Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

Since reading David Foster Wallace's title essay from Consider the Lobster, I haven't read any more compelling discussion of how a carnivore who is concerned about the ethical treatment of animals should live, until I found Hal Herzog's new book entitled Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat on the shelf at the public library. The first part of the title is shown on a puppy silhouette, the second on a rat, and the third on a pig.

Early on in this book I was pleased to find out that the image I've been stuck with since watching the animated 101 Dalmations as a child--that of the dogs resembling their owners--has some basis in fact. Two-thirds of the time, people in studies successfully match an owner and a purebred dog (rates are lower for mutts, since their appearance as adults is not as predictable).

Other than providing scientific evidence for some of the things I have always believed about animals, however, the first two-thirds of the book struck me as overly general and simplistic. Probably that's because Herzog is writing an introduction to some of these issues for folks who haven't really thought about them before. His section on cockfighting, for instance, proposes an either-or scenario that didn't work for me; it's obvious to anyone concerned with the ethical treatment of animals that fighting cocks do live a better life than factory-farmed meat chickens or even laying hens. That doesn't mean that it's a good comparison, though--much less the only choice. I was irritated by his conclusion that "while the great chicken-eating public...will sleep easy tonight knowing that cockfighting is now banned in every state, teams of chicken catchers from Maryland to California will enter darkened broiler houses and stuff 35 million terrified birds into wire crates in preparation for their journey to the processing plant tomorrow morning." I mean, why this contrast and no other? Some people keep pigs for pets, and the stories I've read about commercial pig production (in other places than this book) are even more horrifying than the stories Herzog tells about chicken production.

The 279-page text didn't really start to tell me things I didn't already know until page 228, when Herzog declares that "Congress should extend the Animal Welfare Act to include all vertebrate species" and begins exploring why "people who oppose all animal experimentation are up against their own inconsistencies and paradoxes." Again he sees only two approaches, but this time simplifying the issue does clarify it for me. The two approaches he opposes are utilitarianism and deontology: "Utilitarians believe that the morality of an act depends on its consequences. Deontologists, on the other hand, argue that the rightness or wrongness of an act is independent of its consequences. They believe that ethics are based on universal principles and obligations....In other words, you should keep your promises not because bad things will happen if you break them, but because you made them."

Discussing Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975) as the representative of utilitarianism and Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights (1983) as the representative of deontology, Herzog shows the flaws of consistency in applying either approach, ultimately presenting Joan Dunayer's book Speciesism as an example of "what happens when you take logic too far." He concludes that "if you really believe that how we treat creatures should not depend on the size of their brains or the number of their legs, you wind up in a world in which, as Dunayer suggests, termites have the right to eat your house."

Herzog goes through the steps of thinking logically about an ethical system for the treatment of animals; I like the step where he rejects "moral intuition" as a basis for judging, pointing out that "for thousands of years, it was common sense that slaves were property and that homosexuality was a crime against nature." I also like the step where he explores "the implications of living in a world that is morally convoluted, in which consistency is elusive, and often impossible" and declares that the answer is not to "throw up our hands in despair." Herzog's answer involves an attempt to be kind when you can, to accept your own hypocrisies about the treatment of animals while working to better the fate of the ones you care about most.

I think in the end he comes down farther on the side of the utilitarians, and I guess I do, too. It seems a better thing to do something small than to wring your hands uselessly or make a grand gesture that deprives you of some pleasure you might otherwise harmlessly enjoy.

While I don't work at the local humane society as much as I possibly could, I have done it consistently throughout my life. And while I occasionally buy chicken or bacon at the local grocery store, I try to buy those things from a local farmer more often. Because doing what you can is at least doing something. It's nice to read a book that doesn't demand a whole lot more.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Since we didn't have to travel, our Thanksgiving was mostly about food--so I decided to read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, to make sure that I didn't stray too far from the weekend's theme. I had already been warned that it isn't a book to linger over, so I was skimming through it pretty fast. That wasn't enough, though. I should have put it down and gone on to something better. The novel begins with a lemon birthday cake topped off with chocolate icing; that nauseating combination should have tipped me off.

What really made me angry, though, is that the heroine, Rose, who can taste the emotion of the cook in the food, never really does anything with her talent, and that includes telling much of anyone about it. The final straw--and this is a spoiler, not that I think any of you need to read this far in the novel--is that the big mystery about her older brother turns out to be that he can turn into a chair. Yes, that's right; he also has a talent, and that's what he uses it for.

The intriguing premise, with someone who can do something most of us can't, was entirely spoiled for me by the extraneous angst of Bender's novel. There was no reason for Rose's mother to stay with her husband while having an affair with another man. There was no reason for Rose's father to fear his own talent, at least none that we know of, since he is so afraid that he refuses to even try it out. And there's certainly no reason for anyone in the family to care about the brother, who would rather be a chair than part of this family--not that I blame him.

The boy Rose loves, her brother's only friend, George, tells her early on that she "should become a superhero." She does not, though, continuing to hide what she can do, letting George drift away and eventually marry another woman, and generally nurturing her loneliness and angst.

I don't mind angst in a novel, but when there's no reason for it, I do mind it. Save yourself some and avoid even a taste of the sorry, sad lemon cake.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Eve Bunting book tells the tale of the fabled Irish figure Finn McCool outwitting his Scottish nemesis?

Classics: What Pulitzer Prize-winning poet was portrayed as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums?

Non-Fiction: What comic pledged to walk New Hampshire "from side to side, and then diagonally" while running for president, in his book Why Not Me?

Book Club: What real-life crime boss plucks Billy Bathgate out of the gutter, in E.L. Doctorow's 1989 novel?

Authors: What pseudonym did author Peter Finlay adopt, representing an escape from his sordid past that left him "Dirty but Clean"?

Book Bag: What detective from Michael Connelly's books was named after a 15th-century Flemish painter?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Looking for a Thanksgiving poem to leave you with for the rest of the week, I found one that wasn't exactly what I had in mind--not a poem about harvest or gratitude, but about eating. And the more I looked at this poem, "Gastronomy" by Todd Davis, the more I liked it:

A glacial erratic sits unmoved by the garden, purple and white
cosmos lifting up what's left of September's skirt. Like a bit
of pesto on the lip's rim, this boulder was forgotten when ice
pulled its tongue back inside the world's mouth.

How long does it take to digest a planet? How much wine
is in the oceans that circle us? My sons ask where the broccoli
and tomatoes, the melons and pumpkins disappear
when we throw them back upon themselves.

In the dim sun of a cold wet month, we turn soil, spread ash
from our little fires, cover the bed with leaves. New stones
swim slowly to the surface as everything becomes everything else.
In the dark, all that's left is to eat each other and savor our goodness.

As an omnivore, I enjoy the last line. As a fan of puns, I love the suggestion of "dim sum" in the "dim sun" phrase, so apt for a day like today--this morning I saw a flurry of red leaves whirl in a wind off of our ornamental pear tree in the front yard, with an almost black storm cloud behind it. And then, of course, there's the "wine dark sea" allusion from The Odyssey.

After all, it's really not Thanksgiving until you've had dinner, is it?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Devil in the White City

It was an exceedingly strange week to finally read a book that Eleanor had been urging me to since last spring, when she read The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, as part of her research for a history project on the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Subtitled "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," this history is so well written that it reads almost like a novel, due largely to Larson's liberal use of foreshadowing. All the descriptions of the activities of the murderer H.H. Holmes are so chilling in their detail that-- along with the descriptions I was reading of the activities of a murderer in our midst--the book gave me the shivers in a very big way.

The "white city" created for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair showed Americans what a city might be, and--according to Larson--may have even been an inspiration for Disney World and the land of Oz. The Ferris Wheel was invented for it. The electric incandescent light bulb was popularized at the fair. The Pledge of Allegiance, still recited almost daily in American schools, was written for its opening. If you go to Chicago, you can still see the fair's Palace of Fine Arts, which, "transformed into a permanent structure, now houses the Museum of Science and Industry."

I wish modern ferris wheels were still made like the first one, with "thirty-six cars, each about the size of a Pullman, each holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter." The closest I could get would be the London Eye, but it doesn't have lunch counters!

Even the architectural details in this book are interesting, mostly because of all the context Larson provides. He takes readers from the erection of the first skyscrapers on the unstable soil of Chicago to the hurried construction of the world's fair buildings. He tells the stories of the architects themselves, complete with sub-plots like that the sister of the man who married the architect John Root was the poet Harriet Monroe, who Larson claims hid an unrequited love for her sister's husband all her life.

The activities of the serial murderer Holmes are interspersed throughout the descriptions of the other activities surrounding the world's fair, and they get increasingly spooky. Larson describes Holmes' "charm" and how easy it was for him to pay little attentions to a woman until she became "an asset...an acquisition to be warehoused until needed, like cocooned prey." Even at the end of the history, Larson is unable to give an accurate count of how many people Holmes murdered, explaining that the number is somewhere between 9 and 200.

When a "hotel" Holmes built--using so many contractors that no one but him had ever seen the complete building--was finally searched by the police, they found rooms both normal and airtight, a walk-in soundproof vault, and a basement complete with "a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull settled at the bottom; mounds of quicklime; a large kiln; a dissection table stained with what seemed to be blood." Searching the building only because Holmes had been arrested for life insurance fraud, the police also found:
"Eighteen ribs from the torso of a child.
Several vertebrae.
A bone from a foot.
One shoulder blade.
One hip socket."

Holmes, at one point, buried two little girls three feet down in a dirt cellar, borrowing a shovel to do it and telling the shovel's owner that he was storing potatoes. One would think that it would be harder to hide bodies today, but one of the chilling details Larson traces is how many of Holmes' victims were originally small-town girls who became lost in the anonymity of the big city of Chicago.

The Chicago Times-Herald said, according to Larson, that Holmes was "a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character." And yet, over and over, people are surprised to find that the man next door, where they let their children play, the man who worked for their lawn service--as Matthew Hoffman worked for the service we used last May--was all along a person who would plan to kidnap and kill his neighbors.

Thrills and chills, this book--kind of like going to a fair. I can hardly wait for my next trip to Chicago, now that I know more of its history.
(Update: Here's another recent review by someone who reads more nonfiction.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What "weird" Michigan family sets out in 1963 to visit Grandma in Birmingham, Alabama, in Christopher Paul Curtis' 1996 travelogue?

Classics: What playwright's last completed play was A Moon for the Misbegotten?

Non-Fiction: What historian based Firehouse on the brave souls who operated Engine 40, Ladder 35 on 9/11?

Book Club: What Donna Tartt novel finds college freshman Richard Papen falling in with a mysterious circle of Greek scholars?

Authors: What novel did Sylvia Plath initially publish under the pen name "Victoria Lucas," feeling it wasn't a "serious work"?

Book Bag: Who explains the proper way to drape yourself in a toga, in her "Masters in Rome" book series?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Till I End My Song

I said I was finished with the autumn poems this year, and I am, really--but then I saw that someone else had just come along with an anthology of poems about signs of impending death. It's Harold Bloom, who is now 80 years old; his title is Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. It's available from Harper Books, and they sent me a copy so I could tell you about it.

Bloom has lost none of the ability to turn a phrase that made him such a prolific literary critic for so many years; he says, in his preface to the volume, that "lastness is a part of knowing" on the way to explaining that they are not all "death poems" because "we hope to learn from the poets not how to die but how to stand against uncertainty." The use of such a volume, Bloom says, "is to propound the perpetual possibility of the self, fated to dissolve, living on in the minds and hearts of those remaining."

He's chosen some very interesting poems--a hundred of them, one from each poet and at least one poem from each of the major periods of British and American literature. I enjoyed his inclusion of the final monologue from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, with the last minute "I'll burn my books!" immediately before Prospero's farewell from Shakespeare's The Tempest, ending with "I'll drown my book." This theme plays out in many of the poems, including Rudyard Kipling's seldom anthologized "The Fabulists" with its pessimistic ending ("we are not, nor we were not heard at all").

There are plenty of devotional and nihilistic last poems--the latter category unexpectedly contributed to by Alexander Pope, with the final section of The Dunciad, and by Walt Whitman's final lines of "Night on the Prairies"--"O I see now that life cannot exhibit all to me, as the day cannot,/ I see that I am to wait for what will be exhibited by death."

Another of the themes that particularly struck me is the concentration of the poet's or character's power in the extremity of his own end. Milton has the father of Samson Agonistes say "Samson has quit himself/Like Samson." Jonathan Swift shows characteristic modesty in imagining himself judged as he has judged others in his verse: "Go, go, you're bit." A poet Bloom calls "deliberately minor," Robert Louis Stevenson, might be said to have done this most simply in the famous lines "Glad did I live and gladly die,/ And laid me down with a will."

The effect of the collection is no more depressing or maudlin than the effect of reading some of the finest poems in the English language can be. A sense of limitation, expressed so wonderfully in Edward Thomas' poem "Liberty," does pervade the volume: "There's none less free than who/Does nothing and has nothing else to do,/Being free only for what is not to his mind,/And nothing is to his mind." But the limitation of mortality defines the triumph in some of these poems, like Conrad Aiken's "Tetelestai," which ends with the lines "This, then, is the one who implores, as he dwindles to silence,/A fanfare of glory. . . . And which of us dares to deny him?"

Stevie Smith's "Black March" even paints a picture of a welcoming figure who says "I am a breath/Of fresh air for you, a change/By and by." And Dylan Thomas, in "Poem on His Birthday," observes "that the closer I move/To death, one man through his sundered hulks,/The louder the sun blooms/And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults."

Bloom's introduction to each poem welcomes the novice reader of poetry while it amuses and enhances the enjoyment of more experienced readers.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For The Win

Do you know how big a fan I am of Cory Doctorow's YA novel Little Brother? For the last couple of years I've kept an extra copy around in case we need a last-minute birthday party present. Because what teenager doesn't need to read that book?

Well, Doctorow has a new novel out, and it's entitled For The Win. It's about gaming, so I wasn't going to buy it, but when I saw it at the library I brought it home and Walker read it. He thought it was good enough that I should read it, so I started it and read a little, but didn't get all that interested. "Do I really need to read more of this?" I asked him and he said "yes, you really do; it gets more interesting." So I kept at it, and of course, he was right. It's about more than gaming; the title has a nice ironic resonance. It's not the kind of book I'm going to get extra copies of--or even buy, for that matter, but it was worth reading.

One of the thing that makes it worth giving to your kid to read is the clarity and brevity of the explanations. In a few places, the narrative demands that an idea like "inflation" be explained, and Doctorow manages to have one of the characters deliver enough of the idea, along with some context, to allow young readers to seriously consider the worth of an idea that the gamers are about to implement, like here:

"There's a saying from physics, 'It's turtles all the way down.' Do you know it? It comes from a story about a British physicist, Bertrand Russell, who gave a lecture about the universe, how the Earth goes around the Sun and so on. And a little old granny in the audience says, 'It's all rubbish! The world is flat and rests on the back of a turtle!' And Russell says 'If that's so, what does the turtle stand on?' And the granny says 'On another turtle!' Russell thinks he has her here, and asks, 'What does that turtle stand on?' She replies, 'You can't fool me, sonny; it's turtles all the way down!' In other words, what lives under the illusion is yet another illusion, and under that one is another illusion again. Supposedly good currency is backed by gold, but the gold itself doesn't exist. Bad currency isn't backed by gold, it's backed by other currencies, and they don't exist. At the end of the day, all that any of this is based on is, what, can you tell me?"
"Belief," Yasmin said. "Or fear, yes? Fear that if you stop believing in the money, you won't be able to buy anything. It is just like game gold!"

Another thing I like is the way the kids communicate; they're inventive, like the kids in Little Brother. Here's how some of the characters in China send messages to each other and to people outside their country:
"We just pick a random blog out there on the net, usually one that no one has posted to in a year or two, and we take over the comment board on one of its posts. Once they block it--or the server crashes--we switch to another one. It's easy--and fun!"

There are some interesting insights into online security issues and collective bargaining along the way. One of my favorite parts is a variation on civil disobedience, when some kids decide that the way to show their solidarity with a worker protest is to buy ice cream and walk around in front of a business eating it. And if the police arrest them for that, one character says, they're going to try smiling, to see if the police can arrest them all for smiling.

There's a personal appeal, for me, in reading about people who are faced with an impossible task but don't give up. And on that note, I would like to announce that I'm less underemployed now--I got a job as music director of the spring musical at Eleanor and Walker's high school, which means, among other things, that there will be a musical this spring! Win all around!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Intended

Well, the choice is made. Eleanor applied for an early decision to a college that is eleven hours away by road. We'll know in a month if they will accept her for next year.

She's been asking for copies of some of her favorite books. She got a nice, leatherbound copy of the Narnia stories for her birthday in August, she already has The Lord of the Rings and The Borribles, and we might need to get her a set of the Harry Potter books.

Probably she'll leave the framed print of the Lady of Shalott that she carried in her suitcase all the way home from the Tate Gallery when she was six years old. She may leave the seascape she picked out when she was nine from the children's gallery at a local arts festival. But I wonder if she'll take her Hiroshige print.

I'll be thinking about this poem, Mary Ruefle's "The Intended," all the next month:

One wants so many things...
One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige's Waterfall:
one would like to be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yoro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yoro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is,
but that the water falls like a sheet of tin
and another day's thrown in the sieve:
one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.

When "another day's thrown in the sieve," there have to be a few remembrances caught in the bottom--a story, a picture, a shoe so old it has the imprint of a foot in its sole.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What children's author tapped out Circus Shoes, Movie Shoes, Theatre Shoes, Dancing Shoes and Ballet Shoes?

Classics: What novel sold the most copies during the 1970s--Jaws, The Godfather, or Love Story?

Non-Fiction: What former law clerk to Clarence Thomas penned Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America?

Book Club: Whose book Child of God did the New York Times call "the greatest necrophiliac novel ever"?

Authors: What Mississippian tore up the only copy of her short story "Petrified Man" after one too many rejection slips, then later rewrote it from memory?

Book Bag: What fictional spy was based on decorated Scottish World War II commando Patrick Dalzel-Job?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wives and Daughters

Lately I've seen a renewal of interest in the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, so I decided to try one; a Victorian novel seemed like a good thing to have going in the background of my other reading this fall. The only Gaskell novel I found on the shelf at my public library was Wives and Daughters, so that's the one I read.

Now, I should have read the preface and the afterward, but I often skip those for the Victorians; they're so rarely interested in subverting the text, and usually any supplemental material is by an editor or some other college professor I don't feel the need to read like. But I should have read some of that for this novel--because the author very inconsiderately died while writing it. So for the whole second half of the story, while I was slogging through way more than I cared to read about how insipidness pays off for the proper Victorian heroine, I was waiting for her marriage to the man she fancies who will surely, in the end, appreciate her--and the novel doesn't get there!

The most fun I had reading Gaskell was in appreciating how catty she could be to her characters, especially the step-mother of the heroine, who reminds me a little of Elizabeth Bennett's dingbat mother in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

The step-mother, Mrs. Gibson, has the same comical need to keep up a genteel appearance; "dinner," or the main meal of the day, was evidently taken at lunchtime by farming families and at suppertime by the imaginary genteel families of which Mrs. Gibson has heard or read:
"At lunch Mrs. Gibson was secretly hurt by my lord's supposing it to be her dinner, and calling out his urgent hospitality from the very bottom of the table, giving as a reason for it, that she must remember it was her dinner. In vain she piped out in her soft, high voice, 'Oh, my lord! I never eat meat in the middle of the day; I can hardly eat anything at lunch.' Her voice was lost, and the duchess might go away with the idea that the Hollingsford doctor's wife dined early; that is to say, if her grace ever condescended to have any idea on the subject at all; which presupposes that she was cognizant of the fact of there being a doctor at Hollingford, and that he had a wife, and that his wife was the pretty, faded, elegant-looking woman sending away her plate of untasted food--food that she longed to eat, for she was really desperately hungry...."

Even cattier is the passage in which the author of the novel describes Mrs. Gibson as a person who
"had no great facility for understanding sarcasm; it is true it disturbed her, but as she was not quick at deciphering any depth of meaning, and felt it to be unpleasant to think about it, she forgot it as soon as possible."

And most fun of all is the authorial comment on a neighbor's remark:
"'Well! Mrs. Gibson, I suppose I must wish you joy of Miss Cynthia's marriage; I should condole with some mothers as had lost their daughters; but you're not one of that sort, I reckon.'
Now, as Mrs. Gibson was not quite sure to which 'sort' of mothers the greatest credit was to be attached, she found it a little difficult how to frame her reply."

If I ever decide to read anything else by Gaskell, it will be North and South, as Nymeth recommends. Perhaps this time I took my undirected reading a little too far--being more underemployed than usual makes me understand better why many book bloggers make lists. I probably won't go that far, but will think about whether I should continue reading as unsystematically as I usually prefer to do.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: The Book of Shadows

This review is part of the Green Books Campaign, bloggers reviewing books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper to try to make everyone more aware of "green" books. The folks at Eco-Libris sent me a copy of Carlos Reyes' New and Selected Poems, The Book of Shadows, which is printed on recycled paper. I didn't see any difference between this paper and the paper in other volumes of poetry I've read, even after my attention was drawn to it.

The Book of Shadows was my introduction to the poetry of Carlos Reyes, and I enjoyed the way his subjects range from Portland, where he now lives, to places like Panama and Ireland. There are poems about the loss of love, about survival, and about ships, gambling, and Alaskan Yupik spirits.

Many of the poems are deceptively simple, like this one, where the simplicity is self-conscious and starkly illustrated:

Once There Was a Way, Maybe

How to get back
to the simplicity of it
--the skating
on the small pond, on thin ice--
where it was always possible
to break your nose
over a girlfriend
and live through it,
to get your heart broken
and get over it right then
and there.

Years later
things are not so simple.
Your head is a balloon
full of words, your fingers
something like honeyed batwings
(when they come to visit),
reality something
poking through on rare occasions
full of bones
on Sunday afternoon:
a plastic bag
full of chicken
but bones all the same
when the picnic's over.

There's a series of poems about what shadows do, and this one is my favorite, Shadow Piscator:

A shadow can fish
If you have seen

what happens
when clouds get

between the sun
and water on the lake

You'll know what I mean
the fish go crazy

If shadow
has a bucket or a net

or can cup his hands
he will catch many fish

What I liked best in this volume--and perhaps it's just because I've been collecting so many autumn poems since September--are his poems about autumn:

A Few Days Before September

I am under
a pale finger-
nail paring moon,

jarred from my reverie
by an intensely silver
almost wingless propeller-
driven airplane

across the zenith
of my pleasant
Sunday morning,

awakening the still
dead, those sleeping, those
with hangovers,
those with morning after

those who thought
today was their day
and nothing more,

to the dying of time
that this might be the last
most beautiful day
of summer

when all
the natural world
is on the verge.

Beauty gives way
to grim survival
in a corner
less lit by the sun.

I love that one purely for the line breaks in "the last/most beautiful day/ of summer."

And this next one... I wouldn't have thought any other poet could put the cap on my autumn theme after Merwin's poems yesterday, but the ending of this one is a fitting ending to the theme--not an ending, really, but a fading:

In the Fall

I walk the dangerous edge
of damp graveled roads
the perimeter of aging forests
the changing leaves
the gold instead of green
twirling in a colder wind.

How I enjoy
the smell of wild apples
beginning to turn cidery
with bitter frost
crabapples like dim lanterns.

Hoping for one more day
before the rains arrive
I walk down the leafy lane
to see a break
in the clouds and bright
sun once more

before winter tightens
its jaws around the trees
before the grey pulling
clouds suffocate the wind
before lakes, rivers and seas
fall from the heavens
drown every green thing
fading all green all gold
to dull and papery pale.

This is indeed a book of shadows, of things already out of sight. And it's about seeing the world in such a clear-eyed way that you no longer believe you can sew a shadow back on to stop anyone's crying.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Merwin and the End of Autumn

It began as terribly as any ordeal by airline ever does, short of the airplane actually crashing; we arrived at our local airport after an hour's drive through the Ohio countryside to find that our first flight was delayed. When it was still delayed, we were moved to another gate. Once we finally got on the plane, sitting with our legs up on the carry-on bags that almost but not entirely fit under the seats in front of us, there was another delay as the ground crew figured out that the weight on our plane was not balanced, that they had no ballast to correct this, and that three passengers would have to get off. Finally they ousted some people and we got in the line to take off, arriving at a different airport twenty minutes before our next flight. But we would not be on it; no, we would still be standing in the aisle waiting for an airport employee to stroll over and push the button to extend the skyway. My daughter shouted helpfully toward the front "open the door and I'll jump!" but her voice went disregarded. Despite our no-doubt-entertaining sprint for the connecting gate on a different concourse, we missed our connection. We did arrive at our destination airport right before the rental car counter closed, and then proceeded to drive down strangely deserted highways under a vast, starry sky for a little more than an hour until we found our motel, looking as if it stood alone in the darkness of the middle of the prairie.

That was how I spent the first weekend after the high school marching band season with my daughter, visiting the college she's most seriously considering. Early decision applications are due next week, so the beginning of November marks the end of any more consideration; it's time to submit.

Our trip back from the college visit went as well as any airline adventure ever can--our flights were on time, and our connecting gate was right next door to the gate we came in, adjacent to a restroom and a small restaurant. When we got back to our local airport, we watched the carousel go around for less than half its circle before our checked bag appeared in front of us. We made it home with plenty of time to get to the W.S. Merwin reading at our local college.

He read--I think "sonorously" is the best word for it. Although I'd been looking forward to this event for months, it took on a dreamlike quality; I would hear the beginning of one of the poems I'd liked best from one of his many volumes and would drift off into contemplation of a word, a line, an image. I think I dreamed a sort of unity between three of his poems and the "too soon autumn" theme I have had going on here since the beginning of September. So I will present you with the three, as another way to mark the end of autumn.

I think of this one with our initial journey late into the prairie night:

Lights Out

The old grieving autumn goes on calling to its summer
the valley is calling to other valleys beyond the ridge
each star is roaring alone into darkness
there is not a sound in the whole night

Isn't that lovely personification? Of course I love the image of the old grieving autumn--it's me--here I am, sampling the bittersweet fruits of having raised a child to be self-sufficient enough to move away.

The next one seems to me to be related because it describes something of how I feel about the end of daylight savings time at the end of this particular autumn:

Long Afternoon Light

Small roads written in sleep in the foothills
how long ago and I believed you were lost
with the bronze then deepening in the light
and the shy moss turning to itself holding
its own brightness above the badger's path
while a single crow sailed west without a sound
we trust without giving it a thought
that we will always see it as we see it
once and that what we know is only
a moment of what is ours and will stay
we believe it as the moment slips away
as lengthening shadows merge in the valley
and a window kindles there like a first star
what we see again comes to us in secret

Yes, overlaid on this fall is the memory of my first fall away from home at college, and the lengthening shadow of Eleanor's first fall away from me. I am going to be only a window kindled in the darkness, a first star, a point to measure the length of her journey.

But there are so many pleasures in the company of an increasingly adult daughter, and in the conversation of the first person I ever had a hand in helping to grow to her full autumnal glory--it was for her that I learned to buy clothing in shades of gold and brown, the colors that suit her best. She is like

One of the Butterflies

The trouble with pleasure is the timing
it can overtake me without warning
and be gone before I know it is here
it can stand facing me unrecognized
while I am remembering somewhere else
in another age or someone not seen
for years and never to be seen again
in this world and it seems that I cherish
only now a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn into pain

She will not be called back. If I could make her stay as I want to it would turn into pain. It's the pleasure of this moment, the beauty of the butterfly in flight, that, like the autumn, has reached a musical pitch that continues straining forward and forward towards what eventually turns into distance.

Monday, November 8, 2010

White Cat

When I saw a book by Holly Black on the shelf of new books in the YA section at the library, I picked it up even though it says it's book one of a series called The Curse Workers, and I've gotten a bit leery of anything that advertises itself as the first of a series. But I like her YA series Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside enough to try almost anything else she writes. I haven't read the Spiderwick books, for younger readers, but I did see the movie and thought it was mildly entertaining.

Anyway, this new book is entitled White Cat; it begins with the first-person narrator, Cassel Sharpe, in a number of tight spots, and proceeds to rapidly tighten them and sharpen your curiosity about how he got into them until you've read the whole short book in one quick gulp.

Cassel is like Sam in Hold Me Closer, Necromancer in that he is horrified to think that he could have the power to do evil. He's like Artemis Fowl in being born into a family situation that requires him to be underhanded and sly, and often on the wrong side of the law. He's like any good YA hero in being able to find his own way with the help of some friends, and to assert his own will in opposition to the will of some of his family members. And that's about all I can tell you about this novel, because it's full of secrets, and one secret is built on top of another, and they're fun to discover.

Just be warned--little that Cassel thinks he knows about the world turns out to be true, in the end. He warns you early on that
"I spend most of my time at school faking and lying. It takes a lot of effort to pretend you're something you're not. I don't think about what music I like; I think about what music I should like. When I had a girlfriend, I tried to convince her I was the guy she wanted me to be. When I'm in a crowd, I hang back until I can figure out how to make them laugh. Luckily, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's faking and lying."

One of the delights of reading the novel is how true that turns out to be, and how sometimes, especially for a young adult, faking and lying is how you can begin to fulfill your potential for greatness.

Haven't you ever faked your way towards becoming as confident and brilliant as you wanted to appear?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What was the last name of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm who published Children's and Household Tales in 1812?

Classics: What title kicks off Paul Scott's Raj Quartet?

Non-Fiction: What landmark is celebrated by Nicholas Shrady's book Tilt: A Skewed History, cut at a rakish angle?

Book Club: What daughter of a Pulitzer winner for nonfiction was nominated for a National Book Award for her novel Gorgeous Lies?

Authors: What author of The Screwtape Letters was better known by his first two initials than by "Clive Staples"?

Book Bag: What romance author made a successful crossover to "chick lit" with L.A. Woman?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sermon, Now Encrypted

If you're going to like poetry, you've got to get in the habit of reading it out loud. Then even when you don't read it out loud, you hear it in your head as though you were, and the words and meanings resonate the way they should if you're going to like it.

Because I hear poems out loud, I'm a complete sucker for sermon poems. In the back of my mind, I'm hearing the sonorous tones of MLK, Jr. or Jesse Jackson (the latter sometimes reading Green Eggs and Ham in a sermonic voice) or even Robert Duvall in The Apostle. My favorite sermon poem, of course, is Howard Nemerov's "Boom!" But I found one I like hearing almost as much recently, and it's ever-so-much-more-up-to-date, Ander Monson's "Sermon, Now Encrypted":

After passing through the box
that churns our text into scrambled digit strings--
the veil that separates us from our secrets
as indented, magnetic on all our hard drives
and Zip disks, we have found our way unto
the bottom of the stack. People, consider this
an instruction unto you to go home and clean scum
from your blenders, clear your Internet Explorer caches,
and expel the browser cookies like a sickness
into the majesty of the shredder or the trash.
We do not need to keep these things close to us;
they are not our names, identities, nor are they addresses
through which light or product might find its way to us.

There is no halfway house back from sin.

There will be no grinning in the crowd.

There is not a land beyond this one when
the screen has cleared and our lives have been
lifted away like a spider net is from a set of ferns,

Stanch your laughter and the bloodflow from your cuts.

What we need here is a tourniquet
to stop the daily intake of information
or calcium in the form of milk.

Give away your USRDA.

What we need is to reduce the accidental deaths
of too-long stowaways on transatlantic flights.

Let us think of the parable of the man
who tried to hide himself in the recession
into which the landing gear of the Airbus A320
leaving Amsterdam for New York was meant to close.

Let us consider the shape of the constellations we have made
among the stars.

There will be no more coughing.

There will be buy-one-get-one-free in the ever-after.

There will be galaxies collapsing for everyone who's present
at the cleanup from the after-party, after-prom, and after-after

Let us take no for an answer only this one time.

Let us dispose of all our husbands' collective dated aftershave
in the toilet or in the sink. It will not haunt us from the drain.

Let us grieve for those who have left us for warmer cultures
or for other, younger partners.

Let us grieve for the pretenders to the throne, those other balls
of paint or twine or rubber bands or anything that can be wound,
those hundred-foot Paul Bunyans dotting the Midwest,
strung with sadness, strung with stories, worry, glory.

Let us grieve for those whose passwords are their pets'
or maiden names, or other easily-guessed items such as words
from the dictionary.

Let us find our way back to what light there is for us remaining.

Don't you just love the certainty of this poem? My favorite lines are "There will be no grinning in the crowd" and "There will be no more coughing." And I do like the impulse to "grieve for those who have left us...."

How many of us feel certain enough about anything to preach a sermon on it? (For those of you in the U.S., a lesson on yesterday's election?)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Devil's Kiss

Devil's Kiss, by Sarwat Chadda, is a YA novel, the first of a series, that mixes together Arthurian legend with Templar mythology and then tosses in a handful or two from Paradise Lost, with just a pinch of the Crusades. I enjoyed it, but felt like I'd sampled from the pot before.

There are a few new spices in this recipe. The Templars, in this world,
"had been formed to defend the Holy Land, but that battle had been lost long ago. Their war wasn't for Jerusalem, not anymore, but for mankind's soul. Their war was against the supernatural evil that preyed on humanity."
Okay--an obsolete order fighting imaginary evil. Got it, kids? We're going to throw some Latin in here (a la Rowling) and call it "The Bataille Tenebreuse."

There's even some reasoning for why the modern Templars have to train with ancient weapons:
"Immortal didn't mean unkillable. Not even a ghul walked away from having its head chopped off. It was one of the main reasons the Order still trained with hacking weapons."
I like a story that at least attempts to explain why you can't just shoot the suckers.

There's a predictable bad boy who taps into the heroine's teenage angst and need to rebel against her father. But since the boy's name is Mike and he's described in angelic terms, while the father's name is Arthur and he has a big sword, you know who has the heroine's best interests at heart. The heroine, by the way, has an Arabic name and goes by "Billi," which shows you, I guess, that you won't be able to guess which way she'll jump.

I get to add this to my list of books in which necromancy doesn't pay (on the sidebar):
She didn't know the book still existed. It was a book of necromancy, the darkest maleficia.
"Where d'you get it?" She stared at it warily, as if it were some deadly dormant creature.
"Off some fool who thought he could summon the devil," said Arthur.
"You're joking, of course."
Arthur looked at her. It wasn't his joking face.
"What happened to him?"
"Something bad," said her dad in the tone that meant the conversation was over.

Later, "Billi had read enough about necromancy to know what might happen if things went wrong." And we know they always do.

There's a prophecy, and no one is able to interpret it correctly, and so the ending is a surprise after all. It's a quick read, and if you already know you like these flavors, it'll go down easy.

For a more sensitive and nuanced review, try this one at Bookgazing. It shows you more of how an actual young adult reacts.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halfway Human

Rhetorically speaking, Carolyn Ives Gilman's science fiction novel Halfway Human is the most interesting thing I've read since I first moved to the north and found Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the public library. It's not until page 313 of this 325-page novel that you'll realize how thoroughly she has trapped you, how she's using your emotions about a fictional alien character to show you something important about what you notice and how you act towards others on your own planet.

I really want to gush about this novel; I went to bed with it one night and had to force myself to put it down, two hours after I would usually have been asleep. And the next morning I got up and started reading it again. At that point I felt I had to see how it came out, even though I had guessed all the important parts already. I had to know what happened to the main character, Tedla, and everyone it affects on two worlds.

Yes, "it." Tedla is a neuter from Gammadis, a planet where neuters are used as slaves and not considered human. The story of its early years on Gammadis and its time on Capella, a planet more like our own, is horrifying and compelling, especially because of the "human" lens through which the portrait has to be viewed. Before the age of 14, when all Gammadians are neuter, the children (proto-humans, or "protos") passed around rumors like that "eating beans will produce male genes, the bite of a needletail will make you female. There were diagnostic tests: If you looked at your fingernails palm up rather than palm down, you were sure to be a man. Looking over your shoulder to see the sole of your foot was a sure sign of a woman."

On Capella, the planet I think is most like our own (although a character points out that all people call their planet some variation of "earth"), "knowledge was its principle export, and its only major industry." Like the country of Gilead in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the planet of Capella has things in common with our own planet, but they're obviously far in the future and much more exaggerated--showing where we could be headed. The problem with the knowledge culture is that "the companies need us all to be alienated from each other, because it cuts off routes of communication they can't control. If everyone shared information openly, it wouldn't be a controllable commodity, and no one could profit from it."

Tedla's story is masterfully told, moving backwards from the point at which she attempts to kill herself, alone on Capella. As she tells stories that reveal the horrors of slavery on Gammadis, we react along with the xenologist to whom she is telling her story, Val. It's clear that what happens to the neuters, "blands," as they are called on their own planet, is wrong. Even though Tedla denies that it was a slave-- "we weren't slaves. Neuters are never traded for money"-- it's clear that blands are treated as such, and the details (including torture scenes) are right out of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Told from birth that "blands" are less than human, Tedla believes it, despite growing evidence, as her story continues, that its intelligence is greater than that of the gendered humans whose every whim it must anticipate and gratify.

I keep typing "she" when referring to Tedla, and I think it's because the reader identifies with this character; I assume that a male reader might stumble over calling Tedla a "he." There's another reason I think of "it" as a "she," though, and that's the way the humans (both Gammadians and Capellans) want to use it sexually because it is extraordinarily attractive; that makes me think of stories about the lot of beautiful slave women in the American south before the civil war. Tedla is frustrated by the degree to which "we have to think about your sexuality all the time." She says:
"Some humans--maybe all--are actually attracted by asexuals. Even your standards of beauty tend to be androgynous. I don't know why it is--the ambiguity of identity, perhaps, or the novelty of a transgender experience. Then there are people who are attracted to anything dangerous."
"What is dangerous about it?" Val asked.
"On Gammadis, sexual encounters with neuters are absolutely forbidden," Tedla said. "The idea is horrible, shameful, disgusting. Anyone found molesting a neuter would be ostracized, and penalized by the harshest laws we have."
"But it's done?"
"All the time," Tedla said bitterly. "Everyone condemns it, then they do it anyway. It's the central hypocrisy of my planet. They all learn not to see it. The only thing more forbidden than doing it, is talking about it."

About halfway through the novel, Tedla meets its first alien, and the events that lead to it escaping to Capella commence. The reader is increasingly implicated in the view that what the "alien" Gammadians do is bad, and what the more "human" Capellans do is good. Val asks her husband Max, after hearing most of Tedla's story:
"Do you think we deserve to be human?"
"God knows what the test is, if Tedla couldn't pass it," Max murmured. "I'm glad we didn't have to take it."

What drives Tedla to suicide on Capella is partly what she learns about the "blands" on that planet:
"It is not just a matter of poverty, as you seem to think. Here, where people can inherit money, or get it from partners or royalties without earning it, you have many well-t0-do blands. But most of them are poor. They live shabby, circumscribed lives--aware of, but never aspiring to, the humanity around them, though they will live off it parasitically if they can. They are the eyes behind all those windows in the housing tower you saw. They take whatever chances others give them. They complain, but not so that you hear them."

Hearing this is enough to cut an emotional reader like me to the quick. And as if that isn't enough, the satire becomes even more pointed. It points to me more clearly than the parents of my kids' friends who group me with "those college liberals":
"...I began to understand something about you Capellans. I had always thought--in fact, you always claim--that you are a perfectly secular society. But that's not true. The feeling you have for knowledge is very close to the awe others feel for the sacred. Faith in knowledge is the principle you will never back away from, the thing you protect when everything else is gone. Creating is your highest calling. Destroying it, or polluting it, is the unforgiveable sin. Learning is your righteousness, research is your sacrament, discovery is your revelation. You believe not in a trancendent God but in a transcendent truth that we all can strive toward through learning."

The genius of Gilman's satire lies partly in its indeterminacy--she doesn't even point her finger at Earth, and she doesn't suggest that the way we keep our "blands" quiet is evil. It's you who will suggest this to yourself, as you read Tedla's story. The story is rhetorically magnificent; it traps you like a slave who will inevitably be recaptured every time it tries to run away.

You must read this book! Because the only thing worse than mistreating slaves is shutting yourself off from the feelings of the humans who share your planet.

I got my copy of Halfway Human from Arc Manor publishers. Their free ebook for this month is L. Neil Smith's 'Tom Paine Maru--Special Author's Edition.' The Coupon Code for November is 9992224. Instructions and download link (as usual) at: www.PPickings.com. Tom Paine Maru will be available from November 2nd through November 30th.