Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I just got around to reading a YA novel my fifteen-year-old daughter picked up at the bookstore and recommended to me, with the warning that it’s “sequel-rific,” meaning all the conflicts are not satisfactorily resolved. Robin Wasserman’s Skinned is about a girl from the future who “wakes up dead” as my friends used to like to say in college. The girl, Lia, finds that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificial body. She is essentially immortal, since a new body can be made anytime this one wears out. The people of her century don’t consider downloaded-brain people, or “skinners,” to be real people. She struggles to fit back into her old life, and must eventually find a way to build a new life.

It’s not a complicated plot, nor are the characters particularly well developed, but the world of this future is quite interesting. Some of the opposition to “skinners” comes from the “Faithers” who protest Lia’s arrival home from the hospital with signs saying “GOD MADE MAN, WHO MADE YOU?” and “BREATH, NOT BATTERIES.” We learn that “religion went out of style right after the Middle East went out in a blaze of nuclear glory. Not that some people, maybe lots of people, didn’t keep privately believing in some invisible old man who gave them promotions when they were good and syphilis when they were bad. If you had the credit, you could even snag enough drugs for a one-on-one chat. You sometimes heard rumors about people—especially in the cities, where it’s not like there was much else to do—actually gathering together for their God fix, but as far as most people were willing to admit in public, God was dead. The Faith party was for all those leftover believers who—even after the nukes and the Long Winter and the Water Wars of the western drought and the quake that ate California and the wave that drowned DC—refused to give up the ghost. They were for life, for morality, for order, for gratitude, and, until recently, not against much of anything. Except reason, my father was always quick to point out. Then Bio Max unrolled its download process, and the Faithers found their cause.”

The download process is described in detail; Lia has to endure months of physical and mental therapy to learn how to use her new body. At one point she’s asked to think of some of the advantages of her new mechanical body and she says reluctantly that she can “link in” whenever she wants, although she thinks to herself that it’s nothing new:
“for my sixteenth birthday, I’d finally gotten a net-lens, which meant that once I got used to jamming a finger in my eye, I could link with a blink….could superimpose my zone and my av over blah reality, type on a holographic keyboard that only I could see. But the pop-ups didn’t mention how it made you nauseated and made your head burn. Now I had a built-in net-lens, and migraines weren’t an issue.”

Lia doesn’t consider the “dark side” of being almost continually linked to her future version of the internet, like some of the characters in M.T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed, but her sense of self is dependent on it; her “zone” is something like a Facebook profile page, and the identity she has built up there is lost when the company that owns it terminates her account because she is “deceased.” It takes her one remaining human friend, Auden (surely named after the poet), to point out to her that she could have her brain wired “right into the network” and that she is “kind of like an avatar….like the ultimate avatar….this incredible body that’s been created as a vessel for Lia Kahn.”

Other parts of this world also remind me of the world of Feed. Both have been ruined by pollution and carelessness and life is next to impossible for those who aren’t rich, like the genetically screened protagonists of both novels. This is what has happened to a public library:
“The group met in one of those buildings where they used to store paper books until no one wanted them anymore. You could tell because the shelves were still there, sitting empty, waiting for the world to change its mind and start printing with ink again—like that was going to happen. There were a lot of places like this, empty buildings that survived long after their purpose had died. Why go out for art, for drama, for literature, for fashion, when you could stay on the couch, safe from germs, weather, overexertion, crowds, annoying small talk, and get it all up close, personal, and on demand?”

This is what Lia and Auden say about the past:
“It was different back then. There was more…room.”
“More room?” I echoed. “Are you kidding? I thought you were supposed to be good at history. No one had any room back then, when they thought they all had to live all crammed into the same place, all those people stuck in the cities….”
“….No, I don’t mean more room for people. I just mean more room to do something. Change the way things worked. You could be important. Now…I don’t know. No one’s important.”
“Everyone’s important,” I said. “At least if you’ve got enough credit.”
“And if you’ve got no credit, you might as well not exist?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, but you thought it,” he said. Everyone does. And so all those credit-free people just end up in a corp-town or a city, and no one really cares, because that’s just the way it is.”
“But that is the way it is,” I said, confused. “And they don’t care, so why should you?”
“How do you know they don’t care? Do you actually know anyone who lives in a corp-town? Have you ever been to a city?”

Of course, before the end of the novel, Lia meets people her own age from the corp-towns, where you have to do whatever the corp tells you, and from the city, where the only way to visit and escape is to cover the car with trash and have one “skinner” volunteer to get shot as a distraction so the others can escape. The city they visit is relatively intact:
“This city had been lucky. No major bombings, so no radioactive debris. Too far east for the Water Wars, too far north for the flooding. They’d gotten hit by the Comstock flu strain, but no worse than any of the other population centers, and in the last bio-attack, before the cities cleared out for good, they’d lost less than a million.”

A small surprise for me in this novel is Lia’s attitude about analog timepieces: “A couple of miniature sticks swept out circle after circle, and you had to calculate the angles to even know the hour. And yes, I was smart enough to figure it out, but why bother to do a math problem every time you want to know what time it is, when you can just get your ViM to flash the info and then move on with your life?” This is almost exactly the attitude of my daughter towards anything that “tells time” non-digitally.

As a science fiction writer of my acquaintance told me recently, it’s hard to write a new SF novel without experiencing “future shock.” I thought the world of Skinned was the world of the future, but when it hits home, I know the future is now--at least some of it is!

I’ll be looking forward to the sequel of Skinned, advertised as “the first book in a gripping trilogy.” Have you been looking forward to something you thought would happen in your future, only to find that it’s already possible?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Belonging Field

I missed a poetry reading I would have liked to go to at the local college, because it was the same evening as one of our final rehearsals for the symphony's performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah (with the college choir). Although it's only the middle of the quarter at the college I commute to, it's the last week of the semester at the local college, so I'm spinning in a whirlwind between the two.

During a lull between the gusts of wind, I went to the local college bookstore and bought a volume of poetry by the poet I didn't get to hear, Andrew Grace (another of the many people who have passed through the local college). The volume is entitled A Belonging Field. One of the poems, in particular, struck me. Partly it's because of this post over at Life In Scribbletown and this post of mine, written the same day. Partly it's because my four cats have begun to go outdoors and wreak havoc on the mouse, shrew, and chipmunk population. And partly it's just spring, when a commuter's attention is seized by the number and variety of fresh corpses spread around on and beside the road. Season of new life, yes, but so many incautious new lives.

Buzzard Song
Anderson's Steel, Rantoul, Illinois, 1952

Tonight the moon is a punched-out hole
in a paper sky as I solder rebar

in this sweatbox, vesuvian neon
sputtering over a vast, concrete floor.

In the sky, a single buzzard undoes entire clarities,
bits of dark granulating behind its orbit,

splinter lodged in the heaven's bleached & dripping eye,
unloading earth's material measured in flesh & bone.

I want to say thank you, Death's Grunt,
for eating those that eat their young, hooking open

the seam between blood & rebirth. Someone has to do it.
Time is a whirligig hooked in my mouth,

my match-red face like yours. The next time you take
unimaginative pleasure in tearing something apart,

do it for those of us with six hours left on a shift,
darkness' paraphernalia dangling like opossums

from the branches. Disposability's Hound, unbless
this fallen deer until nothing earthly could put it right again.

I love the phrase "Death's Grunt." It reminds me of the guy in the movie Miss Firecracker whose job was to pick up roadkill. What a job! Even my part-time no-prestige jobs seem better in comparison.

One time a group of my friends began telling each other what jobs they felt least suited for. One, who was in a bad wreck as a teenager because of falling asleep behind the wheel, said truck driver. Another, an idealist, said prison guard. Being from a long line of fairly flat-chested women, I said topless dancer. Think about it--what job are you least suited for? And is the field you're in worth so many hours of each of your springs?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Agent to the Stars

It's been a while since I made my way through a novel laughing out loud every 50 pages or so, making my family wonder what I was reading, as I did this weekend. We had the right kind of Saturday for me to read John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars--one filled with kid activities, but no demands on me other than to chauffeur everyone here and there through the lovely spring day: Walker to soccer practice and then a rehearsal for a vocal concert, Eleanor to her final play performance and cast party. Agent to the Stars kept me in a pleasant mood while being kept inside a car for so much of the day.

Scalzi calls this one his "practice novel." It was posted on his web site in 1999, published as a very limited edition in 2005, and came out in paperback this winter. Basically, it's about friendly but unlovely-in-appearance aliens trying to find a way to introduce themselves to the human race, so they land outside LA and find an agent to help them spin the story. These are not your father's aliens; they realize that they can't just land on the White House lawn and take themselves to our leader. And like other fictional aliens in the last decade (most amusingly, the ones in Galaxy Quest), their knowledge of our culture comes largely from tv and movies, and they need some help differentiating between fiction and reality. The first place I laughed out loud, in fact, is on p. 32, when the aliens, who call themselves the Yherajk, have their contact, Joshua, tell the human they've picked to be their agent that they realize most humans will be repelled by their appearance:
"We look like snot," Joshua said. "And we smell like dead fish....We have seen The Blob and it is us."

The way the plot will be resolved is obvious from p. 89-90 of this 365-page novel, and the author has re-used a few of his favorite devices (aliens who fart a smell-language, also in his wonderfully funny The Android's Dream, for instance). But that really didn't detract from my pleasure in reading Agent to the Stars. It's not about the plot. It's about the way the characters talk to each other, and the sophistication of the Yherajk, who know they need an agent because, as one of them says, "The SETI program implies that your planet is actively seeking contact with other peoples, but your entertainments show you to be hostile to the idea, full of the fear that the peoples you encounter will try to subjugate your planet. Moreover, when you do show aliens as friendly or benevolent, they tend to be humanoid in appearance. When they are hostile or violent, they tend to appear like us. Obviously, this is very worrying."

Many of the human worries from old alien-monster movies (parodied so hilariously in Mars Attacks) are parodied as the action of this novel moves along. At the point when the alien, Joshua, takes over the body of a dog, the agent, Tom, says to him "You ate him, Joshua!" and while the alien explains the process at some length, including cultural taboos against taking over anyone's body against their will, the laugh line comes two pages later, when Joshua tells Tom
"eventually my cells will take the place of all his cells....It's more efficient, especially since I won't have all these damned specialized organs to deal with...."
"What happens to the old cells?" I asked.
"I digest them."
"Oh man," I said. You are eating him."

The climax of the novel is visible a long way off. If you miss the foreshadowing on p. 89-90, it's spelled out for you on p. 250, when a producer describes a scene in a film "where the alien overlord is trying to get control of Michelle's body--we were going to have the overlord stick his tentacles in her mouth and ears as a way to get to her brain. Really disgusting, of course--eyeballs popping and mouth really huge and all that." But since these are friendly aliens, what looks "really disgusting" is the subject of intense alien debate and is enacted, finally, with the best of motives (which, the aliens specifically point out, might not be a good enough basis for such action, so the climactic action is promised to be the subject of philosophical speculation by Yherajks for generations to come).

What a shame if you should miss the climax of the novel, though, because it's such fun to see the Yherajk take the stage at the Academy Awards Show and reveal that there is an alien among us:
"The fact that an alien had managed to sneak past humanity, pose as a superstar, and win the Best Acress Oscar had the desired effect of showing the world that the Yherajk were an essentially benign race--after all, if they had been a warlike people, they could have overrun us with their spaceships, or at the very least have fielded a football team and tried to win the Super Bowl instead. Winning the Best Actress Oscar was the most nonthreatening, yet high exposure, way to introduce one species to another."

This is a first novel, but it's more than just an "extra" for people who are already John Scalzi fans. It's for anyone who enjoys a new twist on hackneyed alien-from-outer-space images, and an entertaining story for a lazy spring or summer afternoon.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Newspaper Nostalgia

I can’t start my day without a newspaper to scan at the breakfast table. I’ve been this way forever. As a child, I read the St. Louis Post Dispatch every day. The high point of my newspaper-reading life was 1983 to 1990, when I got the Washington Post delivered to my door every morning, and every Sunday we got Book World. When I moved to the back of nowhere, our friends here joined in with us to buy a subscription to the Washington Post, but after a few months of reading it two days late, we gave it up. Since then, I’ve been subsisting on a daily diet of The Columbus Dispatch.

Lately, though, the newspaper is often delivered after we’ve gotten up from the breakfast table. And it keeps getting slimmer. The sections I look for each day have been shrunk down and incorporated into other sections, and the front page includes more sports and metro news, and less national and world news. It’s gotten to where I get more of my news from my 20-second glance at the google news headlines and reading articles from The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune when friends send links.

Just recently, I clicked on a link over at a book blog I like to read, Sophisticated Dorkiness, and read this article from the NY Times, about xkcd comics coming out in book form soon. I like what the article says about the collection being an artifact. Newspapers are no longer so immediate as they once were, and they’re not pleasant artifacts, either, after a few days. I have links on my sidebar now to some of the things I like to read that I first discovered in newspapers, like The Borowitz Report--and I don't have to dispose of anything after I've read it. And, of course, newspaper book review sections are being eliminated (Book World) or they've gotten so watered down as to be unpalatable (The Columbus Dispatch now uses the NYTimes bestseller list to list new books on Sundays).

So this year when my kid had a magazine sale for his school, I bought a subscription to the London Review of Books. It’s occasionally interesting; I’ve enjoyed some of the poems there, although the last time I sat down to read any of them was in March, when I discovered David Harsent’s Four Poems. My favorite of the four related poems is this one:

The Garden in Sunlight

Go by white poppies, white tulips, white flags, go by
the white willow arch, go by the apple tree, its full white crop,

go by the pond where white-eyed fish
slide by deeper each day, then out to the lawn, its trackless white

a mirror image of the trackless sky;
but think now: after you’ve set foot you’re on a wish

and a promise, adrift in white’s slow creep
away and over the edge, though something takes you straight

to those little spoil heaps: bone that breaks to ash
under your hand…and you backtrack, hoping for sight

of the house, perhaps, or the garden gate, or the street,
but it’s white-on-white however hard you try,

and a hum in the air, white noise, which could be some rash
report of you: figment, divertimento, little white lie.

Much as I like that one in particular, though, I have the sense that I could have lived without discovering it in the March issue, and that when the issue begins to yellow and curl at the edges, I’ll put it in the recycling basket without a backward look. I used to cut out poems I liked and keep them in various places; sometimes I still find one fluttering out of a volume of poetry when I open it again.

But it’s the volume I go back to. Sometimes I throw away my own inserts, because like the ads that flutter down when I open a magazine, they’re not bound. I’m not bound to them in the same way.

Are you also nostalgic for newspapers? Or have you preceded me into the brave new world in which they’re… well, disposable?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hawk's Shadow

Some friends of mine who are not cat people but have cat houseguests this spring discovered that one of their gerbils was only half a gerbil yesterday. This was especially distressing to the elementary-school-age owners of the gerbil. My kids were trying to think of a consoling message to send to these kids mourning their pet. But they couldn't really think of anything that would comfort a non-cat-lover much. My daughter tried saying "cats are wicked, wicked creatures," but on reflection, that didn't really seem very comforting. My son tried saying that cats are cute and they don't mean any harm, that gerbils just look like food in a cage to them. That seemed a little better, but still not very comforting to the kids who had to see the bloody remains of their pet.

We've lost a pet to our own cat before--a parakeet--and mourned it while managing not to blame the cat murderer for too long. She was doing what she thought she must. Even our tamest cat will put up a lazy paw for a swipe when a parakeet swoops too low over his head.

When our guinea pigs were little, we guarded them closely and told the cats they weren't "ripe yet." Now that the one remaining is an old guinea pig, we tell the cats that she's too tough to be good eating. The thing is, we still have to tell them every day. And we're not actually under the impression that they listen to us--telling them is just what we do while we guard the little animal that looks like cat food.

Sometimes cat owners have to recite the Kliban poem: "Love to eat them mousies, mousies what I love to eat. Bite they little heads off. Nibble on they tiny feet."

And sometimes they need to feel the relationship of predator to prey. A cat is a glorious predator, and the only thing that keeps us safe is that we're bigger. That's why I like the shift in perspective in this poem, Hawk's Shadow by Louise Gluck:

Embracing in the road
for some reason I no longer remember
and then drawing apart, seeing
a shape ahead--how close was it?
We looked up to where the hawk
hovered with its kill; I watched them
veering toward West Hill, casting
their one shadow in the dirt, the all-inclusive
shape of the predator--
Then they disappeared. And I thought:
one shadow. Like the one we made,
you holding me.

Isn't that unsettling? Sometimes it does seem to be true that you're either predator or prey. And if something you want demands that you not end up as prey, you have to do some method acting to get into the role of the predator.

Look out through the predator's eyes. See how everything in the world is spread out, tantalizing, and just for you? Can you see it?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bad Mother

I was a third of the way through the ARC of Ayelet Waldman's memoir Bad Mother (courtesy of the Kenyon college bookstore) before I realized--because she says it--that she's married to Michael Chabon, author of Summerland and therefore one of my favorite writers. So I continued reading with heightened interest.

Not that I wasn't pretty much absorbed from the first page, when she reveals "I busted my first Bad Mother in the spring of 1994, on a Muni train in San Francisco." How many times have we all done that? I think I busted my first Bad Mother in the fall of 1993, at 9 pm on an ordinary Wednesday night in Wal-Mart. I was buying disposable diapers, my own new baby safely at home in her crib with her father in the next room. The toddler in the cart ahead of mine was clearly tired, wailing and being ignored by her harrassed young mother. I will never do that, I thought. And then, like all mothers, I proceeded from the disposable diapers to even bigger maternal sins. Let she who is without sin cast the first vote for Bad Mother of the Year. Ayelet Waldman has twice the opportunity for Bad Mothering that I do, because she has two more children. No matter how bad your life as a Mother may have gotten, I can almost guarantee that reading about Waldman's experiences will give you the company that misery loves, as it did for me.

My experience of reading Bad Mother was fascinatingly illuminated by my surroundings; I was accompanying my just-13-year-old son to his first big chess tournament. As I opened my book and began reading during the "Simul," in which chess masters and grand masters play up to twenty challengers at one time, a woman I'd nodded to earlier as our sons struck up an acquaintance came over to me and told me what lovely manners my son has. As I beamed, she asked "is he home schooled?" and when I said no, she looked surprised, saying something about how home schooled children tend to be more polite than others. Strike one for me at the Bad Mother competition, with consolation points for the compliment.

The tournament weekend provided the right context for me to read this book. My husband had to be in Chicago and my son was missing a soccer game. The three-hour car trip to the city where the tournament was held had to be coordinated with my daughter's play rehearsal and set building schedule, her overnight with a friend, and care of all our pets. All of our trips necessitated fast food meals--Bad Mother points. But Waldman reminds me that "jugglers invariably drop balls, and no matter the persistent criticism of the Bad Mother police, balls do bounce. When they fall, all you need to do is pick them up and throw them back up in the air."

And Waldman reassures me that I'm not the only mother to ever do specific bad things to my children. How? By telling about all the bad things she's done! And they're not all minor, I assure you. The chapter about Rocketship is particularly brave, as I know of few other mothers who can compete with her in that particular mode of Bad Motherhood. One part I found especially reassuring is when she says "The capacity for extravagant emotion that Michael finds so attractive in me can be exhausting, especially to a child. My moods are mercurial, and this can be terrifying. I know, because I was a daughter of a mother with a changeable temperament." So was I, Ayelet, and I know exactly what you mean. Also I know a number of mothers who have said almost exactly what you say when they found out what was causing some problem for their child: "I felt so ashamed of all the times I had berated him...."

The chapter about homework was balm to my soul on a busy April weekend: "apparently, by slaving over homework with my son, I am expressing to him how important school is. (Of course, this rationale assumes that I'm not also expressing audible rage at his teacher, or muttering curses about the authors of his math textbook.)" I also loved her separation of little girls' Halloween costumes into two main categories: "cereal box" or "ho." And I enjoyed her common sense: "Because while I fear that making promiscuity sound beguiling and chic will lead them astray, I also know that the best way to ensure that your children dispense with your advice is to exaggerate the damage of the activity you want them to avoid." Kind of like the Health Teacher in the movie Mean Girls ("Don't have sex. You'll die."), or the reaction to the anti-gay-marriage "Gathering Storm" video that was taken off YouTube because everyone laughed at it (see the parody, "Gaythering Storm" here).

Bad Mother is scheduled to go on sale May 5, 2009. If you've ever busted a Bad Mother, you want to read it... and you want to tell me about your Bad Mother busts! Because we're all in this together, even if some of us are more polite about it than others.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reading Poems in a Circle

Kim has been presenting poems by Billy Collins (master of the "readable" school of poetry) this month. And although I love his poems, I also love more complicated poems, like those of Wallace Stevens, so I was trying to think of a way to encourage people to move from the more accessible poems to the less. Because if all of your feelings were simple enough for you--or anyone--to be able to articulate them, it would be an easier world.

This is how I read difficult poems: in a circle. Try this:
Read the poem and immediately go back to the beginning and keep reading until you either understand something (an image, the significance of a pause for a line break) or you feel a glimmer of emotion. Then stop. Try to articulate that one thing you understand or feel. Then see if you can relate other pieces of the poem to that understanding, or that feeling. Sometimes you can put the whole poem together that way. Sometimes you can only put a line or two together, but then maybe it’s time to put the poem away. A line or two of poetry in the brain is good for a rainy day.

Here's a demonstration. First, a poem by Michael Hartnett ("Death of an Irishwoman") that fits into the category of "readable" and then a more complicated Wallace Stevens poem ("The Emperor of Ice Cream") on the same general theme.

Death of an Irishwoman

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but pucas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was child's purse, full of useless things.

Aren't the last six lines evocative? I got the feeling that she had outlived her time with "she was a song that nobody sings" and again powerfully with the final line. So I felt some emotion from this poem the first time I read it through, and I didn't have to read it in a circle to feel like I understood something about it.

This one, though, most people have to read in a circle until they're almost dizzy:

The Emperor of Ice Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs,
That sheet on which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

When I read this poem in a circle, I stop at the repeated line, thinking that the emperor of ice-cream is kind of like the "king of the hill"--it's a kid who won't have an empire very long. But it's not just kids who like ice cream. Have you ever met anyone who doesn't like ice cream? I haven't! If you were the emperor of ice cream, could you command the ice cream truck to stop in front of your house? Could you afford to eat all the ice cream you wanted? Would you be able to eat all you wanted without lactose intolerance or concern about gaining weight? What would it be like to be the person in charge of all ice cream?

But my understanding that the title "Emperor of Ice Cream" is the most ephemeral of titles is just a stopping place. How does it connect to the "concupiscent curds" and the "dresser of deal"? Many people get caught up in those images and conjure up an image of a whorehouse, which doesn't interfere with understanding the poem as a whole, but doesn't always help, either. The sexual connotation of "whipping" those "concupiscent curds" has to be related to the ephemeral pleasure of being in charge of ice cream--so it becomes a sort of "take your sexual pleasure while you can" idea. And the "dresser of deal" may be a place where money was exchanged for sex, or it may simply be a dresser made of cheap pine wood--but one thing is sure--she didn't take it with her.

So come down farther in the poem. "Let the lamp affix its beam." Look at her apart from the death rituals and the signs that other lives are going on. Whatever she was in life, now she's cold, like ice cream...the suggestion I get is that she might have been as universally liked, and perhaps people fought over who got to tell her what to do. But now nobody can tell her what to do. In the end, we all have the same "emperor."

I don't think the Stevens poem is better; I like both these poems. But the Stevens poem has more lines that stick in my head, and an idea that is interesting in a different way every time I go back to it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Life After Genius

Thinking of Mozart's line in a bit from P.D.Q. Bach: "I was a child prodigy, but now I'm just a grown-up guy," I picked up M. Ann Jacoby's Life After Genius at the library. I was also, of course, thinking of some of the dire predictions made by my son's elementary-school principle when he skipped third grade. The fictional Theodore "Mead" Fegley is not unlike my son; he's younger than everyone else, and he's smarter. Both are especially good at math.

For some reason, I've always been surrounded by people who are good at math. When we were in college I told them they could "speak math" at breakfast if they'd speak English at lunch and dinner. So Mead's musings on what he spends most of his time thinking about sound uncannily familiar to me:
"'Mathematical thinking is deeply unnatural. It makes things complex where they would at first appear simple. Take, for example, this rock we're sitting on. Describe it to me.'
'This rock? I don't know. It's big. And hard.'
'Exactly. Now if you give me a ledger pad and a pen, I can probably get back to you with a mathematical description of it in about a week.'
'So what you're telling me is that math is stupid, not me.'
'Not stupid, no. It seems impractical when applied to something as simple as a rock but when that same principle is applied to a complex idea--like the theory of relativity--the beauty of mathematical thinking becomes clear. The complex becomes simple.'"
I swear, it sounds just like the math people I know... a thousand words to express something that comes out like a pun.

Also this author gets right the vicissitudes of living with a person who is smarter than other people, even though she has to compare her character once again to the most famous acknowledged genius of all time to do it:
"'You talk just like him, you know....Einstein. He also had this rambling, roundabout manner of speaking. Never quite getting to the point. It happens a lot with geniuses because their minds work faster than their tongues."

I was absolutely riveted by this novel for about 250 pages. I seriously considered staying awake until I finished the book, which is something I hardly ever do, but in the end, I contented myself with finishing the next afternoon. Was I ever glad. I would have been furious if I'd stayed up reading this book only to find out that its resolution doesn't live up to the suspenseful way it's told.

As Nicole observes in an earlier review, "Life After Genius jumps around Mead’s life in non-linear fashion; equally rewarding readers with tantalizing additional pieces of the puzzle and tormenting them when puzzle pieces just aren’t enough to draw the hoped for definitive conclusion." I love the way the narrative gradually zeroes in on the moment when Mead realizes what the reader has been suspecting for a while.

But the ending is ambiguous, and I have to agree with Alyce that the ambiguity is unsatisfying. Mightily so, for me, and in a way that seems untrue to the intelligence of the rest of this novel.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


From my local college bookstore, I read the ARC of Breathers, a brand-new novel by S.G. Browne, which capitalizes on several current trends.

The first is the zombie haiku craze, started by Ryan Mecum's Zombie Haiku, in which the haiku tells a story, and which now has spawned several websites (here's one) where you can submit your own haiku. Browne's protagonist, poor Andy Warner, who wakes up from the auto accident that killed his wife with a broken ankle and the kind of shoulder and facial injuries that make him look like a stereotypically scary zombie, also composes haiku. Here's a sample:
shattered life dangles
a severed voice screams in grief
i'm rotting inside

The second trend is the comparison of how an impossibly monstrous creature feels to how a human being could feel, done best by Daniel Waters in Generation Dead and repeated for comic effect in Breathers. Almost every chapter has some variation on "if you've never," from an early one: "if you've never seen someone get his arm torn out of his socket by a gang of drunk, college fraternity boys who then slapped him in the face with his own hand, then you probably wouldn't understand" to the penultimate: "if you've never raided a fraternity to exact mortal revenge for the immolation of the woman you love, your unborn child, and your best friend, then you probably wouldn't understand."

Browne's plot also imitates the plot of Generation Dead in its main character's awakening to the injustice in the complete lack of rights for the undead, but with more of a comic-book feel:
"It's not like I reanimated with a five-year plan. And no one exactly prepped me on How to Be a Zombie. It's a big adjustment, harder than you might imagine. After all, I still have the same basic hopes and desires I had when I was alive, but now they're unattainable. I may as well wish for wings."
"Yeah!" I thought, trying to entertain myself with this book while sitting in the sun outside where my son's chess tournament was being held, overlooking the Ohio river on one side and the Bengals football stadium on the other, "that would be fun!" But he doesn't get wings.

What he does get is his first taste of human flesh, "breathers," as living humans are called. But it's okay, at first he thinks it's venison. By the time he realizes it's human and that it has mysterious healing powers, making him look less like a stereotypical scary zombie, he's killing and eating his parents (he begins with his mother's ribs, mmm-mmm).

The back story on why some people reanimate and others don't also strikes me as superfluous and silly:
"Zombies have been around for decades, blending in with the local homeless population of just about every town in the country since the Great Depression...You don't find many zombies in the southern states, since heat tends to speed up decomposition. That and when you're a zombie in a region that has a reputation of prejudice against minorities and outsiders, you tend to stick out like good taste in a country-western bar."

The sympathy that I felt for Andy upon learning that he's reduced to living in his parents' basement, he can be picked up by the SPCA for taking a walk, and that he's not allowed to see his daughter is gone by the time he begins eating "breathers" and says "I'd hate to think that I'd look at my daughter and wonder how she'd taste in an asparagus and cheese casserole." And it's not only my sympathy that disappears, but also most of the point of the "if you've never..." comparisons, aside from their comic aspect.

All in all, I'd say that this book will meet its best fate as a movie, and it's evidently already slated for the screen. If you like monster movies, this one will be entertaining, but I think I can live without the refrigerator scenes.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Deacon's Masterpiece or "The One-Hoss Shay"

The U.S. poet laureate, Kay Ryan, says in an interview printed in today's local newspaper that she was inspired to become a poet by her grandmother "who had by heart a number of the Victorian chestnuts....I don't think there's anything children like more than high seriousness that rhymes." I have to agree.

One of my favorite childhood books is an edition of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, compiled by Roy J. Cook in 1958. It's full of chestnuts like Field's "The Duel" about "the gingham dog and the calico cat," and particularly rich in poems written in dialect, like Anderson's "Cuddle Doon," Burns' "For A' That and A' That," and Guest's "Home" ("It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home"). The book was given to me when I was ten by my regular babysitter, Miss Everly, beloved for many reasons but not least because she always left us a surprise for the morning after she'd put us to bed. Some of the poems were already familiar to me, from my own reading and from my mother's love of reading narrative poems to us out loud. The thrill of her renditions of Robert Service poems or Noyes' "The Highwayman" was equaled only by the fervor of her performance of Oliver Wendell Holmes' "The One-Hoss Shay."

Have you heard of the wonderful one-horse shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it--ah but stay,
I'll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits,
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five,
Georgius Secundus was then alive,
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down
And Braddock's army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on the terrible Earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot, -
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace,--lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will,--
Above or below, or within or without,--
And that's the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a chaise breaks down, but doesn't wear out.

But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
With an "I dew vum," or an "I tell yeou,")
He would build one shay to beat the taown
'n' the keounty 'n' all the kentry raoun';
It should be so built that it couldn' break daown,
"Fur," said the Deacon, "It's mighty plain
Thut the weakes' place mus' Stan' the strain;
'n' the way t' fix it, uz I maintain,
Is only jest
T' make that place uz strong uz the rest."

So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That couldn't be split nor bent nor broke,
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thins;
The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees.
The panels of white-wood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;
The hubs of logs from the "Settler's ellum,"--

Last of its timber,--they couldn't sell 'em,
Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he "put her through."
"There!" said the Deacon, "naow she'll dew!"

Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren--where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; -it came and found
The Deacon's masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten;--
"Hahnsum kerridge" they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came;--
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arrive,
And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.

Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it.--You're welcome.--No extra charge.)

FIRST of NOVEMBER,--the Earthquake-day--
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn't be,--for the Deacon's art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn't a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thins,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floors
And the whipple-tree neither less nor more,
And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
And spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

First of November, 'Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
"Huddup!" said the parson.--Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday's text,--
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the--Moses--was coming next.

All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill,--
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet'n'-house clock--
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!

What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-boss shay.
Logic is logic. That's all I say.

The end of the poem always produced a piercing glare from my mother, warning that there would be no doubt about the truth of this story.

Harriet and Florinda have been talking about "landmark" children's books after Seuss, and that's one of the reasons I started thinking about 101 Famous Poems today. As I page through the book, it falls open at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Hiawatha's Childhood," John Masefield's "Sea Fever," Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," and Alfred Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." It also falls open at poems by Browning, Wordworth, Shelley, and at Shakespearean soliloquys. But what I loved about it was the variety it offered: Milton's sonnet on his blindness followed by Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." Bourdillon's "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" on the page opposite Foss' "The House by the Side of the Road."

Did you have a "landmark" book of verse?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Morality for Beautiful Girls

Because I assigned Alexander McCall Smith's Morality for Beautiful Girls in my "Relationships and Dialogues" class, I developed a new appreciation for this particular novel in the series, which had not stood out to me before. The characters are living their lives as if in answer to Buckaroo Banzai's admonition in a crowded bar: "don't be mean; we don't have to be mean."

Mma Ramotswe ends her friendship with a person who doesn't consider the feelings of her maid because, as she says, "the beginning of all morality" is empathy: "if you knew how a person was feeling, if you could imagine yourself in her position, then surely it would be impossible to inflict further pain. Inflicting pain in such circumstances would be like hurting oneself." Some of my students argued that she should work to "fix" her friend (since she says she's in the business of fixing the lives of people who consult her), but I argued that until the friend consults her, or finds that she cannot live without Mma Ramotswe's friendship, Mma Ramotswe can't change her. Her philosophy is that "people do not change, but that does not mean that they will always remain the same. What you can do is find out the good side of their character and then bring that out." Apparently, though, there's no way to bring out the good side of a friend's character when the friend persists in meanness and doesn't see it as such.

What keeps me interested in Morality for Beautiful Girls is the unexpectedly cutting edge of Mma Ramotswe's empathy. If she imagines herself in the position of someone who is being mean to another, she disengages herself from that person, lest she become an accessory to meanness. How many of us have that kind of courage of conviction?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


There's a disproportionate pleasure, for me, in using the phrase "the local college" when I refer to the place where I work part-time (1/6 time, to be exact) as an administrator. Because it's a fairly well-known little college, terribly expensive and with fairly high standards for admission. Truthfully, the students are well-brought-up and intelligent, and the faculty and staff members are generally knowledgeable and pleasant people. But it does have something of a reputation, locally, at least, for being a place full of snobs. And they don't want me in their English department. So it's fun for me to refer to it as if it's some kind of community college.

Among the many people who have passed through the local college community, the poet Julianne Buchsbaum stood out for me as someone who didn't contribute to the snobbish reputation. Hired as a librarian, she also taught a creative writing class. She wrote the poem "Gamblers," which I was thinking of this morning, as rain beat on the roof and I got ready to commute to the second college where I work:

You doze in a castle of eggshells, Tartar,
while rain soaks the cornfields outside.
This is not about me; I have nothing to do with it.

Who are you, ruminating in the corner like that?
The bar is dark; it's time to go home.
Stop ransacking the past for what ruined you.

See, outside, how the sweet cicely holds
its tiny white umbrellas in the storm?
You thought you were safe here?

Alumroot blanches the roadside from here
to wherever you're going.
Nodules that no one but you knows are alive,

lives that are their own reason for being,
with the whiteness of what is thrown open
to the dead silence of the universe.

While someone faces the hazards of loving you,
the clouds overhead foam like boiling milk
and you turn solemn and cold and formal.

Somewhere the sea drags itself over the faces
of the drowned. Somewhere gamblers
are cutting their losses as another day slips by.

In some ways, I gambled and lost, hoping to find a professional life in this small town. But there are compensations. I savor the line "lives that are their own reason for being" along with my memories of people who have passed through the local college on their way to another place where they thought they would be safe.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Busy Woman Seeks Wife

I picked this one out of the ARCs that my friend the Kenyon College bookstore manager provides me access to because of the great title. I mean really, what woman doesn't want a wife, and how many of us first realize it when we read Judy Syfers Brady's "Why I Want a Wife"? (See my discussion of that essay here.) Busy Woman Seeks Wife, by Annie Sanders (written by two women under the one name) will be available April 29, 2009.

It's one of those novels in which a busy person has friends and family she doesn't fully appreciate, and when she unbends enough to ask for their help, they all pitch in to save the day for her. The busy woman, Alex, has a demanding job, a best friend, Saff, who is a housewife, and a once-famous mother (known as "The Bean") who has broken her arm and needs help with day-to-day activities as the novel begins. It's also a very British novel--Saff's name is actually "Saffron." Oh, and don't miss it--there's some symbolism--Saff likes to cook. And Saff is the friend who volunteers to place an ad to find Alex some domestic help:

"The more Saff thought about it, the more she knew a wife would fit the bill. Max always said he couldn't function without her running his life--though Saff wasn't that stupid. A kiss on the forehead and the flattery were just a man's way of saying 'I won't bother learning so long as you are there to do it for me.'"

Despite the formulaic aspect, though, I enjoyed reading about how Alex and Saff hire Ella and Frankie as domestic help, and how they get along with Alex's mother, the formerly famous "Bean." And the crisis towards the end is exciting, with everyone pitching in, and most entertainingly. My favorite part is when the Bean takes charge of a spoiled supermodel who is vital for Alex's presentation the next day and whisks her out for the kind of evening they both enjoy.

Things end happily. A good time will be had by most readers. And then there's the "send off":

"Five reasons a woman needs a wife
Because if she didn't have a wife, she'd have to employ a secretary, chef, taxi driver, laundry administrator, mechanic, decorator, chambermaid, nurse, gardener, social diary coordinator, seamstress, school gate administrator, technician, psychologist, therapist...oh, that's fifteen!"

This time of year, the social diary coordinator and school gate administrator jobs hang most heavily around my neck. What's dragging at yours?

Saturday, April 11, 2009


I read Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson in one sitting. And cried.

Any of the other novelistic treatments of anorexia/bulemia that I've ever read--the latest being Purge, by Sarah Darer Littman--are instruction manuals for imitators and studies in morbid fascination for casual bystanders.

Wintergirls makes you feel it.

Here's a more complete review, since I've been left so speechless.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Noise the Hairless Make

Last night I went to a rehearsal for the "Good Friday Project, an arts event focusing on the human realities of suffering and death." It put me in a mood, especially the piece about a wife who had trouble forgiving her husband for being in the hospital and taking all her care for granted. It made me want to slap her, and the somber cello piece following did nothing to dispel my mood. I had to go home and read some poems from one of my favorite volumes of poetry, Cemetery Nights by Stephen Dobyns.

"The Noise the Hairless Make" is the poem that did the most to restore my equilibrium:

How difficult to be an angel.
In order to forgive, they have no memory.
In order to be good, they're always forgetting.
How else could heaven by run? Still,
it needs to be full of teachers and textbooks
imported from God's own basement, since only
in hell is memory exact. In one classroom,
a dozen angels scratch their heads as their teacher
displays the cross-section of a human skull,
saying, Here is the sadness, here
the anger, here's where laughter is kept.
And the angels think, How strange and take notes
and would temper their forgiveness if it weren't
all forgotten by the afternoon. Sometimes
a bunch fly down to earth with their teacher,
who wants them to study a living example, and
this evening they find a man lying in a doorway
in an alley in Detroit. They stand around
chewing their pencils as their teacher says,
This is the stick he uses to beat his wife,
this is the bottle he drinks from when he
wants to forget, this is the Detroit Tigers
T-shirt he wears whenever he's sad, this is
the electric kazoo he plays in order to weep.
And the angels think, How peculiar, and wonder
whether to temper their forgiveness or just
let it ride, which really doesn't matter since
they forget the question as soon as it's asked.
But their muttering wakes the man in the doorway,
who looks to see a flock of doves departing
over the trash cans. And because he dreamed
of betrayal and pursuit, of defeat in battle,
the death of friends, he heaves a bottle at them
and it breaks under a streetlight so the light
reflects on its hundred broken pieces with such
a multicolored twinkling that the man laughs.
From their place on a brick wall, the angels
watch and one asks, What good are they? Then
others take up the cry, What good are they,
what good are they? But as fast as they articulate
the question it's forgotten and their teacher,
a minor demon, returns with them to heaven.
But the man, still chuckling, sits in his doorway,
and the rats in their dumpsters hear this sound
like stones rattling or metal banging together,
and they see how the man is by himself without
food or companions, without work or family
or a real bed for his body. They creep back
to their holes and practice little laughs
that sound like coughing or a dog throwing up
as once more they uselessly try to imitate
the noise the hairless make when defeated.

As the man from mars says in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, laughter is a kind of bravery. I've had times in my life when I wasn't brave enough to be able to laugh, but I'm not proud of them, and I don't see the sense in dragging them out for display once they're past. It seems a morbid fascination to me. I think it's nearly impossible to properly compose your thoughts to deal with the paradox of Good Friday while wallowing in other peoples' suffering. Because "only in hell is memory exact."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Antsy Does Time

Because I loved Unwind (see my review here) and liked The Schwa Was Here, I picked up the newest YA novel by Neal Shusterman when I was at the library. It's narrated by Anthony (Antsy) Bonano, the same character who narrated The Schwa Was Here, and it's just as much fun.

The chapter titles alone are worth checking out--one of them is "Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me, Think I'll Eat Some Worms," in which Antsy learns more about the family of his friends the Umlauts and realizes "that the Umlaut can of worms was a big old industrial drum, and I was already inside, eating worms left and right."

Gunnar Umlaut is one focus of this novel, a 15-year-old classmate who tells Antsy that he's dying and who is carving himself a tombstone. When we first meet Gunnar, he's telling a kid how Of Mice and Men ends--"the dumb guy dies at the end." Then he reels off a list of spoilers: "Rosebud's a sled, the spider dies after the fair, and the Planet of the Apes is actually Earth in the distant future." Gunnar's interests include making up quotations on the spot, and there's an appendix of his fake quotations at the end of the novel, in case you don't get enough as the story is told (I kind of like Eleanor Roosevelt saying "all right, I admit to having cursed the darkness once or twice"). Antsy comes up with the idea of giving Gunnar a month of his life, and soon people are lining up to donate time to Gunnar.

Antsy gets famous in his school as the "Master of Time," and the nature of such adolescent fame is revealed by the way he describes dressing for the part in a tie "covered with weird melting clocks designed by some dead artist named Dolly." I was also reminded of his age when he leaves the house for a date with Gunnar's older sister Kjersten, telling his mother "I'll be home by eleven...and just in case I'm not, I put the morgue on your speed dial....I made a mental note to actually put the morgue on her speed dial. She'd be mad, but I also knew she'd laugh."

Some of the characters from The Schwa was here reappear in this novel, and Mr. Crawley continues to be "kidnapped" every month. When Antsy and Lexie have a zip line built in a park for his amusement, he turns around and sells it to the city, saying to Antsy "the difference between you and that when I look at the world, I see opportunity. When you look at the world, you're just trying to find a place to urinate." In the end, though, Mr. Crawley turns Antsy's unfortunate display of temper into a tourist attraction, too, saving the day for him and his family. Antsy doesn't manage to save the day for Gunnar and his family, but he does finesse a successful Initial Public Offering on the months remaining in his own life (in a chapter entitled "Life Is Cheap, but Mine Is Worth More Than a Buck Ninety-eight in a Free-Market Economy").

Shusterman is one of the few YA writers who creates intelligent and engaging male protagonists, and Antsy is well worth your acquaintance.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I Have News for You

I am a person who likes drama. I used to like storms, before I moved to a rural area where electricity is evidently hard to sustain. I like exaggerated gestures and vacations with something exciting to do every moment. I like The Reduced Shakespeare Company, because watching them makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts.

Sometimes I try to imitate people who are calm and cool and laid-back about things. Yeah, we'll do that when we get to it, I think. And the next minute I'm up and racing around, yelling "it's time! We're going to be late!"

And sometimes I try to imitate people who accept the world at face value, and who try to say what they mean, as if I hadn't been reared by people who always asked me to go in the kitchen and get them a glass of water when the conversation went above my head, people who will sit silently in the dining room, like Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and wait for someone to notice they want the butter passed.

These are just some of the reasons I love this poem, I Have News for You, by Tony Hoagland, sent to me by my friend Laura (who can see the whole story of a childhood in her first glance at a broken playground swing):

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don't interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don't walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures irrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their tuberous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others' emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
unpacking the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after love or fame or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;

Thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you:
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.

Don't you like the way the ending of the poem suggests the old story about the person who turns on the weather to see what it's like outside, and the other person who says to just go and open the door?

I'll bet "people who get up in the morning and cross a room/and open a window to let the sweet breeze in" are calmer partly because they live in a better climate. (It's going to snow here today! Aaurgh! Will it stick? Will I make it through my commute tomorrow morning?) And I'll bet those calmer people don't spend too much of their time writing little updates on Facebook or Twitter.

Anyway, what do those folks who update that they're feeling sick want from me? A dictionary? A link to a sad violin solo? Me boarding an airplane feeling like Beth March, with a pot of chicken soup? Is it a matter of life and death? Is it already too late? Aaahh!

Friday, April 3, 2009

City of Glass

Cassandra Clare's City of Glass came out last week, and everyone in my household was pleased to hear that it's a wonderful ending to a great YA trilogy. We bought it at a bookstore in the train station in Chicago, and Eleanor read it all the way back to my brother's house in the suburbs, and then every moment she could snatch the next day. There were parts that made her exclaim out loud, and when she handed it to me, she said I should hurry up because she wanted to talk about it with someone. Well, I've been doing my best to hurry up with it all week, because Eleanor left for a band trip in the wee hours of this morning, giving me a deadline in the busiest part of the week, before I could have any free time to read. But City of Glass is a novel you make time to read.

Eleanor and I laughed and I cried out loud while reading this book. At one point I even got angry. I slapped the book shut (with my finger marking my place) and said to her "if I find out Sebastian is Clary's brother, I'm going to be so mad! I mean, listen to this: 'she went numb with an icy shock of wrongness. Something was terribly wrong...' I just can't stand it when somehow a character 'just knows' that it's WRONG to kiss her brother." Eleanor assured me that the feeling of wrongness was not merely about family ties. Eventually, I settled in and learned to trust the storyteller. In the end, I found that the trilogy is about more than just "the importance of being nephilim." In fact, the treatment of the "Downworlders" reminds me of the treatment of house elves, goblins, and other non-wizarding magical creatures in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. I wouldn't say that Clare's fiction is derivative, but rather that her magical world intersects with other fictional magical worlds (most notably Holly Black's, whose characters watch Clare's characters go by, at one point). I especially like the way the Seelie Queen is left flat-footed at the end of this novel; it's immensely satisfying to see someone finally stand up to her. As Captain Jack Sparrow would say, it's all about leverage.

City of Glass brings most of the things I enjoyed in the first two books to satisfying conclusions: the humor, the characterizations of evil, and the love story. In addition, (to Eleanor's quite vocal delight on first reading) it provides a nice little reply to fans of Stephanie Meyers' forever-seventeen vampire Edward in the musings of Clare's vampire Simon:
"Young forever, Simon thought. It sounded good, but did anyone really want to be sixteen forever? It would have been one thing to be frozen forever at twenty-five, but sixteen? To always be this gangly, to never really grow into himself, his face or his body? Not to mention that, looking like this, he'd never be able to go into a bar and order a drink. Ever. For eternity."

There's less humor in this final book, but Magnus Bane still gets a few good lines, including another one about how old he is:
"'I'm seven hundred years old, Alexander. I know when something isn't going to work. You won't even admit I exist to your parents.'
Alec stared at him. 'You're seven hundred years old?'
'Well,' Magnus amended, 'eight hundred. But I don't look it.'"
And even though Magnus promises to play a crucial role in the events of this novel, we're still no more sure we can trust him than Clary is--"she wondered why she'd ever thought trusting someone who wore that much eyeliner was a good idea."
Simon also gets some of the humorous lines in this final novel. Our favorite is:
"Has there ever been an Inquisitor who didn't die a horrible death?" he wondered aloud. "It's like being the drummer in Spinal Tap."

The issues involved in how to fight for good and against evil are nicely nuanced, even in the title City of Glass. The vampire looks "faintly green" at the idea of drinking blood from a cat, because he has a pet cat at home. Clary finally gets to tell her mother that it's not a mother's right to protect her child from who and what she is. And, more importantly, Clary comes up with a clever way to use her magical talents and help her friends, and she succeeds in convincing the entire community of adults that they need her to do it. Valentine meets the end he richly deserves, but not as an entirely black and unlamented villain.

And the love story. It's a good one. Clary won't give in to her own urge to love Jace, early on, because she thinks, as she says to him, he only wants "something else you can hate yourself for." Jace finally tells her "I love you, and I will love you until I die, and if there's a life after that, I'll love you then." And Clary is finally able to say yes to Jace, a sort of Molly Bloom eternal yes that goes a long way towards reconciling me to the angel ex machina way Clary and Jace reach their happy ending.

Once Walker has gotten a turn to read this book, I'm pretty sure Eleanor and I will be rereading it. Because now that our anxiety over what happens is assuaged, we'll want to sit back and enjoy these characters some more.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Blog Search Engine

If you haven't seen Fyrefly's directory of book blogs yet, you should go here and check it out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Arwen the Warrior Babe

It's the most wonderful time of the year. April Fool's Day.
That is, if you take the word "wonderful" in the sense of "astonishing"!

I did not have any mishaps in what turned out to be my seven-hour car trip of yesterday (we added some time to the ordeal by stopping for food; what a frill), but I did have to slow down to avoid running over what must have been a coyote on the first leg of the journey, on my way to work in the morning. It was definitely not a dog. I thought it could have been a fox, but the tail wasn't quite right. I conclude that it was a coyote because I've read that they're increasing in numbers around here. And there it was, in broad daylight, trotting across a state highway not too far from a major metropolitan area. Really!

And today is the first day of National Poetry month (I love the poster; have you seen it? It's "do I dare disturb the universe?" --from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock--seemingly written in steam on a glass shower door or mirror).

So I have an April Fool's poem for you today. It has some lovely rhymes, and it combines two of my favorite things--silliness, and The Lord of the Rings:

Arwen the Warrior Babe
by Ojevind Lang

When dawn arrived in Rivendell
and painted distant summits red
was Arwen first to heed the bell
and leave her sumptuous Elven bed.
She dressed in chainmail bra and helm
and leather boots of sexy taste;
and bright red garb to overwhelm
all men - a skirt slit to the waist.

She also packed some other things
that she could use when she was done:
a liberated babe who swings
needs contraceptives for her fun.
Fidelity to distant swain
is nonsense to a Valley girl;
an unconventional female thain
will not neglect a well-hung churl.

She then went down to Shadowfax -
a horse too good for wizard fools.
The sun shone in her hair of flax
(forget the book - it's blonde that rules).
She saddled up, took sword in hand
('tis more adorning in that style)
and spurred the horse into the land
where Angmar's King once built his pile.

While riding hell for leather she
did distant darkling specks descry:
some riding with great energy
while others circled in the sky.
The spying crebain she ignored -
who cares for storm-crows and such trash?
But Nazgûl heading for the Ford!
By Eru! Those she'd slice and smash!

She spurred her horse to greater speed
and thundered down to Bruinen's brink.
Upon the other strand she saw
her fiancé from Nazgûl shrink.
"Oh, Estel! Don't you fear!" she cried,
"I'll help you out of this one too.
Once more you'll se what female pride
and strength and caring values do."

The Morgul-chief was seen to glow
in Spirit-world, by evil spell;
but she, with one one resounding blow,
struck off his head, and down he fell.
The other eight, with screams of fright,
suggested that she call it quits,
but she insisted on a fight
(or slaughter), hacking them to bits.

"Oh, Arwen, Arwen," Strider sobbed,
"What would I do if not for thee?"
He looked at her and his heart throbbed,
but she just said: "Well, come and see!
We have a guest in daddy's house,
a hefty guy called Boromir;
and he's not frightened like a mouse;
or sexless like a gelded steer."

"But, Arwen, by our plighted trust -"
he stammered, but she just replied:
"Go find another if you must,
the love I felt for you has died.
Oh yeah, and there's one matter more:
your silly claim to be a king;
it's now another thing of yore,
for Borry will get crowned come spring.

"My daddy thinks it's really cool
to finally get me off his hands.
When I and Borry Gondor rule
dad will know peace in Northern lands:
no questing, butchering, riding wild
and noisy trumpets every place
when (as he says) 'My crazy child
will other lands with sword-play grace.'

"Well, that is that: come, Frodo, here!
You have possession of a thing
that you will now no longer bear:
that really groovy Master Ring.
We'll need it to extend our sway
from Umbar to the Northern Shore."
When Frodo tried to run away
she cut him down, and said no more.

Back towards Imladris she rode,
and of the four she left behind
three knelt by Frodo, but one strode
Bree-wards, then stumbled as if blind.
And so the plot found fitter scope
that cut down on the surplus roles
and made the film producers hope
their work would top in all the polls.

Now, isn't that disturbing? Does it disturb the universe?