My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #1,
January 7, 2000


For me, one of the greatest pleasures of self-employment, second only to never setting an alarm clock, is being able to read in the middle of the day and tell myself I'm working -- after all, everything I read is grist for my own thinking and writing.

One of my best discoveries this year was Sue Hubbell, an essayist and a noticer, one of those rare people who pays attention, to the entertaining quirks of the people she meets, to fleeting moments of beauty in the hills and woods and rivers around her, to the small delights in routine life like finding a first class piece of pie when you're traveling. My friend Mark, who told me about her, said, "I believe Sue Hubbell got more out of one stop for a piece of pie than many travelers get out of a couple of weeks abroad."

As one of the New Yorker's "far-flung correspondents," she wrote a number of pieces that are collected in a book called Far-Flung Hubbell, on things like making deliveries in New York City (she raises bees and sells their honey), canoeing in boundary waters, driving in Boston, America's truck stops (she has sampled rather a lot of them), Elvis sightings, art made out of bugs, the annual magicians' get-together in Michigan, the life and death of the five and dime store, and more. In On This Hilltop, which centers on life on her farm in the Missouri Ozarks, she talks about things like their vain attempt to cultivate enough corn to make their fortune, the women who work for rock bottom wages at the factories, the curse of zucchini, and what it's like to be invisible (doing business with men who insist on looking past her and talking to her husband instead).

A Country Year traces a year on her farm, specifically the year after her marriage broke up when she was alone on her hilltop except for the occasional visiting deer. It gives you a strong appreciation for the amount of sheer physical labor involved in farming, especially when you have nobody to share the workload with. At the same time, this is one of the best pieces of nature writing I've ever encountered. Hubbell has a wonderful understanding of the richness and interwovenness of the ecosystem that surrounds her cabin, and a humility about claiming to own the property that so obviously is owned and used by thousands of other species. She appreciates nature's fierceness as much as its beauty. One of her most powerful essays describes the night when two coyotes trapped one of her dogs between them, obviously viewing him not as distant kin but as supper. Though he whimpered and rolled over on his back to acknowledge dominance, the coyotes kept circling closer until Hubbell shouted at them and distracted them just long enough for her dog to escape.

Speaking of people who notice things, I came across John Stilgoe's book, Outside Lies Magic, this year. Stilgoe pays attention to our built environment and its history, investigating the ecology of highway cloverleaf interchanges and strip malls, the effect of fire insurance on the appearances of old downtowns, disused and/or restored railroad roadbeds, how, why and where we build fences, and much more. Among the things I'd never paid much attention to before was power lines -- he says we're the only nation that keeps so much of our power lines on poles above ground, and that the lines do much to kill off trees, both by power fields and by the amount of lopping of branches the electric companies do.

Aother essayist I enjoy very much is Bob Dotson, a television reporter who's traveled all over the country, talking to people about their lives and dreams. In Pursuit of the American Dream is a collection of stories of ordinary Americans whose lives were not ordinary at all -- the folks who run the mom and pop jail, the 5th and 6th graders who run their own corporation, the man who summons catfish, the Flying Fathers hockey team, the folks who teach the children of the circus, the Texan who lobbies for wildflowers… Dotson is one of those gifted people who's able to stay out of the way and let people reveal themselves. It's one of those books that makes you feel that nothing too bad can happen to a country that has people like these.

One of my other favorite columnists is Joe Lavin, who has recently published a collection of his best work, called But I Digress. Joe is a lot like the boy who insisted that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. He looks at the world around him and says, "Um, that doesn't actually make sense" (to which the world responds by keeping right on being absurd). When he was called for a telephone survey about iced coffee, he pointed out that he loathed iced coffee; the woman doggedly continued asking the questions anyway, about when he would drink it and what he compared it to, a dialog that began to sound remarkably like Green Eggs and Ham ("Would you like it in a boat? Would you like it in a coat?). He recounts his adventures with the crazy people of the world, who adore chatting with him and telling him about their personal relationships with space aliens. He takes on topics like school ("Nazi Germany and the Seventh Grade: a Comparative Study"), the Dummies guides, the differences between men and women (only women or married men would ever buy a hutch), sports interviews, customer support lines ("Keeping People on Hold since 1983"), channel surfing, and why we apparently don't need elections because the newscasters are perfectly happy with exit polls (written well before our recent presidential election). He asks useful questions, like why can't we vote for our pundits as well as our politicians. His take on the world is funny and offbeat and dead-on-target. You can read some of his work online or even order a copy of his book for your very own at

One of the most fascinating books I read this year was Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. This is the best explanation I've seen of the meme theory: that ideas operate like germs and spread like epidemics. Why, he asks, did Hush Puppies, a nearly moribund shoe brand, suddenly become cool? Why did Paul Revere succeed in not only spreading the news that the British were coming, but arousing men to armed resistance, when another man who also carried the news might as well have stayed home for all the good he did? Gladwell explains the necessary conditions for the spread of ideas, one of them being the law of the few.

The few who matter, he says, are connectors, mavens, and salesmen. The connectors are people whose acquaintance is so wide and varied they can spread an idea across many groups that have no other contact with each other. I think that's kind of what I do, because people come to me from all different directions -- booklovers find me through BookBytes, librarians through ExLibris or Neat New Stuff, and an oddly assorted lot finds me through columns I've written on everything from baseball novels to American history to weird names of rock groups.

The mavens are people well-known both for expert knowledge and enthusiasm -- think Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, who bubbles over with ideas and knowledge and connections between them, but also with eagerness to tell people about what he's learned. The salesmen are the born persuaders and influencers, like the cool kids who cam make anything they wear and do instantly trendy.

Gladwell is a born storyteller, with dozens of stories about how ideas spread and flourish. You can read it just for the fun of it. But you can also use it a manual of strategies for spreading your own memes more effectively.

This is also the year I discovered Anne Tyler. The Accidental Tourist is about Macon, a tidy, colorless, unadventurous man who writes travel books for people who don't want to travel, people who want to visit foreign places without experiencing anything foreign. His marriage to Sarah works well enough until their son's murder forces change. When Sarah moves out, Macon gets more reclusive and odder by the day until he is rescued by Muriel, the young woman who trains his dog. When she pushes herself into his life, he doesn't quite know how to resist. When Sarah wants to come back to him, he doesn't quite know how to resist that either. It takes a while for him to realize that even if he can't control what happens to him, he can at least make decisions about which direction to go in, and who to travel with.

A less profound but highly enjoyable novel was Caroline Preston's Lucy Crocker 2.0, about people who once loved their work, until it succeeded and turned into a corporate profit center demanding more, newer, and better ideas from them all the time. Lucy is an artist whose husband talks her into inventing a computer game which salvages his company, but she can't produce a new version of it on demand -- she's overwhelmed by sadness at her miscarriages and the distance growing between herself and her husband. When she finds out he's carrying on with one of his assistants, she takes the kids (computer geeks at risk of becoming monsters) to the Wisconsin woods, stashes them in the same camp she went to as a kid, and goes to the cabin where she spent summers with her grandfather, hoping to find herself again. The way they all work their way out of their problems is reflected in the new version of her computer game, which they create together.

I loved Spider Robinson's new book, Callahan's Key. Nikola Tesla arrives at Jake's place in New York to tell him he has to save the universe from the death ray Tesla has inadvertently unleashed. It will require a mass mental link-up between Jake and his pun-loving friends, and since Jake's place is no longer a functional bar, they'll have to set up shop elsewhere. When he decides on Key West, all his friends start pouring into town, ready to move there with him. They trundle off in a convoy of yellow school buses to set up a little community and bar there. In a sense, the whole book is a set-up for yet another elaborate pun by these immortal punsters: Jobs To Export Nike for a Change. Robinson makes you enjoy every single one of his wild cast of characters, and builds a community I'd love to be part of -- hey, I could be their librarian. (In a previous book, Robinson endeared himself to librarians everywhere by saying, "Mary Kay is one of the secret masters of the world -- a librarian. They control information. Don't ever piss one off.")

Another funny novel I enjoyed was J.M. Johnston's Biting the Wall, set in a computing center in a small state university. The plot -- the incoming veep is using the computer center to spy on a CIA relay station -- is not terribly believable or, for that matter, important. The pleasure of the story is the satire on academic types: an underground grammarian planting nasty notes about the president's inane speeches in the computer system, the English prof who actually speaks in middle English, the library director who is physically incapable of speaking a sentence without a pun in it. There are lovely little academic in-jokes -- the head of the post office who is addicted to a wee nip in the afternoon is named Godfrey Daniels. One of the profs, named Madox Ford Madox, talks in Jamesian sentence structures ("Doubtless a tedious, and, at least immediately, unrewarding effort," Madox agreed, "not unlike, if I may conjecture, those of my own in cataloging the entire output, as it currently exists, of Henry James, with whom I seem to become, as fate would have it, more deeply involved, for better or worse, with each passing, which they seem to do with disquieting haste, day."). For those who've spent their lives in universities, this is actually quite believable.

I discovered a new horror fiction writer this year, Bentley Little. In The Store, a Wal-Mart style store is built near a small town in Arizona, with the help of the town's city council which has offered all kinds of tax breaks and exceptions to local law. The downtown has already been troubled, but now the stores begin dying. Not fast enough to suit The Store, however, which aggressively moves to undercut each remaining local business. As businesses are forced to close, and their employees are laid off, the town's tax revenues diminish, but the still have to fund improvements they promised The Store's management, leaving no money to fund police or fire protection, or schools or parks. No problem, says The Store's management, as it provides those services itself. The only difference between what happens in real life when a Wal-Mart moves in and what's happening here is conscious malevolence -- The Store not only wants to stomp out local business, it will even kill to accomplish it, and has supernatural powers to assist it in its aims. This is a scary book. And his point is well-taken: we put ourselves at risk by caring first and foremost about price.

My best discovery of all this year was Barbara Kingsolver, but when I started trying to write about her, she hijacked the entire column. One of these days I'll have to write a whole column just about her. But the rest of these were great pleasures too. It was a wonderful year for reading.

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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