Three weeks on crutches and I am so annoyed by not being able to walk without them yet that I’m about to go out of my mind. This is what my brother and I used to call the “couch grouch” stage of recovery. It is no fun for anyone. Just as well that Ron has meetings all day and into the night for the next few days, and that most of my local friends are similarly busy with big events on campus.
It’s exhausting to walk with crutches. I keep hoping that I am at least developing big biceps, or something. Monday night I walked what felt like the length of a football field to get to symphony rehearsal, and by the time I got to my seat and got the violin out, my arms were trembling and so tired that it was hard to play.
Everyone has been so helpful and sympathetic and I feel ungratefully irritable at continuing to have to ask for help with the essentials, while I sit around and watch the plants go unwatered because I can’t carry the can and it’s not that important to water the last of the mums before frost comes, anyway.
Walking anywhere with crutches becomes a performance, like in John Sutherland’s poem “Convalescent:”
His first steps echoed his plans perfectly.
Exactly when his shadow nudged the door
The trees’ applause began; beside the drive
The martial pines stood stiffly at attention.
Later there was the moment when he posed
Gazing into the river. In that hush
The sky flexed like a shutter; like a lens
The water clutched at his undying image.
But heavy, even as he climbed the hill,
Tugging at progress like a regal train,
The hard road twisted heaving after him;
Heavy as hail upon the sweating leaves
The dust shook like a storm behind the car
Whose windows peopled all the grove with eyes.
You’ve got to be plucky and brave when you’re convalescent and go out in public. Anything less could turn into a spectacle.
For the last week, I’ve been reminding myself of the man with one pants leg pinned up who passed me on crutches, going out of a local restaurant as I was going in. He looked up at me, grinned, and said “I’ve been looking for someone to race!” However hard my road is, his is probably harder. I try to keep thinking about that and be grateful.
Yesterday a package arrived, sent by a friend who lives in another state, containing all the ingredients for afternoon tea. So I’m trying to look forward to that, and other sedentary pleasures.
Inside, though, I’m an ungrateful grouch, tired of reading, tired of writing, tired of mostly sitting still while everyone races about, even when they’re doing really nice things for me.
My brother sent me flowers with a note that read “”hope you are up and kicking soon. You kneed to get better. For now you can be kneedy.”
Yep, he knows me.
One of the books I saved for reading while recovering from last week’s knee surgery is Jo Walton’s Necessity, the conclusion to her Platonic trilogy that began with The Just City and continued in The Philosopher Kings.I enjoyed it even more than the first two, and the main reason is that it has even more aliens and spaceships. Plus, an alien god!
Zeus has moved the five cities to the planet Plato, where we meet Marsilia, a descendant of Simmea’s, and her daughter Alkippe. Marsilia is consul and in her spare time she fishes with her friend Jason and Hilfa, who is of the alien race called the Saeli. Jason is attracted to Marsilia’s sister Thetis, while Marsilia is attracted to Jason. Each of the main characters take turns narrating, so that we get multiple human, alien, “worker,” and god’s-eye points of view.
The action of the novel centers around two events: the death of Pytheas and the arrival of a spaceship from earth. Of course, Pytheas immediately comes back as the god Apollo and pursues the mystery of where Athene has disappeared to, while debates on how to interact with the strange humans and the robots they have brought with them on their spaceship occupy the inhabitants of Plato.
Crocus, the sentient “worker” or robot, thinks about what his philosopher friends have conjectured about his soul. “I keep outliving my friends” he says, and “sometimes I wonder if what is cowardly is to refuse to die out of fear that I may have no soul after all, and that death would be the end.” Although the chapters narrated by Crocus were my least favorite ones, being the most abstract and philosophical, I did like the conversation he recounts with Pytheas, about knowledge:
“He would answer some questions about the universe, but not others. ‘I don’t know everything, I certainly don’t know all the answers,’ he said to me. ‘And sometimes I don’t answer because it’s better for people not to know.’
‘Knowledge is good. How can ignorance be better?’ I inscribed on a nearby marble plinth.
‘Certainty closes many doors,’ he replied. ‘It leads to dogmatism. Souls accept what they know and stop striving upwards.’
‘Even among philosophers?’ I asked.
He paused, and his eyes lost focus for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. True philosophers, who believe the unexamined life is not worth living, are usually very few in a population. Even here, a lot of people want to receive wisdom rather than work on it, even among the Golds.’”
This conversation hit pretty close to home, as the major part of my job each fall is to teach a group of undergraduates how to teach writing, and it’s always harder with the ones who are certain they know the best way to do it already and the ones who want to receive wisdom rather than work on it.
There’s a wonderful trickster god theme running through the novel, involving the alien god Jathery, the greek god Hermes, and the question of which one of them fathered Alkippe at a festival. The gods hop about through time, seemingly as they please, but actually constrained by Fate and Necessity. At one point, Hermes takes Marsilia back in time to talk to Kebes and we find out that Hermes is responsible for what happened that allowed Kebes to learn music composed centuries after his death. Hermes says that if Kebes wants to travel through time, supplication must be involved, and he suggests that Kebes pray to him saying “Oh god of riddles and play, master of shape and form, you that I see before me, please take me to Mars.” Kebes believes it will harm his soul to pray to Hermes, so the god suggests that he say instead “Dear demon that I see before me….”
There’s also a delightful sequence with Sokrates in 18th-century France condemning lace-making as
“an incredibly unnecessary waste of human labor and human souls….Those women should be freed from their bobbins and taught reason. It would be a useless frivolity even if Workers made it as fast and unthinkingly as any cloth. Nobody needs dangling frills like this.”
When Ikaros asks “what if it’s somebody’s vocation, to make lace….Their art?” Sokrates replies:
“It is a normal part of these people’s clothing….Far too much for it to be made as somebody’s art. Look at these paintings, everyone has it. If somebody wanted to make it as their art, it might be a harmless decoration, like the borders some people embroider on their kitons. It’s this volume of it that’s wrong. Close work like that? Women must be compelled to make it from economic necessity.”
The potential love triangle with Marsilia, Jason, and Thetis is all worked out by the end of the novel, when Hilfa suggests that they form the kind of family group that all Saeli join as adults, a “pod” of five. Circumstances lead to the inclusion of Sokrates, transformed back from a gadfly, as the pod’s fifth member.
Jason is my favorite narrator, and it’s partly because he says things like this about his own happy ending:
“If this were a space human kind of story, one of the “classic” works of fiction from their culture they traded us in return for copies of all the things Ficino rescued from the Library of Alexandria, the end would be that I, the virtuous hero, had to choose between the two sisters, who would represent ugly wisdom and beautiful vice. How I chose would determine my fate, whether happy or unhappy. No wonder their culture is so strange and twisted. We think of romantic love as a primarily negative force, one we would do better to resist. They elevate it to being the most significant thing humans do, apart from making money—which, as far as I can make out, is a numeric quantifier of prosperity. I can’t understand how anyone reads such twaddle.
If this were a Greek tragedy, I’d be destroyed by my hubris for going against the gods….
If this were a Platonic dialogue, I’d wander away enlightened or infuriated by a conversation with Sokrates. That happens to me on a regular basis, so perhaps that’s what it is.
But no, this is practical Platonism, and real life, where we muddle through and try to pursue excellence while ensuring the latrine fountains work and there’s fish in the pot, as we bring up babies to pursue excellence in their turn.”
I do love it when a character in a novel declares that his life is “real life,” don’t you? And I was glad to have the uninterrupted time to read this book all the way through in one “sitting.” It made me forget, for a little while, my real life circumstances, lying on a bed with fresh holes poked in my knee, waiting to be able to walk again.
Matthew Thorburn sent me a copy of his volume-length poem Dear Almost so I could read and review it as part of a Poetic Book Tour. The poem is addressed to a daughter who was never born. Based on his own wife’s miscarriage, the poem describes Thorburn’s process of grieving during the entire first year afterwards.
Although I’ve never lost a child (I always feel very lucky when I fill out medical forms: Number of pregnancies—2 Number of live births—2), I found it easy to identify with the feelings of this parent who has, because Thorburn describes his grief in terms anyone could understand, even including events from the news:
“the amazing thing is not
that geese can get sucked
into an Airbus engine
and cause it to conk out
or that a pilot can tell air-
traffic control, ‘There’s only
one thing I can do,’
then take a deep breath
and do it—ditch
in the Hudson…
but that afterwards
many who weren’t hurt
in a lifelong way, only
shaken, roughed up, no doubt
shocked, had nothing else
to do, finally, except take a bus
back to LaGuardia and
catch another plane home.
Amazing too how
Before long people stop
Talking about it, they move on”
His mention that “speech pathology/is Lily’s/work” also ties me to the world of the poem, as that was my mother’s work. He describes
fail or can’t be found,
when the sounds don’t come
out right or
at all, the way even
now I can’t talk
The story of the miscarriage is not told directly, but is the central event, the place
“Where everything changes
before time starts unspooling
again, half speed now, and all
will always be after”
The part of the poem that will resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one is the part about what he wishes he could show the child who never was:
“dirty rivers broken
into shards of light, old oaks
and elms, Amtrak trains,
the bright surprise of Chinese
music, the erhu’s plaintive cry
that makes me lonely for
someone I can’t name,
dozens of sparrows gossiping
in an overgrown hedge,
unleashed dogs, coffee light
and sweet, a shouty blue jay
letting his wake-up call rip
through the morning, darkness
and starlight, the way
even during the day we can still
sometimes see the moon”
The poet calls the child “Dear almost–/Dear keyhole I squint through/to see that other life—“
He and his wife reach a point where they can talk about their grief:
Lily says when
I come home, “and un-
satisfying, isn’t it?
To hurt like this for someone
We never met?”
Near the end of the poem comes the question“grief does/end eventually, doesn’t/it?” In the end, he thinks that the child is “not enough/to hold onto.” And yet, he shows us, she has an effect on his world.
Oct. 6: Nerdy Talks Book Blog (Review)
Oct. 13: Stacy’s Books (Review)
Oct. 18: Necromancy Never Pays (Review)
Oct. 19: Jorie Loves a Story (Review)
Oct. 25: Bookgirl’s Nightstand (Guest Post & Giveaway)
Nov. 2: Peeking Between the Pages (Review)
Nov. 3: Peeking Between the Pages (Guest Post & Giveaway)
Nov. 5: Readaholic Zone (Review)
Nov. 8: True Book Addict (Guest Post & Giveaway)
Nov. 15: 5 Minutes for Books (Review)
Nov. 18: The Book Tree (Guest Post & Giveaway)
I’ve been getting around on crutches for twelve days now, ever since my erstwhile good knee went bad. I have another two days to go and then the day of “ambulatory surgery” on Thursday. I have hopes of being able to get around without crutches by this time next week.
But I’ve been able to do a lot of the things I usually do without being able to walk. I read and write and think, send and answer e-mails, grade papers, all those things I spend most of my time on, disregarding my body. I’m mad at my body right now, to tell you the truth, particularly the knees, which have let me down before (left knee in 1983, 1996, 2006, right knee in 1999 and now, 2016).
It’s like in this poem by Anna Swir, “Large Intestine,” from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan:
Look in the mirror. Let us both look.
Here is my naked body.
Apparently you like it,
I have no reason to.
Who bound us, me and my body?
Why must I die
together with it?
I have the right to know where the borderline
between us is drawn.
Where am I, I, I myself.
Belly, am I in the belly? In the intestines?
In the hollow of the sex? In a toe?
Apparently in the brain. I do not see it.
Take my brain out of my skull. I have the right
to see myself. Don’t laugh.
That’s macabre, you say.
It’s not me who made
I wear the used rags of my family,
an alien brain, fruit of chance, hair
after my grandmother, the nose
glued together from a few dead noses.
What do I have in common with all that?
What do I have in common with you, who like
my knee, what is my knee to me?
I would have chosen a different model.
I will leave both of you here,
my knee and you.
Don’t make a wry face, I will leave you all my body
to play with.
And I will go.
There is no place for me here,
in this blind darkness waiting for
I will run out, I will race
away from myself.
I will look for myself
till my last breath.
One must hurry
before death comes. For by then
like a dog jerked by its chain
I will have to return
into this stridently suffering body.
To go through the last
most strident ceremony of the body.
Defeated by the body,
slowly annihilated because of the body
I will become kidney failure
or the gangrene of the large intestine.
And I will expire in shame.
And the universe will expire with me,
reduced as it is
to a kidney failure
and the gangrene of the large intestine.
I especially love the line about the knee: “I would have chosen a different model.” Boy, wouldn’t I! (My kids say they hope they’ve gotten their knees from Ron’s side of the family.)
I also like the lines about escaping from the body: “I will run out, I will race /away from myself.” Oh, that such a thing were possible, running…
Do you have a body part that lets you down? Tell me about it; misery loves company.
It turns out that my knee pain is probably from a piece of torn cartilage lodged in the joint. This is good news, because it’s fixable. It requires arthroscopic surgery, which is like a walk in the park for anyone who has had a knee replacement. So I’m going to have to spend a couple more weeks mostly in bed, and I need book recommendations. What I would most like recommendations for is fiction—especially science fiction and literary fiction. Something compelling enough that I can read it when part of my brain is foggy with painkillers and absorbing enough to keep me going amidst lots of distractions. Something else like The Swan Riders, which was perfect for entertaining me while lying in bed with a knee that won’t stop hurting.
In The Swan Riders, Greta and Talis ride horses across postapocalyptic Saskatchewan. Talis says it is to get Greta to a place she can continue to process the change from human to AI while avoiding the rebels and insurgents who might try to waylay them on the journey. They are accompanied by Swan Riders, young humans who have been in charge of carrying out Talis’ will (putting the hostage Children of Peace to death when their parents declare war, for example) and who have agreed to accommodate themselves to the his occasional need for a human body to “ride.”
This makes it all sound humorless, which it decidedly is not. This book starts out with Greta saying “So. It is perhaps not everyone who asks to be murdered, gets their wish, and then, three days later, finds that their most immediate problem is that they cannot ride a horse.” The horses are called Gordon Lightfoot, Heigh Ho Uranium, Roberta the Bruce, and NORAD.
Greta is still getting over being tortured, which is tricky as an AI, because instead of having memories, she experiences anything she thinks about from the past. Talis is doing his best to help her through the mental part of her transition, sometimes making jokes about how she controls her pain in order to restore her perspective and then commenting “Hey, inappropriate jokes are pretty much what I do. You know, inappropriate jokes and smoking craters. It’s the combination that gets to people.”
Talis is “riding” a Swan Rider named Rachel, and he and Greta are being escorted by two Swan Riders named Francis Xavier and Sri. As we’re getting to know and like the Swan Riders, we find out that Sri is in the last stages of what they call “Rider’s Palsy: when the lesions acquired by hosting an AI caused—not seizures in the exact sense of the word, but the anomalous firing of the nerves: pain without bodily cause, pain so white-hot intense that it brought the body to the ground. They happened nearly without warning. They were progressive. They were, eventually, fatal.”
Elian, who Greta thought had escaped, comes back and forces the body Talis is using to be human, with no AI connection. He greets Greta by saying “Hey, Princess” and she responds by saying “Hello, farm boy” and then dissuades him from trying the same thing on her, telling him that she would die if he tried it. But Elian’s attempt reveals a wider rebellion among the Swan Riders. What they want is for the AI who “rides” them to retain some of their memories after the experience, to make it less like what the Talis who has learned about the rebellion considers when he thinks, about “riding” one of his Swan Riders, “this seemed to him like demonic possession—and himself, the demon.”
Towards the end, there is “Michael,” who is not an AI, and “Talis Two,” who is. The Swan riders tell Michael that “there are three cities annihilated, and your other self did that without blinking. He’s drifted—you’ve drifted too far out from human. Consider what a difference it would make, to have something pull you back.”
So Michael undergoes the torturous procedure Greta endured at the end of the first book, the procedure by which a human becomes an AI. This way he incorporates what he has learned while being human. He does this voluntarily, even though he is afraid, and Greta helps him, although there isn’t that much she can do: “I knew that it was lonely. I could not stop it from being lonely. Talis could not feel me holding his hand. But I held his hand—in every way except the physical, I held his hand. I held it all the way to the end.”
The body Michael Talis has been using is destroyed by his sacrifice, but not all at once. In a very human way, it takes him a while and he has to endure many little indignities on the way to dying. Greta looks at him in the process and thinks:
“Invulnerable people cannot be strong, for the same reason fearless people cannot be brave. For the same reason immortal people cannot be human. Talis slept a mortal sleep, curled up with his back against Francis Xavier’s front. The master of the world. The little spoon.”
Towards the end, Talis’s body dies and his AI self retains the memories. He and Greta talk about being both human and AI, remarking that “it turns out you can’t love someone and also monitor them from space.” Later, Greta articulates a more complete thought:
“It turns out you can’t love someone and hold them in the crosshairs. It turns out you can’t love the world, that way. It’s not…”
“Human,” said Talis.
The end of the book is not just about Talis and Greta, but about everyone they have met and learned to care about. It tells the ending, but in that ending is a new beginning for a world that has already ended and now will be remade.
Please, send me recommendations for more books you think I might like as much as I did this one!
I’ve spent the kind of long weekend that a person sometimes dreams of, lying around reading books. I had other plans, but my erstwhile good knee, which has been giving me some trouble of late, suddenly gave out while I was at the movie theater in Columbus on Wednesday night, watching Young Frankenstein on the big screen. I spent Thursday at the emergency room, where I got painkillers and an ace bandage. I can’t see the orthopedist until Monday, when he will look at my knee, repeat that it’s some sort of soft tissue damage, and send me off to schedule an MRI, which I hope won’t take another two weeks. It’s hard work, getting around on crutches.
So on Friday (the second day of a two-day fall break at Kenyon) I lay around and read The Scorpion Rules and its sequel The Swan Riders by Erin Bow. Jenny had made me want to read these, and it’s a lucky thing I had found copies already and they were just lying here waiting for me to pick them up and carry them back to the bedroom in one of the canvas bags I use for the purpose when on crutches.
When you have a swollen knee you’re supposed to do RICE, which is rest, ice, compression, and elevation. That last one, to be most effective, means above your heart, so you have to lie flat with your knee on a pillow to achieve it. My knee is so swollen that bending it hurts, so I skipped the pillow, but did most of my reading lying down, holding the book above me or on my chest.
That turns out to be an interesting way to have to read The Scorpion Rules, which is about how much pain will motivate a human and how much a human can bear, among other things. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the story is introduced by an AI (Artificial Intelligence) who says “Once upon a time, humans were killing each other so fast that total extinction was looking possible, and it was my job to stop them.” The AI goes on to say “Well, I say ‘my job.’ I sort of took it upon myself. Expanded my portfolio a bit. I guess that surprised people. I don’t know how it surprised people—I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”
The setting is the very near future, unsettlingly so. The AI says the apocalypse “started when the ice caps melted” and then “borders strained, checkpoints broke, and of course people started shooting….It wasn’t a global war—more a global series of regional wars….The water reserves gave out, the food supplies collapsed, and everybody caught these exciting new diseases.”
In charge of “conflict abatement,” the AI says that he used “all those satellite surveillance systems, all those illegal-for-single-countries-to-control-them orbital super-platforms” and started blowing up cities until he got everyone to stop shooting each other. 400 years later, the story opens in the world he has made, in which to be a leader of a country, you have to agree to have one of your children become one of the “Children of Peace,” who will be killed if you go to war.
The Scorpion Rules is told from the point of view of one of these “Children of Peace.” Greta is the daughter of the ruler of the “Pan Polar Confederacy,” a superpower in this post-apocalyptic world. Her friends, the other Children of Peace, are Gregori, from the Baltic Alliance, Da-Xia from the Himalayas, Thandi, from Africa, Han, Atta, and a new hostage, Elian, from the Cumberland Alliance.
As the story begins, we see her friend Sidney, from The Mississippi Delta Confederacy, taken out of history class and put to death by the AI’s “Swan Rider” because his father has declared war on Tennessee and Kentucky. Elian and Greta fear they are next, as his little country is about to go to war with hers over water rights.
We find out some of the unsavory and painful ways that Talis, along with the robot “Abbot” who is in charge of the Children of Peace, and the robot “proctors” use to keep the children in line and focused on “learning to rule the world, not plotting to take it over.” And yet the brilliant thing about this book is that even though the characters do awful things to each other, no one is an outright villain. Each of them has good intentions. Even Talis, who at first does seem to be a sort of Terminator, is still learning about humans and remembering that “once there was a boy…named Michael” whose last name was Talis.
Greta finds enough compelling reasons, including her love for Da-Xia and Elian, to undertake the difficult and frightening work of joining Michael Talis in becoming an AI. Being what he is, of course, he extends the invitation by saying “Join me, Greta, and we shall rule the galaxy as father and son!” As Da-Xia later points out, however, “they might rule it differently” with Greta to remind Talis what it’s like to be human.
What it’s like to be human, sometimes, is to have parts that don’t work. I’ll tell you more about The Swan Riders as soon as I can make more time to sit up and write.
I started reading Jill McCorkle novels last week to see what they’re like, as she’s coming to UNC Chapel Hill for a reading and Eleanor is helping to organize her visit. First I read Ferris Beach, which is a kind of novel I rarely like, about growing up in the seventies. But then I read Life After Life, which gave me little glimpses of the characters from Ferris Beach as parents, grandparents, and already-departed neighbors, and they gave a kind of depth to a good story about people whose lives are already mostly lived, so I was glad I’d read the first one as background.
Between the first novel and the second, the spelling of one character’s name changes, from “Perry” to “Perri,” but it’s obviously the same beautiful girl, and in Life After Life, she is the already-dead mother of one of the main characters, C.J. We see how poverty affects a family into the second and third generation, because C.J. has a six-month-old son named Kurt.
C.J. has a friend named Joanna, who was married three times and has finally moved back to her hometown to work for a hospice and hear the stories of the people at Pine Haven, the local retirement home. The stories are more fun than I expected, as is the occasional bit of dialogue:
“I bet if you took better care of your hair and clothes you wouldn’t have lost so many husbands” Marge Walker said.
“Or if you stayed trim,” another woman—very overweight and out of breath-added.
“Or if you learned to tell busybodies to shut up,” Rachel Silverman said.
“Amen,” Stanley Stone said. “I second the attractive Yankee-accented broad with the slight stoop in her posture.:
“Trust me, Joanna liked to say. “I was married to a doctor. And a lawyer and an Indian chief. A butcher and baker and a candlestick maker.”
“And a queer, too,” Stanley said.
“Yes, and a gigolo,” Joanna added, and then said, “I have always been loved by children, the elderly, dogs, and the mentally handicapped.”
“Probably not the best announcement to make if you want to get a date,” C.J. said.
We learn just a little about the different inhabitants of Pine Haven. Stanley, whose wife Martha died and who wants his son Ned to get a fresh start. Rachel, who was in love with a local man named Joe and has moved to North Carolina from New England in order to see the places he told her about. Sadie, who taught eight-year-olds and can always appeal to the eight-year-old buried inside of anyone.
A lot of the novel centers on Abby, an almost-thirteen-year-old girl who likes spending time with the old people who live at Pine Haven. Abby’s mother Kendra is vain, selfish, and a social climber, which makes her the villain of the piece (“she spends a lot of time pushing Abby to call up or be friends with girls whose mothers Abby’s mom wants to be friends with”). Her father is affable but not very present, which leaves Abby free to spend her free time at Pine Haven.
There is a plot—in fact, there’s an off-the-page murder to be solved as soon as Joanna remembers something C.J. told her on the first pages of the novel. Most of the novel is quiet, though, as when Joanna thinks about one of the Pine Haven residents who recently died: “A whole life reduced to adjectives and a list of accomplishments. They placed a book in the chapel for residents to write their thoughts….Joanna could only imagine what her own obituary might say if she departed right now and perhaps that is what haunts Ned Stone. He believes who he is based on all that is said about him.”
Thanks to people like Joanna, the memories of the people living in this small, North Carolina town still have some influence on those they left behind, and for most of them, that’s comforting– that they can keep becoming more of who they are in the middle of a big web of complicated relationships that no one human will ever know about, much less be able to trace like they might try to trace their ancestry.
Living in a small, northern town where it seems to me that people don’t know that much about each other (although the ones from the college still occasionally give directions like “turn left where the Stevens’ house used to be”), I relished this story of the way the people in this fictional southern town are important to and interested in each other’s lives.