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Bright Copper Kettles

October 23, 2017

The sun is shining on bright copper leaves this week in central Ohio; it’s the most beautiful time of year on the Kenyon campus and I am mostly enjoying doing my job, now that I’m being left alone to do it.

It’s also one of the busiest times of year on campus, so naturally I chose this week to start writing an abstract for a presentation I’d like to give next spring at a conference, about necromancy in fiction since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It may not come to anything, but I’m having fun thinking about it.

A friend from Hendrix came to visit on Saturday. His name is Craig and we hadn’t seen him in 35 years, but now he is living his dream—retired early and traveling across the country with his girlfriend in an RV. They said that all their earthly possessions are with them, except for a few in a small storage locker in Atlanta, where they met and got started on their trip. I’ve always associated Craig with riding in cars because he had a convertible when we were in college and would offer to take us on “the last ride of the season” with the top down all fall–many times until the end of November. He is part of why I’m an eternal optimist about how long the nice fall days will last.

22553020_10155929343657652_2331104408595343376_oCraig and Lucinda joined us for our weekly demonstration, Signs on the Square, and then we showed them around Kenyon and cooked them dinner, when our other friends from Hendrix who live here joined us. We had what might be the “last party of the season,” sitting out on our deck with drinks before dinner.

It was a great evening, and Craig reminded me of the group we’d started during our first year of college, when we were taking music theory. Called “The Phrase,” it promised (in type from my portable manual) that “Phrase members are entitled to a sequence of musical fiascos within a designated period and no one will listen. There is no ulterior motive. Special training is not required, although ear training is preferred. Just sign below for your chance to emerge from the practice rooms and rediscover the world!” About 50 people signed up, including a choir director who came through Hendrix for only a year or two and identified himself as “your average everyday music-minded person on the street.” We also had a bit of necromancy on the rolls, as we not only had a faculty sponsor but also a “late” faculty sponsor.

And this week I came across a poem about necromancy which is also full of song, starting with “My Favorite Things” and ending with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”

Bright Copper Kettles
Vijay Seshadri

Dead friends coming back to life, dead family,
speaking languages living and dead, their minds retentive,
their five senses intact, their footprints like a butterfly’s,
mercy shining from their comprehensive faces—
this is one of my favorite things.
I like it so much I sleep all the time.
Moon by day and sun by night find me dispersed
deep in the dreams where they appear.
In fields of goldenrod, in the city of five pyramids,
before the empress with the melting face, under
the towering plane tree, they just show up.
“It’s all right,” they seem to say. “It always was.”
They are diffident and polite.
(Who knew the dead were so polite?)
They don’t want to scare me; their heads don’t spin like weather vanes.
They don’t want to steal my body
and possess the earth and wreak vengeance.
They’re dead, you understand, they don’t exist. And, besides,
why would they care? They’re subatomic, horizontal. Think about it.
One of them shyly offers me a pencil.
The eyes under the eyelids dart faster and faster.
Through the intercom of the house where for so long there was no music,
the right Reverend Al Green is singing,
“I could never see tomorrow.
I was never told about the sorrow.”

Do you ever dream about dead loved ones? I do. Sometimes in the dream I know they are dead; I’m aware that this is dream-necromancy.

When the bright fall days are gone, I may dream about them, too. A character in Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams says that what we dream about lags a week or two behind what’s going on in our lives, and I’ve found that to be true, although suggestion may have played a part. And I haven’t dreamed about the last ride in Craig’s convertible for years, so I’m looking forward to it… wind in our hair, smiles on our faces.


The Prey of Gods

October 18, 2017

I went looking for Nicky Drayden’s new SF novel The Prey of Gods after reading Jenny’s review, which told me little about it except that it’s like nothing else anyone has ever read:
“When I first heard about it, I googled it to determine its plot, but all the descriptions and reviews just seemed to be listing things it contained: South Africa! Dik-diks! Robots becoming sentient! At the time it was frustrating, but I understand now where those posts are coming from. The Prey of Gods is in a perpetual controlled skid from wild idea to wild idea, such that exclamatory lists of ideas do seem to give a better sense of the book than any description could.”
And she’s right. Exclamatory lists are the first thing that come to mind after you’ve read this novel, which you should do, immediately—not least because one of the ingredients in the exclamatory list that comes to my mind is “necromancy! both human and robot!”

The narrative structure depends on six separate stories coming together at the end, so there’s a lot of plot whiplash, as you try to understand why you’re suddenly seeing a different point of view on different events in an entirely different part of this futuristic version of South Africa.

The narrative begins with Muzi, an adolescent boy going to visit his friend Elkin. As he arrives “they bump fists…and their alphies bump heads, like a pair of shiny black footballs with spindly, meter-long spider legs. They chirp back and forth like they’re happy to see each other, but it’s just the exchange of data, ones and zeros—basic information that could prove useful to their respective masters.
‘Look at them. They missed each other,’ says Muzi.
Elkin frowns and kicks his alphie in its head. It whimpers and retreats to its dock in the corner. ‘Piece of shit,’ Elkin mutters.”
The “alphies,” of course, are personal robots, and Muzi’s is already sentient and will eventually act in a way that’s well-disposed towards his owner, whereas Elkin’s, of course, will act differently.

Muzi’s alphie narrates the second chapter, in binary except for a few observations in English. Calling itself “this instance” it says “”This instance worries that This Instance is capable of worrying.”

The third narrative is told from Sydney’s point of view. We’re introduced to her nasty thoughts as she is being bored by a story about events from 200 years ago, which Sydney says she lived through, while she uses magic to help her do her job at a beauty salon, growing out a woman’s nails and shutting up her little dog.

Nomvula narrates the next part. She is only ten and also has magic powers; one of the first we find out about is that she has hidden wings and can fly.

We go back to Muzi’s point of view in Chapter 5, and I thought that meant we’d met all the characters. This is not true, however, as the next chapter introduces “Councilman Stoker” who is overseeing the “dik-dik problem” which is that “they are nothing but a nuisance, littering the streets with their droppings, harassing tourists for scraps, and clogging important expressways that stop business from getting done in a timely manner.” This last is a particular problem for him as he sneaks out of the office to drive across town and put on a dress for an audition as a female singer named Felicity.

Next we meet Riya, the famous singer who is auditioning Felicity to open for her act. She is the last of the six main characters to be introduced; they all have something in common, which is their magic.

Nomvula’s is the most powerful magic; she can read minds, including electronic ones. It is Nomvula who discovers that Muzi’s alphie is sentient and says “you’re clever for one, aren’t you?” This gives the alphie an idea for a name:
“Clever4-1? the Instance asks. Yes. That designation is suitable for This Instance.”

We find out that Stoker/Felicity has been manipulated by his magical mother for years, into staying in politics as a male. When she brings a man he killed back to life, Stoker/Felicity becomes aware that “there’s just so little he knows about her, who she consorts with, what she does in her spare time when she isn’t planning his every move or reviving men from the dead.”

Nomvula also brings someone back:
“Nomvula reaches with her mind as easily as she’d reach out with her hand and grips the two halves of the dead alphie, its long spider legs clattering together….Broken connections appear in her mind, and Nomvula mends them, one after the next until the alphie is whole again. There’s still a great emptiness within its circuitry, however, so Nomvula clenches her eyes tightly and forces thoughts through it, over and over like a saw through wood, until at last a spark catches, and it springs to life.”

Three-quarters of the way through the book there’s a literal deux ex machina, with a character we’ve met, Mr. Tau, telling Muzi that another character is not a “demon,” as he’d called her, but another of his children. Mr. Tau then intones seriously “War is on this eve, a war of gods, and I fear it will destroy everything on this earth.” The great thing about this scene is that it works, even though at the same time Muzi “is getting a full-on pervy vibe from the guy, but calling ‘stranger danger’ on a wrinkled old bastard who can pass through locked steel doors probably isn’t going to help the situation.”

By the end, the earth is not destroyed. All of the characters we care about (not Sydney) get a happy ending, with Felicity and Clever4-1 allowed to exist, Muzi and Elkin alive and in love, and the people and AIs who have been brought back to life continuing their trajectories. You know it’s a weirdly wonderful story when two characters are resurrected and that turns out to be only a minor part of everything that’s going on.


Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution

October 13, 2017

I meant to read just one of the essays in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, when it picked it up this week, but reading it was like that first bite of pizza after a long week of dieting and before I knew it, I’d read the whole book.

The essay I began with is by a book blogger friend, Melissa Arjona, entitled “Dispatches from a Texas Militarized Zone,” and details her experiences as a citizen and activist in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s eye-opening, even if you thought your eyes were already as wide as they can go– especially the part about aerostats, military-grade spy blimps that are now (since 2015) used to spy on American citizens along the Texas-Mexico border. “When did south Texas become a war zone?” she asks, and points out that the president’s proposed border wall may well be “invisible. It will be a high-tech web of cameras, sensors, and aerial surveillance facilitated by the use of aerostats and drones.”

After that essay, I flipped backwards to read Katha Pollitt’s essay “Beyond the Pussy Hats,” which gives specific suggestions for how to resist and persist, including the importance of speaking up if you’ve had an abortion. Her suggestions for how to get involved in local politics includes this one:
“Beyond electoral politics, there is lots of room to get involved. Are you currently attending an anti-abortion church—Catholic evangelical, or Greek or Russian or Jewish Orthodox? Well never mind how nostalgic you feel for your childhood and how nice the priest or rabbi is, stop it. Polish women walked out of church to protest abortion restrictions, and so should you. If you want to go to services, join a pro-choice denomination and put your money in a collection plate that will not be used to hurt women.”
At the conclusion of her essay, Pollitt points out that
“the immediate future consists of at minimum four long years of organized assault on the feminist gains of the last fifty years, to say nothing of attacks on the social safety net, civil rights, civil liberties, workers’ rights, voting rights, and the environment. Basically, anything government does that helps poor and low-income people, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women is going to be on the chopping block. That’s their plan.
What’s yours?”
I see that as the big question right now. After the political protests of this past winter, when our local group had as many as 100 people coming out for our weekly demonstration against the “yes-man” votes of our wealthy and elderly Republican congressman, we’re now down to an average of about 25 each week because people are “too busy” with their jobs and their children, trying to hang on and not facing the fact that if they don’t get involved now, there’s not going to be much left to hang on to.

As Alicia Garza points out in her essay, “How to Build a Movement,” getting involved “requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you.” She’s not just talking about a room full of men making laws about what women can and cannot do with their own bodies, she’s talking about feminists and LGBTQ groups and Black Lives Matter activists who have occasionally said things like “because they haven’t been here, they have no right to be here now.” Late-comers and members of other groups have more than a right to join up; we’re answering a need.

Come together. Right now. And read this book if you want to feel less timid and alone.


What Makes these Books so Late

October 11, 2017

I’ve had a stack of books on my desk since…I don’t know when. They’ve gathered dust for long enough and I’m now banishing them to our finished basement, where the walls are lined with shelves, or to my box for trading in at the “half price books” store in Columbus.

These books have something in common, and that is they did not interest me enough to write about at the time I read them. This doesn’t mean they’re mediocre books, necessarily, but that they were recommended or given to me because of a specific occasion, like the one about the Isabella Gardner art museum, where I visited last spring, or the Diana Wynne Jones title, which someone thought might be a book in which necromancy never pays, but I ended up disagreeing (no one was brought back from the dead or tried communicating from beyond—it’s time travel, not necromancy).

Here are the books I’m putting aside:

The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro (about the Isabella Gardner art museum)
The Time of the Ghost, Diana Wynne Jones (a time travel story with spirits)
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami (mostly for 20-somethings; Walker recommended it)
The Wild Party, Joseph Moncure March (amusing and told in verse, set in the 1920’s)
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (topical fiction, a black teen boy is shot by a cop)
The Boy on the Bridge, M.R. Carey (sequel to The Girl With All the Gifts, not as good)
The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch (lots of hype for this one; I found it dull)
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice (very British, set right after WWII)
The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson (her version of The Winter’s Tale, a contrived updating of an already implausible story)
Red Joan, Jennie Rooney (spy novel told from the end of the spy’s life)

Too late; didn’t write.

I usually don’t write about re-reading, either. For me, at least, there’s something about capturing first impressions–and preserving them–that makes blogging worth the time.

What makes it worth your time, writing about books?

Manhattan Beach

October 9, 2017

Why do we need another novel about World War II and the New York City area? It’s not clear, but that’s when and where Jennifer Egan’s newest novel, Manhattan Beach, is set. The focus is on the ambitions of a girl named Anna Kerrigan, and in typical Egan-like fashion, the large circle radiating out from where her central figure jumps in the water off the coast of Brooklyn includes smaller circles made by her father, Ed Kerrigan, and his one-time boss, Dexter Styles. Dexter first meets Anna as a young girl accompanying her father, a meeting he doesn’t remember when their paths cross again.

Anna begins her career inspecting parts for a battleship, but the first time she sees a deep-sea diver, she knows that’s what she wants to do. She has to be twice as good and twice as persistent as the men in order to get a chance, but of course she is so good at it that the men finally have to accept and even begin to admire her.

We see the extent to which automobiles were male possessions and women were always relegated to the role of caretaker in the stories of Anna’s youth. We get the picture about the thrill of sex as a forbidden thing when Dexter has a weekend affair with a woman who “wore a wedding ring (as did he) and a small gold cross at her neck, but a current of wayward sensuality had been unmistakable in her, making these symbols seem apotropaic.” Over and over we suffer with Anna as she is told that she can’t do something because her male employer wouldn’t “let” his daughter try it or because some man or other says something like “we’ve no idea how the female body would react.”

We can see the parallels to Anna’s thwarted ambition in her crippled sister, as few people (even those who love her) understand that she is trapped inside her body. When Dexter helps Anna take her sister to Manhattan Beach to see the ocean, he thinks “the change in the crippled girl was extraordinary. He’d found her sprawled unconscious, as if she’d been dropped from a height, but now she sat up independently, holding her head away from the stand.”

We see how other characters who have been dismissed because everyone thought they knew what happened already actually did have big ambitions and adventures of their own. Ed, Anna’s father, seems to have left his family when Anna was young, and we get bits and pieces of his story as hers continues, until we know all of what happened to keep him from coming home. Agnes, Anna’s mother, seems to be a typical female caretaker until we get the brief story, on page 268, that explains why she has had to devote her life to her crippled daughter. The story of the “imperious bosun” Ed works with on board a merchant marine ship called the Elizabeth Seaman shows how he becomes less prejudiced towards black people. There’s a lot about Dexter’s work as an underworld boss and how good he is at reading signals from powerful and dangerous men, until he fails to read a few signals correctly and ends up dead, partly as a consequence of a one-night stand with Anna that, of course, ends up making her pregnant.

We go through the agony of the limited choices facing a single mother-to-be in this time period. Anna considers abortion, but–for no obvious reason except for a nebulous hope the baby might be like her dead sister–decides to claim a marriage with a dead soldier instead of asking a gay friend to marry her. To make this work she has to move across the country, so she ends up on the west coast at last, a modern, independent woman with a baby, an aunt who has conveniently decided to become a caregiver, and a father who has, seemingly, come back from the dead.

It’s not literal necromancy, though, and the story provides few novel pleasures. The modern reader will find some insights achieved through sympathy with well-drawn characters into this era of what now seems like unnecessarily systematic and parochial prejudice, but mostly this novel has the feel of an old family saga, with one family’s descendant triumphing over the adversity of her humble beginnings. Anna makes a splash, but the novel itself doesn’t make too many new ripples.

Cinderella Necromancer

October 4, 2017

Because I have a google alert on the word “necromancy” (which results in me knowing more about video games and music than I would otherwise), I recently came across a new YA book title, Cinderella Necromancer, by F. M. Boughan.

It’s a pretty straightforward re-telling with an added supernatural dimension. The stepmother is obviously some kind of demon, as are her “daughters.” The Cinderella character, named Ellison, finds a book of spells that her father, a secret necromancer, has left in a secret passage. The prince and his father the king are good magicians, trying to root out the source of the necromancy that has so obviously been going on in the kingdom. There are some nice twists on the original tale.

Ellison’s necromancy is (appropriately!) moralistically described right from the beginning of her experimentation:
“The air hissed.
There was a softness to the sound, and my eyes flew open at the thought that perhaps a garden snake—or worse—had wandered into our home.
The hissing grew louder, sharper, until I realized that it wasn’t a snake at all but something that spoke my name.
I leapt to my feet and spun to face the uncovered windows, looking toward the circle’s east. The bone key and the pile of ash pulsed with a dark light, if indeed there is such a thing. It was as though all joy, all happiness, and all hope had been sucked from the room into the little pile of ash and cinders, which burned with an unflamed fire.”

Ellison is appalled by what she’s done even as she continues to do it. When she finally figures out what the price of doing necromancy actually is in this world, she renounces it (as she must to marry the prince). Even the demons she calls up to do her will tell her what a terrible thing it is that she’s doing. When she asks one how he became a demon, this is his reply:
“The spirit’s childish voice deepened to a roar, his razor sharp teeth descending to flash in the moonlight. I stumbled backward as he lunged for me, jaws snapping, tethered only by the cord of the circle which prevented me from harm. ‘You play with powers you don’t understand, mistress. It is you who does not allow my relief. It is you who calls the dead forth from their resting place.’
His voice lowered to a hiss like a thousand snakes. ‘It is you who keeps us shut out of the gates of heaven.’”

One of this author’s deft twists on the original tale is that Ellison can’t resist putting spells on her stepsisters, so rather than the usual moralistic plucking-out-of-eyes at the end of the tale, they convulse and bleed in unattractive ways right in the middle of the royal ballroom.

Since the stepsisters are demons, however, Ellison’s vengefulness is understandable, and she does perform an act of heroic sacrifice in the end. Nobody she loves ends up dying, though, and Ellison is left with a prince who is “sworn to serve the Almighty in the destruction of evil” so everyone comes out happily ever after and can give up the dark arts.



September 25, 2017

On Friday afternoon we drove up to Niagara-on-the-lake to meet our friends who live in Toronto, Brian and Eric. Brian and I had planned this weekend back in July, when he was at my house, as something to look forward to when I could travel again with the new knee.

IMG_5406It’s my favorite time of year for a road trip. The leaves are still on the trees, but a few of them are turning. The fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania and New York and Ontario are full of goldenrod and ironweed and Queen Anne’s Lace. Everything is at its fullest.

The fields of wildflowers made me think of other last weekends of September; it was family weekend at Grinnell this time of year, so more than once we drove that direction, through the endless fields of goldenrod, past blurs of trees beginning to show a little yellow, orange, or red.

This weekend it was hot all the way up to Canada; I loved it that this trip turned out to be an opportunity to get out and enjoy a few of the last warm days.

We went to a restaurant called Backhouse on Friday night, and tried the chef’s tasting menu, which was sumptuous—12 courses, with 9 different wines. We had never had anything like it, and agreed on our two favorite courses. One was a rich egg mousse, served in half an eggshell with a little bread rectangle on the side. The other was a duck liver mousse served with apricot compote and paired with a slightly sweet Riesling, which was described to us as “kind of like a coke with potato chips” in terms of the delight of the salty with the sweet.

On Saturday we had a late breakfast at our hotel, did some wine tasting, and poked into some of the little shops on the main street in Niagara-on-the-lake before an afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel. It was as good as we remembered, with a big pot of tea for each person, three varieties of sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and then petit fours and other sweets. In the evening we went to see IMG_5396The Madness of King George III, which was delightful, especially because the audience was part of the spectacle, with house lights up for most of the show and some uncertainty about how many kinds of bodily fluids the people in the front row might be subjected to (only a little spray from the king’s spit, it turned out… at least that evening). (Note: my photo was taken before the play began, with George III talking to the audience and William Pitt talking to the people who sat in the box seats on the side of the stage.)

Sunday we did some more wine tasting and then said goodbye to Brian and Eric at noon. Ron and I drove down to Niagara Falls, because when you’re that near a wonder of the world, you should go and see it even if you’ve seen it before. We found a parking space in a big lot across from where the rapids begin and walked down to the horseshoe falls. It was ninety degrees and exuberantly, lavishly sunny, so even I enjoyed cooling off in the mist from the falls. There were rainbows in the mist, too.IMG_5401.JPG

We drove back through sun-drenched trees and golden fields and arrived on our doorstep as the sun was setting. It was a picture-perfect trip, one that should sustain me through some of the chill to come.

Here’s a poem by Ian Parks entitled “Goldenrod,” about the chill to come:

If I don’t say it
someone will: the wind
blows through the goldenrod
like death flows through a crowd.
I watch it from a distance
as the whole field lifts and stirs.
Close up, it holds the promise
of a less than perfect world.
I knew the thing
before I knew its name.
Now all I know
is what the name infers:
a life of pure sensation
or the rod some angel brings—
announcing a momentous
death or birth, each face
expectant, brightly-lit.
I say the name and what it means
until the meaning blurs.
The wind blows through the goldenrod
like death flows through a crowd.
Nothing is accomplished
and the world is changed by it.

I like the ending of this poem today because I see it as kind of like our weekend—nothing was accomplished and the world was changed by it, at least for us, two couples in our fifties. It was a fitting celebration of the autumnal equinox.

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