Friday, May 30, 2008

Eleanor's review of Twilight

When Eleanor read yesterday's post, she said that I had described her like a typical teenager. So she's the guest writer today, demonstrating that, unlike most of the other girls in her high school, she's not a big fan of Stephanie Meyer's book Twilight:

Twilight. I know you’ve heard of it. I know you’ve seen it, peering out from every available cranny of any bookstore you might go. I also know that you’ve probably heard everyone who’s read it state a passionate opinion of what they thought. I’ve seen people who would rather read a calculator manual than even pick up a Stephanie Meyers book. Of course I also have a friend who bought all three books… twice, just because she loved them so much. Whatever your opinion may be Twilight is an important book of the time period mostly because everyone has heard of it.
I read Twilight and I have to say that I really didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t terrible though, it was just about, well, vampires. It was an all right book but I couldn’t see why everyone made such a big deal about it. I take that back, it’s obvious why, because it’s about a normal (ish) girl who has a totally flawless vampire fall in love with her. This book is giving every fan girl the story they want. Mysterious, dark and handsome guy falls madly in love with the story’s brave heroine but problems arise and eventually true love overcomes all. Throw in some bad flirting, some sparkles, some really obvious mysteries (what? You’re a vampire? No way I thought every normal guy has totally white skin, super powers and cuts class when we have to find our blood type!) And you’ve got yourself a best selling novel.
Well aside from how everyone already knew that Edward was a vampire and Bella took about 300 pages to figure it out, the plot of Twilight wasn’t really that bad. I even laughed at some of the random details of being a vampire (Edward likes 50’s music, well I guess he was around back then so…) and there were some occasional moments of action that really kept the pages turning.
But unfortunately there were the characters. Bella is an annoying twit of character who spends half the book whining even though everyone worships her. “Oh no oh no I’m so clumsy!” Well, gee, sorry Bella why don’t we all just give you piggyback rides everywhere like your slave boyfriend? And the worst part is Bella’s one flaw (her tragic clumsiness) doesn’t, forgive my pun, trip her up that much. She trips about twice through the whole book but there is a lot of tripping anticipation. “Oh no! I’m about to get raped in a dark alley by some guys twice my height!” Well Bella, did you ever think about running away? “If I run, I’ll trip and fall! Oh quick Edward, save me!” I’ll trip and fall huh? Sounds to me like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then there is her unfortunate love slave, Edward. Edward lacks one of the most important traits a character must have, a personality. Well he has one, it just sort of… changes… a lot. But don’t worry it’s all ok; we can just describe him in an almost identical way in every single chapter! I quickly became tired of hearing the same phrases every time Edward would say, enter a room, or look at Bella, or breathe! It’s probably some sort of brain melting technique designed to create legions of Edward fan girls all swaying back and forth, mechanically chanting the same words in unison. The other flaw in the character of Edward is his complete lack of … flaws. He can moan all he wants about how dangerous and horrible a monster he is but Bella doesn’t buy it. Edward, just get rid of the vampire angst and accept that you are perfect. Seriously there are no negative side affects of being a vampire, so why doesn’t everyone do it? Well they say it hurts a bunch when you turn into one but seriously, eternal life, youth and beauty versus a little bit of pain? I don’t know about you guys but living forever doesn’t sound that bad to me, especially when all your friends can do it with you!
With two leading characters like this even a great plot can’t save the book. It really doesn’t help that all of Bella’s other friends are interesting for about two chapters until they all get randomly paired up and then shoved out of the story. This is the phenomenon that is Twilight, erotic descriptions of one dimensional characters sending what could have been a pretty good book into a bit of a crash and burn. But of course it’s ok, Bella can get piggyback rides from Edward and Edward’s one consistent characterization is that he sure loves Bella. By the end of the book I satisfied myself by thinking that however pathetic they are, Edward and Bella definitely deserve each other.

She didn't write this in her review, but Eleanor says that when she and her friends produce Twilight, the musical, Edward will be continually bursting onto the stage to sing "because I LOVE you, Bella!" and the program illustration is going to be two hands holding... not an apple, but a big clove of garlic.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Daughter Song

I've had a tune running through my head, and it's been irritating the life out of me. The household remedy for that is to sing the "Digimon monsters" song or the Flintstones theme to the afflicted person, but that hasn't worked to eradicate it completely. It's such a simple tune it just creeps back in there. (On top of the tune, I keep thinking of Blanche DuBois asking Stanley "don't you ever get something awful stuck in your head?" and Elia Kazan's dance tune at every point when Blanche thinks of her dead young husband in the movie version.)

I know very well where this tune came from. A poet once sang it to me in a seminar room at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her name was Ruth Stone, and she had come to do a big poetry reading in the evening, but she met with a group of us graduate students who were interested in poetry earlier in the day, talked to us about her writing, and read some of her poems. I will never forget the moment when she began to sing us her poem "I Have Three Daughters." It was memorable for many reasons, not least of which was her aplomb. She sang out with no apparent self-consciousness, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world to be doing in that seminar room at that particular time of day.

Here is the tune, starting with middle c: c e a g e, e c d e, c e a g e, f e d c
Repeat (and add repeated notes) as necessary. Here is the poem:

I have three daughters
Like greengage plums.
They sat all day
Sucking their thumbs.
And more's the pity,
They cried all day,
Why doesn't our mother's brown hair
Turn gray?

I have three daughters
Like three cherries.
They sat at the window
The boys to please.
And they couldn't wait
For their mother to grow old.
Why doesn't our mother's brown hair
Turn to snow?

I have three daughters
In the apple tree
Singing Mama send Daddy
With three young lovers
To take them away from me.

I have three daughters
Like greengage plums,
Sitting all day
And sighing all day
And sucking their thumbs;
Singing, Mama won't you fetch and carry,
And Daddy, won't you let us marry,
Singing, sprinkle snow down on Mama's hair
And lordy, give us our share.

When Ruth Stone finished singing this poem, she had a roomful of mystified but newly devoted fans for the rest of their lives. Devoted because you just couldn't help loving a woman who would do something like that. Mystified because we just weren't equipped to understand this poem.

Twenty years later, I'm equipped to understand it, because I have a teenage daughter who is trying to find ways to assert her independence from me. It's a tangled process, though, and the tune must be going through my head because below the level of consciousness, I've been thinking about the mixture of little girl who needs me and adult girl who is making her own life ("sucking their thumbs" vs "give us our share"). Also I really get the "greengage plum" image now. My daughter is ripe and glossy and gorgeous, and soon someone won't be able to resist her.

I'm also understanding the gray hair theme. I have some gray hairs, as mothers of teenage daughters tend to have (I will swear to you that my first gray hairs appeared the morning after Eleanor broke both her arms). My new haircut makes me see a "bride-of -Frankenstein" gray streak at my temple a little more. On top of that (literally), I keep brushing the top layer of my hair against the white paint I'm putting on the trim in our house, so I have new white hairs every other day or so.

When school is out for the summer (two more days), I think there might be less daughter-pulling-away pressure for a little while. There will be less pressure, anyway! One of the results will be that this blog will get updated less frequently. I have two rules ("well, they're more like guidelines, really"*) about summer: 1. you should go swimming at least twice a week, ideally in an all-day excursion including packed lunch, and 2. you should get out in the yard first thing in the morning at least once a week, for any reason--watering plants, filling up pools, sitting in the swing while there's still dew on it....this is a departure from my usual morning round of writing and reading, and often leads to less of either one. And that's okay. I'll still try to get here at least once or twice a week and tell you about what I've been reading.

*fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies will recognize this phrase

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don't Trust Anyone

In Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother, the kids who are fighting the modern-day version of Big Brother say "Don't trust anyone over 25," having modified the former hippie (yippie) creed. But one of the messages of the novel is simply don't trust anyone. Encrypt your files and your e-mail, not because you have anything to hide, but because some things should be private. Go to for specific instructions on how to maximize your electronic privacy. This is a website that grew out of the novel--people wanted to know how to do some of the technical things that the protagonist, Marcus, does in order to stand up for his rights.

Little Brother is not just a wonderful novel; it's an important novel, and it's addressed to the right age group ("young adult"). Doctorow's exaggeration of the role of the Department of Homeland Security in our everyday lives in the wake of another terrorist attack on American soil shows young adults exactly why the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights are worth preserving. The inclusion of history lessons (woven in seamlessly, since the protagonists of the novel are still in high school) doesn't slow the pace. From the beginning, this novel is relentless in the way it shows readers what can happen when Americans get to a point where safety is considered more important than freedom.

The dangers that Marcus, a San Francisco native, faces are explicitly laid out for him, and he's smart enough to be able to articulate what the problems are in the kind of thinking demanded of him. When the DHS agent wants the password for his phone, Marcus "submitted to her will," but he thinks about why, even though he has nothing to hide, it's a bad idea to be forced to give up such information:

"There's something really liberating about having some corner of your life that's yours, that no one gets to see except you. It's a little like nudity or taking a dump. Everyone gets naked every once in a while. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There's nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you'd have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you'd be buck naked?
Even if you've got nothing wrong or weird with your body--and how manhy of us can say that?--you'd have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you."

That's a pretty good paean to human dignity, especially coming from a 17-year-old. I don't know about your town, but in my town and many nearby, anyone still in high school has fewer Constitutional rights than the rest of us. They're subject to random backpack and locker searches. Earlier this year, my daughter came home from school and told me a story about the bravery of one of her classmates. The math teacher claimed he heard a cell phone in the classroom and demanded that the student hand it to him, as cell phones are completely banned from the high school. According to my daughter, he must have heard something in the hall. At any rate, one student finally got up and gave him her cell phone, which she was carrying, as almost every student carries one--turned off and put away in her backpack. She was a hero to the rest of the class, because she'd saved them from having their backpacks searched.

Marcus' history teacher, Mrs. Galvez, who eventually loses her job for teaching too much history and too little pro-DHS propaganda, reminds me of the history teacher in Francine Prose's novel After, who loses her job (and probably her life, in that novel) for similar reasons. Here's Mrs. Galvez' explanation of the purpose of some of the sixties protest movements:

"Yippies were like very political hippies, but they weren't serious the way we think of politics these days. They were very playful. Pranksters. They threw money into the New York Stock Exchange. They circled the Pentagon with hundreds of protestors and said a magic spell that was supposed to levitate it. They invented a fictional kind of LSD that you could spray onto people with squirt guns and shot each other with it and pretended to be stoned. They were funny and they made great TV--one Yippie, a clown called Wavy Gravy, used to get hundreds of protestors to dress up like Santa Claus so that the cameras would show police officers arresting and dragging away Santa on the news that night--and they mobilized a lot of people.
Their big moment was the Democratic National Convention in 1968, where they called for demonstrations to protest the Vietnam War. Thousands of demonstrators poured into Chicago, slept in the parks, and picketed every day....The police and the demonstrators fought in the streets--they'd done that many times before, but the Chicago cops didn't have the smarts to leave the reporters alone. They beat up the reporters, and the reporters retaliated by finally showing what really went on at these demonstrations, so the whole country watched their kids being really savagely beaten down by the Chicago police. They called it a 'police riot.'
The Yippies loved to say, 'Never trust anyone over thirty.' They meant that people who were born before a certain time, when America had been fighting enemies like the Nazis, could never understand what it meant to love your country enough to refuse to fight the Vietnamese. They thought that by the time you hit thirty, your attitudes would be frozen and you couldn't ever understand why the kids of the day were taking to the streets, dropping out, freaking out.
San Francisco was ground zero for this. Revolutionary armies were founded here. Some of them blew up buildings or robbed banks for their cause. A lot of those kids grew up to be more or less normal, while others ended up in jail. Some of the university dropouts did amazing things--for example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple Computers and invented the PC."
I was really getting into this. I knew a little of it, but I'd never heard it told like this. Or maybe it had never mattered as much as it did now."

Cory Doctorow's genius consists of the way he makes history matter in his fictional world, and the way he makes abstract issues feel very specific and pressing. The teacher who replaces Mrs. Galvez sketches a scary picture of a society in which the federal government can suspend the Bill of Rights. Room 101 has nothing on the room Marcus eventually ends up in on a waterboard. The image of Big Brother has nothing on the idea of the government recording everything you have to say, both public and private. (See that little camera on your computer? Look deeply into its eye.)

Read this book. Don't trust me to tell you enough about it. Give it to your friends and your children, and your childrens' friends. It's available online at

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Decade Passed

A decade ago, my brother, who has lived in Texas much of his adult life, told me a joke about "Paper Bag Pete," in which a man walks into an empty bar and asks where everyone is.
The bartender answers "gone to the hangin'."
"Who are they hanging?" asks the man.
"Paper Bag Pete," says the bartender.
"Why do they call him that?"
"Because he wears a paper hat, paper shirt, paper tie, and paper pants."
"So what are they hanging him for?"
The really funny thing about this joke is that few of the people I've told it to in Ohio get it! They don't know what rustling is (stealing cattle). So I wonder if that's the reason why Per Petterson, in his novel Out Stealing Horses, feels the need to explain to the modern audience that "stealing horses, that was the worst thing of all. We knew about the law west of Pecos, we had read the cowboy magazines....with that law there was no mercy. If you were caught, it was straight up in a tree with a rope round your neck; rough hemp against the tender flesh...."

The narrator of Out Stealing Horses is a sixty-seven-year-old man, Trond, who intersperses what happens to him in the present with what happened to him the summer he was fifteen. There's no great revelation, though; he's realizing the ways that summer shaped him and deciding what his life means. It's a dreamy story, in some ways:

We smelled the horse droppings and the wet boggy moss and the sweet, sharp, all-pervading odour of something greater than ourselves and beyond our comprehension; of the forest, which just went on and on to the north and into Sweden and over to Finland and further on the whole way to Siberia, and you could get lost in this forest and a hundred people go searching for weeks without a chance of finding you, and why should that be so bad, I wondered, to get lost here? But I did not know then how serious that thought was.

The reason the thought is serious is because, as the novel goes on, we learn that one of the things that happened when Trond was fifteen, in the summer of 1948, is that he found out his father worked to resist the Nazis, taking things and people across the border to Sweden through that immense forest. The code phrase was "we're going out stealing horses."

The novel is not about Trond's father, though, so it's only incidentally about his anti-Nazi activities. It's about the last summer Trond saw his father. The last time he saw him, he'd just gotten onto a bus:

"and then the bus moved in a big semicircle out to the road. I pressed my nose against the glass and gazed into the cloud of dust slowly rising outside and hiding my father in a whirl of grey and brown, and I did everything you are supposed to do in a situation like that, in such a scene; I rose quickly and ran down the gangway between the seats to the last row and jumped up on it knees first and placed my hands on the window and stared up the rroad until the shop and the oak tree and my father had vanished round a bend, and all this as if I had been thoroughly rehearsed in the film we have seen so often, where the fateful farewell is the crucial event and the lives of the protagonists are changed forever and take off in directions that are unexpected and not always nice, and the whole cinema audience knows just how it will turn out. And some cover their mouths with their hands, and some sit chewing their handkerchief with tears running down their cheeks, and some swallow in vain to get ride of the lump in their throat while they squint at the screen dissolving into a jumble of colours, and others again are in such a fury they almost get up and leave because they have experienced something like this in their own life which they have never forgiven, and one of those jumps up from his seat in the dark and shouts:
'You damn prick!' at the figure under the oak tree now showing against the back of his head, and he does it on behalf of himself and on behalf of me, and I do thank him for his support. But the point is that I did not know how things would turn out that day. No-one had told me! And there was no way I could know what lay behind the scene I myself had just been through."

The novel does reveal more of what lay behind that scene. Trond realizes that he's like his father, and that "what I was most afraid of in this world was to be the man in Magritte's painting who looking at himself in the mirror sees only the back of his own head, again and again." When his daughter tracks him down, though, Trond sees more of what his actions in the world mean, and how reading Dickens can show him how to be "the hero of my own life" at last.

Looking back on the decades of your own life can give you some perspective on how far you've come. Harriet tagged me for another meme, and the first question is "What was I doing 10 years ago?" I was trying to commute 40 minutes each way and teach two composition classes in the morning Monday through Thursday while 5-year-old Eleanor was in preschool and 2-year-old Walker was at a babysitter's house with 3 other children. I was also dealing with both kids' childhood asthma and what turned out to be Eleanor's enlarged adenoids that caused her to get sinus infections every time she caught a cold. I was carpooling Eleanor and 4 of her friends from preschool to afternoon kindergarten, and playing with Walker in the afternoon, because he didn't nap after his first year of life. It was 1998, and I was so busy that the newspaper headlines about Matthew Shepard in October didn't really penetrate my consciousness. (It was 2003 before I read the play The Laramie Project and started finding out what I'd missed in the fog of young motherhood.) A decade ago I wasn't yet taking my kids to our town's Memorial Day parade, but we did go to the local Ice Cream Festival held on that weekend every year.

So what am I doing in this decade? Five things on my to-do list for today are:
1. As a student employer, I have to attend a meeting about student employment at the college where I'm underemployed.
2. Take Eleanor the clarinet she forgot to take with her this morning, ask the band teacher about a missing tape she turned in, and go to the office to find out about her schedule for next year and when she can take the test-out option for a newly required "technology" course that she doesn't need, as there are only two dates listed during the summer and she can't make either of them.
3. Ask the middle school about Walker's schedule, and make sure the special courses he has signed up for won't knock him out of any of his other gifted classes, as happened to his older sister in 8th grade (he benefits from her experience).
4. Order a birthday present for Ron.
5. Find a place for the paint and varnish I've been using, so that I can begin cleaning up the deck and garage for Ron's birthday party and then a farewell party for one of his co-workers who is moving away.

Favorite snacks? I eat anything except turnips. When I read about food, I want some of it, especially when I read Peter Mayle's Provence books or anything by M.F. K. Fisher.

What I would do if I were a billionaire? I'd travel. I'd go to every country in the world and take all my friends and relatives who want to go. In between trips I'd find a place to read books and swim in the ocean. When I read about a worthy cause, I'd contribute.

What are all the places I have lived? Madison, WI, Nagadoches, TX, Cape Girardeau, MO, Conway, AR, Middletown, RI, Pensacola, FL, Laurel, MD and Mount Vernon, OH.

People I want to know more about? Anyone who thinks that some perspective on the past decade would help them move forward at this point in their lives. And sometimes, moving forward just means you get more of the jokes.

Friday, May 23, 2008

I Want a Wife

Everybody wants a wife to help coordinate all the events of the last two weeks of school. I literally can't keep up, and I don't have a heavy work schedule of my own this spring! Early this morning I was having one of those dreams where you keep trying to do something--I was trying to start off a class with a quiz, and I had a good question to ask them, but I couldn't find it because the desk was covered with books and papers and folders put there by Walker's soccer coach. As I continued to look for the question or the book, so I could look up whatever I was teaching and come up with a new question, one of my kids came in looking pained, holding a full vomit bowl, and saying we needed to go home right now. It doesn't take a genius dream interpreter to figure that one out, now does it?

When I teach Judy Syfers Brady's article "I Want a Wife," I usually ask the students to point out some of the dated parts, since the article appeared (in Ms Magazine) in 1971. Maybe it's just the small midwestern college where I've been teaching, but there aren't enough dated parts to satisfy me! Almost everyone agrees that "I want a wife who will wash the children's clothes and keep them mended" is dated, at least the mending part. Two-career families have to give up some things, and mending (not to mention darning socks) is a thing of the past.

Just to be provocative, I often ask if this section is dated:

I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue to care for me and my children when I need a rest and change of scene.

The discussion is usually lively, because in some families, much of this is dated, while in other families, not so much...ironing and mending the clothes seem to be the basic points of agreement; nobody does much of that anymore. But organizing the household so the husband can find things? Few of my students think that one is dated! And being a wife on vacation? So far I haven't met anyone who can seriously claim, after discussion, that the oldest female in a family gets the same kind of vacation as everyone else. If nothing else, she's the tour director. The thing my family missed most when I was out of the picture after knee replacement was my scheduling function. I tell them where they're supposed to be, and when. Now I take them there, but right after surgery, they were relying on me just for the information. The three days I was in the hospital, they didn't eat lunch for one reason or another. It wasn't that they didn't have food to fix, or that they couldn't have gone through a drive-through (they had money). They just didn't plan for it, and by the time they got around to it, it was almost suppertime.

There's plenty that's dated about Brady's exaggerated grad student scenario ending ("a wife who will type my papers for me" pretty much dates back to my husband's mother, in my own family). The "wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy" doesn't seem particular to one sex anymore, at least not in my experience. But "I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one" rings all too true. I have a female friend whose husband really did want her to "take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free."

Male or female, if you are the wife in your family, take a page from my mother's book (a 70's feminist like Judy Syfers Brady) and tell someone who wants you to bake for a bake sale that you'll give them the money you'd have spent making something, plus extra for the time you'd have had to spend. Or take a page from my own book. When I go on vacation, I will not go to the grocery store or even the takeout restaurant. Even though this sometimes leads to unnecessary expense (someone else goes and splits it with other families in a way that doesn't reflect what we actually consume, or they pick out stuff that takes too long to make and therefore doesn't get used), it's worth it, because when and what we eat is not taking up room in my brain.

But right now, my kids have only four more days of packed lunches and packed after-school schedules. As their summer vacation begins, it will be a pleasure to be able to have dinner together, occasionally--it won't feel like a chore until it becomes a more regular thing again.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Into the Woods

The charming thing about having a 12-year-old who is a good reader is that if you leave books lying around, he'll pick them up. I've been reading Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, and for the last couple of days, Walker has read sections of it. So I don't have to read it and then try to change my parenting; my kids are old enough to read it themselves and then decide if they think it's true. Last evening Walker, who has a good case of poison ivy already, went out to the woods in back of our house and climbed a tree. "And it did make me feel better, mom" he said.

One of the odd effects of building on to the back of our house is that it has seemed to bring the woods closer, because we can see less yard and more woods from the new bathroom window. I have the best view of our unusual orange azalea, which is just about to burst into full bloom, that I've had in years.

So I've enjoyed reading Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child, which is about hobgoblins who live in the woods and creep into a house to steal a child and leave a changeling in its place. It's enjoyable in the same way that singing "Teddy Bear's Picnic" in a low growly voice while you're in the middle of the woods is enjoyable (the changeling actually sings this song in the novel)--it gives me a little shiver late at night, looking out into the fragrant darkness from the window that, as yet, has no blinds over it.

The interesting thing about The Stolen Child is that the point of view begins with the changeling ("Don't call me a fairy" he begins) and then each chapter alternates between him and the child he replaces, who joins the hobgoblin band. Their attempts to hold onto and even recapture memories are the focus of the novel. The stolen child, formerly named Henry Day but now referred to as Aniday, discovers his "faery powers," like his ability to appear to bring a deer that was struck by a car back to life: "the to breathe into its mouth. It's not dead at all, but in shock." The changeling, now known as Henry Day, discovers more about his original self as he grows up in the world of houses, and eventually discovers that in his first life, he was an autistic musical prodigy. The boys take parallel paths, and the culmination of the novel is their meeting, although in all the meetings throughout the novel, neither the human nor the faery can understand each other.

I found this novel at the library on Sarah's recommendation, and May turned out to be the perfect month to settle into its green reverie.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fiction and Lies

Back in the 16th century, some people called fiction "lies" because it wasn't true; someone had made it up. We have come so far by the 21st century that a fictional character, Tommy from Daniel Waters' Generation Dead, has his own blog. He posts entries fairly frequently and even replies to comments at . One of the comments on his most recent post was "RU real?" He replied that you had to read a book by Daniel Waters to know about him, which seems to me to be a disingenuous echo of Huck Finn saying

"You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary, and the widow Douglas, is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book; with stretchers, as I said before."

If Twain had the technology and the time, maybe he would have enjoyed prolonging the blurring of the line between truth and exaggeration by inventing a blog for Huck. Hmm.

At any rate, Generation Dead raises some interesting issues. That's pretty much all it does; it raises them. Almost everyone I've talked to who has read it agrees that it is positioned for a sequel (which also explains the updating of "Tommy's" blog, doesn't it?). My daughter, who bought the book, agrees with me in not liking books in which the conflict is not fully resolved.

But the issues it raises are very interesting, especially to the target YA audience. The cover illustration shows a girl wearing eye makeup eerily similar to the makeup that one of Eleanor's friend shows up in every morning. (Once we took this girl to The Olive Garden, and a little girl who was walking towards the restroom took one look at her and went back and got her mother before she would go any farther past that girl with the black circles around her eyes.) And the cover illustration does reflect one of the issues in the book: what does it mean to dress like a "Goth" and listen to groups like Grave Mistake in a world where teenagers come back from the dead and go to your high school?

Eleanor, at 14, responded to the school's enforcement of politically correct terms for the teenagers who have risen from the dead:

"You aren't supposed to call them zombies...."
"Zombies, dead heads, corpsicles. What's the difference?"
...."You could be expelled for saying things like that...You know you're supposed to call them living impaired."

As the book goes on, the term "living impaired" is rejected in favor of "differently biotic" and it is revealed that in groups of their own, the dead kids call themselves zombies, but they don't like living kids to call them that as a perjorative term.

The verisimilitude is wonderful, and one of the reasons I think Eleanor responds to the fiction. She came home from school a few weeks ago and said she had a thought during art class and that led to another thought about guns and someone blowing up the school, and then she looked around guiltily before she realized that there's (as yet) no penalty for thinking about prohibited topics while at school!!!

Related to the pc terms are the activities of the acceptance campaigners who give out t-shirts with slogans like "Zombie Power!" and "Some of My Best Friends are Dead." Their stated aim is to transform the culture so that dead teenagers are accepted and no longer discriminated against. This discrimination theme is exaggerated enough to remain funny all the way through the book (no easy task, really). The high point is when a teacher tells a group of teenagers (some dead, some alive) that:

"Transformation always requires radical action. If Elvis Presley had not taken the radical action of singing a style of music traditionally sung by black people, we may never have had the transformation that rock and roll enacted on modern society. If Martin Luther King had not taken the radical action of organizing and speaking around the cause of civil rights, we may have never undergone the transformation from an oppressive state to one of freedom and equal opportunity for all. And that transformation is not yet complete. You kids are living--or unliving, as the case may be--proof of that."

Another thing we both really enjoyed (especially in light of the recent Freshwater controversy) was the occasional mention of religious groups who discriminate against the dead. At a school assembly, one girl says
"My dad says that it isn't natural, people coming back from the dead. He says that there's stuff in the Bible that talks about the dead coming up out of their graves, and that it means the world will end soon."
The teacher in charge of the assembly responds by saying "With all due respect to your father's beliefs...we have found nothing in our extensive studies that suggests the phenomena of the differently biotic is a sign of the Apocalypse. Of course, we could be wrong, but we prefer to look at the phenomenon as a scientific puzzle to be answered rather than a metaphysical conundrum."

Later in the book, we get to read some of the hate mail addressed to those on the "side" of the dead, and it's hilarious... I might wish it sounded a little less like some of the recent letters to the editor in my small-town newspaper...

Which brings me back to fiction as "lies." Isn't it pleasant when someone writes a book that can make us laugh about issues we're too close to to be able to see clearly? Some things are, no doubt, "stretched," but it seems to me that much of this book "tells the truth, mainly."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mind Control

Have you ever had one of those nights when your mind kept going back to something you didn't want to think about, and then you went to sleep, finally, only to wake up about 3 am for further brooding over the things you didn't want to think about?

I made the mistake of reading through a volume of poetry by Sharon Olds last night before I went to bed, and the power of one of her poems started me off thinking about the extremely gory details of the worst night of my life, the night after Eleanor, then 10, fell during a girl scout trip to the local skating rink and broke both bones in both arms, and after I got her to the local ER, she had to be transported by ambulance to a Children's Hospital about an hour away, where they set her arm without the right kind of anesthesia because they couldn't tell how much and what kind of painkiller she'd gotten at the local ER. This poem just brings it all flooding back:

The Green Shirt

For a week after he breaks his elbow
we don't think about giving him a bath,
we think about bones twisted like white
saplings in a tornado, tendons
twined around each other like the snakes on the
healer's caduceus. We think about fractures and
pain, most of the time we think about pain,
and our boy with his pale set face goes
around the house in that green shirt
as if it were his skin, the alligator on it with
wide jaws like the ones pain has
clamped on his elbow, fine joint that
used to be thin and elegant as
something made with Tinkertoy then it
swelled to a hard black anvil,
softened to a bruised yellow fruit,
finally we could slip the sleeve over,
and by then our boy was smelling like something
taken from the back of the icebox and
put on the back of the stove. So we stripped him and
slipped him into the tub, he looked so
naked without the sling, just a boy
holding his arm with the other hand as you'd
help and old geezer across the street, and
then it hit us, the man and woman by the
side of the tub, the people who had made him,
then the week passed before our eyes
as the grease slid off him--
the smash, the screaming, the fear he had crushed his
growth-joint, the fear as he lost all the
feeling in two fingers, the blood
pooled in ugly uneven streaks
under the skin in his forearm and then he
lost the use of the whole hand,
and they said he would probably sometime be back to normal,
sometime, probably, this boy with the long fingers of a surgeon,
this duck sitting in the water with his L-shaped
purple wing in his other hand.
Our eyes fill, we cannot look at each other,
we watch him carefully and kindly soap the damaged arm,
he was given to us perfect, we had sworn no harm
would come to him.

Why this poem brought back that particular harm on this particular night, I don't know. It was spring when it happened, and maybe there was a smell, in addition to the poem, to trigger all the details of memory. We are all healed now. It's daytime. The sun is out. The azaleas and rhododendrons are blooming. I need to wake up.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Being Humane

I am not a big fan of Ann Mccaffrey's dragon series, or Eragon. My favorite story about dragons is E. Nesbit's The Dragon Tamers. You can find this story in two places I know of: The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit, which is a collection of her dragon stories, and The Book of Dragons selected and illustrated by Michael Hague, which is a gorgeous book and a good introduction to the tradition of stories about dragons.

There are many things to like about Naomi Novik's dragon novels, the Temeraire series (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory). Her next Temeraire book, Victory of Eagles, is scheduled to come out on July 8, 2008, my birthday (hint, hint). One of these days, Peter Jackson may make a movie based on the first book. Novik's premise is that in the days of the Napoleonic wars, the British are using dragons much as they used horses, except that the dragons have more mobility and, well, firepower.

In the second book, Throne of Jade, Temeraire finds out that dragons in China are treated much better than dragons in England. Rather than sleeping outside on the ground, being given raw cows and sheep to eat, and only allowed to breed at special grounds set aside for the purpose, Chinese dragons get cooked food, have special houses with heated floors, and are revered and encouraged to breed, although the Chinese are interested in which dragon breeds with which other dragon to produce the best offspring. Temeraire himself is an "Imperial," the best kind of dragon, and it was a mistake that his egg landed in British hands. The hands it landed in are those of a former navy captain, Laurence. Temeraire, like all dragons in these novels, can talk, and he and Laurence discuss the cooked Chinese food after the first time Temeraire has eaten it:
"Well, I only hope you will not find it indigestible, from so much spice," Laurence said, and was sorry at once, recognizing in himself a species of jealousy that did not like to see Temeraire enjoying any Chinese customs. He was unhappily conscious that it had never occurred to him to offer Temeraire prepared dishes, or any greater variety than the difference between fish and mutton, even for a special occasion.
But Temeraire only said, "No, I like it very well," unconcerned and yawning; he stretched himself very long and flexed his claws.

At the end of Throne of Jade, Laurence offers to stay in China if Temeraire would be happier there, and they discuss it:
"You would rather go home, though, would you not?"
"I would be lying if I said otherwise," Laurence said heavily. "But I would rather see you happy; and I cannot think how I could make you so in England, now you have seen how dragons are treated here." The disloyalty nearly choked him; he could go no further.
"The dragons here are not all smarter than British dragons," Temeraire said. "There is no reason Maximus or Lily could not learn to read and write, or carry on some other kind of profession. It is not right that we are kept penned up like animals, and never taught anything but how to fight."
"No," Laurence said. "No, it is not."

Laurence, who has from his first introduction to the dragon corps, spoken out against the abuse and neglect of dragons, continues to learn about the similarities between "owning" such a sentient creature and slavery, which in good-guy 19th-century British fashion, he opposes. In the fourth book, Empire of Ivory, he is forced to "understand the accusations which had been made" against him and his fellow British dragon officers:
That they had stolen medicines, cultivated for the use of the King's own subjects, was only the least offense; the foremost, that they had offered a territorial challenge, by invading in the company of their own ancestors, as Kefentse considered the dragons of the formation to be; and in league with enemy tribes had been stealing their children, for which he offered as one portion of evidence that they had been travelling with a man of the Lunda, notorious kidnappers."
Of course, even as Laurence is forced to understand his behavior, the reader is forced to see it in light of something we now acknowledge to have been wrong, the enslavement of Africans.

I like the way Novik weaves this thread in and out of her story--that it's not humane to treat anyone the way the rigid hierarchy of the British Empire proscribed. And by extension, of course, the fiction asks us to examine how far we have come. Do we still breed horses for our own purposes? Yes, and their legs break. Do we still have puppy mills? Yes, because they're profitable (and we have plenty of them right here in my home state of Ohio:

Do we have a right to buy and sell animals? This may sound like kind of a wacky question, but I don't think it goes too far. If we didn't regard animals as "ours" and think that we can do with them whatever we like, the worst kinds of abuse couldn't happen. By extension, the less we regard children as "ours," the less we feel a right to educate them in whatever narrow way we believe, and the less chance there is that the person who has "custody" of a child feels so alone that she has to leave the napping child in the car just so she can run in to the store and buy food for supper, or that he feels overwhelmed in the way that can lead to physical or verbal abuse.

I do think we have a right to buy and sell animals for food; I do it myself. But I buy beef and chicken, not to mention eggs, from local farmers, because they see a point in letting the animals use their legs and see the sun, while big food companies tend to treat animals in any way that will maximize their profits, both because they can and because few people are interested in finding out what happens to those animals. If you don't like to read books like The Jungle or the more recent Fast Food Nation, you're not alone, but ignoring a problem allows it to persist. I might even go further--the rhetorical effect of Uncle Tom's Cabin was to demonstrate that if you don't speak out against evil, you are part of it.

Less of the feeling of "ownership" and more of the feeling of "custodianship" would benefit the dragons of Britain in Novik's fictional world, and certainly the animals we still feel the right to breed in this world.

If you're interested in this issue, you might take a look at the Humane Society website:

Friday, May 16, 2008

It's Official

Now it's official. I live in a backwater. Here's the front-page headline from today's Mount Vernon News, my small town newspaper:

Sewing the Seeds of Economic Change

I have news for them--you need to sow them there seeds if you want them to grow.


One of my friends reminded me yesterday about the "myth of education"--basically, it's the hope that, if you teach someone something, they'll act better and be of more value to the world. Obviously it doesn't always work. And another of my friends, a scientist, agreed to write a letter to the editor explaining why "creationism" and Darwinism" are not equally valid theories. So I'm mollified, for now.

I don't think I'll ever be mild, exactly, but I hope that when I get old, I'm more like my parents than their neighbors the Scotts. They used to have an amicable relationship, picking up each others' mail and newspapers when they left town (something my parents do a lot now that they're retired). Then the Scotts started yelling at kids who rode their bikes through the hedge at the end of our dead-end street (my parents own the entire hedge, and it's indestructible--once we even set it on fire, and it came back). They told my parents to forbid kids to skateboard over or play around in the hills of dirt left when a plumber had to dig up some pipes in the yard. Finally the Scotts laid down the law--either my parents told the neighborhood kids to get out of their yard, or the Scotts wouldn't speak to them anymore. Ron calls this the "dread Scott decision." My parents wouldn't agree to ban kids from the yard, and the Scotts no longer speak to them.

My calming process consisted of painting in and around the new bathroom. There's lot of trim that needed a last coat, after being hammered on. The walls needed touchups where equipment scraped them. The doorway had to have primer on the new wood parts. The door had to be stained. For the first coat I painted on a polyurethane/stain combination in "golden oak," but then we decided it didn't match the rest of the doors in the house enough, so I went back and got a "golden maple" poly gel, which is much pleasanter to work with. I had to repaint the bedroom wall around where the new door went in. Little fiddly painting and varnishing tasks with lots of different colors of paint and brush changing and washing up are very calming.

I resolve to be, if not exactly milder, at least the kind of person who doesn't get old and end up snapping at kids who want to play in my yard. The kind of person who says this kind of prayer:

Muzak, by Kevin Young

When old, do not let me bark
at passersby--let me be

like the slow motion, down-
the-street dog, ignoring

the cardinals, the colors
he cannot see, even us

as we tiptoe by--
Friend, please save me

from being the neighbors'
fool hound who woofs loud

at every grey squirrel, stray
noise, or lab rushing past

to meet some lady--from being
that cur who cannot help but howl

all night like newlyweds
keeping the world awake. O terrible

angel of the elevator, the plane,
insufferable unquiet we pray to, afraid--

Please make me mild

Actually, I don't think I have any chance of aging in a doglike way. The best I can hope for is probably to hiss quietly at anyone who dares to disturb my comfort.

The Scotts are loud in many ways; every night my parents hear them calling in their cats, who all have food names: "MUFFIN! PUMPKIN!" OH CUPCAKE!" My parents say it sounds like they're hungry. The example of the Scotts has not caused me to give up calling in my own cats, but it does amuse me to think of the food names as I stand in the dusk yelling "SAMMY! CHESTER! SABRINA! SABRINA! COME HERE, SABRINA!" And I do wonder what my neighbors think. I half expect an old lady named Sabrina to come walking up the street some night in answer to my call, the way I once made a young man in Cape Girardeau, Missouri do a double-take as he walked along the road--in those days, I amused myself by leaning out of the car window and yelling "HI, MAX" to every person I saw. The young man must have been the first (and possibly the only) person I'd passed who was actually named Max.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I am so angry I'm about to explode: Boom! There's been a controversy in my small town lately about a middle school teacher at the public school both my kids attended/are attending. Years ago, I heard he gave handouts on how people and dinosaurs lived together but required his students to hand them back in at the end of class, lest a parent find out that he was teaching creationism again. This year, some parents filed suit against him for allegedly burning a cross into their child's arm. He has also been accused of faith healing at a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the school. The school system has warned him not to teach his religion (some non-denominational type) in public school, but this year they asked him to take down the ten commandments from his classroom wall and remove the bible from his desk. He's tried to make the controversy all about removing the bible, but as the ACLU has pointed out, if he wants it for personal use, he could keep it IN the desk, rather than out where the students can see it (and, according to students, where he can read from it out loud during class).

Why am I so angry? Well, the teacher's supporters have been very vocal in the local newspaper, and I wanted to speak out in support of the school board. I wrote what I thought was a fairly civil letter. Here, judge for yourself:

I support the school board investigation into Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater's advocacy of his religion in the classroom. I am the parent of a MVMS seventh-grader and a MVHS ninth-grader, and I can assure you that I would have protested had either of my children been assigned to Mr. Freshwater's classroom because I have been told he teaches creationism, rather than science.
I find it curious that most of the letters to the editor support Freshwater's position because most of the people I know do not support the teaching of a particular religion in public schools.
This case should not be about an individual; it is about one of the main ideas on which our country was founded: Freedom from state-sponsored religion.

So what happened after this letter appeared in the local newspaper? I got a religious pamphlet sent in the mail, anonymously. No return address. Certainly no signature. ("What's next," I asked. "A flaming cross on my front lawn?") Well, what came next is this letter:

I am writing in response to Jeanne's letter to the editor and her stated support of the school board. Jeanne found it curious that most of the letters supported Mr. Freshwater because "most of the people I know do not support the teaching of a particular religion in public schools."
Maybe, Jeanne, you have surrounded yourself with people that tend to think and believe as you do. I believe this issue is about teaching what some people believe to be the truth. I am not talking about the truth of God's word. I am talking about the way many people think the earth was created. There are those that believe the truth to be that the earth came by accident, it just happened. Those people believe in Darwinism.
Then there are those that believe the truth to be that the earth did not happen by accident, it was created. These people believe in creationism. Both "isms" have scientists that support these two theories. Most people that I know believe the way I do, that the earth was created, it was not an accident.
This issue is not about religion; it is about teaching the truth. Your truth, I assume, is Darwinism, my truth is Creationism. What is wrong with teaching both theories, which are both supported by scientists? Jeanne, it takes a lot of faith to believe in a creator, and it takes a lot of faith to believe that the earth came from nothing. If you are willing to keep the teaching of Creationism out of the public schools, then let's be fair and remove the religious teaching of Darwinism out of the public schools also.

The author of this comma-spliced and otherwise error-filled letter is James Fehrman. At least he signed his letter. I don't know him, and now I don't want to know him. What I want is for one of my friends, preferably a scientist, to write a letter telling him EXACTLY what is wrong with teaching both "theories."

I am absolutely through with civil discourse, at least for today. I am in the mood for Howard Nemerov, who wrote this poem the year I was born(1960):

Sees Boom in Religion, Too

Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) --President Eisenhower's pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of "unprecedented religious activity" caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.
"These fruits of material progress," said the Rev. Edward L.R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, "have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached."

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it's just one
religious activity after another; the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God's great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human and spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
when Damiem kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week's vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnack and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop'n'shop
n'pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name's Sake, Amen.

The poem has an even greater effect if you read it out loud. I hope that at the end of it, you are not trembling with anger, as I am. It's a hard way to begin the day, but evidently somebody has to do it. I guess this is the main reason I endure the underemployed adjunct life--because I hate ignorance. I hate it with every fiber of my being. "What else could she have done, being what she was?"

But since my local paper only allows one letter to the editor every 30 days, I will have to endure this latest example of ignorance in silence. Where are the other people in this school district who hate it???

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Pesthouse

I have a morbid fascination with books that describe contagious diseases. Probably it's not good for me to read them, though. After my first decade of motherhood with two children that got really, really sick from catching every single germ that hit town, I still have some paranoid habits, like carrying antibacterial wipes in my car and purse and requiring everyone with me to use them. And I do this despite the fact that adenoid surgery at the age of six helped my first-born to actually get through a cold without two weeks of ensuing sinus infection and coughing all night, and getting older actually helped my second-born to catch a cold without the same kind of two weeks. It's been a couple of years (knock on wood) since I had to use the nebulizer. Those of you who still are in those days of being up at night with a child who can't stop coughing and then sterilizing all the equipment with vinegar and water and then going out to buy more of those drugs that make the kid's a hard time. But it passes, and now I have kids who actually have immune systems that work.

Mothers get scarred for life, though. So when I saw The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace, at the library, I had to check it out. And it's a two-for-one pleasure-- not only is it about contagious disease, but it's a post-apocalyptic novel! In fact, the contagious disease part is a smaller part of the story than I would have expected from the title. (It's even a smaller part than it was in Ann Benson's The Burning Road, which I loved.) This story begins in Ferrytown, where you can get across a big river (the Mississippi?) to continue your journey west. The characters, Margaret and Franklin, start their journey at the Ferrytown pesthouse, because it turns out that the sickness that sent Margaret there is not fatal after all. The sign of being assigned to the pesthouse is the shaving of all body hair. Once the hair has grown back enough, the person is presumed to be well enough to go out into the world.

Most of The Pesthouse is about the journey of two characters through the new American wilderness, rife with bandits and other dangers. They make it through, in part because of judicious use of Margaret's baldness and then Franklin's decision to shave himself to make himself appear to be contagious. But when they get to what they thought was their destination, they realize that their picture of the world was not complete. The charm of the book is the completion of this picture of the American west. I always like the description of something from our time after the apocalypse:

The road, indeed, seemed built--by how many laborers and over how many years? at what immense cost? --to take great weights. Its now damaged surface, much degraded by the weather and time, comprised mostly of chips of stone, loose grit, and sticky black rubble, which only the toughest of plants--knotweed, sagebrush, and thistle--had succeeded in penetrating.

I guess we give the author artistic license with his sentence fragment there.

One of the things that happens to Margaret is that she makes it safely to a place called The Ark. Margaret is given work, food, and a bed by the people who run the Ark, "Finger Baptists" who require that anyone entering rid themselves of anything metal. Eventually, though, Franklin and Margaret escape from the Ark when it is raided by bandits who had earlier kidnapped Franklin. They make their own way with a baby they have rescued along the way, and they create their own life: "they no longer felt defeated by America, as most emigrants had on the journey out, driven eastward by their failings."

I guess that for my second decade of motherhood I should try to be less driven by my previous failure to protect my children from disease, and take the warnings about the danger of antibacterial wipes and antibacterial soap more seriously. Now that we all have functioning immune systems, we should use milder soap, and probably fewer wipes, in an effort to delay the apocalypse.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Old Man's War

I'm late to the Scalzi party--it's a good one, and I've been missing it! My friend who reads more SF than I do had what I consider a minor quibble about John Scalzi's wonderful first book, Old Man's War, and so didn't recommend it to me. He has a weird philosophy about not wanting to read books other people recommend anyway, so I guess that's why he didn't bring me the book, press it into my hands, and demand that I start reading it right then. This is what I would do to all of you if I could. I press the book virtually into your hands right now.

What did I like most about Old Man's War? Well, it has stuff. You know, science fiction stuff that's described in just enough detail to make it interesting, like the "beanstalk" elevator that gets the main character, John Perry, to outer space. It also has aliens. And it doesn't just have one or two, and it doesn't just describe them physically. They have mysterious motivations and philosophies, and there's an entire universe of them! Most of all, it has this great idea that old people would make good soldiers, if they only had physical prowess to match their decades of experience.

I found the description of Perry's transformation into a physical being capable of soldiering to be accurate, if a bit speedy. The process has just taken place (note that I'm carefully not telling you exactly what the process is; it would be rude to steal the author's thunder in that way), and the old man steps out:

"I placed my right foot forward and staggered a little bit. Dr. Russell came up beside me and steadied me. 'Careful,' he said. 'You've been an older man for a while. It's going to take you a little bit of time to remember how to be in a young body.'
'What do you mean?' I said.
'Well,' he said. 'For one thing, you can straighten up.'
He was right. I was stooped slightly (kids, drink your milk). I straightened up, and took another step forward. And another. Good news, I remembered how to walk. I cracked a grin like a schoolboy as I paced in the room.

What took me about a month to learn--how to walk again after walking like an old person for some years--takes Perry about a minute, but hey, this is fiction. It's good enough fiction that it brought me back to the coaching I got on how to hit with the heel first and then roll the foot and bend the knee at the end, and the days when I had to think about stepping like that in order to be able to do it.

The stuff in this book includes Scalzi's version of the feed. He calls it a BrainPal. When Perry gets his, he names it Asshole:

Apparently, there was very little Asshole couldn't do. He could send messages to other recruits. He could download reports. He could play music or video. He could play games. He could call up any document on a system. He could store incredible amounts of data. He could perform complex calculations. He could diagnose physical ailments and provide suggestions for cures. He could create a local network among a chosen group of other BrainPal users. He could provide instantaneous translations of hundreds of human and alien languages. He could even provide field of vision information on any other BrainPal user.

The uses of the BrainPal get even more interesting in the sequel to Old Man's War, entitled The Ghost Brigades (I'm halfway through it). The kinds of philosophical questions raised by human use of technology get more interesting, too--and they start out pretty interesting in Old Man's War:

The next step of evolution is already happening. Just like the Earth, most of the colonies are isolated from each other. Nearly all people born on a colony stay there their entire lives. Humans also adapt to their new homes; it's already beginning culturally. Some of the oldest of the colony planets are beginning to show linguistic and cultural drift from their cultures and languages back on've lived long enough to know that there's more to life than your own life. Most of you have raised families and have children and grandchildren and understand the value of doing something beyond your own selfish goals. Even if you never become colonists yourselves, you still recognize that human colonies are good for the human race, and worth fighting for. It's hard to drill that concept into the brain of a nineteen-year-old. But you know from experience. In this universe, experience counts.

When I finish The Ghost Brigades, I'm going on to read The Last Colony and then all the other Scalzi books I can find, probably starting with the one about Jane Sagan, even if it is only available in hardback, and the one about Jane and Perry's daughter Zoe, which is coming out this August. Not only that, but I'm joining the considerable party of readers who follow Scalzi's blog Whatever. It's like what Holden Caulfield imagined all those years ago--you finish a book, and you can virtually call up the author and talk to him about it. Everyone's invited, but you'll have more fun if you've read his books, and maybe the books of his friends... For mother's day, I got a trip to the bookstore to find some of the books on the list I keep. We have a credit card that gives us a book dollar for every thousand dollars we spend, or something like that, so I got a bunch of books I've been wanting to read, including The Ghost Brigades and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. It's a great week to be underemployed.

By the way, at the bookstore I went to, Borders, I found The Ghost Brigades in SF, Little Brother in YA, and Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic in the children's section.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Battle of the Labyrinth

Of course Walker read the new Percy Jackson book, The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan, the day I brought it home. As soon as he got out of school he picked it up and began reading me the chapter titles out loud (my favorite title is "Nico buys happy meals for the dead." Let me tell you, that chapter definitely delivers what it promises.) Walker also had to read me the first sentence out loud: "The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school." So Walker started reading at 2:30 and despite interruptions to take care of the guinea pigs and then the rabbit, finished at 5:30. "How was it?" I asked him. "It's better than #2 and as good as #1 and #3," he said.

Last night I finished reading it (courtesy of mother's day, time to sit around and read). It was thoroughly enjoyable all the way through. There's a nice mix of new characters and clever plot twists (yeah, they're literal in the labyrinth) with characters as old as myth itself and situations that you can see coming if you've read enough of the myths. Another good chapter title (well, they're all good, let's face it) is "We steal some slightly used wings." Guess whose. (Here's a hint: "'Land!' Annabeth yelled. 'These wings won't last forever.'")

One of the things that interests me about this book is Grover's quest to find Pan. It comes to a satisfactory conclusion, especially in terms of word etymology as an explanation of how the foes of the half-bloods are suddenly overthrown when Grover screams. But the culmination of Grover's search for Pan strikes me as a bit of a seam in this otherwise seamless fictional world. Grover and his friends are advised to take care of some little bit of nature, because the God can't do it anymore. It reads a bit like the usual kid "save the rainforest" propaganda. Don't get me wrong; I'm in favor of saving the rainforest. I gave an impromptu speech on it the other day when a kid came home from school asking "but what's wrong with drilling for oil in Alaska?" But I am not in favor of mixing propaganda in with fiction. Good fiction convinces because of the story, not in terms of something added to the story.

The whole kid conservation movement bothers me, and I'm beginning to be able to articulate why as I continue to read and think about what's currently being called "nature deficit disorder." Wouldn't it do the rain forest more good if a kid learned to value the nature in his own neighborhood and then extrapolate from that love to wider vistas as his power to influence his world grows? Kid conservation encourages them to pay lip service to a problem without being able to solve it. As adults, these kids are going to feel that they did what they could, but it didn't work. Oh well. On to something else.

But what else? I am a supporter of the space program and Robert Heinlein's idea that humans shouldn't "put all our eggs in one basket" (e.g. should find other inhabitable worlds). Have we done that, though? No, we've largely given in to the people who prate about how we shouldn't be exploring outer space when we can't even feed the people on earth who are hungry. And we shouldn't eat cheap hamburgers because they're raised on land chopped out of the rain forest, where medicines we can't even dream of could be available....

We do need someone larger than life, someone who doesn't have to be tarnished by the election process, to get us out of some of the strange loops created by teaching children the "correct" way to treat the earth. We need a Percy Jackson, with wise parents to guide him on a path neither of them can follow.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Animal's People

Animal's People, by Indra Sinha, is a novel that comes close to showing me a side of human nature that I haven't understood before, but it falls short. The cover says that it was "shortlisted for the 2007 Booker prize," and that's the kind of book it is--it's a finalist, but not a winner.

It's the first-person tale of a boy from Khaufpur, India, and is based on the events of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal. Deformed by effects of the poison, the boy's back is bent so that he has to walk on all fours and is called "Animal," a name he identifies with. His point of view is enhanced by spelling--he calls a journalist a "Jarnalis" and the American company that owned the pesticide factory where the disaster took place is the "kampani." The narrative frame is that he tells his tale into a tape recorder, so the spelling reminds readers that this is not a literate tale-teller. He is "speaking to the mashin."

One place where I almost could see things from a different point of view is this: "Jarnalis, you were such a fool. The best thing about you was your shorts. Six pockets, I counted. Two at the side, two on the front, two on the arse. With shorts like those a person does not need a house."
In fact, part of Animal's price for telling his story to the journalist's tape recorder is those shorts, which he lives in for most of the rest of the novel.

Another place where I almost saw from a new perspective is when Animal is taking an American doctor ("doctress" he calls her) through "Paradise Alley," where the people worst affected by the poison live. She doesn't understand why they won't come for free treatment at her clinic, and Animal can't explain that the man he works for, Zafar, has instructed all the local people to avoid her clinic in case she is gathering medical information on them for the kampani and its lawyers. She says

"These people have nothing. Why do they turn down a genuine and good offer of help? I just don't get it."
Seeing how unhappy she is, I try to find something to say that will make her feel better. "Elli doctress, no surprise or shame. I understand because these are my people."
"So what the hell do I have to do to get through to these people of yours?" She cups her hands to her mouth and shouts, "HEY, ANIMAL'S PEOPLE! I DON'T FUCKING UNDERSTAND YOU!"

As the title of the novel comes from this sequence, maybe the fact that my understanding falls short is deliberate. It sounds simple enough when Animal tries to explain that "hope dies in places like this, because hope lives in the future and there's no future here, how can you think about tomorrow when all your strength is used up trying to get through today?" But there's more to it than just the simple opposition Animal falls back on when Elli says "Animal, I don't know what such suffering is like, but it doesn't mean we've nothing in common. There's simple humanity? Isn't there?" He calls himself a "cheap lying bastard" and says "no good asking me...I long ago gave up trying to be human."

Elli gives Animal a view of the world that is initially attractive to him, and then he tries to reject it totally:

"The world is made of promises....Think of everyday things. Mail gets delivered. Farmers grow crops. The stores take our dollars, each bill says 'This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private,' which means, you've done a good turn for someone, I promise you something equally good in return....Rocks keep their promises. They behave like rocks. Water boils at one hundred degrees. The sea rises and falls, that's the sea and the moon keeping their own kind of promises. To have the world work for you, you've got to make your own promises right back."

Ultimately, Animal adopts a version of this philosophy for his own use, and "his" people accept some of the help Elli offers them. Rather than being destroyed by the apocalypse ("apokalis"), the people of Khaufpur adapt and go on. "Tomorrow," they say, "there will be more of us."

There's no great revelation. There are certainly no heroics. The ending of the novel is like the ending of many ordinary days--you're tired and not entirely satisfied with what has passed, although it was interesting while it happened.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Latest in YA

YA is such an onomotopoetic acronym, isn't it? I picture 10 to 17 year olds (the target audience for Young Adult books) swinging into the library on vines to return these books, shouting "YA!" at the top of their lungs.

There have been some lively discussions online lately (a summary is available at Bookshelves of Doom) among publishers, librarians, and readers about what should be classified as YA literature and whether adults are embarrassed to browse in that section. I certainly have never been embarrassed to check out the YA section, ever since I found that Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (a book that current college students pick overwhelmingly as "most influential") had moved from the SF section to the YA section. And if you want to read Scott Westerfeld, as anyone who likes books with interesting ideas in them should (the discussions note this), you have to go to the YA section.

I can't believe we missed the first day to buy Rick Riordan's newest Percy Jackson book, The Battle of the Labyrinth. I just went out and found it at a local bookstore this morning. If you don't yet own it or the three that precede it, get yourself to a real or virtual bookstore before the week is out!

I loved Edward Bloor's book Tangerine, and I liked Crusader a lot. He manages to integrate contemporary issues with good writing and plots more complicated than usual in YA fiction. So my expectations were high when I found his newest YA title, Story Time, at the library. Perhaps they were too high. I found the reading of the book tedious, even though the issues (standardized testing in schools is the main one) were worth exploring. I'd like to see someone do it better.

Clare B. Dunkle's brand-new The Sky Inside is one of the best post-apocalyptic YA novels I've read since How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. You get thoroughly involved in the present-day mysteries of how the characters live in their domed suburb before you begin to get any answers to why, and the big picture doesn't even begin to be revealed until p. 192. Finally the apocalyptic events are explained on p. 214, and this is the beginning of the explanation:

Close to a hundred years ago, our nation was slowly decaying. Handhelds and robots had just been invented, and that meant factories didn't need so many humans to work in them anymore. The armies didn't need them either, because war was changing, too. Killing people wasn't important. It was which factories and machines you could blow up, and the robots were getting better at doing that than the humans were. All these unneeded people were crowding up the cities--suburbs, you'd call them--eating food and getting sick and demanding medicine. They cost more to keep than they could earn, and they were fouling up the air and water, too. New people were being born every day.

I'm almost sure that this novel was not written in answer to Michael Moore's movie Sicko (the timing is too tight, for one thing). But it presents a very plausible future, and that makes it powerful. Also it has a satisfying ending. I think that's an important qualification for good YA post-apocalyptic novels; they shouldn't just peter out with the idea. They should resolve the crisis somehow. The author should have some vision for this unsatisfactory world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Everything Bad is Good for You

I'm pretty much the resident Luddite at my house. If we're watching YouTube videos on my laptop, someone invariably unseats me at the keyboard because I'm too slow. The other three play with the whole gamecube/wii/computer network downstairs while I sit upstairs reading a book. So I liked the mental gymnastics involved in Steven Johnson's mind-game, proposed on p. 19 of Everything Bad is Good for You:

Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries--and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world fiilled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new "libraries" that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.

Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia--a condition that didn't even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised oon interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today's generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow the plot" instead of learning to lead.

Okay, so let's take this game one step further. Imagine we live in a world where some variation of the feed is possible. Obviously, as I've said, the novel Feed presents it as a thing not to be desired, but could we alter it to make it better? Walker says we should be able to turn it off. Eleanor says that instead of hooking directly into your brain, it should be a wrist unit with optional visor and earbuds. Ron says that the difference between using a laptop and having a feed is the "difference between wanting to DRIVE a car and wanting to BE one," but I suspect he would like the convenience of using his electronic calendar, "meeting maker," without having to get out his laptop every time he needs to check his schedule.

What would be the advantage of your modified feed, I asked the kids. You could look up information all the time, they said. You'd never be bored. You could show things to people, or send them links. You could chat without talking (this actually happens in Feed). Walker mentioned the cheating possibilities that chat could open up at school, which is, no doubt, why there is no such thing as school (only School TM) in the world of Feed, and why cell phones are completely banned from our local public schools already.

The most detailed answer I got about the advantage of a feed was about Walker's new game Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Evidently, he goes over to the computer and looks up "moves" and "combos" to use in the game, and then he has to go back over to the Wii and try to remember what the computer told him to do with his fingers to achieve that move or combination of moves. If he had a feed, he said, he could just look this stuff up and move his fingers while reading the information about it.

As a blogger, there would be lots of advantages to having some version of a feed. As Eleanor said, you could keep a "good ideas folder" going all the time. I could make a note about the mockingbird I heard do a convincing meow this morning while I was petting the rabbit, and when I turned around to see what cat was coming up behind me, I saw a bird. But then, maybe I'd never use that idea. Maybe my good ideas folder would get so big, it would be unmanageable. Maybe I'd have so many notes about birds and rabbits and cats that I couldn't keep track of them, and then I'd need more ways to make personal indices of things that interest me, and then pretty soon I'd want a whole education system to help me sort through all the information available to me on the world wide web....and I'd have reinvented School TM, where the only thing you learn is how to use your feed. I've seen several bloggers get to this point lately, saying that they've found they have to limit their "screen time" so they have time for a life. That makes me remember the South Park episode about World of Warcraft, in which people who triumph in the game "have no life" and the makers of the game fret about "how they can kill that which has no life."

I promised pros and cons of Feed, and don't mean to take the discussion back to cons every time. But it does seem that there need to be limits on how such a thing would work, and probably self-imposed limits would work about as well as those parental controls you can put on your tv--but how many people actually do it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Feed, pro and con

Ever since we all read M.T. Anderson's YA novel Feed at my house, we have discussions about what it would be like to have a feed in our own, personal heads. What is a feed? It's a combination of radio/tv/internet that goes directly into a person's brain. It learns to recommend stuff you'll like and it can even continue broadcasting while you're asleep, influencing your dreams.

The novel is written in a snarky, satiric way that makes the feed seem like a pretty bad idea. The characters are driven and controlled by their feeds, except for the two main characters who learn to resist the feed (and one of them learns how to resist only because she got the feed late in life--after toddlerhood, that is, and her body rejects the connection). Here are some of the ways you see that having a feed is a bad deal:

--Having a feed (and possibly living in the destroyed environment of the world of Feed) gives a person lesions. Soon lesions become trendy (one is described as "like a necklace") and cool kids get artifical lesions (that is, artificially created open wounds).
--Because people are living so much in their own heads, they don't notice how they are destroying the world around them. The environment of the world of Feed is so bad that if they want to go in the ocean, they have to wear Hazmat suits. Beef is raised at a place that doesn't have any actual cows, just miles of tissue; there's a steak maze for agri-tainment.
--People are buying stupid things over their feeds, because they think they want them once they see them advertised--things like trendy clothing and fashionable things to eat (pot-stickers).
--Trends last for mere hours, or even minutes. At one point, three female characters go to the bathroom of a club and reappear with new hairstyles.
--Because people can look up anything instantly on their feeds, they don't bother to learn things. They have no idea what the difference is between a democracy and a republic, and even though at one point they wear "riot gear" reminiscent of what was worn at the Watts riot, Kent State, or the WTO riot, they have no idea what sparked any of those events.

How far away are we from this last example? First-year college students could identify the causes of one out of three riots (Kent State) last time I checked. How far away are we from any of this stuff?

Tune in next time for a discussion of the pros of having a Feed, much of it based on Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You.

Monday, May 5, 2008


"I'm afraid of worms, Roxanne." ("Words!")

The builder was asking me about which parts of the door to our new bathroom we would stain, and which parts we would paint. "Will you stain the lintel?" he asked. I looked at him, mind rushing to put an image with the word "lintel." No image came. Finally he had to walk me into the bedroom and point to the lintel, which is the frame around the door. I think of it as "molding," but that's not le mot juste.

I am unused to other people knowing words I don't know. If I had paid more attention to my favorite graduate school professor, Eugene Hammond, I would have learned more words for the frames around doors and windows (he advised that, in the course of advising writers to use details in their descriptions).

With first-year college students, the single most successful teaching technique I have discovered for getting them to understand--and possibly like--a poem is to make them look up the words. (How do you "make" students do anything? You give them a quiz on it. It doesn't matter how little the quiz is worth, in terms of their final grade.)

The poem I think I learned the most about when I looked up the words is "The Emperor of Ice Cream," by Wallace Stevens (from my list of essential poems and a favorite for both me and permanent quivive):

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

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

The word that illuminated the poem, for me, is "deal." Sure, I got the connotation, that maybe it's where the men left their money for the dead woman, but for years I didn't get the denotation of the word--literally, it's a cheap dresser made of soft pine wood, one that won't last for more than a generation. I've seen a lot of students get the connotation of the word "horny" without getting the denotation, which is "calloused." Is this a measure of the power of the poem? That it can evoke feeling without us even realizing exactly how?

I think the word "concupiscent" might work in such a non-logical way. How on earth can curds, presumably for ice-cream, have "strong sexual desire" (the definition for "concupiscent")? Is it the way he's whipping them that's concupiscent? Is it that desire is like ice-cream, and you'd better enjoy it before it wanes again (is this why husbands typically touch their wives amorously while the wives are trying to finish loading the dishwasher?)

This is a good poem for a spring morning. It's less adult than the finale of Avenue Q, with its decorous "only for now." It's like a kid playing "king of the hill," except that the object of this game is to have an empire, ice cream. Do the rules include whether you're still an emperor if some of your flavors melt? Maybe you're just king of one flavor then, and finally just "dumb," that, is, speechless, probably because your mouth is cold and full.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

This is on my list of essential poems, but few people seem to have read it, maybe because it's newer than some. I got up thinking of it this morning, because it's one of those days when I have about 50 little things to do, none of which I look forward to. As an underemployed person, I can't just say "oh, I'm too busy today; I'll do that later" (in fact, I've drifted through this week in some sort of preoccupied feeling of abstraction already, which is why I need to do the 50 things before 5 pm today). Just as a sample, some of the things include: calling the local guy who sold me vinyl flooring to inquire about how it should be glued down, and then relaying that information to the vinyl flooring installer who will be here tomorrow, canceling an American Express-sponsored credit card I got when I told the check-in person at a Westin Hotel "sure" when she asked if I wanted their Starwood Preferred Guest card, approving time sheets for my student workers, who are leaving for the summer and some of who failed to submit the time sheets for my approval by the deadline set by Accounting, returning something I bought from a catalog that didn't fit right, baking a birthday cake for a family friend's birthday party tonight, putting flea drops on the cats, hanging up everyone's laundry, etc. I think it's the laundry that made me think of Richard Wilbur's poem this morning. I'm wishing that I had woken up with the feeling he evokes:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
And cries,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.''

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.''

I woke up, as I think mothers often do, with a full awareness of everything I "was about to remember...the punctual rape of every blessed day." It would take more sleep than I got, and probably a feeling that more things had been done than still needed doing, to produce the kind of sleep that lets you wake up with the initially drifting feeling of this poem.

And yes, I do know the grammatical rule about using "whom," but I don't advocate the use of the word and won't use it myself, lest I become an even fiercer pen-wielder in the spirit urged on us by the writer of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Six words to describe me today: fierce, hungry, under-appreciated, running, yearning, singing