Saturday, January 7, 2012

R.I.P. Dinah, 1999-2012

Scrappy, loyal, and yes, demanding ... You were loved.

Every now and then, in my conversations with Somali refugees, the subject of pets comes up. The way we treat our animals, and even invite them into our homes, amuses them.

A few years ago, when I was teaching ESL, I took two days off and drove 1800 miles to say goodbye to a beloved cat.

When I returned to the classroom, my students were astounded. They understood I was sad, and told me how sorry they were. But they also thought it was funny.

I don't always feel the need to defend American culture, but I wanted to tell them that--except when taken to Paris Hilton-like extremes--this is one of the good things about Americans. Imagine the additional dysfunction that would be unleashed upon the world if we Americans didn't have loving pets standing between us and the abyss! That's what I wanted to say, but it was, after all, an ESL class.

Amina may have heard some of what I wasn't saying, though. I like it, she said.

Americans are very kind to animals. Africans are not kind to animals.

Africans, she added with unusual candor, are not kind to people.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Favorite Books of 2011

For me, this was a strange reading year. Some of the most highly praised books of 2011 were among my least favorites. One, though beautifully written, slipped out of my hands and landed on the other side of the room. Weird. I don't think I'm the only one to feel this way, though. In conversations with book friends, references to  It's a Mad Mad Mad World keep coming up.

I originally had only five titles, but I've decided that I must have been in a bad mood the day I made the list. So here are my revised ten:

1. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. This novel, about a young man who suffers brain trauma and subsequently mis-recognizes the people closest to him, may have struck a chord with me because of my father's cognitive losses. But I think I would have liked it whatever my circumstances. He had me at sandhill cranes.

2. True Grit by Charles Portis. Another great book overshadowed by its movie adaptation(s).

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This book, about a Columbine-like school shooter, stayed with me like a black mood for days. I suppose that's a certain kind of recommendation.

4. The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller. I admire this author more and more every year.

5. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. The problem I have with picaresques is that they're so easy to put down. And I did. Put it down. But Bellow's voice kept me coming back even after long breaks.

6. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Maybe it's a little too much like her memoir, The Boys of My Youth,  but I've waited so long for something from this author that it's okay. She knows what it's like to be a teenage girl.

7. The Paper Anniversary by Joan Wickersham. A really well-observed Crazy, Stupid Love for twenty-somethings. 

8. The Submission by Amy Waldman. A thought-provoking look at what might happen if a Muslim designed the 9/11 memorial. I could tell she'd done her research.

9. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. A beautiful but hard-to-read meditation on death and facing death.

10. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Not weighty, but the prose is lovely and there's too little magic realism in the world.