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Lizard Radio

April 25, 2016

I searched out a copy of Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz, after it won the Tiptree Award, along with Eugene Fischer’s The New Mother. It’s an absorbing little book with a great opening sentence—“I do not believe”—but I never did figure out exactly what the title refers to.

The main character, Kivali Kerwin, is fifteen years old, was adopted by a woman named Sheila who found her in a t-shirt with a lizard on it and who gave her the middle name of “Sauria.” Along with her acquaintance Korm, she encourages the girl to think of herself as a lizard and try to tune in on the outer space frequency of the alien lizard race who must have brought her to earth. It’s mostly a joke, you see, except that everything in this alternate reality world is deadly serious.

Like “vaping.” Sometimes people in this world just disappear. Kivali says “benders and samers, defectives and defiants and violents, that’s who vapes” but then she sees it happen on her first night at the place Sheila has brought her to, one of the “camps” that everyone in this society has to go to between the ages of 15 and 17. Not having the special skills necessary for other camps, Kivali goes to crop camp, where they help to raise food. Evidently, “before they started the camp system, lots of teens vaped….SayFree Gov called it a growing epidemic and set out to cure it, first with the strict bender regs and then with the camps.”

The camp director says
“With a cert from this camp, your chances of ever landing in Blight are less than three percent. You’ll enter the adult world ready for further education or a fulfilling career in agriculture.
The regs are strict here. I suggest that you comply and let us make this a good experience for you. If you leave here certless, you’ll face consequences that your MaDa cannot fix. If you are of age, you’ll go directly to Blight. If not, you will be relocated to fosters who can prepare you for a RepeaterCamp.”
“Blight” is where non-conforming former citizens of this country get sent: “SayFree Gov took a whole city, surrounded it with a biosensor fence, and chucked all the problem people in there.”

One of the purposes of camp is for the teens to “meet the opposite sex under controlled conditions and form unions. SayFree Radio is always talking about how stable camp-formed couples are, and how they either beat the low fertility rates or provide stable homes for adopted Blight babies.”

The words are part of the fun of this story. The teens eat in a structure called the “Mealio.” Kivali sees a person across a campfire and says “he’s a midrange bender” which we come to find out means he identifies strongly with neither male or female, but has been assigned male. Kivali herself, we find out, is a midrange bender who has been assigned female. Her new friend Sully says they’re a “bunch of burby kids dropped in the middle of agriculture,” meaning “from the suburbs.”

When her new acquaintance Rasta criticizes the bender Kivali saw across the campfire, saying “he didn’t even try to hide it” and “he screams bender,” her new friend Sully defends him (and Kivali in the process) by asking “what if everyone suddenly started telling you that you’re a boy and you have to act like one?” Then she tells a story:
“My little cousin was born a he, and now she’s a beautiful she. They tested her up before Grade One and she scored in the midthirties. Girl for sure. Transition complete by Grade Three, and she passed through PDGT in about six weeks. Easy for her. That guy last night is probably around fifty. I saw some of those midrangers in my cousin’s cohort. They have it rough.”

It turns out that a “samer” is someone who falls in love with someone of the same gender, and Kivali doesn’t want to be one—“it’s bad enough being a bender. I won’t be a samer, too. I just won’t.”

In her (required) weekly sessions with the camp director, who she calls “Machete,” Kivali thinks about being a leader or a follower, either having to follow the “regs” or making them change those “regs.” The camp director tells her that she should be a leader, someone who can know the truth but commits to telling only carefully selected bits of the truth to others. Kivali, of course, can’t commit to being one or the other, or to selecting from the whole truth. She finds out that the drug they’ve been given orally in camp is implanted when the campers graduate, unless they agree to take on a government position of authority. The implant “suppresses aggression, violence. Eases anxiety.” Rasta’s father tells Kivali “if you take it, things are easier,” which is ironic, because it was Rasta who taught her to refuse it.

It’s hard to know what the mysticism about Kivali hearing “lizard radio” is supposed to mean, in this novel. To the extent that it’s explained, she has been taught to enter into a trance and hears it there. The purpose of her trances under this kind of oppressive government control is not clear to me, however. What happens to Kivali and Sheila at the end of the story may not be entirely clear, but they are making their own way on the outside, no longer part of “SayFree” but finding their own freedom.

I would be pleased to mail my copy of Lizard Radio to anyone in the world who would like to talk about it with me in more depth, either on your own blog, or by email. If you’re interested, leave your name and how to contact you in the comments, and if there’s more than one person interested, I’ll pick a comment by number, at random.


April 21, 2016

Because I can’t resist anything with the name “Eleanor” on it, I picked up Jason Gurley’s new novel Eleanor from the mystery shelf at the public library. I had to read it all in order to figure out what the mystery is about—an unsatisfying mix of realism with an extremely individualistic mysticism.

Basically, Eleanor the grandmother drowns herself in the ocean while pregnant, her daughter Agnes has twin girls named Eleanor and Esmerelda, and Esmerelda dies at the age of six in a car crash that Eleanor and Agnes survive, and then granddaughter Eleanor—the character we care about and follow through the first half of the book—gets literally pulled into her dead relatives’ version of purgatory and her parents’ dream worlds.

The first time it happens, it’s when Eleanor walks through a doorway leaving the high school cafeteria: “at the very last moment, she feels something subtle and strange, as if she is made of metal and some magnetic force is tugging her toward it. The tiny hairs on her arms and neck lift up. There is a sharp smell; the air sizzles. Before she has a moment to truly consider any of this, she steps through the doorway—is, frankly, almost yanked through it—and then Eleanor is no longer in the cafeteria, no longer in her high school, no longer even in Oregon at all.”

Eleanor’s dead twin, who calls herself Mea but remembers being Esmerelda, brings Eleanor to the place she is, called “the rift” and tells her it’s “so we can set things right.” It’s not clear what this means for a long while. Is it so the parents can live in their separate dream worlds, undamaged by the knowledge that one of the twins has died? At one point, it seems that our heroine Eleanor has died, but then grandmother Eleanor becomes the ocean and declares that she “will see my family restored.” To do this, she goes into her daughter’s dream world and makes her feel better, while Eleanor and Esmerelda become dinosaurs and swim out to sea together, where they see “the reset” and then the book ends almost where it began, except that grandmother Eleanor comes back from her swim, rather than drowning in the ocean.

I felt rather silly for getting invested at all in the life of Eleanor the granddaughter, especially because of Eleanor’s poor boyfriend, who is left with some kind of vague psychic message about where Eleanor has gone. Maybe he’ll eventually meet her “again” in the reset world, but it’s really unsatisfying to be left free to imagine that they will still meet and have enough in common to feel the same bond. It’s also not clear whether Eleanor’s aunt Gerry will get her dead sons back in the reset world. Is this a world in which no one Eleanor cared about can ever die? If so, is it a dream?  Does anything in this fiction matter?

My advice would be not to let it. Leave the book on the shelf.

How To Be Drawn

April 19, 2016

NPMBlogTour2016-300x225Browsing through the new volumes of poetry at the college library (because it’s national poetry month), I pulled out How To Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes, and was immediately drawn in.

The first poem, “What It Look Like,” goes from talking about music to made-up words with amusements like “a bandanna is a useful handkerchief,/but a handkerchief is a useless-ass bandanna” along the way to my favorite part:
“my motto is Never mistake what it looks like
for what it is else you end up like that Negro
Othello. (Was Othello a Negro?) Don’t you lie
about who you are sometimes and then realize
the lie is true?”

Sometimes I leaf through volumes by black poets and think well, these poems are not written for me, which is fine. Hayes’ poems can speak to almost everyone, though, especially ones like “Black Confederate Ghost Story” in which the speaker invites “African-American apparitions hung,/burned or drowned before anyone alive was born” to “please make a mortifying midnight appearance/before the handyman standing on my porch/this morning.” He says “the handyman’s/insistence that there were brigades of black/Confederates is as oxymoronic as terms like/ ‘civil war,’ ‘free slave.’” The ending is particularly wonderful:

“Attention, apparitions: this is a solicitation
very much like a prayer. Your presence is requested
tonight when this man is polishing his civil war relics
and singing ‘Good Ol’ Rebel Soldier’ to himself.

Hello sliding chairs. Hello, vicious whispering shadows.
I’m a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable
As something hanging a dozen feet in the air.”

Another poem that invites me in and shows me the world from a new point of view is “Antebellum House Party,” in which we “make the servant in the corner unobjectionable/Furniture” so that when “Boss calls/For sugar” then “the furniture bears it sweetly.” At the end, we’re told that “The best furniture/Can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty.”

Some of the poems have little or nothing to do with race or other important topics, but zero in on funny situations like giving “Instructions for a Séance with Vladimirs” after Vladimir Mayakovsky (a Russian poet I know mostly because a local Kenyon acquaintance translated some of his poems and I got the book for Walker one Christmas). This is a long poem with many sections, and it builds as it goes; I like this bit especially:

Invite as many open-minded Vladimirs as possible, for they are like magnets attracting the Vladimirs who are dead. Vladimirs with eighties-style haircuts will attract top-hat Vladimirs. Vladimir the plumber will attract Vladimir the swimmer. Change your name to Vladimir.
What you want is a Vladimir brigade. A mirror of the living reflecting the dead and vice versa. In the towering dusk, groaning and brushing Vladimirs. To overcome the cold one must conjure the supernatural world.”

Occasionally a line or two from a poem made me giggle and want to read the rest more carefully, like this question from “The Rose Has Teeth”:
“What would a mother feel if her child sang
‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’
too beautifully?”

The poem that puts this author’s whimsical-seeming humor together with his musings on race, perhaps my favorite in the volume, is “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades.” It announces its agenda in the second stanza: “We should explore/The origins of a derogatory word like spades as well as the word/For feeling alone in polite company.” Then it goes on to ask the important questions, like “Who do you suppose/Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois/And Malcolm X in a game of Spades?” And it makes the hard observations, like “Renege is akin to the word for the shame/You feel watching someone else’s humiliation.” Finally it ends with the “you” the speaker has been arguing against getting the last word: “You say there are no enemies/in Spades.”

This is an eye-opening volume by a poet who knows how to draw all kinds of readers in and let them see more than they might have been able to before, on their own.

Tricky Twenty-Two

April 18, 2016

On Friday I had to go by the library, and couldn’t resist the latest J.D. Robb mystery, Brotherhood in Death, and the latest Janet Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two, from the 7-day loan shelf.

I read both books and enjoyed them–nothing much wrong with either long-running series–except that poor Janet has gone several books beyond ridiculous with not having Stephanie Plum choose between Ranger and Morelli. She keeps trying to spin it out, but it is just done, as her mercifully brief and lame bit of explanation about Ranger shows:
“He was an amazing lover and friend but his journey was ultimately solitary. He had things in his past that were shaping his future. I didn’t know what they were but I knew they couldn’t be ignored.”
If that was representative of the kind of writing in this book, I wouldn’t be checking it out.

I think that, like Ranger, the reason I keep wanting to follow what Stephanie is doing is to see how her car is going to get destroyed this time. That certainly isn’t a disappointment in this latest book.

It was sunny and in the seventies this weekend, just right for reading outside. How was your weekend? Did you read anything new, or anything new from an old series?

What Kind

April 14, 2016

IMG_3770Today the sun was shining on the road I was driving down, tiny green leaves of spring on either side, and all of the sudden I felt like I had skin again. I felt that everything was no longer on the surface, that total strangers couldn’t look at me anymore and be able to tell that I was bereft and drifting in the wake of my mother’s sudden death. All of the sudden, I was moving forward instead of just going through the motions.

I had been reading Wyatt Prunty’s new volume of poems entitled Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise and I wonder if the way I had to stop and think about his poem “What Kind” had anything to do with my emergence.

What Kind

Personalize it, if you must. Somewhere
Love’s gone off for a weekend in the mountains
Or to the beach; love’s driving somewhere other
Than your little life, watching and welcoming fan
Of yourself, to what was always coming anyway—
Something like expensive fixtures hanging from
High ceilings with a light so generalized
You are your old self even as you’re not,
Reiterative to the end, not scared exactly,
Just slowing as you feel someone familiar
Taking your side in things, cooling you down
On things, and by that making you
Think of tomorrow more fondly than before.

I could always count on my mother to take my side in things. But today I got a little help from someone at work, and I guess it made me think that tomorrow I might get some more, and eventually that could add up to something. Maybe it’s “what was always coming anyway” but now it feels more deliberate, something that can be personalized but doesn’t have to be in order to be accepted.

IMG_3754And Pippin is one year old now. She never met him, but he lounges on her furniture like it’s his.

The Vegetarian

April 13, 2016

Everything I’ve read about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, has been complimentary. It’s thought-provoking; it’s about the relationship of self-denial to self-destruction; it’s about how life is savage; it’s about the insufficiency of art to save us. Stefanie says it’s “disturbing” and “unsettling.” Bellezza finds it “compelling.”

The short novel is well-constructed, consisting of three novellas: the first is from a husband’s point of view, on a wife who suddenly throws out all the meat in the house and refuses to eat it, losing weight and refusing to explain, simply saying “I had a dream.” The second is from an artist brother-in-law’s point of view; like everyone else in the woman’s family, he sees her as a blank canvas on which to project his own desires. The third is from a sister’s point of view, a woman who has shut out the savagery of her own upbringing in order to live a normal life.

The vegetarian’s point of view is rarely heard; her name is Yeong-hye, but we know very little about what she wants or thinks or feels, only that she had a dream, that it is full of blood and terror, and that she no longer wants to live.

This is the point at which I can’t find much to like about this novel. Maybe it’s allegorical and “Kafkaesque” as the book jacket claims; that seems oddly outdated to me. I’m looking for a point of view on the “heart of darkness” at the center of this novel, but none of the characters are really involved, apart from the moment when Yeong-hye’s father tries to force meat down her throat and the moment when her brother-in-law penetrates her sexually, neither of which invites sympathy or identification with the character.

At first it seems that Yeong-hye is more sensitive than other people. She says “if you know how hard I’ve always worked to keep my nerves in check. Other people just get a bit flustered, but for me everything gets confused, speeds up.” Later you find out that she has been exposed to horrors that most readers haven’t, like, at the age of nine, having to watch a dog that bit her run to its death at the back of her father’s motorcycle, and then having to eat some of the dog’s flesh, “an entire bowlful with rice,” because “the saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog bite to heal you have to eat that same dog.” At the end of the first section, what she fears about her appendages has come true; they enable her to be a killer. After giving up meat and stabbing herself when her father tries to force-feed her, she has caught a bird outside at the hospital–caught it in her hand and taken a bite out of it.

At the beginning of part two, I thought maybe I could identify with the artist brother-in-law. But no, he is as much a predator as anyone else in this novel; just because Yeong-hye seems to like what he does to her doesn’t make him any less predatory than her father or her husband, as she demonstrates when “she burst into tears” at his climax.

The sister, In-hye, in the third part of the novel, goes to visit Yeong-hye in the mental institution where she is confined and force-fed. She and the hospital employees are focused on keeping her sister alive, while Yeong-hye asks “why, is it such a bad thing to die?” The question reminds In-hye of a time when Yeong-hye was nine years old and they were lost, and Yeong-hye said “let’s just not go back.” In-hye remembers that “Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings….she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.” In-hye finally understands that playing the older sister role has been “a survival tactic” for her, and her younger sister had no such “normal” role to fall back on.

In-hye wonders, briefly (as does the reader), if there is a metaphorical way to understand what has happened to her sister. Maybe Yeong-hye’s body has really become a tree: “had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the way down to the earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, had the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventually to bloom from her crotch as flowrs? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”

But then In-hye reminds herself of what is real: “you’re lying there in that bed, and dying. Nothing else.” She says “I have dreams too, you know. Dreams…and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over…but surely the dream isn’t all there is?” Although the tragedy, with the two sisters, could be like a Belle Reve moment, from A Streetcar Named Desire, it doesn’t work that way for me in the novel. Blanche wants to escape into her dreams of the past, whereas Yeong-hye wants to escape from her dreams and her past. The only way to escape from the past, this novel says, is to end your life.

Less of a tragedy than a relief, I’d say. I was glad when the novel was over. Maybe this is one problem with undirected, solo reading–I’d have been just as glad when a masterpiece like Things Fall Apart was over, if I’d been reading it on my own, for no particular reason. Maybe this is a book you have to want to learn something from.

What’s the last book you read on your own that might have been better if you’d read it as part of a discussion group, or for a class?




Seven Ways We Lie

April 11, 2016

One of the fun things you can do while reading Riley Redgate’s new YA novel Seven Ways We Lie is to try to match up each of her seven narrators with the seven deadly sins, as the book’s cover, with its seven nametags–one for each of the deadly sins–invites you to do. And yet if you work too hard at that, you’ll find that not one of the characters fits comfortably inside a “sin” designation, but is defined by that sin for only moments of his/her life. Claire, for example, has a moment when she is defined almost entirely by wrath, while her prevailing sin tends to be envy. And even saying that about her goes too far—these are high school-aged characters! They change in big, important ways from day to day! The one thing you can know about high-school-aged people is that they are going to keep changing quickly, so it’s always a mistake to try to label them or pin them down. (Still, it’s fun, so I’ll eventually put my character/sin matches in the comments in the hopes of starting some argument.)

I read Seven Ways We Lie because it’s by a Kenyon student who is managing to publish a novel and graduate from college in the same spring. Since she’s a very young author, her characterizations of high school students ring true, and since she’s a voracious reader and a writer who has worked on lots of revisions, her use of multiple points of view works well—the characters are distinct, and their perspectives comment on each others’ and build well.

We’re first introduced to Olivia Scott, whose point of view thereafter seems to be the default main one. She is involved with all the other characters, while some of them—most notably, her younger sister Kat—are not a part of the story any of the other characters tell. Olivia’s introduction might make you inclined to think that she represents the deadly sin of Lust, but as she keeps trying to tell Claire, it’s not true. The plot of the novel turns on which of these students is having an affair with a teacher at the high school, and we know it’s not Olivia, because we see the first assembly about it through her eyes, and she has no idea who it could be.

Next is Kat Scott, who is outstanding in the high school play and wants to be left alone, because, as she says, “whenever someone breaks my privacy, my head fills with panic, panic, panic. I lose my thoughts in white noise and fuzz. A short, sizzling fuse. And what comes out of my mouth is always angry bullshit.” Despite this, though, it would be unfair to say she represents wrath. As her story unfolds, in fact, it’s clear to see that in the few months we get to know her, her defining sin is sloth.

Third comes Matt Jackson, who has a crush on Olivia and does nothing about it or anything else except spend his days getting high.

Fourth we get Juniper’s point of view, which is interesting because her voice is always represented in verse.

Olivia gets a second chapter before we’re even introduced to the next three characters in the novel—first Valentine, then Claire, and finally Lucas. By the time we read Valentine’s chapter, we think we know it all. Valentine prides himself on not being like all the other high school students, saying things like “I thought we were all aware that the vast majority of high school relationships are fleeting and meaningless, but apparently not.” He has identified the girl whose voice he heard proclaiming her love for a teacher. He doesn’t know her name yet, so we don’t know who it is, but he definitely knows it all.

Which makes it fun to see him so wrong about Lucas in one of his next chapters, thinking about the kid who sells drugs so he can keep up with a rich and now largely-imaginary middle school crowd, “this kid is going to go through life and get everything handed to him on a silver platter.” Eventually Valentine and Lucas become friends, which allows Valentine to finally admit to someone that he is “bad at telling when people are lying.”

Another reason I tend to see Olivia as the main character is because she says and thinks things that a reader like me may be anticipating, like: “If it’s only been a week and a half since the assembly, and they’re already dragging the teachers in for questioning, they’ll probably be planting bugs in our cars over the Thanksgiving break.” She also describes herself as “five foot ten,” which is awkwardly tall for a high school girl.

And in the end, Olivia is the character who we get to see change. Rather than letting herself be ruled by the immensity of her wrath–“I’ve felt my share of anger. There are some kinds you can’t hold in your body. Some types burst out of your every pore at once, and you feel yourself expanding and twisting and turning into something that isn’t human. You feel hot waves of rage punching their way out of your skin.”—she learns to share it and let it go.

Olivia gets the last chapter, the last word, gets to show us the last scene and remind us, even as we are seeing it, that “we are always moving forward….We are hurtling through our lives.”

The characters in this novel spend it hurtling from one “sin” to another, and they are each learning how to move away from the one that could be most destructive. Isn’t that what we all most hope to learn, at any age? Like Valentine, I always need to keep moving away from the sin of pride. Which “sin” would be most destructive to you?


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