Archive for March, 2010

Two Bleak and Slender Books: Shadow Tag

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Shadow Tag,Louise Erdrich

 HarperCollins,  2010


“Police conducted a search of Dorris’s Minneapolis home less than two weeks before his death; among the items seized was a diary kept by one of his daughters.”

A Broken Life;; Accessed 3/7/10


WARNING:  Contains spoilers.  Depressing as hell.


In one of his books, Michael Dorris tells a story.  As a graduate student, he went to visit a Native American tribe in northern Canada.  One day, an older local man and Dorris go out on the man’s small fishing boat.  A huge storm blows up, surrounding them.  The elder turns the boat to head for shore, but the motor dies.  “Throw out the anchor,” the elder says to Dorris, “and we’ll try to ride it out.”  Dorris dashes to the stern of the boat, seizes the anchor, and tosses it over the side before he notices that it is not tied to the coil of rope beneath his feet.  They have no motor and no anchor.  Twelve-foot swells slap the boat.  “We’re going to die!”  Dorris says. 

The elder shakes his head.  “We’re not going to die.” 

“How can you say that?  These waves are higher than the boat!  We have no engine!  How can you say we’re not going to die?” 

The elder smiles.  “We’re not going to die,” he says, “because this is too good a story.” 


That story got me through some tough times, times when I was in despair, feeling the most helpless and the most alone.  A tiny voice in my head would say, “When you get on the other side of this, it’s going to make a great story.” 

Those words may have saved me.  They didn’t save Michael Dorris.  On April 10, 1997, in a New Hampshire hotel, Michael Dorris overdosed on prescription medication and ended his life. 

In Dorris’s memoir of adopting a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord,  there’s another story.  Dorris is pursing a single-parent adoption, and he’s male.  He feels these are obstacles to be overcome.  Preparing for a home visit by a social worker, he wants to look nurturing, so he bakes a batch of cookies.  Then he worries.  Are cookies too sugary?  Do they make him look like an irresponsible parent?  So he bakes some banana bread.  But wait! What if the social worker doesn’t like banana bread?  So he bakes some muffins—and some bread—and I think maybe a pie.  The scene is hilarious and weird, and I didn’t know then that it carried in it the seeds of the disease he fought most of his life, bipolar disorder. 


When I first read the cover flap for Louise Erdrich’s new novel Shadow Tag I didn’t make an immediate connection to her marriage to Michael Dorris.  This slender book is about the implosion of the marriage of an “iconic Native American couple,” but the flap talks about a wife who discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, so creates a false diary for him to find.  It sounded as if it might be darkly humorous. 

Erdrich is as much a poet as a story-teller and this book is as authentic and honest as the blade of a sharp knife.  Reading it, I felt like a voyeur. I felt like crying. Beyond the mastery of a poet and a story-teller at the top of her game, this is a story about a survivor, wondering why she lived to tell the tale.  It is deeply personal. For me, sometimes it was too personal. 

Gil is a painter, successful if not renowned, and his wife Irene is his most frequent subject.  They are both Native American. Gil had been warned by a colleague that if he paints Native American subjects, he will become labeled, and he has. At first it seems as if the diaries are going to play a large part in this story, but Erdrich soon abandons that construct to let the story tell itself.  The diaries are important though—the idea of both truth and falsity in the written word.  Irene is not a writer or a scholar; she has not finished, or more accurately not even begun, her thesis on an historical painter of Native Americans. She still manages to use words, artfully, via the false diary, to manipulate and hurt Gil. 

Critics and reviews have said that this is a story about what happens when love dies in a marriage, and Erdrich has not contradicted that.  It doesn’t feel like love has died.  Love has been starved, tortured and debased, but it isn’t dead.  If it is dead, how am I to understand the end of the book, the choices these characters make? 

Gil’s impulses, conceits and behaviors are extravagant, over the top, not unlike Michael Dorris’s baking spree in Broken Cord.  I’ll let Erdrich show you something about Irene in her own words;

      [Stony] drew his mother almost every day, in beautiful dresses. He gave his mother stripes and polka dots and if      he  made a flowery dress he put a matching flower in her hair.  In every picture, at the end of his mother’s hand, Stony      drew a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it.

      …Look, said Irene, when she’d paged through her portraits and admired her carefully drawn outfits. There’s this thing on my hand, like another appendage, it’s always there. In every picture.  What is it, Stony?

      The winglass. 

     Irene was silent.

      He thinks it’s part of you, said Florian. (p 54) 

At risk in this tiny, terrible war are three children; Florian, a mathematical genius, Riel, the only girl, the middle child who reads up on disasters and stockpiles emergency supplies so that she will be able to save her family in the event of a disaster, and Stony, the youngest, a fearless artist like his father.  Riel fantasizes global disasters; pandemics, floods and vampire assaults, because those are more comforting than the disintegration of her parents’ marriage and the abuse by her father.  Riel uses WD-40 to lubricate all the hinges in the house except those on the door of her father’s studio, so that the children will hear when the door opens.  She is the only one who stands up to him when he hits, yelling, “What are you doing?” startling and shaming him into stopping.  Gil focuses most of his physical hostility on Florian.  Irene intercedes, even photographing bruises with her cell phone, but cannot bring herself to leave Gil, or stop drinking. 

Erdrich’s writing is honest and precise, so that when Gil cries out things like, “Don’t you want a father who has real feelings?” it reverberates. It’s real. An actual person said those words. Gil’s statements, his promises, ring with such sincerity and desperation that I hurt when I read them. I can see how his mind works; just as I can understand that Irene really does feel violated, exposed and used up by the deeply intimate pictures he has painted of her, pictures that are on display throughout the world.  Like Gil, Irene is in constant pain, and she does not know what to do to end it, because she will not leave him. 

The book has peaceful, beautiful moments, as when the family goes out, after a night snowfall, to play shadow tag.  The book has passages of horrifying hilarity, like both of the visits to the marriage counselor.  Irene and Gil, locked in their fatal embrace, nevertheless will close ranks against the intrusion of an outsider, even when it’s one they’ve chosen to help them.  If the love has truly died here, then what holds them together?  What binds Irene to Gil, if she really no longer loves him? 


In the 1990s, my friend L and I heard Dorris and Erdrich speak together once, in San Francisco.  I think they were promoting The Crown of Columbus, the book they wrote together.  He was self-deprecating and funny.  She was thoughtful, witty, insightful.  They talked about Yellow Raft on Blue Water and Love Medicine, and the difficulty of representing the Native American culture honestly.  They seemed like “an iconic Native American couple.”  Dorris described them as soulmates, and it seemed true.  We saw Dorris one other time, at Book Passage in Corte Madera.  The event had advertized Erdrich, who was promoting Tales of Burning Love, but she had the flu and so Michael came in her place.  He was funny, generous, sharing her work, pausing to compliment Amy Tan, who introduced him, telling tales on himself, making us laugh.  We talked to him afterward, at the book-signing.  I asked him how his son, the one in Broken Cord, was doing, and he told us Abel had died in a hit-and run accident.  He took our expressions of shock and condolence as if we were friends, not complete strangers in a city half a continent away from his home.  If I were looking for a word, I think I would say he was gracious. 

When his death was reported, papers also said that there had been a potential child abuse allegation hanging over Dorris’s head at the time of his death.  L absolutely did not believe it was possible.  I had been working at child welfare for about a year then, and I was hesitant to dismiss the possibility.  L was indignant with me.  “How can you think that?  We know them!” she said.  It was Michael Dorris’s gift, his warmth, his openness, his charisma that made us feel that we knew him, knew them, when of course we didn’t at all. 

I retained enough of that feeling, though, to flinch and bite my lip as I read parts of Shadow Tag.  The correspondences are too strong; Gil’studio on the second floor of the house (Dorris’s office was on the second floor); three children caught in the crossfire—three younger children were still in the home, one of them made the allegation of abuse, and it was her diary that was retrieved by the police.  The truth and falsity of language. Because of Dorris’s death, the allegations were never investigated. At first, it seems as if the power differential in Gil and Irene’s marriage is markedly different from Erdrich’s own; Irene’s complete exposure, with not an inch of her body, not a single expression on her face left private or secret, seemed unique to the book, until I remembered that Dorris talked about their writing as a “collaboration,” even implying that they wrote books together regardless of whose name was on the cover.  There was an incipient scandal about who actually wrote what, especially when Erdrich began to win awards.  Before Dorris’s death, he and Erdrich had faced a bitter civil court battle against one of their older children, a battle that had begun to make public the secrets of their marriage.  It’s not so far a reach, symbolically, from Erdrich’s work to the vivid and intimate paintings Gil creates of Irene.  And Irene lets him.  She is a partner in his work, even though she feels humiliated. 

Reading this book wasn’t like reading a well-developed literary novel about a disintegrating marriage.  It was like watching two people I admired use teeth and claws to rip jagged holes in each other.  Erdrich is hard on herself, herself in the persona of Irene, even if she is fair.  This is art.  It’s truly art, but it’s also Erdrich, thirteen years after the fact, processing the loss of the most crucial person in her life.  Louise Erdrich, the wife and mother, made one choice, at that time, in that situation.  What choice will her character make? And so, maybe, I do understand the ending the book.  Maybe it really isn’t love that binds Irene to Gil, but guilt. 

Because Erdrich is an artist, art is always the lifeline, even when it cuts your hands, or your heart, to ribbons.  The wife may not survive the horror of the war; but art does, and lives to tell the tale.

Around Town

Monday, March 8th, 2010

 (The pictures in this post may or may not go with the text.)

sebastopol sailor sculptureLast week I stopped at Fiesta to pick up some halibut for dinner. A note about Fiesta—the official name of the store is now “Pacific Market.” They’ve had to keep the two-story cake-icing-colored neon sign on Highway 116 because it is an historical marker, but the owners own all the Pacific markets. To me “Fiesta Pacific” sounds like a cruise line, so it will always be Fiesta to me, just as the performing arts center up the freeway a bit will never be Wells Fargo Center as far as I’m concerned. Luther Burbank—known for feeding people. Wells Fargo—famous for helping drive our economy off a cliff. Which conjures the more positive image? Let me think. . .

But anyway, fish counter, halibut. The woman pulled out a fillet, frowned at it, frowned at me and said, “I won’t sell you this.” I was kind of hurt. I mean, I’m a good customer. I’m a nice person. I never did anything to her.

“Why not?”

“Smell.” She shoved the rectangle of pearly white flesh under my nose. It smelled fishy. Strongly fishy. As anyone who’s ever watched The Food Network knows, fish should not smell fishy. It’s not an oxymoron. It means it isn’t fresh. She was doing me a favor. I bought some salmon instead.



I stopped at Copperfield’s to pick up a young adult book by Kage Baker, called The Hotel Under the Sand. I spend a lot of time in Copperfield’s, just not in the children’s section. I don’t fully understand the system back there. The books are loosely divided by age or developmental stage, which makes perfect sense, if you know where the book you want should be. I’m used to finding Kage Baker in the adult Science Fiction section. Ahead of me, a slender dark-haired woman in beige linen pants and a top, with sleek brown hair, browsed the shelves with an authoritative air. She made me feel even less competent. Then a young man brushed past me and said to her, “Can I take my break now?”

“Sure. Is the sign up? It’s pretty quiet in here; you just go ahead,” she said. She worked there! That explained the complete confidence with which she skimmed the spines and titles of the books.2010_03_08 004

I promptly asked where I would find the Baker book, and she led me right to it, in the middle school section. Being a bookstore employee (and one of the good ones) she immediately began to offer other books by other authors that the reader I was getting the book for might like. I’d been looking in the high school section, so she said, “Is the person you’re getting it for an advanced reader?”

“I wouldn’t say so.”

“Who’s it for?”

“Um, me.”

“Oh.” She blinked, but she rallied. “You don’t have to tell anybody what section of the store you got it in.”


I’m worried that Milk and Honey, the goddess store, may be falling on hard times. They are adding a coffee/tea counter and a few tables in the back of the store. A lovely thought, but it reduces space for inventory. This makes me think they plan to carry less inventory, perhaps because inventory isn’t moving.

Also, if you count the town square directly behind them, here are the places within a block that will serve you coffee, coffee drinks or tea:

  • My Friend Joe’s
  • Slice of Life
  • Whole Foods
  • Infusions
  • Sebastopol Cookie Company
  • Pine Cone Cafe
  • East West Cafe

Doesn’t this seem like a lot of competition? Maybe they’re going to do psychic readings and Tarot spreads, etc. In that case they’ll only be competing with Infusions and the farmers’ market on Sundays. But then, I thought the Pine Cone was an unlikely proposition and it’s still around, so maybe I just don’t understand business.

Five Foods

Saturday, March 6th, 2010 had an article on five foods you should eat every day.  They were: 

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Something from the onion family (includes garlic)
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Yogurt with active cultures 

Last night I brought home shrimp for the Sig-O.  I don’t eat shrimp.  I sautéed baby spinach with shallots and garlic and finished it with pecans (see above) and balsamic vinegar.  If I’d cooked quinoa for the starch instead of potatoes I would have had four out of five. 

Tonight I’m going to cook some kind of fish and serve it on a bed of red chard, or kale, with lemon butter caper sauce.  Tonight I will do the quinoa.  That’s three.  Hard to figure out where the nuts go.  Active-culture yogurt is not a “go” for this meal. I wonder if ice cream counts as a substitution.

Your Morning Crow

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

morning crow

I Heart Elizabeth Warren, Part II

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Here are the four principles Elizabeth Warren wants for the Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

  • A chief appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate;
  • Independent budget authority, so it won’t be subject to the whims of Congress or an anti-consumer administration;
  • Independent rule-making authority, without interference by bank regulators or others who may focus on bank profitability before focusing on consumers;
  • And independent enforcement powers, so the agency’s investigators can go after abusive lenders.

Simple, elegant and pro-American.  She’s like a professorial, bespectacled superhero.

Go here for the complete article.

The Maltese Omlette

Monday, March 1st, 2010

chalk and charcoal three actorsM for Mystery Bookstore in San Mateo hosted the premiere performance of “The Maltese Omelette,” written by Michael Kurland. The play is performed in period costumes as a late 1930s radio play, complete with an announcer, a sponsor, and several commercial breaks.

Imagine the Maltese Falcon with every character as someone from a nursery rhyme. Sam Spud is a San Francisco detective and the libidinous Humpty Dumpty is his partner. When the alluring Ms. Muffet comes with a request for help, Humpty can’t resist her. Soon he is dead, scrambled, poached. Enter the gunsel Georgie Porgie and his boss, the sinister Wee Willie Winkie. You get the idea. Sound effects and music are included, and the show’s sponsor, Majestic Motor Oil, provides a plummy-voiced announcer who also reads the commercials. (“Majestic Motor Oil, your car will purr for it,” and latmarta in costume at bookstoreer, “Remember, Majestic Motor oil spelled backwards is Lio rotom citsejam!”)

The performers of this pun-filled and hilarious bit of comedy included the author Michael Kurland himself (Humpty Dumpty) and several noted Bay Area writers including Cara Black, Marta Randall, Linda Robertson, Richard Lupoff and Peter Beagle. It is no coincidence that several of them have stories in the new Sherlock Holmes anthology edited by Kurland; Sherlock Holmes, the American Years, which was on sale (autographed) after the event.

It helped that the full house—all of the roughly 35 seats were taken, and there were some people standing around the edges—appreciated the references, groaned at the puns, and laughed at all the right places. We couldn’t get enough of the egg references: “That Dumpty, he thought he was pretty hard boiled,” or the surrealism, as when Georgie threatens Sam Spud—“It’s a lemon curd with double whipped cream—this pie is loaded!” There’s even a Dan Brown bit, when Wee Willie Winkie begins to explain in detail about how “Goosey Goosey Gander” is really an encoded map to the Maltese Goose:

“I came upon an old man/who would not say his prayers/I grabbed him by the left leg/ and threw him down the stairs.
“The left leg, Mr. Spud—the left.”

Writers are often considered introverted, but this group didn’t seem shy. The acting was good quality, with the two best performers portraying Ms. Muffet—who later reveals that her real name is Mary Q Contrary—and Sam Spud. Peter Beagle does double duty as both the violent gunsel—or would it be piesel?—Georgie, and as beat cop Jack Spratt. My friend and teacher Marta Randall does a fine job as the announcer, and Richard Lupoff manages to convey Sydney Greenstreet-like menace into his interpretation of Wee Willie Winkie. Actually, “interpretation” may be a bit grandiose for this performance. Cara Black provided sound effects and a bit part, and Linda Robertson did the music.

Like most live performatakiing a bownces, there were glitches—most notably two with the sound effects. They just added to the fun.

M for Mystery is a wonderful mystery-themed bookstore. I hadn’t been there before but I will have to go back. The space is long and wide, filled with shelves on rollers, so setting up for their many author and writing/reading events is easy. Staff were wonderful, helpful, friendly and funny. The place is dedicated to mysteries but has other books as well, and is beautifully decorated with masks and posters of book covers. I didn’t get much time to browse the shelves (although I did manage to buy four books) and to do the place justice I would need at least two hours. There is a new coffee place, Kaffeehaus, just opened next door. Staff there were also friendly and upbeat. The coffee was a little bland, but the bakery case treats looked awesome and I’d be filling to force myself to try them again.

The group may perform the play again at Copperfield’s in Petaluma, and will be performing in the city during LitQuake in October. Dig out your spats,dust off the fedora, and plan to come on out!