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April 27, 2015

On Sunday night, I played a concert which included Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony, a glorious piece of music to be in the middle of–and the middle of the orchestra is where the second violins sit. We hear all the notes, as they’re woven around us. For weeks now, I’ve heard the decending intervals of the last movement of the Pathetique playing in my head, getting lower and softer as I walk down the hallway towards my bedroom at the end of the day.

Another piece we played for the concert is a requiem for the composer’s mother, our director. It plays in my head some too–mostly three short bursts, repeated by different instruments. We have practiced playing this music for two hours a week since the end of February, long enough for the walk into the music building to take place in daylight for the last few rehearsals, although we always drive home in the dark.

Ron was out raking up last fall’s leaves in the garden on a sunny Sunday afternoon while I came and went, setting up for an event in the Writing Center and attending the final afternoon rehearsal before the concert that evening. He said it was warm in the sun. I was rushing around too fast to find out if it would feel warm to me.

This morning I woke up and read an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, “Spring,” at Come Sit by the Hearth, and it seemed to encapsulate everything I had been too busy to hear and feel:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

It is apparent that there is no death…and yet how the first appearance of spring makes me miss those I have lost–my father and father-in-law, my Sammy, recently-enough buried that I hate to think about the coldness of his grave in the spring rain.

The flights of stairs to the stage where we play our concerts are harder for me to ascend each year. As I awkwardly bend one knee at a time, I remember previous years when it was easier to get up those same flights.

Flowers are a distraction. Underneath, the exquisite sadness of a piece like the Pathetique seems like the only enduring truth in the world, like a little cat grave on the cold hillside.

Perhaps the “babbling and strewing flowers” has to go on long enough before we can give in to it, give ourselves entirely over to hopes of longer and warmer days, of ascending intervals in pieces we’ve rehearsed but forgotten.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

April 24, 2015

I didn’t know that Holly Black’s novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a vampire story when I picked it up and started reading it one evening; I was afraid it would give me nightmares, so I had to find a place to put it down and finish it the next morning.

The protagonist, Tana, wakes up after a high school party to find all her friends dead except for one, Aidan, who is “cold,” which means he’s been bitten and will come down with a virus sort of vampirism which will make him want to bite a person. If he does, he’ll become a vampire. In their escape from the party house, they pick up another vampire, Gavriel, who has been chained up by the vampires who killed Tana’s friends, and Tana feels the teeth of one vampire on the back of her leg as she escapes through a window into sunlight. So she spends some of the novel not sure whether she is “cold” or not.

There’s some romanticizing of the figure of the vampire in this world. Tana thinks that vampire attacks aren’t usual in her part of the US, that “things like this happened in Europe, in places like Belgium, where the streets teemed with vampires and the shops didn’t open until after dark.” On the other hand, she thinks about how excited her little sister would be if a vampire hunter came, “like Hemlok from TV, the huge, bald former wrestler always decked out in leather. He would know what to do. Her little sister had a poster of Hemlok in her locker, right next to pictures of golden-haired Lucien, her favorite Coldtown vampire.”

The first “Coldtowns” were founded in big cities when “the military put up barricades around the areas of the cities where the infections broke out.” Tana, Aiden, and Gavriel are heading for Coldtown when they meet up with a vampire-romanticizing brother and sister who call themselves “Midnight” and “Winter” and who are also heading for Coldtown, even though they’re not cold. They have plans for becoming vampires.

Once inside Coldtown, Tana is protected from any romantic ideas about vampires by her memories of an early experience with her own mother turning “cold.” She also meets people she couldn’t have imagined before, like Valentina, who has “a reason that Tana had never even considered for wanting to be young forever.” She sees Midnight unable to stop herself from draining Winter’s body and killing him, but then uploading the video to her blog because “we always say that we want to see the real stuff.” One of Midnight’s blogging friends dies trying to find out more about the nature of vampirism. He speculates “maybe it’s just us, with a raging hunger, us with a couple of accidental murders under our belt. Humanity, with the training wheels off the bike, careening down a steep hill. Humanity, freed from the contraints of consequence and gifted with power. Humanity, grown away from all things human.”

As Tana learns more about what it means to become a vampire, Gavriel, who she has saved and who has in turn saved her, tells her “we labor under so many illusions about ourselves until we’re stripped bare. Being infected, being a vampire, it’s always you. Maybe it’s more you than ever before. You, distilled. You, boiled down like a sauce. But it’s you as you always were, deep down inside.” She is trying to reconcile that idea with her childhood fear: “if you didn’t believe in monsters, then how were you going to be able to keep safe from them?”

Tana’s journey from innocence to experience makes her “the coldest girl” because she can see the dangers of using power without experience. She wants to be sheltered from the kind of knowledge that vampires acquire, “the way they had studied cruelty for so long to know just how to hurt you best.” Ultimately she finds out that she wants to stay as human as she can for as long as she can.

Probably I could have read this book deep into the night, but fear of the unknown got to me, as it does to many of us.

When Mystical Creatures Attack!

April 20, 2015

When Mystical Creatures Attack! , by Kathleen Founds, begins with a writing prompt:1.What is your favorite mystical creatures? 2.What is the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time?

Just answering the first question is difficult, isn’t it? Brownie or dragon? Selkie or kraken? I have so many favorites. But then adding the second part seems like it practically makes the piece write itself, doesn’t it? How the Kraken ended world hunger by washing up on a beach in China. How the brownies worked on judges’ families to lower the incarceration rate of young black people. How the dragon took in all the homeless cats that hadn’t yet been adopted and kept them warm in his cave. How the selkie cured cancer by sharing her shape-shifting secrets.

And then already I’m getting away from the designation of “sociopolitical” …as do many of the students in Laura Freedman’s class, whose essays are featured in the first chapter and whose stories are intertwined. Towards the end of the chapter, we get one entitled “How the Wood-Nymph Saved the Environment by Janice Aurelia Gibbs” which tells the story of how her teacher, Ms. Freedman, brought in cupcakes on her birthday and then lost it when her students were rude. “It would be a bit like that with the wood nymph,” Janice says. “At first everyone thinks, ‘We can do whatever to the environment, she won’t even do nothing.’ For a thousand years, the wood nymph forgives us for destroying the world. But when someone cuts down the oldest and tallest redwood tree, her patience snaps.”

The first chapter ends with Ms. Freedman’s own essay, “How the Phoenix Got Ms. Freedman Out of Texas by Laura Freedman” in which the phoenix appears at her window and she asks “Why should I stay….Are you going to tell me that I’m sowing ‘seeds of hope that may take years to sprout’? That I’m reaching them in a way that’s ‘invisible but real’? Because I’ve been telling myself that all year, bird.” At the end of the essay, Ms Freedman gets on the back of the phoenix and flies away. Which is pretty much explained by the beginning of Chapter Two, in which Laura Freedman is being welcomed to “Bridges: Psychiatric Wellness Solutions.”

The third chapter is a letter from Janice, who says she got the address from a teacher and that when she “used my critical reading skills…I realized: you are in the loony bin….I feel bad, Ms. Freedman. Plenty of teachers have thrown a terrarium out a window and shouted, ‘You’re driving me crazy!’ But you’re the first who actually followed through.” Ms Freedman writes back and correspondence is regular for a while until Janice gets a letter from Bridges teling her that Ms Freedman can no longer receive mail.

After that, we hear about Janice’s and Laura’s separate lives for a while, including Janice’s emails to her father which are intercepted by her stepmother-to-be until Janice makes a deal with her to stay living with her aunt in Texas, rather than move to Kentucky with them.

When Janice goes to Kentucky for the wedding, however, there’s an entire chapter of “recipes for disaster” which includes the soon-to-be-stepmother’s “Sweet and Sour Party Meatballs” which “can mark an occasion that is both sour and sweet, such as when my fiance’s daughter came up for our wedding. In a way, it was sweet, because just as raw beef is reconciled with sauce and spices when rolled into balls, the visit marked reconciliation: Janice volunteered to help with preparations for our Biblical Days wedding….And just as the meatballs are doused in vinegar, this is what I felt in my throat on witnessing Janice’s new ‘look’….But as Effie said at meeting last week: when you’re a stepparent, you kill with kindness. There’s nothing to do but take out your nicest plate, stick fancy party toothpicks in the meatballs, and say ‘welcome home.’” Janice and various other parishioners contribute recipes that tell a lot about their community, like Pastor Owens’ own recipe for “Dark Night of the Soul Food” which directs the cook to “as you stir, cut pages from your youthful diary into snowflakes, wondering just when you lost your faith in man’s capacity to turn from his history of violence and build a new earth.”

In a series of letters about the high school literary magazine, when Janice has become editor, Cody (earlier, author of “How the Sphinx Solved the Problem of Loneliness”) declares his love for Janice and writes a story he calls a “true history” about how they broke Ms Freedman out of the “nut ward” which is followed by Janice’s email saying that she was being released anyway.

Janice does not have a baby, and Laura has a baby. The details of their stories are ordinary and sometimes discouraging, but the way the details are revealed is continually engaging.

Janice asks Cody at one point, in an email, why Ms Freedman couldn’t have been “the teacher from one of those movies where a nice lady with good bone structure stands on her desk and reads a poem and the kids are all like, fuck poverty, we’re going to college!”

Cody shows up on horseback in Janice’s front yard at another point, being filmed for a TV show called “Rags2Riches” and later Laura tells Janice “they interviewed me for two hours, then cut it to the five minutes where I talked about his cape fetish.”

In the end, Janice shows up to take care of Laura’s baby. The baby’s father reads Laura’s journal, including the entry about her first pregnant student, Kristi, and also the one about the time Laura gave an apple to Janice. The small things, the things that might be forgotten except for being written down in the journal—those things might have been enough to shift some kind of balance.

Simply having someone who will read it when you write about your favorite mystical creature can be enough to shift that balance. As Mrs. Crater and Mr. Shiftlet discover in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

I am grateful to Tom at Wuthering Expectations for recommending this book to me, and for reading about my wish for recommendations.

So… what is your favorite mystical creature?


April 15, 2015

I think it was the urging of Jenny and her mother, along with continued encouragement from Relentless Reading, that caused me to go out looking for a copy of Daryl Gregory’s novel Afterparty. By the time I found it, I’d forgotten what I thought it was about and just dove in.

Whoa! I surfaced after a first chapter about a girl given a drug that made her feel the presence of God into a chapter about a woman named Lyda trying to get out of some kind of mental asylum by telling her doctor that she has been “symptom free for months….No angels. No voices in my head” although I soon knew the truth, that her angel is continually giving her advice and making snappy retorts to any of Lyda’s comments about her reality. At the end of the second chapter, Lyda closes her eyes against the sight of the angel, Dr. Gloria, unfurling her wings, and the angel responds “Lo, I am with you always” and “pulsed like a migraine aura, throwing off megawatts of holy glow.”

Lyda goes to see her former drug dealer, who greets her with a shout of “Lyda Rose! My home-again rose!” which pleased me, as the melody of that song from The Music Man had been playing in my head since I’d first read her name. She’s trying to track down the source of the drug that made first-chapter girl feel the presence of God, and she knows the original designation for this drug:
“I’m looking for something designer,” I said. “I think it’s new….Some people call it Numinous….I doubted anyone was calling the substance by its birth name of NME 110….This one makes you see God.”
More specifically, she tells the dealer that the drug she is looking for “operates on the temporal lobe….makes you feel like you’re in touch with a higher power….The supernatural being is there in the room with you. You can see it, integrated in the visual field. Sometimes it talks to you….The drug makes you believe in the higher power. Depending on the dosage, the effect can last for hours or days. And if you OD….Then it doesn’t go away. For the rest of your life, you have to expend a tremendous amount of energy, every day, reminding yourself that it’s a delusion.”

Eventually Lyda sets out to find the other members of her scientific team, the ones who designed NME 110. She has to convince the others to help her, telling them how dangerous the drug is:
“The problem is not that it causes these hallucinations; it’s that it’s so damn convincing—and you stay convinced. Look at Rovil. He knows the chemistry, yet he still thinks that fucking Ganesh is there guiding him. Numinous not only installs a supernatural chaperone, it makes you believe in it.”

The time frame for the action of the novel becomes clear when Lyda says “the fundamentalists are on the ropes here. When I was a kid, they were this scary political force. Remember the Tea Party? Right-wing, Christian, and white. But then gays started marrying, minorities started outvoting them, the climate kept throwing hurricanes and floods at us. Their agenda feel apart, mostly because no young person could buy into their narrow-mindedness.”

The dialogue is fun, especially in conversations between Lyda and her former asylum-mate and present-day lover Ollie:
“I’m just curious,” Ollie said.
“Just curious? That’s a bullshit phrase.”
“It’s a simple question. How long—“
“No, it’s a signal that bullshit is about to follow. It’s the hat that bullshit puts on before it goes out to get the paper.”

Because it’s difficult to tell whose feelings belong to whom in the circles Lyda is traveling, we get a story called “The Parable of the Million Bad Mothers” with the almost-infinite “what-if” scenarios the mother of an infant who “had been exposed to a massive amount of NME 110” can think up. So many scenarios, in fact, that not making a decision to let the child be adopted results in the decision to let her.

Later, because Lyda is tracking down everyone who overdosed on NME 110 with her, they find the child, who has been adopted by one of them, and they all learn the complete story of what happened. Entitled “the parable of the man who sacrificed himself,” it begins with a party to which “one of the guests had invited God. The deity was smuggled into the party inside a champagne bottle.”

In the end, God and her child convince Lyda that the drug numinous is not as dangerous as a rational atheist scientist might think. God says to her that “people need the divine in their lives….Science is a pale, unconvincing story compared to faith. You offer nothing—a mind that dies with the body. Numinous offers a living god. A god of love.” Her child says that it’s okay to have imaginary friends, like Dr. Gloria. “Just ‘cause she’s imaginary doesn’t mean she’s not real” the child says. And in the end, of course, she really has been with Lyda, always, turning the stories of her life into something else.

Surfacing from the deep pool of this novel takes a while. It reminds me of the ending of Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree, a book I had as a child, where the heroine can feel herself rising up out of sleep “like a balloon; it was like she was a goldfish in a round bowl of sleep, rising and rising through the warm waters of sleep to the top….and it was like there was still another little balloon inside her, getting bigger and bigger and rising and rising. Soon it would be at her mouth, then it would pop out and jump right up against the ceiling. The little balloon inside her got bigger and bigger, making all her body and her arms and legs tingle, as if she had just eaten a piece of peppermint.”

The peppermint tingling is the excitement of just having read something good, something that can live in my imagination for a while, insulating me against the possibility of boredom in my everyday life, while I drive to the gas station or walk around the aisles of the grocery store–looking like everybody else, but with a full and satisfied brain.

Three Parts Dead

April 13, 2015

One of the loveliest things about ICFA was that at the luncheons and the banquet, you got a book at your place. I think it was at the Friday luncheon that I found Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead at mine. When I read the dust jacket synopsis, I was informed that “A God has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.” It was then I knew that I had to find room in my suitcase for this book.

Tara is a kind of magician called a “Craftswoman” in her world. She starts her adventure by literally digging up a grave and reanimating the bodies inside it, but is then called to a city called Alt Coulumb to investigate the death of the God, which, while not an everyday occurrence, is not quite as unheard-of as you might think: “When a goddess neared death, the needs of her faithful, and of those to whom she was bound in contract, stuck like hooks in her soul. She could not desert her obligations, nor honor them and remain intact. The tension tore her mind to shreds of ectoplasm, leaving behind a body of inchoate divine power that a competent Craftswoman could reassemble into something that looked and functioned like the old goddess. But…Well. Much like Tara’s revenants back at Edgemont, a being once resurrected was never quite the same.”

Tara finds herself arguing the case of the dead God, Kos, in court against her former teacher, and to prove her case, she has to do investigating of her own. She takes the face of a living stone gargoyle, involves a vampire pirate, performs mind control on a member of the local police force, and gets to know one of Kos’ priests, Abelard, to whom “using the love of your god as a heat source for steam power is perfectly normal.”

Three parts detective novel and one part science fiction, this is a wild romp through eschatology, metaphysics, and the nature of justice that ends up with Tara taking some responsibility for the continuing welfare of Alt Coulumb and its inhabitants. She takes a leave of absence from the necromantic firm in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold, rather than just moving on to the next dead fellow someone wants brought back to life. What an ethical necromancer, er Craftswoman, she is.

The Critic

April 9, 2015

I’ve been reading poems by Frank O’Hara since early February, when my Writing Center colleague Jill Stephen came to Kenyon with her co-author David Rosenwasser to talk about ways to use their book Writing Analytically and she incidentally mentioned that she was teaching all of Frank O’Hara’s poems during spring semester. It seemed the time for me to embark on reading O’Hara.

O’Hara was a poet who wrote down everything, not just ideas that struck him as particularly poetic or illuminating–not always a leaf as a metaphor, but sometimes just a thought about what it might mean for him to pick up a leaf. What we might need to keep up with, he pointed out, is not the reason why a chestnut tree looks like it’s “about to flame or die,” but the details of everyday life:
“We must keep interested in foreign stamps,
railway schedules, baseball scores, and
abnormal psychology, or all is lost.”
Life is full of big feelings, many of these poems say, but you don’t have to let them take you over. You can examine them by the handful and keep your hands in your pockets the rest of the time.

And so I got to a poem about me and what I do here. I’m a reader and a writer of criticism. Since I don’t concentrate on my favorite genre, like Jo Walton, I can’t follow in her footsteps to say What Makes This Book So Great about everything I read. What I’m doing comes from the old idea of a commonplace book, a place to gather the best quotations from what I’ve read with my thoughts about them in order to help those thoughts develop. And of course it’s fun, talking about books, especially when other readers join in. There’s always the possibility, though, that I’m going to expose my ignorance by missing something, or one of my obsessions by reading way too much into something else.

Here’s O’Hara’s poem:

The Critic

I cannot possibly think of you
other than you are: the assassin

of my orchards. You lurk there
in the shadows, meting out

conversation like Eve’s first
confusion between penises and

snakes. Oh be droll, be jolly
and be temperate! Do not

frighten me more than you
have to! I must live forever.

Being an assassin in someone’s orchard makes my mind jump to the Assassin’s song from the musical Blondel:
“They were tortured…in the orchard
It was messy with fruit but I have improved since then.”
And then the refrain: “I’m an A double s A double S.…yes, I’m an asparagus!”
Oh yes, you writers. I’m the comic but deadly figure of your nightmares.

But wait…I’m “meting out conversation” as if I’m the boss and nobody else is allowed to talk about any other topic–and the conversation will be about phallic figures, which any critic knows means anything longer than it is wide any day.

Then I’m intreated (oh, I like that) to be droll. But wait, how can I be both droll and jolly? First one, then the other… and finally, temperate? Like I’m keeping my hands in my pockets in between showing you what’s in them? (String, or nothing.)

“Do not/frighten me more than you/have to” the writer pleads, although surely the potential to live forever lies with others. What may frighten you, good writer whom I’m approaching with the half of a peach, pit out, is not what may frighten others away from the continuing conversation about you, wherein lies the seed–the pit, as you see it—of your possible immortality.

I love the whimsy of this poem, the slightness of it, the fear and the ambiguity and the promise. Surely it is critics who, talking about the works of others, can make “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” with their audacity.

It’s in the details of my everyday life that you can see the effect words can have on a person. That’s what I’m here to tell you… amid airline schedules and chess scores.

Finn Fancy Necromancy

April 7, 2015

Is there something about Seattle-area writers and necromancy? I haven’t read a book about a young necromancer as funny as Randy Henderson’s Finn Fancy Necromancy since reading Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.

Like Lish’s earlier teen necromancer Sam, Finn Gramaraye (whose older brother Mort once called him “Finn Fancy Necromancy Pants”) has a group of friends and family who help him fight to find out what is right and who among the dead might be ready for a good talking-to. As in the earlier novel, Finn Fancy Necromancy also uses song titles for each chapter and the hero has to come to terms with what his magical “gift” means to his love life.

The novel begins with 15-year-old Finn coming back to a 40-year-old body after spending 25 years sentenced by magical authorities to the Other Realm for a crime he didn’t commit. He has to find out who framed him for the crime of dark necromancy, and the first thing he sees is the body of the woman he is supposed to have killed 25 years earlier, in a mobile home where he presumes his body has been living, inhabited by a changeling from the Other Realm:

“The dead woman lying facedown on the floor really clashed with the Liberace decorating aesthetic. Perhaps I should have been more shocked by the body, but I wasn’t. Maybe because I still felt numb from the events of the transfer. Maybe because I’d been raised around death, helping prepare and destroy the bodies of the dead in my family’s necrotorium. Or maybe I really was just stunned by the gaudy awfulness of the changeling’s tastes. It was like Rainbow Brite had been given a BeDazzler, a flock of shedding peacocks, and a credit card and told to go crazy. ‘Well, this sucks,’ I said to the dead woman, meaning her death, not the décor. The body didn’t respond, which was a relief actually. Talking to the dead was one of my arcane gifts, but something I hoped never to do again, not least because it drained my own life away to do so.”

There are lots of charming and apparently throwaway details fleshing out Finn’s world, like that

“gnome families ruled the black market of the magical world. Stolen goods of a magical nature always seemed to find their way into gnome hands—usually because the gnomes were the ones who stole them. If you needed an illegal magical artifact, or a legal one that was too expensive to get legally, you could put a note under any gnome statue and an offer of payment, and if the gnomes accepted the deal you’d soon enough have the object in hand, no questions asked. You don’t want to know what happens if you put that same note under a plastic flamingo.”

Finn and his friends have heard of Harry Potter and read Tolkien. At one point, a character changes his white jacket into brown and green, causing Finn to exclaim:

“’Nice….Jacket by Ralph Lothlorien.’ I’d actually seen a real elven cloack once in the Museum of Necromancy, but it was a cloak made from the skins of elves, and not at all what Tolkien had in mind, I think—though I guess it still would have blended nicely into wooded surroundings.”

There’s also the inevitable Elvis-was-from-another-world reference:

“the real Elvis was an arcana. He hoped to forge the perfect musical weapon against the Fey, who enjoy human music the way a slug enjoys a salt-covered hammer. But the Fey managed to infect him, turning him into a waercreature. Although the resulting change in his metabolism led to tragic consequences for his waistline and his life, even worse is that those infected by the Elvis waerform turn into pale imitations of him when the conditions are right—for some, if they hear an Elvis song; for others, when they enter the dark energy vortex of the Las Vegas area; or, in some extreme cases, if they smell peanut butter and banana.”

We also learn some of the limits of Finn’s power:

“There’d been necromancers in the past who gained wizard tattoos and, craving power, would horde the magic from the dead for themselves. Even worse were the ones who weren’t satisfied to wait for a dead arcana or feyblood to come their way, but went out and deadified folks themselves just to take their magic. Add to that the possibility that a Talker might force secrets of power from the dead, and a necrowiz was a dangerous wiz if ever a wiz there was.”

In the end, of course, the novel has to wrestle with the question about whether a necromancer can ever defeat death. Finn says “there’s no cure….At least, not one that doesn’t require a constant flood of raw magic and serious Monkey Paw consequences.” That never stops anyone in such a novel from trying, however, and the ultimate battle of good against evil begins in true comic style, in the basement of a science fiction museum where various exhibits are animated by bad guys in an ultimately vain attempt to protect their nefarious secrets. It is no surprise that Finn’s side triumphs in the final chapter, entitled “Karma Chameleon.”

I read a paperback version of this book, and wonder why it couldn’t have had a table of contents with chapter headings, or at least the chapter headings reprinted at the top of the pages, rather than the author’s name and the title. It would have made it easier to enjoy (or groan at) the 80’s song titles as I went along.


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