Friday, August 31, 2018

Some alternative history perspectives.

- I wrote this as a response to my Latin American Studies coursemates.

I am reading many comments that look the same here, those evoking surprise, and I am genuinely curious why there isn’t more skepticism to spoon-feed facts. There is a famous line by Winston Churchill (the eugenist who bumbled WW1 and then was called out of the shadows to be the British face opposed to Hitler): “History is written by the victors.” Only if you read a few books though! The voices of the oppressed, whether Anne Frank or Slave Narratives, roar louder than the pruned and manicured version societies choose to inflict upon their youth, because they are genuine (propaganda almost always sounds like fairy tales.) And that might be the real surprise, that the story sounds like it may have happened.
Poke around and you’ll find a lot more, but own your skepticism, because every historian has a political message too—if you care about an issue like racism or feminism you can’t help but to let your enthusiasm be projected. Also, I excuse you if you secretly believe history is boring, because most books you’ve been instructed to read to get your grades and move on are pretty bad. There are alternatives though. Here are some texts I have found that helped me get a better bearing:

Lies My Teacher Told Me—James Loewen
I’d start with this interview with the author to get an idea of the scope:

Essentially, the idea is we dumb down and censor our history to avoid things like inflicting pox on Native American populations. Were any of you taught that some thought Earth was flat before Columbus sailed? That fable was actually invented by Washington Irving in 1828 who added it for dramatic flare. Most everyone on both sides of the Atlantic knew the world was round. The horizon is circular. We cast a circular disk shadow on the Moon. Plus, people actually sailed to China the other way without falling off Earth.
I still hear the “States Rights” argument about the Civil War. Historians point to how the text of the seceding states mention their rights to execute their choice to be slave states and say it’s a 10th Amendment issue, in spite of the evidence of racial inequity that continues until today. Yes, there are different ways of looking at history, but not all of them are equally legitimate. One that seems hard to gainsay at this point is that slavery never ended—it was just converted to the prison labor system.

1491—Charles Mann

Mann, a journalist (not a historian) discusses the state of America before Columbus and the errors of past historians illustrated in text books like the 1987 edition of American History: A Survey:

For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works.

1491 uses the tools of modern science combined with archaeology and (yes) skepticism to build a more coherent worldview of native societies before the genocide inflicted upon them by Europeans. We learn about agricultural methods in South America, how maize was changed through genetic engineering to feed large populations by supposedly “primitive” cultures, and so forth. We learn about running water and closed sewers in Tiwanaku, a city of 115,000 people in 1000 AD located beside Lake Titicaca, situated at almost 4,000 meters above sea level. These people obviously were not doing subsistence farming, not only do few crops grow at this height, but the rainfall is seasonal, so fresh water for irrigation (not to mention for the tens of thousands of citizens) is an issue.
There is a lot more here, but essentially it comes down to past historians fabricating a fairy tale history of primitive Americans to attempt to absolve the genocide perpetrated by the European. I am reminded of Rebecca Roanhorse’s answer a couple weeks ago at Worldcon when asked about Native American impressions of dystopian worlds. She said, “My people are already living in a dystopian world.”  

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book changed my impression about history more than any other, because it filled in a lot of the blanks about *why* Europeans were able to conquer the Americans so easily. By now, we know disease was an enormous factor, but why were Europeans inoculated against most American diseases (besides syphilis) and Americans were vulnerable to the diseases of the Conquistadores and other invaders. Diamond contends it has to do mostly with animal husbandry.
In other words, interactions with animals like cows, goats, and sheep provided Europeans with antibodies the Americans didn’t have, and the subsequent ravages of disease were more lethal than even the gunpowder and orchestrated rape and murder of the American First Nations. Diamond’s work is based on genetics and modern medicine (like allergies) combined with archaeology. I think the summary of humanity’s spread across the world is better done in Spencer Wells’s Journey of Man, but Diamond’s contribution to the biological reasons for success are valuable.
On the other hand, just because a culture has tools of conquest is no excuse to conquest, and one issue I have with GG&S is that it releases Europeans from the guilt of their genocidal choice. If it is inevitable that a group of people die, what other result would there be? We know this isn’t true. We know the decisions we make every day impact people around us. So did they. Therefore, the biological argument, while intriguing, is ultimately unsatisfying. The real *why* of the Conquistadores was greed, desperation, and a shocking disregard for the Other. Be careful. These people are still around.
I would also point out that as useful as GG&S is to gain a biological perspective of history, Diamond is not a great writer. I found his book to be dry and relentless. In spite of all its defects, however, I still believe it’s valuable.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I can’t say enough good about this book or the perspectives it will give you. Bryson is a storyteller of non-fiction that gives insights about humanity using vignettes, connecting them through the past. This book also gives you a tremendous base of science, because it tells the story of how our knowledge of science was conceived. That probably doesn’t sound that interesting, but Bryson’s style sells it. I challenge you to read three pages and see if you can put it down. It’s a great story from a great storyteller. One important lesson is how little actual camaraderie existed between scientists and how they were capable of almost anything to sabotage each other.

Two reflections on World War One that was the war that actually defined much of the world we live in today. World War Two was really World War One, Part 2, the Sequel. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. All the lines of division that still plague the world were drawn then. Also, the inevitable stupidity of war, how nations follow stubbornly towards their downfall, are all witnessed here. Tuchman was an amazing historian who looked for the story inside the story, the human story, the family relationships, etc. Fromkin’s book is an ungloved pummeling of European stupidity typical of the colonial empires. Both give an invaluable perspective of how our choices are often made for us by those who controlled the past. That still doesn’t excuse our decisions though. ;-)

Finally, if it’s not clear what the problem is with my list so far… where are the voices of the oppressed? Shashi Tharoor, for example, tells a story of British India, Inglorious Empire, that is about East India Trading Company’s 200 years of raping and looting. Tharoor presents unassailable evidence. British claims of unifying India under the Raj ignores more than 2500 years of Indian civilization that preceded it.
Tharoor twists the British apologists on its head. For example, think of the famines that plagued British territories like Ireland, the Sudan, Bangladesh, and India. British governors, like Lord Lytton, who became viceroy of India because he was Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, simply followed Malthusian philosophies, believing helping people in famine led to worse ills later. And that’s why you shouldn’t feed starving people. See?
Isn’t it shocking how people find evidence to support their preconceived notions about their own superiority? Inglorious Empire turns the gaze around and shows us the conquerors and their hubris.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz does the same but from the point-of-view of Native Americans in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. There is a lot of info here, but you get random bits that spin what you used to believe. I remember reading James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans. The racism is so endemic to the author he actually swapped the Iroquois for the Mohicans, making the Iroquois (who actually supported the British in the Seven Years War, or French & Indian War as the Americans called it) into the bad guys, because when TLOTM was published, they were trying to justify the removal of the Iroquois.
I mean, it just goes on. 75% of indigenous land in Florida was seized in 12 years by white settlers. She also gives a badly-needed feminist perspective to the indigenous peoples’ history and their conquest by Europeans. The image sold to us is that primitive people did not believe in gender equality, but they actually did better than Europeans.

I have already posted too much but I want to leave you with two thoughts. You (not your teachers or the media or the politicians) are who controls your perspective of history. To a large extent your perspective depends on the information you consume. Finally (& really this is the last time), if you are feeling overwhelmed or bummed because you’ve ingested too many opinions from the establishment, here are quotes from two people, one who has his face plastered on a sacred mountain in North Dakota and another who has her ideas likely plastered on your consciousness. Read them and know you’ve already likely made the right choice.

There is one feature in the expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries which should never be lost sight of, especially by those who denounce such expansion on moral grounds. On the whole, the movement has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place.
—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Expansion of the White Races,” 1909
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; and if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but with the powerless; and if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
— JK Rowling

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians, #1)Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this romp through Asia, an eye opening experience to be sure. Kevin Kwan creates a nightmare paradise of extravagant materialism and rigid tradition, where life's entire purpose has become accumulating enough status points to enter into a great Singapore family. Rachel Chu is inserted by her boyfriend into this milieu and the knives appear.
The characters are strong. The world building is good. One annoyance I had as a reader was the head hopping, especially at parties, where we seem to be passed around the room like a drink tray.
It is a quick read and both lighthearted and informative. It draws attention to Asia, especially China's expat population, which to a large degree, are the dynamos of the economy. 60% of Earth's population live in Asia, and little Singapore, the 18th largest economy in Asia, ranks 5th in the world in GDP per capita. Kwan's portrayal of the families and their aloof disdain for the world's suffering (Michael makes this point to Astrid) is offset by his compassionate portrayal of Rachel's mother, whose journey to America was moving indeed. A few of the women come off as one-dimensional and shrewish but Rachel and Astrid in particular show great agency.
Final verdict: Good but not great and more fun than I expected.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 27, 2018

The War Machines in Action

Arms Sales: USA vs Russia from Will Geary on Vimeo.

Can you imagine if we had spent this money instead on food, education, water, and health?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Eugenics, Scientific Reaction, and My Comments (Latin American Studies)

No matter how many times I see the history of eugenics and its blood-soaked impact upon civilization, there is no diminishing that feeling of utter helplessness in the face of the disturbing conclusion that no matter whether humanity pursues religion or science, it will ultimately lead to the same outcome. Nevertheless, I will try to argue there is a grain of hope, but first, I will fulfill the terms of the assignment. What three things did I learn?
First, though I had heard of the extermination of the indigenous Tasman population, the chain of cause and effect was well done. One salient point, however, should have been emphasized, that the “settlers” of Tasmania were violent criminals and, therefore, their violence against the Aborigines should have come to no surprise to George Arthur. Simply put, that is an example of willful ignorance on the part of the governor and his attempts to curtail the slaughter later, culminating in George Augustus Robinson’s “missionary” work, are further evidence. Aside from that, however, I never knew how quickly it happened. 44 years after the first settlement in 1803, the last 47 Aborigines were moved from Flinders Island to Oyster Cove—a people who lived there for a millennia obliterated in two generations. Just horrific!
You can read echoes of scientific racism in Victorian literature. Even in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë emphasizes the physiognomy of Rochester’s skull, and, of course, the missionary position St. John offers Jane in India likely is indicative of the same missions that led to eradication of indigenous peoples. What I did not know, however, though it should have been no surprise, is of Dickens’s support for Governor Eyre of Jamaica. Because of his stories, I had always thought of Dickens as a friend of the lower classes, but here we see him coddling the worst of the Victorian gubernatorial despots.
The last detail that surprised me was the early involvement of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in the Holocaust. I supposed Josef Mengele and Karin Magnussen were responsible for the early groundwork of the establishment of death camps, but the argument of the video makes sense. They eased into killing people, culling the mentally ill first, which is a eugenic argument.
Incidentally, I was a little surprised they left out Brazilian eugenic policies. Rockefeller Foundation money helped fund policies of “branqueamento” in Brazil too. I found a link to an article from a government site that discusses Brazilian eugenics:

Eugenics in Brazil in Early 1900s

Perhaps Ira Levin’s idea for the novel (& later film) Boys From Brazil had its roots in actual history.
So where is the hope in the face of so much calamity caused by subscribing to ignorance? One problem with understanding science and scientists is it never claims absolute certainty. Science is, in essence, a work in progress until we have better theories available. Some theories work amazingly well. Einstein’s theories thwart every challenge, for example, but others, such as String Theory I mentioned in my video last night, cannot even be proven by our technology.
Scientists are used to dealing with uncertainty. It’s a fundamental principle, in fact, of quantum mechanics. Bad science, however, happens when instead of investigating the unknown and making fair observations while armed with doubt, a scientist instead makes the same observation tainted by their prejudices. There is an avalanche effect as similar small minds group together and bad results are compounded by dirty money and politics. So, what is the solution?
Weirdly… better science.
It’s true. The Human Genealogical Project, which was sponsored by the National Geographic Society (huge racist history there, by the way) and originated by Spencer Wells drawing from the work by Luca Cavalli-Sforza has created a genetic map from the indigenous peoples’ DNA. The resulting map shows conclusively that we are all from a relatively small group of survivors from Africa.
So, I will add a couple videos as a rebuttal. The first is a documentary called Journey of Man from 2002 that shows their process and different indigenous people, including the Bushmen who live in the same area of Namibia the Germans committed their early 20th century bloodbaths:

Here is Wells teaching Stephen Colbert about his DNA origins:

Wells has a podcast on Stitcher and this year he updated his findings (because Journey of Man in 2002 was a bit precocious), after having much more data from which to draw. You can find the podcast here:

The Insight 

So, as you might suspect from your common sense, there is abundant scientific proof that eugenics is pure bullshit. The horrors of racism belong to an evil kernel in ourselves. Eugenicists only found science to be a convenient crutch to justify their atrocities.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn (Xenogenesis, #1)Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a great story!
Terrifying and seductive and such awesome world building. These may be my favorite aliens ever.
Humans are predictably uncivilized showing all our worse traits, but Octavia Butler is a realist and holds nothing back. Our antipathy to aliens lies deep within our core and we must consciously work against this characteristic.
I loved Lilith, even with all her baggage, but in the end, when she makes the critical choice that reveals the potential of our good, I know she is both doomed and proud of her.
My only issue is it felt predictable, and I was not surprised with the twist because she laid the groundwork so well, it was inevitable.
Still, I am excited about the rest of the series. Lilith is a powerful, realistic, feminine character, one all humans should be proud to call our own.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 24, 2018

Tarn - First Post


Created by

Tarn is a fantasy world whose various indigenous people are being observed and eventually colonized by "extratarnials" (ETs). For now, the ETs are content with small interventions, almost never appearing in physical form, so these instances are woven into the fabric of the mythology of the Tarnials. Several times in the past, however, they were less judicious in their actions, and memories of these cataclysms are pervasive in Tarnial cultures.
The ETs themselves shape reality through a weighted democratic form of coherence theory. When Tarnials pray to their dead spirits, demigods, or gods, the ETs harvest their energy and, if they can convince the others, together they adjust the parameters of Tarn and its Tarnials. Smaller wishes work best, because they demand less ET effort.
The planet is in its young middle-age, seismically active, yet stable enough so civilizations can develop. It is the fourth planet of its solar system and has two moons. The polar ice caps, while still robust, are in retreat over the last 25,000 years.
Tarn itself is a number of great continents with cultures of heterogeneous technological advancement. The story will focus on Adana, a continent situated mostly south of the equator, in what is labeled as the "eastern" hemisphere, between three oceans (Huga, Edoka, & Choda) and two seas (Vimu & Vidu). Adana indigeneous peoples, the Adanials, measure time relative to the second catastrophic event of their past, the Fall of Corkul, so dates prior to it are denoted as negative followed by FC and after, optimistically, EY for Enlightened Years.
The most advanced civilizations are found on the continents of Fiper and Forping. The oldest Tarnial fossils are found on the islands of Nata and Tura southwest of Forping, but civilization likely began in Forping sevelral times. The story of Tarn is a series of civilization developments followed by calamity, some of them caused by the Extratarnials. Sometimes, artifacts are found from more advanced technological age, and much of history has been lost among the current scientific community. Clearly, these are not the most enlightened years.
The migration to Adana came in three directions. The most ancient migration came from Jakira (from tribes of Fiper) and the Tarnera Ocean. The second migration arrived through Salo and Gansa (the origins being Forping). The final migration came from the east across the Edoka from Tura, Nata, Fiper, and Forping civilizations. Arguably, this last migration still continues.
The main story is set in 1362 EY, and the first settlements in Forping date from -24,000 FC, so there are approximately 25,000 years of Tarnial civilizations. Adana, however, is a much younger continent; its oldest settlements are from approximately -6000 FC. Like the other continents, Adana's growth has been curtailed by interventions. The two most spectacular were a long-running event called the God's War (from -3500 FC to -2500 FC) and, of course, the Fall of Corkul itself.
The question of Tarn is one of science and technology versus magic and religion. Technologists often laugh at primitives, because to the unenlightened, technology is indistinguishable from magic, but what if magic truly exists? Wouldn't the desire to seek scientific answers instead of accepting the violation of reality also be a weakness? Finding some measure of truth is the purpose of this world and its stories.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Finding Out About Fester

Cherry knew Fester was having an affair. All the signs were there: late nights at the warehouse, his secretive phone calls at odd hours of the night, and—worst of all—how his feelings towards her had blackened. For days she had denied all the evidence, but today she discovered a new wrinkle, one that defied rationalization: it turns out that Fester had quit his job two weeks ago. Where was he going at nights then? She needed to know, so at dusk she followed him, found his hideout, a warehouse in the river district where he used to work, and crept up beneath a window that radiated the telltale glow of his television.
3rd and 11 for the Browns, Manziel from the slot… He drops back…”
Cherry tuned out the rest, as she always did. There was no doubt Fester was inside. No one else watches old Browns games. At home, Fester would view the same one multiple times while pounding back Pabsts, one after another. Unlike Papa, though, Fester never got stupid drunk. Also, he had never physically hurt her, though his tongue bit, especially when she interrupted his games, but that was just his way. “Stop complaining and let me listen to my game,” he would say. She had forgiven him, knowing it must be for him being only a crew chief, while she was a registered nurse making twice his salary.
From the woods along the river came an incessant choir of cicadas. The steady stream of vehicles across the interstate’s bridge was louder, especially when those 20-wheelers roared past. An approaching train added a mournful whistle, but Nature trumped it with a deafening peal of thunder. A whiff of ozone on a sudden cool breeze told her rain was coming soon.
Tonight,” Fester said above the television’s babble, “I am going to enjoy opening you up.”
So, he did have someone. That home-wrecker must have been waiting. Cherry edged even closer, right beneath the mud-splattered window, determined to miss nothing, though realizing it was masochistic. Knowing more meant a sharper cut across her self-esteem. She imagined the woman within, probably some sexy, stupid young thing.
I needed a woman who moves,” Fester would say. “Someone young and lively, Cherry. Someone I can feel.”
Though they had no children, leaving would be hard. Cherry enjoyed their comfortable home with its deep pool and expansive backyard. Fester fired the gardener a couple weeks ago, so it was overgrown, but that only made the meadow’s wildflowers more enchanting. She had lain there today surrounded by their fragrance, weighing the emptiness of their marriage. The thunderheads had still been on the horizon then, but heavy with portent.
Touchdown, Packers!” said a sports announcer who might even be dead, and a fat drop fell upon Cherry’s forehead.
She knew something about broken marriages. Mama had left Papa after catching them together in the barn.
We aren’t doing anything wrong,” Cherry had said. “I just wanted Papa to feel.”
Papa had smiled and burped. Mama was furious but said nothing. She returned that night with the state troopers that took him away. He was dead in a month.
Cherry peeked through the window, discerning a wide room through the splotchy glass. Inside, she recognized her husband, a masked man in pajamas drinking a Forty through a straw. They faced each other with the television, where he was entirely focused, between them. Cherry knew she should withdraw, but she was captivated, for behind Fester, a fettered naked young woman hung suspended by her arms from the ceiling. She wore a studded harness and a ball gag. Worst of all, though, were her eyes, wide orbs of bloodshot insanity.
A blinding shard of lightning divided the sky, followed by another peal of thunder, and the rain began in earnest. For a moment, the mercury-vapor streetlights flickered, and Cherry was alone in the dark with her terror, but then the backup generators kicked in, and mankind’s tumult returned to flood her consciousness.
In that brief instant before the announcers returned with their play-by-play, Cherry heard the woman sob.
I don’t even know who you are,” she said.
I’m a man you fucked with one too many times,” Fester said, his focus unwavering, but what horrified Cherry most was his implacable tone, one she recognized even before he added, “Now stop complaining and let me listen to my game.”
That’s what broke Cherry’s bondage. That’s when she fled.

Dispelling the Magic

After last night’s rains, the morning sunshine and blue skies are a pleasant surprise. The air is clean and bursts with life’s electricity, as Jazz, my 4-year-old son, and I arrive early in Washington Square Park with my guitar and harmonica, setting up between the fountain and the arch. On days like these, I can rely on a steady stream of tourists for my songs and stories. Sometimes I photograph them too, posing them within the renovated arch, so, from the south, the Empire State Building glistens behind them.
Life as a street performance artist has its advantages. It is like playing in life’s theater as it plays for you. You learn to guess the roles of the other actors by their shoes. They are a dead giveaway. The woman sorting office mail doesn’t wear Louis Vuitton high heels or boots as she passes through the arch or races up the narrow subway steps. The park’s Greenpeace canvassers use this shortcut when they choose their “stops.”
Hey, thanks for stopping,” says one. “I’m Fareed. What’s your name?”
Nice to meet you, Travis. I’m with Greenpeace, the world’s largest…”
Travis is already racing away in Air Jordans.
Hey! Come back, Travis! You know you can afford it.”
Fareed shrugs and moves on to the next in the parade. Regulars like him are my extended tribe. Besides the canvassers and performance artists—jugglers, magicians, musicians, slam poets, statues, and phony superheroes—there are street vendors. I buy our favorite meals from Omar’s halal cart. He is an Egyptian who illustrates the story New York tells itself, that one where any hard-working bastard can have a big slice of the Big Apple’s success. Jazz loves the chicken tenders, broccoli florets, and turmeric-seasoned rice, while I prefer a salad with fat-free dressing or lamb with papaya puree. We eat beneath the sycamores growing beside buried Minetta Creek. This is where Mark Twain met Robert Louis Stevenson to talk about consumption and where fictional Morris Townshend pursued Catherine Sloper in Henry James’s novel.
Today political canvassers have invaded.
Have you voted?” a narrow-faced man asks as I play an Edie Brickell hit from the 80s. He looms over me, perhaps expecting me to cease playing to discuss the election. I ignore him and am relieved he is gone when my song ends.
Bob Dylan tunes beside Greenwich Village,” a Frenchman in a sports vest says, and I squirm despite myself. His mustache is interesting, a thin line twisted at the ends, and his shoes are elegant loafers. I always find French accents flirtatious. “Right where it all began.”
I study the lines of his face while conjuring the right response. He is only a few years older than me but belongs to a different world. Jazz makes eye contact with him and elicits a smile.
Clovis,” he says. They clasp hands, and I marvel how fast he gains my son’s trust. Jazz is typically reserved and even suspicious of tourists. The man he will become wants to protect me.
That’s why Greenpeace can win the fight against Star Wars and the defense industry,” Fareed says, filling my awkward pause. “Because we don’t take money from corporations—“
I know about Greenpeace,” his stop says. She speaks with a Midwestern accent. Maybe she is from Ohio, my home state. “I just didn’t know you did disarmament.”
I strum a chord for a Blind Faith number, and my smile seeks Clovis’s approval. He stands stone-faced looking north. Jazz’s finger points the same way, skyward, uptown past the arch. Following his finger, I see an approaching jet, white and graceful as a swan, yet intrusive, far too low and loud as it passes over us. All eyes follow its path. Seconds tick, each longer than the previous, as it reaches over Sixth Avenue, and I breathe a sigh of relief, for it has survived its insane traversal of downtown Manhattan after all! Then it twists towards the World Trade Center, and a heartbeat later, there is a sickening thud, as fire and black smoke burst forth from the North Tower.
Mon Dieu,” Clovis says, and then everyone is speaking at once.
Seconds later, I hear shrill sirens, and they become the background soundtrack for the rest of the day. I reach for Jazz, expecting to find him afraid, but he is not. Eyes riveted on the burning skyscraper, he climbs upon the brick wall behind us, determined to get a better view.
Keeping his eyes lowered, Omar mutely packs his cart, as if the day has ended. Fareed and the other Greenpeace canvassers no longer accost the passers-by. A family photographs the burning tower, and I must silence my insane urge to suggest they pose on the other side of the arch with the fire and smoke as their background.
I survey the scene in quiet amazement and tremble. Am I the only one panicking?
I must see,” Clovis says and I stare, mouth open, words dead on my tongue. “Will you come?”
I tremble.
But my son…”
I want to see too, Mom,” Jazz says. “Take me with you.”
I leave my guitar at the Marlton, the 4-star hotel where Clovis is staying, and we hurry south on McDougall, Jazz perched upon the tourist’s shoulders. Jazz’s winsome smile contrasts with the tide of approaching distressed faces.
By the time we reach Duarte Square where Avenue of the Americas meets the Holland Tunnel, the traffic is a gridlock and a steady rain of dust falls upon us. We are marooned upon a spear of sidewalk, surrounded by trapped vehicles and an approaching phalanx of north-bound pedestrians. One driver deserts her car to join the migration of walkers.
An angry mob of commuters emerges from nearby subway stairs, separating us. Their tangle of bodies forces me into Canal Street against a stalled Nissan. Horns honk, sirens continue to blare, and now someone pushes me against the hood just as the car comes to life. I topple forward, tumbling to the pavement and witness an impossibility, another plane twisting in flight to impact the South Tower in a devastating blow.
A scream wells from within, but I cannot hear myself. All I see are shoes of trampling feet: sneakers, hi-heels, sandals, boots. They all look the same. I cannot tell who is rich anymore. An arm returns me to the current. Clovis, still bearing Jazz upon his shoulders, holds me as we struggle forward, seeking the path of least resistance. We are almost in Tribeca Park before I realize our error: We are walking towards the disaster!
Around us, the parade has taken a dark turn. An apocalyptic sheen of dust coats everyone. Many are also injured and bleeding. Even the uninjured are sometimes splattered with the blood of other victims.
Are you all right?” I ask a plump businessman in a tattered suit. His raw burned skin and pale eyes leak blood. He reaches for me, but I shrink away as if his injuries are contagious. After a few seconds of self-recrimination, I let him lean on me, bearing his weight a few steps. I am dizzy, afraid of falling again, so I let him go.
Tell my wife I am alive,” he says, hastening forward, and in the seconds I hesitate, the press of the crowd separates us. Clovis holds Jazz only ten feet ahead. I cannot reach them. Instead, I am squeezed against a fire hydrant and a garbage can unable to move. Something slices my leg, and I grimace, rejecting the pain, while the swarm of humanity shoves me off the sidewalk. I am lodged against a truck now, but I work my way around its hood and climb up on the bumper to search for Clovis and my son. They are far ahead turning a corner into a side street leading east.
The sirens’ blaring drowns out my desperate calls. I claw on and find their street narrower and even more gridlocked than Avenue of the Americas. People here are climbing over the parked cars. Halfway down, Clovis and Jazz sit atop an abandoned taxi drinking water bottles, handing them to victims passing by, and I see the man with the seared skin getting one. They still have one left for me when I arrive.
I stole them from an overturned cart,” Clovis says, his tone unapologetic.
I can only cry and hug Jazz. Then I swallow half the bottle in a few gulps.
If we become separated again, we shall meet at the Marlton,” Clovis says.
He unfolds a tourist map, one of the expensive ones. I watch his finger tracing over familiar streets and think of the planes flying overhead.
Let us head east to Broadway. From there we must turn north and return to Washington Square.”
Everything will be normal soon,” I say as a woman passes us coated with ash.
How will I ever clean my jacket?” she says to no one in particular. I cannot guess what color it once was, but it is zombie gray now, just like me. We are the color of death.
You are bleeding,” Clovis says, and for a moment I believe he must have spoken to someone else, but then I remember my gashed legs.
No, not there. It is your pretty face that needs mending.”
Mom,” says Jazz. “Are more planes coming?”
Before I can lie to him, Clovis saves me.
We cannot know,” he says. “But if one does, brave boy, we cannot be here. Come! I shall guide you to safety.”
Jazz mounts his shoulders.
Can’t we please wait for help?” I say, mortified because I sound like my father’s daughter, the submissive girl I had tried to leave behind in Ohio.
Look around you,” Clovis says. “No help is coming. Do you not see this for the war zone it is?”
My weakness sabotages our progress. It takes half an hour for us to reach Church Street, where the relentless stream of refugees engulfs us. They are breathing through shirt sleeves and collars, but of course, I am wearing a dress. Clovis removes his linen shirt. I stare open-mouthed, struck dumb, for his torso is sculptured in bristling muscle like Michelangelo’s David.
For you,” he says. “Come now! We must escape.”
He reaches for my hand, just as an earthquake knocks me off my wobbling legs. Clovis raises me again. The panicking but orderly crowd now stampedes north, so I lose my grip and stumble, tripping over a fallen man. Behind us, a colossal cloud of dust rises over the Financial District, obfuscating all but the tallest skyscrapers. Then it descends like a pall, rendering everyone into dreary, shadowy figures.
An hour later, I stagger into a café beside the Marlton, where people gather to watch CNN broadcast their version of our reality. Clovis is eating a croissant and drinking espresso, and Jazz, safe beside him, watches the reporters interviewing people like us. I learn the towers have capitulated and the body count will be staggering. People are furious. They hunger for revenge.
Jazz and Clovis have no injuries. I have a sprained ankle, the ugly gash on my leg, and almost a hundred shards of fiberglass in my cheek and lips, but these are minor compared to many other survivors. I learn the government has closed the subways, bridges, and tunnels, so Jazz and I are unable to return to the garage I rented in the Bronx. Clovis offers us lodging in his suite: Jazz gets the roll-away in the main room, while we share the king-size bed. I wait for him to finish his shower, naked beneath silk sheets, nervous with anticipation. He does not even kiss me.
You see, I am already in love,” he says, and I hate her.
Meanwhile, the city no longer casts its spell of allure upon us. Every day there are vigils in the park. Images of the fallen surround us. Their friends and family gather desperate to find them, but are always disappointed. A few days later, Jazz and I board a bus for Ohio and quit New York City forever. Our journey is over. We are going home.

My Review of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning SilverSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Note: mild spoilers (just a little more than a dust jacket summary and list of characters)

Naomi Novik’s modern fairy tale, Spinning Silver, draws from Indo-European folklore, especially the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Novik is both upfront and subversive about the story’s roots, starting the novel by retelling the story of the miller’s daughter from the perspective of her tragically-worldly young protagonist, Miryem, who facing starvation and her mother’s illness becomes the debt collector for her inept money-lending father, Panov Mendelstam.

Miryem’s great ability to collect debts hardens her, while also garnering a reputation that she has an uncanny talent of creating gold, “spinning the silver” kopeks owed to her family and her opportunistic profits in the marketplace into gold zloteks. Both of these aspects of her development have consequences throughout the story. I’m going to keep the spoilers to the bare minimum to discuss my favorite aspect of the story (the author’s point-of-view flipping), so aside from the summary of the plot setup in the next paragraph, I’ll focus on the art of the storytelling rather than the story.

In both this story and her 2015 novel Uprooted, Novik creates a mortal world on the edge of a perilous magical world. There it was The Wood, and here it is the Staryk World, a wintery land ruled by a king who lusts for gold and whose raiders plunder the Sunlit World, the land of Spinning Silver’s mortal protagonist. Miryem’s spinning draws the attention of the Staryk king, the parallel of Rumpelstiltskin, who provides magical silver and tasks her with three transmutations. She takes the silver to her grandfather’s city and pays her cousin Isaac to model a ring, a necklace, and a crown, which sets up the rest of the story involving the Tsar (along with his demon Chernobok) and the reluctant bride Irina.

Spinning Silver is a feminist text (it passes the Bechdel test hundreds of times and even Miryem’s grandfather is woke: “Gold doesn’t know the hand that holds it” he says to counter his wife’s assertion Miryem’s work is unseemly) and subverts class tropes both in the mortal world (with the Vitkus family and Magreta) and the Staryk world (with Flek and Rebekah, Tsop, and Shev.) The efforts of the disenfranchised of power and impoverished are crucial throughout the story and shake the aristocracy. It is also a story of otherness, both in the magical-vs-non-magical sense and, fundamentally, in its depiction of how necessarily careful are the interactions between Jews and the Gentiles surrounding them.

When Miryem is inclined to tell their neighbors about the Staryk, Panova Medelstam teaches by using a story about the Yazuda village where the houses of Jews were spared and people suspected they had betrayed them by dealing with the Staryk. She says, “And now there are no Jews in Yazuda.” Miryem reflects this “wasn’t elves or magic or absurdity…[but] something I understand very well. This theme of Jewish otherness returns many times throughout the story and is brilliantly portrayed, especially through the use of Stepon’s point-of-view. Stepon is a child already indoctrinated to discriminate against the Mendelstams who learns through kindness and shared experience to evolve. This was a brilliant use of point-of-view.

Novik uses first-person point-of-view with minute psychic distance, changing the narrator throughout the story. There are 69 separate sections spread across 25 chapters. 28 feature Miryem, Wanda Vitkus gets 14, Tsarina Irina has 13, young Stepon tells 7, Magreta (Irina's chambermaid) contributes 5, and Mirnatius (a villain) shares his possessed tale twice. Each character has an original voice and critical perspective. Irina, for example, allows us to perceive how women are treated like commodities in aristocratic marriages, though through brilliant collaboration they can invert their situation.

The transformation of the characters is significant. I’ve already mentioned Stepon, but Wanda and Miryem end up radically different from the story’s beginning. Miryem, the brilliant debt collector who complains about clients who do not adhere to bargains, for example, gets an important lesson that a little flexibility is better for everyone. Foreshadowing, such as leaving tunnels filled with silver around, pays off throughout the tale. The novel is well-constructed and Novik’s conversational, easy-voiced storytelling is warm and relatable.

I recommend Spinning Silver for all these reasons but mostly because it is a well-told, great story that is a lot of fun. Novik just keeps getting better. I can’t wait for what comes next.


View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Nothing for the Follicles

Liddell Gibson looks up from the job application he studies and flashes a grin to Jazz, the man seated across the cafeteria table. Jazz returns it with serenity, and Liddell notes his concrete jaw, wide brow, and hint of stubble the same hue as his long Viking gold locks. They were about the same age, but Gibson had ten years of fast food service experience, six years as a manager.
You studied creative writing in college,” Liddell says. “I don’t see any fast food in your work experience. In fact, I don’t see much work experience at all.”
Jazz stretches his long arms. The plastic round seat is too small, his knees almost graze the underside of the table. Still, he looks almost comically comfortable.
If I’m hired by Big Brown Burgers, I promise to show up on time, be respectful, and listen to you and my coworkers. I want to help Big Brown Burgers succeed and promise to dedicate myself to achieving that glorious success. I have many talents—”
Wait. Wait. You know it’s just a fry cook job?”
Well, my girlfriend says I make the best fries she’s ever tasted. I roll them in truffle oil and sprinkle them with freshly-grated parmesan.”
Gibson sighs and turns the application over. Jazz’s references are the proprietors of Garden of Eden, a nudist camp outside town. He lets the form drop.
Can you work a register?”
I am confident I can learn to operate such machines. My real asset is my tongue: I can inspire my coworkers to outstanding performances with my words.”
Jeez, Mister, I just need a fry cook. If you work out, you’ll move to the grill and assembly line. Maybe I’ll give you a chance on the drive-through window. You just listen and input the customer’s order, grab the drinks…”
Gibson notices Jazz’s attention had wavered to the children in the playground. Or maybe he was watching the mothers.
I can also tell jokes,” he said. “Did you know J.D. Salinger wrote a book about fast food?”
Gibson blinks.
Ketchup on the Fries,” Jazz says. “I know poetry too.” He clears his throat and straightens. “Tell me not in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream—”
Wait. Stop. Stop it right there.” Gibson’s eyes search the restaurant for a candid camera. His failure to spot one offers scant reassurance, so he asks, “Why are you really here?”
I really need a job.”
Gibson sighs again.
Look, I like you…”—He searches the application for a name—“Jazz, but I can’t hire you. You would never be happy as a fry cook. I’ll keep your application on file and if something comes up where I need a comedian or poet, I’ll call you.”
Give me a chance. Please.”
Buddy, I’m doing this for your own good. Go get a job that suits you.” He reaches into his pocket and produces a five-dollar rewards coupon. “If you’re hungry, you can grab a burger and fries—no truffle oil or parmesan, sorry—on the way out.”
I don’t actually eat burgers. I’m vegetarian.”
Liddell’s hand slows half-way across the table. Jazz seizes it in his slippery palm and gives a firm squeeze before releasing.
I’m sorry,” Liddell says and turns his back. Jazz sits a moment in the glow of the fluorescent tubes before gathering his briefcase, removing his jacket, and trudging off into the Ohio fall.

When winter returns, I know I’m going to crack. No one takes care of me anymore, and I’m falling to pieces, getting looser by the day, and even now my joints are strained by the heavy weight of a man. He must be cracking too, for he pounds me with his fist, and why would anyone want to hurt me?
You are a failure,” he says.
He is right. All I ever offer is temporary support. I would give more if I were allowed, but the police chase the hobos from the park at dusk. Such an excuse sounds hollow though. When you serve, you must judge your success by supporters’ satisfaction. If people really loved me, I wouldn’t be falling apart.
You have a college degree and can’t even get hired by Big Brown Burgers.”
His phone vibrates against me in his back pocket. It is unpleasant, and he doesn’t answer it until the fourth time.
Oh, hey, babe. How’s work?” His voice is level now, masked by nonchalance. “Well, yes, I sure have had a productive day. It turns out that drug store isn’t hiring cashiers, but I gave suggestions for greeting card messages. They’re sending them on, and if they use them, it’s just like a publishing credit.”
There is a pregnant pause.
Big Brown Burgers? The boss said I was overqualified. He says something right might come up.”
He leans hard against my back planks. I creak beneath his force, but the danger feels good, as if breaking may release some of my anxiety.
I am trying.”
He is pushing harder. God, this feels good. Let it just happen already.
I know you need security.”
One of my bolts pushes against the ragged splinters of its orifice, pressing hard against me, a connection I have missed. I am yielding so slowly. I want to capitulate, to give myself up unilaterally, without constraints.
You know I want to have a baby too, Free. I want to be a father. Just… don’t worry, okay? Everything will be fine. I promise.”
He eases up, relaxing, and my glorious tension recedes. I swoon in disappointment.
I love you too,” he says, and a moment later shoves the phone back in his pocket.
You are a fucking failure,” he says, and the phone buzzes again. This time he answers it right away. He hesitates before speaking.
Look, I never borrowed any money—”
There is a long pause.
Oh, I see. I do apologize. I made an assumption, but at least I’m not a coroner.” He gave a peculiar laugh. “I mean, nobody was buried alive.”
He begins tapping my wood in a constant rhythm. It relaxes me, zen-fashion.
An interview? Today? Do you mean right now?”
He straightens, and I groan and creak beneath his mass.
I’ll be there, and please may I add my thanks for your consideration. Once you hire me, I will help Hardship Collections prosper and—Yes. Yes. I’ll be right there.”
After he departs, I almost levitate, basking in the ecstasy of my accomplishment. I have always yearned to experience personal epiphanies but maybe the quotidians things I do matter more. I hope he remembers what I did for him once I crack.

Free, a tall healthy young woman sits naked at her computer. She removes a thermometer from her lips and adds a new record in her spreadsheet labeled, “My Fertility Cycle.” There are different columns for date, time, weight, temperature, and cervical mucus quality. A final column has the verdict: Day 19. She prints the spreadsheet and pins it on the wall beside a dozen others with a thumbtack.
Heavy feet step on the wood planks outside. She presses her lips together and stands, tossing her long waves of hair across her shoulders. A moment later the porch shower begins. Naturalists, she and Jazz almost never don clothing at home. Street dirt stays outside with society’s misguided morality.
She longs for him, to enter their shower and lather up his gold locks, to brush his back, or perhaps tease him, but Day 19’s weight is heavy on her. She is six years older than he is, and her biological clock ticks so loudly she cannot escape its pulse.
Instead, she sits in Sukhasana, her shins crossed and knees widened, eyes closed, and recites a mantra. When he enters, she tightens her eyes, resisting the impulse to abandon her position, but her intention defies her peace, so she gains nothing except frustration. When she opens her eyes, she is miserable, especially when she sees Jazz beaming.
I’ve done calculations,” she says. “Like most women, I was born with between one and two million potential eggs. Do you know how many of my ovarian follicles remain?”
No, but I know a biochemist who can tell me: My girlfriend! Such a beautiful and warm-hearted human being too. All these years you have supported me while I’ve studied. I’m so grateful.”
He reaches for her. She pushes him away.
What’s wrong?” he says.
Probably fewer than a hundred thousand.”
That’s still three times the population of Kent.”
I’m losing a thousand a month, though, and it will get worse.”
Still, Free, you have plenty.”
He reaches for her again.
No. I think we need to talk, Jazz. We need to talk about our future.”
Jazz’s smile disappears.
I love you, Jazz,” she says. “And I love what we’ve had together, but… But I need a father for my children, someone I can rely on.” She swallows. “We can still be friends.”
I don’t mind if you can stay here for a while. There’s plenty of room.”
Oh, good. Maybe I can watch the conception. Do you have a father in mind yet?”
Her eyes narrow, and she crosses her arms.
I thought you believed in me,” he says. “I thought you believed in my craft. You always tell me you love my poems and stories. Everyone does. Now, I’m not good enough to be your baby’s father?”
No,” she says. “You aren’t going to make me feel guilty. I’ve supported you—”
And I’ve been grateful. Didn’t I just say so? Hell, I do a lot around here. This place doesn’t clean itself. Dinner doesn’t cook itself. And I’ve been looking for a goddamn job every day for weeks. Dammit, Free. I thought we had something special, something eternal. I thought you were my soul partner.”
Jazz, it’s bigger than we are. It’s biology. I am programmed to reproduce. It’s in my nature, and… And I can’t wait for you to grow up. I’ve been patient, but it’s been months since you’ve finished graduate school, and you still don’t have a job. That’s not normal.”
That’s where you’re wrong.”
It’s not normal. Almost all my friends are working.”
Well, so am I, Free. I got a job today at a collection agency. Fifteen dollars an hour, forty hours a week to hound deadbeats into paying off their loans. How about that?”
She leaps to her feet, suddenly all smiles.
Really? That’s not too bad at all. I’m overjoyed, Jazz. I am!”
Jazz wipes away sudden tears.
Oh, yeah. Benefits in three months after probation and a raise to eighteen per hour, but they say I can get off the switchboard and become an account manager with a fixed forty K salary in a year. Is that good enough to make your babies?”
Her eyes meet his across their emotional gulf.
If not,” he says, “How much more do I need?”
They both cry a few minutes. After, he stands and exits the room. She lights a joint, using a copper spittoon as an ashtray. The sounds of hasty packing punctuate her sobs. Jazz emerges a moment later dressed, carrying a duffel bag.
You’ve given me so much, Free, but I also have needs,” he says. “I need someone who believes in me, someone who doesn’t just shower me with false praise but works with me to succeed.”
You’re leaving me?”
It’s not over,” he says. “Not unless you want it to be. I just think it’s important for us to know what we’re getting into, especially if we are serious about creating a family together. It’s easier to make babies than nurture them for life with love and kindness. That takes faith in each other, Free. Belief and commitment too! I’m ready, but I’m not sure you are.”
He opens the front door, steps through the shower, and drops his duffel bag on the porch with a thud. Then he leans back inside.
I don’t mind waiting for you, though,” he says and dodges the flung spittoon.
She hears the joyous steps of his retreat. Her stomach cramps. Tomorrow is Day 20 and thousands more follicles will soon be condemned to horrific deaths alongside her bloody sacrifice to the moon.
Tonight she would dream of them, her population three times the size of Kent. She would hear them clamor in protest, their voices accusing her of betrayal, not against Jazz but them. And she would beg, wishing for something more than consolation for her dying babies, but having nothing for them, nothing at all.