January 2010

My dear friend Kelly recounts the books she reads each month, and I, as I tend to do, have decided to follow her example. Thus, beginning with this first month of a new year, I present to you the books I have read:

  1. Morality Play by Barry Unsworth.
  2. Genesis by Bernard Beckett.
  3. The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry.
  4. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.
  5. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman.
  6. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley.
  7. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.
  8. Neuromancer by William Gibson.
  9. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner.
  10. Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand by Ursula K. Le Guin.
  11. Mort by Terry Pratchett.
  12. Run by Ann Patchett.
  13. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I have read so many books this month only because it has been a month of leisure. The first six books were read whilst staying with Kelly; indeed, four of those books are from her library.

Tomorrow starts both a new month and a new semester as I return to work in the hallowed halls of 66. No doubt that we shall find that my list for next month will include a few medieval titles…

Back to normality

Traveling was long and uneventful, the latter for which I am glad, and the former for which I am still tired. This morning I opened my window and could see clear north to the Tentsmuir and the hills beyond. I walked into town for lunch, happy to be walking, breathing crisp cold, clean air, first through the quiet neighborhoods and then onto South Street, bustling. I picked up a wrap from Butler’s, then onward to the old end of Market Street. The church bells tolled the hour. I saw the seagulls wheeling overhead; heard them and smiled. They will drive me crazy soon enough. Through the window to the common room I saw the denizens of 66 gathered for lunch, and knew that I was home.

Excess is excrement

At lunch today I looked down at my sandwich with bewilderment. ‘This six-inch sandwich is bigger than a six-inch sandwich in Scotland,’ I said. And I was given two cookies instead of one. My parents laughed. ‘Everything is bigger in Texas.’

But it isn’t just Texas. Most things are bigger in the U.S. in general. Bigger cars, bigger cities, bigger portion sizes, bigger people. Even the deodorant and toothpaste bottles are bigger. While I have enjoyed visiting friends and family, I have not at all enjoyed being surrounded by the culture of consumption, sometimes being outright barraged by it. To walk into a store and be a rat in a maze of so much stuff, advertisements playing overhead, signs shouting ‘Sale!’ and other cajoles to get you to consume, consume, consume.

‘Where do the clothes go, if Kohl’s doesn’t sell its stock?’ I asked my mom as we walked out of the store. Oh, it’s sent to Marshall’s, or Ross, or T.J. Maxx, or some store like that. ‘But what if Marshall’s or Ross doesn’t sell it’s stock? Where does it go then?’ She didn’t know; perhaps back to a factory to be recycled into new cloth, made into rag, put into rugs. The waste is disgusting. ‘Excess is excrement,’ as Odo in UKL’s The Dispossessed would say.

Not to say that the UK is that much better, or Scotland, or our little town. But when you don’t watch television and your community consists of other thrifty postgraduate students, it doesn’t quite feel like you’re being buried in dung.

Myth-conceptions

‘What shall we do today?’ asked Jennifer and I over the phone. ‘The usual?’ The usual, which indeed we ended up doing, was to meet up at Half Price on Broadway. We also walked around Brackenridge Park—somehow neither of us had ever gone there despite both of us growing up in the city—and continued the ‘usual’ of eating at Taco Cabana and then going to see a movie at the Quarry. (We saw The Book of Eli. It was excellent.)

What puzzled me about Half Price, however, was the placement of the folklore section. Every used book store I’ve been to in the past few weeks (and this has been a fair few) has put the folklore section mixed in with the ‘metaphysical’, or new age/wicca section, amusingly often enough next to the ‘self help’ section. The one that didn’t put folklore with the metaphysical put it with mythologies on the tail end of poetry (the link between poetry and mythology being Homer and Arthur). Yet every time I have begun to look for the folklore section, as I am on a quest for a certain out-of-print book for my thesis, I have started with religion. Instead, I end up going upstairs, or downstairs, to a completely different part of the store to find a meagre selection of fairy tales. At least the store that put folklore with the mythologies made sense.

Did I find the Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, & Other Supernatural Creatures by Katherine Briggs? I did not. I did, however, find a wonderfully illustrated hardcover edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for only $2…

Radical health care

While I’ve been in the States I’ve been learning more about the whole health care issue, talking with friends and family, and basically getting information that I haven’t been able to get across the ocean. A couple days ago when Scott Brown won the senatorial seat in Massachusetts, some of my friends were very upset and others were overjoyed. In one of the news articles I read following, it was stated:

President Barack Obama advised fellow Democrats against trying to jam a health care bill through Congress after taking a devastating hit from the loss of a Senate seat. He said Wednesday it’s time to come together around a bill that can draw Republican support, too. (NPR)

So while I sympathise with my more liberal friends, isn’t this more in line with what we want? It does not do for the entire country to be ruled by half; the Independent in me sees that as being one of the main grudges Democrats had during the Bush years. But of course, the pendulum has swung the other way and now the same thing is happening, just in reverse. This is why I strongly dislike the two-party system.

Anyhow, back on the issue of health care: not only would it be better to have a bipartisan plan than one pushed through an uncontested majority (we are a democracy! everything must be contested), but I came across a very interesting observation in an editorial from the New York Times:

The basic question is simple: Should health care be a basic right or is it a privilege for those who can afford it? Rush says it’s a privilege — pay or die — and for his colonoscopy, they use a golden probe with a diamond tip, but most Americans agree that health care is basic, like education or decent roads or clean water.

Holy Scripture would seem to point us in that direction. And yet the churches, so far as I can see, have chosen to stay aloof from this issue. Churches that feed the hungry and house the homeless dare not offend the conservatives in their midst by suggesting that we also tend the sick.

I have pointed out to friends and family that I am in favour of a public, or national, option for health care (though admittedly without the opt-out fee). As a graduate student I would not be able to afford health insurance, and even if I could, I would be denied because of pre-existing conditions. How would I be treated for my rheumatoid arthritis, let alone my other health issues? As it is now, I am gladly and willingly living in a ‘socialist’ country where all of my prescriptions are provided for, and until I know I can get the care that I need in my home country, it may be better for me to stay in the UK.

And then, over at the Church Whisperer blog, Blake Coffee was discussing the three temptations in the wilderness for the Church, and what those might be. One of them is the ‘Christianisation’ of government, the pull to build political power to create a more comfortable world for Christians to live, work, go to school. ‘Comfort, after all,’ he said, ‘is not what followers of Christ signed on for. Just think what might be accomplished if we took all of the energy and resources we spend on political gain and devoted it to missions and ministry.’

And it occurred to me: wouldn’t it be radical indeed if the Church did provide for the sick? For people like me, and several of my friends, all of us having pre-existing (and expensive) health conditions? Despite being hardworking and capable citizens, none of us would get the care we need. We are certainly not alone in our numbers. For others, too; it would be a ministry that was in fact the Good Samaritan, and would not turn away those who are in need. Of course, there is the question of resources and funds (I am not the person to talk to about money), but it is something to think about.

Mindbenders

The weekend had not been kind to my arthritis, thus, I spent most of yesterday in bed willing the pain killers to work (alas, I left the really good ones in Scotland), but I did, like a Victorian invalid, make a circuit around the back garden and even walked as far as the elementary school playground in order to get some fresh air and stretch my legs a bit. My brain half-thinks it’s summer: it isn’t dark until 7 PM and I can wear short sleeves outside. Where on earth am I? Oh yes, South Texas. Where tomorrow the high will be 72 F/22 C.

The hairdresser at Supercuts asked if I was in high school. ‘Ah, no, I’m a graduate student.’ But somewhere between my answer and her next question I ended up being a college student at San Angelo State. I realised this mix-up too late to pull out gracefully; while I dug in my memories for Danielle’s stories from college, she fortunately did not ask any follow-up questions. The ability to ask a follow-up question seems to have become the lost art of conversation. I do not claim any proficiency myself, but I do appreciate finding a good conversationalist (except, of course, in situations such as the above).

And now, what you have all been waiting for with bated breath, the assessment of Neuromancer by William Gibson. The critic quoted on the front cover claims it is a ‘A mindbender of a read’, and it certainly is… strange. Neuromancer is the novel that created cyberpunk, a subgenre in sci-fi. Instead of dealing with outerspace, aliens and robots, cyberpunk is about the insides of computers and AI programs (but not robots, necessarily). For those unfamiliar with the cyberpunk genre but do watch movies, think of The Matrix. The creators of The Matrix have to have read Neuromancer: there are so many references that came directly from this book, even Zion.

It has been said that I read as a writer, and this is true. So while I can step back and appreciate that Gibson was pioneering a new genre, that no one really knew how computers worked when he wrote it in the early-1980’s, I do hold mostly criticisms. Gibson was repetitive, repeating character attributes beyond the point the reader should have remembered already. The narrator, who was presumably the main character, Case, frequently used vocabulary that Case would not have known; Case was not an academic, if anything, in the world Gibson created, Case had little formal education at all. Picking up some obscure vocabulary I can understand in the programming world, but not to the extent that Neuromancer had. The dialogue was choppy, with characters calling each other by name every other sentence even if there was no one else present. (Really, how often do you say the name of the person you are talking to? Think about it.) A final quibble on word choice: half-way through the novel, Case started using a curse word he hadn’t used before. I’m neurotic that I notice things like this, but I do, and it bothers me. The author should be consistent, or at least, have a reason for being inconsistent.

Kelly said that Neuromancer may have been expanded from a short story; if this is so, then it could explain some of the plot issues. The driving force for the plot—the question of ‘who, or what, is Wintermute?’—isn’t introduced until 70 pages in, so the first third of the novel seems episodic and irrelevant. Also, as I mentioned earlier, it was written in the early-1980’s, and it felt like it. It really is unfortunate when novels can be dated—not in the sense that one can place the general time period by the tone, but when the novel’s relevance is hindered by it being locked into a specific decade. Also, he didn’t ‘solve’ anything with the ending: the character passed out, and in the next chapter we find out that the AI’s took care of everything, and now the characters involved are all exonerated and rich. I don’t care for deus ex machina endings, myself.

Neuromancer does deserve to stay on The Literary Cat’s list of Essential Science Fiction, even if I didn’t like it very much. I appreciated reading it, despite not caring for any of the characters or the setting, and that the main reason I kept reading was to find out who/what Wintermute was. Oh, and I found out that the band Straylight Run got their name from this book. So there you have it.

Delayed

Not only did I arrive at the airport insanely early, but my flight has been delayed by two hours; thankfully, the airport has free wifi and I have a number of books with me. I have been reading Neuromancer by William Gibson this weekend and there is a post about it in the works; meanwhile, assorted thoughts.

I half-wish this plane I will eventually get on was bound to Edinburgh. I have been gone for too long. I have seen too many places, been to too many of my ‘homes’ that my present ‘home’ is getting fuzzy. I want to be back already and remember, have the stability of my daily routine. But there is also that perfectionist fear that once I return to Scotland, I will have to resume work right away, and what if my topic isn’t good after all? I am ever reminding myself that it is a journey. The topic is supposed to evolve.

The concept of ‘home’ is such a relative thing. Inevitably, I still refer to my parents’ house as ‘home’ because I lived there for most of my life and 90% of my library is there. But the Old House in SC is ‘home’ too, in a way, an ancestral home, connection through history and blood. Being with Kelly felt like home, and Albuquerque felt like home because the Williamses were there. But that little town by the sea, where my new friends and colleagues live, where I work and have my favourite haunts; that, too, is ‘home’ (the ‘right one’ according to some of my friends). Here I am sitting in an airport, wanting to go ‘home’, and all of the above will be correct. If I were to take a more abstract view, this earth is not my home at all; and yet, in the ECUSA Rite II liturgy, this earth is our ‘island home’. Contradictions, paradoxes: thus is life. Perhaps this blog is aptly named after all.