Friday, February 27, 2009

Kitten on the Keys

Getting a new kitten always requires a major overhaul of the way we live. One of the things it required this time was that I first move and then entirely get rid of the aquarium our hermit crabs have been living in for the past few years, as the kitten was not only occasionally napping on it (as in this photo), but also using it as a staging area from which to assault the top of the china cabinet and, hanging next to it, the bird cage.

As I was dismantling the aquarium and putting the crabs in a smaller terrarium that will fit on a shelf in our bathroom, I was thinking about Barbara Kingsolver's title essay for her volume High Tide in Tucson, and how she brings home a crab from the beach and makes a nice little home for it "on our kitchen counter right next to the coffeepot." When I find a hermit crab at the beach, it's the kind that can't live out of water, or it only wants the kind of food it's already used to, or it doesn't like the colorful variety of shells I provide and goes around naked until I find it one morning, motionless and stinking. Kingsolver's crab, however, evidently thrives and recreates a crab celebration of high tide in its new home while eating her garbage.

Okay. Maybe Kingsolver is a lot more relaxed about pets than I am, or maybe it's just that she doesn't have cats. If she had ever had a kitten, it would have spent part of the day lying on her laptop and she wouldn't have been able to write as much. At least not without getting her fingers batted for wiggling.

The Pleasures of The Wordy Shipmates

I got Sarah Vowell's new book The Wordy Shipmates as a gift this winter and noticed (from the back cover) that she was known for being on NPR, so when I walked by the audio version at the library, I picked it up and found that it was even more fun than reading the book silently to myself. Why? Well, for one thing Sarah Vowell has a funny voice (she's the voice of Violet on The Incredibles). For another, she knows just what words to emphasize and where to pause to make sure no one misses her snarky attitude. And for a third, she has all kinds of guest readers on the audio version posing as Puritans, and the contrast between the quotations and her commentary is simply delightful. Also her commentary is invariably succinct and entertaining:
"So if John Calvin doubts he's a good enough Calvinist--which is of course the most Calvinist thought he could have--imagine the jangling nerves of John Q. Puritan."
And if merely commenting on something isn't entertaining enough, Sarah is not above making a silly--but usually memorable--comparison:
"If Nancy Drew were trying to get to the bottom of Winthrop's petty rivalry with Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley, the book might be titled The Mystery of the Pretentious Wainscoting."

The book is more currently topical than I expected it to be, given the subject (17th-century Puritans). And the points that relate to current topics tend to be focal points. Vowell is like a high school teacher who fools you into learning something by being so entertaining that she can sneak it in:
"I will say that the theological differences between the Puritans on the Mayflower and the Puritans on the Arbella are beyond small. Try negligible to the point of nitpicky. I will also say that readers who squirm at microscopic differences might be unsuited to read a book about seventeenth-century Christians. Or, for that matter, a newspaper. Secular readers who marvel every morning at the death toll in the Middle East ticking ever higher due to, say, the seemingly trifling Sunni-versus-Shia rift in Islam, might look deep into their own hearts and indentify their own semantic lines in the sand. For instance, a devotion to The Godfather Part III. Someday they might find themselves at a bar and realize they are friends with a woman who can't tell any of the Godfather movies apart and asks if Part II was the one that had "that guy in the boat." Them's fightin' words, right?"
In fact, just this week I heard a woman state that her prospective dates should declare their love for the muppet Elmo in order to be qualified as suitable date material. And I was told that "all the cool people" love a television show that I had just declared my love for (the canceled-for-seasons-gone-by Firefly).

If there's a central metaphor in this book, it's the "city upon a hill" from John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity." And if the topics Sarah Vowell compares it to already seem dated, that's just one of the perils of writing down your thoughts:

"The thing that appeals to me about Winthrop's 'Christian Charity' and Cotton's 'God's Promise to His Plantation' from this end of history is that at least the arrogant ballyhoo that New England is special and chosen by God is tempered by the self-loathing Puritans' sense of reckoning. The same wakefulness the individual Calvinist was to use to keep watch over his own sins Winthrop and Cotton called for also in the group at large. This humility, this fear, was what kept their delusions of grandeur in check. That's what subsequent generations lost. From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution.
The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it's still shining--because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That's how we carry out the sleep deprivation."

I have every confidence that Vowell could come up with a newer comparison today, and she's the kind of writer/speaker that makes everyone wish they knew her well enough to call her up and ask. Wouldn't you just love to know a woman who goes on the Daily Show and declares "I love elitism"?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February Fatigue

Kim remarked on how readable George Bilgere's poem is, and compared him to Billy Collins, which is quite right, as they're both consciously in the same "school" of poetry. The introduction to Bilgere's volume Haywire (which yesterday's poem "Casablanca" is from) is written by Edward Field, an older practitioner of what I'm going to call the "readable" school.

I was overly fond of imitating Field as a graduate student, and so my poetry workshop teacher, Stanley Plumly, assigned me to read all of his poems. After I read them I came back and he asked me what I thought of them. "Well," I remember saying, "after a while, the humor gets a bit much."
"Exactly," Stan said.

But in small doses, I still love Field. Here is a poem that really strikes me at the end of February, when I'm tired all the time. I had a moment about a week ago when I went to sleep at the wheel, veering over the center line without consequence (the adrenaline jolt afterwards kept the moment from repeating). This is the time of year when I say to Ron at the end of the day "I slept all last night. But now I'm tired again." Although I've never been a person who wants to sleep in the daytime, I can almost see the appeal of naps. Instead, though, my habit is to go through part of the late afternoon with a drowsy inattention to detail that leaves me staring out the window for short stretches, until I come to myself and attend to whatever I was in the middle of trying to do.


Never to really wake up,
this is some people's burden
that those of the tireless sort
are unable to understand, when all we want
is to lie around in a state of collapse.

First and last, I told my mother
who also suffered from it,
never use the word "tired."
It's like "depressed," a dead end--
just saying it brings it on worse.

It's as if some people don't have
an outer crust of energy
that rides over the lake of exhaustion,
a level of weariness
that is always there, threatening
to rise up and swamp us,
or that we are always in danger
of sinking into.

All our kind wants to do
is lie down and rest and sleep, bone tired,
dog tired, but never like a dog,
the lively breed that wears out people like us,
jumping up as they do, alert and ready to go,
tails wagging.

One of the many nice things about living with cats, I guess, is that they also get somnolent this time of year. The new kitten jumps about enthusiastically for a couple of hours at a time, but then he'll spend another two or three hours curled up on a chair or stretched out on top of my lap (or laptop) totally spent. Maybe it's contagious.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Might Have Been

Thinking about what might have been in Jane Eyre (and Little Women, Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and The Golden Compass) last week made me like George Bilgere's poem "Casablanca" even better this week:

Last night I saw Casablanca again,
following it like an old song
as it touched on all the familiar notes
of passion, betrayal, and death,

sweeping me along as helplessly
and willingly as it did the first time.

Once more I lamented
the lovers' lost idyll in Paris,
once more I sweated out with them
the approaching thunder of the Occupation,

and once more I felt the sweet relief
as the Nazis arrived at the airport
a split-second too late

to stop Bergman and Bogart
from climbing aboard the shining airplane
and rising toward freedom in a driving rain.

It's the same feeling I have every time
I come to the end of Othello,
when the Moor listens to Iago's
outrageous insinuations in utter disbelief
before having him whipped and imprisoned for life,

and then embarking with Desdemona
on a honeymoon cruise through the Aegean.

Or when, in the final, grainy frames,
the handsome young President in the open car
kisses Jackie with unabashed vigor,

and all the spectators on the grassy knoll
put down their cameras for a moment
and burst into spontaneous applause
as the limo returns triumphant to the airport.

It's like that giddy feeling I had,
that sense of having stepped from a cave
into a bright meadow full of flowers,
when the doctors announced
that the looming gray mass on my mother's spine
had turned out to be nothing more
than a harmless flyspeck on the negative,

a feeling of pure, high-octane joy
of the sort I haven't experienced
since the day my wife came back to me in tears,

begging me to forgive her
for even considering the possibility
of leaving me. And of course I forgave her,

and held her for a long time
before taking her out to Mario's,
where we like to go on Friday night,

and the waiter brought us to our usual table
and the evening ended as evenings do

when there's been a little too much wine,
and the woman is very beautiful
and a sudden rain makes everything shine.

I especially like how the speaker's regret for his wife is the culmination of the poem, because in so many of the other poems in the volume (Haywire), there's a bitter, cynical attitude about why she left and how useless it is to wish for a different outcome to the marriage.

And yet, I still wish. Do you? Wouldn't you, just once, like to see the young couple at the door of the Frankenstein castle in the middle of the night look at each other and say "why are we about to knock on the door of this creepy place? Let's go." Wouldn't you like to see Romeo mourn for just a few more minutes? Wouldn't it be nice to see Mayella and Arthur find each other and live happily ever after, not even noticing how Tom Robinson lives his life down the road? Well, okay. In Mary Poppins' terminology "Maybe that's going a bit too far" (in the movie Bert replies "Indubitably").

Is it only tragedies that make us long for what might have been? Have you ever turned a story over and over in your mind searching for a way out?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Too Laid-Back

Perhaps Frederick Barthelme's Waveland is not a novel that should be read in an Ohio February, since it's set on the laid-back gulf coast and is scheduled for publication on April 7. But I don't really think it's a novel that should be read at all. I kept going with it because it's well-written. Early on, I loved description like this:
"He was a nasty-looking thing with cartoon hair, stuck up straight as licorice sticks, and a fondness for Hawaiian shirts, of which he seemed to have a good supply. He seemed like trouble to Vaughn, like he could take care of himself and he'd do it at your expense."

But then Vaughn moves back in with his girlfriend Greta to his ex-wife Gail's house after Gail is badly beaten by a boyfriend much too young for her. And it's no big deal. Everyone seems to get along. There are some suggestions of undercurrents, but they're too realistic to be interesting to anyone who doesn't love these characters, and I didn't. When the young boyfriend finally comes over one night, Vaughn sits down and has a talk with him, and then talks to Gail about it:
"If you want to see Tony, that's your business," he said. "He's about half your age."
"Like that matters," she said.
"He's about half your IQ" he said.
"Like that matters," she said.
"So, nothing matters, then" he said.
And that's pretty much the way Vaughn tries to live. He thinks an acceptable life would consist of watching television all day. Even his revelation at the end of the novel, when he imagines
"daily life as an endless succession of such pleasures...the pleasures of toast, the pleasures of hot sunlight, the pleasures of the dark scent of wet dogs, of summer nights, of the crush of sudden thunder, the warmth of winter socks, the surprise of skin indented by furniture" is unsatisfying, at least to me.

Maybe that's the point of this novel--that some folks settle for less. If so, it's just too laid-back and pessimistic for me.

SF Book Review Meme

Here is how it works: Find a favorite book or movie review (Science fiction and fantasy related) that you have written and add it to the following list. Make sure to repost the whole list.

1. Grasping for the Wind - INFOQUAKE by David Louis Edelman
2. Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books - A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
3. Dragons, Heroes and Wizards - ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb
4. Walker of Worlds - THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
5. Neth Space - TOLL THE HOUNDS by Steven Erikson
6. Dark in the Dark - GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY by M.R. James
7. A Dribble of Ink - THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
8. Fantasy Book News & Reviews - EMPRESS by Karen Miller
9. Fantasy Debut - ACACIA by David Anthony Durham Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Overall Review Afterthought
10. All Booked Up - THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley
11. Fantasy Cafe - THE BOOK OF JOBY by Mark J. Ferrari
12. AzureScape - ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson
13. The Book Smugglers - THE INFERIOR by Peadar O'Guilin
14. Besotted Bookworm - PARANORMAL FICTION FEAST by Christine Feehan, Julie Kramer, and Jayne Castle
15. Renee's Book Addiction - WANDERLUST by Ann Aguirre
16. - THE BLACK SHIP by Diana Pharaoh Francis
17. Literary Escapism - FOR A FEW DEMONS MORE by Kim Harrison (with spoilers)
18. Speculative Horizons - THE TERROR by Dan Simmons
19. Stella Matutina - NEW AMSTERDAM by Elizabeth Bear
20. Variety SF - MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement
21. WISB/F&SF Lovin' Blog - SEABORN by Chris Howard
22. Highlander's Book reviews - A MADNESS OF ANGELS by Kate Griffin
23. The Old Bat's Belfry - THE CROWN CONSPIRACY by Michael J. Sullivan
24. Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews - THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
25. The Sci-Fi Gene - PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Mieville
26. Against the Nothing - MAY BIRD AND THE EVER AFTER by Jodi Lynn Anderson
27. Flight into Fantasy - AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
28. Subliminal Intervention - UNWIND by Neal Shusterman
29. Items of Interest - BITTEN TO DEATH by Jennifer Rardin
30. Necromancy Never Pays-- GENERATION DEAD by Daniel Waters

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Book About Mothering

I got the call all mothers dread last Thursday--the call from the school nurse saying that my child had gotten hurt while at school--except that it was Walker who called me, because the nurse was taking care of another child with a sore throat. Walker, like his sister (who once went an entire afternoon at school with a broken arm because she thought it was "just sprained") is not a complainer. So when he called to tell me that he'd hurt his (wait for it) arm, I was out of the house and over to the school in record time. We spent the afternoon in doctor's offices and went home with a splint on Walker's arm for what they told us is a "buckle fracture."

It was a good day, as these days go, because he called me right after he hurt himself, I was in town and able to come right over, and I didn't miss any meetings or classes or even picking up his sister, since she was scheduled to be at an after-school activity until late that afternoon.

I wasn't organized or calm enough to bring either of us a book for what I knew would be an afternoon of waiting, so I didn't finish reading Sing Them Home, by Stephanie Kallos, until yesterday, and reflected that it was the right kind of novel to be reading through most of the week. It's about mothering, especially about how to do it in a small town, and for one character-- Hope--about how to do it in a limited amount of time. One of my favorite parts is when Hope thinks about Sylvia Plath's suicide:
"Some people doubt the authenticity of her intent, since she'd prearranged for someone to come to the flat early in the morning. Wasn't she hoping this person would find her and save her? Surely she was bluffing. Weren't her actions a plea for help rather than a real attempt?
Idiots. Of course not. She was seeing to the children, making sure they'd be taken care of when they woke up. I'd do the same. Any mother would."

I identified with Hope more than any of the other characters, which is a strange way of relating to this novel, because Hope is dead before the events of the novel take place, and we know her mostly through journal entries. There are some odd attempts at third-person beyond-the-grave storytelling that don't work very well, but there's some realism in the attempts of Hope's children to remember her and know each other, while the omniscient narrator reveals how little they actually expose to each other. The small-town setting is a fictional Nebraska town settled by the Welsh, and Welsh traditions are a big part of their life (this was an odd segue from The Eyre Affair, which is also set partly in Wales, albeit a fictional version).

The novel was a very slow read for me, and ultimately it wasn't as compelling as the first novel I read by Kallos (reviewed here). Part of the problem is that the novel is about ordinary lives. One of the culminations of the plot is a small-town contest for eleven-year-old girls, all of whom are "mediocre" but patiently watched by parents and neighbors:
These are not foolish people, deluded people. They know that, in the grand scheme of things, their daughters are undistinguished, ordinary, but that their efforts on this day deserve reward, because it takes courage to put ordinariness in the spotlight."

I am not as patient, as a reader or as a small-town parent. I do shift in my chair when a child soprano goes sharp and after "the twentieth cartwheel." So I got impatient with this story. But then there's always some bit of particularly lyrical prose or an image that stays with me. My other favorite part, again from Hope's journal, is another part where I identify with her, when she thinks about herself as a mother:
"It seems to me that there are people in the world who are able to contain their lives, neatly, calmly. They create boundaries that allow them to function in whatever way is called for at the present moment. They ignore their children, for example, when that is an appropriate response. They pay their bills precisely at the same time every month, clean the bathroom on Wednesdays, plan a week's worth of menus.
I am in the other category. There is spillage everywhere....Motherhood is so messy in so many more ways than I expected. A chaos of emotions and laundry. A life without boundaries, splitting at the seams and spilling over everywhere."

I wish this novel made more sense of the spillage, revealed more of the extraordinary. I might even wish that it was shorter, that a good editor had helped Kallos emphasize why these lives are worth our attention, in the midst of our own.

Friday, February 20, 2009

BY THE CHAPTER: The Eyre Affair, a novel with self-contained sequels

It's complicated to end a novel about what would happen if the line between fiction and reality became blurred, so Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair provides not only a conclusion, but also a self-contained sequel to his own novel and the novel we know as Jane Eyre, in the process of telling the story of how it became the novel we know from the novel that Thursday once knew, the one with the "flawed" ending in which Jane goes off with her cousin St. John Rivers.

In the last section of The Eyre Affair, Jane Eyre is kidnapped out of her own novel, and the narrative stops entirely, since it's told in first person. In the literary world of Thursday Next, this is very big news: "within twenty seconds of Jane's kidnapping, the first worried member of the public had noticed strange goings-on around the area of page 107 of their deluxe hidebound edition....within thirty minutes all the lines into the English Museum library were jammed....within two hours every Litera Tec department was besieged by calls....within four hours the president of the Bronte Federation had seen the prime minister." The bad guy, Hades, whose minion has snatched Jane from her novel finds her "dull...with that puritanical streak" and tells her "you should have gone with Rochester when you had the chance instead of wasting yourself with that drip St. John Rivers." As it turns out (because of the machinizations of Jack Schitt on behalf of Goliath), Hades has to go inside Jane Eyre to bargain for what he wants, and Thursday Next follows him.

Rochester and Thursday conspire to trap Hades and keep the non-characters out of Jane's way. Rochester says "this novel is written in the first person. I can get away to speak with you when I am, to all intents and purposes, out of the story. But you must promise me that you will stay out of Jane's way. I will speak to Mrs. Fairfax and Adele privately; they will understand."

In fact, as it turns out, Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax are unexpectedly adaptable to visitors inside the novel; they've been giving tours to Japanese groups out of Osaka for years. Rochester says "I usually do tours of Thornfield for her guests when Jane is up at Gateshead. It carries no risk and is extremely lucrative. Country houses are not cheap to run, Miss Next, even in this century." As if meeting Japanese tourists in the novel isn't stereotype enough, Thursday notices one "holding a large Nikon camera." The tour guide, Mrs. Nakijima, has her own way into the novel. She might be related to the father from Inkheart, as she jumps from her world into the world of the novel without using a Prose Portal: "I think hard, speak the lines and well, here I am." (Inkheart was published three years after The Eyre Affair.)

As they wait to trap Hades, Thursday and Rochester get better acquainted, and he urges her to marry the man she loves but has not been able to forgive, even though Thursday tells him that he is engaged to another woman. "'And what of that?' scoffed Rochester. 'Probably to someone as unsuitable for him as Blanche Ingram is for me!'"

When finally Hades makes his move, he ends up starting the fire which burns down Thornfield. The madwoman stabs him with a pair of silver scissors, giving Thursday the clue she needs to use a silver bullet to dispatch him, and before he dies he throws the madwoman over a parapet, killing her. Rochester is injured trying to help Thursday to safety, after which she travels to the Riverses' house, goes to her window, "and barked: 'Jane, Jane, Jane!' in a hoarse whisper the way that Rochester did. It wasn't a good impersonation but it did the trick."

Jack Schitt, who turns out to have been interested in the Prose Portal because the guns that will win the Crimean war will work only if they're brought out of the land of fiction, gets pushed into what he thinks is a copy of the gun book (later it turns out to be a volume of Edgar Allan Poe poems, but not the original, so Schitt's changes to the verse only show in that volume), and there he is imprisoned. Thursday has single-handedly freed her uncle, saved her world, improved a fictional world, and stopped the Crimean war after 131 years.

When Thursday goes to the wedding of the man she loves (Langdon) to another woman (Daisy), it turns out that the Rochesters have sent the same soliciter who objected to Rochester's wedding to Jane to this wedding, and for the same reason--to interrupt the ceremony with the news that Daisy Mutlar is previously married, and thus can't marry the man Thursday loves. The soliciter brings news of Jane Eyre's happily ever after: "Their first-born is now five; a fine healthy boy, the image of his father. Jane produced a beautiful daughter this spring gone past. They have named her Helen Thursday Rochester."

And Thursday gets her own brief sequel. Two SpecOps officers show up on the penultimate page of this novel, and one of them gives her a piece of advice: "If you ever have a son who wants to be in the ChronoGuard, try and dissuade him." Yes, it is significant that both Thursday and Langdon think he "looks familiar."

In fact, there are a number of actual sequels to The Eyre Affair (listed here), and all of them are fun (most particularly, if you ask me, because in addition to literature, they celebrate the game of croquet). As the sequels continue, the world gets more and more complicated, like one of those really long jokes that is extremely funny if you can remember to tell all the parts in the right order. If you enjoyed reading The Eyre Affair, read the sequels without letting too much time elapse in between each one to keep your enjoyment going.

And if you enjoy such things, tell me what work of fiction you'd most like to read a sequel to, and maybe how you wish the characters would end up. For example, since I was speaking of Cornelia Funke novels, I would so like to see how The Thief Lord solves his first case, and how he compensates for not yet being the age he appears to be. I'd like to see more of why he considers himself fortunate, and how he would either avoid being mistaken for his father or continue to use the resemblance to his advantage.

By the Chapter: The Eyre Affair Wrap-Up

Marcia also has a wrap-up of The Eyre Affair today at The Printed Page. Stop by over there to get a different point of view on the novel's conclusion!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

BY THE CHAPTER: The Eyre Affair: We Change Literature, and Literature Changes Us

Literature changes us. It makes us more knowledgeable and tolerant, it makes us long to see places we've read about, sometimes it makes us want to act like a different kind of person...I'm sure you can think of lots more examples.

In the world of The Eyre Affair, people change literature. By going into it. What a great fantasy! I asked last time what work of fiction you'd like to go into. This time I want you to think about how we do sometimes get to participate in fiction, even if we don't all join the Society for Creative Anachronism, or buy a ticket to a place that recreates a fictional world, like the local Renaissance Festival, Universal Studios in California, or Shannon Hale's fictive "Austenland." If you're my age, you probably went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when you were in college, and you didn't just sit there and watch. If you were really gung-ho about it, you dressed up. If not, you at least brought a piece of toast and a lighter. In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next goes to see a Rocky Horror-type production of Shakespeare's tragedy of Richard III. Because in her world, people don't waste their time learning dialogue like "so come up to the lab and see what's on the slab. I see you shiver with antici... pation" so they can chant along. They open the show by shouting "WHEN is the winter of our discontent?" so that the audience member chosen to play Richard that evening can reply " the winter of our discontent...." They bring sunglasses to put on when Richard says "...made glorious SUMMER by this son of York...." And when the play reaches the point at which the battle of Bosworth field takes place, "most of the audience ended up on the stage."

But with the Prose Portal, Thursday's Uncle Mycroft makes going into literature literal. When the bad guy, Acheron Hades ("I'm not mad, I'm just...well, differently moraled") kidnaps Mycroft and the Prose Portal, he has one of his minions go into his stolen original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit, bring back one of the characters (a completely made-up minor character that Fforde names Mr. Quaverly), and then kill him, making him disappear from all copies of the novel, forever. Acheron then threatens to do the same thing to the main character, Martin Chuzzlewit, unless his demands are met, because, as he says, "I was made to study the book at O-level and really got to hate the smug little shit. All that moralizing and endless harking on about the theme of selfishness." But Mycroft foils his diabolical scheme by burning the original manuscripts of Martin Chuzzlewit. Acheron is then forced to steal another manuscript. He regrets that no original Shakespeare manuscripts survive, because he would have loved to "rub out" Hamlet or Romeo, but he considers Pride and Prejudice or something by Trollope before deciding on Jane Eyre. (Just to add to the silliness, Acheron is caught reading the manuscript before he finishes stealing it and says "I hate it when that happens....just when you get to a good bit!")

Other people from Thursday's world have been going into literature without the prose portal. Her childhood visit to Jane Eyre caused Rochester's horse to slip, and he says "your intervention improved the narrative." Thursday learns that "this has happened before" when one of the Litera Tecs she works with tells her about coming across a fictional character named Christopher Sly who had come out of The Taming of the Shrew, and concludes that "the barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think." He then tells her about a real person who went into Dickens's Dombey and Son and stayed there as a minor character.

That the barriers between fiction and reality have been breaking down is also known to the Goliath corporation and their know-nothing shill, aptly named Jack Schitt. He says "over the last hundred years there has been an inexplicable cross-fertilization between works of fiction and reality." He wants the Prose Portal so that Goliath can control access to the world of fiction. That's the situation at the end of Chapter 28, at any rate.

With some romance for Thursday and a time travel adventure thrown in, the silliness of this novel keeps ratcheting up, like a five-year-old at a really fun birthday party. The names are chosen for comic effect, as we discussed briefly yesterday over at The Printed Page. In this middle section of the novel, they get even more preposterous--Chapter Twenty introduces "Dr. Runcible Spoon," and the buxom woman who is Thursday's romantic rival turns out to be named "Daisy Mutlar." Also the Marlowe claim to authorship of Shakespeare is added to the fun, as Thursday gets to know the barman at the Cheshire Cat well enough to find out that he is the head of the Kit Marlowe society by day. And there's a geographical insult I enjoyed, when Thursday's boss tells her he has a chance to get a promotion if he moves to Ohio, and she asks why he hasn't accepted. "'Have you to Ohio?' he asked in an innocent tone of voice."

For those readers of The Eyre Affair who haven't read Jane Eyre, Thursday helpfully summarizes the entire plot, ostensibly for her boss, on pages 270-272. This is the lead-in to the last third of the book, which takes place in the novel Jane Eyre, and in which all the loose ends are pulled to make a very complicated cat's cradle of a resolution to the story.

If you're reading The Eyre Affair, is there a silly character name that's your favorite so far?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice: Punching Bag of the Moment

We can't even call this one a "sequel:"

Elton John's film company, Rocket Pictures, has announced plans for a movie called Pride and Predator, in which aliens wreak havoc in the world of Elizabeth and Darcy.

What is it about Pride and Prejudice that's attracting all the weirdos lately?

By The Chapter

Marcia from The Printed Page is discussing Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair with me all this week. See what she has to say about it today (Wednesday) at The Printed Page.
On Thursday, you can come back here to see what else I have to say about it. (That's this Thursday. Not Thursday next.)
Friday we'll both do a wrap-up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

BY THE CHAPTER: THE EYRE AFFAIR: A World In Which Everyone Cares About Literature

When I first read The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, I was absolutely seized with the idea that there could be a world in which everyone cares about literature even more than I do. I mean, that's a lot. Let me give you some examples.

The protagonist of The Eyre Affair is Thursday Next, and in her world, instead of old video game and bubblegum machines in the untidy corners of transport stations, there are Will-Speak machines, officially known as Shakespeare Soliloquy Vending Automatons--the one in her hometown is of Richard III: "It was a simple box, with the top half glazed and inside a realistic mannequin visible from the waist up in suitable attire. The machine would dispense a short snippet of Shakespeare for ten pence. They hadn't been manufactured since the thirties and were now something of a rarity; Baconic vandalism and a lack of trained maintenance were together hastening their demise." (Baconians are the most vocal about the "who-wrote-Shakespeare" quandry in Thursday's world, as in ours; she surprises one by suggesting it could it have been de Vere.)

Thursday has been working as Litera Tec (literary detective) in London under "Area Chief Boswell" who "never seemed happier than when he was on the trail of a counterfeit Coleridge or a fake Fielding. It was under Boswell that we arrested the gang who were stealing and selling Samuel Johnson first editions; on another occasion we uncovered an attempt to authenticate a flagrantly unrealistic version of Shakespeare's lost work, Cardenio." (Yes, Cardenio is a lost play in our world, too, although there's a new production of it here.)

In the course of her day, Thursday passes a Crimean war veteran who is reciting Longfellow for pennies on the street corner, boys who are swapping bubble-gum cards with pictures of characters from the novels of Henry Fielding, a hotel receptionist who discusses the works of John Milton, and a bar called The Cheshire Cat where the barman is dressed like a hatter and asks her "why is a raven like a writing desk?" to which she answers "because Poe wrote on both." In her hotel room, Thursday finds not only a Gideon Bible in her bedside table, but also "the teachings of Buddha and an English copy of the Koran. There was also a GSD volume of prayer and a Wesleyian pamphlet, two amulets from the Society for Christian Awareness, the thoughts of St. Zvlkx and the now mandatory Complete Works of William Shakespeare." In the course of her work as a literary detective, Thursday deals with "a lot of gullible people out there buying first ediitions of Byronic verse at knockdown prices, then complaining bitterly when they found out they were fakes." She works in an office with people who "keep an eye on forgery, illegal dealing and overtly free thespian interpretations" and operate a machine called the "Verse Meter Analyzer" which "breaks down any prose or poem into its components--words, punctuation, grammar and so forth--then compares that literary signature with a specimen of the target writer in its own memory. Eight-nine percent accuracy. Very useful for spotting forgeries."

The plot of the detective story revolves around Thursday's involvement in the investigation of the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit from the Dickens museum at Gad's Hill, out of a supposedly theft-proof case where it is kept constantly under guard. In the course of pursuing an armed suspect, Thursday is shot, and it turns out that the mysterious stranger who kept her from bleeding to death is no other than the fictional Mr. Rochester, from Jane Eyre. How does a fictional character save a Litera Tec? Well, it turns out that in Thursday's world, certain people can go into works of fiction. Thursday's Uncle Mycroft invented a device called a Prose Portal and sent his wife Polly into a Wordsworth poem, where she is still trapped at the end of Chapter 14.

But here's an important point. In Thursday's world, people don't love the novel Jane Eyre as much as people like me love it, and there's a good reason for that: "the rather flawed climax of the book was a cause of considerable bitterness within Bronte circles. It was generally agreed that if Jane had returned to Thornfield Hall and married Rochester, the book might have been a lot better than it was." (!!!) If you've read Jane Eyre, you know that this is, in fact, how the novel ends. In Thursday's world, the novel evidently ends with Jane going off with her cousin, St. John Rivers, to live chastely and do good works for the rest of her days.

That's the set-up. That's what I love most about reading The Eyre Affair--imagining what might have been. As you think about novels that didn't go exactly where you wanted them to--characters who didn't marry, dynasties that died out, castles that fell, disused, into ruin--can you think of any, in particular, that you'd like to go into, if you could change the outcome? (One of my choices is always Little Women, as I've said before.) What novel would you pick? What would you change?

Monday, February 16, 2009

By The Chapter: The Eyre Affair

Marcia from The Printed Page is discussing Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair with me all this week. Here's the schedule:

Monday at The Printed Page
Tuesday here at Necromancy Never Pays
Wednesday at The Printed Page again
Thursday here again, and
Friday we'll both do a wrap-up on the novel.

If you haven't read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, you will miss great walloping spoonsful of fun in The Eyre Affair. And The Eyre Affair is a great funny detective story, so if you haven't read it, find a copy and read along with us this week. Here is a short author introduction to the novel.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Puzzle For Adults Who Want to Play

I've been watching our three cats watch the new kitten play, and noticing how seldom they join in, even now that they've been adequately reassured about their place in the universe of our house.

It's mid-February, the time of year when I can't think of anything fun to do. I used to have an annual tea and poetry reading, but the friends who live near enough to come are currently much too busy and important to spend time doing anything that's not absolutely necessary. This is how kids often feel, I realize. They look at adults and wonder why we stand facing each other with our arms folded over our chests.

But my valentine sympathizes about how boring it is to act adult all the time--he got me the most wonderful valentine's day present to help me through the middle of February--it's a big red book entitled The Encyclopedia of Immaturity, and it has pages and pages of fun stuff to do. There are even things in there especially for parents who can't think of fun stuff, like "How to Do the Deadly Selfnap" (pull your head back by the hair and scream as you back out your kid's bedroom door after saying good night). There are practical things for kids who never had neighborhood friends teach them to do dangerous stuff, like "How to Do a Wheelie," and variations on how to make someone jinx ("In the morning when the teacher is calling roll, get ready to pounce. When your victim's name is called, holler "here" right when they do and then go straight to the jinx.")

Here's a puzzle from the book. The directions are to "Give the paragraph below to anyone who needs something to do with their brain for awhile. Its trick is obvious to those who know, but quite opaque to those who don't."

How quickly can you find out what is unusual about this paragraph? It looks so ordinary that you would think that nothing was wrong with it at all; and in fact, nothing is. But it is unusual. Why? If you study it and think about it you may find out, but I am not going to assist you in any way. You must do it without coaching. No doubt if you work at it for long, it will dawn on you. I don't know. Now, go to work and try your luck.

Okay, readers, can you figure it out? If you can't and you beg hard enough, I'll post the answer in the comments.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Veritable Plethora of Monkeys

Earlier this week I wanted to go someplace with monkeys, and then I started reading the new car book I just received from Amy, mostly because of this positive review and, to my delight, I had landed in a story that has a veritable plethora of monkeys.

For a "between the numbers" Stephanie Plum novel, Plum Spooky (by Janet Evanovich) is the best of a mediocre lot. This one charmed me in spite of its attempt at woo-woo stuff with a character called Diesel who keeps telling Stephanie that people leave "cosmic debris" that he can track, and then laughs at her, saying "you don't really think there's cosmic dust, do you?"

Not only is Stephanie looking after Carl, the pet monkey of a woman she once met, she discovers an entire back yard full of monkeys in the course of her bounty hunter rounds. Carl is a charmer who understands everything that is said to him, eats the same food as Stephanie and Diesel, gives people the finger when appropriate, and makes annoying repetitive sounds in place of "are we there yet?" when a car trip starts to get long (Diesel solves that problem by buying him a handheld video game).

The end of the novel is where all the monkey jokes really started to pile up. At one point Morelli asks how Stephanie's day is going and she replies
"It's average. Stole a truck. Blew up a house. Brought seven monkeys home with me. And now I have a naked man in my shower."
"Yeah, same ol', same ol', Morelli said."

Just a few pages later, Stephanie has to call Ranger when the five monkeys inside the jeep she's borrowed from him lock her out: "He took a key out of his pocket and opened the car door. 'Do you want the two on the roof inside? Or do you want the five inside to get out of the car?'"

The final time Morelli asks Stephanie how her day has been, many people would think the joke has already gone too far. She replies that she
"blew up a fuel depot, stole twelve rockets and made off with them in a stolen van, got kidnapped by a maniac, and had dinner with a guy who farted fire."
"That would be funny, but I'm worried it's all true."
"It's been a long couple days."

But what would a novel like this be without excess? It's kind of like watching the Simpsons, only quieter, and you can take it wherever you go, as long as you can laugh quietly. Which I can't, actually, so I read it at home, where everyone but the new kitten is used to my laugh.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Feel-Good Book for Oldyweds

I need a feel-good book in February, and this one did the job starting with the title: Everyone Is Beautiful. As a bonus, the cover has a picture of an iced chocolate cupcake. The author, Katherine Center, has apparently been getting attention from the mommyblogs, but she deserves some from book bloggers, too, before the novel comes out on Feb. 17, because not only is the description of dealing with small children realistic, but the novel is well-written and wry and it earns its title and its happy ending, much like you have to earn the benefits of a long-lasting marriage.

There were bits that I had to read out loud to Ron, most notably the comment when a woman asks another woman "when are you due," not realizing that she's 10 months postpartum:

"Here is my policy on that question: Don't ever ask it. Even if you're talking to a woman who is clearly about to have quintuplets. Just don't ask. Because if you're wrong, you've just said one of the most horrible things you can say to a woman. If you're wrong, you've ruined her week--possibly her month and even her year. If you're wrong, she will go home and cry, and not even be able to tell her husband what she's crying about. He'll ask over and over as she lies face-down on their bed, and she'll have no choice but to say "It's nothing," and then, "Please, just leave me alone."

I wouldn't want my husband to think that I could be that shallow and silly. Would you?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ever So Much More So

In a children's book about Homer Price, there was a sort of "Emperor's new clothes" thing called "ever so much more so" that made things, well, you know. It's a phrase I think of when I or one of my kids gets wound up, or when anything is bigger and louder than I was expecting. I thought of the phrase when I read Toni Jordan's brand-new first novel entitled Addition, because it's about a woman who counts. Sometimes the counting is interesting, sometimes it seems harmless, and then sometimes it's absolutely incapacitating, like when she misses a date because of her compulsion to count each individual bristle in her toothbrush (the number is over a thousand).

This is an unlikely book for me to enjoy, on one level. I'm not a counter. But I am fascinated by counting--the first time I noticed someone's counting was the first time I went grocery shopping with Ron, in college, and he gave me a running total as I put each item into the cart. He counts cars on a train as it goes past. He used to say that when he got to heaven, he expected to know how many steps he'd taken in his entire life. And his son is cut from the same cloth. When Walker was about two, he would read me the numbers on advertisements (and since I read the letters and often ignored the numbers, we didn't always realize we were looking at the same sign). When he was four, he took one look at a carousel and told me how many horses it had on it. By the time he was seven, he no longer took my estimations as truth, saying in a voice dripping with scorn "Mom, you're ROUNDING!"

So I wasn't sure how to react to a novel titled Addition with the first line "It all counts." I started being amused by it when the protagonist, Grace, is thinking about her hero, Nikola Tesla, and thinks about how she would describe herself to him:
"My name is Grace Lisa Vandenburg....I am 35 years old. My mother, Marjorie Anne, is 70 and my sister, Jill Stella, is 33. Jill is married to Harry Venables; he's 40 on the second of May. They have 3 children: Harry Junior is 11, Hilary is 10 and Bethany is 6. My father's name was James Clay Vandenburg and he died. I am a teacher, although I'm not working now. I was in love when I was 21. He was funny and clever and wanted to be a filmmaker. His name was Chris and he looked a bit like Nick Cave. I lost my virginity in his car outside my mother's house. It took 4 months before I realized he was also sleeping with his flatmate. I don't like coriander. I don't understand interpretive dance. I don't like realist paintings. Lycra makes me look fat."
The random quality of the list reminds me of the Facebook meme "25 things."

But I didn't really start identifying with Grace until she meets a man named Seamus and starts thinking about going on a date with him:
"My last date was 2 years 6 months ago with that idiot Simon, some friend of Harry's. Jill organized it. I thought Jill said he was a Swiss baker. Interesting, I thought. Loaves with 17 different kinds of seeds. Intricate little pastries filled with chocolate. Secret recipes passed through generations of yodeling fathers and sons. All night I worried about how he would get to work by 3 A.M. to start the yeast fermenting if he kept drinking like that. By the time I realized he was a Swiss banker I was so bored I had almost lost the will to live."
Grace is funny and smart and quirky, a good conversationalist who can show someone into her apartment saying "This is it....My lair. It's here I hatch my plans for world domination. I'm saving for a white Persian and a monocle."

So it's painful to see Grace awaken on the morning of her niece's recital, one she really wants to attend with Seamus, even though it's always a bit of an effort for her to do something outside her usual routine, "panting and sweating," thinking "I've been counting things in my mind, but not with my hands. I don't really know how many books I have, or spoons or hairpins. I feel dizzy and there is a pain in my chest that radiates down my left arm. The 5 digits of my left hand are tingly. All this time I've never thought about it. What if the answers are different? What if the numbers that come from minds are different from the numbers that come from hands? It's our digits that dictate the numbers, not obscure processes in our minds that can't even be seen." And it's a relief to see Seamus come for her at the appointed time and make her a list with numbers, telling her "you've got 10 minutes to pack the kitchen. Then you need to get ready, but you must time yourself according to the numbers I've written down here." With that kind of help, Grace is able to get ready and go to the recital. But the experience convinces her that she needs to try therapy and drugs again. She works with the psychiatrist and the occupational therapist, even though she is put in a group with obsessive compulsives who worry about germs (Grace calls them the Germphobics) and the therapist is one of those cheery, well-meaning health-care workers who chirp vacuous phrases at you the entire time you do what has been assigned. The medication gives Grace "the weirdest sensation of having two brains--one in charge of abstract thoughts and concepts and the other in charge of my body."

As the medication and therapy begin to work, Grace becomes less like herself, less picky about food, less interesting and intelligent, virtually humorless, glued to the television all day, and with a nonexistent sex drive. It takes throwing Seamus out of her apartment, vigorously resisting the suggestion that her mother be moved to a nursing home, and trying to re-establish a connection with her niece to wake Grace from her medicated state. For the reader, this is a considerable relief. Like the niece, we've missed Grace. Her personality, her humor, everything that makes her unique has been siphoned off so she can feel more "normal." But when she calls to cancel her therapy, she says that she's learned that "life is like a bunch of flowers....A mixed bunch....When the rose is full and red, the carnation is beginning to open. When the petals of the lily are shriveling and dropping that annoying orange dust all over the hall table, the gerbera is still perfect. Often because it has a wire stuck up its stem."

The novel's resolution is set up when, during a conversation with her niece, Grace says that the story of Nikola Tesla is the "story of the power and the burden of someone who thinks differently from the rest of us" and says that he wasn't "average," a word that her sister once used to describe Seamus. Her niece points out that "average doesn't mean normal. The average means you divide the total of something by the number of things in it. So the average can actually be unique." Grace decides to forgive Seamus, and when she sees him again, he explains that he wanted to make her happy, not "normal". He says he did come around and call after she threw him out and she responds "Only 23 times....Quitter."

With Seamus, Grace discovers she likes football (since the story is set in Melbourne, this means soccer) because "It's all about numbers: touches, handballs, kicks, marks, percentage. And each player has a number on his back!" At the end of the novel, with the help of Seamus and her niece, Grace has become "ever so much more so" herself, able to vary her routine even when it makes her anxious. Grace can go to the food court at the mall, and says that when her niece notices "my eyes shut or my breathing become shallow, she speaks soft words in my ear about courage and triumph and how proud she is of her aunt." The resolution of this novel reminds me of another Australian story, the part in Crocodile Dundee where the New Yorker tells him her friends are "in therapy" and he responds "haven't they got any mates?" Addition is not telling anyone with OCD to go off the medication. It is showing how, with mates, such a thing is possible for a person who wants to spend any time in public.

This is another in the recent lineup of novels about people who don't think the way others do, and my favorite so far, mostly for the portrayal of Francine, the chirpy occupational therapist. Anyone who has any acquaintance with a person who has had to get help from mental health professionals will recognize the quandry Grace is in, trying to cooperate with and be nice to a woman who means well but is not anywhere near as intelligent as the person she's trying to help.

I also enjoyed reading this novel in the wake of reading about a recent diagnosis of autism. Like Grace, this blogger has an enviable sense of perspective:

Kids with autism have an incredibly wide range of symptoms. Here’s where we’re lucky: Hen has the speech delay, obviously, but not the digestive issues, the seizures, the bad tantrums, or the obsessive stim behaviours. In general, he’s a quiet kid with a knack for puzzles and perfect toilet skills – extremely thinky, and not too emotional, but more like a little Spock than, say, Rain Man. There’s every reason to hope that he’ll be able to outgrown the autism label, if not the condition itself, and go on to have a regular life. Regular like a Vulcan, anyway.

As readers continue to reassess what "regular" or "normal" means with regard to human personality, I think more novels in which we can identify with someone "other" will help broaden the way we're able to see. And the more we can see, the more we can know. Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (and my new kitten), we should all "run and find out" more.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Love Poem

Here's a love poem for the week of Valentine's day. It struck me anew as lovely, in the wake of the Twilight jokes about watching a loved one sleep and towards the end (I hope) of my powerful winter somnolence:

Variation on the Word Sleep, by Margaret Atwood

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

In truth, though, the odds of me being awake to watch anyone else sleep are low. I need more sleep than other people do, as I learned unequivocally 29 years ago this month when a doctor confirmed I was suffering from "exhaustion" after a week during which I got only about 4 hours of sleep a night. But hey, is romance about truth? No. Romance is about what you wish for. A person can dream!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Someplace with Monkeys

This morning I read the newspaper and looked at google news, and then I read some of the blogs I follow, and all of the sudden, some of my inarticulate fears coalesced into an image, and that image is the house in Dr. Zhivago full of desperate people after the revolution, courtesy of the Green-Eyed Siren. She says what a lot of bloggers are feeling about the economic crisis:
"... I feel like I’m developing dual identities. One part of me is happily Facebooking and Tweeting and blogging about all that is random and useless, generally with an ample helping of bad-economy gallows humor. The other part of me is in a constant state of fear and depression, like a background application gone haywire, breaking through my online party time more and more frequently to have anxiety attacks about our collective future."

I've been feeling this way since September, when I started feeling like maybe I was like Nero, fiddling in the local symphony and reading books to escape present reality. And yet, as the Siren points out, what more can any of us non-experts do than continue to take care of the things important to us, including our children? One of the questions Harriet got this week is about whether we should all chuck our "serious writing pursuits" and collaborate on a money-making romance novel, and she said yes, "let's go write it in Bermuda. Or someplace with monkeys." Now, that's escapism.

But I'm thinking about W.H. Auden (which you know I do a lot), and about how his poem "September 1, 1939" was revised during his lifetime and then how very often it was quoted in September, 2001, and how important it still seems right now:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives:
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge iimago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what Dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow,
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

All I have is a voice, and even if I would like to go write nonsense someplace with monkeys, that's just talk. It's connecting with others. And if "we must love one another or die" or any of the variations on that line that Auden tried, connection itself is important.

And humor is important; think of the father in Life is Beautiful, and the courage it can take to get through what later might be identified as a Bad Time in History. Also, Dr. Zhivago may be scary, in parts, but why is it one of the few Russian novels made into a movie that many Americans have seen? It's a love story.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sometimes It's Important to Take a Stand

The Booking Through Thursday question (Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse - a biography has made you love an author more?) has continued to stir up a controversy that I helped to begin, however inadvertently, with a comment about why I will no longer buy books by Orson Scott Card on Maw Books Blog. If I had been thinking at all, I probably wouldn't have left the initial comment, because I didn't realize that the blog author is a Mormon, as Card is. But now that I have spoken without thinking, I find myself in the position of having to take a stand, and I'll do it without any more apology to Natasha, who seems to be a lovely person, because I don't think that all Mormons spread hate of homosexuals any more than I believe all Roman Catholics are from big families or all Muslims are terrorists.

As I've said in several places (Hey, Lady, Watcha Readin'? for example), I'm usually not aware of an author's views, and it wouldn't make any difference to my enjoyment of their fiction if I were. But I do have issues I feel strongly about, and I think anyone who has a public forum, however small, is obligated to speak out about issues they see as wrong, lest they perpetuate that wrongness by failing to object. The most horrifying examples of perpetuating evil by failing to speak out against it are the Germans who managed not to notice the concentration camps in their country, and the slaveowners who thought it was enough not to mistreat their own slaves, while the neighbors' slaves were suffering untold (literally) agonies. A more recent example of the dangers of thinking that the "live and let live" philosophy is enough is Matthew Shepard's 1998 murder (see my post on that here).

I can't imagine being "put off an author's books after reading a biography of them." Not reading is never the answer! But financially supporting an author I disagree with so vehemently--and who is so public in his support of what I consider evil--is not something I want anyone to do. Even though his books are wonderful. Read them, but get them from the library.

Feeling Like Harrison Withers

I woke up this morning with a big grin like Harrison Withers' in Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. Because yesterday we brought home a kitten. Now I'm spending the day trying to placate the older felines and comfort the younger one, who seems genuinely puzzled to find that anyone doesn't like him. Like Harrison, I'm spending a considerable amount of time watching the kitten, who just accepted my offer of a toy mouse with enthusiasm. This is what Harriet sees when she spots Harrison's new kitten:

"Into the room, as though he owned it, to the accompaniment of loud cooing and baby talk from Harrison Withers [see XKCD comic] walked the tiniest cat Harriet had ever seen. It was a funny-looking little black-and-white kitten which had a mustache which made it look as though it were sneering. It stopped, looked at Harrison Withers as though he were a curiosity, and then walked disdainfully across the room. Harrison Withers watched in adoration. Harriet leaned back and wrote:

We've always believed in serendipitous cats. They turn up (especially if you frequent the local humane society). Now if I could just persuade the older feline residents to take their very dramatic paws down from their foreheads.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Interview With the Non-Necromancer

Anna at Diary of An Eccentric was kind enough to interview me about books this week, in the process of passing along the "Interviewing Other Bloggers Meme" (she got her questions from Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit, and she formulated her own questions for me and also Christine at She Reads Books and Marie at Boston Bibliophile).

Anna: Out of all the books you've read, which one affected you the most, and why?
Jeanne: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I read it when it first came out, in 1986, and it made quite an impression on me. I was 26 years old, at the height of my fertility, and an adamant supporter of the pro-choice movement ever since an experience with a high school friend whose "religious" parents would have quite literally kicked her out of the house for being pregnant, except that she had a miscarriage before all of her friends could give her the money we'd pooled to get her an abortion. I had never so clearly connected being forced to carry a baby with women's rights and with what was happening with the Taliban in Afghanistan until I read the passage in which Offred has her picture taken by a group of Japanese tourists and tells them yes, she is "happy" (because she has already had her daughter, husband, mother, and best friend taken away and she has been beaten and terrified into submission). Later I came to appreciate The Handmaid's Tale for its deft weaving of the rights guaranteed by the United States Bill of Rights into the fabric of the fiction, but at first reading, it was the visceral aspect that got me. Offred is a womb with legs, nothing more.

Anna: Everyone always asks for book recommendations, but what is one book you think people should avoid at all costs?
Jeanne: Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. To me, it is the epitome of a novelist's misguided attempt to write nonfiction thinly disguised as fiction. It is an environmentalist argument that she made much better in her (later) nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I love most of Kingsolver's novels, but she really needs to guard against her tendency to try to preach in her fiction.

Anna: What is the first book you remember reading?
Jeanne: Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss. My parents read this to me every year on my birthday--still will, if we're together. So I memorized it very young and could "read" it before anything else. One of my favorite parts was always when the animals would stand on their tiptoes because it was such an honor to be "the tallest of all-est." I have always been taller than almost everyone else, so I liked thinking that was a good thing.

Anna: When I'm browsing books, sometimes I come across a title that hits me. I don't always read the book, but the title amuses me or gets to me in some way. What's your favorite book title? Have you read the book? (Ex: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. I probably won't ever read this book, but I chuckle every time I see the title.)
Jeanne: If I have to pick just one, it will have to be another YA title, one that I chuckle at every time I go to a bookstore: One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. I haven't read it because my daughter skimmed through it in the store once and told me it wasn't really worth reading. What a great title, though!

Anna: What's the one book you love and wish you'd written?
Jeanne: Whoa! I'm going to take this in the spirit of "what book do you think it's even remotely possible you could have been in the right spirit to be able to write if you were a million times cleverer and more patient than you are?" And the answer is: Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Okay, yeah, I know. It's presumption to even think it. But it's the way I wish I could write, if I could write fiction at all, which I can't. If I had written something like that, I would have just strutted around the rest of my life crowing like Peter Pan: "Oh, the Cleverness of Me!" But really, I'm too earnest.

And that's my interview. If you would like me to interview you about books and what you think of them and all, leave me a comment with your contact information. If you would just like to comment on my opinions, well that's okay, too.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Today is the one year blogoversary of Necromancy Never Pays!
See full size imageAs a fitting subject for the day, I offer you a review of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard. This book is scheduled for publication on July 7, 2009. It's not that compelling in terms of plot (in fact, I found the plot entirely predictable), but it has a lot of very funny situations and turns of phrase that kept me reading and laughing out loud.

Johannnes marches into hell and demands an audience with Satan, bypassing the supercilious clerk who keeps everyone else filling out forms for all eternity by showing him his own skull and threatening that he will "go back to the land of the living in a truly abominable mood, raise you as a body, and then make you wish you were dead all over again. Repeatedly." Johannes then makes a deal with the devil and gets put in charge of an evil carnival designed to identify people who will sign away their souls. He goes by a crypt and picks up his brother, who he had left for dead 8 years before and who is now a vampire, and they begin riding the rails with the "Cabal Brothers Carnival," which is really Satan's "Carnival of Discord." When they select the first person to sign away his soul, however, the plot twists a little, as the vampire brother, Horst, has selected a brutal man who beats and terrorizes his girlfriend. Johannes says "being dead has made you rather less liberal than I remember," to which Horst replies "my motto always used to be 'Live and let live.' Under the circumstances, I need a new one." And Johannes responds, saying "we're supposed to be doing the devil's work and you've gone and contaminated it all with the whiff of virtue. I really don't think you've quite got the hang of being an agent of evil." And, of course, as they continue selecting souls, the brothers manage to pick out only people who richly deserve to lose their souls.

The best parts of the novel are the parts in which Johannes or Horst lets a person go free, as they discover who is worthy of being damned and who is not. There's a wonderful scene with Johannes and a ghost he ends up sending off to heaven, and another with Horst in which he saves a young boy from signing away his soul to become an astronaut. The young boy writes his story for a school assignment, complete with the bits of the seduction adventure that didn't work very well on him, like the attention of "Valerie, the commandant's beautiful daughter" to whom he responds "I meen she's a GURL, uech, yak, spu. She wil want to kiss and talk about ponys."

After a climactic meeting with a lunatic would-be necromancer called Rufus Maleficarus and his singing Maleficarian Army, which makes Johannes remember "that the musical genius who'd decided to put on Necronomicon: The Musical had got everything he deserved: money, fame, and torn to pieces by an invisible monster," and during which Rufus manages to send Johannes to a "pocket world" in which time stands still and croquet is played sedately, even though "Cabal knew enough about croquet to know that it is a game with undercurrents: calculating, ruthless, and with a cold-blooded desire to destroy the opposition," Johannes lectures Rufus on necromancy:
"Your problem, Rufus Maleficarus, is that you never understood why magic was superceded by science. If you listen to the sad old wizards up in their keeps and the witches in the dales, you might believe it had something to do with the passing of the Seelie and the Unseelie from our world. Or the dust-sheet of cynicism settling on our hearts and driving out the wonder. Or children refusing to say that they believe in fairies. Poppycock. I'll tell you why. Convenience. I only practice necromantics because there's no other way of doing it. But when it comes to applied sciences, technologies, any spotty Herbert with a degree and a lab coat can perform greater wonders than Merlin."
The Johannes shoots Rufus, in a manner reminiscent of the Indiana Jones scene in which Indy shoots the guy who is whirling around in martial arts poses in front of him.

The predictability of the plot is broadcast before the end by a quarrel between the two brothers. Horst is horrified that Johannes is willing to tempt a woman into doing evil, rather than just taking the soul of someone who has already done evil. He tells Johannes to "look at yourself. Ye gods, Johannes, you were going to be a doctor! You wanted to help people." And Johannes replies "Doctors. Frauds and quacks. Just trying to hold back the dark and full of pat excuses when they fail. Too stupid or too scared to bring back the light. Not me. Not me! I'll be the modern Prometheus no matter what I have to do, no matter how dark I have to make it before I can find the secret." Yeah, modern Prometheus. In case you haven't seen a copy lately, that's the subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

But Johannes does not completely turn to "the dark side" in the end; neither does he give up necromancy. He and Satan finagle each other and Johannes comes out with some of what he wanted, and then goes home with two of the human figures he raised from the dead to work at his carnival:
"He opened the gate and walked in, followed by Dennis and Denzil. A multitude of tiny chiming voices started whispering from the herbaceous borders. 'It's Johannes Cabal! Johannes Cabal! He's back!' Dennis and Denzil, clown faces creaking, looked dubiously at each other. Cabal stopped by the corner of the house and pointed down the path that led around the side. 'You two. Nothing personal, but I'm not having a couple of shambling disasters like you shedding pieces all over the Persian rugs. Down there you'll find a hut. That's your new home.' As he watched them shuffle slowly out of sight, he ruminated that--not for the first time--he'd have something rather nasty in the woodshed."

It's the juxtaposition of Johannes Cabal's dark obsession with regaining his own soul and bringing the dead back to life for his own purposes with his acute sense of morality and the ridiculousness of the situations he finds himself in, especially with his brother, that gives this novel the tension that makes it worth reading.

Of course, as usual, necromancy doesn't pay.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Time to Dream

The powerful sleep lobby has taken me over in the past week, and when I get enough sleep and don't have to wake up in what seems the middle of the night to get the kids off to school (6:30 am), I remember my dreams more. The rule at my house is that you don't tell your dream before breakfast unless you want it to come true, and I've recently told two of mine before breakfast. The first was that we had our existing three cats, plus three new kittens. The second was that we were in Hawaii, on the big island.

Fairly often I dream about doing things with people who, when I wake, I know are dead. Then the rest of the day, I go around thinking about what those people would think if they saw what I was doing. My dead are kind people, so I imagine them having a more-than-mortal capacity to forgive my daily foibles. They're like the dead in this poem, "The Dead" by Susan Mitchell:

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.

We're more likely to stay up playing a card game called Rage into the night in the dining room, but surely it's the same kind of noise (when my children were babies, we used to say that we could only play "Mildly Irritated" rather than "Rage" because we're loud people). I remember the sound of my parents murmuring to each other in the hall after I'd gone to bed, or the sound of them watching Hawaii 5-0 on the television in their living room. It's a reassuring sound, my daughter says, to hear adults talking after you've gone to bed.

And it's a reassuring feeling, to wake thinking of someone and to imagine that she's looking down on you, in turn. It's like in this poem, also called "The Dead," by Billy Collins:

The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,

which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

If you're a parent, do you remember waiting for your baby to close his eyes so you could tiptoe out of the room? I remember singing 427 verses of "Froggy Went A-Courting" while my youngest went to sleep. The last 400 verses, of course, were entirely made up. That's a kind of attention that surely endures even after this life is over.