Archive for category Human Society

Two Lives, Very Different


UnknownimagesI’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.

Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.

The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)

These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson.  I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.

And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.

There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.

These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.

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It’s No Mystery

My Latest Page-turner.

My Latest Page-turner

Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.

Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.

One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.

Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.

I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?

China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?

The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?

So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?

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I Know A Place…

I don’t remember the name of every dearly departed restaurant my husband and I used to love going to, but I remember the food, the ambience, and the basic serenity that descends upon one while being waited on and nourished with excellent food. Here is a short list of the departed:

Gandhi

Gustaf Anders

Bangkok 4 and 3

That French restaurant in Tustin

The Iron Squirrel

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The Four Seas

It hurts when a favorite restaurant closes.

I have vivid memories of restaurants visited away from home, in Albuquerque, San Francisco, Brighton, Calais, Paris, St. John Cap-Ferrat, Venice, and Rome.

If restaurants are so important, why don’t we see more of them in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy? When I Googled “Restaurants in Science Fiction,” the results were mostly for Disney, plus an ad for Ruth Chris’ Steak House. I had the same result when I searched for fantasy. Why?

One reason may be related to plot. Restaurants are places to pause, to relax, to have a nice meal…to restore oneself. SF tends to be literature involving action, often in places too remote in time or space to have such amenities. Even is they were available, our characters don’t have time to sit around and restore themselves. And if they do go to a restaurant, someone recognizes Lady Catelyn, and a huge fight breaks out. We never get to see the dessert tray!

Another reason restaurants are thin on the ground, especially in science fiction, is that they may not exist, in the same form, in the future. They might all be automated, with no human wait staff. The food may, indeed, all be printed from machines, sort of like the pellet diet I feed our cockatiels. Or we may end up in the world of The Windup Girl, where Monsanto has taken over the food supply.

An unappetizing thought. And no, I don’t really think it’s going to be that way.

And the more I think about it, the more I can come up with memories of restaurants in SF:

1) A teahouse figures prominently in The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

2) They stop at inns for nice meals in The Hobbit quite a lot.

3) Poppy Z. Brite has a delightful mainstream series–Prime, Liquors, and Soul Kitchen, which are entirely about two chefs and their restaurant, but it is entirely non-SF.

4) And what about The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams?

I guess maybe what I’m looking for here is something a bit different than the above, like a picky eater with a craving she can’t quite define.

Okay, I can define it: It’s the individually owned, sit-down venue with excellent food at slightly expensive but-not-ridiculous prices. The bistro. And it is this exact sort of place I think is in dinosaur mode. It’s much easier not to have wait staff or a lot of square footage devoted to seating. Much better to have most of your sales be take-out. This appears to be a trend. As for food quality, it depends on what is available, affordable, and demanded in various areas of the world. The number of hopeful chefs on TV competitions leads me to believe no one is going to give up cooking any time soon.

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Thoughts During One Of Those Wonderful In-betweens

We are at the end of an interregnum. Halloween is over. The election is over. Thanksgiving is over. Christmas hasn’t yet begun. Not until tomorrow, December 1. It’s the most wonderful time of the year

My husband and daughter both expressed annoyance last weekend, independently of one another, of the hurry of some of our neighbors to put up Christmas decorations. Oh sure, businesses have been doing it for months. My husband called to complain about that months ago when he went to a nearby mall. But regular people? How is anyone in the frame of mind to put up Christmas decorations before they’ve rested up from dealing with Thanksgiving?

During the month of November I heard a few people say that Thanksgiving was their favorite holiday. But I’m not so sure it’s Thanksgiving itself that they like. A couple days ago, the client in the next chair at the hair salon was talking about how she and her husband celebrate Thanksgiving day. In the morning, she picks up a turkey breast and their favorite side dishes from Marie Callenders, which she takes home and pops in the refrigerator. Her husband and she then meet friends at a local hotel restaurant, where they have dinner, and hang out with friends and family for three or four hours. The next day, they open the refrigerator and voila! They have their leftovers.

We have reached the point in our civilization where everyone does pretty much what they want. Many gather in large family groups for big meals, many travel long distances, and many cook big, elaborate meals. Many, however, do not. Some go to restaurants. Some serve at soup kitchens or shelters. Increasingly, more have to work.

Many merely take what they like of the holiday, and leave the rest behind. Yes to leftovers, football, and shopping. No to cooking, cleaning, and dealing with family members.

I can’t help but wonder what Thanksgiving will look like another fifty years in the future. I’m not one hundred percent certain it will survive, sandwiched as it is between the more exciting holidays of Halloween and Christmas. (Perhaps it is turkey-sandwiched? Ha Ha.) And if it does, I believe it will be for those lovely days after Thanksgiving, more than for the holiday itself.

Holidays are meant to be a distraction, a break. They are time off from our mundane routines to be happy, thankful, and contemplate what is holy. “Holy,” not only in the sense of a particular religious tradition, but holy in the sense of what we feel to be most central to our existence.

But any celebration in itself, repeated over time, tends to mutate until it eventually sabotages its original intent. The celebration of the holiday meant to honor the sacred actually becomes harmful to what we care about most. The long weekend tempts retailers–whose bread-on-the-table depends almost entirely on how they do at Christmas–to turn the entire Thanksgiving weekend into a shop-frenzy. Being thankful for the feast turns into just plain old eating. Being with family turns into alcohol-fueled disputes, or football induced sloth. We lose connection with the original meaning, but somehow make new connections, establish new rituals, to find that meaning all over again.

Take this shopping thing: Some families gather together late Thursday or early Friday morning to hit the stores. These are group excursions, strategized like a military operation, hunting for deals with a level of cooperation that would put a pack of wolves to shame. It is, in fact, a family sporting event, no different in its spiritual meaning than those touch football events the Kennedys have at their holiday gatherings. I can easily imagine a future Thanksgiving in which malls will offer all-day events where you can compete in competitive shopping while also getting fed at mall eateries. Maybe it could be a reality show. Are you kidding? It could totally be a reality show. Oh no, now that I’ve said it, someone will steal the idea. No doubt I’ll see it on T.V. for Thanksgiving 2013.

I know that’s where you’ll find my family next year, watching Thanksgiving Wars, or whatever they decide to call it, turkey sandwiches clutched in our paws, mayonnaise dripping from our mouths, renewing the bonds between us by doing nothing at all, and doing it together.

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Next year, we’re inviting these people.

Photo: huffingtonpost.com

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One of the Last Cave-ins Caves In

I had to join Facebook. I couldn’t put it off any longer. My friends I see regularly had to tell me things second-hand that they all already knew, and that made me feel un-hip and out-of-it. Ditto my friends who live far away, only worse. I found I couldn’t comment on online news stories without being on Facebook. Heck, I couldn’t even vote for Next Food Network Star, because I was not on Facebook.

It’s been a week now, and I’m still figuring out how it works. I’ll be figuring out what to do with it (other than vote on Food Network shows) for some time to come.

The question of how to use the technology has become less challenging than why do I want to? I’ve answered the why of Facebook, but now I am led to a deeper how question. Apart from its basic workings, what combination of time spent on the app and use of tools offered by the app will maximize my experience and make a positive difference in my life? I mean, I could spend all day noodling around, looking for people, changing my privacy settings, fretting about my profile picture, etc.

And should a girl who is emotionally incapable of dragging-and-dropping a profile photo onto a page without going through a major dither-fest even undertake to ask such a question?

I can be quite the ditherer. I fret, I weigh, and I have trouble coming to a decision. The world is just too much stimulation for me. I don’t dither about everything, but I dither about enough to throughly complicate my life. I do okay with menus. Menus offer choices, and I can make the choice between, say, chicken and beef. Choices are defined and numbered. Possibilities, on the other hand are vague and limitless, or nearly enough so as to be indistinguishable. Facebook is the most recent new thing in my life offering vague and limitless possibility.

While a choice might be much better, a little better, more-or-less the same, a little worse, or much worse, than an alternative choice, a possibility can always be trumped by something more–more powerful, more elegant, more cool, just plain different. It is nowhere on the spectrum, and has no central position. It is like trying to GPS the Milky Way within the Universe.***

How can I live up to the endless possibilities of Facebook?

I can’t. And when I pull myself up out of my dithering fog, I observe that the people who Just Do It, like the ad says, have more fun. They put on their shoes, and stomp on in. They waste time. They make mistakes. They step on things. They go on. Here I go, blundering in.

I’ll wear these.

***Yes, that is a very nonsensical statement.

Photo: Mine

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Words, Picture, and Music, Part 3

Oh, those old photographs.

  • Faded wedding photos
  • Ridiculous extra copies of professional school and activity photos of our daughter
  • Really bad vacation shots
  • Very unflattering photos
  • Blurry photos
  • Accidental shots of foot or car interior

Somehow I can’t get rid of these either. In the case of the first item, I should take the negatives and get them put on a disk, which I can then upload to my computer. I would see them then. I find looking through photo albums depressing somehow. I can’t bear to do it. Is it a sign of getting old?

And yet I love seeing certain individual photos. One irony of the digital age is that I look at these uploaded photos way more often than I ever looked at them placed in an album or tossed in a shoebox. About four years ago, I began a project of sorting through old snapshots, scanning, and uploading them. A tedious exercise, and sure enough, I ran out of energy for it about 5% of the way through. Nonetheless, I found some treasures. Here’s one:

My dad, and my daughter, 1989.

Every generation needs that photo. Here’s another:

Our grandmother can’t restrain me from attacking my cousin’s face.

The farther back in time we go, the fewer photos we have, and the more precious they become. With lightweight, automatic cameras, we began taking rolls and rolls of snapshots. We were still limited, however, by how much film we had and by how much it would cost to process. Now, we never have to worry about wasting a shot. We take pictures of stuff we might buy at the hardware store. With digital, there is no longer any such thing as “wasting a shot.”

So I keep this:

Um, not exactly in focus.

The story’s good. A few years back we were visited, several years in succession, by a mother bobcat who chose to raise her family near/in our backyard. Above are two of the cubs. But oh, wait…

One of a litter of four. Mostly in focus, soul successfully captured.

So why is the fuzzy photo still in my iPhoto library? Dunno. Maybe I really think the camera does capture the soul. And maybe I think that by discarding a photo of someone, I am murdering his or her spirit? That’s pretty dramatic, and pretty powerful, of me. Also, it doesn’t explain why I still have the accidental shots of car interior or foot, which I choose not to include here.

There may be no easy explanation. Pictures have a hold on us, and that’s just the way it is.

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Goodbye to the Unhappy Housewives

Another Pain of Reading Old Work I’ve discovered is that a shockingly large number of my protagonists are unhappy, verbally and emotionally abused housewives whose reality is melting around them. No one believes them. Everyone (especially the husband) thinks they’re crazy.

On Sunday night’s Mad Men, Don Draper was trying to control his new wife, picking at her, making her feel like garbage, insinuating she was the crazy one. Exactly how he treated Betty when they were married. Remember Don’s late-night phone calls to her psychiatrist to discuss her progress (or lack thereof)? Betty Draper, the crazy housewife.

What many women thought they wanted. Really.

I was a child in 1960, but old enough to notice, observe, and study. I lived through it, and I learned the wrong lessons. I liked the clothes. They were restrictive and artificial, but very cool. The panache, the glamour, even the relative rigidity of the social rules, the Eisenhower placidity of the time, didn’t strike me as artificial. I didn’t think a lot about artificiality vs. authenticity in those days. I looked upon it instead as a dance one needed to learn, and if one learned the steps well, one would be happy.

By a mere half-dozen years later, everything had changed. I don’t know what will happen between Don and Meghan, but I suspect he won’t be dialing up her psychiatrist to consult on her progress. He might want to, but he will no longer be allowed to.

This highlights an important difference between my protagonists and Don’s wives; his “act up,” but mine are shockingly passive. Victims. I read them and want to scream. Worse, I read them, and am bored with them.

I’m not certain why I fixated on this sort of situation. In real life, I went through and benefitted from the sexual revolution like everyone else. I have not shared the situation of these characters. I have certainly listened to other women talk of their situations, and have been outraged. I am aware that even a highly intelligent, outwardly successful woman can be shockingly passive when it comes to protecting herself from abuse from a loved one. I consider the very real lives of women today in countries where a abuse is codified into law and custom, and am horrified. Because I write SF & F, I crafted housewive’s stories into dark fantasy short stories. The horror of them comes as much from within as from without. I avoided depicting physical abuse; none of my characters’ husbands would hit them or kill them, but oh, could they be mean-mouthed and stupid as turnips!

My short stories of mad and unhappy housewives are well-written and authentic, if a bit repetitive. I could have written half as many and done the job. I acknowledge them, but to remain any longer with them would be to wallow. I have lost sympathy with them. I must move on.

I will not reprint these stories. Nor will I be writing an unhappy, reality-is-melting-and-my-husband-doesn’t-believe-me housewife protagonist in any future work. I say goodbye to all those poor, sorry, fictional women, and leave with some advice: Get out of the house once in a while. Do something. Stop isolating. Ask for help. Call Dr. Phil if necessary. Or Ghosthunters. Whatever. This is not the Middle Ages. As your author, I hereby set you free!

Photo: Flickr.com

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