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Shadows of Paris

August 24, 2016

A love letter to Paris disguised as a novella, Eric Lehman’s slim volume entitled Shadows of Paris begins in the shadow of Notre Dame and ends with a view of rough, cobbled streets and the banks of the Seine.

Appearing unexpectedly in my mailbox at Kenyon, the book is also a kind of love letter because it’s written by one of my former students who has become a writer. That makes me very proud, however little I might have had to do with it. So I am far from an unprejudiced reader.

Let me tell you about the story. There’s this guy William who doesn’t speak much French but has taken a job teaching in Paris on the spur of the moment. There’s some mystery about why he is so unmoved by his surroundings, spending his days at a school near Les Halles and his evenings in an apartment on Rue Tiquetonne. When his boss gives him an assignment to start reading some of the great works of French literature in translation, he begins to find “the keys to Paris, the keys to literature, the keys to life.”

And there’s this girl, Lucy, who works in a bookshop specializing in English translations. William and Lucy meet and feel an instant attraction; his first reaction is “She was another man’s wife, for Keats’ sake.” They reveal their darling originality to each other, like when William explains that he says “for Keats’ sake” because his father used to say “for Pete’s sake” and “at some point I asked who is this Pete? And why are we worried about his state of being? So, I changed it to a more appropriate homophone, the poet who died so young.”

William and Lucy spend a few weeks dancing around the fact that she has a husband and then they find out all about the checkered parts of each others’ pasts and fall in love. That part’s predictable. What’s fun are the glimpses of Paris you get along the way—perhaps especially if you are predictable as a tourist.

The first (and so far the only) time I went to Paris, we stayed in an apartment near Les Halles and the first meal we had in what we thought was a real sidewalk café was at a place called Au Pied de Cochon, which Lucy’s husband, when the three of them have a meal together, describes as “for tourists.” We remember it as the place where we learned the French for “the bill,” which is “la addition,” and which you have to ask for before they bring it, so polite are the waiters about letting you sit and watch the people go by on the sidewalk for as long as you like.

If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ll recognize something; William and Lucy travel all around the city. As William’s boss continues to talk to him about French literature and Lucy continues to wander around the city with him, William opens himself up to more of French life, until finally he says “as we crossed the Seine at the pedestrian Pont des Arts, heading towards the Louvre, I actually stopped and spun around, taking in the grandeur of the city.”

While William falls in love with Lucy and with Paris, readers of Shadows of Paris will enjoy being there with them. And at the end, William is, like the readers, longing from afar for Parisian sights and sounds.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

August 22, 2016

I had half an hour at the gate and then an hour-long flight from Columbus to Raleigh-Durham NC and I read the script of both parts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in that time. It was pretty entertaining, just right for a short flight.

Already on page 34 there is a mention of necromancy (by any other name, but let’s call the desire to go back in time to resurrect someone from the dead what it is). A long-bereaved father appeals to Harry, asking “how many people have died for the Boy Who Lived? I’m asking you to save one of them.”

The action of the play centers on alternate universes created by Harry’s son Albus and Draco’s son Scorpius who are (surprise!) best friends in the universe where the play begins and ends. Scorpius is always having to react to rumors that he is not Draco’s son, but Voldemort’s. Albus is always having to react to people who treat him as his father’s son more than a person in his own right. Together, the two boys live up to their faith in each other, while separately it seems they might drown amid the false expectations of others. At one point, Scorpius says
“I know the–Voldemort thing isn’t–true–and–you know–but sometimes, I think I can see my dad thinking: How did I produce this?”
And Albus replies
“Still better than my dad. I’m pretty sure he spends most of his time thinking: How can I give him back?”

As Walker said to us, after finishing reading the script about 2 am on the night of its midnight release, some of the characters don’t sound quite right. The funniest instance of this is when Ron offers to be the one to transform into Voldemort:
“I mean, it won’t be–exactly nice being Voldemort–but without wishing to blow my own trumpet–I am probably the most chilled out of all of us and . . .so maybe transfiguring into him–into the Dark Lord–will do less damage to me than–any of you more–intense–people.”

But as fanfic authors, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne do create some new voices for the progeny of the famous trio (Hermione and Ron’s daughter has a peripheral part). I like the way the less-famous sons playfully aggrandize each other. At one point Scorpius says:
“Turns out Malfoy the Unanxious is a pretty good liar.”
And a minute later:
“Only you and I have experienced how dangerous this is, that means you and I have to destroy it. No one can do what we did, Albus. No one. No (slightly grandly) it’s time that time-turning became a thing of the past.”
Albus: “You’re quite proud of that phrase, aren’t you?”
Scorpius: “Been working on it all day.”

There’s a self-indulgent scene in which portrait Dumbledore admits to Harry that he loves him, has always loved him, that reads like fan wish fulfillment.

However, I was extremely glad to get to Harry’s line about how he hasn’t been a good parent. In this age of Mama Mia-style Baby Boomers trying to always stay on center stage, it’s refreshing to hear a character say:
“We have both tried to give our sons, not what they needed, but what we needed.”

Maybe it’s time for the Harry Potter generation to start writing some of their own plays and stories.

The 5th Wave

August 15, 2016

Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is the first book in a YA SF trilogy, followed by The Infinite Sea and The Last Star. I read all three of them last week; it didn’t take long and the first book had a lot of promise. Unfortunately, I wasn’t excited about the nebulous are-they-aliens-or-are-they-us ending that dragged out in the last two books.

The series is YA because the protagonists are young. Only young people are left on earth after the fourth wave. The action seems like it’s SF because it begins between the third and fourth wave of an alien invasion, with a girl named Cassie who says
“time was flowing in reverse. The 1st Wave knocked us back to the eighteenth century. The next two slammed us into the Neolithic.
We were hunter-gatherers again. Nomads. Bottom of the pyramid.
But we weren’t ready to give up hope. Not yet.
There were still enough of us left to fight back.
We couldn’t take them head-on, but we could fight a guerilla war. We could go all asymmetrical on their alien asses. We had enough guns and ammo and even some transport that survived the 1st Wave. Our militaries had been decimated, but there were still functional units on every continent. There were bunkers and caves and underground bases where we could hide for years. You be American, alien invaders, and we’ll be Vietnam.
And the Others go, Yeah, okay, right.”

The 5th wave is made up of human children who are trained to kill, and then told that the other remaining human children who are not wearing a tracking device are aliens. We follow a little group of child soldiers who discover that those without the tracking device are not aliens, and then—for the lengths of two books—watch them fight bloody battles with everyone they meet because they can trust no one.

The children try to stay “human” by remembering how to love each other and not descend completely to survival mode, but the aliens make that harder and harder, escalating the kinds of “tests” these child soldiers undergo until it’s impossible for the reader, let alone the children, to tell who might be human and who might be alien. We never do really get a satisfying answer to who the aliens are and what they want.

The young characters’ attitude towards their lost civilization reveal the author as some kind of uber environmentalist who regards civilization as a blight upon the earth. Here’s one example:
“Really neat that human beings conquered the Earth, invented poetry and mathematics and the combustion engine, discovered that time and space are relative, built machines big and small to ferry us to the moon for some rocks or carry us to McDonald’s for a strawberry-banana smoothie. Very cool we split the atom and bestowed upon the Earth the Internet and smartphones and, of course, the selfie stick.
But the most wonderful thing of all, our highest achievement and the one thing for which I pray we will always be remembered, is stuffing wads of polyester into an anatomically incorrect, cartoonish ideal of one of nature’s most fearsome predators for no other reason than to soothe a child.”

As if the ridiculousness of ending with the selfie stick and this description of a teddy bear aren’t enough, later the author makes his meaning even more plain:
“The debris will settle. Rains will bathe the scorched and barren ground. Rivers will revert to their natural course. Forests and meadows and marsh and grasslands will reclaim what was cut and razed, filled and leveled and buried beneath tons of asphalt and concrete. Animal populations will explode. Wolves will return from the north and herds of bison, thirty million strong, will again darken the plains. It will be as if we never were, paradise reborn, and there is something ancient inside me, buried deep in the memory of my genes, that rejoices.”

So if you want an alien invasion story that is supposed to make you side with the alien but never reveals anything about him, turning your sympathy into twisted environmentalism at best and nihilism at worst, this is the series for you!

Stiletto

August 8, 2016

I picked up Stiletto because I enjoyed The Rook, Daniel O’Malley’s first novel about a supernatural government agency keeping England safe from monsters. By the middle of Stiletto, though, I wasn’t enjoying it as much–the middle is slow going, as if it could have used a bit of judicious editing (at 580 pages it could afford to lose a few). The end, though, is fabulous, and I was glad I’d kept reading.

One of the thing O’Malley could have done sooner is the title reveal. Who is the stiletto? How is the stiletto related to the rook? There’s a good answer, but it doesn’t have to be kept secret so long. In fact, I will reveal it to you right now, for your reading pleasure. The plot of the novel concerns whether a partnership between the Checquy (or as their enemies call them, the Gruwels) and the Broederschap (or as their enemies call them, the Grafters) is possible. In the end, it turns out that it might be, as a main character of the novel, a member of the Broederschap named Odette Leliefeld, is being described by her friend, a Checquy pawn:
“You’re a Pawn….A Pawn of the Checquy. You might not have taken the oath yet, but that’s what you are. You’re a tool, to be used and directed for the good of the people. Sometimes you’ll be a scalpel, cutting out disease. Sometime you’ll be a sword, and you’ll take on threats with all the strength you can muster. And sometimes, Odette, you’ll be a stiletto, a hidden weapon that slides quietly into the heart.”

The conversations about supernatural events are as wonderful as ever, like this bit of cocktail party chatter:
“The last party I was at ended very badly. And didn’t you once attend a dinner in Bhutan where everybody except you left having been rendered completely sterile?”
“And they all became allergic to rabbits,” said the lady with some satisfaction.

I really enjoy the way the author integrates his fictional world into the world of fiction as we know it. This novel concentrates on what members of the Broederschap know, her own fictional organization that was the ultimate enemy of everyone in the Checquy, the people we sympathized with in The Rook:
“In the eighteenth century, a brilliant young student from the University of Ingolstadt caught the eye of members of the Broederschap. His work with galvanism and chemistry was deemed to have tremendous potential, and they recruited him. He was given a thorough grounding in the core principles of the brotherhood’s techniques, but he chafed at their restrictions and eventually went rogue, disappearing to pursue his own research. Agents scoured the known world for him, but it was years before five Chimerae were dispatched to the Arctic, where he had constructed and animated a monstrous being using cadavers and lightning. Four of the five troops were killed, but the rogue doctor and his creation also died out there on the ice.”

The characters discuss the fact that much of what the Broederschap can do “is still illegal in most countries. We’re talking genetic engineering, harvesting organs, cloning, weaponizing human biology.” They talk about why it has to be kept secret, saying “mainstream culture is not ready for what we can do.”

I enjoy the way the author waves a hand at the science, even extending this to his characters. When a young member of the Broederschap who has just cloned a mouse is asked how he did it, we get this conversation:
“Do you have any knowledge of microbiology and cellular formatting?”
“No.”
“Are you interested in learning about them?”
“God, no,” said Felicity.
“In that case, I took some mouse blood, put it in a tub of magic Grafter-slime, added some starch, and a new mouse grew out of it,” said Alessio.

There’s a great comic scene when Odette Leliefeld, the main character and a member of the Broederschap, fits a dress made of living material to her bodyguard (and Checquy agent) Felicity:
“she drew a finger briskly across Felicity’s bust and then back under. At her touch, the material gathered itself up, supporting and restraining. It occurred to a shamefully ungrateful part of Felicity’s mind that, if Leliefeld wanted to, she need merely flick her wrist, and the gown would clench about the Pawn and crush her to death. For all Felicity knew, it might then soak up all the blood and hoover up the bones.”

Some of the details we get about how various members of the Checquy and the Broederschap are deployed are fun, but the level of detail seems increasingly unnecessary as the novel goes on, like the long list of things that some sleeper units (literally, they’ve been asleep for two years and four months) have to do before they can go about the business of furthering the plot:
“A rota was worked out so that the flat’s single shower could be used as efficiently as possible. The first Chimera to emerge from the shower, an enormous man named Jan Kamphuis, was assigned the task of preparing breakfast for the others. He broke open trunks filled with a shiny agar and peeled away the gelatin to reveal perfectly preserved ingredients. Shortly, he was serving up bacon, eggs, waffles, and (him being Dutch) toast with chocolate sprinkles.”

Who uses Odette, and how and why is worth finding out, even if you do have to wade through too much detail to get there.

Theater

August 2, 2016

My family started out talking about plays we wanted to see in New York City this summer. Then, after my mother fell, we started talking about seeing a show in St. Louis or Chicago. After she died, we decided on Chicago and The Book of Mormon in July. In the end, there were six of us for whom that was possible.

So Ron and Walker and I got plane tickets for a round-trip flight that was supposed to leave Columbus on Friday at 7:30 and arrive an hour and a half later in Chicago. We got the first text from United as we were approaching the airport. The text said the flight was delayed until 8:30 pm. Okay, we said, time for us to have dinner at the airport. Then, during dinner, there were more texts about further delays and then we found that all the flights to Chicago were canceled except for the 6 pm one, which had been delayed so long the plane was still sitting on the runway in Columbus. Every one of the hundreds of people in our concourse tried to get on it, but most of us failed. I called United and when I finally got off of hold, was offered next-day flights to Charlotte, Dallas, or Minneapolis, with connecting flights to Chicago, most of which didn’t get us there in time for our 8 pm theater tickets. There were no more direct flights.

So we decided to drive. We set off from Columbus, first driving an hour north, close to where we’d started with such high hopes that afternoon (as it turned out, all we accomplished at the airport was having a full-size tube of toothpaste thrown away). We stopped in Marion, Ohio to get road food, and made it to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where we’d reserved a hotel room, before we stopped for the night. Then we drove into downtown Chicago on Saturday.IMG_6695

We’d planned to go to the Art Institute, so we did that first, wandering through a good bit of the main building and then heading over to the modern galleries to see the Magrittes. The gallery was offering paper and crayons for trying to copy or interpret the art, so we all got some and sat down on the little camp chairs they gave us to draw one of the Magrittes, a many-paneled piece entitled “On the Threshold of Liberty.” My sister-in-law switched the panels on purpose. My niece did an interpretation featuring trees and clouds. Ron did an interpretation featuring the cowbells floating among trees, clouds, and elements from the various panels. Walker and my brother and I tried to copy the piece. We all had fun doing it.

IMG_6710We had a pre-theater dinner at a fancy place a couple of blocks from the theater and then laughed our way through The Book of Mormon, which Ron and I had seen twice already, Walker and my brother once, and my sister-in-law and niece were seeing for the first time. It is a great show; our favorite of the 21st century, at least until January, when we have tickets to see Hamilton in Chicago. I’ve been going around singing my favorite little snatch of song from “I Believe”…”a warlord who shoots people in the face. What’s so scary about that?”

13887139_10206996813823494_5147979792237081813_nAfter the show, we walked far enough to find taxis to get to the bookstore for the midnight sale of The Cursed Child. There, we met six of the cast members from The Book of Mormon, including the two who had played the main characters (Cody Jamison Strand and Kevin Clay). They were flattered to be recognized, very gracious about giving us their autographs and posing for photographs, and quite excited about the new Harry Potter book.

They looked so different from their characters on stage, especially Cody (the one with glasses, in the photo), that it made me think about how many people with impressively big voices and talents I might be walking past on the street in a big city–like in Jeanne Murray Walker’s poem “Theater” where suddenly everyone is heading for the theater:

Away from front desks in hotels they slip,
out of restaurants they lurch, untying
their aprons, unpinning their hair nets,
powdering their noses, pulling on silk shirts.

From the cash registers of clothing stores
they come, and out of factories they wake
like the dead who have heard a trumpet,
who rise and hurry through the narrow alleys,

this one already pursing her full lips
into the pout of a mean grimace,
that one screwing his peg leg in place,
the other shaking her hanky into a full-blown rose.

Down the streets and sidewalks they pour
like rain, intent, clarified, and splendid,
pulling on their golden, high-heeled slippers,
learning how to juggle as they run,

because every one of them has been called back—
no one has been cut—there are enough parts,
and as dusk is falling, one by one
they converge upon the Stage Door, and are let in.

13912480_10208929307623018_1901974062321617717_nWalker finished reading The Cursed Child about 2 am in his room at the very swanky Union League Club (his review includes the advice that one should read it as a sort of fanfiction). We all got up the next morning, tried the fancy breakfast buffet, and walked to the Willis Tower, where we spent the morning standing in line to go up, walking around admiring the various views, including standing on the railing where Ferris Bueller and his friends stood, and finally standing in line for the sky deck, which is one of the two little glass boxes with a glass floor where you can stand and see out all around you and 103 floors down.

There were other things we’d meant to see this trip, but the last thing we had time for was lunch at the restaurant under the Bean, stopping on the walk back only to let Walker play a quick game of street chess and getting some popcorn at Garrett’s to take home with us.

We had a long but uneventful drive back and made it home at 10:30 pm on Sunday night. And that is the story of how we drove 16 hours to spend 24 in Chicago…because we had tickets to the theater.

Heat and Light

August 1, 2016

I first heard about Jennifer Haigh’s new novel Heat and Light from Kathy at Bermuda Onion and then read it in a couple of hours one hot and sunny July afternoon, sitting in the glider on our deck. It’s a good story, full of people who are likable but not perfect and with a plot that moves along from secrets and lies to exposure and truth.

My mind was already made up about fracking, partly from reading about it, partly from smelling it at the corner of two highways where we turn to go the second half hour of our drive towards the airport, and partly from hearing Walker talk about his research for a class he took at Oberlin on fracking. Since Heat and Light is a good novel, it doesn’t take a stand, but the story doesn’t move in a direction that exposes anything good about fracking in Pennsylvania, where it’s set.

There is one part, the beginning of Chapter 4, where the novelist’s attitude comes through unmistakably:
“The forest is a century old, mixed hardwoods, trunks thick as rain barrels—the childhood gymnasium of four generations, prime real estate for tree houses and tire swings….The forest is cut with a Chisholm 600, the industry standard….It severs each trunk at ground level….The earthmovers come next….The drill pad is leveled and laid with gravel. Then the well is dug. A well starts with a cellar, a hole six feet deep. From the cellar a deeper hole is dug. If witnessed more than one hundred times, this operation may seem natural, commonplace. If witnessed fewer than one hundred times, it will look and sound obscene.”

The characters are recognizable. There’s a young mother, Shelby, who worries a lot about her children and enjoys the children’s service a new female minister has started at her church:
“It’s a thing no male minister would ever think of, that a person might actually pay attention to the service if her children were safely occupied elsewhere. If she were, for one blessed hour a week, left in peace.”

Shelby’s husband Rich thinks about his father saying that “there are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before and the kind where you shower after” because Rich has “always done the second kind—roofing, soldiering, hauling oxygen tanks for Miners’ Medical.” And in the present day of the novel, Rich is working as a prison guard, which he includes in the kind of work where you shower after.

There’s a long-married man, called Herc, who is contemplating an affair:
“She was dressed in a gray pants suit, the sort of outfit Hillary Clinton had worn in her presidential campaign. His wife, who hated Hillary Clinton, had called the pants suit hideous, but Herc secretly liked them. His upbringing, probably: he liked to see women modestly dressed. Colleen still wore the short skirts she’d favored in high school. Somewhere along the way, she’d gotten the idea he liked them. Maybe he’d complimented her once, to make her happy; maybe he’d even meant it at the time.
Marriage in middle age: living in a house made of shit you’ve said over the years.”

Some of the background we get on the characters turns out to be crucially important in understanding their actions later in the novel, like where the female minister’s husband who died young of cancer grew up, and that Shelby had a little sister who died when they were children. Despite the death and the descriptions of the ruined environment, however, the novel ends on a hopeful note. Truth exposed, a reader hopes, will speak for itself.

Although we know it doesn’t, always.

The Excellent Lombards

July 25, 2016

Passing through the public library, as I do about once a week, I found a book by Jane Hamilton, The Excellent Lombards, on the new book shelf, so I checked it out and started reading it at night before I went to sleep, which is what it is good for, being a calm book in which nothing much happens.

I kept thinking something was going to happen—at the very least, I thought, the little girl narrator would grow up. She begins the novel by telling us about her family apple orchard:
“the majesty of the woods around the manor house and the size of the house itself, and the elegance of the apple barn, which originally had been meant for horses, and along the rise the dignity of the long straight rows of apple trees: All those beauties were a reminder of the grace and the good breeding of the Lombard clan itself.”

The little girl, “Mary Frances,” is called by several different nicknames. She is perpetually at war with everyone else in her family about who is going to be in charge of the apple orchard when her parents and her aunt and uncle, who run the place, along with a mysterious great-aunt, get too old to continue. As children, she and her brother play it as a game:
“we considered it a siege more than a war, the standoff with our relatives, with our cousins who in ordinary life were our friends.”

As she gets older, however, she continues to play the same childish games, fearing every new relative and visitor to the farm has come to take it over, fighting against those she considers to be interlopers and twisting everything into her own strange fabric of “us against them.” When her brother starts to grow up and refuses to be part of the “us” any longer, she throws a tantrum. She makes up a story about her great-aunt and sticks to it into her teens, without ever even speaking to the great-aunt, who periodically makes friendly overtures but refuses to get drawn in to the little girl’s daily histrionics.

Mary Frances’ point of view kept me reading, though, because every once in a while she would reveal something interesting about what motivated her. One night she wonders
“If a place might make you more than you were. Was that possible? The puzzle was like a dread story problem. And then, without that place, say you lost it, or couldn’t get back to it, or couldn’t stay there for long, it could turn out that you really weren’t much of anyone.”

When she is fourteen and her brother fifteen, they play a game of Euchre with their parents one summer night, “the ideal game for us, four persons, a game that requires some concentration and strategy but allows for sociability.” The situation reminds me of playing card games with my children as teenagers, and the ensuing conversation bears that out:
“When she put her card down two tricks later William said, ‘You know that’s trump, right?’
‘Oh!’ she giggled. ‘I forgot.’
I snorted and did the glance at William, See? To forget that the left bower is still trump after playing for decades really is mental retardation.
‘I always forget that,’ my father said.
‘You should not admit it,’ I instructed.
‘What is wrong with you people?’ William couldn’t help asking.
My mother glared at her cards. ‘We’re just old,’ my father explained. ‘That’s all.’
‘Well, snap out of it.’ Softening, William added, ‘Do you want me to review the rules again?’
‘I think we’ve got it.’
The children are so competitive, so serious about everything, and the parents, who have been playing card games all their lives, have lost some of that competitive spirit and are enjoying everyone being together, which makes them seem dull and even lack-witted to their children.

By the time her brother is applying to colleges, Mary Frances despises every other member of her family, calling her own mother Mrs. Lombard and unwilling to even consider going to college, like her brother and the cousins she used to compete with. She has no use for liberal arts colleges, saying
“Whereas Dolly’s aspiration for Amanda and Adam was a brag-worthy university that would provide them with a marketable skill, Mrs. Lombard wanted William and Francie to become fully rounded, truly educated, cultivated people. She seemed to think that without Oberlin or Bates or Carleton or Williams we’d not know who Hesiod was, we’d forget to vote, we’d vote Hitler into power, we’d confuse good and well, we’d not appreciate a symphony orchestra, we’d track mud into museums, and most frightening, we’d admire terribly written thrillers and bosom heavers.”
And with that little speech and the action that follows (hiding the car keys so her brother can’t go visit his chosen college), she loses my sympathy entirely.

The book ends with her still at this age, despising everything, knowing better than everyone. There is a conversation with her brother on the penultimate page that shows there is hope she will one day grow up, but 273 pages of her childishness was about 73 pages too many for me.

The pleasure of this book–to the extent there is any–is in reliving some of those moments with know-it-all children in the years before college and being glad that those days are past.

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