Batman, cupcake reading, trees

The middle day of a three-day weekend is a beautiful thing. Sanguinity and I went to our favorite coffee shop and ate this:
breakfast sandwich and lunch special from Pieper Cafe
and I drew Batman (a bit Loki-ish now that I think of it):
Batman as drawn by Holly in a spiral notebook
Last week I started reading Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and did not want to stop til it was (sadly) over! (But there’s going to be a sequel!) It has a bit of a Little Women vibe, with three close sisters and the boy next door. It’s about family and friendship as well as romance, and the characters were likeable, good kids just trying to figure stuff out. Even the mean girl was not that mean and had an understandable motivation based on the characters’ past interactions. It’s the kind of sweet comfort reading I call a cupcake, light and well written.

I was a little taken aback at how much of my pleasurable sigh as I got into this book was based on the setting of universal affluence. I mean, starting on page two, the characters are talking about a possible trip to Paris over spring break. And when they decorate their Christmas tree, it’s “We run out of lights, so Daddy goes to buy more at the store.” (I grew up middle class, but you unwind the lights and redo them with more space between the rows!) It’s not a gossip-girl type thing where conspicuous wealth and glamour are what the book’s offering; it’s a shiny, normalized wealth where teenagers have cars and no one thinks twice about ordering pizza delivery once a week. I love it when books show working-class families (Ramona and her Father, Please Ignore Vera Dietz), but apparently I love this too, in a different way. Maybe it’s nostalgia for Nancy Drew and her roadster, or the baby-sitters in Stoneybrook? Some kind of relaxing escapism going on.

At the same time, I happened to have also just started Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life in a desultory way. (It’s my backup bus book, in case I finish my book on the bus, or don’t feel like reading my regular bus book. Not an exalted position in my book hierarchy.) Weirdly, the unremarked-on affluence in that book made me grouchy and resentful! She buys a pricey chaise longue “covered in an antique Tibetan blanket” because why? Because “although I have an office in my home, it had grown stale. My desk was piled high with papers, mail, and various forms that had nothing to do with my writing life.” A few pages later, she’s like, “I can’t imagine what my UPS delivery guy thinks when I crack open the door to sign for a package. There’s that weird lady again.” Um, he thinks you don’t have to go to a job. Right? By this time I was pretty much hate-reading (“On my desk, propped between two Buddha-head bookends,” grrrr), until on page 47 I came to: “my friend Peter Cameron.” What? Really? Well. Just in case they really are friends and I am missing something, I will quit with the judgey and keep reading to learn something. I’ll let you know.
Yesterday Sanguinity and I went on a Heritage Tree Walk down in Sellwood. The rain was coming down like it meant business, but there were still about a dozen of us there, led by an arborist and an AmeriCorps volunteer and someone from the city’s street tree program. We saw a gorgeous pair of American Chestnuts that escaped the blight, a big Oregon white oak, and an amazing huge European Copper Beech in a big yard. But one of the coolest things was when one of the leaders started measuring the trees that were on public property or in the planting strip between sidewalk and street with a diameter tape!
diameter tape for measuring trees
It’s a cloth tape with a little crank for winding it up again after use, and each “inch” on the tape is actually 3.14 (or so) inches long. So you measure around the tree and the number on the tape is the diameter. I wish every kid learning about pi and circles could play with one, it is so pleasingly concrete.

At the end of class we got a booklet with maps and descriptions of every heritage tree in Portland. And an application in the back in case you know a tree you think should be designated. (They’re pretty choosy, accepting only about 25% of applicants.) So we are equipped for a project if we ever want to go visit them all. :)

review of a book I can’t find

Where is my (library) copy of Blythe Woolston’s The Freak Observer? I finished it day before yesterday, so it can’t be too many layers down. But I’ve checked the bathroom, by the bed, my backpack, the kitchen counter, and in the sofa cushions. I suppose it might be at work.

The book is about a grieving girl starting to put her life back together, while things keep happening around her. You know, just life things, things that happen especially when you’re a teenager and can’t control that much around you, as far as people moving and school grinding on and your family trying to make ends meet.

I agree with this review at A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy that it feels good to read a book where working-class feels real. Shift work, jobs held and then lost and then replaced by other jobs, none of them great, hoping that enough family members have enough jobs among them at any one time to keep things going. Loa calculates what things cost in relation to wages and her family’s time. Her description of her part-time job at the nursing-home cafeteria is wonderful. Exactly what she has to do, how much of it there is, and it has to be done a certain way. It’s the kind of job knowledge and sheer endurance that isn’t respected or compensated, but is nonetheless accrued with a lot of time and work and hopefully lets you keep your job even if you’re still in high school. The last book I read with that working-class feel was on my 2009 list, David Gifaldi’s Listening for Crickets. They’re more rare than you might think.

There are a lot of science and art references in the book, and they hit a nice balance for me too. Loa didn’t have the “I’m only sixteen but I live for science (or painting, or whatever)” trope. That trope is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I think it’s one that appeals to my inner teenager and is actually a fiction. Things hit Loa hard, but it can be all different things. Also, I didn’t feel pressured, as a reader, to buy into some “let’s present a science metaphor and all express awe at it oh wow and now let’s congratulate ourselves for being deep and sensitive” *cough* Madeleine L’Engle *cough* thing. It was just stuff, albeit rich stuff. If you’ve read the book, you can see some of the art at the author’s website. And other cool tangential material; Woolston is a professional indexer and it kind of shows!

I liked Loa herself a lot, and that’s where the book is a little frustrating to me, at least on first reading. Loa is grieving, and I think on the taciturn side anyway. (Props for this not coming off as the frozen-ness that marks a lot of Sarah Dessen protagonists, for instance, and that I think is a bit of a false-depth device. Loa is also honest and hilarious, which helps a lot.) It took about 35 pages for me to hook in and care about her. The story opens with multiple layers of trauma that still aren’t the main trauma in Loa’s life, and I rattled around in it all.

On the other hand, by the end I really appreciated that the changes and resolutions didn’t fix or even address the Big Everything issues. Some smaller things got straightened out, and showed almost incidentally that Loa was changing and healing. When I find the book again, I want to go back to the beginning and see if it strikes me differently.

I have a feeling this book may stick in my head for awhile. It won the Morris Award for best debut novel, so I’ll definitely be watching for more from the author.

“What kind of tree is that?”

It may well be that when I did get started writing I chose to inhabit the ignominious swamp of children’s literature because I knew I was just not good enough to write real books about human relations and sex–not good enough because I don’t know my ash from my elm.
–Daniel Pinkwater in Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights

That’s from one of my favorite parts of the book– Pinkwater recounts Isaac Babel’s story “The Awakening,” in which a boy who wants to be a writer despairs because he doesn’t have a “feel for nature” or know any names and facts about the natural world. In the bad biopic of Gustav Mahler that Pinkwater was watching, that bit was stolen wholesale and plunked in, so that suddenly little Gustav is being lectured by the Wise Old Man: “How can you be a composer when you don’t know the names of trees?”

Pinkwater thinks it’s ridiculous in both cases. I’m happy to join him in the ignominious swamp, but I do want to know, and I was excited for Tree Identification class at Irving Park this morning. The prospect of fast-food breakfast on the way sealed the deal.

We got to the park at nine a.m. and followed some likely-looking tree nerds (rain gear, knapsacks) to the picnic shelter, where we got handbooks and doughnuts and reflective VOLUNTEER vests so no one would run us over or call the cops as we gathered in front of their houses to inspect the “street trees” in the planting strip. I saw two looks askance at my McDonald’s cup, but it wasn’t all Concerned Progressives. One guy was barefoot and informed us that lindens are one of the rare trees with edible leaves, which have a pleasant, mild flavor. Indeed they did.

Other tidbits:

  • Honey locusts don’t grow that well here; they’re always a little thin and spindly. Therefore, they’re planted in front of the Portland Building so that people can look up through the leaves and see Portlandia!
  • The wood of dogwood trees was used to make skewers called “dags,” and the tree was called “dagwood,” which morphed into “dogwood.”
  • The dawn redwood is Oregon’s official state fossil. It grew here for millions of years, but was thought to be long extinct. In the 1940s, Chinese scientists found them growing in Hubei province in central China. A team from Harvard brought some back to the U.S. in 1948, and today I saw one in somebody’s yard, looking sassy.

So watch my stories for tree names– maybe I’ll become a bona fide regional writer yet. ;)