Magic Color

Terry Pratchett was known for his quirky, funny writing.  I’ve only ever read his collaboration with Neil Gaiman before, Good Omens.  I’d heard of Pratchett’s Discworld series and I decided to give his first novel in the series, The Color of Magic, a try.  There can be little doubt that Pratchett was a clever writer with great turns of phrase and imaginative plots.  Something I’m discovering about myself, however, is that fantasy as a genre isn’t working well.  I suppose a case could be made for calling Discworld science fiction, but the world-building seems definitively fantasy—warriors, dragons, supernatural beings—the whole lot.  The story is well told and the writing’s great.  It just didn’t grab me as I hoped it might.

Having said that, one thing I noticed was that Pratchett realized something I’ve written about many times before—if you’re going to do world-building incorporating religion makes it believable.  There are gods here, often distant and mainly unconcerned with human beings (and various other beings), but clearly part of the diegesis.  And, of course, magic.  Maybe that’s the part of fantasy that I find disconcerting.  I read through the Harry Potter series, and although it was funny in parts, it was mostly played straight.  Was it fantasy?  I’ve been writing quite a lot about genre lately, and I’m beginning to run up against its limitations.  Discworld is clearly a fantasy environment. Rincewind and Twoflower are great characters, and so is the luggage (if you haven’t read it yet, let that be an enticement).

I ran into the same sense of disbelief recently with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and there’s little doubt that it’s science fiction.  Maybe as I’m aging I’m getting more and more mired in this familiar, if not tired, world in which I find myself. Horror, however, retains its fascination.  The Color of Magic follows the hapless wizard Rincewind and how his life changed forever after he met the tourist (a rarity on Discworld), Twoflower.  Together they face and overcome (with sometimes a little deus ex machina) obstacles of others with agendas that simply don’t accept misfits.  The literally cliff-hanging ending does encourage the reader on to book two and the characters won’t soon be leaving my mind.  It’s just with fantasy too much seems possible.  Anything can happen and it’s almost a matching of wits with the writer.  Not that that’s bad, but maybe it just isn’t the escapism I tend to think fantasy is intended to be.


Is It Thursday?

Jasper Fforde is an author I discovered because of a friend’s recommendation.  One of the more literate of fiction writers, he is clever and funny, but also difficult to find in many bookstores.  (Believe it or not, some of us prefer to shop in actual bookstores.)  I tend to pick his books up when I find them, whether used or new, and wait until I have time to indulge in a good book.  Well, I seldom have time to indulge, so I decided to go ahead and read Lost in a Good Book.  Now, this involves some mental gymnastics on my part.  Part of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, this is actually the second book after The Eyre Affair—not his first book that I read, but the first of this series I had.

I tend to find used copies of Fforde in certain used bookstores, and so my collection has grown through the years.  I’ve read four of the first seven novels in this series, but in this order: one, seven, six, and two.  Each is understandable on its own, but it occurs to me after finishing the second in the series that things might make better sense if read in order.  The good news is that the next one I have to find should fall in order after this one. Unless it’s one of the others.  That’s the nature of finding things in secondhand stores.  It’s not that I object to buying books new—do you even know me at all?—but that I have some authors that I can find in used stores from time to time and I read them when I do.  Fforde is one of them.

How I find the books probably impacts how I engage with them.  Perhaps because they’re funny I don’t consider the implications too seriously if things don’t always make sense.  I can see myself, if I ever get more time, coming back to the series.  Then I’ll do so in order.  The real pity is that I don’t have time to read all the books by authors I enjoy.  Nor all the money.  Libraries in small towns tend to have collections that reflect local tastes, and besides, I like to come back to my books at my own time, without having to wait for inter-library loan and somebody else finishing it up before I can get ahold of it.  All of which is to say I enjoyed Lost in a Good Book very much.  Thursday Next is a compelling character, and it’s always a pleasure to read an author who, like you, clearly reads a lot of classics.


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.


Pagan Perspective

“I would live in a world of Christ-like humans, but not one full of Christians.”  So Kate Horsley’s protagonist Gwynneve writes in Confessions of a Pagan Nun.  This novel is an attempt to envision what life would’ve been like for a woman in medieval Ireland when Christianity came to the land.  Gwynneve is a spiritual seeker who comes to be a nun when it’s clear that this new religion has taken over the old ways.  Learning to write, she transcribes her story after hours in her clochan, or cell.  She recognizes that Christianity has brought good things to Ireland, but at a high cost.  The disparity between rich and poor increases, women are denigrated so that men can run things, and the land is ravaged for the benefit of their new way of living.

The novelty of the idea caught my attention when a friend pointed the book out to me.  I was a bit surprised to see that Shambhala, generally a nonfiction Buddhist press, had published the novel.  Since this is a story designed to make the reader think—it is contemplative, as a story from the point of view of a nun would likely be—the choice of publisher makes sense.  While it’s not likely that a book published there would make the New York Times bestseller list, as an erstwhile writer myself I can attest that novels outside the usual pale have great difficulty in getting mainstream publishers interested.  This too is a matter for contemplation.

One of the main themes of the story seems to be how a worshipper of the goddess Brigit has to become a devotee of St. Brigit when the church made the gods into saints.  This is something that happened historically as well as in novels.  Aware that it was easier to persuade individuals to convert to a new religion if they didn’t have to give up their gods, this seemed a small accommodation to make.  Horsley is not wrong, however, in pointing out that Christianity was not a free ride.  More than a religion, it was (and is) a powerful means for social control.  The vision it offers tends to benefit men over women, the wealthy over the poor, the powerful over the weak.  Despite what the Bible emphasizes, religion has its own conversion experience when it tastes power.  Confessions of a Pagan Nun is a story intended to shift perspectives.  The open reader will learn from contemplating its message.


Post-Literate?

Who would’ve thought that publishing could be a scary industry in which to work?  Apart from the constant changes, that is.  Or maybe the changes are the reason it’s scary.  Our society has never been through a revolution quite like the tech revolution.  Yes, writing was pretty radical when it was invented, but it took millennia before literacy got to the point where it created widespread change.  Tech changes everything, and it does so very quickly.  Writing changes everything, but does so over the longue durée.  It began in a pretty humble way.  Crude drawings, called pictographs, came to represent things that mattered to pre-capitalists.  Take an ox head, for example.  It could represent the entire animal.  While some pictographs can be discerned in cuneiform (just as they can in some Chinese characters), the best example is perhaps Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Photo credit:: Jon Bodsworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether wedge-headed oxen or beautifully stylized hieroglyphs, both writing styles came to be representative for phonemes.  Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing tended to be syllabic rather than strictly alphabetic, and indeed, the invention of the alphabet made learning to write simpler.  Even after this innovation, however, it still took over a millennium before its practice became widespread.  Writing meant that ideas could be preserved beyond a lifetime.  Instructions and history could be recorded.  When a mistake was known and noted, remaking that error could be avoided.  (This seems to be a feature that has been lost to history, judging by recent fascist political parties.)  One of the great advantages to writing is the precision with which ideas could be expressed and preserved.

So how does this make publishing scary?  Some analysts are now claiming we are in a “post-literary” society.  Reading is no longer necessary.  We download visual content to gain the information we need.  When ideas need to be expressed in writing, we have emojis.  What happens, however, to synonyms when emojis take over?  Our humble ox head that eventually morphed into the capital A may now be represented by a stylized cow.  Or is it a bovine?  What does that cow image convey?  Books—novelties at the moment—are being written with emojis.  Learning to read is difficult.  It takes years and changes our brains.  Technology is encouraging us to become post-literate.  Even blogs are now becoming outdated.  Yet, looking at those emojis we see the history of writing moving in reverse.  From the precision of clear and accurate description to vague notions that look cool but leave us guessing otherwise.  Perhaps those ancient scribes scratching sketches into clay had it right to begin with.


Fragility

Who doesn’t like a play?  Since I’ve been reading many lengthy novels this year I like to intersperse them with some shorter pieces of literature.  Many of us are assigned plays in high school English class.  For those of us from non-literary families, these may be the only plays we’ll encounter in our youth.  Shakespeare and Arthur Miller ran the entire gambit for my high school career, but I’ve done some exploring on my own since then.  I’d heard quite a bit about Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie over the years, but I’d never read it.  I found a used copy at a book sale and so my excuse for not reading it was at an end.  Unlike when I read A Streetcar Named Desire, I really had no idea what to expect.  Dysfunction, it seems, spurs creativity.

I suspect the play is well enough known that my musings about its symbolism and impact wouldn’t add much to the discussion.  (Besides, I suspect few English teachers read this blog.)  My particular edition, however, comes with the essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” written by Williams after he found fame.  It reminded me a bit of a speech Ursula K. Le Guin gave late in her career, after receiving an award.  Both writers note that money drives far too much of what we consider creativity.  Williams notes in his essay that success leads to pampering and pampering is good for no one.  His description of staying in a hotel is a familiar one—poorly paid employees treat paying guests as if they were wealthy, cleaning up after them and tidying other people’s messes.

As many critics have noted, Williams grew up in a dysfunctional family and drew heavily on that for his fiction.  Another aspect, perhaps related to that, was the sense of pressure on his writing.  In his essay he mentions that writing grew more difficult when life was easy.  I often think about this myself.  My fiction suffered a bit when the pressure of the daily commute to New York ceased.  I had to catch an early bus and I was determined to get some writing done every day.  That was the origin of what now seems to be my permanent early wakefulness.  That pressure of knowing I had a very limited amount of time before I had to be showered, dressed, and at the bus stop, led to a tremendously creative output.  I see from my limited experience of reading Williams that I still have much to learn from those whose experience has become a lesson.


Kafkaesque

Although it’s a bit early—it’s never really too early—I just finished a banned book.  One of the main reasons I do annual book challenges is to help keep myself well rounded.  The categories often include books I might not otherwise read, although banned books are among those toward which I gravitate.  Lists of banned books are quite long, and so the choices are many.  I read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore for this particular category this time around.  As the name Kafka in the title implies, there will be some surrealism here.  It was banned, as many books are, because of the sexual elements.  Anyone who made it through their teenage years without having struggled with that, however, is truly fiction.

Kafka is, in this instance, a fifteen-year-old Japanese boy running away from home.  On his journey, interlaced with that of an older, disabled man, he begins to discover what it is to grow up.  A number of unexpected things happen along the way, and pretty soon you’re not able to tell which world you’re really in.  The story refuses to be tied down to the ordinary.  The writing draws you in, however, and reminds the reader that being a teenager is indeed a liminal state.  Almost larval, to use a Kafka metaphor.  And yes, the metaphor is extremely heavy here.  There’s no denying two worlds bleed into each other as the story progresses.  Becoming an adult, it seems, involves having to make difficult choices.

Woven in with the base story is the Oedipus myth.  American cultural figures also appear.  Questions are raised but never really answered.  I’m not sure that I was fully ready for the mind-bending nature of the narrative.  Especially in these days when it’s considered okay, with a badly distorted moral compass, to hate those who are different, it’s important to read books like this.  There are characters you simply can’t figure out.  There are situations that seem unlikely, but that match some of the inherent strangeness of life itself.  I’m trying hard not to give away spoilers here, but this is a profound book.  I can’t tell if it was written for teenage readers or not—there’s clearly a lot of life experience behind it, and we were all teens at one time.  It was banned for being honest about sexuality, but perhaps, as is the case with most, if not all banned books, the real problem is that it’s simply too honest about being human.


Feeling Bookish

It does my soul good to attend a used book sale.  I recently attended one while on a visit to Ithaca.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  Even though it was May, it was quite cold and rainy, and due to the limited number of people permitted in the space, there was a line that took about half an hour to endure.  This did not deter people and it was this that most lifted my spirits—these people were devoted to books.  At times when the media gets me down, informing me that book culture is dying and that all people want are their devices and their distractions, seeing proof of the love of books is restorative.  The used book sale is a place of discovery.

Although it’s easy to nip over to Amazon (or better, Bookshop.org) and order your book, especially during a pandemic, there are things you only find by being where the books are.  I keep an extensive reading list with me.  Before I go into a sale venue I promise myself I’ll stick to my list.  But what a facile promise it turns out to be—how can you make such a vow without knowing what you might find?  Books you’ve never seen or imagined before?  That’s the discovery aspect that sweetens the in-person experience.  And although I still find crowds scary, I tend to trust people who like books.  Besides, the books I tend to read aren’t always in the most popular sections.

The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library book sale has a dedicated building with permanent shelving.  While wandering is fine, maps are also available.  I’m occasionally ribbed for having too many books.  One of the reasons I dread any move is knowing the movers’ inevitable comments about the fact.  People who love books are made to feel somehow inferior for it.  Fans of Kindle or other such readers extol the virtues of having lots of books that take up no space.  Such books, however, are limited to those converted to electronic form.  The many thousands of books published before the invention of the ebook, many of them out of print and mostly forgotten, can only be found in libraries, used bookstores, and sales like this.  (Google books hasn’t found everything yet.)  It was cold and rainy outside.  In here there were silent companions that speak loudly.  Books, as my daughter said, are like snacks for the mind.  And sometimes you just don’t know what you’re in the mood for until you go to the kitchen and browse.  It can warm your soul.


Dark and Light

I perhaps have nothing new to say about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  It was published before I was ten, and although I grew up reading science fiction I really didn’t read any of Le Guin’s work until this year.  It wasn’t intentional—in a small town you read what you can get your hands on, and cover art designed to attract young boys often worked on me.  Now having read it, I’m left in a reflective mood.  Everyone, of course, comments on the gender aspect of the novel.  I guess I’ll be forgiven for doing so as well.  After all, it is the most striking feature of the story.  As we know from our lives on earth, gender affects pretty much everything about our lives.  The biological imperative is strong.  It’s no less strong in Left Hand of Darkness, but it is different.

In case you’re like me and haven’t read it (until now), it’s not a spoiler to indicate that it is the story of a male envoy to a planet where the people (and only large mammals) are genderless until once a month they enter “kemmering” when one becomes temporarily male and another temporarily female.  The genders aren’t fixed, but fluid.  Since the kemmering stage comes only once a month, during that time it become an urgent need among those experiencing it.  The novel isn’t about only that, of course, but it is the noteworthy feature that relates to the religion and daily life of the inhabitants of the planet Winter.

It might seem that this idea of shifting genders is itself science fiction, but it is not.  There are species on earth that change change gender, bringing into question the statement taken for universal that “male and female he made them.”  While gender seems to be evolution’s solution of choice for reproduction, that’s not universal either.  In other words, nature provides us with multiple ways in which plants, animals, and things in-between, can continue their existence on this planet.  The writers of the Bible weren’t great observers of nature, nor were they scientifically minded.  At a glance it looks like animals all conform to the model presented by Genesis.  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  Religions aren’t always as comfortable with complexity as writers of science fiction tend to be.  Left Hand of Darkness is fine world-building and provocative at that.  This may be nothing new, but it is worth pondering again.


Literary Life

Trying to live a literary life is, I suppose, irresponsible.  Especially if your efforts and writing bring basically no money.  It takes considerable effort to make daily time to read and write, and so much else remains to be done.  At times I feel guilty for trying.  My books have all been published, for various reasons, with academic publishers.  Academic publishers don’t try to sell many copies of an individual book, relying as they do on the long tail philosophy.  Most academics have good paying jobs that expect research and writing in return.  For the outsider, however, there are other pressing matters.  The nine-to-five being the largest among them.  And any social organizations you join to keep you sane and connected.  Then there’s social media to take your time.  And the lawn’s ready for mowing.

I’ve always believed lack of time was (is) a theological problem.  I came up with that when I was an academic and had time to ponder such things.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I did research and write.  Now I want to move into that world where you might earn a little from all the effort.  And yet, that old Protestant guilt has a way of getting its talons around you.  You’re reading?  Shouldn’t you be doing those minor repairs you can handle without a contractor?  (Or at least think you can handle?)  Or maybe shouldn’t you be looking for a job that pays enough to hire someone to do such things?  And don’t you dare let that word “retirement” anywhere near your head.  What are you, irresponsible?

Reading takes commitment.  I try to read, on average, at least a book a week.  It requires a lot of time.  And a literary life includes giving back.  You want to share your writing with the world.  Hoping that either your fiction or nonfiction might eventually bring you some notice.  That’s the plan anyway.  The starving artist paradigm doesn’t feel so comfortable when you’ve got a mortgage.  Still, the imagination refuses to be tamed.  I’ve often said I could be content on a desert island as long as I had a huge stack of paper and never-ending supply of pens.  But that’s not the reality I inhabit.  That mortgage pays for a roof over my books and writing computer, always complaining it’s full.  It may not be glamorous.  In fact, it’s about the exact opposite of that.  But it is, after all, a literary life.


Creepy Houses

Definitions, I’m learning, are often a matter of one’s experience and taste.  I’ve read a lot of gothic novels and have tried to pinpoint what it is that creates a gothic feel for me.  I say “for me” because other people sometimes suggest works that I would put into a different category.  In any case, it’s clear that The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a gothic novel by any measure.  A large, isolated house.  A tainted family slowly fading away.  A remorseless, 400-page winter.  Inevitable decay.  The story is ambiguous and moody as Dr. Faraday, the narrator, falls in love with Caroline Ayres, the only daughter of an aristocratic family in decline.  The house may be haunted.  Or the family may be breaking down mentally.  Like The Turn of the Screw, it’s up to the reader to decide.

My preferred gothic has elements of the supernatural in it.  Melancholy without existential threat isn’t really enough to tip the scale for me.  The Little Stranger has enough of both to keep the reader guessing right up to the end.  Reader-response theory—the underlying basis for what’s being called “reception history”—posits that the reader assigns meaning.  The author has her idea of what happened in mind, but the reader contributes their own understanding.  This idea has influenced my own writing.  Once a piece is published the readers will make of it what they will.  In this way I can read Little Stranger as a haunted house story.  Although it was made into a movie I have to confess that I only heard of the novel recently while searching for gothic novels I might’ve missed.

The ambiguity fits the ambiguity of life.  The same circumstances can be interpreted by one person as entirely natural while another will add a super prefix.  No one person has all the answers and reality can be a matter of interpretation.  In that way Sarah Waters’ art follows life.  Interestingly, religion plays very little role in the story.  Church, when it appears, is perfunctory.  The source of tension here is on a rational, medical interpretation of events versus the gloomy lived experience of the Ayres family.  They believe themselves haunted and the scientific answers have difficulty convincing readers that there’s nothing more going on.  This is a gothic novel with a capital G.  Nevertheless, the debased cleric would have been welcome, but you can’t have everything.


Rabbit Years

A childhood horror movie that I only recall in the most wispy of fringe memories is Night of the Lepus.  It’s one of those monster movies that involves mutated animals, in this case the unexpected rabbit.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but a little research indicated that it was based on the Russell Braddon novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit.  This book is out of print and still under copyright, so finding a copy wasn’t easy.  Apart from vague images of giant rabbits, I had no idea what to expect.  The book turned out to be a comedy horror, in that order.  Remembering that the movie wasn’t funny (although it is consistently considered one of the worst cinematic efforts of the time), I wasn’t prepared for this.

You see, I don’t like to read about books before I read them.  I don’t read cover copy.  (I tend not to watch movie trailers either, unless it can’t be helped, like when you’re in a theater.)  I suppose knowing a genre of a book helps, but I just wanted the experience of reading the story behind a movie that won’t completely vacate my memory cells.  The Year of the Angry Rabbit is a satire on government, war, and capitalism.  If you’re not expecting a serious horror story it’s quite funny.  Russell Braddon never became a household name—he was from Australia and a person’s cultural impact tends to be greatest on their own continent—but if you knew this was a satire from the start you’d probably enjoy it as such.  Although written in the sixties, it’s climax takes place at the millennium, now two decades past.  It’s always interesting to see what people thought we might be up to by now.

Although there are elements of humor to our politics, Orwell seems to have been more on the money than Braddon.  Nevertheless it’s important to keep the old stories alive.  There are still people like me who will seek out rather obscure novels from many decades ago.  They might have to have sat on library shelves for years without having been checked out—this used to be the glory of the library, before “evidence-based usage” studies ruined them.  I search for things I want to read in my local small town library and find that my tastes are too obscure.  Besides, old stuff has to be cleared out to make room for the more recent books hoi polloi wish to consume.  I’m glad they’re still reading.  For me, however, I’ll need to stretch back to a time before I was old enough to read to satisfy an unrelenting memory. It was rabbit years ago.


Visualizing Twilight

Graphic novels still feel like cheating.  That childhood message that comic books “aren’t really reading” has proven difficult to dislodge.  That, and the fear that we are entering a post-literary world, keep me from reading many of them.  Koren Shadmi’s The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, however, caught my attention right away.  Like many other people my age, my thinking was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone.  As a kid, television had a kind of authority to it.  This is what adults were feeding us.  Although I was hardly intellectual then, I thought deeply about things and one of those things was The Twilight Zone.  The episodes were profound.  The twist endings certainly were among the best on the tube.  Shadmi’s graphic novel of Rod Serling’s life is a tribute to the influence the man had.

For a graphic treatment, The Twilight Man is strangely affective (yes, that’s spelled correctly).  I tend to shy away from hagiographies, and Shadmi’s treatment isn’t one.  It does illustrate, however, how Serling fought against a commercialism that would eventually win out.  Those who control the money control what we see.  Granted, the democratizing influence of the internet has let competition arise from unseen quarters—there are young people who watch YouTube to the exclusion of television altogether—but few shows manage the impact that The Twilight Zone had when there were only essentially three large networks.  Now we have so many choices that cultural reference points are rare.  Those who’ve never seen it, at least for the time being, know what The Twilight Zone is.

This book is biographical, based on published biographies.  There’s something about knowing, however, that the episodes actually happened.  Being in combat (as Serling was) puts some people into their own kind of limbo.  At least one person in my own family was irrevocably changed by fighting in a war.  The remarkable thing is that Serling came out of it wanting justice for all people. The book even points out that he became a Unitarian, although it doesn’t dwell on that point.  Some things, such as spiritual insights, are difficult to illustrate I suppose.  I can  see why Shadmi’s tribute receives good press.  Graphic novels are a means of telling a story that moves people.  I re-learn this each time I read one, which is something I rarely do.  Now that I’m starting to explore this genre I’m perhaps learning to address my own prejudices.  As long as there are still words to read.


Story Over

Despite my penchant for speculative fiction I tend to read a lot of what’s usually categorized as literary fiction.  These tales don’t fit into any genre and are often colored with realism.  More than one person had recommend Richard Powers’ The Overstory, not least the Pulitzer Prize committee.  In the style of novels these days it’s pretty long and that meant I had to build up the courage (and time) to get to it.  I support the environment.  I have a great respect for trees and try to support conservation any way I can.  The Overstory is, however, a bleak vision of what we’re doing to the planet and to other living beings.  It certainly helps to have read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees first.  It helps to know the main premise of the novel is based on non-fiction.  There may be spoilers below.

The first part of the book, Roots, introduces us to the various characters—most of whom will interact in the remaining pages.  Most of them are marked by tragedy in their lives and come to realize the longevity of trees has a perspective that can make sense of what, to our lifespans, seems inexplicable.  Several, but not all, of them end up in a conservation group trying to defend old growth redwoods from the insatiable greed of lumber companies and politicians.  The novel ends happily for none of them.  Trees, however, have the ability to outlive us.  While we cause real damage, they have the ability to regenerate, but in ways that none of us will live to see.  Trees see beyond the short, tragic lives we lead, into what may be a more hopeful future.

The other sections of the book, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, follow events chronologically as the people age.  Some notable deaths among the group have a great impact on the small coterie of those protecting trees.  An unfeeling state and the corporate nature of laws are clearly on display.  They serve the will of those who can’t, or won’t, think differently about the world and our place in it.  Although the novel doesn’t ever cite the source, one of the eco-heroes finds a verse from Job to be of tremendous consolation: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”  I was glad to see the connection made, but the book left me emotionally exhausted.  With speculative fiction at least you can escape the real problems of this world for awhile.


Old Wolves

Among the classic monsters, the werewolf seems to suffer from lack of a foundational novel.  Yes, vampires are older than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and antecedents can be suggested for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but there isn’t a werewolf novel of similar stature.  Daniel Ogden, however, does us a service by providing an extended discussion of, as his title states, The Werewolf in the Ancient World.  His survey is intriguing and informative, and also insightful.  The werewolf is not always what it might seem.  Ogden is an able guide through sources from antiquity through some medieval tales, focusing mainly on the ancient ones.  He extensively explores their associations—witches, sorcerers, ghosts, and the like.  And related tales of human transformation.  He even suggests what some of those transformations may have been seeking.

The werewolf is perhaps the most obvious monster that expresses repressed desire for transformation—a kind of salvation.  Civilization comes with a cost and the werewolf is symbolic of the individual driven by animal desire, unrestrained by human convention.  It’s also an idea of great antiquity.  Although Ogden doesn’t go into it, stories of humans turned into wolves goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest pieces of literature we have in fairly complete form.  The idea is attested in writers such as Plato and Augustine, if only to refute it.  In other words, it is clearly something people have thought possible from very early times.  Our long association with the wolf, and its domesticated version—the dog—certainly plays a psychological role in such tales.

As Ogden points out, Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, published in 1933, is perhaps as close as we come to a foundational novel.  In the Universal monsters series that developed a canon for monster boomers, The Wolf Man was a somewhat late entry, appearing in 1941—a decade later than Dracula and Frankenstein.  Despite these tardy cultural appearances, the werewolf has been part of our collective psyche far longer.  Ogden shows that clearly.  When you stop to rethink stories like Little Red Riding Hood, the talking, humanized wolf appears so naturally that we don’t often stop to consider the implications.  I certainly hadn’t made the connection explicitly until reading it here.  Ogden’s work is readable but academic, so be prepared for citations and some technical talk.  Nevertheless, this is the clearest guide to lycanthropy and the magical ideas behind it from ancient times to have appeared in recent years.