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Favorite Books

August 15, 2022

Do you have a ready answer when someone asks “what’s your favorite book?” I have several answers, depending on the context and the questioner. Because of course we all know it’s impossible to pick just one.

Here is a list of book titles I’ve probably given at one time or another as an answer to the question of what’s my favorite:

Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Butler, Parable of the Sower
Card,* Ender’s Game
Fford, The Eyre Affair
Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Goldman, The Princess Bride
Harkaway, The Gone-Away World
Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Irving, Cider House Blues
Jiles, News of the World
Joyce, Dubliners
Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea
Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Percy, Love in the Ruins
Rowling, Harry Potter series
St John Mandel, Station Eleven
Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean
Stephenson, Anathem
Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Turner, The Thief
Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Wells, Murderbot series
Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber

*Ron comments that the inclusion of this author suggests that I should write an essay entitled “Books I Love by Authors I Hate”

Auden, Collected Poems
Berryman, The Dream Songs
Browning, Poems
Byron, Don Juan
Dobyns, Cemetery Nights
Larkin, Collected Poems
Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind

Children’s books
Anderson, Feed
Chabon, Summerland
Cooper, The Dark is Rising
Dahl, Matilda
de Larrabeiti, The Borribles
Doctorow, Little Brother
Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
Funke, The Thief Lord
L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
Nesbit, Five Children and It
Ransome, Swallows and Amazons
Rex, The True Meaning of Smekday
White, Charlotte’s Web

Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Orwell, 1984
Pope, The Rape of the Lock
Voltaire, Candide

Chekhov, Three Sisters
Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot
Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer
Kaufman, The Laramie Project
Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Shakespeare, Othello
Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Short Stories
Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
Faulkner, Collected Short Stories
Gilchrist, Victory Over Japan
O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find
Welty, Collected Stories

Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim
Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Wallace, Consider the Lobster
West, Shrill, Notes from a Loud Woman

The main criteria I used for listing “favorites” was how many times I’ve re-read my copies of these books. And compiling this list made me realize that one of the things that makes a novel a favorite for me is if it has a surprise, like Anathem, The Gone-Away World or The Thief.

I include only one Shakespeare play, Othello, because my pleasure in it comes more from the lines than from seeing a particular performance. But I do recommend the 1995 Laurence Fishburne Othello with Kenneth Branagh as Iago, a 1989 filmed version directed by Janet Suzman with John Kani as Othello, the 2001 film adaptation with Mekhi Phifer entitled O, and the 2001 British film adaptation with Eamonn Walker and Christopher Eccleston. Also Stage Beauty, the 2004 film that centers around a production of Othello, with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes.

And I only included one book each by favorite authors, which is in itself an impossible choice, like picking only one by Heinlein. For a favorite series I sometimes just put the title of the first one.

When asked by non-academics, I often say that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is my favorite book.

For my “READ” poster, I chose Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, because that’s the answer I most often give people who are already readers.

How do you answer this question–what’s your favorite book(s)?

The House was Quiet and the World was Calm

August 13, 2022

Now that I’m officially retired (as of July 31), I’m trying to get used to it. It should be nice to no longer have so many things pulling at me, but instead it has been making the days a kind of Sargasso Sea, nothing moving and nobody going anywhere. I thought I was already living the life of a writer, setting my own schedule and finding ways to get things done without too many outside deadlines, but I also had the immediacy of things that had to be done at certain times on specific days, and suddenly I have none of that; I am adrift.

The good part of not having to prepare for the fall semester is that August can still be summertime, although the weather is not cooperating with that, as it often does not in Ohio in August; it’s been too cool and rainy for swimming in the cold lake.

Another good part of not being so scheduled-up is that I can read more. I don’t have as many other things getting in between me and the book I have a mark in. Sometimes I wander around the house, though, looking at all the books I’ve been wanting to find time to read and wondering which to pick up next. So many decisions, and so much time.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave my job entirely, but I wasn’t willing to take it on full-time at this point, knowing that “full” time at Kenyon usually means 70 hours a week. So I’m working hard to remind myself that it was my choice and I should have no regrets. I do count it a victory that the college replaced my “half-time” position with a full-time one. Now I’m like Kylara Vatta in Elizabeth’s Moon’s science fiction novel Into the Fire, who “had things she could do things that might–though it was hard to believe–be as interesting, as worthwhile, as what she’d already done.”

I’ve been rereading one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, “The House was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” in an attempt to put myself more into that kind of mood:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Of course, Wallace was still getting up to sell insurance every morning when he wrote that poem. As many of us discovered in 2020, the promise of not being expected to show up anywhere is often better than the reality of it.

Maybe it will help that I have an appointment next week to read some of Walker Percy’s papers at the Wilson Library at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as I’m now an “affiliated scholar” at Kenyon, free to pursue whatever interests me and wander through academic libraries as I decide what that is.

I’m in the fortunate position of being able to decide who should expect me and when. It’s a good thing to be in this position but changes take getting used to, even changes for the better.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

August 10, 2022

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers, is a second short novel about her monk and robot pair, Dex and Mosscap, telling of their adventures after what happens in A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Like the first novel, it’s a quiet story about what it’s like to be human or robot in the future, when humanity has stopped building robots in favor of trying to take care of the natural world they have left after the expansions of an industrial age.

Dex is nonbinary, which has nothing to do with the adventures the character experiences but is often momentarily confusing because readers are guessing whether Dex is doing something alone or with Mosscap. For example, as the two are traveling, “they steered the bike in the direction the sign indicated, and Mosscap fell into step alongside.” I’m not arguing that the plural pronoun shouldn’t be used, but it fails to add anything except moments of confusion to this particular tale, at least so far. If the representation makes it worthwhile to other readers, fine; it’s a small quibble.

But small points and nice distinctions are part of the pleasure of this book. I enjoyed an exchange between the two characters after Mosscap declares that it “doesn’t need an object to facilitate that feeling.” Dex explains that things like “a shrine, or an idol, or a festival” are useful because “those things remind us to stop getting lost in everyday bullshit. We have to take a sec to tap into the bigger picture.” And then there’s a pause and Dex points out that “you are an object facilitating that feeling. The feeling’s coming from you, after all.”

Sometime the humans call the robot an object and use the pronoun “it” but usually they treat Mosscap as a person, which is an interesting thing to trace throughout a novel in which a robot “Awakening” has already happened.

The world Dex and Mosscap are traveling through isn’t a perfect one, but it is a world that’s moved in some directions that will seem utopian to readers today, like that people use a system of currency that “facilitates exchange through the community. Because…all exchange benefits the community as a whole.” Mosscap goes through a few examples, saying “the farmer feeds the musician, who brings music to the village….The technician who took a break to enjoy the music now has the energy to go fix the communications tower. The communications tower enables the meteorologist to deliver the weather report, which helps the farmer grow more apples.” Dex explains that “nobody should be barred from necessities or comforts just because they don’t have the right number next to their name.”

Another detail that will seem utopian to anyone who has an interest in ecology and the future of the planet is the description of structures in the little settlement of “Kat’s Landing,” where “there were windmills and whirligigs made of old-fashioned bicycle wheels, mosaics crafted from bottle caps and resin, sculptures decorated with splashes of forbidden materials sporting colors found nowhere in nature. It was a town built of trash, but its current incarnation transcended that unseemly origin.”

In a few places, they pass by towns where the people don’t want to meet Mosscap. As Dex explains, “some people went in kind of an extreme direction after the Transition. They think tech is a slippery slope that heads right back to the Factory Age, so they don’t use anything automated….they also are known to get prickly about people bringing mainstream tech into their space.” Mosscap thinks about this and then says it’s “like Elk,” because “Elk don’t understand robots, either. We confuse them, and that makes them afraid, and then they can get…well, disagreeable.”

It says right on the cover that the book is a “prayer” and Dex is a “monk,” so it’s probably not fair to object to some of the things in this world that are presented as utopian as the products or by-products of religion, but fair or not, I object to explanations like that “though we can—and should—get close to the gods, it’s impossible to understand them or the full nature of the universe, so we have to build a society that is best suited to our needs.” Why not just say that without the religious introduction to the topic?

Anyone who has spent time with a toddler will like the description of how awe-struck Mosscap is with each tree it sees in the course of its travels with Dex. Mosscap keeps “standing in the middle of the highway, neck craned with awe at the flowered branches that were exactly like the thousand other flowered branches they’d already passed by” and Dex thinks that “while the spice plum blossoms were indeed beautiful, they did not need to stop at every single fucking tree.”

And yet the title comes from a look at treetops, specifically, the way their crowns don’t quite touch: “every tree was lush and full, bursting with green life. Yet somehow, in the absence of contact, they knew exactly where to stop growing outward so that they might give their neighbors space to thrive.” Giving the characters room to explore the issues presented in this short novel gives them the power to charm readers, a power I’m necessarily discounting by writing a review, where the details are selected for you. Part of what the novel is saying might be that we each have to be naive viewers again if we want to re-envision our society.

Readers in their twenties—and I think this novel is primarily for them—will enjoy the description of Dex’s homecoming:
“How odd, then, to be able to return to a place that would always be anchored in your notion of the past. How could this place still be there, if the you that once lived there no longer existed?
Yet at the same time, in complete contradiction, seeing that said place had changed in your absence was nothing if not surreal. Dex felt this as they approached the road leading to their family’s farm, just as they felt every time they made the trip. The road was the same, but the fence had been mended. The field was the same, but the greyberry bushes had been cut down to the root. The farm was a place where Dex knew they would always be welcome but never in the same way as before they left; a place they knew intimately and no longer knew at all.”

On the other hand, as someone who is enjoying—by which I mean trying to get used to—the first week of retirement, I think this novel is also for me, as one of the messages Dex repeats to everyone is that “you don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be.” And in this novel, Dex complicates that by exploring a feeling of responsibility, saying “I’m good at something that helps other people. I worked really hard to be able to do it, and I benefited from the labor and love of others while I did so. I’m able to do what I do because everybody else built a world in which I could do it.” I would say that it’s important to be good at more than one thing; that if you work at being able to do several things, at least one of them unrelated to how you make money, then you’re going to be less conflicted about this issue.

Have you read A Psalm for the Wild-Built? Will you read this second novel?


August 4, 2022

Rich Larson’s science fiction novel Ymir features an ice planet, innovative aliens, a faint flavor of Jack McDevitt’s favorite trope in the abandoned alien technology left on the planet, a grim cyberpunk setting observed with an edge of humor, and allusions to the gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet and the hunt for what the humans think is evil in Beowulf. It’s an intoxicating mix, and a page-turner.

We focus on Yorick (“alas, poor Yorick, I knew him…”) and how he manages emotionally and physically when his job ends up getting him thrown back into the simmering cauldron of resentments on his home world. Our attention is continually drawn to his skull, as he is either missing his jaw or wearing a prosthetic mandible, and we keep wondering how he lost it until we get the whole story in pieces, like his life.

The heart of the novel is in the relationship between Yorick and his brother Thello, who grew up on Ymir with an abusive mother and physical characteristics identifying them as “half-breeds.” While readers see from Yorick’s point of view, part of the fascination of the novel is figuring out which characters we should be sympathizing with and rooting for. Eventually we figure out that most of the characters “don’t remember Ymir before the company. Before implants and indenturement and the mines,” and the novel is telling a story of how that could change.

Science fiction technology is presented, in this novel, as part of the story, seamlessly integrated into what is happening and with humor, from the very beginning when “Yorick wakes up dead, which is never comfortable.” Ymir is a mining company world, built around a piece of abandoned alien technology; “it’s the ansible that drew the first colonists here, the ansible that marks Ymir as one of the Oldies’ abandoned worlds. The company took it over during Subjugation….”

Yorick is a company man, and readers long to find out why and when that started, especially because he drinks and drugs himself to get through his daily life. The secrets are revealed slowly, and when readers start to think they’re putting a complete picture together, they find that the puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit, that the corners are not exactly as Yorick believes he remembers.

The writing is good, tight and well-paced, if sometimes a bit on the edge of noticeable, like when Yorick thinks that his company boss Gausta “always did have a tenebrous sense of humor.” But using the exact right words in the right places does create the foreboding atmosphere that draws readers onward, eager to figure out what has happened to Yorick to bring him to this point. And some of the earlier instances of what seems to be overly dramatic language are transformed later, as when we’re told that it’s difficult to distinguish between laughter and sobbing in Yorick’s artificial voice and then later a prisoner who was “disbodied” and used to power a bar robot in a hotel “makes the same electric sound, but Yorick knows it’s the other one,” referring to the earlier description in order to turn understated and poignant.

The language and descriptions of futuristic technology culminate in the moment when we see Gausta present Yorick with an ultimatum, saying “they’re already dead, Yorick….Now, in the hibernation pod. A few years from now, in the war. I’m only asking you to excise the slice of time between those two points, and in doing so save thousands of other lives. There will be no pain.” Since Yorick’s life has been almost nothing but pain, readers can feel the pull of this appeal. We get the many stories he tells about how his jaw was blown off: “he blew half my fucking head off” and “most of the time, I tell people a Grendel did it….Sometimes other stories. Ordnance accident on Hod. Trying to kiss a wood thresher on Tyr.” And then finally we get the real story, too painful to tell, even to himself.

It’s clear that none of the pain can be redeemed by starting over. Yorick’s brother makes this point, talking about the meaning of a story their mother told them, saying that the moral was that “dead things have to stay dead….People who leave can’t come back.” In a future where brains can be plugged into machines, this moral is also a moral stance (and one I approve).

In the most obvious echo of the story of Beowulf, Yorick learns what he needs to know in order to start again from what he learns from the grendel’s arm, an arm he has claimed as a trophy after his seeming victory in the battle against it.

And although the abandoned alien technology may remind some readers of Jack McDevitt, Larson does it better, as he reveals some of the mystery, the part that affects everyone on Ymir. And in a move we see only in the best science fiction, the emotion of the story is tied in with the technology, as when Yorick’s brother reminds him that “you can’t get older in a torpor pool.”

Ymir is a brilliant novel, as effective in its descriptions of what we’ve never imagined before as it is in the way it evokes what we often feel, whirling us through drug-altered thoughts, songs, stories, and machine-driven actions to show how much effect these characters have on others, even when they feel most helpless and alone.

The City of Falling Angels

August 1, 2022

This summer I took a trip to Venice, which John Berendt calls the city of falling angels, and also a trip to the city of angels, Los Angeles. I was reading The City of Falling Angels before my long, sunny weekend in LA and finished reading it in the Ohio gloom after I got back.

The title of Berendt’s book is taken from an incident when “part of a marble angel fell from a parapet of the ornate but sadly dilapidated Santa Maria della Salute Church” and a local posted a sign warning “Beware of Falling Angels.” Berendt’s 2005 picture of Venice focuses on genteel decay, as he observes that “most of its buildings and almost all of its works of art were in desperate condition, owing to two centuries of neglect following the city’s defeat by Napoleon.”

Although I enjoyed the way Berendt painted a picture of Savannah, Georgia by focusing on a house owned by Jim Williams (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), I enjoyed his focus on the burning of the Fenice theater in this book less; it seemed more contrived, and his interviews of the people involved more peripheral to the life of the city itself.

Early on, Berendt establishes a point of view on Venice with the example of the way selling pigeon feed was allowed on in St. Mark’s Square and nowhere else during the early years of the twenty-first century. His informant, Dr. Scattolin, tells him that “if you are caught feeding pigeons even ten feet outside St. Mark’s, you will be fined a hundred thousand lire.” When Berendt responds, saying “that’s absurd,” Scattolin declares “it’s worse than absurd…it’s contradictory, hypocritical, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, corrupt, unfair, and completely mad….Welcome to Venice.”

Some of the people interviewed are interesting, like the owner of a palazzo who showed him her portrait, painted by “a master forger of Sargent paintings, based on a portrait by Anders Zorn, painted in the same place Zorn had painted his original,” a circumstance which seems to encapsulate Venice’s faded but still brilliant glory. My group, a little nervous about traveling so soon after a worldwide pandemic, made much of the fact that Venice was the crossroads where many plagues of the past had disseminated.

A few of the stories Berendt tells may already be known to readers, like how The Aspern Papers, by Henry James, was played out in real life after Ezra Pound’s death in the Venetian home where he lived with his long-time mistress Olga Rudge.

Berendt talks a lot about an organization called Save Venice and the animosity between its president, who lived in New York City, and its chairman, who was from Florida but lived in Venice and liked to hobnob with European royalty. After pages and pages about Save Venice, many readers will exclaim, along with Giovanni Volpi, a Venetian, that “I don’t know why Americans can’t come to Venice and just have a good time, instead of coming here and beating their breasts….It’s this thing of having to come here on a mission. Why must they come to Venice to save it?”

It was fun to wander the calles and wind through the canals of Venice with Berendt, but his journalistic style means that his book is already dated, even for lovers of history. For armchair travelers, however, it can deliver a whiff of the Adriatic as it laps against the shade of wooden piers and stone bridges.

Victory Conditions and Small Favor

July 29, 2022

These are a few of my favorite things: reading a mass market paperback on an airplane, looking at the ocean, seeing a play, restaurants with gift shops, and going to the swimming pool on a warm and sunny day. I got all of these things on my recent trip to Los Angeles.

I read Elizabeth Moon’s Victory Conditions on the way there and Jim Butcher’s Small Favor on the way back. Both were entertaining; neither were anything to write home about (although I did bring them home, as each is part of a series).

The first day I was there we went to the Inn of the Seventh Ray, an all-outdoor restaurant in the Santa Monica mountains with a gift shop selling crystals, incense, and inspirational books. Everything we ordered was vegetarian except for a “crispy shrimp cakes” appetizer and my son tried a “biodynamic” wine.

After dinner we went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Theatricum Botanicum, an extremely energetic performance with dissonant singing, women playing Oberon and Lysander, and Puck dressed as a satyr. Puck gave us a memorable version of the lines “I go… I go… SEE how I go,” gesturing to Oberon like a small child does, trying to get mom’s attention.

Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor theater, is the first place I’ve been asked to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination, for admission to their bleacher-style seating.

On Saturday we had brunch at a little outdoor restaurant that had choices I don’t usually see on a menu (like shakshuka). We took a hike down the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, watching the surfers and paddleboarders and looking for Will Rogers beach; we eventually found it and I got myself across the hot sand to put my feet in the cold ocean.

On my last day we went to the Huntington Library, wandering through various gardens and admiring some of the art and the manuscripts. I saw the Ellesmere Chaucer and Octavia Butler’s manuscript version of the Parable of the Sower.

It was a great trip. My son’s very shy cat, Sonya, let me pet her after I’d been in the apartment a couple of times. We got good Thai food at a place within walking distance of the apartment. It made me wish I could retire there, where it’s possible to walk around in the sunshine and swim every day. I did swim every day.

What a place! Have you ever been?

Review of Postcard Poems

July 26, 2022

This one’s from Australia! It’s by Sue at Whispering Gums.

Also, spotted today at the Kenyon Bookstore in Gambier, Ohio (look at the bottom shelf):

I love that in the “Kenyon Authors” list I come right after John Green!

Bodies and Words

July 19, 2022

Celia Lisset Alvarez’s most recent volume of poetry, Bodies and Words, is a collection of poems about love, relationships, and our constantly changing perceptions of what makes a person desirable. The poems will remind you of what it’s like to have a changing body and to fall in love from early adolescence to old age. The title is from a Joyce Carol Oates story: “In love, there are two things: bodies and words.”

One of the earliest poems, “Coleoptera,” is about a pre-adolescent crush: “you were only thirteen, but I was nine/and that made you adult in my eyes, capable/of algebra and words like exoskeleton you/rattled off like a politician in charge of my own/country. I voted you in and voted you in.”

One of my favorite poems in the volume is “Miss USA Slips and Falls during Miss Universe Pageant” because of how the speaker relates that “you can see it three times in a row,/and again every 20 minutes or so./This is the top news story of the day. I/will see it 26 times before I sleep,” a revelation that this is happening at a formative age for the speaker. I also like the way the speaker figures out how much the fall must have hurt. Most of all I like the poem because of the ending: “people/normally can walk without falling quite well. It’s when you put the weight of your whole life on/just one foot that it becomes impossible.”

There’s a look into other, including imaginary, lives in “Browsing” and a seemingly casual dismissal of entire books—or, perhaps, people–because “I can tell, just from the cover, all that’s about to happen.”

The marvelous title poem takes readers back and forth between what they see and feel and what seems to be revealed during the process of attending a reading by Joyce Carol Oates. Readers will marvel at the many and various shades of feeling, especially during the kind of reverie that seems to take place while a girl in front of the speaker is whispering to the boy next to her and suddenly “it’s 1987. My cousin and I are at the movies watching Dirty Dancing.” Part of the fun, and the feeling, is the classification of what all couples do “after the fifth year but before the tenth” and after the tenth.

As the relationships in the volume go past the tenth year, we get poems like “Never” about “what this fight is really about./How you and I and the word Never/have lived so long in this house.” This list of what “never” does is both comic and pathetic, as “never burns the toast. Never sticks/the peanut butter knife in the jelly jar./Never sets the table and forgets the forks./Never doesn’t take out the garbage.” Of course, the list gets more serious as the poem goes on.

As a person who has reached her sixties, I very much appreciate the feeling of “Do Please at Least Consider Giving Up,” with its Andrew Marvell allusions and the feeling that it’s too late because “now the books/are packed up on a shelf we cannot reach.” I wonder if most people who reach my age end up living a version of the beginning of the third stanza: “No, my love, let us relent./Let us pay this check and go,/let the credits roll. Let us/spare ourselves the indignity of passion/at this late a stage.”

My very favorite poem of the volume is “Contradiction,” the way it goes back and forth, the way people do:

Pruing metaphors seem apt. Snip something off
to make something stronger, they say. I don’t
know anything about plants. I’ve heard the same
of hair and nails. Trim the ends to make them

grow faster, longer. This has never made sense
to me, the universe’s spirit of
contradiction. My inability to
fool it. The universe knows when I want

the damned rhododendron to flower, when I
want to have long hair. If I prune and feed
the plant it withers, and if I spit on it,
call it a whore, it withers. It withers

because it knows. I have cut my hair so short
it feels like velvet, and still it does not
grow, and I have let it live in its own black
miasma of brittle curls, and still it

does not grow. How long have I been trying to
forget you? Shunning every thought that has
you in it? The damned universe—it knows, it
knows. It know that I don’t really mean it.

The poems in this volume are ones I want to share with my best friend from high school, someone I still talk to and measure my version of reality against, in terms of who we used to “like” and who we have loved throughout our lives.

Reading Bodies and Words will leave you questioning whether people who have loved each other can ever truly see the other. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” as the lyrics to the Queen song put it. The way one influences the other provides the fascination of this volume.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

July 15, 2022

Since we got back from our vacation in Italy, I’ve been rereading The Thief Lord and reading Elizabeth Moon’s books about Kylara Vatta and her space war. The first one is Trading in Danger, the second is Moving Target, the third is Engaging the Enemy, and the fourth is Command Decision. I have two more; I may save them for my upcoming trip to LA.

I haven’t had a lot of time for reading, as my evenings have been taken up playing in the pit orchestra for a local production of Oliver! Midway through the run, I’m “Reviewing the Situation,” but mostly it’s been fun.

One afternoon I read Nghi Vo’s novella When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. It wasn’t as good as the last one I read by her–The Empress of Salt and Fortune–but then again, what is? Perhaps my expectations were too high. I found it a conventional tale within a tale, told by a traveler in peril.

I did like one of the conventions; there’s a version of the great chain of being which ends, unusually, with death:
“The emperor lived in his palace, the merchant lived in the storehouse, the farmer lived in the field, the scholar lived in the halls of knowledge, and the corpse lived in the grave.”
If you can call that living!

There were a few fantastic elements in the tale, including that the tiger can speak to humans, and that makes a change in the readers’ perspective possible, as when the tiger comments that “it is not such a good story for humans if they get randomly eaten and do not deserve it….I supposed they mostly tell this story to humans after all.”

We’re having a lot of animal interaction at my house. I put the hermit crabs in a temporary wire cage while I cleaned out their aquarium and the cats (particularly Pippin) found them diverting, as they’re more active when they’re outside in the hot and humid weather. I say “outside” but they were on an enclosed porch; I don’t leave out anything that could possibly smell like food because raccoons will come and try to get at it; even minute amounts of crab food, which smells mildly fishy or fruity.

Ron has built a stone wall to keep groundhogs, raccoons, and skunks from living underneath our deck. The wildlife relocation company I hired has finished trapping and installing spikes to discourage further digging. Final raccoon count: 17. The traps also caught one groundhog and two possums. We let the possums go and the groundhog was relocated. Although they do relocate trapped animals when possible, raccoons are overpopulated (not only in our yard) so I didn’t inquire too closely about what they did with them.

Inside, there are mice in the walls. We have baited traps everywhere, but we also have mice everywhere the cats can’t go. Last week the dishwasher stopped working, and when a repairman looked at it, he said that mice had chewed through some of the wires. He’s pretty used to seeing that around here, he said, and it was a quick fix. I try not to think about what might be happening to the electrical wires and wondering why the mice think they need to live inside when it’s so nice outside.

A friend of mine commented that the number of animals sharing our house and yard indicates how wealthy we are; that in other countries people would be trapping and eating these creatures, along with the geese that are overpopulated at local parks and lakes.

Summertime in Ohio, and the livin’ is easy. We figure there are still more than a few raccoons up the hill in the woods, but I’m hoping that our deck is getting a reputation as haunted, that the young raccoons are telling each other stories about the raccoon that went down there and was never seen again.

The Thief Lord

July 3, 2022

I wanted to go to Venice because of reading Byron and Othello, Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard and Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord, which is an underrated children’s book that more people should read. In it, there’s a magical carousel that’s hard to find but if you come across the island in the lagoon where it’s hidden, replace the missing pieces, and manage to take a ride, you can put years on or take them off your age. I wasn’t hoping for that much, but to be able to still have enough knee power to get in and out of boats and see St. Mark’s square before the tides cover it. And I managed (with a lot of help getting in and out of boats from my son and husband.)

We saw so much art and so many churches. We ate so much excellent pasta. One of our party tried the tiramisu at every restaurant. The party was me and Ron, both of our adult children and their partners, my brother, sister-in-law, and my oldest niece, and two of our lifelong friends who went off to explore on their own after seeing Venice and some of Florence with us.

In Florence we were standing in front of the Pitti palace and I was remarking that it would be the right place to have a certain kind of party (insert groan here) when the tour guide started telling us a long and involved story about Giovanni da Verrazzano which ended abruptly with the straight-faced comment that he had been “eaten… and forgotten.” We, of course, adopted this as our joke for the trip; everything after that was commented on in terms of whether it had been eaten and forgotten.

We took a four-hour walking tour through the Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s. The Sistine Chapel was packed entirely full of people. The last time I was in a place that crowded it was 2017 and we were at Tipitina’s in New Orleans to hear George Clinton, the king of funk. We were wearing masks, but most in the crowd were not.

A lot of people in Rome were wearing elbow masks. They would push the elastic ear bands of a mask up onto their arm, presumably so they would have the mask available to wear in a crowded place, although it did look rather like they were afraid of germs that would attack the elbow specifically. Wearing face masks kept us from getting covid on the trip—or after. Wear a mask and you can travel is one of my take-aways from this trip.

The highlights of our trip, for me, were a boat trip to Murano, where we saw glass-blowing, a walk through Orvieto and a look at its Duomo, and a trip to Santa Croce in Florence to see medieval frescoes and a side chapel where I saw an emblem of a man and a bear showing each other their books. While I was sitting on a stone bench at the back of the chapel, a group of men dressed in athletic gear came in and started singing. It was beautiful, all the more for being unexpected; I think they might have been just trying out the acoustics.

In Rome I got a long look at the Colosseum, inside and out, as it turned out I wasn’t able to walk across the stones they call “ankle-breakers” and on up the hill to the Forum, in full sun on an almost 100-degree afternoon. I walked a lot, but there were limits to how far I could go in one day. We did see a marvelous memento mori inside St. Peter’s basilica:

After our visit to Vatican City, some of the party went off to see something else and ended up at an underground Capuchin hideaway where the monks had decorated with the bones of those who had lived and died before them. My husband and daughter brought me postcards–of a bone clock, of a vertebrae picture frame for a skeleton dressed as a reaper with a bone scythe, and of doorways rimmed with skulls.

Now it’s time to write a few postcard poems, for a backyard barbeque on the fourth of July, and to re-read The Thief Lord once again and dream of the waters of the lagoon.

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