Thursday, July 28, 2022

Hadriana In All My Dreams by Rene Depestre

Source of book: I own this.


I like to read books in translation as part of my regular reading diet. I realized this isn’t quite the same as reading books in multiple languages, but given my skill set, this is the best I have. There are various ways I discover these books. For modern ones, lists from NPR and LitHub among others are a good way to find new books as they come out. There are also various lists of classic books that are useful. 

Hadriana In All My Dreams is like no other book I have ever read, and is definitely one of those mind-expanding sorts of books that open a different world. How to describe it? Well, first of all, it was originally in French, written by a black Haitian author. It is a zombie novel, but nothing like the pop-zombie stuff that has entered the cultural consciousness of white America. There are no zombies on rampage, and you can’t become a zombie by contact. The key to understanding the way this works in the book is to understand that the original zombie myth originated among enslaved Afro-Caribbeans, and, like all the great myths, finds its ultimate origin in the human psyche - the fears and the trauma of a particular existence. 


This is very much the case with the zombie myth. As it is explained in the book, one becomes a zombie because one is poisoned, usually by a witch doctor. The toxin paralyzes and causes a death-like state. (Think Juliet in Shakespeare’s play…) Once in that state, the witch doctor can sever the “petit bon ange” (the soul) from the “gros bon ange” (the body.) The soul is imprisoned in a container, and exists in a disembodied state until the death of the body. The body can then be resurrected by an antidote, and it becomes a soulless slave to the person who restores it. 


If this sounds a bit like, well, enslavement, you would be correct. The Hatians were captured by the white witch doctors, their souls rendered irrelevant by circumstances and the lash, and their bodies forced to be “self healing meat robots,” as Kurt Vonnegut memorably put it. 


This would explain the particularities of the original zombie legend. One does not become a zombie because one contacts other zombies, but because zombiedom is forced on one by an outside oppressor. Zombies do not exist as a plague, but as a soulless enslaved labor force. They are undead not because they do not need food or other necessities of life, but because they have no soul. For that matter, zombies move slowly and listlessly for the same reason. Without the soul to motivate action, they are just meat robots….kind of like the enslaved. 


So, consider that the mythological background to the story. Fortunately for the international reader, Depestre doesn’t assume knowledge of all this, but explains it as needed throughout the story. 


The other part of the necessary background, on the other hand, is assumed. Depestre assumes that the reader knows something of Haiti and its history. Originally a French colony, it became - along with much of the Caribbean - the home of coffee and sugar plantations. When it turned out that the indigenous peoples didn’t “perform” well as slaves, the French, like the other colonial powers, imported people from Africa to be those all-important meat robots to enrich the empire. 


Haiti’s history thus far resembles the rest of the Western Hemisphere that was built on enslavement. But then things take a turn. Haiti’s enslaved rebelled against enslavement. And they did so successfully. 


This of course both terrified the European collonialist powers (and the fledgeling United States, which also feared a successful slave rebellion) and enraged them. France, which had other issues which prevented them from winning yet another war, instead slapped Haiti with an obscene “reparations” debt - in essence, charging the formerly enslaved for their lost value. Between the debt and the exorbitant interest rates, for decades, Haiti was paying fully 80% of its GDP to pay back this bullshit debt. And they were still doing this as late as 1947. And then you had an occupation by the US, multiple coups and revolutions, hundreds of natural disasters, and, well, Haiti remains a wreck. (And yes, white Europe and the US are largely responsible for this.) You can read a pretty good summary here, if you want to know more. 


And then there are the demographics. Haiti’s population is mostly of African descent, with a small fraction of Taino and French left. And, as is the case in most places where enslavement took place, there is a significant “mulatto” (the term used in the book) population, originally the result of rape, but later (including in the book itself) of consensual interracial marriage and relationships. This is important to the plot. 


The book takes place mostly in 1938, in the village of Jacmel, on the southern coast of Haiti. It is Carnival, and a beautiful 19 year old French woman, Hadriana, is going to marry Hector, a black Haitian boy from a prominent and wealthy family. In what feels a bit odd to me as an American, everyone - and I mean almost literally everyone - is happy about the match. Hadriana has been practically deified or at least sainted as the best thing the town has to offer. And why not? She is beautiful, she seems kind and generous, everyone loves her, and she appears to embody the kind of religious and social virtue that the town venerates. Hector, for his part, seems a nice boy, and from a good family, and they love each other. 


But then things go badly wrong. At the altar, Hadriana is barely able to say “I do” before she collapses and dies. Hector is so traumatized, he ends up in the hospital unconscious. And, whatever the secular French family of Hadriana believes, the Haitians clearly are convinced that there is villainy at work, and that Hadriana is at risk of becoming a zombie. 


What follows is surreal. The funeral ends up as a war of sorts between the French Catholic priests, and the Haitian believers in Vodou, with Hadriana’s soul possibly in the balance. Carnival meets the Requiem, in many ways. 


And things take an even more bizarre turn. A furious hurricane lashes the island the night after the burial, and the village awakes to find that the grave has been dug up, and Hadriana, casket and all, are missing. 


And that is the end of the story. Well, for a long time at least. It isn’t until over 30 years later that we find out what happened. 


Most of the book is told from the perspective of Patrick, who is kind of a god-brother to Hadriana. They were christened together, and their families are super close, although they do not share blood as far as I can figure out from the book. Patrick is Hadriana’s close friend - and he has the serious hots for her - but they apparently aren’t considered to be matches for each other, perhaps because they are viewed as “brother and sister.” After Hadriana dies, Patrick immigrates to the United States, where he eventually discovers additional information from another ex-pat from Haiti. 


We also get bits of information from other sources. Patrick recounts the stories the hairdresser told about a young student of the occult who, after he seduced his mentor’s mistress (“femme-jardin” is the term used - a delightfully ambiguous term applied to a variety of entanglements) was turned into a sexually crazed giant butterfly. This whole story gets pretty freaky - it involves a lot of supernatural rape, cosmic orgasms, and an old lady with a dozen vulvas. This in turn is related to the theory about Hadriana - this horny insect turned Hadriana into a zombie so he can have her body as his own. 


We also get a few other zombie stories, told by Patrick’s uncle, as well as a kind of political essay that Patrick writes explaining the connection between the history of enslavement and the zombie legends. 


But it is the very last section that is the most unusual. In it, Hadriana finally gets to tell her own story. For most of the book, she has been very much an object. She is the idol of the town. She is a sexual fetish. She is a dead (or undead) body. She is the embodiment of the town’s very essence - which is why it falls into decay after she dies. But finally, at the end, she is able to have a voice, to explain what happened to her, and to reveal some secrets about herself. 


It turns out that she is certainly not the pure and innocent thing that the town insists she is. She desperately wanted to fuck Patrick, but he never could make the move. Then, later, she wanted every bit as much to get it on with Hector, but his vision of her as a virgin bride prevented him from giving in to her seduction. And, when it comes down to it, one of the things that makes her most furious about being struck down at the altar is that she didn’t get to have sex. She feels she is being punished for a sin she wasn’t even successful in committing. 


Okay, unless you count that time as a teen she was eaten out by her best female friend. And it appears that her will to live, and to reunite her soul and body is driven in significant degree by her libido. 


I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that the book intentionally leaves a huge gap in time, which we are left to imagine with nothing to guide us. 


In case it isn’t obvious so far, this book is, in a way, drenched in sex. But not like you would think, entirely. It is shocking at times, with a way of juxtaposing the sacred and profane that curls the toes of us puritanical American sorts. Even the translator, Kaiama Glover, notes that it was a stretch to figure out how to translate the twenty different words Depestre uses for female genitalia - and that is before you get to the many, many metaphors used throughout. The sex is probably why the book was translated into many languages other than English first. Our Anglo-American sensibilities are, perhaps, not accustomed to treating sexuality as integral to life. 


Don’t think that this book is mostly about sex, though. It isn’t preachy (except for Patrick’s little essay - which is played both for laughs as well as content), but it isn’t difficult at all to see the political and religious commentary that is barely hidden throughout. Questions of race, privilege, wealth and poverty, exploitation, objectification, gender expectations, and more are raised in a subtle manner. The writing is rich and emotional, and Depestre never needs to use a heavy hand. 


There are a number of other things I would like to discuss, which are best understood through the actual words of the book. 


First, there is this quote from Rene Char that is used as the opening. 


“We have only one recourse in the face of death: make art before it happens.” 


Interesting enough, but in the context of the book, it raises questions as to the author’s meaning or interpretation. Hadriana is, essentially, “art.” She is an object of beauty for public consumption. Does she “make art” before she dies? Or is her role just that of being art? Is Depestre talking about himself, and his attempt to make art? Or is he thinking of something darker? Good question, and I’m not sure the book is unambiguous about this. 


There is a long passage early in the book, where the author describes (and lists) the absurdly large list of food and decorations needed for the wedding. I mean, the whole town is invited, and it shows. I was definitely reminded of a certain song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of Cinderella. Plenty of fun. As I said, there is a certain amount of humor in this book - it’s just, well, a bit dry and satirical. 


I mentioned earlier the battle that takes place over Hadriana’s body. Here is how the author describes it. 


From that moment on, there began a pitiless battle between the two belief systems that have long gone head-to-head in the Haitian imagination: Christianity and Vodou. 


I have been thinking about this a lot. In the subculture I was raised in - and in the discussions I had with my missionary-kid parents - there was a general disapproval of the way “third world people” blended their local beliefs with “pure” Christianity. As if somehow white people are the only ones untained by paganism or past belief systems. As if they somehow received the One True Faith™ pure and untainted from heaven, free from the past and from outside influences. 


Which is simply horseshit on a stick. 


ALL religion is syncretistic, and always has been. There has NEVER been some “pure” religion that came down from heaven. ALL religion has arisen out of the culture it came from, and has been blended with every other culture it has encountered. 


What we like to think of as “pure” Christianity is really a mix of traditions. A little Judaism, a lot of Greco-Roman philosophy…and plenty of European paganism too. (Christmas and Easter are the most obvious examples, but the theology itself has borrowed.) And in the case of American Christianity, we have have blended our own American mythology - the John Wayne Cowboy, for example, Ayn Rand’s social darwinism for another, and the apparently unkillable belief in the inferiority of darker skin. There is nothing more pure about our own religion than in Hatian Vodou Catholicism. We just assume ours is normal and thus pure, while anything different from us is adulterated and thus tainted and less-than. 


And this isn’t just in our modern world. Judaism itself arose out of (and continually mixed with) the Canaanite and other Ancient Near East religions, just like the Jewish people were very likely just a tribe of Canaanites themselves. And thus for every religion in the history of humanity. 


(BTW, I am a Christian for various reasons, but I no longer can hold the belief that people like me have a monopoly on truth. It seems absurd that the only true theology would be vouchsafed only to a bunch of white guys who conquered and enslaved others while treating women like property. Just saying.) 


This particular fight ends up becoming rather racial as it goes on. The Catholic clergy are all white, and they believe that white people are somehow exempt from the effects of the pagan rituals. Their souls are somehow different. But they also feel the need to hurl invective at the black people who are trying to bring their own practices to a white funeral. At one point, the priest prays that the Virgin “deliver us from the masks and the drums of paganism.” Yeah, nothing racial about that at all, right? 


Patrick, for his part, feels torn between the two. After the funeral, he asks his uncle about the zombie legend, and gets the history. But what is fascinating is this line:


Up until then, this phenomenon had been more of a mystery to me than the story about getting knocked up by the Holy Ghost’s hard-on.


Ouch. See what I mean about the sacreligious way the author blends sex and religion? But this is a good point. 


Here is another interesting point. One chapter is an imaginary interview Patrick has with a journalist who has written a story about Jacmel. (It’s a long story…fortunately the story isn’t needed to understand this point.) Patrick notes that the whole zombie phenomenon can only exist because people allow it to. Just like….slavery. Zombies could be rescued, after all. Administer the antidote and reunite the spirit and body. 


“The effectiveness of magic is a phenomenon of social consensus. And that’s what was working against Hadriana Siloe that night. When an entire village,, in accordance with its traditions, is convinced that a human being can become undead as a result of a toxic substance and an act of witchcraft, the victim’s entourage can’t be expected to come to her aid in such circumstances. On that night back then, in the depths of everyone’s conscience, we all just wanted to keep our distance from the young zombie bride, brutally abandoning her to her inescapable fate, seeing her as a danger to the whole of the Jacmelian community. That’s what happened.” 


Kind of a sobering thought in light of enslavement - and atrocities like the Holocaust as well. All it takes is that “social consensus” to look the other way, or to treat the victims as if they were a danger to the rest of us. 


The essay by Patrick is both a bit humorous - it is written in a stuffy manner, with references to theories and theorists from Sartre on down, and clearly seems intended for a bit of a laugh at Patrick and his living in his head rather than actually, I don’t know, doing something useful. But it is also perceptive. Patrick is a pedant in the essay, but he isn’t wrong. Here is one that I decided to quote, because it is really quite spot on. 


In returning to the original source of the myth, one must go over with a fine-toothed comb an eminently magical process that, over the course of the last three centuries, has allowed for the designating of Europeans of different ethnicity (Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, etc.) as “Whites”; of the indigenous peoples of the Americas “discovered” by Columbus in the Western hemisphere (Arawaks, Tainos, Caribs, Ciboneyes, Mayas, Incas, aztecs, Quechuas, Guaranis, etc.) as “Indians”; and of sub-Saharan Africans (Sudanese, Guineans, Bantus, Congolese, Angolans, etc.) as “Negroes,” “mixed-race,” “Mulattos,” and “people of color.” Under the effect of what amounts to an absurdly fantastical inversion of the hierarchy of form and substance in our species, it somehow became commonplace to insist on a causal relationship between the skin color, facial structure, and follicular attributes of various human groupings, on the one hand, and their particular cultural and natural developments on teh other. As a function of these racializations of colonial conflicts, the essence of African ethnicities was reduced to a fantasy of the “inferior nature of the Negro,” while the essence of the ethnic groups emerging from Europe was elevated to the no-less-fantastic notion of the “superior nature of the white man.” Through this simultaneously mythological and semiotic vugarization, the institution of slavery invented social types in the Americas so as to assure its own prosperity. 


This myth is so powerful today, unfortunately. I mean, notorious fascist Viktor Orban recently made the absurd claim that Europe was somehow racially pure once, and is now being mixed with those “inferior” races. Scientifically ludicrous, of course, but a powerful myth that appeals to those who benefit from being considered “superior” because of pigmentation. 


Finally, I want to mention a line from Hadriana’s story. She mentions the place her soul goes where all the souls are put into bottles of various sorts. (Hers goes into a champagne bottle - it’s a good soul.) The jailor - a good natured fellow - describes this as “bottling up the imagination.” This makes clear again the connection in Depestre’s use of the zombie myth between zombification and enslavement. The essence of humanity is its imagination. Enslavement renders imagination irrelevant - indeed, unwanted. The idea slave has had his or her imagination carefully excised - it just gets in the way of being a hard-working meat robot, right? Enslavement of all kinds is thus dehumanizing in and of itself. 


Hadriana In All My Dreams is a fascinating book, a work unlike anything else I have read. It is a fairly easy read, but definitely deeper than it appears at first glance. Unfortunately, our library doesn’t carry it. Fortunately, I found a used copy online and added it to my own collection. It’s not difficult to find, and definitely worth it. 




Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Source of book: We own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Last year, we read Mandel’s other pandemic book, Station Eleven, which I mostly liked, although it had its flaws. I found this one to be kind of meh, with some good moments, but not really memorable. 


This book too is science fiction, with multiple plot threads - although the non-linear plot pattern makes sense considering the book is about time travel. This book is also really short (the book itself looks bigger, but there is a LOT of white space.) Because of this, it felt like it sort of nibbled at ideas, but never really made a meal of them. A taste of time-travel-paradox here, a crumb of “is the universe just a simulation?” there. A little taste of possible moon colonies, even less of a Europa colony, a glimpse of mechanized agriculture, and so on. But nothing is ever really digested. I guess I could say it felt kind of like a science fiction version of a “cozy mystery?” Just enough to make you feel like it isn’t total fluff, but no real substance once you get beyond that? 


At least Station Eleven had a fairly well thought out idea: that culture - Shakespeare and classical music - were kept alive in roving bands of players, kind of like in the Middle Ages with the traveling shows. 


Speaking of that, it was a real bizarre and false note in the world of the book that within a couple hundred years, nobody knows about Shakespeare. Seriously. You have regular flights between the moon and the earth, but nobody learns Shakespeare anymore? The reason this is particularly silly is that since the infrastructure of information still exists, clearly, anyone can learn about Shakespeare on the 24th Century interwebs. So why would he just disappear from the public consciousness? Even Homer survived the Dark Ages when most books literally disintegrated from neglect. I cannot fathom a world where everyone suddenly decides to stop caring about the great literature of the past. I mean, if she wrote a totalitarian world where knowledge was destroyed, that would make sense. But in this book, it seems that nothing of that sort happened. It’s a really bizarre idea, and should have been explained. Particularly since in that other book of hers, she seems to understand that in a post-apocalyptic world, the mysterious and great things of the past would likely be the stuff that would resonate the most. Now, it does make sense that people of centuries future will have no idea how Kid Rock ever had a career…


So, the plot centers on a series of “anomalies” in the time continuum. At certain times and places, people experience this break with reality and hear a violin playing in an airship hanger. This starts with a younger son of an Edwardian aristocratic British family, who has been exiled to Canada. He experiences this soon before meeting a priest who seems….a bit off. Later in the 2200s, an author on tour before a Covid-like disease decimates the earth and moon recalls a similar incident in her childhood, and puts it in a book. A girl in our own time is playing with a video and captures the anomaly. Later, her brother makes it into an artwork. And so on. 


The farthest in the future, time travel has been perfected, and one of the main characters is tasked with going back and investigating this anomaly. Which leads to issues, and a kind of weird conclusion to the book. 


If this sounds a bit disjointed, it is. It fits together, but with plenty of seams showing. Plus, I got the end, and didn’t really feel like the story ever drew me in. It was okay, but it wasn’t like Station Eleven in the sense of being memorable. 


There were some interesting moments. It was at least darkly amusing the idea that the US has broken up into several states. (I think this has a high chance of happening in my lifetime, actually.) And I think Mandel (a Canadian, by the way) is pretty accurate in her description of the Republic of Texas. (From when the author is on her book tour.) 


In the Republic of Texas the next afternoon, she wanted to go for a walk again, because on the map, her hotel - a La Quinta that face another La Quinta, a parking lot between them - was just across the road from a cluster of restaurants and shops, but what the map didn’t show was that the road was an eight-lane expressway with no crosswalk and constant traffic, mostly modern hovercraft but also the occasional definitely retro wheeled pickup truck…


There is also a pointed observation when the time-traveling Gaspery is being briefed about traveling back to 2203. 


“November 2203. Early days of the SARS Twelve pandemic. Don’t worry, you won’t get sick.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It was one of our childhood immunizations.” 


This is pretty accurate. I would say the overwhelming majority of people in our time have zero idea what diphtheria is or what it was like. It is one of our childhood immunizations, so we don’t tend to even think about it. But it used to kill hundreds of thousands a year, mostly children, even notables like one of Queen Victoria’s (adult) daughter. Unfortunately, the way things are going right now, it seems as if we are heading into an age of vaccine denialism - overwhelmingly on the Right - and thus a resurgence of preventable disease. (I am old enough to remember when anti-vaxx was mostly a hippie leftist movement, but thanks to Trump, it is now a mainstream right-wing litmus test for ideological purity.) 


One thing our book club did find delightful was the time-traveling cat. We are pretty much a club of cat lovers (although a few like my wife mostly tolerate them), so cat characters always get a bit of love. In this case, a time traveler decided to stay where he was, so he removed his tracking/homing device and fed it to a cat. Who then returned to the future. “Your cat’s from 1985.”


I also liked a conversation about apocalyptic thinking. There is an extended sequence where snippets of lectures given by Olive (the author in the book) are quoted. She asks the question of “when have we ever believed that the world wasn’t ending?” Throughout history, parents have felt guilt about bringing children into a broken world. I think Olive makes a fascinating observation, one that has been borne out by my own experience - particularly the “we are living in the end times” garbage that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation made into an entire industrial complex. 


“[T]here’s always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that were living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.”


Related: Frank Kermode wrote an entire book on this phenomenon, this weird narcissism that plagues us humans, where we believe that our own extinction as a person - our death - must somehow be a synecdoche for the universe as a whole. This was definitely a great moment in the book. Except…it really had little to do with anything else in the book. It was there, and then the plot moves on, and it never is really revisited. I think it should have been, honestly. Like so many other moments, it could have been used as a recurring theme. 


So, I guess, this book feels like it never ended up going anywhere, or really saying anything. It was a story, and then it ended, and it kind of filled some time, but never really moved me. Which was disappointing considering I did enjoy Station Eleven.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Two Plays About Plays

I recently saw two local productions of plays that are about plays. This genre is nothing new, of course - Shakespeare himself used the “framing story” of actors putting on plays in The Taming of the Shrew, and used a play-within-the-play in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since then, various playwrights have used the idea, as have screenwriters. Sure it’s self-referential and meta, but it can be funny and effective if done right. 


In this case, I saw two very different plays: [title of show] at Stars Playhouse, and The Play That Goes Wrong at The Empty Space. 


[Title of Show]


This one is interesting because it is a musical, and is very much about itself. Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell get an announcement of a theater festival, and decide to write and submit a musical by the deadline…which is only three weeks away. With the assistance of two actor friends, Heidi Blickenstaff, and Susan Blackwell, they put together [title of show] - which is about them creating the musical. By the way, those are both the real names of the people involved and the characters. According to Bowen and Bell, as they attempted to write a play, they realized that the conversations they were having about that were more interesting than any of their other ideas. 


With this idea, then, they added songs (which utilize common musical tropes as well as theater in-jokes), and made a show. My wife is a huge musical fan, so she got a lot of jokes that I missed, although I still found the show funny. For one thing, references are made to some rather obscure musicals, and specific actors that I wasn’t familiar with, but she was. 


For this production, the four parts were played by Markelle Taylor (Hunter), Salvador Vidaurri (Jeff), Kit Fox (Heidi), and Charlotte Smith (Susan). Oh, and there is a fifth character - Larry (Kelsey Morrow) who is the ever-present pianist accompanying the songs. In this case, they pre-recorded the music, and had Morrow “play” along. While I couldn’t see the keys at the angle they had the piano, she did use sheet music, and to the extent I could see, was actually playing the notes. Milli Vanilli this was not.


I thought the cast had good chemistry, and that carried the production. The weak point was the vocals. Because of the small space, the voices weren’t amplified, so they had to carry it on projection alone. The problem was, the voices weren’t balanced, with Smith having the best volume, and Vidaurri tending to get buried. Pitch was fine, even with the challenging acoustics, but the blend wasn’t equal. This is the challenge for small-town theater, of course. There are a certain number of people who can sing, dance, and act, and outside of a very few, there are compromises in one facet or another. 

Charlotte Smith, Markelle Taylor, Salvador Viduarri, Kit Fox


As I said, I thought the cast chemistry was good, and perhaps that was given priority. Vidaurri as the soft-spoken Jeff played well against Taylor, who was highly expressive and more emotional. Taylor has an incredibly flexible and expressive face, particularly his mouth - every insecurity of the character was on display. I last saw Kit Fox in the two-actor production of The Turn of the Screw, and I like her acting. She was mostly the straight-man in this story, the struggling actor trying to get gigs, and unsure what to make of Susan, the rather mad-cap, over-the-top counterpart. Smith was perfect in the role, delightfully goofy. 


I’ll also mention that I thought the songs, “Change It, Don’t Change It” and “Awkward Photo Shoot” were particularly well done. The choreography for the photos was impressive, with the actors changing poses on beat. 


The Play That Goes Wrong


This production was, hands down, the most hilarious thing I have seen this year. The kids and I couldn’t stop laughing - particularly my 11 year old, who apparently is just the right age for this sort of humor. A number of our favorite local actors (and a number of friends) were in this one, which made it even better.


A local drama society puts on a production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” and it…goes wrong. This framing starts before the play itself. Director and do-everything Chris Bean (played by Tevin Joslen) is trying to get everything ready, from apologizing for the mis-printed programs to fuming at the tech crew for the problems with the set. 


As becomes apparent once the play starts, the tech crew is very much part of the play. Particularly once the set starts falling apart, and the actors need replacement after accidents. 


I won’t get into the plot of the murder mystery. It is pretty much a spoof of classic British whodunnits, particularly Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. It has a number of twists, naturally, and suspicion falls on each character in turn. 


But of course, everything goes wrong. Actors forget their lines, get stuck in repeating loops, overact, underact, misplace props, improvise badly, and so on. The sound and lighting has its own issues, with spotlights pointing at waists, musical cues coming at the wrong time, and things failing at the worst possible time. And then there is the set, which keeps falling apart until it finally collapses completely at the end. The set design was amazing, honestly - The Empty Space does more with their tiny venue than you would think possible. 

 Jesus Fidel

There were so many great scenes, but a few really stood out. The play requires copious quantities of scotch, but the bottle is accidentally poured into the communication tube. The actor playing the butler, Perkins (Jesus Fidel) grabs the only thing at hand, a toxic bottle of industrial alcohol. Thenceforth, whenever an actor takes a drink, they immediately spit it out violently, then declaim how good it is. In one of the repeating loops, aristocrat Thomas Collymore (Perrin Swanson) asks for a drink, slams it, spits, and says “God, I needed that!” So yes, plenty of spit flies - it isn’t the most hygienic play, I suppose. 

 Perrin Swanson

The female love interest, Florence, is initially played by Tessa Ogles, but she is knocked out in a mishap with a sticking door, and is replaced by two different actors in succession (stagehand Kelsey Morrow, then Nick Ono in improvised drag.) But when she comes to, she feuds with her replacement, who doesn’t want to give up the role. 

 Tessa Ogles, Jeremiah Heitman, Matthew Borton

And then there is that opening scene where murder victim (Matthew Borton) is constantly stepped on. As his bio says, “[Borton] has also died in several other productions and is looking forward to doing it for you tonight.” 

 Matthew Borton, dying for you tonight

Too many other hilarious bits to mention. But I should give a call out to the cast members (Liz Bomer, Matthew Borton, Jesus Fidel, Marina Gradowitz (longtime friend), Jeremiah Heitman (glad to see him back on stage), Tevin Joslen, Kelsey Morrow (two back-to-back plays - does she ever sleep?), Tessa Ogles, Nick Ono, Alex Singh, and Perrin Swanson (no relation, but we’ll take him) who were all outstanding. And also director Ronnie Warren, whose vision for his shows is always excellent. 

(l-r) Jeremiah Heitman, Alex Singh, Marina Gradowitz (top), Kelsey Morrow, Liz Bomer, Perrin Swanson

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I put this one on my book list in part because my wife recommended it - she read it as part of her other book club, and thought it was good. Also, I try to read books in translation regularly, and have enjoyed the various books I have read by Swedish authors. (Most recently, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. 

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry shares a certain vibe with other Swedish books I have read. There is a certain over-the-top absurdity that runs from the old Pippi Longstocking kid books (and the awkwardly dubbed movies we watched as kids whenever they came on broadcast TV) to the madcap adventures of a centenarian noted above. In this book too, the young protagonist, seven year old Elsa, is precocious and a bit outrageous. Although not as outrageous as her grandmother. 


Elsa is probably not neurotypical. She reads Wikipedia obsessively, has pretty much memorized Harry Potter, and seems to have no filter on what she says. She is endearing in a way, but also a bit too much to handle. (As I said, this seems a hallmark of Swedish fiction.) Because she is “different,” she is bullied at school, and then punished when she hits back. 


Her only real friend at the beginning of the book is her grandmother. And, wow, Granny is crazy. I mean, the book opens with Granny checking herself out of the hospital late at night and, along with Elsa, breaking into the zoo. And before that, she shot paintballs from the balcony, drove like a lunatic, and generally caused havoc wherever she went. 


Well, until cancer gets her, which devastates Elsa. Before she dies, she gives Elsa an assignment - an adventure: she must deliver notes to various people and say “my grandmother sends her regards and apologizes.” This begins a journey of discovery for Elsa, about her grandmother, and herself.


I should back up a bit. Elsa and Granny have a special bond because Granny has been her primary caretaker. Mom is a mucky-muck at the hospital, and divorced from Dad, while Granny is retired. This multi-generational approach to child care used to be the way most humans did things - and in many cases still do. 


Elsa and Granny have a few special connections too. Granny has created a detailed fantasy world, the “Land of Almost Awake,” where they go together at bedtime (and sometimes other times), and a “secret language” that they communicate in. I get the impression the language is just Greek - as we come to learn, Granny was once a world-traveling surgeon, and had a Greek friend. 


As the book unfolds, Elsa learns a lot she didn’t know about her grandmother and her past, and also about the other residents of the apartment house she lives in. It turns out that they all of connections to Granny, and fascinating pasts of their own. There is the veteran of a war (not really specified) who is germaphobic and shell shocked, a psychologist whose husband and children drowned in a tsunami, the brothers who fell out over their mutual love of a woman. It also turns out that they are all menaced by a violent and abusive man looking for his ex-wife and child. Oh, and also a giant dog that eats nothing but sweets. (Not realistic, but this book has that absurdity throughout.)


For the most part, the book is humorous. The characters are amusing, and anything involving Granny is outrageous and hilarious. But the emotional core is a lot darker. Elsa is experiencing grief that she has no idea how to process, and the adults around her seem unable to help her. Her mother tries (and eventually they connect), but she has some very complicated grief of her own: she was raised by a neighbor while Granny was off saving the world overseas. Everyone has their own difficulties and issues, from a failing marriage to an unfaithful man, to PTSD, to deep grief, to a disappointing life. As Granny says, most people are a mixture of shitty and not-entirely shitty, and this applies to all the characters. 


The eventual direction of the book takes a while to emerge. As Elsa realizes, all those fairy tales that Granny made up had an underlying basis in actual people and events, and part of the point was to prepare Elsa for the possibility that the violent man discovers his child, who will need to be defended. 


Thus, the book is a bit dark and humorous, but not darkly humorous, if that makes any sense. 


The best parts of the book were, in my opinion, the excellent portrayal of Elsa, who is both “different” and yet very human and relatable; and the psychological exploration of the effects of grief and trauma on the various characters. Oh, and, of course, the invention of Granny and her worldbuilding. There is nothing forgettable about this book - no formula. It feels unique, and memorable. It also feels recognizably foreign - it isn’t the sort of book you would find by, say, an American or British author. I think this may be a reason that some of my wife’s club members found it strange and difficult at first. 


The audiobook was read by Joan Walker, who did an excellent job. I do have an issue with the audiobook, and it is a common one. The tracks are a whole chapter long, so there are only four or five tracks on a 75 minute CD. Since I listen during my commute, and don’t always take the same car, this was highly frustrating. Other audiobooks do 3-5 minute tracks, which is what every audiobook should do. 


Friday, July 15, 2022

Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray

Source of book: I own this


First, let’s get this out of the way: there are a LOT of notable people with the name of John Gray (or John Grey.) This book is by the philosopher John Gray, who is definitely not to be confused with the pop-psychology author of the gender-essentialist twaddle, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus


This book combines elements of Gray’s philosophical ideas with, well, cats. Apparently, cats and philosophers have tended to get along pretty well, and there are some insights about human nature that have come as a result of the human/feline interaction. 


I am not entirely in agreement with Gray’s philosophy, to be honest. He isn’t a big fan of the idea of free will, or of humans having any ability to determine their destiny. I think he has too rigid of an idea of “human nature” - I’ll discuss that a bit eventually, when I finish another book I am reading. Oddly, reading this book, he reminded me rather a lot of Qohelet, the central character in Ecclesiastes. “Meaningless, everything is meaningless…so live in the moment and enjoy yourselves, not worrying about death someday.” If you are into philosophy, a good way to describe him would be the opposite of John Rawls. 


Philosophical differences aside, I actually thought the book was fascinating. Gray clearly has spent a lot of time around cats, and as a fellow cat lover, I think his analysis of feline behavior, emotions, and outlook on life are accurate. There is certainly none of this silliness about cats being aloof and unloving and malevolent - all stereotypes that persist today. Rather, he notes that they adhere to a definite philosophy of life - one that does not bother to worry about the future, that lives in the moment, and accepts things as they are. 


In this, cats clearly differ from humans. Humans are, as he correctly points out, haunted by the knowledge of our own death. (Cats do appear to know when they are close to death - and withdraw to do so, embracing death, if you will.) In order to make this bearable, we invent coping mechanisms, either distractions (so we don’t have to think about it) or attempts at immortality through inventing meaning for our lives. 


From this starting point, Gray explores the philosophy of cats from several angles. He discusses how cats (unlike dogs) domesticated humans, rather than the other way around. He looks at why cats don’t struggle to be happy - they just are, unless they are in danger or pain at the moment. He looks at the fact that “morality” is something humans do, while cats (and generally other animals, with a few exceptions like our closest relatives) do not think in terms of morality. He examines the way that feline love works - anyone who thinks cats do not love doesn’t know cats. But cats are more realistic about the ephemeral nature of love. He looks at how cats respond to death, and how we might take some inspiration on our own view of the meaning of life from cats. 


While the philosophy part can be a bit bleak sometimes, for the most part, this is a lighthearted, affectionate book, combining serious ideas with a deep love for our feline friends. In this, I can sense, despite our other differences, a fellow lover of cats. 


Here are some of the ideas that I thought were fascinating. 


Cats have no need of philosophy. Obeying their nature, they are content with the life it gives them. In humans, on the other hand, discontent with their nature seems to be natural. With predictably tragic and farcical results, the human animal never ceases striving to be something that it is not. Cats make no such effort. Much of human life is a struggle for happiness. Among cats, on the other hand, happiness is the state to which they default when practical threats to their well-being are removed. That may be the chief reason many of us love cats. They possess as their birthright a felicity humans regularly fail to obtain. 


There is definitely truth in there. For example, just think about the tragic and farcical consequences of humanity’s denial that sexuality is a part of human nature. All the unnecessary guilt, all the battles with each other - indeed, all those ludicrous superstitions about masturbation that continue to circulate - and that is just one element of human nature we seem determined to repress. And yes, there is nothing quite as content - indeed smug - as a cat. We do love them because they find a full tummy and a sunbeam to be the meaning of life. Gray talks at more length in a subsequent chapter. 


When people say their goal in life is to be happy, they are telling you they are miserable. Thinking of happiness as a project, they look for fulfilment at some future time. The present slips by, and anxiety creeps in. They dread their progress to this future state being disrupted by events. So they turn to philosophy, and nowadays therapy, which offer relief from their unease. 


Just to be clear: Gray isn’t dissing therapy as treatment for specific issues, but rather as used in the way people use popular philosophy or religion to treat a general discontent with their human existence. And I do know people who do this (some are related to me…) Gray notes that what humans call “happiness” is often something else altogether. After discussing several schools of philosophical thought; ones which promise to give meaning to life, he puts his finger on the problem. 


All these philosophies have a common failing. They imagine life can be ordered by human reason. Either the mind can devise a way of life that is secure from loss, or else it can control the emotions so that it can withstand any loss. In fact, neither how we live nor the emotions we feel can be controlled in this way. Our lives are shaped by chance and our emotions by the body. Much of human life - and much of philosophy - is an attempt to divert ourselves from this fact. 


One of the reasons I have rejected the fundamentalist/evangelical doctrine of my upbringing is exactly that. It promises both to give a way of living that guarantees (manipulates) God will like you more than other people, and thus prevent loss - and it insists that it makes any losses that do occur somehow to be part of a cosmic plan and thus ultimately good. And this is just horseshit on a stick. (And worse, when it is used against the victims of abuse, who are expected so say God intended it for their good. That’s just cruel and nasty.) In reality, bad things happen for two reasons. Sometimes, because bad people do bad things to others. But mostly, because shit happens. For most people the bad that happens to them is out of their control, and telling them to just feel better about it doesn’t help anything. 


And that eventually leads into one of the best passages in the book, even if it isn’t directly about cats: Pascal’s Wager


I first heard about this as a kid. (Yes, I was that sort of a kid, which I think is why my parents have struggled with me all my life. I can’t simply accept things “just because.”) The gist is that it is worth making some sacrifices during one’s life on the off-chance that God exists and heaven awaits. I never felt that was convincing at all. And Gray explains why. 


First, this assumes that we know which god to bet on. And not just which god, but which theology related to that god, and which set of rituals and rules related to that god. And so on…


Thus, it isn’t just one wager, so to speak, but an entire universe of wagers. And one with terrible odds: you have to guess the one true thing™ that will get you that reward, and, if you guess wrong, you lose. So belief is more like winning the lottery than hedging one’s bets. 


Second, what Pascal is really proposing, if you read the rest of his writing, is a diversion. He is terrified of death, so he diverts himself with religion. Gray notes that there are plenty of non-religious ways of doing this that are just as effective. 


Third, Pascal is falling into another trap, one that I think is the central, crucial error of Evangelicalism: the belief that what God really cares about is Believing the Right Things™. Get one’s list of doctrines right, check all of those theological boxes, perform the right cultural standards, and you get heaven in the end. This reduces God to the role of a psychopathic pedant, as I came to realize while I was still a minor. (Hence decades of unnecessary battles with my parents over cultural rules for both me and my eventual family.)


I could really do a whole post on this. And on the related question of how Christians could live better lives if they reversed the usual “what if?”: what if there really was no god and afterlife? How would they live if their consciences and internal morality were all they had? (And the judgment of history….who wants to be known as the witch burner?)


In the section on ethics, Gray also examines the problem of morality. Gray does not believe in a universal morality dictated from a supreme being, obviously. He is also skeptical of the Enlightenment concept of “natural law,” originating from a universal human nature. I won’t get into all of what he says, some of which is more convincing to me than others, but I do want to mention the way he contrasts the Western/Christendom/Enlightenment belief system with both the ancient Greek idea of the dike - one’s nature and place in the universe - and the Chinese idea of the tao. Having read the Tao Te Ching a few years ago, this was certainly an interesting discussion. Personally, I have found this idea to be helpful in my own life. Rather than trying to fit my life into rigid conceptions of who I should be, I have been able to function as the person I am. To find my place in the universe based on my own gifting and calling, not the categories imposed from without. As Gray notes, our Western concept owes much to Aristotle, and that is problematic. 


According to Aristotle, the best sort of human being was one like himself - male, slave-owning, and Greek - who was devoted to intellectual inquiry. Apart from justifying the local prejudices of his time - a practice nearly universal among philosophers - this view has a more radical defect. It assumes that the best life for humans is the same, at least in principle, for everybody. True, most cannot achieve it, but this only shows their inferiority to those that can. The possibility that human beings might flourish in many different ways, which cannot be ranked in any scale of value, did not occur to Aristotle. Nor did the idea that other animals might live good lives in ways of which humans are incapable. 

Taoism again offers a refreshing contrast. Human lives are not ranked in value and the best life for other animals does not mean becoming more like human beings. Each individual life, every single creature, has its own form of the good life.


This has been at the core of so much of the turmoil in our nation, and in my birth family. There is this idea that only one kind of life - the conservative, white, middle class, christian, patriarchal…the list goes on - is a morally acceptable and fulfilling life. When human experience gives strong evidence to the contrary - atheists seem happy and fulfilled and moral, LGBTQ people are happier when they live in accordance with their nature, white people seem the most dysfunctional in our country on average, egalitarians like my wife and I have good marriages - the response is to brutally suppress these truths. 


I also want to mention the passage on cruelty. I agree with Gray that cats are not cruel. When we say they are (based on how they hunt and play with their victims), we are projecting our own emotions on what they do. 


As predators, a highly developed sense of empathy would be dysfunctional for cats. That is why they lack this capacity. It is also why the popular belief that cats are cruel is mistaken. Cruelty is empathy in negative form. Unless you feel for others, you cannot take pleasure in their pain. Humans displayed this negative empathy when they tortured cats in medieval times. 


This is why those who feel (rather than practice) empathy can be infinitely cruel. It is impossible to take pleasure in the pain of others if you do not understand that pain. 


Gray explores this idea as well in the chapter on love. 


Among human beings love and hate are often mixed. We may love others deeply, and at the same time resent them. The love we feel for other human beings may become hateful to us, and be felt as a burden, a fetter on our freedom, while the love they feel for us can seem false and untrustworthy. If, despite these suspicions, we go on loving them, we may come to hate ourselves. The love animals feel for us and we for them is not warped in these ways. 


When it comes to the discussion of death, I thought Gray made a great point (borrowed from Ernest Becker) that human beings chase power so they feel like they are escaping death. And also, that cruelty comes from that same impulse. Active manipulation and control of others gives that illusion that we can control death itself. He also notes that the totalitarian movements of our time are also related to this. Having lost our former rituals easing the reality of death, we embrace both mass movements and this illusion of controlling everything - so we don’t have to face death alone. 


I think Gray’s ideas about cats and dying hold up well. For example, I think he is right about this:


If cats could look back on their lives, might they wish that they had never lived? It is hard to think so. Not making stories of their lives, they cannot think of them as tragic or wish they had never been born. 

Humans are different. Unlike any other animal, they are ready to die for their beliefs…But if humans are unique in dying for ideas, they are also alone in killing for them. Killing and dying for nonsensical ideas is how many humans have made sense of their lives. 

To identify with an idea is to feel protected against death. Like the human beings who are possessed by them, ideas are born and die. While they may survive for generations, they still grow old and pass away. Yet, so long as they are in the grip of an idea, human beings are what Becker called ‘living illusions.’ By identifying themselves with an ephemeral fancy they can imagine they are out of time. By killing those who do not share their ideas, they can believe they have conquered death. 


When it comes to the question of “how then shall we live?” Gray makes a list of ideas drawn from how cats live that he thinks can be helpful for humans. A few of these seem like good advice. 


One burden we can give up is the idea that there could be a perfect life. It is not that our lives are inevitably imperfect. They are richer than any idea of perfection. The good life is not a life you might have led or may yet lead, but the life you already have. Here, cats can be our teachers, for they do not miss the lives they have not lived. 


And this one:


Life is not a story. If you think of your life as a story, you will be tempted to write it to the end. But you do not know how your life will end, or what will happen before it does. It would be better to throw the script away. The unwritten life is more worth living than any story you can invent. 


And finally:


Beware anyone who offers to make you happy. Those who offer to make you happy do so in order that they themselves may be less unhappy. Your suffering is necessary to them, since without it they would have less reason for living. Mistrust people who say they live for others. 


In the words of another philosopher:


Anyone who is among the living has hope. Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. 


Oh, and go find a cat to pet. A bit of purring will help ease any existential crisis.