Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Welcome Scott Elliott

Welcome to the next installment of the Roundhouse Reading Series, generously funded by Union County Cultural Coalition, Cook Memorial Library, Libraries of Eastern Oregon, and local donors, such as yourselves. Thank you for making this possible! According to our usual plan, we’ll have an open mic following Scott Elliott’s reading. I hope you’ve signed up!

Just as a reminder, May’s Third Wednesday reading will feature Rob Schlegel of Walla Walla reading from his new poetry collection, January Machine (Four Way Books, 2014).

This week! Scott Elliott is one of two Pacific Northwest writers visiting La Grande whose work addresses environmental issues, and it has been stimulating to read their works side by side. Jennifer Boyden will read at Ars Poetica tomorrow night at 7:30 in Pierce Library on the EOU campus.  

Tonight! The Roundhouse Reading Series is pleased to host Scott Elliott, whose novel Temple Grove (University of Washington Press, 2013) I’m currently reading.

Scott is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Whitman College in Walla Walla and has previously published Coiled in the Heart (Bluehen/Penguin Putnam, 2003), selected by Booksense 76 and One-Book-One-Community, and a collection of short stories, Return Arrangements, which was named a finalist in the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and Mary McCarthy Prize competitions. He was born in Kentucky and grew up there and in Alaska and on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. He earned a BA from Vanderbilt, an MFA from Columbia, and a PhD from the University of Houston.

Scott’s most recent novel, Temple Grove, takes place on the Olympic Peninsula and features three main characters. Trace, a native Makah woman, works at an aquarium and is the mother of Paul and wife of Tom, Paul’s stepfather. In the present time of the novel, Paul is 18 and has spent his life hiking and camping in the Olympic Forest. The third character is Bill Newton, Paul’s biological father, a logger from a family of loggers, who returns to the Olympic Peninsula after years in Alaska. The plot is spurred by a chance meeting between Trace and Bill and also by Paul’s decision to become an ecoterrorist, damaging logging equipment and spiking the trees of the Temple Grove in order to protect them.

Kim Barnes, author of In the Kingdom of Men who also did a reading in La Grande recently, notes that “Elliott writes from that place where the old myths and the new stories collide. In Temple Grove, he reminds us of what it means to be lost to everyone and everything we have ever loved...and to be found again. It is a story of longing, cruelty, forgiveness, and redemption, shot through with intimate descriptions of a land on the cusp of ruin that will break your heart with their beauty."

I am enjoying reading Temple Grove and wish to praise the depiction of the Pacific Northwest. I feel as if I have walked in the Olympic Forest, although I have not. The forestry issues remind me of my years spent in Humboldt County, CA, where loggers and environmentalists still vie for trees as a resource and ecosystems as a legacy. I am also enjoying the depiction of the inner lives of the main characters, particularly the complexity of their motivations and the uncertainty with which they make decisions, which feels true to my own experience. At the midpoint of the novel, the storytelling has hooked me; I have passed “the point of no return” and am having trouble putting the book down to do my real work. The last commendation I wish to make regards the imagery. I especially like the image of breaching, as in whales breaching, which seems a metaphor for all the ways in which the characters survive: they find hope in surfacing and taking the next breath.

Without further ado, please welcome Scott Elliott!

Works Cited

Book Cover Temple Grove. "Biography." Scott Elliott. n.d. Web. 16 April 2014. <>.

Elliott, Scott. Temple Grove. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2013. Print. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dear Jennifer Boyden

Dear Jennifer Boyden,

Where have you been all my life? I don't think I really saw poetry until now, or at least what poetry can do when unhitched from the literal. You language a dead end dominated by syntax, silencing the shoulding. I keep hearing Steve Martin's "May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?" The moral is, when we teach kids to talk wrong, they make poetry that sidesteps the mundane and approaches the beautiful. Skip the similes and give me pure metaphor! To quote Steve Martin, "Listen to this..."

On a first read, I liked "Like a Frequency, Like Looking Right at It" best. It is pretty easy to understand from a literal perspective, but it has one moment where the language launches itself out of the syntax:
In June, the man noticed how quietly the evenings held
themselves. Birds did not have to ask to continue, nor
the grass. There were no answers anyway that meant
they could not do as they wished, and so flying, and so
the world greenly. (23)
The moment I mean is, of course, "and so flying, and so/the world greenly." What does that mean? Literally, it doesn't make sense because "flying" is a gerund and can't really stand by itself as a clause, and "so/the world" gears the reader up for the beginning of a clause and then pulls the rug out with "greenly," which isn't a word because "green" is an adjective and not an "adverb," and I was expecting a verb anyway. Luckily, for the first-timer, the poem folds back into normal syntax after this moment.

And yet, I'm drawn back to this moment as amazing. It seems to capture the birds' perspective. Birds don't worry about clauses; they just fly. They are always already flying, even when still, so the gerund works really well. The use of "greenly" is also pretty cool because like the gerund, it conveys action in the midst of ongoing existence, as if, to quote Kermit, "being green" is the reality of the living, interconnected forest or, to quote Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Word for World is Forest." Green is a lifestyle; it is something we see in and do to the world, and the man and the birds share a moment of this together, a kind of immanence. Wow, Jennifer Boyden.

On a first read, I didn't like the other poems as well because they didn't leap out at me literally, as this immediately obvious one did, and yet, I am still reading and realizing the need to go back for a reread, to see all that your breathtaking breaking of syntax has to offer. I spent several hours last night imitating you in my own sad poetry, and I feel a whole landscape open up. No looking back, Eurydice! Orpheus writes the only poetry. Thanks, Jennifer Boyden. See you soon!

Very truly yours,

An admirer

Works Cited

Boyden, Jennfier. The Declarable Future. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2013. Print.

Kermit the Frog. "Green." Sesame Street. 1970.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Word for World is Forest. Putnam, 1976. Print.

Martin, Steve. "Philosophy/Religion/College/Language." A Wild and Crazy Guy. Warner Bros., 1978. Cassette Tape.

The Declarable Future Book Cover. Jennifer Boyden. n.d. Web. 13 April 2014.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Jo Walton's Among Others

Among Others Book Cover
Jo Walton's Among Others tells the story of Mori Phelps, a Welsh 15-year-old who has survived a traumatic experience caused by magic. The story is presented in journal form, beginning after the traumatic event, as Mori is headed to boarding school, paid for by her father, Daniel, whom she has not met until now. This narrative structure allows the events of the past to unfold as Mori attempts to move forward with her life. 

What we know about the past is that Mori's twin was killed, Mori herself was injured enough that she now walks with a cane, Mori's mother Liz was responsible, and Mori had to involve social services in order to escape. In the present, Mori deals with bullying in boarding school and adjusting to her paternal family, which includes three aunts and a grandfather, Sam. She still has contact with members of her large maternal family, with whom she would rather reside but cannot, due to laws governing guardianship of minors. 

The story is slow-moving, more cerebral and emotional as Mori reflects on her memories and experiences. I enjoyed the slow build to the action in the ending, but I'm not sure I would have read the whole book if it weren't for Mori's references to her fantasy and SF readings. Many of the texts were familiar to me, but an equal number were not--I wanted to jot them all down so I could go back and reread or go pick up some used copies (as the story is set mostly in 1979, many of the texts are now "classic" fantasy and SF). Luckily, Molly Templeton has created a book list using Pinterest: 

Thanks, Molly! Summer reading, here I come! 

Works Cited
Among Others Book Cover. n.d. Web. 8 April 2014.

Walton, Jo. Among Others. New York: Tor, 2010. Print. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

In her article “Is Gender Necessary?” Ursula K. Le Guin mentions that her novel Left Hand of Darkness arose from 1960s feminism and her interest in probing issues of gender and sexuality. In the article, she describes protagonist Genly Ai as “conventional, indeed rather stuffy” (163). What interests me about Genly’s stuffiness is his misogyny. As Genly attempts to place androgynous Gethenians into a gender box, he continually tries to make them men and is struck by their feminine qualities. Without exception, except towards the end, the characters’ feminine qualities are unpleasant. I think this misogyny may have three potential origins: Le Guin’s sociohistorical context, her intent to show Genly as patriarchal, and the fact that the attempt to define a masculine gender box tends to result in misogyny associated with homophobia.

Evidence of Genly’s misogyny can be identified throughout the novel. Here is one example from his description of the guards at Pulefen Voluntary Farm: “They tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate--not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge” (176). Each time Genly references femininity, his tone is disapproving. Here the diction contributing to the tone includes “slovenly, “gross, bland fleshiness,” “bovinity,” and “without point or edge.” The Gethenians are not neat or trim, as apparently men would be; they are fleshy, which suggests not only laziness but also a kind of threat of flesh, as if too much flesh would threaten to absorb one, which suggests a kind of fear of the maternal body. In addition, “bland,” “bovinity,” and “without point or edge” suggest stupidity, as if men would be more dynamic and intelligent, while women are uninteresting and lazily stupid, just sitting around without activity, chewing cud. What a portrait of femininity!

Some of this diction likely arises from 1960s views of men and women, as both genders were stereotyped in dualistic ways. In “Is Gender Necessary?” Le Guin references Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and also Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (161), both of which highlight the dangers of stereotyping. Friedan’s book in particular argues against women’s domestic role, which might relate to the depiction of women as bovine. Because they are imagined to sit around the house all day and to go to college only to get their “Mrs.” degree, it might be a commonplace to assume lazy fleshiness and mental inactivity. Obviously, anyone who makes this assumption has not had charge of domestic arrangements for a household.

However, there seems to be some irony in this assumption cropping up in Le Guin’s novel. It seems to be more meaningful than the anachronism of bouffant hairdos and go-go boots in Star Trek. In describing Genly as “conventional,” Le Guin calls attention to his depiction as a patriarchal man. Deploying a conventional, patriarchal man in an alien context calls attention to the socialized attitudes he cannot shake. Women are like cows because his culture feeds him that assumption. The fact that Genly’s views become more balanced by the end, in his ability to see both masculinity and femininity in King Argaven without horror (291), suggests that growth away from misogyny represents an important character development and also part of the learning that readers can take away from the novel.

The other lesson that emerges for me in exploring Genly’s transformation is that misogyny and homophobia are used as a threat to police the boundaries of the masculine gender box. Boys and men are encouraged to “be a man,” to avoid throwing or crying like girls, and to be strong, not show emotion, and deal with other men in less emotional ways, for example, as teammates in sports institutions where a slap on the butt means only team-oriented support. Genly’s exclusively misogynist opinions regarding femininity highlight the fact that producing patriarchal masculinity requires denigrating women and any potentiality of homosexual feeling or activity. Any sign of femininity is “prying, spying, ignoble” (48), something not to be emulated or desired. However, once Genly has developed a deep friendship for the Genthenian Estraven, a friendship verging but not acting on sexual desire, he realizes that femininity in others and even in himself is not a threat. People are not easily divided up in to masculine and feminine; they are human beings, all worthy of kindness, respect, and love. Misogyny and homophobia are thus tools of hatred, and individuals seeking balance in the world need to move beyond them.

I have read Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness many times, and I get new ideas from it with each reading. While de Beauvoir and Friedan enacted feminism through analytical writing, Le Guin has done a masterful job in communicating feminist ideas through fiction. In this case, she provides a pathway for addressing gender inequity. We are born within gender norms, and getting outside of them is difficult if not impossible. Through the “thought experiment” of science fiction (“Is” 163), Le Guin provides a glimpse of a more self-aware gender identity where humans can spend less time denigrating the other and more time building meaningful relationships within and across gender boundaries.

Works Cited
The Left Hand of Darkness Book Cover. n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Is Gender Necessary?” Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979. 161-69. Print.
---. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969. Print.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Windup Girl

 Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is an important book because of its vision of global warming and of food insecurity arising from food being corporate-owned. The novel also ties together a number of interesting subplots, resulting in an explosive ending (spoiler alert: the ending will be discussed). 

The novel is set in future Bangkok where dykes keep the rising oceans off the streets. "It's difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen" (7). Thus, the initial conflict is the setting itself and the difficulty of preserving life in that setting: 

The main character, Anderson Lake, runs a factory making power sources called kink-springs that substitute for increasingly rare fossil fuels. The factory is a front for Anderson's efforts to locate new foods on which his company could capitalize. Most foods are corporate-owned, which comments on the current threat of seed patents leading to the inability of individuals to grow food for themselves. 

Other key characters include Anderson's employee Hock Seng, who seeks to recapture his former wealth and status by stealing kink-spring blueprints; an android Emiko, the title character for whom Anderson conceives a passion, designed to pleasure Japanese businessmen and now working as a prostitute; the aggressive Environment Ministry Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant Kanya Chirathivat, who plans to betray him in revenge for his destruction of her village; and businessman Richard Carlyle with government allies who wants to eliminate trade regulations such as pollution controls and quarantine. 

As the conflicting interests of the characters converge, it seems as if the Thai government will be forced to give up its precious seedbank to corporate profiteers, but Kanya rebels, kills the foreign corporate leader, and initiates a diaspora of monks carrying seeds. Of course, the dykes fail, and the city floods. The novel ends with an Epilogue where the reclusive scientist Gibson promises Emiko that she will have genetic offspring and that they will be fertile. 

These concluding images suggest hope but also the potential for future problems. The seeds and Emiko's fertility indicate that life will continue, despite humans' failings. The image of the deluge promises a new landscape and the potential to start again without the existing problems of corporate and government intrigue. But, the future is also clouded by the fact that Emiko is not human. The novel has taught readers to care for her, that she deserves respect and sympathy, as any other being, but the comparison between androids and cheshires, engineered cats that are fertile, suggests such fertility may be dangerous. The cheshires are a threatening presence in the cityscape, suriving off of carrion. But perhaps the key quality is survival. The seeds will survive, the cheshires will survive, and some form of quasi-human culture will survive at least through an android population.  

Work Cited: Pacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2011. Print. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Princess of Mars

 My 10-year-old daughter and I read Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princes of Mars out loud and enjoyed the adventure. 

Because I was reading it aloud, I also enjoyed the language: lush, complex sentences with the big words more common to the reading culture of the early 20th century. Here's an example of a single-sentence paragraph that impressed me: "It was a chance to fight, an opportunity to loot, and they rose to the bait as a speckled trout to a fly" (180). There's something about the rhythm of the repeated "to" phrases and of the first three sentence elements ending in a single-syllable word ending in a harsh "t" and then the lightness of the trout image in sense and sound that makes that sentence just leap off the page. Of course, the sentence also signals a key turning point in the novel where the Tharks join John Carter in going to war on behalf of Helium and the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. 

I was surprised to enjoy the novel as much as I did. I am familiar with the pop culture depictions of Tarzan, including the various films and the Frazetta artwork depicting Burroughs's characters, which seem steeped in a stereotypical masculinity. And, John Carter is nearly a superhero with the way Mars's thinner atmosphere allows him to jump higher and hit harder than anyone else. But the novel includes more interesting gender depictions than I anticipated:

1. The Tharks are completely warlike, without softer, more "feminine" feelings. John Carter attributes their attitude to their communal lifestyle, which includes communal doling out of offspring once they have hatched. The fact that the only love arising among the Tharks does so in Tars Tarkus's illicit family where his partner secretly raises their daughter until she is old enough to insert into the communal selection of offspring suggests that the idea of love arises between parent and child. 

Of course, one might argue that this version of love relates to the patriarchal valuing of a man's biological offspring over any other children and to the patriarchal, heterosexual family unit where the father separates the mother and children from other similar groups in the community, demanding love focused on him and reciprocating it. 

But because the emphasis falls on "father or mother love" (42), on nurturing rather than filial relationship, and because nurturing is what permits friendship across racial barriers, such as that between Tars Tarkas and John Carter and that between the Tharks and Helium, the novel seems to value "feminine" feelings as important to individual and community life and to require that violence be tempered with compassion. 

2. The novel depicts Barsoomian culture as having a gender divide. Thark culture is divided into warriors and women, but women are trained fighters and have important work in addition to child-rearing, including making "everything of value" (51). Given that this novel was published in 1917, the valuing of women's work seems surprising. But perhaps the depiction of warfare and of women is influenced by World War I? Burroughs's first Mars story was published in 1912... 

While few female characters are depicted, the three main ones are key: Sola is the nurturing child of Tars Tarkas who is made miserable by Tharkian cruelty and takes care of John Carter when he arrives on Mars. Sarkoja betrays Sola's mother to the Tharks and later pits herself against John Carter. And then there is Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. 

Dejah Thoris is depicted as a prisoner and threatened with rape at the hands of Tal Hajus; the narration repeatedly refers to her as a "girl," although she is clearly a woman; and she is routinely rescued by John Carter as they flee from the Tharks and while fighting in the palace at Zodanga. But she is also a strong presence because she is honorable, brave, and well-spoken. Her first speech when addressing her captors indicates these qualities. She does not cower but faces her adversaries, states her name, reflects on the research task that brought her squadron into Thark territory (precursor of "We are on a diplomatic mission to Aldaraan?"), and challenges the Thark culture as uncivilized and ignorant in the extreme, as the Martian atmosphere requires scientific maintenance in order to support all life, including that of the Tharks (60). These qualities give Dejah Thoris a presence in the narrative that belies the stereotypical portrayals of Burroughs's work. 

3. I'm also interested in the egg in the golden incubator that John Carter leaves behind at the end of the novel. Apparently, Barsoomians reproduce through eggs rather than gestation. So the offspring of John Carter and Dejah Thoris is an egg. What interests me about this depiction is that early development of offspring occurs outside the female body, giving both parents the potential for an equal role. While the egg remains an egg at the novel's end, and while the Tharks clearly identify child-rearing as women's work, I am curious to know how Heliumites treat child-rearing when the responsibility for early development is not gendered female by the physical reality of pregnancy. I guess I need to read more of the series. 

Work Cited: Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars. New York: Fall River P, 2011. Print. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Connie Willis, My Hero

Connie Willis is my hero. Wow! I listened to her novel All Clear as an audiobook and was astounded by her storytelling and also by the detail associated with the World War II-London historical moment. 

All Clear is the second in a two-book series depicting time-traveling historians from 2060 who go to World War II London for research purposes and get stuck there. I haven't read the first book, Blackout, but I have read another of Willis's time-travel books, Doomsday Book, about travel to medieval England, and Willis's Passage, which is about near-death experiences but involves at least mental time travel. Both of those novels are also very good. 

With regard to All Clear, I want to note a key sequence where the trapped characters are trying to meet up with another time-traveler at St. Paul's Cathedral during a December night in 1941 when much of the cityscape around the cathedral catches fire. The scene covers the night-time hours of one day, but the scene continues for many pages as the characters are delayed, delayed, delayed. The scene is particularly impressive because of the attention to historical detail. Because the sequence is long, readers feel as if they’re in the moment in the World War II bombing of London as the characters attempt to find their fellow time-traveler, find one another, prevent buildings and the cathedral from catching fire, and save lives, including their own. My experience of the sequence's duration was particularly powerful because I was listening to the novel read aloud, which slows down the storytelling, as the eye can't skip forward when the brain wants to see what will happen. I was totally immersed in the characters' desperation to reach the cathedral. 

Perhaps a more interesting aspect of the novel from the perspective of narrative theory (and here I should warn about revealing a detail that may spoil the impact of the sequence for folks who haven't yet read the book) is the fact that Willis integrates the delay into the actual plot. Avid readers will recognize that frustrating characters' goals is a great way to build suspense and keep readers reading. In other words, frustration is an effective narrative-marketing plot device. As I was reading, I was thinking, wow, Willis just keeps throwing barrier after barrier in her characters' way, yet I want more than ever to find out WHAT HAPPENS! I was glued to the story, despite the fact that I felt manipulated by it--very impressive. Then, Willis impressed me even further by making the delays of that night part of the plot: the characters start to realize that they are trapped in 1941 and experience repeated failures to return home not because they have interfered with history but because the Net by which they travel is protecting history. Even bigger wow. The delays that were starting to feel heavy-handed were exactly the clues the characters and readers needed to figure out what was happening, which turned what I thought was a narrative weakness into an unexpected and therefore impressive strength. 

I went out and bought several more Willis books. I'm not much of a short story reader, but her stories have won top awards, so I guess I'm headed in that direction, as well as reading the rest of the novels.  

Image Source: All Clear Audio Book Cover. Amazon. com. n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.