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Missing the Theater

March 9, 2021

When my father was a young man, I am told, he always kept a folded-up $50 bill in his wallet in case he lucked into a performance of a play. A professor in the drama department at Southeast Missouri State University while I was growing up, he got me tickets to every play they put on, four plays a year. I sat through Shaw’s Misalliance when I was too young to really enjoy it and turned up for every performance of Once Upon a Mattress during its two-weekend run. While still in middle school, I took a friend to see the performance of Man of La Mancha that my father directed, and there was evidently criticism from that friend’s parents about how appropriate it was for girls that age to see the rape scene (when Aldonza is dragged back to what men at the inn see as her place in the world after being treated as “Dulcinea”).

On family trips, we visited theaters, and when we could make it to New York or London we would see a matinee in the afternoon and then an evening performance. On one memorable occasion I thought I had gotten tickets for nine people for an evening performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the new Globe Theatre in London, only to find out that I had actually purchased tickets for a performance that began at 23:59 (midnight). We’d been in London for less than a week, so we had no idea what time it was anyway; we went and enjoyed it–but I was glad I’d bought seats (on a previous trip to the new Globe we’d tried being groundlings).

On our last trip to London we saw a matinee of Wolf Hall and an evening performance of Bring Up the Bodies at London’s Aldwych theatre. My mother was in a wheelchair, so Ron and Eleanor and I arranged for special access to get her to the dress circle on the second level, where we had tickets. The Aldwych is an old theatre, with narrow aisles and seats, and at the intermission, the young woman who had been helping us, Emer, arranged for me and my mother to sit in a box on the same level, where we’d be more comfortable. The box seats hadn’t sold, she told us, so it was okay to give access to someone in a wheelchair and one “carer,” which was me, with my extra-wide hips (there were chairs without armrests in the box). Emer also told us that the week before, Steven Hawking sat in that box.

Both of us enjoyed the box seat. Even though its view of the stage wasn’t quite as expansive, we could look right down on the heads of the actors. It made a show with a fairly intimate point of view—Cromwell’s own—feel even more intimate. We’d all read the books, but even so we were spellbound, watching the events unfold on stage (for more details see Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). The plays are well-adapted (Mike Poulton) and directed (Jeremy Herrin of the Royal Shakespeare Company), so if you enjoyed the books I think you’d enjoy the plays. I’m still waiting anxiously for the third one to open onstage and hoping we can get back to London when it does.

Of course we’re all waiting for anything to open again onstage. It’s a strange intermission in a long life of play-going, this pandemic pause. Even in central Ohio I was used to at least four plays a year at Kenyon, plus occasional musicals, trips to Columbus and Chicago for touring shows and what had become an annual trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival each fall.

Because live theater was always a part of my life, I didn’t think that much about its effect until it was gone. I’ve watched plays and musicals online in the last year; yesterday I watched a play on a zoom link sent to me after I registered with Remote Theater. (the play was The Art of Sacrifice by Anthony Clarvoe). I watched it alone in my living room. Why would it have made a difference to see it with one or two other people in a big room surrounded by strangers? It’s not just the conversation at intermission and afterwards. It’s sharing the experience, seeing and hearing other people gasp or tear up or shuffle around awkwardly in their seats. Personally, I’m not sorry to have a more comfortable seat, because I have indelible memories of live theater experiences marked by the pain of my hips squeezed by the sides of the seat and my knees digging into the back of the seat in front of me. But this play wasn’t a shared experience; I could have just turned it off, and who would have known? I could have shouted back at some of the dialogue, and who would have cared?

In a quiet theater, everyone can hear you scream. I miss that dramatic potential! I miss dressing up “to show respect for the theater” as my father always said. I don’t miss the ticket prices and the predominantly gray-haired audiences. What do you miss? How do you think theater might change when it does come back?

The Ministry for the Future

March 1, 2021

I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel The Ministry for the Future because I was curious after reading Stefanie’s mostly positive review at A Stone in the River. My impression is less positive, which is not to say there aren’t good things in this novel. But Robinson can’t rein in his pedantic impulses or his volubility, which means that there might be a good 300-page novel lurking in these 563 pages.

The first thing a good editor would cut are the short “informative” chapters about the fossil fuel industry (Chapter 8) or what “ideology” means (Chapter 11). The worst of these short chapters pretend to be written from the points of view of various nonsentient entities, ideas, or categories. For example, a photon (Chapter 53: “I zing and I ping and I bring and I bling”), carbon (Chapter 66: “you think your birth was hard—my mom exploded”), taxes (Chapter 67: “taxes are interesting”), or history (Chapter 77: “everyone knows me but no one can tell me”).

Robinson is an experienced enough story-teller to begin with his most compelling story, the imagined experience of a young American aid worker who gets caught in an unprecedented heat wave in India and ends up being the only person left alive in a small “ordinary town in Uttar Pradesh,” near Lucknow. After the story, though, the author’s pedantic impulse kicks in and he has to frame the story for us by saying:
“For a while…it looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States—mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten or superseded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal. It looked quite possible that the same thing would happen with this event, the worst week in human history. How long would that stay true, about being the worst week? And what could anyone do about it? Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: the old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy.”

The fictional premise of the novel is that after the heat wave, India takes the lead on climate change action. Robinson has created a character that helps draw a reader through the story, the head of the Ministry for the Future, Mary Murphy. Mary and the people she works with are smart and they have ideals but work towards them in a realistic way, for the most part. As you get to know them, you admire their dedication and enjoy some of their conversations:
“When have people ever told the truth about this particular question?”
“People? Do you mean scientists or politicians?”
“Politicans of course. Scientists aren’t people.”
“I thought it was the reverse!”
“Neither scientists nor politicians are people.”
“Careful now. Mary here is a politician, and I’m a scientist.”
“No. You are both technocrats.”
“So, that means we are scientific politicians?”
“Or political scientists. Which is to say, politicized scientists. Given that political science is a different thing entirely.”
“Political science is a fake thing, if you ask me. Or at least it has a fake name. I mean, where’s the science in it?”
“Statistics, maybe?”
“No. They just want to sound solid. They’re history at best, economics at worst.”
“I sense a poli sci major here, still living the trauma.”
“It’s true!”

Eventually, however, you find out that the ministry has a dark side. After listening to the man who survived the Indian heat wave, Mary decides to encourage a “dark ops” division involved in international terrorism. Some of this is horrifying; the division head in charge believes that “there might be some people who deserve to be killed” and readers are led to believe that he involves the ministry in actions that kill people, starting with “Crash Day,” when “sixty passenger jets crashed in a matter of hours. All over the world, flights of all kinds, although when the analyses were done it became clear that a disproportionate number of these flights had been private of business jets, and the commercial flights that had gone down had mostly been occupied by business travelers. But people, innocent people, flying for all kinds of reasons; all dead. About seven thousand people died that day, ordinary civilians going about their lives….The War for the Earth is often said to have begun on Crash Day. And it was later that same year when container ships began to sink, almost always close to land.” After that, the narrator tells us, a group “announced that mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had been cultured and introduced by drone dart into millions of cattle all over the world….Nothing could stop these cattle from sickening and dying in a few years, and if eaten their disease could migrate into human brains, where it manifested as Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and was invariably fatal.”

Some of the terrorism seems less horrifying, though, like the takeover of the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, when we get a participant’s view of what it was like to be held captive and forced to watch videos about the state of the world:
“The educational materials we were exposed to got universally bad reviews. So many clichés! First films of hungry people in poor places….It was like looking at the longest charity advertisement ever made….And it was despite all a sobering sight to see how the poorest people on Earth still lived….Often statistics appeared on the big screen; yes, PowerPoint shows, a true punishment. That a tenth of one percent of the human population owned half humanity’s wealth—that was us, yay! That half the human population alive at that moment had no assets except their own potential labor power which was much weakened by poor health and education, that was definitely too bad. But blaming this on capitalism was wrong, we told these non-listening boring people; there would be eight billion poor people if it weren’t for capitalism! But whatever. The figures kept coming, graph after graph, repeated in ways that were not even close to compelling….The finale to all the propaganda was a long lecture telling us that the current world order was only working for the elites, and even for us it wouldn’t work for long. We were simply strip-mining the lifeworld, as one Germanic voice from the screen put it.”
The way this episode is told, from the point of view of an attendee who jets off afterwards to “decompress in Tahiti,” makes it funny and sad, a good story with a clear moral but less preachy than the other stories in this very long novel.

Throughout the novel, we get accounts of climate change disasters. The city that ran out of water on September 11, 2034. The entire LA basin flooded by torrential rain in the surrounding mountains. A heat wave “that hit Arizona, then New Mexico and west Texas, then east Texas, then Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and the Florida panhandle.” And the narrator points out that the lack of reaction to these disasters was a manifestation of “a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did. So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them no.”

Robinson’s contempt for some of the people he pretends to be concerned about saving is clear. In the Midwest, for example, climate change activists are forced to “go to county supervisors, and town council meetings, and church meetings, and state legislature meetings, and county fairs, and trade shows, and school assemblies, and every kind of meeting, all the meetings no one ever thinks to go to and deeply regrets goin to the moment they do.” His activists make the sacrifice because they are determined to save these ignorant Midwesterners from themselves by moving them to the big coastal cities in order to make room for wildlife corridors.

Some of the most interesting ideas are the “carbon coin” and the internet site “YourLock.” The carbon coin “stimulated many short-term investments in carbon sequestration projects, and many longer-term investments in the coin itself. It had caused some of the biggest carbon owners to cash out and keep fossil carbon in the ground….Coal had become just a black rock you could turn into money by leaving it alone.” The social media site YourLock “was organized as a co-op owned by its users, after which you had secured your data in a quantum-encrypted cage and could use it as a negotiable asset in the global data economy, agreeing to sell your data or not to data-mining operations out there who quickly saw the lay of the land and began to offer people micro-payments for their data, mainly health information, consumption patterns, and finance.”

Another interesting idea that may be too pie-in-the-sky to work is a maximum wage ratio: “who is incentivized to do what in a wage ratio of one to a thousand? Those getting a thousand time more than starting wage earners, what’s their incentive from out of that situation? To hide, I’d say. To hide the fact that they don’t actually do a thousand times more than their employees….And for the lowest income folks, what’s their incentive? ….I hope I win the lottery, or, I’m going to shoot up now, or, The world is sofucked. You hear that kind of thing, right? Maybe incentive isn’t the word here. Disincentive, to keep it in that lingo. When you get one pay amount, and someone doing something easier ets a thousand of that pay amount, that’s a disincentive to care about anything. At that point you throw a rock through a window, or vote for some asshole who is going to break everything, which may give you a chance to start over, and if that doesn’t work then at least you have said fuck you to the thousand-getters.”

Because he wants to solve all the problems, Robinson even has a picture of how refugees could be given “world citizenship.”

One of the failures of imagination in this novel is the way it completely ignores the plight of anyone with limited mobility. Mary Murphy continues to get around her mountainous city on foot until the end of her life, as one guesses the novelist expects everyone to be able to. We’re not all so lucky, however, and there are no ideas about accommodations for those who can’t walk well or negotiate stairs to climb into the idyllic-sounding airships or sailboats in this work of fiction.

I think more fiction and less preaching would get Robinson’s message further, maybe even to those who don’t already agree with him.

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall

February 26, 2021

Suzette Mayr’s academic satire Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall starts out in the tradition of David Lodge, but from a woman’s point of view. Edith is a Professor of English at the fictional western Canadian University of Inivea.

I heard about this book from a Canadian book blogger friend, and it came to my attention at just the right time; I read Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crowley Hall, published in 2017, while I was also reading the more-recently-published (2020) Writers and Lovers. I found that the wide-eyed idealism of the former was pleasantly diluted by the cynical attitudes of the latter while my cynicism was kept at a non-suicide-inducing level by the juxtaposition.

Dr. Edith Vane starts with the good intentions of a semester, in August, and we follow her all the way through to the haggard finish line of December. Edith shows her resolve to start the semester right by going out and buying herself some of the clothing she has seen worn by female academics, including a kind of fictional shoe named after a Japanese female samurai warrior, the hangaku. She has a book coming out, a scholarly work based on her dissertation, and I couldn’t help picturing her author photo in her new blouse and cardigan with “a big apologetic smile on her face” as the protagonist of Writers and Lovers describes every female author photo.

As every academic will, I found some of the details of this novel eerily familiar, like the way Crawley Hall is falling apart. At one point, Edith is sitting at her desk and maggots are dropping on it from the ceiling above, which reminds me of Taliaferro Hall at the University of Maryland in the spring of 1984, when swarms of termites made their way through the basement where the teaching assistants had their (shared) desks.

The way a person who worked at the University is erased when they can no longer come to work is also depressingly familiar. One character “didn’t even have a retirement reception. His office nameplate has vapourized, his face and faculty profile have been stripped from the department website. Even though he’d been working at the university for forty-two years.” I’ve seen that kind of thing happen over the years at Kenyon, in the aptly-named Sunset Cottage. It seems so real when another character, older than Edith, tells her that “the University of Inivea is just a machine that eats people….They want you to give until they’ve sucked you into a husk. They want you to splatter your brains like that bird on your window.“ That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed “part-time” for so many years, so that I don’t have to sell my soul to the college entirely.

The joke with the hares is on absent-minded professors. There are many in Crawley Hall; they are all literally “hare-brained….easy prey” for a building that is a cog in the people-eating machine of the university.

Like Casey in Writers and Lovers—and like so many of us who have dedicated our lives to reading and writing–Edith used to have ideals: “All she has ever wanted to do is read books. Write books. Talk about, sleep with, breathe, shit, and eat books. Maybe find true love with someone like her who understands the crucial, necessary, life-giving essence of books. That’s why she thought she’d chosen the right job, because understanding books is what professors do.” The satire, however, makes it clear that what professors actually do is steal ideas and lovers from each other, fill out forms, and compete for grants and trips to conferences.

Even the teaching, which attracts young writers like Casey and Edith (and maybe you or me) turns out to be illusory. When the building actually destroys a pile of essays Edith was supposed to grade, an older professor tells her not to worry, that “the students don’t care about the essays. They just care about the grades.”

Dr. Edith Vane’s story is a fine one to read in December or May, when the romance has gone out of the relationship between a professor and her profession.

Writers and Lovers, Lily King

February 25, 2021

Writers and Lovers, by Lily King, is one of those novels about the trials and tribulations experienced by a novelist as she is writing her novel. This one calls herself Casey and works as a waitress by night so she can write during the day.

A few lines of dialogue between Casey and another waitress cleverly reveals that she is no ordinary waitress:
“How’d you get this job?” she says. “You’re not one of Marcus’ usual hires.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re more like us, the old guard.” She means people hired by the previous house manager. “Cerebral.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“Well, you know what cerebral means, so case in point.”
As the reader, I’m assuming you’re supposed to feel included in the way they’re mentally shaking hands to congratulate each other on being intellectual and stuff (clip from The Sure Thing).

There are lots of parts designed to appeal to readers and writers, like when Casey is sleeping with a poet who quotes Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” during sex or later when she is thinking about dating a fiction writer who reels off a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” when Casey refers to it. Like many of us who are readers, Casey thinks of almost everything in terms of characters from fiction. When an older man asks her to live with him and his two little boys, Casey thinks “he calls me his waif, his down-on-her-luck waitress, but he takes it all lightly. In fact, Holly Golightly is one of his names for me. If we lived together I would expose myself as the blighted Jean Rhys character I really am.”

There are moments in this novel where Lily King expresses something so well that I can feel it, like when Casey remembers her mother saying “tomorrow after you leave I will stand here at this window and remember that yesterday you were right here with me” and then Casey says “and now she’s dead and I have that feeling all the time, no matter where I stand.”

Although I want to like Casey because she’s interesting and perceptive, as she tells more of her story I’m increasingly put off by how seriously she takes herself and how pretentious she and her friends are. When an author friend comments on her novel, she starts by saying “Kay Boyle said once that a good story is both an allegory and a slice of life. Most writers are good at one, not the other. But you are doing both so beautifully here.” (Nice work if you can get it–define what is good in contemporary fiction as you deliver it.) Late in the novel, there’s a short paragraph meant to comment on all that’s come before:
“A woman takes a bite of her BLT and sends it back. She says she doesn’t like the spicy mayonnaise. The kitchen makes another, with a milder aioli. I bring it out to her, and a few minutes later she asks me to bring some of the spicy mayonnaise back.
‘I thought I didn’t like it, but I did,’ she says.”
It’s so allegorical, so deep, also a slice of life.

Perhaps because Casey is so pretentious herself, she can deftly pop the balloon of pretention in others, like when she is talking to her friend Silas, the fiction writer, about an author photo:
“It was taken from the side, one of his shoulders in the foreground, elbow to knee, bicep flexed. He’s bearing down on the lens with a menacing look. The contrast between black and white is so extreme his face looks carved out like an Ansel Adams rock face and the backlighting has turned his pupils to pinpricks.
‘Why do men always want to look like that in their author photos?’
“My deep thoughts hurt me,’ Silas says in a scratchy voice.
‘Exactly.’ Or’—I try to mimic him—‘I might have to murder you if you don’t read this.’
He laughs.
‘Whereas with women’—I take a book off the shelf by a writer I admired—‘they have to be pleasing.’ The photo backs up my argument perfectly. She has a big apologetic smile on her face. I bounce the photo in front of Silas. ‘Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.’”

By the time Casey is interviewing to teach literature in a private high school, I have lost most of my patience with her. When she is asked “have you always been such an enthusiastic reader?” she talks about an obscure German novel translated into English as she replies:
“Not really. I liked reading, but I was picky about books. I think the enthusiasm came when I started writing. Then I understood how hard it is to re-create in words what you see and feel in your head. That’s what I love about Bernhard in the book. He manages to simulate consciousness, and it’s contagious because while you’re reading it rubs off on you and your mind starts working like that for a while. I love that. That reverberation for me is what is most important about literature. Not themes or symbols or the rest of that crap they teach in high school.”
What reader doesn’t love that? But why does it have to be coupled with the insult to more formal methods of teaching literature?

Then it gets worse. Casey gets to pontificate on how she would teach literature, if a high school would only give a Writer the chance to do it the Right Way:
“I would want kids to talk and write about how the book makes them feel, what it reminded them of, if it changed their thoughts about anything. I’d have them keep a journal and have them freewrite after they read each assignment. What did this make you think about? That’s what I’d want to know. I think you could get some really original ideas that way, not the old regurgitated ones like man versus nature. Just shoot me if I ever assign anyone an essay about man versus nature. Questions like that are designed to pull you completely out of the story. Why would you want to pull kids out of the story? You want to push them further in, so they can feel everything the author tried so hard to create for them.”
Yeah, because no teacher has ever tried to get students to talk and write about how a book makes them feel. At this point, Casey has completely lost any sympathy I ever had for her.

Casey gets a happy ending because she is an extraordinary creature, much better than you or me. You might find her type teaching literature at any high school near you.

Really, you can experience the best part of this novel standing in a library or bookstore, if you can find one open and dare to venture in during these pandemic times. Just check out the author photo on the back flap; get a load of the big apologetic smile on Lily King’s face.

The Snow Queen, Joan D. Vinge

February 22, 2021

My friend Jenny and I decided to read a book together, and we ended up choosing Joan D. Vinge’s classic science fiction novel The Snow Queen (published in 1980) because neither of us had read it yet and we felt it was high time.

Jeanne: There are lots of good things about The Snow Queen. There are also lots of less good things. There are just lots of things, as it’s 465 pages long.

Jenny: The thesis of my position paper is that this was too many pages to be. Has Joan Vinge thought about writing this same book but only two hundred and sixty-five pages long? How about that?

So the premise of this book is that this planet called Tiamat is ruled alternately by a queen from the Winters and the Summers, and every 150 years they swap out who rules. During the reign of the Winter Queen, the fancy-fancy technology planets have access to Tiamat via a wormhole, and during the reign of the Summers: No wormhole, no planet visitors, no trade in fancy tech. The current Winter Queen, Arienrhod, has come up with a scheme to prolong her reign: She impregnates a bunch of unconscious Summer women with cloned versions of herself, in the hopes that one of the clones will grow up and become the Summer Queen.

Fast forward the number of years it takes for a clone to grow up, and our hero is a girl called Moon. She and her cousin Sparks (yes) both plan to be sibyls when they grow up. It only works out for her. In despair, Sparks sets out to make his fortune in the city, and what with one thing and another, they are separated. I can’t describe to you how little I cared about them ever finding each other again. IS THAT CALLOUS?

Jeanne: no, it is not callous because we do not know them. I thought they were going to be the kind of background characters who show what a world is like before we meet the main characters on the big stage. But then they turn out to be the main characters? And the only thing we know about Moon is that she’s a sibyl and even though Sparks leaves her in their hometown because he can’t be a sibyl too, her driving motivation is to be with him again. And the only thing we know about Sparks is that his father was an “off-worlder” and that motivates him to make his way to the big city where “summers” like him are considered bigger rubes than rural Ohioans in downtown Manhattan–they are “superstitious fish-farmers reeking of seaweed and tradition.”

I thought the pace picked up once Moon accidentally left the planet with some smugglers and Sparks started meeting people in the city. A policewoman, a “Blue,” named Jerusha gives readers the first clue about why the sibyls are important and why they are not allowed in the city, called Carbuncle: “Sibyls were the carriers of the Old Empire’s lost wisdom, meant to give the new civilizations that built on its ruins a key to unlock its buried secrets. And if there was anything the Hegemony’s wealthy and powerful didn’t want, it was to see this world stand on its own feet and grow strong enough to deny them the water of life.”

The “water of life” is produced by killing the mers who live in the seas of Tiamat. Predictably, for a book published in 1980, the colonists, “winters,” claim that the mers are non-sentient, only to find out later that they are sentient creatures. (Note: I did enjoy the “snowbird” theme in this novel, that the off-worlders are called “winters” because they are transients who have little interest in the struggles of the native people.)

Jerusha is fighting to keep her job in a patriarchal culture that doesn’t value her, and I identify with her so much it hurts. I’m assuming (hoping) that this is less true for Jenny, as I am older. When we first started to learn anything about Jerusha I was amazed at how much her struggles resemble mine at work. She says “I’m fed up with this! I’d do anything to be doing an honest job, somewhere where they want a real police force and not a laughingstock.” When her friend and colleague asks why she doesn’t transfer, she asks “do you have any idea how long it takes to get a transfer?” And then she sighs and says “Besides, I’ve tried. No luck. They ‘need me here.’” We are told that “the bitterness in her voice burned like acid.” And then she gets the question I’ve been asked so often: “why don’t you quit?” The answer, of course, is a line from Tony Hoagland’s poem “Reasons to Survive November,” that “my survival is their failure.”

Jenny: I hate that you’ve felt that way about your job! And yeah, I found Jerusha massively more compelling than our two main characters (or the damn queen). I’d have been a million times more interested in a book that focused on her, Ngenet, and the rest of the smugglers, not least because the author spent time showing us why those characters acted the way they did. This is particularly true for Jerusha: you really get to see what her moral code is and why she keeps pressing on with a job that seems so thankless.

Jeanne: Yes. There’s a moment when Jerusha is at work that kills me, another part where I really identify with her. She finds that “her eyes were hot and brimming suddenly; she did not blink until the reservoir of tears subsided, so that none escaped her control.” She cares, but she can’t let anyone she works with see that.

Jenny: I wish Joan Vinge had given Moon even a spark (no pun intended) of an interesting personality, because one thing I truly loved about the book was the way it blended fantasy and SF elements. What seems at first to be magic — the sibyls’ power to form a psychic connection and find information they don’t consciously know — turns out to be… well, still magic, I guess. But, like, science-y magic! There’s a sort of infinite Old Empire data source that the sibyls are drawing on, and Moon discovers late in the book that the data source is located on (in?) Tiamat. That’s genuinely really cool! Why wasn’t the whole book about that?

Perhaps to nobody’s surprise, I was immediately hung up on the situation with the mers. As with the sibyls’ power, the mers seem to be magical and turn out to be science, mutant creatures that were developed on purpose, with science, to have a kind of sentience that isn’t easily accessed through human means / human communication. Again, very cool! It’s the kind of xenobiology that appeals to me, where the species are so different in mindset and culture that it’s nearly impossible to find a point of connection between them.

But I couldn’t get over the mer slaughter. Regardless of their sentience (I guessed they were sentient too, and I guess we can’t blame an older book for using a trope that feels, forty years after the book’s publication, a bit passe), the brutality of the mer hunting seemed indefensible — and it seemed clear early on that the book thought so, too. It is unaccountable to me that we’re asked, in the final third of the book, to witness Sparks doing an absolutely brutal mer hunt, motivated by revenge on Ngenet (who’s trying to protect the mers in his area), and then to be asked to believe that Sparks is a good person really, underneath it all. Is he? Is he, Jeanne?

Jeanne: No, he isn’t. But who among us is good? Sparks is an object for Moon’s affection and a sign that she won’t turn out as bad as her clone-mother, Arianrhod, because she treats him–even him, having seen what she saw–as a person who is still capable of atoning for his mistakes.

Jenny: I think this is what bugged me! We see no sign that he’s interested in atoning for his mistakes, or that he’s working on any kind of plan to atone for his mistakes. The idea Moon is pushing is that he’s good at the core, and I think I’ve become (over the past four years especially) allergic to the idea that there’s some core of moral character that can be divorced from the actions a person takes. I wanted to see Sparks commit to repairing the harm he’s done, maybe even, I dunno, apologize to some of the people he’s hurt. But that doesn’t happen, and it really damaged the “happy” ending for me.

Jeanne: I agree that the way Vinge blends fantasy and SF elements is one of the best parts of this book. I am always enthusiastic about a world in which there’s old technology that the characters don’t know how to use because they’re the degenerate remnants of an earlier, more advanced society. I love the explanation Moon gets on another planet, Kharemough, about what it means to be a sibyl when she has asked “how could the Old Empire put sibyls everywhere, if no god did? Weren’t they only humans?” The answer is:

“They were….But in some ways they had the power of gods. They could travel between worlds directly, in weeks or months, not years–they had hyperlight communicators and stardrives. And yet their Empire fell apart in the end…even they overextended themselves. Or so we think.
But even as the Empire fell, some remarkable and selfless group had created a storehouse, a data bank, of the Empire’s learning in every area of human knowledge. They had hoped that with all of humanity’s discoveries recorded in one central, inviolable place, they would make the impending collapse of their civilization less complete, and the rebuilding that much swifter. And because they realized that technical collapse might be virtually total on many worlds, they had devised the simplest outlets for their data bank that they could conceive of–human beings. Sibyls, who could transmit their receptivity directly to their chosen successors, blood to blood.”

And here’s the really interesting part–it’s not just technology, it’s also biology:

“A sibyl’s ‘infection’ is a man-made disease, a bio-technical construct so sophisticated that we’ve barely begun to unravel its subtleties. It creates, or perhaps implants, certain restructurings in the brain tissue that make a sibyl receptive to a faster-than-light communication medium. You become a receiver, and a transmitter. You communicate directly with the original data source. That’s where you are when you drown in nothingness: within the computer’s circuits, not lost in space. Or sometimes you are in communion with other sibyls living on other worlds, who have answers to questions the Old Empire never thought to ask.”

I’m less enthusiastic about any plot that involves Fate, especially when Fate is a blind old woman and turns out to have been another sibyl all along. But again, it seems to me that Jerusha is the true heart of the story, because at the end of it she provides context for what has happened on Tiamat. When it seems like Moon has triumphed and everything is going to be okay, one of Jerusha’s officers asks “what force in the galaxy is stronger than she is?” and Jerusha replies “indifference….Indifference…is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it. It lets neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. It doesn’t act, it allows. And that’s what gives it so much power.”

Jenny: I loved this quote!! I agree that it felt like the heart of the book. Apart from the Moon/Sparks relationship, which as I say I did not care about at all, the book was at its strongest when it showed characters working for what they cared about. Like, Ngenet was a fairly minor character, but I felt so tender toward him knowing that he was trying to save and protect the mers in his area.

Jeanne: Although there are things about The Snow Queen that might seem dated, the warning against indifference does not. In the last four decades we’ve seen what happens when neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. –What do you think, Jenny? Why does the Queen put the “shards of ice” (the metaphor from the original fairy tale) into Sparks’ heart? Is she merely a warning against a heartless female in power?

Jenny: I would have loved to understand the Queen better! She’s completely indifferent to the suffering of her people, to the point of planning biological warfare against the Summers to prevent them from interfering in her plan for dominance, but she cares a lot about Sparks and about retaining her power, and I was never sure why either of those things was important to her. She did feel like a more generic woman-in-power villain, which was frustrating, especially in contrast to Jerusha, who is ambitious in her own way, but who tries to do the right thing, no matter the cost to herself.

Jenny: Final verdict: Incredible worldbuilding, shame about the protagonists.
Jeanne: We give our award for best supporting characters to Jerusha and Ngenet.

Devolution, Max Brooks

February 18, 2021

I read and enjoyed Max Brooks’ World War Z so picked up his newer novel when I came across it. Entitled Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, it tells its story through first-person narratives from letters and journals, which makes it sound less exciting than it is; it’s a page-turner.

It’s also a horror story. I realized this around three one morning as I was reading it in a quiet house on a quiet street with snow falling outside, no neighbors’ lights, no car going by, just me and the dark and a story about creatures trying to get into a house to eat the people inside. Yep. That’s one way to read it.

It doesn’t start out like a horror story. It starts out with some gentle satire about people who move to the wilderness of the Pacific northwest to try to live in a sustainable way without knowing anything about nature or how their technology works. The main character is from LA, a woman so new to the prototype community called Greenloop that she and her husband haven’t yet read the owner’s manual about how their smarthome works. The other inhabitants of Greenloop are people who have never planted a garden and who don’t understand the dangers of feeding wild animals. When Rainier suddenly erupts, they are cut off from civilization.

There’s a lot of satire on idealism, especially with regard to technology. I love the enthusiastic way its founder advertises Greenloop: “if we can put all these planet-saving ideas under one roof, literally, and plant just enough Greenloops around the country for those ideas to trickle down to the general public, then we’d finally have our Green Revolution. No more sacrifice, no more guilt. No more conflict between profit and planet. Americans could have it all, and what’s more American than having it all?” In case that’s not pointed enough, the brother of the main character, who lent her his house in Greenloop, points out that the tech industry doesn’t “plan for what can go wrong. They ‘move fast and break things.’ It didn’t occur to Facebook that the Russians might hijack their platform to hijack our elections, even though they’d been doing it to other countries for years. It doesn’t occur to Google, still, that while they’re racing, balls out, to corner the market on driverless cars, terrorists could hack those cars and drive them into crowds.”

The satire on how American diet culture can be useful against the threat of starvation is good, too. An older woman urges the main character to look at the food she has in her house and “go through it all. Catalog everything edible, right down to the last calorie. You must know how to do that, you’re an American girl. I bet you’ve been dieting all your life.”

Devolution is certainly a horror story for our times. Greenloop is cut off from civilization because of some very special circumstances: “if the USGS had been properly staffed, funded, and heard, if the local services hadn’t been gutted by the last recession, if FEMA hadn’t been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, if the Defense Logistics Agency hadn’t had to buy most of their supplies from the private sector, if the ash hadn’t closed the airports and that damn drone hadn’t been deployed to Venezuela, if the president was competent and the media was responsible, if the I-90 sniper had been on his meds… if everything hadn’t conspired to combine the greatest national unrest since Rodney King with the greatest natural calamity since Katrina….”

After all the hints of danger, the feeling of being watched, the discovery of chewed bones in the undergrowth, animals and then people disappearing, the people of Greenloop figure out that there’s a pack of Sasquatch hunting them for food, showing up to throw rocks and then breaking into their houses through windows and broken doors. The surviving humans make spears and ring their houses with bamboo spikes, but the sasquatch still get through.

The main character’s journal gives details of the fights, while a forest ranger’s interview provides a coda to the story of their heroism: “Nature is pure. Nature is real. Connecting with nature brings out the best in you. That’s what I hear from the poor dumb dipshits who come up here every year in their new REI outfits, never having felt dirt under their feet, just aching to lose themselves in the Garden of Eden. And then a few days later we find them crawling through the muck, half-starved, dehydrated, nursing some gangrenous wound.
They all want to live ‘in harmony with nature’ before some of them realize, too late, that nature is anything but harmonious.”

The novel ends with four imagined scenarios, each more horrific than the rest but oddly hopeful in terms of the survival of the human race. And really, what can produce more hope–even in the middle of a sleepless night–than a story about people who have worse troubles than yours?

The Lamps of History, Michael Sandler

February 16, 2021

One of the things I like best about Michael Sandler’s volume of poems, The Lamps of History, is the way the images can take me almost entirely out of the poem–into imagining scenes from my own life–and then reel me back in, making me react to the rest of the experience as if it were from a life I knew something about. For instance, in “When Literature Made Something Happen,” I am invited to “sit… in a gilded czarist theater/where dusty chandeliers suggest a courtliness that crimson velvet,/masking an imperial crest above the stage, overrides.” That makes me think of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires where I once sat awed in a chair that looked and felt like a throne, and that image makes me feel some of what a character in the poem must have felt as a young girl, in a “witness chair” with adults demanding that she tell them “what they talked about” until she finally “blurts/ Tolstoy.”

I remember being on the ocean around Maui when I read about how “our kayak barely yaws/ when a giant turtle breasts through cyan-green.”

None of the poems use image to ground me in experience better than “A Cubist Confronts Monday,” in which we get nostalgic images of going to work in the time before the pandemic, reflected back with sadness because many of us no longer see “planes of my face, groin, buttocks/slip into a ready slot, a tower’s/revolving door, showing my every side/ to mammon’s guards.”

Another thing I like about these poems is the slightly-amused-while-also-terribly-serious take on necromancy in “Impediments,” about a dead loved one and the still-living speaker’s urge to atone: “like you, I don’t admit/ the dead commune,/ although perhaps you’re still adept/ at penetrating gesture and look.”

Best of all, though, I like the poems about what it’s like to get old. “Bottle Cap” is one of my two favorites, with its final image of the cap sent flying “over the back fence/of childhood, when small/ seemed useful and the useless never/ nothing and nothing had gone flat.” And “Acer Saccharum” reminds me of something my father once said about not recognizing “that old man in the mirror” when he caught a glimpse first thing in the morning.

Acer Saccharum

This lofty tree guarding our northerly park
looks ready to turn. Splashes of leaves yellowing
at the edge, yet essentially green within,
the way some of us say we feel inside—
who doesn’t, shambling through duff, believe
they weren’t that different at 25,

that brittle arteries won’t run with sap
next March, or that the mind, though fibrous, isn’t
still as sharp, as the Latin word suggests
(the Romans made their spear shafts out of maple).

My buds, welts with a past, tighten their fists
for winter, quieting leaf-promises
of breath and rain grieved into sugared drips,
of one more honeyed ring in acrid flesh.

I received a copy of this volume from the author as part of a TLC Book Tour.

If you read these poems, I think that some of the images from The Lamps of History might stick with you for a while after you turn the last page.

Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker

February 11, 2021

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is a book by Matthew Walker. I read it after hearing my son and his girlfriend recommend it and Ron read parts of it out loud. They claim it’s a transformative book and it certainly has been for Ron; he is getting at least two more hours of sleep each night than he used to before he read it. I haven’t changed my habits much because they were already pretty good, but now I know more about why sleep is important and what happens while a person is sleeping.

The book is full of experiments and their results. One of the introductory ones “is to take an organism that has both sleep types…and keep it awake all night and throughout the subsequent day. NREM and REM sleep are thus similarly removed, creating the conditions of equivalent hunger for each sleep stage. The question is, which type of sleep will the brain feast on when you offer it the chance to consume both during a recovery night? NREM and REM sleep in equal proportions? Or more of one than the other, suggesting greater importance of the sleep stage that dominates?” The results of the experiment are that “NREM sleep rebounds harder. The brain will consume a far larger portion of deep NREM sleep than of REM sleep on the first night after total sleep deprivation….but should you keep recording sleep across a second, third, and even fourth recovery night, there’s a reversal. Now REM sleep becomes the primary dish of choice with each returning visit to the recovery buffet table, with a side of NREM sleep added. Both sleep stages are therefore essential.”

There are lots of tips for people who want to learn and remember more easily. The results of one experiment Walker recounts “explain NREM sleep’s discerning memory influence. Much like selecting intentional filters on an Internet search or a shopping app, spindles offer a refining benefit to memory by allowing the storage site of your hippocampus to check in with the intentional filters carried in your astute frontal lobes, allowing selection only of that which you need to save, while discarding that which you do not.”

One of the most horrifying parts, for me, was what he says about driving while drowsy:
“You may find it surprising to learn that vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined. Drowsy driving alone is worse than driving drunk. That may seem like a controversial or irresponsible thing to say, and I do not wish to trivialize the lamentable act of drunk driving by any means. Yet my statement is true for the following simple reason: drunk drivers are often late and braking, and late in making evasive maneuvers. But when you fall asleep, or have a microsleep, you stop reacting altogether. A person who experiences a microsleep or who has fallen asleep at the wheel does not brake at all, nor do they make any attempt to avoid the accident. As a result, car crashes caused by drowsiness tend to be far more deadly than those caused by alcohol or drugs. Said crassly, when you fall asleep at the wheel of your car on a freeway, there is now a one-ton missile traveling at 65 miles per hour, and no one is in control.”

One of the most surprising parts is about learning and sleep. Walker says “the most common reason my students give for pulling all-nighters is to cram for an exam. In 2006, I decided to conduct an MRI study to investigate whether they were right or wrong to do so. Was pulling an all-nighter a wise idea for learning? We took a large group of individuals and assigned them to either a sleep group or a sleep deprivation group. Both groups remained awake normally across the first day. Across the following night, those in the sleep group obtained a full night of shut-eye, while those in the sleep deprivation group were kept awake all night under the watchful eye of trained staff in my lab. Both groups were then awake across the following morning. Around midday, we placed participants inside an MRI scanner and had them try to learn a list of facts, one at a time, as we took snapshots of their brain activity. Then we tested them to see how effective that learning had been. However, instead of testing them immediately after learning, we waited until they had had two nights of recovery sleep. We did this to make sure that any impairments we observed in the sleep-deprived group were not confounded by them being too sleepy or inattentive to recollect what they may very well have learned. Therefore, the sleep-deprivation manipulation was only in effect during the act of learning, and not during the later act of recall. When we compared the effectiveness of learning between the two groups, the result was clear: there was a 40 percent deficit in the ability of the sleep-deprived group to cram new facts into the brain (i.e., to make new memories), relative to the group that obtained a full night of sleep. To put that in context, it would be the difference between acing an exam and failing it miserably!”

The most important and least surprising part of this book is what it says about why public high schools in the U.S. should move their start times to later in the morning. The effect of a later start time for high school students in Edina, Minnesota was “a net SAT profit of 212 points.” But Walker also points out that “this state of chronic sleep deprivation is especially concerning considering the adolescence is the most susceptible phase of life for developing chronic mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and suicidality. Unnecessarily bankrupting the sleep of a teenager could make all the difference in the precarious tipping point between psychological wellness and lifelong psychiatric illness. This is a strong statement, and I do not write it flippantly or without evidence.”

Walker’s studies of sleep loss and metabolism lead him to the conclusion that “the less you sleep, the more you are likely to eat. In addition, your body becomes unable to manage those calories effectively, especially the concentrations of sugar in your blood.”

The sections on dreaming are also very interesting. I like the way he says that “REM-sleep dreaming is informational alchemy.”

Unfortunately, though, this book doesn’t have any easy answers for someone like me who occasionally suffers from middle-of-the-night insomnia. Walker’s message about sleep aids is very clear: don’t take them.

After reading this book, I asked a friend who teaches neuroscience at Kenyon about it and she said she thinks this is such a good book that she assigns it in one of her classes. It’s an especially important book for adolescents and the people who love them, but it could change your life at any age.

Blogiversary (the 13th)

February 5, 2021

This blog began on February 3, 2008, which makes it pretty old in the annals of the internets.

Last year at this time I started trying to post more photos, especially of the book being reviewed.

I promised more cat photos too, but not sure I delivered on that consistently, so here are a few to assure you that my household is still well provided with cats after almost a year of us staying at home all the time. Here’s one of me and Pippin:

Here’s one of Tristan:

And here’s one of Melian, looking outside at the snow:

Crossing Places, Elly Griffiths

February 4, 2021

After reading all of the Louise Penny mysteries I cast about for another mystery series recommended by book bloggers and found a series of twelve novels by Elly Griffiths featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway (there’s a thirteenth out in hardback). I’ve read the first six and am enjoying them.

I found Ruth a good guide to the mysteries because she’s not on the police force. She gets consulted, and sometimes she blunders or backs into a mystery, but she’s not the main investigator. Also she has an appealingly dry sense of humor and a few human faults. When she gets into a car in the first novel, Crossing Places, she “climbs in, feeling fat, as she always does in cars. She has a morbid dread of the seatbelt not fitting around her.” Although I think that’s a fairly common experience, I don’t remember ever reading about it before. And Ruth lives on the edge of a saltmarsh near Norfolk, England, which sounds like an interesting and far-away place.

Here are a few of the parts I found fun in these books. In A Room Full of Bones, the fourth one, there’s a big black horse called The Necromancer who plays a part in the plot. And I learned along with Ruth that “as recently as 2003 working parties were advising that human remains should not be returned to their country of origin because of doubts about their ‘care and preservation.’” In A Dying Fall, the fifth one, Ruth considers the word “stunning” as a compliment and thinks “to stun someone—it’s quite a violent image. What must it be like to be so beautiful that looking at you is like a blow on the head? Ruth can’t imagine.”

There are a number of amusing observations about higher education, where Ruth and some of the other characters work: “Elaine and the others were all members of some loony sect that danced on the hills at night pretending to be King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He remembers Clayton Henry bouncing around his converted windmill on a giant rubber ball. It’s not exactly a good advertisement for higher education.”

As Ruth becomes a mother, there are observations about what it’s like to be a working mom, like that “she always turns her phone off during lectures, and in the old days often used to leave it off all day. But now she turns it on again as soon as she can. There is always the chance that there might be the message. The one telling her to come quickly because Kate is hurt, is ill, has been abducted by a serial killer in a clown mask. These days her imagination resembles a late night horror film. It’s what being a mother does to you.”

Reading about the “separate system” in prisons during my prolonged Covid isolation made quite an impact: “the separate system was a way of keeping prisoners completely isolated. It was first used in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Penitentiary, of course, meaning to do penance. The prisoners literally had no contact with anyone. They had to wear masks at all times, and when they were exercising they held a rope knotted at intervals to keep them apart. Even in chapel the prisoners were kept in separate little boxes, unable to see anyone except the minister….The idea was to stop criminals consorting with other criminals, crush the so-called criminal sub-culture. But, of course, there was a major drawback….They went mad.”

Luckily I have five more Elly Griffiths novels to help me get through the end of winter in Ohio. How about you? What, if anything, is getting you through?

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