Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: Fannie Flagg

When a man who is a dairy-farmer-turned-accountant recommends a book by Fannie Flagg, I read it. "It's hilarious," he said as he put it in my hands.

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven, a novel with all the Southern charm of Paula Dean, by the aptly-named Fannie Flagg, is indeed hilarious. The matter-of-fact relation of common foibles and anxieties brought out the human nature of the characters in sharp relief. The narrative danced between rapid-fire dialog and revelation of characters' inner thoughts. The unselfconscious quirks of the actors mixed a concoction of amusement that left me wondering what I'd be laughing at in the next chapter. Just shy of caricatures, the characters had enough reality that I could imagine knowing them for real.

The plot revolves around the death of Elner Shimfissle, who passes into the Great Beyond only to be sent back, to the chagrin of obituary writers, physicians, and anxious family alike. After a few hours spent visiting with Ginger Rogers, wondering at orange squirrels with purple polka dots, and having a slice of heavenly cake with an old friend, Elner wakes up in the hospital and sends everyone around her scurrying to figure out why she's not dead. Her small Missouri town froths with the kind of antics only a sleepy community can put on.

Flagg's work kept me smiling all the way. It was only near the end that I finally realized what the book missed.

I enjoy listening to Prairie Home Companion, the Minnesota radio show hosted by Garrison Keillor. (I can't when Sara's in the car; she won't abide it.) I find his vignettes, especially "The News from Lake Wobegon" and "Guy Noir," quite funny. I have, however, also noticed that his work--for this seems to be true of all the radio pieces I've heard as well as the one book of his I've read--lacks something essential. His stories have no real tension.

The stories of this midwest radio show bring the listener into no real danger, no real risk, nothing which would generally draw one to the edge of one's seat. This absence of conflict or vital uncertainty no doubt makes the show safer for listening while driving, but that essential peak of conflict about which we learned in high school English (thank you, Aristotle) sucks the life out of the narrative. More than that, the sound of Keillor's voice conjures the idea, right at the outset, that nothing's really at stake, everything will be all right, and if I miss something it won't matter. Keillor's work is shot through with hakuna matata, but without the catchy Disney beat. After all, what can go wrong when "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average"?

Elner Shimfissle's glimpse of heaven offers the world no stunning insights; in fact, it offers no insights at all. The one plot hook that offered potential was the presence of Elner's pistol in her hamper. She takes the secret to her grave (again) at the end of the book. And we're told, in the words of one of the characters via flashback, that the only lesson from that secret is "Think what you want, but some days luck is just on your side." With a back-from-the-other-side opportunity, Flagg could have shown us the excitement of life, the danger or the thrill. She could have used Elner Shimfissle to ignite our passion for something or someone transcendent. She could have cracked open the mundane and revealed the numinous. Instead, like the flaccid young men of Lake Wobegon, she shrugs her narrative shoulders and declares that good or bad is all about luck.

The legacy of Elner Shimfissle gave me lots of chuckles and a few laughs out loud. But if life is up to chance, and heaven is just a place where the squirrels are orange and the cake tastes better, Elner and Flagg can have them. I want a life with more grit and an afterlife with more hope.

~ emrys


As a child’s speech develops, there are always words and phrases and mispronunciations are such fun. Then as their speech advances, those slip away into the “correct” words and become a memory. Since my memory is already slipping, here are a few that I don’t want to forget.

:: Until the end of May, Emrys was known as “Gaga” (as was a drink). Towards the end of our vacation, he was promoted to “Daddy!”

:: When we would drive by a pasture or look at a book with large four-legged equine animals, G would happily pronounce “nays!” This has recently turned into the more correct term: horse.

:: As mentioned before, “gaga” was G’s term for drink, usually accompanied with the sign for drink as well. “Gaga” has given way to one of my personal favorites, “gwink”.

Then there are the phrases that are said that bring chuckles to all around. Like the other day when we were sitting in the kitchen with another friend of ours. I was making cake and G was licking the beater from the mixer. She was covered in chocolate cake batter (thanks for the picture Megs!). I commented something like “holy cow, girl, you’re a mess!” To which she promptly replied “I’m a holy cow!”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Solo Hide & Seek

One day last week, my precocious 2-year-old daughter sat on her knees at the counter in the kitchen, her hands behind her back. She started counting: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, fourteen fourteen, sixteen, nineteen, twenty!

Then she pulled her hands out and waved them palms out and cried "Hands, I find you!"

Pictured is another side of my two-year-old known as "I do myself!"

Friday, June 03, 2011

Seventeen Months Later

On 18 January 2010 we started the renovation of our bedroom. We planned out what we'd need, and roughly how much it would cost. And I thought to myself, "We've got this so well organized, it won't take more than three months to finish."

The proverb has been stated in various ways, "If you want to make God laugh, make plans."

The third-to-last item on the list was replacing the baseboard trim. Here's a sample of the process (which involved more sanding and re-urethaning than I'd hoped):

Then the closet doors needed to be urethaned to match the trim. Actually, "urethaning" is the wrong verb, because I used Minwax Polycrylic. I find, however, that in casual conversation, more people know what "urethaning" is than "polycrylicking."

The last bit? Replacing the door stop on the wall behind the bedroom door. I kept forgetting to stop at the hardware store to get a new doorstop, so this step dragged on for a month. When I got to the store and looked at the new stops, I discovered that I could actually use the old one again. Waiting for Godot.

With Doorstop Godot on the wall, and all the trim finished, here's what our renovated bedroom looks like (standing-on-the-bed view):

And from next to the old closet door:

Estimated price of the project before beginning: $690.

Actual cost of all supplies (not including untold labor): $838.10.

Actual cost as percentage of estimated cost: 121%.


At least the cost projection was better than the completion date projection. It took almost six times as long as I thought.

But now . . . it is done!

~ emrys