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7th Blog Anniversary

February 3, 2015

Necromancy Never Pays is seven years old today3765709-vector-birthday-cake-with-burning-candles.
Perhaps it has been experiencing a bit of the seven-year itch. Last year at this time I asked for poems you’d like to see reprinted and discussed, and although I delivered on a number of them, I failed to make enough time for others. Reading long poems –like Aurora Lee and The Ring and The Book–required more endurance than I could muster this year. (Sorry, Jenny and Tom.)

Thinking about Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, as James suggested, made me tired in the way that thinking about poems you’ve taught for years can sometimes make you in a year when you’re not teaching them. I will link to the image of one of my favorites, “The Garden of Love,” because a Blake poem is always better with the art. We used to discuss this poem in my class on “relationships in literature,” where most of the students saw it as an expression of pain from someone being told for the first time that his feelings of love were not “right” in the old, strict heteronormative sense.

I am ready for more suggestions of things to read this year–especially if they’re short poems, fiction with metafictional elements, or satiric science fiction.

Thanks for reading and continuing to avoid acts of necromancy!

Journey Into the Interior, Theodore Roethke

January 29, 2015

As we all do sometimes, I’m trying to get my assignment in at the last minute. Last year I asked about poems that you would like to see discussed, and Jenny suggested “Journey Into the Interior” by Theodore Roethke. Although I read it right away, it took me this long to think about it and feel like I had anything interesting to say.

At first I didn’t quite know what to make of the first line. Is this a journey out of the self in the sense that the speaker is trying to become less self-involved, see more of other peoples’ points of view? If so, there’s a paradox, as the harder he tries to journey “out of the self,” the farther in he goes, “path narrowing.” That reading kind of worked for me with the connotation of the title–the image of the explorer setting out to find a lost westerner and ending up in the Heart of Darkness.

But that’s not the way to read the poem literally. It’s a poem about a car trip. What kind of long journey do people make “out of the self”? We journey from birth to death. Now the poem is easy to interpret—we have places where it’s harder to drive, and some of them (“the back wheels hang almost over the edge”) make us more aware of how precarious life is. Then we get cautious. Eventually, though, no matter how careful we are, either we’re swept away by a flood or the path gets narrower and we find “the way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree.” At the end of the journey is death.

In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
–Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.

The ravines still appear “ugly” because we’re still looking at them from the vantage-point of this world, with our darkening sight. There is no other road, no more alternate scenery. We set out to journey into the interior of the continent, exploring, but no matter how many exciting escapes we have, the end of all our exploration is the “journey out of the self” of our bodies.

I remember my father, in his seventies, telling me he sometimes wondered about “that old man in the mirror” because the image didn’t look like what he still thought of as his self. I think of my mother now, taking a step with a cane for support. I rub my sore elbow and pet the frail back of my almost-sixteen-year-old cat, feeling each vertebrae through his fur, and think about how far we’ve come.

The Just City

January 26, 2015
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If you’re like me, it’s been years since you read Plato’s Republic. The good news is that your memory will be refreshed by the details in Jo Walton’s novel The Just City, as the city is built and philosopher kings begin to be made. Though this may seem a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” Athena makes it happen (with the help of time travel and robot workers) and the way it happens turns out to matter to the characters involved, and to the readers.

The novel has three alternating narrators. The first two are the god Apollo, who had himself born as a mortal boy for this adventure, and the master Maia, who prayed to Athena to be delivered from a century in which she could not live as a scholar. Apollo is trying to find out why Daphne wanted to be turned into a tree rather than “caught” by him. It is Maia’s dream to live out Plato’s ideas, becoming a “guardian, limited only by my own ability to achieve excellence.” She is slightly disappointed, as any woman who has read him would be, to meet Marcus Tullius Cicero and find that “he was flattered when he found how much of his work I had read, and how high his reputation stood in my century, but he could never really consider me, or any of us women, as people to be taken seriously.” She is also excited to find out that Athena has a time machine which, besides enabling her to be brought from her own century, can rescue other people, books, and works of art. As with all time machine stories, though, there is a catch—they can’t influence history, so the “just city” is built on Atlantis before it sinks, a guarantee that the experiment won’t spread further.

Simmea, the third narrator, was sold as a slave to the masters of the city and can’t even read yet when she is told to forget her old life and find out how to become her best self in this new city. She learns quickly and becomes a model child of the city.

What the city is a model of quickly becomes the subject of debate, first between masters, who disagree about which works of art should be saved and whether “Christianity is harmful to the Republic because it offers a different and incorrect truth. We want them to discover the Truth, the real Truth that a philosopher can glimpse.” Meanwhile, we see that even the masters don’t always understand that no means no, that even the gods don’t always understand that “good and well-meaning are different matters,” and that there are truths that only someone like Socrates can uncover through rhetorical conversation.

As the author, Jo Walton evidently received revelation about what it’s like to be a god:
“Detachment was really difficult to achieve. Everything mattered immediately—every pain, every sensation, every emotion. There wasn’t time to think about things properly—no possibility of withdrawal for proper contemplation, then returning to the same instant with a calm and reasonable plan. Everything had to be done in time, immediately. Paradoxically, there was also too much time. I constantly had to wait through moments and hours and nights. I had to wait for spring to see blossom, wait for Simmea to be free to talk to me, wait for morning. Then when it came, everything would be hurtling forward in immediate necessity again, pierced through with emotion and immediacy and a speeding pulse.”
The difficulty of detachment is one of the things all the characters are learning.

The difference between the ideal and the possible continues to be ever more sharply delineated in the city, as Plato’s precepts–for instance that “friendship was good but adding sex to it was bad” or that babies should be reared communally in order to prevent favoritism–are tested. There is a pointed (and parenthetical) remark about eugenics, which the inhabitants of the city see as a good thing, although two of the masters who were brought to the city after WWII “shrank from that term, but would never tell me why.” Even Simmea finally realizes that “keeping mothers and children apart wasn’t as easy as Plato had thought. When it came down to details, so little was.”

With the ever-sharpening lines between ideal and possible comes the most delightful part of the novel. Some of the robots Athena has brought to the city in order that they won’t need slaves to do the menial labor wake up and begin responding to the questions posed to them by Socrates. When he asks one of them if it enjoys its work, it plants “no” in crocus bulbs. As the inhabitants of the city begin to realize that some of the robots workers are sentient, they have to scramble to include this reality in the day-to-day operations of their city. Simmea and Apollo, having helped each other understand “that everyone’s choices ought to count,” set out to put the principle into practice, even for robot philosophers.

The novel is a lovely stroll through Platonic philosophy in practice, guided by someone who knows that the details of menstruation, consent, midwifery and child-rearing really matter, that if you have great ends in mind, you’d do well to attend to the means of achieving them.

When She Woke

January 21, 2015

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter with a bit of flavor from The Handmaid’s Tale. It is set in a future U.S. where criminals are “chromed” to a color matching their particular sin and there is no separation of church and state. The protagonist, Hannah Payne, wakes after her trial for abortion to find herself turned red and continuously on TV for the first 30 days of her sentence, after which she is turned out to survive the next sixteen years as best she can.

Much of Hannah’s story is told in retrospect. She thinks about her abortionist, who “told her he’d been an OB/GYN in Salt Lake City when the superclap epidemic broke out…and Utah became the nexus of the conservative backlash…that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.” In this future, Utah and then Texas pass “sanctity of life” laws. The “superclap” or “scourge” made women sterile, “and by the time the cure was found in the seventh year, there’d been talk of quarantining and compulsory harvesting of the eggs of healthy young women, measures that Congress almost certainly would have passed had the superbiotics come any later.”

Hannah’s innocence gives her adventures fresh power to shock. Her time at an “Enlightenment” center where new “reds” are tortured is as brief as the time it takes her to act on her mounting indignation over how the others are treated: “Enlightenment was the worst…a lecture from a visiting doctor on the gory specifics of the procedure, complete with jars of fetuses in formaldehyde; an ‘ideation session’ where they had to imagine alternate futures for their aborted children; a holovid showing bloody, half-aborted babies trying to crawl out of their mothers’ wombs.”
Her few forays onto the streets are fraught with peril, because even though “discrimination against Chromes was illegal in municipal buildings…the law was rarely enforced in privately owned businesses, and NO CHROMES ALLOWED signs were commonplace.”
The chromes have trackers, so any nut who wants to know where a particular one is can track her down and kill her, like Hannah’s brother-in-law, who tells his wife he is in a group like the “promise keepers” but which turns out to be called “The Fist” and nearly catches up with Hannah before she is rescued by a revolutionary group that jams the signal of her tracker right before her brother-in-law catches up to her in the parking lot of a mall.

The revolutionary group runs an underground railroad for reds who need to get to Canada, which “had severed relations with the United States after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of melachroming.” The members of the group help Hannah escape from her sentence, but they also help her escape her narrow view of the world, patiently answering questions like “how can you pray to a God who considers you an abomination?” and showing faith in her ability to grow, change, and protect the secrets of those who help her.

There’s a bit of wish fulfillment for any woman who has previously read Hawthorne in what Hannah says to the father of her aborted child, before disappearing forever into the Canadian wilderness: “I’m not a child that you’ve wronged or led astray….at every point along the way I made my own choices, the choices that felt right for me, and…I’m prepared to live with the consequences. What I won’t live with ever again are shame and regret, and I hope you won’t either.” It’s satisfying to see the “scarlet woman” get a voice at last.

This is a page-turner of a satire, a book that uses exaggeration to make its points about where we have been as Americans, and where we are likely to go if we don’t stop and think about which way we’re currently being swept by our own elected officials. Not everyone is as intelligent and self-aware as the fictional Hannah, a sheltered child who learned what little she knew about the world from reading all the books on a banned books list. She’s a heroine after a reader’s own heart, and her terror when she woke could be ours if we don’t wake to enough of our own peril in time.

Lock In

January 19, 2015

Another friend who has read most everything written by John Scalzi gave me Scalzi’s new book Lock In as a present, and I read it in one day. Aside from the fact that some of the characters couldn’t use their bodies and had to get around in specially adapted robot bodies, it read like a pretty straightforward mystery novel. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of science fiction, but this seemed like a science fiction setting with a story about characters you could find in any good murder mystery.

I’d read that Scalzi wrote the entire novel without using semicolons (he tells why) but before I read it, I hadn’t realized that he also wrote the entire novel without specifying something that is usually specified in other books. Jenny’s review first made me aware of it. All I can say–attempting to avoid spoilers for those of you who don’t like them–is that, having started this blog in the wake of my 2008 knee replacement, I don’t tend to associate much of the physical with what is “me.” I’ve always remembered a bit from a memoir by Reynolds Price (A Whole New Life) about how he shaped his life of the mind so it was immaterial that his body was in a wheelchair.

We’re introduced to the world of Lock In by a preface, purporting to be from HighSchoolCheatSheet.com, which explains the fictional “Haden’s syndrome,” including the “lock in” of some victims’ minds and the government funding “designed to rapidly increase understanding of brain function and speed to market programs and prostheses that would allow those afflicted with Haden’s to participate in society.” As the novel begins, the government funding is coming to an end and the Haden community is protesting. The protagonist, Chris Shane, has grown up with Haden’s and is just starting a first job as an FBI agent, which means that Chris has no preconceptions about what life is like with a body. Chris gets around in a robot body commonly called a “threep,” a Star Wars reference short enough and evocative enough to sound plausible as a nickname.

There are some interesting details about how it works to live in a threep, including that most Haden’s people are perceptually in two places at once, in their body and in their threep. At one point, a doctor tells Chris a story about a Haden who
“was full sense-forward on her threep all the time. Didn’t like feeling what was going on with her body. Hell, didn’t like acknowledging that she had a body. She found it inconvenient….which was ultimately ironic….She had a heart attack and didn’t even feel it….it came as a surprise to her that she could die. She spent so much time in her threep I think she believed it really was her.”

We learn that so far, in this world, innovations like threeps are only for Hadens, and that some politicians are saying that anyone with mobility issues could benefit, even though others argue that “jamming a second brain into your head is inherently dangerous.” We also learn that most locked-in politicans prefer using a host body, an “Integrator” to using a threep, because, as one of them says, “otherwise there’s a certain percentage of people who forget I’m a person.” There are Haden people who identify so strongly with their bodies that they argue that living as a Haden is not something that needs to be “cured” but “just another way to live,” strongly reminiscent, at least to me, of some of the arguments about lip-reading and speaking from members of the deaf community.

These ideas are interesting, but they’re very much by the way as this story progresses–the mystery is intriguing, and its resolution satisfying. Although I enjoyed the moment Chris realizes what it means to another kind of person to be “possessed,” I think that if you read Lock In, you will join me in admiring the painlessly fictionalized way Scalzi describes the workings of the Haden and Integrator brains in order to allow us to see how cleverly Chris solves the mystery and reveals the bad guy at the end.

Be Drunk

January 16, 2015

I have been drunk for more than a month–mostly on wine and poetry.

Be Drunk
by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Louis Simpson

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way.
So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back
and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of
a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again,
drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave,
the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that
is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing,
everything that is speaking…ask what time it is and wind, wave,
star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to
be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On
wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

During Eleanor’s winter break, which ends tomorrow, we’ve been immersing ourselves in fictional worlds, reading a lot and catching up on movies and TV series that we like to watch together. We watched the newest Hobbit movie. We watched all the episodes of Agents of Shield, dipped into the most recent season of Dr. Who and started Breaking Bad. Eleanor and I passed James Morrow books back and forth, (in preparation for meeting him this March at a convention). My extended family went to the movies together to see Into the Woods, a show we have loved for years and found passable in this new version, although thought it’s a shame they left out the reprise of “Agony.” After we watched the David Tennant Richard II and talked about how we like it, a friend of mine came over and shared her access to an online version of the David Tennant and Catherine Tate Much Ado About Nothing. We have drunk many bottles of wine and eaten almost all of the pie.

And yet it’s not time for me to go back to any kind of real world. I see my friends who like their jobs marking off achievements, traveling to see each other at conferences, and gearing up for a new semester, but I am a wallflower at that party this year. One of my student managers, a guy I really like, asked me yesterday if I enjoy doing what I think is an important part of my job, a part I’ve fought hard for. Not much, I said at the moment. Later I asked myself why, and realized that I have been letting what other people think about me undermine what I used to do well and thought was important. Sometimes it takes being drunk to see that. It may take staying drunk for a while to decide what to do about it.

What have you been drunk on lately?

The Lobster Kings

January 12, 2015

After reading Touch, I wanted to read Alexi Zentner’s newest novel, The Lobster Kings, and received a copy for Christmas. I enjoyed reading it, dipping in for a while each night before going to sleep, but it struck me as a more ordinary novel than his first one.

The novel has an over-arching metaphor which is that the narrator’s ancestor, Brumfitt Kings, painted pictures of the island where she and her family still live, and Cordelia Kings, the narrator, believes that these pictures tell her something about how life is and how hers is going to turn out to be. There’s also a bit of King Lear going on, as you can tell from the narrator’s name. Neither of these metaphors turns out to be integral to the plot of the novel, a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story.

Cordelia lives on a fictional island on the U.S. and Canada border, has resisted her parents’ (mostly her mother’s) efforts to keep her from growing up to captain a lobster boat, and believes that her grandfather married a selkie and that the reason her younger brother died is because of a family curse. Now, after her brother and mother’s deaths, she works with and reveres her father, and she has to navigate around some rocky places in her relationship with her sisters.

The whole “grandmother was a selkie” subplot doesn’t work very well, as Cordelia tells most of the story in a level-headed way, even specifying that when her brother died
“I wish I could say that something spectacular happened, that it was a scene from one of Brumfitt’s paintings. I wish I could say that the ocean flattened into glass, sea turtles rose to encircle the Queen Jane, the weather crackled black, and the winds cursed at us, ripping a hole in the clear blue sky as water spouted into the air like hissing serpents….But I know better than that. There was nothing to set this moment aside from all of the other moments that came before and all of the other moments that came afterward. There was no magical marker to delineate then and later, no animal from the deeps reaching out and drawing Scotty away from us. It was just an accident.”
Cordelia’s later shenanigans with the pearl necklace that had been her mother’s and grandmother’s, similarly, do not convince me or either of her sisters that it’s a magic necklace brought out of the sea.

Cordelia’s father, Woody, does go crazy for a few weeks after the deaths of his wife and son, but he doesn’t give his lobstering “kingdom” away to anyone. Cordelia explains that “Daddy had been fair with us, not splitting things down the middle—or three ways—but divvying up as thing needed to be divvied.” Everyone who wants a job on a lobster boat gets one, and everyone who needs a place to live on the island gets a house or a rental or a room in Woody’s own house. Cordelia, as non-demonstrative as the rest of her family, is determined to inherit his role as community leader and family storyteller.

When something happens to one of the characters, the narrative is often interrupted by Cordelia telling about one of Brumfitt King’s paintings, the one she thinks comments on the preceding action. And the ending, well, it’s pure magic. A magic that Cordelia says she believes in, but which hasn’t become real for the reader.

The Lobster Kings is a perfectly good novel without magic, though. I enjoyed it, and didn’t mind its ambition to be anything more than a good story about how Cordelia comes into her own.

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