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The Philosopher Kings

July 6, 2015

There’s a big surprise at the beginning of Jo Walton’s new novel The Philosopher Kings that may take readers of the first one, The Just City, aback. It certainly did me. But then the book got better and better until at the end, I thought it was even better than the first one had been. One of the things that “makes this book so great,” to use Walton’s own phrase, is that in the end, there are spaceships and aliens.

But this is a sequel to her book about Athena’s plan to establish a version of Plato’s republic. In this book, the characters are continuing to pursue excellence in order to become Philosopher Kings. This one centers on Pytheas, who is Apollo in mortal form, and his children, especially his daughter Arete (“excellence”) who is 15 and almost ready to take her city’s adulthood tests. She lives in the original “Just” city, but now there are other cities established by its former inhabitants, with different interpretations of what is “just” and “excellent.” Plays, for instance, banned in the original city, are now allowed because the younger generation have voted for them. Arete’s teacher Ficino tells her “as far as I know they’re allowed in Sokratea and the City of Amazons, but banned in Psyche and Athenia.” The conflict in the novel is that the inhabitants of the different cities all want the art that was collected for the original Just City, and they are now conducting “art raids” with real weapons in order to get it and take it to their own cities.

Arete and Pythea, along with some of her brothers and the masters Ficino and Maia, go on a sea voyage to visit some of the other cities and recover a certain piece of art, and along the way she explains what has puzzled readers of Homer in the modern era: “when I looked up and out the sea was, well, wine-dark as Homer puts it. The sea was a deep dark blue of precisely the same reflective luminosity as rich red wine.”

Some of the farthest cities, the ones established by Kebes, who has taken back his original name of Matthias, turn out to be Christian; Aristomache explains to Arete and Maia that “Yayzu came down to Earth to save us all” when they find her in the city that Matthias has named Lucia.

The long-simmering conflict between Kebes/Matthias and Pythea/Apollo come to a head in this book, and they challenge each other to a contest, the prize for which is the legal ability for the victor to kill the loser. There are additional reasons for conflict in this book, but the root of it, as Pythea explains, is that “he was my dark and twisted mirror, and forced me to confront” things like the wish to “possess” Simmea.

Readers’ ideas are carried along the spectrum of what should be legal and what is acceptable because we’ve always known about it all the way to what is brutal and horrible beyond imagining when a winner is declared in the contest between Kebes/ Matthias and Pythea/Apollo. Arete looks at the tools Kebes has brought with him to the contest
“with a start of horror. Once he had pointed it out I could imagine it all too easily. Bound to the wood by the iron rings and the straps, and then skinned alive. How horrible! Even worse than crucifixion. Surely all incarnate gods didn’t have to end up dying in horrible ways? Surely? Aristomache said Yayzu had come back in his divine form, but she hadn’t mentioned what he’d done to the torturers afterward. I hoped it was something really appropriate.”
As the contest begins, Arete
“looked down at the little knives where they were laid out so neatly. Everyone in the crowd seemed to recognize them. This must be something they did often enough to have the tools for it. And, most disturbing of all, they came crowding into the colosseum and brought their children to watch.”
We learn, along with Arete and her brothers, what it means to be mortal and have to carry out the judgment of those who believe they are serving justice.

Both Pythea and his daughter learn what death means in this book. Pythea sets up one of the perspectives on it, saying early in the book that marriage is “a decades-long conversation.” Later Arete, upon the death of one of her teachers, says “I knew what death meant now. It was conversation cut off.”

At the end, Zeus comes in and gets all the best lines, including this one:
“And there is no such thing as omnipotence, and omniscience is extremely overrated. As for omnibenevolence, I’m sure you realize by now that we’re doing our best. And time is a Mystery, by which I mean you are welcome to make up your own theories and I’ll be grateful if any of them comes close to being a useful analogy.”

There will be a third and final book in this series, Necessity, and I’m hoping it will be as much better than this one as this one was better than the first.

The Secret History

July 2, 2015

Eleanor came home from college with my copy of The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, which she’d been assigned for a class, and said I should read it because it was a page-turner and she’d finished it in one day. It took me a couple of days, what with kitten and kids and things, and near the end of it I was in a very irritable mood. It’s not a nice story, and they’re not nice people. They made me cross.

I was surprised to find myself so cross because, in addition to Eleanor, Ana and Jenny really like this book. Maybe I read it too long after college—it’s about college kids, and how they over-dramatize everything that happens to them. One of their friends annoys them and what do they decide to do? Do they invent a cruel nickname and talk about him, sometimes even in his presence, until he realizes he’s unwanted and slinks away? This is something I did as a college student, and still feel guilty about.

Okay, but I’m not being quite fair. The Secret History starts before the friend begins to annoy them. It starts with a group of Classics students deciding to run around and drink and take drugs and starve themselves until they call up Dionysus. The ambition reminds me of the way Julia and her cohort decide to summon a god in The Magician King. It’s always a bad idea to dabble in the supernatural just for fun. In this case, though, the danger is not from the god, but from their own frenzy. They kill a man, leaving themselves open for blackmail from the annoying friend, whose nickname is “Bunny.”

Most of the novel is about how bad they feel about killing Bunny, and I had very little sympathy for them so I just kept getting more annoyed. The characters are brilliantly drawn, though, even down to their habits of mind, as classicists:
“If the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.”

There’s a lot about regional and class differences between college students, since the main character, Richard, is not well off and from California, while he’s going to a small, select college in Vermont. He can always identify other Californians: “her voice was brusque with the staccato Californians sometimes affect when they’re trying too hard to be from New York, but there was a bright hard edge of that Golden State cheeriness, too. A cheerleader of the Damned.”

The richest and most studious of Richard’s group of Classics scholars is Henry, the leader. He says to Richard “You’re not very happy where you come from, are you?” and then “Don’t worry, you hide it very cleverly.” Richard thinks that “he said this without malice, without empathy, without even much in the way of interest. I was not even sure what he meant, but, for the first time, I had a glimmer of something I had not previously understood: why the others were all so fond of him. Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart.”

The others in the group of scholars are Bunny, who has no money but expects his friends to buy him extravagant things, Francis, who is rich, and Charles and Camilla, who are twins. They all spend autumn weekends at the country home of Francis’ absent relative, where they drink and play croquet and go for long walks. Richard thinks of it as an almost perfect place. At one point they fantasize about living there together:
“The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant—the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it would ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.”
For years after college, Ron and I and some of our friends would talk about designing a house where we could all live together, much like Richard’s fantasy. So far, all we’ve done is share beach houses.

But it turns out that while Richard was dreaming his pretty daydream about sharing a house with his friends, they were searching for ways to call Dionysus without including him. It’s not even clear, from what they say to Richard, whether they would ever have told him about killing a man in their Dionysian frenzy except for needing him to help keep Bunny from telling. Bunny, who was also excluded, only knows because he was waiting at Henry’s house the night they returned wearing bloody chitons, with Camilla unable to speak.

Richard tells some terrible stories about Bunny, like how he could zero in on a person’s insecurities. “Ruthless as a gun dog, he picked up with rapid and unflagging instinct the traces of everything in the world I was most insecure about, all the things I was in most agony to hide. There were certain repetitive, sadistic games he would play with me.” But none of the things Bunny does can justify the premeditated way they go about planning his murder. Henry tells Richard “I went out there today with a tape measure…The highest point is forty-eight feet, which should be ample.”

Part Two of the novel, in which Richard and his friends suffer the consequences of having killed their friend, is the part that irritated me most. They went into their Bacchanal and then into planning Bunny’s murder as if they were entitled to decide who gets to live and who has to die. Their arrogance doesn’t carry them through unscathed, and yet the denouement is less satisfying than if they were tormented by anything other than their own deficient consciences.

An interesting novel, but one I’m glad I have read, rather than one I enjoyed reading.


June 29, 2015

The book I found beside my bed when I got to spend the night with some friends in Louisiana was one I had already gotten interested in when Jenny wrote about it, Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

It’s a very old-fashioned book in some ways, and yet not completely dated. It’s about the summer after high school for a well-traveled girl named Shannon who wants to get away from parental influence (she has two sets of parents living in Europe) and decide what to do with her life. Her father is pressing her to go to college, but she’s not sure if she wants to. She happens on a mystery and a waitressing job and decides to spend the summer in disguise, living and working as “Georgetta,” who wears her hair up in an elaborate bouffant, has bows on her shoes, and speaks with an American accent.

One of the college students who eats regularly at the diner where she works, George Sherrill (known as “Sherry”), sees partly through her disguise and begins calling her “Greensleeves” because she is hiding her true identity:
“there’s been a rumour around since the sixteenth century that Henry the Eighth wrote that song and that the girl in it was Anne Bolyn. He just called her My Lady Greensleeves to hide her identity.”
From this nickname, you see that he is paying more attention to her than most of the people she meets, and that one day she will probably cast him off discourteously, which she eventually does. He is pressing her to marry him and promises to change his plans and his dreams for her, but she doesn’t want that kind of compromise. In that way, she feels very modern.

Shannon/Georgetta’s struggle throughout the summer is to find out what her “true” identity might be. In Europe, she feels like an American, but in Oregon, where she went to high school, she felt like a European. After spending most of the summer as Georgetta, trying to become Shannon again makes her feel that “this was a mask I hadn’t known I was wearing. It raised the question of how many more masks there might be underneath.” One of the things Sherry helps her see is that American college students don’t feel as much need to pigeonhole the people they meet as high school students sometimes do, and that she doesn’t have to fit herself neatly into any one category.

By the end of the summer, when she is quitting her waitress job, she is asking her boss “Is everybody in some trap or other?” and he is replying “I think it likely. We move from one cage to the next one, don’t we?” Shannon can’t see that her own trap is the way she runs away when things get difficult.

At the end of the novel, though, having established that Sherry is not holding himself back in order to pursue her, she tells him where to find her and seems likely to stay put until he gets there, a new move in the repertoire of things she could do carelessly as Greensleeves that she wants to be able to do more deliberately in her life as Shannon.

Originally published in 1968, this is one of the first Young Adult books. One of the things it does best is show the difference between what infatuation feels like and what love feels like, including the way love can incorporate some of those wonderful infatuated feelings once a person lets herself go.

Another of the things this book does well is show the difference between going to college because you want to learn new things and going just because it’s expected of you. What do you expect of yourself? Shannon’s tale of her eighteenth summer shows that question to be the one a person has to answer before she can go any farther.

House Witch

June 24, 2015

IMG_3055The new kitten, Pippin, is eleven weeks old now, and he’s a delightful little creature in almost every way but one, and that is that he still likes to bite me when he’s playing. I went the internet and then to the public library to see what to do about this, but none of the conventional advice has solved the problem yet—mostly it’s to substitute a toy for my arm or leg. Believe me, I try doing that. And it’s not like I’m not playing with him enough—we have regular playtime when he’s awake. So tomorrow he gets a second round of vaccines, and I’ll ask the vet.

I re-read parts of Psycho Kitty: Understanding your cat’s “crazy” behavior by Pam Johnson-Bennett and read through Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw. There wasn’t much I didn’t already know, although it was useful to be reminded of some of the dangers of IMG_3050introducing a new cat to the household.  Tristan and Sabrina are still getting used to the kitten, but tolerating him much better.

Because I was at the library and it was summer, I also checked out House Witch, by Katie Schickel. It was a fun summer read—some might call it a beach read, if they lived in a place where it ever stopped raining.

House Witch is about a wife and mother, Allison, who doesn’t know she’s a witch until her mother, who sent her to foster care when she was 7 years old—dies. Gradually it turns out that her mother was protecting her from her aunt, who is a bad witch. And, surprise! The bad witch has been running her town, using the lure of plum jobs and designer shoes to get the townspeople to do her bidding.

After adventures that help Allison (whose real name is Allesone) remember her mother and the spells she taught, we learn that Mother Goose rhymes are actually “spells. Created by witches. Passed down through the years.”

Allesone defeats Freya by making her remember that her childish arrogance led her to kill her own father, in the mistaken assumption that she could resurrect him. The happy ending is that Allesone/Allison’s children will now learn magic, and she won’t have secrets from them or her husband ever again.IMG_3048 (1)

House Witch was a fine book to read inside, with rain drumming on the roof and even Pippin occasionally assuming a weary posture about the dreadful weather.

Love May Fail

June 22, 2015

When I got an advance copy of Love May Fail, by Matthew Quick, from HarperCollins publishers, I got just the antidote I needed to what I saw as the “love excuses everything” theme in Love Walked In. In this novel, love doesn’t excuse you from anything but actually adds responsibilities, like trying to fix what’s wrong for the people you love. Of course, love can’t fix everything. But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying to remedy some of the worst things that have happened to people they love.

The novel starts with a woman watching her husband’s infidelity. Portia Kane confronts his girlfriend, destroys some of his prized possessions, and leaves his house, returning to her mother’s house. Living there for a while causes her to meet again some of the people she knew in high school and think about a favorite teacher named Mr. Vernon–a man who she has long regarded as the opposite of her cynical husband. Mr. Vernon quoted Hemingway to teach high school students that “you gotta believe once in a while, kids.” She finds out that some years after her graduation, a disillusioned student pointed out that if Mr. Vernon calls them all “extraordinary” then none of them are and one day he came into class and beat Mr. Vernon with a baseball bat, after which he gave up teaching.

Portia wonders why she never went back and thanked Mr. Vernon for all he did for her:
“Do people actually do that—go back and thank their teachers years later, when they’re no longer handicapped by youth and ignorance, when they figure out just how much their teachers actually did for them?”
The answer, of course, is that more people should, and Portia sets out to try.

Along the way she meets lots of new people to love, and learns how to love some of the people she couldn’t love as well as they deserved the first time around. She does catch up with Mr. Vernon before he succeeds in killing himself, but she can’t find a way to connect what is left of him with the idealistic young teacher she remembers. At one point, he describes himself as “a man who forever monitored the great conversation and yet never added a line himself.”

Portia and some of Mr. Vernon’s other former students try to thank him, but they can’t get through to him, and the harder Portia tries, the more frightened Mr. Vernon becomes until he has to run away and hide. Then she changes tactics. She decides that the way to “save” him is to write a novel and dedicate it to him, which she does. The novel is called Love May Fail.

This is the part of Quick’s own novel that’s hard to review, because he describes in great detail how discouraging it is for an author to get bad reviews. When the reviews start coming in, Portia says “I don’t know if I can handle this….How public this is. I didn’t realize how awful it is to be reviewed like this. I spent so much time on this book. It’s the best thing that ever came out of me.” As if that’s not enough, then “all of the advance-copy reader reviews begin popping up on the Internet via various websites and blogs, and those are even uglier.” It’s like the author is saying “aw, have a heart, advance-reader reviewer”…or else, as one review of Portia’s book is criticized for the quality of the writing: “you’d think a reviewer of books would be able to write better. And I wonder why no one reviews the reviews.”

Portia’s Love May Fail is not a critical success, but Mr. Vernon does eventually read it, and Portia has, after all, written a book (one of her childhood ambitions). Just because love may fail, this novel says, is no reason not to express love, or thanks, or all of what a person is feeling. As the nun who both witnesses and brings about some of the coincidences in the plot of the novel says, “Opportunities like this don’t come along very often. Chances to resurrect people. Make them whole again. In my experience, it’s best to do it with a little style and flair—panache even, don’t you think? Heighten the experience. Make it memorable—epic. Be a little romantic about it.” Kind of like writing a novel about students and teachers and dedicating it to his own, as Matthew Quick does here.

Have you ever tried to thank a favorite teacher?

The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories

June 17, 2015

One day when I went into my office at Kenyon, I got the best surprise someone who teaches can ever get—in my mailbox was a copy of a book written by a former student! Eric Lehman, who was in a class I taught at Kenyon on 17th-century literature in the early 1990’s, has made quite a name for himself as a Connecticut writer, and now he has published a book that goes beyond regional interest, even though it’s still set in the part of the country he knows best. The book is The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories.

One of the best-written and longest stories in the volume is entitled “Secrets of the Soup,” and in it Eric puts his experience as a food writer to work, creating a character so invested in gourmet cooking that when his elderly father takes him to a McDonald’s he finds the food “so full of salt I could barely choke it down” and who later realizes that “there might be more important things in life than the perfect soup, but the search for it is everything.” It’s not a surprise to anyone but the character himself that by the end of the story he is choosing a career path associated with food preparation.

I like “Last Walk on Silver Lane” for the way it evokes what is nicest about any small-town neighborhood before the opening of a highway and a chain restaurant homogenize it, making it like any other place in the U.S. that you’ve ever driven through.

The story “Delicacy” weaves together a gourmet food thread with a disappearing-neighborhood thread to make a little jewel of a story that shows what we lose when we lose not only the ability but the legal right to locate and sample local foods.

“Re-enactment” is that rarest of all stories, one that manages to show the difference between what is “real” and what is fictional and make the division visible to the reader while invisible—or just immaterial–to one of the characters. The next story, “Ten Miles from the Mainland,” also examines the difference between what is real and what can be seen or felt.

The last story in the volume, “The Space Between the Suburbs,” does a nice job of tying up some of the main themes, with its two trackers behaving as though they’re out in the wilderness racing to a goal, when the so-called “wilderness” proves thin, with patches of civilization intruding, and the goal turns out to be mostly illusory, a made-up grail object for a nice summer weekend’s quest.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable volume–and I would say that even if I hadn’t known the author when he was 19. It evokes summer, and the wild places left among the paths we walk everyday. Reading it is like a little summer vacation for adults who can’t leave their well-beaten paths from home to work and back again.


June 15, 2015

How could I resist a satiric novel about dieting titled Dietland and featuring a picture of a hand-grenade cupcake with sprinkles and a cherry on its cover? This new novel by Sarai Walker is delightful reading for anyone who has ever tried a reducing diet, and practically required for anyone who, like me, has tried lots of them including one with terrible-tasting pre-packaged food like the “Baptist diet” in the novel.

I read Dietland on the plane and in the airport on the way back from Walker Percy weekend. To fly anywhere from where I live, we have to drive an hour to the airport, get on a plane to a big connector airport, and then get on another plane to our actual destination. So getting to Baton Rouge required four flights, two there and two back. As usual, I pulled the seat belt across my lap as far as it would go and held it during the entire flight. Only once in my last few years of flying (4 or 5 times a year) has a flight attendant noticed and brought me a seat belt extender. I don’t ask for one because it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing enough for me to have to try to squeeze my hips into the narrow airline seat when we’re seated in a row where Ron can’t lift the armrest between his seat and mine, as we were when we flew standby on our first trip of the morning, to avoid missing our connection because our first flight had been delayed.

So the struggles of Plum, the heroine of Dietland, were intimately familiar to me. The places she avoids going include “parties, clubs, bars, beaches, amusement parks, airplanes.” She doesn’t mention theaters or baseball games, places I go with trepidation because I might not be able to fit in the seat, but she does say that one time on an airplane “a man asked to be moved because he said I spilled into his seat. I couldn’t always buckle the seat belt around me and it was embarrassing if I had to ask for an extension. The flight attendants weren’t always nice about it.”

On the “Baptist diet,” she describes her hopeful state at the beginning:
“At breakfast and lunch, I drank a foamy peach shake from a can. At dinner, I microwaved my designated meal, then peeled back the silver plastic to reveal beef stew, its chunks of meat and peas floating in a lukewarm bath of brown gravy, or a turkey meatball, like a crusty planet surrounded by red rings of pasta. The meals were small, merely a scoop or two of food, and they seemed to lack a connection to actual foodstuffs; I thought it was possible the “food” was constructed of other elements, like paper and Styrofoam, but I didn’t care, as long as eating it led to thinness.”
After a month of being hungry all the time and going to bed right after work and dinner, “since being awake was torturous,” she gives in and starts eating food again, as almost everyone does.

Plum goes through all the options:
“In college I joined Waist Watchers, since they held meetings right on campus. When I became disillusioned with their program I followed the diet plans outlined in books and magazines. I took diet pills, including one that was later recalled by the FDA after several people died. I took a supplement from a company in Mexico, but gave it up after it caused violent stomach pains. For all of my junior year, I drank a chocolate diet shake for breakfast and lunch….once I had cycled through every diet I could find, I went back to Waist Watchers.”
She has spent years on the “Waist Watchers” plan and is still fat, so she has decided to get surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.

Plum’s job is responding by email to girls who write to a magazine’s advice column about their adolescent problems. She has to keep her job in order to keep the health insurance that will make her weight-loss surgery possible. But work is getting weird for Plum. A girl has been following her, and gives her a book entitled Adventures in Dietland, which is about the secrets of the “Baptist diet” that Plum tried. Increasingly, she is pulled into a world of militant feminists who try to get her to think and talk about her reasons for wanting weight-loss surgery.

The satire centers on the activism of a group that calls itself “Jennifer,” a common name that could belong to almost any modern woman. The first mention of Jennifer is when they manage to get the CEO of Empire Media, circulated in many of the countries of the former British empire, to stop printing photos of topless women and begin printing photos of naked men instead:
“When the cocks started appearing on page three, there were immediate protests from media watchdog groups, from parents and government ministers, who claimed the photos were indecent. Many newsagents began to keep the Daily Sun behind the counter, lest anyone be offended. Some of them refused to sell it at all or even touch it. The circulation dropped by half during the first week. In media surveys, men said they were too embarrassed to read the paper. ‘I’m not gay,’ said a man who was interviewed. The CEO knew cocks were bad for business. Breasts she could get away with. Women knew their place, but with men it wasn’t as simple.”

One of the militant feminists is the daughter of the woman who sold the “Baptist diet” and she feels she needs to atone for the sins of the mother and the inheritance she’s gotten from the money spent by thousands of people as desperate as Plum. She asks Plum to do several tasks in return for a check that will cover the cost of her weight-loss surgery, should she still decide to have it. One of these tasks is to “confront people who made rude comments or stared at me.” This is where the satire starts getting exaggerated. Plum does stand up for herself, and it happens in several fictional instances where she can walk away feeling good about her efforts, when in real life I think she would only be further humiliated.

The new Plum is an angry feminist who doesn’t let anyone else’s opinion about her looks ruin her day. She stomps around in combat boots, begins to cook and eat what she wants, and gives up the idea of weight reduction surgery. She also starts shoplifting from a store identified as V— S—, which is more of the exaggerated satire, possibly understandable in the narrative because when she tries to enter the store she is “bodychecked…at the entrance” by a salesgirl and has to explain “I’m shopping for a normal-sized person. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve come in here.” Finally she substitutes sending feminist theory to the girls who write to her former magazine for shoplifting lingerie, “becoming a different type of outlaw,” as she puts it.

In the end, although Plum is happier with herself and could go to parties, clubs, bars and beaches if she wants to, she still can’t go to amusement parks or on airplanes. Maybe if enough women became like Plum they could agitate for bigger seats on amusement park rides and airplanes. It seems unlikely to me. But the reforms that the group called Jennifer demand in this fictional world are amazing and provocative, so maybe the idea that a few more women could see the folly of continuing to live in Dietland isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds to me, still pretty entrenched after a lifetime of trying to fit in.

One of the questions that reading Dietland will make you ask yourself is what, exactly, you’ve been trying to fit into.


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