Today’s October tale is based on Child Ballad 39, “Tam Lin,” the story of a mortal knight captured by the fairy queen and doomed to be tithed to Hell on Halloween unless his true love can hold him through a series of fearsome transformations. Fairport Convention’s recording is the classic, of course, with Sandy Denny’s amazing voice spinning the story.
The nights are getting longer, the trees barer, the wind chillier … for me, October is the kickoff to the season of spooky stories (which culminates, of course, with the tradition of Victorian ghost stories at Christmas time). And so this month, I’d like to share some of my favorite spooky tales.
Ray Bradbury’s “The Ravine” is a chapter in Dandelion Wine, and has also had a successful life on its own; I first ran into it in a wonderful Alfred Hitchcock collection, “Stories for Late at Night.” When I walk the dogs at night along the Mississippi River, up above the bluffs between Lake Street and Ford Parkway, I often think of this story, and it never fails to give me the chills.
This radio version captures the bravado and fear in just the right mix.
Cloudy, dark and windy.
Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning,
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness
this man with the moon on a leash.
It’s April, National Poetry Month (the sweetest or cruelest month, or maybe both, depending on one’s relationship to Chaucer and Eliot). And though poetry ought to be celebrated every month, calling out April to notice verse can’t be a bad thing.
I was reminded that it’s April by this NPR story about Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw collaborating on an album of settings of Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks. The poem highlighted in the story, which turns a flashlight into the moon on a leash watched by wary crepuscular creatures, is just the sort of quiet magic spell that good poetry can accomplish. Later this month I’ll be camping and hiking with my Boy Scout troop, and I’m sure that this image of the moon on a leash will come back and make setting up tents in the dark a little less tedious and little more wonderful.
To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value–that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small, worthless-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, ‘stones rejected by the builder.’”
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Why did no one make me read this book earlier? Or, considering that I have smart friends who certainly recommended this book to me over the years, why didn’t I listen and read this book a long time ago?
At the very least, I would have understood Mirage a lot better.
The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history–the Axis powers win World War II and divide the United States into Nazi and Japanese spheres of influence–but it’s much more than that. It’s a hall of mirrors, with an alternate history–”The Grasshopper Lies Low,” in which the Allies win the war–buried within the alternate history; it’s a political intrigue about the machinations of the fascist state, with its various overlapping branches and organizations attempting to thwart each other during a time of regime change; it’s a love story, a road story, an esoteric meditation in which the world is a book written by a book, the I Ching, that is randomly generated by the world.
It’s a subtle book–except for some jarring moments of violence (a Nazi operative is murdered, a skirmish in the Japanese consulate in San Francisco thwarts a Nazi kidnapping raid), there isn’t much action. But it’s a strangely unsettling book, packed with unstated ideas and unexamined consequences. As soon as you grasp what’s going on, something happens to throw it all out of place again.
Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there would still be many–many drops of goodness, is how it came to him–many drops of happy–of good fellowship–ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not–had never been–his to withheld.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
I’m not sure that I’d go quite so far as The New York Times in proclaiming that Tenth of December is the best book you’ll read this year; the year is young, and I read a lot of books. But it is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, or at least a very close second, and it’s certainly the best book I’ve read this year that was published this year.
There are some things that have always irked me about George Saunders’ stories. His characters are a singularly inarticulate bunch, seemingly incapable of introspection and oblivious to their surroundings. While that may well be the point of stories like “Al Roosten” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the point once having been made could probably be dropped, or at least suppressed. When I read one of his stories in “The New Yorker,” I sometimes feel a little cheated, as if I’ve got an issue with two “Shouts and Murmurs” columns instead of one clever but forgettable bit of satire and one solid short story.
But then I’ll read a story like “Escape from Spiderhead,” which explodes the Milgram experiment with a devastating example of human compassion, or “Home,” which counters all the stupid horror of the last two decades with subtle grace, or “Tenth of December,” which is the simplest expression of loving kindness in contemporary fiction, and I completely forgive Saunders for the numbing sameness of his characters’ voices. The world he offers up–of free will subverted by all manner of carefully (or not-so-carefully) wrought chemicals, of tawdry fame, of devastating but unthinking cruelty–is certainly our own; but the solutions he offers, or that his characters stumble into, are from so simple and beautiful a place that they are wholly alien.
From a writer’s perspective, the other thing I value in Saunders’ stories is their complete disregard for realism. Though Saunders’ moral universe is quite close to Andre Dubus’, he gleefully launches into the middle of a logical universe closer to Douglas Adams’ without needing to build the scaffolding to get there. Things aren’t just slightly off-kilter in his world; they can be extremely off-kilter (psychological drug experiments on prisoners? employees given consciousness-altering drugs as a normal part of their duties? immigrants frozen into symbolic tableaux on status-conscious suburbanites’ front lawns?), but Saunders doesn’t try to explain how things got to this point. Instead, he trusts the goodwill of his readers to suspend their disbelief and come along for the ride; and the payoff for surrendering to the madness more than makes up for any narrative gaps.
Of course, Saunders earns that trust by delivering on his promises. His characters, as inarticulate and self-absorbed and naive as they are, deliver up the goods; even if they aren’t always shaken out of their complacency, we are, and are made to see ourselves, uncomfortably, mirrored in these stories.
This story about Michelle Shocked makes me sad. When her first album, “Short Sharp Shocked,” came out, it quickly became and remained one of my favorites. The mixture of the personal and the political, love songs and agit-pop, stories about childhood hijinks and police brutality and reconnecting with old friends and the military-industrial complex, all to a swinging, bluesy, rockabilly twang, was so refreshing after a decade of synth pop. Michelle Shocked was Billy Bragg mixed with Bonnie Raitt, an anarchist hillbilly with a wicked sense of humor.
I understand that people change, and not always for the best. That personal struggles lead us all down different paths. Michelle Shocked went from being a Mormon kid in Texas who never fit in, to a rock ‘n’ roll rebel, to a born-again Christian; it couldn’t have been an easy journey, and I can certainly respect the spiritual efforts that brought her to the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. It’s hard to square her music with her angry anti-gay tirade, the love the suffuses her early records with the hatred she spewed about “the downfall of civilization” that marriage equality threatens for her. It’s even harder to square her support for the Occupy movement with her bigotry.
People change, but I don’t think that has to mean that the music changes. Will I feel a little differently now when I hear “If Love Was a Train,” “Hello Hopeville,” or “Come a Long Way”? Probably. But are they still great songs? Definitely. I thought that the backlash against Cat Stevens’ stupidity at about the same time I was cranking the volume on Shocked’s “Captain Swing” was dumb; if “Peace Train” was a great song before, it surely remained a great song after. I’m not going to go out and buy any new Michelle Shocked albums for a while, but I’ll hold on to those great early albums in the hope that she’ll turn around.
And I have confidence that she will come around in time. It’s painfully ironic that Michelle Shocked has identified herself as a lesbian in the past (quite explicitly in this 1990 Dallas Voice interview):
I spent the first 18, 19 years of my life wondering why, in just depression, why I didn’t fit in. I’m so amazed when I talk to a lot of younger fans who are so clear about their sexual orientation as a lesbian. I’m like “how did they know?”
The personal tension in her heart, the conflict between equally valid parts of her soul, has got to be unbearable; and out of that pain, it’s not surprising that fear and anger spew forth. I hope that she finds a way to square things up, to find peace with herself and her world in a way that makes sense, and can let go of the fear.
- Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
- If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
- Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.
Our future as a nation depends on how seriously we take the legacy of Dr. King: Justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates people.
“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”
I was expecting an anodyne tone-poem about healing national wounds, surmounting partisanship, and so on. As has often been the case, Obama confounded expectations — mine, at least.
While we typically look to doctors and medicines in a health crisis, we should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers could do as much, if not more, to help moderate the impact of influenza and other contagious diseases.
A life lived is not about things | The View From Mrs. Sundberg’s Window | A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, from American Public Media
Mindful then, that a life lived is not about things, but there are things in a lived life.
The idea is to contain the harm: it happened then, and it’s not happening anymore. But how do you do that when these images are still out there? The past is still the present, which turns the hallmarks of treatment on their head.
The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs,” he said.
These books, like the papers and magazines on my desk, have been long untouched; they, too, have outlasted their urgency. But I can’t just jam them down the trash chute. I can’t just cast them out on the street. They’re books!
Firearms exist to manage situations where rationality has failed, so thinking rationally about them can be hard.
Better to ask a foolish question than to allow a mistake to be made. What is the worst that could happen to you? Lose your job? Lose the respect of your peers? Miss out on a promotion? Letting a mistake go unchallenged has other consequences: funerals, program shutdown, and life-long regret. Make your choice wisely – speak up rather than remain silent. If the organization can’t stand that, it’s the organization that needs to change.
A podcast, a blog or digital publishing as a whole is simply a different road. It’s not a shortcut.
This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I’ve learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.
Live your life, live your life, live your life.
My So-Called Stalker: Negotiations with fear, obsession, and the D.C. police – Washington City Paper
I left the station dejected, but I consoled myself by rationalizing that I at least had a report on file to show my concern. I spent a distracted cocktail hour talking with my best friend, Rita, bewildered at how the laws were set up to protect Ron and not me.
because once you start reading about this stuff, it can get a little obsessive
What can people be persuaded, knowingly or not, to believe? Researchers once convinced four college students that as children they had probably witnessed demonic possession.
Maturation makes liars of us all.
If nature has ever produced a more perfect thing than the mesmerizing beauty of this starling swarm, I have yet to encounter it. No other phenomenon has ever stopped me in my tracks quite like this, made me forget everything else in the world except the brief moment of grace unfolding before me.
The psychology of anthropomorphism, or why I felt empathy towards a piece of trash : The Last Word On Nothing
The bird had a right not to be thrown away, which made me want to rescue it. Its tiny size may have helped, Waytz adds, as we especially charge small animals or objects with emotion.
One in eight Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.
It was a relief, to state the thing with such finality–as if she made it exist as an object to contemplate stony with clean lines and hard edges. With the loss of her parents behind her, and the loss of the babies she might have had ahead, she was withdrawn out of the past and future into this moment of herself, like a barren island, or a sealed box.
The London Train, Tessa HadleyThe London train
It took me two years to finish Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, not because it’s a terribly long and challenging book but because I had trouble caring very deeply about Paul and Cora, the characters at the novel’s heart. They aren’t unlikeable, necessarily, nor especially likeable either; they were simply not very interesting–I didn’t find myself wanting desperately enough to know what was going to happen next to keep going.
This isn’t to say it’s a badly written book; it’s not. Hadley’s writing is on a par with Alice Munro, William Trevor, or Ian McEwan; I picked this book up because I’ve loved her short stories, which are sharp and insightful and present characters who are realistically attractive and repulsive in just the right mix. Not only is it well-written, it’s interestingly structured: chronology is turned inside out, and the parallel narratives–first Paul, then Cora–plays with perspective and tone, giving two very distinct flavors to Paul and Cora’s affair.
Alas, the main characters turn out to be the least interesting characters in the novel. Cora’s husband Robert, an outwardly staid civil servant who has a history of walking away from commitments; Paul’s neighbors, Welsh farmers with designs on the land on the property line; Paul’s daughter’s boyfriend, a Polish immigrant squatting in London with his sister and engaged in a shady import/export scheme; even the nameless exiled Iranian poet who dies in an immigration holding center; all of these characters are infinitely more interesting than Paul and Cora, and would make for interesting stories and possibly even a novel in their own right. Had the novel been boiled down to a story, or perhaps two stories that mirror each other and hinge on the chance meeting that leads to the affair, the banality of Paul and Cora might not have been a problem; but their consciousnesses are simply too slender to hold up 200 pages.
“Surfing” is entirely the wrong metaphor for how I use the internet. I suppose there are some times that I’m joyfully skimming along the surface of waves that rumble ashore and flow back to the sea, like when I’m browsing pictures on Flickr or going through my morning funnies at GoComics. But it’s unusual that I skip through the surf without plunging into some depth that leads to a tangle of undersea caves.
I’m much more a spelunker, moving slowly and deliberately through dark tunnels looking for shiny stones and flecks of precious minerals. At the end of a long journey, I’ll often have half a dozen or more browser tabs open–right now, I’ve got an essay about imagination by Tim O’Brien, a site about getting your shit together, the beautiful bound short stories from Madras Press, and an article about graphic novels by Elif Batuman waiting for my attention. And these obviously aren’t things that merit a cheery “LOL” before chucking them back into the sea–these are things that I want desperately to put in my pocket so they can continue to enrich me.
For almost four years, I’ve been using Instapaper as my pocket in the cloud. It’s a bit like a bag of holding, always expanding to accommodate more and more and more bits of treasure. But if you go looking for something specific in that bag, o woe unto thee: you can lose far more time searching through all those things you said you’d “read later” than it would take you just to turn to Google.
I know that clutter is one of my core weaknesses, and I’ve been trying to conquer it–I’ve successfully beaten back physical entropy in the kitchen, dining room, and living room since the New Year. Fighting virtual clutter holds out just as much promise for efficiency, clarity, and happiness. To that end, I’ve pared back my Facebook news feed–only people I actually care to hear from show up now, and all of those annoying quote memes and right-wing rants from people I kind of knew in high school have disappeared, leaving only the people I like and admire. And I’ve been filtering Twitter with lists, and unsubscribing from redundant or unuseful or stressful RSS feeds (though I’ve kept them on the back burner just in case: the Mother Jones feed had been annoying me at the end of November as just another source of unedifying news about Republican obstructionism, and then the Newtown horror struck and they became the go-to source for deep and reliable information about gun violence).
Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits has the sort of simplicity and discipline to which I aspire and which I know I’ll never achieve, so I was struck by this article about online uncluttering. I’ve put a lot of the suggestions into practice–getting rid of unnecessary social network detritus, trim back the news feeds–and additionally added the LeechBlock add-in to keep myself honest about time spent at Google Reader and Facebook. But one of the tips–”Clear your [Instapaper] queue out weekly”–was proving difficult because of how much I use Instapaper, and for how long. I had more than 20 pages of links in my “read later” folder.
But after two days of going through things I’ve saved since the start of 2009, I’m finally at a point where I can empty my Bag of Holding on Monday while also keeping a few things around longer term without adding too much to the clutter.
The first thing I did was go through my “read later” folder link by link, doing one of two things: archiving if it was something that I didn’t need anymore, or moving it to a categorized folder if I still needed it for a little while. I found that there were a handful of categories that warranted folders:
- Books: if I stumble upon or hear about a book I want to read, I add a link to its library or B&N or publisher page. Unfortunately, buzz for books often starts up months before they’re available, so I may add a link in January for a book that’s not available until March. For some books I’ll grab the Nook “free sample” instead–for a collection of stories by a writer I haven’t read, for example, so I can get a feel for their voice–but that can lead to quite a bit of clutter on the Nook instead (I probably have a couple dozen “free samples” floating around my Nook library).
- Music: when I hear something interesting on the radio, or stumble across an album on eMusic after my monthly budget is blown, I’ll toss it into this folder. Since the St. Paul Public Library offers three free MP3 downloads each week to cardholders via Freegal, this is a good list to check each Monday to get ideas for my weekly songs.
- Video: I’m not much of a video watcher–I haven’t watched TV for years, rarely use Netflix, avoid YouTube and Vimeo–but occasionally I’ll get a recommendation from some site that I like (Steve Himmer and Andrew Sullivan often suggest good short items); I throw those into this folder and watch when I get a chance.
- Kerouac: I really do intend to update the Hey Jack Kerouac site again; cleaning up the things I’ve saved might help me get there. In the meantime, this folder holds the useful and interesting Kerouac things I find.
- Stories: lots of Clarkesworld and Fictionaut stories, and things from other journals and sources, go here–fiction that I want to read when I have time and space after emerging from the mines.
Instapaper offers a bookmarklet for each folder, so I can easily put things directly into the right spot, or toss them into the “read later” pile and deal with them later. The rest–the more ephemeral, uncategorizable, interesting things that I pick up from the trail–go into the default “Read Later” folder. These are the things that I can purge with a lot less worry, things that I’ll likely share here on a daily or weekly basis. (A lot of what I’ve linked to yesterday and today was a result of this purge: some quite old things made it into the list, but they were things that I think are still valuable and interesting and that I wanted to pass along before discarding.)
I’m sure that a true unclutterer would look at the list above and label it all as “junk drawer” crap: there’s no reason to keep so much “when I have time” stuff, because either I’ll never have the time or I should be making the effort to change my life so that I do have the time. But I’m taking baby steps, imposing some discipline as I trim back the fat and allocate my findings with a little more thought. It’s like going into the labyrinth with the utility vest I take hiking instead of just my trouser pockets: I’ll probably still come back with junk that I don’t need, but at least I’ll know which pocket holds that junk.