Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Garden is a Prison, and a Paradise, but Mostly a Prison

Reading an advance copy of The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan, the first impression of the tale is lush and life-affirming with the constant symbolism of the gardens of the world, and the gardens of the women’s bodies. Juxtaposed against each other, the symbolism is not difficult. The Jewish community of Tehran in the early 20th century was circumcribed, for women, by fertility. Little else mattered to them and to their future. Why go to school when one does not need to read to be able to change a diaper? They spend their lives trapped inside the walls of their homes and estates, in the gardens of them where the pomegranates grow and must be harvested, and the food must be stored up and processed and all the domestic chores fill the hours with activity. Two brothers marry. The elder’s wife seems barren. The younger’s wife bears him a son. The elder, infatuated with a vision of another woman from before he married, decides to take her on as a second wife to bear him a son. It is a disastrous mistake that marks the family forever. A novel of women, Rebekah, the shrewd and cruel first wife of the elder brother, is the main character. Her childlessness is, at first, blamed on the spectral hand of a Djinn. Her sister-in-law, the wife of the younger brother, who bears a son and a daughter  is kind and sweet and doomed. The woman from the garden, who comes divorced and forever separated from her first child by Jewish law, at first would seem to be the enemy of Rebekah, but she is a sad, lonely woman, with no place in society and she is not even allowed to be remembered by her name in the future genealogies of the family. Of course, behind the scenes, the brothers’ mother is a force of nature, and the power holding all she sees in place. The servants, as well, all women speak from the edges of the tale, occasionally sharing their circumscribed histories. It is a man’s world, indeed. Women just suffer and seek God in the eyes of their sons and daughters.

The good places of this book are very good. The verdant gardens are lovingly described and form the symbolic backdrop upon which the actions of the woman and characters are set. The many details of the Jewish community in Tehran are fascinating. Truly, the culture existed under siege, yet managed to trudge on to prosperity against the will of the Muslim community, who were prone to fits of violence and punishing taxation upon their despised underclasses. In one instance, the character, Ibraham, was beaten near to death for bumping into a poor, Muslim tailor, in a rainstorm, where the “filth” of the Jew smeared onto the pure Muslim. Ibraham was an open minded and kind man, as likely to study Hafiz and Rumi as he was the Torah. He also kills his wife because of his kindness, but I shall leave that for readers of the text to discover. It is worthwhile to read the text if only to explore this fascinating world where women and men have separate door knockers and life is spent in a walled garden like a pampered prisoner queen. in the description of the time and culture and season, this book is a glittering gem of detail and insight. It makes one long for what the novel could have been without some of the painful drawbacks to the skill with which it is rendered into the form of a novel.

The modern day narrative of a bumbling daughter of Ibrahim, niece to Rebekah, acts as a framing device to recount the family story with the distance of time. It is a clumsy device, with no real narrative purpose but to provide extra description of garden spaces that become so clumsy and broad in their obvious symbolism, that one hoped there would be some purpose to the modern day events. Alas, with no plot of her own, a bumbling old woman acts as an excuse for the writer to engage in all sorts of confusing point of view breaks, bumbling about from one character to another, creating more confusion than enjoyment. It is hard to follow who is in control of the narrative. It does not seem like anyone is, including the author. As the story unfolds, much of the foreshadowing and plot is handled through dream sequences that are so clumsily written, it is a wonder a sharp editorial eye did not excise them. For instance, the one fertile wife of the two brothers is once seen being ripped in half by the two brothers of the story, a clear and obvious reference to Solomon’s divided infant, and clearly what happens when Ibrahim makes a decision out of kindness to his brother that is so impossibly cruel to his wife, who must simply accept what is decided that she dies from grief.

Without the tedious dreams, without the bumbling framing device that amounts to so little, what is left is still interesting, but it makes one long for a more careful book, less reliant on narrative tricks and the beautiful writing that attempts to make the tricks succeed, the characters do speak through with sympathy and desperation. Nothing is perfect, of course, and I must accept the book before me, not the slightly smaller book that I wished it could be. It is still fascinating for its cultural portrayal and lush language. Rendered down to stars, I give three of five.

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On the Setting of Watchmen

The great, unintended ironies of the book of this season include, but are not limited to, that the character who claims that she is colorblind apparently visits the African woman who was, for all intents and purposes, her mother, only once in a book about the secrets of families, that the characters that form the moral fabric of our nation in another book are a a series of incoherent ethical messes without any driving purpose in much the same way as they should be if the cultures are carried forward in time and people permitted to be part of them, that… this sentence is running away from me. In the same sense that to drag Boo Radley out into the mean and terrible community around him is to kill a Mockingbird, dragging the mean and terrible world into the world of the classic Mockingbird book’s characters slays them in public consciousness. Time will tell if this book kills a mockingbird.

The incoherent mess of ethics and morals and race relations present in the text, where many characters argue without success that segregation had to do with states’ rights, and hate speech was allowed by the well-meaning forces to permit the community to handle its own business, and… Don’t try to follow the logic. It really doesn’t work. It’s all as crazy as the eccentric Finch uncle, who retired into 17th century literature and pretends to be an aristocrat in a fallen world. Life is also an incoherent ethical mess. In abler hands the text could still be readable and interesting, but it is dialog heavy, and the only joy in the text are the vivid flashbacks to childhood that were seemingly ripped from the liner notes of a superior, later book.

Much of the text is driven by dialog and deep insight that feels out of pace, comparatively, to the gorgeous sections of reminiscent childhood. The romance plot is flat and forced. When the only thing keeping characters from their love is themselves and their own mental nonsense, it is not an interesting romance. It became briefly interesting when the perfect couple discover that one is a member of a KKK equivalent. This moment coincides with the commission of a crime that will be mostly glossed over in the text, and used as an excuse to reveal that Atticus Finch, as has been widely reported, is definitely a complete and total racist. In a superior, later book, the court case in the text led to some of the most fascinating and unforgettable scenes of racial tension in American letters. In this text, about a Watchman being set, there is no court drama. It is going to happen someday, and it is not going to be a good outcome, and everyone knows what the outcome will be, and the NAACP had better not get involved.

The interesting sections, and the good stuff of the text, is the stuff of Scout’s childhood. It is easy to imagine that an editor would see these glorious gems interspersed in all this dreck, and insist upon a novel of just that kind of stuff. They often feel forced into the text, and stylistically disconnected, and two of the main characters of childhood – Dill and Jem – are absent as adulthood comes. It is a sad kind of nostalgia for Scout, and a sad kind of nostalgia for us as readers who cannot escape the shadow of her superior novel.

I wish the NAACP would get involved in the case. I wish the book was longer, deeper, and wider with room for more characters than just Scout and Atticus and Hank and Aunty and their narrow, little world. The rest of the community are often presented as a dull mish-mash of floating quotations. The histories and personalities of everyone else in the community are not permitted to be more than just a set dressing of Scout’s origin myths. I can’t help but feel like the moral of the story applies, with great irony, to all the people around Harper Lee. This book does belong in print, as an intellectual curiosity of interest to scholars in some sort of collected unfinished works of Harper Lee from a University Press, an American icon for her startling single novel. Go set a watchman for your conscience, all you who have abused this icon, shattered these myths, and done so in the name of money, and money, and great, heaping piles of money. This “book of the year” is not even a finished book. It slips through the eyes in an afternoon, a rambling and incoherent mess that wraps up into a tidy, forced moral flourish defending racists and racism and arguing for the states’ rights of the southern experiment, their right to abuse and push down their fellow man. It’s disgusting to read a book that argues for the defense of white supremacists when people are still dying at the hands of the police for driving while brown-skinned.

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Rapunzel, Rapunzel… Tell me about your mother’s deepest fears and secret heart

Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel is an excellent reminder of the power of an old-fashioned fairy tale, and reveals many of the problems of the emotional maturity of the young people inside of the old fairytales. Rapunzel is no mysterious or obscure text. She lets down her hair, and the witch that would keep her there forever, a girl in a tower alone but for a mother’s affection, is discovered by a young prince, and rescued there in some fashion or another. Perhaps the witch is killed, perhaps not. There are as many versions of the myth as there are storytellers, and the joy of fairytales is the power of the author bursting through the seams of the familiar story. Knowing the plot, in fact, makes the rest of the work a showcase for the other authorial talents like imagery, characterization, setting, the musicality of language. In all of these aspects, Donna Jo Napoli’s interpretation is a wild success, with beautiful language, a rich and engaging setting. She sets her tale in Southern Germany during the protestant reformation. The scenery is lush and rich and full of trees. Her witch has power over plants, and every page is full of some twisting vine or tree, and the alms and alpine forests are the kind of place where the reader truly would long to visit. In fact, the rural alps are some of the most beautiful places in the world, and it is a treasure to walk through that landscape again with the interesting figure of the Witch.

Ultimately, when the hero and heroine behave exactly as is expected of them in their fabled circumstances, they become less interesting. It isn’t perfection, per se, but the sense that they are not in charge of their own actions. They are both, to some extent, fed their lives by others and forces beyond their control, whether by parents who dictate futures, or the indifferent stars that are suggested to influence the lives of men and fate. No, these are very well-written dolls, who seem to exist for young readers to inhabit in the text. The best character in the book, and the one that will speak to a more mature and interesting view of human morality and fate is the one character who would transgress everything and make a deal with devils for the sake of breaking off from her fate. She is at once a perfect mother, a terrible mother, and a tragic mother, like the goose without a mate, nesting on stones.Her story is ultimately the one where a character changes based on her own impulses and motivations, contrary to the fates around her. Her story is the one that is most interesting, and lingers in the mind long after the hair is chopped off, the tower falls down, and the beautiful maiden is telling a fable for the granddaughter on her knee. The mother, with her control over plants, does make her nest on stones, out in the mountain alms, and in the abandoned tower, and in the far, distant places of the world.

It is a light book on a hot, summer day, but it is a lovely book, beautifully written. The joy of the familiar fairy tale mitigating the mechanical plotting is in the expression of all the rest of the book, which is full of beautiful language, stunning sceneries and vistas, and a figure at the center who steals a daughter from the world, gaining her true self and her own destruction. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the old stories.

Note: It used to be a common thing to do to a girl, to lock her away from the world like a prisoner to protect her innocence. The anchorites were matched only by the kept mothers and daughters of rich men and lords and kings. Rapunzel, Laustic, Julian, all of them kept in the bound walls, peering from windows at a beautiful, distant world. Let it not be forgotten, this injustice, and let the story be told forever. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let your beautiful hair, your symbol of beauty, be both what imprisons you and what ultimately liberates you. May he never lock you away in the big house, where the only thing to do is to sit in the garden and be safe.

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The only role to play is Sociopath: On Gaming with Character

When my brain breaks, one of the things I do to focus my energy is pull out and dust off ancient video games. I recall, for example, playing Fallout and seeing the opportunity to say things I would never actually say in real life, and do things I would never actually do to people. “I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” I’ve also journeyed to hell and back, seeking to find myself among the city of lost people, the city of doors. Recently, I journeyed through the Forgotten Realms, seeking to slay the father within, a Lord of Murder. Gamers of a certain generation, say between 30 and 40, know exactly which games I was talking about. But, let’s not talk about games, exactly. Let’s talk about players. In games, the player is a sociopath, and often a psychopath.

A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.

A sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. He may know that taking your money is wrong, and he might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop his behavior.

Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others, says Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex. Someone with this personality type sees others as objects he can use for his own benefit.

Source – http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/sociopath-psychopath-difference

Presumably, my heroine was a Swashbuckling rogue, able to go toe-to-toe with anyone for a good cause. Alas, I know it is all an act, and the dark forces are always welling up inside of her, because every time a dialog tree opened, there were options that were so far out of character that they should have been imaginary. At any moment, I, the person behind the curtain, could swoop in and change everything about myself, and flip out on everyone, cast away all my old allies and embrace the darkness. At some point during the game, I am less interested in the narrative of the many, many, many quests as I am in the rewards of the quest. I am pushing through the tasks and gaming the system to get the best reward in the quest or the roleplay outcome I desire. Ultimately, the game world becomes a flat matte upon which I push my little sprites through. The people inside the map, the communities and histories and futures there, exist only as they shape my journey, and I shape them intentionally to garner the reward that I desire in the outcome. The people in the world are not there for their own sake, but for mine. I am the powerful force that moves through the realms, blessing and cursing all that I survey. And, there is no moment where options and responses are off the table. Ultimately, every step of the journey is a series of calculated maneuvers to acquire power, prestige, etc.

If goodness and evil exist in the world, and they are wrestling inside of us, they become a sort of habit. People who do good tend to get in the habit of doing good. This pattern starts early, and continues on into adulthood. THe same is true of evil. To break the habit, and break the pattern is a challenge with which everyone in society struggles. In the games, though, there is no struggle. There is no genuine peril to choosing one path or another. THe only peril is generally minor quest rewards, and the emotionally-disconnected player can sit back in a chair and calculate the best thing to say or do, or quickly skim an on-line tutorial about the game, and pause and think. The path is always a choice. There is never a flowing gestural expression of self. Player agency, always, and in this the lie of agency.

Most of our decisions are made by the habit of our decisions. Empathy and sympathy and human emotion will overwhelm the realm of conscious reason, conscience, etc. Only to a sociopath or a psychopath or something quite like one is life a “game.”

When I do play video games, I often get depressed. I’ve noticed this as I get older that video games mostly make me sad, even as I am drawn to them from time to time to bring out my own sadness. I feel disconnected, opportunistic, and like I have to try hard to be what I want, instead of just living in a moment, flowing through a moment, breathing and smiling. I miss the world, but I enjoy the game from time to time. It is interesting to pull the mind into the place where sociopaths live, to take from it what their stories are.

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Darkness That Presumes to Be About Right Wing America: Thomas Cobb’s DARKNESS THE COLOR OF SNOW

Thomas Cobb’s latest novel, due in September from HarperCollins, is a gritty look into a fading small town. Crime and social realism go hand in hand with political writing, and this book wears the weight of current political culture like the snowpack that smothers everything, and causes constant slipping and falling. In fact, the initial tragedy is all about the black ice. The young officer, Ronny Forbert, is knocked over in the black ice. The childhood friend that he is attempting to place under arrest also slips on the same ice and falls into the street. The speeding sedan that smashes into the scene, again, spins and whirls and loses control because of the black ice, and possibly even flies away into the snowy gloom because the ice propels him far enough away that the driver thinks he can escape from justice and just keeps on rolling away from the scene of the accident. This is the slippery business of accidents and unintentional consequences that undergirds all society – the wheel of fortune running under our feet looking for ways people slip up. When Matt Laferiere smashes into the car he was driving, propelled by the runaway white sedan of death, his head is crushed and splattered, and he is completely and instantly dead. The three witnesses to the accident don’t have a good view of events, and the hero of the novel, if there is a hero, is the police chief of this little town in the cold, dark north country. He arrives at the aftermath of the scene, witnessing the terrible tragedy of death. He views the evidence at hand, and hears the stories of the witnesses and decides to his best judgment what happened there, and who is to blame: the driver of the white sedan, not the policeman on a difficult drunk driving arrest.

The town splits into factions around the tragedy, naturally, and the enjoyment of the novel hinges on whether the reader believes that Forbert’s descent is plausible, and the town’s descent is plausible. The latter is much easier to manage. If one considers oneself to be critical of FoxNews and the superheated atmosphere of modern journalism and public discourse, along with the blatant idiocy of the Tea Party factions, if one thinks those folks are living in fantasy worlds of hate, than the actions of the town are quite plausible. The corrupt politician dismantling the government over nominally budgetary concerns while it is a rank design upon a criminal enterprise could be named Sam Brownback or Rick Perry. The climax in the town hall meeting can be jarring in its political tone of Tea Partyism that if the reader had not been paying attention it could throw them from the text. This is a book about the ways that our modern atmosphere of politics and corruption and super-heated media create more tragedies than they solve, and those tragedies are human tragedies. The patrolman is the son of an alcoholic, and begins his life on a path of crime, burning down a gazebo. The chief of police who takes the young man under his wing and tries to groom him for something better is an alcoholic, who had never had children with his diabetic wife, now passed. This surrogate father is pre-disposed to believing in his young patrolman, and the cops do always back other cops in this book (and, presumably, in most of the country).

Politically-speaking, perhaps the most interesting quirk of accepting the novel’s premise is the role of the police. Ultimately, Patrolman Forbert does a very bad thing that a good policeman probably wouldn’t do. The novel chooses not to grapple with the nature versus nurture argument, and instead suggests that it is all nurture: The environment of the town is so bad, and the culture at large is so toxic, that once upon this path there is no escape from the darkness of the soul. Appreciating the novel hinges on believing in Forbert’s dramatic and sudden decline. In one week, therabouts, this young man who aspires to be a good policeman and marry a nice girl and make a good, clean life, is pushed over an edge from which there is no recovery in this life or the next.

The danger of writing about politics so directly, in the realist mode of crime fiction, is that much of the novel’s enjoyment will hinge on the political affiliation of the reader, and that people who most need the message of forgiveness and creating opportunity for young people and paying for the government services that are being used and setting aside superheated news talking heads and narratives and all that stuff… Well, if you agree with the premise, you will say, yes, what a great book. If you disagree with any piece of the political premise, the book will feel unrealistic and malformed and lacking. I agreed with most of the political statements, and found myself generally in agreement with the novel’s conclusion, but I did not believe Forbert’s total collapse of the soul. I did not believe that he would not reach out for some chemical or material salve instead of the decision that he made. The ending, for me, was a form of artistic collapse that was broad and too violent.

But, in the wake of the police violence that is dominating news, with shooting after shooting, and excessive force after excessive force, I wonder if I am the one who is too idealistic to appreciate the darkness that is possible even among the best and most-aspirant members of society. In a week, a single accident and a single hiccup on the path to escape can be so devastating that even well-intentioned policemen, well-intentioned anyone, can be driven to an edge. Maybe?

I don’t know. And, I am thinking about it a little bit, even in my disagreement with the politics of the text. I don’t think I will change my mind on this, but I don’t think I would have read as far as I did if I hadn’t agreed with so much of the current politics of collapse eloquently described on the miniature scale of a dying town in the cold, rural north.

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