their polarity. In their irreconcilable far-apartness.” So I assume that the use of jarring words and clashing images, the image of the pain and the tearing and ripping of birth sweetened into a casual synchronized swim, and the juxtaposition of “lovely mother” with “cunt,” are meant to show this unbearable polarity, this irreconcilable far-apartness. Okay. It makes sense. I still don’t like it, but it makes sense.

But that’s not the only one. There’s also this:

“As Khubchand lay dying on his cushion, Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in his smooth, purple balls. And the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across. To Estha—steeped in the smell of old roses, blooded on memories of a broken man—the fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. A bird in flight reflected in an old dog’s balls. It made him smile out loud.”

And I love the phrase “smile out loud.” So what’s with the dog’s purple scrotum? Who spends that much time staring at dog balls? How the hell could the sky be reflected in dog scrotum-skin? Is that possible? You know what, I’m never going to know. Because I’m never going to check. And the idea that this is a smiling occasion, that old dog nuts are the perfect image of tender fragility, is just not a thought I’m prepared to entertain. Nope. Once again, I get it — testicles are indeed fragile, as I’m fully aware; and an old dog is a deeply tender and sweet beast: I already had my heart broken just before this passage, when Roy describes the dog’s failing health, his murky eyes and his uncontrolled bladder, because both of those are crystal clear reminders of my beloved dog’s last days — but I don’t need to know what mystical secrets you see when you stare at a dog’s junk. This only makes me think Estha and Arundhati Roy herself are too irretrievably weird for me to handle.

But I can’t just leave it at that. Because I get the book. I understand the idea of the Small Things, and how deeply important they are, and how the whole world can pivot on a single point, can go from up-facing heaven-ascending glory, swiveled down to a face full of mud and hell, on one brief tick of the clock, sometimes no more than a minute. There is a moment when Ammu, the lovely mother of the swimming twins, looks up and sees Velutha, the man who will become her lover, the man who makes her oblivion fly away, and she sees him for the first time as a man: she has known him since childhood, and their respective stations in life — he an Untouchable Hindu laborer, she the upper-caste daughter of a factory owner and a Syrian Christian — have kept them from seeing each other as equals and therefore potential partners; but in this one moment, she spots him not only with his shirt off and his lovely body showing, but also, she sees him playing affectionately with her daughter, and Ammu thinks: father — husband — man. Had she not looked up in that moment, she might never have seen Velutha in that way, and she might never have leaned against him under a mangosteen tree and laughed and cried at once. And the doom of everyone in the novel may not have been sealed. She had to see him right then, and she had to be feeling the way she did right then. That one moment changed everything.

Life is a collection of such tiny moments. But most of them, we ignore completely: because we only look at the big things. We are inundated with the suffering of the world around us, and so we cannot bear to speak of our own, not even when that speech would save us from guilt and choking silence like that which eventually swallows Estha, before he follows in the footsteps of his surrogate father and becomes for his twin sister Rahel the God of Small Things, as Velutha was for Ammu, their mother — and, we hope (though we do not know) is saved and redeemed by that one small moment of solace, his own oblivion leaving him as Ammu’s did before. We do as Estha did: we think of ourselves as small, as unimportant; we think of those tiny moments, those pivotal points when everything changes, as tiny as well, even though they are, in reality, everything. Even the large things, the suffering of war, and famine, and pestilence, and death, are made up of tiny, pivotal moments in the lives of tiny individual people — individual people who make up all of teeming humanity.

So how does Roy show us this contrast, between the big things and the small things? With a madman’s penis, that’s how.

“Murlidharan, the level-crossing lunatic, perched cross-legged and perfectly balanced
on the milestone. His balls and penis dangled down, pointing towards the sign which
said

COCHIN
23 KM

“Murlidharan was naked except for the tall plastic bag that somebody had fitted onto
his head like a transparent chef’s cap, through which the view of the landscape continued –dimmed, chef – shaped, but uninterrupted. He couldn’t remove his cap even if he had wanted to, because he had no arms. They had been blown off in Singapore in ‘42, within the first week of his running away from home to join the fighting ranks of the Indian National Army.”

That’s right: an army veteran with no arms, because he lost them in a pointless war, only a week into his military service. And because of his missing arms — surely the thing we notice the most, as we are forced to consider the experience of living without through the surreal and terrible image of some buttmunch putting a plastic bag on this poor guy’s head, which he can’t then remove — we only notice the large things, and not the small things. But it’s the small things that matter: the character’s madness, described as cabinets in his mind, which predicts Estha’s future similar mindset; and the place they are going, where Estha’s madness will begin when he is molested by the Orangedrink-Lemondrink Man. Where is that place? Cochin. And what points the way there?

Murlidharan’s dick.

Why, Ms. Roy? Why do you have to make a dick joke? Why couldn’t this guy just be sitting under the sign, with the words right over his head, or maybe reflected in his eyes? Why does he have to point to them with his genitalia?

AND WHY DO I HAVE TO KEEP THINKING “WELL, THOSE MUST BE THE SMALL THINGS?”

Here’s why I hate this. Because the book is both brilliant and complex. Because it’s taken me three readings to understand maybe half of it well. And I know there is far more that I am missing than I am getting. So when I read these little obscene, absurd moments, when I am so bothered and discombobulated by them, I can’t help but think that I am missing something. That there is no possible better word to describe birth than “swimming,” and no better way to talk about Ammu than to refer to her cunt. That the perfect image for fragility is a flying bird reflected in dog’s balls. That the best foreshadowing in the world is to have a penis pointing to the name of the place where another penis will begin the ruination of Estha.

I assume, when I am bothered by what I think of as really terrible choices by a really brilliant author, that the problem is not her, but me. That I am too lame to appreciate the book fully. And that turns my whole-hearted admiration for this wonderful work into something much more sour and cracked and sulfurous.

See? It’s the little things that make all the difference.