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Dear Evan Hansen

November 13, 2018

Growing up as the daughter of a theater professor and director, I’ve seen a lot of musicals in this country, Canada, and London, but I’ve listened to the soundtracks of a lot more.

For years I’ve listened to the soundtrack of Next to Normal, and then last weekend I got to see a very small-scale production of it at Kenyon–there were surprises, as there always are. The best one was the scene with the “rock star” psychiatrist in which he says some of his lines normally and wails others on a rising note in an almost eardrum-shattering falsetto. The most fun one was seeing one of my students do a quite realistic job of playing the stoner boyfriend, Henry. The least surprising revelation was how much sadder it is to see the show than to listen to the music. I was telling Walker and Ariel, who went with me, that he knows a woman, a friend of mine, who has had electroshock therapy in the last few years. Filling in the lost memories is hardest for her husband, I said, and Walker pointed out that one of the things the musical makes you realize is that mental illness is hard for everyone but hardest on the ill person. It’s not a contest, and if it were, it’s the kind you don’t want to win.

Dear Evan Hansen is another musical about mental illness with a soundtrack I’ve listened to and probably won’t be able to see on stage anytime soon. So when I noticed that the creators of the musical had written a novel, I picked it up to know more of the story.

The title comes from the letters Evan’s psychiatrist wants him to write himself every day about how “today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.” When Connor Murphy, a guy he barely knows, takes one of these letters out of a school printer and refuses to give it back because it mentions his sister Zoe and so he thinks it’s all about him, the action of the play is precipitated. Connor’s subsequent suicide and his parents’ discovery of the letter addressed to Evan make its last question poignant: “would anybody even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?”

The answer of the musical is yes, which is why I love musicals. In real life, it seems like the answer is often less positive. People come and go; we don’t always make much of a mark in the world. Evan makes his mark by lying about being Connor’s friend. He doesn’t really mean to lie, at first, and he does it with the best of intentions—to make Connor’s parents and sister feel a little better. As we often point out with evil acts, however, the ends do not justify the means. The feel-good middle part of the musical is based on a lie, so all the good Evan does with his new prominence at school and on social media, where he co-founds “The Connor Project,” is ephemeral.

As with all dreams, however, “The Connor Project” takes on a life of its own, and its effects go beyond those that its co-founders intended. Even working with a co-founder is a new experience for Evan, and imagining what it might have been like to be friends with Connor leads him to become better friends with a family acquaintance, Jared, and with his crush, Connor’s sister Zoe.

Onstage, Connor is gone after the first few scenes. In the novel, however, he gets a few ghostly point-of-view chapters in which he reacts to what is being said about him after his death. Luckily, these chapters are short and don’t give away much of the plot, so they don’t turn comic and they serve to make Evan’s actions more understandable, as they underline how lonely he and Connor both were and how one of them can “save” the other—even if Connor didn’t literally find Evan lying on the ground after falling out of a tree, as Evan claims, the claim itself helps Evan find a way to keep living after the fall from the tree, which no one else realizes was a suicide attempt. Connor’s ghost, listening to Evan tell a story about Connor finding him on the ground under the tree, says “the spirit of what he was saying, how he was saying it—in some weird way, it felt true.”

The other transformation that happens in the novel and onstage is that Evan finds out that it’s not all about him, something Connor didn’t live long enough to do. With his mother, a single parent doing her best, Evan finally stops reacting as if “she’s still trying to tweak me just a little bit more to her liking” and sees that she’s always been on his side. The novel has a speech about how she’s tried to be there for Evan. The musical, as far as I can tell, has a climactic song about a truck.

It’s an interesting novel, a quick read and a good reminder, at this point in the semester when everyone feels overloaded, that as the characters sing in Into the Woods, “while we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot that they are not alone; no one is alone.” We all go through the day thinking it’s about us, when a little more imagination might clue us in about how what we’re doing looks through someone else’s eyes, or the eyes of their friends and family… my comments on a student’s paper… the way able-bodied people race impatiently around as I haltingly try to get through the heavy doors into a college building… that woman in the Kroger parking lot wearing a MAGA hat and a scowl who would probably like to be able to buy whatever she wants without worrying about the total, as I can. We pull our coats around us and hurry to get in out of the damp cold of a November Ohio dusk. In our cars, though, parked head to head, we both play music. I play the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack and wonder what song is making her open and close her mouth behind her windshield.




It Takes Death to Reach a Star

November 9, 2018

I received a copy of It Takes Death to Reach a Star, by Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington, in an August giveaway from TLC Book Tours. The authors considerately signed it and wrote “we all have demons,” a thought that was uppermost in my mind on Wednesday, the day after the U.S. midterm elections, when I got dressed to go out among the people who’d voted for local conspirators in fascism like Mr. Bob Gibbs. I put on a piece of Supernatural fan jewelry, an anti-demon-possession symbol stamped onto a pendant.

Although I said I was going to try to make fewer jokes about the political situation in this country after the 2016 election, I’m left with this mostly-unspoken one about demon possession in the wake of the mid-term elections. Every single candidate I worked for and supported with my contributions lost. Every single one. Harbaugh. Cordray. Sutton. Valentine. Tate. Space.

Looks like I’ll still be standing on the town square for a frozen half hour every Saturday this winter. Maybe I can think of the frigid earthside setting of It Takes Death to Reach a Star:
“Long ago, it was a vast, sprawling gulag-turned-mining community called Norilsk. Between World War III and the New Black Death, nearly nine billion people around the world lost their lives. Those who were left fled their homes and cities in search of someplace safer. For many, this barren hellhole was it. The conflict hadn’t fully destroyed the city, and the New Black Death struggled to take hold in the brutal Siberian climate.”

The earthside setting is where the humans who survived the New Black Death are living; they’ve renamed it Etyom and themselves Robusts. There are also genetically engineered humans called Graciles who live eight kilometers above Etyom on platforms they call, informally, lillipads.

The story follows the adventures of Mila, a Robust, and Demitri, a Gracile. Demitri hears a voice in his head, and he keeps this a secret because he assumes it’s a fault in his genetic engineering. In fact, however, it turns out to be a demon. Demitri calls it Vedmak and struggles to keep it under control.

There’s a third kind of creature in this future, called the Creed. They are “fully autonomous androids perfected just before World War III ended. They were meant to be the soldiers to end it all—that is until the NBD (New Black Death) did it for us.”

There are some irritating bits, as you might expect if you’ve ever read a novel that has been co-written. Demitri is a hipster who thinks that the music he plays on an antique turntable has “warm tones that can only be reproduced by a vinyl record.” His mission is revealed to him by collected “relics from the old world” which include Van Gogh’s self-portrait and a placard with the quotation “It takes death to reach a star.” Mila is the kind of stubborn heroine who can’t leave one life unsaved even when it costs her a mission upon which other lives depend. A little Robust girl they rescue, Husniya, turns out to have a voice in her head named “Margarida” and she can hear the voice in Demitri’s head too.

Mila and Demitri discover a plot originated by the Leader of the Graciles and manage to foil it. It consists of a strange mix of science and magic. Demitri discovers that Vedmak is
“proof of other dimensions—purgatory, Hell, whatever you want to call it. I did the scan on Husniya’s and my DNA. I found the protein responsible for our connection, for the entanglement. The Leader only needs to recreate the protein and generate enough to study the interaction of the subatomic particles. He’ll figure out how to manipulate another dimension. Now he just needs a powerful enough supercollider.”

I found the ending disappointing, as Mila and Demitri defeat the Leader, only to find that Demitri’s injuries are so severe that Vedmak succeeds in taking over his body and disappearing into the frozen waste, a la Frankenstein’s monster. It’s all set up for a sequel, which I won’t be reading.

46067693_10215913359219943_3410713158447267840_nI am grateful, though, for the post-apocalyptic image of desperate and frozen people. It almost makes Ohio in November seem not so bad. Almost.



Weave a Circle Round

November 5, 2018

There’s no way I could resist reading Kari Maaren’s new Weave A Circle Round, a fantasy novel with a title taken from the poem “Kubla Khan.” It begins like a standard young adult novel; there’s a teenaged girl named Freddy whose parents get divorced, she has a younger sister she protects and they acquire a stepbrother she resents, and she has friend trouble as she begins high school. Then some odd people move in next door, an unpredictable woman who goes by the name of Cuerva Lachance and a 14-year-old boy named Josiah. The first third of the novel comes to an end when Josiah and Freddy walk out the back door of his house and into the past.

Suddenly we’ve been dumped into what feels like a different book. Freddy and Josiah travel in time together for the middle third of the novel, and we find out more about who they are. At the first place they land, “in a Scandinavian forest twelve hundred years before the date of her birth,” Freddy finds out that Cuerva Lachance is called Loki and Josiah looks exactly like Heimdallr. They have no control over their time jumps, but they keep being called to places where the one who follows the rules, Josiah, and the one who makes impossible things happen, Cuerva Lachance, meet up with a human they call “Three” who has to choose between them, deciding whether rules or impossibilities will be in the ascendant during that time period.

Freddy and Josiah even go to the future, where life is “a series of pointless battles in an ancient, crumbling cityscape.” A turning point comes in the past when Freddy witnesses a storyteller named Mika telling a story that sounds like it might be the origin story for Josiah and Cuerva Lachance. Then, one time jump later, they knock on the door of a Three who turns out to be Samuel Coleridge and Josiah tells the housekeeper they’re from Porlock:
“Mr. Coleridge is working and cannot be disturbed” said the woman.
Freddy bobbed her head. “I was told it couldn’t wait, miss,” she said.
Freddy tells Coleridge the story of their travels:
“It wasn’t what they normally did with the Threes. Some of them could handle the idea of time travel, but many couldn’t. Josiah would make up some story: he was generally his own twin brother, and Freddy was his guest. If everybody thought he was a god, Freddy became a god, too. If everybody thought he was foreign, Freddy was from his country. Some of the Threes had seen Cuerva Lachance travel in time, and those ones got an edited version of the truth. None of them got the whole truth, or none of them had until now. She didn’t care. Until now, they had been flitting aimlessly back and forth through time. Josiah said this was because of the rules, but she was tired of following the rules. Whose rules were they, anyway?”

The last third of the novel brings together the seemingly disparate story lines and shows the importance of stories, from myths and flyting to Romantic poetry and finally to modern Dungeons & Dragons games. We find out who the Three is in Freddy’s time. And we see Freddy experience so many impossible things that she starts seeing the world differently:
“When Cuerva Lachance materialized in the bedroom immediately afterwards, Freddy barely twitched. She felt an odd sense of loss. Sure, she had once reasoned away a marble rolling uphill, but at least then she had thought of impossible things as, well, impossible. With Cuerva Lachance, the impossible happened all the time. It made it hard to see anything as fundamentally real.”

The house, which has been fancifully described thoughout, gets out of control, with spider plants and chairs attacking Freddy, who is unmoved:
“’Oh, and now the piano’s going to eat me, too?’ It was creeping through the chairs, crouched on its rollers, like a very bulky tiger hunting in the grass….
Freddy shoved three or four slavering chairs aside and slammed her hands down on the keys of the piano. All she could think of to play was ‘Chopsticks,’ but she played it as vengefully as she could. She could even almost hear it over the roaring of the organ. ‘There,’ Freddy screamed at the piano and the organ and anything or anyone else who may have been listening. ‘You want music? Here’s some music for you. Everybody’s playing music now! Shut up!
The piano looked at her sheepishly without eyes and slunk off into a corner.”

In the end, Josiah finally closes his eyes, signifying that all the rules have been suspended, and both time and reality go wrong, resulting in that most wrong of wrong things, necromancy:
“Now Freddy could remember the funeral going wrong. At the burial, skeletons had danced up out of the graves. Freddy’s mother had clambered from the coffin to join them.”

In order to solve the crisis, Freddy has to figure out how stories and rules work together:
“Wave a circle round him thrice…the man in the poem wasn’t random at all. He was the poet. And he could imagine the hell out of the pleasure-dome, but he also had to be controlled.”
She and her siblings manage to work out their relationship and the fate of the world.

This is a bigger novel than you think it’s going to be when you start, which makes it a good fall book. It’s a book that makes me think about what Bilbo says to his nephew about going out the door: “it’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”


Forever and a Day

October 30, 2018

Forever and a Day is a new James Bond novel by Anthony Horowitz, and I got an advance copy of it from HarperCollins. It’s a prequel to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. As they also did with Horowitz’s previous Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, Fleming’s estate provided Horowitz with a bit of Ian Fleming’s original material and Horowitz includes it as a brief story told in a casino about a previous adventure Bond had in that same casino, before he became 007.

Horowitz’ Bond chooses the number 007 in this novel, because the agent designated as 007 has just been killed. Bond says to M “I think it sends out a message. You can take one of us down but it changes nothing. We’ll come back the same and as strong as ever.”

The writing in Forever and a Day evokes the excesses of the way Bond novels are usually translated to the screen. Here’s a description of this novel’s “Bond girl,” an older woman who goes by the name “Sixtine:”
“Bond liked the way she looked—her bare arms, the curve of her neck and the glittering gold choker with its single diamond nestling in the cavern of her throat. The black silk seemed to flow around her hips and breasts. She was wearing classic stilettos, black satin decorated with rhinestones.”
Sixtine turns out to be the influence behind James Bond’s often-stated preference for martinis “shaken, not stirred.”

The excesses of the writing reach a peak with a description of a minor functionary on the bad guys’ team, who is:
“smiling pleasantly although the dark hair swept back over his forehead, the narrow eyes and aquiline nose had the effect of making him look both distant and disdainful. His grey suit provided an unappealing background for a burgundy tie stamped with a chintzy diamond motif. As he moved forward, there was something oily about his motion. His handshake was weak, unenthusiastic.”
It’s almost as if readers are sophisticated and discerning enough to notice the same level of detail as a professional spy.

The main bad guy is literally a big bad; you can tell he is evil because he is massively overweight:
“The actual physicality of the man—the amount of space he occupied—was breathtaking. It seemed incredible that he could move, that somewhere inside this explosion of flesh there was an actual, working skeleton. He was dressed in the same three-piece suit that he had worn at La Caravelle but it now seemed to Bond that the heavily buttoned waistcoat and belt had a secondary purpose: they were holding all the monstrous parts together. He had taken his time as he crossed the warehouse, wheezing with the effort and using a shooting stick to support himself. When he was facing Bond, he unfolded it and sat down, the leather seat vanishing into the soft, obscene curves of his buttocks.”
He is so big that he gets stuck trying to climb up a ladder on a sinking ship, where Bond and Sixtine leave him to drown. After all, he’s repulsive.

The auxiliary bad guy is American and talks a bit like a modern-day Republican:
“We are coming to the belief that we can solve all the problems in the world and, as we become ever more powerful, with ever greater weapons, we don’t see what’s happening. We don’t see that we risk becoming monsters….What the United States of American needs is a wake-up call, or what you might think of as an injection of common sense….drug addiction is going to become the driving force of the twentieth century. People are going to get ill. People are going to need treatment. People are going to turn to crime. That’s the future whichever way you look at it—but maybe it can become a force for good. This is the thought that has occurred to me. If America becomes more inward-looking, if it is made to look after its own, then maybe it will re-examine its position in the world and as a result the world will become a better place.”
He is explaining his plan to get everyone in the U.S. addicted to heroin.

Surprise! James Bond foils this evil plan.

It was fun to read something in which good and evil are clearly delineated and then soundly defeated in these last few weeks of pre-midterm-election America, when working towards good seems complicated and like it might lead to mixed results. This book comes out in the U.S. on election day, when we may need a little British agent action to restore our equilibrium.


Blue Horses and The Rain in Portugal

October 21, 2018

Two of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, are getting old. They keep trying to do the same things they’ve always done, seemingly effortlessly, and those same things aren’t working as well anymore.

In Blue Horses, Mary Oliver gets right to the heart of the matter in a poem entitled “I don’t want to be demure or respectable” when she tells the reader “listen to me or not, it hardly matters./I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish./I’m just chattering.” While that kind of self-deprecation may have worked, years ago, it doesn’t work here, following questions that are hardly even shadows of the kinds of interesting questions Oliver used to be able to raise. The poet who asked “doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon” in “The Summer’s Day” from her 1992 volume House of Light is here reduced to asking “why do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me crazy.”

Perhaps she thinks her previous record allows her to spout inanities now, like
“I don’t care how many angels can
Dance on the head of a pin. It’s
Enough to know that for some people
They exist, and that they dance.”
It’s not enough, Mary. The rest of this poem, entitled “Angels,” reminds me of some of the skeezier inspirational literature my parents read right before my father died, trying to hold onto the hope that there is something beyond death.

It seems like this poet is ready to retire, to take more naps and
“wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints—
all that glorious, temporary stuff.”

Similarly, with The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins has gone past accessible and charming into trivial and vapid, musing about things like why a cat will never stay where you put it and advising his readers to “never bet against the cat but on the cat/preferably with another human being/who, unlike the cat, is likely to be carrying money.”

He is also musing on what happens after he dies: “Much will continue to occur after I die/Seems to be the message here.”

The kind of moment where Billy would call readers’ attention to something that happens every day and propose a new way of looking at it is missing in this volume, replaced with pointless discursiveness or a return to traditional form as a way to recapture some of his elusive former charm, as in “Predator”:

It takes only a minute
to bury a wren.
Two trowels full of dirt
and he’s in.

The cat at the threshold
sits longer in doubt
deciding whether
to stay in or go out.

Here, the brevity and rhyme are actually quite charming, but the poem leaves me with an image of the speaker as the kind of old man who spends his day watching the antics of his cat and painstakingly taking care of the kind of stuff that a busier and more physically able person would toss off as they turn to do something else.

That’s my advice on reading these later volumes—toss them away, and keep the older ones. Let the aged poets sleep and putter peacefully, and let us remember the days of their glory.


Give the Dark My Love

October 15, 2018

Give the Dark my Love, by Beth Revis, is the newest entry in the growing number of young adult books about a teenage necromancer. Thoroughly conventional in its presentation of necromancy, this book creates suspense about whether the end can justify the means and then answers that question conventionally, with a “no.”

This teenage necromancer is named Nedra and she is from an alternate universe where doctors practice what’s known as “medicinal alchemy,” including being able to take the pain from an injured person and put it into a rat or other animal, or as a last resort even into the alchemist’s own self (which can bring an abrupt end to the treatment if the alchemist loses consciousness). Nedra has come from a remote island to a big city to study medicinal alchemy so she can save her family and neighbors from a plague that has been spreading.

Bad news, though. It’s not a regular plague but a (gasp) necromantic plague. And the only thing that can fight necromancy, it seems, is…more necromancy. Even though it’s forbidden. Nedra’s motives are pure, though, unlike the motives of other necromancers. She is motivated by love rather than ambition. In a history study session, when Nedra is learning about the actions of a historical necromancer, she speaks up to say “if he wanted to rebel before the winter wiped out so many colonists, then he was always a necromancer, just awaiting an opportunity….But if the death of so many colonists was the reason why he wanted to rebel, then he became a necromancer in response to the tragedy around him.” Another student responds by saying “it doesn’t matter. Either way, he crossed a line when he used alchemy to raise corpses to fight his battles….We all know necromancy is wrong.”

Knowing that it’s wrong doesn’t stop Nedra, of course. The first time she tries to bring a dead person back to life, she says “my entire being was repulsed by the feeling of Death taking up residence in my body, gnawing at me….And yet…I craved it. It had infected me with its insatiable hunger. I wanted more.”

Even the horror of her fellow student and boyfriend, Greggori, can’t bring Nedra to her senses, even when he snarls at her “you can’t be learning necromancy! This isn’t just against the rules. This is illegal. And…wrong.” Even her teacher’s revelation that “the necromancer does have to give up something. Health. Blood. Something” doesn’t bring her to her senses.

The necromancy starts, as it almost always does, with the wish to bring back a loved one, Nedra’s identical twin sister. When Greggori asks why she has brought back the dead, mansplaining that “you can’t give them life. Not really,” Nedra retorts that the people she has brought back to life “didn’t ask for life. They asked for more time.”

Even once the evil necromancer who spread the plague is dead, however, Nedra can’t give up her army of revenants. Although Greggori pleads with her, saying “you know it’s not natural to be a necromancer. You know that these….They’re not normal. Let them go back to their graves. Let them be at peace,” Nedra replies “No….They’re mine” and makes a dramatic exit, setting up a sequel. My only question is whether Nedra will be able to fully embrace her beautiful wickedness between this exit and her next entrance, in another book of what is obviously set up as a series.


Belief in Magic

October 10, 2018

This past weekend I left the country while my Ohio Senator, Rob Portman, who regularly votes for party over country, voted to put Brett Kavanaugh in a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

43436618_10215668696143519_8958177653370650624_nWe had a weekend trip planned, to Niagara-on-the-lake, where we met some friends who live in Toronto for wine tasting, food eating, and play going. We saw The Magician’s Nephew, Grand Hotel, and Oh What a Lovely War. I love it when we’re able to go to several shows because it’s fun to see some of the same actors playing different roles, like the one who played a strong and evil queen in the matinee of The Magician’s Nephew turned into a fragile has-been ballerina in Grand Hotel that same evening. The satire, Oh What a Lovely War, featured music hall songs from the WWI era (including “Oh! It’s a Lovely War” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in your Old Kitbag”) and disturbing historical parallels, especially the war profiteer companies and their attitude towards human cannon fodder.

43399564_10215675075703004_2545355923514195968_nMy friends who now live in Toronto are from Arkansas, and when we headed back across the Canadian border on Sunday evening, it was hard not to think about the people trying desperately to get to Canada in The Handmaid’s Tale and worry a little about the possibility that it’s a mistake to return to a country whose “leaders” should be “representatives” but are not even listening to the people who voted for them. My hope is that more of the young people in this country will use the power of their votes this November.

My other hope is that “belief” will become less important, or at least less talked-about. It doesn’t really matter if I “believe” in climate change, whether a girl was assaulted, or that the Declaration of Independence was written with a feather, as Dean Young puts it in this poem:

Belief in Magic

How could I not?
Have seen a man walk up to a piano
and both survive.
Have turned the exterminator away.
Seen lipstick on a wine glass not shatter the wine.
Seen rainbows in puddles.
Been recognized by stray dogs.
I believe reality is approximately 65% if.
All rivers are full of sky.
Waterfalls are in the mind.
We all come from slime.
Even alpacas.
I believe we’re surrounded by crystals.
Not just Alexander Vvedensky.
Maybe dysentery, maybe a guard’s bullet did him in.
I believe there are many kingdoms left.
The Declaration of Independence was written with a feather.
A single gem has throbbed in my chest my whole life
even though
even though this is my second heart.
Because the first failed,
such was its opportunity.
Was cut out in pieces and incinerated.
I asked.
And so was denied the chance to regard my own heart
in a jar.
Strange tangled imp.
Wee sleekit in red brambles.
You know what it feels like to hold
a burning piece of paper, maybe even
trying to read it as the flames get close
to your fingers until all you’re holding
is a curl of ash by its white ear tip
yet the words still hover in the air?
That’s how I feel now.

So many hard-to-believe things have already happened. What matters now is what we do; the Big Lie or the medium-sized lie only matters if we act on it.

Don’t talk to me about your beliefs or your feelings. Talk to me only about what you are doing.

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