Sunday, June 27, 2010

Christmas in July

I bought a used copy online of Junior Miss, by Sally Benson, thinking it might be a good book for my other blog, The Paris Hat. When I opened it this is what fell out. It was sent by a George A. Paris of the 286th Signal Corps from the Italian front in November 1943.
Google suggests that this is probably the same George A. Paris who died in Manchester, New Hampshire in January 1998 at age 82. According to his obituary he worked in a shoe factory and at a meat counter. He had 6 children and 25 grandchildren. Like many people in Manchester he was of French-Canadian descent, which probably accounts for the spelling mistakes in his postcard.
I could probably find out more through the magic of the internet, but I already feel like a snoop.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Summer Place

When I was growing up, pools were big rectangles of concrete built for adults. In fact, the Y where I swam growing up blew the whistle at a quarter to every hour, the signal for all the kids to get out of the pool so the adults could paddle around for fifteen minutes, while we sat kicking our legs and looking at the clock. It was clear we didn't belong. Swimming was for elderly people to improve their cardiovascular function. It was exercise. It was serious.
The pools here in Las Vegas are activity pools. They resemble water parks: three feet deep at most, with slides and fountains and splash buckets and beach entries. They're really fun -- when you have a two year old.
But then your two year old grows up and knows how to swim but he can't swim at the activity pools because the water's not deep enough and anyway there's no room because of all the two year olds.
There's a public pool near my neighborhood that no one ever goes to. Why knows why? Maybe most of the households already have pools. Maybe everyone's forgotten about it. Maybe it's the lack of fountains and slides and splash buckets. Whatever the reason, it's become the rediscovered pool for us. Though it's just a big concrete rectangle it's on the edge of a park, so you can float and look at trees and grass and people going by on bikes. I like the architecture, which might best be described as Fake Swiss Cottage, too. And no one ever blows the whistle and tells the kids they have to get out of the pool.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rocky Ridge

On vacation last week in Missouri I went to Rocky Ridge Farm, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I sometimes think there must be a Laura Ingalls gene, because not only did I grow up on the books, but my son, who doesn't read much, loves them as well, and he particularly likes the modern continuations of them which take up the life of Rose Wilder.
It was a beautiful June day, very green, and the farm was shaded by huge trees. The house is small and was built more or less a room as a time, as their farm succeeded. Laura wrote the books in a narrow office near the front of the house.

There's a weird alchemy to the Little House books. If you re-read them, you notice tons of "Pa builds Ma a shelf" type description but none of it slows the narrative down. You also notice subtler things, like Laura's resentment of Mary, and later, after Mary goes blind, her guilt, and her resentment over her guilt. Like a lot of classics you can't quite see how it's done, but you can feel that it works.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Leo Huberman

As mentioned in my previous post, I was going to buy The Dark Divine this weekend. Actually, I didn't -- and nothing against it as a book. I still may get it at the library (I'll be #15 on the hold list.) Instead I bought The Book Thief, which about 2-3 years ago was a book with about the same status as The Dark Divine -- that is, I wanted it but couldn't get it. Of course I'd forgotten about it until I saw it in B&N. If you delight Amazon's heart by following the link you'll see it's a Holocaust book, of sorts. There's a character in it name Hubermann. The first, slight, coincidence is that I used the name Huberman for a character in my WIP perhaps two weeks ago. I chose that name on purpose. Why? Well, that's a much larger coincidence.
When I first moved to Brooklyn in the early 1990s it was to an apartment building and neighborhood that was mainly Orthodox Jewish and Holocaust survivors (the two groups were not necessarily the same.) One day I went down to the basement to do laundry and I saw an elderly woman with a number on her arm pulling clothes out of the washing machine. I found this, of course, very disturbing. Possibly it was the banality of the situation -- I'd read of concentration camp tattoos in books and now in front of me was a skinny arm with a long-blurred number (only 4 digits!) fishing up unmentionables from the depths of her machine. It's one thing to know the "reality" of something via fiction. It's another to think that the lady next to you in the laundry room, who just wants to get her clothes out of the washer, has seen things that you wouldn't want to have in your nightmares.
I had a similar reaction when I first met one of my neighbors in the building, an elderly man named Leo Huberman. His apartment was pristine, and, suspecting he was a recent widower, I asked casually after his wife. He said, in apparent seriousness, "Have you ever heard of Auschwitz? My wife and my son died there."
I wish I could say that I said something comforting or deeply moving in reply, but I didn't. I was just too young and too socially unskilled. Neither "I'm sorry" or "that's too bad" seemed at all adequate to "My wife and my son died in Auschwitz." I just stood there awkwardly, looking at the floor, hoping to think of a way to change the subject.
I only saw Mr. Huberman a few times after that. Once I brought him some soup. It was a weird potato-pumpkin kind of soup that I had made from a Vegetarian Times recipe. It might have been decent if I'd had a blender, but I didn't, and I recall it as pretty dismal, although at the time I was very proud of it. (Whenever I wonder if there's more comedy than tragedy in life, I think of that soup.)
I must have told Mr. Huberman I was a writer, because he told me I should read a Yiddish writer named I.L. Peretz. Then we sort of drifted apart, although I said hello to him sometimes outside the building. A year or so later, in the middle of a blizzard, I came home to a notice posted on the building door that he was dead, and that services would be held, etc.
One of the things that bothered me after this was the idea that he might be forgotten. He'd had no other children and no other family, at least that I knew of. I committed his name to memory. I spoke of him once at church. The idea of a person's name as their strongest kind of memorial is one that runs through history. So I put it out there again. Leo Huberman. And I wrote his name into my WIP. My Huberman is a minor character, not a great soul but not a pure villain either. Those are the breaks of being written into a novel. Those are the breaks of being a human being as well.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful

1. It's still nice in the garden in the morning when I go out to water.

2. I have peppers. (How else can I put this? "My peppers are fruiting?" That doesn't sound right.)

3. There's a agent out there reading the full of How to See the Elephant.

4. I've been hearing a lot about The Dark Divine by Bree Despain and when I looked it up in the LV library catalog it said "14 holds on the first 8 returned copies." So I'll probably just go buy it. New reading!

5. Blogfest! From Amalia T. -- the theme of which is dreams. I found out kind of late, but here's my contribution, from The Poison Hill. The dreamer is my MC, Gertrude. She's living in Italy, about 30 years after most of the action has taken place.

The water is inky black, tossing against the dock. It’s the dock at the lake, the same dock after all these years, but the water goes on forever, all the way to the horizon, under a dark sky. When I get to the white raft out in the center of the lake my mother will be there. I have to be out there at exactly the right time. Clark Gable takes the towel from my shoulders and I dive into the water and swim with great speed, waves bobbing in my face. I see the raft just ahead, dirty white from the dark water. The crowd of people on the dock is screaming, cheering me on. I have to be up on it before sunset. One moment later and my mother will be gone…Something is knocking on the side of the raft, making it shake…the ladder is right before me; I grab at it and begin to climb up… the knocking, again …There is my mother, with long hair and a long dress, like an Edgar Allan Poe illustration… The sun is not down yet; I’m still in time…
But I'm not in time, and Zita is pounding on the door. I know she's standing out in the hall, wondering, knocking and waiting, and knocking again. It’s no good to call avanti. Zita never avanti’s; she waits for you to let her in.

Fun Fact: this actually came from a real dream, although it's been much altered. Have a good weekend and check out the other Dreamfest posts!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

24 hours late

This is a little late, but I wanted to put up something about Memorial Day. I dedicated How to See the Elephant to two sets of family ancestors, one from Ohio, the other from Georgia. I'm not so good at remembering dates and units and similar numbers, but I can give you the gist of their stories.

The Hedges were from Coshocton County, Ohio. They had abolitionist sympathies and it is reputed that their farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The oldest, Anderson Hedge, served in 3 different Ohio regiments at various times. He was wounded in the hand at the battle of Iuka, Mississippi (look it up!) in 1862, returned home, and went back to war about a year later. His brother Aaron went with him, as did their younger brother Porter, who was just shy of 16 at the time. Aaron's history is shadowy. Family story is that he was prisoner, and was later exchanged, and this experience damaged his health. In 1864 all three brothers were together at the battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia; fortunately for them (it was one of the bloodiest battles of the war) they were assigned guard the railroad tracks in the rear sector. Porter and Anderson returned home when the war ended, but Aaron served until November 1865 in the Army of Occupation in Texas. Then he returned to his sister's house in Ohio and quite simply laid down and died. There is no way of knowing what actually killed him, but family opinion blamed the war for undermining his health.

The Wilsons were from Early County, Georgia. They were a large family which farmed their own land, and although they owned no slaves at the time of the war, past generations had. Four brothers -- Joe Lane, William, James B. and Marion -- joined the 55th Georgia (a.k.a. "the Early County Wildcats") John M. the youngest, joined the 29th Georgia Cavalry. The 55th Georgia was sent to guard Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. Joe Lane died there in January, 1863. He had been ill, and in being transported to a different location he was dropped in the creek, which caused him to develop pneumonia. In September 1863 Cumberland Gap surrendered, and William and James B. were sent to Camp Douglas, a Union prison camp just outside Chicago. Camp Douglas, on the shores of Lake Michigan, was famed for its unsanitary and inhumane conditions. (A recent History Channel documentary labeled it 80 Acres of Hell.) When the war ended the two made their way back to Early County, and, in a strange parallel to the Hedges, William died shortly after arriving home, probably from the effects of his imprisonment. James B., who was 22 at the war's end, became my great-grandfather. I am unclear about the time period of what follows, but I do know that Marion deserted the 55th Georgia at some point. Family story is that he returned home and his mother hid him in the barn and fed him before sending him on. He didn't come back when the war ended. Possibly he died elsewhere, but I imagine that he may have felt unwelcome, given the price his family paid in the war.
A couple years back my mother discovered that the US government will provide a free headstone for any Civil War veteran -- yes, even for Rebels. She found Joe Lane's grave in the Cumberland Gap battlefield, filled out the proper paperwork, and got one put up for him.
Being a child of the 70s -- one of my earliest memories is the famous "War is not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things" wall poster -- I have very mixed feelings about war in general, and I'm not always comfortable with the glorification of it. But I have no problem honoring the soldiers on both sides.