An Idyllic Education, Dragons, & Reverse Scrabble

I spent a lot of time in this building.

I am a traditionalist.

After graduating from Hippie High, I was astonished to find the state university provided the inspiration and structure I needed.  I was spellbound by humanities, studied three languages,  relished the Renaissance, fell in love with Latin lyric poetry and Greek tragedy, and read nineteenth-century novels in my spare time.

And so I was intrigued by Ellen Fitzpatrick’s essay in the Atlantic, “Remembering the Bold Thinking of Hampshire College.”    This small experimental liberal arts college, founded in the late ’60s,  sounds idyllic.  Unfortunately Hampshire College is in financial trouble now.

Hampshire College

Here is her first paragraph:

It’s hard to believe that nearly a half century has passed since I stood on a hillside in South Amherst, Massachusetts, with Van Halsey, then Hampshire College’s director of admissions, gazing at the rolling green farmland that stretched out toward Hadley, Massachusetts. “That is where the college will be,” Halsey explained. I was 17 years old, entering my senior year of high school, and convinced that this largely invisible place—then mostly a collection of dreams and ideals—was the only college in the country where I wanted to study.

2. And now a change of subject:  dragons.  At Tor, Mari Ness discusses the fantasy elements in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, the first novel in the Dragonriders of Pern series.

Here is Ness’s first paragraph.

In later interviews with press and fans, Anne McCaffrey would bristle at any attempt to classify  her Dragonriders of Pern series as fantasy. Her dragons, she pointed out, were genetically engineered animals ridden by descendants of space explorers, not magical elves. The language of Pern was not a creation of the author, but descended in a fairly straight line with only a few expected deviations from English and, after McCaffrey moved to Ireland, a few Irish cadences. The plots focused on the development and rediscovery of technology. Most importantly, the presence of dragons, fire lizards, and just a touch of telepathy aside, no one in her Pern books could do magic. They focused on technical solutions to their problems—the use of nitric acid; telegraph machines; metal tools and machines; bioengineered invertebrates; and, when possible, spaceships.

3. And for poetry lovers,  David Lehmann at The American Scholar proposes a prompt.

Reverse Scrabble is a prompt I invented last week. The aim is to derive as many words as possible from one given polysyllabic word and then integrate them artfully into a poem.

The word I suggest we use is operation.

Click on the link for his explanation.

Are They Normal? Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

Sally Rooney’s much-lauded novel, Normal People, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  And  perhaps this  beautifully-written but uneven novel is characteristic of erratic Booker trends.   Though the prize once promoted brilliant, complex novels by Ruth Prawer Jhabavala, Anita Brookner, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, and Ian McEwan, it now favors historical novels and Americans.  Rooney’s Irish Millennial novel may have been an afterthought in a longlist that included a graphic novel and a thriller.  (By the way, the Man Booker Prize just lost its sponsor.)

“Millennials are different.”  That’s what I keep hearing.  And the  Millennial novels I’ve read, among them Natasha Staggs’s  Surveys, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Emma Cline’s The Girls, leave the impression of dangerous emptiness, passivity, and a sense of the absurd.

Normal People is about Marianne and Connell and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again.  They’re rather like the characters in Girls, though less sympathetic than narcissistic Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her pals from Oberlin.

The protagonists grow up in the same town in Ireland.  Marianne is a loner from a wealthy family, and Connell, the maid’s son, is popular and athletic.  The two embark on a secret sexual relationship that improves Marianne’s self-esteem until Connell asks someone else to the prom.  And this is a typical situation in the lives of this unstable couple.

And then they go to Trinity, where their status is reversed: Marianne fits in with the rich, privileged students, while Connell is friendless and struggling.  Unsurprisingly, Marianne knows a lot of assholes.  She gets into an S/M relationship with Jamie, a thoroughly nasty rich student, while Connell finds a stable, happy young woman, Helen.  Still, Connell has a thing for Marianne and is protective.  And when Marianne goes to Sweden for a year, she is briefly involved with a sadistic photographer.  At least she gets out of that quickly.

But why is Marianne so unstable?  The psychology is a tad too simple–Marianne has both family and rich-girl problems–and Connell has class insecurity and a tendency to depression.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.

Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed for somewhere else.

In what way? he says.

I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.

Lots of people love you, Marianne. Okay? Your family and friends love you.

For a few seconds she’s silent and then she says: You don’t know my family.

Rooney’s prose is graceful, and her description of depression is powerful.  Simple writing, often very strong, but what ever happened to strong heroines?    That’s the problem I have with Millennial novels.  Give me Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Gloria Naylor, and Margaret Drabble.

A Multitude of Books & the Meaning of Autographs

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by our home library.  Bookcases dominate our decor; we have double-shelved books in every room.  A Zen read-and-weed approach would be helpful, but we acquire books as fast as we weed them.

This winter, two of the mudroom’s windows began to pucker. They are now slightly concave,  with gaps between the glass and wall.  And I’ve been very anxious about the books, as the wind  blows through cracks and the room is colder than ever before.

The books on the “M-P” shelves  are in the worst shape, even though they are farthest away from the windows.  And so I put on a jacket and did a rescue mission–bringing in as many  books as possible.

The Bantam boxed set of the Anne of Green Gables series is unharmed, but the Iris Murdoch Penguins will have to be pulped.  And the brittle pages of Katherine Mansfield’s Complete Stories are now so acidic they will doubtless turn readers into eternally poisoned Sleeping Beauties.  The Samuel Pepys is ruined.  The complete diaries–gone!  As for the Anchor paperback copies of Nobel-winning Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, they are done.  Curling covers, slightly foxed–you get it.

The weather has determined which books I must weed.

THE MEANING OF AUTOGRAPHS.   When a boy wrote “The Long and Winding Road” lyrics in my yearbook,  I thought him very sweet.  But after that I never cared for autographs.

The last autograph I got was in the ’90s.  I waited in a long line to get a book signed by the Southern novelist Kaye Gibbons, who seemed overwhelmed after giving a witty lecture (like stand-up comedy!) to a packed auditorium.  Gibbons joked, “I need to get my Lithium adjusted,” and people laughed, but I did not think she was joking.  The  person ahead of me  in line asked her to copy a long inscription and she was obviously exhausted. I settled for a signature, because I do not care much about signed books anyway, and was only in line because my friends were there.

I was happy to find in the mudroom a signed copy of award-winning Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party.  That was a memorable small reading: she was relaxed and chatty, wore an elegant scarf with a stylish blouse and nice slacks, and seemed like the perfect person to hang out at a coffeehouse with.  Everybody was shy at the Q&A,  so those of us who did  PR  got things started.  I love Shields’ writing.  She won the Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Orange Prize, and many more.

Alexa and Me

I do not have a good relationship with Alexa. Mind you, I didn’t want her/it. An A.I. will doubtless be useful in old age, but at the moment I don’t care to converse with a Kindle Fire TV Stick.

The Schitts,” I said one day.

“I’d rather not,” Alexa said.

Turned out I had the title of this Canadian sitcom wrong: it is Schitts Creek.

Schitts Creek

I was unhappy from the moment my husband hooked up the Fire Stick to the flat screen TV. I didn’t even want a flat screen TV. The boxy one was easier.

I asked, “ Hasn’t Alexa recorded some private conversations? And shouldn’t we cover the camera and microphone on the TV with tape?”

“It would have to be duct tape.”

I used the other remote at first, but the Kindle Fire Stick voice thing is faster. That’s how they get you.

The language divide is my Rubicon. Alexa doesn’t understand me.

When I said, “I’m Sorry,” the title of a sitcom on Netflix, she said charmingly, “Don’t worry about it.”

I am flabbergasted by A.I. charm.

Then Alexa broke down when my husband changed the battery. A sad, sad moment in our household. He ordered another one immediately and was anxious… until I showed him how to use the remote that came with the TV.

“Then what do we have Alexa for?”

I don’t know.

The new Kindle  Fire TV Stick is more polite. It isn’t charming or flippant. And I heed the hints that flash across the screen: “Alexa, watch Schitts Creek,” etc.

So I’m supposed to say “Alexa” before I say the title?

February Reading: A Neglected Black Novelist and a Neglected War Novelist

We’ve had a foot of snow, maybe more.

I’ve read everything.  Everything!   I’m indoors ALL THE TIME.  I’ve read  Rolling Stone’s rankings of the Democratic presidential candidates, and a Huff Post story about two older dogs who got “married” as an animal shelter’s publicity stunt.

And I have read two brilliant, neglected books.

1. Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills, published in 1986, is one of the most powerful, and most neglected, novels of the 20th century. Naylor  lyrically narrates the story of a black neighborhood, Linden Hills, built in the 19th century by Luther Nedeed, a depraved black landowner/mortician who despises his black tenants but hates his white neighbors more.  His descendants, one son for each generation,  are all named Luther Nedeed, and are replicas of him. (Apparently the Nedeeds have a creepy “magic” recipe for conceiving  identical sons.)

One hundred fifty years later, Linden Hills has become an exclusive  black suburb, where  successful upper middle-class residents  lose their identity.  Two impecunious young  poets, Lester Tilson and Willie Mason, agree to do odd jobs in the soulless suburb to make money before Christmas. As they witness the emptiness of wretched businessmen who look down on poor blacks, the misery of a minister of Baptist origins who has become an uptight Episcopalian,  and the  exploitation of Ivy League-educated black women (Lester’s sister has a Wellesley degree but her successful Linden Hills boyfriend takes a white woman to a wedding), Lester and Willie are filled with horror.

Is there hope for the future?  It is grim, but but Naylor doesn’t attempt to foresee the future.  Lester, who grew up in one of the poorer houses in Linden Hills, mouths off to the police because he feels entitled and doesn’t believe he will ever be arrested, while Willie, who is from the wrong side of the tracks, understands what is at stake.  It is Willie who acts when a whole street of rich black people watch a house burning without calling 911.

We hope the two poets escape from hell.  At least they recognize it.

2.  The  Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, a compelling novel about World War II, has never quite gotten its dues.  Wouk wrote a sequel, War and Remembrance, and both were adapted as TV miniseries in the 1980s.

Needless to say, my snobbish relatives mocked me for reading The Winds of War. Pop fiction is not respected at my house.  And so I referred them to Jake Helpern’s  NPR essay, “Yellowing, Dog-Eared, and Perfect,” and David Frum’s “The Great War Novelist America Forgot,” at The Atlantic.

The Winds of War is reputed to be the American War and Peace.  Wouk is not Tolstoy, but I simply raced through this gripping novel.  I was intrigued not only by the vivid characters but by the historical details and political analysis.  I had no idea of the extent of American anti-Semitism before the war:  Roosevelt wanted to get involved sooner but the majority of Americans kept saying they didn’t “want to go to war for the Jews.”  He did, however, establish a “lend/lease” program that supplied England with ships and planes.

The novel centers on an American family.  The patriarch, Pug Henry, a high-ranking naval office, is a diplomat reluctantly stationed in Berlin when the war breaks out.  He has conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, meets Hitler and Stalin, and, at Churchill’s suggestion, rides along on a British plane (made of fabric) on a bombing mission and barely escapes with his life.  And he plays a role in overcoming American denial of the Holocaust.  When a relative of his son’s Jewish wife shows him photos of the slaughter of Jews in Minsk and themass graves, Pug brings them to Roosevelt’s attention.  Other Americans dismissed them as propaganda.

My favorite character is Natalie, a brilliant, lively Jewish woman who  marries Pug’s son,  Byron.  She and Byron meet in Italy, where they assist Natlie’s scholarly uncle with his research for a book on Constantine. They happen to be at a wedding near Krakow when the Germans invade Poland.  Natalie returns to Italy to help Uncle Aaron get away.  The Italians and Nazis question his American citizenship, though he has a passport, and will not let him go.

Wouk’s horrifying account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where Japanese planes turned out to be superior to the Americans’, brings home the realization that madmen could have conquered the world.

Such a great read.  I do look forward to reading the next one, but I have to take a little break.

The Best SF Lit Crit, Scotto Moore’s “Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You,” and Other Rock Novels

The best literary criticism is not at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The TLS, or The New York Review of Books. Such papers publish  brilliant articles, but their editors are at a crossroads, experimenting with shorter articles, colloquial language, and reviews of romance novels to attract readers.

Perhaps the online science fiction/fantasy magazine Tor.com features the  sharpest writing on the web these days, even if you do not read SF. (I rarely do.)  Tor  has recruited smart reviewers and lively columnists, among them SF writer Jo Walton, whose  brilliant essays in What Makes This Book So Great were first published here; Maria Tatar, an expert on fairy tales who teaches at Harvard; Liz Bourke, who has a Ph.D. in classics and writes the “Sleeps with Monsters” column;   and the SF novelist  Judith Tarr, who writes about horses in science fiction.

I am a science fiction fan, though I don’t read much of it. When Tor (also an SF publisher) announced its acquisition of  Scotto Moore’s novella, Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, I noted it because I love rock novels. Recently published and on sale as a $3.99 ebook, this novella proved a wild ride.

The narrator, a music blogger, becomes obsessed with a new band, Beautiful Remorse,  whose music he discovers through a Google alert to another obscure band.   He spends all Saturday night listening to their first song over and over.  And his physical reaction when he comes to himself Sunday morning is extreme exhaustion.

Then he decides to blog about Beautiful Remorse.

I was beginning to want more information about “Overture.” That’s my thing—I’ve been a music blogger since the earliest days of music blogging, and I’m never satisfied until I’ve digested not just the music itself, but all available metadata about the music. I need to place it in the firmament, understand where it came from, how it connects to the vast musical genre tree that defines consciousness as we know it. And this was no ordinary track, obviously, no simple confection—it swallowed you up like a drop of rain landing in the ocean and losing its coherence, its own identity.

Beautiful Remorse releases one hypnotic track  a day, and soon the other bloggers are obsessed.  The narrator feels that Airee Macpherson, the singer, is speaking to him personally. When he messages her at Tumblr to ask for an interview, she invites him to a concert in Austin.  Let me just say that the band’s effect on the concert-goers is unexpected.  It is a VERY good idea to wear industrial-strength earplugs.

This dark, rollicking novel is extremely plot-oriented. The writing is a bit pedestrian, but Moore is fascinating as he raises horrific questions about good and evil.  I’m not quite sure what he means at the twisted end, but I enjoyed this little book thoroughly.  And I’ll never feel the same about rock music.

ANOTHER ROCK NOVEL ON THE TBR

Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall.  The book description says:  “When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to record their unique music, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again….”

I hope you read a lot of rock fiction in 2019.  Oddly, I’ve never read a bad rock novel.

An Alpha Stockpiler’s Guide to Wrinkle Cream

gina lollobrigida cold creaming her face
Gina Lollobrigida creaming her face.

Not everybody worries about postapocalyptic medicine. It’s the stuff of science fiction.  And Tretinoin Cream, a prescription cream that reduces wrinkles, is low-priority in the first aid kit.

Not in my circle.

The wrinkle cream scare began during a Scrabble game when a friend mentioned she was stockpiling medicine in case of a disaster.

“Are you expecting zombies?”

“I am scared of zombies,” she admitted, “but it’s mostly climate change.” There have been so many severe floods in this state that there is now a Flood Center in Iowa City.

After the Zombies and Martians invade, or the floods and wildfires devastate, will we be able to get our Tretinoin?

According to the AARP, the majority of women over 45 take supplements and prescription medicines. And one wonders:  where will we get calcium, vitamins, antidepressants, blood thinner, blood pressure medicine, arthritis medicine, Penicillin, thyroid medicine, and other pills?

At the Scrabble game, we worried about prescription wrinkle cream.  We need dewy skin when we’re living in caves and abandoned houses.  There will be much looking in mirrors.

In my family all the women have lip lines, those wrinkles that sometimes develop above the mouth. Makeup experts say they’re from smoking and pouting.  Huh! Mine are from squinting in the sun on long bicycle rides past cornfields and soybean fields.  On a 25-mile bicycle ride in the midwest, you do not find much shade.

The precription wrinkle cream doesn’t seem to have done much for me, but I confess I hardly ever remember to put it on.

Nonetheless, I’ve faithfully refilled my prescription, and do have four tubes to go.  Naturally, they’ll all expire before I use them.  I hesitated to bring this up with the alpha stockpiler.

But then I read an article in Harvard Health Publishing,  “Drug Expiration Dates — Do They Mean Anything?”

Apparently the military, concerned about having to throw out expensive drugs every few years, asked the FDA to do a study of expiration dates.  The FDA found that “90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.”

The alpha stockpiler has something going here after all.

Meanwhile, I must remember to put on that skin cream.