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Fugitive Telemetry

May 15, 2021

A new Murderbot novel! What a nice thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, with the sun shining and azaleas blooming and the cats coming in and out because it’s not quite warm enough to be comfortable outside. I claimed a chair inside and finished the book in one sitting because it’s good and it’s short. There’s a satisfaction in reading a book from cover to cover without interruptions, and Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells is an excellent book to try this with.

The adventure begins with a mystery, a dead person found on Preservation Station and Mensah asking the Murderbot to work on solving the crime with Station Security because, as she says, “even if it isn’t anything to do with our corporate problems, it’s a good opportunity for you.” And it is, because the few humans who work directly with Murderbot learn to trust it, although at first they are each dismissive of the other. Murderbot thinks that the job of Station Security “was mostly accident first response and maintaining safety equipment and scanning for illegal hazardous cargo, not repelling assassination attempts. They didn’t even patrol outside the port.” Indah, the head of Station Security, doesn’t know the extent to which the Murderbot has been enslaved and that it needs this job as a step towards getting the Preservation Council to grant it permanent refugee status.

Murderbot, of course, proves massively helpful, from being able to read raw data files to finding the location where the murder occurred before the murderer could clean it up. The humans have to learn to trust it, however, and vice versa. There’s a great moment when a security officer asks the Murderbot outright if it had anything to do with the murder and it replies “no, I didn’t,” followed by “I would have either disposed of the body so it was never found, or made it look like an accident.” One of its human friends tells the Security officers “it’s joking” and then suggests “you could just show them where you were when this person was being killed,” which it does.

There are lots of the usual fish-out-of-water situations with Murderbot trying to communicate with humans, but this time it has human friends to help explain its reactions and a few other smart people on its side, new friends who are learning to trust it. When the Murderbot rescues two security officers, Aylen and Gamila, who have walked into a trap, the entire security team starts to see that they can depend on it–with additional flourishes from Murderbot’s point of view, like when “Target Two made a wild grab for her fallen projectile weapon. I kicked the weapon over to Tifany, who snatched it up and secured it. (Yes, it was unnecessary and showing off.)”

There is a bit of humor due to Murderbot’s understandable reluctance to identify itself by the ironic name it has given itself in contrast to its disgust at learning the joke name of a cargo bot who calls itself JollyBaby. And its own prejudices, like the prejudices of humans toward it, blind it to the truth about the murderer. Since Murderbot does everything faster than anyone else, however, it figures out the truth in time, despite Indah telling it “you are the most paranoid person I’ve ever met, and I’ve worked in criminal reform for twenty-six years” and one of the humans it has rescued shooting it in the back after the rescue.

On the last page of the book we find out that we’ve been reading a version of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, which delighted me, because there can be any number of those over the next few decades. Indah says to the Murderbot “I assume you’re open to another contract the next time something weird happens,” meaning she is grateful and thinks the Murderbot has done a good job. The Murderbot responds by saying “only if it’s really weird,” like the consulting detective auditioning petitioners to see who is offering the most difficult and interesting problem.

Even the customary novella length of a Murderbot novel works well for the detective mystery genre; Fugitive Telemetry is an absorbing puzzle of a book that can be satisfyingly wrapped up in the space of one afternoon.

Great Circle

May 11, 2021

Recently, someone at my local bookstore recommended Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle, and I found it an agreeable enough reading experience. It’s the story of Marian Graves, a WWII-era aviatrix who dreams of completing a “great circle” around the earth and whose adventures culminate in a flight from the North to the South Pole. Marian’s story is interspersed with the story of an actress who plays her in the movie about her life in order to fill in the details and separate the person from the representations of her by others.

I really like the way the novel begins with what seem to be Marian’s penultimate thoughts as she sets out on the last leg of her great circle. I’ve been finishing up the revisions for my own book about travel (Postcard Poems, forthcoming from Broadstone Books in July), and so what Marian says about the impossibility of seeing much of the world reverberated in me: “I thought I would believe I’d seen the world, but there is too much of the world and too little of life.”

Marian’s story is told as a family saga, going through how her parents met and what is known about what happened to them, and how she and her twin brother were sent to live with their uncle, a painter. How she grew up flying for local bootleggers, got inveigled into an early and ultimately abusive marriage with one of them, and how she escaped by flying. How she flew for the allies and fell in love with a woman during WWII. How what happened to her parents led to the funding for her pole to pole flight.

As the actress, Hadley, gets immersed in research for her role as Marian, she is continually reminded that a person has many sides and no one ever sees all of them. An older actor who serves as a mentor to Hadley once proposes a toast “to mystery. May we not ruin it.” And the novel is concerned with the issue of knowability, which is why the story focuses on different people at different times and is told out of strict narrative order, with surprises about the past revealed long after they occurred. At one point, when Hadley meets a woman who turns out to be a descendent of Marian’s brother, she says to her “it’s not like you can really know that much about anyone, anyway….No one sees most of what we do. No one knows more than a tiny fraction of what we think. And when we die, it all evaporates.”

When Hadley and the brother’s descendent are alone they have a longer conversation about being famous and being known. The descendant, Adelaide, says “It must be worse for you, but people think they know about me because I’ve been around and have been written about and so on. Almost no one has more than a few scattered data points, but they connect the dots however they please.” The actress, Hadley, agrees, saying “Oh my god, yes….And they come up with ideas about you that make sense to them and so seem true to them but are actually arbitrary.” Adelaide sums up their conversation and applies it to what we know about their research into Marian’s life by saying “It’s impossible to ever fully explain yourself while you’re alive, and then once you’re dead, forget about it—you’re at the mercy of the living.”

Occasionally the way history is summarized intrudes on the story, as if the author wanted to make sure none of her research went to waste. I got tired of waiting to see what Marian would do next while wading through passages like this:
“Charles Lindbergh goes to Germany, accepts a medal from Hermann Goring. A camera flashes.
When, in April 1939, he returns to the States, he is less a hero than before, rumblings in the press about how he’s become a mouthpiece for the Germans, an appeaser. America, Lindbergh is very certain, must not enter the war. ‘We must band together,’ he writes in The Reader’s Digest, ‘to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of Europeans blood.’
He believes himself fair-minded, blessed with elevated logic. And if Lindbergh believes something, then, Lindbergh believes, it must be true. He starts making radio addresses, then public speeches, draws crowds, fills places like Madison Square Garden with thousands of people who simply don’t want to go to war again but also with Nazi sympathizers, fascists, and anti-Semites (whom the others are willing to overlook).
A brief detour into the future…” (This summary goes on for five more paragraphs.)

But Shipstead does some excellent tying-up of her narrative threads at the end (and there’s no thread more excitingly tied up than the one about a character called “Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly.”) So it’s a satisfying novel; despite being shown how difficult it is to ever really know someone, we end up feeling like we know more about Marian’s story than anyone else, and more important, we’ve found her someone worth knowing.

Full and Plum-Colored Velvet

May 7, 2021

By the time I got to the end of the title poem of Anne Graue’s volume Full and Plum-Colored Velvet I was as completely seduced as the speaker of the poem is, overwhelmed with the experience of her “first real boyfriend” so that she “was in that trance, that place/where no one could tell me different.” It is the boyfriend’s voice that pursues her, coming across a telephone line like “full and/plum-colored velvet, and my ear/filled up with promises.” Even with the perspective of age, that voice still pursues the speaker. Even though “I heard he spent some time in jail,” she says “he is born again on Facebook.”

I have to confess that at first I wasn’t excited about reading the poems in this volume because the first five came at me like baby boomer reminiscences always do, full of nostalgia for a time I just missed. The experience of habitually rejecting those feelings and then finding that I share the feelings of the speaker in the title poem made me realize that the a few of the memories that have shaped my experience of the present are rooted in a time when I wanted to do whatever the older kids did. The speaker’s boyfriend was 17 and they were in Kansas, while the poem takes me back to 14 and the rural Missouri boys I found so alluring then, especially their voices, like Barry Manilow singing “but I sent you away, oh Mandy.”

These are very personal poems, and the magic the poet creates is that she makes her experience so available you’ll feel it too, as if it were your own. This happened to me with almost every poem; I recognized myself and my childhood friends in “Little Ghosts,” when “all soft drinks/were Cokes, all cans were tin” and they found the shells of the “summer bugs….on trees, their feet dry, grasping/bark, appearing to climb where they were, little ghosts/of what they’d been.” The poet captures a memory of the feeling of summer, when “we shed our school lives from our selves, flew toward/all of our senses at once” so well that she seems to be describing my own memories.

Yes, that’s it, that’s what it was like, is what I kept thinking as I read more of the poems. Even a question in a poem about a mother feeling confused, combining memory and desire, probably moving towards senility, feels like a variation on a theme, the mother I knew who said the people in an unlit house must “have put the dark lights on” becoming a mother who wonders “how many cups of flour are in one day?”

Whatever amusement I’ve felt before about the kitsch appeal of yard flamingos turns into awareness that they are “peering down,/always down, at nothing but grass and dirt/and the insects they cannot bend low enough/to eat.” And then the poet pulls the camera back for me, so I can see that
“they will exist forever standing
or thrown across heaps in landfills—the planet
of pink flamingos, an alien visitor might say. They
must have worshipped these birds that move
forward never looking at the horizon.”

Throughout the volume, very personal feelings, feelings I wouldn’t have thought I would share with anyone, come across in a way that feels like my own experience, even though they’re rooted in particulars I don’t share, as in the poem “Drinking Coffee in Occupied Cyprus.” One of the poems about being 19, “A World Divided,” reminds me of a poem I wrote at 19 that was published in the college literary magazine. And one that starts out with “expectations are too high in summer” reminds me of Larkin’s “Mother, Summer, I” with the lines “too often summer days appear/Emblems of perfect happiness/I can’t confront.”

Have you ever been seduced by a volume of poetry? It’s a wonderful experience, and I’m grateful to Anne Graue for sending me a copy of Full and Plum-Colored Velvet and inviting me to plunge into its world so deep that for a while I didn’t want to come out.

Chaos on CatNet

May 4, 2021

A sequel to Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer’s new novel Chaos on CatNet is a worthy successor and a good adventure in its own right. You don’t have to necessarily have read the first one to enjoy this second novel, but why would you want to miss out? They’re fun, they’re smart, and they have a perspective on modern life that might make you think about your online choices.

What you need to know at the start of Chaos on CatNet is that Steph, the protagonist, has a friend who is an Artificial Intelligence. This AI calls itself CheshireCat or just Cat, and its help has made it possible for Steph and her mother to settle down in Minneapolis, where Steph has enrolled in a new school and made a new friend, another girl who is new to the school, Nell. Nell’s mother raised her in a religious cult and then disappeared mysteriously, leaving Nell to live with her father in a polyamorous household in Minneapolis.

Nell is making quite an adjustment, as we see when she does things like bring her laptop out into the living room, where is she is surprised that “no one here has looked over my shoulder at my computer screen even once. It’s appalling. Clearly, they don’t care about the state of my soul.”

Steph is also adjusting, saying “everything about our new apartment feels unnervingly permanent.” She and her mother are starting to feel like they’re part of a community for the first time, which is part of what makes it possible for them to fight for it. The social media sites Steph and Nell use become part of the story, along with CatNet, and we learn more about a seemingly religious site called the Catacombs and a seemingly harmless site called the Mischief Elves.

When Nell’s girlfriend Glenys disappears, Steph and Nell go looking for her, with the help of Steph’s girlfriend Rachel and Cat, who orders a toy robot and has it sent to Steph’s address. Steph wonders “how much trouble could Cheshire-Cat possibly cause with such a small robot?” and thinks that, “realistically, the answer is, “Seriously, so much.” And when the Christian cult turns out to have ties to Steph’s mom’s former partner Rajiv and to the Catacombs site, the adventure gets interestingly complicated. It turns out that there’s a second AI and this one has a Thanos-type plan for improving the world. It tells CheshireCat that “in the short term, I am working to increase conflict between humans, because until things reach a crisis point, nothing will truly change.” In the long term, it says “there will be fewer humans, and they will be motivated to find new ways to live.” Steph, Nell, and CheshireCat set out to stop it, and this time they get some help from Nell’s father and his family, and from Steph’s mother and grandmother.

There’s an interesting alternate reality theme involving the Minneapolis police, who have re-formed to include a Minneapolis Public Safety Support Unit with officers who help to keep people safe and hand out coat vouchers on a cold night. When the activities of the Catacomb members and Mischief Elves culminate in violence, the local Mobile Crisis Response officers, who don’t carry guns, set up barricades and escort civilians around the dangerous areas.

And there’s a good answer for the other AI, who likes flower photos and describes a world without humans as a kind of pastoral paradise, like Alan Weisman in The World Without Us. In reply to the AI saying that “there are many varieties of flower that do not depend on humans for sustenance and maintenance….Plants will retake the roads. Flowers will creep across human-created monocultures. Millions of new flowers will bloom,” Cheshire Cat points out that “without humans to photograph them for you—or the technology to upload them—you will never see them.”

With their characteristic mix of persuasion, AI and robot shenanigans, and human heroism, Steph and Nell help put their corner of the world on track for a better future. They don’t just save it; they work to improve it.

on cats

April 30, 2021

On Cats, by Doris Lessing, is a collection of three of her essays, “particularly cats, “rufus the survivor,” and “the old age of el magnifico.” These are older essays, with older attitudes towards pets, especially about letting them reproduce and go in and out of the house.

The first essay was published in 1967, and in it Lessing talks about the cats who lived and died on a farm in Africa where she spent some of her childhood. She has a good heart, but it may not be what many of us consider today a soft heart. I think she’s right when she says “cats had no place in an existence spent always moving from place to place, room to room. A cat needs a place as much as it needs a person to make its own.”

Lessing has spent time looking at cats and really seeing them:
“She was best sitting on the bed looking out. Her two creamy lightly barred front legs were straight down side by side, on two silvery paws. Her ears, lightly fringed with white that looked silver, lifted and moved, back, forward, listening and sensing. Her face turned, slightly, after each new sensation, alert. Her tail moved, in another dimension, as if its tip was catching messages her other organs could not. She sat poised, air-light, looking, hearing, feeling, smelling, breathing, with all of her, fur, whiskers, ears—everything, in delicate vibration. If a fish is the movement of water embodied, given shape, then cat is a diagram and pattern of subtle air.”

Some of the things she describes are common to many cats. Here’s one that our cat Melian does almost every morning:
“In the morning, when she wishes me to wake, she crouches on my chest, and pats my face with her paw. I open my eyes, say I don’t want to wake. I close my eyes. Cat gently pats my eyelids. Cat licks my nose. Cat starts purring, two inches from my face. Cat, then, as I lie pretending to be asleep, delicately bites my nose. I laugh and sit up.”

She tells stories about cats she has known. One particularly harrowing tale is about an old mother cat who found a protected place to have her kittens during one particularly dry season, and then one night during a torrential downpour came around, plainly asking the humans for help: “we put raincoats over our night-clothes and sloshed after her through a black storm, with the thunder rolling overhead, lightning illuminating sheets of rain. At the edge of the bush we stopped and peered in—in front of us was the area where the old trenches were, the old shafts. It was dangerous to go plunging about in the undergrowth. But the cat was in front of us, crying, commanding. We went carefully with storm lanterns, through waist high grass and bushes in the thick pelt of rain. Then the cat was not to be seen, she was crying from somewhere beneath our feet. Just in front of us was a pile of old branches. That meant we were on the edge of a shaft. Cat was somewhere down it.” They had to leave the cat for the night, she says, but “slept badly, thinking of the poor cat, and got up at five with the first light” when they were able to find the cat and lift her and her kittens from a platform about fifteen feet down an eighty-foot shaft. Lessing observes that the poor cat “must have lost all hope that night, as the rain lashed down, as earth slid in all around her, as the water crept up behind her in the dark collapsing tunnel.” But the rescue was successful.

The two other essays in this volume are shorter, each one focused on a cat Lessing was particularly fond of. The first is “rufus the survivor,” a stray who started the relationship by accepting food and water on a balcony and was eventually allowed in on one chair in the kitchen. The chair became “his place. His little place. His toehold on life. And when he went out on to the balcony he watched us all in case we shut the door on him, for he feared being locked out more than anything, and if we made movements that looked like the door might be shutting, he scrambled painfully in and on to his chair.”

Eventually Rufus was allowed the run of the house, and nursed in his old age: “Once, when he was asleep I stroked him awake to take his medicine, and he came up out of sleep with the confiding, loving trill greeting cats use for the people they love, the cats they love. But when he saw it was me he became his normal polite and grateful self, and I realized that this was the only time I had heard him make this special sound….During all the time he had known us, nearly four years, several times nursed back to health, or near-health, he had never really believed he could not lose this home and have to fend for himself, become a cat maddened by thirst and aching with cold. His confidence in someone, his love, had once been so badly betrayed that he could not allow himself ever to love again.” Lessing’s conclusion is that “knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”

The last essay, “the old age of el magnifico,” is about a cat named Butchkin who was born and lived to a magnificent age as the “boss cat” in Lessing’s household full of other cats. “When he was a young cat,” Lessing says, “I would wake to find him awake and then, seeing that I was, he would walk up the bed, lie down on my shoulder, put his paws around my neck, lay his furry cheek against my cheek, and give that deep sigh of content you hear from a young child when he is at last lifted up into loving arms. And I heard myself sigh in response. Then he purred and purred, until he was asleep in my arms.”

Like almost all cat lovers, she is particularly fond of the most difficult cats: “he likes it when we sit quietly together. It is not an easy thing, though. No good sitting down by him when I am rushed, or thinking about what I should be doing in the house or garden or of what I should write. Long ago, when he was a kitten, I learned that this was a cat who demanded your full attention, for he knew when my mind wandered, and it was no use stroking him mechanically, my thoughts elsewhere, let alone taking up a book to read. The moment I was no longer with him, completely thinking of him, then he walked off. When I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency.”

If you love cats, you’ll enjoy these essays.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

April 27, 2021

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, the new science fiction novel by Becky Chambers, is as delightful as I expected but not exactly what I expected. Although I don’t think we should try to make everything published this year about the pandemic, I still have to say that this is the quintessential pandemic novel in that it begins with four aliens landing their spaceships at a refueling stop and for a while we keep thinking they’re going to take off again and the real adventure will begin, when the story actually consists of the aliens stopping and learning to care about the other kinds of people they find themselves marooned with.

At first readers may not realize the importance of seemingly simple gestures like one alien learning how to greet another:
“There was movement within the suit: a level pulled, buttons pressed. The suit obeyed, straightening up and raising both of its four-fingered metal hands. At the Akarak’s command, it turned the palms outward, and tipped the fingertips gently to each side.
Pei’s inner eyelids flicked with surprise. The stance the Akarak’s suit had adopted was that of an Aeluon greeting, the kind you gave a person when you were too far apart to press palms. It was an unremarkable, everyday way of expressing a friendly hello, performed by the last sort of figure she would’ve expected it from.”
As more of these incidents are recounted, however, we see what a wonderful galaxy it is that has such people in it, people who have learned ways to communicate.

The refueling stop is on a planet called Gora; the entire planet is covered with places like the Five-Hop One-Stop, where the spacefarers spend a few days. The Five-Hop is run by Ouloo and her offspring Tupo, who are Laru, and their life’s work is to learn about the needs and preferences of other species so they can provide for them during their pit stops. The characters who have stopped with Ouloo and Tupo and gotten stuck on Gora are Pei, an Aeluon, Speaker, an Akarak, and Roveg, a Quelin.

The alien characters have an interesting conversation about humans, at one point, when Roveg is trying to turn the conversation from a more serious topic. He says “you know, on the subject of Humans, there’s something I’ve long wanted to ask someone about….Cheese. Is that a real thing?” All the aliens find the concept of cheese disgusting, especially after they’ve heard Pei’s version of how it’s made: “they take the milk, they add some ingredients—don’t ask me, I have no idea what—and then pour the mess into a. . . a thing. I don’t know. A container. And then….They leave it out until bacteria colonise it to the point of solidifying.” The furor intensifies when Pei reveals that Humans need an enzyme to be able to digest milk and “only some Humans produce it naturally. But here’s the thing: they’re all so fucking bonkers for cheese that they’ll ingest a dose of the enzymes beforehand so that they can eat it.” As a human who takes a lactaid pill anytime I want to ingest dairy products, I found this look at my own culture hilarious.

Pei, the Aeluon, has problems with insomnia that sound way too familiar: “this was her body’s way of communicating that there was a problem left unsolved, and some stupid part of her thought it best to wake at random intervals until the matter was closed….It didn’t matter that there was no new information to process; her mind simply wanted to review the facts over and over.” The story has stakes familiar from our world–the characters are struggling with why they wage war, what it means to colonize, how to deal with refugees, who they fall in love with, whether to reproduce, how to bring up their young, how to act on their ideals, and where their culture has blind spots.

There are many wonderful moments. One of the most wonderful is how Roveg comforts Ouloo when Tupo has been hurt, recalling a time when one of his own offspring, Segred, had been hurt and he was waiting to see if he would recover:
“his mother and I started doing this…sort of game, I suppose. We would talk about the things we were looking forward to doing with Segred once he had healed. The things we wanted to see him do. It was frightening, at first. I felt as though we were jinxing it. But the longer we did it, the more it felt like we were willing a future for Segred into existence. Like the more we said it, the more certain it was. I know there’s no reason or logic to that whatsoever. I know Segred’s recovery had nothing to do with that and everything to do with imubots and antibiotics. That game didn’t help my son. It helped me.”

Another wonderful moment is when Speaker tells Pei why she didn’t undergo genetic medical therapy to fix her crippled legs:
“Because I didn’t want to. And when it comes to a person’s body, that is all the reason there ever needs to be. Doesn’t matter if it’s a decision about a new pair of legs or how you like to trim your claws or…what to do about an egg. I didn’t want to. You don’t want to. That’s it.”

The way the individuals in the group grow and change from meeting each other is the point of this novel, but although the novel has serious stakes, it’s not always deep and complicated. It’s interspersed with moments that will tickle you, like the Quelin, who has an exoskeleton, asking what it’s like to be ticklish:
“’It’s like…” Ouloo frowned. “Hmm.’
‘Is it painful?’ Roveg asked.
‘No,’ Speaker said slowly. ‘It’s not.’
‘But you don’t like it?’ Roveg said.
‘I don’t like it,’ Pei said.
‘I mean,’ Ouloo said, ‘I don’t mind it.’
‘It’s not my favourite, but it’s not the worst,’ Speaker said.
Roveg looked around the group with his hard-shelled face. ‘Thank you, this has been incredibly illuminating,’ he said.”

Like The Lord of the Rings, the novel has three happy endings, each exquisitely satisfying in its own way and forming an overlay of perfect happiness, the feeling that sometimes, with a few people, things can go right.

Reading it made things go right for me, at least for a while. Has anything gone right for you lately?

The Idealist

April 24, 2021

Languishing. That’s what an article in one of the newspapers I read says we’re doing now, after a year of isolation and alarm. I’m languishing, maybe you’re languishing, possibly we’re all in our separate bunks lying around, still on high alert and languishing, like “The Idealist”:

Friends, I am sick of the world, sick
of the way it holds its hand out and
yanks it back. You will say
I am feeling sorry for myself and I
am sick of that, too. I am sick of every day’s
demand to be loved, it’s ever-fresh
sunrises and moonrises and
rains and winds and heartbreakingly quiet
snows coming down like the hush
of young mothers. You will say
I am bitter. I know. You will say
I should get a life—and I have
tried! Do you think it’s for nothing
I spent ten years belting songs from barstools,
hitting on my coworkers, slogging through
the first fifty pages of a motherload
of “notable books”? My level of commitment
should not be in question here. If I say
the night is as boring as a long flight,
it’s because I have been up in it
for years. You will say
I am trying to pick a fight. Oh, friends,
nothing could be less true. It isn’t you
I blame for this stalled train of day
after day after day with the same
smirk on its face, ringing you out of sleep
like a telemarketer. Though even my dreams
are getting old—the same old lovers
traipsing around the same old hallways,
the same old feeling that something
has been irredeemably lost.
If there’s one thing I’m sick of,
it’s that. You will say, I’m being
melodramatic—as though
I were the problem! Friends,
if it were up to me, there’d be
a moratorium on boredom,
and dancing wouldn’t be so ridiculous,
or Ulysses so inscrutable,
or instruments so hard to play,
and if you wanted to feel a certain way
that’s how you’d feel, end of story.

From In Someone Else’s House, by Christian Barter

Isn’t it a lovely thought that if you wanted to feel grateful (for instance), then that’s how you’d feel?

I especially love the line “my level of commitment/ should not be in question here.” I’ve worked especially hard this year, and what do I get for it? Faculty and students complaining that it’s not nearly hard enough. Well, so much for that.

I’m heading for a summertime frame of mind, reassessing priorities and making time for more things outside of work. I’ll read more of the books I find notable and play the instrument I enjoy most, the violin. And I’m intending to substitute some lolling for languishing.

How about you?

9 Lupine Road

April 21, 2021

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The birthplace of Jack Kerouac is at 9 Lupine Road in Lowell, MA, an ordinary brown house built in 1900 and which was already divided into apartments at the time he was born there in 1922.

Eric D. Lehman’s new novel 9 Lupine Road is subtitled “A Supernatural Tale on the Tracks of Kerouac,” and the author, a former student, sent me a copy, saying that he thought it would be right up my alley in terms of my interest in the supernatural in fiction. Well, it is. The book is very tightly packed, and part of the fun of reading it is unpacking as you go.

Lehman’s novel begins with a distorted point of view, a framing narrative by a man who describes himself as the son of a werewolf. The very first sentence tells us that “the werewolf’s favorite novel was Big Sur by Jack Kerouac.” So from the start, we see that the narrator is unreliable. He’s telling us a story of the supernatural in a way that makes it seem ordinary, even sordid, and he is consistently self-congratulatory about what he considers to be his clear-eyed view of his father: “he left my mother before I was born. My mother kept no pictures, and so I had nothing to create a false memory. That was right of her to do.”

The author has the narrator, Dominick, give us an imitation of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” style, framed as the ramblings of his father, Rupert Plain. Dominick says “they are a jumbled mess, hours and hours of rambling memories and incredible lies.” Although it’s clear to readers that what his father says is a good imitation of Kerouac’s style, Dominick seems to line up behind what Capote said about it, that it’s “not writing but typing.” What Dominick (who we later find out works for the FBI) says he wants from prose is a story told “simply, cleanly, and professionally, a criminal report, if you like.” After asserting that as he told the story he “tried to keep his nonsense to a minimum,” Dominick admits that he occasionally refers to his father as “the werewolf” because “it is easier than writing ‘my father.’”

As a reader, you are intended to see the distortions from the very beginning. How they grow is fun to watch, and what is revealed is as much about Dominick as about his father. Describing a college photo of his father, for instance, he is critical of the shirt he is wearing: “this was long after the sixties, and the tie-dye was a commercial knockoff, with a print of dolphins sandwiched among the colors. He thought it made him look ‘authentic’ in some way, though I’ve seen the same shirt in several films of that era.”

Rupert had “a complex-sounding poetic philosophy that justified a wandering lifestyle,” Dominick explains, adding that it “probably let him live with his guilt after leaving my mother.” As far as we can tell there is no guilt, but Dominick continually insists on looking for it.

After trudging through the telling of what could have been an exciting story about how Rupert was turned into a werewolf by a stranger at a campfire in the middle of a wilderness area, Dominick sounds childishly disapproving when he says “instead of going north to the hospital at Salt Lake City to get the throbbing, suppurating wound on his wrist taken care of by a qualified professional, he drove south.” At every opportunity, Dominick takes the mystery and romance out of everything, even a werewolf bite. He focuses on petty details about the circumstances of Rupert’s life, at one point specifying “I’m not sure what the difference between a stripper who satisfies the client and a prostitute really is” in order to conclude, for the reader, that “you can see right away what type of person Rupert was, and no werewolf bite gives him the excuse that he so desperately wanted me to believe.” It’s clear that the desperation is all on Dominick’s side, especially as his tale goes on.

Maybe Dominick learned by example, or maybe his m.o. has always been accusing the other person of doing what he is himself guilty of doing, but the scene when he leaves his girlfriend shows how oblivious he is to his similarities to his father:
“I had two weeks of vacation coming up from the Bureau, which my girlfriend Janie and I had marked off for a trip to the Bahamas. We had been together for nine months, and she had helped me through one of the most difficult times in my life. I thought she would understand immediately why I needed to cancel the trip and go to see my father….
‘What do you mean, you have to cancel?’ She said shortly, her usually plump lips tightened into a thin line. ‘We’re leaving in six days; I’ve already asked off from work.’
I stammered through my explanation a second time—I had found my long-lost father, and before he disappeared, I had to talk to him.
‘But why do you need to use our two-week vacation Why not just go up there next month, on a weekend?’
I didn’t understand this obtuseness and tried to get across that I had to see him now, and I wanted the buffer time just in case.
‘In case of what?’
I hemmed and hawed again, avoiding answering this directly, and today it seems a strange need. I remember that I had some weird ideas about how the whole thing might go down, elaborate fantasies about redeeming him in some way, a tearful confession, a stern and disciplined step-by-step process of learning to love again. No fantasy could have been stranger than reality, and the decision makes sense only through hindsight—I had plenty of time to hear the whole story and ask hundreds of questions.
After stomping around for a while, she sniffed. ‘I could come with you…’
‘No, I have to do this alone.’
‘Are you sure?’ Her voice crackled.
I had never been surer of anything, but I pretended to waffle for her sake. It didn’t work.”

Later, in case anyone could have missed the way Dominick lies to himself, we get a little recap of his similarity to Rupert when he addresses the reader directly, saying “maybe you caught it—how easily he lied. It made me sick to my stomach, and I didn’t know why until later that evening, back at the crooked cabin, after a disappointing telephone exchange with Janie.”

As his tale goes on, Dominick’s fantasies continue to grow. He tells his readers that his father believed Jack Kerouac was a werewolf and elaborates on this, saying that his father believed Kerouac’s “’alcoholism’ was a metaphor for the lycanthropy that afflicted him. And since werewolves apparently replicated by biting other people, perhaps he was actually ‘related’ to Kerouac by an intricate series of attacks over the decades.” Then Dominick weaves his own fantasy into what he labels his father’s fantasy:
Perhaps, he dared to hope, the drifter who bit him had been bitten by Kerouac long ago. In this way the writer became a father of sorts, a family that he never had, as he put it so callously and stupidly to me. He had a real family: whatever his father’s faults, his mother had loved him, and I was already born and living in my grandmother’s house in the District. But as many people unfortunately do, he created a fantasy family, a genealogy that allowed him to connect himself to the man who had given him a reason to live. Now, years later, he denied that he retained this ‘crazy’ idea about Kerouac being ‘related’ to him, but kept his theory that the writer was in fact a werewolf. It amounted to the same thing.”

There’s an amusing moment when Dominick tells us about why he thinks his father found the address of the house where Kerouac was born, 9 Lupine Road, symbolic: “lupine, as you know, means wolf-like, though more likely the street had been named for the eponymous flower rather than a wolf den. This could not be coincidence. It was fate, or intention.” Dominick pretends to protest but relates that “the triumph in my tone would have led a listener to suspect that I was the one trying to prove the theory.”

It’s no surprise that when Dominick talks about reading Kerouac he says that his favorite is On the Road, “since it was essentially about two young men searching for lost fathers.” Thinking about the friendship between those two young men, however, prompts him to tell a story he thinks is about law and order and readers may think is about his lack of loyalty to anyone who gets in the way of his own desires.

As he wraps up his tale, Dominick has moved into madness, as defined in terms of seeing the world differently from the way everyone else sees it. He says that “I used to think I was the most honest man I knew—I would repeat it like a mantra. But working for the F.B.I. made that impossible. Soon I used dishonesty so that the greater truth, the law, was protected. Then, when I met Rupert I had to pretend more and more.”

All this “pretending” allows Dominick to work himself up to a final act of cruelty. When Rupert asks “who are we if not a blend of all we ever read?” Dominick is dismissive, saying that Kerouac’s books are “about running away” while Rupert argues that “they are full of hope, of longing, of possibilities.” What Dominick finally does puts an end to possibility. He thinks he wants everything laid out in black and white, like Stanley Kowalski at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, and he will crush what he sees as everyone else’s illusions in order to get what he wants.

Sometimes a tale of the supernatural is about monsters. This one is about a character who meets someone he describes as a monster and tries to ignore any revelation about who the monster really is.

Fiction of Octavia E. Butler

April 19, 2021

Spurred by a question I was asked in March—“are you an expert on Octavia Butler?” I recently finished rereading everything she wrote that is still in print. The question came after I delivered a presentation at a virtual conference on climate change predictions in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Those two novels are her best, I think, although rereading all of her fiction doesn’t make me an expert. It does make me—and will probably make you—an even more devoted fan of her work.

The process of rereading produced a couple of unexpected pleasures. I owned only three out of four of the “Patternist” series novels, so I found a copy of Clay’s Ark, third in the series, and read it for what seemed like the first time. (There was a fifth novel written for the series, Survival, but Butler disavowed it and it’s no longer in print.) And although I’d read the prize-winning story “Bloodchild” before, I didn’t remember reading the other stories in Bloodchild and Other Stories.

I enjoyed reading the Patternist novels in order: Wild Seed, Mind of my Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster. Clay’s Ark is about a family living in isolation for fear of starting a worldwide pandemic, so rereading it now is timely. I loved the foreshadowing at the beginning of the novel when a parent “had gotten into the habit of reassuring her without really listening to her fears; there were so many of them.” I remember doing that with my daughter.

The ark of the title is a spaceship, one created by Clay Dana, who “feared turn-of-the-century irrationality—religious overzealousness on one side, destructive hedonism on the other, with both heated by ideological intolerance and corporate greed. The Dana faction feared humanity would extinguish itself on Earth.” Ironically, the ship returns to Earth with microbes that rewrite human DNA, and the infected humans produce sentient offspring, the creatures called clayarks in Patternmaster.

I really enjoyed rereading what has come to be called the Xenogenesis series in order: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago. They are good science fiction, with complicated and interesting aliens.

Kindred is, of course, a stand-alone masterpiece, close behind the Parable novels in terms of being one of Butler’s best. I didn’t like Fledgling, the vampire novel, as much this time around; it’s a fine story but it seems like vampire stories are a dime a dozen these days.

What’s great about Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents is the way we see that belief in change helps prepare the protagonist, Lauren, to survive, as she sees that those who look to the past—to some possibility of living the way we used to–perish. Parable of the Talents was published in 1998 as a sequel to the events in the Parable of the Sower (1993), and it describes the election of a president who “insists on being a throwback to some earlier, ‘simpler’ time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping on anyone who was different” (18). The fictional president actually uses the phrase “make America great again” (18).

Many of Butler’s other predictions from these two novels have come true. Readers may well wonder how much farther we have to go until we’re living, armed and homeless, in the world of the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents, after a “period of upheaval…from 2015 through 2030” (PT, 8).

The last public gathering I attended was a performance of an opera entitled The Parable of the Sower by Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon at Royce Hall, UCLA on Saturday, March 7, 2020. There was a sing-along in the middle, and everyone clapped in time to songs about change. Change has overtaken us more suddenly than anyone thought it might; reading Octavia Butler’s fiction might help you come to terms with some of it in the present and prevent the worst dangers she saw coming for us in the future.

Meals of Grief and Happiness

April 15, 2021

Last weekend I went to a restaurant. We were going to sit outside but it’s April in Ohio so of course it rained. We were meeting some (also vaccinated) friends in a city an hour away from home, so we took the chance and went inside. It was late afternoon, the time we often used to meet at this restaurant, before it could get too crowded. Almost everything was different—the menu was very limited and printed on paper, and the tables were farther away from each other than they had been. We heard echoes of the old careless days with piped-in muzak substituting for the noise of other peoples’ conversations.

I thought of those echoes when I read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Meals of Grief and Happiness”:

I believe in the tears of an elephant.
How they stamp the ground
and forget they are in musth—
panting—and cinnamon shrubs
or piles of sugarcane can’t tempt
them to stop their cycle of grief.
I believe in the broken heart
of an elephant. When a companion
dies, I believe in the rocking back
and forth, the dry pebbly tongue.
I believe in wanting to wear only
dust, hear only dust, taste only dust.
I believe in wanting to touch nothing
and wanting nothing to touch you.

I believe in the tail wag of a dog.
The toothy grin of an apple-fed horse,
the shine from the wet in the eyes
wild with joy. I like the movements
in a chimp’s fine fur as he swings
from branch to rubber tire and thumps
his companion on the head with a bright-red ball.
I believe in the single sugar cube sparkling
on a small ceramic dish as we sit at a café—
me sipping a soda with a paper straw,
you leaning in close to point to something
that neither of us have ever tried—but we will today.
The waiter will say Good, good choice, my favorite,
as he gathers up the vinyl menus and leaves us.

Remember vinyl menus? And leaning in close? I love the contrast between the two parts and how the second part conveys joy so well. Sometimes it’s harder to convey joy.

What has brought you joy lately?

Tristan and Pippin have been finding joy in the weather and their new chair cushion.

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