Monday, August 30, 2010

The Juggernaut of the Apocalypse

Traffic is something I don't have to worry about on a daily basis anymore; not that it was ever that bad around here, anyway. I remember sitting on the beltway around D.C. for three hours one morning on the way to Monticello, and I inched along for an hour and a half on one stretch of road when we drove to South Carolina this summer, but I've certainly never experienced anything like the 11-day traffic jam they had in China last week.

The hours I spend behind the wheel have gone from onerous to almost non-existent this fall, with Walker no longer in "traveling soccer" and me no longer commuting two days a week. I think it's got to be better for my stress level, despite the drawbacks of underemployment, to not have to wear "the face of anyone stuck in traffic" as described in this poem by Jim Powell:

The Juggernaut of the Apocalypse

Rush hour backed up bumper to bumper in all directions
spewing carcinogenic petrochemical smog
the drivers and the driven
bent to the wheel, stalled in toxic buyproducts,
everyone hunched facing the same way:

when the juggernaut of the apocalypse
reaches the brink of the abyss and starts over
in our relentless progress
about to plummet to the final crash
eyes averted in the rearview mirror

the ecocidal maniac behind the wheel
wearing the face of anyone stuck in traffic, fuming,
wrinkles of resentment
from a lifetime of biting back sharp words
pinched down tight at the corners of the mouth

meaning to get ahead at any cost and not
let anyone in, protected by
a blank look like a mask
as if it were the car that drives itself
through the streets of a city already dead.

The image of the car that drives itself is not too far removed from how I look at other peoples' cars. When I first moved to this rural area, friends would say "I passed you on the road and waved, but you didn't wave back" and I would say "oh, I don't look INSIDE other cars." The truth is, I still don't; but now I know what kinds of cars my friends drive and have memorized their license plates for good measure.

You can take the ecocidal maniac off the road, I guess, but you can't change her habits entirely. As George Carlin has pointed out, a maniac is anyone who drives faster than you...or who would like to.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What family did Paddington Bear meet at Paddington Station?

Classics: Who did John D. Rockefeller dub "Miss Tarbarrel" for her scathing expose, The History of the Standard Oil Company?

Non-Fiction: What organization's drug ties did former member Yves Lavigne detail in three best-selling books?

Book Club: What Yann Martel bestseller sets a teenager from Pondicherry, India adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger?

Authors: What "trailer park" minimalist led the 1980s movement that detractors called "Kmart realism"?

Book Bag: What gonzo journalism classic begins: "We were somewhere around Barstow at the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold"?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Red Hook Road

I'm entertained by Ayelet Waldman.

When I first read Bad Mother a few years ago, I was charmed by her tone and her wide, confessional sweep--enough that I said so to her, and got a characteristically open response. Since then I've followed her ups and downs--which are higher and lower than most peoples'--until I read that she'd published a new book of fiction. Now, I'd already had a bad experience with reading fiction by a confessional essayist I loved (Anne Lamott) and wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. Curiosity won out, however, and I'm glad to report that the experience wasn't the same. I'm not going to say that I prefer Waldman's fiction; just that I'm pretty much going to enjoy anything she writes.

Why? Mostly it's tone. I loved the parts of Red Hook Road that explain the relationship between an academic who lives in Manhattan for nine months out of the year and a local who cleans her house year-round. It is pretty nearly pitch perfect, as far as I can tell, and I'm someone who is acquainted with lots of academic women and a few of the women who clean their houses.

The tone of the section in which a father has to pick out a casket for his daughter also struck me, as he thinks that his wife would ask
"what, exactly, the point was of 'lasting quality' in an item whose very purpose was to decompose?"

The way the characters think of and try to anticipate each other is another charm of the novel--the third-person point of view shifts the focus from one character to another so that you sympathize with each one, in turn, although the academic, Iris, seems to me to get a little more time than the other characters. As a mother, seeing the conflict that this woman has with her surviving daughter was agonizing--I could see both of their points of view, but despite, that, knew that my reaction would be the same as this mother's and that my daughter would (will someday?) react the same way:
"Ruthie had ached to talk about her anxiety with her mother, to ask her for advice, but while Iris had greeted Matt's plan with studied nonchalance, Ruthie knew how intensely she disapproved. Any apprehension Ruthie expressed would be greeted with relief. There would be no opportunity for the unbiased consideration of the options that she actually sought."

The sympathetic portrait of Iris culminates in her husband's analysis of her personality after he's left her:
"Iris had always been like that...loyal to a fault. She was that way with everyone she loved, tenacious in her defense of them, absolute in her allegiance. This was the other side of her bossiness, her pushiness. She always thought she knew what was best for you, always tried to force you to comply, but she did it because she wanted the best for you."
This describes not only me, but also several of my academic friends, women who aren't casual about much, but bring an intensity to everything they do.

The way the story ends is pretty sentimental and contrived, but I enjoyed it anyway. There's a boat-building/violin playing metaphor that runs all the way through the novel, and it leads to a sappy paragraph about marriage:
"That was true... about marriage: it was only a boat, too. A wooden boat, difficult to build, even more difficult to maintain, whose beauty derived at least in part from its unlikelihood. Long ago the pragmatic justifications for both marriage and wooden-boat building had been lost or superseded. Why invest countless hours, years, and dollars in planing and carving, gluing and fastening, caulking and fairing, when a fiberglass boat can be had at a fraction of the cost? Why struggle to maintain love and commitment over decades when there were far easier ways to live, ones that required no effort or attention to prevent corrosion and rot? Why continue to pour your heart into these obsolete arts? Because their beauty, the way they connect you to your history and to the living world, justifies your efforts."

Yes, this is a book written to appeal especially to a long-married woman of my age and avocation. I can't tell you that you'll like it, too, but I should think that any reader will at least enjoy the part when Iris' daughter, working at a library, recommends Pride and Prejudice to a patron who has been checking out Regency romances and converts her to an Austen fan.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Loss of the Creature

I'm working on a big new project for a possible paying job that involves reading lots of essays, and I was going back through one of my favorites by Walker Percy, from The Message in the Bottle, entitled "The Loss of the Creature." This is the essay I refer to when trying to defend my parental inability to get to any of my kids' events with a camera and remember to use it while I'm there. This is the essay I was thinking of this weekend when I packed a camera for a visit with some friends-- bisected by a chess tournament--and finally remembered (with a reminder from FreshHell, who also has trouble remembering to use a camera) to get it out when we came back to their house. This is an essay everyone in the world should read, because it's about how we are able to see things:

"A man in Boston decides to spend his vacation at the Grand Canyon. He visits his travel bureau, looks at the folder, signs up for a two-week tour. He and his family take the tour, see the Grand Canyon, and return to Boston. May we say that this man has seen the Grand Canyon? Possibly he has. But it is more likely that what he has done is the one sure way not to see the canyon.

Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is--as one picks up a strange object from one's back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on.... if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, "Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!" He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time. The highest point, the term of the sightseer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years."

Percy suggests a number of ways that a sightseer could actually see the Grand Canyon, "all sharing in common the stratagem of avoiding the approved confrontation of the tour and the Park Service."

My family needs stratagies like that to see more in an art museum. Usually we try to see only one or two rooms, lest we find ourselves standing in front of one of the wonders of the world yawning and thinking about how much our feet hurt and where the next water fountain might be. Often we try to pose like the sculptures, in order to see how close we can get to what each particular one feels like.

For years we've tried getting into an elevator and facing the back. It's interesting to see peoples' reactions when you get in and do that. What kinds of strategies have you tried for seeing something in a new way?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Selecting a Reader

This is a photo of me with an imaginary friend (e.g. known only through the internet) who is an Avid Reader. (I'm the tall one.) I was on her home turf for a chess tournament with Walker, and she invited me to come meet her at a coffee shop (you can see their menu in the background of the photo). We had such a good time talking about books and blogging that an hour and a half passed before we came up for air, asked a stranger to take this photo of us, and went our separate ways.

It's amazing to meet a person in real life when you already enjoy exchanging ideas--it makes the conversation a fascinating mix of personal discovery and continued conversation. If I could have imagined a reader of this blog when I first started it, I'd have imagined someone like her. And she is beautiful, as you can see, so she made me think of this poem by Ted Kooser:

Selecting a Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,

and walking carefully up on my poetry

at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,

her hair still damp at the neck

from washing it. She should be wearing

a raincoat, an old one, dirty

from not having money enough for the cleaners.

She will take out her glasses, and there

in the bookstore, she will thumb

over my poems, then put the book back

up on its shelf. She will say to herself,

“For that kind of money, I can get

my raincoat cleaned.” And she will.

This has always struck me as an emblematic poem for a blogger. It doesn't matter if I get money or recognition for what I write here; what matters is that for just a moment someone is reading it.

Thanks for giving me a face to put with your name, avid reader!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What well-rounded robot hero was crafted by cartoonist William Joyce?

Classics: What French novelist helped clear the name of accused traitor Alfred Dreyfus, with his book J'accuse?

Non-Fiction: What 1981 Gay Talese bestseller pulled the sheets off U.S. sexual habits?

Book Club: What best-selling Brazilian author wove the rituals of the Bahian spirit religion Candomble into such novels as Tereza Batista?

Authors: What author sent Professor Irwin Corey to accept his National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow?

Book Bag: What thriller by David Baldacci finds journalist Tom Langdon making alterate holiday travel plans after airport security kicks him off his flight?

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I feel wild this week. Wild with anger about the many new one-size-fits-all policies at the kids' high school. Wild to spend the few remaining hours of unscheduled time we have before school starts next Tuesday. Wild to get on the road tomorrow to see friends and take Walker to a chess tournament while Eleanor and Ron stay here to host her birthday party, for which I have already provided all the necessary supplies. And wild about this poem, one that I find seasonal about now, from Tony Hoagland's latest volume:


In late August when the streams dry up
and the high meadows turn parched and blond,

bears are squeezed out of the mountains
down into the valley of condos and housing developments.

All residents are therefore prohibited
from putting their garbage out early.

The penalty for disobedience will be
bears: large black furry fellows

drinking from your sprinkler system,
rolling your trashcans down your lawn,

bashing through the screen door of the back porch to get their
first real taste of a spaghetti dinner,

while the family hides in the garage
and the wife dials 1-800-BEARS on her cell phone,

a number she just made up
in a burst of creative hysteria.

Isn't that the way it goes?
Wildness enters your life and asks

that you invent a way to meet it,
and you run in the opposite direction

as the bears saunter down Main Street
sending station wagons crashing into fire hydrants,

getting the police department to phone
for tranquilizer guns,

the dart going by accident into the
neck of the unpopular police chief,

who is carried into early retirement
in an ambulance crowned with flashing red lights,

as the bears inherit the earth,
full of water and humans and garbage,

which looks to them like paradise.

When you're already feeling wild and get to the point where "wildness enters your life and asks/that you invent a way to meet it," isn't that the point where you feel road rage or checkout line rage or now-you've-made-a-mess rage? Aauurgh!

I like this poem's reminder to take a moment and sit back to admire the world full of "water and humans and garbage." It reminds me of watching the people at the zoo, something I spent some time doing last week when we crossed "go to the zoo" off our to-do list for this summer. The little ones who thought the arctic foxes were "cute" were amusing, and all the different ones who came to stand under the mister to cool off demonstrated a seemingly endless variety.

What's your favorite place for people-watching?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dark Water's Embrace

I just read Dark Water's Embrace by Stephen Leigh, which is this month's free science fiction ebook, still available until August 31. (The Coupon Code is 9991300--instructions and download link at Because I don't want to do any more reading online than I already do, the publisher, Shahid Mahmud at Phoenix Pick, sent me a copy of the actual reissued book (originally published in 1998). I have to say that however you can find this book, it's worth searching out. I was totally absorbed; twice I stayed up too late reading it because I couldn't put it down (and because my new reading glasses allow me to read in bed once again).

The novel is narrated in fairly short chapters by a rotating cast of characters, most of them the human inhabitants of an alien world in the present, and a few the native inhabitants of that world in the past. As the story unfolds, the connections become increasingly clear, until the tension of finding out exactly how an alien character from the past will connect to a human one from the present becomes almost unbearable.

The story centers around an apparently hermaphroditic human character named Anais, and her struggle to fit into a pioneer human culture that has been stranded on an alien planet and attempting to keep its live birth rate at a point where the humans won't die out. The planet causes an extremely high rate of mutation and disease, to the point where the humans don't even name a child for the first year of its life. Anais is her culture's most able doctor, and has been examining an alien mummy found in a peat bog. The mummy turns out to be hermaphroditic too, and is eventually revealed as a clue to restoring the declining human birth rate. As she begins to examine the mummified body, Anais thinks:

"After all, it was the bones of this race's dead that had given rise to the name given to the planet: Mictlan, suggested by the lone Mexican crew member of the Ibn Batutta. Mictlan was the Aztec land of the dead, where the god Quetzalcoatl found the bones of humankind--and now, where the bones of another dead culture had been found. The race itself were christened the Miccail--"the Dead," in the Nahuatl language....The strange, whorled spires the Miccail had left behind on the northern continent, sticking out of Mictlan's rocky soil like faerie cathedrals of dull glass and carved with images of themselves, had been photographed and documented; it was from these that we learned the most about the extinct race. More would have been done, probably, but the near destruction and crippling of the Ibn Battuta not six months after the colonists' arrival and the resultant death of nearly all the crew members had suddenly, radically, and permanently shifted everyone's priorities.
Basically, it was more important to scrape an existence from Mictlan than to try to decipher the mystery of our world's previous inhabitants."

The novel is beautifully written; I especially enjoy the innovative pronouns in the parts told from the point of view of the alien named Kai, who is a "Sa," which means part male and part female: "Kai reached into the warm youngpouch and stroked the child gently, enjoying the shiver ker daughter gave as ke touched her. "Yes," ke sighed. "She's beautiful, yes."

One human character, Gabriela, from a generation before Anais', has left written records of her studies of the Miccail, studies which foreshadow the events that unfold in the novel:
"Now if sex, love, and passion are intricate, varied, and dangerous for us, then the sexuality of the Miccail must have been positively labyrinthian. I can only imagine how convoluted their relationships were, with the midmale sex complicating things. I wonder how they loved, and I try to decipher the answers from the few clues left: the stelae, the crumbling ruins, the ancient artifacts....What frightens me is that I'm certain it's important for us to know. The Miccail died only a thousand years ago....From what I've been able to determine, the collapse and decline of the Miccail began another thousand years before their extinction, possibly linked with the rapid disappearance of the mid-males, all mention of whom vanish from the stelae at that point."
No one hears what Gabriela has to say, however, until Anais discovers her diaries. Gabriela was exiled from the pioneer human civilization for being lesbian and therefore supposedly leading other women away from reproducing, so it takes Anais' own exile to lead her towards the discovery of what Gabriela knew and towards the even bigger discoveries that she herself makes.

The novel shows us some of what happened to the Sa, who Gabriela calls the "mid-males," and also provides a surprise when something Gabriela had already figured out is revealed--the Miccail are not entirely extinct.

Intricately plotted and excellently told, this novel deserves more readers. Although it has an entirely satisfactory ending, the novel has a sequel set in the same world, and I've already ordered a copy (entitled Speaking Stones).

Monday, August 16, 2010


When Kim mentioned that there would be a discussion of Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg by Michael Perry over at Estella's Revenge today, I thought it would be a fun book to read and discuss, expecting something like Bob Tarte's wonderful Enslaved by Ducks or Jeanne Marie Laskas' Fifty Acres and a Poodle. And it is a book very much like those two--the writer is playing at farming, mostly to write about it and because of a love for animals. This one is a little more down-to-earth, though. Perry is the son and brother of real farmers, and he can do things people like me would have to study to be able to do, like tell timothy from any other kind of grass in a field. He's an interesting character, raised by fundamentalist Christians and "a fellow who put himself through nursing school by working as a cowboy in Wyoming."

I liked a lot of the quiet moments in this book, like his admiration for people who come to church choir practice. Anyone who has ever contributed time and talent to a volunteer music group will remember what it's like from these details:
"hustling through supper so they can make rehearsal on time, giving up their evenings in, their television shows, their early-to-bed. Doing it as fall becomes winter, fighting the first snowy roads. Memorizing their lyrics and learning their parts, with no expectation of remuneration beyond smiling faces and afterward, coffee and cookies."

I also like the details about how Perry gets his daughter Amy a guinea pig, and how he acquires two pigs and two different kinds of chickens--layers and meat chickens. His description of lambing at his father's farm is memorable, but it's the little moments I like best:
"Audible human mastication drives me nuts in a split second, but for some reason I find the sound of sheep chewing a soothing nocturne. An animal in distress does not bring up a cud, and all that muffled molar work--with regular pauses to swallow one bolus an bring up another--sends a subliminal message of contentment."

Perry sometimes has a wry way of putting things: "Bombing down a country road in a pickup truck with my daughter has become one of the signal joys of fatherhood. Throw a couple of dead pigs in the back and you've got yourself a Hallmark card on wheels."

Most of all, I like his realization, towards the end of the story of his year, that he is "trying to do too much, and I'm not the one paying for it. I haven't cooked a meal with my wife in months. The pantry is full with home canning, and I spent maybe four hours in the garden. The division of labor has become nigh unto no division at all."

There are a few things I didn't like about this book. Although he usually doesn't flinch from describing the grittier side of life in the country, he glosses over the fate of Fritz the dog, who killed four of his chickens, by telling a story about his father and then relating his daughter's reaction to the chicken deaths. He occasionally tells pointless stories from his own childhood and then tries to glue on an inappropriately stereotyped ending, like one story about a sibling getting his head stuck in between two boards with the tag line "I was always confused when city kids asked us how we had fun without a television."

Overall, though, this was a satisfying immersion in country life without having to get my hands dirty. I wonder if this is an emerging genre--armchair farming books. Reading them gives me the same kind of pleasure I get from reading about other peoples' gardening and cooking, but with extra animal antics added in.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who penned Higglety Pigglety Pop! as a tribute to his Sealyham terrier, Jennie?

Classics: What novel features a heroine who loves Jake, is engaged to Mike, but has affairs with Robert and Pedro?

Non-Fiction: What Yaak Valley activist wrote The Book of Yaak, Brown Dog of the Yaak and The Roadless Yaak?

Book Club: What Louisiana Creole term did Rebecca Wells redefine as a "person who is afraid and still drinks of life very deeply"?

Authors: Who finished the novel Cuba Libre before the researcher he sent to Havana returned home?

Book Bag: Who dashed off the three breezy historical romances The Wind Dancer, Storm Winds and Reap the Winds in a single year?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Department Store

We're still unpacking and arranging the things we brought back from my parents' house. I'm using the big antique Chinese desk that used to belong to my great-aunt, who always covered it in papers. After she died, it sat in state in my parents' living room with only a few art objects on its polished surface. Now it's going to get daily use again, and for the first time in its long span of years it will have a laptop on it (and a Magritte print hanging above it).

As I take things out of packing boxes, remembering where they were at my parents' house, I think about how the things are changed by their new surroundings, like in this poem by Arda Collins:

Department Store

You're a realist. It's a department store.
God is never there,

even when everyone goes home at night.

A saleswoman left her dark gray wool skirt
laid out on a chair when she went to bed.

The room was quiet while the woman slept.
The skirt didn't pray.

The skirt was lined with shadows from the blinds.
The lines moved around the room through the night.
The saleswoman breathed into the shadows.
Her breath, the heat, the faint smell of supper
she had made earlier passed through the skirt.

It was a long time since any speaking
but it was as though there had been speaking.

Night was long and day began forever.
The skirt was different than the night before.

The desk will be different after the smells of all our suppers. Already it looks at home to me, though.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Islands, by Marta Randall, is an old science fiction novel from 1976 that I first heard of over at Pages Turned and read in a couple of hours while sitting by a public pool mostly full of mothers and small children.

I'm starting to get to the age where mothers don't automatically smile at me when I smile at their small children. It's an age when teenagers' eyes glide right over me, an age when I'm told where I can sit at the pool so I can't watch what my younger teenager is doing. In short, I'm at the perfect age for reading Islands, about a woman who ages in a world where no one else does.

The setting of the novel is far in the future, after our world has been destroyed by global warming and other environmental meddling, with much of the seacoast and all of the Hawaiian islands (of the title) underwater since "The Great Shaping" a few millennia back. People can now be made immortal, except for Tia, on whom the process failed. Tia is now 67 years old in a world where no one else ages past their twenties, and everyone she meets is repelled by her existence and what it implies.

The immortals are terribly afraid of accidental death or dismemberment:
"The road and the land through which it passed were beautiful, but my passengers were so bound up in their fear that they did not sense the beauty, and I found myself once again exasperated by the typical, infuriating terror of the Immortals."

Tia's lover from her 20's, Paul, now an immortal and still with the same appearance he had in his 20's, has joined her--after decades of separation she imposed--on an expedition to dive for artifacts from the big island of Hawaii. They resume their sexual relationship, and Tia tries to reserve judgment about his motives for sleeping with a 67-year-old.

The reader learns how Tia has spent her life trying to come to terms with her mortality. The immortality process doesn't work on animals, so she feels that the immortals regard her as an animal. Oddly, though, their fear of anything physically risky and their lack of ambition and contented ignorance show them to be something less than human.

I loved this explanation about the dive:
"There are," Greville announced, "some plans to try underwater excavation of the west side of the island, what the natives called the, uh, um, Coffee Side."

The artifacts they bring up are mostly sold to collectors or kept as curiosities:
"Never mind what it was once for, or why it was created, or when it was used. Never mind what the lives of its original owners were like. It doesn't matter what it ultimately means, what it says about the culture that created and used it. It's a curiosity, a gimcrack, a decoration, a pretty, and no other meaning is necessary."

In the end, Tia learns some things she has been too afraid and too arrogant to find out before, and through the very mystical ending, she goes farther towards becoming wise, the traditional consolation of the old. One of the things she learns is what all old people who don't want to be shaking their canes and ordering kids off their lawn have to learn, that just because someone is young doesn't mean that he doesn't have anything to teach someone older.

Have you learned anything from someone younger lately?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What is Anne Shirley's oft-repeated term for an "intimate friend" in the Anne of Green Gables series?

Classics: What famed 20th-century novel do fans gather to read aloud every June 16, on Bloomsday?

Non-Fiction: What Ann Coulter diatribe was subtitled: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism?

Book Club: What city is home to the alley in Naguib Mahfouz's Children of the Alley?

Authors: What author of Pronto famously advised budding writers "Try to leave out all the parts readers skip"?

Book Bag: What do P.D. James' initials stand for--Patricia Dalgliesh, Penelope Dell or Phyllis Dorothy?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

After going through stacks and stacks of photos and papers from my parents' house with the help of my children, my memories of what it was like to be me while I was living there have become less certain. Sketchy stories I've told the children were fleshed out by actual manuscripts I'd left behind, while images of myself at various ages seem to bear as much relationship to actual photos as a mirror image does to a funhouse-mirror image. The process of relating memories to keepsakes reminded me of Anne Sexton's volume entitled Transformations, in which the poem "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" appears. (It helps if you've read the Grimm's fairy tale already.)

If you danced from midnight
to six A.M. who would understand?

The runaway boy
who chucks it all
to live on the Boston Common
on speed and saltines,
pissing in the duck pond,
rapping with the street priest,
trading talk like blows,
another missing person,
would understand.

The paralytic's wife
who takes her love to town,
sitting on the bar stool,
downing stingers and peanuts,
singing "That ole Ace down in the hole,"
would understand.

The passengers
from Boston to Paris
watching the movie with dawn
coming up like statues of honey,
having partaken of champagne and steak
while the world turned like a toy globe,
those murderers of the nightgown
would understand.

The amnesiac
who tunes into a new neighborhood,
having misplaced the past,
having thrown out someone else's
credit cards and monogrammed watch,
would understand.

The drunken poet
(a genius by daylight)
who places long-distance calls
at three A.M. and then lets you sit
holding the phone while he vomits
(he calls it "The Night of the Long Knives")
getting his kicks out of the death call,
would understand.

The insomniac
listening to his heart
thumping like a June bug,
listening on his transistor
to Long John Nebel arguing from New York,
lying on his bed like a stone table,
would understand.

The night nurse
with her eyes slit like Venetian blinds,
she of the tubes and the plasma,
listening to the heart monitor,
the death cricket bleeping,
she who calls you "we"
and keeps vigil like a ballistic missile,
would understand.

this king had twelve daughters,
each more beautiful than the other.
They slept together, bed by bed
in a kind of girls' dormitory.
At night the king locked and bolted the door.
How could they possibly escape?
Yet each morning their shoes
were danced to pieces.
Each was as worn as an old jockstrap.
The king sent out a proclamation
that anyone who could discover
where the princesses did their dancing
could take his pick of the litter.
However there was a catch.
If he failed, he would pay with his life.
Well, so it goes.

Many princes tried,
each sitting outside the dormitory,
the door ajar so he could observe
what enchantment came over the shoes.
But each time the twelve dancing princesses
gave the snoopy man a Mickey Finn
and so he was beheaded.
Poof! Like a basketball.

It so happened that a poor soldier
heard about these strange goings on
and decided to give it a try.
On his way to the castle
he met an old old woman.
Age, for a change, was of some use.
She wasn't stuffed in a nursing home.
She told him not to drink a drop of wine
and gave him a cloak that would make
him invisible when the right time came.
And thus he sat outside the dorm.
The oldest princess brought him some wine
but he fastened a sponge beneath his chin,
looking the opposite of Andy Gump.

The sponge soaked up the wine,
and thus he stayed awake.
He feigned sleep however
and the princesses sprang out of their beds
and fussed around like a Miss America Contest.
Then the eldest went to her bed
and knocked upon it and it sank into the earth.
They descended down the opening
one after the other. The crafty soldier
put on his invisible cloak and followed.
Yikes, said the youngest daughter,
something just stepped on my dress.
But the oldest thought it just a nail.

Next stood an avenue of trees,
each leaf made of sterling silver.
The soldier took a leaf for proof.
The youngest heard the branch break
and said, Oof! Who goes there?
But the oldest said, Those are
the royal trumpets playing triumphantly.
The next trees were made of diamonds.
He took one that flickered like Tinkerbell
and the youngest said: Wait up! He is here!
But the oldest said: Trumpets, my dear.

Next they came to a lake where lay
twelve boats with twelve enchanted princes
waiting to row them to the underground castle.
The soldier sat in the youngest's boat
and the boat was as heavy as if an icebox
had been added but the prince did not suspect.

Next came the ball where the shoes did duty.
The princesses danced like taxi girls at Roseland
as if those tickets would run right out.
They were painted in kisses with their secret hair
and though the soldier drank from their cups
they drank down their youth with nary a thought.
Cruets of champagne and cups full of rubies.
They danced until morning and the sun came up
naked and angry and so they returned
by the same strange route. The soldier
went forward through the dormitory and into
his waiting chair to feign his druggy sleep.
That morning the soldier, his eyes fiery
like blood in a wound, his purpose brutal
as if facing a battle, hurried with his answer
as if to the Sphinx. The shoes! The shoes!
The soldier told. He brought forth
the silver leaf, the diamond the size of a plum.

He had won. The dancing shoes would dance
no more. The princesses were torn from
their night life like a baby from its pacifier.
Because he was old he picked the eldest.
At the wedding the princesses averted their eyes
and sagged like old sweatshirts.
Now the runaways would run no more and never
again would their hair be tangled into diamonds,
never again their shoes worn down to a laugh,
never the bed falling down into purgatory
to let them climb in after
with their Lucifer kicking.

I've always thought that particular tale was a sad one, and I like the way Sexton manages to articulate why.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fire and Hemlock
Before I could write up my impressions of Diana Wynne Jones' novel Fire and Hemlock, based on the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer stories, I learned that Jenny believes it's even better on rereading, and since this was my first time through it, all I can give you is first impressions.

Like most readers, I was appalled with the characterization of the main character's (Polly's) parents, who neglect her to an extent almost unbelievable even in fiction--at one point, leaving her stranded in a strange city with no food, money, or shelter. And like any reader, I was enchanted with the magic that allows Polly and her friend Tom Lynn to imagine things and then see them come true. Another pleasure for readers is seeing Tom sending books to Polly, and hearing about what she learns from reading them, along with her occasional ignorant mistake before she has read something, like the time she asks if she can call him "Uncle Tom."

As in any novel by Diana Wynne Jones, one of the incidental pleasures is in the little slices of psychological verity, like this one:
"Polly came away from the Headmistress to find that the rest of the school regarded her as a heroine. This is nothing like being a hero, which is inside you. This was public. People asked for her autograph and wanted to be her friend. She came out of school at the end of the afternoon surrounded by a mob of people all trying to talk to her at once. It made Polly's head ache."

The title image, of a painting in which the young Polly could see images that the older Polly does not (at least for a while, until she gets her memories of Tom Lynn back) also seems to me to have some psychological reality. How many times as a child did you look at a crack in the ceiling or the uneven pattern of tiles on a floor and see a face or figure? Do you still see them? I sometimes do, especially when I'm tired or running a fever, but I think when I'm feeling well I'm like most other adults and don't have the same kind of attention or time to notice.

I enjoyed the first part of the ending, in which Polly reconciles her two sets of memories--one with Tom Lynn included, and one without, which she traces back to a promise she made to forget him--and has an adult discussion with him, for the first time, about the risks of loving him and involving herself in his world.

The second part of the ending, though, with a test involving a pool, was confusing. While still thinking about it, I was confronted with the reactions of other celebrators of Diana Wynne Jones week (Eva, for one) who also didn't understand the ending after their first reading. I found the ending of Fire and Hemlock slightly disappointing, but after consideration decided that perhaps such disappointment is an appropriate response to the ending of a story about the tricky ways of the Queen of the Fairies. Who ever comes away from such an experience feeling satisfied? You're lucky to come away at all, as the story of Tam Lin amply testifies.

The other result of this first reading is that my memory was tickling me with the central image of the empty autumn pool, and I found out why when I read that DWJ based the image on one from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (see Two Sides to Nowhere and her links to DWJ's essay "The Heroic Ideal").

Monday, August 2, 2010

Deep Secret

Join me in celebrating Diana Wynne Jones, 1 - 7 August!

Probably because I read the Chrestomanci stories when my children were younger, I had the impression that Diana Wynne Jones was a children's author, so when Jenny proposed Diana Wynne Jones week, I decided to read the only DWJ novel that I could find in the adult section of my public library, Deep Secret.

After six chapters (75 pages) of narration by a male character, Rupert, the narrative switches to a chapter from a female character, Maree, whose chapters then begin to alternate with Rupert's more frequently until you can tell they're going to fall in love, despite the way they seem to hate each other at first (it reminds me of Zoe's first reaction to Wash in the Firefly episode entitled Out of Gas: "he bothers me; I don't know what it is").

I enjoyed the way characters who didn't seem all that important to Rupert--who is a Magid, a sort of Magician/Benevolent Policeman for the universe--became vastly important in the plot, reinforcing the idea that despite his vast powers, there is a bigger and even more powerful planner behind his whole adventure. And I was greatly amused by the way Rupert's mentor, now disembodied, haunts a parking lot, with inexplicable strains of Scarlatti coming out of the invisible car to which he's confined. An incidental delight is the off-hand way a teenage boy sums up the things in which his mother has been deeply interested: "she kept wanting to tell me until I said it was all boring nonsense and went away." (If this doesn't delight you, my guess is that you've never been the mother of a fourteen-year old boy.)

The deep secrets of the title turn out to be hidden in an interesting way:
"Some of them are things you more or less know anyway. If I were to tell you some, you might laugh--I know I did--because a lot of the secrets are half there in well-known or childish things, like nursery rhymes or fairy stories. I kid you not! One of our jobs is to put those things around and make sure they're well enough known for people to put them together in the right way when the time comes. Or again...some of the secrets are only in parts. These are the dangerous secrets. I've got the memorized parts of at least seventy of them. If another Magid has need of my piece of a secret, he or she can come and ask me, and if the need is real enough, then I put my part together with his or hers. It acts as a check."

The pacing of the story is masterful; the secrets are revealed one by one in a very satisfying manner. I'm still not sure that that Diana Wynne Jones writes for adults--this book has a centaur on the cover, which may not have been her choice, but it does accurately illustrate some of the scenes from the novel.

Why even think about what kind of audience a novel is aimed at? It's something I think about with fantasy novels--is Fantasy by its very nature (a way to step outside yourself and see the world differently) a genre mostly for children and young adults--that is, for people whose views of the world are growing and changing at a very fast pace?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

free SF ebook

Another free science fiction ebook from the publisher Phoenix Pick will be available August 2-31. August's pick is Stephen Leigh’s ‘Dark Water’s Embrace.’ Stephen also writes under the pseudonym of S.L. Farrell.

The Coupon Code is 9991300
Instructions and download link at

From the publisher:
Often compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s ground-breaking The Left Hand of
Darkness, Dark Water’s Embrace is a fascinating look at issues of human
(and alien) sexuality. Stephen Leigh creates a rich world with elaborate
care and uses this alien backdrop to delve into issues of survival,
sexuality and the meaning of life itself.

Descendents of a long marooned group of humans struggle with mutations and
infertility and if a cure cannot be found they are doomed to extinction.

The colony’s doctor, Ana├»s, herself suffers from a sexual deformity.
However, her world is turned upside down when she discovers that the
preserved corpse of a long-extinct native race carries exactly the same
deformities as herself.

What is the connection? And can she find the answer to this mystery that
has reached back from time to haunt both her and the colony struggling to
survive against impossible odds?