Monthly Archives: December 2012

Buon Natale

We are spending Christmas in Italy this year with my parents and it’s been fantastic. We’ve been in Sorrento since Christmas eve and this is the first time I’ve had internet access, so please excuse the radio silence! Things will probably be quiet until we’re back in civilization (i.e., Africa) again, so for now, please allow me to placate you all with some pretty pictures of Sorrento.








Christmas comfort food

Since the much-hyped Mayan apocalypse failed to materialize today, I can finally look forward to Christmas! I mean, just as soon as I clear out a space in my doomsday bunker where I’ve stockpiled canned foods, weaponry, and a Nibiru-English dictionary, I’ll be able to hunker down and enjoy my favorite part of the Christmas season: movies, music, and TV.

So here, good people, is a brief list of my favorite non-edible Christmas comfort foods, in case you’re looking to expand your Christmas horizons this year.  Let’s start with music.

My Christmas playlist

          • O Holy Night.  I love this song, but I’m very picky about it – it must be sung by a children’s choir. If an adult man is singing this song, I will not enjoy it. For my money, it doesn’t get better than the version in Home Alone, which you can find here.  However, even better than that is our dog, Dougal, singing along to that version.  This happened as I was writing this blog post, by the way.

  • Breath of Heaven, by Amy Grant.  This is a religious song (it’s Amy Grant, after all) and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s sung from the perspective of Mary, which is different from most of your standard, ho-hum, Santa-and-Jesus Christmas songs.
  • The entire Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, by Vince Guaraldi.  If you don’t already own this, please do yourself a favor and purchase it immediately. It’s a classic.  Also, watch the movie.
  • All I Want for Christmas Is You, by Mariah Carey.  I mean, come on.  It’s Mariah. And yes, I like the new version with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots.
  • Miracle of Love, by the Eurythmics.  I’m not sure if this is actually a Christmas song, but it puts me in a festive mood, even though it is objectively depressing. I also love the Eurythmics’ There Must be an Angel, because of this Disney video, which I watched on repeat as a child.  I understand that logically, I should associate this song with Valentine’s Day, but you know what? Festive is festive.

      • River, by Sarah McLachlan.  Wow, is it just me, or is my Christmas playlist sort of dark?  Yikes.  Let’s move on.

Christmas movies and TV episodes

  •  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I watch this every year with my parents and it never gets old.  It features a truly all-star cast, including Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Randy Quaid, Brian Doyle Murray, and Johnny Galecki. It also contains one of my family’s favorite lines: “Clark! Slow down! I don’t want to spend the holidays dead.”  We say this to each other often.
  • Home Alone.  A sweet classic.  And the tarantula scene? I die. Every time.
  • Breakfast With Scot. If I can do one thing in this life of mine, I hope I can spread love for this truly charming little Canadian film about hockey, a gay kid, and two reluctant gay dads.  I feel like the trailer does not do it justice, but it’s heartwarming, funny, Christmassy, and cute, and it features Tom Cavanagh, who I’ve already mentioned on this blog as being one half of one of my favorite podcasts, Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.  Ugh, please just watch it, it’s awesome.

          • A Christmassy Ted.  This is the Christmas special of my favorite (now defunct) Irish comedy, Father Ted.  The premise of Father Ted is that three misfit priests are banished to a windswept island off the west coast of Ireland (the aptly named “Craggy Island”).  Father Ted has dreams of being rich and famous, Father Jack is a gross, largely inarticulate drunk, and Father Dougal is an idiot.  They get into all sorts of hilarious adventures, but the Christmas special is particularly funny.  I’ve gotten Al into Father Ted over the years and this is now one of our all-time favorite jokes – how to break the news of a death:

“Remember how your husband used to love a good laugh?”

  • The Snowman.  This is just straight-up beautiful, and the song Walking in the Air brings a tear to my crusty old eye.

          What can I say, I have a thing for boys’ choirs.  Also, the movie is introduced by David Bowie, who apparently did a lot of acting in children’s films in the 80s (Labyrinth, anyone?).

Well, I could go on and on about Christmas gems but I don’t want to lose you guys.  Check out some of my picks and let me know what you think.  Merry Christmas and happy Not-End-of-the-World!



Bad news: I’m sick.  I think I’ve run my immune system down with too much rich food, booze, and exposure to my crazy family.  (Sorry, family.  But you know you’re crazy.  This is news to no one.)  Anyway, I woke up yesterday with a sore throat, headache, and cough, and the situation has deteriorated.  This means that today I’m overloading on tea, Emergen-c, and reruns of What Not To Wear.  I’m also distracting myself with Pinterest.

You guys know what Pinterest is, I’m sure.  It’s one of the most mindlessly addictive websites I’ve encountered in, well, ever.  Unlike Facebook, I never run out of things to look at on Pinterest.  Unlike Twitter, Pinterest requires no reading.  Or thinking.  Or processing.  You can just sit there and pin, pin, pin. Mindless.  Comforting.  Wonderful.

Except I got up almost three hours ago and I’ve done literally nothing all morning except pin.  And the thing is, am I ever going to make or buy or do any of these things I’m pinning?  Like, what are the odds I am going to make these butterfinger and cookie dough cheesecake bars?  Or this sock dog? Or this bracelet?  I mean, I’d have to buy beads.  And string.  Come on.

Am I gonna make this? Probably not. But maybe.

Am I gonna make this? Probably not. But maybe.

But there’s something nice about pretending that I’m going to do all of this stuff.  The thing is, before I quit my job at the law firm, I always thought that when I started writing, I’d have tons of free time to, like, upcycle filing cabinets.  Turns out, that is not the case.  Even when I finish my writing obligations fairly early in the day, I don’t really feel like “creating” anything more ambitious than dinner for me and Al.  Maybe this is because I use up my creative energy writing, but when I’m done, I kinda just feel like sitting on the couch and doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book, or watching something stupid on TV.  I mean, more power to these people who spend their free time upcycling things and making animals out of socks, but that’s not realistic for me.

Oh, well.  Maybe today I’ll motivate and finally get around to making that tee-shirt shopping bag I’ve been meaning to make for all these years.  Or maybe not.


I want to apologize to all of my faithful readers who’ve been expecting more frequent posts from California. I’ve let you all down.  But the thing is, I’m on vacation.  And between visiting with friends and family and finishing a manuscript, I’ve been busy and blogging has not been a top priority.  Instead, I’ve been doing things like cooking for my parents, going to my dear friend Karen’s company party (MC Hammer was there!), celebrating my cousin Emily’s graduation from San Francisco firefighter academy, going to dinner with my cousin Amanda, seeing family at my grandmother’s house, catching up on reading (including some juicy true crime), and, of course, watching a healthy amount of Law & Order SVU (did y’all know it plays continuously on USA on weekdays?).  Among other things.

So, to tide you over, here are some pictures I’ve taken since I’ve been here.

Union Square Christmas decorations

Union Square Christmas decorations

Karen and me before her Christmas party

Karen and me before her Christmas party

Dougal on a car ride

Dougal on a car ride

The Sunset - view from my walk home from the gym

The Sunset – view from my walk home from the gym



So, stay tuned. Vacation’s almost over!

Book review Tuesday: The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

I recently finished Alan Hollinghurt’s The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize for fiction.  It is an excellent and intimidating book: excellent in that it’s exquisitely plotted and crafted, intimidating for the very same reasons.  One of the reviewers on the back cover (Publishers Weekly) raved that it is “almost perfectly written” and “has the air of a classic.”  I must agree — which is why reading this novel is simultaneously satisfying and torturous.  Hollinghurst’s “almost perfect” prose is gorgeous, but it has a way of sapping all of my self-esteem about my own writing.  His sentences make mine seem wilted and puerile in comparison. I mean, how can he write so well?  Dammit, Hollinghurst!

I was recommended this book by one of Al’s friends from work, Jason.  I was in Kramerbooks in DC, picking up way too many books to bring with me to South Africa, when I ran into Jason and we started talking about books we love.  He suddenly said, “Oh my God, you have to read this book, it’s beautiful.”  He then took me by the arm and led me over to a shelf, plucked down The Line of Beauty, put it in my hands, and said, “You’re buying this.”

First, some background.  The book takes place between 1983 and 1986, mostly in London, at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister.  The main character, Nick Guest, is a young Oxford graduate who is working on a graduate thesis on Henry James and is renting a room from the Feddens, a conservative political family.  Gerald Fedden, the father, is a conservative Member of Parliament; Nick was friends with Gerald’s son, Toby, at Oxford, which is how Nick came to be living with them.  Nick is more than just a renter, though – he fancies himself a part of the family and becomes intimately involved in the family’s workings and secrets.  The book is about Nick’s fascination with the Feddens and their wealth and erudition, as well as his exploration of his own sexuality (he’s gay) and the complicated relationships he forms with several men, including a young Lebanese scion of a grocery store fortune.  Soon enough, excess — drugs, sex, wealth — begin to corrupt, and the consequences are devastating for everyone.

In Kramerbooks, I flipped open the book to skim through it, as I usually do when considering whether or not to buy a book. I opened randomly to page 104, a scene in which Nick and his new boyfriend, Leo, are having an argument about where they can be alone together, but also, on a larger level, whether their relationship is going to work out at all.  They had just come from visiting Leo’s ex-boyfriend, Pete.

All of Leo’s effusiveness with Pete and then with Sophie had ebbed away, and left just the two of them, in this horrible noise and crush.  Nick glanced at him with a tight smile; at which Leo stretched his neck with a moody, uninvolved air.  ‘Well,’ said Nick finally, ‘where do you want to go?’

‘I don’t know, boyfriend,’ Leo said.

Nick laughed ruefully, and something kept him back from a further lie. ‘A caff?’ he said. ‘Indian? A sandwich?’ — which was the most he could imagine managing.

‘Well, I need something,’ said Leo, in his tone of flat goading irony, looking at him sharply. ‘And it isn’t a sandwich.’

Nick didn’t take a risk on what this might mean. ‘Ah…’ he said. Leo turned his head and scowled at a stall of cloudy green and brown glassware, which was taking its place in their crisis, and seemed to gleam with hints of a settled domestic life.  Leo said,

‘At least with old Pete we had his place, but where are me and you ever going to go?’

Could this be his only objection, the only obstacle…? ‘I know, we’re homeless,’ Nick said.

‘Homeless love,’ said Leo, shrugging and then cautiously nodding, as if weighing up a title for a song.

Isn’t that delicious? I absolutely love the line about the glassware “taking its place in their crisis.” Hollinghurst is very gifted at picking up shifts in mood between characters and exploiting dialogue, scenery, and internal thought processes of the characters to subtly bring them out.  I suppose there’s a lesson in here somehow about how I can learn from Hollinghurst’s prose to improve my own, but all I can do is goggle at it.  Oh, well. Some books are like that.

I recommend this novel on several levels, but don’t read it if you want to feel uplifted.  Without giving much away, I’ll say that things don’t end perfectly for anyone in this novel.  But the uncertainty of how things will turn out for these characters is part of what makes the book compelling.

[Oh, and one final note: they made it into a BBC series starring Dan Stevens (Matthew Crowley from Downton Abbey) as Nick! I must buy this immediately.]

What’s a nerd?

My husband and I have an ongoing friendly debate about who was nerdier as a child, which always gives way to a debate about what actually makes one a nerd.

Al advocates for a more narrow, traditional definition of the word “nerd.”  He’s a nerd originalist. In his book, a nerd is someone who is interested in most or all of the following: science fiction (defined broadly to include the Star Wars franchise, among others), fantasy role playing games (with Dungeons and Dragons being the most obvious choice for the budding young nerd), space travel, math, and certain video/computer games.  Also, weapons.

And whatever this thing is.

My definition of nerdiness, however, is concerned less with one’s specific interests than with how different one’s interests are from those of one’s peers, especially in middle and high school.  This goes beyond mere social alienation: I mean, if nerdiness could be measured by how alienated one felt in middle school, then I would be the biggest nerd to walk the Earth.  But it takes more than being picked on to be considered a nerd, since one can be bullied or feel out of place while also having completely mainstream interests. I think nerdiness also entails a passion about things that others of your age are not into.

By my husband’s definition of nerdism, young Stephanie would definitely not be considered a nerd.  But here, for your consideration, is a short list of things I was really into in middle school:

  • Band (I played clarinet)
  • Manga and anime (there’s a BIG difference, you guys – just ask 12-year-old me), especially Ranma 1/2
  • Chinese language movies and literature
  • The Civil War (not the cool band — the war)
  • Monty Python
  • The Beatles
  • Egyptian mythology
  • Knitting and latch-hooking
  • Teddy bear conventions (yes, this is a thing)
  • The Redwall books, by Brian Jacques
  • Dog breeds, cat breeds, horse breeds, bird breeds
  • Weird Al Yankovic (I was a member of his fan club, the Close Personal Friends of Al)

I was also into computer games.

I’d also like to add that in middle school, I was a subscriber to Cat Fancy, Dog Fancy, Ellory Queen Mystery Magazine, and a quarterly Beatles fan magazine that was sent to me in Michigan via air mail from England.  I asked for the subscription for my birthday.   My interests as a middle schooler were not necessarily what one would call “tweeny.”

Al, meanwhile, was into, among other things, creating pen-and-ink labyrinths for his friends, playing Magic the Gathering, and reading sci-fi epics.

So — who’s right? Who was nerdier?  Could young Stephanie’s collection of esoteric and now-embarrassing interests be considered nerdy, despite the lack of sci-fi involved?  Or is Al the true nerd here and I was just, what, autistic?  It’s hard to say.

It’s also hard to say why we are both so eager to prove our cred as nerdy little kids.  Perhaps because we like to think we’ve come a long way (we haven’t).  But perhaps also because being a nerd carries a bit of cache these days.  People like to brag about being “huge nerds” about x, y, or z, whether it’s true or not.  Claiming to be a nerd proves that you’re passionate about something, that you’re not a follower, that you’re plugged into interests that others are only dimly aware of — these days, being a nerd is almost the same thing as being a hipster.  People use both terms — nerd and hipster — derisively, but let’s be honest, there are plenty of people who secretly aspire to both.  Plus, let’s face it, if you weren’t a nerd in middle school, you were probably cool in middle school, and we all know what happens to kids who were cool in middle school: it’s all downhill from there, I’m afraid.

Since I’ve met Al, his brand of nerdiness has rubbed off on me.  I have read all five books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ve seen at least part of two Star Wars movies, I know what a Dungeonmaster is, and I’ve watched two and a half torturous seasons of Battlestar Galactica.  So I guess I’m moving toward traditional nerd-dom, although it’s not where I feel most comfortable.

I’d like to think that my sprawling collection of odd interests has rubbed off on Al, too, but I’m not sure that’s true.  I’ve forced him to listen to a couple of the comedy podcasts I like (including this one) and have convinced him to read a couple of the books I love (such as these), but my influence on him has largely been a corrupting one – I’ve mostly just introduced him to reality TV and crime.

Ah, well.  Maybe we can agree to disagree on what a nerd really is.  I suppose I prefer to think of myself as a nerdy child because the alternatives are too disheartening.  In any case, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve encountered more and more people who are into the weird things that I’m into.  This has happened organically, both through the magic of the internet and in real life.  Turns out that a lot of smart, funny adults were also into a bunch of weird crap as kids.  Odds are, I probably wasn’t the only eleven-year-old who used to tape reruns of Ready, Steady, Go on VHS and rewatch it over and over again. I think.

Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that when Al and I have kids, they’ll be free to explore a wide range of interests, nerdy or not.  As long as they’re not cool in middle school, we’ll be happy.

Hockey game

Since there’s an NHL lockout, hockey fans have to get their fix where they can — and thank goodness for minor league hockey!  My cousin Emily’s husband Greg is a big hockey fan, so last night, they organized a cousin excursion to a minor league game at the Cow Palace.  The game was between the local team, the San Francisco Bulls, and the Colorado Eagles.

Go Bulls

The Bulls, bless them, got trounced by the Eagles, but the game was fun to watch anyway.  Hockey’s so fun, you guys!  It moves fast, it’s easy to follow, and there are fights.  Man, I love me a good hockey fight.  I think I must be part Barbarian.

Me and cousins Emily and Amanda at the game

I used to follow NHL hockey closely because growing up in Detroit, one really doesn’t have a choice.  Hockey’s a big deal in Detroit.  Like, a BIG deal.  Songs like this happen somewhat organically.

Yep, people in Detroit really geek out over the Red Wings, especially when the team does well in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  There are Red Wings Stanley Cup songs and cheers — for instance, who else from Detroit remembers this gem?  (Thank you, YouTube, for preserving these songs in the internet amber.)

San Francisco hockey teams of the past

I kinda miss having that sense of community around a sports team.  These days I don’t follow any sports at all. None. Period.  I don’t care.  Booo-ring.  But I could see myself getting back into hockey.  I’m married to a Canadian, for crying out loud.  What other sport are we gonna watch?   Somehow, though, I doubt there are a lot of hockey games broadcast in South Africa. Shame. I guess cricket will have to tide us over in the meantime.  Now all we have to work on is making the term “cricket fight” a thing.

Bad dogs

I grew up with dogs. In fact, from before the time I was born to now, my parents have never not had a dog.  And every single one of our dogs was bad — loveably bad — in its own way, to the point where I’m pretty much ruined for good dogs.  I need my dogs to be just a *little* mischievous.

My parents’ history with bad dogs started — before I was born — with the infamous Fritzi, a black-and-tan dachshund that someone at my mom’s work was trying to give away.  Although this should have been a red flag (“take this dog, please”), my parents took no notice.  Nor did they heed any of the other warning signs that Fritzi may not have been the best choice for a family pet, including the fact that he came from a decidedly rough background (he was a stray dachshund on the streets of downtown Baltimore for Pete’s sake) and, inexplicably, he only ate steak.  Nonetheless, my parents adopted him.  Soon after, they also took on another bad dog, Max, a thirty pound behemoth of a dachshund.

Max thought he was smaller than he was

Max and Fritzi became fast, misbehaved friends.

Max and Fritzi celebrating their birthday(s)

Although Max was severely naughty in a number of creative ways (he would jump into strangers’ cars, he ran away frequently, he ate garbage – both ours and our neighbors’–, he enjoyed rolling in poop and worms, he got stung in the mouth by a bee because he was trying to eat it, he ate an entire wicker dog bed, etc., etc.), he wasn’t actively malevolent.  Fritzi, on the other hand, was bad to the bone.  He bit people (including the poor, hapless mailman) and attacked animals.  One terrible day, when my mother was eight months’ pregnant with yours truly, she and my dad took Max and Fritzi to a friend’s farm.  While Max happily rolled around in cow manure, Fritzi set about biting a horse on the nose (he had to jump up in order to accomplish this) and mauling a duck.  When my parents got the dogs back into the car at the end of the day, Max was happy and covered in poop, while Fritzi had an evil gleam in his eye and blood and feathers stuck to his mouth.

My mom realized Fritzi had to go.  So, with a heavy heart, they gave him away and hung onto Max, my older brother.  It worked out well.

Me and Max sharing toys

For a long time, we were a family of four: Margie, Tom, Max, and Stephanie. In that order.

Our family

Then, when I was in second grade, we adopted Towser, my baby.  Towser Ivy Early was an exception to the bad dachshund rule: she was sweet, loved everyone, and only occasionally ate rotting garbage.  She did, however, pee everywhere whenever she got excited (this happened often), despite our best efforts to train her.  She did win “Smallest Dog” in our local kids’ dog show, though, so her life was not without distinction.

Max died at the ripe old age of 17 and was bad until the end.  Towser went to the Great Doggie Beyond when I was studying abroad (and it still hurts to think about it).  For a little while, there was a lonely gap in our lives when we didn’t have a dog.


Then, we got Dougal.  Oh, Dougal. What to say about Dougal?

Not a huge fan of baths

First, he’s adorable.  He looks like a little old man with a mohawk.  But is he normal?  Good God, no.  He’s as weird as they come.  He’s afraid of babies and old people and leaves.  He doesn’t like loud noises and is scared of traffic.  He’s a sensitive, artistic soul.  He may be a touch autistic.  Did I mention he sings?  Dougal sings Greensleeves

But he’s not bad.  Not really.  Not compared to dogs of our past.  We love him anyway.

Safety first

My husband and I share a predilection for bad dogs.  When Al was growing up, he had a dog named Midnight that was half-Pointer, half-black Lab, and was exceedingly naughty.  My favorite Midnight story (and I’ve heard a lot of them) is when he distracted the entire family by barking crazily at the front door until everyone got up to see what was going on, and while everyone was at the front door, he ran back into the dining room and ate the food off the table.  Pretty genius, no?

Anyway, a little bit of badness in a dog can be a good thing.  Max introduced us to some of our best family friends in Baltimore because he ran away and a family, the Erpensteins, found him and called the number on his collar.  We’re still friends with them today, over twenty years later.  We never would have met them if it weren’t for that naughty dog.  So, whenever Al and I get a dog, we’ll be in the market for a dog with a lot of personality — and a little dose of badness, for good measure.

Just a little evil


“The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.”
-Logan Pearsall Smith

I saw this quote the other day and it spoke to my little writer’s soul.  Isn’t it the truth?  You know that you’re meant to do a job if you can stand the mind-numbing tedium that comes with it.  And let’s face it — every job includes some dose of mind-numbing tedium.  I bet even an exciting job like being an astronaut comes with a fair amount of boring nonsense.  I mean, I bet astronauts have to do a lot of paperwork.

I should have known early on that I wasn’t cut out for law firm work when I found myself dreading even the non-tedious work involved in my job.  In fact, a weird inversion would happen at the lowest points of my tenure as a Big Law attorney wherein I’d look forward to the more tedious, less demanding tasks given to me (making PowerPoint slides, say, or reviewing documents) while facing more challenging assignments with white knuckles and gritted teeth, because I usually found them both difficult and dreadfully boring.  An assignment that is both hard and tedious really is the worst of both worlds, isn’t it?

Of course, I always did what I was asked to do and I’d like to think I performed adequately, but did I enjoy the process? Dear God, no.  I hated every minute of it.  Working at a law firm — both the drudgery and the brainwork — was an entirely miserable experience for me that often clouded my enjoyment of life.  Now, you might think I’m being a tad dramatic here, but no — something about the firm managed to spark some real Dark Night of the Soul-style existential wrangling for me.  Never did I fall to my knees and cry out, “Is this all there is, God?” because, you know, that would have been a little over the top, but, to be fair, I did cry in my office a lot.

It’s not just me who feels this way, by the way.  Sure, my hate for that particular job was probably more vehement than most of my colleagues’, but I’d venture to say that very few of the lawyers I encountered at my law firm genuinely loved what they did.  Many of us came to a firm in the first place because we had debt or we were trying to save money or we wanted to get training or we needed to have something prestigious on our resumes.  But the number of people who woke up looking forward to their workdays was quite small.  And almost no one I knew enjoyed the drudgery.  And oh, the sheer drudgery of being an attorney!  It’s indescribably dreary.

Now that I’m writing for a living, the Logan Pearsall Smith quote, above, makes perfect sense to me.  Some context: Smith was an essayist and critic who was known to take days to perfect a sentence.  (He also came up with some awesome quotes). So the guy clearly had a fondness for the drudgery of writing.  And gosh darn it, so do I.  Don’t get me wrong, writing is hard and it takes an effort, even as self-disciplined as I am, to make myself sit down and write 2000 words a day in my novel and then crank out a daily blog post.  But even when it’s a struggle, I enjoy it.  There’s something satisfying about gritting through, forcing my brain to shape words, digging ideas out of the attic of my subconscious.  And maybe the glow of writing will wear off eventually – after all, I’ve been doing this full-time for less than two months — but I don’t think so.  I think this is my vocation, as Smith would have it.  And so far I’m loving the drudgery.

Book review Tuesday: The Giver Quartet, by Lois Lowry

Since I’ve been off the radar for a week, I feel that I must make up for it by giving you some bang for your blogging buck.  Today, I want to talk about a series of books I recently finished, the so-called The Giver Quartet, by Lois Lowry.  Four book reviews for the price of one!

I get the sense that most Americans my age read Lowry’s The Giver (1993) at some point in elementary or middle school.  It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy, Jonas, who lives in a planned community in which emotions — both painful and joyful — have been carefully erased from the populace’s experience.  The Giver traces Jonas’s awakening to the fact that his society, rather than being pleasant and harmonious, is, in fact, monstrous.  In case you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the plot, but it’s moving and simple and lovely and, I think, a thought-provoking book for young readers (although I’ve re-read it several times in adulthood).

Lowry also wrote three companion books to The Giver: Gathering Blue (2000), The Messenger (2004), and Son (2012). I don’t know how on Earth the existence of these books escaped my notice, but I didn’t learn about them until right before I moved to South Africa (I think because I read this review of Son in the New York Times).  I downloaded all three new books on my Kindle immediately and devoured them each in a few days once I got to Joburg.

Rather than giving away the plots of all three of these books, I want to talk more generally about what I enjoy about Lowry’s writing, both as a writer and a reader, and why I think these books are excellent reading material for both children and adults.

First, Lowry has a gift for writing simply.  Reading her books, I’m reminded that to be a good writer, one doesn’t need to crowd the page with adjectives.  Sometimes her simplest passages are the most moving.  For example, I loved this really simple but evocative passage from Son, her final book in the series:

Alys and Old Benedikt stood watching the preparations for the marriage of Glenys and Martyn. Friends of the couple had built a kind of bower from supple willow branches and now they were decorating it with blossoms and ferns.  Beyond, on tables made of board and set outside for the occasion, the women were arranging food and drink.

“It’s a fine day,” Alys commented, squinting at the cloudless sky.

“I was wed in rain,” Old Benedikt said with a chuckle, “and never noticed a drop of it.”

She smiled at him.  “I remember your wedding day,” she said.  “And Ailish, all smiles.  You must miss her, Ben.”

He nodded.  His wife of many years had died from a sudden fever the winter before, with their children and grandchildren watching in sorrow.  She was buried now in the village graveyard with a small stone marking her place, and room beside her for Old Benedikt when his time came.

Lowry’s pared down language leaves room for emotion and feeling to shine through, unadulterated by too much fluff.  I’m sure part of the reason that Lowry writes this way is because she’s producing children’s literature, but I appreciate it nonetheless, especially because I’m currently reading a book — The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst — with the kind of absolutely opulent language that makes me worry that my writing will never amount to anything.

Another thing I appreciate about The Giver quartet is that they present several visions of societies that have somehow gone wrong, but which are ultimately solved by human compassion.  Sometimes Lowry beats us over the head with the theme a bit – in The Messenger, for instance, a once welcoming community of misfits who were exiled from other societies gradually turns xenophobic and insists on closing off the borders to the village, which results in the surrounding forest becoming evil and devouring those who try to enter or leave.  Okay, we get it, Ms. Lowry, this is an allegory for the United States. Closed borders, evil forest, got it — xenophobia’s bad. Again, though, these are kids’ books, and considering their target audience, they’re remarkably subtle.

I generally find the idea of societies gone wrong interesting — and as the NY Times’ Robin Wasserman points out, Lowry was doing dystopia before it was cool.  The difference between The Giver and, say, The Hunger Games, though, is that there’s an underlying lesson about humanity with The Giver that is much more nuanced and realistic than anything offered by Suzanne Collins.  The society in The Hunger Games went wrong because — well, we’re not sure.  There was a war, and then an oppressive, totalitarian regime took over, leaving some in poverty and others fabulously wealthy.  Although the government produces official propaganda intended to convince the oppressed that this arrangement is, in fact, for their own good, no one really buys it.  People are poor and miserable.  That vision of a dystopian society, as horrible as it may be, is much less insidious than the world that’s presented in The Giver and Son, both of which take place in a peaceful society in which people believe that they’re happy, because they’re unaware of the range of human emotions that their community planners have chosen to cut out of daily life.  As Jonas and Claire (the protagonist of Son) begin to awaken to the possibilities of feeling, they have to make complicated choices about what they want their lives to look like — peaceful and undisturbed by feelings, or messy but rich with emotion.  Unlike the choice faced by Katniss Everdeen — do I kill this other child or not? — Lowry presents moral dilemmas that readers might actually recognize from real life.

Knowing some of Lois Lowry’s backstory makes these books all the more poignant: her son Grey, a fighter pilot in the Air Force, was killed when his warplane crashed in 1995.  Lowry’s bio says of her son’s death:

His death in the cockpit of a warplane left a little girl fatherless and tore away a piece of my world. But it left me, too, with a wish to honor him by joining the many others trying to find a way to end conflict on this very fragile earth.

Lois Lowry

I think Ms. Lowry can be forgiven for overdoing a tad it on the moral storytelling she does in her books – this stuff really matters to her.  And her stories are beautiful.  I know when I have kids, I’ll be reading them The Giver quartet – and I might be re-reading them again before that.