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 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.


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.

Why We Don’t Care about the Environment

“No, I don’t even recycle,” said Hannah (Lena Dunham) in an episode of Girls.

I’m with Hannah! Well, I do recycle, if somewhat irritably, but it’s mainly a sop for conscience. The manufacturers are the real polluters, and I think we all understand that. It takes 500 years for plastic bags and plastic bottles to decompose at landfills.  You might as well throw out plutonium.

But haven’t I already recycled a zillion newspapers and magazines to save the world? Where on earth does it go? (It used to go to China.)  Is it turned into  composition books with coarse paper, or off-brand abrasive Kleenex?  Not much of a save.

Much of the recycled garbage we trustingly sort and put in green bins is exported by recycling companies to Asia.   China used to take the majority of the most disgusting stuff, but decided last year it didn’t want to be “the world’s garbage dump” and banned many toxic plastics and paper.  Waste managers all over the world were stumped as to where to send it. This affected the U.S., the UK, Europe, and Australia. A lot of recyclables ended up in landfills in 2018.

I know being grumpy about recycling makes me sound like a freak, but I really am an environmentalist.  I have never driven a car, live in an urban neighborhood where it is unnecessary to do so, walk, bicycle, and take the bus, and am aware that denying the impact of fossil fuels killed the planet. If you’re still driving a truck or an SUV, you might want to rethink that. I understand it’s not too late to reverse climate change.

It is tough to shrink the carbon footprint. We ALL pollute. I’ve made a choice to do my best but do not deny myself  creature comforts.  I use Kleenex, paper towels, paper plates, buy food grown by agribusinesses (I can’t afford organic), buy takeout food in plastic packages, occasionally forget to bring my cloth bags, and turn up the thermostat  during the day. We’re not given incentives to shop long hours for the greenest products, which are sometimes the most expensive.  Everybody acknowledges the impact of global warming, but the government needs to act.


Copy that.

Recycling seems a bit like a school project, doesn’t it?  The government needs to ban  lethal plastics at the very least.

Another day spent saving Planet Earth!   I wish.

What Would You Rather Be Reading?

Which book would you rather be reading? Do you tend towards a specific genre on a wintry day?  Do you need epic, rock, history, a classic, or a cozy mystery with recipes?

Tune in next week when I consider the pros and cons of

AN EPIC NOVEL:   The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
A SCIENCE FICTION ROCK NOVELLA: Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore
AMERICAN HISTORY: Heartland: An American History by Kristin L. Hoganson
VIRAGO CLASSIC:  The Lost Traveller by Antonia White
A COZY MYSTERY WITH RECIPES: Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke


The Joy of Clutter: Sometimes It’s Cozy

Housework is the stuff of celebrity news.  That’s how desperate we are for distraction in 2019.   Marie Kondo, the much vaunted star of the Netlfix  series  Tidying up with Marie Kondo, has been profiled  ad nauseam in The New York Times, The Guardian, and on trashy  Entertainment Tonight.  She  is more famous than Kim Zolciak Biermann of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, whom I couldn’t pick out of a lineup, or Matt Paxton of Hoarders, the founder of Clutter Cleaners, whom I also couldn’t pick out of a lineup.

We are messy and unglamorous, and we love to see other people’s messy houses. (Okay, I know The Real Housewives isn’t about that.)  Kondo fixes the cleaning problems gently with decluttering advice.  She encourages them to throw out or recycle  items that don’t “spark joy,” which I translate as stuff you haven’t looked at or used in years. I recently threw out an ancient box of Thank You cards (who’m I gonna thank?),  a plaque that says”No outfit is complete without cat hair,” a Size 8 (dream on!) Eddie Bauer quilted pseudo-bowling jacket from the ’90s, and what might have been a potato masher.

Cleaning up can help, but it can also hinder.  Dare I admit this?  I find clutter comforting sometimes.  When I’m ill, it’s actually cozy. Though I could do without the used Kleenex shredded by cats,  the coffee table is piled with a cup of tea and reading material for all moods:  The New York Review of Books, several catalogues, a copy of Middlemarch, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, Georgette Heyer’s  Venetia, and Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (wow, is this overrated, or do I just have a cold?).  And I’ve got the remote and some DVDs: I might at any minute decide to watch Bunheads or Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Now if only the cats would tidy up for me…