We drove to Cape Girardeau, Missouri first, to spend the night with my mother. From there, we planned to spend the next night in Oklahoma City (where we arose and dutifully sang every song we could remember from the musical Oklahoma, starting with “Oh what a Beautiful Morning”). The next day we drove to Albuquerque, and on that day the terrain started looking gratifyingly different from what we were used to—much drier, and with different vegetation. On the fourth day, we set out to do some sightseeing. Originally, we’d planned to see Chaco Canyon, but the car was so heavily loaded and I am such a short-distance hiker that we decided to give that up in favor of going to see Sky City, an Aconda pueblo village, and driving through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest on our way to that night’s destination—the Grand Canyon.
Walker Percy was right about the Grand Canyon (in “The Loss of the Creature” in The Message in the Bottle). When we got there just before sunset, hardly anyone was looking at it. They were all busily taking and posing for pictures so they could look at it later. When we came back soon after sunrise the next day, we had more luck being able to experience the canyon, especially since we found a trail with no handrails, just rocks marking the edge of the great yawning chasm.
I stayed a few days, and then I left Eleanor there with her friend and all her things and the promise of adventure. I flew home, where the cats and the guys were glad to see me.
It ended so quickly! She is living beyond our happiness, with someone else who I can only hope will always be on her side. It might be as Alberto Rios, an Arizona poet, has imagined:
Mason Jars by the Window
Yes, but beyond happiness what is there?
The question has not yet been answered.
No great quotations have issued forth
From there, we have no still photographs
Full of men in fine leather hiking boots,
Women with new-cut walking sticks.
So yes, it is the realm of thin tigers
Prowling, out to earn even more stripes;
It is the smell of seven or eight perfumes
Not currently available in America.
Maybe this is wrong, of course.
The place may after all be populated,
Or over-populated, with dented trash cans
In the streets and news of genital herpes
In every smart article in every slick magazine
Everywhere in the place.
But everybody there smiles—
Laughs, even, every time a breath can be caught.
This is all true.
Beyond happiness, it’s all the same,
Things come back to where we are now.
Of course maybe this is wrong,
But don’t believe it: a happiness exists,
All right, I have seen it for myself,
Touched it, touched the woman
Who with her daughter together keep
Ammonia in Mason jars by the side window.
They will throw it all in his face God
Damn him if he ever comes close again.
What did you see this summer?
The books I talk about here are usually the ones that elicit some kind of strong response, but there are lots of other books I read and reread. At the beginning of the summer I started to pile some books on my desk that I’d read for the first time and which elicited some response, if not a strong one, because I thought I would get around to writing about them sometime. Now the end of the summer is drawing near, and the desk has to be cleaned off.
The end of the summer is nearing fast because of my road trip to Arizona with Eleanor. We’re spending the night in Cape Girardeau, MO, Oklahoma City, OK, Albuquerque, NM, at the Grand Canyon, and then in Tucson, AZ. I will fly back to Ohio the week before classes begin. She will be working for Americorps.
I’ve decided to make a clean sweep of it and put all these books back on the shelf without saying much about them except that if you’ve read one of them and want to talk about it, I’d be delighted.
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
Pig Tale, Verlyn Fleiger
The Changeover, Margaret Mahy
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
Seraphina, Rachel Hartman
The House of Paper, Carlos Maria Dominguez
The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon
The Dead Lands, Benjamin Percy
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Mort, Terry Pratchett
I expected More Than This from Patrick Ness to be as interesting as his series that begins with The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I was sorely disappointed, perhaps because the beginning is so promising–a boy wakes up dead. He remembers dying. He can’t figure out why he’s in a deserted house he lived in years ago. He can’t even remember his own name until Chapter Five.
The boy’s name is Seth, and he believes that his dreams, of his former life before he killed himself, are his torment in hell. He begins exploring the neighborhood beyond the deserted house and finds two other children, hiding from a man who cruises by in a black car. Their names are Regine and Tomasz, and they believe that the man will kill them if he catches them.
It really didn’t help my suspension of disbelief that Seth’s younger brother is named Owen. An innocuous-enough name, except that the kids and I made up a fish story once about the size of a blue crab that got away and decorated it with details that eventually included its murder of their made-up younger brother, Owen Mort Griggs (note the initials). There’s a terrible story in More Than This about Seth’s guilt about something he did when he was very young that resulted in his younger brother Owen’s kidnapping. We find out eventually that the kidnapping led to murder.
Here’s the big plot twist, though. In the fictional world that Seth’s parents created for themselves and him, Owen never died. They’ve all been lying near the deserted house where Seth finds himself, plugged into a future, nightmarish version of the internet which can create an entire reality and is branching out to include human reproduction. The three children have woken up from this, and the man in the black car is trying to plug them back in.
The virtual reality is not a paradise, as we know because of the events that led Seth to kill himself. Seth does make a few attempts to discern between appearance and reality. He thinks that
“Tomasz was a lot like Owen, just like a helping figure his brain might have conjured up to help him…accept death or move to a different consciousness or whatever the point of this place was, if it even had a point, then that might have made sense.
But he wouldn’t have made Regine up. She wasn’t like anyone he knew, not anywhere. Not that accent, not that attitude.
No, they were real. Or real enough.”
The three children have to fight to save each other, and to find out what has become of the world, and what their choices are. In the end, Seth decides to try to make his world different.
I think Cory Doctorow would have done the internet parts better, and Patrick Ness could have left the interesting spooky parts alone, without trying to explain everything by calling the alternate reality a virtual one. It struck me as a cheap trick, like having the characters wake up at the end of the story and say oh, it was all a dream.
Walker gave me a copy of Richard Siken’s volume War of the Foxes for my birthday, so I’d been reading those poems before we went off for our long weekend without the kids. We flew from Columbus directly to Cancun, spent a few days at the beach and the pool, drinking tropical drinks, and then gathered our energies on the last day to visit Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik Kil.
I thought of the happiness of this poem:
I erased my legs and forgot to draw in the stilts.
It looks like I’m floating but I’m not floating.
Sometimes I draw you with fangs. I tell you these
things because I love you. Some people paint
with whiskey and call it social drinking. Some people
paint drunk and put dots of color everywhere.
In the morning the dots make them happy. I am
putting dots of color everywhere and you are sleeping.
Something has happened in the paint tonight and
it is worth keeping. It’s nothing like I thought it
would be and closer to what I meant. None of it is
real, darling. I say it to you. Maybe we will wake up
singing. Maybe we will wake up to the silence
of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.
I think that the experience of seeing big, gray iguanas and a gray and brown fox as we floated around in the pool will stay in our memory for a long time. We’ll remember the band that played one day out at the beach, a really good band playing mostly 70’s songs including “I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shot the deputy.” We’ll remember Marco, who drove us to Chichen Itza and back and told us about his family. I hope for a little while we can remember how hot the sun was, and how nice it is to wake up to “the silence/of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.” During the long Ohio winter, I hope to remember the color of what Marco told us is a “flamboyance tree,” flaming tropical orange blooms against green leaves.
Did you get to travel this summer? Where did you go?
Big events are in the offing. Ron and I are going off to the beach for a long weekend with another couple and we didn’t invite the kids. This is the first time we’ve gone on a pleasure trip without them. Part of it is that Walker has chess and we’re still taking turns staying home to play with and take care of the kitten, Pippin. So Eleanor will have a last bonding experience with him. I have Pippin scheduled for his last vaccination on Aug. 12, rabies. He has to weigh five pounds before he can get that one, and he can’t run around outside like our other two cats until he has it. I also don’t want him to run around outside much before he’s neutered, but we’re going to have to schedule that after I come back from Tucson, and I suspect that as soon as he reaches five pounds, he’s going to be able to push open the cat door. Eleanor and I start our road trip on Aug. 13 and I’ll be flying back sometime the next week, before Kenyon classes begin on Aug. 27.
Finding my balance with two adult children at home has been interesting this summer. I think we’ve done okay at trying to be spontaneous, especially with planning and fixing meals. We’ve not done as many of the summer things we usually look forward to, like cookouts and trips to the lake, because the weather has been too cool and rainy and we haven’t wanted to entertain on the deck too much in the damp, mosquito-y shade with the kitten left lonely inside the house or on his leash and halter (yes, he puts up with it to get to go out). We’ve all had fun playing with Pippin and occasionally (during those rare moments when he’s calm) petting him. I was reading (in one of the books about cats I had out from the library) that we don’t often think about the fact that we’re not breeding many of our pet cats for desirable traits like being cuddly. Instead, by neutering and spaying our pets, we’re developing new generations of cats from feral toms and stray females, cats who are fierce and clever enough to survive on their own. Pippin certainly demonstrates that. This does not mean that we’re not getting him neutered as soon as we can find a day to stay home with him while he recovers. He’ll be six months old, the recommended age, at the end of September.
On the eve of our long weekend at the beach, which is itself on the eve of our 33rd wedding anniversary, I am rattling around the house trying to work through some of the stacks of books and papers so I can make more organized stacks for fall, and thinking about John Berryman’s Dream Songs, particularly #70:
Disengaged, bloody, Henry rose from the shell
where in their racing start his seat got wedged
under his knifing knees,
he did it on the runners, feathering,
being bow, catching no crab. The ridges were sore
& tore chamois. It was not done with ease.
So, Henry was a hero, malgre lui,
That day, for blunder; until & after the coach
Said this & which to him.
That happy day, whenas the pregnant back
of Number Two returned, and he’d no choice
but to make for it room.
Therefore he rowed rowed rowed. They did not win.
Forever in the winning & losing since
of his own crew, or rather
in the weird regattas of this afterworld,
cheer for the foe. He set himself to time
the blue father.
The summer seems like it is racing away from me already, and planning a 3 or 4 day trip across the country seems so perilous, all that highway driving with chances of accidents or falling asleep or actually getting to our destination and having to say goodbye to my oldest child without any definite plan about the next time she’s coming home. College has breaks. Life…not so much.
Have you had a child leave home? How do you manage to “cheer for the foe” of her burgeoning independence while feeling she’s “in the weird regattas of this afterworld,” racing competently away from you?
I read a little of a book about a necromancer and put it down, picking up a book about 18th century Scotland and then putting it down. What else do I have around here that I’ve been meaning to read, I wondered, and picked up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch from where I’d put it after reading all the comments on my post about The Secret History. I might as well start this one, I thought. It was 4 pm. I didn’t put it down for more than a few minutes until 11:30 pm, and got up the next morning to finish it. Although I lost some of the impetus to keep reading in the second half of the novel, during which the main character, as Tartt’s characters so often do, loses himself in a cloud of guilt, drugs, and drink, the ending restored my faith that the journey would have an actual destination.
The novel begins in a place where you don’t know why the narrator, Theo, should be, and then segues immediately into his story about why his mother’s death was his fault, and then the story of what happened that day. Several things about that day are his fault, but the reader sees that his mother’s death is not one of them; that he’s simply reacting as thirteen-year-olds often do to the loss of a parent. After some horrifying scenes in which no one takes any particular notice of him as he crawls out of the wreckage of a bombed art museum and looks for his mother, who had been with him, he is suddenly faced with the nightmare of having to find someone to live with. He’s quick-witted enough to name the family of a friend, and they take him in, temporarily, and help shield him from all the publicity he gets as one of the only survivors. That’s the first big sweep of the novel. Amid all the uproar is the story of how he takes part of a message from a dying man and also one of the paintings from the wreckage of the room he was in. When he finally delivers part of the dying man’s message, he has forgotten the warning in it. He makes a friend of the dying man’s partner, Hobie, and a mysterious girl, Pippa, who was also with him at the museum.
During the middle part of the novel, Theo lives with his father, who had abandoned him and his mother but has now come back to see if he can claim any of the mother’s life insurance money, which she has tied up in trusts to prevent this very thing. He makes a friend named Boris, a Russian, and acquires a formerly neglected dog named Popper, a maltese. Boris and Theo take care of each other and the dog as best they can, with Boris sharing his cynicism and his drugs with Theo. When he sees a letter Hobie has written to Theo, Boris says “people promise to write and they don’t….But this fellow writes you all the time.” It seems like Theo has hit rock bottom, running from fathers’ rages and living hand to mouth, and yet Boris and his girlfriend Kotku remind him that other kids have had it even worse: “she thinks you’re spoiled. That you haven’t been through nearly the kind of stuff that she and I have.”
When the father kills himself by driving drunk and they have to part suddenly, Theo, still underage, goes back to New York City with the dog in hopes of living with Hobie. Luckily Hobie agrees, and Theo eventually becomes his business partner, replacing the man whose hand he held as he was dying in the museum wreckage. Although he loves Pippa, who still passes through New York City now and then, she does not reciprocate his feelings, except as a fellow survivor: “I wrote thirty-page emails to her that I erased without sending, opting instead for the mathematical formula I’d devised to keep from making too big a fool of myself: always three lines shorter than the email she’d sent, always one day longer than I’d waited for her reply.”
Although Theo now can live a pleasant, upper-class urban life, engaged to the younger daughter of the family who had taken him in when he was a child, Kitsey, he spirals down into depression, saying “the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit” and realizing that he’s become addicted to various narcotic and painkillers. When Theo thinks about weaning himself off of the drugs to which he’s become addicted, he thinks that he will see everything as he’d once been taught to see the work of the golden age Dutch painters: “ripeness sliding into rot. The fruit’s perfect but it won’t last, it’s about to go.” He thinks about people, that “even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil.” Theo has been convinced that “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole,” but when he thinks he has lost the painting he saved from the wreckage, The Goldfinch, he feels “drowned and extinguished by vastness—not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other.”
Just when I was about to get totally disgusted with him, things begin to happen and Theo begins to see that some of the distances he’s been perceiving are not as far away as he thought they were. Chance, which has already played a big role in Theo’s life, plays an even bigger one, although Theo always says “it didn’t seem like chance to me.” Boris tries to tell him, when he’s ended up where the novel began, in Amsterdam, that the character of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot might show that “sometimes—the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?”
In the end, Theo says that “everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet—for me, anyway—all that’s worth living for lies in that charm.” He also admits that “maybe I only see a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.” The way the author has held a mirror up to Theo’s life shows readers a pattern, while his doubt echoes the individual doubt each reader always has about how much an individual life means. Theo wonders whether there can be a “truth beyond illusion…between reality on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality…a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
Since he’s a character in a novel, his “reality” is different from ours, but if you find beauty in the patterns of this novel, then you’re able to see that place where the mind strikes reality, and affects it. Like a satirist subtly managing to tell his audience what they ought to value while he excoriates what they ought to reject, Donna Tartt has drawn her readers into a perception challenge in her novel about art, making it an artful novel.
We drove to Canada last week to see plays at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We saw Hamlet, The Physicists, Oedipus Rex, and She Stoops to Conquer on Tuesday and Wednesday in Stratford. Then we drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see Pygmalion on Thursday night, Light Up the Sky on Friday night, Sweet Charity and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures on Saturday, and then Peter and the Starcatcher and You Can Never Tell on Sunday. The trip was my mother’s graduation gift to Eleanor.
The plays were all remarkably good. Hamlet was a standout for me; it’s not my favorite Shakespeare play, but Jonathan Goad really made the character come alive. He was an athletic Hamlet, more like Mel Gibson’s action movie Hamlet than the more buttoned-up and contemplative Hamlet in Kenneth Branagh’s too-long version. The cuts were just right; the play was long enough for the audience to consider the ins and outs with Hamlet, but not so long we got weary of the debate.
Although it was well done, I didn’t particularly care for The Physicists, a 1964 play about the dangers of scientific knowledge outpacing the human capacity for wisdom in using that knowledge. The program says it was adapted by Michael Healey from the original by Friedrich Durrenmatt, but aside from the female villain’s Edna-from-the-Incredibles eyeglasses, it didn’t reflect much that is contemporary.
The staging of Oedipus Rex turned a story that, after years of singing P.D.Q. Bach’s Oedipus Tex (“you murdered your father, you married your mother, you rascal you”) had become a punch line for me, back into a tragedy. Some of this happened because of the literal nakedness of the blinded character in his misery, finally folded into a raincoat by Creon at the end of the play.
After Oedipus Rex, we took a walk along the water to see the swans and cygnets and the geese and goslings.
She Stoops to Conquer was outstanding, getting laughs at every possible line. Since we were sitting in the front row, we were among the few audience members who might have had a quibble with the casting of the at-least-30-year-old Maev Beaty as 18-year-old Kate Hardcastle.
Our first play at the Shaw Festival was Pygmalion, and it was outstanding. Updated beautifully to the present, it took a new look at how we recognize class and whether we think enough about the effect of research on its subjects.
When we were looking in the “shawp” at the Festival Theater, I found this book but didn’t buy it.
Light Up the Sky is an old Moss Hart play about putting on a play. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest, partly because it was my turn to sit in the back of the theater with my mother, in the handicapped accessible seating, where we couldn’t see or hear as well as when we sat farther forward in the theater.
Sweet Charity was fantastic—the singing! The dancing! The sets! The old songs that everyone recognizes! Did you know this is where “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” come from?
Early on, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures features an argument about whether Shaw’s Major Barbara is a good play, which got a big laugh at the Shaw Festival. Tony Kushner’s play had some trademark Kushner moments—the scenes where the actors are shouting over each other, and the self-referential dialogue. It was a long play, and had a wonderfully climactic scene right before the second intermission. The part after that second intermission spent too much of the good will built up by the climax by plodding on too long; the last act should be much briefer. Overall, though, we enjoyed seeing this one.
We posed for a photo by the statue of Shaw in the center of the downtown area.
Peter and the Starcatcher was a highlight of the theatrical week, even after all the other good plays we’d seen. The actors were clearly enjoying themselves, their comic timing was perfect, the costuming and the way they used the stage was fun, and the entire experience was more splendid than I can describe. My youngest niece waited at the stage door to get Peter’s autograph afterwards, and her mother said that every single actor who came out was smiling.
You Can Never Tell was our last play, Shaw seemingly flavored a bit by Oscar Wilde. The costumes and the set were opulent, and the actors were by no means eclipsed by all the splendor. It was a fitting end to a great week of theater.
I highly recommend seeing two plays a day while on vacation. It’s particularly nice if you can mix the tragedies and serious dramas with comedies and musicals.