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Tell the Machine Goodnight

September 26, 2021

Tell the Machine Goodnight, by Katie Williams, is a science fiction novel about a machine designed to tell people what would make them happier, and its effects.

The beginning of the novel sets the scene concisely. The first chapter is entitled “The Happiness Machine,” and there’s an epigraph: “Apricity (archaic): the feeling of sun on one’s skin in the winter.” This is followed by the first lines: “The machine said the man should eat tangerines. It listed two other recommendations as well, so three in total. A modest number, Pearl assured the man as she read out the list that had appeared on the screen before her: one, he should eat tangerines on a regular basis; two, he should work at a desk that received morning light; three, he should amputate the uppermost section of his right index finger.” Soon we learn that the man isn’t too taken aback by his third recommendation, saying “I’ve never liked it much. This particular finger. It got slammed in a door when I was little, and ever since….It just feels…like it doesn’t belong.” And we learn that Pearl has “worked as a contentment technician for the Apricity Corporation’s San Francisco office since 2026. Nine years.” We also learn that “the Apricity assessment process itself was noninvasive. The only item that the machine needed to form its recommendations was a swab of skin cells from the inside of the cheek. This was Pearls’ first task on a job, to hand out and collect back a cotton swab, swipe a hint of captured saliva across a computer chip, and then fit the loaded chip into a slot in the machine. The Apricity 480 took it from there, spelling out a personalized contentment plan in mere minutes.”

After the first chapter, in which we meet Pearl, the chapters present us with the points of view of others in her world, starting with her teenaged son, Rhett, who is recovering from anorexia and helping a friend investigate who posted a video that led to her online humiliation. Other points of view include one of Pearl’s colleagues, Carter, Pearl’s ex-husband and Rhett’s father, Elliot, Elliot’s wife Val, and an actress and Apricity customer, Calla.

Rhett is unhappy, and his unhappiness introduces us to the limitations of the machine. Although Rhett doesn’t want any recommendations, Pearl surreptitiously swabs his cheek and is alarmed when his recommendations come out blank because that’s what happens when they’re illegal or harmful to others. She experiments with ways to make him happier and finally succeeds by bringing home a pet lizard for Rhett to feed live mice to. It worries her that an outlet for cruelty is what seems to make her son feel better, but she’s willing to accommodate the need as long as it works.

Carter tests a new model of Apricity machine, one he is told is better. His usual four recommendations are to “stand up straight. Don’t worry about standing up straight. Adopt a dog. Smile at your wife.” The new one from the improved machine is “remove all chairs from your office except your own.” Carter is told that it’s not a plan for contentment or happiness, but for how to be powerful. He follows the plan as instructed, but it turns out that the power he hoped for goes to the designers of the new machine.

Elliott breaks out of what Val calls “a creative fallow period” by performing art based on peoples’ Apricity recommendations, eating so much honey he vomits and wrapping himself up completely in soft fabric, like a mummy. We find out that Val blames herself for her psychotic mother’s suicide, so much that as a child she allowed herself to be convicted of murdering her and now gets a weekly, court-ordered Apricity swab, although she doesn’t allow her parole officer to tell her the results because she thinks “I do not deserve happiness. I don’t want to know where to seek it.” She tries to tell Elliot what happened, but can’t find a way to do it, so she leaves him before he can leave her.

Pearl administers daily contentment reports for Calla, the actress, at the request of her people who are concerned, it later turns out, because they’re recording her in situations that frighten her and are concerned about the effects. Calla explains to Pearl that “they capture the feeling, the way I experience the feeling. And then they can, like, project it into other people. They can make people feel it.”

In the wider context of this world, Rhett’s unhappiness is less surprising. The end of the novel is about the support Rhett is finally able to accept from a few other people, most notably his college roommate, Zi, who is from China. Zi talks Rhett into finding new goals, distracting him from “making rules again. Only vegetables. Twenty chews before I could swallow. A sip of water between each bite….I knew that this was how it had started before, little rules that led to bigger ones. No food before dinner. Five hundred calories a day. Five hundred calories every other day. But then Zi talked me into climbing the mountain.”

After a year of living with Zi, Rhett observes that Zi “likes to say that if I teach him how to be American, he’ll teach me how to be human.” He is able to forgive Pearl and Elliot for splitting up, and becomes friends with Val, although she has left Elliot for good.

Pearl is left talking to her Apricity machine, even though “she knew it had all been pretend, the machine’s responses only Pearl talking with herself. Still, she listened for its reply.” And when Pearl’s machine is stolen from the bar where she’s taken it, readers are left hearing that such machines are going to be part of a new “wave of bio-embed tech.” Pearl finally decides that she has to make her own plans and quit being content with machine plans and even other peoples’ plans.

One of her last actions is to imitate the machine, coming up with a contentment plan on the spur of the moment: “Learn the clarinet….write in cursive….and take a long trip. Alone.” It’s a simple idea, that we don’t need machines to tell us what will make us happy, and yet it’s as hard to figure it out for ourselves as it is to recover from an eating disorder or a failed marriage or any other system we pinned our hopes to.

Exit Strategy, Kelley Armstrong

September 23, 2021

During very busy times, I sometimes pick up mystery or crime novels for a few minutes of escapist reading, and at the beginning of the semester I tried Exit Strategy, by Kelley Armstrong. It was good enough that I searched for the two sequels, Made to Be Broken and Wild Justice.

The first-person narrator of these novels is a Canadian contract killer named Nadia Stafford who was a crime victim early in her life, became a cop, and then killed an obviously guilty man. Her version of that story is “As I stood there, watching Franco grinning, I knew I hadn’t come here to see Wayne Franco arrested. I’d come here to see Dawn Collins get justice. So I waited. And when he made the mistake of reaching into his pocket, I put a bullet between his eyes.”

Now Nadia believes she’s walking a fine line between being an outlaw and dispensing justice, and in between jobs, she runs a lodge in the wilderness north of Toronto. In her first adventure she meets another contract killer named Jack and they stop a colleague from implementing his exit strategy of serial murders, as “if a hitman wants to retire to a normal life, he needs an exit strategy, to make damned sure there’s nothing, and no one who can finger him.”

When Nadia and Jack talk about retiring and being able to travel, he describes the idea this way:
“Seeing Paris in the spring. Strolling the Great Wall. Standing under the pyramids in the moonlight. Sounds great. Reality? Standing by a mountain of broken rock. Shoes full of sand. Sweating my ass off. Worrying about my pocket getting picked. Surrounded by strangers….Waste of fucking time. Might as well buy a book. Look at pictures.”
So I’m not terribly sympathetic with either character’s point of view.

Despite that, it’s a good adventure with interesting characters. Nadia is a vigilante killer, but she’s getting pedophiles and rapists off the streets.

In the second book, Made to Be Broken, the adventure begins in Canada, at Nadia’s lodge. There’s a great description of what it’s like to live in a rural area:
“People spend a week, and are seduced by wilderness life: the clean air, the endless laes, the peace and quiet, the friendly people. They start thinking they’d like to purchase a piece of this paradise.
Then reality rears its ugly head. The nearest Wal-Mart is how far? Ethnic restaurant? Movie theater? Hospital?”

In Made to Be Broken, Nadia and Jack get people who kill single mothers and sell their babies off the streets.

In the third book, Wild Justice, everything comes full circle so that Nadia and Jack have to kill everyone in the convoluted crime rings protecting the person who raped her when she was a little girl. It’s a tidy end to an entertaining series.


September 19, 2021

Mouthbrooders, by Amy Nawrocki, is a collection of contemplative poems, an exploration of the relationship between the creature self and the life of the mind.

Central to the exploration and in the middle of the volume, the title poem shows us a speaker whose brain is teeming with ideas but who is having trouble choosing the right words to embody them:

With no mind for words, no voice
to echolocate underwater, no sinkhole
to burrow or free unforgiveable limbs
from pen caps whose plastic scratches
leave no trace of helpful blood,

I take on the company of cichlids and catfish,
mouthbrooders who clutch their young
in hopeful jaws, and search for a more
buoyant form of the art of persuasion.

Send me one of those fry harvesters
who coax the unspoken out from
worried tongues without harm,
without sugar pills or counterarguments.

In other poems, things and ideas get lost, unmoored, as in “Aide-memoire” when
“I wander in circles around the kitchen
looking for the water glass filled after
the open refrigerator door told me
my purpose for standing there.”

Or in “Knowing and Not Knowing,” when
“The cat steps down the basement stairs
with the purpose of one looking for the last buoy
before losing the horizon in a sea storm
and cries something between request and apology
as if the cold cement floor would swallow him
and I am his only hope.
I know, I mutter.”
The cat, in this poem, functions much like the dog in Stephen Dobyn’s poem “How to Like It,” always one of my favorites but especially in fall, with “roads still to be traveled.” The dog says “Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk./Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.” Because, Dobyn’s speaker says, “This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.”

Like the speaker looking for her reading glasses in “Hourglasses,” readers of Nawrocki’s volume are glad for the reassurance that “there is no failure/in blinking yourself into clarity.” Appetite is literal as well as metaphorical, and “who will butter our bread/ if not the crepuscular calls/of hunger from which we have/happily never escaped?”

On the other hand, however, “Aster Place” celebrates a moment when the mind flies free of its confines:
“A pen has just fallen to the ground,
its owner too lazy or mesmerized
by blonding clouds to move and catch it.
An aster blinks.
Say purple and you don’t really get it.”

The mind cannot be allowed to fly free for too long, lest it slip what moors it to reality:
“It’s easy to paint a picture of a valiant rescue,
the clamor that alerted me to the den earlier that afternoon,
a milk snake forgiven, resettlement efforts and no loss of life.
But we do not live in times of benign migrations.”

What is essential is not entirely invisible to the eye, in this volume. When a bird hits “The Uncurtained Window,” the speaker fears an end to all its flight “because she’s seen this before, watched mobility/feather away into unanswerable dust,/bent her knees and clasped hands/around wounds that did not heal.” Anyone who has ever experienced even a temporary loss of mobility will feel how essential flesh and bone is to power what in this case seems borne on the breeze, what so often symbolizes human freedom from the bonds of the body.

Respect for the way the body tethers us to the earth runs through this collection, from the way “bread is baked on Tuesday,/the rising episodic and calculated/by slow hands and the need for/patience” to the sight of a woman “too agile for a cane, too/capable for hand-holding” but who nevertheless needs help.

Leafing through these pages, there’s always a chance of “food or sport,/the fish decides; the man hopes.” But the possibility of something more continues to present itself, like when “the trees have held onto their leaves/for longer than expected.” We think, and we plan, and we give in to the demands of the body so that we may think some more, aware that although there’s always a possibility that “we’re going to lose/this one” we can keep reaching out with our bodies: “free my/hands; cut off my hair.”

All Over the Place

September 16, 2021

Hoping for some armchair travel during an unprecedented period of no travel, I read Geraldine DeRuiter’s All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft. After I read it I took a look at her blog, the Everywhereist, which is unsurprisingly not updated very often while we wait for travel to go back to what is going to be the new normal. I had the same reaction to her blog that I had to her book—I enjoyed the way she said some things and I often found her tone a bit pretentious. It turned me off that her ad for the book on the blog says that if you liked Twilight you’ll hate her book. Similarly, I’m not charmed by her declaration that it’s out of the question to have a relationship with someone after “you find out they think Titanic was a good movie.”

Some of the stories in the book are about travel, but not all. She really is “all over the place,” no matter where she is. I find her disingenuousness disconcerting because occasionally she says something she must have considered for a while, something I agree with, and then takes a sudden turn. For example, she says (I think disingenuously) “So in the spring of 2009, I started a travel blog. Sometimes you can’t let a complete dearth of natural talent or ability stop you from doing something.” But then she follows it with something I agree with: “Imagine where we would be as a society without open-mic night or amateur…” then when she’s got me agreeing, she takes a turn and follows “amateur” with “pornography.”

I enjoyed the story about stopping in Ashland, Oregon for lunch and not knowing it’s home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:
“Rand and I stared at one another, dumbfounded, trying to figure the reason behind the huge congregation of old people flooding the streets. Was it a meeting of the local chapter of the Werther’s Original Fan Club? A Sam Waterston lookalike contest that was admirably gender agnostic? A midterm election? Stumped, we finally asked our server what was going on.
‘The plays just got out,’ she explained.”
This time of year we’d usually be looking forward to our annual trip to the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, where if you buy a ticket for a person under 30 years old, you get a discount.

Geraldine tells stories she thinks are cute about getting lost, and I think she’s an idiot, especially because I’ve been to some of the places she describes and know that it’s not as easy to get lost as she makes it sound. Anyone visiting England who wants to go to Greenwich and straddle the Prime Meridian can look up where to go and figure out that you get off the train at Cutty Sark (where you can also see the ship). Geraldine–who I guess is not interested in reading maps but can only read signs–claims that signs are only posted “at Greenwich and not before. It’s a charming way of saying, ‘Congratulations, you cocked up.’”

When she philosophizes about travel, I sometimes agree, like when she says “all I’ve ever wanted in life is to feel that I knew what the hell I was doing. That I’m in control. And travel offers the exact opposite of that experience. Every trip is just an opportunity to screw up on a grand scale. Every trip is an exercise in handing the reigns [sic] over to someone else, or letting them go altogether.” Even her spelling mistake relates to her idea, which is that you can’t decree what happens when you’re on the road. (If you do hand the reins to someone else, in the metaphor derived from guiding a horse, then you’re letting them do the driving. I guess the extension of that here is that you can’t tell the driver where you want to go, or if you do he won’t necessarily listen.)

There are genuinely funny parts, though, like when she talks about going to a restaurant in Barcelona for tapas:
“The Spanish invented these small dishes—usually tiny snacks speared on a toothpick—presumably in order to make amends to humanity for the Inquisition.
‘Sorry we murdered and tortured everyone in the name of Christ. Here, try this ham. It’s made from a pig that spent its life drinking port wine while being read the works of Cervantes.’”

I like what she says about why bucket lists of places to visit aren’t an especially good idea (in a chapter entitled Bucket Lists Are Just Plain Greedy): “for some reason demanding to see Angkor Wat before you died was too much for me. Too demanding. Too morbid. I figured you got what you got.” And I like her self-deprecating humor, as when she sees herself “wallowing in self-pity, in a way that Joan of Arc and Susan B. Anthony and Tina Turner and so many other heroic woman [sic] before me had not.”

I absolutely agree with a few of the things she says, like what she says about traveling with friends and relatives. I’ve written about this myself, in fact, in Postcard Poems, that travel, as Geraldine puts it, “helped me make sense of those closest to me.”

I also agree that “art museums have always been a place of solace and contemplation for me. Other people meditate, or visit temples of worship, or take a hike in the woods. I wander the modern art wing. It requires less repentance and less cardio, and there’s usually a café with cake.” I don’t, however, agree with her claim that seeing the Mona Lisa in person is disappointing, or that the Musee d’Orsay is a relatively little-known art museum.

The book is published by PublicAffairs, which is an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, so I’m not sure why it’s so poorly edited that in a brief review I’ve already had to indicate that two errors are in the published copy I read. Even if this is a book by a blogger, it seems like it went through traditional publishing channels, so why wasn’t it better proofread?

Anyway, there are some good armchair traveler stories in this book. Like travel, I guess, there’s much to like and much to laugh about afterwards, from sharing the ups and downs.


September 12, 2021

I got interested in Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson after reading about it at The Literary Sisters where it’s described as an autumnal read.

Rather than a review, I feel like this brief novel could best be summarized by a glossary: Lighthousekeeping is storytelling. Dark is background. Samson is tea. A seahorse is the act of sex. Love is secrecy.

I enjoyed dipping into the novel in the fifteen minutes I had before bed for a few nights. It’s made up of bits and stories that overlap, a perfect preview for dreaming. As in a dream, though, there are parts of the novel that don’t follow sequentially and other parts that just disappear. Some of this is for effect—to create whatever feeling a reader has on discovering that the man Babel Dark spied with the woman he loved was not a rival, but a brother. But some of it just seems to have been forgotten—where does DogJim go? Does his owner, the main character, a girl called Silver, even care? Why does Silver leave the island where she was born when she seems to have no ambition besides storytelling and no associate except a woman she meets and falls in love with on the way?

The beginning of the novel is surreal. The narrator claims to have lived in a house where “the chairs had to be nailed to the floor” and her mother had to “rope us together like a pair of climbers, just to achieve our own front door.”

There’s some of the ridiculous flavor of Tristram Shandy telling the story of his life and having trouble getting past his own birth in the early chapter entitled “A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method.” The narrator suggests several dates she could start with and then decides on 1959, claiming to remember being born: “I had been drifting through the unmarked months, turning slowly in my weightless world. It was the light that woke me.”

The lighthouse keeper who takes in the orphaned Silver, Pew, tells stories, and when she asks him “why can’t you just tell me the story without starting with another story?” replies “because there’s no story that’s the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents.” So it’s the stories Pew told her that form the inner circle of concurrent stories in the novel.

I like the story of the innkeeper of an inn called The Razorbill who changed the name of his inn to The Rock and Pit, because it sounds like what happens in this small college town where people still sometimes give directions by telling me to turn right where the (for example) Macionis house used to be. In the novel we’re told that “sailors, being what they are, still called it by its former name for a good sixty years or more.”

Like what the narrator says about stories, the novel has “no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.”

Two of the lit-up moments are about what Silver steals. First she steals a book, which is kind of understandable because she wanted to finish reading it. Then she steals a bird because it said her name, and after that she is arrested and sent to a psychiatrist, with the bird returned to its owner. So at one point in the novel, storytelling becomes lying, including to yourself.

I lost sympathy with the lying, stealing narrator who is adrift from her life, traveling to different countries for no reason in particular, but continued to enjoy her descriptions, like of an Albanian family:
“great-grandmother, air-dried like a chili pepper, deep red skin and a hot temper; grandmother, all sun-dried tomato, tough, chewy, skin split with the heat; getting the kids to rub olive oil into her arms; mother, moist as a purple fig, open everywhere—blouse, skirt, mouth, eyes, a wide-open woman, lips licking the salt spray flying from the open boat. Then there were the kids, aged four and six, a couple of squirts, zesty as lemons.”

And even if I don’t really care what happens to Silver and her story doesn’t go much of anywhere, there are insights along the way, like that “love and selfishness are not the same thing. It is easy to be selfish. It is hard to love who I am.”

If you want a short novel to drift around in before sleep, this is an interesting one. The dreams are not all good ones, however. There are some very dark moments, both literal and figurative. A description of how Babel Dark punishes himself after beating his wife will stay with me for much longer than I’d like it to. But other descriptions and thoughts will also stay with me, and on the whole, I think that most readers will find the meander through this story about stories worthwhile.

Any Way the Wind Blows

September 9, 2021

Rainbow Rowell’s Any Way the Wind Blows is the final novel in her Harry Potter fanfic trilogy about Simon Snow, the not-really-chosen one who saves the magical world in Carry On and goes on a road trip in Wayward Son.

In this one, Simon is still depressed and unsure about what to do now that he’s lost his magic and continues to sport a dragon’s tail and wings. He finally acts on his feelings for Baz, though, and their work to uncover what’s so special about the number of “chosen ones” who have arisen to fill in the gaps after he was revealed not to be so chosen after all results in his discovery of a family.

The dialogue about Simon and Baz’s long-ago enmity is amusing and satisfying after years of reading and watching will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together romances. I particularly like the part where Simon says “I mean…I’ve killed so many things for you” and Baz asks “What are you, a house cat? Am I supposed to know how you feel because you brought me a mouse?”

The scene in which Baz packs some of his things to move in with Simon is also fun, as they decide what he should bring:
Simon has wandered over to my violin case. “Do you need this?”
I lay the bag on my bed. “‘Need’ is a strong word. Would you like me to bring it?”
“I didn’t know if you still played.”
“I still play.”
He looks uncomfortable. Embarrassed, maybe.
“Grab it,” I say.”Perhaps we’ll encounter a violin emergency.”
“Have you encountered one of those before?”
“Any and all emergencies are possible with you around.”

Agatha discovers that the magical school crest features flying goats, rather than some more fabulous creature, and subsequently discovers that she has a talent for goat-tending.

Penelope and Shepard are trying to find a way to get him out of owing his soul to a demon. When they finally find someone who might be capable of translating his tattoos, she says “this is not from Earth-616. You shouldn’t translate this. I can’t translate it, but you shouldn’t anyway—you could end up slicing a trapdoor into another dimension.” Although her powerful mother isn’t willing or able to help Shepard, Penelope finally finds a way to do it herself, and without leaving the trapdoor open.

They fall in love although their love is forbidden, as Penelope is “magickal” and Shepard isn’t supposed to know about the magickal world. Readers know, however, that nothing in either world can resist Shepard’s charms. Penelope says “all of these people don’t even realize that it just keeps getting worse, the more you know him. That he just keeps getting better. There are no diminishing returns with Shepard—you just like him more and more until your head explodes. Until you actually die from liking him so much.”

The best part of the book is when Penelope argues about Shepard’s contract with his demon, pointing out, among other things, that “he has promised someone else his firstborn….Also his thirdborn….As well as countless other debts and promises, some of them owed beyond death to creatures who live nearly forever.”

This is a fun book and you’ll be surprised and pleased by how well it wraps everything up—a number of things you didn’t know you wanted answers for will be settled, and even the epilogue is funny and good-hearted.

The Madness of Crowds

September 2, 2021

Amid the madness of classes starting and getting the writing center set up for the semester I carved out a few hours from the weekend to read the new Louise Penny novel, The Madness of Crowds. It was timely in terms of the subject matter, although not in terms of the season—it’s set during Christmas and New Year’s in Canada, while I was reading it outside on one of the gloriously hot and sunny last days of August in Ohio.

July has always been my favorite month, but in the last few years I think August and September are pulling even with it, so lovely and ephemeral with the lushness of the Ohio landscape and the ripeness of everything. Ripeness is all, all the humming in the trees, cicadas counting down.

Armand Gamache is investigating a murder connected to an incendiary series of lectures by the fictional Abigail Robinson, an outspoken proponent of mandatory euthanasia for “defective” babies and old people. Her audience is growing, and Gamache thinks it’s because
“though the pandemic was now over, it had left behind a population worn down. People were tired of being self-disciplined, of self-isolating. Of social distancing and wearing masks. They were exhausted, shell-shocked, from months and endless months of worrying about their children, their parents, their grandparents. Themselves.
The were battered and bruised from losing relatives, losing friends. Losing jobs and favorite haunts. Tired of being isolated and driven near crazy with loneliness and despair.”
Aren’t we all. I’m teaching a class in person for the first time since fall 2019, and we’re doing it in masks.

The novel places its controversy in the present, pointing out that
“only a fool was deaf to the whispers in the halls of power, now emboldened by Professor Robinson’s success, that most of those who died in the pandemic had underlying conditions. They’d have died soon anyway.
Perhaps, they whispered, it wasn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps it was a blessing. Perhaps the pandemic had, inadvertently, done them all a favor. Freed some to peace, freed the rest to get on with their lives.
Everyone was quick to say what happened was heartbreaking. But really, privately, they considered the tragedies of the pandemic a cull. Of the weak.”

There’s the usual soupcon of humor to leaven the darkness of the murder and suspicion. One character mentions that the fictional small village of Three Pines sure has been visited by a lot of murders—as another fictional character would put it (Lady Bracknell), “considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance.” At one point when Gamache forgives his son-in-law Beauvoir for a minor breach of protocol and Beauvoir says “if it comes out, you’ll be fired,” Gamache replies “I’ve been fired before….I suspect by now they’re tired of changing the name on the door.”

Gamache’s godfather Stephen, who is now living with him and Reine-Marie, is depicted enjoying the Canadian new year’s fireworks outside in the cold because, as he says, “well you never know. Armand finished the thought. When it will be for the last time.”

Reine-Marie wonders if there is “anything more comforting than being safe and warm inside during a snowstorm?” I would say yes, and it’s stretching out on a lounge chair with a book on a hot day, hearing the insects and feeling the humidity curl the little tendrils of hair out of your face.

As much as these characters love the cold of deep midwinter, I’m loving the heat of late summer, what little is left of it here.

Pizza Girl

August 29, 2021

Back in the 80’s, when we lived in the D.C. area, we went to an art house movie called Stranger Than Paradise and came out wondering why we’d sat through it. Our memories of that movie are mostly of people staring out the window while smoking cigarettes.

I got the same feeling from reading Pizza Girl, by Jean Kyoung Frazier. The girl does almost nothing and is proud of it. When she finds out she’s pregnant she makes no plans and continues drinking beer at night, in private. Readers can see she believes herself a modern-day Holden Caulfield, despising anyone who shows enthusiasm for doing anything:
“They could support a teenage pregnancy, but not this, not a person who drifted from one moment to the next without any idea about where she was headed. Their smiles would fall again, longer this time, they’d need to look away for a moment to recover. When they turned back, they’d stare at the bridge of my nose, the gap between my eyebrows, the center of my forehead, anywhere but my eyes, a place where their own insecurities might be reflected back to them.”

We don’t even know the pizza girl’s name until the penultimate page of the novel. She delivers pizza and gets interested in the lives of some of the people she delivers to, but their lives are not as she imagines (as she discovers when a couple she sees as loving split up and she finds out it’s because of domestic violence).

The girl attributes her listlessness to “han,” saying it “was a sickness of the soul, an acceptance of having a life that would be filled with sorrow and resentment and knowing that deep down, despite this acceptance, despite cold and hard facts that proved life was long and full of undeserved miseries, ‘hope’ was still a word that carried warmth and meaning.” None of her miseries seem undeserved, however. She doesn’t talk to the people she lives with and who seem to love her, reserving her small powers of conversation for a woman who usually orders a pizza on Wednesdays. She thinks a lot about her dead father: “Dad would pour pepper over all his food, and now I was afraid to put a sprinkle of the stuff on anything, even though scrambled eggs looked weird without it. If food could change people, I didn’t want my baby to eat anything. I wanted it to exist on air alone and take in deep gulps of it, power born from within, no outside sources.”

The movie Stranger Than Paradise won an award, and some readers have found the pizza girl “charmingly dysfunctional,” as the bookflap cover promises, but I can find better things to do with my time than hang around with characters who just stare out the window all day.

The Night Hawks, Stranger Diaries

August 27, 2021

As always, I enjoyed the latest Ruth Galloway novel from Elly Griffiths, The Night Hawks. Ruth has a new colleague, David Brown, and has replaced Phil as department head, which is occasionally amusing as she navigates life on the other side of the desk.

At first, like Ruth herself, I was a little afraid that David might turn out to be a crackpot and/or a murderer, the way he goes on about things like “the virus that killed the Neolithic Britons,” but he doesn’t turn out to be a main hinge of the plot. What does are the illicit medical trials one character turns out to have been conducting out of his house.

As always, Cathbad and the sea views are bright spots. This is one of my favorite parts:
“Cathbad loves watching the sea. There’s always something new to see, an unusual bird, a foreign ship with Cyrillic script on its bows, some flotsam brought in by the tide. Even the water changes every day, sometimes white with chalk, at other times as clear and green as the Mediterranean.”

Ruth and Michelle have an adventure together, but Ruth’s relationship with Nelson remains pretty much the same, despite the ending of this one, with Nelson’s mother finally being told about the parentage of Ruth’s daughter Kate.

Because I’d read all the Ruth Galloway novels but still wanted another mystery by Elly Griffiths, I tried reading Stranger Diaries. It was too scary for me, set in a gothic high school inhabited by the spirit of a famous dead writer and other ghosts. A killer is writing in the diary of one of the teachers, a diary kept in her house. Her daughter and her dog are in danger. I ended up having to read it entirely in the daytime, rather than before bed at night, which is where I usually do most of my escapist reading. If you like scary reads in October, this is a good one.

I’m trying a few other mystery authors, hoping to find more escapist reading for the busy period coming up, with classes starting and the writing center opening. I’m also doing some reading and book signing at local bookstores!

Postcard Poems sighting

August 25, 2021

Today I walked into the Kenyon bookstore and saw my book on the shelf for the first time!

Yes, I did notice that it’s on the corner of “humor” and “new poetry.”

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