"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Consider 'The Movement of Stars'

The Movement of StarsThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While living in the constrictive Quaker society of 19th Century Nantucket, Hannah Price dreams of discovering a comet. This feat would make her a professional astronomer. So goes the premise to Amy Brill’s first novel: The Movement of Stars. Yet this book is not about astronomy. Rather, it focuses on a gifted protagonist struggling to avoid pitfalls that would leave her ordinary.

Hannah’s increasing attraction to a dark-skinned sailor named Isaac Martin quickly becomes the novel’s primary source of suspense, overtaking Hannah’s observations of the night sky. They meet when Hannah agrees to teach him navigation, which in the 19th century required astronomy. The inevitable social tension generated by their association threatens to foil both Hannah and Isaac’s worthy professional ambitions.

19th Century gender and racial dynamics are of course well-worn trappings for novelists, in part because they can be so engrossing. Still, so much of the book reads dry and rather stiff. Certainly a great deal of this can be attributed to the culture being depicted: a religious community for whom restraint and decorum are elevated forms of religious expression. However, the novel spends a surplus of time in the doldrums. I almost gave up reading a third of the way in. Fortunately, I was rewarded by seeing the novel to its conclusion.

Partly due to my personal experience growing up in conservative religion, I could appreciate the excessive posturing and naivety stemming from Hannah's sexual repression. Early on she lacks the ability to interpret even basic biological attraction to Isaac Martin. Ms. Brill is careful and cautious in escalating the attraction between Hannah and Isaac. As their attraction deepened, so did my interest in it.

In terms of drama, things really get going when Isaac challenges Hannah's intellectual assumptions. This is a great storytelling choice, given that Hannah begins the novel as one of the more enlightened characters. Yet Isaac teases out her shortcomings, almost always in a gentlemanly way. By halfway through the novel I wanted these two together. And if you can get a curmudgeon like me invested in a love story, you have accomplished something not easily done.

Yet even as she begins to open up and take chances, Hannah remains difficult to connect with. She keeps others at arm’s length, including those most well-intentioned. Before novel's end, she is faced with at least three positive outcomes. I found myself somewhat annoyed with her devout hesitance. I wanted to lock eyes with her and say, "Hannah, say yes to someone." Yet her destiny remains fixed in orbit around the fate of real life female astronomer Maria Mitchell, whom the author crafted Hannah after. Far from parroting history though, Brill finds emotional depth and significance by tying pseudo-historical Hannah’s fate up with fictional Isaac’s…which is to say I haven’t spoiled the ending.

The Movement of Stars fits well alongside two other commendable works I have enjoyed: Percival's Planet and Shine Shine Shine . All three offer rich character-driven stories while integrating compelling science. Science fiction often indulges the latter while neglecting the former, thus alienating itself from a broader readership. Yet I can recommend this novel independent of its astronomical motifs. You may not end up on the edge of your seat, but The Movement of Stars rewards the committed reader with a genuine and touching human journey.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Scourge of Small-town Parades

Paul's Epistle to Me
A little kid hopped off the Baptist Church parade float, ambled over, and handed me a pamphlet copy of Romans from the New Testament. Sparing him the 25-year-long story of my journey into agnosticism, I accepted the gospel tract and said, "Thank You."  But I was offended. Extremely offended. Not that he tried to force his religion on me. It's just...why didn't he throw me the pamphlet from the float so I could catch it? That would have been awesome.

It's a parade. All around me little kids are crawling over the sunbaked assfault--did I mispell that?--ravenously scurrying like little squirrels in search of nuts. Only instead of nuts, these kids are catching treats thrown from parade floats: hard candy, soft candy, leaky melted freeze pops the kids quickly hand to mothers in lawn chairs who grimace, then look up at the float of small-town VIPs and manage a semi-sincere thank you. 

The Jiffy Mill float is handing out boxes of muffin mix. Granted, can't throw those. It would be dangerous. The local used bookstore is handing out free paperbacks. Probably shouldn't throw those from a moving vehicle either, though as an English Major I am rather moved by the image of books soaring over the heads of little kids groveling and battling in the literal gutter for Tootsie Rolls. You see, I grant that certain freebies should not be thrown to parade goers.

BUT for Peter and Paul's sake, this was a thin paper pamphlet of The New Testament Epistle to the Romans. You roll it up like a scroll, you tie it off with a little ribbon and then you throw it from the damned--excuse me--you throw it from the saved parade float so that I can catch something at the parade. I walked most of the parade route on foot. There was candy everywhere. I could have picked up my share. But I didn't want to risk even the possibility of picking up a Tootsie Roll that some little hopeful 4-year-old was also eyeballing. So I stood politely near the corner of Main and Old US 12 and waited for a chance at something the kiddies weren't going for. Is it too much too ask of the local evangelicals that they throw the gospel at me? It's the one event of the year I wouldn't have minded.

A Cranky Lady and a Frisbee: 
My parade highlight was being recognized and waved to by not one, not two, but three of the awesome baristas from the local Biggby Coffeeshop. Being recognized by someone in the parade, being waved at from the pinnacle of a float or the edge of a six-foot-wide banner carried by three of your favorite baristas is...well, it's a special feeling...until you realize they aren't throwing free espresso beans. Then you get depressed again and tighten your grip on that epistle in your pocket. And you start wondering when the parade will end so you can cross the street safely and get to the coffee shop.

Most honest thing I heard from a fellow parade goer: a grown woman to my right looked back along the parade route, wiped high-noon sweat from her forehead and said, "Jesus, there is still a lot more stuff comin' up the road." The parade was about half-over. 

A Democratic candidate for Congress showed her willingness to work across the aisle with Republicans by throwing 5 percent less candy to children than in previous parades.

Okay, that last one wasn't true, but I haven't stopped giggling since I thought it up during the parade. What is true is that two-thirds of the way through the parade I turned left and what did I see coming my way?

Was it the Amish? 
Was it the Wells Fargo wagon? 
No, it was an antique, fully restored horse-drawn hearse made of beautiful black lacquered wood and shimmering glass windows. I squinted through the glare to see inside. Who was the 2013 Chelsea Fair and Parade Cadaver? 

No corpse, just a bunch of cardboard boxes full of frisbees. I crammed Paul's Epistle to the Romans deeper in my pocket and got ready to play catch. But the morticians were favoring parade goers on the eastern side of Main Street. Damn easterners. Damn 1st Precinct that always gets the bigger better room at the education center on Election Day. Why do they get all the funeral home frisbees? 

At last the man who may one day fill my veins with...don't go there Jake...still, a few seconds before my shot at a free frisbee came, it occurred to me--I am in my late 30s. I have already had my first *TMI ALERT* prostate exam. No way in hell am I accepting a free frisbee from a funeral home. But now it was like I couldn't dodge these little plastic discs embossed with the funeral home's name and contact information. 

It ricocheted, I kid you not, off of the traffic light pole nearby, eluded the cranky hands of the cranky woman who had invoked her Lord and Savior to proclaim her frustration upon realizing the parade was only half over. And then that macabre giveaway skidded over the asphalt and stopped two feet away from where I was crouched down, stretching my lower back and silently echoing the refrain, "Jesus, when is this parade going to end?" 

Accepting my fate, I turned and retrieved the funerary frisbee. Then, still crouched over, I turned back around. The cranky lady approached, brandishing an empty Mountain Dew bottle, and extended her hand to me indicating the frisbee was rightly hers. Had this been a foul ball at a baseball game, we would have had a problem. But lucky for her, it was a frisbee thrown into the crowd by a mortician. Smoothly, without any indication that I also had a claim on the thing, I handed it up to her. She thanked me, turned, and began gawking at a flatbed tow truck carrying a handsome young man and the wrecked full-sized sedan he'd used to win the demolition derby at the fair a couple of nights earlier.

 A couple more vehicles back was a fixed-up two door Firebird with the top down. Crammed in the back, a large poodle slumped deathlike against the upholstery, too tired even to pant in the hot sun. A little girl in the gutter paused from her Tootsie Roll foraging, looked up, and watched as the comatose dog rode past. I think, in some way, we were all of us ready for it to be over...the parade I mean. Life is good.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Salient Pessimism 2

Notwithstanding my skepticism toward prophesy, I grant the possibility that the meek may one day inherit the earth.

I just don’t think they will stay meek.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mars Haiku Approved for Launch

Over 12,000 contest entries. Five winners chosen by popular vote. A handful of honorable mentions. In garnering 91 votes, which placed it in the top 10 percent, my poem earned the right to be loaded onto a special DVD that will fly with the MAVEN probe bound for Mars. The launch window opens in November. Here is the little bit of my mind now being copied and transferred for a rocket ride:
Lone wispy devil,
Spinning past the Valles rim,
May I have this dance?
I strongly encourage you to head over and read the winning entries and the honorable mentions. It is a delightful collection. And I am happy to see it includes another Haiku dedicated to the famed Valles Marineris.

Time for a fair question: What if any substantive connection does this offer me to the red planet? MAVEN will orbit, not land. MAVEN will not return to Earth. The DVD is on a one-way trip. Barring its acquisition by an alien race--who would assuredly single out my haiku from the other 1,100 or so on the DVD, resulting in my being the first intergalactic poet laureate--the official copy of my poem going to Mars is just a few bits of computer code that will never be accessed again.

As I wrote to one family member, who expressed frustration the contest website was preventing them from voting multiple times, my substantive connection to the mission is here and now. Thousands of people around the world pondered Mars and the upcoming mission. We celebrated exploration together. We cultivated a sense of affection for the cosmos and for Mars in particular. This is to say we generated enthusiasm for exploration and discovery. And in the most quantifiable sense, we poets drove a great deal of Internet traffic to the mission-sponsored website. We raised awareness.

Lastly, in a tradition dating back to the plaques mounted on the twin Voyager probes, the MAVEN probe will bear a literal mark of humanity on its robotic mission. It will carry a commemoration of life to the sky of another planet that may once have held, may still hold, life of its own making.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Taking or Leaving 'The Stand'

The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes I finish a book or movie and I am confident in my assessment of its being either good or bad. The perplexing situation is when I come to a novel prepped by other people's opinions and walk away feeling differently. Such was the case with Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand. The sum total of recommendations and reflections I've received from other King readers over the years led me to believe The Stand is rightly one of his most highly regarded novels. Yet, this story never came close to gripping me the way my favorite, It, did. Why didn't I go for this one?

The easy explanation would be the novel's length. But I like a good epic. The Stand cries out to be a long novel, though perhaps not as long as this uncut version is. Certainly the story's crisis, the near extinction of humankind, merits expansive prose. I suspect part of the novel's popularity comes from its explicit Judeo-Christian motifs. There are other examples of this. Think of the most popular Indiana Jones films. Think of the Dan Brown novel that made the biggest splash. Biblical fare. The Stand also has a nationalistic tone that many would find enticing. But I'm disenchanted with both the Bible and nationalism. So King didn't rope me in with either selling point.

The Stand isn't a bad novel. King plays masterfully with the duality of the plot. He mines Biblical notions of good versus evil, light versus dark, Heaven versus Hell. And over the course of the story he achieves a richness of characterization as various members of the ensemble cross from one side to the other. Some flirt with changing but then hunker down in their rut. Quite like life seen and lived under the influence of Sunday School mythos.

King explores a doctrine of two ways for all its worth. My favorite examples are the worldly Larry Underwood and the troubled orphan Harold Lauder. Both take winding routes up onto literal and figurative ridges between good and evil. Sometimes they climb with passion. Sometimes they tiptoe. Sometimes they backslide (and not just toward evil). It's a rich and plausible depiction of humans struggling to adapt, to connect, to be fulfilled. Internal and external forces push or tug (just like the various forces that decide if you end up enjoying a book).

At its best I found The Stand haunting in thoughtful ways. This was especially the case with a trio of characters who are chosen to travel through the Rocky Mountains and spy on behalf of the community we assume is the good side--put another way, the side worth saving. Their story evokes the poignancy that the best of other King works attain. King also proves crafty with his tried and true narrative devices, including the intentional spoiler. Just try and look away, he dares us.

I didn't worry too much for the first half of The Stand. Slow boil I thought. King will hook me any page now. 300 pages from the end I still wasn't gripped. 200 pages out, 100 pages, and I still lacked a special connection. I plowed through, appreciating tidbits, enjoying any given chapter but never feeling immersed.

I can respect those for whom The Stand is their favorite King novel. But like a certain contingent of the gathered protagonists, as the final pages arrived I found myself ready to leave. If a book is a town, this one just ain't mine. Oh it was good to visit--necessary 

even--but my heart is calling me somewhere else.

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pressing 'Against the Fall of Night'

Against the Fall of NightAgainst the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Prologue to Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night is so mesmerizing I thought I might have another Childhood's End on my hands. The first page or two encapsulates all that is most poignant in the book: a child looks to the heavens and wonders if all that is best about his world has already past, lost forever in a desert of myth and apostasy.

However thought-provoking this novel may be, as an early outing by Clarke it seems underdeveloped. The grand technology-driven themes, the operatic flavor with which Clarke embues time and space, the profound puniness of humankind--all these are present and vibrant. Yet the novel as a whole feels shy of richness.

The premise is engrossing, if a bit conventional. A promising young man living in a stagnant society of the distant future finds evidence that Earth was once much greater...and may yet be again. The protagonist becomes something of a chosen one--a John the Baptist type, driven by a considerable ego to search for lost knowledge and a scientifically plausible messiah. It's quite intriguing.

As Clarke's hero delves deeper into Earth's mysterious past--read our present and near future--he develops a deepening conviction that a new age is about to begin--fueled by his discovery of highly convenient and hastily explained advanced technologies. The themes and notions which Clarke explores with such elegance in Childhood's End and
2001: A Space Odyssey resonate well here too. However, the plot languishes in a literal desert. Too much time is spent on diplomatic conversation, and also on summary explanation rather than action. It's pretty good storytelling, but not masterful.

So much of this novel works. There is an intriguing subplot about rival societies with profoundly different value systems. That may be the most relevant part of the book for contemporary American readers. The sometimes helpful, sometimes destructive, nature of ego plays out intriguingly through the protagonist. Will he do himself in like humanity once did? There are also wonderfully bittersweet explorations of knowledge being lost and/or suppressed--usually as a means to consolidate power and control the young.

My ultimate gripe gets back to that notion of richness. Against the Fall of Night is a thin volume filled with lots of summary. It depicts a young man's quest for the truth. Along the way, the author drops increasingly big hints about a dramatic history and the promise of a grand future. The end result for me was disappointment. As I realized in the final pages, I had read about the search for a great story, rather than reading the great story itself.

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