My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 4, #24,
January 4, 1998


It won't surprise you to learn that some of the most interesting books I read in 1998 were about one of my favorite topics--the idiosyncrasies of Americans. This was the year I discovered NPR reporter Bob Garfield, who, in Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream, tells some of his favorite true stories about undaunted seekers of the dream. It's the kind of book that inspires fantasies--perhaps like him some day I too could rove America, staring with astonishment and delight at the largest museum of potato chips shaped like celebrity faces, a Christian restaurant turned strip joint, a poetry slam, and Katrina the talking cat. Perhaps I too could meet people like the earthworm rancher, the singing endodontist, the woman who fought city government to keep her pet pig, or the man whose calling is protecting the fake vomit industry against cheap and tacky imports.

And if I SHOULD go wandering across the continent, you may be sure I would make a point of visiting Bird in Hand, PA (looking vainly for Two in Bush). I'd want to visit Nirvana, Michigan--after all, I have already been to Hell (MI). Baseball lover that I am, Best Pitch, Maine and Umpire, Arkansas would be must stops. And while I'd probably avoid Dull, Texas, and Boring, Maryland, I couldn't resist stopping at Whynot, Mississippi on my way to Frog Jump, Tennessee and Bumpass, Virginia. Should I get to the great northwest, I would want to stop off at Humptulips, Washington. But the power of inertia being what it is, I will probably remain at home with my cats and computer, for thanks to Frank Gallant's amusing A Place Called Peculiar, I can always travel vicariously to these and other towns.

For people who love names, what could be more fun than Paul Dickson's What's in a Name: Reflections of an Irrepressible Name Collector? All kinds of verified true names, at that: apt ones (C. Sharpe Minor, organist), nicknames (Wiggly Field, as Candlestick Park was known after the earthquake), names of extraterrestrials who have kidnapped Americans (Commander Marivonch Felchar is my favorite), punned business names (Wok around the Clock, a 24-hour Chinese restaurant), and names you wouldn't ever want to be saddled with (Sistine Madonna McClung). This is a book to be savored in small doses--in larger ones, names like April Blathers may pale to insignificance beside the greater glory of Althea Foss McBiddlewhiskers.

Names are one of the things Americans do uniquely well, but Joshua Hammond identified seven others in The Stuff American Are Made Of. Like DeTocqueville before him, he finds that the forces that define us remain

I have written columns about every one of these American characteristics, in my usual slapdash way, with an anecdote here, a fact there to support my argument, so I was gratified to see the wealth of evidence Hammond has gathered to prove their enduring truth.

This being the year during which I have begun to think of myself as a writer, rather than someone who does a bit of writing on the side, I have also been reading about the craft of writing. Rosemary Daniell's The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself was useful for me. Daniell is the founder of the long-lived women's writing group, Zona Rosa. Over time, women have come to this group, grappled with their fears and fragile self-confidence, written, and left, while others replaced them. For most of them, Daniell was a gifted teacher of writing, an enabler who brought out the stories and words lurking inside hundreds of apparently ordinary women. Daniell gives aspiring writers starting points and strategies, along with an even greater gift: the understanding that none of us is ordinary, that we all have stories to tell.

I very much enjoyed Anne Faulk's novel of the war between the sexes, Holding Out, in which an unknown and rather ordinary woman unintentionally becomes a heroine and martyr. She is outraged that Congress fails to do anything about a supreme court judge whose wife committed suicide because she could no longer put up with his physical abuse. The heroine proposes a "Lysistrata" resistance--women will refuse sex until the justice is held accountable. Her attractiveness and her eloquence give her instant credibility, and make her an enemy to be taken seriously by the political establishment. Their vicious, no-holds-barred response might seem implausible had we not just been treated to the Ken Starr-Henry Hyde-Tom DeLay show.

The book appeals as more than a political story and suspense novel. Its success has to do with how likable Faulk's people are. Her heroine is no manhater--in fact she understands perfectly well that most men find the wife-beating judge as abhorrent as do women. The man who loves her, having touched off similar furies as a prominent protester in the sixties, is uniquely placed to understand the danger and unpredictability of the events she has triggered. Her protest succeeds because of the decency of men and women alike. Perhaps this book is a fairy tale of democracy, but if so, we could stand to see something similar happen in real life in the next couple of months.

A book that caused me concern is Jane Healy's Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds, for Better and Worse. My nervousness about children and computers has been about children using them before they have learned to read with fluency, because reading develops so many skills--a linear thought process, concentration, the ability to follow a reasoned argument--at the same time as it enchants. Children who are eagerly reading about lions, witches and dinosaurs are also absorbing language, grammar, information, and a sense of how stories work. Computers on the other hand teach an entirely different mind skill, that of connecting the disconnected, gathering hypertext bits and pieces of information and piecing them together into some entirely new mental construct. While this kind of mind could be more creative, I wonder how deep a knowledge base will underpin these mental constructs in a person who has not read widely.

But Healy provides a lot of anecdotal evidence that children raised too young on computers fail to develop a lot of other physical, emotional and mental abilities. It turns out that the normal things children do in those first six years--running and jumping, playing tag and Go Fish, cuddling dolls, operating toy trucks, lying on the ground staring at earthworms--teaches far more than we ever understood. The substitution of a two-dimensional virtual world for a real one of sensations and smells and sounds can affect children's balance and sense of where they are in space, while hours spent with a computer instead of other people are hours in which the child is not learning social skills like listening and manners and negotiation.

Healy also finds that some children given computer programs for making images on screen often don't want to draw pictures because their own primitive efforts at drawing are less attractive. It seems to me those primitive efforts are a necessary step in learning how to observe, and how to control the pencils and paints and make them produce on paper what is inside the mind. I remember when my brother's children asked him how to make the smoke in their pictures look more like real smoke. He stood there and watched smoke with them for a good half an hour, making them pay attention to the colors in the smoke, and the way it interacted with light and wind. I wonder if a child with a computer drawing program would even ask the question, let alone spend the time figuring out an answer.

Healy is clear that there are advantages as well as drawbacks to computers for children, including the power of connectedness. E-mail is a special boon, that can encourage children's ease in writing at the same time it gives them the chance to find new friends in a larger pond than the one they were born into. For ugly ducklings, misplaced geniuses, and victims of bullies, especially, the net can be a wonderful place to find people who share their interests and find them lovable. But any parents who are thinking about buying for their toddlers should read this book and think about it before they do.

Certainly the effect of parents on children is what matters most of all. In Richard Russo's novel The Risk Pool, the young boy who tells the story has barely adequate parents. At first he lives with his agoraphobic mother, but when she has a breakdown, he has to live with his father, who is only occasionally employed and barely functional himself. In a way, the boy raises himself, with a little help from his father's friends.

Russo is an amazing writer, who creates characters we absolutely believe exist. This is rare enough, but Russo also has a gift for storytelling that would have you reading in gulps, racing to the end of the book to see what happens, if you weren't forcing yourself to slow down so you won't miss the perfect exactness of his word choices, the rhythm of the conversations, the sense of place that runs through all this books. While I liked Russo's Nobody's Fool better, this one is very good indeed.

My other favorite novel of the year is Moo, in which Jane Smiley writes about an agricultural college where lust, politics and intrigue are the order of the day. Students are only marginally in evidence, being only the excuse that allows the professors and deans to write grant proposals, experiment with pigs and plants, and attend conferences where they can network and hope to find better jobs. The book is a wonderfully funny send-up of academia, and however great the comic exaggerations, any academic will recognize parts of it as God's own truth.

But since the three most important books I read this year all focus on the theme of rebuilding communities whose hearts have been torn out by urban sprawl, I am going to devote an entire column to them one of these days. Meanwhile, why don't you share? Tell me and my readers in my discussion room about the books you read this year that were important to you. I look forward to hearing from you.

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