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How the Hell Did This Happen?

April 4, 2017

Ron found a copy of P.J. O’Rourke’s new collection of essays How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 at an airport bookstore, and we’ve been reading through it to distract ourselves from the increasing gravity of the political situation.

This past week marked the tenth Saturday that I’ve taken part in a weekly demonstration on the public square—the one with the statue of the Union soldier, the one where our farmer’s market is held every Saturday morning from May to October, and the one where the Freshwater supporters used to demonstrate (a few of them are still there, trying to harass us about their religion through a bullhorn).

Our purpose, as recently reported in the local small-town newspaper, is threefold: we demonstrate to try to get the attention of our local congressional representative, Mr. Bob Gibbs, we inform ourselves and each other about what congress is doing each day, and we support local candidates for office (although the requirement that the candidate be able to live without income for a year has been discouraging to several otherwise willing public servants).

Every week when it’s time to make my sign, I think about what I believe. This is new to me–the routine and the clarity of it, anyway. What do I believe so much that I am willing to alienate some of my neighbors by carrying my thoughts on it around in front of me for half an hour? Slogan-writing does lend itself to simplification.

And there’s the main problem I have with politics today—the simplification. People I know voted for our 45th president because they thought he would cut through the complications on issues like immigration and health care. They thought it would be enough if they voted in support of their deeply-held beliefs, like that women shouldn’t have access to birth control or safe abortion. They have not been forced to consider the complications, the up-close human consequences of such rigid thought.

And don’t think I’m not irritated with the other side, too. It galls me to demonstrate with people whose views on immigration currently consist of a “let them all in” attitude. It’s not enough to “resist.” Sooner or later, someone is going to have to compromise.

Although the sign I carried this past Saturday says “Support Public Schools,” I’ve never supported them uncritically. I’ve attended school board meetings to register my objections, several times against the dress code (wearing most of the proscribed articles of clothing) and Ron and I have never been angrier with the local public schools than when we were sitting in the bleachers at our child’s high school graduation and heard that his “senior class gift” was a security camera. There are lots of things wrong with public education in this town, and in this country, and people like me sometimes feel that we can’t make any impression on the bureaucracy…which is true when we don’t invest enough of our time and energy.

Since a small town is one of the only places in America today where people have to get along, often for years, even when they think differently about major issues, I disagree with writers like John Pavlovitz, about “losing” friends over the 2016 presidential election. I can’t afford to lose any of my friends or acquaintances. I’m feeling an urgent need to make more friends and influence more people.

I thought maybe reading P.J. O’Rourke, known as a political conservative, would be a good way to get some insight into how to mend more of the bridges that need mending in this country. And he does give me some insight into conservative thinking. For instance, he says “the Democrats are determined to elect “the first ____ American president.” African-American, Woman, Native American, Latino, Gay. They’ve checked off No. 1 and are determined to go down the list in order of historical victimhood.”

Like so many liberals, though, he is full of snark. And, of course, I enjoy that. Our new president, he says
“is under the illusion that he’s thirty-five times richer than he is. He thinks childhood vaccination caused the movie Rain Man. He believes Obama was born to the queen of Sheba in Karjackistan and raised by Islamacist wolves in the remote forests of Harvard Law School.”

There’s little continuity between the essays in How the Hell Did This Happen? because, as the author notes, “in the 2016 presidential campaign, as far as I can tell, one thing didn’t lead to another. The campaign was a series of singularities….I would have preferred to write a book about the course of actions taken during this election campaign and how that course of actions led to certain results. But there was no discernable course.”

In the chapter about John Kasich, governor of Ohio, O’Rourke notes that “the conflicts in the Buckeye State mirror America’s: intransigent labor subjecting greedy management to extortion, indignant blacks clashing with angry white trash about who can behave more antisocially, illegal immigrants taking jobs away from illiterate nativists who won’t get a job, Tea Party crackpots vying with liberal dingbats for space on Internet wacko sites, and the dirty poor dumping on the filthy rich slinging muck at the grubbing-to-get-by middle class. But they all get along with Kasich.” I don’t find this last statement to be true, personally, but I guess a majority of Ohioans do, since they elected him.

In the process of eviscerating everybody, O’Rourke suggests what he believes are needed reforms for our broken political system. One of the suggestions I agree with is that young people should vote in primaries. O’Rourke believes that “Nobody votes in primaries. In 2012, when the entire country was supposedly full of the political hots and bothers, just 15.9 percent of the electorate cast a primary vote. We don’t know how old these primary-voting nobodies are, but I’m guessing their average age is dead.
Brain-dead, for certain.
Therefore I’m asking you young people to make an enormous sacrifice. I’m asking you to find a presidential primary and vote in it.”

I especially enjoyed O’Rourke’s answer to the idiotic “border wall” proposal. He says
“We don’t need a wall on our border; we need gates with turnstiles and ticket-takers. The right way to limit immigration (and make people in foreign countries pay for it) is to charge admission to the United States.
Disneyland costs $100 a day. There are at least 12 million illegal immigrants in America. By my calculation we’re leaving $438 billion a year on the table. And America has many more attractions than Disneyland….Plus, think what we could bring in from the food, toy, and souvenir concessions.”
He lists a number of even more outlandish proposals after that, including “Don’t Make America the World’s Policeman; Make America the World’s Private Security Guard. And bill the world for it.”

O’Rourke asks one of the questions I keep wanting to ask, about the age of presidential candidates:. “What are these people doing running for president at my age? I’m a few months younger than Hillary and a year younger than Donald. During the campaign I had flown from Boston to Chicago. That’s all I’d done. I drove to Boston, got on a plane, flew to Chicago, and took a cab to my hotel. I was exhausted.”

In a more serious moment, he says that the mistake we made about the election “was not ‘living in a bicoastal bubble’ or ‘failure to comprehend white working-class discontents’ or ‘excessive reliance on faulty polling data.’ The mistake was not watching The Apprentice….Trump played the boss you wish you had. Not the boss you wish you had at work. He’s the boss you wish you had after work, when you’re having drinks with your coworkers and telling hilarious stories….But there’s another side to this character. From time to time on the show ‘Trump’ drops the fuss and bluster and holds forth with his business philosophy.”
This seems to me the most serious and important—albeit expressed comically—comment he makes in this whole collection.

Did you know (as I recently found out) that there’s a television in every doctor’s waiting room and in many public areas like YMCA gyms and they’re playing Fox News all day long? Who sits in those waiting rooms and goes to those gyms? Who watches television instead of reading newspapers? My neighbors.

O’Rourke says that reading books (or blogs, I guess) makes us the elite. And, he says,
“The world is a smaller place. Did the elites think this would make everyone get along? Try it with your kids. Put them in a small place, such as the backseat of your car. Now take them to see the world. Take them to, for example, Yellowstone Park from say, Boca Raton. How are your kids getting along?”

O’Rourke gives his version of the answers to our national catastrophe, and I don’t agree with many of them, but what I do like about this book is the way he puts his finger on the main problem with our country right now—we have not been paying attention.

Well, now more of us are. Are you?

Perfect Little World

April 2, 2017

I don’t know why–because I’m certainly not good at remembering and acknowledging where I’ve read about a book–but sometimes when I’ve posted an enthusiastic review of some author’s first book, I’m a little surprised to find a second book by that author out in the bookstore, with no advance word or offer of a review copy from the publisher. I feel like I’ve done some of the work for that publisher (in this case, HarperCollins), so the least they could do is keep me informed.

Anyway. I walked into a bookstore the other day and found a copy of Kevin Wilson’s new novel Perfect Little World. (His previous novel is The Family Fang.)  And boy is this new one right up my alley! The other day, I heard some twenty-somethings talking about how inaccessible the “American dream” of owning their own house seems, and wondered why more of them don’t at least consider doing what Ron and I did in our early twenties, which was share a house with a friend. Now that our kids are grown, we’re considering doing it again, eventually. It’s not a new idea even in our lifetime.

The idea of the novel Perfect Little World is to raise children communally, by arranging for ten sets of parents with new babies sharing a (custom-built) housing complex and trying to make it feel like a family, with rules to encourage each set of parents to become as attached to and responsible for the other children as for their own.

The character who comes up with this idea, in the novel, is a child psychologist raised by two child psychologists. His name is Preston Grind, and he was “the initial subject of what became known as the Constant Friction Method of Child Rearing….they sought to create a world where baby Preston would exist in what they called ‘a state of constant friction’ in order to make him more adaptable, more capable of handling whatever challenge might present itself.” For example, “instead of being swaddled and kept warm in a crib, Preston would randomly be removed from his bed at various times during the night and placed on the floor, the temperature adjusted to make sleep uncomfortable.”

Wilson’s characteristic ironic tone is created by juxtaposing the description of Preston’s upbringing with the information that his parents were frequently asked to serve as witnesses in the child abuse trials of those who had used their method of child rearing, “defending the actions of the parents as the truest expression of parental love, to prepare the child for a world that was not a ‘fairy tale’ and might not always produce a happy ending.” I think the author’s point of view is probably a little closer to that of the child psychologist L. R. Knost, who says “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

The action of the novel follows the story of Izzy, a single mother, and her son Cap, who is being brought up communally in an experiment that Preston—Dr. Grimes–got funding to try out. Cap is one of ten babies born at about the same time, so Izzy has nine other parents to help her raise him.

The experiment is called The Infinite Family Project, and the rules are designed by Dr. Grind, with the input of the participants and several postdocs who are helping out. For instance:
“There had been discussion about how the babies would be fed from the moment the families had gathered at the complex. When they first arrived, mothers breast-fed their own baby or pumped so that the father or another parent or caregiver could handle the duty. After two months of this system, Dr. Grind offered the suggestions of a milk-banking scenario, where all then mothers banked milk, which could be used for any of the babies, to create an even more communal style of parenting….Finally, after careful consideration, everyone having their own vote, including Dr. Grind and the postdocs, they decided that they would keep using the current system, that if they were not available to feed their child, they would pump and store that milk in the bank and it would be reserved for their own child.”
This scenario seems quite utopian to me, with its assumption that each mother has no trouble breastfeeding and pumping enough milk to store for any eventuality.

The novel’s primary assumption is that it’s hard for parents to give up the idea that they should be the “whole world” to their babies. I should think that, like Izzy, many people would be relieved to have others to share in things like night feedings and terrors, especially during the first few years. The descriptions of Izzy, though, indicate that “her past life, all those years of living without, of removing emotion from her makeup, had prepared her for this new situation. She tried so hard to dismiss her desire to be Cap’s entire world, telling herself again and again, with increasing forcefulness, that it would not change anything. Instead, she would open her heart to the world and hope that good came from it, even if there was the recurring stab of regret.”

Communal cooking is one of the best things about the complex. Izzy enjoys cooking, and the descriptions of the food she makes for the babies and other adults is wonderful, like the deviled eggs which “were to be pickled in beet juice so each egg turned the brightest shade of purple and was flavored with that vegetal tang, then topped with candied bacon.”

Communal parenting gets harder when the parents have to agree on things like whether the children can have pets, and how to explain the death of a pet fish. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that since these children are all about the same age, a couple of them are necessarily developmentally ahead in terms of understanding the finality and universality of death. The parents are not told which ones understand and which don’t, so they have to treat the children alike, in terms of age group, rather than in terms of their individual emerging understandings.

The parents go farther with the communal living idea than Dr. Grind intends, acting on the sexual tension they feel at the complex. “Everything here is so calculated…” one of them says. “Emotions don’t matter. It’s what’s best for the kids, for the family. Everything is an experiment; whether Dr. Grind admits it or not, he’s kind of making it up as he goes along, right? So why can’t we experiment, too?”

As the children get older, the parents’ shifting allegiances and emotions affect the way they live together. When Dr. Grind says to Izzy “we think that any deviating from what we’re supposed to feel makes us a bad person,” it’s clear that life can never be so clear-cut, no matter how well-laid the plan. As the Infinite Family grows, Dr. Grind wonders, “as the project continued, how many other people would come on board, how else the world he had created would start to slowly transform into something beyond his control. It was, he knew from experience, not unlike a real family, the ways you accepted the uncertainty and kept your heart open for whatever might follow.”

By the time the children are seven years old, they have begun to demand a voice in their unconventional family, further widening some of the existing fractures between the adults, and at that point, Dr. Grind’s funding runs out. He and Izzy decide to form a nuclear family with her son. Izzy thinks that “when the world fell apart around you….you held on to the person you loved, the one who would be there in the aftermath, and you built a new home.”

So the novel starts with an interesting and somewhat unconventional idea, and ends conventionally, which I found something of a disappointment. The working-out of the communal-living arrangement was interesting though, and kept me turning the pages, even as it became increasingly obvious that these characters could not change their thinking to match their circumstances, that their collective imagination about what a family can be remains limited to picking the best parts from how they were, themselves, raised.

What do you think? Are you now, or have you ever considered, sharing a house with people who aren’t related to you? Do you have experience sharing a house with extended family?

I Am Not a Serial Killer

March 28, 2017

A friend recommended that I read I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells, because in it, necromancy doesn’t pay. It also has a very interesting teen protagonist and a plot that makes it a real page-turner.

The protagonist, whose name is John Wayne Cleaver, narrates this novel. He thinks he might be named after John Wayne Gacy, “who killed thirty-three people in Chicago,” and since his father’s name is Sam he also sees himself as the Son of Sam, “a serial killer in New York.” He believes that he is “named after two serial killers and a murder weapon.”

John continually struggles to be a good person, although he admits “I’d been fascinated—I tried not to use the word ‘obsessed’—with serial killers for a long time, but it wasn’t until my Jeffrey Dahmer report in the last week of middle school that Mom and my teachers got worried enough to put me into therapy.”

John’s mother and aunt work as morticians, and they allow him to hang out with them and sometimes help with autopsies, which is how a mystery is revealed to him. As bodies begin to come in with parts missing, John assumes there’s a serial killer in town. When he finds out what it actually is—a demon keeping himself alive with body parts he takes from his victims—John resolves to bring him to justice.

Being “good,” however, poses problems for John. When he calls the police, the demon kills them (and takes a spare body part). So it’s up to John to kill the “monster,” except, as he thinks:
“That was what I was afraid of, right? That I’d kill somebody? Well, what if the somebody I killed was a demon? Wouldn’t that be okay?
No, it wouldn’t. I controlled myself for a reason—the things I used to think about, the things I built that wall to prevent, were wrong. Killing was wrong. I wouldn’t do it.
But if I didn’t do it, Mr. Crowley would, again and again.”
John is afraid that killing the monster will turn him into a monster, but he decides that what he will have to do is “let the monster out” from inside of himself.

The result is that John begins to lose control. At one point he calls a person “it,” which alarms him because “calling human beings ‘it’ was a common trait of serial killers—they didn’t think of other people as human, only as objects, because that made them easier to torture and kill. It was hard to hurt ‘him’ or ‘her,’ but ‘it’ was easy. ‘It’ didn’t have any feelings. ‘It didn’t have any rights. ‘It’ was just a thing, and you could do whatever you wanted with ‘it.’”

At the end of the story, however, John saves himself, his mother, and his entire town. The way he does it and why is what makes this book a page-turner, so I’m not going to reveal it here because this is a good book, and you should read it–you’ll be glad you did, as glad as I am that my friend recommended it.

A Closed and Common Orbit

March 26, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, is the kind of sequel that follows two characters from the first book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.  So it can be read on its own– although if you do read it, it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t then want to pick up the first one.

The two characters are Pepper, the mysterious tech expert, and the character formerly known as Lovelace, the ship’s AI who has been illegally transferred into a body “kit” by a human she loved but no longer remembers.

The chapters alternate between the story of how Pepper got to the point when she met the AI and the AI’s story. Occasionally there are technical specifications and emails, which elucidate and enlarge parts of the story, and they culminate with an illustration of something that the person who raised Pepper said to her when they looked up how to conduct a funeral: “Just because someone goes away doesn’t mean you stop loving them.”

The universe of these books continues to be detailed and fascinating, as when the AI, who has named herself “Sidra,” follows Pepper and her friend Blue onto an underwater train car labeled “Human” and asks
“why don’t different species sit together?”….Segregated transit cars didn’t mesh with what she’d read of the Port’s famed egalitarianism.
“Different species,” Blue said, “different butts.” He nodded toward the rows of high-backed, rounded seats, unsuitable for Aandrisk tails or Harmagian carts.

Or when Pepper explains why an interactive video game is important:
“This was the very first kids’ sim to have an Exodan and a Martian not just occupying the same ship, but being friends. Having adventures, working as a team, all that fuzzy stuff. That may not seem like a big deal today, but forty standards ago, that was huge. A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics. I’m not saying this sim is solely responsible for Exodans and Solans not hating each other any more, but Big Bug was definitely a contributing factor in helping us start moving past all that old Earth bullshit.”

Sidra, as an AI who is newly experiencing life as a human, often provides a close look at the world she is living on:
“She watched as a group of Aeluon children blew handfuls of glitter over each other, dancing excitedly but making no sound at all. She watched as a massive Quelin—an exile, judging by the harsh branding stamped along her shell—apologised profusely for getting one of her segmented legs stuck in some decorative fabric draped around a vendor’s booth. She watched service drones flying drinks and food orders back and forth, back and forth. She wondered if the drones were intelligent. She wondered how much they were aware of.

And Sidra’s friend Tak, a tattoo artist, provides context for some of what Sidra has read:
“Just about every species mods themselves somehow. Quelin brand their shells. Harmagians shove jewellery through their tendrils. My species and yours have both been tattooing for millennia.”

There is a plot, which develops in parallel, from the story of “Jane 23,” which is how Pepper was designated on her home planet, and from the story of how Sidra adapts to life in her body “kit.”

There’s some social commentary:
“The easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then people who aren’t like you…well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created.”

Most of all, there’s lots of character development. Near the end, Sidra the AI—who has learned how to store enough memory to keep herself sane, how to lie, and how to discover her own purpose (rather than her originally programmed one)– says to Tak the Aeluon:
“Al of you do this. Every organic sapient I’ve ever talked to, every book I’ve read, every piece of art I’ve studied. You are all desperate for purpose, even though you don’t have one.”

It’s a wonderful book, a worthy successor and a good independent story. If you liked the first one, you should read it. And if you haven’t read the first one yet, there’s no time like the present.

Lincoln in the Bardo

March 23, 2017

I’m always sad when I have to say goodbye to one of my (adult) children, and the moment we left Eleanor at the Albuquerque airport was no exception. I stepped onto the plane, found my seat, and opened up the book she’d lent me to read on the way home, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Then I read it and wept, all the way to Chicago.

This is a sad, sad book. By now you probably know what it’s about, right? It’s about spirits who can’t go on, but linger on earth, in what Tibetans have traditionally called the “bardo.” I wondered if I would catch a whiff of necromancy, but mostly the smell is more like regret.

There’s a big cast of characters, so it took me a couple of chapters to understand what was going on, but after that it’s apparent why there are so many voices, and who they are. The scope of the commentary is one of the pleasures of the novel. I especially enjoyed (and Eleanor agreed with me when I mentioned this) the sections in which wildly conflicting contemporary accounts are given about whether the moon was full on a certain night in 1862, and what color Abraham Lincoln’s eyes might have been (hazel, green, gray, or blue, it seems).

Contemporary accounts of the death of Lincoln’s son Willie differ in the amount of blame they assign to his parents, for going ahead with the party they had planned on the night he died, but comments like this one, attributed to “Selected Civil War Letters of Edwine Willow,” are also included in the selection Saunders provides:
“The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.”
There is an ironic tone to the chapters in which these kinds of selections appear, provided by the juxtaposition of the various quotations. For example, several selections after the quotation above appear these two:
“Wild shrieks rang out.
Sloane, op. cit.
One fellow stood in perfect happiness, orange-trousered, blue coat flung open, feasting in-place as he stood at the serving table like some magnificent Ambrussi, finally found the home of his dreams.
Wickett, op. cit.”

The story, told by the spirits of those who do not seem to realize they are departed (referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and longing to finish actions they were unable to complete before dying) centers on the novelty of Lincoln’s visits to his son’s tomb, where Willie’s spirit sees him with his “mouth at the worm’s ear” and thinks “how I wished him to say it to me.” The “worm,” of course, is his own body.

The two main spirits that try to help Willie are reinvigorated by their purpose, even to the extent of realizing how much time has passed since their own deaths:
“I felt arising within me a body of startling new knowledge. The gentleman? Was Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was President. How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Taylor was President.
roger bevins iii
That Mr. Polk occupied that esteemed office.
hans vollman
….On the day of the beam, Polk had been President. But now, I knew (with a dazzling clarity) that Polk had been succeeded by Taylor, and Taylor by Fillmore, and Fillmore by Pierce—
hans vollman
After which, Pierce had been succeded by Buchanan, and Buchanan by—
roger bevins iii
hans vollman”

The spirits of former slaves tell their terrible (and, by now, well-rehearsed) stories:
“One day, we were taken out of Washington, to the country, for the fireworks. Falling ill, I stumbled upon the trail, and could not get up, and the sun burning down brightly, how I writhed upon the—
elson farwell
How you ‘writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came.’
betsy baron
How I writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came. Until finally, the youngest East child, Reginald, passed, and inquired, Elson, are you ill? And I said that I was, very much so. And he said he would send someone back for me at once.
But no one came. Mr. East did not come, Mrs. East did not come, none of the other East children came, not even Mr. Chasterly, our brutal smirking overseer, ever came.
I believe Reginald may have, in all the excitement about the fireworks, forgotten.
Forgotten about me.
Who had known him since his birth.
And lying there it—
elson farwell
Lying there it occurred to you ‘with the force of revelation.’
eddie baron
Lying there it occurred to me with the force of revelation, that I (Elson Farwell, best boy, fondest son of my mother) had been sorely tricked, and (colorful rockets now bursting overhead, into such shapes as Old Glory, and a walking chicken, and a green-gold Comet, as if to celebrate the Joke being played upon me, each new explosion eliciting fresh cries of delight from those fat, spoiled East children) I regretted every moment of conciliation and smiling and convivial waiting, and longed with all my heart (there in the dappled tree-moonshade, that, in my final moments, became allshade) that my health might be restored to me, if just for one hour, so that I might correct my grand error, and enstrip myself of all cowering and false-talk and preening diction, and rise up even yet and stride back to those always-happy Easts and club and knife and rend and destroy them and tear down that tent and burn down that house, and thus secure for myself—
elson farwell
‘A certain modicum of humanity, for only a beast—‘
betsy baron
A certain modicum of humanity, yes, for only a beast would endure what I had endured without objection; and not even a beast would conspire to put on the manners of its masters and hope thereby to be rewarded.
But it was too late.
It is too late.”

There is a moment when Lincoln, the desperate father, wishes to perform an act of necromancy:
“Mr. Lincoln tried to get the sick-form to rise. By making his mind quiet and then opening it up to whatever might exist that he did not know about that might be able to let the (make the) sick-form rise.
Feeling foolish, not truly believing such a thing was even—
Still, it is a vast world and anything might happen.
He stared down at the sick-form, at one finger upon one hand, waiting for the slightest—
Please please please.
But no.
That is superstition.
Will not do.
And yet, of course, readers feel the impetus, his desperate wish, the wrongness of what he wishes for and the depth of sadness that impels it.

The spirits, in the course of their efforts to help Willie–which are not untinged by the interest of bystanders at a disaster—actually go into Lincoln, connecting them briefly to life again and connecting him to their longings to have their lives back again:
“He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And—by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him. He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness.”

At the end of the story, most of the spirits are finally departing this world, although not without leaving readers with their fondness for the everyday details they will miss, and that we should notice:
“Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck-rub in the parlor; milk-sip at end of day.”

Beautiful in its sadness, this is a novel that will make you feel what it might be like to be someone else—lots of someones, over and over–until the only regret that you can feel is not making the most of your own time on earth, even when your next moment consists of limping tiredly off of an airplane to greet the gray light of morning in the place you’ve chosen to live.

The Edge of Ruin

March 22, 2017

IMG_4529Well, I’m back, from a spring break tour of the southwest. You know how when you visit a place there are more things to see than you have time for? That’s what happened when Eleanor and I drove to Tucson, and what happened again when we went back to see some of the New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona sights we couldn’t visit on that first trip (three of the Arizona sights we now want to go back for are Horseshoe Bend, Bearizona, and Meteor Crater).

We took Ron with us this time, along with our friends Ben and Carol and Eleanor’s friend Andie. Andie taught us to play a great new card game called “hand and foot” in the evenings, in various hotel rooms. We also played a game in the car, one that she and Eleanor had made up while in college; they call it “Please don’t eat that” after the phrase they first said to the dog they were walking and then turned into the title of a story. We told a series of stories in which one of the characters was always named “Gary” (sometimes pronounced as if he were French, lengthened to Gariel when he appeared as an angel, and designated as G4RY when he was a robot).

IMG_4485We journeyed to Albuquerque, where we went up Sandia Peak on the tram, and then on to Chaco Canyon, Durango, CO, Mesa Verde, Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, back to Albuquerque for the Breaking Bad tour, and then to Santa Fe to see Meow Wolf (an art installation), the Loretto Chapel with its winding staircase, and our friend Leeman’s performance as H.P. Lovecraft in his live Ask Lovecraft show, where we met Melinda Snodgrass and George R.R. Martin.

IMG_4595I remembered reading The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass but had forgotten that I’d meant to look for the sequel, and now there are two! I bought a signed copy of the second one and read it as one of the three books I finished on the long journey home (our flight was delayed for almost five hours).

The second book, The Edge of Ruin, continues the adventures of Richard Oort without the help of Kenntnis, except that Richard has inherited his company, which has interests in “biotech, high tech, private space ventures, open source code, alternate energy sources. Education….And alleviating poverty, which Kenntnis considered to be the source of many of the world’s ills—war, terrorism, overpopulation, pollution.”

IMG_4506Richard is still using the sword of rationality to help people who have been misled by the magic of the Old Ones. These “Old Ones” from a different world are still trying to take over the earth, using as tools those people who attack science, believe in “alternate facts,” or appear on Christian cable networks. At one point, Richard comes up with a way “to describe what happened when I used the sword. Being inoculated. It beat every other phrase people had come up with. When Cross called it ‘the touch’ it sounded sleazy. When Pamela called it ‘submitting to the sword’ it sounded like an S&M sex act. Dagmar had suggested ‘the dubbing,’ but that was even worse. ‘Inoculated’ worked.”

IMG_4614There are exciting moments, like when “a strong, hot, harsh wind was blowing against them. Pamela assumed it was flowing through the gate. I’m breathing the air of an alien universe, she thought.”

The writing is fun, too. Friendly aliens use interesting metaphors–at one point, one of them comes rushing in and says “party’s over. I’ve shot my wad, and they’ve still got many wads in reserve.” There’s a reference to “FBI Scoobies” which seems to me to reveal that the author has watched so many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that she believes this should be used as a general reference to any group of agents faced with a supernatural force.

IMG_4469It was fun to read The Edge of Ruin, full of references to Albuquerque and vicinity, at the end of our trip. Do you know what’s the best thing about traveling from Ohio to the southwest in March? Seeing blue sky! It’s so blue, it almost looks photoshopped in some photos, like in the background of this wall at Pueblo Bonita (Chaco canyon).

Here is a photo of our entire party, taken at the entrance to Antelope Canyon. Many of the rocks outside this canyon looked like Jabba the Hutt, from Star Wars, so we kept referencing the Diego Luna interviews where he reveals his love for “Yabba” and touching the stones to enjoy their texture.17352114_10211034749377746_8046104678820129690_n

Precious and Grace

March 13, 2017

When I read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I find that I have to slow down in order to enjoy it. The latest in the series, Precious and Grace, is no exception. Reading it at the beginning of spring break was one of my ideas for varying the usual pace of my days.

In all the books, Precious is happy to be a “traditionally built” large woman. In this latest one, she congratulates her friend, Mma Potokwane, who runs the “orphan farm,” for hiring a woman because she was “the most traditionally built lady of the five” who applied to be a housemother. She also tries to perch on a chair at a café which “was not a comfortable chair; too small, as so many chairs were. The trouble with café furniture was that it was not made for traditionally built people.” I would add that it’s especially hard to perch on such small chairs when you have bad knees which don’t easily bend under far enough to get your legs out of the way of other peoples’ feet.

In this book, Grace is trying to modernize the way Precious runs her business, even though Precious has always had an idealized view of the past, “the old Botswana ways…there had been the attitude that you should find time for other people and not always be in a desperate rush; there had been the belief that you should listen to other people, should talk to them, rather than spend all your time fiddling with your electronic gadgets.”

Grace’s words make Precious think about what progress has meant in her lifetime: “People were less concerned about other people, less prepared to help them, not so ready to listen to them. Did that mean that things were getting worse? Well, in her view it did—at least as far as those matters were concerned; in other respects, things were undoubtedly getting better. People had more of a chance in life no matter where they came from; those who worked for other people had more rights, were protected against the cruelty that employers could show in the past. That was an improvement. And the hospitals were better, and school bullies found it a bit harder to bully people; and there were fewer cruel nicknames; and fewer power cuts just when you wanted to cook the evening meal.”

Because she takes the time for reflection, Precious eventually begins to realize that Grace “could sometimes simplify things, but she was often very good at seeing the world from another perspective. Tall people could forget that the world might look quite different if you were short; and of course well-off people had a marked tendency to forget how things might look if you were poor. We have to remind ourselves, she thought. We have to remind ourselves how the world looked when viewed from elsewhere.”

Precious admires the way Grace doesn’t mince words, but calls things as she sees them. When she uses the word “skellums,” Precious thinks that it is “a fine word, that so effectively described a rogue or a rascal” and reflects that “now, perhaps, the skellums could get away with it because people were afraid to stand up to them, or were no longer sure what was right or wrong, or were afraid to identify wickedness or sleaze when they saw it.”

Precious can right wrongs because she feels compassion, and expresses it freely. When a friend has gotten other friends involved in what she realizes is a pyramid scheme, Precious says “Who among us has not done something stupid….I have done some very foolish things in my life. Everybody has” and she helps him repair the damage.

She is also good at verbalizing compliments. This is something that Walker has told me I should try to get better at, because I’m one of the many people in the world who think more nice things about others than they manage to say. Precious, on the other hand, tells one of her friends that “’there is nobody kinder than you.’ She meant it, and as she spoke, she thought how strange it was that we so very rarely said complimentary things to our friends, and how easy it was to do so, and how it made the world seem a less harsh place.”

Most of the realizations that come to Precious in this book may strike a modern reader as simplistic, and yet that’s part of the point—that if you look at the world as if it’s a very small place, a place where neighbors are responsible for taking care of each other—all sorts of moral and ethical quandaries become simpler. It’s easier to act on them, rather than remain paralyzed with indecision.

The actions Precious takes in this latest novel are based on her ideas about forgiveness. With the help of Grace, she finds ways to avoid “increasing the amount of suffering there is in the world.”

There is one thread in the novel that seems out of place, however. Even though Precious argues against Grace’s view about dogs–that they have no souls and are just “meat”–her treatment of a stray dog Fanwell has found seems curious. She tries to help out, thinking that “Fanwell was a kind young man, and it was much to his credit that he had bothered to do something about the dog, but he was in no position to see that gesture through and had to be protected from the unsustainable consequences of kindness, as did others who allowed their hearts to prompt them.” Sp she takes the dog home, where her adopted children Puso and Motholeli name it “Zebra” and she concludes that means that he “is no longer temporary—he is permanent.” But then after the dog has run away from where she had it tied up and then shows up again at her office, she does not take it home to her children, but gives it away to some orphans. The dog and the orphans have a happy ending, but nothing is said about how Puso and Motholeli feel about losing their dog.

Maybe the dog running away is meant to be an indication that he wasn’t happy with her children, or his journey shows that kindness is sometimes more complicated than we think it will be. The resolution of the dog’s story seems uncharacteristically ambiguous for this latest book in a series which always shows strength in simplicity.

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