Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Necromancy Never Pays has moved!

After five months of playing around with it and a few days of asking readers' opinions--in the wake of the big Blogger fail of last week--I've decided to take the rest of this blog over to Wordpress.  You can find it there under the same name, and certainly I hope you will.  Here's the link:


and here's the first post over there, that tries to say something about how strange it is to be abandoning all these words over here:


Monday, May 16, 2011

The White Devil

When I saw The White Devil, by Justin Evans, on a list of books that Harper was willing to send me for review, I couldn't resist--even though it's a ghost story and I usually shy away from anything scary. But it's about Byron...

And it turned out to be one of those mysteries where what happens is driven by a character finding out more about Byron's life.  Mmm, total catnip for an English major.  If I could have, I'd have read the whole thing in one pleasant afternoon.  But deadlines and kids' awards ceremonies intervened, and I ended up having to put it down twice, which was two more times than I would have otherwise.

As Jenny observes, this novel has a lot of plot elements, and I think that's what kept me reading. If I got a little tired of one story line, maybe the teenage boy's puerile meanderings about his relationship with his father, there would soon be another one along to keep me going down the track toward finding out more about Byron's relationship with the ghost.

He's a malevolent ghost, and it's not until a scene at the very end that you find out a little bit about why Byron could have loved him.  In the meantime, though, you get some impressions of life in a British boarding school, the realism of which may be due to the author's own year at Harrow.  I like the comparison of the attitude of students to their British teachers and their American ones--at Harrow,
"the banter was larded with respectful Sirs, seasoned with eager, show-offy anecdotes from the newly risen Sixth Formers. All this was friendly, even affectionate..."
while at the American school,
"the baby boomer faculty who had chosen such a low-paying career as teaching were treated with suppressed contempt by the students, children of Wall Streeters, who knew that grades didn't matter, didn't help you make millions; that these teachers, then, must be little better than servants."

When Andrew, the American, comes to Harrow, he is told that he looks like Lord Byron and should therefore act his part in the play that a poet and housemaster is writing, about which of Byron's many sexual partners could be shown to be the love of his life.  The ghost wants that distinction, and he wants Andrew.

So Andrew has to find out what part this ghost might have played in Byron's life, and who he might have wanted to kill, in order to keep his friends alive.

I particularly enjoy the poet's reply to one of Andrew's questions:
"Ah, children, who want to know what poems mean.  They don't mean. They express. They are songs. When you sympathize, you make them mean something...."

I have to admit that I read up until the last few chapters and then put the book aside to finish in the morning, as is my habit if I read anything that might be scary. But I could have gone ahead and read it; it wraps things up nicely without adding anything too horrific.

This was a nice little piece of fiction-candy, suitable for popping all in your mouth at once; one of those attractive, light-colored candies with a dark, chewy center.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blogger, do I know how to quit you?

I'm thinking about it. There's a Wordpress version of this blog (thanks to Lass and Amanda and most especially Anna from Diary of an Eccentric), and I'm going to run both concurrently for a little while and see which one wins.  If you have an opinion, let me know.  If I switch to Wordpress, I'll let you know.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Note:  Due to Blogger fail, the edition of Trivial Pursuit for Booklovers that I scheduled for today didn't post as scheduled. So I'm posting it again. If you see it twice, you'll know that my cry of "Blogger, I wish I knew how to quit you" is diminishing in volume.

Children's: What book by Lois Lowry finds 12-year-old Jonas rebelling against a futuristic society that has decided he is to become a Receiver of Memories?

Classics: What was Scarlett's original name, in the first drafts of Gone With The Wind--Iris, Pansy or Rose?

Non-Fiction: What famed work of art, unearthed on a Greek island in 1820, had its subsequent history revealed in Gregory Curtis' Disarmed?

Book Club: What inventive Robert Coover novella explores the bond between an errant maid and her master?

Authors: What best-selling British author, convicted of perjury, penned the thriller Sons of Fortune and the memoir A Prison Diary while behind bars?

Book Bag: What character was said to resemble Hoagy Carmichael, in Casino Royale?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lucky Jim

When someone in the Imaginary Friends Book Club proposed reading Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, I went downstairs to find my copy, and came back up having found only Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. The paperback I was remembering must have been from my college-professor-parents' house.  So on a subsequent visit to a used book store whose shelves struck me as an oddly exact recreation of my parents', I picked up a copy of Lucky Jim, a spoof of British academic life in the 1950s.

I read the whole thing because it was mildly funny in a low-key, David Lodge kind of way.  But I have to wonder about the point of digging this one up. Didn't we get over the 1950's already?  Wasn't all of Jim's sort of fumbling about with women addressed by the "summer of love"?  And if he didn't want to be a history professor, then surely the lesson of the hippies was that he didn't have to be.  So why reread this book?

It's very British; I was continually irritated by the reiterations of Jim's feeling that "nice things are nicer than nasty things."  Duh!  Only the British eat seed cake when there's gateaux to be had.

Jim, whose last name is Dixon, is very irritating. He rarely does anything nice for anyone; in fact, he specializes in making other peoples' lives more difficult.  That can be funny, but at--what is, for me at least--a very low level, as in this passage:
"when publicly disagreeing with her husband for example, she was the only living being capable of making Dixon sympathize with him. It was rather annoying to hear how kind she'd been; it entailed putting tiresome qualifications on his dislike for her."

When another character finally asks Jim why he wants to teach medieval history in a college, he reveals himself to be the 1950's version of a slacker, one who had some choices but didn't care enough to make them:
"the reason why I'm a medievalist, as you call it, is that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific. It's why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation. But I never guessed I'd be landed with all the medieval stuff and nothing but medieval stuff."

Amis' comic genius, if you think he has any, lies in his ability to capture the small details of conversation that can make it so awkward and wearing, like when someone says a word wrong because he's thinking of another word and you start thinking about that instead of what he's said:
"'And I happen to like the arts, you sam.'
The last word, a version of 'see', was Bertrand's own coinage. It arose as follows: the vowel sound became distorted into a short 'a', as if he were going to say 'sat'. This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible 'm'. After working this out, Dixon could think of little to say, and contented himself with 'You do', which he tried to make knowing and sceptical."

Every time Jim said something awkward in a conversation, I was torn between laughing at him and identifying with him, which disturbed me because I didn't like him!  And yet I often say things like he does out of nervousness when I'm at an academic gathering:
"'Well, it's an unexpected pleasure to be drinking pints at a do like this.'
'You're in luck, Dixon,' Gore-Urquhart said sharply, handing around cigarettes.
Dixon felt himself blushing slightly, and resolved to say no more for a time. None the less he was pleased that Gore-Urquhart had caught his name."

At one point when they're sitting at a table and Jim Dixon is observing a conversation, his thoughts are petty and mean in almost the exact same way mine would be in a similar situation, which made me grin and cringe at the same time:
"Gore-Urquhart had tilted his large dark head over towards Bertrand; his face, half-averted, eyes on the ground, wore a small intent frown, as if he were hard of hearing and couldn't bear to miss a word. Dixon couldn't bear not missing any more of it--Bertrand was now using the phrase 'contrapuntal tone-values'--and switched to his right, where for some moments he'd been half-conscious of a silence."

The high point of the novel is when Jim finally says to his annoying and manipulative friend Margaret what readers have been longing for him to say for pages and pages:
"Don't be fantastic, Margaret. Come off the stage for a moment, do."
And then she has a page and a half of hysterics, ending with having her face slapped and being given a glass of whiskey, which she takes and "with eerie predictability she choked and coughed, swallowed some, coughed again, swallowed some more." 
If there's any satisfaction in the ending, it's that Margaret is revealed as a fraud and Jim gets free of her.

Overall, though, I'd take rereading Lodge's Nice Work over plowing through this old-fashioned relic, if I felt the need for British academic humor.  The uncomfortable pleasure of reading the quite awkward bits of conversation is the only reason this particular novel should still be read at all.  Have you ever had a conversation at an academic gathering that made you feel you had just said something monumentally stupid?  And did you cringe for days afterwords?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Mysterious Human Heart in New York

What with awards ceremonies and other end-of-the-school year events, we've been up early and to bed late and I've been seeing all sorts of people I rarely see in between. One of them told me he's trying to "cut through the Gordian knot" of kid sports and school schedules so he can come with us to take a road trip through the inevitably predicted rain to the most crowded part of a nearby city tomorrow night.  As my friends used to say about spending too much money getting to the beach, it is a highly inadvisable thing.  And yet, well nigh irresistible.

The inimitable poet Dorianne Laux says it best, in her poem "The Mysterious Human Heart in New York," which is from her new volume that I've already touted here once, The Book of Men:

Streetwise but foolish, the heart
knows what's good for it but goes
for the dark bar, the beer before noon,
the doughy pretzel hot and salty, tied up
in a Gordian knot. It takes a walk
through Tompkins Square where
the homeless sleep it off on stone benches,
one shrouded body to each gritty sarcophagus.
The streets fill with taxis and trucks,
pinstripes and briefcases, and the subways
spark and sway underground. The sun
is snagged on the Empire State, performing
its one-note song, the citizens below
dragging their shadows down the sidewalk
like sidekicks, spitting into the gutter
as if on cue, as if in a musical,
as if there's no association between the trash
flapping against the chain link and the girl
with her skirt up in the alley. When the traffic
jams on 110th--a local pain, a family affair--
the Starbucks junkie leans against the glass
and laughs into his hand, a cabbie
sits on his hood and smokes, cops
on skates weave through the exhaust,
billy club blunts bumping against their
dark blue thighs. Everyone's on a cell phone,
the air a-buzz with yammer and electricity
as the heart of the city pounds like a man
caught in the crosswalk holding his shoulder,
going down on one knee, then blundering
into Central Park to lean over the addled bridge,
the sooty swans floating under him, grown fat
on cheap white bread. Oh heart, with your
empty pockets and your hat on backwards,
stop looking at yourself in the placid waters.
Someone is sneaking up behind you
in an overcoat lined with watches,
and someone else is holding a cardboard sign
that says: The End Is Here.

Sometimes your heart feels better when you do what you know is not good for it. As the parent of a high school senior, I would desperately like to tell my heart to go ahead, spend more time "looking at yourself" instead of having to pay attention to the way the doomsday sign is "sneaking up behind."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fuzzy Nation

When I read that John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation was coming out, I had to find our copy of H. Beam Piper's The Fuzzy Papers so I could reread the original of the story that Scalzi has enlarged and updated.  Then the Piper book sat on my shelf until last week, when Cassandra Ammerman at Tor sent me a shiny, new hardback copy of Fuzzy Nation, and I had to hurry up and read one book right after the other, which turned out to be a fine thing to do, as Scalzi's story is an agreeable addition to Piper's, much more than just a re-hashing of some of the old issues.

The human meets alien story has so many conventions, at this point, that it's hard for an experienced reader of science fiction to go into any story about aliens without suspecting them of sentience. Heinlein's story The Star Beast was one of my formative experiences with this genre, so the phrase "raising John Thomases" always goes through my mind when a strange alien is introduced (the "star beast" was kept as a pet until its human owner, John Thomas, discovers it has been studying them for generations).  There's not much suspense at all about the sapience of these smart little "fuzzies," and Scalzi copes with that by having his narrator, Holloway, say things to them like "your evil mystic cuteness has no effect on me" when it obviously does, and by the humor in such things as the way the fuzzies interact with Holloway's dog.

Besides humor, though, the other way Scalzi copes with the lack of suspense about sapience is by making Holloway a clever lawyer and much of the second half of the novel some pretty riveting courtroom drama.  There will be surprises even for the person who has recently reread the Piper story--you may know the secret of how the fuzzies communicate, but the way it is revealed in Scalzi's fictional courtroom will still be delightful, partly due to Scalzi's inventiveness and partly due to the possibilities offered by updating the technology (Piper's humans had "vocowriters" and video phones, while Scalzi's are equipped with security cameras and ipads).

Even though Holloway claims, at the end of the novel, that "building a nation is not all parties and fireworks," he belies his own claim even as he says it, and the author belies it by making the building of this fictional nation so much fun.

Fuzzy Nation comes out tomorrow, and you don't have to have read any previous science fiction to enjoy it, although if you want to, that will add another dimension.  I like being reminded that in the 1950's, writers thought that "cocktail hour" was an immutable human custom and would be carried out to all the planets. It makes me wonder if the environmental concerns of our generation, reflected on Scalzi's fictional planet, will seem similarly transitory sixty years from now.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What type of bird showed Mary Lennox where the rusty key to The Secret Garden was buried?

Classics: What novel sees ambulance driver Lt. Frederick Henry escaping execution by jumping into the Tagliamento River?

Non-Fiction:  What 20th-century trustbuster got the royal treatment in Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex?

Book Club: What Texas town did Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae meet up in, before starting a cattle drive to Montana?

Authors: Who had already penned Player Piano by the time he became one of Saab's first U.S. dealers?

Book Bag: What comic included the classic stand-up routine "A Place for My Stuff" in his collection of cerebral scat called Braindroppings?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Have I been catching up on my reading?  A little. But what I've been doing more of is catching up on my video watching.  We're still on the first season of Veronica Mars, the second or third season of Big Bang Theory, we just got the new season of South Park, and then yesterday my kids sat me down and we watched the new Starkid video on YouTube, Starship.

Have you heard of the Starkids?  Originally musical theater students at the University of Michigan, they wrote a musical parody version of Harry Potter which is still on YouTube as A Very Potter Musical.  Then they veered off into territory I found less delightful--maybe just because I'm old and stodgy--with Me And My Dick.  But they came back with A Very Potter Sequel.  And now, with the departure of the guy who wrote a lot of the music and starred as Harry Potter--Darren Criss--to the TV show Glee, the rest of the Starkids have formed a company and perform in Chicago, although they always put their entire production on YouTube and have now made a DVD, too, available on the Starkids website.

I thought the Starship parody was delightful, from first to last. You have to watch it in 9-10 minute segments, which actually kind of heightens the humor.  I thought the high point was the love song in Act II, scene ii, "You don't know you the way I do."  But there's a good villain song and lots of good jokes, not least about the way the "Galactic League of Extraterrestrial Exploration, the G.L.E.E." is "always making twisted abominations of everything" (wink).  The bugs on the alien planet are represented by puppets, reminiscent of the way the actors use puppets and animal heads in The Lion King and Avenue Q.  

This is inventive parody, good music, and it's free.  What more could you ask?  Watch it, and spread the word!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What She Said

I learned a lot, working with high-school-age people for a month and a half, and remembered some of what it was like, being 15 or 16.  That's probably why when I read the new volume of poetry by Billy Collins--Horoscopes For the Dead--this poem stuck out, for me:

What She Said

When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner,
I was like give me a break.

I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break.
I was just similar to give me a break.

As I said, I was like give me a break.

I would love to tell you
how I was able to resemble give me a break
without actually being identical to give me a break,

but all I can say is that I sensed
a similarity between me and give me a break.

And that was close enough
at that point in the evening

even if it meant I would fall short
of standing up from the table and screaming
give me a break,

for God's sake will you please give me a break?!

No, for that moment
with the rain streaking the restaurant windows
and the waiter approaching,

I felt the most I could be was like

to a certain degree

give me a break.

This poem's speaker and I are, you know, like, aging!  And this is the kind of thinking that can go on inside an aging person's head when she hears a fragment from a 15-year-old girl's conversation.  It's not useful.  It's certainly no more pretty than the original phrase.  And yet it circles around and around in there.

One of the things I notice about the difference between people who age gracefully and are still interesting to talk to, and people who become curmudgeonly and boring is that the first type stay open to new experiences and ways of saying things.  They sometimes listen to music they know they might not like, and they occasionally read books that aren't exactly suited to their tastes. They continue to grow intellectually.  I want to, like, know what younger people are saying, if only to make fun of it, in the manner of this poem.  What about you?

Monday, May 2, 2011


On Saturday night I got a plaque that says "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."  That's exactly how it felt to pull off a high school musical in only five and a half weeks of rehearsal.

It went well.  Now it's over.  I feel like I've been a little mauled by the experience, or maybe that's just because of the title of the YA novel I was reading in very small bits during the last week of rehearsals and performance--Maul, by Tricia Sullivan.

As a novel, I didn't like it.  It begins with a scene designed to shock its readers, progresses to a story they don't realize is parallel to the first one for a few chapters, and then starts weaving some details of the story together so readers think there's going to be a satisfying ending for both, and then just...stops.  We're told "the game's over now" and that's it.  Humph.  Not a game I would have let myself get interested in if I'd been able to see that the ending didn't succeed in making sense of the plethora of detail given earlier.  Even if you're someone who likes to read the ending first, though, you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell.  There's some video-game-world-echoing-the-real-world stuff going on here.

Despite the fact that I don't think it's well structured, there are some parts that are absolutely amazing, many of them in terms of how well they describe adolescent emotion:
'Did you ever feel so much of something that you just couldn't control it? And you've tried shit like going to the basketball game and screaming your head off for hours and you had the orgasm or six or seven and you drank the SuperSize Chocolate Shake from 7-Eleven but in the end you didn't feel as empty as you hoped to feel. Did you ever feel something so strong you thought it was a physical hunger but it couldn't be satisfied that way, it was thicker than physical, it stuffed your axons, it was a pregnant idea begging to be born and it was using you for that shit, but you just didn't know what it LOOKED LIKE or WHO inseminated you or how to get it OUT.
Did you ever feel that? It feels like being slapped upside the head about 20,000 times a day and you'll do anything to escape it but you CAN'T.
Subversive behaviour. What a fucking world. It's like everyone's flowing along and the only ones stopping are the ones who can't hack it, they are the worldly possessions it hurts YOU ARE ALL SO FUCKING DELUDED & HELPLESS and I'm reduced to paying $18.99 for a CD to express this for me because you won't let me do anything REAL until after I've been indoctrinated broken down and seduced into submitting to the same CIVILIZING WILL that's sitting on your face."

Even the little throwaway lines, the random thoughts, are fabulously provocative:
'Then I saw a live picture of myself in one of the TVs. I stuck out my tongue just to be sure. It's a well-known fact that TV is more real than real life so when people say get a life what they really mean is, get on TV. Because either you're watching TV or you're on it, and if you're doing neither it's a little like Schrodinger's cat, neither alive nor dead till observed. So when I saw myself on the video screen I was pretty happy because it meant I was alive."

There's some interesting commentary on gender politics, ending with a logical absurdity about where we could end up if we go on as we have been.  This passage is from along that road:
"There they are with their uniforms and their discipline, an abstract and codified representation of all the construction workers who ever whistled at you and there you were, too polite to pee in their toolboxes in retaliation, too polite to challenge them, walking away red-faced because the worst part of it is that you were wondering whether they were really whistling like they'd whistle at Caprice or if they were just being sarcastic and were even now laughing at you with your short skinny legs and flat ass. Besides, you're not supposed to let it get to you. You're supposed to have a sense of humour: they do. See them waving their cocks at each other and farting? You aren't allowed to break the rules of their society which say that you are a cold uptight lesbian bitch if you don't like their hohoho aggressive male ways so just hold your head high from your position of moral superiority and go home and tell your boyfriend (if you have one, which I don't) who if you're lucky will offer to go beat them up knowng you won't take him up on it because you know perfectly well he'd probably get his ass kicked, most of the boys you know are highly ass-kickable because they've been brought up nicely. They were brought up in the luxury of knowing the money power of the military-industrial complex would protect them from the dirt and grime of uneducated testosterone."

There are also wonderful moments in the Maul (Mall), like when the heroine finds a clothing store with items that help her feel what she needs to feel right then in order to survive, and a bookstore where the books become exactly what she needs to read.

Lots of flashes of brilliance, but no final explosion, no settling of the dust so readers can glimpse the new world that has been created.  It's the end of the game just when you've figured out a few of the rules.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Code of the Lifemaker

Phoenix Pick’s free ebook for May is James P. Hogan’s “Code of the
The Coupon Code for May for the free ebook is 9992144. The coupon will be
effective from May 2 through May 31.
Instructions and download/purchase links at www.PPickings.com (Phoenix
Pick’s catalogue page).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who are known as the Trenchcoat Twins, in a top-selling book series?

Classics:  What Mart Crowley drama finds Harold getting a hustler named "Cowboy" as a birthday gift?

Non-Fiction: What All Things Considered co-host flits around Orville and Wilbur Wright's old haunts, in The Flyers?

Book Club: What Peter Shaffer play sees Antonio Salieri sadly sigh: "I was born with a pair of ears and nothing else"?

Authors: Who left instructions that his poem "Crossing the Bar" be included at the end of all editions of his poetry?

Book Bag: Who observes, in The Call of Cthulhu: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents"?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tigana, the conclusion

Tigana is an interestingly-told story, especially since so much of it has happened before this novel begins.  Once I got to the halfway point, I had to go ahead and finish reading it, which is something that happens to me with fantasy less and less as I get older.

The characters all put their hope in the prince of Tigana, Alessan, who is a symbol of his country in exile, since no one in "Lower Corte" except those who were alive when Alessan's father killed Brandin's son in the war can now remember even the name of their former country, Tigana.  When Devin looks at Alessan, "he found his avenue to passion again, to the burning inward response to what had happened here--and was still happening. Every hour of every day in the ransacked, broken-down province named Lower Corte."

One bad guy, Alberico, gets badder, killing the messenger who brings him bad news.  And the bad news is that the other bad guy, Brandin, who has destroyed Tigana so thoroughly that one day no one will remember its name, has gotten better (through the love of a good woman, Dianora), and has abdicated as ruler of his native land in favor of ruling over his adopted land, the land he has so thoroughly conquered.  Brandin is complicated and interesting and you want to like him, but Alberico is just a bully.  Alessan's stated goal is to defeat both at the same time, so neither will get the upper hand, but by the end of the novel, it seems a terrible shame and a waste that Brandin can't get past his hatred for his son's killers enough to do something more positive with his power:  "He had cut himself off from his home, from all that had anchored him in life, he was here among an alien people he had conquered, asking for their aid, needing their belief in him."

But Alessan's goals are always the ones that seem most important, to the other characters, and to the reader.  He is the one who says (he's still in his early twenties, mind) "I am learning so many things so late. In this world, where we find ourselves, we need compassion more than anything, I think, or we are all alone."

So when Alessan triumphs and both Alberico and Brandin fall, I rejoice, except for the very long shadow that the secret about Alessan's father, the King of Tigana, casts over the ending.  I hate the character of Scelto, Dianora's loyal servant.  I hate him with a fiery and enduring passion, because he is the one who decides not to tell the King's story. I'd like to believe it is to make sure that all feuds are ended, but I think it is simply despair, and therefore unworthy of its place in the ending of such a long and powerful saga.

Tigana is a well-told tale.  I found it reliably absorbing every time I picked it up, until I couldn't put it down anymore.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Air

Usually if I have a bit of time on the weekend, I write up a review of whatever book I've finished the week before and set it to post on Monday morning.  But this is tech week for the high school musical--opening night is this Thursday--and I haven't quite finished the book I was reading last week.  Mostly I've been reading poems, because I found some new volumes at the college library.

One of those volumes is Rae Armantrout's Money Shot.  A lot of the poems seem a little spare to me, like there should be more to them.  But this one--this one seems to me to be about precisely the situation I'm in this Monday morning.  I see it as a poem about not having much to say, but looking for a way to say something anyway:

The Air

Our first gods
were cartoon characters--

quirks and quarks--
each dead
and immortal.

Silence is death
silence is dead-air.

Give a meme
a hair-do.

Give it a split-screen.

Make it ask itself
the wrong question.

Make it eat questions
and grow long.

Especially after reading a lot of blogger responses to the "four things meme" lately, I like the lines "make it ask itself/the wrong question."  What exactly is the wrong question when you're just looking for something to say?  The pointed question?  The important question?  Or maybe just a question that's mildly amusing and makes people want to know more?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's:  What author's Just So Stories explain how the leopard got his spots and how the elephant got his trunk?

Classics: Whose famed diaries were originally published as Het Achterhuis, or The House Behind?

Non-Fiction:  What book by John F. Kennedy probed moments of integrity by senators like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster?

Book Club: What Robert Olen Butler tale stars a hairless, 16-toed alien who mates with an Alabama beautician?

Authors: Who promised Book magazine that Blood Canticle would be her last novel about "people who were damned or who were condemned"?

Book Bag: What brooding albino swordman is emperor of Melnibone in Michael Moorcock's epic saga?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My New American Life

I loved After and was less enthusiastic about Goldengrove, so when Harper offered to send me an advance copy of the new novel by Francine Prose, I said yes, send me My New American Life.  And the verdict?  While I'm never sorry to have read anything by Francine Prose, because she's a good writer and a smart person, this one doesn't address national issues as well as I hoped it would, and as well as I thought After did.

The novel tells the story of Lula, an Albanian girl who came to New York City on a tourist visa and has been spinning tales about her native land as part of her effort to find a way into the American Dream.  For the suburban New Jersey dad she calls Mr. Stanley who hires her to watch over his son Zach, a high school senior, she tells folk tales and goes along with the assumption that she is a war refugee. For Zach she tells stories about rebellious teenagers. For the Albanians she sees in New Jersey, Lula tries to tell a tale of her American success, but since none of them believe that success comes without some kind of sinister price tag, they see no real opportunity to capture that elusive American Dream, no house in the suburbs that isn't haunted by the failures of its former occupants.

The darkness and emptiness that are so integral to this story make the story itself feel underpopulated and flat.  Here's Prose reading a one-minute segment from her novel.  You can see that she believes in its satiric potential, but I don't see that the satiric moments ever coalesce into a meaningful whole.

The moments are interesting and amusing enough to sustain a reader, however.  Especially early on in the novel, Lula's "teaching moments" with Zach are wonderful, like this one:

Last night, like every weeknight, Lula and Zeke had eaten dinner in front of the TV. Lula made them watch the evening news, educational for them both. The president had come on the air to warn the American people about the threat of bird flu. The word avian was hard for him. His forehead stitched each time he said it, and his eyelids fluttered, as if he'd been instructed to think of birds as a memory prompt.
'At home,' Lula marveled, 'that man is a god.'
'You say that every night,' Zeke said.
'I'm reminding myself,' she'd said.  Her country's love affair with America had begun with Woodrow Wilson, and Clinton and Bush had sealed the deal by bombing the Serbs and rescuing the Kosovar Albanians from Milosevic's death squads. Even at home she'd had her doubts about the streets paved with gold, but when she finally got to New York and started working at La Changita, the waitstaff had quickly straightened her out about the so-called land of opportunity. And yet for all the mixed feelings shared by waiters and busboys alike, the strongest emotion everyone felt was the desire to stay here. Well, fine. In Lula's opinion, ambivalence was a sign of maturity.
Yesterday night, as always, she'd felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who'd told a lie that had set off a war, and then he'd let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.
'There is no bird flu,' Lula had told Zeke. 'A war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, sure. Maybe one chicken in China with a sore throat and a fever.'
But by then the city police chief had appeared on the screen to announce that the alert level had been raised to code orange because of a credible terrorist threat against the New York subway system.
Lula said 'There is no threat.'
'How do you know everything?' Zeke asked. 'Not that I don't agree it's all bullshit.'
She'd been about to tell Zeke--again!--about having grown up in the most extreme and crazy Communist society in Europe, ruled for decades by the psycho dictator Enver Hoxha, who died when Lula was a child, but not without leaving his mark. The nation was a monument to him, as were the seventy thousand mushroomlike concrete bunkers he'd had built in a country smaller than New Jersey. But before she even had a chance to repeat herself, she'd been distracted by an advertisement for the new season of ER.
'Look, Zeke,' she'd said, 'see that gurney rushing in and doors flying open and all the nurses throwing themselves on the patient? Other countries, no one rushes. No one even looks at you till you figure out who to pay off.'

It seems to me that the delights of the satire in that passage are offset by the childishness of the caricature of the president, and so like all partisan political rants, the novel is going to end up preaching--to the extent that it succeeds in preaching at all--to the choir.  Lula becomes less of an interesting character, and more of a liberal mouthpiece.

She's a canny operator at all times:
"She wanted to give him a consoling pat on the shoulder, but she never touched Mister Stanley, and she didn't want to start now, both of them weakened in body and spirit, both perhaps seeking relief from the damage that alcohol had inflicted on their bodies. Mister Stanley wasn't the type of guy to hit on the nanny, but every guy was a hangover away from being that type of guy. Even a friendly shoulder squeeze was a door best left unopened."
After enough passages like that, it gets harder for me to work up much sympathy for what Lula wants, and cheer for her to get it--she's looking out for herself, and she doesn't need anybody else.

As she gets more sarcastic, she gets funnier, but seems more two-dimensional, so that passages like this one--which should hit me right where I live (and work)--bounce off without much effect except a wry smile:
"It was darling, the way Americans put so much faith in going to college, the way American parents bought their baby birds a dovecote in which to roost for four years before their maiden flight out into the world."

By the time Lula and Mister Stanley take Zeke to visit a fictional college called Alice Ames, the satire has stopped working.  Lula's musings, at this point, are the ravings of someone who is becoming unhinged by months of boredom and disappointment:
"It had tickled her to see Americans taken in by the sort of scam people thought happened only in Eastern Europe. If she had a dollar for every La Changita customer who told her about not being allowed to drive his rental car to Prague because it might get stolen, she wouldn't have had to work there. But now that she'd come to care about Zeke and Mister Stanley, she'd lost the ironic remove from which she watched Americans get conned, and she hoped that Alice Adams was not a dirty trick cynically named after some grifter's favorite hooker."

Satire requires a delicate hand, and Francine Prose is almost good enough to do it well.  So even though this isn't the satire about what has happened to The American Dream that I might have been hoping for, it's as close as anyone else has come since Miss Saigon, another "see ourselves as others see us" kind of satire, and it makes an interesting companion volume to Jonathan Franzen's novel FreedomMy New American Life will be available--in bookstores--on Tuesday, April 26.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Sometimes how you've come to be reading a poem is part of the pleasure.  Last week I was carrying around a volume of poetry while I ushered some very important guests around campus, and when I had a few minutes, I would perch somewhere and read one or two of the poems.  On the second day of this, I perched on the side of some cold, concrete steps in front of the Admissions building, where people come and go so quickly, and read this poem by Dorianne Laux, out of her volume entitled The Book of Men:


Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook, not
the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication, not
the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punch line, the door or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don't regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the living room couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You've walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You've traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the window.
Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied of expectation.
Relax. Don't bother remembering any of it. Let's stop here,
under the lit signs on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

And there I was, twenty years later, sitting in a highly visible spot on a campus where I have not achieved fame and fortune, reading this poem and laughing because I'd picked up an onion ring someone dropped on the floor of the dining hall the night before and crying because it was a bright, sunny morning and the rest of my life was all spread before me as soon as my campus visitors opened the door onto those concrete steps.

Every poem in the volume is just about as glorious as that one, and it's one of my recommendations for this year's poetry award over at the Indie Lit Awards, where you should go and nominate it if it made you laugh and cry, too.

Monday, April 18, 2011

One Thousand White Women

One day when I was looking for birthday gift ideas in the YA section of a bookstore owned by a local children's writer, Bonnie Pryor, she recommended a novel to me, One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus.  I added it to my pile of books, brought it home, and let it get buried underneath books from the library and others with more urgent deadlines.  Then a few weeks ago, looking for something different to read, I unearthed it and read it in a couple of sittings.

The premise of the novel is taken from an actual historical event; in the preface, we are told that
"in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother's tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man's world--a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needless to say, the Cheyennes' request was not well received by the white authorities--the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and, of course, the white women did not come. In this novel they do."

At the beginning, I thought the novel was going to consist of Chief Seattle-type propaganda about the noble Native American.  The Cheyenne Chief who asks President Ulysses S. Grant for the women explains that "we have never been numerous because we understand that the earth can only carry a certain number of the People" and proposes the idea of intermarriage so that the white women can "teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone."  But the novel becomes more a portrait of a vanished way of life, with the character of May Dodd as interpreter, rather than apologist.

Although I grew up near a state park called Trail of Tears in memory of the Cherokee who died crossing the Mississippi River in the winter of 1838 (including the "Princess Otahki"), I've never had any experience of prejudice against Native Americans, and have always regarded it as something that existed only in the past.  This novel explains some of the prejudice on both sides by showing how May, who grows to love the Cheyenne, experiences hatred from both "civilized folks" and "savages."

Although May does continually praise things like "how cunningly and perfectly these native people had folded themselves into the earth" and criticizes "the white man" for "his flimsy fortifications against the vastness and emptiness of earth which he does not know to worship but tries instead to simply fill up," she doesn't venerate the Cheyenne blindly, but frequently challenges their "male only" rules and laments their "pitifully low tolerance" for alcohol.

Both the love affair May has with a white man, Captain Bourke, and the love she feels for her Cheyenne husband, Little Wolf, help her see the deep gulf that lies between their different views of the world:
"According to Captain Bourke...the only true hope for the advancement of the savage is to teach him that he must give up this allegiance to the tribe and look towards his own individual welfare. This is necessary, Bourke claims, in order that he may function effectively in the 'individualized civilization' of the Caucasian world. To the Cheyenne such a concept remains completely foreign--the needs of the People, the tribe, and above all the family within the tribe are placed always before those of the individual. In this regard they live somewhat like the ancient clans of Scotland. The selflessness of my husband, Little Wolf, for instance, strikes me as most noble and something that hardly requires 'correction' by civilized society.  In support of his own thesis, the Captain uses the unfortunate example of the Indians who have been pressed into service as scouts for the U.S. Army. These men are rewarded for their efforts as good law-abiding citizens--paid wages, fed, clothed, and generally cared for. The only requirement of their employment, their allegiance to the white father, is that they betray their own people and their own families...I fail to see the nobility or the advantage of such individualized private initiative..."

The way the story is told--with an introduction by a fictional male descendent of May Dodd's, a prologue based on the historical meeting of President Grant with a Cheyenne Chief, and an afterward about the journals kept by May-- gives the story a feeling of authenticity and preserves some of the flavor of the antiquated diction that Fergus uses so well for "Dodd's" writing.  I was surprised to be reminded, at the end, that this novel was written by a male author, so deeply had I been immersed in the female point of view.

The greatest strength of this novel is characterization; these well-realized characters will live in your memory for a long time after you've been drawn into their stories.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What classic book, credited to the mythical "Wally Piper," was later discovered to be adapted from an earlier story titled The Pony Engine?

Classics: What Shakespearean comedy includes the chilling stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear"?

Non-Fiction: Who charts her transformation from church choir singer to disco queen sex goddess, in her memoir Ordinary Girl?

Book Club: How many people does Eddie meet in heaven, according to Mitch Albom's 2003 novel?

Authors: Who came out of hiding to record a clip for The Simpsons, where he appeared with a bag over his head?

Book Bag: What novelist introduced the FBI-agent couple Dillon Savich and Lacy Sherlock in The Cove?

(I'll bet the guy who writes Exit, Pursued by a Bear knows one today!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I've been thinking about Philip Larkin's poem "Toads" this week, because the toad called work is squatting on my life.

I am engaged in an endeavor that will either make my work life a lot better, or get me out of this line of work entirely (so I'm also thinking of Iago saying  "this is the night that either makes me, or fordoes me quite").

Here is Larkin's poem:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison--
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folks live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts--
they don't end as paupers;

Lots of folks live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines--
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets--and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Even a 1/6-time job can be hard to lose.  So I'm hunkering down.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Maypole

We had a warm day here on Sunday, and now the lilacs in back and the apple tree in front are all leafed out, and the grass is turning green.  I was leafing through a new volume of poetry by Linda Pastan and found this one that's just right for the time of year, a reply to one of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems, The Snow Man:

The Maypole
after Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of spring
to regard the cherry tree burdened
with blossom;

and have been warm for days
to behold the boughs of the redbud
prickly with color in the glint

of the April sun; and not to think
of any cruelty in the difficult birthing
of so many leaves, to feel only pure

elation at the sound of the undulant breeze
which is the sound of every garden
with a breeze blowing among its flowers,

the sound the listener hears, watching the buds
which were not quite here a week ago
pushing up from oblivion now.

Since we're still in the middle of "the cruelest month," it rained yesterday and got cold again last night.  Our elderly gentleman rabbit who spent most of the winter in our dining room is still coming in at night, because the breeze is still more of a cold wind.  But there are a lot of buds. It looks like there are good things to come.

Monday, April 11, 2011


One of the four books I brought along to Walker's chess tournament this weekend, the Ohio high school championship, was Stefan Zweig's novella entitled, simply, Chess.  I had read about it at Farm Lane Books and probably some other blogs, too, but as usual I can't remember which ones.  Anyway, it sounded like a good addition to my chess tournament book pile, a kind of psychological thriller that had to do with a game of chess.

I pulled it out at the end of the first evening, when I was looking for something new to distract me from the nail-biting end of a long game that eventually turned out to be a draw.  It took me twenty or thirty minutes to read the entire novella, and afterwards I had time to sit there amid the empty tables set with chessboards, still waiting for the outcome of one of the last three games in the room.

One of the things I've said about chess recently that earned me the stern, nodding agreement of my resident chess expert is that it's a little bit like law, in that if you know the precedent, you can use that to win.  The resident chess expert (I'm using the term "expert" in a technical sense, as he's now rated 2065 by the U.S. Chess Federation and therefore falls into that category; only "master" is higher) reads a lot of books about chess, so he has an advantage over other young players who may have had more experience playing games.  He can look at algebraic and other kinds of chess notations and picture a chess game, and he's learned to see the results of many possible moves all the way to the end game.  This is fairly routine for chess players at his level.

So when I read Zweig's story about a man who, in solitary confinement by the Gestapo, finds a chess book and teaches himself to picture the board and all the possible moves by players on each side, it did not strike me as terribly odd.  That it drives him to a state he calls "chess poisoning" did strike me as a little odd, but perhaps not under the circumstances.  The interest of the book, for me, ended up being in its historical significance, not in terms of what it had to say about chess.

There were a couple of interesting and, I thought, accurate observations for laypeople:
"I learned to understand the subtleties of the game, the tricks and ruses of attack and defence, I grasped the technique of thinking ahead, combination, counter-attack, and soon I could recognize the personal style of every grandmaster as infallibly from his own way of playing a game as you can identify a poet's verses from only a few lines."

This is certainly true, even at the high school level; each player knows his opponents and has studied their moves in previous games.  Sitting in a room with high school chess players yesterday, I overheard a conversation that included the information that "so-and-so usually opens with King's Indian," which is a series of moves that has its own name and methods of counter-attack.

The other interesting bit, for me, was one that echoed my situation as I read the passage:
"But to be perfectly honest, the gradual development of the situation was something of a disappointment to us laymen, as it is in every real tournament game. For the more the chessmen became interlocked in a strange, intricate formation, the more impenetrable did the real state of affairs seem to us. We couldn't tell what either of the opponents intended, or which of the two really held the advantage. We just noticed individual pieces being advanced like levers to break through the enemy front, but we were unable--since with these first-class players every movement was always combined several moves in advance--to see the strategic intention in all this toing and froing."

I was told (by other players) that the draw at the end of the day was slightly disappointing for Walker, since he had a "superior position" for most of the game and was "ahead on time."  His opponent, however, did not make any mistakes.

The only thing I can ever tell about Walker's game when I walk into the tournament room is that if he's walking up and down and smiling, he has a--sometimes momentary--advantage.  If he's sitting down holding his head in his hands and looking stern, it's business as usual. As in poker, good players put on a "chess face." And parents try to strike the right balance between supporting the tournament play and letting the players alone.

Walker played good chess all weekend.   He drew with the highest-rated player (a 12th-grader who speaks Russian to his chess teacher) and they were both in a 5-way tie for first, which was decided according to an arcane and precise method of "tie-breaker" points, according to which the 12th-grader came in first, and Walker came in second. His friend who went into this tournament with the exact same rating and who shares the Ohio 10th-grade championship with him, came in third. Walker has an embarrassingly big trophy and is happy because he played well, winning four games and drawing two.  

After the awarding of the trophy, we went out to dinner with the family of Walker's chess student, Joe, and Walker replayed one of his games at the restaurant table to show Joe what happened and why.  Then we drove home, and Eleanor played a song from the musical "Chess" in Walker's honor so we could all sing along: "one town's very like another when your head's down over your pieces, brother."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What John Reynolds Gardiner tale tells of a lad's science project that turns him green and leafy, and the Feds who want him kept in the dark?

Classics: What J.D. Salinger novel drew its title from a misquoted Robert Burns line?

Non-Fiction: What U.S. government agency saw its dirty laundry aired by former employees in the tell-alls In Search of Enemies and Inside the Company?

Book Club: What biblical patriarch stars in Joseph Heller's God Knows?

Authors: What best-selling self-help author is, according to fellow psychologist Robert Butterworth, "like your mama, without hair"?

Book Bag: Which of John Grisham's first 10 novels did not have a title beginning with the word "The"?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

American Fear

Harriet mailed me some volumes of poetry that arrived last week, and one of the volumes is so suited to my current temperament that I suspect her of picking it out especially.  It's about gratitude and wonder, but also fear.  It's funny on the way to being even more serious.  By Robert Wrigley, it's entitled Beautiful Country, and the epigraph accurately forecasts the tone of the entire volume:  "This is a beautiful country."--John Brown, seated on his coffin, as he rode to the gallows, December 2, 1859.

My favorite poem in this volume, the one that made me laugh out loud several times, is "American Fear."  It's about the things we fear, and how they're connected to the things we love... written from the point of view of someone who loves words and poems. I thought that even those of you who suffer from a mild case of metrophobia (fear of poetry) would enjoy it.

American Fear
"Such as we were we gave ourselves outright."--Robert Frost

What it is is a company selling "clothing
for the disaffected youth culture."
T-shirts and sweatshirts, mostly black,
someone's marketing vision for a new world,
a twenty-first-century Henry ("You can have
any color you want so long as it's black") Ford,
that old-time anti-Semite, his once nearly bankrupt
namesake corporation supplanted by this other.

A button on the Web site reads "Ready to Order Fear,"
but everywhere you look it's free: fear of wolves,
bulls, and bears: fear of the sun, fear of that one
or this one, fear that all it takes is one. Storm fear,
house fear, fear of frost. Fear of gravity is barophobia.
But there's also Cape Fear, Camp Fear,
and Fear Mountain: you can visit those. There's fear
of God, fear of the odd; fear of night, fear of air.

Fear of hair is chaetophobia. Eleutherophobia's fear of freedom.
There's First Encounter Assault Recon,
"a survival horror first-person shooter developed
by Monolith Productions and published by Vivendi,"
a video game, a generation's modus vivendi, a way of living
in which we agree to disagree violently.
Ephebiphobia is the fear of teenagers; melanophobia,
fear of the color black; caligynephobia,

fear of beautiful women; and anthrophobia, fear
of flowers. You can spend hours on a list like this.
Pantophobia is the fear of everything. After
230-odd years the republic crawls
through its slow-motion youth, democracy requiring not
only equality but a vast sameness many fear,
as some fear guns and others fear their guns
will be taken away, their beautiful guns,

poetry in them, shining assemblages of articulate parts
in which ammo is the main idea. Consider the idea
that a thing can be beyond perfection, as in a more perfect
union, as in the sky and its endlessness
--astrophobia, that's called: the fear of stars
and celestial space. As for fear of oblivion,
there is no word for it. Come home late, Robert Frost
rattled the key in the lock and left the door open

until a light was on, a way of allowing what was inside out.
Later, on his farmhouse porch, Frost trembling,
frightened of the dark, a shotgun in his hands. He thought
he could talk Khrushchev into nuclear disarmament
(nucleomituphobia, bomb fear) and sulked because
JFK didn't call him back. The fear of poetry
is metrophobia, and melophobes fear music, cringing
at the ballgame through "God Bless America."

Regarding the disaffected, the OED suggest they lack
first of all affection. Put that with logophobia,
the fear of words, and philophobia, the fear of love.
Parthenophobia is the fear of virgin girls. WTF
is internet slang and the initials of the World Taekwondo
Federation, member of the International Olympic Committee.
Why is there no word for the fear of committees,
which are so much to be feared? Fear of Germany

is teutophobia. Vestiphobia is the fear of clothing.
The fear of flags is vexiphobia. On American Fear's
logo, you can find the flag's stripes resembling a bar code.
Gringophobia is the fear of Americans, the ones
who fear America ends far north of Tierra del Fuego.
Fear of a white god is leukotheophobia. A snowclone
is a "cliche or phrasal template, multiuse, customizable,
instantly recognizable, timeworn, and open

to an array of variants"--as in, What Would Henry Ford Do?
American Fear's best-selling design:
a mandible-less skull enwreathed by bullets, bunting,
and feathers, on a base of fifties-befinned bombs.
There is no word for the fear of growing up,
though gerascophobia is the fear
of growing old, and old men fear not
how others might read them by their clothes.

Kings wear robes and senators wear suits. The word senator
comes from the Latin senex, meaning "old man,"
and gerontophobia is the fear of old people.
Chronophobia is the fear of time.
Some old men do not wear T-shirts,
because putting one on can be exhausting
and taking it off worse. Imagine fearing a shirt.
Why is there a word like bathysiderodromophobia?

Subways are beautiful in their tunnels and troughs,
their soiled, palatial stations. "Go in fear of abstractions,"
Pound said. He suffered not from metrophobia,
but from madness. "To fear" in Italian is temere.
"What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross,"
wrote Pound. "Better to go down dignified
with boughten friendship at your side than none at all,"
wrote Frost. He had a lover's quarrel with the world.

Among American Fear's other shirt designs, one called
"Your Pretty Death Bed," a young woman,
her wrists slashed, looking asleep and covered
by the Stars and Stripes. There is no word
for the fear our daughters will commit suicide
beneath a patriotic blanket. Robert Frost's son, Carol,
shot himself with a deer rifle on October 9, 1940.
"I took the wrong way with him" wrote Frost,

who would outlive all but two of his six children.
A citizen opposes the reintroduction of gray wolves
to the American wilderness, because they are Canadian,
as though they might harbor within their genes
a disinclination for revolution and a soft spot
for the queen. Freddie Mercury was a gay British genius,
and homophobic sports teams all across the nation sing his
"We Are the Champions." He's number 50

among the 100 Greatest Britons, four slots ahead
of George Harrison, twelve ahead of Jane Austen,
and a whopping twenty-three in front of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Ronald Reagan is number one on the American list.
The only poet in the top twenty-five is Muhammad Ali,
who comes in just above Rosa Parks but well behind
Elvis, whose pelvis was censored from the television screen.
No word for the fear of free speech,

but a man was not allowed to board a flight at JFK
because his T-shirt, in Arabic and English, read,
"We will not be silent." American Fear's shirts
will not alarm the Transportation Security Administration,
also called the TSA. The fear of silence is sedatephobia.
The TSA is also the Tourette Syndrome Association,
and based on Boswell's descriptions it is theorized
that Samuel Johnson suffered from the malady,

making frequent odd grunts and muttering
under his breath "too, too, too" meaning also
and yes and more, meaning many,
meaning he meant to know all the words,
and the problem with all is everything. All men, all words,
all fears. This beautiful, fearful,
and fearsome country, such as it is,
such as it might yet, someday, become.

Bathysiderodromophobia, by the way, is fear of the subway, which the poet reveals in the next line.

I was laughing out loud about the "fear that our daughters will commit suicide" and the bit about Freddie Mercury.  Also, I love the word "ephebiphobia" and think I will be using it frequently over the next month.

After I read "American Fear" I went on to the next poem according to the way I was reading through the volume, which was backwards.  "A Rumor of Bears" left me with tears in my eyes. And then I got to the title poem, "Beautiful Country," and "thought about what was wrong and more wrong" but ended up being "promised another day when everything would be better," courtesy of what has become of the American military since Vietnam.  And I kept reading and becoming more like Wrigley's picture of Johnson, thinking "also/and yes and more, meaning many,/meaning he meant to know all the words."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Being an adjunct isn't all bad. That's one of the conclusions drawn by the "accidental academic" who wrote In the Basement of the Ivory Tower about his own experiences doing what I have done for the past 27 years, trying to teach first-year college students to write and to enjoy some of the fiction and essays that are put into Introduction to Literature anthologies.

I found the book completely unsurprising, a little discouragingly so, since it seems that things are tough all over, and in pretty much the same way. Nowhere does anyone really know what an adjunct does in the classroom.  Nowhere is an adjunct able to turn to a colleague for advice, and infrequent workshops on things like "Learner-Centered Assessment" are little help.  Everywhere adjuncts get exactly the same kinds of comments on course evaluations:  "before I would of never voluntarily read a book" and the teacher is "enthusiastic...which helps make the three hours go by quicker."

This book was written after the June 2008 article in The Atlantic made such waves, spurring criticism of the anonymity of "Professor X" and much caviling (mostly from the tenured) about the observations he makes about the classes no one else wants to teach or even knows very much about.

What he says about the isolation in which he works rings true to me:  "I have worked as an adjunct instructor now for a decade. I have been observed twice, once by each school."  I myself have worked as a teaching assistant and then an adjunct instructor for four different colleges over the past 27 years.  As a TA, I was observed once, the semester I began teaching.  As an adjunct, I was observed for the length of one 50-minute class by two of the three colleges I worked for during the first semester I worked there.  (At the other one, I received a phone call from the hospital bed where I had landed after an emergency to verify that I wouldn't be teaching that week, so the personnel department could "adjust" my pay).  As Professor X observes, "no one sees what goes on except the students, and their judgments are fallible."

My favorite part of the adjunct discussion is always the obligatory point at which a tenured faculty member declares passionately that the college is "taking advantage" of the adjuncts and not paying them enough, which, as "Professor X" points out, strikes the adjunct as "not honest but smug."

My least favorite part, the part this book explains very well, is the despair that writing teachers witness and perpetuate.  "Unsuccessful students grow up thinking not just that their work has no value, but that it never can have any value, and thus they cannot put in the wholehearted effort that college demands."  So what they write, as he says, is full of the "commonplace...and the lack of ideas makes for a prose that churns in place. The reading assignments are attempts to "make up, with a small clutch of baby steps, for a lifetime of not reading."  Many of the students hand in work that is "just an assignment, with no relevance to the real world. For the indifferent student, all work is busy work, empty effort to occupy time and, hopefully, garner some credit in the end."  The attempt to grade these assignments "rankles and depresses" Professor X, who knows that "when I give a failing grade to a student, I am not just passing judgment on some abstract intellectual exercise. I am impeding that student's progress, thwarting his ambition, keeping him down, committing the universal crime of messing with his livelihood--not to mention forcing him to pay the tuition charge all over again....any poor grade I issue may mean disastrous economic consequences."

And as he says, "we're not talking nuance here. My students who fail do so with an intensity that is operatic."  He talks about giving quizzes on whether characters are alive or dead at the end of the work.  I didn't know this was universal but am not surprised; I have a quiz in my files entitled "Othello killer quiz" on which there are three questions:  Who kills Desdemona? Who kills Emilia? and the last one, the sort-of-trick question: Who kills Othello?

The parts of this book I like best are when he talks about the details of teaching writing, how it's easy to spend "40 minutes on the first paragraph" and how "writing is thinking."  It's hard work, teaching writing.  It can be immensely satisfying, but it's exhausting, walking others through all those turns and twists of logic and suggesting ways to find evidence for it.  Writing teachers, who are like computing experts and medical doctors in being continually asked by friends and loved ones for a little help on the side, are always having to balance their exhaustion with their fondness for the petitioner.

The parts of the book I find least convincing include his conclusion about who should be in college and who shouldn't. Oddly enough, in a book fighting against all sorts of elitist ideas, I found his views a bit elitist.  It's true that for some of the students we adjuncts see "the classes are more difficult than they could have dreamed, and there is simply no time to complete all the work," but I disagree that this means those students might not belong in college at all. If it means anything to me (as a person who's gotten out of the game rather than try to reform it), it means that 15-week semesters are too short for writing classes...and I speak as someone who tried to do that kind of work with students during a 10-week quarter.

There are several other things I don't agree with Professor X about.  He tries to teach students to write the "composition," something "built, crafted, worked on, composed."  I favor teaching the essay--a piece of writing that is a trial or attempt from a personal point of view--because I'm more interested in teaching critical thinking than in teaching the craft of writing.

I don't necessarily think that using Aristotle's various invention techniques, so often featured in composition textbooks as assignments in themselves (narrative, description, compare/contrast, analysis, cause and effect) is the best way to teach writing in college.  I find it curious that Professor X doesn't even question the set-up of what I like to call the course in "writing without content," even when he cogently describes the complications inherent in helping students come up with a topic for a research paper.  However interested he may be in the topic of the research, it's still a paper for which the research doesn't really matter. It's what he talks about elsewhere, a paper in which the content is not important, but proving that the student can follow the steps is the whole point of the exercise.  I think that this kind of assignment is one of the problems with the way we teach writing in college today. Who wants to write for a grader?  College students, like other humans, want to write something that will be read.  There are ways to balance the requirement that writing be graded with the necessity of finding ways to read some of it, but Professor X doesn't seem to have discovered any of these yet.

Professor X confesses that his acquaintance with the guidelines for teaching writing put out by Writing Program Administrators and his reading of some of the experts in the field of rhetoric and composition is quite recent (since the Atlantic article came out), but he tries to draw conclusions from it anyway, as if anyone who actually goes to graduate school to learn this stuff is wasting their time, even admitting that he "was looking for some magic, for a tool kit."  A writing teacher should know that there are no shortcuts.

I don't agree that "women are more empathetic than men" as adjuncts (and wonder why someone who presumably teaches the avoidance of generalization in writing would include one like that in his own writing).

And finally, I wonder why he includes the story of one plagiarizing student only to illustrate the danger he feels alone with such students at night in the "basement," rather than to discuss any of the issues a writer might find interesting about the wide range of options for paper-writing by hire available on the internet today.

I admire Professor X for starting this discussion, and hope that it doesn't end with this one book. There's a lot more to say about this topic, and I applaud his bravery in caring enough to stand up and tell it like it is for one of the people who other Professors don't usually notice except to say what a shame it is that so much of our higher education system depends on his hard work, conscientiousness, and enthusiasm for his subject matter.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shadow Box

Fred Chappell's volume entitled Shadow Box contains poems reminiscent of the cleverness of John Donne's Songs and Sonnets because of the way he both incorporates and reinvents form.  Each part of the volume (there are five) has a prefatory note explaining what kinds of experiments with form the reader will find therein.

Part One contains "poems-within-poems (enclosed, inlaid, embedded, double, nested)" including "curtal sonnets in which sestets are embedded in octaves."  This is the best part of the volume, and the longest section.  My favorites from it are "Neverland," "A Face in the Crowd," and "Narcissus and Echo," in addition to this one, a curtal sonnet:

Stopping by the Old Homestead

The Interstate is audible from here.
Five miles east, its low, autonomous hum
disturbs the stillness that then stood, the calm
you found when you came here last time, eight years
ago, climbing the same hard road you toiled
in youth that slants a steeper grade today,
this path by the twisted apple tree whose shadow
tensely holds a darker tone. You breathe
harder than when you stopped to see this farm
back then, where claims your life had made against
the future and never paid to own decayed.
Old times shriveled and largely gone, you think,
and trudge all down the hill to find your Chevy
rust-eaten, blind, jacked up on cinder blocks.

You see how the octave (the first eight lines) has a sestet (six lines) within it, consisting of the italicized words?  And then the last six lines, the traditional sestet, has a quatrain consisting of italicized words within it, like half an octave.  And isn't it lovely how the back and forth within the logical progression of the sonnet moves us in time as the speaker pictures "you" moving down the hill?

Part Two contains poems which "center upon visual images," of which I think the one entitled "Fireflies" is the loveliest.  The poet gets a little too cute alluding to Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar" with "Anecdote of the Ironweed," at least for my taste.

Part Three contains "reliquary" poems.  This one, I think, is the most finely-turned, the best-sculpted:


Her hands were gentle about the ills of children,
Her speech was measured amid the quarrels of kinfolk.
She held the sorrow that had grown unspoken
Till it was perfect as a sphere, a token
Of her secret, with a light that shone within
And stood, in an undropped tear, a sign
Of what enwrapped itself upon the wound
Again, layer on nacreous layer, around
The hurt till it transformed to stone, mild jewel
Priceless, modest, calm, and pure and cool.

Here lies the lucent Pearl on black sateen
That shall not often enrobe her like again.

Don't you like the eulogy of the woman in her coffin, and the image of the pearl within?

Part Four is "counterpoint," and this is the section in which you'll find the title poem, a debate between body and soul with a tribute to Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall" embedded in it ("Poor Ghost, you are no more than guess").  Flesh and spirit take turns surrounding meaning, culminating with a memorable resonance for the words "sheltering" and "grave."

Part Five is a section "in which ancient Christian Latin hymns provide context and subject matter."  This is my least favorite section, and it is the shortest.  One poem, elaborating on "noctium phantasmata," can't resist the reference to A Midsummer Night's Dream:

"A strumpet image appears in guise
Of Love once lost to compromise;
A taloned Fury in sharp silhouette
Advances, by moonlight ill met."

These four lines are particularly disappointing after my interest has been roused by the wording in previous lines, where "spectral accusers demand/ empathies he cannot profess."

Overall, although there are some moments in the volume that strike me as clunky--mostly to do with literary allusion--there are many lovely moments in these finely-crafted and clever little poems.  This is a book I will pick up and occasionally reread with pleasure, finding another turn of phrase to admire, another hidden shadow within these nested boxes.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What name did Russell and Lillian Hoban bestow upon their heroic badger?

Classics: What novels' seven commandments include: "Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy" and "No animal shall wear clothes"?

Non-Fiction: What personal-finance guru promises to give folks The Courage to Be Rich along The Road to Wealth?

Book Club: What Barbara Kingsolver novel gives Kentuckian Taylor Greer a flat tire just a few blocks away from Tucson, Arizona's Jesus is Lord Used Tires?

Authors: Who churned out thrillers under the name John Lange, to pay his Harvard Medical School tuition?

Book Bag: What Mark Leyner novel concerns a seventh-grader named Mark Leyner who is reviewing a screenplay called The Tetherballs of Bougainville?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Awakening

We took a spring break road trip to Huntington, West Virginia to see a performance of the touring musical Spring Awakening, and it was well worth the time, effort, and expense.  We knew the music, but it's always better to see a musical's songs performed in context and it turned out we were missing a good bit of the story by conjecturing what happened between songs.  The real show-stopper, of course, is the song Totally Fucked, which I had previously dismissed as trying to be shocking by using a needlessly vulgar word, but I was wrong.  At the moment the action of the play freezes and the male lead begins to sing, there's really no other word that would better describe his situation.  Here's a video of Jon Groff performing the song on Broadway, but the touring lead, Chris Wood, was even better, I thought, expressing more of his pent-up adolescent male rage and pain with leaps and jerks that added up to one of the most impressive physical performances I've ever seen on stage.

The story is loosely based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play entitled Spring Awakening: A Children's Tragedy. The translator, Jonathan Franzen, points out in a preface, that the play is "casually and thoroughly amoral" and objects to the way the musical has "maimed" it.  I think this is the argument of someone who loved the play first and so misses the point of the musical.  Franzen's criticism of a sub-plot in which one of Wendla's friends reveals that she has been sexually abused by her father particularly misses the point, which is that this is a musical making fun of parents who think they own their children. 

Wendla's accidental pregnancy is a reflection on her mother's attempt to shelter her by refusing to tell her the facts of life (and her eventual murder by back-street abortion doctor is a discouragingly timely comment on this week's abortion-outlawing effort in Ohio).  Moritz's failure at school is a failure for his father, who had bigger ambitions for him (the kind of parental ownership that hits closest to home for me, the feeling that if a child gets into a good college, graduates, and has a successful career, that the parents get some of the credit).  The sexual abuse of one girl is just another indicator that these parents think their children belong to them, with some pontificating about how "the Lord won't mind" on the side, the pontificating mostly unheard as "blah blah blah."

Parental ownership extends, as it does in our society today, to the schools, which are run like prisons, with children in uniforms, all learning the same thing with no room (or time) for interpretation, and with overly strict discipline.  I found the schoolboys' songs most effective, with their literally knee-jerk rhythms, as each one is another effort to express questions and viewpoints for which they get no answers, no guidance.  Hanschen's masturbation to Othello read out loud is a comical and quite effective salvo in the boys' battle against the "in loco parentis" tactics of their school/prison system (not merely a sex for sensationalism scene, as Franzen asserts).

There's always a reason for revivals, and this one is a punch in the face to a supposedly adult society in which adolescents are discouraged from thinking or acting for themselves, in which they are sheltered long past the point of reason, their vibrant physical promise squandered, their ideas born secretly and alone, and too often left to die.

It's another version of one of William Blake's Songs of Experience, The Garden of Love:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Position at the University

We are off on a road trip this afternoon. I don't know that West Virginia would have been my chosen destination for either live theater or getting out of Ohio for a day, but that's the way things work sometimes.

I leave you with the news that I am definitely going to be reading Professor X's new book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower when it comes out on Thursday (see his interview).  The interview and comments, with what I see as the circularity of the arguments about why he has to be anonymous and how the tenured don't get that, make me think of this prose poem by Lydia Davis:

A Position at the University

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a position at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me completely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

Enough of that nonsense, I say! On to some other nonsense, adolescent yammerings about sex and freedom (Spring Awakening).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fun Reading

It's spring break for the kids' school, and we celebrated Walker's birthday on Saturday at a chess tournament, so now a bunch of deadlines have been met and all we have to do is catch up on our sleep and play with the new toys.

Because there were so many deadlines in the last week or two, my reading time was spent on amusement. I read the next few Kage Baker novels about the Company.  The parts about what we're like in the future from Sky Coyote were good satiric touches, I thought, and I loved the philosophizing about the meaning of time for immortals in Mendoza in Hollywood.  My favorite so far is The Graveyard Game, where much of the overarching plot of the story is played out, with scenes like one in which two immortals appear to get drunk on hot chocolate in a public place and the discovery of what really happened to that ninth Roman legion.

Then I topped off the reading week by finding Alexander McCall Smith's new Mma Ramotswe novel, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, on the seven-day-loan shelf at the library, which meant I had to read it right away.  I was quite in the mood for the slow pace and simple plot, with asides like:
"So might we fail to see the real sadness that lies behind the acts of others; so might we look at one of our fellow men going about his business and not know of the sorrow that he is feeling, the effort that he is making, the things that he has lost."
 Mma Makutsi gets married to Phuti Radiphuti in a pair of really good shoes in this one, so it was entirely satisfactory.

Now we have a bookshelf to put together--to hold all the chess books Walker got for his birthday--a schedule of movies to watch, an excursion to see a musical called Spring Awakening, and pet-sitting duties for the kids. We also have some bags of books that Eleanor found at a used book store to fill out some of her list of books she wants her own copies of to take off to college, so I see some bookshelf arranging in our immediate future.  She already had her own copies of the Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, the Harry Potter books, and the Borribles.  Now she also has the first three Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, The Thief Lord, Life of Pi, The Golden Compass, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, A Wrinkle in Time, Summerland, Ender's Game, Feed, Hatchet, Nine Princes in Amber, and the Earthsea booksIt's interesting for us to see which books she thinks she can't live without.  It's kind of like seeing which of the many books people have thrown at her over the years made an impression, which ones "took."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What agency, according to a Lucy Frank book, controls everything from screaming babies to unopenable pistachio nuts?

Classics: What statesman's six-volume series The Second World War opens with The Gathering Storm?

Non-Fiction: What 20th-century muckraker spent the latter years of his life investigating ancient Athens for his book The Trial of Socrates?

Book Club:  What city is under siege in 1204 by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, in Umberto Eco's Baudolino?

Authors: What author died of lung cancer at 42, after writing about her life as a "high-functioning alcoholic" in Drinking: A Love Story?

Book Bag: What science-fiction author invites others to write about his time-traveling assassin Jerry Cornelius?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Effort

Working with high school teachers on the spring musical is interesting; I have more respect for what they do and, oddly, even less tolerance.

On the one hand, I admire how these teachers work--I've imitated them by getting myself a loose-leaf binder and a hole punch, so I can keep the papers the kids give me (like their short biographies for the program) in order and as easily accessible as the rehearsal schedule and the sheet music for each song.  They are organized people; they come to rehearsal with a plan and God help anyone--even another teacher--who might try to influence that plan once they get going.

On the other hand, I find the teachers rigid and unhearing.  It amazes me how patient the kids are with being ordered around and told to sit down and shut up all day and then all evening, too.  I know they have some good ideas that are being lost in the chaos of banal chatter that they're shushed for, but I also know that they could easily fritter away the entire two-hour rehearsal chattering, and so being told what to do--told exactly what to see as black, and what as white--is the most expedient kind of guidance for them, even thought it's not the most penetrating.

The experience makes me less snotty, a little less like the speaker of this Billy Collins poem about high school teachers:

The Effort

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
"What is the poet trying to say?"

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts--
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail,
but we in Mrs. Parker's third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows--the drizzle and the morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students--a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards--

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

I think this poem is about complication and the kind of incoherence it can cause, and about how high school teachers are often more interested in presenting a coherent point of view than in exploring why it's sometimes so hard to say something "straight out," why we write poetry to trace the almost incomprehensible path of one seam in an infinitude of possibly gold-bearing seams in the great, dark mine that is high school.

"Inarticulate wretches" that we all are, I think we sometimes forget that even people who can't express a point of view well still have one, and we run the rink of bellying through our daily jobs believing that if only everyone would see things the way we do, the world would be a better--or at least a more comprehensible--place.