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Rogue Protocol

August 14, 2018

I’ve known this morning was coming for a long time, much like you should know that the death at the end of Martha Wells’ third “murderbot” novella, Rogue Protocol, is going to hurt.

IMG_1854Last night we had a combined birthday party for one of my best friends, one I’ve known most of my life, and my grown-up daughter, who can now finally rent a car. We’ve had their parties together before, out on our deck in the evening, with our two families and a few other friends we’ve known for decades. This year the sun was setting, the deck was weathered gray and overgrown with green, and the cicadas were singing. We ate watermelon and guacamole and deviled eggs and birthday cake, and then we had to bring in all the solo cups and beer bottles and cake plates and move the outdoor furniture into the garage in the dark before all four of us went to sleep under one roof.

IMG_1860This morning Ron and Walker got up and went to work, and Eleanor finished packing up all her stuff and put it in the car and set off for North Carolina. The cats and I are inside the house while the guy I’ve hired to take apart the old deck and build us a new one is wreaking noisy havoc outside. I’ve lived in this house with this deck for almost thirty years and it’s strange to see it coming apart on the morning Eleanor is heading for home. I feel a little bruised, somehow, like I ran into something solid that I hadn’t seen was there.

It’s the juxtaposition of our lovely evening with the sad and sunny morning that makes it all so difficult. If Rogue Protocol were less good and you cared about the characters less, the death at the end would be less hard. And yet here we are.

The book begins soon after the last one ended, with the “murderbot” on another transport ship heading for a station where she hopes to get information that will help Dr. Mensah, her “owner” and sort-of friend. There are other passengers on this transport, and since the murderbot has listed itself as a “security consultant,” the transport has been calling it to settle disputes and it has been responding–about which circumstance it says “I don’t know why, either. Maybe because it was what I was constructed to do and it must be written into the DNA that controls my organic parts. (There needs to be an error code that means ‘I received your request but decided to ignore you.’)”

We know why the murderbot has been responding, despite its protests that it doesn’t care about these humans: “A SecUnit’s job is to protect its clients from anything that wants to kill or hurt them, and to gently discourage them from killing, maiming, etc., each other. The reason why they were trying to kill, main, etc. each other wasn’t the SecUnit’s problem, it was for the humans’ supervisor to deal with. (Or to willfully ignore until the whole project devolved into a giant clusterfuck and your SecUnit prayed for the sweet relief of a massive accidental explosive decompression, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)”

The murderbot continues to react more and more like a human would, until it meets a little robot called Miki whose friends are the humans on its team. Murderbot scoffs at the very idea that robots and humans can be friends until it becomes clear that it believes such a state of affairs is too good to be true. Miki’s actions and her communications with her friend Don Abene show that it is true, however.

There is excitement as the murderbot tries to protect Miki and Don Abene and also get access to the information that it believes will help Dr. Mensah. There are a couple of almost-comic moments where the murderbot, who has human parts, and the robot Miki, who has none, experience apprehension and fear. At one point Miki tells the murderbot to be careful because “this place makes our skin shiver.” Later, when a combat bot is trying to fix its location, the murderbot tries to reassure the robot:
“[Objective: We will tear you apart.]
I blocked the channel. I breathed out, slowly, so as not to draw attention from the humans. Miki sent me a glyph of distress. I said It’s okay, which was a complete lie. I reminded myself a combat bot wasn’t a human, it wasn’t a villain from one of my shows. It was a bot, and it wasn’t threatening us.
It was just telling us what it was going to do.”

The jokes in this one, having been set up in the first two novellas, come faster and seem funnier. I particularly enjoy the part where the murderbot says “I do make mistakes (I keep a running tally in a special file) and it looked like I had made a big one.” Some of the jokes are funny because they’re based on serious turns of events in the narrative, like when Miki’s hand is sheared off by a blast from a weapon and the robot says “’I am at eighty-six percent functional capacity.’ It held up its arm stump. ‘It’s only a flesh wound,’” Abene says “Miki, your poor hand” and then the murderbot thinks “oh good, another Abene/Miki lovefest.”

Especially after such moments, when the murderbot is obviously struggling to sound like its usual self-protecting cynical self, it protests too much. When Miki says “that’s not good” about a turn of events, the murderbot thinks “That is just annoying. That contributed nothing to the conversation and was just a pointless vocalization to make the humans comfortable.”

There is a death at the end of this book, and after readers have felt the full weight of it, the murderbot comments “I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.”

Isn’t that the truth. I guess that’s what I’ve just run into, once again.

 

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The Dying of the Light

August 10, 2018

Because I’d enjoyed a previous novel by Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife, I accepted an advance copy of his newest novel, The Dying of the Light, when it was offered to me by HarperCollins. It’s readable enough, as Goolrick is a good writer, but I have to wonder why he chose to try his hand at a modernized version of southern gothic. Dude, we’ve been there and done that, and you’re no Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Goolrick’s version of an aristocratic southern family is one that is isolated from friends or relatives—atypical right there—and dependent on northern money to preserve the family house and way of life. Pretty stereotypical there. Someone is shot for love. Gasp. The plot isn’t even as progressive as he may think it is in involving homosexual love; it’s just more explicit about it, which makes it less desperate and far less interesting.

The main character of the novel is a beautiful woman named Diana who marries to preserve her family’s fortune. Her mother’s speech to her, when she is experiencing last-minute jitters before her marriage, strikes me as a very northern speech because it’s inflated with everything the two women might be thinking instead of skimming over the surface of what they’re thinking and offering a few words to sum up. (If you don’t know what I mean, read O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”)

The northern perspective is quite clear in some places, like the descriptions of some of the southern food: “ham biscuits, which the southerners devoured, and the Yankees eyed askance, because, as one of them said, ‘This tastes like something you’d put down on the driveway after a snowstorm.’”

The darkness at the heart of Diana’s marriage is described almost clinically: “He began to slap her during sex, sometimes leaving marks, but never where they might show when she was clothed.” There are no relatives or neighbors interfering in Diana’s business to even notice such marks, so it seems beside the point to mention that he doesn’t leave any; it’s just a surface imitation of a southern gothic trope.

There’s some interesting development of a minor character named Lucius, but he gets killed off before anything can arise from it. There are two obligatory scenes about race relations in the south, one of them a melodramatic moment in which Diana realizes that a confederate flag is offending “the black men and women” she’s invited to a picnic, and so she throws it into a fire. The black couple who have been her servants and stayed with her all her life spend the novel urging her to rest when they are older and have been working longer hours.

The author’s northern perspective becomes starkly explicit by the end of the novel, when the southern way of life is described as “a way of life built on an evil principle.” Is the purpose of this novel to symbolically torture the main character, a representative of all the people of the region where she was born? If so, well done Mr. Goolrick. Try writing what you know next time.

Annex

August 5, 2018

IMG_1753I read Annex, by Rich Larson, a science fiction author who Eleanor knows in real life, on the plane on my way back from Colorado. It was a book with an exciting plot; a good way to conclude an exciting few days.

While I was in Colorado visiting my friend Miriam and her family, we saw most of the first three scenes of Macbeth in a tent at Rock Ledge Ranch, next to Garden of the Gods, but the show could not go on after a thunderstorm swept through. The storm provided great atmosphere for the witches’ scenes, and it was the only time I’ve ever seen Macbeth’s line “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” get such a big laugh.

This is the second time Miriam and I have been at an outdoor Shakespeare performance when the show could not go on. The first time was in Maryland when we were watching a group called “Shakespeare on Wheels” that performed on the back of a truck. One of the actors fell off of the back of the truck and was injured, so the performance was canceled.

IMG_1735There were other thunderstorms passing through during the four days I was in Colorado, but none as big as that first one during the Scottish Play. Miriam and I watched a recording of it coming in over Pikes Peak while we were at the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center later in the week, and it was impressively turbulent. We stopped by the Visitor Center on the way to her house; she drives by this view of Garden of the Gods at least once a day.

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Other events of the trip: I walked through the “central garden” part of Garden of the Gods, where the paths are paved, and drove up Pikes Peak to Glen Cove, where we got on a shuttle bus that took us the rest of the way to the top. I rode a little narrow gauge steam train around gold mining territory in Cripple Creek. We walked through downtown Colorado Springs and admired the public art. We walked around Manitou Springs and tried the water from the different springs. IMG_1764We also saw this Little Free Library there, painted to look like a Tardis.

IMG_1836Miriam and her two sons and I went to Maggie’s Farm in Manitou Springs and bought some (legal) edible marijuana gummies, and three of the four of us tried them. (Believe me when I say that the effect of edible weed is slow but strong; don’t make the mistake we did and try a second one if you’re still not feeling the effects of the first after an hour or two.)

The beginning of Annex throws readers headfirst into a world that might seem at first like a drug dream. There’s an alien ship hovering over a city on Earth. Adults are all “wasters” who repeat actions that used to be necessary in a world where they’re no longer necessary. Children up to the age of about sixteen are warehoused and given drugged water and a “parasite” inserted through their belly buttons. The action begins when one of the children, Bo, escapes from a warehouse. In a moment of Thief Lord fanfiction, Bo finds Violet and a small community of other runaway children living in an abandoned movie theater. In homage to Peter Pan, they call themselves the Lost Boys.

There’s nothing derivative about the plot of Annex, however. The children learn how to fight the aliens and it seems that they save the day for more than just earth itself. There are some nice bits of characterization along the way and a really inventive alien called Gloom who identifies in an unexpected way with the human character called Violet.

IMG_1773Earth is a very big place, as Eleanor and her friends from Grinnell, who flew different directions around the planet to meet in India, recently discovered. It’s good to be able to travel and expand your idea of what humans are like.

This is me, perched on the edge of a rock ledge at the top of Pikes Peak, taken by Miriam’s husband Al, a human who has, in the past, done some running and bicycle riding at the very top of this mountain that steals the breath from many people and makes them need to sit down.

Now That You Mention It

August 2, 2018

This past weekend when I went to Colorado to visit our friend and former house-mate, Miriam, I took the book she’d sent me for my birthday to read on the plane, Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins. I thought we could talk about the book while I was there, and we did, briefly, but I didn’t expect that my first question about it would be why did you send me a book full of criticism of fat women?

Miriam is a nurse, and although she’s been slim for the past thirty years, she knew the pain of being a slightly overweight young girl. I am currently at my top weight after the past few years of not being able to walk well. So when I asked her if it was a book that people in the medical community like, because the main character is a doctor (a gastroenterologist) she said that she hadn’t noticed the fat-bashing and thought I would like it because of the female friendships.

The main character of Now That You Mention It is a Boston doctor named Nora who has moved back to her childhood home on an island in Maine after being injured in an accident. We learn that after her father suddenly left her and her mother and sister, she gained a lot of weight: “when it finally became clear that my father wasn’t coming back anytime soon, I did what unhappy girls do all over the earth, and especially in America. I ate.” Nora was made fun of by her high school classmates, who called her “the troll”. Then she went to college and “shed thirty pounds in six months, joined the crew team…and started running.” Because all that keeps a person fat is not exercising enough.

When Nora introduces herself to one of her high school classmates on the island, the woman says “you lost weight. Christ. I didn’t even recognize you.” Another high school classmate she meets is described as “a woman who must’ve weighed three hundred pounds, body mass index of at least forty. Hypertension, judging from her weight and flushed face, and diabetes on the horizon if she didn’t have it already.” Because we all know that a person can’t be fat and healthy.

Even Nora’s mother, who has always been a normal weight, gets one of Nora’s lectures about food when she puts a slice of American cheese on a sandwich:
“Hey, American cheese is all fat, you know. It’s not really even cheese.”
“I like it.”
So did I. Who didn’t? “Just watching out for your cholesterol.”

Nora is so concerned about the weight of a daughter of a former high school classmate that she organizes a run called “Go Far, Be Strong” so that the young people on the island will get moving and discover the amazing pound-shedding potential of exercise:
“We raised more than fifteen grand for a health initiative for kids in grades six through twelve. Cooking and nutrition classes, some new equipment for the gym, obesity prevention, all that good stuff.” Because if you know how to eat better and exercise, you won’t be fat (or so Nora, like most doctors, seems to think).

The daughter of the high school classmate, Audrey, is initially described as “she hauled herself to her feet—fifty or so pounds overweight, and I remembered that difficulty, that envy at the girls who could stand from a cross-legged position as gracefully as an egret.” In the end, however, Audrey’s fatness turns out to be caused by her Cushing’s disease, which Nora diagnoses, and everyone is pleased when just days after Audrey’s surgery, her looks are improving: “it had been ten days since her surgery, and she already looked better, healthier, less tired. She had a light tan from working outside.”

There really are some good female friendships in this book, though. Nora’s friend Roseline, from Boston, is always enthusiastic about spending time with Nora. She sympathizes when Nora tells her about what it’s like to go back to the place she grew up:
“It’s like I’m the same person I was at fifteen, rather than an actual adult….This week at the clinic, I was called ‘the fat one’ and ‘Sharon’s other daughter, not the pretty one.’”

The female friends Nora makes on the island share her love of the Harry Potter books. They are a high school classmate, Xiaowen, and the nurse at the clinic where Nora is working, Gloria. Before Nora and Gloria find out that Gloria is dating Nora’s ex-boyfriend in Boston, they have a conversation about him in Harry-Potter-speak, calling him “Slytherin” because when Gloria met him he was wearing a green-and-gray-striped shirt:
“Gloria, how’s Slytherin?”
“I think Slytherin and I are taking it to the next level,” Gloria said.
“Does he want to Slytherin to your chamber of secrets?” I asked.
“Was that a wand in his pocket, or was he just happy to see you?” Xiaowen added.
“Come on over here, sweetheart, and I’ll show you my patronus.”
“You two are funny,” Gloria said, “in a juvenile, idiotic way….Actually, we did play a little Quidditch, if you know what I mean….”
“Did he capture your Golden Snitch?” Xiaowen and I said at the same time. We high-fived each other, giggling like the tweens we were channeling.

Gloria has to get over believing what Nora’s ex says about her before their friendship can continue. At one point Nora asks her “don’t you hate when two women have a really nice friendship going on, and then that friendship is ruined because of a guy?”

In the end, Nora finds love and resolves her conflicts with her family. She is going to be Audrey’s stepmother and Nora is glad that “she’d shot up four inches this past year, now that her Cushing’s disease was cured, and dropped a lot of weight.” So it’s happily ever after for everybody who deserves it; anybody still fat simply doesn’t know how to count or work off their calories.

It was a good enough airplane book, but I think I’m going to pass it on to someone else who, like Miriam, won’t notice the fat-bashing. (Is that you?)

 

How Hard Can It Be?

July 25, 2018

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I read How Hard Can It Be, by Allison Pearson, a few weeks ago and enjoyed it, marking a few passages to write about and putting it on my stack of books that I’ve read and mean to review. The stack started to teeter and fall over.

This means it is time for the cleaning of the desk. The desk I use is an antique Chinese traveling desk (the top lifts off the side pieces), and it came to me from my parents, who got it from my great-aunt. When my great-aunt had it I remember it being covered with papers and books all the time, so even though my parents kept it polished and pretty, with just an ornamental bowl and a stand for pens, I don’t feel bad actually using it. Every now and then I do feel the urge to clean it off, though, so the piles of books I haven’t made the time to review have got to go; some of them have been there for months.

IMG_1723The most recent books on the pile are Hope Never Dies: an Obama Biden Mystery, by Andrew Shaffer, and Amish Vampires in Space, by Kerry Nietz, which I had hoped to review together but then Hope Never Dies wasn’t any fun, so it didn’t turn out to be a great idea to compare them as romps. Although I enjoyed Amish Vampires in Space, there weren’t any real surprises.

You can see evidence of my recent Caitlin Moran enthusiasm, with Moranifesto, How to Build a Girl, and How to Be a Woman. These were my bedside table reading for a very brief period, as I read through them faster than I might have hoped. Same with the new Laurie King novel about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, Island of the Mad, which I’ve already returned to the library.

Because of other bloggers’ recommendations I read Michael Baker’s Borderline, Emma Newman’s Planetfall and After Atlas, Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, Julie Buxbaum’s What to Say Next, Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song, Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot, and A.E. Kaplan’s Grendel’s Guide to Love and War. They all had good things about them, but not enough IMG_1720that I had much to say.

Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves are the sequels to The Lies of Locke Lamora. By Scott Lynch, these are excellent novels and terrific airplane reading; I recommend them. They were recommended to me by Walker’s girlfriend (and one of my Writing Center student managers) Ariel.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others, by Charlie Jane Anders, was fun; it’s a volume of short stories that I picked up last March at ICFA. Another book I picked up there is So Lucky, by Nicola Griffith. It turned out not to be much of a novel, but an autobiographical exploration of what it’s like to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn, is a terrific new YA novel and a homage to Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, so after I read the Vaughn I had to reread the Heinlein, which needs to go back downstairs in our SF section.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food, by Yahtzee Croshaw, was as advertised, “a satirical sci-fi adventure,” and I enjoyed it. Much of the delight is in the details, like that the main spaceship is named the Platinum God of Whale Sharks.

Margaret Killjoy’s novella The Barrow Will Send What It May has some necromancy that doesn’t pay in it, so I had to read it and include it on my list. Although it’s the first book of a planned series, I was irritated and occasionally disconcerted by the prominence of backstory that hasn’t yet been told and the positioning for more story before this one really got going.

The best book that I’m not going to review is Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians. It’s a clever new YA novel about magic and young people, and I enjoyed it without feeling too much urgency to say anything about it.

That brings me back to How Hard Can It Be, which starts out as a great sequel and updating for women like me who read I Don’t Know How She Does It when our kids were small and were delighted to find a new one now that the kids are grown. I was a little disappointed by it personally, however, as the woman eventually has to divorce her formerly supportive husband in this one. That is not the level of difficulty I expected.

IMG_1724The rest of the books piled on my desk are mostly work-related, and since I will be working at home more than ever this year while I share my campus office with students, I’ve been thinking about where to find bookshelf space so I can pull them out when I need them. Eventually I cleared out some space on the big bookshelf near my desk, resulting in two big piles of books on the floor, to be taken downstairs (note: my use of passive voice indicates that I hope Ron will carry them down the stairs).

In addition to going through stacks of papers and folders, I picked up many postcards sent to me by other people and some of the blank ones I collect, to be put in a drawer of another desk. Most of the sticky notes I threw away, but one had a joke that Walker made last time we were at an Indian restaurant: “what do you call a person who brings bread back to life? A naan necromancer!”

I found my list for a clickbait page tentatively entitled “Five Insane Tricks to Make Your Writing Perfect (you won’t believe how simple these secrets for writers really are)” and put it aside; maybe I’ll make that page someday soon.

At the bottom of my “to blog about later” pile I found a list I’d made with my friend Jodie back when she was blogging at Bookgazing, a list of things that “there’s nothing sadder than.” I’m sorry we never did anything with that; it had some interesting ideas. The one that makes me laugh now is a quotation from Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale of the Time Being: “there’s nothing sadder than cyberspace when you’re floating around out there, all alone, talking to yourself” with my scribbled response: “oh yeah? How about remaindered novels? How about poems sewn into fascicles and left in a drawer?”IMG_1725

Once I’d cleaned everything off the top of the desk, I used oil soap on the top surface and then rubbed lemon oil all over it. I let that dry for a while with the ceiling fan on and the doors open.

Now I’ve put back the stacks of papers I think I need for this year’s administering and teaching and blogging and poetry reading and writing and political activism (in that order, from left to right across the back of the desk). I feel more organized. And doesn’t it look better?  IMG_1726

 

Clock Dance

July 17, 2018

The pleasure of a new Anne Tyler novel and a Saturday afternoon to read it in remains undiminished, as has her ability to depict the struggles of her female characters with their sense of identity versus their family life. Pearl Tull, from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, was a warning to me before I ever had children, and now Willa Drake, the baby boomer protagonist of Clock Dance, is an illustration of a path not taken. Her choices–to keep marrying and looking for children to nurture—make me think of something Ron said to me when my kids left home for college and I was casting about for new things to do. I was considering doing more volunteer work at the local animal shelter, and he said maybe I should think about whether I wanted to jump right back into wanting to feel needed all the time. It is something of a trap for mothers, to keep on wanting that feeling.

Willa is described as only four years older than I am, but she acts like one of the baby boomer generation, as she gives up finishing college to marry a boy one year older, she stays home with her sons, and after her first husband dies, when she has a job she likes (related to her college major) she gives it up to move to another state with a second husband.

We get three big slices of Willa’s life: one when she is eleven years old and living in Pennsylvania in 1967, another when she is living in California as the married mother of two teenaged sons in 1997, and the last–which comprises more than half the novel–when she is 61, living in Arizona, and remarried. It will surprise no one to find out that she leaves Arizona for Baltimore, where the rest of the novel takes place.

Because Tyler is good at making me identify with her characters by giving lots of details about the way they see things, I started to see things as Willa does when she is sitting with her younger sister in the school nurse’s office and hears orchestra practice starting in another room: “It was the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ melody, and the back-of-the-room boys always crooned ‘Take my hand, I’m a strange-looking parasite…’ till Mr. Budd tapped his baton against his music stand.” This reminds me of the way the boys in my high school trombone section would sing behind their mouthpieces at the back of the band room, until the conductor took special notice of what they were up to.

There’s a lot in the first section, when Willa is eleven, that seems overly dramatic to me, like the portrait Tyler is trying to paint of Willa’s mother. It seems not only exaggerated but almost entirely humorless of Willa’s future husband to compare her mother to Lady Macbeth, asking “who else would serve rabbit on Easter Sunday?” rather than assume it’s part of a pattern of trying to break out of the 1950’s housewife mold.

The time I identified with Willa most turned out to be more of a defining moment in her life than I thought it would be, having acted similarly too many times to count. Willa’s first husband, Derek, is driving aggressively and it’s making her nervous: “He braked violently as the station wagon appeared in front of them. Willa reached for the dashboard, more as a protest than anything else, since she was safely fastened into her seat belt.” I do this when Ron tailgates another car on the many two-lane rural highways around where we live.

Another place where I identified with her is when we see her trying to be a better mother by becoming the opposite of her own mother: “She had tried her best to be a good mother—which to her meant a predictable mother. She had promised herself that her children would never have to worry what sort of mood she was in; they would never peek into her bedroom in the morning to see how their day was going to go. She was the only woman she knew whose prime objective was to be taken for granted.” Although my efforts to be better by acting the opposite of my mother were mostly based around attitudes about food, it’s a familiar feeling.

Once Willa takes the big leap of the novel, however, I identify with her less. She responds to a call from the neighbor of her son’s former girlfriend by flying across the country and staying for weeks with the child of the former girlfriend. Because it’s an Anne Tyler novel, the child lives in a charming, close-knit neighborhood in Baltimore, and Willa becomes a part of the neighborhood.

Willa gradually learns how to do things for herself that the men in her life have always done for her, like driving in an unfamiliar city. She doesn’t do them well, at first, and I identified with the moment when she meets her son for dinner at a restaurant in his neighborhood which she has found on her own because they both tease a little about her fear of driving (which is well-founded, making the teasing poignant) and she thinks “already she was back in that hapless, dithery-mom role she’d been assigned when her sons reached their teens.” One of the few ways I’ve ever protested the dithery-mom role is when my kids started teasing me about how much I must love napkins because of how many I pick up at fast food places or highway rest stops. “Who do you think I got in the habit of getting extra napkins for?” I asked them.

The end of the novel is entirely predictable and yet it seems abrupt, the action taking place over the course of a few moments, described in one short paragraph on the very last page. Just because I can identify with a character and see where she’s going to end up doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see more of what Willa is thinking, how she is finally able to break out of the roles she’s let others assign to her.

The title is not a mystery; it’s plain that some people get older without ever really growing up, and others take a step outside the dance in order to see where they’re headed and what kind of person they want to be when they get there. So much showing with too little telling keeps what seemed like the final straw to Willa a bit of a mystery, however.

 

Calypso

July 13, 2018

That this book, Calypso, exists is evidence of a dream come true—David Sedaris grew up and bought a beach house of his own. What a happy ending! He can now say “my home, well one of my homes” however he likes, while the rest of us are still practicing (see his essay “Our Perfect Summer” from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim).

He did not, however, name the house The Ship Shape, as he had intended when younger. With the wisdom of age—or something like that–he chose The Sea Section.

IMG_1689Walker and I read Calypso on the way to our beach vacation in South Carolina, and then we put it out on the table of books to share, across the room from where we displayed the wooden sign given to us by the friends who share the other beach house every time we go. It says the names of our families, mashed up and intertwined, and the name of the island, so that for a week every other summer, it’s our beach house address. I love this sign and often leave it up for a month or two in my “other home,” just to remember.

This is all to say that I’m a sucker for a beach-house-themed collection of essays by David Sedaris, and I enjoyed this one very much, laughing out loud at least once during almost every essay. Here’s one of the parts that made me laugh:
“Will you have a tree at home?” I asked. “Have you put it up yet?”
This is the sort of thing that drives Hugh crazy—What does it matter if her Christmas tree is up?—but there was no one in line behind me, and I was genuinely curious.
“I think it’s too early,” the woman said. “My kids is all excited for one, but we ain’t even had Thanksgiving yet.”
Gretchen ran her good hand over the false hair on top of her head. “Will you cook a turkey on Thursday or go for something else?”
“Are you two happy now?” Hugh asked when we finally returned to the car. “Need to go back in and learn what everyone’s doing for New Year’s, or do you think we can leave?”

Sedaris is the master of continually pushing a joke one step farther, a kind of humor I adore:
I’ve…seen people feed all sorts of things to the turtles in the canal on Emerald Isle: dry dog food, Cheerios, Pop-Tarts, potato chips.
“None of that is good for them,” Gretchen says. Her turtles eat mainly worms and slugs. They like fruit as well, and certain vegetables. “But potato chips, no.”
“What about barbecue potato chips?” I asked.

And in a season where I’ve been trying to give up snark, a Sedaris moment of snark is like a long, cold drink of water at the end of a hot day:
“Increasingly at Southern airports, instead of a “good-bye” or “thank-you,” cashiers are apt to say, “Have a blessed day!” This can make you feel like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne.”

The most seriously funny of all the essays is the one about the legalization of gay marriage, gaily entitled “A Modest Proposal.” Here’s the part I liked best:
“While I often dreamed of making a life with another man, I never extended the fantasy to marriage or even to civil partnerships, which became legal in France in 1999, shortly after Hugh and I moved to Paris. We’d been together for eight years by that point, and though I didn’t want to break up or look for anyone else, I didn’t need the government to validate my relationship. I felt the same way when a handful of American states legalized same-sex marriage, only more so: I didn’t need a government or a church giving me its blessing. The whole thing felt like a step down to me. From the dawn of time, the one irrefutably good thing about gay men and lesbians was that we didn’t force people to sit through our weddings. Even the most ardent of homophobes had to hand us that. We were the ones who toiled behind the scenes while straight people got married: the photographers and bakers and florists, working like Negro porters settling spoiled passengers into the whites-only section of the train.
‘Oh, Christopher,’ a bride might sigh as her dressmaker zipped her up, ‘what would I have ever done without you?’
What saved this from being tragic was that they were doing something we wouldn’t dream of: guilt-tripping friends and relatives into giving up their weekends so they could sit on hard church pews or folding chairs in August, listening as the couple mewled vows at each other, watching as they were force-fed cake, standing on the sidelines, bored and sweating, as the pair danced, misty-eyed, to a Foreigner song.
The battle for gay marriage was, in essence, the fight to be as square as straight people, to say things like ‘My husband tells me that the new Spicy Chipotle Burger they’ve got at Bennigan’s is awesome!’
That said, I was all for the struggle, mainly because it so irritated the fundamentalists. I wanted gay people to get the right to marry, and then I wanted none of us to act on it. I wanted it to be ours to spit on. Instead, much to my disappointment, we seem to be all over it.”

This is the genius of Sedaris—to find moments of humor in everything and use them to illuminate what seem at first like small ideas, until he fits them together and they’re big ideas, and the humor is highlighting how very serious they are.

I also like what I take as the moral of this story, that if you pine for a beach house all your life sometimes you get to have one.

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