Frozen Streams

I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.  Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.  I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.  My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.  Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.  It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.  Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.  Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.

Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.  This was saddening.  Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.  I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.  Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?  At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.  Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.  I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.  I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.  It was just too depressing to stay there.  I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.

Or so I thought.  I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.  I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.  (I suppose I was, in a sense.)  I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.  My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.  I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.  (I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)  I wondered how street people do it.  Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.  I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.  I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.

Trolls and Tolls

Fall creeps up on me every year.  I like to have an array of seasonal books to read so that when it arrives I’ll be ready.  With house repair costs this year I’ve had to curtail book buying.  That, and most of the titles on my to-read list are used books that seem to have become extortionately expensive since the 1970s.  In any case Cherie Priest’s The Toll stood face out on the shelves of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca and it caught my attention.  Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, this unsettling novel brings the reader into the liminal space of the dying small town.  There’s a bit of magic in Staywater, although everyone who lives there knows it hasn’t got long before it goes altogether.  And every thirteen years a monster comes.

Priest knows not to describe the nameless creature too clearly.  The monster seen in broad daylight can quickly lose its patina of fear.  This is some kind of supernatural swamp beast and everyone local seems to know it’s picking them off.  The outside authorities, however, pay no attention to small towns that have “nothing to offer” to the greater economy.  That aspect resonated with me as the erstwhile denizen of a community of less than a thousand.  I watched the dissolving of my adoptive hometown as the tax-base shrank to the point that they could no longer afford to pave the streets and decided to go back to gravel.  Once the oil refinery—what gave the town “value”—closed, outside interest disappeared.  Ah, but I digress from fiction.

The Tool is a moody novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s backstory here that remains untold.  Two of the protagonists are elderly female cousins who are comfortable with the spiritual world.  They are the past saviors of this little town in the swamp.  The other characters have all come to an uneasy peace with their periodic tormentor and they have nowhere else to go.  When the monster strikes against unwary outsiders the locals don’t welcome outside attention.  Those acquainted with small communities know that’s what life is like.  Attention brings cash, but often unwelcome change as well.  One of the more haunting aspects of this novel is the number of threads left dangling in the wind.  Not everything is resolved, and life goes on much as it always has, without or without the monster.  A moody read, this ghost story has, it is clear, a deeper message.

False Memory

One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories.  Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable.  In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact.  Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions.  Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable.  Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much.  Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life.  I think.

First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.  I soon discovered why they stocked it.  Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca.  The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding.  With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less.  He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him.  The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.

Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood.  I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not.  Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago.  Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween.  Was it a reliable memory?  I have no way to judge, I guess.  And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.

Making Lovecraft

Perhaps it’s all just coincidence, but once in a while a number of unexpected things come together. Since I do a lot of reading this often happens in the context of books. The current case begins with my first noticing Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I saw a review online, and since I enjoy contemporary novels that build on the worlds created by H. P., I added it to my reading list. The first coincidental aspect of it was that I found in Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. Like most independent bookstores, it’s not huge, so the selection of books that cater to my odd tastes is always adventitious. I found it on the staff recommendation shelf and recalled that it was on my reading list. A second coincidence came in finding Neal Stephenson’s name under a cover blurb. My brother-in-law’s name is enough to get a book onto the bestseller’s lists, but I had no idea this kind of book would be to his tastes as well.

I began reading it right away. The third happenstance is that Ruff crafted a biblically literate story here. In a day when those of us associated with the Bible are definitively passé, it is nice to see popular fiction fighting back a little bit. Not that Ruff is advocating or proselytizing, but his finely tuned story is definitely enhanced with a bit of biblical knowledge. He’s unapologetic about it. In our religion-critical outlook these days we sometimes forget that the Bible has several stories that maintain, and even reward, contemporary interest. The most obvious example in Lovecraft Country is the story of Cain. There are plenty of others that can be dug out as well, and Ruff even leaves some on the surface so that they aren’t hard to find. Not that this is a religious book. It’s just not afraid of religion.

Some may find that odd in a homage to the noted atheist Lovecraft. What they may not see is that the master himself used religion from time to time in his tales of horror. Also, for those who are willing to be honest, we know that an unsavory racism resided in Lovecraft’s outlook. Ruff, like other writers who see the positive side of this author’s work, tells a story of African-American struggles in the “idyllic” 1950s. The protagonists, dropped into a world of real Lovecraftian magic—and in a very self-aware way—are all a close-knit black family and their friends. Which led to another coincidence. Quite unconnectedly, I’d been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This plays an important part in the story as well. Sometimes reading itself can lead to a cascading set of coincidences. Lovecraft Country is one instance where it happened, but that may just be my unusual taste in books.