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Off the cuff poem

Diary Entry for a Time Traveler

I will tell you

because I want you to understand

who we were.

I was in class when the towers came down.

I came out at our fifteen minute break

saw the news

glanced puzzled outside of the office window

because New Orleans also had a WTC

and then I went back to class.

So did the teacher.

They locked the building to outsiders

but the class went on.

On the days when New Orleans was drowning

I went to the library in Shreveport

to read the news

I competed for laptops carrying electronics news with

the unemployed looking for jobs.

Some of them murmured their

consternation. Some of them tapped their foot

as I sought pictures of my neighborhood.

Listen, I heard that there were people shopping

for groceries in Paris steps away

from where shots rang out.

Perhaps some monsieur ran out for bread for dinner

only to find that he needed it later when

friends stopped by to console him on the death of his wife.

It’s common to talk about Nero fiddling

while Rome burned.  Actually, he was out of town

that day.  He returned to rebuilt the Palatine.

I sit on the ruins that cover his buildings and wonder.

Am I the weeping peasant sifting

the ashes for my parents bones? Am the merchant making

a fortune on concrete that year?

Or am I the woman who sold the tinder to the man with the torch?


Books read: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

I finished listening to this audiobook today.  It’s odd comparing it to the HBO show.  Now I feel that the HBO drama added a load of mystical junk to a basic story in order to ensure a second season.  None of the mysterious voices, rabid dogs, or even a lot of the violence is in the book.  The book is more of an examination of what happens in a little town when a disaster takes away 20% of the population.  In this case, the disaster is the rapture.

This rapture is not a Christian rapture.  During the course of the book, we learn that much of the consternation (in america at least) is caused by the fact that the percentage of missing people was chosen completely randomly.  Some were good people; others were known adulterers.  Some were troubled celebrities and some where infants.

Without all of the mystical mumbo-jumbo that the tv series picked up, the book is a more nuanced metaphor of what happens to a town after a widespread disaster.  Some families splinter.  Multiple cults are born.  As time passes, they are forced to redefine themselves. (As Christianity had to do itself.)  Teenagers flounder and life moves on.  In many ways, it reminded me of watching life change in New Orleans after Katrina.

At times, I felt as if I was slogging through this book.  It is an snapshot of normal life.  The characters are living in extraordinary circumstances, but dinner still has to be made.  Women go on dates that are sometimes boring.   Teenage girls make plays for their friend’s father.  I am not a fan of books about ordinary life.  In the end, I felt that the author did capture the feeling of brokenness that loss creates and the effort that it takes to move on.  Even the two cults that form to anticipate the final pages of Revelations are forced to evolve when years pass without more change.

As an aside, there are some things that the HBO drama did well.  Their cast is more multi-racial even though the major viewpoint characters are white.  The race of the characters in the book are seldom addressed.   America’s standard racial default for novels is white unless you are told otherwise, so I am going to assume that all of Perrotta’s characters are white.  Cheers for HBO to make the leap of understanding that nothing in the book requires that the town is mono-racial. There is one instance in the book when race is mentioned—one male character preys on teenage asian women—and that was retained by the tv series.


books read: "The Color of Chrst"

This book was a surprise in many ways.  It is not concerned with exploring what race Jesus was.  It is an exploration of how Jesus has been portrayed in America.  I have often wondered why we don’t see biblical epics from the Middle East.  After reading this book, I think that the American biblical epic is a side effect of America’s unique implementation of colonialism and racism.

The authors begin near the end of their virtual timeline.  They begin with the bombing at the 16th street Baptist church.  The bombing took the lives of the four girls and it also strikingly removed the face of the white Jesus in one of the stained glass windows of the church.  The authors began their investigation to ask how a white Jesus ended up in a Black church.  “How he sanctified white supremacy for some and opposition to racial injustice for others.”

One of the surprises for me was that the white Jesus was not a direct import of Europe.  The Puritans forbade any portrayal of Jesus.  Their visionaries felt free to describe Satan and his cohorts.  But Jesus remained only a white light in their descriptions.  There was a document called the Publilus Lentulus letter that purported to describe Jesus as white with brown hair parted in the middle; the letter was derided as an obvious forgery even in their time.  Artists who wanted to paint images of Jesus left the states for Europe for fear of being tainted with the crime of painting icons.

I was also surprised at how Jesus was ‘sold’ to native Americans.  Often the native Americans fell into two camps: dismissive of the missionaries who came from a people who killed their own god, or seeing a Jesus who was more like themselves.

Jesus doesn’t become imaged until the 1800’s.  The two authors focus on three main reasons why.

One was slavery.  As enslaved American and abolitionists see Jesus as a symbol of liberation, their opposition  seizes on the Publilus Lentulus letter as proof that Jesus was white.

Another factor was the beginnings of the church of Latter Day Saints.  The early Mormons believed that black skin was a symbol of sin.  They supported the Confederacy and believed that it heralded the second coming.

A third factor was the battle to subdue the Native American population.

Thrown into the mix was America’s quick adoption of mass distribution.  Mark Twain jokes about all of the biblical tracts that river boatmen were inundated with, all of them propagating a white Jesus.  The image of a white Jesus with brown hair and blue eyes was exported everywhere where missionaries roamed.

The book ends in the modern era.  The authors point out that while many churches have removed images from inside the church, the American image of Jesus is still propagated in “t-shirts, movies, books, and air balloons.”  In 1978, the church of Latter Day Saints opened the hierarchy to Black men.  They had also earlier resurrected an old Danish marble statue (11 foot) that affirm, the authors say, their commitment to Jesus, whiteness, and power.

One of the final scenes in the book is at the 16th street Baptist Church where a Black Jesus replaced the one that was bombed.  The changing immigration patterns have made the image of Jesus inside the church more varied.  Outside the church, American propaganda (unconsciously?) still often uses a white Jesus as a symbol of its righteousness and power.



September, and my
fig tree nudely points at Eve's
retreating green skirts



Trying to decide whether to continue here.  I had abandoned this for facebook, but it occurs to me that it is a place where I can ramble to myself.



Ferry Ride

Worldcon 2013 - Where do we go from here?

  • Can Traditional SF Communities Survive Multimedia Conventions

I left this topic to handle a bunch of issues.

Events were held at the Marriott RiverView, the Marriott RiverCenter, and of course, the convention center.  The two Marriotts were right next door to each other and it was two days before I realized that they were two different buildings and not two nicknames for the same building.  Apparently, one used to be a Fairmont hotel.  The Hugos and the Masquerade was in the RiverCenter.  The Kaffekatsch were in the RiverView (these were a chance to sit with a author and just have coffee and talk.)  My hotel was across the street from the Convention Center.  I thought that was close until I had to walk and walk to get to the proper entrance was on the opposite side of my hotel.

I got to registration only to find that “someone had already picked up your badge”.  I was sent to the Solutions desk (a good idea).  They had the badge saying that I lost it on the bus last night.  Well, no, I said.  I just got in town a few hours ago.   A mystery.  The convention center seemed to be under renovation or improvement.  Most panel were in the B building.  The B building actually was two separate building separated by the San Antonio river.  By the 4th day, I finally realized that I could not get to the second B building (rooms 6 - 8) by going downstairs at the rear of the building--which was closest to the bridge over the river.  The escalator going down was under maintenance.  The elevator only went up and not down (despite having a down button).  Thus a long walk back to the front of the building, go outside and either down an elevator in another part of building or down the steps.  Then walk the length of the building until you get to the bridge.  There were buttons on the glass doors so that people in wheelchairs could open the doors.  The buttons did not all work and the door opening would crash into the person operating the button.  We were spread out quite a lot and I am certain that the Latino conference was bemused by all of these strangers walking through their allotted rooms in order to get to another set of rooms which unreachable on the other side.

All of this to mention the panel listed about.  I wrote notes because much of what was said apply to many gathering.  The “issue” is that Dragoncon is held the same weekend as Worldcon and now pulls many more people.  According to Google, the attendance of ComicCon was 130,000 in 2010.  The attendance of Dragoncon was 52,000.  The attendance of Worldcon was around 4,000.  Where does Worldcon go from here?

Kevin Roche said that his two major suggestions are (a) Worldcon should stop moving from city to city.  (b) Worldcon should be Worldcon in name -- not Lonestar (the 71st Worldcon in subtitles).

Oh -- personally, I don’t have a problem with the second.  However, I would hate to see Worldcon nailed to one city, since Worldcon gives me a chance to treat the convention as a vacation also.  Also, since most of the writers are in New York and L.A., one of those cities would be chosen.  Both expensive cities for a convention.

Another suggestion, is that Worldcon should advertise.  I don’t know if they advertised in the city, but I listened to a conversation in Macy’s where someone related the experience of telling a book buyer that her favorite author was just across the street at a convention.  I agree--they just advertise outside the fan community.

One happy innovation at conventions was the creation of event/display lounges.  At an earlier Worldcon, the hotel did not want people lounging in the hotel lobby so the convention created an lounge area at the convention.  Circular tables so that people would talk to each other.  Micro-progamming events: like the mechanical bull ride that I did on Thursday and the live Angry Birds game that others did on Saturday.  There was a stage where events occurred without announcement.  Displays like convention bids, videos, costumes, prior Hugo award designs.  This area was open even after the dealers room closed.   Kevin Roche believes that the speciality of Worldcon is conversation.  People go to Comiccon to get stuff, he thinks.  People at Worldcon like to sit around and talk.

I would say that there were not enough places to sit around and talk at this convention.  There were not enough chairs and sofas in the halls of the convention center.  People did sit in the hotel lobbies and talk.

He thought that having gaming being in the convention center was a good idea.  He disliked seeing it in a dark room that was a mystery to other convention attendees.

Suggestions: a twenty-three year old in the back objected to that.  He thought that the gaming area felt thrown together.  No one was running the area; making suggestions, helping people.  He made some suggestions that people in his age group would want to see.  Several people came up to him later and asked to talk to him further.  I don’t know a thing about gaming, but I can say that there were no intro panels for people like me.   There were intro panels for costuming and I did attend one of those.

Someone suggested that there needs to be a maker space that adults felt comfortable in.  The kids area created games, costumes, etc and some adults mentioned that they would have liked to be able to do that.

What do I think?

As I said, I have no problem with Worldcon merely becoming “Worldcon”.  It is different every year and some years are better than others because it is fan-run.  Each year, a different corporation runs the con, a corporation that exists only due the time needed to make the bid and disperse final funds at the end.   Comic-con is not at all attractive to me because it is (a) media oriented, and (b) not fan-run.  I don’t know anything about Dragoncon other than the legal issues going on as they try to oust a board member.  If you look at various web sites, you would get the impression that they are more interested in movies, TV, and comics than literary works.  People in the audience said no --Dragoncon now includes a literary track also.  So, I don’t know.  It seems too large to be much fun.  After all, there were panels during this week that I wanted to attend but could not.  Worldcon is nice in that I get a concentration on books but I can dip into other areas and find out why people find them so fascinating.  (Another reason that gaming needed an intro panel.)  2014 is a year where the North American worldcon (NASFIC) will be a  different time than Dragoncon.  It would be possible to check both out.
How international is Dragoncon?  That is one great thing about Worldcon.  At few other cons can I sit down with someone from Canada, Finland, Dubai, Mexico.

Worldcon 2013 - Writers and Writing

  • How to Sell to Ellen Datlow

  • Gender in SF

  • Fiction about Real Politics and How Writers Get it Wrong

  • Jim Gunn’s Teaching

  • How to write a novel

  • How Arab SF could Dream a Better Future

  • Latino Characters by Mainstream Authors: Diversity or Cultural Appropriation?

The last two presenters speak better for themselves.



The last gave me a chance to ask what term is better (in a story) --Mexican, Chicano, Latino--because I was criticized by using the word Mexican.  Not surprisingly, Rudy Ch. Garcia said it depends on the era.  He was raised Chicano.  As evidenced by a conference that started a couple of days after our own, many people are not comfortable with Latino.   (I sent some time wondering about what that convention was all about.  An angel stopped me on Saturday and told me that it was a Latino version of the Essence Festival.  There were musical acts at night and during the day, there was panels, speeches, booths just like those set up at the convention center.  This was Target’s third year sponsoring it.)

I was impressed that Yasser Bahjatt's company has committed to publishing in both English and native Arabian dialects in order to get exposure for the writers

Real Politics:

writers were encouraged to remember that even in a totalitarian society, the members of the society receive something in return.  To not indicate that in a story would be unrealistic.  The trains have to run on time.  The bridges have to be built.  The roads must be paved.  That’s why many people remain complacent.

The writers on the panel also mentioned that they books annoying that have missing levels of bureaucracy.  People are able to get into the office of whatever management level they need immediately. 

Ultimately, they ask:  What is the author trying to do. How well was it done?  Was it worth doing?  What does the story have to say about being human?

How to write a novel

Some obvious stuff but it bears restating.

What is at stake?  What does the character want?  What can go wrong? What is the purpose of this scene? 

If you are have problems finishing a novel -- take a moment to write down what you fear.  What is keeping you from finishing the novel? (That one was new to me)

For inexperienced beta readers: Ask them to tell you what they think that the story was about.  Ask them what they think of the character.  Ask them how a particular scene left them feeling.

Worldcon 2013 - Outside my usual bounds

I have been trying to group the panels that I attended.  That is difficult at times because I attended some panels merely because I had never attended a panel in that area before. 

  • Pattern Basics (How to use a pattern to make a costume)

  • Art Docent Tour

I’ve worn a costume at a Worldcon only once and I think it was a Worldcon in San Antonio.  I went to this because it sounded like fun.  And the presenters did offer some basic information.  They also noted two websites that I have to look up.



The Art Docent tour was led by someone knowledgable but had never led a tour before.  After 15 minutes (out of an hour), someone spoke up and reminded the artist that we only had an hour to see all of the art.  He sped up somewhat.  By the end, our group of ten or twelve had dwindled down to three.  I loved the quilted painting, some as detailed as a mosaic.  And staying to the end, gave the three of us a chance to meet the person who created the base of the 2013 Hugo awards.  We works in cast iron and he brought a mini-foundry to do a casting demo in San Antonio.

Worldcon 2013 - science and education

Science Panels

  • Bloopers and Blunders of Science

  • Where There’s a Will There’s Way: Reproductive Technology, Medical Ethics and the Law

  • Scientific Literacy vs. Human Knowledge

The first was kind of a bust for me.  Again, it was an early panel. Some of the same panelists were much better in latter panels.  The panels centered on ideas in science that were later repudiated.

In the second one, the panelists chose the issues that they saw as ethical issues. They churned through those and they went back and forth with prompting by the audience.

Described ethical issues:

  • The ability to choose a genome

    • Since cost is involved, one panelist quipped that this may be the one time that the 1% are used as Guinea pigs.

  • Outsourcing to Asia

    • I didn’t understand this at first.  But the audience helped to clarify.  In Germany, single women are not allowed to use sperm donor medical facilities.  So, they tend to go to a country that allows that.  The panelist then noted that there are also women who go to Asia to hire a surrogate mother.  The child might then be raised in a Denmark/Sweden/Norway -- someplace with a better child rearing policy.  So it is possible to have a child with a borrowed egg, borrowed sperm, surrogate mother, and raised in a yet another country because of its childcare policy.  Whose child is it? (And where should their loyalty lie?)

  • Parents who are looked down because they carried a child to term that they knew had a birth defect

    • Who is responsible if parents decide to have a child that they can not afford to support medically?

    • One of the panelists taught ethics in his country and he was participating on several panels.  He stressed that the society needs to decide on its basic philosophy to answer this.

  • End of Life issues. Ethics change due to technology.  Until the possibility of breathing tubes and feeding tubes existed, those were not ethical dilemmas.  Technology will continue to bring new end of life issues.

  • Why do we favor parental choice over governmental choice?

    • Example -- we recoil at China’s one child policy.  Is that governmental choice worse than the ones that the parents then made -- to abort female embryos?

  • One from the audience: What should society do about medical care staff (doctors, pharmacists, nurses) who refuse care to women who may terminate their pregnancies?

  • Another panelists mention that there are always blockages.  We may learn to clones organs, but you still need transplant surgeons.

  • Ultimately, one panelists said that we need to ask ourselves “why should I get what I want?”

Some of the issues continued to the third panel because of one the participants was the same--Torie Hoie (of Norway, I think).  He spoke with appreciation of the science training in Finland.  After deciding that teaching to the test was not working, they decided in 1968 that all teachers --at every level--would get 5 years of training.  I am wondering if he means that they pay for your education if you go into teaching because he continued to say that teaching is now the most popular course of study.  They now have to turn away 90% of the applicants.

A person in the audience how they solved the problems of

  1. teachers uncomfortable with science

  2. teachers unwilling to accept correction when the textbook is out of date

He said that the training helps to solve the first problem.  Also, in Finland, the teachers create the curriculum.   Other panelists had similar teaching experiences on the college level.  They sometimes have to retrain students to understand the scientific process of coming up with a theorem and testing that theorem.   Students are never presented with a rote answer even though he admitted that some students resist going through the process.  They just want to know “the answer”. Torie Hoie believes that all students should get a class in philosophy along with any class in science.

Torie Hoie spoke of the limitations of his method of teaching.  He wanted his students to write about one of Pzier’s drugs but the company had all sorts of roadblocks to the public getting comprehensive information on their products.

Questions left on the table: Who decides what a baseline knowledge of science is.  What does one measure against that baseline?


The second panel with its list of problems could make innumerable stories. Lots of possible moral conflicts.

I was blown away by the idea that teaching could become the favorite course of study. And the idea that even elementary school teachers would have training on how to teach science to elementary school children.  I still remember being in a delegation to my principal in junior high because we found out that our teacher had not taught science in 20 years and had only taught in an elementary school.  We were stuck with her--a wasted year.

Worldcon 2013 - Poetry track

Two panels that I attended were poetry workshops.

  • The Poet as Activist: On Seeing and Saving the Natural World

  • Speculative Poetry Workshop

An early panel , the first was somewhat unfocused. However the presenters did note that while most literary poetry journals pay in copies, most SF magazines actually pay for poetry.  They gave the attendees the names of market lists.  Part of the problem was the focus on “the natural world”.   One participant asked about how to use poetry to reach mental patients and students in high school.  I immediately thought of Kalamu’s story circles.  The other note that I made in my little yellow tablet was the definition of “lune” poetry - a haiku styled poem with the 5-3-5 syllable count.

The Speculative Poetry workshop was interesting even though I got there a little late.  (It was murder trying to get from one wing of the convention center to another.)  I got there in time to be handed three words from three different canisters with the instruction to write a speculative poem using those 3 words.  I felt very happy with myself when I finished early, despite writing 3 drafts.  Someone in the front row was more productive.  She wrote  3 effective poems using her 3 words using her experience on a recent tour of San Antonio.

My three words were misty, interstellar medium, regent.  Go ahead. Try to write your own.

My poem

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Worldcon 2013 - firstly, just a list

As Worldcon recedes, memories get all timey wimey.  That’s what reflection is.

I took notes, I journaled.  Among the choices, I tried to occasionally drop into a panel outside my immediate interests.  There were around 9 possible choices every hour.  Some were good; others disappointing.  I’ll be back to reminisce.

So a quick list of what I did attend.

  • Bloopers and Blunders of Science

  • Part of the Opening ceremonies--which I left and headed to lunch

  • The Poet as Activist: On Seeing and Saving the Natural World

  • Where There’s a Will There’s Way: Reproductive Technology, Medical Ethics and the Law

  • Tor Presents

  • Scientific Literacy vs. Human Knowledge

  • Latino Characters by Mainstream Authors: Diversity or Cultural Appropriation?

  • The History of Science and the Experience of Science Fiction

  • Pattern Basics (How to use a pattern to make a costume)

  • Reading: George R. R. Martin

  • How to Sell to Ellen Datlow

  • Kaffeeklatsch with Connie Willis

  • Gender in SF

  • Art Docent Tour

  • The Role of the (Doctor Who) Companions

  • 30 Great SFF films you almost certainly haven’t seen

  • How Arab SF could Dream a Better Future

  • Masquerade on Friday night

  • Speculative Poetry Workshop

  • Fiction about Real Politics and How Writers Get it Wrong

  • Reading -- was supposed to be Mary Anne Mohanraj but was not.

  • Jim Gunn’s Teaching

  • Philosophy and Science Fiction

  • a little of the nominated movie Brave

  • Writers, their Fans and Flame Wars, Oh My!

  • How to write a novel

  • reading by Jo Walton

  • Can Traditional SF Communities Survive Multimedia Convention

  • Hugos on Saturday night

Unfinished Poem, version 2

Waking to weariness,

I am the calf who stumbles

        downwind to the wolf’s den.

Sweet welcome,

      sweet rendering.

But on the other side

      I’ll be the steaming rush of piss that marks

              the boundary between alpha and beta.

      I’ll be top

              dog, my teeth the best provider.

By afternoon, as rancher

      my steel cheeks spit lead

                at wolf, at coyote

                      at borders.

By evening, I’ll lie down as

      the rancher’s cow and

                the grass underfoot.

Before you dismiss me.


Who am I tonight?

The rancher,

the calf,

the grass underfoot

or the wolf and the word

that will bring you screaming down to earth.


Fighting with this poem. Mainly because I keep changing what I want to say. I need to decide.


Waking to weariness,

I am the calf who stumbles

downwind to the wolf’s den.

Sweet welcome,

sweet rendering.

but on the other side

I’ll be the steaming rush of piss that marks

the boundary between alpha and beta.

In the morning, I’ll be top

dog, my teeth the best provider.

By afternoon, as rancher

my steel cheeks spit bullets

at wolf and coyote.

By evening, I’ll lie down as

the rancher’s cow and

the grass underfoot.

Before you dismiss me.


Who am I tonight?

The rancher,

the calf,

the grass underfoot

or the wolf and the word

that will bring you down to earth.

books read: "The Summer Prince"

The Summer PrinceThe Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished the audiobook and I was blown away by this novel. In many respects, it does what any good novel does, it gives us riveting and realistic characters. Gil, June, and Enki are all fully realized people with issues, pains, and the occasional unreasonable behavior of 18-year olds. The novel builds to both a catastrophic and portentous end which is foreshadowed but that I was uncertain that the author would be able to carry out.

And oh, the setting! Seldom since Ian McDonald's "River of Gods" has a novel dropped me into an 'alien' culture and told me to hang on, pay attention, and keep-up-will-you! Some of this may be because I was reading an audiobook and did not have the easy option of turning back and re-reading. However, I will say the audiobook did have the excellent advantage of having narrators who could handle the Portuguese terms, give the dialog a Brazilian inflection, and could end the reading with one of the pieces of music referenced in the novel. (Many thanks for that final touch.)

As others on Goodreads have mentioned, the novel is set in Brazil. At least 400 years have passed since a nucleur and climate catastrophe have reduced North America and most of the Western World. What remains is a Japan where many citizens have uploaded themselves to the cloud and isolated cities in South America. Gil, June, and Enki live in a pyramid-styled city named Palmess Tres that is reminiscent of Incan pyramids. Reminiscent in more than one way. Their city is ruled primarily by women (Aunties and a Queen). Each year, the queen chooses a king who is sacrificed at the end of summer. The king's power lies in the fact that he chooses the next queen as he dies. As the novel begins, June and Gil have managed to wrangle their way into the ceremony where Enki is chosen as that year's King. This is an off-year when the summer king should not have much power, but Enki is a child of the Favelas. He lives at the base of the pyramid (again the pyramid icon is used with great affect) and he plans to live his year in a way that will remind the power structure of the people in the bottom tiers.

The novel is beautifully layered. There are multiple love stories. There is June's coming-of-age story as she seeks to prove that she is the best artist in her city even as she feuds with her mother and step-mother. There is the infighting and politics that June gradually discovers in her city. There are the SF elements of body modifications, nuclear winter, warring gangs in other cities. The author has effortlessly given us a world where June's mother loses her husband to a state approved suicide and later marries a woman, giving her a stepmother. Her city is one in which Orishas and catholic saints are revered (although June is not a devotee of either). Outside Brazil, we hear of a Y-plague that almost wiped out the y-chromosome. In making the city a matriarchal one, the author has not merely flipped the usual patriarchal story. There are "uncles" in the power structure. Men are not prohibited from any profession--they are teachers, doctors, and professionals. But in general, they do not rule. One gets the impression that men, in this city at least, looked at the destruction around them and abandoned the political center. That isn't the case in other cities, but every other city that the author shows us is rubble fought over by gangs of young men. By authorial design, June's city is the only "civilized" city that we actually see in full. The aunties may be as conniving as a TV-Borgia, but their city works. It least it works until Enki gives the people of the lower tiers a voice.

I borrowed this audiobook from the library, but this is one book that I will have to buy so that I can read it again. (Or both--so that I will have the two narrator's excellent delivery of the text.)

View all my reviews

Books read: "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

On the way home yesterday, I finished "reading" the unabridged audiobook of "For Whom the Bell Tolls".  16 CDs of unexpected pleasure, I have to admit.

I am trying to clarify for myself what I think of the novel.

After the CD ended, I slipped the first one back into the drive and verified for myself that it does have the circular nature that is so satisfying from me in novels.  It begins and ends with the central protagonist, Robert Jordan, in the same physical position.  He is lying on the grass considering the enemy combatants' position and what his next action should be.  He is not, however, in the same mental position.

When I was actively writing my own novel, workshop members were constantly asking me what my character wanted.  That question drove me batty.  I was more concerned with what the novel was about and the character's total arc. Well, this novel illustrates the difference with clarity.  Robert Jordan WANTS to blow the bridge and get back alive to his base, if possible.  But, that's not what the novel is about. Therefore, this was a lesson for me on how those two things can be different poles of interest in a story.

As it happened, I was still listening to this novel over both Memorial day and the weekend that I finally made it to the movie "The great Gatsby".  So on Memorial Day, I had cause to note that the novel is not a sentimental war novel at all.  Yes, Hemingway lauds the camaraderie of his Spanish Civil War guerrillas.  But he also puts a floodlight on the inefficiencies and cynicism of the competing bands of guerrillas, soldiers and marauding criminals that made up the Spanish Republic. I wonder if any movie that was made from this book, especially right after its publication, contained the underlying cynicism that the novel has.

It honestly surprised me to see a novel of this time (1940) have characters which can express the need for penance for the killings they have done in battle.  The same character who wonders about future penance is Catholic but also expects his new Spanish Republic to be Communist.  Given that, he wonders to himself what type of secular penance will be given to soldiers still experiencing their guilt over what they did during wartime.  Much of that chapter sounds like what we would call PTSD.

It is true that in some respects it is a novel of its time. One of the female characters is a 19-year-old Maria very young and very much in love with Robert Jordan--who she has just met. On the other hand, Hemingway gives us Pilar, Marie's protector, who is very much an adult and very much all woman. She is the one person who can be trusted by Robert Jordan. Both women are weakened by love, something that never seems to weaken the men in the novel.

The novel mocks bureaucracy in both war and in government. There are some very humorous events and the novel and there were often times that I laughed out loud at the guerrilla's bands repartee.

The novel does have the short choppy sentences that every high school teacher tells you to look for in Hemingway but it also has long involved phrasing with detailed descriptions.  Completely different than the phrasing of Fitzgerald (slipped into The Great Gatsby movie). I wondered how some of the language in "For Whom.." would be written now.  It is full of "fake" obscenities. Most of the novel is from Jordan's POV.  We are told that he is a Spanish professor back in America so the language of the book is English, translated Spanish, and Spanish, and an odd type of translated Spanish where he uses thee and thou to represent the intimate form of the word YOU.  And then there are the odd places where men say "Obscenity you"

I have the feeling that I was more patient "hearing" this unabridged novel than I would be reading it.  I gritted my teeth through some of the love scenes between 'Roberto' and Maria.  They were sweet but I tired of hearing Maria beg to stay with Robert in EVERY situation--including blowing the bridge up.  The actor or voice over artist doing the reading was quite good.  He established a voice style for each character without intruding by acting the book.

oh, one more oddity for me was hearing the character Robert Jordan rail against his father for killing himself.  Really, Mr. Hemingway?

3 minute fiction entry

I actually entered the last 3 minute fiction contest as a challenge to myself.  The challenge was to submit a short  story in the form of a voice message.  (web site:


The winner was very inventive.  She realized that the voice message did not have to be from the recipients point of view.  Instead, she wrote a story with the many recording and re-recordings of someone trying to frame a very personal message.  The re-recorded nature helped to give the story a feeling of progression and movement.  When I review my own story now, it just lays there.  Lesson learned.  Here is the link to the winning story.  And my lame story follows.



My entry:

Stardust or History

Jennifer --It’s Kai.  Are you there?

I know that you told me to call you before I left.  And I know that you did not mean at two a.m. when you are still at work--even though you’re probably packing up by now.  I know why you wanted me to call; so that you could talk me out of what I’ve already decided to do.  By the time that you get this I am stardust or maybe I am waking up in first century Rome.  The experiment would have worked.

You want to demand why.  Maybe you’ve dragged your coat back on and grabbed your wallet, your keys.  Stop, listen.

The Institute insisted that I study both Latin and Greek because no cultured person spoke only Latin.  I did it, sitting in those old wooden student desks in a dusty room without a hint of Adderall or even coffee.  Every evening, I worked pine splinters out of my thighs; every morning, the caffeine withdrawal was a wooden stake between my eyes.    Ironically, I still don’t know how either Latin or Greek was actually pronounced at that time.

It was you who taught me how to weave, and I wove my own cloth.  I studied many a book of costumes, made my patterns, and sewed my robes by hand.  I have the wounds to prove it.  There is silver and gold worked into the fabric and I am taking an extra roll of it along.  I am to be a merchant’s daughter.

This is a one way trip.  Stardust or history.

Professor Enitan will play the part of my father, the merchant.  He has the harder task, of course.  We are in hope that people will forgive his poor ability to speak the language because of his obvious foreignness.  There were African traders in Rome at the time, but most of them were from the conquered territories that they called Libya.  We shall be from the Kingdom of Meroe which Rome did not know.  Everything depends on Enitan’s ability to blend into the Forum Magnum as a proper tradesmen.  I am, I know, only a bargaining chip.  He will not sell me but it is possible that he may negotiate position by marrying me to another trader.

I can see you, standing stunned as you hear this.  That I would agree to be traded away like a brood mare to advance a historical experiment.  Are you the same woman that insisted that I read Jane Austen?   That I take heed of a woman’s place in the world and the way she can control her own destiny?  Enitan has promised that I have approval rights.  I laugh when I imagine some Italian-American congratulating himself that he is descended from Hannibal when it is only the genes of a grad student from Alabama that he has detected.

If you’re in the bedroom, the only light is a spear of yellow sodium from the lamp post that you petitioned for.  Because you didn’t feel safe, even on the north shore above New Orleans.   You’re the reason why I chose library science.  It was a safe choice for the future.

This is not safe.  I don’t want to be safe any longer.  This is more like those alternative tales of Genesis that you introduced me to.  Where God destroyed hundreds of worlds because mankind remained childish and never grew up.  In desperation, God plants a new tree in the center of Eden.

Tomorrow, go to the market and buy figs in my memory.  I’ve left the garden.  I plan to make my own future.

It’s a perilous thing to write a review so soon after finishing a book, but I shall try.   First -- Why does the book exist?  The writer begins with a humiliating search by security at Israel’s airport by personnel who are confused by her heritage.  She is light-skinned, considers herself black and has what they fear is an Arab middle name.  She’s in search of Zion.

After this intro, we are introduced to her upbringing.  She is the child of an African-american professor and a white mother who is unfortunately almost invisible in this text.  Not feeling at home in America, she envies her Jewish best-friend who had the same feeling and eventually emigrated to Israel.  While in Israel, she discovers the Beta Israel and hears about the Black Hebrews who live in Dimona.  The idea of the book begins here; she will travel the black Diaspora to ask whether any of those myriad places became their Zion and their home.

It’s an interesting trip that that approximately ten years (If I have the dates correct).  While she finds some people satisfied with their lot, she finds many more dissatisfied and eager to explain why “this” place is not Zion.  Zion is somewhere else.  From Israel, the book takes us to Jamaica.  From Jamaica to Ethiopia.  From Ethiopia to Ghana. From Ghana to Bay St. Louis where her father’s father was lynched.  Along the way, she meets many elders that advise her and confuse her.  Instead of major figures, she spends a lot of time with everyday Jamaicans, Ethiopians, and Ghanians.  She comes to her own understanding of home.  And funny enough --which I saw a mile away--she finds out that the “arab” middle name is actually jewish, the result of a liaison between her great-great grandmother and a german jewish merchant.

I enjoyed the book. Occasionally, I was amazed by what she claims not to know of black or world history.  I wonder if this was done for effect so that she could elicit a story from her host’s point of view.  On the other hand, she is very well versed in the story of the African liberation movement.  She moves among the poor and lower middle-class people of each country with no trace of being the ugly American.  (People occasionally told her tales about Americans complaining about the lack of air conditioning in the middle of a poor African country.)  I was envious of her ability with languages.  I appreciated the fact that she had to save up for these trips; it made this search sound realistic.  I only wish that the book included some of the many pictures that she mentions taking.  I found the book a page turner even though it is non-fiction. Each frustrated attempt to find Zion draws us to the next one.  Unlike her, we can make this ten year search in a matter of days.

Random thoughts

I had a therapist tell me (some time ago) that I wasn’t depressed, I was just sad.  Interesting.  It makes me wonder how she could possibly know.  Especially, if depression is a chemical imbalance.  After all, she had done no blood tests.  Therein followed a number of sessions where she offered suggestions to alleviate my sadness.

This is all to say that I find myself, unaccountably, sad.  Tears for foolish reasons.  Waking from dreams of frustrated searching.  I could blame it on Valentine’s Day--no guy--or a birthday--57.  But, in my gut I know that’s not the case.

Loneliness, maybe.  That was part of my analysis for the therapist.  Another reason is that I find myself staring at a 300 page novel that needs revising.  The only way is to withdraw from the world--other than work--and finish the thing.  But I am already starved for human contact.  The novel or friends?  Friends or the novel?  And what type of novel results from someone with little contact with real friends?


Poem: in honor of this week's portion

In honor of this week's Torah portion.


Yes, I know who you are: the eldest son

of our distant Theban lord.  I am here

to serve.  Who

did you say you were looking for?

Tall guy, named Thutmose.

That could be Moshe, I guess.

Hard to tell from that picture

It’s just a profile.

His hair is longer

He has a beard, not like you Egyptian folk.

And those short linen pleats? Perfect

for the chariot, I guess.  Not so much for the brush

of the wilderness.  He wore wool

like the rest of us shepherds.

What do you say he did?

Kill a man and bury him in the sand!

Damn--sure he had a temper, but

I can't see it.  He’s married to the boss's daughter

He's a straight up guy but not

here any more.

No; he didn’t run because we heard you were coming.

Fact is, he went back your way.  

Maybe you passed him on the road.

Yes--he went back to Egypt

He has people back there.

And you know how important family is.
If you hurry, you might find him

before the long night catches up to you.


random thoughts

It’s still a mystery to me, post Katrina, post Isaac to walk past a pair of trees one week and one week later to find one tree accompanied by a pile of sawdust.

Where is that thing that we called “alive” in the case of the sawdust, nee’ tree?

All of the components are still there, even if radically rearranged.

Book: "Selected Stories of Philip K Dick"

I did not pick this up after seeing one of the movies based on a PKD story.  For a while now, I have been reading what a great writer PKD was and I resigned myself to thinking that I just came along too late to appreciate his writing.  

I still think that in some of these stories.  "Adjustment Team" is in this book, and, heresy-of-heresies, I don't think it is far better than the movie "Adjustment Bureau" .  The movie adds a central plot line of a love story that isn't in the short story at all.  But then, the short story has this irritating imitation of a woman that is the main character's wife.  Yes--it appears that directors are constantly adding love stories to PKD's work.  Most of the men in all of these stories are sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily,  and sometimes boringly married.   These are people of the 50's and 60's who find themselves in an altered world.

But not too altered.  And that gives me a few diamonds.  In "Foster, You're Dead", one father is refusing to buy the latest bomb shelter for his family.  He wisely guesses that the now that the security of the country has been privatized--every community must protect itself--the selling of shelters has become just another capitalistic ploy.  As soon as he buys one, the powers that be announce that the enemy has developed the means to penetrate that model.  Everyone will have to buy a new one.

I had read "Minority Report" report; I will only say that it is more cynical than the original.  And there is no redemption for the pre-cogs.  The technology in the short story is outdated. (That's true for all these stories).  That's where the movie was an improvement.  However, the movie aims for a redemption that the story doesn't give.

I don't have the dates for the stories in front of me, but I wonder if they are post-Bradbury's Mars.  I guess that they have to be.  There are a number of stories set on Mars with Earth colonists.  The Earth colonists also have a running battle with an alien race from Proxima and there are a number of stories about that clash.  The "approximations", an Earth slur PKD tells us, can appear to look like humans and in one story they want to investigate our religiosity.    They save the mind of human who died in an accident, call in their Earth counterparts.  Apparently the rule about rescuing people lost at sea is universal.  The mind of the rescued astronaut is isolated and begins to hallucinate the image of Christ.  The Prox scientists and the Earth scientists have a very different reaction.

In this collection, the stories become more and more like the type of Philip K Dick stories that I've read about.  The characters are unsure of reality.  In some cases, we know that the narrator is unreliable, but there are no other narrators in the story to choose.  A few of the characters are non-white.  Which was a surprise to me until I remembered that this is also the man who wrote "The Man in the High Castle".  I'd definitely recommend the book for people curious about Dick's actual stories.



Sticker on school bus:  "This bus does not "

The rest had faded from view.  This bus does not what?  I've seen stickers that say "This bus stops at all rail crossings" but I don't recall any that say what the bus does not do.  It sounds like a great title for a story.   

book: Ready Player One

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

I was up until 4 am this morning and finished this book.  It’s a first novel by the author, moves quickly, and is often quite enjoyable.

The author was on panels at Armadillocon and everyone was raving about the book.  Even while in Austin, I came quickly to the conclusion that I was not the target audience, but I picked it up at the library anyway.  It was described as rich in details about gaming and the 1980 era.  It’s set in 2044 and the protagonist is a 18 year old man/boy who is living in a dystopian America and world.  The economy has crashed; global warming is in full blossom, but the world spends as much time as it can in a virtual game environment.  The one hope in this world is the will and behest of the James Halliday, the game’s designer who has left his entire fortune to the person able to solve his last puzzle/game.  A culture of game hunters has grown up to solve this final puzzle.  The game designer/business owner was crazy about the 1980’s so that’s where the 80’s trivia comes up.  Everyone is certain that the clues--which have to be discovered first--are hidden in the details about Halliday’s life.  Imagine if Steve Jobs had left his fortune to gamers.   It’s especially a good comparison because Jobs had a business partner, Woz, that left Apple.  Same thing in this novel.  Halliday has a friend who left the gaming company and the friend becomes a critical part of the story near the end.

So--what did I think?  I was up until 4 a.m., so yes I enjoyed it.  However, I will admit that I had to push through some chapters and some paragraphs.  I skipped some of the 80’s stuff.  And the gaming stuff.  Like I said that I am not the target audience. However, it was instructive for me that this two-part story--the love story and the gaming story--ends at the same time.  

There is one major female character and in most cases, she is well served by the writer.  She is intelligent; she resists being only a love interest.  If anything, I would say that her healthy self-interest is a little overwritten.  

There were none of the twists that I kept expecting.  The villain as described in the beginning is still the villain at the end of the novel.  (There are some minor twists that I won’t give away.)

The author leaves himself a chance at a sequel very, very obviously.  I am hoping that he doesn’t actually take the bait.  I find it interesting that most of the recent books with this background--an American dystopia--manage to end “happily” end with the society unchanged but the protagonist obtains the money that he needs to survive.  That’s the happy ending.  He becomes part of the monied society that was previously oppressing him.  The ending is happy because he able to become monied on his own terms.  I am of two minds about this....I regret seeing writers give up the possibility of changing society; I see this ending as more realistic.

a poem instead

Working on a story and wrote a poem instead.


And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying: 'God will surely remember you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.

I carried the bones of Joseph to Shechem
I am carrying them still--
the memory
of a loin cloth for raiment in prison;  the whisper
that the sheerest of linen makes
against parched skin even when
embroidered in gold thread.
I claim this land with his bones.
And exile too.
I will always have a place there.
My coat carries the colors of every
flag on earth; my dust
rides the wind.


seen today.....

Another Sunday at the library.  Another attempt to force myself to stop, look, listen and write.  

I am sitting in the same row as before but closer to the front.  There is actually a man with HIS computer and various books spread out on the desk around him.  He is not so involved that he looked up as I searched for an appropriate table.  By the window and yet not to close to him.  I am very American in that I don’t like being too close to people.  No invitation to talk, please.  I only glanced at him.  Could I describe him?  Not well.  Black, dressed in some type of black top--a t-shirt perhaps.  Close cropped hair.  Brown skin.   Black laptop.  Plugged into the wall strip as my PC is.  Books and maybe notebook on the table.  I am so tempted to get up and browse the shelves to see how close I am.  I sat up and watched spy shows (MI-5 from the BBC), so that may be why I am wondering how accurate my senses are.

Outside, another cloudy day.  The local weather is returning to form as we got rain every afternoon last week.  Often quite sudden.  So we have at present, a few dark grey clouds racing below higher light grey clouds.  But we can also see heavy white cumulus clouds, blue sky and sunshine.  The light is mainly subdued.

Before me now, a somewhat bored teen.  He stumbled to the desk in front me, spread his hands over the desk and leaned forward so that his chin rested between his arms.  After sitting in this uncomfortable position for a while, he got up and picked up one of the oversize books from a nearby shelf and started flipping through the pictures.  Same book for the last few minutes so perhaps the book and location was not as random as I initially assumed.  Indeed, the flipping of pages has slowed and he appears to be actually interested in whatever he picked.

Rain finally, after the dark grey cloud became lighter and less threatening, interesting enough.  Thunder.  Still blue sky over my right shoulder and to the east.  Teen gone after reshelving the book.  Heavy, drenching rain falling almost straight down.  No wind to push it out of the vertical. To my left, rain skates of the slate roof.

seen today

Seen today....

Dozens of Black women posing in front of an Essence.com logo at the convention center.  Yes, it was a commercial logo; but it was also women of all sizes, shapes and shades saying "look how beautiful I am and I am fantastic".  


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