Today Necromancy Never Pays is six years old, which of course makes me think of A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six” and what I interpret as a caution against getting too cocky about having done anything for six years in a row:
When I was one I had just begun
When I was two I was nearly new
When I was three I was hardly me
When I was four I was not much more
When I was five I was just alive
But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever;
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever
In honor of the blogoversary, I will take requests for poems you’d like to see reprinted and discussed. Do you have a favorite? One that’s always puzzled you? A children’s or nonsense poem you defy me to wring some meaning out of?
Put it in the comments and I’ll give it a try.
Oberlin College has a January term, and some students do an independent project. So for all of January, Walker has been living at home, working on chess studies. Don’t ask me what they are, but they’re absorbing, and they involve lots of books and sitting on the floor moving pieces around on the chessboard. He has gotten results and published them on chess sites and it all sounds very productive.
He’s also been here for dinner, and the occasional game of themed bananagrams (we pick a theme and have to make at least one word related to it), and he’s been singing around the house. It’s good to hear the singing all the time again.
In August, I saw my neighbor from across the street; she asked about Walker’s plans and said she knew I would miss him. “Especially the singing,” I said, and she laughed and said that yes, she’d miss the singing, too. “I get a bit of echo when he’s in the back of the house, but it’s lovely when he’s in the front of the house,” she explained. He has a big voice–evidently, the whole neighborhood enjoys it when it’s nice weather and the windows are open.
Now January is coming to an end, and the house will get quieter. I’ll have music playing in my head, especially after Monday night symphony rehearsals, but I’m increasingly less able to sing it, as my two-octave range continues to shrink. Ron plays music through speakers, maintaining that the trend of listening through earbuds means we don’t share music enough, and he has a point. Like the cat who comes pushing his way into my lap when I’m busy–demanding attention right then– sometimes I need music pushing its way into my day.
When I think of Walker’s music, I think of John Berryman’s #204 from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. Right now, Walker has a very dream-song-ish way of speaking, it seems to me: Impatient. Intent. Compact. Full of allusions to things I only half-recognize.
Henry, weak at keyboard music, leaned on
the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A
& the mysterious final soundings
of Beethoven’s 109-10-11 & the Diabelli Variations
You go by the rules but there the rules don’t matter
is what I’ve been trying to say.
Huddled, from their recesses, the goblins spring
(I’m playing it as softly as I can)
while the sound goes roaring.
If I scream, who would hear me? Rilke, come on strong
& forget our roles, we’ll play the Housman man
unless, of course, all this is boring.
Tides bring the bodies back sometimes, & not.
The bodies of the self-drowned out there wait,
wait, & the widows wait,
my gramophone is the most powerful in the country,
I am trying, trying, to solve the andante
but the ghost is off before me.
The house won’t echo for too long. I have plans for helping me “solve the andante” like individual conferences with each of the first-year Writing Center staff members, a weekend trip to someplace warm, and getting in to see John Green when he comes to Kenyon.
We found Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as an audiobook at the library before our first long road trip of the winter, and the kids, who had already read it, were willing to listen to it again so Ron and I could know the story. What happened was that Ron enjoyed it, I zoned in and out (sometimes I get audio fatigue on a very long car trip), and the kids found it a little digressive and slow, when their experience of reading it silently to themselves had been much better. That meant I had to find a copy and read it, which I managed this past weekend, when our chess friends who live in Columbus provided Walker with a place to sleep, meals, and chauffeuring back and forth from their house to the chess hotel.
The cats were happy to have us home, for a change. Sabrina has given up on ever going outside again, and alternates sleeping in front of the heat vent and on the back of our couch, looking out the window. Tristan likes to get in among my potted plants and lash his tail angrily, looking out at the snow and the bird feeder. Sammy, who is almost 15, sleeps everywhere. On those rare occasions when a beam of sunshine comes into the house, he follows it and sprawls in its warmth. Here’s a rare picture of him awake; he was staring at me, willing me to get up and feed him.
Neverwhere, while a good book to read in one gulp on a snowy Ohio day, is very much set in London, which gave Eleanor pleasure in the re-hearing. “I’ve been to that underground station” was her undying refrain. She is, by the way, a person very much suited to the English climate; when she came back her skin was luminous and pale in a lovely way that strangers commented on, but now that she’s been back in Iowa she has her usual winter patches of red skin and nosebleeds.
Anyway, Neverwhere is a fantasy adventure set in “London Below,” which is a place where even an ordinary man can become a warrior, with a nice cup of tea beforehand. The protagonist, a very ordinary man named Richard Mayhew, slips out of our world and into London Below by rescuing a girl named Door from two seriously villainous but occasionally bumbling-seeming characters named Vandemar and Croup:
“There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.”
While they are always presented in a slightly over-the-top way, which might make the unwary believe they are not as dangerous as they evidently are, the comic exaggeration in the description of Vandemar and Croup serves to remind readers of the sense of menace everyone feels in their presence, a menace so big and black that no one in their vicinity seems able to tell one from the other, despite the enormous differences in their appearance.
As they remind their employer at one point, Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup
“brought the Black Plague to Flanders. We have assassinated a dozen kings, five popes, half a hundred heroes and two accredited gods.”
They have not done any of this in a particularly sinister way, but like middle-aged bureaucrats in ill-fitting business suits. When Mr. Croup asks, rhetorically, “’if you cut us, do we not bleed?’ Mr. Vandemar answers, “with perfect accuracy, ‘No.’”
Richard and Door are assisted by the Marquis de Carabas, “a creature of pure irony” at times, although handy when dying and then coming back to life will get them a little more information. I love the part where Old Bailey, disappointed that the marquis can’t describe what death was like, says “After all I done to bring you back from that dread bourne from which there is no returning. Well, usually no returning.”
Door’s quest is to find out what happened to her family, and to do this she must meet the Earl of Earl’s Court, the Angel Islington, and the black friars of Blackfriars. There are more name jokes based on underground stations, but that gives you an idea of how the fantasy world is based on puns and mapped out.
Richard alternates between relishing his role in the fantasy world and wanting his ordinary life back. When Door asks him to get food, he “felt oddly proud. He had proved himself in the ordeal. He was One of Them. He would Go, and he would Bring Back Food.” But when he is praised for killing “The Beast” and becoming “the Warrior,” he “folded his arms, exasperated. ‘So, after all this, I still don’t get to go home, but as a consolation prize I’ve made it onto some kind of archaic underground honors list?’”
Ordinary life will never be the same, for Richard himself, and for anyone who reads about his adventures. You might find yourself paying a little more attention to the kinds of animals and people that formerly seemed inconsequential, for example. Listening to this book at someone else’s pace may not lend itself to that kind of attention, however. Reading it at your own pace, all at once, is the best way to enjoy the silly bits, race to the exciting parts, and relish the way it all comes together.
In his publication celebration of Jo Walton’s book What Makes This Book so Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Patrick Nielsen Hayden says “these aren’t the kind of books Serious People talk about.” Walton herself has a little frisson of concern in her afterward, “Literary criticism vs talking about books,” when she characterizes criticism as necessarily detached and objective—having never, as she herself confesses, studied it. I would disagree about the necessity of trying to be “objective” about texts, but not about the fact that “for decades now there have been SF authors who are treated respectfully, who are studied, who have books written about them by academics.”
Walton’s strength, as Hayden points out, is in her ability to get her readers thinking and talking about books, and so I can only guess that the little bow to the tradition of defensiveness in talking about genre fiction is mostly a reaction to the book appearing in print. Originally these were blog posts at Tor.com. Anyone going to that website to read them wouldn’t need the “this is not serious criticism” disclaimer.
I’m interested in the defensiveness because I think it’s largely situated in the historical moment. I am of Walton’s generation, one that grew up reading paperback SF novels and are now reading about new SF on the internet. Some of us read more on the internet than others–since I write here, I necessarily read here a good bit, but as discussers of re-reading continually lament, my time is limited. Also, most of my paying work requires me to read and write on a screen, so I usually wait for a paper book when I want to read something for fun.
Blog readers get one little provocative piece per day, or week, or however often the blogger posts. A book like this could, conceivably, be read in one big gulp over a couple of hours. One of its many charms is that the blog posts are still up and she’s still writing more, so if something Walton says provokes you to comment, you can still do it: “interaction remains a possibility.”
But “these are not reviews,” she says. “Reviews are naturally concerned with new books, and are first reactions.” Perhaps, especially in the past. But since the internet is changing the way some of us talk about books, I don’t see why bloggers can’t co-opt the word “review” and use it to mean “going over the things that make me think a book is great.”
As with Among Others, one of my favorite things about this book—and there’s lots more of it in this one—is the recommendations of things to read. I discovered a number of books that sound interesting, and many of them have one thing in common—they were published from 1993 to 1996, the years my children were born and I was still (perhaps foolishly) commuting and teaching classes. Here are all the books I could have been reading—and it’s not too late!
Another thing that makes this book great is that it feels like having a conversation with someone who loves some of the same things you do. For instance, Walton says the plot of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is “perfect, “ observing that “thinks that look like jokes and asides are actually all setup.” Yes, I exult. She gets it! She calls Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer “incredibly readable,” which is definitely is, and even when she makes fun of the parts that don’t work, you can still feel how much she loves it because she’ll say something eventually like “it doesn’t stop the story working.”
She gets what fascinated me as a teenager about the John Fowles book The Magus and what made me wonder why I loved it so when I re-read it later. It wasn’t “the suck fairy,” but something less defined, and she puts her finger on what bothered me, the sense that “the underlying reality that is never explained doesn’t make sense.” But she also recognizes that “it’s beautifully written. The characters are so real, I’d recognize them if I saw them at the bus stop.”
I had to read the first paragraph of her piece on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit out loud to Ron, because it struck me as something I wish I could have said:
“The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle Earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.”
There are lots of things here anyone would wish they could have said, because Walton is good at getting to the heart of the matter. Her explanation of “SF reading protocols” is clever and succinct. One particular highlight is her explanation that readers can understand some SF as metaphorical, symbolic, or allegorical, but that
“what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything, that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.”
She discusses techniques like “infodump” and “incluing” (a term she originated) and then compares them to techniques used by literary writers, Trollope and Byatt.
Talking about a specific book or issue, this writer puts on a virtuoso performance, and she makes it look easy. It’s only in the introduction and conclusion that she seems to surface, look around her at the looming shadows cast by literary critics–those black-mustachioed figures cast as villains even before Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub–and finger her virtuoso writing fingers gingerly. It makes me think that if all bloggers spent more time trying to convey more of the personal reactions that make the books we love “so great,” we could begin to review the reviewing situation.
I got a copy of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation from Alfred A. Knopf because it looked interesting, and then found it was the only book I could read during our holiday travels, because it is written in succinct little sections. I kept wanting just one more.
It’s a fairly ordinary story, about two people who get married, have a child, and then try to stay married. But along the way, there are amusing and reflective sections:
“Studies suggest that reading makes enormous demands on the neurological system. One psychiatric journal claimed that African tribes needed more sleep after being taught to read. The French were great believers in such theories. During WWII, the largest rations went to those engaged in arduous physical labor and those whose work involved reading and writing.”
“There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”
The couple experience the magic and frustrations of the first few years of their daughter’s life. They get bedbugs in their urban apartment. They say the kinds of ridiculous things to each other that parents always do when one of them has had to take the child to the ER: “You are only supposed to do that if you can remain very calm. Were you very calm?”
About halfway through the story, still told in sections, the husband has an affair, which causes the wife to fall apart, although “no one gets the crackup he expects. The wife was planning for the one with the headscarf and the dark jokes and the people speaking kindly of her at her funeral.” She remembers that “they used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.”
They separate at the point when
“the wife has take to laughing maniacally when the husband says something, then repeating the word back incredulously.
She has seen this rhetorical strategy used before by a soon-to-be ex-wife talking to her soon-to-be ex-husband.”
They get back together, though.
“At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.”
They move to the country, and watch their daughter play outside. “The husband and wife whisper-fight now in the gloves-off approved way. She calls him a coward. He calls her a bitch. But still they aren’t that good at it yet. Sometimes one or the other stops in the middle and offers the other a cookie or a drink.”
In the end, they stay together. The simplicity of the sections–of the moments of wanting and hurt and reconciliation–tells this story in a way that a fuller narrative could not. It’s made up of snippets, and no matter how much these two people speculate, they can’t weave it into a grander narrative. They end up paying attention to the moments, and trying hard to let the rest take care of itself.
The sections end up feeling like stanzas of a long, narrative poem. They tell the story, but they convey the emotion, rather than describing the details. And the emotion of a long-term marriage rings true to me, a reader who has lived for more years married than single.
Since she’d been in London this fall, we drove Eleanor and all her stuff back to Grinnell over the weekend (rather than flying her back as usual, this time of year). It’s more than 1200 miles round-trip, so we left on Friday morning, hoping to move her in on Saturday morning and make it back home in one long day. Weather interfered, though–as it tends to, in January–and we ended up carrying her stuff into the dorm during a snowstorm and then driving across Iowa and Illinois with the same storm. We got to Hobart, Indiana after dark and stopped for the night at Ron’s brother’s house. Then we drove the rest of the way back home in the right-hand lanes of the highways on Sunday, because the passing lanes were full of blowing snow, deep in spots.
Ron had offered to make the trip without me, but Walker had weekend plans and I was afraid I’d spend most of two days worrying, like the speaker in this poem by Todd Davis:
My wife and I sit on an aspen that fell
during last February’s ice storm, its bulk
blocking the trail that snakes around the curve
of the mountain’s back. No ice storms this year,
and today the blue of late January slides
around the bowl of the sky. We can’t see
beyond, but we know the darkness of space
glitters like ice on the ends of branches,
and like ice, the weight of its darkness
may topple us, bar the path
we had hoped to take.
So we took that path. Now we are both exhausted and not at all caught up for the week ahead, but I feel a sense of satisfaction that I did not let my fear of winter weather keep me at home, shaking. In fact, I got a good dose of desensitization for my fear of falling on ice, since every time we stopped the car, I had to get out and slide over parking lots covered with wind-frozen slush.
We were listening to an audiobook of Kerouac’s On The Road, with its longing and planning for one place while stuck in another, and then the longing for a newer place before the characters had even half gotten to the place they’d thought they wanted to be. Listening to the stories of Dean traveling halfway across the country to say one heartfelt-but–largely-pointless thing to Sal made me feel less like we were just spinning our wheels.
I’ve been frozen with fear of the frozen for so long that I’d almost forgotten how freeing it can be to go out despite the “weight of its darkness” and come home untoppled. I may not be ready to face tomorrow morning, but I’m more prepared to face the glittering malice of another winter morning, after traveling so far to end up where I started.
1. Which novel opens with Raskolnikov walking out into the streets of St. Petersburg?
2. Which literary hero lives in St. Petersburg with his Aunt Polly and his half brother Sid?
3. In which 1990s novel does Quoyle rebuild his life in Newfoundland?
4. In which language did Franz Kafka write?
5. Who, in the 1850s, wrote the highly influential food books French Country Cooking and Italian Food?
from Who Killed Iago by James Walton