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Books in which necromancy never pays

July 15, 2017

The kind of necromancy that never pays

Spoiler: it’s most kinds. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition of necromancy:
1.a: The art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead; (more generally) divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment.
1. b: fig. and in extended use. Something resembling necromancy in nature or effect.
2. As a count noun: an act of necromancy; (more generally) a spell.
3. With capital initial. A name formerly given to the part of the Odyssey (Book 11) describing Odysseus’ visit to Hades.
And here’s my narrower definition:
The kind of necromancy that doesn’t pay consists of trying to communicate with the dead—especially with the intent of trying to find out something about what it’s like after death–or attempting to bring the dead back to life. I don’t differentiate between different kinds of life after death (zombies, vampires, etc.) but include any kind of resurrection in which a living person remembers life before dying and then experiences a changed life.

List One: books and stories in which necromancy never pays

The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
Arawn raises dead warriors from a black cauldron so they can fight for him.

Xanth series, Piers Anthony
Jonathan, a King of Xanth, re-animates the dead.

Ruin and Rising, Leigh Bardugo
Characters with powers called “Grisha” try to discover the secrets of an early Grisha named Morozova without uncovering the forbidden mysteries that led to his destruction.

The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes
Samuel Taylor Coleridge preserved in some kind of steampunk apparatus and then reanimated is briefly amusing, until he begins to lose body parts and spew green poisonous liquid.

The House With a Clock in its Walls, John Bellairs
At a crucial moment, Lewis remembers what he’s read in magic books and is able to destroy the person he brought back from the dead, along with her doomsday device.

The Elementals, Francisca Lia Block
Ariel is asked to join with other characters in a necromancy scheme. And then it is revealed that their purpose was (gasp!) nefarious all along.

The Purple Emperor, Herbie Brennan
Pyrgus, the crown prince of Faerie, is about to be crowned as Purple Emperor. But Pyrgus’s father, the murdered Purple Emperor, has just been raised from the dead.

The Necromancer’s House Christopher Buehlman
What is the price for trying to communicate with the dead? Staying trapped in the past is the price Christopher Beuhlman’s fictional necromancer, Andrew, pays.

Devil’s Kiss, Sarwat Chadda
This novel mixes necromancy, Arthurian legend, and Templar mythology and tosses in a handful or two from Paradise Lost, with just a pinch of the Crusades.

A Good and Useful Hurt, Aric Davis
Getting a tattoo with a dead person’s ashes in the ink allows these characters to dream about their dead loved ones as if they were still alive. When the main character ends up with a dead loved one, he goes to extraordinary lengths to get some of her ashes and make himself a tattoo. And that’s when he realizes that he also has to tattoo the ashes of everyone else her killer has killed onto himself, so the dead women in his dreams can help him find their killer.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
One character is martyred and then resurrected by a god named “Easter,” and another comes back to life by means of unintential necromancy with leprechaun gold.

Requiem in La Paz, Jonna Gjevre
Isobel, a concert violinist with a cursed instrument, thinks that Paulsen, a necromancer, “sees the devil as he really is” but she is wrong. Paulsen is out of his depth, trying to influence forces that he cannot possibly control.

The Odyssey, Homer
Odysseus must travel to the underworld and raise the spirits of the dead through the use of spells in order to find his way home.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, Jonathan L. Howard
It’s the juxtaposition of Johannes Cabal’s dark obsession with regaining his own soul and bringing the dead back to life for his own purposes with his acute sense of morality and the ridiculousness of the situations he finds himself in that gives this novel the tension that makes it worth reading.

The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs
A wife asks her husband to use a magical object to wish their son back to life. Soon afterwards they hear a knock at the door and he is afraid to open it, realizing that their son’s body has been buried for more than a week. He suddenly understands that the thing outside is not the son they knew and loved and makes another wish so that when the door is finally opened, there is no one there.

Pet Sematary, Stephen King
A man’s cat and then his two-year-old son and his wife return from the dead as monstrous versions of their former selves.

Revival, Stephen King
What Jamie sees and hears when a preacher’s electrical device is successful at raising the dead is horrifying. It kills the preacher and brings Jamie himself to the edge of sanity, where he totters, off-balance for the rest of his days, afraid to die and find out that the horrifying glimpse he had of life beyond death is all that there is.

The Farthest Shore and A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin
Ged is a magician in Earthsea. When he was young he dared to try a powerful necromantic spell and let an undead shadow loose upon the world. He must cross the threshold of death in order to restore balance. In The Farthest Shore, Cob, a dark mage Ged defeated many years before, has learned how to cheat death and live forever, which is sucking all the life out of the world. Ged finally manages to defeat Cob by sacrificing his own magic powers.

Herbert West—Reanimator, H.P. Lovecraft
Each of Herbert West’s attempts to restart bodies after death produces results more horrifying than the last, until one of the reanimated bodies leads the others in an assault on West in revenge, and they tear him apart.

The Thing on the Doorstep, H.P. Lovecraft
“The thing” revealed at the end of the story is the narrator’s friend trapped inside his wife’s putrefying corpse, after the demonic character who possessed her has thrown it off.

Gil’s All Fright Diner, A. Lee Martinez
A necromancer plans to rip open a hole in the fabric of space so old gods can emerge, destroy the world, and give her powers. Her portal is in Gil’s Diner.

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe
Dr. Faustus rejects the advice of a good angel; he takes the advice of an evil angel who lures him by promising him god-like powers from the practice of necromancy.

The Abhorsen Trilogy, Garth Nix
The necromancer’s bells are used by the Abhorsen and the Necromancers, and can either bind or raise the dead, but there are unintended consequences if the user is improperly trained.

The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan
Hades calls warriors back from the dead to fight Percy Jackson.

Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Acts of necromancy in this series include the reanimation of Voldemort and the ability to speak with the dead using the “resurrection stone” which was formerly owned by one of the three brothers who performed necromancy.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Nothing good happens when a man experiments with the reanimation of dead tissue.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Hobbit, the evil force is called the “necromancer.” In The Lord of the Rings, he has become Sauron.

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
The Jinni gives a speech against necromancy to a little boy whose mother has just died when the boy comes to him saying “bring her back!”

I am not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells
When John discovers a demon keeping himself alive with body parts he takes from his victims, he resolves to bring him to justice.

…“what never? well, hardly ever”
List Two: books in which a version of necromancy is not absolutely evil:

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Lish McBride
The hero, Sam, doesn’t actually raise anyone from the dead. That has already been done by an evil necromancer named Douglas and when Sam has learned how to harness his own necromantic gift, he uses his power to help put some of them to rest again.

Necromancing the Stone, Lish McBride
In this sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Sam is successfully learning to use his necromantic power to fight for what is right. He explains to his own sister that he won’t call up their dead father because “it doesn’t really seem right, calling him up for no reason. Kind of, I don’t know, disrespectful.”  By the end of this book, Sam even gets himself a tattoo to remind himself of the distinction between good and evil use of his power.

Dead Beat, Jim Butcher
The hero, Harry, has been brought back from the dead. He learns that some would-be-necromancers are looking for a copy of a book that would give them “a new round of necro-at-home lessons to expand their talents.” When one of Harry’s friends says it doesn’t sound that bad to bring the dead back to life, he tells him “you’re assuming that what the necromancer brings them back to is better than death.” He explains in more technical terms, later, that “magic is closely interwoven with a wizard’s confidence….magic is essentially a force of creation, of life. Grevane’s necromancy made a mockery of life, even as he used it to destroy.”

Undead and Unwed series, Mary Janice Davidson
This series features some characters brought back from death by supernatural means and others by a wacky time travel/alternate universe plot which is eventually resolved. The group of friends who live with Betsy and her (undead) husband Sinclair all get to live forever by various means, and there are no terrible consequences.

Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone
Tara is a kind of magician called a “Craftswoman” in her world. She starts her adventure by literally digging up a grave and reanimating the bodies inside it, but is then called to a city called Alt Coulumb to investigate the death of the god. This is a wild romp through eschatology, metaphysics, and the nature of justice that ends up with Tara taking some responsibility for the continuing welfare of Alt Coulumb and its inhabitants. She takes a leave of absence from the necromantic firm in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold, rather than just moving on to the next dead fellow someone wants brought back to life.

The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins
Carolyn, a librarian, wakes up from the dead and we find out that she has been reading “outside her catalog,” which is forbidden by her Father. She has a confrontation with another character in which he guesses that she killed Father. Eventually Carolyn takes over the library, and the surprises keep coming until Carolyn brings Father back from the dead and they are both revealed to be immortals.

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson
Finn Gramaraye (whose older brother Mort once called him “Finn Fancy Necromancy Pants”) has a group of friends and family who help him fight to find out what is right and who among the dead might be ready for a good talking-to. The novel has to wrestle with the question of whether a necromancer can ever defeat death. Finn says “there’s no cure….At least, not one that doesn’t require a constant flood of raw magic and serious Monkey Paw consequences.” That never stops anyone in such a novel from trying, however.

Deja Demon, Julie Kenner
Kate fights against demons. The person Kate brings back from the dead is her first husband Eric, who turns out to be infected with a demon even in his borrowed body. Finally Kate can let her husband and best friend in on the secret of her demon-whacking activities, but Kate still hasn’t learned to be entirely open with her daughter about dad’s demon infection.

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace
Wasp’s job as “Archivist” consists of trying to get information from “ghosts.” She traps the ghosts to find out who they were and what happened to the old world. She succeeds.

The Possessions, Sara Flannery Murphy
The main character Edie and her fellow workers, known as ‘bodies,’ wear the discarded belongings of the dead and swallow pills called lotuses to summon their spirits. The novel isn’t
about an attempt to find out what lies beyond death, however. The people who go to the “Elysian Society,” where Edie works, ask about unresolved issues from their dead loved ones’ lives, not about what has happened after their deaths.

The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater
A main character comes back from the dead. He is changed, but he is still essentially himself and there is no real penalty for bringing him back. His death is couched as a sacrifice, but he’s only dead for a couple of minutes (so in Princess Bride terms, I guess he’s only “mostly dead”). For the other characters, those couple of minutes are significant; one of them declares that she “was already tired of a timeline without Gansey in it.” But for the reader, it’s a simplified ending to a story that could have set up more interesting stakes.

Skinned, Robin Wasserman April 29, 2009
When a girl from the future wakes up dead she finds that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificial body. She is essentially immortal, since a new body can be made anytime this one wears out. The people of her century don’t consider downloaded-brain people, or “skinners,” to be real people. She struggles to fit back into her old life, and must eventually find a way to build a new one.

Generation Dead, Daniel Waters May 21, 2008
What happens in a world where some teenagers have risen from the dead? In this novel, they have to learn how to live again while they struggle with prejudice from the living.
“You aren’t supposed to call them zombies….”
“Zombies, dead heads, corpsicles. What’s the difference?”
….”You could be expelled for saying things like that…You know you’re supposed to call them living impaired.”
The term “living impaired” is eventually rejected in favor of “differently biotic.”

Do you know of a book or story (written or translated into English) that features necromancy but isn’t included on these lists? Please comment with the title and I will read and include it!

I have some reading time now, since I’m recovering from a right knee replacement. (And it seems appropriate, since I started this blog while recovering from a left knee replacement.)

Here be Dragons

July 5, 2017

It’s not often that you find out that the person who is running for congress in your district has written a book (not often enough, certainly), so when I found out that Ken Harbaugh, who is running for Ohio district 7 against our current congressman, has written a book with his wife Annmarie, I had to read it.

The title of their book is Here be Dragons, and the subtitle is “A Parent’s Guide to Rediscovering Purpose, Adventure, and the Unfathomable Joy of the Journey,” so I’m not its primary audience, with my kids already grown (it did give me heart about Walker’s current adventure in Siberia, though).

Annmarie and Ken take turns writing chapters, and at the beginning Annmarie’s chapters are a little better written. The beginning is where they tell stories about their adventures before children, though, and it sounds like she was more of a writer than he was, at that point.

Mostly I enjoyed the insights into their characters. Ken talks about being a stay-at-home dad for a few months while Annmarie was taking graduate courses and he observes:
“I typically handled the little stuff, too, the doctor’s appointments and trips to the zoo. I noticed the same thing everywhere I went. Dads always seem to get the benefit of the doubt. Like with socks. I have never been good at matching them….So whenever I got Katie dressed for a public outing, she looked like a little clown. ‘How lovely, people said.
This drove Annmarie nuts. ‘You know what people would think if I did that?’ she asked.
‘That you had no fashion sense,’ I replied.
‘No,’ she said. ‘They’d think I was a bad mother.’”

I liked the parts about all the different kinds of work Ken has done, from his time in the military to a consulting job in Saskatchewan where he “got to do things most high-paid business consultants never get to do, like weld steel brackets while halfway down a mile-deep mineshaft” to being in charge of Team Rubicon, coordinating aid efforts around the world with other military veterans. At one point, Ken tells a story about trying to get aid to a village in the Phillipines after a typhoon and seeing first-hand “a clear example of bureaucracy getting in the way of meaningful help,” which should be reassuring to Ohioans who voted in favor of “draining the swamp.”

And of course I liked the parts where Annmarie talks about reading, especially when she talks about rereading Jane Eyre and what she had to learn from the book when she reread it as a young mother: “she possessed honor, strength, a quiet dignity, and a willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for that of another person. Instead of the mousy orphan I remembered, Jane seemed quite independent, even brave.”

The best part for parents, and also for Ohioans who could vote to be represented by a man who thinks this way, is about why they teach their kids to look for opportunities to hike and camp and see new vistas before them:
“It can be exhausting to teach our kids adventure, but it is more frustrating still to teach them complacency. I want our kids to comfort the broken, defend the weak, and minister to those in need. These are not always natural acts. They require confidence and bravery.”

Annmarie explains the title of their book at the end, and as a parent who has already raised two children, this rings true to me:
“In our collective efforts to keep our kids safe, loved, and entertained, we raise them within trusted trade routes. We settle into the familiar rhythm of soccer in the fall, baseball in the spring, and just the right camps every summer. Before we know it, our children are on track for college or the workforce before they ever had the chance to wonder, wander, or tame dragons….when we routinely script our children’s joy, we are taking something from them. All the paths are named. All the laughter is canned. We risk sending kids into the world without any real adventures, without ever having the chance to navigate open water.”

The more I find out about Ken Harbaugh and his family, the happier I am that he is willing to represent my district. I’m hoping he gets lots of votes on November 6, 2018.

Have you ever read a book by someone who became a politician? Was it any good?

Thick as Thieves

June 23, 2017

What did I do to celebrate the summer solstice? Took the afternoon off, sat on the deck in the sun, and read Megan Whalen Turner’s Thick as Thieves. I highly recommend this as a summer activity.

The action starts immediately, with a reader’s sympathy for the first-person narrator, a slave named Kamet, culminating in his escape from torture and death. He is aided in his escape by an unnamed man he calls “the Attolian” and they adventure together, each continually proving himself almost as quick-witted as the other. The first time this happens, Kamet thinks “he had an open face and an honest one, and I’d mistaken that for stupidity. He was not a liar by nature, certainly, but he was not the fool I had taken him for.”

Kamet is subtle, well-educated, and cynical at the beginning of his journey. He does not believe in the offer of freedom the Attolian makes. He thinks to himself
“There was always unrest, of course. Fear of the poor and of slave revolts, the occasional corn riot. Demagogues rose and fell, and the empire was always cutting down one or another. It would be possible, I supposed, for an outsider to see disruption and think the empire might collapse, but it was too all encompassing, too well sewn together to come apart.”

Of course, he is proved wrong in the end. A character you know well if you’ve read previous books in this series (not necessary to enjoy this one) uses him and extends friendship at the same time. This character wants “all the information I had gleaned from my master’s correspondence. Everything I had learned as a slave—wholly attentive to any detail that might someday be used to my advantage.”

The Queen of Attolia interacts with Kamet only once, but it is memorable, and might make you cry a little.

In the best fantasy tradition, there are three different happy endings—one showing what happens to Kamet and “the Attolian,” one a letter from Kamet to someone at the Attolian court, and the last an incident with the former Attolian ambassador, showing the cleverness of the characters we love and predicting what readers of this novel long for most—another novel about this world.


June 21, 2017

IMG_9775We went to Spain in celebration of Walker’s college graduation, a family tradition for travel begun by my mother and continued by my brother and me. There were eight of us. We flew into Barcelona and spent a couple of days there and in Granada, Cordoba, Sevilla, and Madrid, with half a day in Toledo. Here we are with our Barcelona driver Daniel and our tour guide Tate.

I kept singing “I am Easily Assimilated” (from Candide) inside my head:
“In one half-hour I’m talking in Spanish:
Por favor! Toreador!
I am easily assimilated.
I am so easily assimilated.
It’s easy, it’s ever so easy!
I’m Spanish, I’m suddenly Spanish!”
Even those of us without much Spanish quickly learned to say “ocho personas” when we came into a restaurant.

IMG_0455We had to come in to most of them, despite the wider availability of tables outside, because my youngest niece is afraid of birds. She made me notice birds where I wouldn’t have, ordinarily—lots of pigeons, swallows, and starlings, and also peacocks. There were two peacocks at the café near the Alcazar in Seville, and this one on a windowsill at the royal palace in Madrid.

Swallow, by Donika Kelly

The first time you swallow—
the light, lurid and cold—

you know you mean
to swallow—again and again—

a woman’s voice crawling and heavy
in your body, trying to escape.

Stay calm. You cannot let go.
There isn’t an abstraction
you believe in and you are sad for it.

You need a mission to return to,
you need a flock to follow.

IMG_5083Following our flock, I limped along behind to find that sometimes my brother’s family had gotten a table for four inside and my family had another outside, or the youngest niece sat inside with one parent and the rest of us sat outside, while about once a day we managed to get a table for all eight of us inside and enjoy the air conditioning. It was about 40 C (100 F) every day after Barcelona, and it was exuberantly, extravagantly sunny! So much light! So much heat! Palm trees!

Ron had bronchitis the whole trip, coughing almost continuously and visiting various pharmacies in the different towns, all of which were easily identifiable by a green cross and which sold only medicines.

My older niece is allergic to shellfish, so we avoided restaurants serving only seafood, which was harder than you might think, especially in Granada. We sampled the sangria and paella everywhere, though, and enjoyed a honey-glazed eggplant dish and the local ham, dried and sliced thin, often served with very ripe honeydew melon.

Despite our assorted fears and weaknesses, we enjoyed being together and trying to see everything as we walked very slowly up and down the narrow, cobbled streets of each town.

We saw La Sagrada Familia, Castell de Montjuic, Parc Guell, the museum of modern art, and a lot of signs in Catallan (including the Super Mercat) in Barcelona.

This is mi familia en la Sagrada Familia.  19029524_10211839367612699_2205184741993349172_n

IMG_5056In Granada we saw the Alhambra, including a sunset view from the Mirador de San Nicolas, the cathedral, and an unexpectedly splendid Carthusian monastery. Here is my family with the Alhambra behind us, standing in a plaza at Mirador de San Nicolas.

In Cordoba we saw a Jewish synagogue with a Christian cross and Islamic decorations on the wall, and the famous candy-stripe arch mosque (mezquita). Ron and Eleanor and Walker saw some of the local Alcazar and gardens. Here are a few of us looking up as our tour guide David points at one of the candy-stripe arches.IMG_5078

19105936_10211883796523394_8009550740514221669_nWe were in Sevilla for the Corpus Christi holiday and got to see the parades and decorations, although we didn’t get to see anything of the cathedral except the bell tower and courtyard since it was packed full for the holiday. We saw the beautiful Alcazar there (where some of the Dorn scenes for Game of Thrones have been filmed) and the Plaza Espana, which influenced the downtown Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri.

In Toledo we drove around the walled city and admired it from a nearby hill before entering (by escalator) and touring the cathedral. Across from the cathedral there was a display of gigantic figures that had been used for decades on Corpus Christi; we were told that people walked inside them on the morning of the holiday, calling everyone to wake up and get to church. We also went into a shop to admire the swords and bought some letter-openers and scissors.  Here are Eleanor, Walker and a cousin on one of the narrow, canopied streets in Toledo. IMG_5153

In Madrid we saw some of the Prado, the fountains and plazas, the Royal Palace, and a flamenco show. Here’s a photo of Ron with Eleanor and Walker and their cousin at the Plaza Major just as the sun was setting. IMG_5147

It was an exhausting trip and very fun; although we couldn’t have sustained the pace much longer, it seemed over much too soon.

If you get to take a trip this summer, where are you going, where have you been?

Everybody’s Son

June 12, 2017

I got an advance copy of Thrity Umrigar’s novel Everybody’s Son from HarperCollins (it’s available now) and found it an absorbing and thoughtful look at black/white race relations in the US today from the perspective of a relative outsider, a novelist who didn’t even arrive in this country until she was 21.

The main character, everybody’s son, is a 9-year-old mixed-race boy named Anton who was taken by Children’s Services after being left alone for seven days in an apartment while his mother was in a crack house nearby. The white judge who fosters Anton, David, has signed up to be a foster parent because his own son died in a car accident five years previously, on the night of his senior prom. David believes that fostering a child will help his wife recover from the loss of their son, but from the very start it’s obvious that he is the one it’s helping:
“But then the boy tilted his head up, and David’s breath caught in his throat. Anton’s skin was golden, almost luminous. His large amber eyes dominated a beautiful, slender face. When those eyes landed on David, he felt—there was no other way to say it—privileged, as if some rare bird had alighted on his shoulder.”

David is hurting; I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. And he does struggle with his feelings of wanting to hold on to Anton for as long as he can. Eventually, however, he gives in to the temptation to use his power and influence to make it possible for him to adopt Anton, despite the fact that his mother is still alive. So the longer the story goes on, the less I like David. When we see what’s happening from Anton’s point of view, or from his mother’s (her name is Juanita), we see that they love each other and that “she’d made a bad mistake,” so the way they are separated is hard for a reader to forgive.

When Anton goes off to college (Harvard; he’s a legacy) he meets a girl and “heard the term ‘the white gaze’ for the first time. He had spent his boyhood and teenage years, he realized, mindful of that white gaze….What would it feel like, he wondered, to be free and direct….To not have to constantly smile to prove that you were unthreatening, to continually demonstrate that you were intelligent, articulate, and not an affirmative action charity case?”

The girl, Carine, comes home from college with Anton for Thanksgiving vacation and there are some moments that rang true to me, as the mother of a college-age son who has been staying at my house with his girlfriend for the past 18 days. Just when David is getting to talk to Anton and share what he calls “some quality father-son time,” Carine comes in to say someone needs to run to the store. And although David starts to ask Anton if he’ll come with him, he is too late, because Anton has already asked Carine to go with him. This is the situation of a parent when the adult child falls in love. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Carine is black and doesn’t shy away from discussing current events, even when Anton’s adopted family make it clear that there is a party line. The conversation/quarrel ends with Carine telling them that “in my house, we discuss everything. No subjects are off limits. My immigrant father encourages debate….That’s what he thinks it means to be an American.”

When Anton finally finds his mother again, in Georgia, she tells him something that he also experiences: “down here, you know exactly where you stand. White man is king here, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But up north, they talk sweet to your face. And then cut your throat when you ain’t looking.”

During his time in Georgia Anton gets the whole picture of the circumstances surrounding his adoption, but then has trouble placing blame squarely on any one person. His father, he sees, has abused his authority, but “David had risked his legal license, his profession, his family name, for the sake of—for the sake of what? Him?”

Visiting Carine, who is living in Georgia and happily married, helps Anton put together the pieces of his life and realize that “he was a technocrat, he wanted to fix problems and improve people’s lives but without too much interaction with the people themselves.” There’s some explicit criticism of the methods of liberal democrats here, timely in its publication as those sometimes condescending and frequently paternalistic methods have come under attack with the GOP majority in congress.

Umrigar manages to carry her message with the plot, rather than let it take over, but it’s fairly explicit at some points, like when Anton thinks
“He understood why David had done what he had. He also understood that the passage of time and its retrospective gaze could lengthen the shadows of an original deed and give it a more monstrous shape. The men who owned slaves were thinking about their cotton yield that year, and how to protect their wives from the roving eye of that particular Negro, and not about original sin. Anton had always believed that the great fatal flaw in Marxist theory was that it had never accounted for actual human behavior—the yawn, the stretch, the shrug, the looking away. And that was exactly what David had done. He had not battled with complexity, had not tried to figure out a way to remain a presence in Anton’s life after his mother was released from prison. What was unforgivable was not that David had wanted Anton to remain in his life or even his conceit in believing that he knew better than anybody else what was in the boy’s best interest. It was that he’d taken a shortcut and exploited Juanita’s situation. It was the oldest story in the world—the ends justifying the means.”

The end of the story is pure wish fulfillment, as Anton thinks to himself that “people always want their politicians to be father figures. I won’t be. But what I think I can be is a damn good son. A responsible heir, a sober custodian of what belongs to them.” If only a few more politicians believed that.

If any outside view can make us Americans see a few of the flaws in our system, the ones that politicans have been exploiting until it seems to many of us that there’s little system left, it’s the view in Thrity Umrigar’s newest novel.


June 5, 2017

DBaedy4UMAAhG-kWe’re back from our now-annual trip to the Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville, Louisiana. My shirt had a quotation from Percy’s novel The Moviegoer this year, one that I had to abridge to fit on the shirt (see photo) but which in its entirety reads: “Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.”

We also enjoyed a visit with our friends who live near St. Francisville, people I met through book blogging. My blogger friend gave me a gift subscription to The Southern Review, which is one of the best and most thoughtful gifts I’ve received in a very long time—it’s full of new poems, delivered right to my door!

I read through the first issue and found this poem, which comes close to what I’m feeling on this lovely June morning after the wonderfulness of being in Louisiana, hearing what other people think about Walker Percy and sitting out on a porch in Feliciana Parish, talking and listening late into the steamy and bug-serenaded night:

Planet, by Catherine Pierce

This morning this planet is covered by winds and blue.
This morning this planet glows with dustless perfect light,
enough that I can see one million sharp leaves
from where I stand. I walk on this planet, its hard-packed

dirt and prickling grass, and I don’t fall off. I come down
soft if I choose, hard if I choose. I never float away.
Sometimes I want to be weightless on this planet, and so

I wade into a brown river or dive through a wave
and for a while feel nothing under my feet. Sometimes
I want to hear what it was like before the air, and so I duck
under the water and listen to the muted hums. I’m ashamed

to say that most days I forget this planet. That most days
I think about dentist appointments and plagiarists
and the various ways I can try to protect my body from itself.

Last weekend I saw Jupiter through a giant telescope,
its storm stripes, four of its sixty-seven moons, and was filled
with fierce longing, bitter that instead of Ganymede or Europa,
I had only one moon floating in my sky, the moon

called Moon, its face familiar and stale. But this morning
I stepped outside and the wind nearly knocked me down.
This morning I stepped outside and the blue nearly

crushed me. This morning this planet is so loud with itself—
its winds, its insects, its grackles and mourning doves—
that I can hardly hear my own lamentations. This planet.
All its grooved bark, all its sand of quartz and bones
and volcanic glass, all its creeping thistle lacing the yards
with spiny purple. I’m trying to come down soft today.
I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it.

IMG_4882My own lamentations—that we have only a few weeks with Walker before he goes off to Siberia, that my right knee is still so bad I’ve scheduled its replacement on July 11th even though last time I vividly remember telling a friend that I’d rather shoot myself than ever go through that again, that my favorite Walker Percy novel, Love In the Ruins, seems to be coming true, with its satire on how liberals and conservatives can’t work together and the country is falling apart—are drowned out by how many of the ephemeral glories of this planet I’ve gotten to see in the past few days, and the presence and promise of more right here in my own backyard.

Note Worthy

May 28, 2017

Riley Redgate, the Kenyon student who published her first YA novel last spring, has already published a second one, Note Worthy, and it’s interesting and well-written. I didn’t find it all that compelling, but I’m not the intended audience for this kind of book and no longer have teenagers to bring home to me the ups and downs of adolescence.

Then I heard about the disappointment of my youngest niece when she didn’t get into a madrigal group she’d auditioned for, and remembered Walker’s disappointment when he didn’t get into an a capella group during his first year at Oberlin (to make it even more disappointing he got a callback but didn’t make the group because his voice didn’t blend as well as others’).

So I sent my niece a copy of Note Worthy, and will tell all of you who have ever been disappointed in the results of a singing audition to read it, because it’s got a great premise: a tall girl with a great low alto voice doesn’t get cast in the school musical at her high school for the performing arts, so she tries out as a high tenor for an all-male a capella group and makes it. Then she spends a year singing to her heart’s content, making lifelong friends, and living as a boy.

There are some great comments in the novel about being poor and female and what it’s like to try to get into a selective college (like Kenyon).

One of the reasons the tall girl–whose name is Jordan but who goes by “Julian” as a boy—tries out for the all-male group is that she thinks:
“It was downright depressing, the lengths it took to feel special when you wrote yourself out on paper. All As? Who cared? That was the standard here. Some shows, some activities? Big deal. How were you changing the world?
Sometimes, when I wasn’t too busy, I wondered why we had to change the world so early.”

The sections about being poor provide a perspective many of the young adults who will read this novel haven’t experienced:
“Here’s what can happen at the crossroads of being poor, disabled, and sick, a road that’s about as pleasant to travel as I-80 during rush hour. Let’s say, as a totally hypothetical example, you’re a paraplegic dad in San Francisco who works a checkout job, enabling your daughter’s flights out to a fancy boarding school in New England. One particular month, let’s say July, you get a nasty cough, but you need the hours, so you work through it. The couch evolves into a chilling fever. You soldier, on, determined to support your family. But when that cough starts turning up blood and rattling sounds, and a fist of pressure builds in your chest, and one day you can no longer breathe without choking, you land in the emergency room with a tube draining a thick packet of fluid out of your left lung and an $18,000 medical bill accumulated before you’re conscious again.
You don’t have the money. Not even close. To date, your family has mustered up $3,500 of savings. Actually, you find yourself wishing you’d saved less, because past a $3,000 threshold, your disability benefits evaporate and along with them, your health insurance.
Your wife thinks that this must be a mistake—that policy can’t work like this—but it does. Now, without insurance, you somehow need to come up with the difference. $14,500 that the three of you have no way to pay.”

Comments about being female in this novel mostly show how constricting it can be. Jordan says “I liked the invisibility of being a boy, inhabiting a bigger and broader space.” She finds more opportunities to do what she’s good at, too:
“Lately, I’d been eyeing the male roles in The Greek Monologue and Character and Humanity with envy….The parts girls workshopped in classes were usually filled with flirting, swooning, seducing, or heartbreak, only one of which I’d ever been any good at. I found myself wishing I could switch into being Julian. He could dig into some of those guys’ roles, powerful or stubborn men, stoic or genius men, authoritative men—parts I would’ve loved to play for wish fulfillment, if nothing else.”

As the school year goes on, Julian discovers more of how it feels to perform more aspects of masculinity, and the complications of expectation and desire. At one point she feels
“the same twinge I’d felt when I’d come across the trans resource website. I’d slipped beneath another mantle that wasn’t mine—as if I could understand what being a gay guy was like. All I understood about sexuality was its uncertainty, discovering your way through yourself day by day, stepping tentatively, hitting on some term that seemed to fit and hoping it stuck.”

Before the end of the year, Julian is told to “man up,” and she does. We’ve all had to do that at one time or another, I think, so if you’ve had to recently, especially as a singer, read this book for some of that “misery loves company” consolation and perspective.

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