A Home at the End of the World

Book I

Two young boys grow up together in Cleveland as best friends. One is dealing with the trauma of family members’ deaths. The other with an awakening gay sexuality. They smoke pot & drop acid (it’s the 70s) and have sweet, young sex.

Book II

The boys, now young men, reunite in New York after spending the early years of their adulthood apart. One has gone to school, come out, and become a journalist. He lives with his new best friend. The other has apprenticed as a baker, opened a restaurant that failed, and has come to New York to start over. They live exciting lives until the baker and the roommate began to have sex. The gay man flees.

Book III

The gay man’s father dies and the three go to the funeral. Back in New York they decide to form a family and buy a house in the country. They raise their child as three parents. Eventually they take in the gay man’s former lover who is dying of AIDS. The roommate leaves with their child, disappears. The two friends stay at the home together caring for the dying man. The book ends with the three of them standing naked in the freezing water of a lake under the beautiful sky.

I loved this book.

Butler: Themes Post-Exogenesis

Reading the Exogenesis series (DawnAdulthood RitesImago) I made a non-exhaustive list of themes running through Octavia Butler’s novels.

—–

  • Empathy, feeling what others feel, suffering through what you do to them in your own body.
  • Valorization of sexual pleasure, bisexuality, polygamy.
  • Privileging group, social unit over the individual without subsuming individuality or individual freedom; there’s no binary.
  • The ongoing threat of slavery, the ongoing threat of racism, especially the dangers presented by white people and white men, dangers that are entrenched enough to appear innate, biological.
  • The evolutionary threat (and dead end) posed by patriarchal masculinity, a dead-end that is named explicitly in the narration and played out explicitly in the narrative.
  • Inquisitive, intelligent, and empathetic (but always rational) women are the protagonists after the first Seed to Harvest novel.

—–

When I made this list, I’d read (but not necessarily logged) the Exogenesis series, Fledgling, and the Seed to Harvest series.

But now at this point, I’ve read everything Butler’s published except a bit of the short fiction. I’m not sure though what to write about what I’ve read.

Butler’s fiction is alarmingly topical and the clarity of her prose is simply overwhelming: it’s difficult to imagine how someone writes her sentences and then uses them to muster the narrative energy she brings to bear novel after novel. What I see clearly is that she makes structural choices vis-à-vis narration and point-of-view that enable a fluency and a diction that are spare and beautiful.

My take-away is that Butler is an extraordinarily talented and smart novelist.

A Taste of Honey

This fantasy novella recounts a gay, interracial, intercultural love story. Two young men — one the son of a low-ranking aristocrat, the other a soldier accompanying an imperial delegation — secretly begin a sexual relationship and fall in love over the course of eleven days. The story is set in a place where gay men are impaled alive and left on display. So when the two are found out by the aristocratic youth’s older brother, he is held captive by his family until the soldier leaves to return home.

The story of this brief relationship is told in alternating sections with the story of the young aristocrat’s later life as the husband of the king’s daughter, a life in which he seems to have chosen to live in hiding by passing as a straight man. However by the book’s end, it is revealed that the technologically advanced geneticists worshipped as “gods” have, as a favor to his wife, erased his memory of the eleven-day love affair. In other words, the man has not passed; he has been trapped in self-ignorance and been made incapable of discovering the reason for the sadness and loss he feels throughout his life.

Combined these two stories are pretty bleak: the beautiful moments seem designed to set off the cruelty and ugliness of the surrounding culture. This is of course a political effect, and point taken. Homophobia sucks, especially for people born in a place dominated by its most overt and violent forms.

However, this clarity is thrown into chaos by the novella’s completely unexpected final pages. There, in a surprise twist of the sort I always dislike, the curtain is pulled back, revealing that nothing except the first ten days of the men’s relationship is true. What actually happened, is that at the end of that day, the two men fled to safety together. In the decades since, they have lived in what amounts to a loving marriage that includes family. The terrible homophobic story we’ve read, is just a vision of an alternate life, a “what if” offered up by a magical/advanced-tech being who is responding to a question posed by the curious and no-longer-young aristocrat.

This feels like a cheat. If the tragedy of the protagonist’s life isn’t real, why wallow in its ugliness rather than showing me the happier world he built with his lover? Erasing the cruelties of a terrible world with the narrative equivalent of “Surprise! Just kidding!” seems dismissive of the very real resonances between this fantasy’s horrors and the real world of some readers.

But perhaps, that’s me being dogmatic. And in the days that followed, I did see how if you’re a geeky queer kid reading the book from inside a situation that looks like the world of the young aristocrat, it might be liberating to discover after a long gaze in the book/mirror that this/your world is just “an alternative.” And perhaps focusing on the bleak world and leaving the geeky kid to imagine what a alternative might look like is empowering. Or at least, I can see how this might have been the case for me if I’d read this book in my early teens when I was dreaming (for reasons I couldn’t quite understand) of someday living in Atlanta or New York.

Whatever the case, the flipping narrative makes this book a complicated piece of writing that I have trouble deciding what to do with. Theoretically that complication is a good thing, but in practice and given this story’s chosen stakes, it doesn’t sit well with me.

UPDATE: or maybe the audience is non-queer fantasy fans, giving them a picture of how crummy the traditional world can look to the queer kids they live with (even if they don’t know they live with them)? In which case, that final twist shows that things can be different, that there are alternatives, and that maybe they could help makes changes?

Lie With Me

Philippe Besson’s short novel tells of two young men in a small village on the French border with Spain who begin a sexual relationship in the winter before they graduate from high school. They are frank with each other and beautifully open and generous, yet everything occurs in secrecy. It is 1984, AIDS looms, and this is the countryside. Still, both are, in the private spaces they make for themselves, happy. 

Graduation arrives, and Thomas understands that his lover, Philippe, will soon go away to school and begin a life elsewhere. So to avoid heartbreak, he flees to Spain to toil on a family farm without saying goodbye.

In 2007, Philippe, now a writer, sees a man in a cafe, thinks he is Thomas, then realizes he must be Thomas’s son. They speak, and the son tells him of Thomas’s adult life as a married man. Nine years later, Philippe and Thomas’s son meet again, and this time Philippe learns of Thomas’s divorce and his relationship with a new lover, a relationship that fails because, as he had with Philippe, Thomas demands it be kept a secret. He also learns that Thomas has committed suicide and receives a letter, written by Thomas in 1984 but never sent, that he appears to have left where it would be found and delivered to Philippe after his death. The final words of the novel are the words of this letter.


The novel presents itself as an autobiographical fiction: the photograph on the cover of French edition is the photograph Philippe takes of Thomas the last time the boys see each other; the dedication is to “Thomas Andrieu (1966-2016)”; and the novel takes pains to include the exchange in which Philippe asks for and is granted permission to tell his and Thomas’s story. In these and myriad other ways, the novel insists “This is true, it happened.”

The story is not, however, idiosyncratic, and the boys’ story of a first gay love is a familiar one. I’ve lived it and reading through this account of their stumbling successes and bright failures, I heard myself sounding back the tune from my own memories. But reading it, I also heard the external echos of all the many accumulated movies, stories, TV shows and novels that have today recounted that same experience as affirmative, popular fictions. From them, I know how this story should go. And yet I also know that, for the story to go as it should, the boys and the men they eventually become would need more self-assurance and more support than I ever had when I was living through similar events. And they don’t have it. So what I know from my past life and what I know from my past reading butt against each other, the one never quite matching the other. This happened enough as I read to make the popular fictions I love begin to ring false, or as a wish. 

By the time the men’s story reaches its tragic finale, the tension between what happened and what I knew I should wish for framed my sadness. I came away from the last pages thinking, “the book should have done this” or “the characters should have done that.” Eventually though, these frustrations fell away and I saw that, yes, these characters — these people — probably should have done things differently. But also and more importantly, they should have been allowed to do things differently. They weren’t, and my frustrations with that fact aren’t about the book or how it’s written. They are about the world. 

So I come away from the book seeing that my sadness had become — because the book has made it so — a measure of the gap that still remains between the way things are for young queer people and the way we tell ourselves that they are (or will soon become) in our fictions. The gap is real.

The Patternist Series

I read these novels in the omnibus edition which arranges them according to story time. I don’t usually read books outside of publication order, so doing it here was eye opening.

The novels in the series, listed in publication order are Patternmaster(1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984).

Patternmaster offers a very simple plot: boy arrives at a bad place at the wrong time but escapes, runs toward safety, but is caught and must fight to survive. That’s it, that’s all. Yet the seed of each of the other novels is present.

Mind of My Mind explains the origins of “the pattern” introduced in the first novel, identifying it as the product of a centuries long breeding program by a dangerous and seemingly immortal being named Doro. The novel also introduces Doro’s counterpart, a mysterious black woman who cares for young telepaths in a community she has built and maintains in a black neighborhood in a late 20th century city.

Wild Seed tells the story of this same woman, beginning with her early life in Africa centuries before during the first years of the European slave trade. Immortal like Doro but gifted with powers very different from his—she’s a shapeshifter and healer—she finds his breeding of telepaths that he then feeds upon cruel and inhuman. The two are at odds for centuries before he relents and agrees to limits she establishes on his behavior. (Wild Seed was written one year after Butler completed the research for and published Kindred. It shows and the novel is richer for it.)

Clays’ Ark reconnects the now elaborate history of the Patternists back to the post-apocalyptic future of the first novel. This novel tells of a world torn apart by climate change and explains how an alien infection that transforms a farm community into something strange and bestial escapes into the population at large.

Of course, the order I’ve described the books is not the order I read them in. In the omnibus, I’ve read the third book first (Wild Seed), then the second (Mind of My Mind), then the fourth (Clay’s Ark) and only then, at the very end, the first novel that launched the series (Patternmaster). Which means that until I was nearly done, I was reading prequels, which made for a strange experience. The books work in story order, but I see in retrospect that moments of excitement and suspense in the first books I read were only partially visible to me because I didn’t have the ironic positioning created by knowledge of what was coming in the last book I’d read.

This didn’t ruin anything. In fact, it made the final two books a fairly disorienting set of surprises. I had no idea I was headed to a vision of the future that would remind me of, in different ways, both Fury Road and The Dragonriders of Pern. And I really liked these books. But wow, order matters.

Les Confessions

On a whim and fed up with pointy eras and spells maybe, I picked up Rousseau’s Confessions last week. I read the first of the two books which covers his childhood and youth.

Rousseau, the man on the page and voice conjuring him up from memory, is a charismatic figure, compelling, seductive and also annoying. He reads as very much alive and so I can’t keep myself from wondering if I’d have liked him if I’d know him. I can’t decide, mostly because I’m not sure he would have been available to be liked or not. He seems drawn to rough sorts of men in a way that, of all things, made me think of Jean Genet. (He’s not Genet, but their Romanticisms are of a similar kind regarding this point even if wildly different in their intensity and extent.)

I’m walking away from the book with two favorite moments. The first involved a Moor being converted to Catholicism alongside Rousseau. This Moor, after touching and kissing for days, finally attempts to have sex with him. Rousseau refuses but documents the man’s ejaculation and a priest’s insistence, when Rousseau tells him what happened, that he’s only revolted by the possibility of having sex with the man because he imagines it will hurt, which it won’t. Fascinating stuff.

The second is Rousseau’s confession that he’s been saved from becoming a degenerate by his peculiar perversion: a childhood punishment by a woman he adored had made him desire above all else to be spanked by a woman, something he could never bring himself to ask for even with the most compliant of women. And so throughout his life, he claims to be awkward and restrained around women. Although he admits that for awhile at the age of sixteen or seventeen, he would moon women on the streets and in the gardens and then run off. Again, fascinating stuff.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Half-Blood Prince ended in tragedy and the first full-scale battle in the war that’s been brewing since The Goblet of Fire. This book picks up with a brilliant set piece: an elaborate plan aiming to move Harry to safety at the exact moment his protections there fail and he is able finally to move secretly because of his age. The chase that ensues is frightening and exciting. The patronus that drops from the sky only a few chapters later, interrupting a wedding and sending Harry, Hermione, and Ron into hiding sets the pace (breakneck) for the double quest that will follow: find the horcuxes and find the hallows.

Because it’s the final book, I was ready to make judgments as I read and they came fast and fiercely. I don’t like Ron: he’s a brat and the fact he turns out okay is because his family is great and that sticks. I also find it very hard to like Harry: he pouts and is too quick to judge and I kept feeling like he’s a bit like a best-case-scenario jock who could easily go wrong. What saves him is that he loves his friends and tries (when he’s not pouting) to do right by them, even when it costs him dearly. Hermione is my hero and I love her through and through. Ron should count his lucky stars she even puts up with him, much less loves him.

Snape is a genuinely noble and tragic figure, damaged by the angry emotions and choices of youth, marked by them (literally and figuratively), but strong enough to see those choices through to the end, and he saves the day because of it. Dobby, the free elf, risks everything to save the boy who set him free, dying for it, but also saving the day. And then there are Neville and Luna, my two favorite of the students at Hogwarts: when Neville, in an echo of the Chamber of Secrets pulls the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat and destroys the final horcrux—like Snape and like Dobby, saving the day—my heart sang.

So now the series is done, and I feel like Harry in the final chapter: older and apart and looking back on a past time. (Incidentally, the bit-like-a-jock Harry didn’t go wrong, he went bourgeois-boring. Which is fine. But still, surprising.)

All said, it’s a genuinely great series of books and I’m really happy to have read it simply for the pleasure of it. But I’m also glad because I’ve discovered that most of my students have read them as well and they love them and so we now share a wealth of references and analogies that we can use to discuss and make sense of things in class. And most importantly, because my students read the books as kids, references to them don’t read as “teacher trying (and necessarily failing) to be cool.” They are simply a shared, fun and useful reference allowing better communication.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This book is Snape’s and Dumbledore’s, and it ends like it began: with an exchange of words that do not mean what they seem to mean, but only exactly what they say. In both cases, the novel invites us to misunderstand Snape’s meaning and intentions, and to a large extent, we don’t really have any choice. The narrative, which is Harry’s, takes the apparent meaning as real, and if we refuse it, it’s from instinct and from faith in the integrity of an underdog.

In the long stretch between Snape’s two damnations, Harry stumbles along damaged and, yes, angry, although less so than in the previous book in the series. If in that book growing up meant that Harry needed to discover and to accept that things would not work out the way he wished regardless of his feelings, in this book, it requires he learn that his enemies are people rather than monsters, a simple, fundamental and difficult lesson. The device Rowlings contrives for permitting this discovery—and for motivating extended, digressive flashbacks—is the pensieve, a bowl for collecting and reviewing memories that immediately became one of my favorite magical objects of all times ever.

I’m writing this post after finishing The Deathly Hallows, and so, I can say without question that the Half-Blood Prince—the book but also the enigmatic off-stage Snapes—has won my heart. Here the dangerous, mysterious adult world that first came knocking on the door of Harry’s childhood in The Goblet of Fire and then came crashing through it in The Order of the Phoenix, takes on a life of its own, independent of the narrative we’ve been reading, and sets Harry’s story into perspective, revealing its purposes and limits. Here, Dumbledore has a story. Snape has a story. Voldemort has a story. And we discover for the first time that the actual tragedy of the series—and yes, the intersecting stories of these men, especially when viewed from the perspective of the boy caught at their crossroads, is indeed tragic—is that the men’s stories cannot be reconciled, cannot be resolved, and so they cannot permit anything like a happy ending to emerge. At most, we can hope for resolution.

This is the hole the final book must get out of without being able to get out of it without failing.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry and his friends grow up and become part of a larger world’s story in the way they had not been up to this point. The shock of this damages Harry, and he’s angry and difficult to be around this book. Other characters step to the foreground, especially Hermione, my favorite of the “Golden Three.” Of the others, I love Neville, and I keep rooting for Snape, even though he makes it very hard. (But then, Harry makes it hard as well, so I can make the effort for Snape.) Ron continually gets on my nerves.

The plot here is dark and menacing and operating on a level larger than Dumbledore’s Army seems to understand or to be able to handle. I read in constant fear of discovering who would be next to die, hoping all the while that it would not be Neville. (Please not Neville. Please.) By the final scenes in the Ministry I was reading fast enough to feel my eyes ache from the strain. The words were gone and I was there. It was that good.

Still, reading the book exacted an emotional toll. I work with Dolores Umbridge, and there were days I could only read a few chapters before I had to put the book down and do something else. I’m not a fiction writer in part because I can’t imagine, understand or bear evil in the everyday. I’ve tried. And so petty meanness and casual sadism catch me unaware over and over and hit me with a kind of fresh hurt that I’ve never been able to grow numb to. So the horror of finding it here in Hogwarts was a shock over and over again and it gave me nightmares if I read too much at a time.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After a hundred pages with the Muggles and at the Quidditch World Cup, we’re back at Hogwarts learning about the Triwizard Tournament. Although too young to compete as one of the three school champions, Harry’s name is selected by the Goblet of Fire as a fourth champion which obliges him to participate. School goes on, and the fourth year students are learning real magic now. Still, although we see them in class, their drama is no longer about being in school or being budding wizards. Instead, it’s clear that the school is a part of a larger world with its own larger dramas, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron are finding their way onto that larger stage. (The libelous tabloid reporter dramatizes their entry into this larger world by publishing stories about them. They enact it themselves by researching and practicing charms and hexes for the Tournament on their own.)

By book’s end, Harry—thanks to help from his friends but also through his own skills, resourcefulness and basic goodness—winds up standing with his schoolmate, Cedric (a Hufflepuff), at the end of the final Tournament challenge, agreeing to win together. They grab the cup simultaneously, and then, disaster.

Magically transported to a faraway graveyard, Cedric is brutally killed and Voldemort is reborn using Harry’s blood. Surrounded by Death Eaters, Harry and Voldemort duel, but Harry survives—through luck, yes, but also and perhaps most importantly through courage, resourcefulness and love—and at the last possible moment escapes to Hogwarts, bringing Cedric’s body back with him as he does.

The series has turned dark but, importantly, the darkness isn’t rot and it isn’t a darkness within the principal characters or situations. Instead it is a darkness resident in and arising from the difficulties of an adult world that the children of the school are inevitably discovering as they study, explore and grow up. This is a fantasy novel, so the darkness is incarnate, but this doesn’t change the basic structure or philosophical stance of the narrative.

At the end of this book, I’m genuinely interested in what the school will become and what role it is imagined to play in the unfolding drama. As it stands here and now, it seems very much like a bastion of admirable values and clear thinking where the best of people prepare (and help!) the young to step into their lives as good people. It’s a noble image and I wonder how it will hold up.

The Forgotten Founding Father

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Two thoughts.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I remember skimming the first two books in this series over the course of a couple evenings in a friend’s home the summer of 2000. I also saw the first two (or three?) movies. Reading this book, I remembered a couple of the scenes. But now that I’m done and starting the third book, I’m excited. The rest are all new.

That matters because, second, Rowling is a good writer! In these first two books a world has been created, a deep problem set-up (which I can figure out nothing about beyond Voldemort is bad and is coming back), and a whole host of living and likable characters have been introduced. I like Harry, Ron and Hermione. I like Dumbledore and Mrs. McGonagall, and like disliking Snape and hope he won’t be a bad as he seems. Most importantly, the children here are doing their best and their blind spots are real, their fears understandable, the courage they find believable.

So I’m looking forward now to reading fresh for real. It’s exciting.

The Shades of Magic Trilogy

I read the first of these books, A Darker Shade of Magic, a few years ago on a plane going somewhere. I loved it—and was unexpectedly horrified by the cruelty of life in White London—but I was also very much in the throws of my initial struggles with reading fantasy and science fiction. (More on that soon probably.) So I read it, loved it, put it aside and left the trilogy unfinished.

Eventually, maybe the following summer, I checked the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, out from the Bibliotheque Nationale and began reading it by the river. Its scope and focus had changed, the world and the problems it faced had become orders of magnitude larger and its opening chapters were near perfectly constructed. My own problems were, however, still frustratingly similar: 120 pages in, I decided that summers were better spent reading books I didn’t have the time for in winter because of the concentration they required and put aside this book unfinished. This on its own amounted to clear evidence of foolishness, stupidity and a deep illness of the mind and soul, but (or perhaps thus) it took time to work through and get over it.

When I did finally tear up the hedge—sowed and cultivated in grad school and then carefully tended during those tense years before tenure—that kept the science fiction and fantasy novels I loved out of the wondrous garden of Literature, the final two novels in the trilogy were near the top of the list of books I set out to read.

I loved the series. The world is complex but appealing, and the magical tournament of the second book was great. There is darkness running through everything though—literal and metaphorical darkness—and the costs of surviving it are high. People lose things and people are lost. By the end, I was sorry to be done.

Here’s the important insight that sorrow left me with though: the sorrow was about the people and their relationships. The characters had been sketched out in a combination of realist description and of magical traits and action that were at root metaphorical and the portraits that emerged were not simple cut-outs. Two men enter the story in love by divided by a break-up one doesn’t understand. Both are powerful and confident (but for different reasons), both are confused by the actions of the other, both need each other and try ineptly to find their ways back across their broken hearts and very concrete social situations. And their friends and family, good people but none of whom understand (or in some cases know) what has happened between them, wind up part of a fight and making things harder. When the two earn their relationship back, it was glorious and felt real. And this relationship was very much a side plot until the last book.

The other relationships were just as rich, just as complex and, in their variety, they what make the novel work, not the magical rivers, the overlapping Londons or bleeding but badass wizards. These relationships can be amorous. They can be friendly. The one between the two male leads is fraternal: a sad and ruined older man finds himself a villain, first against his will but then freely in order to do good, but in his rough and brutal way takes care of a younger man, equally powerful but naive, helping him grow to the point where he can survive after they have saved the world. And there are so many more people and relationships in this book. This is great writing and great imagining and I loved it from first to last.

Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera

I grew up in a house that didn’t really listen to music even though I took violin classes when I was young and my sister played flute. The stereo I bought with money from my first job was the first in the house (that worked) and I didn’t know anything about what I liked or didn’t. At university, I learned to pick out basic chords on a guitar. More importantly, I took some introductory music theory classes taught by Suzanne Summerville, a teacher I adored and who invited me to study singing with her.

For the next few years, every semester, nestled in among all the history, math and political science I was taking for my very oddly constructed BA degree were the credited private lessons with Dr. Summerville. We met twice a week for an hour and I learned to make sounds on key and to work with an accompanist. I also sang in her university chorus and at recitals where she introduced archival music from her research. She was a specialist of the then much-less-known Fanny Mendelssohn (the sister of Felix) and for end-of-term juries, I always prepared German lieder—often Schubert, sometimes Wolfe—and American piano songs.

When I think back to my undergraduate studies, it’s those lessons that come first to mind because it was Dr. Summerville who, in our long rambling conversations about art and music, laid the foundation for what became my education. That she took me under her wing despite my utter lack of knowledge and extremely limited talent was a gift of love and I still wonder why she chose me to receive it. But then, she was a generous teacher, and I imagine I am not the only student who felt as specially chosen.

Anyway, I continued to sing casually after I left Alaska but stopped studying and no longer performed. Once I got to Montreal and moved into apartments with thin walls I mostly stopped singing completely. Instead I began to listen to vocal music—classical, yes, but also increasingly, and then obsessively, jazz. But recently classical singing has again become something I listen to often.

This renewed interest has roots reaching back years ago to when I was introduced to my first opera by a friend who offered tickets to see La Bohème at the Met Live in HD series downtown. I went and was astonished. Everything I loved about cinema and theatre were here fused with beautiful singing. I thought of opera as old-fashioned, maybe a joke and didn’t realize it could be so beautiful. I was overwhelmed and—to my surprise—reduced to exultant tears. Since then I’ve watched a half dozen of the Met projections, but no one else I know is more than hypothetically interested. So it’s been easy to skip buying tickets in favor of doing things that family and friends like and we can do together.

But I’m interested in opera! I enjoy it! So it annoys me that I don’t know anything and haven’t made an effort to see more. So finally, during winter holidays this year, I did a bit of research and decided that over the course of the year I was going to make a not-haphazard tour of a bit of the opera repertoire using the Met’s Apple TV app. My thought is to have something like a regular Sunday-afternoon opera. That’s my thought anyway.

Levine’s book is an introductory reference and one of the books I’ve ordered to help me figure out what to watch. It’s light and I read through all the framing materials in the early part of a morning. But the lists of works and brief contextual information is useful for where I am. I’ll have it at hand for the next few months I think.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

Things That Are

An extraordinary collection. Leach’s voice is allegorical and ironic, knowing yet naive, more poetry than prose, and cagey.

Near the middle point in an essay called “God” we learn that the people’s words—not the animals’—are like stones, hard to swallow and heavy and they say “God” and “God” and ”God” and it is too much to bear. God’s words are outdoors. They are the bat, the frog, the animals, the woman walking among them in the night.

Leach speaks his language, ornamenting it with a glorious, exuberant English, and in full-throated peals, hymns praise for a world.

But that is not all. Pandemonium is here too and a night sky and so very very many of the fireflakes that tug at a mind or a soul, fueling caprices. And this great bear we see is made of stars. And the beast feeding on jellyfish clinging to the sand is a star. And you? “You be the moon.”

Do you want to be? Because you can be, if you want to be. Here in these essays.

Be the moon.

The Wife

When I watched Glenn Close win her Golden Globe in January, I learned that the film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name. Googling, I learned it was by Meg Wolitzer, the author of The Interestings and the editor of last year’s excellent Best American Short Stories. (The “excellent” isn’t a given in the short story series–or at least, what counts often doesn’t match my taste. Wolitzer’s matched mine closely.) 

I ordered the novel and, reading it, realized that I like what Wolitzer does: careful, serious development of characters within relationships defined by history, and all of this handled without affectation or self-importance. She writes novels, and I’m going to read more of them.

All Systems Red

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”