Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Source of book: We own this, but listened to an audiobook version narrated by Stephen Fry. Which is amazing. 

As I noted in my prior posts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I did not read the books when they first came out. I was in my 20s, in law school, and not particularly interested in kid books at that time. My second kid devoured them during her Junior High years, and remains the kid most into them. 

In any case, they are arguably THE single most influential books for Millennials (as my wife pointed out), so I decided I should become familiar with them. 

One thing that has become apparent throughout is that the Millennial loathing of Il Toupee does in part stem from Harry Potter. Rowling was perhaps a bit too prescient about the way evil men co-opt otherwise decent people, for example. Likewise, many of my parents’ generation - at least the Evangelical ones - loathe the books. (This is one of my frustrations with my mom, for example, who pretty much got eye-rolled by my kids when she opined that they were “demonic.” No, she hasn’t read them - but the Evangelical Industrial Complex says they are bad, so….) I believe one significant reason for this is that Boomers have become, in their older age, very focused on authority - their authority, of course. And Harry Potter points out that authority, far from being infallible, is often wrong, dangerous, and even malevolent. Thus, Harry and his friends have to actually follow their own consciences, not dictates from those in power. And this terrifies many Boomers. 

 So, about The Prisoner of Azkaban, which is the third book in the series, here are my thoughts. As my Potter fan notes, the series gets more complex starting with the fourth book. The first three are a bit more formulaic. This certainly applies to this book, which adhered very much to the pattern of the first two. To quote my previous review:

It is easy to see significant plot parallels to the first book: the torment with the Dursleys, a visit to Diagon Alley, the trip to Hogwarts, conflict with Draco Malfoy, Quidditch, a nefarious threat hidden under Hogwarts, a visit to the forest, and so on. In that sense, it felt formulaic.

And yes, a lot of this applies, with just a few twists. The threat isn’t under Hogwarts this time, but in Ron’s shirt pocket, and the visit isn’t just to the forest, but to “Hogsmeade” as well. Instead of a magical object or creature, the threat is human. 

The book opens, as usual, with Harry tormented by the cruel Dursleys, followed by his escape. A notorious wizard, Sirius Black, has also escaped from the gulag of the wizarding world, Azkaban, and is said to be seeking to kill Harry. In the meantime, there is a new professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts - that cursed position previously filled by Voldemort stooge Quirrel, then amusing charlatan Gilderoy Lockhart (so sad to see him go - he was so fun). This time, it is Remus Lupin, who turns out to be a werewolf. (Really subtle name there, Rowling…) 

It would hardly be a spoiler to say that there is a big twist in the book involving Sirius Black, as this kind of a twist is also in the first two books.

There are some good moments in this book. I found professor Trewlany (who I am compared to occasionally…) to be good comic relief. The relationship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione continues to develop. I did feel like it missed a bit of the secondary characters this time, though. Other than arch-nemesis Draco Malfoy, the other students didn’t get much time on the page. I missed Neville and Ginny and George and Fred and the rest. Likewise, we get Lupin - who is a solid character, and the rare helpful professor - and Snape, but it feels like the rest of the Hogwarts faculty just makes cameos. 

The plot is pretty interesting, though. I continue to be impressed by Rowling’s look at the way human beings respond to power. For Pettigrew, he is willing to betray his friends because, as a coward, he is determined to throw in his lot with whomever he believes has the most power, and who will prevail. This isn’t so much physical cowardice (many of us avoid danger and fear pain), but moral cowardice. Pettigrew lacks any moral backbone, and doesn’t give a crap about the harm that others will suffer. For an interesting fantasy comparison, see Terry Pratchett’s character of Rincewind. Rincewind avoids danger (when the Fates let him, at least), and runs way all the time. And he whines and stuff. But he is never a turncoat. Perhaps this is because “don’t get killed” is a more morally defensible ethical position than “be sure to be on the side of the winner.” 

So far, the series has been an interesting case study in how humans turn evil, and I think Rowling does a good job with the psychology. Likewise, I think Harry is a well developed character. I wonder how the story would be from, say Hermione’s point of view, though. We get less of Ron and Hermione’s thoughts, although that is the limitation of the point of view in general. 

On a semi-related note, my second kid IS Hermione in personality. We tease her that she really does need a “time-turner” given the academic load she wants to carry - she is determined to graduate high school a year ahead and go to college early. (There is precedent in my wife’s family - there are some wicked-smart women in every generation.) 

I guess in summary, this book felt a bit like more of the same. Some good moments, imaginative ideas, but a bit too focused on plot and less on character than I would have preferred at this point in the series. It will be interesting to see where the next book takes things. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Patch by John McPhee

Source of book: I own this.

It is always a treat when someone with good taste in books gives you a gift of one you hadn’t heard of. In this case, my wife’s brother-in-law (who is an all-around great guy), found this one for me this last Christmas. Even better, he got it at the historic Warwick’s in La Jolla, so now I have a cool bookmark from there. (I am getting a collection of them from various indie bookstores…) Let me take time to make a plug for local stores. Many are, during the Covid shutdown, offering free delivery within their city areas. We want them to be there when we get back to normal, so support them now. 

John McPhee is considered one of the key pioneers of the “creative non-fiction” genre. These days, we tend to take for granted the existence of enthralling long-form stories that combine accurate reporting and factual information yet use the techniques of literary writing to create the very opposite of a dry recitation of facts. It is the use of language, of narrative arc, of storybuilding, put to use to communicate and entertain. 

John McPhee is not only one of the originals, he is still one of the best. I am sure I must have read some of his work before, although I didn’t note the byline enough to remember it later. McPhee is also renowned as a teacher. His students look like a “who’s who” list of American writers - and he is still teaching at Princeton at age 89. What is most amazing about his work is just how broad his topics are. It seems there is little he hasn’t written about at some point, and he is able to make any topic interesting, no matter how arcane or “boring” it might seem at first glance. 

The Patch is his latest collection of essays, published in 2018. It might be more fair to call it a half-collection, however, as only the first half (6 essays) are new work. The second half is what he calls an “Album Quilt.” By that he means it is a motley collection of excerpts from other things he has written over his long career. The pieces cover literally five or six decades of writing, and cover such a crazy range of topics, it is hard to know where to start. I mean, there is a thing about Rock Hudson back when he was a big star (and alive, for that matter), and a bit on bird watching, a couple paragraphs about the Moscow State Circus, a look at the exclusive golf club congressmen (and it was ONLY men) used, a few articles on sports players and coaches, and so much more. And with very few exceptions, it was all fascinating. (And considering the range of topics, chances are everyone will find one that may not be as interesting to them…) 

The title essay, “The Patch,” is about he and his late father fishing for pickerel in shallow water where they hung out. I’m a terrible fisherman - I have too little patience for it - but I loved this essay. It is clear that McPhee’s skills haven’t declined, because he tells a great story, and brings the scene to life incredibly well. 

This isn’t the only new essay that mentions his dad - a few of the new essays serve in part as eulogies. His father was (among other things) the physician for the sports teams at Princeton, and, well, I’ll let McPhee tell it:

Early in the season, Princeton football practices often occurred in high heat. Not to mention humidity. Charging, blocking, punting, grunting, everybody dehydrated by the quart. My otherwise benevolent father forbad them to drink ordinary water. They were losing electrolytes, and they needed to hydrate and electrolyze. Buckets beside the practice fields held the only fluid my father would allow the players to drink. They complained. They further complained. But they were so thirsty they dipped ladles into the buckets and drank. The fluid tasted awful, as I can testify, because--age eight, age nine--I drank it too. It was an aqueous solution of sodium chloride, sodium phosphate, and potassium chloride. Why am I telling this story? Because, twenty years later, researchers at the University of Florida College of Medicine, responding to a request from Coach Ray Graves, developed a drink full of electrolytes to hydrolyze the Florida Gators. The difference between Gatorade and the solution in my father’s buckets was sugar and fruit flavoring--healthless components that were evidently of no interest to my father or I would be writing this from one of my seasonal villas. 

That short paragraph is a tour-de-force of good writing, from the careful plotting and pacing to the internal rhymes and rhythms to the perfect use of vocabulary. McPhee’s writing is adapted to his topics, but it is always excellent.  

Two of the new essays concern golf. Now, I am not a golfer, and don’t really care about golf as such. But I like good writing about golf very much - particularly P. G. Wodehouse. And, apparently, John McPhee. The first is about his hobby of collecting lost balls (so he can donate them to a program for kids who can’t afford $3.00 balls.) The second is about the original golf courses in Scotland, before they became the environmentally catastrophic artificial playgrounds for the rich they tend to be now. His description of the wind and the sheep and the ocean and so on is pretty good by itself. I rather enjoyed his explanation of where “links” come from. Many announcers get it completely wrong. It comes from the Old English “hlinc,” meaning “rising ground” - a hilly wind-sculpted coastal terrain that exists only in a few places in the world. 

The other original essays all connect in some way to sports, although not always in the expected way. The “Album Quilt” is the part where the topics get crazy. 

One particularly great one involves McPhee locking his keys in the car in a dodgy parking garage in Manhattan. He finds a coat hanger and attempts to unlock it himself. And then the cops show up. So he asks them to help him break into a car. Which they do. 

Then the two policemen got back into their own vehicle and prepared to drive away. 
“Wait,” I said.
They had asked for no papers, no identification of any kind. They had found me trying to insert a wire into a Ford. Were they just going to assume that the car was mine?
Sam, hearing all this, looked at his partner, then back at me. He said, “Listen, mister, if you’re stealing that car, and you had the chutzpah to get us to help you, take it. It’s yours. You can have it.”

Now sure, white privilege and all, to be sure. But I myself have been hassled by the cops about possibly stealing my old Camaro. (Both ended fine, but I had to show ID and registration…) 

I also liked the opening of a brief bit (obviously from a longer essay) praising puns. I am an inveterate punster, so I am highly in favor of the art form. And, of course, the beginning is a pun:

The pun also rises, even while maligned as the lowest form of humor. In good hands, words can be made to jump, molt, wiggle, shrink, flash, collide, fight, strut, and turn themselves inside out or upside down. 

One final excerpt I want to mention is a longer one on bird watching. McPhee isn’t a birder, exactly - at least before writing this essay - so he was surprised to be asked to write an article on birding. I have gotten into it the last few years (not coincidentally when I got a camera with a long enough zoom), although I am not as serious as many. You can see my birding collection here. Anyway, there is an intriguing quote from McPhee’s birding friend. I don’t feel quite the same quasi-sexual way about it, but it does capture the thrill of getting a good shot of a new bird. 

“One might as well be blunt about it and concede that the entire enterprise is redolent of sexuality,” he said. “The voyeurism is embarrassingly obvious. I mean your stealth, your luck, and a couple of ground lenses can bring you into a secret intimacy with some of the most beautiful, graceful, and sensual beings in nature. The perspective is unreal--it’s as if you were up there on a branch among the leaves with them, and you cease to be your earthbound self entirely for a bright, timeless flight as you strain to catch one more glimpse of the golden-crowned kinglet darting through the conifers. Did I really see that crimson streak running through the yellow cap, or did I imagine it? The excitement can be compared only to that I experienced as a fourteen-year-old gulping my way through Lady Chatterley’s Lover, looking for the dirty parts. And yet the fantasy is of an exquisitely purer intensity--the eroticism of angels, not of thrashing animals on the ground.” 

I think I will have to add McPhee to my list of authors who I would read no matter what the topic - those who elevate the English language and capture the essence and real-ness of whatever they write about. His gentle humor and lovely writing as well as his dedication to understanding his topics are delightful. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Source of book: I own this. 

Last year, our library sale had a huge collection of Library of America hardbacks for sale at crazy-low prices ($3-5 a book). While I couldn’t get all of them, I did pick up a couple dozen to add to my collection. Two of those add up together to be the major works of Thornton Wilder. 

Because of the Covid-19 shutdown, I have been unable to see live theater for a couple months. (Kudos to local thespians for all the fun stuff they are doing online - you guys and gals are one of the best things about this town!) Instead, I have been reading more drama. 

I like this cover because it captures the sparse set, the use of the stars as a theme, 
and the way it asks the audience to fill in the scene from imagination.

I decided to read Our Town for two reasons. First, it is one of Wilder’s best known works - and it won a Pulitzer. But also, the movie version features the music of Aaron Copland, which I got to play a bit of for a movie concert back in the day. 

A small-town orchestra to go with a small town.

In addition to the play itself, I read the additional materials in this volume: three short pieces by Wilder on the play, plus part of the correspondence between Wilder and producer Sol Lesser as they worked together to revise the screenplay for the movie. 

First performed in 1938, Our Town seems fairly tame by today’s standards. But at the time, it was unusual and experimental. There is no scenery, a few chairs and tables for props, and the “Stage Manager” breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience throughout. Questions from carefully planted members of the “audience” also ask questions in the first act. These innovations seem normal now, over 80 years later, but were hardly usual at the time. The play also seems traditional in its values, but was perhaps a bit shocking to a 1930s audience. I’ll get to why on that later. 

The play is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, at the turn of the 20th Century. It is one of those “typical” New England towns with white clapboard houses, just changing over from horses to cars, and so on. To go with this idea and the sparse staging, Wilder directed that “It is important to maintain a continual dryness of tone, -- the New England understatement of sentiment, of surprise, of tragedy. A shyness about emotion.” 

In addition, as the state manager notes that the town is putting in a new bank with a time capsule (so popular in those days), and that this play can serve as a corrective to all the “official” stuff: a record of everyday life. 

And so the play is, in a way. But it isn’t just a snapshot of small-town New England and its ordinary folk denizens. It actually carries a modern (and timeless) message about the importance of valuing everyday life, and living in the moment. 

The play is in three acts. The first is that snapshot of two families in Grover’s Corners, those of prominent but not wealthy citizens: the doctor, and the newspaper publisher. Their children are tweens and teens, and it is clear that the doctor’s son may have a crush on the publisher’s daughter. One of the questions from the “audience” and the response are rather amusing.

LADY IN A BOX: Oh, Mr. Webb [the publisher]? Mr. Webb, is there any culture or love of beauty in Grover’s Corners?
MR WEBB: Well, ma’am, ther ain’t much--not in the sense you mean. Come to think of it, there’s some girls that play the piano at High School Commencement; but they ain’t happy about it. No, ma’am, there isn’t much culture; but maybe this is the place to tell you that we’ve got a lot of pleasures of a kind here: we like the sun comin’ up over the mountain in the morning, and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them. But those other things--you’re right, ma’am,--there ain’t much.--Robinson Crusoe and the Bible; and Handel’s “Largo,” we all know that; and Whistler’s “Mother”--those are just about as far as we go.

This is a fun link to The Moonstone and the use of Robinson Crusoe as a sacred text. 

In the second act is the wedding between George and Emily, with a flashback in the middle to how they realized they loved each other. This act is pretty emotionally complex, with both George and Emily appearing afraid of marriage and commitment at the last moment, revealing their feelings to the audience through monologues with the scene frozen. 

Personally, this felt weird to me, because my own experience with marriage was so different. Neither of us had anything resembling cold feet or fear about marriage. (Irritation at the wedding planning process yes - we have agreed to elope if we ever renew our vows…) We weren’t naive, either. We both knew each other well, and had both good judgment and great chemistry on our side. Likewise, there was no fear of the honeymoon. And we had a blast in every possible way. Obviously marriage isn’t one long ecstasy - we have had our tough moments too - but we both have had more fun than we expected too. 

Perhaps one telling exchange here is in the incident where George and Emily realize they love each other. George has been so focused on baseball that he has gotten a reputation as stuck up. Emily calls him out, and he feels the weight of it. 

EMILY: I always expect a man to be perfect and I think he should be.
GEORGE: Oh . . . I don’t think it’s possible to be perfect, Emily.
EMILY: Well, my father is, and as far as I can see your father is. There’s no reason on earth why you shouldn’t be too.
GEORGE: Well, I feel it is the other way round. That men aren’t naturally good; but girls are. 
EMILY: Well, you might as well know right now that I’m not perfect. It’s not as easy for a girl to be perfect as a man, because we girls are more--more--nervous.--Now I’m sorry I said all that about you. I don’t know what made me say it.

This is a well-written exchange. Both are expressing flawed views - based on gender essentialism of course - that interfere with their ability to really see the other. But they are still a good match, and legitimately good kids. Wilder handles dialogue like this in such an understated way, but with a lot more nuance when you think carefully about it. A good pair of actors could take these lines in different directions, for sure. 

In the third act, we learn that thirteen years later, Emily has died in childbirth (sorry about the spoiler, but the play is 80 years old…) Several of the other characters are dead now as well, and resting in the graveyard. They are conscious, but waiting. Not waiting for judgment, but for the future. A future when they will see clearly and become most themselves. This is in contrast to the living, who live “in closed boxes” - caskets of their own, where they cannot see the big picture. Emily goes back to her twelfth birthday (against the advice of the other dead), and receives not pleasure, but horror at seeing how everyone fails to live in the moment, but are so distracted as to not really see or hear each other. 

This is the bit that I mentioned above that probably seemed controversial at the time. Wilder explains in the other materials, however, that it wasn’t his idea exactly - it’s from Purgatory. (Wilder does not appear to have been religious in the usual sense, but the play itself assumes some sort of transcendence and religious truth.) The positive vision of the future as the time when we all see clearly face to face rather than darkly through a glass is why I cannot say the play is in the least pessimistic. It is rather positive overall. 

The ending differs in the movie: Emily turns out to have dreamt of her death instead, and she is given a chance to live with the insight. The correspondence between Wilder and Lesser discusses this change - which Wilder approved of completely. In his view, the screen and the stage were different, and expectations were different, and killing a beloved character didn’t fit with the message of the play when done on screen. In the stage version, Wilder felt that it was clearly metaphorical, and the death of Emily was easily seen as a “death comes for us all” moment. 

By the way, the correspondence is fascinating. The portion reprinted was selected to represent the discussion of bigger ideas, rather than fine details, but there is a lot left of the viewpoints of the two men regarding the differences between stage and screen, particularly the different ways to convey the sense of the whole town from scenes which see only small places. Both men clearly care about the final product - and see it as fine art, not mere flashy entertainment. They both are congenial and admire each other. It was a good working partnership. 

It would be interesting to see Our Town on stage some time. Perhaps one of our local theater groups will take on the challenge someday.

One final note: Wilder is one of a very few who have won three or more Pulitzer prizes, and the only one to have won for both drama and a novel. Our Town was the second of the three. His 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey was the first, and the third was the play The Skin of Our Teeth. Both are on my eventual reading list.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Source of book: I own this.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. Space Opera was nominated by my wife, and won the vote this month. I was not really aware of this book, but was familiar with the author, who wrote a series of imaginative fairy tales for kids, starting with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Space Opera has some similarities, but is rather a different sort of book. 

 As the author explains in the “Liner Notes” at the end, she was introduced to Eurovision in 2012, and thought it was a fantastic idea. Birthed in the aftermath of two catastrophic world wars, it aimed to provide a more positive outlet for national rivalries than warfare - and became a deliciously campy, over-the-top spectacle that is like nothing else. Valente started live-tweeting the contest; then one year, a fan joked that she should write a science fiction Eurovision novel...so she did. 

The basic premise of the novel is this: due to a wormhole incident (one yawned - they are like giant pandas in spacetime), tempers flared among the galactic civilizations, and catastrophic war resulted. After much was reduced to rubble, the survivors decided that they needed a better option for competition than intra-galactic war. So, they established a song contest to be held yearly (based on a rather longer year - hey, planets differ!) This contest would determine how the galactic resources were divided for the next period. Oh, and if any planets with potentially sentient life were discovered, they would have to participate as well...and if they came in last, they were annihilated as non-sentient. 

At the beginning of the book, then, Earth is discovered, and finds to its horror that they face the end of everything if they can’t manage to score at least next-to-last in a contest they have never heard of, involving forms of life with far greater resources to draw on. 

And, the galactic powers that be have already selected the musicians to represent them: has-been “glitterpunk” glam-rock group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. Never mind that they broke up years ago, and that one member of the trio is dead. The aliens are, well, a bit behind the times, and every other group on the list is dead, so the last group left standing gets the nod. 

Space Opera clearly draws a lot of inspiration from Douglas Adams, both in the inspired zaniness and the tendency to go off on rabbit trails about different civilizations or events. However, unlike Adams, Valente actually uses a plot, and the satire is more focused and less scattershot. This is both good and bad. One of the great things about Adams is that, at his best, his work feels like pure escapism, and you don’t really see the zingers coming. The satire is unexpected most of the time, and there is no plot or “point” to worry about. In contrast, Valente definitely has an underlying theme: the problem of sentience and xenophobia, particularly in our Trumpian age. After all, is a species which has spent its entire history at war with itself - often trying to annihilate slightly different humans - really sentient? Or is it more like an existential threat to other civilizations? 

The book got mixed reviews from our club, in large part because of the long digressions. Valente’s tendency to string adjectives together also made it a bit difficult to follow - particularly on audiobook. (I am trying to imagine how impossible Henry James would be on audiobook, with his page-long sentences…) In fact, I would say that those who read the book in print or electronic form liked it better than those who tried the audiobook - and that is despite the narrator sounding a bit like Douglas Adams himself. I thought the book was good fun, laughed at the satire, and considered it a fun escape from our currently trying times. 

I think I probably appreciated some of the jokes more having watched enough Eurovision (after the fact) to understand how over-the-top it is. (Valente isn’t exaggerating that much, shall we say.) I also “cheated” and read the “Liner Notes” early in the book, so I knew, for example, that the chapter names were all actual titles from Eurovision winners and runners-up. And that the names of the various alien races were taken from words in languages spoken by Eurovision nations. (Great examples: the Flus, a race of identical genocidal narcissists which fail to make the cut, come from the Maltese word for money. Voorpret is Dutch for Anticipation. Utorak is Tuesday in Slavic.) Looking this stuff up is easier when you can put the book down and grab a computing device. Also, since I could take notes, I jotted down some good lines for later. 

Here is one satirical zinger. The Esca (Italian for bait) are the race chosen to make contact with earth, using billions of holographic communication somethings to manifest and speak to all humans at the same time. As the emissary explains, this saves time:

I can’t wait for your monarchs to decide to hide it, lose control of the narrative, deny the evidence, call me a weather balloon, confess and resign, and finally leak a half-redacted version of what I tried to say to a newspaper friendly to one faction or another. Who has the time? 

I snorted really hard at this one. While it is a fairly universal characteristic of rulers, it is so very Trumpian you can’t miss it. Except for the resignation. Trump will have to be dragged from the White House by force someday - unless he dies choking on his own narcissism first. 

The Esca go on to explain the need for the contest:

Here’s the catch, kitten: whenever evidence of a new species with significant potential for expansion is discovered, we all get very nervous. Sometimes, the new kids are clearly on the up-and-up, bright scaled and bushy tailed sensitive sweeties who really have their shit together. But not everyone cleans up nice for company. Not everyone can be trusted to play nicely with all the other children. Sometimes, a species gins up the technology necessary to well and truly muck things up for the rest of us before they develop anything like self-awareness or complex reasoning or radical empathic perspective, before their philosophical digestive tract can handle something spicier than malice aforethought or semibenign neglect. 

In our own reality, it is pretty clear that the Hitlers and Trumps of our species do not meet this requirement - they (and their followers) are characterized by a pathological lack of empathy that cannot imagine the level of self-awareness, complex reasoning, or ability to see things from the perspective of other groups necessary to play nicely in the sandbox. They end up starting wars, trying to exterminate people groups, and obsess about keeping “those people” out. Which is, of course, why we need to be more careful to keep people like that out of power and way from the technology that allows them to muck things up for the rest of us. 

Valente also gets a good dig in at the way that humans love to think that they and those like them are “superior” because they happened to have access to resources others didn’t. In the book, the Aluzinar happened to be closest to the wormholes, and thus controlled space travel. This is certainly been the story of humanity. Those with the guns, germs, and steel, so to speak, can slaughter and enslave those without, and then use their religion to claim god loves them more. 

In the early days of the universe, whether or not a habitable planet happened to have a wormhole nearby was as consequential to the eventual political map as whether or not a particular group of humans happened to be born on a continent with domesticable animals on tap or on an island the size of a doorknob where the only source of reliable protein was a semipoisonous tuber. Wormhole or no wormhole had just as little to do with the inherent superiority and/or possibly divine mandate of the smirking bastards who won the cosmic draw as cow or no cow, and yet, everyone everywhere will do, say, and stab nearly anything if it means they get to believe that they are blessed and their neighbors are basically toad-people. 

Yep. And Christ had a lot of harsh things to say about that too, which it is so ironic that most of his supposed followers say the complete opposite to what Christ taught…

I wish I could quote ALL of chapter 13, which essentially explains how the test for sentience works. After rejecting cities, self-awareness, tools, problem solving, love, language, object permanence and other tests - which some animals can pass - before settling on this:

Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony? Enough brainpower and fine motor control and aesthetic ideation to look at feathers and stones and stuff that comes out of a worm’s more unpleasant holes and see gowns, veils, platform heels? Enough sheer style and excess energy to do something that provides no direct, material benefit to your personal survival, that might even mark you out from the pack as shiny, glittery prey, to do it for no other reason than that it rocks?

And not just that, but also:

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that. Who extinguish art. Who burn books. Who ban music. Who yell at anyone with ears to turn off that racket. Who cannot see outside themselves clearly enough to sing their truth to the heavens. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play? 
Do you have soul? 

It is no accident that autocrats the world over, from Hitler to Stalin to...well everyone...crack down on the arts. The arts are not primarily “entertainment” - they are our prophets. (Hey, read the Prophets in the Old Testament - it’s great poetry!) It’s also why the United States has had such a love-hate relationship with popular music. Our unique contribution to art derives not from the dominant white people, but from the African American experience. Cult leaders like Bill Gothard, therefore, had to paint music with an “African” origin as demonic, insisting on the superiority of European art forms. It’s very much political, as all art is. It is the same reason that the GOP has targeted the National Endowment for the Arts for decades. While they like to parade out a few controversial artists, most of that money doesn’t go to controversy, but to a wide variety of programs which make art available to the non-moneyed classes. And that, of course, is anathema, because people who experience the prophecy and power of art have a transcendent experience they can share that is outside the pale imitation offered as “patriotism” by those in power. (I really need to write a post about this sometime. But for now, just read up on composers like Shostakovich and his subversion of Soviet politics.) 

As an alien later observes, “[T]he opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down.” 

I am reminded of two incidents here. The first is the way that facist-enabler Mike Pence got called out when attending a performance of Hamilton. The reeking hypocrisy of someone who stands for persecution of LGBTQ people and immigrants attending a play full of gay actors celebrating the life of an immigrant is foul indeed, and good for the cast for stating the obvious. 

The second is this: while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Olivier Messaien composed (and performed with other prisoners), an amazing work, Quartet for the End of Time, which in essence raised a middle finger to the Nazis, reminding them that judgment was coming for them when justice is done at the end of the world. 

Here is another way to look at art:

No matter how mad, bad, and dangerous to know a civilization gets, unto every generation are born the lonely and the uncool, destined to forever stare into the candy-store window of their culture, and loneliness is the mother of ascension. Only the uncool have the requisite alone time to advance their species. 

These are kind of the heavier themes, but the book as a whole is more lighthearted. I mean, other than the “will earth survive?” thing hanging there. Just before the big showdown, there is an extended scene set in a re-creation of a hotel lounge where the mixer from hell is going on. Valente has clearly been stuck in one before, and gets the details right. Well, almost right. Because the aliens who re-create it for the comfort of the newest contestant don’t quite understand how humans work. So there are a lot of drinks available, but nobody knows how to make one that won’t poison a human. It is not unlike those old American oddity shows where they put fake Native Americans on display in “traditional” costumes. Only a white person would think it looked right. (Or, think billionaire James Dolan trying to play blues…) 

As part of this scene, the digital race, the 321, have to manifest as...something so that they can be seen. So, with limited knowledge of human culture - and what they have from the digital realm, they choose, of all things, Clippy. Yep, the highly annoying digital “assistant” from past versions of Microsoft Office. I think everyone on earth hates him. Did anyone like him? Anyone? The 321 are a bit pissed that this went poorly for them. 

Printing a high-capacity three-dimensional corporeal interface isn’t as easy for us, you know. We have almost transcended the need for gross physical storage. We can’t just conveniently roll out of bed in a nice wash-and-wear body like the rest of these gooey bastards. Inasmuch as we have any home, we live in the rich router clouds of asteroid archipelago

I can’t stop laughing at the reference to the default IP address for a router. 

There is one other chapter that would be great to quote at length, chapter 30, “Silence and So Many People.” (Portugal 1984) It brings up the idea of interspecies sex, and it is pretty hilarious. And also, realistically sex-positive, if that makes sense. It starts with “Everybody fucks. Well, almost everybody.” 

No force on this plane of reality can equal the drive to get a leg over, because it’s the nondimensional otherspace where all those nice, sophisticated fundamental forces meet and form a weird, wet, messy trashball: tension, friction, gravity, electromagnitism, thrust, torque, resistance, elasticity, drag, momentum, inertia, pressure, chemical reactivity, fusion, conservation of energy, self-loathing, humiliation, and loneliness.
Being ashamed of it makes about as much sense as being ashamed of the speed of light. 
Everybody is bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes they wouldn’t admit to their grandmother on pain of vaporization and worthy of love. You are bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes you wouldn’t admit to your grandmother on pain of vaporization and worthy of love. It’s a literal goddamned zoo out there, so this is the best I can offer you: don’t giggle when the other entity takes their clothes off, secure enthusiastic consent, don’t mix silicon and carbon without extensive decontamination protocols, tidy up your house if you expect to bring someone home, don’t expect anything you wouldn’t offer, remember that every person is an end in themselves and not a means to an end, don’t worry too much about what goes where and how many of them there are, don’t mistake fun for love, try your best, be kind, always make them breakfast, and use protection. Chromosomes are not nearly such picky eaters as you might think. 

That’s actually pretty decent advice, come to think of it. 

Finally, let’s talk about the songs. Well, there are actually two facets to the songs. First, the imaginary songs. Valente sprinkles band names and songs throughout the book, usually as part of the description of a species and how they make music. While there are some real groaners, I found some hilarious. Your mileage may vary. 

“I Can’t Get No Liquifaction” - sung by the viral species that creates zombies. 
“Gleams of Production” - by the Azdr (Armenian for “thigh”) who are locked in an oligarch/proletariat struggle.
“Abort, Retry, Fail” - by the 321 of course. (True story, every time I see that, I remember accidentally crashing a minor computer owned by the FAA as a kid while at work with my dad. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has long since run, no permanent damage occurred, and I was pretty young at the time.) 

And, my very favorite: “Clock Lobster” by Basstime Anomaly. Which is on my shortlist of best band names ever. 

Then, there are the real tunes. The ones the chapters take their names from. Most are available on YouTube, particularly if you translate the names. I’ve selected five to show the range. 

First, this one from 1969, back when Eurovision still had a live orchestra. The first chapter in the book uses this name. “Boom Bang A Bang”

Second, from Bosnia and Herzgovina in 2011, “Love In Rewind.” There is a lot to like about this - the old guy as frontman, the nostalgic instruments, the naive and earnest singing. I’d totally want to jam with this band. 

Third, from France in 1990, “White and Black Blues.” It is a reminder that France embraced African American musicians long before the United States let them stay in hotels and eat at restaurants and come in the front door of the theater. 

Fourth is a great example of how Eurovision has gotten completely over-the-top in recent years - and I mean that in the best way. Here is Austria’s Conchita Wurst with “Rise Like A Phoenix.” 

Last, in the category of Awesomely Campy is a song that is better than a lot of the pop I have heard on the radio lately, “Vampires Are Alive” - Switzerland 2007. 

These are just a few of the fun songs that the chapter titles will lead you to. Take the time and listen to each as you read….

No, it isn’t great literature. Yes, it can get wordy. But I had a fun time with it, and with taking a dive into the glitterpool that is Eurovision. Give it a shot.