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Passing for Human

November 23, 2015

While sitting in my mother’s hospital room while she dozed and in celebration of the fact that  I’d just found out that IAFA accepted my paper proposal for their conference next March, I read a paperback I’d picked up at the IAFA book sale last March, Passing for Human by Jody Scott.

It’s a slim paperback, which is how it ended up in my suitcase for the trip to Cape, and a science fiction satire. The main character, Benaroya, is an extraterrestrial anthropologist who chooses from her collection of earth-people costumes in order to study them. During the course of the book, she appears as Brenda Starr, Emma Peel, Mary Worth, and Virginia Woolfe. She chooses females because part of her study is about why “since primitive Earth exists at a level of barbarism, the male is the chosen sex….They run government, business, religion, sport and crime, which are actually all the same thing.”

Benaroya’s fellow extraterrestrials appear as Abraham Lincoln, Heidi’s grandfather, and General George S. Patton, and their servants are all made in the image of Richard Nixon. These extraterrestrials are threatening to exterminate all life on earth because humans torture and kill animals in laboratories:
“Did the morons really think they could commit murder without being haunted by their victims? Earthies were ghost-ridden by their billions of animal victims. They insisted they were committing these crimes for PEE-pull….Even Heidi’s Grandfather agreed that humans must go….However, before the human race could receive the blessing of euthanasia, it must be certified as hopelessly insane.”

Benaroya is fighting against her council chief, the Abraham Lincoln extraterrestrial, who wants to exterminate all human life on earth, saying “animals and plant life won’t be affected in any way. We’ll use the planet, minus humans and their endless problems, as a small but attractive tourist resort.” She appeals to Heidi’s Grandfather, who tells her that
“if they’d admit to being barbarians and be content to remain on their planet with their own grubby little sports and wars, that would be one thing. You can let a baby play, but you can’t let a baby kill you. The fact is, their population’s increasing at over a hundred thousand a day. Soon they’ll be hopping off the planet like fleas, and that’s all that concerns us at this time.”

Benaroya sacrifices her last Earth body, Virginia Woolfe, to capture the Prince of Darkness, a being worshipped as Satan on earth but known to the extraterrestrials as Scaulzo, and they manage to free the last human he has kept in his labs. They tell him “we’ll be back in exactly two years and if you people don’t show the first real signs of evolving, every human alive will simply disappear.” He doesn’t believe them. And then they all go home. Even Benaroya says “I love you dearly and thanks for a swell time, but I’m tickled pink to be dumping your dreary fleabag of a planet.”

The satire is consistently based on the very bleakest humor about how people behave. It seemed an appropriate book to be reading in a hospital, where ringing the call bell is sometimes a matter of life or death and other times a matter of needing a bedpan, and it’s difficult for the nurses and aides to tell the difference.  They arrive about twenty minutes later, usually too soon for death but too late for a dry sheet.

The Cold Dish

November 13, 2015

So I’m unexpectedly in Cape Girardeau, where I grew up.

Last Wednesday morning I got up as if it were going to be an ordinary day and found out that my mother, who lives in an apartment in a retirement complex, had fallen in her kitchen at 11 pm on Tuesday night and lay on the floor until 7 am on Wednesday, when she called out for help as her newspaper was delivered to the front door. She is in the hospital with an arm broken just below her shoulder, and as of Friday morning is stabilized in terms of her heart medicine (blood thinner) but waiting for Monday to have surgery. This is because orthopedic surgeons can’t be bothered to operate on 80-something year old ladies on the weekend, but require that they lie around in pain with bone splinters poking every which way for two days.

Anyway, I drove here from central Ohio and I didn’t listen to an audiobook, but played the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. The whole way. We’re talking a 9-10 hour drive, depending on traffic and stops. Now that I’m sitting around in the hospital I’ve been reading a book my friend Miriam sent me, The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnson. It’s a pleasant-enough murder mystery, but I suspect the real reason she sent it is that on page 108 the author has the audacity to work in this sentence: “I had to smile at the importance of being Ernest.” That is actually not a reflection of how good the writing is, generally. Just a brief and spectacular spot of self-indulgence.

Everyone needs a little indulgence when hanging around a hospital.

Charmed Particles

November 9, 2015

I asked for and got a copy of Charmed Particles, by Chrissy Kolaya, from her publisher, Dzanc Books, because I thought it sounded interesting.

Charmed Particles is set at a fictional super collider in the fictional Chicago suburb of Nicolet, Illinois. The major conflict of the novel, however, is based on real events. Beginning in 1985, the Department of Energy conducted studies of a number of potential sites for a superconducting super collider, among them Batavia, Illinois and Waxahachie, Texas. None of the U.S. sites were approved, and eventually the Large Hadron Collider was built in Cern. Charmed Particles is the story of what might have happened.

Part of the story, interestingly, is told through epigraphs to chapters. The first chapter is preceded with a description of charmed particles: “particles containing a charm quark…have only a fleeting existence before decaying into more conventional particles,” attributed to Frederick A. Harris. There follows the story of an Indian physicist, Abhijat, as he meets his wife, Sarala, and her subsequent arrival in Illinois, where she leaves off wearing saris and cooking from the recipes her mother sent with her, like the one titled “for After an Argument” and “below that, her mother’s recipe for pav bhaji.” The physicists, engrossed in his important work at the super collider, leaves off paying much attention to Sarala, especially after she gives birth to a child, Meena.

The chapter that introduces the conflict between those in the town who are afraid of and don’t understand the super collider and those who think that anyone who doesn’t understand it is being willfully ignorant is entitled “Atom Smasher” and it has two epigraphs: one about “physics as an empirical science” and one about how “physicists don’t like the expression ‘atom smashers.’” When one of Abhijat’s neighbors puts up a sign that reads “NO SSC, NOT UNDER MY HOUSE,” he thinks that the sign “seemed tantamount to putting up a large placard in one’s yard announcing ‘I am poorly educated and illogically fearful.’”

I found the way the conflict divides the fictional town and the families we have come to know in the novel to be fairly realistic. Not everyone, even in the same family, can listen to the same arguments. Some have no argument, but simply make emotional appeals. This is pretty much the way I remember seeing my friends and neighbors on display during the John Freshwater trial, for teaching creationism in the local public middle school.

The two families who are the center of the action in this novel are Abhijat’s and the family of Meena’s childhood friend Lily. It turns out that, while both girls are very intelligent, only Meena has the talent for explaining difficult concepts to people who don’t grasp them wholly and immediately. At the end of the novel, Lily’s father discovers in himself a new talent for making what he is interested in come alive to children, inspiring their curiosity about places they’ve never been or even heard of. We see that it is the talents of these two characters that we need more of in the real world. Otherwise we’ll be left with abandoned super collider tunnels, as in Waxahachie, and with two groups of Americans who can’t communicate with each other, dividing friends and families down a line as invisible and sure as an underground course of whizzing particles.

Water on the Moon

November 6, 2015

unnamedWater on the Moon, by Jean P. Moore, is a novel about how to navigate one’s own path through changing families. The changes in the novel include becoming an older single woman, growing up female with a controlling father, finding out one was adopted as a child, and coming out as gay or lesbian.

I would not have picked up this novel on my own; I read it because one of the people from TLC asked me to consider reviewing it, as part of the plot centers around a mystery connected to the poet Byron. Although I do love poetry, I’m not in the target audience for this novel. I found it rather silly, full of characters who make lifetime commitments based on meeting once at an accident site or while driving another person to a doctor’s appointment. The family members’ interest in each other seemed perfunctory, taking up less of the main character’s time–the mother’s—than her research into the background of the pilot whose airplane hit her house. She is convinced there must be a connection, for no reason obvious to me.

Lidia, the main character, drives back to the airplane crash site where her house used to be the day after the crash and meets an FBI agent who introduces himself as Harry Caligan. She immediately calls him “Dirty Harry” and the narrator tells us “she was drawn to this appealing man.” Okay…she doesn’t know him. But when she goes back to the friend’s house where she is staying, her friend Polly (who met Lidia when Lidia volunteered for a ride service and took her to a doctor’s appointment) tells her “’There is no instinct like that of the heart.’ Byron. I was just reading that line. It’s from Don Juan, fourth canto.” Yep, Byron’s comic portrayal of the “world’s greatest (male) lover” is where I get all my dating advice, too.

Polly, who seems willing to have Lidia and her daughters, Carly and Clarisse, stay indefinitely, pressures Lidia to invite the girls’ father, Lidia’s ex-husband, and his partner Robert to Thanksgiving. Lidia says she isn’t ready, but Polly quotes Swinburne and points out that she has been keeping the girls from their father, so when they indicate that they’re ready, Lidia gives in, although not without inviting her own prospective boyfriend, Harry. The process of reconciliation begins, and then Harry agrees to go along with Lidia on her search for the meaning of why an airplane crashed into her house. She’s convinced there is a reason.

Harry and Lidia fly to Dayton to see the parents of the airplane’s dead pilot, Tina. I thought the writing reached a peak in chronicling the unnecessary along with the unconvincing details when they “grabbed lunch at the airport before getting their rental car,” as if they really like airport food or have so much money they don’t mind paying airport prices. At any rate, they find out that Tina always loved airplanes and flying, and that she was adopted. The grieving mother gives them her daughter’s last diary, and from one of Tina’s poems in the diary, Lidia comes to the conclusion that “the crash was no accident—and neither was diving into my house—this, from the line “tip my wings to one I never met” in a poem in a young girl’s diary.

In the course of Lidia’s research into Tina and her birth family’s background, she discovers a connection to Byron, and decides that “the allure of the Byron-Gamba family connection could not be denied.” She finds a portrait of Teresa Gamba Ghiselli, one of Byron’s lovers, and sees what she decides is a family resemblance to Tina, the dead pilot. As Lidia spends her days reading about Byron’s life and the love affair with Teresa, she asks herself, as readers of her own story must also be asking, “why do I care about these people….Was it because there was some assumed relationship—some connection to her? She only knew their story had touched her deeply. Who are they to me? she continued to ask herself….”

While Lidia is indulging in dreams of Byron, her daughter comes out to Polly and asks her help in coming out to her mother, who she must imagine will not take it well, after being left by her husband for another man. Polly breaks the news to Lidia gradually, so that at her first try “In the back of Lidia’s mind, a muffled voice was raising a question she couldn’t quite hear.” She goes back to solving the mystery about Byron and Tina, finding an old friend of her mother’s who knew someone who knew Tina’s great-aunt, who turns out to be also related to Lidia. She and Lidia have a conversation about overbearing fathers and missing daughters and she tells Lidia “never give up on those you love.” So when Polly gets sick, Lidia finds her adopted daughter and effects a bedside reconciliation.

At the end of the novel, Lidia decides not to move back into her rebuilt house and go back to her old job because “something happened, something as random as a stranger bumping into you on the street and then continuing on her way. Some would call it random, but Lidia would come to see it differently.” Even Lidia herself is “surprised at the speed at which it had all happened—as though it was meant to be.” But when Harry—still by her side–asks her if she’s happy, she thinks “I am now…knowing she would never think twice about her decision.”

One of the earlier reviewers on the blog tour for Water on the Moon, Bibliotica, came up with an interesting way to connect to this novel—she asked her readers what famous historical person they are related to, or who they wish they were related to. I thought about this, and decided that I don’t want to have Byron’s crazy genes; I want to have lunch with him, or go out on a rowboat and watch some of his posing, hear some of his stories. Perhaps the way I navigate through my family is to not think too much about my place in it. Some people, like the characters in this novel, treat new people they become fond of as family. I prefer to treat new people and family like friends—people I will travel to see, not because I’m obligated, but because we have a good time together.

Also, I think my amused attitude towards the whole idea of destiny was set at the age of eleven, when I first sat in the movie theater staring up at Gene Wilder, thrashing wildly back and forth on a pillow, chanting “destiny, destiny, no escaping that for me.”


November 4, 2015

IMG_3495Pippin has been surprised by cold days and blowing leaves. The time change has made him wonder why the afternoons are so short now. We close the windows that he thought would be always open and invite him to sit in our warm laps, but he likes to sprawl, and resorts to doing it under the quilts and blankets we keep getting out.

IMG_3511Tristan, our big 15-pound white cat (part flamepoint Siamese) has started wrestling with Pippin, who I guess weighs 8 or 9 pounds now. He also appears to enjoy the occasional bit of company on his backyard hunting expeditions.

IMG_3406Sabrina, our old gray cat (part Sealpoint Siamese) still wants very little to do with Pippin. She will tolerate him, but she will not play. She lies on the front porch in the waning afternoon sun and thinks her own thoughts.

We’ve had a few warm days this week, enough to make me miss the long afternoons before the time change. As Ron and I always say this time of year, quoting from a Reynolds Price play, “it gets dark early now.”

IMG_3515This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing Eleanor. Real life doesn’t have a September Parent’s Weekend or a week of October Break. I don’t want to look forward into the bleakness of November, but I am looking forward to having her home for a few days at Thanksgiving.

IMG_3518Here is a poem that captures what it feels like to be living in the first week of November in central Ohio this year, “Autumn” by Joan Mitchell:

The rusty leaves crunch and crackle,
Blue haze hangs from the dimmed sky,
The fields are matted with sun-tanned stalks —
Wind rushes by.

The last red berries hang from the thorn-tree,
The last red leaves fall to the ground.
Bleakness, through the trees and bushes,
Comes without sound.

IMG_3483With the early dark comes an increasing absence of color. The red leaves look dark in piles. Increasingly, there is only dark and light, the black of shadows and the white of the sky before it deepens to gray and then black. We close the curtains and turn on the lights, so that everything inside turns to sepia.

The Poison Eaters

November 2, 2015

Because I wanted to read the short story version of Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I picked up a copy of The Poison Eaters, which contains that story and eleven others.

The germ of “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” turned out to be way further down the spectrum of moralizing about what it means to be “cold” enough to let the vampire disease get out of hand so you end up biting people and spreading it. The novel is more interestingly ambivalent about good and evil, up to the point where you see why the heroine has to make the choices she does to protect those she loves, including herself.

For fans of Tithe, there’s a Roiben story, and it’s an interesting postlude to his adventures with Kaye. There’s a story about how a high school Latin club tried to stage a Bacchanalian frenzy during the senior Prom. “Virgin” is a sad story that includes a good explanation: “Zachary told me once why the old stories say that mortals who eat faerie food can’t leave Faerie. That’s a bunch of rot, too, but at least there’s some truth in it. You see, they can leave; they just won’t ever be able to find another food they’ll want to eat. Normal food tastes like ashes. So they starve.” In “A Reversal of Fortune,” a poor girl challenges the Devil to an eating contest with the life or death of her dog, who has been struck by a car, in the balance. She cheats, and wins the life of the dog. My favorite story is “The Coat of Stars,” about a Broadway costume designer who tries to win his first love, taken by the fairies, back from their realm.

“Paper Cuts Scissors” is the funniest story, about the library of a man who can let the characters out of books so they meet each other:
“The spine of the book read Pride and Prejudice so Justin was surprised to find Indiana Jones in the text. Apparently, he’d been sleeping his way through all the Jane Austen books and had seduced both Kitty and Lydia Bennett. Justin discovered this fact when Eleanor Tilney from Northanger Abbey showed up to confront Indy with his illegitimate child.”
Later, at a party for all the book characters, we hear a knight say:
“Lo, John Galt hath eaten all the salsa.”
Near the end of the story, the owner of the library tells Justin
“Look, I love spending time with characters from books. I love the strange friendships that spring up, the romances. I don’t want to lose any of them. Did you know that Naruto has become close to Edmond Dantes and a floating skull with glowing red eyes? I couldn’t make that up if I tried! But it’s still fiction. Even if it’s happening in my basement, it’s not real.”
Justin looked at him in disbelief. “But books feel real. Surely they must seem more real to you than anyone. They can hurt you. They can break your heart.”

These stories can break your heart just a little bit. They’re a good warning of how powerful Black’s mature talent, in her later novels, will be.

Carry On

October 27, 2015

Rainbow Rowell’s new novel Carry On does not begin with something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to The Scarlet Letter, about the customs house where the scarlet letter was found among the documents of Jonathan Pue. It does not begin with a preface like Laurie King’s for The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, in which a mysterious trunk is delivered to her, containing the manuscripts of one Mary Russell. Although Rowell originally wrote about the character of Simon Snow in her novel Fangirl, about a college student named Cath who writes Harry Potter fanfic (and slash fanfic at that), she is not pretending that Carry On is written either by Cath or by Fangirl’s made-up author Gemma T. Leslie. Rowell takes credit for fleshing out the story of Simon Snow and his friends, a story in conversation with other fictions currently aimed at young adults, about what it means to be chosen, or talented, or to have parental expectations weighing heavy on the choices you can make about your own life.

The best part of the conversation, as with the Latinate spells in the Harry Potter books, is the spells Rowell comes up with, from songs, sayings, and nursery rhymes. They are always shown in bold, to make them stand out from ordinary conversation, as when Simon’s roommate Baz says “what’s wrong, Snow? Cat got your tongue?” and Simon flinches, because “Cat got your tongue is a wicked spell.” Simon’s mentor, The Mage, is eccentric because “he’d rather cast A little bird told me than use his mobile.” Simon’s friend Penny casts “Some like it hot!” to melt butter onto a scone.

We see Simon and Penny trying to come up with new spells for a school assignment, and we learn that “the best new spells are practical and enduring. Catchphrases are usually crap; mundane people get tired of saying them, then move on. (Spells go bad that way, expire just as we get the hang of them.) Songs are dicey for the same reason.” When the song “Candle in the Wind” comes on the radio, at one point, Simon thinks that “Candle in the wind is a dangerous spell. The boys at school say you can use it to give yourself more, you know, stamina. But if you emphasize the wrong syllable, you’ll end up starting a fire you can’t put out. An actual fire. I’d never try it, even if I had call for it. I’ve never been good with double entendres.”

Penny’s mother is known for inventing a spell called “The lady’s not for turning” which we learn is “still an incredibly useful spell in combat.” Simon once cast “Hair of the dog” on his friend Agatha but “when he casts metaphors, they go viciously literal.” Baz casts “April showers” on some wilted flowers to make them bloom again. A common spell for household pests turns out to be “Ladybird ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, and your children are gone.” The spell for “sweeping away practical jokes and flights of fancy” is “Nonsense!”

There are spells that are restricted because they compel someone to do something against his or her will, like “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The ultimate spell of the entire story, of course, is “Simon says.”

Rowell’s humor kept me going through this young adult story. The two heroes, Simon and Baz, are fixated on their dead mothers. The two girl sidekicks, Penny and Agatha, are trying hard to get out from under their live mothers’ spheres of influence. They decide to try to work together after Baz’s mother’s ghost appears to Simon during the short period “every twenty years” when “dead people can talk to the living if they have something that really needs to be said.” Baz is afraid that his mother would disapprove of the way his father let him live after the vampire attack that killed his mother and turned him into a vampire, although a secret one who only drinks the blood of animals. Penny finds out more about The Mage, back in his school days when he was called Davy.

Finally, Baz and Simon quit fighting their attraction and fall into each others’ arms, which makes Simon say that now they can go after the evil “Humdrum” together and “maybe we can help everyone see that we’re better off uniting…” to which Baz responds “And then the whole World of Mages will see how much better it is to work together, and we’ll sing a song about co-operation.”

Penny and Agatha are initially dubious about the truce between Baz and Simon. Penny isn’t sure they should leave Simon at Baz’s manor house, where she says “the vibe here is very, “Let’s kill a virgin and write a great Led Zeppelin album.” Simon proves more than capable of taking care of himself, though, right up until the moment where he sacrifices part of himself to save his friends.

Even Simon’s sacrifice, done in fine heroic style, is undercut by the epilogue to the story, in which Simon is left with dragon’s wings and a cartoon devil’s tale. Every morning Penny casts “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” but it doesn’t last all day. Baz doesn’t know “that robot spell” so he casts “There’s nothing to see here” which makes Simon protest that “people are going to be running into me all day.” Despite minor inconveniences, though, Simon Snow feels that he has gotten “a happy ending—even if it isn’t the ending I ever would have dreamt for myself, or hoped for.” And Baz and Penny are getting tea: “Baz looks up from his phone. ‘The Chosen One’s making us tea the Normal way,’ he says.”

Carry On is a charming metafictional novel with an appropriately derivative title, although it’s not clear to me whether it’s from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (“Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters”) or Kansas (“Carry on, my wayward son, there’ll be peace when you are done”).


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