I have an idea for a short story; the premise is an innkeeper is tired of heroes tramping through his part of the countryside on their way to yet another world shattering showdown with yet another magic-wielding villain. The line between good and bad is besides the point; when the cost of saving the world is to scorch half of it, it seems that the tension isn’t between the good and bad, but between those who have powers and those who have not. My story would simply be a monologue, with the old man just tired of cleaning up the common room and making sure his daughter does not catch the wandering eyes of the heroes. I guess it could also be summed up as Occupy Middle Earth.

The well of this idea comes from how I see sorcerors and wizards. I think they have an element of the technological Singularity, despite authors treating power magicians as like us, but with more power. Alien, in the fantasy world, tends to look like Sauron – they are recognizably ambitious, power hungry, and selfish. I haven’t really seen magic approached in the same way as hard Artificial Intelligence, in an analogous way to Charles Stross’s Eschaton series (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise) or Accelerando. I haven’t seen enough written about magicians as being so different that they might as well be from other worlds; instead, we get absent minded old men whose heads are on “serious matters”.

And while we are on the subject, I find it unrealistic (ha!) in fantasy stories that, even if we accept the premise of these authors (and of course I am not disputing that part of suspension of disbelief), it seems strange that, by accident, those who tamper with such powers haven’t rent the world asunder. I am not quite complaining about the contrived plot devices, where the Evil Magician requires some long lost trinket to seize ultimate power. But confrontation happens to scale linearly, not exponentially, despite there being no real reason against it. For example, we wouldn’t expect a firefight in a Tom Clancy novel to escalate from knives to guns to rockets and then nukes. The problem is that generally, there is no such inherent, infrastructure based constraint on magic use. Each magician has the potential to be a nuke.

The solution is a trope. The magician hero is usually a neophyte. The exploration of the mechanics of magic is part and parcel of the fun in a fantasy novel, but I haven’t seen a compelling reason for why the magic the hero uses at the final showdown could not have been used sooner. Aside from the contrivance of the magician having to learn that particular skill or spell.  I think another reason is literary: the audience can relate to the neophyte, since the fantasy novel is an escapist-empowerment fantasy. We want to have the option of imagining that we can get that power. And so we don’t really get novels from the point of view of Gandalf. We follow the Hobbit, in this case a literal small person.

This is interesting, because the experienced wizard is generally relegated to a teacher and mentor role. The fact that authors generally choose someone less powerful or less experienced suggests that they do see a disconnect between the audience and if the story was explicitly about someone much more powerful. Why not carry this through and treat the all powerful magicians as something with motivations that we can’t comprehend? Instead, we generally get a dotty, absent-minded old man.

The other approach is to make the magic more mundane and familial, as in Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. At heart, this novel plays out like a family drama, albeit with a bit more of smoke and mirrors. The story starts with Nora, (yet another) dissatisfied graduate student working on her dissertation, whose life seems to be at a low. Her adviser is no help, and her ex had unceremoniously “traded up” and is now engaged to Nora’s replacement. She decides to lose herself in the festivities of a friend’s wedding in the Hamptons. Nora passes through a crack in our world and finds herself in Ors.

What I liked about this book is that it is so intimate. Our first introduction to Ors is through the group of beings known as the Faitoren (as we find out later.) They are beautiful, glamorous, sexy, and carefree. Just the type to seduce Nora to a life of dissipation. However, it isn’t long before the veneer cracks, and we find the group exposed for what they are. Naturally, Nora is rescued by a wizard – Arundiel.

What follows next is positively domestic. The setting here is medieval, with the attendant relegation of women into subservient roles. Nora is a stranger in a strange land; to fit in, she begins serving as a help to Arundiel’s houseservant. We learn about the world in, I think, a realistic pace. I think one could argue it is slow, I enjoyed learning about Ors by seeing how Nora interacts with the world. We see Arundiel perform sorcery, but for a long time, Nora remains skeptical about the things she sees. For almost half the book, Nora has no powers. We actually see her cleaning the kitchen, learning to read, and trying to stay out of trouble.

No such portal fantasy could be complete without a ball. Arundiel, who holds land but is naturally has higher stature due to his power and experience, must attend court and wished to take Nora with him, if only to marry her off and have Nora out of his life. Once the costume party is past, the novel begins in earnest. It seems that Nora, in her time with the Faitoren, actually was married to one of them. Nora was to be a broodmare, and frankly, it is positively quaint how even the monsters did not want a child out of wedlock.

In the second half of the novel, we begin to see the martial nature of Ors: the Faitoren have power, but the humans and Faitoren have a treaty, enforced by the magic of Arundiel. The Faitoren generally accomplish their feats through magic enhanced beguilement; they want to leave their enclosed space and rule the world. With this promise of an eventual showdown, Nora begins to learn magic. We begin to explore the limits of magic and also find out why Arundiel and Ilissa, leader of the Faitoren, bears such ill will towards each other. (Hint: the reason would fit right into a soap opera.)

As I had said at the beginning, we generally find a linear progression in the types of magic being used. The neophyte eventually taps into great power. We seem to avoid that here. One thing Ms. Barker does well in her novel is to keep the scale small. For example, a large battle is comprised of a few hundred combatants. In this context, Arundiel is powerful, but not ludicrously so. In general, the magic Arundiel used at the end was similar in scale and magnitude as what he showed in the beginning. In this sense, I think Ms. Barker avoided that common pitfall of simply cranking up the stakes at each and every confrontation between Ilissa and Arundiel.

The book is set up for sequels, and it is a slight problem because it’s so obvious. Or, alternatively, one can look at it as a set of dropped plot threads at the end. But there are so many nice touches: how Nora’s frustrated ambition and struggles translated into a medieval setting, how she applied small bits of magic to earn money, and how she gave voice to basic ideas about how language can easily be used as a tool to weaken social standing of outcast groups.

I really enjoyed this novel, as it provided some balance to the more conventional, and muscular, points of view that I’ve seen in the fantasy genre. I came across an essay at the New York Times by Ms. Barker that shows how differently she thinks about magic as used in fiction. While the novel might not break free from normal dramatic tropes (Nora loves to compare Arundiel and Ors society to Pride and Prejudice), it does offer a different take in the fantasy genre as well as being a fun read.

Ctein’s “Niagara Falls”

 

I became aware of Ctein through the website The Online Photographer, where he contributes essays. His biography is fascinating, but the key point, and one worth repeating, is that he is considered one of the top photographic printers in the world. Actually, experts at Kodak thought he was the best. Alright, but how are his photos?

Excellent; a particularly striking one is Niagara Falls. It is a fresh take on the subject, but the image is as frothy as cotton candy and the mist he captured. A sliver of the curve of the gigantic falls (taken from the Canadian side, probably) juts in from the right, only to be smothered by clouds and mist. But it is the delicate blue tones, light, lighter, and ethereal, that arrested my attention.

In the image, I am forced to look up to the rim of the waterfall, and this angle  inspires hope, happiness, and joy in living. As I said, the color is just delicate; it’s all high-key color tones, but with enough geometries to compel attention (straight lines down due to the water, and horizontally oriented clouds.)

If you read his commentary, the man is all about the prints. Although he has moved on to extant technologies, his standard is always with reference to a finished, tangible print. He will happily use digital imaging systems with printers or spend time in the dark room.

 

Of the books I read in the past year, Susan Choi’s My Education  is my favorite. It is a brilliant book, with vibrant language, smart observations, and fantastic characters. The novel is simple to sum up: I described it to my sister-in-law as a novel about an English graduate student who becomes involved in a love quadrangle.

The plot and story moves apace, but the madcap events only highlights and not overwhelms. In the end, the characters ingratiate into your mind. Even if you know what will happen, I guarantee you still want to see the train wreck through. Because I don’t think I can contain myself; I need to talk about this book with you. I need to give you a

** SPOILER ALERT. **

It won’t make sense until you read it, but although the story is narrated by Regina Gottlieb, I was left with the feeling that she plays an ancillary role in this story – well, more like how Rick and Ilsa were a sidenote to Victor and Ilsa’s heroic story. I think, if this were a modern Hollywood movie, it would be more about Martha and Dutra; there’s a chance that if old Hollywood did this movie, it would feel more like Casablanca than not.

OK, so that’s three characters. The last is Nicholas, Martha’s husband and Regina’s erstwhile mentor. Regina feared being despoiled by Nicholas, but she falls into lust with Martha. I really wanted to avoid saying anything about plot and characters and relationships, but it is hard. Sure, there are enough deviations from the usual plot points such that it’s a pleasant surprise. But, the point of this novel is in Regina’s narration: her observations, thoughts, and growth.

Here’s the straight-forward description. Regina starts graduate school, rooming with Dutra, who becomes her lover, then her friend. There’s much gossip about Nicholas, the handsome English professor who had been rumored to have an “understanding” with his wife and is notorious in having had a string of affairs with his (graduate) students (because it would have been wrong if it were with an undergraduate.) Regina is complicated; she deals a lot with the superficial thinking and cognition about how she will act towards Nicholas. She is on her guard. Ms. Choi then deftly does a magic trick – the kind that will win you money; part three-card monte and part dealing from the bottom of the deck – all of a sudden, we see the undercurrent of Regina’s glimpses of Martha – her thoughts on what it’s like to be the wife of a philanderer, beautiful, a mother, a professor, and a woman who seemingly had  turned her back on what should have been the ultra-posh exemplar of a modern, post-feminist woman – turn into an undertow. We are dragged under and when we surface, we see that we are far from shore and everything has changed. Regina was wary of Nicholas, wondering about his home-life and his relationship with Martha, showing peripheral interest in the inner life of Martha. But of course, Regina was not only convincing us of her sincerity in navigating through the Scylla and Charibdis that is Nicholas’s and Martha’s marriage – perhaps worrying about her immediate goal of finishing graduate school – but for herself as well. Her real interest was Martha. When we snap awake from the mesmerizing card dealing of Ms. Choi, and look at the hand we were dealt, we find that Regina had seduced Martha at the end of a rather uncomfortable dinner party. That’s only the half of it, though; Martha reciprocates.

I think this structure is needed; the novel is constructed in a way that speaks to my scientist heart. It is like a thought experiment where, by removing men – or lowering their coefficients from the relationship equation, we can focus more on the psychic fallout and less on the usual older man-mentor/younger woman. Sure, there is still a power dynamic, but somehow, the fact that they are both women at different stages of their lives give more credibility to this being an exploration of how one approaches a relationship, not just predation on youth.

Martha is probably what Regina wishes to be: a successful academic, about to embark on motherhood her own terms – at least until Regina sees more of Martha’s life. Consummation does not happen right away. In this, Ms. Choi wrote it straight, with an inevitability that both women decide to invest time and passion into the relationship. There is a bit of repartee, a low grade flirt, quick meetings and chats, until lust comes to fore.

After the relationship is consummated, we truly embark on the story, with its attendant criticisms about age and relationship. As I noted, Regina narrates, but it is her older self telling the story. As such, she is able to be generous, neither treating Martha too harshly – although she really should have known better – nor dismissing this time in her life as a passing fancy. This is a proper way of drawing out observations;  we do not dismiss her love of Martha as a crush. Taken seriously, we are forced to deal with Regina actually trying to make this relationship work. What she lacks in perspective and experience, she overwhelms with passion. That is in fact the sharp division between Regina and Martha: the young offer passion, while the old, or older, offer time. To the young, the relationship is life. To the old, the relationship is an escape from life.

Dutra eventually takes more prominence in the story. He remains friends with Regina after they stop dating; he is a good friend and is a sounding board for her feelings. Not that Regina needed any help on that. The internal monologue is amazing. I will probably name five different favorite things about this book, but this is truly the best part about the novel. Imagine the way an Aaron Sorkin character would speak – sharp, smart, verbal deluge – with the neuroses and self-awareness of a Dawson’s Creek teenager. That’s Regina in a nutshell.

At some point, we become aware that Martha essentially sets up a little lovenest. Like I say, this story would have taken on a completely different complexion if it were Nicholas instead of Martha having an affair. Martha becomes the embodiment of an escape fantasy; she teaches, writes, act as hostess for faculty dinners, and mothers. It is understandable that she might have her own issues and needs a release valve. But that is not entirely it. She does like Regina. The dramatic question becomes, is she serious enough about this relationship? She does separate from Nicholas, although the marriage was already rocky without another person entering into it. But will she take the next step?

Martha insinuates herself into the off-campus life of Regina. She gives up her graduate career, deciding that she needs to grow up and get a job, in the real world. Dutra, Martha, and Regina have great hangs; this is another bit of magic on Ms. Choi’s: what are Dutra’s feelings? Is this a love see-saw  whose fulcrum  is Regina? One night, the three of them are drunk and wind up in Regina’s apartment. Martha and Regina grow intimate. The last thing Regina hears is Dutra thumping down the stairs. This point remains ambiguous until the end, although there are signs that the fulcrum might actually be Martha.

Young Regina refuses to accept that Martha might have other reasons for keeping the relationship on the down low. She does not understand why Martha can’t walk away and take the plunge. A series of misunderstandings and mis-timings ensue. Lost dinners and coming out opportunities give way to dissatisfaction. Pledges are re-avowed and promises made; all are broken. At one point, Casper, at that time a graduate student, forced an unhappy Regina to introduce him to his idol, Nicholas. This was after Nicholas had found out Martha and Regina were lovers. What follows is a bender where Nicholas, Regina, and two other faculty members are essentially drowning their sorrows over women troubles, capped by Regina blacking out, shepherded home by Nicholas and missing what should have been a declaration of her relationship with Martha. Well, it didn’t help that Regina suffered from a concussion at the time. Like I said, this book is a bit madcap.

Shortly after, Martha and Regina’s relationship seemed salvageable, as Martha was obviously in distress that she might have been spurned. This culminates in a disastrous night, at what should have been a resolution: Martha will publicly acknowledge her relationship with Regina. But Martha turns perfidious; she whiles her time away at pool with Dutra, until she misses the party. Then she sleeps with Dutra, leaving him apologetic and rushing to Regina to apologize. Regina, to her credit, shuts the door on him, on Martha and on the relationship.

A few other things happen; we do find out that Nicholas had designs on her. We actually find out how much Regina meant to Martha, and to Ms. Choi’s credit there are no weepy subsequent confrontations. Years later, we pick up Regina’s life in Brooklyn, married, a published author, and mother. We see some resolution with Dutra. I don’t do it justice here, but he is an outsized character in the story. Funny, charming, and a real rake. We do find out what happened to Martha and Nicholas.

As the older Regina, the narration loses none of the urgency if youth, if the passion becomes tempered. Romantic ardor is nothing compared to motherhood. Now we see a mature Regina tackle marriage, with that same awareness and intelligence with which she dissected her youth.

Did I say already this is my favorite book that I have read, going back to last year? There is a lot of profanity – not in words but in ideas –  sex, and insight. I felt entertained and that I learned something substantial about relationships and how women think. The language crackles, and I hurtled into the book in the same manner that Regina loved Martha.

Dylan Toh’s and Marianne Lim’s “A Henge Beneath

Seriously; do I need to say anything? I did not notice this before, but the image is a 14 shot panorama. Just a superb composition and exposure work – and post processing to stitch them all, seamlessly. The colors are so rich, and apparently they did catch this at sunset. I’ve seen a number of images with that look (i.e. setting/rising sun with a starscape.) But… apparently a fair number of them actually result from light pollution! Ha! Great effect on those images, but this here is the real thing.

The rocks are superbly lit. The colors are also rather nicely complementary, although with the deep shadows, even the earth tones look a bit spacey. Each element is properly placed; the off centered rocks lend tension to the centered arc of the Milky Way.

Dylan Toh and Marianne Lim’s works can be found here: http://www.everlookphotography.com/. They prefer you to buy prints there, since they prefer the quality they themselves can deliver.

The link is for Justin Ng’s “I see the light“, a photo from the Yi Peng lantern festival in Thailand. This is a photo that I felt was in a class by itself, completely surpassing the extremely good photographs I see on 500px. Because images last in the collective psyche of 500px for as long as 24 hours, I’ve decided to pay my respect to the skill and talent of the photographer by making an extra effort to keep these images from being consigned into the information oblivion of the Internet.

Clearly, I do not mean for this to be anything aside from a roll of images that took my breath away. I do expect that not every will agree with me, and I even expect that no one will agree with me.

I will have gone ahead and notified the photographer, as well as on my “Stories” at 500px. I will start to feature other pieces from around the web on my blog as well. I hope this spurs discussion because art is worth talking about. It enriches our lives, our souls, and our intellects.

No, I did not confuse her with Anne Rice; I was interested by the blurb description of the story. The novel is a pleasant change of pace from what I would normally choose to read, and at least it does not fall into bodice ripper category.

I admit that I am not the target audience; Luanne Rice’s The Lemon Orchard is probably more  romance than not, although it does have a nice bit of dramatic and character development along with a timely topic. The story is about the meeting of two souls. Roberto is an undocumented worker from Mexico; Julia is an anthropologist from Connecticut. They are joined by their both having lost a daughter and are dealing with their grief and need for closure in their own ways. A portion of the novel is spent in  flashbacks, and I find these fairly interesting. Being male, and a father of two boys, I enjoy seeing how self-aware, intelligent women interact with one another; in this case, I enjoyed how a mother views her relationship with her daughter.

There is much to like about the novel; it deals with a the serious issue of immigration, and the language is enjoyable – not flowery but evocative. One of the blurbs that convinced me to give my thoughts on this book is that the novel combines Ms. Rice own interests and research into the Irish immigrant experience with a modern extension of those same themes. Some readers might find it pat to simply draw analogies between two groups of people, just because they happen to share a desire to move to the United States. But I can attest to the fact that some motivations are shared and  there are common motifs among the stories of immigrants.

Ms. Rice leaves no doubts as to her sympathies. One can see from the ending that she respects fully the laws that are on the books, but she does decry against the harshness with which some Americans treat illegal border crossers. In the end, Ms. Rice points to the fact that immigrants are willing to face death and depredation in order have a chance for a better life and that earns them a measure of respect and sympathy.

Again, the novel is well written, but the structure generally lacks heightened dramatic tension. There are obstacles that Julia must overcome, but it seems like a hike and not a climb up a hill, let alone a mountain. The beginning is masterful; from the first sentence, we are telegraphed that Julia’s daughter is dead. But it is this straight-forward exposition that telegraphs the rest of the novel. While I was astounded at how effectively Ms. Rice conveyed  mood and information, there are no surprises to the plot.  The progression of the relationship between Roberto and Julia encounters only few bumps. We get  a few longing glances, vivid daydreams, and descriptions of Roberto’s work-honed body. The novel plays out like a Lifetime movie.  One can guess at the resolution of the plot lines as they get introduced.

We rarely see any conflict; some characters speak of it, but it’s all in the past.  A simple, meaningful look seems to resolve any current impasse and unlock doors. But that contributes more to the movie like/script feel to the novel. There is a pace and sense of time to the novel that is realistic.  Ms. Rice does give the characters time to breathe and digest events, even if they always seem to do the right thing in the end. There is a lot of color and details that flesh out the exterior life of her characters. The main effect of all this is that everyone just happens to be so nice and understanding. But my finding issue with that might say more about me than about Ms. Rice’s novel.

There is an interesting discussion of Severus Snape, over on Tor.com. It does, better than I’ve done here, to show that reading and thinking matters, so much more than just saying whether a novel is good or bad. The premise of the blog post, written by Emily Asher-Perrin, is simple: we know about the sacrifice that Snape makes in the Harry Potter novels. However, the portrayal of Snape as a paragon of unrequited, pure (i.e. Platonic) love might have been a step too far in rehabilitating his image. Ms. Asher-Perrin pulls pieces of evidence from the novels to show that Snape is selfish and childish, both in his conception of love and the way he deals with students, including Harry Potter. I thought point was well made, has relevance to the real world, and is accessible to fandom but also to casual readers. The act of discussing the character of Snape demonstrates why reading, even fiction, matters.

Buy this book. Please.

Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman collaborated on this anthology (Mr. Mazari told the stories to Mr. Hillman, who then reshaped and crafted them into The Honey Thief, and then confirmed by Mr. Mazari that the book is faithful to his words, motifs, and themes.) In the process, they created a work of simplicity, beauty and great emotional power. This book is the embodiment of a romance and a deep love for Afghanistan that Mr. Mazari possesses. This book is also a testament to the power of Mr. Hillman, in which he  captured the words and beauty that Mr. Mazari imparted to him.

The book is a collection of short and medium length stories (frankly, they were all too short – I truly wanted each to last), threaded by some common characters. The main character is the story teller, whom we do not encounter in the stories, but whose voice we hear. And hear I did; I was entranced from the first sentence. I could imagine myself in the towns, fields, and mountains that Mr. Mazari speaks of, in the afternoon, passing time while tending to a flock of sheep or taking respite from farming.

The stories unfold like parables, with the elegance and directness of a child’s bedtime stories, all the while describing the  horrors and atrocities of inflicted on Afghans as they take part in civil wars and in wars to repel invaders. Mr. Mazari is of the Hazara, what we would dryly describe as an ethnic and religious (they are generally Shiite Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country) minority living in Afghanistan. They have different physiognomy, possessing Asian features that set them apart.

Despite the violence and darkness encountered in these stories, what shines through is resilience. Part of that is the adaptability of humans; I mean, circumstances are dire, but if all you know is what’s around you, and you need to work to subsist, let alone thrive, then it might provide enough motive to just slog through. I am not saying this is desirable; in the worse case, this is fatalistic and nihilistic… work just to survive with no measure of joy or dignity. But in the best case, and what Mr. Mazari emphasizes, is simply that one must move on, bide time, and then take advantage of the bits of happiness that one encounters.

We see this in the stories that Mr. Mazari tells. These are not traditional Afghan tales, but ones concocted by him. The tales are woven with bits of history; even in the stories where atrocities are featured prominently, he never lets that overwhelm his characters. So I think that it was effective in sketching the backdrop against which his people act, rather than his characters serving as the window dressing on Mr. Mazari’s airing centuries old grievances. In other words, the story is what matters, and everything else should act to strengthen it.

For the most part, there is much happiness and beauty in these stories, even in those that address the violence suffered by Afghans. My favorite stories are “The Richest Man in Afghanistan”, “The Behsudi Dowry”, “The Snow Leopard”, “The  Music School”, and the two stories about the life and death of Abdul Khaliq (well, that’s about half the stories. I can’t really decide among them, although “The Music School” does have a perfectly phrased ending.)  In each of these, I would argue that rather than showing us an Afghan sensibility, we are shown a very humane way of engagement with the world, one that should appeal to a broad audience. The modern and the old coexist; people, foreign and native, come and go, moving freely and leaving behind stories. The tension is never about the Hazara and the outside world, with Afghans towards foreigners (i.e. invaders). One phrase that popped up in my mind in describing this anthology is “Hemingway-esque”;  grace under fire matters. How well one carries himself is the point; life happens regardless of who you are, the only thing you can control is how you behave.

Through it all, Mr. Mazari’s memorable characters behave with honor and dignity, making decisions that represent those the best of us would make. It is because of this that I say the stories are romantic; there are really no unhappy ends. Sure, terrible things happened to the characters, but that is mostly in the stories’ past. Good behavior does not lead to tragedy. One might say that this removes much needed dramatic depth, but isn’t it just as contrived to see our heroes mired in melodrama, only to come through at the end? After all, not everybody dies. Most people make do.  I choose to think that we are simply hearing some of the tales where people overcome rather than are overwhelmed. 

There is a bit of agility in the way Mr. Mazari constructed the tales; there are equal parts fancy, history, and modernity in them. His tales move freely among different epochs, in a world where supercomputers can coexist with the rhythms of a simple shepherd’s life that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. This is a book for people who see magic in the world, are cognizant of the past, fully immersed in the present, and hopeful for the future. The stories are for people who see and accept the world as is and not wishing for something different; they are for people who are philanthropes, who sees a thread of humanity and dignity binding us all. I must admit, by all rights the book should be angrier. But as Mr. Mazari’s characters might note, what does that leave us? Anger takes from the world; anger wielded against anger is a tragedy made double.

Virgin Soul is Judy Juanita’s first novel; it is, at heart, a conventional coming of age story despite taking place in 1960’s San Francisco and Oakland, during the rise of the Black Panthers. What gives the book its center is that it does feel, to me, more like Judy Blume than Ralph Ellison. This is not meant as a negative. What I mean is that, this novel is not about the larger events, but about a woman coming into her own in this turbulent time. Yes, the heroine becomes involved with the Black Panthers, but this novel is more about her thoughts and struggle to move forward. In this way, Ms. Juanita is able to integrate into the novel a  discussion about the role of revolution and the form of social change.

The story opens with Geniece Hightower entering a 2-year college. She recognizes that it is the best path for her to progress to a 4 year school, in terms of what was available to her and what she can afford. The first part of the book deals with fairly mundane… bourgeois… concerns. The novel is elegant in how it portrays the varying pressures on Geniece; despite the general sense that Geniece is doing the right thing, there’s a fair amount of negativity in the comments her family makes to her. But what carries Geniece through is that she can distinguish between talk and action. She sees enough acquaintances who have tried and failed to move up, and she sees relatives who are actually successful. She later realizes that talk is just that; she understands that’s the type of person her Aunt or grandmother may be. If they are jaded it may be because their experience has taught them to put little faith in the process.

Another aspect of the book that I liked is that it is filled with the details of living. We see Geniece form friendships and think through day to day problems. There’s enough money issues, finding work, making sure she had enough to eat, and juggling school work so that she can attain her prize. It would have been easy to recount the list of injustices that blacks have faced,  but Ms. Juanita chose to approach it from the bottom up. I happen to think that institutional difficulties are easy to dismiss because they are victims of their own generality. It is almost like knowing a story third or fourth hand, where someone knows someone who might have passed by a person who had the problem. Instead, the sum of the novel is a collection of the difficulties that a poor, black person, let alone a woman, would have faced.

The presentation here is masterful; we simply see a woman we grow to like, encounter trouble and soldiering on. Another fine touch is to show that, her most immediate problems stem from people around her, who happen to be her peers and from members of the Panthers.  I think to highlight the massive scale of injustice, perpetrated not even by whites, but by institutions set up by whites, would have detracted from the story of Geniece’s growth and also the power of the novel.

Geniece is a subtle character; she is strong in the least obvious way: she knows herself. In her interactions with  men, she comes as an equal. Her relationship begins as an infatuation, turns into one of mentorship, then into love. She eventually outgrows Allwood. It is with Allwood that Geniece comes to witness the rise of the Black Panthers.

Through  Allwood, we begin to see the complex interaction of bottom up and top down revolutionaries. The characters have it wrong. While the Black Panthers and other such movements are populist, the goal might have been to impose change by cutting off the head of the existing power. Hence revolutionary change. The bottom up way is the change by evolution. Geniece is only one example. Allwood is another. An interesting point in the book is that Allwood eventually  accepts a scholarship to Caltech, leaving the militant brotherhoods behind. It is a focal point for one of these arguments: the revolutionaries want people with guns and the threat of violent upheaval. The threat of societal upheaval is the only way to move the powers that be. Allwood simply states that you can’t replace engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen unless you actually have engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen. The brilliant move here is that Ms. Juanita simply has each party go their separate ways.

For a short time, Geniece sides with the revolutionaries. As many have pointed out, it is amazing how revolutionaries talk of change while always ignoring half of their constituents: the women. Despite all the meetings that Geniece attends, women generally remain in the kitchen and service the men, both as maids and as lovers. Geniece is actually ignored, and in one instance with Allwood, he was all but told to control his woman. Here is where some of the weakness in the story comes through. There’s generally a bit of reworking history so the author can inject herself into significant events via the proxy of Geniece. So we see her sitting in on Black Panther meetings, meeting Huey Newton, hosting Stokely Carmichael, and having Elridge Cleaver complementing her work and installing her as the editor in chief of the Black Panther’s newspaper.  **

** A huge mea culpa. In my research, I found that Ms. Juanita was a member of the Black Panther party, but I missed that she became the editor-in-chief of the Black Panther Intercommunal Newspaper (see comment by arthouseflower. See this interview and this essay by Judy Juanita that  came out after I filed the story and after I left for vacation.) Although I had thought that this “authorial indulgence” was a negative (and I had to look hard to find the one thing that bothered me about the book), it clearly… isn’t. Ms. Juanita had an insider’s perspective on the BPP, and so this segment of the  novel actually carries the power of the autobiography. Let’s be clear, though, I am not confusing this element with an actual work of documented, non-fiction. I am simply recognizing that there is great power in “writing what you know”, and, in this case, what one did.

There are some interesting things to come out of this part of the book. We see the marginalization of women in this revolution. Again, it is because of the idea that war is looming. No thought really is given to a continuation of society, or even what to do once the war is won. The pie in the sky idea is that somehow, everything will continue as before but with more blacks involved.

So we see Geniece come to a nuanced understanding. We see her rage building, but it is telling that Ms. Juanita has her continuing to compile credits. She will finish, but she is torn; it seems like she will conform to the system if she gets her degree. She even exploits the 2% rule, which was in place to allow some flexibility in the allocation of matriculation spots. Why not use this rule to admit black and underprivileged students? So at the same time she is fomenting change quickly, she is also enabling a true bottom up movement. The most obvious point is that, we need a feeder system to create a professional class of blacks. Even if change happens overnight, who will be a proficient doctor when that spot opens up?

To my mind, I think the most significant point is that she spends a lot more time ruminating on what makes for successful social change. Yes,  Ms. Juanita’s makes sharp observations about the  marginalization of women in “revolutions”.  But the strongest indictment of revolution is that the talk and action are easy. Stealing from whites, white gratifying, is in the end stealing. If the point of the revolution is to force whites to understand that blacks are equal and deserving of dignity, destroying their property, stealing from them, and threatening them with violence seems to be a counter message. This seems obvious: pleas for humanity and dignity from a hooligan is ironic to say the least. 

 One final note about Geniece; when she started college, of course she was more concerned with finding friends than with movements. Generally, she falls in with black student societies, all with a liberal bent. Until we arrive at her Junior year and her awakening of social injustice, I did not see rage and anger. At one point, Ms. Juanita has Geniece reflecting on how her anger had caused her to seek out these outlets, and drove her to set a goal of getting a bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure; I really think the first part of the book revealed much of Geniece’s upbringing and development. I would not count anger as the main tone. It is refreshing in that she had a fully formed goal of getting a degree, that her writing heroes were mostly white, and that she really had what we would might describe as a bourgeois/middle class intellectual upbringing. It is this self that meets the revolutionary persona, and the second half of book explores how Geniece reconciles the two. In this sense, it is a classic coming of age story.

There is much to recommend about the novel. However, I think the nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the world is what sets this novel apart.

When an author writes that he will tell you the truth and nothing but the truth, and rather helpfully frames his novel with meta-analytical comments throughout, you know you are in for a time. The only thing I had hope for is that the book is entertaining. Luckily, Ron Currie’s novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is in fact hilarious, dark, and observant of both external appearances and internal motives. I really liked it.

To begin with, though, there were a couple of novelistic ticks that red-lined my BS meter, even before the first chapter. Instead of an epigraph, we have an ironically pretentious discussion of why Currie avoided using a pretentious quote from Nabokov. Well, it’s more a justification for using a quote from the movie Rocky. The main character is named Ron Currie, and shares a similar biography, if not the same one, with the actual author. But why does that detail even matter for fiction? Yes, it’s that type of novel.

Oooh… that sounds bad. Let me start again. I mention the writing because, it’s the type of thing that can turn me off. However, Currie writes with a real brio and panache and makes the book work. The writing is compelling; there are enough chuckles in the beginning to capture the reader.

I thought the book essentially deals with the self-loathing, and if not that, then at least the self-destructive tendencies of the Ron character. The book moves along in a series of vignettes. Each scene offers as much exposition as it does thoughts and discussions. He jumps around in time; we know that he is narrating after the events in the novel. He writes about his time in New York, with his true love Emma, with his island drinking partner Charlotte, and with various island locals. Most importantly, at some point, he found it easier to leave his life behind. He fakes his own death. The novel is an attempt to frame Ron’s life in the context of this act.

The book works a lot like the movie Memento. Everything presented can be described as factual, but the order in which facts are revealed does matter. This is clever of Currie. Each scene or chapter is self-contained. Ron, the character, will tell us his thoughts or his version of events; one can imagine Ron just speaking, in a bar, over some beer or whiskey. He starts with some funny observations, and talks about island time and the locals; he tells us he’s following the love’s errand Emma sent him on; and he portrays his love for Emma as, ultimately, unrequited. In this way, we build up more sympathy for Ron than we otherwise would have. In short, Ron is an alcoholic and an asshole, who was not in a place where he could appreciate the good in his life. He takes more away from the world and the people around him than to add.

It gets much darker than simply gallows humor. Oh, Ron does seem to walk a fine line between being a downer and being outright nihilistic. The most symptomatic of this is that he treats his island housemate and erstwhile lover, Charlotte, badly. Here’s the thing: at some point, I forgot that he was writing about a time when he was in a relationship with Emma. His being on the island isn’t their being “on a break” or anything like that. Emma told him to wait while she finalizes her divorce and tie up loose ends. Sure, it is an overly long separation, but there was no question that she will join his life as soon as she works to close the current chapter. Ron just makes it out as if Emma will bail on him.

When we were introduced to Charlotte, he was more or less setting up Emma as an ice princess, as someone unattainable (more on this later). Emma was the manipulator and instigator, not a bystander or victim. When Ron wound up cohabiting with Charlotte (Ron makes sure to let us know that it’s her doing), it began as a drinking relationship. Due to her efforts, however, he does eventually enjoys her physical charms. His relationship with Charlotte, and its placement in the novel, makes for a fuzzy timeline as to what his precise status with Emma is. That’s a bit of good writing, I think. Random details are a setup, resurfacing later to give the lie to Ron’s story.

The story is structured to show two things: 1) that Ron hates himself, unwilling to invest of himself in order to better avoid being hurt,  and 2) that Ron cannot understand that Emma might need to work things out, independent of where they are in the relationship. To be fair, a lot of this book can be interpreted as either men not understanding women or as a cynical, male commentary on relationships. I see it as something more simple; Ron is self-absorbed, he requires of others that which does not himself offer. He does not want the doubt, the possibility that Emma has her own mind and may in fact choose a life without Ron. It isn’t that she would, but that there is the possibility. He refuses to accept that Emma is not simply a lover, but is an actual autonomous being.

Throughout the novel, Currie name checks Vernor Vinge and the Singularity. I don’t know what the reader’s background is, but it’s a simple take-home idea. At some point, the density of computing power will become so high, and so connected, that it may be able to contain and allow  for alien, superhuman intelligence to arise. Alien because its motives will be distinctly non-human understandable. This intelligence might be some mutated form of simple or weak “artificial intelligence” bots, to engineered, pseudo-intelligent decision-making algorithms. Regardless, it is possible that these programs may behave in a manner that feedbacks positively upon itself, and because of the speed of computational cycles, the generation time is much shortened and algorithmic evolution will be exponential.

True AI will arise, and we won’t know it nor can we stop it: it will process much faster than the human brain can. There are all sorts of attendant mythologies related to what happens when such super intelligences arise, but it is possible that humans will be 1) be unaware, left behind and wither away, or 2) be killed in some machine-engineered apocalypse. Regardless, we will not understand it, because the intelligence is hyper-intelligent and/or alien. There is a line of sci-fi writing that talks of humans transcending, a rapture of the nerds*, if you will, where humans will be able to engage the alien/artificial intelligence by uploading their thoughts into the computational network.

*Charlie Stross has written much about the silliness of the Singularity being a happy event for humans, let alone actually occurring. Stross can’t help but notice and poke at the undertone of the uploading into a mind-hive is actually quite similar to the mythology of a Christian Rapture. See Stross’s blog, here and here.

This is a long way to go to say, that, in the face of such potentially catastrophe for humans, Ron (and Currie, the author), invokes the Singularity as a way for humans to upload into the ether, instantiate as a part of the collective mind, and be able to offer its human life for computational forensics. Perhaps as a case for why humans were superceded by a superior intelligence form. In other words, the dream of Ron may be to be able to consider his relationship with Emma, such as it as, in perpetuity, by his uploaded mind or by the other aspects of the AI. It is a solipsist heaven.

That’s really also the novel’s main motif, I think. Ron is wrapped up with his thoughts and interpretation of events. Sure, perhaps Emma doesn’t help matters when she does also have an emotional distance. In fact, one might argue that she is the female Ron. She too cannot engage on a deep emotional level with Ron, perhaps because she is strongly independent. But I am unsure if we can blame that, as it might be that she realizes Ron isn’t the most reliable type.

This is the weird thing: what level of relationship does Ron need? At some point, it isn’t about the woman, but about Ron. It is his actions, his feelings, his hang-ups, his depression, his alcoholism that interferes with Emma. In the end, she does come to him. They spend time on the island. They are intimate. But he turfs it all, as if he can’t stand the “happily ever after” part, which he knows isn’t simple. He knows that work makes relationships work, not the romance and drama. His is unable to live in this moment, since he knows that the next bit of drama, the next moment, will be a break-up. That’s really the only next movie scene available. He sure as hell can’t enjoy paradise in the arms of a hot woman, forever. I can see it as a pre-emptive strike. Or it could just be his inability to deal. Either way, that’s the bit of ambiguity left for us to mull over; the fact is, motive almost doesn’t matter. He messes up the happy ending.

It’s the usual novel of the human condition, but it’s a really fun read. There’s a great courtroom scene (you didn’t think that faking one’s own death would be painless?) Reading this trial, I can’t help agreeing with Currie that events would unfold precisely in this manner. He also gives a resounding defense of the need for fiction in society; it’s a painless way to engender empathy. It might not sound like it’d fit, but it does.  The magic of the novel is that, although it is funny and dark, Currie treats each separately. It’s not a confused smear; it is comic and deep in equal measure, dosed out at the proper times. Something that Ron can learn from.

 

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