Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Well, here we are deep into On Hold Week, the static period between the big stars, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. It has its own bland traditions.

For one, we're treated to TV and newspaper roundups of major figures who have died in the past year (in the words of a long-ago Utah radio personality, those who have "shot on over.") These quickie features are always good for a brief jolt: either a sincere "Awwww," or the less positive, "Hunh! I thought he had died years ago!"

For another, the Food Channel gears up with increasingly hopeless ideas for "Celebrating Turkey Leftovers." We just won't face the truth: the Turkey stars on big feast days because it looks impressive, it smells wonderful, and it makes lovely gravy. Nowhere in that list do we find the words, "tastes good." So, yes, we have to deal with the leftovers, but no, we needn't be hypocrites, pretending that something that was blah to begin with becomes gourmet grub with the addition of raisins, crumbled rum-soaked fruitcake, or stale paprika.

And surely one of the inevitable two-star hits during On Hold Week is the Predictions List. Everyone seeking 15 minutes of fame gets in line to forecast what the year ahead will hold. Doesn't matter the subject: fashion trends, number of hurricanes, stock market thrills, re-arrangement of sexual partners in Hollywood--someone will forecast the future for us.

My own history of predictions is unlikely to threaten Nostradamus. Still in high school, I passed through the living room one evening to find my parents watching the Ed Sullivan Show. I rolled my eyes, as required of adolescents, and glanced at the act in progress. Some musician was singing mournfully while squirming as though someone had dropped a community of red ants in his tight-fitting pants.

"Well, there's one we'll never hear from again," I sneered. Elvis Presley. Man is more popular now, years after his death, than he was while alive. Strands from a recently discovered hair brush of his were auctioned off for enough money to buy West Texas.

A few years later, just out of graduate school, my roommate and I wanted to buy a television set of our own, instead of continuing to make do with some rabbit-eared reject we had bought at Goodwill.

"Should we maybe get a color set?" Anne asked.

"COLOR! Color TV? That is absolutely decadent! That's just a passing fad to jack up the price! Why would we shell out for some silly indulgence like color!" Um-hum.

About five years later, the word "VISA" began to be heard in the land. A plastic card. Someone's idea to replace "layaway," whereby you gave the store so much money each month and THEN,when it was paid for, you got your winter coat or the striped sofa.

"Do they really think people are going to CHARGE things on this plastic card and pay these VISA folks huge interest? It will never happen," I assured anyone within the sound of my voice. (As it happened, "the VISA folks" drank toasts every year for about fifteen years to my hefty interest payments.)

As for cell phones, well, of course I was wrong on that one, too. Not only wrong, but short-sighted. Dense though I was about color TV and credit cards, I certainly got the knack of them rapidly and indeed avidly. But the simple cell phone, which tiny children now use successfully to call "Gamma" and instruct her to "b'ing cookies," is still pretty much a mystery to me. Mine has about fourteen functions, two of which I understand. (Never the same two in a given week.)

But I did predict one advance correctly.

Perhaps twenty years ago, I was serving on a university committee having something to do with what we then called "correspondence courses." These were courses students could take by mail, doing the work at their homes wherever they might be, mailing in papers and tests and receiving in turn comments and suggestions from the instructor. At one point, I said to the committee, "You know, computer access is increasing everywhere. If we were imaginative and offered courses by computer that would be help college dropouts finish their programs, I think we'd do a great service. In particular, women who were raising families, or working women who had never gone to college, might really benefit from such opportunities."

Frowns. Heads cocked to the side in puzzlement. Slow, deep sighs. ("She's at it again. Women's issues!") A totally unconvincing "maybe." Two "ummm's." And the agenda rolled off on its own course.

Yesterday I checked online. The university mentioned now has five hundred
"distance learning " computer courses--including middle school, high school, and university classes plus others of a non-academic nature and a number of free courses. Hundreds of women have obtained high school diplomas through these offerings, and more have finished college work they began but interrupted. I didn't have a thing to do with any of that, but at least my crystal ball was unclouded for once.

Happy New Year to us all!

Monday, December 22, 2008


Much as I am addicted to probing and poking my own psyche, I can't for the life of me figure out when I stopped reading novels, or why.

All I know is that quite a while back, I realized I was buying novels people recommended, thick, hardcover books in mint condition, then not reading them. One year I checked Amazon.com's file of all the books I had bought from them during that twelvemonth. (I'll never do that again!) Most of the novels were still unread.

Lately, though, things seem to be picking up. No explanations for that, either. But I have two real stunners to put on my personal "BEST BOOKS OF 2008."

In 2005, Ann Patchett wrote Bel Canto, and soon even the monotones among us were singing its praises. You know all those grandiose movies that put ten or twelve stars on an airplane or cruise ship or lifeboat and then create a catastrophe during which you really get to know the characters, who are no more interesting in crisis than at any other time? Well, Bel Canto isn't like that. Except that it does center on a hijacked houseparty, including an opera superstar and the Japanese billionaire who has loved her from afar, plus his translator. And a pair of guerillas. Well, forget about plot. This novel is comparable to a Puccini aria in its power to render you limp with admiration and delight.

So this year, Patchett gave us Run. Most people say the book is about families; Patchett says it's about politics. I think it's about how how things come to belong to us, and we to them, or not.

Early in the storyline, a poor Irish boy steals a small statue from a church because it looks so much like the girl he loves. A couple of generations later, two sisters (now in America) want to take the statue back from their sister's widower, because he has no daughter to be the "logical" heir. The widower, formerly mayor of Boston, has an older son who somehow doesn't belong in the family he was born to and clearly knows that, and two adopted sons who clearly do, and to whom the statue unarguably belongs.

Who belongs to whom in this life, and why? How do you make something your own? How do you get free of something another person wants desperately to give you, such as a view of the world, a passion for politics, or faith? For my part, I wanted a week's worth of evening reading from Run, but the book is much too absorbing to be confined to such discipline.

In 1980, Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping. It won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Novel, and was nominated for the Pulitzer in fiction. Of course, somebody decided to make a movie of it, which was not a good idea. But happily, Christine Lahti was cast in the lead, assuring a thoughtful, beautifully rich performance of a character almost no reader could quite grasp.

Robinson did not publish another book of fiction for 24 years. In 2004, she gave us
Gilead. Of all the books I have read in my life, this was the one I most truly did not want to end. I read slower and slower, knowing the last page was coming up. The book glowed with spiritual light. Now that will give you entirely the wrong idea, but how else to say it? Spiritual, note; not religious, even though the central character is an aging pastor of the small midwestern town of Gilead. Knowing he will not live long enough to have serious conversations with his very young son, he writes the boy an extended letter, revealing his own heart and the heart of the
battered little town. Gilead won the National Book Critics Award (2004) and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2005.

Last summer, Robinson published Home . It is not a sequel to Gilead but another point of view of the same town and characters. In the first novel, the dying narrator is John Ames; in Home, the voice is that of Glory, daughter of the aging Robert Boughton, the lifelong friend and alter ego of John Ames. His ne'er-do-well son Jack and the betrayed daughter Glory (both almost middle-aged) are once again at their father's side. The resulting dynamics are not happy, but they are instructive. One British reviewer called this book, "The saddest story you'll ever love." The London Times simply declares Robinson "the world's best writer of prose."

It just occurs to me as I write that these two exceptional novels share the same themes: love and death. Well, of course. Decades ago, a tall, shy redhead sat in my creative writing class and wrote exceptional stories far beyond the level one has any right to hope for from an 18-year old. I had the luck to know her for four years, before her young life was destroyed by a drunken driver. In the last story she ever wrote, she has a character say to her dubious boyfriend, "I write about love and death because love and death is all there is." She wasn't the first writer to discover that, but surely one of the most untouched by cynicism and bitterness. Hers was a great talent, and a greater heart; and today, the day before Christmas 2008,as I unintentionally look back through the long decades to that ranch girl and the few precious writings we had from her, I am cheered to think of her. I indulge the easy belief (it costs me nothing) that, had she lived, she would have written on a level with Ann Patchett and even Marilynne Robinson.

For more about Robinson, see Marilynne Robinson, At "Home" in the Heartland:NPR

Happy Reading! Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"DEAR MR. GABLE" sang Judy Garland

I'll get back to "Best Books of Bellabell's 2008" before the Big Ball drops in Time's Square, but in the meantime, let me ask you this:

How do we feel about fan mail?

Have you ever written any? Movie buff though I was, I didn't pen any adoring letters during my childhood or adolescence. But in my mid-twenties, the recorded voice of soprano Eileen Farrell made me hyper-ventilate and even shout a bit during a particularly demanding finale. So I wrote a short, grateful letter to the glorious diva. Have no idea now what I wrote. I do know what she wrote back, however. Still have the brief, kind note, with its dark blue engraved letterhead and her written signature.

Movie historians insist that Joan Crawford answered every piece of email she received. I can believe it--don't want to, don't want even to think about why she did, but I do.

New Age composer-keyboardist Mike Rowland turns out CD's with titles like "The Fairy Ring," and "Mystic Angel." Frankly, the music is what cartoonist Gerry Trudeau once called "air pudding." You'd never mistake it for Mozart. But it gives a serene comfort I've never found in other "tinkle-bong-bong" offerings. For me, it is the perfect relaxation/meditation/go-to-sleep music. And when my sister-in-law laying dying in Arizona (too young! too young!), I kept Rowland's music playing softly in the background for several days. Everyone who passed through the room stopped,listened and commented on how soothing it was. So after wearing grooves in the CD's, I finally wrote Mike Rowland a fan letter. Because I tried too hard to make it natural and unassuming, it was awkward and a little tacky, but I felt I'd paid a small debt.

Recently I saw a fine local production of the one-man play "I Am My Own Wife," the true account of a German transvestite whose efforts to save artwork of Jewish victims during World War II were both admirable and questionable. The lone actor played a full stage of roles, some 15 or more characters, and kept the play credible and absorbing from start to finish. So I emailed him a note of congratulations. But I don't think that counts as "fan" mail, "fan" being derived from "fanatic" and I not even remembering now the young actor's name.

But I am truly a fanatic on the works of Alan Bennett; and his slim novella, The Uncommon Reader, has tickled me so much I really want to thank him. But this man collects writing awards the way some Brits used to collect wildflowers.
I'm sure fan mail is, for him, just one more thing to assign someone else to deal with, whether through his publishers or by agreement with the local Postal Service (and heavy tips on Boxing Day). Bennett has been known to suffer fools gladly--well, no, not gladly. But gently. For 15 years, a wildly eccentric old woman, a stranger to the writer, camped in Bennett's front yard in her battered yellow van. After dealing with Miss Shepherd and her demands and dementia, surely Bennett views fan mail, yea or nay, as a small nuisance.

But, do we write such letters primarily for the sake of the recipient, or for our own sake? I begin to think the latter. We write so that we may benefit from the actual expression of gratitude, which, until such expression, is only appreciation, an intellectual exercise. Whereas gratitude is an emotion, a resident of the heart, which it warms and comforts.

If you were going to write a fan letter, who would it be for?