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The Madonna and the Starship

February 26, 2015

Eleanor and I started reading science fiction books by James Morrow over winter break. She read the Towing Jehovah series, which I’d read and enjoyed some years before. I read a few others, older novels. We’re studying up for our trip to Orlando (Orlando!) in March for the IAFA convention. Joan Slonczewski and James Morrow are the guests of honor. Joan asked me to come with her, and Eleanor is going with a friend whose mother is a SF editor. I’m going to be on a panel about satire in science fiction, so I’ve been on the lookout for good examples.

Morrow’s most recent novel is both satiric and contains satire: The Madonna and the Starship (2014). Set in 1950’s NYC, it evokes the wonders of the pulp science fiction era with a decidedly modern overlay of images and ideas.

Kurt Jastrow is the head writer of a weekly TV series entitled Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers. He also appears in a ten-minute epilogue called Uncle Wonder’s Attic, in which he demonstrates some aspect of the science in the episode. One day he is contacted by blue lobsters from outer space who appear on his rabbit-eared TV to say “Greetings Earthling!….Salutations, O Kurt Jastrow! We have converted your television into a pangalactic transceiver! Even as you watch this broadcast, we are hurtling toward you from our home planet, Qualimosa in the Procyon system!” The blue lobsters inform Kurt that “all the brightest people on Qualimosa adore Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” although they admit that “Qualimosa’s engineers are still calibrating our planet’s TV antennas,” so they have only seen two other shows. They announce their intention to appear on Friday’s program to give him an award “for those who champion reason in its eternal war with revelation.”

The plot grows more sinister, however, as one of the aliens informs Kurt that “Qualimosa’s engineers strive incessantly to keep the torch of reason burning…. Recently they discovered that the scanning-gun of an ordinary cathode-ray tube can be appropriated to exterminate viewers of any philosophically problematic narrative borne by the electromagnetic spectrum.”
It turns out that the aliens find anything religious to be “philosophically problematic” and they’re thinking of wiping out the viewers of a show called Not by Bread Alone, a show Kurt’s friend Connie works on. Thinking fast, Kurt informs the aliens that “Not by Bread Alone is a satiric program….It mocks belief in the supernatural.” They agree to deactivate their weapon if the next show does turn out to be satiric. Kurt and Connie then have to write and rehearse the next week’s show, and they decide to call it The Madonna and the Starship.

The actors are delighted. The one who plays Jesus
“laid a palm on his script. ‘A Messiah driven mad by his premature burial,’ he said in measured tones. Hey, Connie, hey, Kurt—this is meaty stuff. Jesus as Quixote, as Lear, Ahab, Raskolnikov. I’m salivating like Pavlov’s dog. Sure, I’ll probably get some bad press in Daily Variety, ‘Yid Thespian Ridicules Redeemer in Blasphemous Broadcast,’ but hey, I can live with it.”
Another of the actors asks “how often does an actor get to play a gorilla who introduces Jesus Christ to Charles Darwin?”

From that set-up, the action continues to get more exaggerated and funnier. Kurt’s friends try to keep the aliens busy by feeding them macaroni and cheese and playing poker with them (they explain that “the rules are so logical and self-evident that the game has evolved independently on many worlds, as did chess and mahjong.”) The aliens keep threatening to unleash their “death-ray” and explain that their goal is “to exterminate a hive of irrationalist vermin thriving on your planet.”

The Madonna and the Starship is performed, with the addition of advertising for Sugar Corn Pops and Ovaltine included as part of the Eucharist meal and a special message for the Qualimosans. It doesn’t all go exactly as planned, but in the end, Earth is saved from annihilation.

It’s my favorite kind of satire, with the silliness exaggerated in order to recommend some more moderate course of action. As a bonus, there’s some satire on the ambitions of writers of genre fiction (“Dear Mr. Jastrow, you are an intellectual snob….However, the scene of the monk sucker-punching the orangutan was to delicious to pass up. Enclosed please find a check for $120.”)

Have you read any good examples of satiric science fiction that I should try to read before our trip begins, on March 18?

A Spool of Blue Thread

February 23, 2015

A new Anne Tyler novel! I read A Spool of Blue Thread as soon as it came in the mail, and have drifted around my quiet house thinking about it ever since. As I read about Abby Whitshank and the teenaged son who is eager to leave her behind him, I identified with her as strongly as I have always identified with Pearl Tull in Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant, who connects her children growing up with the “gradual dimming of light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her.”

The way the story of Abby’s family is told seems, at first, to be organized oddly, and yet it makes psychological sense to start telling the story of a family with grown children from the perspective of their mother and then to begin to tease out the secrets this mother kept by following that story with the story of how she fell in love with their father, the story of how their grandmother fell in love with their grandfather, how that grandfather built the house they grew up in, and finally how the grown children and their father sell the house and thereby lose their ability to learn any more of their own family’s secrets.

The novel begins with Denny calling his parents late at night to tell them a secret that is probably not true, and is never mentioned again. His father, Red, thinks that Denny has achieved his desired effect, which is to upset both of his parents. His mother, Abby, is worried that they don’t know how to call him back after he hangs up. We learn that he is 19, and his parents have no idea where he is living or what he is doing. He is their youngest child.

Denny gets in touch periodically, and during the recounting of these periods, we learn the names of his sisters, Jeannie and Amanda, and his brother, Stem (Douglas), who live twenty minutes away and whose spouses and children routinely join them at Red and Abby’s house for family dinners and at a beach house they rent for a week each summer.

The first time Denny doesn’t come to the beach with them is “the summer he claimed to be gay: nobody knew that he wasn’t coming. They kept waiting for him to phone and announce his arrival date, and when it grew clear that he wasn’t going to, everyone experienced the most crushing sense of flatness. Even after they’d arrived at the cottage they always rented, and unpacked their groceries and made up the beds and settled into their usual beach routine, they couldn’t shake the thought that he still might show up. They turned hopefully from their jigsaw puzzle when the screen door slammed in an evening breeze. They stopped speaking in mid-sentence when somebody out beyond the breakers started swimming toward them with that distinctive, rolling stroke that Denny always used.”
I’d like to think that both my kids will continue to come and eventually bring their spouses and children to our week at the beach, but we’ve already experienced a bit of the kind of thing Abby and Red say about Denny, that sometimes it feels like he’s gone off and joined another family rather than bringing his girlfriend into his own.

Much is made of the fact that this family, the Whitshanks, aren’t special “but like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills…. They liked to say that they didn’t care for sweets, although there was some evidence that they weren’t as averse as they claimed. To varying degrees they tolerated each others’s spouses, but they made no particular effort with the spouses’ families, whom they generally felt to be not quite as close and kindred-spirited as their own family was.” Stem looks and acts most like his father, although we find out that he is not related by blood; everyone except Denny is matter-of-fact about this.

The house has always been a gathering place. Abby is glad to hear that the children of her neighbors call it “the porch house,” and she thinks about how Red’s parents would appear on the porch “night after night to offer homemade lemonade to all the neighborhood gang.” But sitting on the porch by herself makes Abby think that “the plain fact was that no one needed her anymore. Her children were grown up, and her clients had vanished into thin air the moment she retired.” She believes she’d like to know “how everything turns out,” but what she wants is for her life to be at the center of the story (as it is in this first section of the novel).

No one goes through very many of Abby’s carefully-saved papers and poems and journals after she dies. In the next section, however, we get a look at how she saw the world when she herself was 19, when she “thought she couldn’t wait to finish her freshman year and come back to where she was cherished and made much of and admired. But all this summer she had felt so itchy and impatient,” much like we’ve already seen her son. We see her look at the man who will become her father-in-law and think “Oh, let Abby not ever get old!”  Although we know she has.

In the section about what happened between Red’s parents, we find out that Mrs. Whitshank, Linnie, thought of it as more of a romance than Mr. Whitshank, Junior, ever did. Except that he fell into her version of the story at some point. “He’d always known, even without her saying so, that she found him handsome. Not that he cared about such things! But still, he had been conscious of it, and now something was missing.” He has grown accustomed to her love and after a week without it he feels “the way a parched plant must feel when it’s finally given water” when she finally looks at him with love once again.

In the final section, her children hang out Abby’s traditional Halloween ghosts and Denny tells a story of how the blue thread he needed to mend his father’s shirt for his mother’s funeral fell out of her closet into his hand “like some kind of, like, secret sign.” Stories are continuing to be told, even though Abby is becoming peripheral to them, the things she found meaning in left at the curb and her children moving farther away from being able to understand what motivated the previous generations of Whitshanks.

It’s a wistful novel. It’s about how days keep stacking up and no matter how industriously a person works to record what has happened, no one else is ever going to care as much about seeing the world through that person’s eyes, or from the particular spot in the world where two people made their stand against the depredations of time, for a while.

It’s about how important it is to observe traditions and do things with your family, even when you’re 19 and drunk with freedom and power and never going to get old. It’s about how the story is not always about you, even when you’re the parent or the one in charge who gets to decide about the “right way” to live. It’s about family secrets, and when they matter, and maybe why we should try to keep fewer of them. Because what if, when we die, all our secrets die with us?

The Martian

February 21, 2015

One day last week, with temperatures below zero outside and feeling vertigo from a sinus/ear infection whenever I moved, I simply stopped moving and lay on the bed, reading the new Anne Tyler novel, which I’d started the night before. I finished reading it around noon and lurched out to the living room to sit in a chair, waiting for a prescription to be delivered, and read all of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I couldn’t stop. Ron had a similar experience with The Martian, picking it up “to look at it” and finishing it by staying up too late on a night our elderly cat was sick and restless.

The Martian is both a castaway story and technical science fiction, weaving one with the other to create suspense. The hero, Mark Watney, an astronaut with specialties in botany and engineering, suffers an injury during an evacuation of a mission on Mars. All indications lead the rest of his team to conclude he is dead, and they leave the planet. At the beginning of the book, Mark finds himself alone on Mars, with no way to tell anybody that he is still alive. We see him find ways to stay alive, and begin to plan for the future. The first chapter we get from the point of view of anyone on Earth is two months later, on the day of Mark’s memorial service, when an observant NASA employee notices some changes at the mission site, changes that can only be the result of Mark’s survival. NASA immediately begins planning a rescue mission.

In addition to the suspense created by going back and forth between “the Martian” (Mark is the only living being on Mars) and the NASA rescue operation, reader interest is sustained by humor, especially about the resources Mark has for entertainment during his ordeal– 70’s TV shows and disco music. At the moment a NASA higher-up is trying to imagine what it’s like to be Mark:
“He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”
we find out what Mark is thinking:
“How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”

Mark is finally able to establish communication after trekking out into the Martian wilderness to pick up equipment from a previous mission, Pathfinder. He finds Sojourner and brings back parts of the lander. His approach is, as always, deliberate and reasoned—he thinks about cause and effect and tries a fix for the most likely cause:
“On most landers, the weak point is the battery. It’s the most delicate component, and when it dies, there’s no way to recover.
Landers can’t just shut down and wait when they have low batteries. Their electronics won’t work unless they’re at a minimum temperature. So they have heaters to keep the electronics warm. It’s a problem that rarely comes up on Earth, but hey. Mars.
Over time, the solar panels got covered with dust. Then winter brings colder temperatures and less daylight. This all combines into a big “fuck you” from Mars to your lander. Eventually it’s using more power to keep warm than it’s getting from the meager daylight that makes it through the dust.
Once the battery runs down, the electronics get too cold to operate, and the whole system dies. The solar panels will recharge the battery somewhat, but there’s nothing to tell the system to reboot. Anything that could make that decision would be electronics, which would not be working. Eventually, the now-unused battery will lose its ability to retain charge.
That’s the usual cause of death. And I sure hope it’s what killed Pathfinder.”

When he is near to getting the equipment working again, Mark thinks that his biggest problem will be to find someone listening:
“If the lander comes back to life (and that’s a big if) it’ll try to establish contact with Earth. Problem is, nobody’s listening. It’s not like the Pathfinder team is hanging around JPL just in case their long-dead probe is repaired by a wayward astronaut.”
What he doesn’t know is that NASA has been watching what he is doing, and as soon as he gets the equipment working, he makes a crowded room full of people burst into cheers:
“The ad-hoc Pathfinder control center was an accomplishment in itself. Over the last twenty days, a team of JPL engineers had worked around the clock to piece together antiquated computers, repair broken components, network everything, and install hastily-made software that allowed the old systems to interact with the modern Deep Space Network.”

Various resupply and rescue missions are proposed and mounted, and readers get a new appreciation for why everything in the space program is set up with redundant systems that need to be tested, inspected, and re-tested. Also, that, as Mark says, “duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

When the final rescue mission is decided on, Mark has to set out on a epic journey across Mars. There’s a lot of technical stuff in this section, but it’s always leavened by humor. Mark says he has finally
“exhausted Lewis’s supply of shitty seventies TV. And I’ve read all of Johanssen’s mystery books.
I’ve already rifled through other crewmates’ stuff to find entertainment. But all of Vogel’s stuff is in German. Beck brought nothing but medical journals, and Martinez didn’t bring anything.
I got really bored, so I decided to pick a theme song!
Something appropriate. And naturally, it should be something from Lewis’ godawful seventies collection. It wouldn’t be right any other way.
There are plenty of great candidates: “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.
But I settled on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.”

Always conscious of the possibility of an eventual audience for his log, Mark sums up one almost-impossible task he’s performed by saying “after two hours of brutal labor, during which I whined a lot, I got it all in.” He also comments that “physical law is a pushy little shit.”

At one point he has to test some brackets he’s made and says that he does it “by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

A high point in the humor is when Mark reasons through what will happen if he succeeds in making his epic journey:
“There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth. And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies.
So Mars is ‘International Waters.’
NASA is an American nonmilitary organization, and it owns the Hab. So while I’m in the Hab, American law applies. As soon as I step outside, I’m in international waters. Then when I get in the rover, I’m back to American law.
Here’s the cool part: I will eventually go to Schiaparelli and commandeer the Ares 4 lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm system. After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters with permission.
That makes me a pirate!
A space pirate!”

The rest of Mark’s mission is gripping, and intelligible not only because of the humor and the back-and-forth between what Mark knows and what people on Earth and in the rescue ship know, but also for the comparisons he makes. At one point he asks “Ever set up a camping tent? From the inside? While wearing a suit of armor?” At another he asks “Have you ever taken the wrong freeway entrance? You just need to drive to the next exit to turn around, but you hate every inch of travel because you’re going away from your goal.”

The Martian is a page-turner. I can’t think of the last time I was so engrossed in a book.  Thanks to Laurie from The Bay State Reader’s Advisory for recommending it to me! What’s the last page-turner you enjoyed?

This House Is Not For Sale

February 17, 2015

E.C. Osondu’s This House Is Not For Sale was on a list of books published in February by HarperCollins, and I thought it sounded interesting so I asked them for a copy. When I started paging through it, I discovered that it’s a book of related short stories, but reads like a novel with different chapters focusing on different people who come and go from a particular house.

The book begins with a story about “how the house we all called the Family House came into existence,” told by “Grandpa.” He spins a tale of ancient kings and juju, and leaves the readers, if not the children of the house, with a slightly uneasy feeling about the foundation of such a house:
“what my ancestor did not know was that the king had built him the house in order to keep an eye on him. He had instructed his soldiers to kill my ancestor if for any reason the king did not live to a ripe old age. This was how the Family House came to be.”

Each subsequent story gets its title from the name of the one of the inhabitants of the house. Ibe is short for Ibegbunemkaotitojialimchi, and he comes to stay in the house for a while, telling the younger children all sorts of stories, like “if one loved a girl and did not want her to leave you for another boy, then one should mix one’s blood with that of the girl in a blood convenant” and “if you wanted to know all life’s secrets, all you needed to do was read a book called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses….at midnight by the light of a lone red candle.” At the end of the summer, when Ibe and his mother are telling everyone who will listen that his father wants them back in his house, Grandpa is impatient and tells her to “shut up and stop making a fool of herself.”

Gramaphone is an older man who can’t stand to hear music after losing his business because of a feud with a competitor. He is told that he “better start running to the house they call the Family House. You know the big man’s house in the city.” When the feud is finally settled, Gramaphone gets married:
“Grandpa had given him one of the girls who lived in the house. Her father had owed Grandpa some money and she had come to live in the Family House until the debt was owed. We were told that by the time her father was ready to repay the debt the girl said she did not want to return to her father’s house anymore or some other person said that her father had died and nobody bothered to come for the girl after that.”
Gramaphone plays music all night after his wedding. When he had children, “his children soon joined the many children who lived in the Family House and would grow up to work for Grandpa.”

Tata lost three babies at birth and became a witch in opposition to the people who “were calling her a soul stealer.” She uses a magic mirror that will catch “soul stealers and wizards….thieves….any person who commits any crime and denies it.” Although many people come to her for help, they soon become fearful of her power, saying “the mirror has done more harm than good, brothers and sisters and family now view each other with suspicion.” Now that she no longer comes “back home with gifts of money and drinks” soldiers arrive to take her away from the Family House.

Baby is a grown person who was never properly christened with a name because she is brain damaged. When she gets pregnant, Grandpa arranges for her to marry a woman who “would also become the father of the child that was in Baby’s womb when the child was born. Baby would live with her and would meet as many men as she wanted to, but any child she had in the process would be Janet’s child.” This plan is foiled when Baby disappears on her wedding night. She tells a story of being kidnapped and then moves right back into the Family House.

Uncle Currency works at the mint burning old money, but when he begins bringing home bags to the Family House, “the house was repainted in white and there was even a suggestion that it should now be called the Whitehouse, but someone mentioned that another Whitehouse was already in existence in a far-off country.” These improvements are noticed, and so when Currency is asked to resign from his job and subsequently decides to run for public office, Grandpa is asked to tell him to forget it. He does not, and so on the eve of the election, Currency disappears. He reappears a few days later and spends the rest of his life sitting on the porch counting out loud. This does not stop anyone from thinking “there is nothing they will not do in that house for money.” Although the teller of the tales is still innocent, readers are gradually getting a less paternal and scarier picture of “Grandpa.”

The scarier side of living in the Family House continues to emerge with the story of Soja, who was a soldier in a government Environmental Task Force.
“Their job was to ensure that everywhere was clean. Streets swept, gutters and drains cleared, ensure there was no street trading. They patrolled streets and markets and roads and looked along the rail tracks for those who broke the law by selling their goods there.”
Soon, however, the task force became corrupt. “Soja started bringing home baskets of produce, used coats and pants and dresses.” Then “when they seized or confiscated enough DVDs they opened a DVD store; if they seized enough children’s wear they opened a shop to sell these.” Soja acquires a wife by seizing her goods, and she “opened a small store where she sold some of the stuff that was gotten from the raids on traders.”
When Soja gets sick, everyone thinks it is retribution for his actions. Grandpa “said Soja knew what was wrong with him. He should say the truth.” He does not, however, and he dies, leaving money to Grandpa instead of his wife because they were not officially married. When she begs, however, finding herself pregnant with Soja’s child, “Grandpa gave her a small space in front of the Family House where she could fry and sell bean cakes.”

The story of Soja’s posthumous child, Fuebi, is that her mother pimps her out to a rich man whose wife has no boys. When Fuebi gives birth to twin boys, Grandpa bullies the father into taking her into his house with his wife, and everything ends happily when the wife gives birth to a boy “exactly one year later.”

Although seemingly all-powerful, Grandpa seems not all bad. He forbids Uncle Zorro from bringing his concubine and her three children into the house, telling him that he must not abandon his white wife, Trudy, who “followed you all the way from across the seas” and as a result Trudy changes her name to “Tunu” and “established what would later become famous as the Infants Home School.”

In a final story about an inhabitant of the house, Akwete, Grandpa arranges for another man to go to prison in his place. He tells Akwete “you will reward him highly for serving your time on your behalf. You will marry him a wife. You will build him a house. You will set him up in business when he is released.” In this case, however, Grandpa is not a good judge of character and Akwete dies without rewarding the man who went to prison for him.

In the penultimate story, again called Ibe, the narrator asks Ibe to think “about Grandpa and all the things that happened in the house.” He asks what about this person or that story, and Ibe answers, in every case, that Grandpa is kind and generous. Many of the details readers know to be true are denied by Ibe.

In the final story, the abandoned Family House is knocked down by soldiers from the Environmental Task Force, who say it is “sitting on a place that should have a major drain way…..There were whisperings as to whether the Family House would go down or not. Some said that all the juju that lay buried in the house would ensure it didn’t fall. Others said that the evil committed in the house was enough to pull the house down.” At first the bulldozer stalls, but in the end it is restarted and the house goes down.

Grandpa seems like a benevolent God, at least at first, or to a child. The narrator tells Ibe “you imagine a lot of things, not as they were, but as you want them to be.” In the end, though, the adult neighbors think that Grandpa’s abandoned house “casts a dark shadow on our street.” The house itself may not have been for sale, but the people who lived in it had to sell something.

Trigger Warning

February 13, 2015

When I saw Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman, in the airport bookstore, I bought it and read it while waiting an hour for my plane, and then during the 90-minute flight. I’m not recommending it as a book to read in transit, particularly, but it includes enough absorbing stories to make it a good distraction from the travails of travel. I skipped through parts of the introduction and any stories and poems that didn’t interest me immediately, and settled my attention on the best stories.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” was familiar to me, but I enjoyed reading it again because of the clever way it’s told. The most important and chilling line in it is spoken by Calum MacInnes: “perhaps you’d have to have stood where I was standing, to see what I did see.” He is unaware of being in a story about perspective, about how important standing where the other guy is standing will turn out to be in his own life.

In the October story in “A Calendar of Tales,” someone thinks to ask a genie what he would wish for, and the answer is charming.

One of the funniest stories in the volume is “And Weep, Like Alexander,” about an uninventor who goes around uninventing things like flying cars and jetpacks and who is having a conversation with a group in a bar about how his job is done, that there’s nothing more he needs to uninvent. And then, at that point in the conversation, someone’s phone rings and
“the phones came out. Crown Baker took a photo of us all, and then Twitpicced it. Jocelyn started to read her text messages. ‘Tweet’ Peston tweeted that he was in the Fountain and had met his first uninventor. Professor Mackintosh checked the test match scores, told us what they were and emailed his brother in Inverness to grumble about them. The phones were out and the conversation was over.”
Bet you can guess what happens.

There’s a great story entitled “Nothing O’Clock” that I understood better for having bought a British book about children’s games to get birthday party ideas when Eleanor was about seven. We taught a small group of Ohio kids to play the game called “What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?” So those party guests will understand this story better, too.

“Black Dog” begins with a cliché (“it was raining cats and dogs”) and uncliches it by the end, which is a trick as good as the uninventor’s.

There are a few scary stories (I found “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” pretty scary, myself), but nothing I think would cause anyone to put a trigger warning on the collection. Still, Gaiman is endlessly clever, never more so than in the introduction, wondering “whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”

A Good and Useful Hurt

February 12, 2015

I recently read a book about a topic I wouldn’t ordinarily expose myself to, with characters I wouldn’t have dreamed I could sympathize with, by an author I’ve never heard of, and quite enjoyed it.

My friend Miriam sent me Aric Davis’ A Good and Useful Hurt, warning me that it contains a serial killer. It does, and it centers on the lives of people who administer tattoos and piercings for a living. Those are things that have always made me shudder, although since I read the final chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad and nodded yes throughout the final chapter, in which none of the young people have tattoos because they’ve seen what happens to the ones on older people, I’ve changed my attitude. I have an envelope full of temporary tattoos–all of one image–that I put on whenever I have to face particular people at work. It gives me courage, partly because it’s a slightly silly image, at least to me. At the ripe old age of fifty-something I finally understand why someone might want to have something permanently inked into her skin. As this book’s tattoo artist, Mike, says, “lots of people don’t until they find out they do.”

I found myself having to like Mike. As I’m meeting him, he opens up the shop because a customer is knocking and thinks to himself “What was ten minutes? The man needed them to be open.” And then I found myself liking his partner Lamar, who only dates tall, smart girls who dress to expose a lot of skin: “he liked them dressed the way they were because it was yet another way to throw middle fingers to the world.” They are unlikely characters for me to sympathize with, and yet the way they’re written makes me see why they act as they do.

Some of the patrons of Mike and Lamar’s tattoo parlor have a peculiar reason for wanting to have an image permanently inked into their skin—they’ve lost a loved one, and they want something to remember them by. The first time a person asks to have some of the ashes of his loved one mixed in with the ink, Mike is dubious, but he goes along with the request.

That’s when this story really gets started. Getting a tattoo with a dead person’s ashes in the ink allows these characters to dream about their dead loved ones as if they were still alive. When Mike himself ends up with a dead loved one, he goes to extraordinary lengths to get some of her ashes and make himself a tattoo. And that’s when he realizes that he also has to tattoo the ashes of everyone else her killer has killed onto himself, so the dead women in his dreams can help him find their killer.* He needs the help of a friend to get some of the ashes, a psychology professor at a local college who is so outwardly respectable that he keeps all his tattoos underneath where his clothes go. Telling the friend, Doc, why he needs the ashes is a wonderful moment, especially when Doc tells him he doesn’t believe the story but
“I do believe that you believe it. I like you well enough to try this myself, and if it works we’ll have something. If not, I’ll have a nice memorial to a person I loved very much, and a friend who desperately needs my help.”

The book is quite readable, partly due to the fact that much of it sounds like it’s being told, including phrases to which I would ordinarily react badly in print, like “the head had been bought at a street market during a period in Egypt where the gentry were quite desperate to own a mummy, and not so likely to care of its age.” In another book, the use of “where” and “of” in that sentence might make me cringe. In this one, it sounds like Mike thinking, and I like what he thinks, right down to where he concludes that displaying the mummified head “seems kind of shitty. These people busted their asses to be interred in as close to a natural living state as possible, and now they’re here for us to ogle.”

Mike’s choices if they find the serial killer are laid out for him by a series of questions from his friend Doc. He admits that the police wouldn’t believe “a word of this” and states his intention to shoot the guy, but Doc points out that there’s a chance he could shoot the wrong guy and go to prison, which would be “damning any chance to catch the man who is responsible.” What he proposes, instead, is for Mike to “make ink with all of their ashes in it and tattoo him with it.” It’s poetic justice, and it’s amazing to see how it turns out.

Have you ever thought of getting a tattoo? If you did, how did it turn out?

*Update: my friend who sent me the book points out that this is necromancy. She’s right. I must be getting used to reading about people talking to the dead, to the point where I don’t even notice, label, and vilify it properly anymore. Mea culpa.

I Love New York

February 10, 2015

photo (47)I’ve been to New York City several times since my first visit in 1982, when I got one of the original I heart NY buttons and then the parody version to go along with it.

This time I tried foods I’d never eaten before, saw sights I’d never seen, and met three imaginary friends. photo (51)While Ron was at his work meetings I walked through Times Square, went up in the Empire State Building, saw where my friend Harriet works and met an imaginary friend, Meg. I looked at books at The Morgan Library and met another imaginary friend, Maggie, for dinner at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar.

Let me tell you about Grand Central Station. It really has a ceiling with stars. I thought that was just made up by Mark Helprin. It also has a whispering gallery right outside the Oyster Bar, where Maggie ordered raw oysters and I ate some of (50) They weren’t bad. I rather liked the small ones, but I had a hard time with the big one, which I decided to try simply because who can sit in front of a plate with something called a “naked cowboy” and not try it?

My imaginary friend Marie suggested I should see The Strand bookstore, so we met there and walked through it on Friday morning. Sometimes it’s hard to look at books and carry on a conversation at the same time, but we managed it and it was marvelous. photo (48)On the shelf of leather-bound classics I found a copy of my friend Joan Slonczewski’s first book, A Door Into Ocean. Marie and I talked about A.S. Byatt and I compared her to John Fowles. Afterwards, she took me to a Japanese Ramen Restaurant, and that was marvelous, too. I wasn’t sure what to expect (images of packaged ramen in my head) but the noodle soup we were served, with pork and egg on top, was delicious.

Ron got out of his work meetings earlier than we expected, so we decided to go to tea at the Plaza, which was as lovely as ever. We wondered if the palm court would be overrun by little fans of the Eloise books, and there were a few, but they were on their best manners, eating pink cotton (53)

We walked from the Plaza to MOMA and lucked into free Friday, so we wandered with the crowds through all the exhibits. They have a Magritte on one of the top floors–one of that series where it’s daylight in the sky but evening below, and lights glow in the windows of the houses and if you take your eyes away from the painting for a moment, someone passes in front of the window…or at least I always think that’s about to happen.

We saw Kinky Boots, which is about a guy who makes shoes meeting a drag queen, and they go into business designing high-heeled boots for men. It was charming, and there were big song and dance numbers. I like the way the drag queen, Lola, addresses the audience: “Ladies, Gentlemen, and those of you who haven’t decided yet….”

Saturday we met our friends who live in New Jersey and went through the 9/11 museum, which was interesting and sobering. After that, we found the Campbell Apartment for drinks, having been sober long enough. We walked, photo (54)ending up at Ca Va for a pre-theater dinner and saw an Albee play, A Delicate Balance. It had two intermissions, which gave us enough time to predict what would happen next and then decide afterwards that some of our plots were as good as the one Albee came up with. There were some famous people in the play and it was interesting to see them live, although not that different from seeing them on the big screen (at least from our seats near the back of the theater).

I Love New York by Ivan Jenson

Do not
in love with this city
its jungle of squares
the curves of walking women
swimming up streams of men
Do not become infatuated
with the magic fog
rising from the concrete night
and the sea life symphony
of traffic and psychological pollution
Do not let
yourself succumb
to hypnotic reds
and blues
of broken-hearted Broadway
because this town will never
return your sentiment
you cannot sleep
in the arms of a twenty four hour coffee shop
you cannot tiptoe
to kiss the big lips
of billboards
a cabby
can only be your ten-buck
psychologist for the short ride
The fleet of high heels,
hands, hopes and frustration
will never truly be
your family
when you loose even your darkest powers
they just have to
get to where they are going
I tell you
the city cannot gratify your
greed in the bedroom
Miss Liberty
is only green copper
on a river
and at night
when you close your eyes
she never
she is seeing other men
millions of them

The last place we went was the Guggenheim. photo (56)I’ve wanted to see it ever since hearing about it in the movie LA Story, where he roller-skates through an art museum and someone tells him he should go to the Guggenheim (because it’s round, six floors of ramps). Ron and I went all the way up and then our friends joined us and we went all the way back down. There were some interesting exhibits, and then there was the On Kawara exhibit that wound around the whole place, canvases with a painted date and associated newspaper story mounted in a cardboard box below, binders full of newspaper clippings and dates, and postcards stamped with the time the artist got up or saying “I AM STILL ALIVE.” Naturally, my friends have been texting me to tell me what time they got up ever since we saw this.

photo (52)I do love New York City for a long weekend. The “fleet of high heels,” fur coats, and the occasional guy dressed as the “King of New York” are fun to watch for a while, but it’s all so exhausting I like it best in small doses.


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