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Too Close to the Falls

July 11, 2014

Sometimes Ron tells me that other people don’t have so much inner monologue or that they don’t measure a situation in as much detail as I usually do, both before and after. When I went to visit my formerly imaginary friend Nancy, though, I got evidence that a few other people do measure a situation in pretty thorough detail, because in addition to making up a bed for us, Nancy left out a book she thought I’d like.

While it’s true that I usually read before bed, I don’t often manage this while traveling, due to the fact that I need more sleep than anyone else I know so am always running a deficit. However, if you tell me you think I might like a certain book, I will make an effort to read it. One of the most memorable moments in my adolescence came from being told I was the only person my high school speech teacher had ever met who “might actually like reading The Fairie Queene.” So of course, I did like it as soon as I got my hands on it.

The book Nancy left out for me was Too Close to the Falls, by Catherine Gildiner. It’s a memoir, and I don’t read too many of those. When I do, however, it’s usually as a houseguest, and often it happens early in the morning, like the spring morning I woke up in my great-aunt’s Hyattsville apartment and started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which begins with:
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.”

We got up early at Nancy’s house and went out for beignets, so it wasn’t until I got home that I tracked down a copy of Too Close to the Falls and began reading it. At first it seems like little Cathy Gildiner’s life isn’t like anyone else’s, but then I started to have the same feeling that Jo Walton once described about reader reactions to Among Others, that the childhood which seemed so different from anyone else’s usually strikes a chord among like-minded souls who have found each other over the internet. Many of us can identify with a child who did peculiar things and didn’t realize they were peculiar. We had mothers who read and perhaps didn’t pay attention to many of the household duties that occupied other mothers. My own mother, for example, never learned to type for the same reason Cathy’s mother gives for not learning to type or cook, because then “you’d be requested to do both against your will forever.” Probably there are other mothers from the 1950’s and 60’s who did the same thing and gave the same advice to their daughters.

Even though I don’t find little Cathy’s upbringing as odd as she seems to want me to, I did find that not many of us can write as well as adult Catherine. I love the part where she describes “normal” life for four-year-olds in a small town near Niagara Falls in the 1950’s:
“other four-year-olds spent their time behind fences at home with their moms and dads, stuck in their own backyards making pretend cakes in hot metal sandboxes or going to stagnant events like girls’ birthday parties where you sat motionless as the birthday girl opened her presents and then you waited in line to stick a pin into a wall while blindfolded, hoping it would hit the rear end of a jackass….”

The best parts of the memoir are the details about young Cathy’s life delivering prescriptions from her father’s drugstore with Roy, a kind and intelligent black man who never learned to read, but who knew how to keep a smart and energetic little girl on her toes: “Roy and I made up complicated systems for working together efficiently…..Roy loved to bet, and after I got the hang of it from him, I found that it gave life just that bit of edge it needed. Our days were packed with exciting wagers.”

Roy also gives Cathy her first tastes of perspective on her own family. When he laughingly calls her “the angel of exactitude” to a group of people who laugh knowingly, she “understood for the first time that not all the world shared the values of my family. I thought it was inherently good to be exacting.”

I got tired of the parts about Catholic school. It takes Cathy a very long time to realize “that advertisers only wanted to sell products and nuns and priests and parents only gave the party line but grew up with the same prejudices and instincts that everyone else had.” She is naive about sexuality for what seems a very long time, although her story about the first time Elvis was on TV is brightened up by the sentence she gets out of the long recounting of her prolonged state of innocence: “by this time many people had their own television, but they got together to watch history in the making, I guess in case something lustful happened and it was really scary they could turn to each other.”

The title comes from the kinds of danger an unsupervised and adventurous child could skirt in those days. Cathy gets “too close to the falls” literally, sliding down an icy slope towards them as a child and slipping drunkenly down some steps towards them as an almost-adult.

The geographical marvel I lived near as a child was utterly and completely forbidden–we were told that if any of us so much as put a toe into the Mississippi river we would be pulled immediately under by the current and never seen again, and even as teenagers we retained enough terror of the currents to resist partying on the sand bars, as a few of the bravest did. But I managed to find some pretty dangerous things to do. Most of these involved riding around on cars, in places other than the seats. Once we got stopped by the police for flapping tennis rackets out of the windows of a car to make it fly. Perhaps the police thought we had been drinking, but we had not. My friend Brad was driving, and he asked me to open the glove compartment to get his registration–when I did, a couple of rolls of toilet paper fell out because we sometimes went around t.p.-ing friends’ houses in those days, sometimes by going in, visiting a while, and then asking to use their bathroom. We didn’t always t.p. the yard; sometimes just the room itself.

What’s the most dangerous thing you did as a child?

My Real Children

July 7, 2014
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Which are the real children, the four Tricia had with her abusive husband Mark or the three Pat raised with her loving wife Bee? It’s not as clear-cut a question as it might seem.

At the beginning of My Real Children, by Jo Walton, Patricia is near the end of her life, living in a nursing home because of her dementia. The introduction makes you think that she’s confused, that she isn’t remembering much of anything. As the novel’s chapters begin to alternate between the life she has when she says yes to Mark’s proposal of marriage and the life she has when she says no, however, the situation gets more confusing.

Although her life with Bee is as happy as her life with Mark is unhappy, the news in the world with Bee starts to get worse. A few parallels between her two lives seem inescapable as Patricia gets older—her mother always has dementia and she always develops heart trouble. The world in which she lives an unhappy personal life, however, drives her to political activism, while the world in which her personal life is happy calls her to write guide books to Italy.

The worlds diverge so gradually I didn’t recognize that some of the Eurocentric history was skewed until it became apparent that some sort of multi-national alliance had dropped a nuclear bomb on Kiev in the world where Pat lives with Bee.

All the right hints are in the introduction—that Patricia taught a student who might be confused with the artist who “painted the picture of the ruins of Miami,” that she “had never cared for science fiction” and that “she remembered Kennedy being assassinated and she remembered him declining to run again after the Cuban missile exchange.” It’s just that I wasn’t ready to pick up on the hints; it seems such an ordinary story, in the beginning.

Although it seems unlikely to those around her, what Patricia does has an effect on the world, no matter how small and domestic it seems. In hindsight this may be obvious, as it is in the novel, but one of the questions the novel asks is how many of us get anyone who tries to look at our lives from our point of view? The famous, perhaps, but as Patricia herself points out, “you don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will.”

Not paying attention makes us like Mark, who “was also trying to write a book, a treatise on philosophy. He shut himself up in his room after dinner on most nights to work on it. He refused to discuss it with her.” Being too much bound by the culture of our own time period makes us like Patricia’s mother “who made light of everything and kept repeating that all marriages had these problems.” Taking advantage of a mother’s willingness to put her own needs last makes us like Patricia’s daughter, who “decided to take night classes and catch up on her education. This meant Trish cutting back on some of her own evenings to babysit Tamsin, which she did reluctantly.”

During the life in which her loved ones pay more attention to Patricia, she does different kinds of work, and less of the work for peace. She remembers that “she had written more letters as Trish, but surely that couldn’t have achieved anything? She hadn’t been important, in either world, she hadn’t been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds….But what if she had been?”

This novel answers that “what if” question, a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life except with a woman, suggesting that we all seem ordinary except when we’re taken out of ourselves, and perhaps our “real” children are the cumulative results of our efforts over what seem to us a series of ordinary days.

What–besides this novel—has the power to take you out of yourself for a quick look around?

The Piano Player Explains Himself

July 2, 2014

Do you think “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends/rough-hew them how we will“? Sometimes it’s hard to resist that kind of thinking; I’m thinking about a person dear to me who had a mild stroke, and then broke a hip, and then got a kind of leukemia, and then broke another hip and had another mild stroke. At what point do we start to think he’s fighting a losing battle?

And just how rude is it to ask that question, anyway?

There’s a lot of explaining to be done, as in Allen Grossman’s poem “The Piano Player Explains Himself.”

When the corpse revived at the funeral,
The outraged mourners killed it; and the soul
Of the revenant passed into the body
Of the poet because it had more to say.
He sat down at the piano no one could play
Called Messiah, or The Regulator of the World,
Which had stood for fifty years, to my knowledge,
Beneath a painting of a red-haired woman
In a loose gown with one bared breast, and played
A posthumous work of the composer S—
About the impotence of God (I believe)
Who has no power not to create everything.
It was the Autumn of the year and wet,
When the music started. The musician was
Skilful but the Messiah was out of tune
And bent the time and the tone. For a long hour
The poet played The Regulator of the World
As the spirit prompted, and entered upon
The pathways of His power – while the mourners
Stood with slow blood on their hands
Astonished by the weird processional
And the undertaker figured his bill.
– We have in mind an unplayed instrument
Which stands apart in a memorial air
Where the room darkens toward its inmost wall
And a lady hangs in her autumnal hair
At evening of the November rains; and winds
Sublime out of the North, and North by West,
Are sowing from the death-sack of the seed
The burden of her cloudy hip. Behold,
I send the demon I know to relieve your need,
An imperfect player at the perfect instrument
Who takes in hand The Regulator of the World
To keep the splendor from destroying us.
Lady! The last virtuoso of the composer S—
Darkens your parlor with the music of the Law.
When I was green and blossomed in the Spring
I was mute wood. Now I am dead I sing.

The poem came to my attention because the poet (father of The Magicians author Lev Grossman) died recently, which gives the last line even more resonance.

What about those first two lines, though? What kind of person would have mourners who would rise up in outrage, or is the poem saying that any mourners would, because what’s dead should stay dead?

Still, though, I think we all have some impulse to necromancy, to want to hear what the poet will say and see what kind of feelings the piano music will arouse. What we have in mind is so often not what happens.

Is what happens to us what always had to happen? It certainly is what will inevitably happen, no matter how long we struggle—we’re mortal. But we don’t want to have to confront that about ourselves.

Don’t shoot the piano player…. Don’t blame the messenger…. All sorts of comic sayings are implicit in the oddly concrete images of this poem. Do we each do what we were created to do, by one who “has no power not to create everything”?

In the poem, what “we have in mind” is a somber and appropriate response, a gravity about the grave. What we get, however, is a “demon,” an “imperfect player” who plays “the music of the Law”–which might be some kind of blues-infested honky tonk piano–underneath what could be either an old whorehouse wall decoration or some priceless work of art by one of the Old Masters.

It’s the not knowing that gets us. So many of the questions sound rude when you say them out loud.

Requiem in La Paz

June 30, 2014

I can’t resist a pun in a mystery novel title, can you? So I had to read Requiem in La Paz, especially because it’s by Jonna Gjevre, someone I met at Wiscon the first time I went, and who signed my copy of her book this last time. Even better, when I started reading I found out it was about a string quartet on tour in Bolivia, a quartet gaining renown for their rendition of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. The first-person narrator is a girl who was a child prodigy as a violinist but is now seventeen and has switched to playing the viola (cue PDQ Bach’s Mozart, singing “I was a child prodigy but now I’m just a grown-up guy”).

Foreshadowing brings you along so you start to draw inescapable conclusions. On the second page, one member of the quartet, Mikhail, says to the narrator, Isobel, that “there’s a long history of violinists who sell their soul to the devil. Tartini. Paganini. Dude down in Georgia.” Repeatedly, before a character dies, Isobel sees a “pale man.” She meets a pathologist, Dr. Paulsen, who studies mummies and he tells her “I’m one of those who interrogate the dead.” A necromancer, in other words. We know he’s going to be up to no good.

We find out that something is seriously wrong with Isobel the first time she sneaks into a hotel bathroom in the middle of the night to play her muted viola. What is her compulsion to play a tune that no one can recognize, one that the violinist, Lucia, says reminds her of Ysaye’s La Malinconia? Why is it that when Lucia tries to play Isobel’s viola she stops breathing and has to be rushed to the hospital? What happened to Isobel’s father the night he tried to convince her to return the viola, four months ago? Isobel knows, and yet she doesn’t really know. She thinks she was playing “the most beautiful music in the world.” When Paulsen hears it, as an encore to a concert in Bolivia, he says “I recognize a summoning spell when I hear one.”

The mystery continues to deepen as the musicians continue their tour. Also there are action sequences, like one in which “a stone puma burst out of the crowd and struck the concession stand, snarling with mossy teeth and scattering yellow bottles of Inca Kola.” As they travel deeper into Bolivia, Isobel confronts truths she hasn’t previously been strong enough to face: “where your silver comes from. How your treasures are made. Whose hands took your pearls from the sea. You don’t want to know how it’s paid for, how many lives it has cost.”

At the climax of the novel, Isobel confronts the devil: “gazing up at the devil’s beauty, I felt something take hold of me, something more powerful than anything I’d ever known: a longing to embrace that beauty, to give myself entirely to his service.” Isobel thinks that Paulsen, the necromancer, “sees the devil as he really is. Not as I saw him” but she is wrong. Paulsen is out of his depth, trying to influence forces that he cannot possibly control.

Part of the fun of this mystery is the way foreshadowing and magic elements become more important as you find out more about what is happening and why. You are dragged along unwillingly with the first-person narrator, who can’t believe what is happening any more than you can, even though it’s happening to her.

Depressed by a book of bad poetry…

June 26, 2014

It’s been a while since I wrote about a poem here. I’ve been reading James Wright, because he writes so beautifully about Ohio and I’ve been wanting to get down to his level of detail and appreciation. I keep thinking about my favorite poem by him, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm,” and about the irony of the last line (“I have wasted my life.”).

Last week I got an e-mail about work that felt a bit like what our housemate Miriam used to call a “letter of ruin.” It wasn’t, but it felt like that at first. It blamed me for things that worry me. So I’ve been writing a response and compiling information for my annual report, all of which is taking more of my time than it probably should. I feel like I’ve been missing June, although the weather has been so cool and rainy that it’s less inviting outside, anyway.

The Kokosing River is out of its banks near our house, although so far the sump pump is keeping the storm water out of our basement.  photo-316The farmers can’t make any hay, because even when the sun shines, the fields are still so wet they can’t take a tractor through them. Even the ones who grow what we like to call marshmallows–the big, white-plastic-wrapped bales of hay–can’t get out there to roll up any bales. Here’s a picture of a corn field near the turn-off to Gambier:  photo-315

Today I finished the final draft of my annual report. There’s lots more to do at work, but I’m taking a few days off, at least mentally. As if in tune with my mood, the sun has come out. I found this James Wright poem and it describes my mental state right now, pushing away from the desk, ready to go out and see what new kinds of water-loving bugs might have hatched out in our back gardens:

Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me

Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

I may feel like an old grasshopper, not much inclined to trying leaping heavily, but iridescent flies and dragonflies are darting around the garden excitedly, making the most of this hour of sunshine.  photo-318

Bellman & Black

June 23, 2014

I won an autographed copy of Diane Setterfield’s novel Bellman & Black from Cathy at Kittling Books, whose review got me interested in it. Luckily, I waited until June to read it, because the first half gets bleak, before the significance of the supernatural elements becomes clear. In the first half, I wondered if the man the main character, William Bellman, sees at the grave of his various relatives would turn out to be his father, missing since a few days after his birth. I thought that perhaps the sections on rooks would turn out to be tied to the plot. In the second half, however, it becomes clear that these elements are about more than the story of a single man, no matter how extraordinary.

William Bellman is extraordinary. From the age of ten, he’s the cleverest, the strongest, the most intelligent, the friendliest, and the most industrious person anyone around him has ever met. He can hit a bird from far away with a slingshot. He can figure out the close-kept secrets of a dyer in the textile mill he is learning to manage. He is good to people, partly because he likes them, and partly because it’s his nature to be able to coax the best work out of everyone. We get lots of detail about how perceptive and hard-working Will is, and so we grow to love him and wish him well.

Despite his virtues, though, Will does not get the kinds of rewards readers want for him. When his mother dies, and a childhood friend, and the uncle who has acted as a father to him, Will’s response is the same: to bury himself in work and try to forget. When his wife and three of his four children die, however, Will reaches a breaking point. He tries bargaining, and being a man of business, he means that literally.

When the second half of the novel began, I thought William had made a deal with Death. He thought so too. The Victorian flavor of the writing adds to this impression, as it has all along, until a sentence in this section almost—but not quite—slipped by me without sounding all that remarkable: “after lunch they spent half an hour in a brougham before arriving at a courtyard, then a room fragrant with cedar and pine, and carpeted with curls cut from the heads of babies, that were crisp underfoot.” There’s a Victorian version of the song Cats in the Cradle with William Bellman and his surviving daughter—the daughter that, at this point, I thought he had made a deal for with Death himself. Using work as an excuse, as he always does, William makes a cursory apology for being busy and his daughter, Dora, replies “you have been busy ever since I was born, Father. I am perfectly used to it.” William, now the owner of a mill and a successful funeral business, thinks that “the comfort of grief was out of bounds, and it was too late for sorrow.”

William does meet Death, and there’s an interesting twist on how his life flashes before his eyes in that moment. The sections about rooks, having been gradually revealed as more about the narrative than the plot, comment on the way William’s life flashes before his eyes. For them, as for us, it is entertainment–but entertainment of a very black sort–black being, as William himself would tell you, a complicated color to create.

Raising Stony Mayhall

June 19, 2014

Like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I met on our trip to Louisiana, I don’t usually read zombie books. I used to never read any book (or watch any movie or TV show) that I thought might be scary, but then I started a blog with the word “necromancy” in the title and got slightly obsessed with the TV show Supernatural. So I’ve sampled a bit at the edges of the horror genre in the last eight years, and found I like a few zombie books like World War Z and Generation Dead. Then Jenny introduced me to Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall, which I read straight through in a couple of hours one summer afternoon because the focus of the story keeps changing unexpectedly–I found the switching-it-up compelling.

The book has four parts. First, there’s the story of how Stony is discovered, just a few hours old, and grows up with a family in Iowa. Second, we see him on the run from the “breathers,” as live people are called by the “LD” community. They make jokes about what “LD” stands for, but the most inclusive version is “living dead.” In the third section, the shortest one, Stony has been captured and taken to a secret prison, where he is experimented on and abused. The fourth section shows what happens after Stony escapes from prison and tries to direct and protect his LD followers and his living family members.

It’s not until the fourth part of the book that we get a quick version of the zombie apocalypse story: “You could tell this story yourself. You know the ingredients” and then 16 tropes for a story about zombies are listed.

One of the interesting things about the story is the history of how Stony and those who love him try to discover the secret of his “life.” At first it seems to be some sort of empathy—as a newborn, he begins growing when he meets a young boy named Kwang: “with each visit, Stony grew. Within a few days he was walking. The next week he was talking. By the end of the summer the two boys were exactly the same height and weight, and they were hardly ever out of each other’s sight.”

While his sisters are convinced he’s human, Stony himself wonders if he has a soul. Readers are rooting for Stony, though, because why would we blame a person for being born the way he is? When Stony has run from people who would kill him just for the way he looks, he finds a deer dying at the side of a highway and he sits with it until it dies and wonders if he really is evil: “Maybe somewhere inside him there was a monstrous beast waiting to devour living flesh, but if it was there, it wasn’t coming out tonight. As a creature of evil, he was a washout. As a human being he wasn’t so hot, either. He should at least try to strangle the animal to put it out of its misery—that was the humane thing to do—but he didn’t think he could follow through on that, either.”

When he is finally forced to run, Stony meets different factions among the LDs, including the most passive, the “graveborn,” who came back to life after a 2-day fever following a 1968 outbreak and have been hiding ever since. Most of the others he classifies according to how they feel about the bite that spreads the fever: Abstainers, who think it’s a sin, Perpetualists, who believe some biting is necessary to maintain the LD population, and Big Biters, who want an orchestrated attack. There are also many Lumpists, who have a sort of fatalistic approach to non-living, and a group called the Ontological Studies Working Group. Eventually Stony meets a rich LD who owns a tropical island and talks about building rockets to send LDs out to colonize alien worlds.

There’s lots of dark humor in this section, because the LDs are being hunted and it’s hard for them to find a way to continue to exist without becoming the monsters that living humans imagine them to be. Stony sees a “green Sinclair brontosaurus” at one point, and thinks that he “liked the corporate mascot because it was one of the few that unashamedly reminded you of exactly what had died to make your life easier. Like the El Pollo Loco chicken crazy with desire to become your lunch, or Charlie the Tuna desperate to be canned, the dinosaur was a corpse with a job. One of the undead of the ad world.”

The leader of the “Big Biters” says war is the answer because “we’ve been fighting a war of attrition, getting picked off one by one” and because “those breathers want it as bad as us. They’re yearning for the end of the world. Why do you think they make so many movies about us? It’s their fucking fantasy. Every one of them wants civilization to burn, for all the rules to go up in smoke. They want the monsters to attack. You know why? Because then they’ll have the excuse to do what they’ve always wanted to do—shoot people in the head. No laws, no morality. They’ll have to do it. It’ll be fucking noble. Every one of them is picturing themselves as the last man standing, a bloodstained samurai with an AK-47.”

After a heroic escape from prison, Stony has what one of his friends calls “a mid-death crisis,” but he eventually manages to become the leader (even savior) that the many people who love him and believe in him have been hoping for. Don’t think that I’m promising a happy ending, though. This is a book that will keep surprising you.

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