Monday, February 11, 2013

Bedtime Story

Last night was our third night with the poodle pups, Gertie and Della.  We put them into cages at the foot of our sleigh bed, and then I climb into bed and read a bit before turning out my light.  Kathy is a night owl and comes to bed an hour or two later, after the mournful howling has ceased and the dogs are quiet.

It's Della who is the howler.  Gertie seems confident enough about going to bed in a cage.  She may be aware that I'm in the room, or she may not care at that time of night.  But Della, oh, Della!  She feels abandoned when I am out of sight.  I've let her cry herself to sleep the first two nights, but last night some new idea came to mind.

Translation: "Cease from trembling; prepare yourself to live!"  That's a quotation from the fifth movement of Mahler's second symphony.  Several years ago the St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang this.  Our Music Director, David Robertson, stepped in as a last minute replacement for an indisposed guest conductor.  It was Robertson's first-ever performance of the Mahler 2nd, and he led it as if he'd written the piece himself.  During rehearsal, he told us the first line of this quotation is a common Austrian parental comfort phrase to a distressed baby.

So I said, "Hoer' auf zu beben, go to sleep now" the first few times Della was about to launch her epic wailing, and each time she quieted down.  It is not surprising that she has picked up some German even before I began her lessons.  Poodles are smarter than people sometimes.

Then I remembered telling Kathy that puppies are like human babies in the crawling stage.  They must be allowed to explore their environment, but they must be watched with vigilance.  And so it happened that I drew on my experience with babies and decided to read the puppies a bedtime story, and the story at hand was Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

This is one of the best books I've read.  I could use a sappy word and call it "magical," but that would actually devalue the book, as "magical" is so overused as to induce nausea.  It is also "enchanting" and "spellbinding" and touching.  It is funny and (here comes another terribly overused word in advertising blurbs) "wise."  Whenever I hear a book being described as "wise" I resolve not to read it.

Lately, Swamplandia! has been the book at my bedside, so wherever I was in the story, that's the part I began to read aloud.  Della never even began to wail once I began to fill her environment with the sound of my reading the story.  She began to imagine Ava and the Birdman putting in at Stiltsville, and Ava's brother, Kiwi, trying to get the hang of a placement exam from hell for a night school G.E.D. class at the Community College.  She wondered if Ava's sixteen-year-old sister Ossie was dead or alive with the ghost she had eloped with.  And she was fascinated about the red foot-long baby Seth, a mutant alligator Ava carried as a pet in a wooden box, Ava being a Seth-wrestler, even at her tender age, at Swamplandia!

Here is a photo of the author who comforted my Della and Gertie last night, Karen Russell:

Thank you, Karen, for such imaginative, funny, brilliant writing.  Thank you from me, from Della, and from Gertie the two poodles in a new home.  I hope things come out well for Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi.  Gertie and Della hope so, too!

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