Book Review: "Etta and Otto and Russel and James" by Emma Hooper

Am I the only one who has the occasional urge to throw on a pair of sneakers and just... walk? Walk until I am forced by geography to stop, until I reach an ocean, until I reach a boundary that bridges can't span and eyes can't pierce. (Or until my feet fall off, which would certainly happen first.) It would have to be the Atlantic Ocean, since I'm from a port town and a two mile stroll probably wouldn't cut it as an epic spiritual journey.

Etta Vogel is an 83-year old woman who does just that. She sets out early one morning with a shotgun and extra socks from somewhere near Regina, Saskatchewan, and heads toward the ocean that's farther away by 2,000 miles. Otto is her husband, who she left behind to struggle with 3x5 recipe cards and the art of papier-mâché. Russel is their neighbor and Otto's de facto brother ever since he showed up one evening at supper time; he developed a crush on their young school teacher, Etta Kinnik, before Otto did. And James is a coyote who joins Etta on her journey, and sometimes talks to her.

The novel braids together the three friends' childhood memories from the depression era, falling in love during World War II, and their experiences as old people when Etta suddenly leaves. A touch of magical realism is the ingredient that binds the story together.

I liked it. I liked the matter-of-fact writing style, the intense practicality of the characters, and the almost fairy-tale feeling. I don't often get the chance to know characters from the very beginning to the end of their stories, and Emma Hooper's novel took on 80 years of story with grace, presenting a lifetime as if it were something small you can keep in your pocket as well as something enormous, spanning prairies and oceans.  

(Constantly) Under Construction

Bear with me folks, I'm still trying to make this blog look pretty. The first theme I was using made weirdness happen. The current theme is called "Simple." It's boring, but hopefully the weirdness will be minimized.

I realize now that I should have tried a more sophisticated platform than Blogger, but it's what I'm used to and I'd rather keep the enemy I know than trade it in for a different one.

I will also be sharing my posts on Facebook since what is the point of keeping a blog if no one looks at it? It's like writing in a diary every week and leaving it tucked away in a library among a bajillion other books and diaries with flashier covers and better card-indexing. It's somewhat comforting to know that not many people will see the mundane stuff I've written (mostly book reviews), but there's no reward in it. 

In anticipation of more people reading my blog in the future, I, Hannah McCollum, formally apologize for the infrequent and uninteresting posts that are sure to come, and my overzealous use of parentheses and run-on sentences. (I do love parenthetical asides.)

Further apologies for not using a scanner, or being able to find any blank white paper in the whole house. Also sorry that my speech bubble lines are bad. That is some weirdness I cannot blame on Blogger. 

Things that are pleasing

Things that are pleasing:
  • [Link] When the sky is clear and you can see Mt. Baker all the way down to Mt. Rainier, dressed in white for the winter. 
  • Finding something that was lost. 
  • Meeting old friends. 
  • Hearing a good cover of a good song. 
  • The sound of pages turning.
  • Closing a novel after coming to the end. 
  • The first clump of pine trees as you enter Spokane County.
  • Parallel parking perfectly on your first try. 
  • Expecting a kiss from someone you haven't seen in a long while.
  • Kissing someone you haven't seen in a long while. 
  • The rhythmic whirrrr-chaclunk-clunk of a copy machine.
  • Office supplies. 
  • When your old favorite radio station comes into range as you descend Snoqualmie pass and near your childhood home. 
  • The smell of engine grease on your hands and clothes. 
  • Clean glasses. 
  • Finding the perfect Spotify playlist.  
  • Clacking away on a noisy keyboard. 
  • A warm mug of tea. 
  • When you come out of that slight bend in I-90 and catch the view of Spokane below you, from atop Sunset Hill, and know that your journey is almost complete. [Link

Book review: “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” by Douglas Adams

This one took some effort for me to get into, as the plot took sudden turns in a way that at first felt directionless rather than clever and unexpected. However, once I accepted that I was on a journey through a neighborhood filled with cul-de-sacs and a complete disregard for cardinal directions, with speed limit signage that made as much sense as a platypus does, I was much happier abandoning the road-map of the conventional novel and letting Douglas Adams drive.

Now that I think about it, the plot line followed private holistic detective Dirk Gently's own philosophy on investigating and getting around in general, “investigating the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Meaning that anything and everything could provide the needed clue to solve his mystery, so Dirk will pick a clue on a whim and follow it wherever it leads, even if it's away from the problem at hand. He does the same thing when he gets drives: “He had a tremendous propensity for getting lost when driving. This was largely because of his 'Zen' method of navigation, which was simply to find any car that looked as if it knew where it was going and follow it. The results were more often surprising than successful, but he felt it was worth it for the sake of the few occasions when it was both.”

“The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” featured characters with the most affable of flaws. Kate Schechter, a New Yorker living in London, who enjoys harassing pizza joints on the telephone with demands that they deliver to her apartment, an americanism that apparently hadn't caught on in Britain in the 80s. A private detective who seems to be really, really bad at his job. And a couple of Norse gods struggling to adapt to the modern western lifestyle.

All of it written in Adams' wonderfully understated, sardonic voice that I can never get enough of. For a few afternoons of whimsical enjoyment surrounding a murder-mystery, go read this book.  

Reformation Sunday is better with cosplay

A couple Sundays ago I attended my first Lutheran church service. It was a special event to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation's beginnings in Wittenberg, combining the choirs of a few different Lutheran churches in Spokane, a booming organ, and a trumpet. I was lured to St. John's because a former co-worker, Dave, was performing in a short play that he also wrote, and I stayed for the traditional German dinner served afterwards.

I found a seat in the folding chairs against the back wall of the sanctuary, which was fairly small and designed with great acoustics. When it was time for the choir to perform, almost half the congregation stood up. They sang triumphant, stately hymns at a thunderous volume, with the organ not passively accompanying but leading the battle charge of music.

Later I learned that the organ at St. John’s doesn’t have a swell box, which would give the organist more control over the volume. As you can see in this photo, the organ’s pipes are exposed in the sanctuary. Sometimes, a section of pipes is enclosed in a case with shutters that can be opened or closed to change the loudness. At St. John’s, it was full blast or nothing.

The performance was the conversation that William Tyndale and Philip Melanchthon would have had if they had ever met, complete with period costumes and codpieces. Both were leading figures in the Protestant Reformation: Melanchthon was Luther’s BFF and a founder of Lutheranism, and Tyndale, played by Dave, translated the Bible into modern English. In Dave’s play, they were overjoyed to meet after having heard about each other and reading each other’s works. The main theme that I got out of it was the level of importance that these two reformers placed on scripture. They were both committed to making Bibles available to people in a language that they could read and understand, and convinced of the power of God’s word to open eyes and change hearts.

In the sermon afterwards, the pastor asked us to consider whether the Reformation should be celebrated, as the Lutherans do, or mourned because of the loss of unity with the Roman Catholic Church, the domino effect of new protestant denominations forming anytime there’s a disagreement, or, you know, all the wars and bloodshed. Ultimately, the pastor decided that he’ll keep celebrating.

Why? The original aim of Luther and the early reformers wasn't to break with the only church in western Europe; they wanted the church to reform itself, to get back in line with the teachings of the Bible. They failed. And the relationship between Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters remains broken to some degree, even if it's only snide remarks made about the other group.

But something else did happen. Something the historical characters wearing funny hats and tights were overjoyed about. The gospel was set free. Access to God's word was increasing and it was shaking people's worlds. And that is worth celebrating.

Afterwards, we continued our celebration by enjoying that traditional German dinner we had been smelling for the last hour, complete with sauerkraut. Dave and his wife, Joy, helped me pilfer a meal and shared their silverware with me, since I wasn't on the list.

Overall, I had a fantastic time.

Montana is big

The other weekend I headed east to Montana to visit a dear friend at Carroll College in Helena and attend a wedding in Missoula. I had never been to Montana before; I found it to be just as big, beautiful, and populated by cows as I had been led to believe. Billboards beside I-90 advertise locations an hour up ahead, to give you plenty of time to work up an appetite for famous chocolate milkshakes. Certainly the oddest billboard I saw was for the annual Testicle Festival at Rock Creek Lodge.

I listened to “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry” by Fredrik Backman. It is a delightful and curious novel about an almost-8-year-old girl who is sent on a quest by her grandmother just before she dies, which blends real life with the make-believe world she shared with her granny. In some ways, the make-believe world is more real than the real one.

I was going to listen to “The Pilgrim's Progress” because I've never read it and it's one of those books that everyone's supposed to have read already, but I couldn't get past the author's note. A preface in which the author apologizes at length for the work you are about to read – which he only published because his friends insisted, and which he would never ever claim to be any good, and some people seemed to like it but he's not boasting, he's really a humble guy, he hopes you'll like it too but he won't be offended if you don't, anyways he tried his best, signed Paul Bunyan – is bad enough. In rhyming couplets, it's unbearable. I got as far as Spokane Valley before I ejected it.

The stretch of highway just east of Coeur d'Alene, looking over the lake, is stunning. Maybe one day, when I have a functioning motorcycle (and who knows, maybe by then I'll have started my ladies' motorcycle gang), I'll ride all the way around it.

A lot of Montana (at least the small bit that I saw) looked like this:

A bit of Montana that I'm lucky I saw, because it was behind a rest area building and I only walked down there on a whim, looked like this:

If you ever find yourself heading west on I-90 going past Bearmouth, stop at that rest area! Nicest road-side bathroom I've had the pleasure of visiting. Make sure you walk down the hill behind the building to sit on one of the benches and admire the reflectivity of this pond.

For reference, Montana is big:

Today I learned...

Today I learned that the word “seminary” in Middle English (English spoken c. 1100-1500) meant a seedbed or nursery, from the Latin seminarium, from the root semen, seed. While seminarium was often used figuratively in Latin to refer to the cultivating and growing of minds, or any kind of breeding ground, English took it further until the original botanical use of “seminary” was forgotten. 

Similarly, “kindergarten” literally means “garden of children” in German. The word was coined and the practice was invented by Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), an educational reformer who believed in the importance of early education and the role of “self-activity” and play.

I enjoy the vision of green shoots and bright flowers tended to with care that the words “seminary” and “kindergarten” invoke; the gardener works so that each seed will flourish and grow into a strong, healthy plant, so that each flower will bloom and display its unique beauty. It opposes the grand collectivism of “university” and “college” with the idea of individuality and care.