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My Life as a Villainess

April 1, 2023

I read My Life As a Villainess, by Laura Lippman, after years of reading Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels, most of them set in Baltimore. I used to keep a Monaghan mystery in my bedside table for a rainy day, but enough of them came along that I eventually finished the series.

After I finished Hush, Hush in March, the very last Tess Monaghan mystery, I started looking around for other books by Lippman. I love this author who writes murder mysteries but throws in a reference to another book while a character is describing a playroom: “While the rest of the house was her father’s design, this had been her mother’s creation, inspired by a book she had read as a child, a book she had planned to share with Alanna and Ruby when they were older. But by the time they were older, their mother was gone, so Alanna never did find out in what children’s book the kids played in something called the Office.”
The answer is left up to the reader. It left me wondering why Alanna didn’t read widely enough to discover the answer for herself–in a fairly well-known children’s book called The Four-Story Mistake.

Anyway, I decided to read Lippman’s book of essays, where I discovered that an essay I already knew and loved, “The Whole 60,” is first in the volume. My Life As a Villainess was published in 2020 so you may have missed the publicity for it, as I did (different places are trying to catch up on publicity in different ways; just this week I attended a reception for Kenyon authors who had a book published 2019-2021).

In her preface to the volume, Lippman writes a good defense of the personal essay: “I had thought my experiences were so bizarre that they would function as amusement for ‘normal’ people. Instead, I was reminded that the more specific one is about one’s life, the more universal it can seem.” I remember Jo Walton saying something like this after her semi-autobiographical novel Among Others came out.

The title comes from Lippman’s divorce from “the one person who had encouraged me to follow my dreams, to write that first book.” She says that “when I sat down to start my eighth novel, I knew something new about venality—my own. I realized that somewhere in Texas, where my ex had settled, a person woke up every day and cursed me as a villain. Well, probably not cursed and probably not every day. That’s a little self-aggrandizing. But, to the extent that he did think of me, it was in the shape of a most unflattering narrative. I loved her, I believed in her and then, just as she was on the verge of becoming successful, she left me. I had become the bad guy in someone else’s story.”

Maybe because Lippman is almost exactly my age, I like her reasoning about social media. She says “I am well aware of everything that’s wrong with Facebook and Twitter. I have seen my friends abused. I understand the misuse of our date, the extremities of cancel culture, the lack of nuance, the echo chambers we create within our online communities.” But she also says “it’s hard to do right by all the good people I know. There are so many people I love that I haven’t even spoken to in the past year, unless social media exchanges count as speaking. Isn’t that part of getting old, too? Amassing so many friends that you can’t keep up with them?”

I like that she occasionally crafts a sentence that strikes me as good material for an aphorism, like “Motherhood is a story where I don’t control the ending.”

I like that she argues against conventional thinking. Here’s my favorite part of my favorite essay by Lippman, “The Whole 60”: “Everyone knows old women are disgusting. I recently listened to an NPR show—NPR!—with a series of punch lines about granny panties, Angela Lansbury, and what was intended to be a gross-out image of an old woman in a crotchless thong. Every day, everywhere I go, the culture is keen to remind me how repulsive I am.
I thump the culture on the chest, push back, and say one of the most infuriating things a woman can ever say: Actually I like the way I look.”

Do you like the way you look? Have you ever read anything by Laura Lippman?

Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network

March 21, 2023

Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network, by Lydia Pyne, is a 2021 history of how postcards have been made and sent, and it starts with the observation that “postcards are personal.” Many individuals and libraries have collections of old postcards with messages to and from people we don’t know, sent for occasions we no longer recognize. They feature pictures, cartoons, advertisements, holiday greetings, or political propaganda. Their heyday, according to Pyne, was the early twentieth century, when my parents sent and collected picture postcards.

Pyne dates the first postcard to Theodore Hook in 1840 and Dr. Emanuel Herrmann in 1869, saying that “just about every country created and re-created the postcard in the mid- to late nineteenth century.” Picture postcards included ones made with a Kodak 3A camera, advertised as a way to create one’s own “real picture” postcards; Pyne compares the sending of these “real picture” postcards to posting on Instagram today: “if Instagram is our twenty-first-century parallel to the world of postcards…then we would expect to see twentieth-century postcards of food, pets, slogans or quotes, friends, and of course, selfies. And by and large, this is what we see in real picture postcards taken to send to friends and family: A glamorous vacation. A Votes for Women banner hung in a town’s Main Street. Family portraits, both formal and candid. Pretty much anything and everything that has been stuffed into an Instagram feed was photographed, printed, and mailed as a postcard more than a century earlier.”

Throughout her long history of the postcard, Pyne includes color photographs of specific types, starting with the Curt Teich & Co. postcards at the beginning of the 20th century, with the iconic “Greetings From” script that is still imitated by postcard makers (and featured on the cover of my poetry volume, Postcard Poems).

In the section on “publicity and propaganda” postcards, Pyne reproduces images of scenes from the Mexican Revolution of 1914 and says that “before bumper stickers, the ‘like’ button, and viral hashtags, postcards were the most ubiquitous means of creating awareness about a social movement” and she singles out early twentieth-century suffrage campaigns as one of the most fierce and politically savvy examples of this use, with examples from 1907 to 1914.

Chapter Four is entitled “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here,” as the stereotypical postcard greeting read. Pyne declares that postcards “have played an important role in how one ‘ought’ to be a tourist” and adds that “sending postcards back home proved that they had participated in that bit of travel performance. Sending a postcard while a traveler was still en route to their destination, Pyne declares, is “the social equivalent of Instagramming your suitcase as you pack for a trip or posting a story with a map laid out on a table with tickets next to it, or a picture of clouds taken through an airplane window. In the performance of tourism through postcards and Instagram, you have to let people know that the trip has begun.”

A kind of free postcard used for advertising that I didn’t know about before reading this book is postcards from cruise ships, featuring a photo of the ship. Photographs of such postcards in the book include views of the Carpathia and Olympic (from the White Star Line, which included the Titanic). My favorite kinds of free postcards were the ones you could sometimes find in the desk drawer of a motel room, with a photo of the motel on the front.

Examples of postcards from Mexico and Sonora show how postcards often offer a scene from a foreign country to show how it “ought” to look or featuring something a tourist could see there, attesting to the “authenticity” of that scene. Some of these postcards, Pyne observes, “turned people into spectacle and relegated them to part of the backdrop.”

Some postcards show changing times and geography, like postcards of the cave with paintings at Lascaux, which has been closed to tourists since 1963, and of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which burned in 2019. There’s an entire chapter on postcards from countries that no longer exist which features a discussion of Russian expansionist postcards, cards that helped create a picture of a Russian Empire or teach geography to school children in the Soviet Union (I remember one particular example with Ukraine labeled as “the breadbasket of the USSR”).

Visitors to the postcard collection at the New York Public Library, Pyne says, “always look up postcards of where they’re from.” A librarian is quoted as saying “we had a couple from Spain once who had come to New York and looked up postcards from where they lived. They found a postcard with a picture of their house on it….They said ‘we didn’t know that there was a postcard of our house!’”

Some people, like Charles Simic in his 2011 opinion piece in the Guardian, claim that no one sends postcards anymore. Others, like me, are still sending them. Pyne observes that “the Postal Museum in London has postcards for sale in the museum’s gift shop, a machine that prints postage (international postage, even), a table with tethered pens to fill out the purchased cards, and a conveniently located red mailbox to put them in once you have written and addressed them.” She also mentions “Postcards from Timbuktu” a service that will send postcards to destinations all over the world, complete with a website that tracks the postcard’s location as it makes its way to its final destination. Pyne’s conclusion is that “people still send postcards, and for many of the same reasons that they have for decades—postcards are personal, they tell stories, and they connect people across geographies.” She mentions the 2020 “Postcards to Voters” project as one that depends on the personal connection between sender and recipient and she also describes some of the many contemporary art installations that feature postcards in some form or other.

Many people collect postcards; Pyne says that “because postcards are fundamentally non-scarce objects, the hows and whys of postcard collections are as diverse and myriad as the subjects, printings, and genres of postcards themselves.”

My postcard collection is haphazard; not all of one kind and not all in one place. Somewhere in my house I still have a series of postcards my father sent when my kids were small—each one has some kind of mark or smudge, along with a story about what kind of animal defaced the card. The high point came with a card that was supposedly torn by a lion’s claws, delivered in a transparent Post Office wrapper with apologies that the card was damaged in transit. Do you have a postcard collection?

July (in March)

March 17, 2023

A friend and I wanted to go somewhere warm for spring break, but couldn’t quite afford the beach umbrella trip of our dreams so we settled for a trip to San Antonio, Texas, where we could be outside most of the time and get in a swimming pool. I asked another friend if she would be interested in joining us and she said yes, so we converged on San Antonio from Ohio and Colorado, ready to explore the riverwalk, drink margaritas, and try some good tex-mex food. We did all of that, plus the pool, the Alamo, and a side trip to Corpus Christi to see the waves in the Gulf of Mexico.

The first day we were there, some very old blogging friends (since 2009!) who live in San Antonio–Amanda and Jason–came out to meet us. They’d proposed a less touristy destination, but when I looked it up, I got the erroneous impression that one of the restaurants we were interested in was at the place they’d suggested, The Pearl. It was not—it was smack in the center of the most crowded and touristy part of the riverwalk. They were good sports, though, and wove their way through the crowds to find us and have a great dinner and a few photos. All the tables were outdoors and we thought the weather was perfect, fair and in the low 80s. Everywhere we looked, there were flowers—the tulips were finished, and pansies and petunias were blooming.

The pool, like most I’ve seen at hotels in the last decade, was only 4 feet deep, so no one except little kids could swim much. We got in and splashed around, and then sat in the lounge chairs and the big wicker “onion” beds. We went on a boat ride around the little river.

The tex-mex food and margaritas were great. We tried the guacamole everywhere we went, and at one place I tried a “tuna” margarita, made with the fruit of a prickly pear. It was fun sitting at a table and watching people go by; I’ve rarely seen so many people in one place in the last three years. We ordered enough to try everything and eat what appealed to us most, like in this poem:


The figs we ate wrapped in bacon.
The gelato we consumed greedily:
coconut milk, clove, fresh pear.
How we’d dump hot espresso on it
just to watch it melt, licking our spoons
clean. The potatoes friend in duck fat,
the salt we’d suck off our fingers,
the eggs we’d watch get beaten
‘til they were a dizzying bright yellow,
how their edges crisped in the pan.
The pink salt blossom of prosciutto
we pulled apart with our hands, melted
on our eager tongues. The green herbs
with goat cheese, the aged brie paired
with a small pot of strawberry jam,
the final sour cherry we kept politely
pushing onto each other’s plate, saying,
No, you. But it’s so good. No, it’s yours.
How I finally put an end to it, plucked it
from the plate, and stuck it in my mouth.
How good it tasted: so sweet and so tart.
How good it felt: to want something and
pretend you don’t, and to get it anyway.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

One day we took an Uber to the airport and I rented an SUV for a trip to Corpus Christi—we’d meant to drive out onto Padre Island, but the flat tire we got about an hour out from San Antonio and the two hours we spent waiting for emergency services to get there meant that I had to drive the SUV to another car rental place and trade it for a pickup truck. What I kept calling “my god-given right to drive 75 mph on the Texas highway” was restored, and we got to Corpus Christi in time for a very late lunch at a very good seafood restaurant, and then a walk on the beach and look at the waves before I had to drive back to the San Antonio airport and turn in the pickup.

We walked through the McNay Art Museum, where I saw a painting about necromancy.

The three of us have been friends for four decades, but we never ran out of conversation. It’s a great thing, when old friends can make the time and take the effort to hang out for a while.

Falling Creatures

March 9, 2023

Falling Creatures, by Katherine Stansfield, has the atmosphere of a fairy tale, the period detail of a historical novel, and a mystery that will keep you reading to find out who done it. Based on actual events, the novel is set in Cornwall in 1844. I got interested in the novel from reading about Stansfield, who grew up in Cornwall, at Booker Talk.

The way the tale begins reminds me of a fairy tale: “Charlotte Dymond gifted me blood-heat on the day we met. She took it from another living creature without any cutting. She carried no knife that I saw. She didn’t need such a tool. Her workings were in her hands.” The first-person narrator goes into service with Charlotte, both of them working for Mrs. Peter at a farmhouse. Because on her first day she doesn’t wake up before dawn, they tell her “no shilly-shallying” and call her “Shilly” for short.

Shilly believes that Charlotte can cast spells, and she certainly casts one on Shilly, along with most of the men she meets. Shilly says “I felt like the whole world was mine, because she was mine. I knew it” and adds “I knew what she was too.” Charlotte teaches Shilly some of her charms and protections, like how to “weaken the terrible things that were sure to happen once the hay was cut”:
“The thorn tree would help us because it was a tree of protection. She told me to pick its leaves and as I did so I must think about what I asked of it because that would make the charm stronger. We steeped the leaves in water from the well to make a wash, using one of the dairying pails. When it was ready Charlotte bade me walk the field’s walls and rain the wash on them, as if my hands were clouds. St. Michael ran ahead of me through the long grass to show me my path.
Then she bade me cut ragwort from the Mowhay’s hedges. It was a plant of safety, she said. She asked the well to make the ragwort strong and then bade me set a clump in each corner of the field. St. Michael sat on her shoulder and lastly the three of us walked seven times widdershins round the well, Charlotte counting out loud so we shouldn’t lose our place. On her saying ‘seven’ there came a scream. I clutched her arm and whimpered but she was pleased.
‘A fox,’ she said. ‘The charms have been heard.’”

When Charlotte disappears, everyone is under suspicion, and when her body is found, almost everybody has motives to pin the crime on a scapegoat. The most convenient scapegoat turns out to be a farmhand named Matthew, and once he is charged by the local magistrates, newspapermen begin showing up, some of them from London.

One of the newspapermen, Mr. Williams, teams up with Shilly to try to prove Matthew’s innocence. Mr. Williams has secrets and Shilly has her own secrets; as they learn more about each other and the case, Shilly feels that she is being guided by Charlotte’s ghost to find her killer.

Since Shilly is telling the tale, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not. When she hears about how Charlotte was killed, she imagines the scene so vividly she imagines how it feels:

“I coughed up blood and bile and something else. Something hard and coarse. It ripped my mouth as it left me. A bead from her necklace….’Do you see now what she can do?’ I tried to say, though I didn’t know if I had body left to make words. I held out the bead I had coughed from myself so that he should take it from my blood-wet hands.
‘A stone, Shilly?
….A stone? Why would he not see–?
He was right. My fingers were clutching a small piece of moor stone. My hands and dress were clean of blood. I touched my opened throat. Skin. Smooth and whole.”

The Victorian-era Cornwall dialect gives a distinct flavor to the story; the people talk about “mizzle” and various other kinds of “dirty weather,” meaning different kinds of rain and wind. When Shilly sees someone crying she calls it “scritching.” When they offer each other tea, it’s a “dish” of tea.

Shilly gets the murderer to confess by convincing him that Charlotte’s ghost is in the room, coaxing him to relate the whole story of how she was killed by telling him “Charlotte wants you to say it.” The murderer confuses Shilly with Charlotte, looking at the living woman while apparently talking to the ghost.

At the end of the novel, we learn Shilly’s real name, and it makes certain little fuzzy edges of the picture snap into sharp focus. It’s a well-told tale, and a captivating one.

The Terraformers

March 2, 2023

The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz, is a science fiction novel of overwhelming ambition and scope, one that creates interesting ideas and situations and follows some of them to their logical conclusions. I found it well-written and interesting. My only complaint is a minor one; twice I got deeply invested in the characters only to find myself moved on to an event after their lifetime and introduced to new characters, starting the whole process over again. Like most science fiction, this novel is more about plot than character, but the number of characters is very large, and most of them are well-fleshed-out (so to speak) and compelling.

Many of the characters are not homo sapiens. Some are intelligent animals and others are what we would call robots or cyborgs. First we meet Destry, who is an Environmental Rescue Team Ranger on a planet called SASK-E. Destry is riding a sentient moose named Whistle who can text her his thoughts, and has sensors in her fingers that connect her to the planet’s network. It just gets weirder from there.

This is a novel about world building, and the world it creates is fascinating and detailed. At the beginning of the novel we learn that SASK-E is a privately-owned planet and the company that owns it is called Verdance. “Most of the planet’s hominin population were workers made from standard templates, decanted and controlled by Verdance,” and Destry is one of them, although the ERT “was a profoundly public institution, with campuses on nearly every League world.” We learn that the ERT “saved the world from apocalyptic floods by inventing a new form of agriculture. The Great Bargain, they called it. A way to open communication with other life forms in order to manage the land more democratically.”

Whistle is a “mount.” Destry says that “she’d met so many creatures like Whistle who were obviously people, despite their supposedly low intelligence, that she had long ago stopped buying into the League’s ‘intelligence assessment’ rating system. There was a good reason why the rangers called them InAss ratings. Your head had to be buried deep in your ass to say a flying, talking moose with a weird gang of aeronaut drone friends wasn’t smart enough to be a person.”

There are so many odd and interesting things that happen, and so many different kinds of people described. One of my favorites is a sentient door named Jaguar who gives chapter five its title: “A Very Angry Door.” A central location is Spider City, hidden from Verdance inside a mountain and settled by the original builders of the world, Archaeans, whose interpretation of the “Great Bargain” includes everyone—including, by the end, earthworms and sentient trains.

The novel is divided into three parts; the first part, Settlers, begins in the year 59,006, focusing mostly on Destry and Whistle and the politics of the Verdance-owned planet. The second part, Public Works, is set in the year 59,706 and focuses mostly on Misha, Destry’s student, and Sulfur, an Archaean from Spider City, along with a metal cow named Zest and Rocket, a flying robot who knew Destry. We find out that on SASK-E, as Zest explains,
“there are two kinds of brains….unmodified intelligence and human-equivalent intelligence. Once you have a human-equivalent brain, that’s it. There are no natural levels of intelligence. But there are ways of artificially limiting people’s vocabulary to create the illusion of mental hierarchy. A person with a Blessed rating can only talk about the one task they were designed for—like, say, tree planting. A Mount can only speak in single-syllable words. Of course, a so-called person has full vocabulary access. So how do you create the InAss ratings? At Verdance, the templates call for limiters. Basically they break part of the software that controls the brain-sender interface. But other places do it differently. You can damage the tissues, or create chemical shortcuts that circumvent speech.”
The second part of the novel focuses on how all the people on SASK-E learn to work with each other without trying to limit anyone else’s capacity to communicate. It shows how much better this can make everything work on Sasky, as the natives are calling it.

The third part, Gentrifiers, is set in 60,610. This part focuses on Scrubjay, a sentient train, and his friend Moose, a cat and data historian working as a journalist (we find out that Whistle chose the color of Moose’s grandparent’s fur, in a scene we remember from part one). Scrubjay and Moose support the revolution that eventually earns the SASK-E settlers their freedom from Verdance and the other corporation, Emerald, that have been trying to take over. At one point Scrubjay and Moose are outraged to hear that “Emerald was ordering all non—H. sapiens people out of their cities unless they were slaved to a legitimate property owner.”

In the end, Sasky becomes a public planet. “Instead of a virgin Pleistocene frontier, Sasky was like every other planet that Earth people had occupied—a chunk of rock and biomass, stolen and re-stolen so many times that even its humblest microbes were of decidedly sketchy provenance.”

The Terraformers is a book of amazing scope, and I found it fascinating.

The Hidden

February 26, 2023

When I picked up The Hidden, by Melanie Golding, I thought it was a detective novel. I’d forgotten that the reason it was on my list is that I’d read about it in an article on selkie novels, so the discovery that there were supernatural elements was a surprise, recreating the feelings of the characters, who are reluctant to believe one element of the mystery—that one of the characters needs her sealskin coat back so she can swim off and rejoin her family.

The novel is so well-written I had trouble putting it down. It kept me up late one night, and the only reason I didn’t finish it off on the same day I’d picked it up is that I wasn’t quite willing for the experience to end.

I found the way I was presented with various points of view at the beginning of the novel quite effective. It begins from the viewpoint of Leonie, not quite two, who has been left in front of a store. Then we get Ruby’s viewpoint, as she rushes to rescue Leonie. Next we get the policewoman Joanna’s point of view as she works a case that seems unrelated. We get a dreamy chapter from Leonie’s mother, Constance, about how she feels as she leaves Leonie.

Ruby’s is the story I was most interested in, although she’s living alone with only her violin for company and indulging in some weird voyeurism by watching a man across the way do yoga in the wee hours of the morning. It isn’t until page 73 that we get a chapter from Leonie’s mother, Constance, in which she recalls how she would “emerge from the sea, slick with seawater. She steps onto the sand with feet that feel newborn, with legs that are unsteady at first after swimming so far.” It isn’t until page 89 that we see Ruby meet Gregor, Constance, and Leonie, although we still haven’t put it together exactly who Gregor is and how he fits into the story that is coming together from the various female points of view.

Gregor tells Ruby that Constance is mentally ill and explains away her family name, Roane (a word meaning seal or selkie) by saying “she believes that she comes from the sea, that she’s part of that myth.” Ruby thinks that “the significance of the name had gotten distorted in her mind somehow. Poor Constance. A disordered thought, looming larger than it should have done in her confusion about what was real and what wasn’t.”

But as she gets to know Constance and Gregor, Ruby realizes that it’s Gregor who might have mental problems, and the story Constance tells might be true. When they manage to circumvent some of his surveillance and search his bedroom, they find evidence of even more surveillance, and their situation becomes more precarious than they had suspected.

In the end, it’s a chase. Can Constance escape? Can Ruby keep Leonie from harm? Can Joanna protect her child, who’s gotten caught up in the case? Or will the man they know as Gregor, who has a Terminator-like ability to keep coming despite horrific injuries, prevail?

I found the ending quite satisfying; reading it the next day, after first being so caught up in the story, was as much of a pleasure as I’d hoped. There’s an ambiguity to the ending that readers like me, who enjoy the possibility of a glimpse into a world beyond the one we know, will appreciate.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

February 23, 2023

My copy of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall came from the bookshop at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

It was the only Bronte novel I wanted to read that I hadn’t already read, and it took me a while to get through it because there’s so much about religious dictates for how women should live and the importance of presenting a proper appearance to the world.

Wondering who the tenant is and how she came to Wildfell Hall takes a reader a good way into the novel. The first time I picked it up I got to chapter 15 before putting it down for a long while, wearied with the back and forth about what could be proper between the mysterious Helen Graham and her neighbor Gilbert Markham.

The second time I tried the novel was on audiobook and I didn’t get weary until chapter 30, when Helen’s confounded devotion, as both her husband Arthur and I would call it, started to seem stilted and repetitive. She goes on and on about how she hoped to change her husband into what she could call a good man but how continually he falls short of her exacting standards: “things that formerly shocked and disgusted me, now seem only natural. I know them to be wrong, because reason and God’s word declare them to be so; but I am gradually losing that instinctive horror and repulsion which was given me by nature, or instilled into me by the precepts and example of my aunt….fool that I was to dream that I had strength and purity enough to save myself and him!”

I kept going with the audiobook, however, because the story of how Helen tried to change Arthur is part of a journal that she has given Gilbert Markham to read, promising that it will explain her standoffishness to him; it does. A reader finally has to have some sympathy for a woman who has to fight to keep her reputation from becoming anything the neighbors can whisper about and who doesn’t want her son to grow up to have no interests except drinking and carousing, like his father.

Eventually (by chapter 39), Arthur has turned into a full-fledged villain, openly cheating on his wife with one of their houseguests and telling his male friends that he doesn’t care about Helen anymore, that in fact “anyone among you, that can fancy her, may have her and welcome.”

That livens things up for a while. Helen is plotting ways to get away from her husband with her child, as we know she does, because we have already been introduced to her as the tenant of Wildfell Hall, which turns out to be a house belonging to her brother. Her journal comes to an end, and then the last part of the novel is about Gilbert Markham’s efforts to stay away from her because he loves her and doesn’t want to ruin her reputation. So at least she’s gotten through to someone.

Helen nurses her husband Arthur through a last illness which seems to have been caused by—or at least irritated by—excessive drinking. She does this with another burst of devotional thoughts, saying stuff like “I am exerting my utmost endeavours to promote the recovery and reformation of my husband.” He dies, though, and after worrying about the destination of his soul, she finds herself free and wealthy, with her son as the beneficiary of his father’s will.

After a decent interval, Gilbert comes to visit and establishes himself as the upright man Arthur could never be, the kind of man Helen deserves. The novel leaves them at one of Helen’s country estates, where Gilbert says they are raising “promising young scions.”

Like the struggles of Agnes Grey as a governess, Helen’s attempts to have some say over her own life and that of her son turns out to be the focus for the novel’s events, and how many times she has to repeat what she wants and why is part of the point.

The Deluge

February 19, 2023

I was excited when I spotted Stephen Markley’s new novel about climate change, The Deluge, at a Columbus-area bookstore, with a three-word blurb from his writing partner for Only Murders in the Building, Ben Philippe, because Stephen is the son of a friend of mine; he’s a local writer who has achieved some measure of fame.

But I found The Deluge a ponderous book in every sense of the word: it will make you think, it will exhaust you with its lumbering progress towards a far-distant ending, and it will make your hands hurt as you try to hold it up.

You probably should try to hold it up. In the wake of the real-life toxic plume (like the one in DeLillo’s novel White Noise) in eastern Ohio, my neighbors are looking at things like watershed maps, some for the first time.

There are so many characters in this novel–each an attempt to humanize one approach to saving the planet–that you may lose track. The main ones are Tony Pietrus, a scientist, Kate Morris, an activist, Ashir-al-Hasan, an analyst, The Pastor, an actor turned religious figure, Jacqueline, an advertiser who eventually goes to work with Kate Morris, Keeper, a down-on-his-luck former drug addict, and Shane, the leader of an eco-terrorist organization.

The narrative techniques are cumulative and journalistic in effect, mixing news articles, interview transcripts, and journal entries with first, second, and third person point of view.

Often the point of view on people is how awful they are. A description of Shane eating breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant includes the information that “the other patrons were geriatric with flesh the texture of the snow slurry outside. They ate tediously, automatically, knives struggling through country fried steak, forks impaling scrambled eggs or scooping home fries. She counted four oxygen tanks in the main dining room, one of them hooked to a man so obese that the sides of his butt drooped over the edge of the chair.”

A similar description of Tony eating lunch at a restaurant reveals “mostly wealthy retirees adorned in every manner of sparkling mineral washed of the toxic slurry its extraction had left behind in some far-flung sacrifice zone. All of them albatrossed by credit cards, boat upkeep, and the perturbations of the stock market.”

Recommendations about what we should do are voiced by characters who tend to be rude and overly blunt, like when, early in this fictional future, Tony Pietrus lays out what he believes needs to be done:
“we need a two hundred dollar per metric ton tax rising twenty dollars a year, every year, at minimum. We need to phase out coal in the next two years. That means beginning to shut down plants by fiat and have the government nationalize all coal stocks. Preferably we’d buy fifty-one percent stakes in every major carbon producer and unwind them as rapidly as possible. We need to be commissioning five new nuclear reactors a year for the next twenty. Then we need to hammer the shit out of India and China until they’re on board.”

Kate Morris is even more blunt, telling a crowd that
“There are a handful of corporations and governments happily burning as much carbon as they can so that a handful of people can get obscenely rich. And mostly, the problem lies right here.”
And she pointed behind her to the bulging Capitol Dome.
“That building is ours. The whole idea is that whatever happens in there is our will. Our decision. But instead, it’s a defensive fortress for a tiny elite, who are profiting from the genocide of our planet.”
Kate might be a character readers could admire, but the novelist includes continual descriptions of how down-to-earth she is, including her sexual preferences and elimination habits. Here’s a typical example: “Kate hocked up the snot in her throat and thwapped a loogie in the sand.”

I was reminded of the picture of what extreme heat can do to people in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future when I read what Stephen Markley’s more abstract picture of it looks like:
“In cities across the country, power grids and substations began to buckle. In Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Louisville, Memphis, Atlanta, the blackouts and brownouts crippled infrastructure. Cooling stations lost power, AC units were worthless, mobile phone networks stopped working, and people were stranded in their homes. No VR, TV, lights, or refrigerators. Crack open the elevator doors of a high-rise and fine two parents and three children cooked to death inside after only a few hours. Sky-high ozone and humidity. A heat index across the South of 133 degrees. A human body can only take two days of uninterrupted exposure to such temperatures. Electrolytes go haywire, exhaustion, respiratory issues, and renal failure follow. Hospital beds were overrun like nothing since Covid-19. Ambulances were booked solid, emergency response times up to four hours. Many hospitals had to close their doors to new admissions, all the beds taken.”

That the characters are only very thinly-fleshed-out ideas is nowhere more clear than in the chapter on Ashir’s experiment on his own baby. This is the part that made me have to stop reading for a while; I was so horrified by the idea that even in fiction, a parent would starve his own baby on purpose. Ashir says he “allotted twelve hundred calories each day” for the baby and on the first day “he began crying around one o’clock and did not stop until I gave him a half cup of macaroni with chopped broccoli at 5 pm.” On subsequent days Ashir relates that “I sometimes turned on the news to drown out his sobbing.” Like a child who asks to mail the food remaining on his plate to starving people in another country, Ashir thinks that starving his baby will show him what it’s like to live where people can’t get enough food, even though “after nine days, he stopped crying. He was, it seemed, too tired….His hair thinned, and I found the kinky strands in his bath and scattered in the crib. His skin, usually quite puffy and soft, now had a parched, dried consistency. He never smiled and his usual cooing and babbling ceased as well.” After the experiment, Ashir says, like a complete asshole, “I’m convinced mine was an experiment every parent should force themselves to contemplate, for this is the future of our world.” I could never take seriously anything this character said or did after this point in the novel.

The advertiser Jacqueline’s point of view is how the novelist works in most of his criticism of the ultra-rich. She makes fun of her sister’s “Real Housewives of St. Louis life,” describing it as one that few people I know could afford. At one point, her partner Fred tells a joke about how rich people always pretend they don’t have an obscene amount of money: “growing up, our summer house was such a dump, it didn’t even have a dock!” On her way home to her $5.6 million home in a building on NYC’s Upper West Side, she passes a gas station “where five kids stood in the way of a car, holding signs….One sign read WHAT YOU DO HERE STARVES THE WORLD; another WE ARE OUT OF TIME with a picture of a clock; another, WE ARE THE DELUGE.” Later she joins the gas station protestors. There’s a funny description of a charity dinner that Jacqueline and Fred go to, one that costs $20,000 a plate, but to get the humor you have to know something about how the rich live, like what kind of expensive dress a “Lela Rose” is. (I looked it up; I could order a Lela Rose dress from Neiman-Marcus for $2,490, which is about 25 times what anyone I know spends on a single item of clothing.)

Shane’s point of view is that people who don’t do what she thinks they should do must be killed, to clear them out of the way for her right-thinking tribe. Her outlook on people in general is ultra-cynical; she doesn’t believe in what she calls “the fables of the people protesting in the streets with their pink pussy hats right before they met for brunch and went home to binge Netflix.”

Meanwhile Keeper has been in prison, where the work release program is search and rescue and cleanup after disasters:
“they shipped you to Los Angeles for the aftermath of the El Demonio fire. For three months, you and the crew sifted through rubble to pull charred corpses and burned bone fragments from collapsed houses. Then it was on to Sioux Falls, St. Louis, and Nashville, as the Great Eastern Flood opened wide and swallowed the Midwest. Then it was Hurricane Rose devastating the coast of Georgia and northern Florida….You saw men, women, and children who’d been burned alive in their cars trying to escape the flames on a charred California freeway.”

At the end of the novel, Tony works with some of the other characters to propose a plan, one that presumably the author endorses:
“Through the Coastal Resilience and Defense Authority (CORDA), the federal government will offer pre-crisis fair market value to homeowners living within the ‘hazard line’ of the US coast, established as those areas within nine feet of sea level. For property within three feet, owners will, after two years, lose the opportunity for a buyout or federal flood insurance, and eminent domain may be invoked depending on the property’s viability, the goal being to restore as much of this area from paved-over development to wetlands as quickly as possible while also embarking on a federal works project to plant mangrove forests on the Southeast and Gulf coasts to protect against storm surge and sequester significant amounts of carbon. There will, however, be a hard cap of $5 million for single-family homes, $3 million for second homes and investment properties, and $25 million for businesses, forcing the wealthy to eat the cost of the retreat. For instance, Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California, built for over $1 billion and only 1.6 feet above sea level, will face a staggering loss with this program. A reformation of the National Flood Insurance Program will create the National Fire and Flood Insurance Program (NFFIP) using updated FEMA maps to calculate climate risk. Nonprofit disaster insurance backed by public dollars is still an absolute necessity, but it must not incentivize risky building behavior as the NFIP did for so long. Households will be zoned according to risk and certain properties that flood or burn will only get money to move, not rebuild.”
There’s more, of course, but like the congressmen Tony accuses of not reading the bills they vote on, many readers will get the gist and move on, even if they agree, which I think many non-millionaire readers already do.

If The Deluge seizes the imagination of a few readers who aren’t already convinced about the dangers of climate change that will be a good thing, but it seems to me the odds are low, especially since the prevailing attitude is one often exhibited by environmental writers, that other people are the biggest problem with the Earth.

It will take me a while to finish pondering the ideas presented in The Deluge, but the taste it has left in my mind reminds me of what Codi’s father says to her about not wanting to be a doctor, at the end of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams: “You’re entitled to that opinion,” he said. “That the human body is a temple of nastiness.”

If people are nasty, why try to save anyone but yourself? That’s one of the questions this novel leaves us to ponder.

Lothlorien Poetry Journal

February 13, 2023

This weekend I was in Washington, DC to see some friends and take in some sights. It was weird, because even though most things looked the same—the lights still blink when the Metro train is coming, the merry-go-round is still on the national mall, the Burghers of Calais are still looking horrified and resigned in the Hirshhorn sculpture garden—and seeing those familiar things made me feel like I did when I walked there in my twenties, my legs aren’t capable of the same distances anymore.

So I did more bench-sitting and people-watching, and that’s a pleasure, too. We had a lovely tea with our friends in their garden, where snowdrops were blooming and the jonquils looked almost ready to bloom. We went through the National Gallery one day and the next we explored a bit of the National Portrait Gallery and got to see the new-ish portraits of Obama and Michelle, which are often on tour but just happened to be at their home base this weekend.

We walked through the Air and Space museum and enjoyed the way they display the USS Enterprise from Star Trek and Luke’s X-Wing fighter from Star Wars along with other crafts we’ve sent to space, like Mariner 10 and the Mars rover.

And during the weekend, I found out that a journal I submitted a couple of poems to because it has the loveliest, most evocative name—The Lothlorien Poetry Journal—has published both of them online. Here’s a link in case you want to read them. “Premonitions” is my Covid-era poem, and “Home for the Holidays” is about my first child as an adult.

What a great weekend it was. I missed a symphony concert at Kenyon and was afraid to leave Tristan, my cat who is struggling with kidney failure, but the music went on well enough without me this time and the cat made it through, with the help of a very attentive cat sitter and a friend who came by to reassure him that his shoulder-sitting needs had not been entirely forgotten.

Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old

February 5, 2023

Recently the New York Times featured an article about weight loss myths and a 2019 essay written by Laura Lippman started to pick up a new surge of popularity. Because of Melanie’s December review at Grab the Lapels, I picked up Kimberly Dark’s essay collection from 2019 entitled Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old. At the same time, I was reading Aubrey Gordon’s 2023 collection, “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 other Myths about Fat People. None of these had any surprises for me.

If you’re not familiar with the issues relating “body mass index” to the weight loss industry, the Guardian lays much of it out in this 2013 article. Gordon’s chapter on BMI traces its history from its early 19th-century origin; she points out that “to its inventor, the BMI was a way of measuring populations, not individuals, designed for the purposes of statistics, not individual health.” Gordon traces the popularization and misapplications of BMI to the 1970s and 80s, culminating in its adoption as a standard in 1995, based on studies funded by Abbott and Roche, makers of weight-loss drugs that were stuck in a then-more-restrictive approval process by the FDA.

I found that Dark’s essays convey some of what it was like to grow up at the end of the twentieth century as a girl who was bigger than everyone else:
“It’s not that the adults withheld food, but they made us feel bad for eating it. They wanted us to say no to food. They wanted us to deprive ourselves, and why would they want that if we were really worthwhile? It was hard to figure out as a young person…. Some girls, like me, were never lovable when we were eating. We were already too large, already a problem to be solved. Even if we were hungry and the kitchen was full, even if everyone was eating together, even if a family member made something we loved, in order to show love, we were supposed to not eat it.”

My reaction to Dark’s continual references to her work as a yoga teacher was to find them slightly defensive and repetitive, but clearly her work helps her take a stand as a fat activist. I like what she says about dignity:
“Remember that your dignity can heal others. Every time you calmly stand against the lie of the bad body, time stops. When someone sneers or laughs at your body and you calmly refuse to take the shame you are being handed, time stops. And in that brief quivering moment, a new world is born from your bravery.”

Laura Lippman’s essay is also about claiming your own dignity. She says “every day, everywhere I go, the culture is keen to remind me how repulsive I am. I thump the culture on the chest, push back and say one of the most infuriating things a woman can ever say: Actually, I like the way I look.”

Sometimes, though, what feels like dignity to people like me is called “glorifying obesity” by others. Gordon says that
“objections about fat people ‘glorifying obesity’ are entirely rooted in bias and disgust. Those objections are products of deep anti-fat bias, weapons wielded to perpetuate anti-fatness, to literally and figuratively cut fat people down to size. Commenters don’t seek to understand fatness or fat people; they do not want to see us. And the accusation that we are glorifying obesity and exacerbating a so-called obesity epidemic means that they aren’t judging others based on appearance; they are vanquishing threats to public health….conversations about ‘glorifying obesity’ often reveal that the accuser is concerned that seeing fat people depicted without stigma will ‘encourage obesity.’ As if we all need to be reminded constantly that fatness means unending sorrow, public bullying, and a life of Sisyphean dieting, losing and regaining the same 30 pounds ad infinitum.”

And, as Gordon adds,
“perhaps the most frequent refrain of my life as a fat person is thinner people expressing a ‘concern for my health,’ frequently without knowing anything about it. Their concern for my personal health may be genuine, but it’s also based in deeply regressive, inaccurate stereotypes about fat people—that we cannot be healthy, that we do not know how to be healthy, and that we need a thin person to teach us.”

The toughest place to feel like you have any dignity, no matter your size, is on an airplane. Both Gordon and Dark write at length about the extraordinary struggles large people experience when they dare to fly.

Gordon’s chapter on the subject is entitled “Myth 18: Fat People Should Pay For a Second Airplane Seat.” She tells the stories of people who have been been escorted off of planes because thin passengers are irritated that their bodies touched their own or because a flight attendant has decided they are “too fat to fly.” As she says and as I have experienced, “among the most persistent challenges of flying while fat is navigating the maze of airline policies about when and whether we’ll be permitted to stay on a flight. Current policies…vary substantially from airline to airline….Within the United States, domestic airlines have a patchwork of policies that require fat passengers to conduct extensive research to see if we’ll be permitted to stay on the flight.”

Here are a few of the stated policies for a few of the airlines that operate in the United States:
“Southwest passengers must purchase a second seat but may call after their trip to request a refund….Alaska Airlines requires that customers pay for a second seat if they “cannot comfortably fit within one seat with the armrests in the down position.” Fat passengers can call customer service to request a refund for the second seat after travel, but it will only be granted if the flight had at least one vacant seat. Hawaiian Airlines recommends that fat passengers buy a second seat but notes, if it’s booked online, that second seat is ‘not guaranteed to be adjacent.’”

What makes planning for a flight more difficult, as Gordon says, is that airlines don’t make much of the necessary information available. “Policies may require us to fit in a seat but never disclose that seat’s width….Spirit Airlines requires purchase of a second seat if a passenger is ‘unable to sit in a single seat with the armrests lowered’ but doesn’t disclose the distance between those armrests….American Airlines and JetBlue go one step further, disclosing neither their seat measurements nor their policies for removing fat passengers from flights.”

The last time I lost a significant amount of weight (something I’ve done regularly throughout my life) was during the winter of 2020. I had recently been pulled aside by a Southwest Airlines agent at the St. Louis airport while waiting for a flight home with my husband and questioned about my ability to fit into the seat. It was the first time that had ever happened to me, and I decided to make sure it would not happen for the flights I had scheduled in March and April. So I severely restricted what I ate and exercised more than usual and lost twenty pounds. Then the lockdowns happened and the events I planned to fly to were canceled. I stayed home, and what happened next is what always happens after I lose a significant amount of weight—I gained it all back, plus some extra.

Now I still have that extra weight. Buying a ticket to fly anywhere is an expensive gamble, as Gordon notes, because “thin passengers complaining is a frequent trigger for fat passengers being escorted from the plane….If they get their way, a fat passenger will be kicked off their flight. Sometimes, they won’t be offered another flight. Other times, they won’t be offered a refund….Most airline policies….set up a bizarre dynamic: one in which the fate of the fat passengers rests with the discomfort and bias of whoever happens to sit next to us.”

In an essay titled “Cozy or Uncomfortable: Tight Public Places,” Dark talks about the discomforts of flying. She describes how it can feel:
“I can see the judgment on my seatmate’s face sometimes, especially if I’m already seated when he or she approaches….the pain is the possibility of inconveniencing someone, invoking someone’s irritation just by being there….There are set rituals on the airplane that help us pretend we are not in such close proximity. It’s not that the contact is much less comfortable, it’s that touching ruins the illusion that we are really enjoying private space. Nothing private is happening in the space the airline sells us. The fat passenger dispels the illusion, and this can cause anger.”

But Dark tells a story about how she once had a pleasant experience on a flight; she was seated next to a person named Kalani who she describes as “a big guy” and was pleasantly surprised at the way he tried to make them both comfortable even though they were strangers and their bodies were touching. “He accepted that he was going to be touching me,” she says, “that we would be sharing an experience, and his acceptance made me more comfortable.” She mentions that “as a man, he might have felt more entitled to the space, but some of that gift was cultural….In Hawaiian culture…fat people are not generally felt to be useless, lazy, or invisible.”

Individuals from other cultures may vary, of course. The most unpleasant experience I’ve ever had on a plane was when a man from India palpably bristled with indignation at being seated next to me. He finally simmered down when I turned to him and apologized, explaining that I bought a seat in first class but that when the flight was canceled, the airline put me in a smaller seat next to him to make my connection for an international flight.

I’m taking a trip with a friend in March, and although we intended to buy first class seats, she ended up having to buy regular seats on the kind of small, regional airplanes that connect us to flights at larger airports. I guess we’ll see whether anyone complains or if we’re allowed to stay on the flight.

I’ve decided that I’m not going to work on losing weight again because I can’t afford to regain it afterwards; the cycle has to stop. In an afterword to Dark’s essay collection, nutritionist Linda Bacon points out “it is well established that biological safeguards—some we understand and others we don’t—cause our bodies to resist long-term weight loss. Failure to maintain weight loss is not a personal failure of will.”
But can I get that on a lapel button?

Even if I’m okay with the way I look, that won’t matter much if I can’t go anywhere. My hope is that my invisibility as an old woman in our society will continue to grow as long as I’m lucky enough to continue to get old.

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