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Literary Trivia

April 4, 2014

Andrew Marvell wooed his “coy mistress” by promising “my vegetable love should grow.” Writers often pluck their titles from the plant kingdom, from Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (the pimpernel is an herb in the primrose family) to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (aspidistra is an Asian plant of the lily family).
Identify the herbs, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and plants growing in the titles of books by these authors:
1. John Barth
2. Ray Bradbury
3. Richard Brautigan
4. Erskin Caldwell
5. Anton Chekhov
6. Umberto Eco
7. Louise Erdrich
8. William Faulkner
9. Fannie Flagg
10. Kenneth Grahame
11. Joanne Greenburg
12. Lorraine Hansberry
13. Nathaniel Hawthorne
14. Ernest Hemingway
15. Jean Kerr
16. Daniel Keyes
17. Joce Kilmer
18. Stephen King
19. W. Somerset Maughham
20. Margaret Mead
(from Literary Trivia by Riehard Lederer and Michael Gilleland)

Shel Silverstein

April 1, 2014

When I asked about poems to discuss (in honor of my 6th blogoversary), Freshhell requested any poem by Shel Silverstein, so I tried to decide which was my favorite. I ended up with about a dozen, including one or two from his “adult” poems. Then I had to think about what I like best about his poems– it’s the wordplay and shifts in perspective.

Shifts in perspective are most obvious in poems like “Point of View” and “Who does she think she is.” In “Point of View,” the narrator ends up by saying he “stopped and looked at dinner/From the dinner’s point of view.” In “Who does she think she is,” the narrator asks a zebra “Are you black with white stripes?/Or white with black stripes?” and the zebra responds:
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or are you quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?

Simply playing with perspective results in some of his best poems, like the “Snowball” (it “ran away/But first—it wet the bed”), “Don the Dragon’s Birthday” (“watch him blow the candles…on.”) and “Falling Up”:
I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up—
Up to the roof tops,
Up over the town,
Up past the tree tops,
Up over the mountains,
Up where the colors
Blend into the sounds.
But it got me so dizzy
When I looked around,
I got sick to my stomach
And I threw down.
This is fun for kids because everything is backwards, and I think it’s typical of Silverstein that an adult will get an extra dimension of wordplay from the phrase “threw down.”

“Stone Airplane” has a different kind of shift in perspective. Rather than the perpetually perky tone of the children’s author, in this poem we get a pinch of fatalism:
I made an airplane out of stone…
I always did like staying home.

Then there’s the comic perspective of “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,” which leads right into the cautionary tales of Uncle Shelby’s ABZ book:
If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful, boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor—
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore.

The other thing I like is the rhyme, which is itself a kind of perspective—it wraps everything up at the end of a section of lines, making the ideas seem finished and incontrovertible. Silverstein uses this in some of his “adult” poems like “Never Bite A Married Woman On the Thigh,” where the way the lines grow and the rhyme falters echoes the growing sense of menace:
Never bite a married woman on the thigh oh my
Cause she just can’t rub it off no matter how she’ll try
And when she gets home at night her man will ask her why
Then she’ll say it’s just a birthmark or some other silly lie
But he’ll get suspicious and then he will start to pry
Then she’ll get hysterical and she will start to cry
And he’ll say I don’t blame you but tell me who’s the guy
So she’ll admit to everything and he will say bye-bye
And he’ll buy an airline ticket and he’ll fly across the sky
And then he’ll come and find you and he’ll punch you in the eye
Then he’ll rent a cheap motel room and he’ll hang himself with his tie
And when she gets the news she’ll take an overdose of sleeping
Tablets and she’s gonna lie on the couch and die
So never never never never never never never never bite a married woman on the thigh

The wordplay, too, takes a darker turn in poems like “Masochistic Baby” when the narrator says “I got nothin’ to hit but the wall” and then ends with:
Nothin; to beat but the eggs
Nothin’ to belt but my pants
Nothin’ to whip but the cream
Nothin’ to punch but the clock
Nothin’ to strike but a match.

Perhaps my favorite is “God’s Wheel” from A Light in the Attic, because it has all of the things I like best in a Shel Silverstein poem:
God says to me with kind of a smile,
“Hey, how would you like to be God awhile
And steer the world?”
“Okay,” says I. “I’ll give it a try.
Where do I set?
How much do I get?
What time is lunch?
When can I quit?
“Gimme back that wheel,” says God,
“I don’t think you’re quite ready yet.”

This poem blends the best of the perspective shifts in his poems for children and the seeming order of rhyme in the poems for adults to produce what Silverstein recommends to others in “Put Something In,” which is to “put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.” Something silly that can make you think—that’s a hard note to hit, and Silverstein can hold that note.

What’s your favorite Shel Silverstein poem?

Eleanor and Park

March 31, 2014

Last week was a good week, with both kids home for spring break.

Walker received and greatly appreciated a giant squid, sewed by Freshhell‘s daughter, as one of his birthday presents. photo-271As another part of the celebration, we took him to play lazer tag, which was as fun as I remembered it from the last time Ron and I played, 25 years ago. We all watched the Veronica Mars movie for a second time (as Kickstarter backers, we got a download) and found it immensely satisfying. There were two birthday cakes and one game of telephone pictionary that culminated in drawings of Kermit in chains.

One day Eleanor and I had time to walk around a Barnes and Noble in Columbus, and I succumbed to the temptation to buy two Rainbow Rowell books, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, so we could read them together (and because one of them had her name in the title).  As it turned out, though, Eleanor had such a pile of good books for her luggage (among them some of my favorites from college–Bill, The Galactic Hero and What Entropy Means To Me) that she didn’t end up taking back either of the Rowell books, so I started reading Eleanor & Park and finished it very quickly, as it’s both easy to read and a compelling Young Adult story.

Eleanor and Park are in high school. They seem an unlikely couple, but they fall in love. There are wonderful moments; I particularly enjoyed the one when one of their teachers assigns them the memorization of a poem:  “Brains love poetry. It’s sticky stuff.”

I like the way Eleanor never tells anyone why she dresses the way she does, especially when her father asks “is that what all the cool kids are wearing these days?” and she “looked down at her giant white shirt, her fat paisley tie, and her half-dead purple corduroys to say ‘yup….This is pretty much our uniform.’”

There are a few nice moments of teenage realization for Park, who “thought he was over caring what people thought about him. He’d thought that loving Eleanor proved that. But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself.”

Lovely as it was to have both kids home for a week, there were a couple of times when I had to remember that my kids are not all the way grown up. Reading Eleanor & Park was a good reminder of that, because both of the title characters had good hearts but young heads. And it ends happily.

The Rook

March 24, 2014

One of you wrote good things about Daniel O’Malley’s crime thriller The Rook (subtitle: On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service), and it was so long ago I don’t remember who it was. This kind of thing is almost enough to make me think I should mend my non-methodical reading ways. But not quite; it’s fun to fall into a book that I half-remember reading about and discover all its joys for myself.

One of its joys is the fast pace. It has one of the most arresting openings ever: “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” But the process of recovering the protagonist’s memories happens quickly and seamlessly; she doesn’t waste a lot of time sleeping or eating during her adventures, and even her re-introduction to her family is brief, curtailed by the more exciting stuff that’s going on in her life.

It makes me think about something I recently said to an imaginary friend who let me stay the night–I think meeting imaginary friends in the flesh can sometimes be disappointing, because usually you get their goodness compressed, and in person you see the quantities of down time necessary to sustain whatever goodness you enjoy in them. Reading The Rook is getting the goodness compressed while remaining aware that there are more details behind the story. And it’s a good story—turns out that the protagonist, Myfanwy (who says her name rhymes with “Tiffany”) is a kind of supernatural cop, working for an organization called the Checquy. She has abilities, and she uses them against even weirder creatures—in particular, a group of augmented shapeshifters called “the Grafters” who have been doing things like “breeding horses the size of Humvees” for a couple of centuries.

Letters from the “you” who had her memories removed provide the backstory, so it’s a good thing she writes entertainingly:
“Unnatural occurrences aren’t limited to graveyards, morgues, and funky cult headquarters. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them happen in those sorts of places, but many more turn up in entirely mundane situations, which actually makes them far more upsetting. People are more likely to cope with the appearance of an animated corpse in a graveyard than one in an ice cream parlor or the changing room of a boutique. They won’t be happy with the appearance of the animated corpse in the graveyard, but they tend to be less outraged.”

The tamest of the secrets Myfanwy discovers living in the body that comes with a supernatural job, several apartments and cars, and closets full of clothes that don’t fit the new person’s taste, is that she has a pet named Wolfgang: “there was a flicker of movement through a doorway, and Myfanwy found herself staring at a rabbit with extremely long droopy ears. “Oh, I have a bunny!” Myfanwy knelt down and reached out a hand. Wolfgang continued to look at her but submitted to a tentative stroking and accepted a carrot. “How are you, Wolfgang?” Receiving no answer, she settled her mind that he was not a supernatural rabbit….”

One of the letters left for Myfanwy reveals that she works with a man who, “in the mornings…sat between a little girl made of steam and a set of siblings named Gestalt and learned about the secrets of the world he lived in” and in the afternoon, learned to use his ability to manipulate metal. Another of her co-workers, from America, looks “as marvelous as might be expected, considering she had access to all the boutiques of Rodeo Drive and the kind of figure that, according to some of the Checquy histories, people actually had sold their souls to possess.” Myfanwy knows a little bit about her own abilities, but the goodness of the plot is compressed to reveal what she can do only at the most exciting moment possible.

There are adventures rescuing people from sinister herbiage and cubes of flesh, and there’s an accurate prophecy from an ill-fated oracular duck. The villain gets a satisfyingly long monologue and is then vanquished forever by Myfanwy, who has been consistently underestimated by her co-workers, up until that point. It’s a fast ride with a fine destination, and while I don’t wish it had been any longer, I’m excited to find that there is room for a sequel (and that the author is writing one).

Do you have a favorite fast-paced book? An imaginary friend who you know is probably slower with the quips in real life?


March 17, 2014

Shelter, by Susan Palwick, is another of the science fiction books I discovered by reading Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, and it is, of course, great.

The way it is told works well, in concentric circles that get bigger. The prologue got me interested in Roberta, who comes back later. I thought the first chapter was about a guy named Kevin, but hindsight shows (since the title wasn’t enough to tip me off) that it was actually about his smart house, an Artificial Intelligence. Then Henry, a “baggie” or homeless person who has had his mind “wiped” and Preston, who used to be an important person (CEO of MacroCorp) and had his memories uploaded to the Net after he died, are featured for a while. Finally I started seeing things from the point of view of Meredith–Preston’s daughter, Kevin’s ex-wife, and mother to one of Roberta’s former preschool students—and then the other story lines began to come into sharper focus. The story covers twenty years, with issues clearly developing from our present (for example, global warming produces storms so fierce people can’t go outside in them and live).

As children, Roberta and Meredith both had a very dangerous and contagious new disease called CV (“caravan virus”) and lived through it, although they spent months in isolation wards with robot or “bot” nursing care. By the time they are adults, scientists are using CV to wipe the memories of people the government considers to be mentally ill. Meredith has lived a life of privilege, urged to get a “rig” that will record her memories and upload them to the Net after her death, although she refuses. How the two women know each other is not clear for the first half of the book, until finally we see Meredith, rendered infertile by the CV, adopt a CV orphan who has been more badly damaged by the disease than any of them could have guessed. He has demons (he calls them “monsters”) who demand sacrifice, and so he begins as any good little psychopath must, killing pets. Meredith and Roberta conspire with Preston and the preschool AI, a Mr. Rogers-type personality they call “Fred,” to keep him from getting noticed and “wiped” and they succeed for a while. The climax of the story comes in the aftermath of their collaboration.

The book is about why we need bodies, and what we need “shelter” from. If we could upload our memories and make “corporations” out of our most idealistic impulses, what could go wrong? Kevin explains architecture as an ideal when he says “Shelter. How people take a dream of comfort and turn it into a building, someplace they can live, someplace they’ll be happy. Not that it ever works. You design your dream house, and then once you build it you realize that the roof leaks and there isn’t enough closet space, and anyhow the shape of your dreams has changed….”

One thing that can go wrong is that even if we work to provide others with shelter, we often don’t want to share our own. Meredith illustrates this when she calls the cops on Henry, who says “my mom kicked me out because she was crazy, and other people kept kicking me out because they thought I was crazy. What’s crazy about wanting to get out of the rain?….A cat could live there, but I couldn’t because I didn’t smell good enough. She doesn’t mind smelling cat pee, but another person…”
Other people don’t want to live in houses with bots, and some don’t want to live in a world with Artificial Intelligences.

Even though Fred the AI and Roberta try their hardest to help Nicholas, Meredith’s adopted son, they can’t help him tell a story about his demons that will allow him to live with them in a way the rest of his society can live with. In fact, Fred himself faces being “wiped” after what has happened with Nicholas comes out:
“The case had generated talk of banning AIs altogether; even non-Luddites had been using Fred to predict the dangers of AIs run amok, although the soulfreaks claimed that he was a misguided hero who’d acted out of compassion to try to save a child. It seemed to Roberta, who’d never understood the debate to begin with, that both sides must be well-nigh desperate to seize so fiercely on Fred. There were AIs in charge of missiles, even if MacroCorp hadn’t manufactured those; there were AIs virtually in charge of hospitals. But then, anything to do with children drew special scrutiny and special hysteria, and always had.”

And yet the heart of the book does not lie in paradox. Excessive altruism is considered, in this future, to be a mental illness. Even Roberta, who has been living in fear of mind-wiping because of what Meredith did, says to her, after hearing her story: “I don’t know what I would have done in your place. I hope I wouldn’t have sacrificed so many people to try to save Nicholas, but you were in a terrible position. I’m not sure how much I really appreciated that before.”

After telling her story to Roberta, Meredith realizes that “her need to punish herself had made her deaf and blind and dumb to the punishment she inflicted on others….Not until she was slapped in the face with it.” In the process of trying to make amends, she spurs Roberta’s recognition that “the most hideous crimes were the ones committed by people trying to make the world entirely safe.” Once the characters all realize that, they can go home. Two of them exist only on the Net. Fred gets a robot body that can fly, prompting the comment “you’re Peter Pan.”

Walton says this is “an important book,” and I agree, although I think that in comparison to the others she mentions—Anathem and Little Brother—it spells things out less, leaving the epiphany caused by one character to be experienced by another, playing devil’s advocate with its own ideas. Shelter is, above all, a thoughtful book. It can create meaning in its readers, but they won’t find its meaning made clear on any one page.


March 13, 2014

ReadersGuide asked me if I’d read Duplex by Kathryn Davis, because a synopsis of the plot makes it sound like it would be just my thing. Publisher’s Weekly says:
At first glance, Miss Vicks’s grade-school class seems normal enough: there’s delicate Mary, hyperactive Eddie, would-be writer Janice, and rich-kid Walter. But Walter is also a sorcerer, dealing in souls, who seduces Mary away from Eddie. And their suburban street, caught in the mysterious “Space Drift,” seems to eschew the laws of physics. The new neighbors are robots; Miss Vicks walks her dog through a dreamscape; Mary’s child, “Blue-Eyes,” may be a monster; and the beach where Janice plays is home to ‘Aquanauts,’ strange sea creatures with eyes as “large and lustrous as plums.”

So I had to try it, even though I hadn’t liked the characters in one of Davis’ earlier novels, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. Unfortunately, Duplex gave me some of the same feeling—there are no characters to like, no perspective from which to view the action. It took me a while to figure out what I think about the experience of reading the book, and in the process I did something I rarely do before writing my own review—I read a few reviews to see what other readers thought.

Some reviewers, like Lynda Barry in the NYTimes, seem to have read only the beginning and then skimmed the rest for details. A few take an admiring tone because they don’t ordinarily read science fiction so they think throwing all these strange things together must be deep and symbolic. The review in Slate is the only one I saw that does a good job of imposing symbolism on the novel in order to enable a coherent reading. Finally, I decided that the only thing to do is to tell you about the parts I like while noting that I don’t think the metaphor on which the plot depends—the duplex as “hinge” between worlds—works as effectively as it could if the stories were more explicitly connected.

The thing I liked most is the way the characters bounce around other stories, particularly The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Brigadoon, young girls reading books about horses, The Wizard of Oz, post-apocalyptic young adult fiction, 1950’s suburban novels, boarding school books, and fairy tales. The road through the duplex development is the road to a novel about a sorcerer, or a novel where the dog dies, or one where a spinster schoolteacher is swept into a passing convertible and off to a life of love.

The robots are quite interesting. From their point of view, a human looks
“like a fluid shapeless sac of parts held together by skin and the skin pulsing with blood and pink with smudges here and there of hair and blowing panels of fabric….This was the way robots viewed living flesh ever since they’d been granted the gift of color-sightedness and prophecy to compensate for the fact that they would never know love. In the robot universe there were six windows through which the sun rose, six windows through which the sun set, and the stars moved around opening and shutting the windows like servants.”
One of them, Cindy XA, mimics human life throughout the lifetime of a human character, Mary, even down to taking care of a baby and appearing older. But the robots’ curiosity about humans can be dangerous, the humans believe, telling a cautionary tale about what happens to young girls who consort with robots.

The sorcerer plays with human lives. When he decides that he wants to marry a teenaged girl named Mary in place of his older lover, Miss Vicks, he has Mary’s teenage lover, Eddie, replaced with a changeling. Miss Vicks is put out to pasture: “grass was at the heart of the smell, mediated by the smell of perspiration and saddle leather, combining to unlock a completely different set of memories from the ones unlocked by a lawn mower. Miss Vicks had been a passable equestrienne in her youth.” The only result is that the young girls on the street replace their games of trading cards “with a fad for writing novels about horses.”

Time is fluid in this novel. On the surface, it often seems to be the 1950’s: “she wore coins in her loafers, which meant she was going steady.” Often this is immediately undercut: “If she wore them in her eyes it would mean she was dead.” Under the surface, there is the story of the aquanauts, who
“started out the same as you and me, just like everyone else….The bad news is you’re all descended from her. That’s why you have trouble sleeping—and don’t go trying to tell me you don’t because I know what goes on here at night. The bedroom walls are like paper. The good news is it’ll start getting better once you’re older. Cocktails at five—that’s the answer. If those mothers and fathers hadn’t been drinking their cocktails when the wave broke….”
There’s a nice undercurrent of symbolic meaning here, with the cautionary tales about what happens to young girls through the generations, from the 1950’s to some unimaginable post-apocalyptic tidal wave future. It stays just an undercurrent, though, with no overarching narrative to allow readers to spot anything valuable in it. Instead we’re left with the image of old Miss Vicks eating a single seed or bite of cake so she has to stay in fairyland, feeling eternally young while time washes by outside the window: “by now the water had come so close to the hotel that if a window were to be opened she could reach out and her hand would get wet.”

Opposed to the magical future imagined by the young girls is their imagined realistic future: “after two people got married everything that had formerly seemed interesting became uninteresting—this was common knowledge, too. Once you were married, romance and heartbreak were no longer an option.” They don’t want to become the adults in the world of the duplex: “vacation was a nightmare when you were a teenage girl forced to live in a rented duplex so small and with such thin walls that the sounds and smells of your whole family not to mention the people downstairs…were always right there.” They don’t want to die and have someone say “nothing interesting happened.” When the story they perceive is realistic they want to know “what became of all the interesting parts…things like getting taken up into the sky, or being part horse, or being immortal. This story doesn’t have anything like that going on in it. In this story things like that aren’t even possible.”

In the end, the girls decide, “if you wanted to be remembered you had to become famous….Even so, the person you’d been, the person who breathed and had blood circulating through every part of herself, would be gone.” All that remains are the facts, the kind you learn at a “good school….The kind of school where they dance around a maypole but also volunteer at soup kitchens. That kind of place.”

I think that to the extent this novel has a point, it is an attempt to flesh out hopes and dreams. The sorcerer is called Body-Without-Soul. The girls are souls who don’t always identify with their bodies. The duplex is both trap and portal. But the novel, at 195 pages, is too short for sense and too long for comfort.

The Solace of Leaving Early

March 11, 2014

I read The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel because one of my students, Natalie, said it was her favorite book. I got off to a rough start with it, however. I found the title forgettable, and was intensely irritated by the title drop moment, which comes about halfway through. I suspected this novel of being all moments and no plot, of setting me up to sympathize with characters who weren’t going to do anything or go anywhere. I was wrong.

I think the title intentionally fools the reader, at least early on—it seems like it’s about the main character, Langston, who has gone to see the opera La Boheme and said “I’m having a fabulous time” when it’s actually about her brother Taos, whose response is to say “Let’s leave then, shall we?” Langston thinks she “knew exactly what Taos meant; she knew he wasn’t being perverse or clever or idiosyncratic. He was handing her the sweetest possibility this life offers: to leave in the middle, while everyone else stays behind and waits for the heroine to die in the cold.”
What I missed at first is that this is a scene from Langston’s childhood, and she grows past wanting this peculiarly adolescent type of solace without forgetting what it feels like to want it.

Langston has set herself up for adolescent angst. At the beginning of the novel, she has thrown away the chance to defend her dissertation because a former lover showed up for the defense. She has retreated to her parents’ house and spends her time in her bedroom thinking about writing books that will show how superior she is to everyone around her. It’s hard to like her from what she says, but as you look at more of what she does, it’s inevitable.

Amos is a pastor in the town where Langston’s parents live. He isn’t entirely sure of his calling and has had some difficulty getting used to small-town life:
“And who were these people, anyway? All through the late fall and early winter, in order to pick up his mail at the local post office, Amos had to walk past the home of a man named Skeeter, and there was very often a large dead deer hanging from its back feet (or worse, on a hook through the gut) by a series of winches and pulleys on a tree inches from the sidewalk. Amos’s hometown had the only opera house in the whole of Ohio; there were no dead animals in the trees of his youth.”
As you can probably tell, I sympathize with Amos, who circles warily around Langston for most of the novel, feeling awkward and saying the wrong things.

The first time I feel any sympathy for Langston is when she helps her mother prepare for a visit from her grandmother. The grandmother reminds me of my mother, in some ways, as she’s meant to—she’s a woman “overrepresented in literature” who comes in to say “What on earth have you done with mother’s teapot,” so Langston’s mother will say “There it is, where it always is, inside the china cupboard” and the grandmother can make her pronouncement: “Isn’t it a shame it can’t be in a more graceful spot and what a shame people no longer take tea.”

I feel sympathy for Amos all the way through, but the first time he manages to articulate anything of why he does what he does every day, I identify with him so strongly that it seems to me he’s echoing what I said yesterday about necromancy, that there’s inevitably a price in the real world for any attempt to speak to the dead:
“…any time one of the faithful had suggested to Amos that Jesus had appeared, or spoken, or guided, or touched, Amos feigned happiness, but in his mind he asked, ’What is at work in this person? What need, what sort of imagination? How can I help them? The dead return, oh yes they do. The come in dreams, and in fits of memory so potent they can double a grown man, but that wasn’t the same thing as an apparition.”
Amos understands need–of course the dead return, although most of us don’t try to transubstantiate them.

That Amos and Langston are ready to act on the beliefs that have brought them together is apparent when she decides not to wear her grandmother’s beautiful wedding gown and let her mother plan the wedding. She begins to take an active role in her own life, leaving hurtful things unsaid, and he begins to be able to say the right things, starting with “I will.”

The novel has a happy ending—it strikes me a bit like what would happen if the female narrator of some story by Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor finally met someone else who has read all the same books and wants to help her put the ideas to some use in the world.

And Natalie, the sight of Langston’s wedding gown makes me cry, it’s so perfect.


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