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Unsheltered

September 17, 2018

I was so excited to get an advance copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered from HarperCollins that I had to read it right away, even though in small bits, throughout my beginning-of-the-semester extra-busy period.

The novel is set in Vineland, which is an actual New Jersey town that was built as a utopian community in the 1860s. In the present-day storyline of the novel, Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis have come to live in a house in Vineland that Willa has inherited upon her mother’s death. Willa’s magazine career is over and Iano’s hopes of tenure have faded. The house has an unsound foundation and is falling apart around them while they try to take care of their 20-something daughter, Tig, who has returned to live with them, along with Iano’s dying father Nick and their son’s motherless newborn baby, Dusty.

When Willa puts her research skills to work trying to find historical significance in the house so she can apply for money to restore it, she finds out about a science teacher named Thatcher Greenwood and the naturalist Mary Treat, who Willa believes lived in or near the house in the first decades after the community was founded by Charles Landis. In the 1870’s story line, which alternates with Willa’s, Thatcher is finding that his house has an unsound foundation and is falling apart. Despite the fact that he is newly married and employed, Thatcher discovers an intellectual bond with Mary and her pen pal Charles Darwin and finds that teaching science is not acceptable to Landis or his school’s religious leader.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Thatcher and the others who followed him eventually triumphed over the small-minded religious figures who wanted to suppress scientific progress and education (at least for a little while, says the reviewer living in a town where a young-earth creationist once taught in the public middle school).

Kingsolver’s 1870’s story line comments on the present-day storyline, as if one day the economic system that Willa’s daughter explains in these terms: “if it makes a profit, that’s the definition of good. If it grows, you have to stand back and let it” is as repressive and those who have profited from it are as culpable as the 19th-century proponents of religion-as-the-one-explanation-for-everything were for repressing the theory of evolution. Those who fought against the teaching of a scientific theory then are like those now who falsely claim to be “lowering taxes” and “fighting against government spending.”

Willa’s children show the divide between the capitalistic one percent and the rest of us, who if we haven’t fallen on hard times already are just a couple of hospitalizations and missed house or car payments away. Her son Zeke went to an Ivy League college and works in finance, but he has massive student loan debt and can’t afford to live with a baby in the city where he works. Her daughter Tig (short for Antigone) used her father’s tuition “exchange” to go to a small college and has learned to get along with very few possessions.

Willa’s father-in-law Nick represents a type of elderly working-class Americans who voted for an elderly New York businessman for president in 2016, one who is “legitimizing personal greed as the principal religion of our country.” Nick is a Greek immigrant and was a welder, but in his retirement he listens to “jocular, obscenely confident commentators who disparaged any kind of progressive thinking, egged on by callers who were angry about even the most basic modern social arrangements. Gay marriage aside, some of these people seemed incensed that their kids had to attend racially integrated schools….These callers were clinging to a century-old vision of America.”

The baby Dusty, of course, represents the future. His fate is the fate of everyone living in a “world running out of the stuff we need.”

Iano and Thatcher, in separate centuries, represent the educator, who should be able to “teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it” but who don’t have the job security to be able to do that effectively, or for very long. Thatcher is about to lose his job for teaching the theory of evolution. Iano is working on a year-to-year contract, at the sufferance of a college administration that will immediately void his contract if he stirs up any hint of controversy.

Tig’s answers to the problems of late-stage capitalism are not always the ones I think we’re going to see as obvious, in hindsight. Her perception of what is possible in a barter economy–ride-sharing and garbage-picking–may not exactly hit the target, but she picks up on forward movement in a way that Willa cannot, surrounded by what she still thinks of as her possessions even as she is being forced to give them up. The popularity of various “simplify your life” programs like Marie Kondo’s show that at some level, even the wealthy now have a sense of too much abundance. Rather than throwing much of it  away, however, ninety-nine percent of us are going to have to learn to go through it, re-using, re-purposing, and making do with what we already have.

The baby boomer generation, those who came of age in the 1950’s and 60’s, have used up most of what made the American Dream possible. Those who follow in their wake may well, as this novel predicts, have to learn to live like the previous generation, who came of age in the Great Depression and learned to do things like raise their own vegetables and wash and re-use aluminum foil and cling wrap.

My generation, like Willa’s, is the sandwich generation for stuff, keeping the childrens’ keepsakes until they come home to throw out their boxes of childhood drawings and extra clothes and also trying to find time to go through the additional boxes we’ve brought from our “mother’s house when they emptied it out.”

One of the surprises of the novel, which never descends below the level of a good story (unlike Prodigal Summer, for instance, with its environmental didacticism) is that Willa’s house and Thatcher’s house both fall apart. We may think they’re living in the same house, in the same situation, but close observation, as Thatcher’s friend Mary Treat shows, is crucial. What you believe, at the end of the story, is less important than what you observe.

Even in a busy period, are you able to practice the habit of observing? Do you sometimes turn your head to see the things you don’t ordinarily focus on? Notice your neighbors? Occasionally reassess your goals?

 

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

September 12, 2018

Well, here it is September already. I’ve been trying to get through the metaphorical whirlwind of beginning-of-the-semester events and then this past weekend we had to stand with our political banners 41338185_10215458452247553_8621687834975141888_nin the rain from the literal whirlwind—Gordon–that brought its moisture all the way up to Ohio. We are now starting to worry about Eleanor in the literal whirlwind—Florence–approaching the North Carolina coast. Our new deck is built, our cats have accepted the change, and I think I have time to take a breath and tell you about what I’ve been reading.

I picked up Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, because I’d read about it at Big Reading Life and it seemed like a good book to read in small bits during a busy week. It was. My copy says right on the cover “a novel” but it seems to be a series of connected short stories; we never learn exactly what happens between the end of some and the beginnings of others. They’re great fun, though, partly because of the ambiguity of the in between.

I was initially skeptical about stories of Minnesota food, having heard stories about the ultra-bland from my sister-in-law, whose mother came from that area, and from Eleanor, who went to college in Iowa with one Minnesotan who said marinara sauce was “too spicy.” There’s none of that in these stories, though—in fact, the chef in the stories, Eva Thorvald, gets her start growing hot peppers.

As I am once again mourning the end of the always-too-short summer in Ohio, I loved the passage in a story about a college student whose mother “used to say that Iowans knew how to appreciate the two most precious things in life—family and warm weather,” not least because she has a typical college student’s agonistic reaction to what she’s been told all her life:
“Given that summer in Iowa was often fleeting, her mom was making one hell of a poignant juxtaposition….Still, once in a great damn while Braque did hear those words as her mother intended.”

There are recipes included in the narrative as they are mentioned, one of the first for a fairly standard version of French Onion Soup and later on, recipes for a couple of different prize-winning dessert bars.

Some of the female characters are extremely full of themselves and especially mean to other women, like Octavia, who thinks everyone else schemes and maneuvers the way she does, and Pat, an old-fashioned church lady from a small town outside of Minneapolis. Eva offers each of them a chance to work with her, and only one of them takes it (and, with it, the chance to enlarge her horizons).

There’s a beautiful one-paragraph description of Octavia early on in the story about her which tells you most of what you need to know:
“Octavia sat in Robbe’s lush backyard, in a Crate & Barrel deck chair next to Robbe’s Honeycrisp apple tree, while her bitchy, judgmental ex-roommate Maureen O’Brien smoked a cigarette and ashed it onto the lawn. Christ, Octavia though. Why did Robbe still invite Maureen to his parties? Because she worked at a cool restaurant? Because he wanted his parties to look busier? It couldn’t be because he actually liked her. It was too bad Maureen wasn’t a lesbian, with the buzz cut and the truck driver paunch and the sirloin-thick hands. She even held her cigarettes down at waist level, palm downward, like a dude, instead of arching her elbow and wrist, palm toward the sky, cigarette tip pointed downward, like a woman of a refined caste.”

Pat’s character is described as she gets in line at the registration table for a baking contest with a new acquaintance who also bakes, Celeste Mantilla:
“Celeste Man-teeya?” one of the old women asked, pronouncing Celeste’s last name in what Pat would later learn was the proper Spanish style.
“No, Mantilla, like vanilla,” Celeste said.
“Where you from originally? It’s such a pretty last name.”
“My husband’s from Florida.”
“No, originally, originally.”
Celeste sighed. “He’s half French, half Cuban.”
“I knew it,” the old woman said. “Being from Florida.”
After this exchange, Pat says:
“Celeste was still whining about the racism of the old lady at registration; Pat would never admit it outright, but she got some pleasure from seeing Celeste get a little miffed. Some small thing had to go wrong for Celeste Mantilla today in order for Pat to feel that the Lord would restore a sense of harmony and balance in the world.”
She tells Celeste that “you can’t control other people, but you can control how you react to them…because somehow it was the first thing that came to mind.”
Her quotation of the aphorism is actually helpful in the moment, though:
“Celeste stopped walking and nodded. ‘Wow,’ she said. ‘That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard in a long time.’
With that, Celeste seemed to cheer right up.”

There are a number of moments in these stories when we’re made aware of the good sense displayed by ordinary people from the middle of the country. One of these is Pat, when she’s told she should set her sights higher than local baking contests with the dessert bars she is proud of being able to make. A friend tells her that “everyone who finishes in the top three or four spots [in a Minneapolis-area contest] gets job offers from big-city professional restaurants.” Pat reacts to that information like this:
“Pat tried to think of a situation in her life where she’d ever fielded multiple offers, for anything, and nothing came to mind. Most of the time it was hard to even get one person to want her for anything.”

There’s a comic discussion of why bakers at contests must have ingredient cards, because, as one obnoxious pregnant woman puts it, “people have serious allergies and dietary preferences and things.” And there’s another comic scene at one of Eva Thorvald’s dinners, when two “foodies” who take themselves very seriously begin crying and swearing (in wonder, it seems) at the table. It reminds me of the time I went to an opera at the Kennedy Center, when my friend Susan Dunn was singing, and the woman next to me started every time Susan opened her mouth to sing, and began sobbing dramatically (but quietly) into a big handkerchief as the first notes reached us. Here’s the description of the foodies:
“The second course arrived: two glistening little rectangles of white fish on identically sized mounds of yellow and red succotash. Man-hee and Mi-sun across the table each took a bite, and Mi-sun snapped forward in her chair, clutching her head….Mi-sun’s face lifted, and there were tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling. Man-hee was rocking his head back and forth, eyes closed, while he chewed slowly.”

These stories are little jewels individually, and put together, they tell a bigger tale of ordinary people caring about ordinary things, which was exactly what I needed, this time of year. IMG_1874

Here is a photo of all three of my cats, curled up inside while it rains.

I like to read about food, especially when I’m not making much time to cook it. How about you—do you like to read about food?

Record of a Spaceborn Few

August 27, 2018

Becky Chambers’ new science fiction novel–the third one set in her Wayfarers universe, after The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit–fills in the gaps about the humans still living on the aging spaceships of the Exodus Fleet. It’s less of an adventure and more about the back stories of this fictional future universe. How did we get here? To find out, read Record of a Spaceborn Few.

The plot centers around the stories of five characters, all of them on the Asteria, one of the hundreds of spaceships comprising the Exodus Fleet, which is a flotilla of generation ships that escaped Earth before its destruction and made contact with the Galactic Commons, the interstellar group who have welcomed humans and allowed them to form and join ground-based colonies on the planets of the commons.

The five central characters are Isabel, the ship’s archivist, Eyas, a caretaker for the bodies of those who die on the ship, Tessa, a salvage supervisor, Kip, a rebellious teenager, and Sawyer, who has arrived on the Asteria from a planet and becomes a code-breaker for a salvage squad from the ship.

Although there are sad events, this is not a dystopian SF universe. In an interview, the author said:
“If all you see in the future is struggle and hardship, then there’s not much point in doing anything. What I write is the stuff that happens after the struggle. That’s not to say that nothing bad or difficult ever happens in my books. In order to properly write about hope, you have to address the rough stuff, too. Ultimately, though, I want my books to feel like a good future, something you might want to be part of and work toward. I want you to believe that there’s something beyond dystopia worth fighting for.”
Her last phrase—“something worth fighting for”—may be a conscious echo of one of the last lines of the second Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies.

Sawyer’s story begins with losing his planetary job:
“He was nineteen, he’d been working since twelve, and he’d had ten jobs by now…. if he’d been laid off, that meant everybody else at the factory had, too. They’d all be descending on the commerce square, ingratiating themselves to business owners until one of them offered a job. That was how things worked with Harmagians, anyway. No resumes or interviews or anything. Just walk up and hope they like you. With other species, finding a job was a less tiring to-do, but Harmagian jobs were where the creds were at. There were jobs in his neighborhood, probably, but Human-owned work didn’t get you very far.”
He decides to leave his planet-based colony for the Asteria because he has read that their rule is that “Everybody had a home, and nobody went hungry. There was a practical necessity in that, he knew. A ship full of people fighting over food and space wouldn’t last long. But there was compassion, too, a commitment to basic decency. Too many people back on Earth had been hungry and cold.”

Kip’s story begins with him washing dishes and thinking about a “crime-solving vid set on Titan—Murder on the Silver Sea—where some characters were at a fancy restaurant having this crazing smart conversation….and when the conversation was done, they just…left their food. Like, let the server come get it while they walked out of the place. The scene would’ve made sense if one of them wasn’t hungry or had a stomach ache or something, but if that were the case, then the other one would’ve reached over and eaten the leftovers. But no. Both of them left. They left half-plates of food on the table. It was the weirdest shit.”

We meet Eyas as we’re finding out why she prefers sex for hire: “It was an intimate thing, preparing a body. An intimacy matched only by one other. So when she placed her own body in someone else’s hands, she wanted to know that her respect would be matched. You couldn’t make guarantees like that with a stranger at a bar. You couldn’t know from a bit of conversation and a drink or two whether they understood in their heart of hearts that bodies should always be left in a better way than when you found them. With a professional, you could.”

Tessa is introduced as she deals with the aftermath of theft from the salvage. “The theft benefited the thief, and maybe the thief’s friends or family, but that was it. They’d taken things out of the hands of people who also needed them, who had grit their teeth and followed the rules and made do without.”

Isabel’s history of the Asteria frames the story, and part of how we see Exodan history is through the eyes of her Harmagian visitor, Ghuh’loloan, who is reporting on conditions in the Exodus fleet for her own archive in the Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration, through a public news feed. When Isabel’s wife Tamsin asks whether Ghuh’loloan thinks humans are worth what the Galactic Counsel has done for them, the response is this:
“You are a species of slim means. You produce nothing beyond extra bodies to perform labour, and you have contributed nothing to the technological progress of the GC at large. You value being self-reliant, and you were, once, but now you eat our food and harvest our suns. If we kicked you out now, it would be difficult for you to sustain yourselves as you did before. And even with our help, the age of these vessels means you are constantly, irresponsibly courting a disaster like the one you’ve already weathered. These are the facts. Now, let us discuss the facts of my own species. We are the wealthiest species alive today. We want for nothing. Without us, there would be no tunnels, no ambi, no galactic map. But we achieved those things through subjugation. Violence. We destroyed entire worlds—entire species. It took a galactic war to stop us. We learned. We apologized. We changed. But we can’t give back the things we took. We’re still benefiting from them, and others are still suffering from actions centuries old. So, are we worthy? We, who give so much only because we took so much? Are you worthy, you who take without giving but have done no harm to your neighbors? Are the Aeluons worthy? Are the Quelin? Show me the species that has never wronged another. Show me who has always been perfect and fair….Either we are all worthy of the Commons, dear Tamsin, or none of us are.”

Isabel gets the last word, and I like what she says about our own species:
Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once….When our planet started dying, our species was so caught up in stories. We had thousands of stories about ourselves…but not enough of us were looking at the reality of things. Once reality caught up with us and we started changing our stories to acknowledge it, it was too late.”

This novel is hopeful science fiction because that past is our future. It’s not too late to look at the “reality of things” and to read and think about Record of a Spaceborn Few.

Ohio

August 23, 2018

It’s disconcerting that the two novels I’ve read about places I’ve lived both revolve around terrible and elaborate murder plots.

The first one, Gone Girl, is set in a fictional place called North Carthage that the author, Gillian Flynn, has said is based on the real city of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I lived from first grade through high school and where the movie is set.

The second one, Ohio, is set in a fictional place called New Canaan that is obviously based on the real city of Mount Vernon, where the author, Stephen Markley, grew up and where I’ve lived for more than two decades. Although regular readers of this blog know that my most frequent reaction to living in central Ohio is to sing a few lines of “Don’t Let Me Die Here” by Uncle Bonsai,* I have enough sense of place to dislike the contempt the author of this novel shows for a middle-aged mother who can’t understand how complicated things are beyond her own back yard because she is “a conformist New Canaanite for life” and also enough to like the appreciation he includes for “how many extremely decent people [he’d] known in this place. How much [he’d] taken them for granted.”

It’s difficult to be objective about a novel set in the small town where you live. I don’t know the author, but I do know his mother–she works at Kenyon with me. I’ve never been to any of the bars he describes, but I know where they are. My children went to the high school that provides the focal point for the novel, although they were there more than a dozen years after the author graduated.

Ohio is comprised of four sections, each from the point of view of a different character, with a prelude and a coda. There is a nice series of Rashomon-esque overlappings of the stories in the different sections, and they build towards a climax in the fourth section and a revelation in the coda.

The prelude describes one of the characters as a typical small-town Ohioan:
“this kind of guy you’d find teeming across the country’s swollen midsection: toggling Budweiser, Camels, and dip, leaning into the bar like he was peering over the edge of a chasm, capable of near philosophy when discussing college football or shotgun gauges, neck on a swivel for any pretty lady but always loyal to his true love, most of his drinking done within a mile or two of where he was born, calloused hands, one finger bent at an odd angle from a break that never healed right, a wildly foul mouth…”
But also, the narrator says, he “was in no way standard. He was freewheeling, mule-stubborn, and cunning as a coyote trickster. He had whole oceans inside of him, the wilds of the country, fierce ghosts, and a couple hundred million stars.”
It’s almost as if the author feels the need to get really elaborate with the language in an attempt to differentiate himself from the kind of guys who went to high school with him.

Although the overly-elaborate language continues to crop up frequently throughout the novel, there are also charming local metaphors, like that one character’s “gas gauge had the accuracy of a creationist biology textbook,” a reference to the creationist biology teacher in the Mount Vernon Middle School. The novel’s characters also refer to their town as “The Cane” like locals refer to Mount Vernon as “The Vern.” In a few places, the novel offers stunningly apt language, like: “the cop had grabbed her breast…and she’d cracked him with her elbow. To put a five-foot-nothing woman away for such ‘assault’ was to codify the illegality of dissent.”

Ohio tries to make the case that the troubles of a group of small-town high school has-beens are representative of the troubles of an entire state, even the entire middle of an entire country, but it doesn’t really work. They remain sad little drunks and addicts, no matter how many of the characters make fine speeches like this one: “Life itself has become the final disposable, exploitable resource. We will do anything. Level whole mountains, erase whole species, relocate mighty rivers, burn forests to the ground, change the pH of the water, blanket ourselves in toxic chemistry. It took two million years for our species just to stand up and only five hundred generations to do the rest. Our culture is one of abundance, of entitlement, and basically little else. We’ve put our birthright at risk because we don’t know how to control ourselves.”

The autobiographical tendency of a first novel shows through in more than just the details about the place. It’s also in the fondness of the descriptions and the assumption that other people have experienced what this author did, spending his childhood and young adulthood in the same place: “The sky over the place you were born has a familiarity beyond how the clouds roll in or how the stars wink at you at night. The sky over your home behaves like that moment when, as a parachutist, you pull the rip cord and the heavens snatch you back. Even if you’ve traveled the world and seen better sunsets, better dawns, better storms—when you get that remembered glimpse of the fields and forests and rises and rivers of your home meeting the horizon, your jaw will tighten. The rip cord will yank you back from the descent.”

Ohio certainly gets some of the local rhetoric about “liberals” right:
“You’re really only about the sanctimony. You got this club for right-thinking people, and all you care about is being able to control the way we speak and what opinions we’re allowed to have. In college I had this girl blow up at me for saying ‘colored people’ instead of ‘people of color.’ Thought she was going to have an aneurysm ‘cause I reversed two stupid words. But that’s what liberals are: thought police. So they want to protect a religion like Islam, one that treats women and homos like shit and doesn’t even respect free speech—so you can’t even be consistent there. But when it comes to Christians not wanting guys with dicks in the women’s bathroom? Hell, put those backwards hicks on TV and ridicule them! Call ‘em bigots! Chase ‘em with pitchforks! Do liberals care about the economy being shit, about jobs leaving, about how no one can make it in a business or how much it costs to move to one of their precious cities on the coasts? No, of course not. They care more about the rights of illegal aliens than they do about the heroin those aliens bring in that’s killing every last person we know.”

The murder mystery is chillingly described from different points of view, starting with hints about “The Murder That Never Was” and radiating outward to related secrets and cruelties, until the heart of Ohio’s darkness is fully dissected and readers, along with the characters, understand that “we lack a whole lot of imagination about violence. We want to chalk it up to ‘psychos,’ whatever that means. It’s a notion that feels safe. It’s comforting. But shit like My Lai or Auschwitz or Gnadenhutten—that’s not aberrant. It happens because of what we all have in common. How frail we are. We’re insecure, we’re greedy, we want a promotion at work, we’re afraid of the guy in charge—that’s the stupid, mundane bullshit that makes people do terrible things to each other.”

The title of the novel suggests that fictional events in the small town are representative of events in the entire state. That’s a scary thought, enough to make real-life small-town Ohio residents lock their doors at night.

*There were chickens in the gutters
There was murder in the drive
I was not the first to utter
Let me make it back home dead or alive
(chorus)
Don’t let me die here
If I should die here
Don’t let me lie here
Out here alone
Don’t let me die here
If I should die here
Don’t say good bye here
Send my body home

An Everyday Thing

August 20, 2018

The title of Nancy Richardson’s volume An Everyday Thing comes from the title of one of the poems, about the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State, which includes the line “isn’t death an everyday thing for everyone?”

I was interested in this volume because the poems are about Ohio, but many of them are about the baby boomer experience, people who “sat in front of the TV…the day Robert Kennedy was shot,” think a phrase like “worse than the brownshirts” should be applied to something that happened in 1975–maybe because that’s where the poet first heard it—and remember listening to music on “reel-to-reel tapes.” Although I generally think writers should include their personal point of view, this volume of poetry may be an example of going a little too far with the personal, not generalizing the experiences enough to appeal to younger people or those from different parts of the U.S.A. or the world.

Even a poem about something I’ve experienced turns out to be something I know more about than the poem gets across. “Patience,” subtitled “the voting machines of Ohio,” is about the dearth of voting machines in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election; I remember the way the people of Gambier, Ohio and the students of Kenyon College waited in line for hours to vote in the 2004 election. Although the poem describes how “resignation waits in long lines,” everyone who was there tells me that it was more like determination.

It’s interesting to contrast a prose poem, “Bounced,” about working on the Kerry campaign in 2004 Ohio with what it’s like to work on a local congressional campaign fourteen years later. I guess the experience of running out of “chum, you know, buttons and bumper stickers” is universal, although we’re now worrying less about whether volunteers want “Starbucks and chicken Caesar salads” and more about how we can use the limited time we have to knock on doors and record information about what we learn from talking to registered voters. I do love the part where “the Voter Protection people came and put on a ‘training.’ They divided us into smaller and smaller groups.” That would still be happening except that now we’re depending less on campaign coordination and more on our own local efforts at organization.

There are some good lines in these poems. I like “our talk is the conversation of waves,/ more movement than meaning” from “Portland, June 1991.” I also love the last two lines of “Repurposed,” about watching a movie in a repurposed shopping mall, “satisfied that we are in the 21st century/in America, where reality is fantasy.” And she certainly does get Ohio right: “in this city in Ohio where the sky/was a leaden haze.”

The metaphor of the poem “Untying” is beautifully carried out. It’s my favorite poem of the volume:
The motorcyclist, wooly blond
soft skin, left me in a midnight
phone call, breathing silence.
The painter of orange abstracts
pausing in mid-sentence, moved
to the coast of Nova Scotia
where he sent for me in letters.
There were others. Some right
at the wrong time. Some wrong
for all time. I carry their voices
in my ear, their whispers borne
like the dead. Small knots
in the brain. I untie them.
Giving the details in this poem works well (although I was initially a little thrown off by the image of “wooly blond…skin”) because readers can substitute their own examples of lovers who were “right at the wrong time” or “wrong for all time.”

So I learned something from reading this volume of poetry, that a writer who wants to use specific details from her own life to evoke particular feelings in others should try to state the universal experience she’s reaching for at some point, rather than assuming that others will react in the same situation the same way she does.

My thanks to Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit for making me aware of this volume of poetry through Poetic Book Tours, and to the poet, Nancy Richardson, for sending me a copy of the volume.

 

Rogue Protocol

August 14, 2018

I’ve known this morning was coming for a long time, much like you should know that the death at the end of Martha Wells’ third “murderbot” novella, Rogue Protocol, is going to hurt.

IMG_1854Last night we had a combined birthday party for one of my best friends, one I’ve known most of my life, and my grown-up daughter, who can now finally rent a car. We’ve had their parties together before, out on our deck in the evening, with our two families and a few other friends we’ve known for decades. This year the sun was setting, the deck was weathered gray and overgrown with green, and the cicadas were singing. We ate watermelon and guacamole and deviled eggs and birthday cake, and then we had to bring in all the solo cups and beer bottles and cake plates and move the outdoor furniture into the garage in the dark before all four of us went to sleep under one roof.

IMG_1860This morning Ron and Walker got up and went to work, and Eleanor finished packing up all her stuff and put it in the car and set off for North Carolina. The cats and I are inside the house while the guy I’ve hired to take apart the old deck and build us a new one is wreaking noisy havoc outside. I’ve lived in this house with this deck for almost thirty years and it’s strange to see it coming apart on the morning Eleanor is heading for home. I feel a little bruised, somehow, like I ran into something solid that I hadn’t seen was there.

It’s the juxtaposition of our lovely evening with the sad and sunny morning that makes it all so difficult. If Rogue Protocol were less good and you cared about the characters less, the death at the end would be less hard. And yet here we are.

The book begins soon after the last one ended, with the “murderbot” on another transport ship heading for a station where she hopes to get information that will help Dr. Mensah, her “owner” and sort-of friend. There are other passengers on this transport, and since the murderbot has listed itself as a “security consultant,” the transport has been calling it to settle disputes and it has been responding–about which circumstance it says “I don’t know why, either. Maybe because it was what I was constructed to do and it must be written into the DNA that controls my organic parts. (There needs to be an error code that means ‘I received your request but decided to ignore you.’)”

We know why the murderbot has been responding, despite its protests that it doesn’t care about these humans: “A SecUnit’s job is to protect its clients from anything that wants to kill or hurt them, and to gently discourage them from killing, maiming, etc., each other. The reason why they were trying to kill, main, etc. each other wasn’t the SecUnit’s problem, it was for the humans’ supervisor to deal with. (Or to willfully ignore until the whole project devolved into a giant clusterfuck and your SecUnit prayed for the sweet relief of a massive accidental explosive decompression, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)”

The murderbot continues to react more and more like a human would, until it meets a little robot called Miki whose friends are the humans on its team. Murderbot scoffs at the very idea that robots and humans can be friends until it becomes clear that it believes such a state of affairs is too good to be true. Miki’s actions and her communications with her friend Don Abene show that it is true, however.

There is excitement as the murderbot tries to protect Miki and Don Abene and also get access to the information that it believes will help Dr. Mensah. There are a couple of almost-comic moments where the murderbot, who has human parts, and the robot Miki, who has none, experience apprehension and fear. At one point Miki tells the murderbot to be careful because “this place makes our skin shiver.” Later, when a combat bot is trying to fix its location, the murderbot tries to reassure the robot:
“[Objective: We will tear you apart.]
I blocked the channel. I breathed out, slowly, so as not to draw attention from the humans. Miki sent me a glyph of distress. I said It’s okay, which was a complete lie. I reminded myself a combat bot wasn’t a human, it wasn’t a villain from one of my shows. It was a bot, and it wasn’t threatening us.
It was just telling us what it was going to do.”

The jokes in this one, having been set up in the first two novellas, come faster and seem funnier. I particularly enjoy the part where the murderbot says “I do make mistakes (I keep a running tally in a special file) and it looked like I had made a big one.” Some of the jokes are funny because they’re based on serious turns of events in the narrative, like when Miki’s hand is sheared off by a blast from a weapon and the robot says “’I am at eighty-six percent functional capacity.’ It held up its arm stump. ‘It’s only a flesh wound,’” Abene says “Miki, your poor hand” and then the murderbot thinks “oh good, another Abene/Miki lovefest.”

Especially after such moments, when the murderbot is obviously struggling to sound like its usual self-protecting cynical self, it protests too much. When Miki says “that’s not good” about a turn of events, the murderbot thinks “That is just annoying. That contributed nothing to the conversation and was just a pointless vocalization to make the humans comfortable.”

There is a death at the end of this book, and after readers have felt the full weight of it, the murderbot comments “I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.”

Isn’t that the truth. I guess that’s what I’ve just run into, once again.

 

The Dying of the Light

August 10, 2018

Because I’d enjoyed a previous novel by Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife, I accepted an advance copy of his newest novel, The Dying of the Light, when it was offered to me by HarperCollins. It’s readable enough, as Goolrick is a good writer, but I have to wonder why he chose to try his hand at a modernized version of southern gothic. Dude, we’ve been there and done that, and you’re no Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Goolrick’s version of an aristocratic southern family is one that is isolated from friends or relatives—atypical right there—and dependent on northern money to preserve the family house and way of life. Pretty stereotypical there. Someone is shot for love. Gasp. The plot isn’t even as progressive as he may think it is in involving homosexual love; it’s just more explicit about it, which makes it less desperate and far less interesting.

The main character of the novel is a beautiful woman named Diana who marries to preserve her family’s fortune. Her mother’s speech to her, when she is experiencing last-minute jitters before her marriage, strikes me as a very northern speech because it’s inflated with everything the two women might be thinking instead of skimming over the surface of what they’re thinking and offering a few words to sum up. (If you don’t know what I mean, read O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”)

The northern perspective is quite clear in some places, like the descriptions of some of the southern food: “ham biscuits, which the southerners devoured, and the Yankees eyed askance, because, as one of them said, ‘This tastes like something you’d put down on the driveway after a snowstorm.’”

The darkness at the heart of Diana’s marriage is described almost clinically: “He began to slap her during sex, sometimes leaving marks, but never where they might show when she was clothed.” There are no relatives or neighbors interfering in Diana’s business to even notice such marks, so it seems beside the point to mention that he doesn’t leave any; it’s just a surface imitation of a southern gothic trope.

There’s some interesting development of a minor character named Lucius, but he gets killed off before anything can arise from it. There are two obligatory scenes about race relations in the south, one of them a melodramatic moment in which Diana realizes that a confederate flag is offending “the black men and women” she’s invited to a picnic, and so she throws it into a fire. The black couple who have been her servants and stayed with her all her life spend the novel urging her to rest when they are older and have been working longer hours.

The author’s northern perspective becomes starkly explicit by the end of the novel, when the southern way of life is described as “a way of life built on an evil principle.” Is the purpose of this novel to symbolically torture the main character, a representative of all the people of the region where she was born? If so, well done Mr. Goolrick. Try writing what you know next time.

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