Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road

Looking at ads for the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road, Ron and I had a discussion about what we consider a new type of post-apocalyptic fiction, a modern type that has moved away from science fiction and towards horror. The author of this new kind of post-apocalyptic novel is like the torturer on Firefly who says "only in extremity do we see the real you."

But the new post-apocalyptic novel is not about acute pain. It's about the after-effects of such pain. It's about endurance. And just as one long-term effect of chronic pain on a human being is grumpiness, one long-term effect of chronic fear is aggression. The unsettling--yes, even horrifying--thing about a novel like The Road is that readers begin to admire such aggression. We know that the guy who fires first is the one who gets to live.

McCarthy, in his characteristically ruthless way, takes that idea to an extreme to ask whether in a world where aggression is essential for survival, how much meaning is left in survival itself.

In the first hundred pages of The Road, the protagonists, a man and his son, have already pared their existence down to the bare minimum. They walk south because their world is cold and covered with ash from the cataclysm that occurred on the day of the boy's birth. "They used to play quoits in the road with four big steel washers they'd found in a hardware store but these were gone with everything else" in one of their panicked dashes away from the grocery cart in which they push extra canned food and blankets. The cart contained a yellow toy truck, but the boy no longer plays with it. The man wants the boy to have something besides walking south and eating sparely from their scavenged cans of food:
"He'd carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin."

The man tells the boy "we're carrying the fire." What that means, in practical terms, is the subject of periodic debate. The boy wants to seek out a barking dog he hears and a little boy he thinks he's seen, but he settles for the man's promise that he won't kill them. The boy wants to give their food away to those few old men they meet who appear to be less fortunate, and the man agrees, at one point, although he makes sure the recipient of their charity knows that it comes from the boy, and not him. He and one old man have a conversation about what it means to be alive:
"Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?
Do you wish you would die?
No. But I might wish I had died. When you're alive you've always got that ahead of you.
Or you might wish you'd never been born.
Well. Beggars cant be choosers.
You think that would be asking too much."
When the man brings up God, the old man tells him "there is no God."

And yet later, when he's alone with the sleeping boy, the man reverts to his belief in a God or gods. He has to believe that his survival has meaning in order to go on:
"I think maybe they are watching, he said. They are watching for a thing that even death cannot undo and if they do not see it they will turn away from us and they will not come back."

The novel ends when the man can no longer physically go on, and with the promise that the boy's life will continue. But there are things that cannot "be made right again," things in his memory that will remain there. The author has walked this fictional boy down the road of torment to see what could be most "real" about such a person, and my conclusion is that if the boy hardens himself to the suffering of others, he will become like his forbears who destroyed the world. It is his weaknesses, those impulses which could jeopardize his survival, that remain the essence of his humanity.

The Road is a movie I know I don't want to see; I don't want to see the aggression and the blood. The horror. Older post-apocalyptic fiction focused on how terrible the idea of the end of the world is, what might have caused it, and sometimes how to start again. This newer kind focuses on the horrific details of surviving the end of the world, what we face if we just can't quit, if our aggression continues to escalate until that's all we are.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Night Watch

The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, is a WWII novel which introduces its characters backwards. As a result, I couldn't get to liking them in the usual way, by sympathizing with their fears and celebrating their happiness. I was plunged into their lives in 1947, after the war, when what had shaped them had already occurred. By the time I got to the second section of the novel, 1944, I'd decided that most of their motivations and their decisions were stupid. But in the second section I saw how they had been affected by the war. It was only when I got to the third section, 1941, that I could sympathize with them because I could possibly see myself making some of the same bad choices. It's an interesting narrative technique, but it doesn't work well on the first reading.

Near the beginning of the novel, when a character named Mr. Mundy who suffers from arthritis goes to a Christian Scientist and is told that he should not be taking aspirin because it is a "false remedy....If you will only not believe in the hurt of your leg, that leg will become as negligible to you as wood is," I felt intense sympathy for him (as a former fellow arthritis sufferer). Later, however, I learn that he worked as a prison guard and has provided a home for one of his former prisoners on the condition that this attractive young man will share his bed occasionally. The young man's story is heartbreaking, but it is doled out in such small bits that it is not understandable until the very end, when I finally realize how ludicrous everyone's attitude towards him has been.

Similarly, the repression and helplessness that the central group of lesbian ambulance drivers (the ones who work the "night watch") feel after the war is more comprehensible after seeing the relative freedom they enjoy and the heroic acts they perform in wartime. By the second section, I find out that my sympathy for Helen, who believes her lover Julia has been unfaithful, is misplaced, and that rather than judging Julia harshly for this speech, I should have seen the situation as she does:
"Is there something about affairs? Is it like--I don't know--Catholicism? One only spots the other Romans when one's practiced it oneself?"

The colossal stupidity of Viv, who nearly dies from an abortion because of her affair with a married man, isn't mitigated for me until the final few pages, when I meet Reggie as she does, for the first time, and he tells her within minutes of their meeting that he's married, some minutes after she's already fallen in love. Perhaps I'm not enough of a forgiving sort, because knowing why and how it could happen didn't make the sordidness of the first part of this novel any more palatable to me after the revelations occur.

The promise of first meeting on the last page does not outweigh the sadness of what is left on the first page, the opening image of a woman "whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord's door." The Night Watch weaves together several long, sad stories; I can think of only one good reason for wallowing through its pages, and that's to appreciate the extent to which we've made the lives of people like its homosexual characters marginally less miserable in the 60 years that have passed since the time period in which the events of the novel unfold.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, is one of the most repulsive and creepy novels I've ever read. I read it on the recommendation of Elizabeth, and while I don't entirely regret reading it, I will repeat the blurb from The Scotsman that appears on the back of my 1998 paperback edition: "There's nothing to force you, having been warned, to read it; nor do I recommend it." However, The Scotsman more recently reviews a theatrical production of The Wasp Factory, saying it misses the mark set by the novel, a "brilliant, chilling piece of island Scottish horror."

From the beginning, the protagonist of the novel, Frank Cauldhame, doesn't allow me to like him. He is first seen "making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles...sticking one of the mouse heads back on." Although he mentions the Wasp Factory on the very first page, it's not until much later that I find out how it works; any path a wasp chooses once it's caught and put into his maze leads to a different kind of death. Gradually I find out who "Old Saul" was and why Frank keeps his skull. Eventually Frank tells me why he killed three children, one of them his younger brother.

And yet Frank is not totally monstrous, which actually makes the story even more horrible. At one point, for instance, I entirely agree with him that "life has few pleasures to compare with dam-building. Give me a good broad beach with a reasonable slope and not too much seaweed, and a fair-sized stream, and I'll be happy all day, any day." Also the reason he kills the first child is because that child deliberately killed his pet rabbits in their hutches, which doesn't make it right, but makes his impulse a bit more understandable, at least to me.

I see how alone Frank is when he says things like this:
"I've always had a rather ambivalent attitude towards something happening to my father, and it persists. A death is always exciting, always makes you realise how alive you are, how vulnerable but so-far-lucky; but the death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable. What delight to behave really badly and still get loads of sympathy!"

But any scrap of sympathy I might momentarily feel for Frank is methodically eradicated by the next account of his killings or his philosophy: "Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill." Any sympathy I might feel for his predicament in a nearly silent and entirely undemonstrative family is eventually undermined by something like the detailed and sickening description of what drove his half-brother crazy. The final revelation of the novel, while shocking, is almost an anti-climax for me because of the matter-of-fact way my anticipation of horrors to come has been built up throughout the novel.

I don't enjoy being horrified, and yet I took pleasure in the ironic tone of this book.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

I looked through one entire deck of cards for the book-lover's trivial pursuit game to find some that had to do with Christmas, since it falls on a Friday this year. I found only one Christmas question, and here it is, at the end:

Children's: What novel centers on a teen from the kingdom of Alagaesia who finds a bright blue dragon egg?
Classics: What novel by Jane Austen concerns Anne Elliot's regrets at being talked out of marrying the love of her life?
Non-Fiction: What 88-year-old historian chatted about death with 60 folks to pen Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Book Club: What Kurosawa film do single mom Sibylla and her six-year-old son watch incessantly, in Helen Dewitt's debut novel, The Last Samurai?
Authors: What prolific children's author has hosted a weekly BBC Radio show called Jakestown for 20 years?
Book Bag: What Yuletide tale finds Santa stuffing beef jerky and Moon Pies into the stockings of trailer-park denizens Bubba and Earlene?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Six to Eight Black Men

I was introduced to David Sedaris' essay "Six to Eight Black Men" when my friend Laura sent me a copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim with a note saying "if nothing else, read 6 to 8 Black Men." I did, and I laughed so hard (in public) that I literally couldn't stop laughing for a while. Since then I've given countless copies of the volume entitled Holidays on Ice to people who tell me they haven't yet read this wonderful essay.

My son always wants me to recite a paragraph when I say goodnight to him on Christmas Eve: "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

So if you haven't read it yet, click on over to Esquire Magazine, where they have a version of it you can read right now!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Great Cathedrals


I love Christmas card photos and newsletters. I love the conventions, the traditional poses, and also the people who send or show me the outtake photos! In the last few years I've been fascinated with holiday photos taken in France, so often posed in front of the Eiffel tower. In reaction, I felt compelled to choose a photo of my family in front of the red carpet entrance to the movie awards auditorium in Cannes. Here's one I took in front of Chartres; I wanted a pose with the scaffolding, because we thought it would be good for our claim that we were there for the rebuilding after the demolition of the cathedral at Chartres.

I also love reading poems by George Bilgere because he's funny, thoughtful, and once had the good taste to give an award to a poem written by my daughter. Here's one of his poems that had me laughing out loud, Great Cathedrals:

Before a date, my college roommate
Used to drive his candy-apple red Camaro
Down to the car wash and spend the afternoon
Washing, waxing, vacuuming it,
Detailing the chrome strips, buffing the fenders,
Spraying the big expensive tires
With their raised white lettering

That said something like Intruder
or Marauder, with a silicone spray
Until they were slick and dark as sex.
He polished that car as if each caress,
Each pass of the chamois, each loving
Stroke of the terry cloth would increase,

By measurable degrees,
The likelihood that in the immaculate
Front seat, with its film of freshly applied
Vinyl cleaner, at the end of a cul-de-sac
Somewhere above the campus,
She would consent to be rubbed
And buffed just as lovingly.

We do what we can,
And if God is no more impressed
By the cathedral at Chartres
Than by a righteously clean and cherry
Camaro, at least He can't say
We haven't tried
With all our might to conceal our fear
That we have little else to offer
Than stained glass or polished chrome,
The elbow grease of our good intentions.

So I'm happy to see
That in the Christmas card photo he sent
Mark stands, balding now,
With a dignified gut, a pretty wife,
And a couple of nice-looking kids, in front
Of the great cathedral
Like the sweet vision of a future
He'd been vouchsafed one day
Long ago, through Turtle Wax
On a gleaming hubcap.

Here's to all of you, that your families may appreciate at least the elbow grease of your good intentions this holiday season!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?

Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me, by Louise Rennison, is subtitled "Final Confessions of Georgia Nicolson." It's the final book in the series (listed in order here):
Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging
It's OK, I'm Wearing Really Big Knickers (UK) On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God (US)
Knocked Out by my Nunga-Nungas
Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants
And That's When It Fell Off in My Hand (UK) Away Laughing on a Fast Camel (US)
Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers
Startled By His Furry Shorts
Luuurve is a Many Trousered Thing (UK) Love is a Many Trousered Thing (US)
Stop in the Name of Pants
Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?

Eleanor and I found this last book an entirely satisfactory ending to the series, especially because Georgia ends up with The Right Boy. No, I'm not going to tell you who it is. But I'll bet you'll agree, if you've read any of the previous books!

I was particularly tickled by Georgia's treatment of her parents, this time around, especially this scene with her mother:
"Mum came mumming in, in her knickers. Well, if you can call them that.
Hang on a minute.
I said, "Mum, are you wearing a thong?"
She is. She is wearing a thong!
I said to her, "If you have a road accident, I will not be coming to explain your underwear to the emergency services."
She just looked at me and went off into the bathroom....Well. Then I remembered my new shoes.
I shouted to her, "Mum, could I just borrow..."
Before I could finish, she shouted back, "No!"
What is the point of parents? They wonder why the youth of today goes wrong. If they would merely give us what we wanted and keep away from us, all would be well....
Instead of Mum just lending me her black Chanel stilettos and everything being nice and easy, I am now going to have to sneak into her wardrobe, smuggle them out in my bag, wear them, sneak back into her room, and replace them.
They force us into a life of crime."
Oh, the teenage logic! It's funnier when it's not your own kid.

I laughed my way through Georgia's usual neologisms and the regularly-scheduled antics of her cat, which were amplified, in this book, by the addition of a budgie to her household. Georgia's cat Angus stares at the budgie much the same way our cat Tristan stared at our parakeets:
"Bum-ty seems to have fewer and fewer feathers. And she has gone off her Trill.
I'm not surprised with the twenty-four-hour cat staring that goes on."

The title line is deftly woven in, not only with some of the running jokes of the whole series, but with the particular plot of this novel. I think Rennison's timing is impeccable, and she's left her so-far-most famous creation, Georgia, at the right time, and in the right place.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

And now, back by popular demand, the Friday edition of Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers! If you want to play, put your answers in the comments. Correct answers will appear later in the comments.

Children's: What book begins when a compassionate elephant in the jungle of Nool hears "a small noise"?
Classics: What novel by Dashiell Hammet centers on a forgery fobbed off by a Russian named Kemidov?
Non-Fiction (!): What celebrity psychic insisted that Dean Martin was stuck on earth until his son Paul came to fetch him in her book Visits from the Afterlife?
Book Club: What Christopher Moore novel features a whale that lifts its tail to reveal the message "Bite me"?
Favorite authors: What Italian-born author worked for British Intelligence in WWI before penning novels like Scaramouche and Captain Blood?
Book bag: Who can readers accessorize with new tattoos and a bra and panties, in the unauthorized paper doll book Bad As I Wanna Dress?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

Yesterday I got a book I didn't even know I wanted yet from my no-longer-secret Santa, Kelly at A Writer's World. It's The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and I'm looking forward to reading it!

I hope my secret Santa gift, to Cherry Mischievous in the U.K. (Wales, I think) was received with as much excitement and joy.

http://holidayswap.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/bbhs_teaser_small.jpg

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Box of Delights

Last December we were reading The Midnight Folk, by John Masefield, at my house, and Harriet was reading Masefield's The Box of Delights at hers, so this December I wanted to read The Box of Delights. Both stories have the same hero, a boy named Kay Harker, but in The Box of Delights (published 1935) he is older than he was in The Midnight Folk (published 1927). The Box of Delights is available as a lovely red and green re-issued volume.

The story begins as Kay takes the train home from school for the Christmas holidays and is kind to a little old man who carries a Punch and Judy show upon his back. As in any fairy tale, his kindness reaps its reward--first in his being entrusted to carry a message--"the wolves are running"--and then in seeing the old man's show, which is not a typical puppet show, but one in which toy soldiers come to life, butterflies fly around the room, and then two dice turn into "a little red shark, snapping after a little white skate; he swam round and round the room after it, always just missing it, and at last, when he had almost caught it, the skate turned into a skylark and went up singing to the ceiling. Instantly the shark turned into a hawk and went after her." There are dangers in Kay's world, and none of them are softened just because he is still only 11 or 12 years old.

The little old man, whose name is Cole Hawlings, needs to escape from his pursuers, the "wolves", so he goes into a picture on the wall in Kay's house. He gives Kay the box of delights so the pursuers won't get it, and Kay uses it to have adventures. Kay is old enough to have considerable freedom around his neighborhood, especially once his guardian, Caroline Louisa, has been called away, but he is still young enough to trust his feelings without too much questioning:
"Kay could not have been long asleep when he woke up feeling certan that there was something very important to be done at King Arthur's Camp. He rolled over, thinking 'Well, it isn't likely that anything is to be done there at this time of night,' and was very soon asleep again. However, his dreams turned to King Arthur's Camp. He saw the place, half woke, then slept and saw it again At this, he woke up wide awake, convinced that he must go there at once."

As Harriet also observes, Kay takes the fantastic things that happen to him in stride. The games he plays at home aren't markedly different from the adventures he has with The Box of Delights, where he meets Herne the Hunter and one of Alexander the Great's biggest fans. When one of his adventures delays his arrival home, he is told "we're not going to wait any longer. We've been waiting simply hours as it is. You've had your chance of being a pirate and you haven't taken it, and now you'll be a merchantman, and you'll be captured and tortured, and then you'll have to walk the plank, and Peter and I are going to be the sharks that will eat you." Later, when the box of delights has taken him to Troy, he ends up on "a merchant ship which has been captured by pirates" and is marooned by the pirates.

Kay is rescued by Herne in a chariot drawn by dolphins: "Kay loved it more than anything that had ever happened to him. It was exquisite to feel the dolphins quivering to the leap, and to surge upwards into the bright light with flying fish sparkling on each side; then to surge down into the water, scattering the spray like bright fire, full of rainbows, then to leap on and on, wave after wave, mile after mile. In the thrill and delight of this leaping journey Kay fell asleep."

In the end, the people taken by the "wolves" are rescued, and just in time for the Christmas Eve service. Although the Bishop initially thinks they won't get there in time, Cole and Kay know that "we needn't give up hope yet," and sure enough, the Lady of the Oak tree arrives in a sleigh drawn by lions and Herne the Hunter arrives in one drawn by unicorns, and everyone gets to church in time to light it up and sing carols.

This is a cozy little fantasy/adventure story for dark December evenings. The shifts between dreaming and waking make it a good bedtime story too, as Harriet attests. What are your favorite December bedtime stories? Here at non-Necromancy headquarters, we've always been fond of The Grinch who Stole Christmas, a William Joyce picture book entitled Santa Calls, and David Sedaris' essay "Six to Eight Black Men."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same

It's oddly quiet in my house this morning. There's a cat in the kitchen, playing with the little plastic piece that comes off the milk carton when I open it. But there's no tinkling of little bells, no burbling or warbling or whistling. There's no rasping sound of beak sharpening. The parakeets are gone.

We got parakeets when we realized that parrots and macaws were too intelligent and needed too much care to live happily in our busy household, and when we read about how long they live and that taking one into your family entails extracting promises from the next generation about their care and feeding for the rest of their long (up to 150 years) life. But good pet owners let the caged animals out for a portion of every day; why else live with an animal that can't roam free? So parakeets and cats were a stupid combination. Even our tamest cat, Sammy, would reach up a desultory paw when our first white parakeet, Jack Sparrow, swooped overhead.

We tried to put the cats outside when we let the birds out, but something always happened. A cat slipped in with a kid. Jack Sparrow swooped too low over Sabrina and had his neck broken in an instant. (Later that day, to distract me in my sorrow, I went to see the movie Elizabethtown, in which a white bird literally goes down in flames.)

Will Turner, our gloriously green companion bird, was called "the bird who lived" because he once survived being taken downstairs in Sabrina's mouth. Will and his white and blue companion bird, Jack the second, lived happily in a cage hung from a high hook in the corner of our dining room for several years, going outside in their cage when it was nice weather; I hung the cage from a high hook on our deck.

But then we got Tristan, whose mission in life was to get the birds. We had to move the hermit crabs out of the dining room and make sure the chairs were always scooted in so he couldn't get a running start at the cage. Despite precautionary measures, he twice managed a great leap that left him hanging on the front of the birdcage, drenched with water from the attached cup. And he found a way to get on the roof of the deck and menace the birdcage from above, making it impossible to hang it outside unless someone was there with it, keeping a continuous eye on it.

Jack the second got sick and expired this fall. Will Turner was so sad that I went to the local pet store looking for something to cheer him up and brought home another green companion bird we named Elizabeth Swan. They seemed very happy together for what turned out to be the last month of Will's life. The bird lady at the pet store told me that 4-5 years was a pretty good lifespan for a caged parakeet, even though the books said it should be 12-15 with the right nutrition-- which I provided daily, chopping up little bits of fruits and vegetables. So with a heavy heart I brought Elizabeth back to the pet store, where I had the small satisfaction of seeing her put back among her siblings.

And now there's no birdsong in my house. Looking for a poem about birds, I found this one by Robert Frost, Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same:

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tune of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same
And to do that to birds was why she came.

Parakeets don't easily learn to talk, even if you keep a male bird alone and give him enough attention that you become his "flock" as the books advise. But they do chirp and twitter the cadences they hear, and second only to hearing my children whistle and sing, which they do almost continuously when they're home, I liked to hear the parakeets' echo of our household noise in the hours that I'm here alone.

Except for four cats and six hermit crabs. And the rabbit. I guess no one is really ever alone at our house.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers: Answers

1. In the "children's" category: Who included a star-studded CD along with her songbook Philadelphia Chickens, hyped as a "too-illogical zoological musical revue"?
Sandra Boynton
2. In the "classics" category: What Arthur Conan Doyle character was based on a shrewd Victorian criminal named Adam Worth?
Professor Moriarty
3. In the "non-fiction" category: What hot-selling 1995 instructional manual was subtitled Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right?
The Rules
4. In the "book club" category: What tearjerker was the first William Styron book ever performed as an opera?
Sophie's Choice
5. In the "authors" category: What best selling novelist was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an "Outstanding American" in 1992?
John Irving
6. In the "book bag" category: What was Janet Evanovich's follow-up to her best-selling thriller One for the Money?
Two for the Dough

PAJ, like me, got all but #3. Harriet got all but #6 (I LIKE those Stephanie Plum novels!). And Florinda got all but #1 (anyone with children under the age of 13 needs to hear Philadelphia Chickens!) Thanks for playing. Should we do this here again, perhaps with a shorter answer time? (Did you notice that Paperback Reader is asking one of these questions every Tuesday?)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., by Robert J. Hensler, is a novel that I wouldn't ordinarily read, so I'm counting it as a Critical Monkey contest entry. What compelled me to read it? It was found in a rented beach house, and it wasn't even my beach house. FreshHell mailed it to me; it was almost like a dare to read the whole thing.

Published in 1977, this novel, Washington, D.C., has everything. Power! Sex! Sixties-style revolutionaries who want to blow everything up but are too inept!

The power guy is a senator from Connecticut who thinks he can make the world better by exposing corruption in government. He also wears bell-bottom pants. Readers can guess that at the end of the novel, he'll emerge a sadder and wiser man. When he goes to a party full of political movers and shakers, the hostess greets him:
"Oh Royce," she gushed expansively, "it's so chic to have a real folk hero at one of my parties."

The sex is called "balling" by both men and women. It occurs only between the revolutionaries or the politically corrupt. But don't worry, there are plenty of those, and it's very explicit. The anatomical terms are all correct.

The leader of the inept sixties-style revolutionaries is Leo Phast, a really hep cat who despises almost everyone:
"These kids. Talking revolution. As if revolution was something you talked about. It was more than simple semantics, his mind raced. It was something you did. Revolution was something that took hold of you and filled your mind and body with elation. That force, that letting yourself do it, that was the God-head speaking. Right to you. In terms that your body could understand. Not just your mind."

The writing, wooden throughout, occasionally plunges to this level:
"Sims walked to the parking lot behind Martin's office on Oakleaf Drive in Silver, Spring, Maryland, a short drive from metropolitan Washington. He found his car key in his pocket, opened the Mercedes' door, and slid into the seat. The car was hot, and Sims started the engine and the air conditioner immediately."

Another pleasure of the mid-1970's setting is the up-to-the-minute use of slang:
"Back at the kitchen table, she opened the Herald and turned immediately to Madison Bock's column. Sure enough, she thought to herself as she read, the bum had gigged Lynn."

In the end, Royce, the honest politician, tells his wife that she can't leave him because "I have my plans. I have my career. And you have yours. Your job is being my wife. Being with me. Being mother to Jess and Adam." And there is, finally, some pleasure for me in this novel, in imagining his wife remembering this speech years later, especially the part where he tells her "I have to get in there and hustle my ass off, just to be able to say I'm a man. That's what this Linde affair was all about. And that's what nineteen seventy-six will be about." Okay, maybe so, fella, but it's nice to think that, like the cigarette commercial from your day prophesied, "you've come a long way, baby!"

I'll pass this book on to anyone who's a glutton for punishment--a genuine discard from the 70's that wasn't worth taking home after a beach trip and hasn't been read since.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

My friend Karen, who is a chemistry professor, made a Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers game appear in my mailbox at the local college, saying in the attached card that it was time for it to find a more literary home where the kind of loud, animated games she imagines for it might get played over the holidays.

Well, at Non-Necromancy Headquarters we fully intend to make her dream come true. But first, I thought I'd give you a chance to play. I'll give you all of the questions on one card and you'll attempt to answer as many as you can in the comments. Then the right answers will appear here on Monday (Dec. 14).

Ready?

1. In the "children's" category: Who included a star-studded CD along with her songbook Philadelphia Chickens, hyped as a "too-illogical zoological musical revue"?
2. In the "classics" category: What Arthur Conan Doyle character was based on a shrewd Victorian criminal named Adam Worth?
3. In the "non-fiction" category: What hot-selling 1995 instructional manual was subtitled Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right?
4. In the "book club" category: What tearjerker was the first William Styron book ever performed as an opera?
5. In the "authors" category: What best selling novelist was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an "Outstanding American" in 1992?
6. In the "book bag" category: What was Janet Evanovich's follow-up to her best-selling thriller One for the Money?

Go!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Shoveling Snow with Buddha

This Billy Collins poem is for Andrew, who has been musing on walking meditation and snow shoveling, and who has been getting snowed on already because he lives in the Chicago area. (We aren't getting any of the snow, but we're getting high winds, so I've been making my usual preparations for the almost inevitable power outage later today.)

Shoveling Snow with Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling,
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck,
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

I feel much more Buddha-like than usual, as I've succumbed to a sinus infection. I'm taking codeine cough syrup at night, which gives me weird dreams but makes me feel tranquil in between the coughing fits that go on every time I awaken. I'm taking another cough medicine during the day when I can; it has a drowsiness warning and I'm not supposed to take it when I might have to drive anywhere. But I haven't been driving much of anywhere. I haven't been doing all the Christmas errands. I haven't even done the laundry that's piling up. I'm just sitting here and reading whatever comes to hand, in a tranquil and oddly silent way, since for a few days I had complete laryngitis and now have only an edge of a voice.

I would like it to be vacation already, so there would be someone home to play cards with! It's interesting to feel such calm at such a busy time of year. Who would like some of my calm? Here. Sit down. Look into my i's.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Believe Me

I began reading Believe Me, by Nina Killham, with some trepidation. The author initially approached me about reading this novel, and I agreed to let her publicist for Plume Paperbacks (Penguin) sent me a copy. What worried me was the blurb, describing the novel as about a relationship between a mother who is "an atheist and staunch Darwinist" and a son who "is starting to embrace the teachings of the bible and Creationist theory" whose "beliefs are put to the test" when "an unexpected tragedy strikes." What does this sound like to you? To me, it sounds like religion to the rescue. But I was pleasantly surprised by the complications of this novel, which advocates for neither "side," but tells a story showing how difficult it can be to respect the beliefs of others.

The protagonist of the novel is Nic, age 13. That interests me already, as the mother of a 13-year-old boy. And his grandmother spouts the inoculation theory of religion, which I've spouted ever since before I first became a mother (once, memorably, to an Episcopalian priest): "Of course he's going to grow up and join some weird cult. What did you expect? You've got to give him a bit in the beginning so he can grow antibodies to the real crazy stuff." But Nic's mother, Lucy, is an atheist and has raised him as one, while many of the cool kids at his school are fundamentalist Christians. That interests me too, as one inhabitant of a small town where the school board still hasn't managed to fire a teacher (John Freshwater) who has done some of the same kinds of things that a character in this novel, Mr. Branden, does:
"He brought a Bible to class one day. Made this big show of sneaking it out of the drawer....One day Ms White, our principal, came in and sat at the back of the class taking notes. Mr. Branden didn't mention [God] once."

There's also a character in the novel, Mrs. Porter, who I was prepared to dislike, early on, because she "got them to put stickers on the biology books saying that evolution is just a theory." But as the novel goes on, the characters become more real, and Mrs. Porter also does some genuinely thoughtful things for people, including Nic and his mother. She reminds me of the mother of a boy on Walker's soccer team who is an ardent John Freshwater supporter and also one of the nicest people I've ever met.

I thought Nic's mother missed a good chance to explain the difference between a philosophical and a scientific theory when she and Nic discuss some of the young-earth creationist books Mrs. Porter gives Nic. But this is a story about people, and the interest of it is not so much in the ideas, but in hearing about stuff like the 13-year-old's opinions about who God likes (his pretty young friend Sandra Miller) and who God doesn't like (Mrs. Vogler, an old lady whose child was killed in an auto accident). The part where Nic wishes for a mother like Mrs. Porter, who would "probably jump up and offer to make me a sandwich" rings absolutely true to me. Also the part where the 13-year-old blames his mother for the failure of his parents' marriage sounds like genuine young teen ranting: "all she had to do was make some meals, do the laundry, and keep her husband, and she's failed completely." Nic definitely sounds like a real 13-year-old to me when he muses "the more I learn about life the more I realize grownups have no idea what they're talking about. I guess I'm just surprised how much they don't know. Until a couple of years ago I thought they knew everything and it turns out they can't agree on anything."

The fundamentalist Christians are aligned with this 13-year-old way of thinking when Mrs. Porter's son Kevin says to Nic that Lucy got brain cancer because she isn't Christian, making it personal the way Nic had earlier made the ideas about who God likes and who he doesn't. Kevin says to Nic: "God's attacking her brain. Think about it."

What interests me most in this novel are the parts where someone who strikes me--and Nic's mother--as wrong explains his or her point of view. When Nic's Muslim babysitter Layla wears a headscarf, for example, she says it's because "I am treated as a person, not a sex object." When Nic talks to the new "senior pastor" at his church (at the urging of Mrs. Porter), he is asked "Do you know what happens when we think for ourselves?" and told (immediately) that the answer is "moral decay." The most incomprehensible scene, for me, is when Nic's fundamentalist Christian friend Melissa attacks Lucy's research to find out the mass of a planet, saying "God will reveal it to her when He's ready" and then giving a speech about why scientists shouldn't try to find out anything about our world: "Don't you think He has enough problems without people nitpicking the details. Try to refute His story. Coming up with wacky theories of their own. He's exhausted. Here He is trying to conquer Satan and your mom is quibbling about how old His universe is." Finally Melissa works herself into such a frenzy she pulls out Lucy's computer wires, asking him "Do you want her to prove there is no God?"

The fundamentalist theme culminates in a back-and-forth reading Layla and Nic do with the Koran and the Bible, a reading that leaves neither party on a clear moral high ground.

The end of the novel, though, is partly a celebration of the virtues of organized religion. Mrs. Porter is the kindest and one of the most useful people who come to visit Lucy in the hospital. A pastor helps Nic get some perspective on his situation, and afterward Nic thinks there should be a class in "Death and How to Survive It" and "the first thing they'd have to teach you is to never go to an atheist funeral....They are not a hell of a lot of fun. They try to be cheery because they're supposed to be celebrating a person's life, but there's no MC like a pastor or anything so people just wander around with huge craters in their hearts."

Nic reaches a point where he seems better able to answer his own question, posed early in the novel: "why would anybody be good if there wasn't a God?" At the end of the novel, the love Nic and his mother have for each other is stronger than their need to make the other one understand what they believe is true. They learn to respect each other, even if they don't respect each other's beliefs. And it's not just because of Lucy's brain tumor, which is one of the things the blurb made me fear.

It's not a perfect ending. But at the center of this novel is Nic's family, and his family's conflict is resolved, even while the important questions with which the characters struggle will continue to be debated and fought over. It's interesting to see them raised in fiction and to get a little bit of the feeling of how deep and divisive they are for these characters, people who aren't interesting in arguing with any of us readers.

Have you talked to anyone lately who disagrees with you about rationalism or fundamentalism? If not, why not? Do you think we all tend to stick to our own side of the street these days?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Children Star contest

I reviewed The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski earlier this fall, and today a new edition is available at Amazon. The author is offering a chance at a prize--a signed first edition of A Door Into Ocean (winner of the John Campbell award in 1986)--to anyone who buys this new edition of The Children Star. If you want a chance at this prize, tell me you've bought The Children Star and leave your email address in the comments.

The new cover art is by Nathan Silver:
http://biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/Micro/Children-thumb.jpg

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival #32

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Welcome to the thirty-second edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival!

Book reviews

The "hall monitor" presents Book Review: Youth in a Suspect Society posted at DetentionSlip.org, saying, "Find out how our schools started to resemble prisons."

Jim Murdoch presents Death of a Superhero by Anthony McCarten posted at The Truth About Lies, saying, "Donald Delpe is your typical 14 year-old, obsessed by sex and not getting any. He's also not your typical 14 year-old in that he's dying of cancer. How he copes with this is by drawing superhero comics but like nothing DC or Marvel would touch with a bargepole. An odd book - part narrative, part script, part comic-book outline – but also a painfully funny book when it's not being tragic. Donald's main concern is not his impending death but whether or not he'll get laid before he goes. Currently being made into a film, due for release in 2010 starring Freddie Highmore."

Sparky Bates presents You've Been Warned - by James Patterson & Howard Roughan posted at Accidental Reads, saying "Although thoroughly engaging and enjoyable, this book was a little bit on the 'weird' side."

Jim presents So What? by Mark Magnacca posted at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity, saying that it's "a book about how to change your mindset so that you become a more effective communicator and salesperson."

Dan MacKinnon presents mathematical lapses posted at mathrecreation, saying, "A short post about the mathematical humor in Stephen Leacock's Literary Lapses."

Steven Bush presents The Good Men Project: Real Stories From the Front Lines of Modern Manhood posted at Book Dads: Fathers That Read!, saying, "The Good Men Project: honest and compelling true stories by men writing about being Fathers, Sons, Husbands, and Workers."

Jim Murdoch presents Seeing Things posted at The Truth About Lies, saying, "The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog – these beloved children's programmes all flowed from the pen of Oliver Postgate and yet his work in animation only made up part of a fascinating life which is opened up for us in his autobiography, 'Seeing Things' which includes his time as an inventor (he built a solar-powered house long before 'green' became popular) and also his anti-nuclear campaigning. The chapter covering his time in the army is pure Spike Milligan. A great read."

Bart's Bookshelf presents The Magicians by Lev Grossman posted at Bart's Bookshelf, saying "There’s an elephant in this room, and it is one that it is impossible for this book to get away from. Teenagers. Going to a magical boarding school. Complete with quirky teachers. And a weird game involving magic…"

Bart's Bookshelf presents Review: Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick posted at Bart's Bookshelf, describing it as the companion/follow-up vampire novel to My Swordhand is Singing."

Vishal k Bharadwaj presents Book Review - Perdido Street Station posted at allVishal.com, saying, "Finally read a book I'd been looking forward to reading for a long, long time. I liked it enough to come up with a fake book cover (the paperback's is hideous), but as with most books, that's not the whole story..."

Swapnil Warang presents "Midnight's Children" posted at switch2life saying that the novel "covers various topics from the Indian independence, partition, Pakistan’s militarization, birth of Bangladesh, to emergency period in India. But does it really deserve the popularity it got? I would say no. The book just had too many things happening in it."

Morgan Schwartz presents My Snowman wants a Kindle posted at Omaha.net - Local Writing from the Heartland.

BWL presents The New Savage Number | Review posted at Christian Personal Finance, saying, "A short, but sweet, review of Terry Savage's "The New Savage Number."

Children's books

NathanKP presents “The Tale of Despereaux,” by Kate DiCamillo posted at Books For Sale?, saying, "“The Tale of Despereaux,” by Kate DiCamillo is a Newbery Award Medal winning tale about a young mouse who is in love with a human princess."

Keira, a guest blogger, presents 9 Ways to Get Kids to Read, saying in the last one: "Above all don’t force reading. If you do, reading will be forever associated with bad memories. It’s like root canal that way." Posted at Literature Young Adult Fictions.

Steven Bush presents Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson posted at Book Dads: Fathers That Read!, saying, "Testing the Ice offers a unique insight into a man who changed the face of American sports and helped launch the civil rights movement, by portraying him as a father from the view of one of his own children."

Fiction

Clark Bjorke presents Oryx and Crake posted at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book!, saying, "Pigoons, rakunks, snats and wolvogs, no it's not Edgar rice Burroughs, it's Margaret Atwood."

KerrieS presents Review: A SHILLING FOR CANDLES, Josephine Tey posted at MYSTERIES in PARADISE, saying, "The discovery of the body of a popular screen actress washed up on a beach on the southern coast of England sparks an investigation headed by Scotland Yard's top detective, Inspector Alan Grant. Christine Clay's death hits the headlines, has a global impact, "society" dusts off its mourning blacks in hope of an invitation to her funeral, and yet what comes out is that almost no-one knew who she really was. A clairvoyant claims to have foretold her death, and her estranged brother seems to have disappeared."

KerrieS presents Review: TOO CLOSE TO HOME, Linwood Barclay posted at MYSTERIES in PARADISE, saying, "17 year old Derek Cutter has it all worked out. When his neighbours the Langleys go on a week's holiday, their house will provide a perfect lovenest for him and his girlfriend Penny. All he has to do is hide in their house, wait for them to leave, and then persuade Penny to come over. Except things go wrong. Donna Langley takes ill a short way from home and they come home soon after leaving. Derek is trapped in the house and has to wait for them to go to sleep. Within minutes all three Langleys are dead, killed by a gunman."

Ms. Smarty Pants presents No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez posted at Ms. Smarty Pants Know It All, saying, "a short and focused work from the Nobel winner."

Non fiction

ARJ presents "A Year On the Wing" Enthralls posted at Science On Tap, saying, "Book review of an absolutely great read from British first-time author Tim Dee, "A Year On the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life With Birds." One of the best pieces of nature-writing in a long while.

Alyce presents Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown posted at At Home With Books. This is a review of a new illustrated edition, and Alyce says "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee documents many, many tragedies, but does a good job of providing the information in chronological order so that you can see the progression of events; the cause and effect. The stories of massacres are not limited to those inflicted on the Native Americans, but also tell of those for which the Native Americans were responsible."

The editorial blog at the self-help site Your Best Library recommends The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, saying "Have you ever wondered why some people are more successful than others? What is it that makes or breaks the business deals, friendship, or romance? What is the top priority employers consider when they are hiring, firing, or promoting? Intelligence? Education? Looks?"

Angel R. Rivera presents Booknote: Working for You Isn't Working For Me posted at The Itinerant Librarian, saying, "From the review, "The book is not perfect, but if you are dealing in a workplace with a toxic boss, then this is a good book to read in order to help you deal with the situation.""

Jeanne presents Manhood for Amateurs posted at Necromancy Never Pays, saying, "These essays are not only for men. They're for any contemplative person who wants some ideas presented in short bits, like little pieces of brain candy to pop in and suck on from time to time."

Novel

Grant McCreary presents In Hovering Flight posted at The Birder's Library, saying that the author is "obviously interested in birds, but I don’t know if she would consider herself a birder. But if not, she definitely did her homework, as she got the little details right."

That concludes this edition of the carnival.

Submit your blog article to the next edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival using the carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the blog carnival index page.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A denunciation of necromancy

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Buying poems for the holidays




I've been making a list of poetry books for Buy Books for the Holidays, because giving someone a book of poems as a gift can be romantic, or at least different. I've checked to see that all of the books on my list are available new, and have only included two that seem to be currently available only in used editions.

for children:
Starting a child out with a love of rhyme and rhythm can give that child a love of language for life. One of the books I read to my children from infancy on was
Jan Pienkowski's Little Monsters.
You should also be reading books by Dr. Seuss to babies, of course. And
Mother Goose.
Toddlers should have A Child's Garden of Verses, by R.L. Stevenson, read to them.
Also A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six.
Children from toddlers to 5th grade will like Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic.
Elementary-age kids will like Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children and
Edward Gorey's rhyming ABC book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Sometime during the elementary years, you should get your children reading poetry out loud, and Fleischman and Beddow's Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is good for that.
Also to read out loud to children:
Robert Service, Collected Poems
101 Famous Poems, Roy Cook
a book that my children and I loved is, sadly, no longer easily available except in used editions, Roy Blount Jr.'s Soup Songs.
Here is one of my favorites from it:

Green Pea Lover's Sad Song
I tried to eat my English peas.
The peas they had their own ideas.

and here is my other, slightly longer, favorite (it comes with an illustration and a related quotation):

Song to Catsup
If every food your parents hatsup
Tastes like something to matsup
With something not even a buzzard would snatsup,
Add catsup.

Catsup will fix up all kinds of yuck.
You'll find a way to pour it on your turnips with luck.
And if you can't--
Since children can't
Turn turnips down--
Find a way to pour
Your turnips on the floor.
And if your mother sees you, move to another town.

Catsup makes you well.
It's tangy, gooey, red.
Pour it on your shirt and tell
Your parents you are dead.

for young adults:
There are book versions of Poetry 180, edited by Billy Collins, and also
180 more. These offer short, easily understandable poems appropriate for most people of middle and high school age.
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Neil Astley, offers a mix of new, translated, and classic poems. Recommended for the teen girl, mostly because the cover photo shows a female face.
Various short poems that tell a book-length story are available; my daughter's hands-down favorite since she was in sixth grade is
What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones.

for adults:
If you think a person might like a particular poet, get the Collected Poems.
The Norton Introduction to Poetry provides a wide-ranging selection of mostly British and American poetry.
Great Sonnets, edited by Paul Negri and available in a cheap Dover edition, is a selection of famous short (14 line) poems.
For some fun with poetry, try the Norton Book of Light Verse
or, for the recent swine flu victim, The Pig Poets by Henry Hogge.
One of my favorite fun collections is now only available used,
Unauthorized Versions: Poems and their Parodies, edited by Kenneth Baker.
Here's a sample:

Original poem: Robert Browning's Home-Thoughts, from Abroad (quoted in Noel Streatfeild's British children's story Apple Bough)

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffink sings on the orchard bough
In England--now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops--at the best spray's edge--
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups the little children's dower
--Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Unauthorized version, entitled Home Truths from Abroad:

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees some morning, in despair,
There's a horrible fog i' the heart o' the town,
And the greasy pavement is damp and brown;
While the rain-drop falls from the laden bough,
In England--now!

And after April when May follows,
How foolish seem the returning swallows.
Hark! how the east wind sweeps along the street,
And how we give one universal sneeze!
The hapless lambs at thought of mint-sauce bleat,
And ducks are conscious of the coming peas.

Lest you should think the Spring is really present,
A biting frost will come to make things pleasant,
And though the reckless flowers begin to blow,
They'd better far have nestled down below;
And English spring sets men and women frowning,
Despite the rhapsodies of Robert Browning.

Those are my ideas for some poems you could give as gifts. If the person you're shopping for has definite tastes in poetry and you're not sure which poets he or she particularly likes, there's always Poetry Comics (Dave Morice) or magnetic poetry, which are sure to produce a grin from all but the most pompous poetry-lovers!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Strange as this Weather Has Been

Every year the college I commute to has a "common book" provided free to all first-year students and discussed in the first-year writing class. This year it's Strange as this Weather Has Been, by Ann Pancake. Now, I love the idea of a common book. I always read it enthusiastically and enjoy using it to demonstrate the difference between leading a discussion on a novel I've read once and don't necessarily agree with or love, versus the more usual discussions on novels I've read twice or more and love enough to assign. This one was on a topic wholly unfamiliar to me, mountaintop removal mining for coal in West Virginia.

Ann Pancake is against mountaintop removal mining, and the purpose of her novel is to make you feel the pain of the people whose land is being destroyed by it. So it has a didactic tone from the start, plus recommendations for protest websites in the acknowledgments at the end. (Pancake's own website provides additional links.)

The story is told in alternating chapters by various characters, mostly Lace, a W.VA native who quit college after her first semester because she was homesick and got pregnant by a local boy on her first visit home ("don't try this, first-years"), and her children, Bant, Dane, and Corey. Lace and Bant spend most of their time coming to terms with the idea that mining has destroyed the environment of their home and trying to come up with a response. They educate themselves about the local mining operations, but they don't know enough about science to tell propaganda from truth. Their version of the truth is local; it doesn't go beyond identifying and using plants and animals native to the area. Bant utters the title phrase, trying to link global warming to the mining operations on nearby mountains:
"Anymore, seemed there was either too much water or too little, the temperature too high or too low. 'Strange as this weather has been,' people would say, or 'With this crazy weather we've been having.' And I knew Lace believed the weather was linked to the rest of this mess, but I wasn't sure how."

Corey, who has grown up with machinery rather than nature, is attracted to the mining machinery:
"finally he'd scale Big John. That vast mountain-handling piece of gorgeous machinery. And as Corey climbs it, the smell of its fluids the good grease he'd get on his clothes. And maybe he'd cut himself a little on something. Maybe he'd bleed a little there. He'd crawl in, settle in the seat, take a look at how it ran, push his legs to the pedals, grip sticks and handles. That giant, his body in that gigantic body, his body running that body, and the size, the power of that machine: inside Big John, Corey can change the shape of the world. Corey can."
But Corey's attraction to machinery eventually results in his doom, and even though I'm sympathetic to the environmental message of this novel, that irritates me. It seems heavy-handed, although perhaps it's a tribute to the power of Pancake's characterization that I care.

The character of Avery, a neighbor of Lace's who left W. Va. for college and a job in Cleveland, irritates me too, because he seems to be invented solely for the purpose of showing what is lost when someone learns to speak "standard" English and value anything outside his mountain home. (What an anti-education novel this is, to assign to college students who are just starting out!) Avery also serves as a mouthpiece for the author, as he studies and describes various mining disasters and tells his own personal (and horrifying) story of surviving one.

Despite the heavy-handed propagandizing and the occasional mouthpiece character, though, this novel succeeds in getting me interested in the characters and, through them, a subject I had no interest in before. As Lace says, late in the novel,
"It hurt to learn it, it did. It was easier to half-ignore it, pretend it wasn't that bad, anyway, or if it was, couldn't do nothing about it so why get worked up, that's how a lot of people lived. But I realized to at least know part of what was going on made you feel like you had a particle of control instead of none at all."

As an adult, I've always been a proponent of nuclear energy, but reading a novel like this one gives me new impetus to vote against the use of coal wherever I can. That's going to have to be enough, at least for now. Because I want to feel that particle of control, rather than ignore something once it's been brought to my attention. Have you ever heard of mountaintop removal mining before this? Does it give you that fatalistic feeling that it's yet another thing you should be doing something about but you're not ready to get worked up about it now when there are so many other things that seem more urgent?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Living in the Body

This weekend I saw my brother and my cousins and my aunts and just about everybody else I'm related to on my mother's side at the wedding of one of my first cousins once removed. We are a big family--both individually and in terms of how many of us there are. I looked around at cousins I hadn't seen for thirteen years--since the last big family wedding--and noticed that some of them looked a lot like their mothers now. The groom looked a lot more like his father than he did the last time I saw him. He married a red-headed woman, which will probably add to the already large number of red-headed cousins.

All the resemblances made me think of Joyce Sutphen's poem "Living in the Body":

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly--better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their piles of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

But I taught my kids a family game called "Nine Magazines," which we've always told the children is a mind-reading game that only those related to us can play. A number of cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws stopped by to demonstrate their mind-reading ability and further frustrate the kids until they finally caught on, making them part of a tradition that stretches further back than my childhood, back to when my great-aunt had us all running in and out of her house and the relatives for whom we were named and who we would grow up to resemble were still in town, still married, still alive.

I meant to take more pictures, but I kept getting distracted, as usual, so the number of my mental snapshots far exceeds the number of actual ones, which are the ones we'll look at in years to come and marvel at how young and attractive we were then, and who-all was alive then but left their bodies after that occasion. The bodies change, but many of them look the same. There's something reassuring about that kind of continuity, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009



Taking the rest of the week off for Thanksgiving.
See you next Monday!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Deja Demon and Demon Ex Machina

I found the first one of this series by Julie Kenner, Carpe Demon, as an audiobook at the library, and listened to the second, California Demon, and the third, Demons are Forever, that way, too. Then the library ran out of funds and I was left at the end of the third one wondering if the act of necromancy performed by the protagonist, a "demon-hunting soccer mom" named Kate, was going to pay.

A year later, I bought the next two in paperback to find out. First I read Deja Demon, and it still wasn't clear. The person Kate brings back from the dead is her first husband Eric, who turns out to be infected with a demon even in his borrowed body. Finally Kate's husband and best friend are in on the secret of her demon-whacking activities, but Kate still hasn't learned to be entirely open with her daughter about dad's demon infection. This is all funnier than I'm making it sound. Let me give you a sample:
"The truth. Now there's a funny concept. Once upon a time, I thought truth was an easy thing. The sky is blue--true. The moon is made of green cheese--false. Evil walks among us--true. Dead husbands don't return to their wives and children in the bodies of other men. That one--surprise, surprise--turned out to be false."

Like any superhero, Kate has to train and do research, and she also has to agonize about whether saving the world is worth exposing her kids to danger:
"I'd always told myself I wanted my kids to have a normal life. So why was I suddenly cultivating my teenage daughter's desire to get out there and fight the good fight? Was I being a good mom, factoring in my child's wants and desires while still trying to keep some semblance of control to keep her safe? Or was I being selfish, reveling in her desire to be like me and wanting to increase the bonds that tied us together?"

Kate needs the help of her daughter and husband in the fifth book in the series, Demon Ex Machina, in which a lot of things are tied up, including what happened to Kate's nemesis Nadia and what happens to the demon inside of her first husband (her second husband has a very satisfying role to play in its vanquishing). The research is livened up by some accurate information Kate's daughter Allie gets from an online gaming site, and her by-now habitual agonizing over her kids is given a touch of humor by a face-off with a demon inhabiting the body of a toddler (Kate is undone, she says, by her "maternal hormones" but first hubby does the job for her), and then by bits of mother-daughter humor like this one, which rings true to my ears:
"Allie and Mindy came barreling inside, backpacks flying as they tossed them onto the kitchen table. Then they both fell into chairs and demanded ice cream.
'Hello? Do I look like our personal serving wench?'
'A little,' Allie said.
'Around the eyes,' Mindy added."

But I still don't know if necromancy pays in this series or not! I mean, so far it has, because there hasn't been any earthshaking negative effect from Kate's use of the "Lazarus bones" to bring her first husband back to life (in the heat of a demon battle). But as to what he's going to do with the rest of that life, we don't know yet. Obviously there's going to be a sixth in the series. And I'm going to be hunting it down when it comes out. Surely this little piece of fictional fluff isn't going to disprove my grand theory...or will it?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, convalescing after the flu, I sat in a patch of weak November sunlight coming in through the picture window that has a spot of blood and feathers on it and reread one of my favorite poems, Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning.

It's a long poem, but if you pick out a few lines to admire, it has lovely images. I'm going to comment on how I interpret the lines (at least how I interpret them this week) as I go along.

I
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

--Someone is not going to church, but enjoying the sensual pleasures of sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast.

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.

--The sensual pleasures of reality dim in the light of her thoughts about the crucifixion. I think it must be spring, almost Easter.

The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

--There's a gap between how she feels and how she thinks she should feel on this fine morning.

II
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

--Why should she have gotten up early, crammed herself into her good clothes, and gone off to a hard pew in a cold church lit mostly by the dimness of the early spring sunlight as it makes its feeble way through the thickness of stained glass? Why should she believe in anything except what she can feel?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

--Can't ordinary things lift her up the way she's been taught that faith in a mythical Heaven can?

Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

--She resolves to value what she can experience with her senses, rather than try to cultivate faith in anything she can't experience.

III
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,

--Jove (or Zeus) had intercourse with humans.

Until our blood, commmingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.

--The desire for intercourse with God results in the Virgin birth and the Nativity story of Jesus.

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?

--Is any part of us more than mortal?

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

--We'll understand more if we become more than mortal.

IV
She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;

--I like to hear birdsong in the morning

But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"

--Is there anything more in life than transitory, sensual pleasure?

There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden undergrounds, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured

--These stories don't have the same power for me as anything sensual and real.

As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.

--This is what moves me, these are the things that make me feel that life has meaning. (Especially at this time of year, the "desire for June and evening" seems a thought of something impossibly lovely.)

V
She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."

--I still feel the need to believe that something of me will live on once I'm gone from the earth.

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

--Only in death can we know if anything survives death

Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

--The fact that life ends gives urgency and meaning to the everyday events of our lives.

VI
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,

--Could we love the sensual pleasures of the earth as much if they were always available?

With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?

--It's the ephemeral qualities of life that keep us going, looking for more.

Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!

--What use would these pleasures be if they were eternal and unchanging? How can a song be beautiful without any conflict?

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

--It's the possibility of loss that makes our mortal mothers want to cherish every minute with their children, even the painful (burning) ones.

VII
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.

--Rituals are what we use to try to understand that which is beyond our understanding.

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.

--Rituals are also how we try to make the ephemeral pleasures of the earth immortal--through making music, for example, music that will outlast its makers.

They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.

--They consciously experience ephemeral pleasure so they can express the full glory of its potential.

And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

--Perhaps the footsteps they leave on our memory will be as transient as morning dew, and as briefly beautiful.

VIII
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."

--She is brought back from her daydreaming by a recollection of what she's been taught in church.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

--Her daydreams are more satisfying to her longing for something beyond transitory sensual pleasure, even though she can't get past the barrier of imagining what could be beyond this world.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

--the beauty of the world must be enough to take her out of herself. It is now evening, and she doesn't know any more than when she started. She can't read anything into the pattern the pigeons are making. She is left with beauty and uncertainty, and with the abundant consolation that ephemeral beauty offers to the alert observer.

After Sunday, we go into the week with purpose, trying to avoid the deer (and around here, the quail) on the highways, washing and eating the berries that are ripe, and flying down to the eventual darkness of the winter solstice on the extended wings of our busy schedules. It happens so fast that sometimes it is good to stop what you're doing, sit in a sunny chair, and daydream. Do you ever have time for that?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Forgiveness Ode

Yesterday was my last day of class at the commuter college. Tomorrow they write an exam over the material covered in the second half of the course, and by next Tuesday they turn in a revision of one of their papers as a final exam. I have taught them everything I'm going to have a chance to teach them. The fall, which seemed so full of promise in September, is over. And I'm ready; I've made my mistakes, the students have made theirs, and what happens in the next week is that we all try to come to terms with it.

It's a little bit like having to drop your maternity coverage before you're entirely ready to give up the dream of another baby. Or watching the father of your children, having walked out of the marriage a few years before, move to a distant city where you'll no longer have the chance to see him every day. It's been over, but it's just now hitting you.

I love this poem, the "No Forgiveness Ode" by Dean Young, especially for its last two lines:

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.
Night after night Tybalt's stabbed
so the lovers are ground in mechanical
aftermath. Think of the gunk that never
comes off the roasting pan, the goofs
of a diamond cutter. But wasn't it
electricity's blunder into inert clay
that started this whole mess, the I-
echo in the head, a marriage begun
with a fender bender, a sneeze,
a mutation, a raid, an irrevocable
fuckup. So in the meantime: epoxy,
the dog barking at who knows what,
signals mixed up like a dumped-out tray
of printer's type. Some piece of you
stays in me and I'll never give it back.
The heart hoards its thorns
just as the rose profligates.
Just because you've had enough
doesn't mean you wanted too much.

I've had enough of this fall, both in terms of what I've done and what I've left undone (to quote part of an Episcopalian confession of sin).

Next we'll want too much from the holidays; it's almost time for me to start gunking up my Thanksgiving roasting pan with this year's expectations and regrets--how about you?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Leviathan

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is a YA book set in an alternate world at the onset of WWI, a world in which the British allies use bio-engineering for their war machines and the German allies use mechanical engineering (some reviewers, like Amanda, call it steampunk, I think largely because of its neo-Victorian illustrations, and Westerfeld discusses the applicability of the steampunk label in his "Big Idea" piece at Whatever).

It's quite a good story and I am full of regret and irritation that I bought it this fall. Why Scott Westerfeld thought he could write part of a story and publish it as a finished book is explained, I guess, by the current plethora of series novels, especially in the YA section. But I'm feeling very cross about it. Westerfeld sets up a fascinating world in which a hero, Alek, and a heroine, Deryn, (alternating narratives at first) meet and learn to cooperate. While the heroine's story comes to a sort of conclusion (she's gotten what she thought she always wanted by pretending to be a boy called Dylan), the hero's is just getting started at the end of this novel. What really gets to me is that some mysterious eggs are introduced on p. 153, and on p. 434 the author cuts us off by reminding us that we still don't know what's inside the dern things. Maybe I felt extra-grouchy because I read the book while I had the flu. But still.

The illustrations, some of which you can see on Westerfeld's Leviathan page, help to tell the story; every time my daughter shows someone the book she opens it to p. 104 and says "see? here's the spider-dog." I also like the illustration of the heroine's, Deryn's, early flight with a creature based on a medusa jellyfish on p. 35. The illustrations really give readers the contrast between the soft, billowy sides of the biological tools (made by "Darwinists") and the sharp, armored edges of the mechanical ones (made by "Clankers").

The mechanical or "clanker" tools we see the most of in this book are the "walkers," such as Alek's "Stormwalker," and the two-legged variety do bear a passing resemblance to the Star Wars image. But the illustration of the "giant metal spider" variety on p. 165 shows more of the range of possibility for such machines.

The most interesting part of the tale is discovering the differences between the way the "Darwinists" and the "Clankers" think, and how they learn to cooperate. In one exchange, Alek is repulsed by the "glowworms" the Darwinists use to light the inside of their ship, Leviathan, and asks
"'Haven't you Darwinists discovered fire yet?'
'Get stuffed," Dylan said. We use oil lamps, but until the ship's all patched, it's too barking dangerous. What do they use on zeppelins, candles?'
'Don't be absurd. I imagine they have electric lights.'
Dylan snorted. 'Waste of energy. Bioluminescence worms make light from any kind of food. They can even eat soil, like an earthworm.'
Alek eyed the cluster of worms uneasily. 'And you whistle at them?'
'Aye.' Dylan brandished the pipe. 'I can command most of the ship's beasties with this.'
The Leviathan is an ecosystem, as the story itself illustrates when the ship crashes on a glacier and is in need of food, which only Alek can provide, to repair itself.

In fact, however, the Clankers and Darwinists end up working together when neither of their vehicles will work. They put the Stormwalker's engines in the Leviathan, giving it powers neither Clanker nor Darwinists vehicles have had before. And they share knowledge; another of my favorite parts is when Deryn explains the way the Leviathan uses bats in aerial warfare:
"'Did I hear Dr. Barlow say something about bats?'
'Aye, the flechette bats. You should see those wee beasties at work.'
'Flechette? Like 'dart' in French?'
'That sounds right,' Dylan said. 'The bats gobble up these metal spkes, then release them over the enemy.'
'They eat spikes,' Alek said slowly. 'And then...release them?'
Dyland stifled a laugh. 'Aye, in the usual way.'

At the end of the book, the Darwinists and Clankers are headed off together to Constantinople (leaving me with the "Istanbul not Constantinople" earworm), Deryn with her secret still intact and Alek with his destiny still unfulfilled. And the eggs as much a mystery as ever.

Westerfeld plans three books in this series, with the last one planned for publication in the fall of 2011. My advice would be to wait and get all three together. In the meantime, if you haven't read his earlier books (So Yesterday and the Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras series are my favorites), this would be a good time to do that. If he weren't such a good writer, I wouldn't be so frustrated by the lack of resolution to the story he begins with Leviathan.