Folks, this has been a long time coming, but RT can safely say that A Daughter’s Song and Dance, his mother’s childhood memoir, is nearing publication. Reader’s copies of the text are due on Monday. The book isn’t quite print ready (among other things, the front matter must be paginated and some passages need tweaking) but the next hurdle is getting the book out in paper and on e-book reader. To whet the appetite, RT offers this brief extract from chapter 23:
My mother may not have understood me the way I wanted her to, but she did understand certain of my needs, as for instance, when I needed to, in her words, “get out of myself.” Others might say that I was moody and introspective, but it came down to the same thing: I needed periodic vacations from the serious business of being me. What’s more, she was good at turning vacations to practical advantage.
So towards the end of my year at Wright-McMahon, Mama had an inspired moment. One day after I had returned from classes, she invited me into her office. Nothing unimportant ever happened during our office conversations, so I sat down with a certain apprehension. This wasn’t another dispensation from on high, was it?
After some pleasantries about my school day, Mama got down to the point: “If you could go anywhere in the world for a visit,” she asked, “where would it be?”
More on all this soon… RT
Photo: Mom’s High School Graduation portrait.
A local friend turned RT onto Charles De Lint several years ago; he read De Lint’s short story collection Dreams Underfoot, and after finishing that book, bought a second-hand copy of another De Lint collection, Moonlight and Vines. He has been making his way through M&V at a leisurely pace.
RT, on a tight schedule with his domestic and literary obligations, doesn’t keep too many fiction works on his nightstand. Why has he made an exception for the writing of De Lint, whose work falls into the “urban fantasy” genre?
Part of the answer lies in the world that De Lint has created: the imaginary city of Newford, which lies, presumably, in the Great Lakes/southern Canada region. Newford, as far as RT has been able to ascertain, is not a mapped-out region, along the lines of Middle Earth, for instance. It is a modern city that offers layers of mythological history and a rather long list of mythological and fantastical creatures. On its human surface, it sounds rather like any other metropolis of the 199o’s, with businesses, nightlife, newspapers, bookstores, mental institutions, universities, and the like. If the population tend to be on the young side and have a bohemian feel, blame the 90’s. If various fictive creatures show up at least once in a story, well, they at least serve the story’s purposes (and are interesting as characters). After all, what is really important in De Lint’s world is the way that all Newford’s inhabitants help each other. If you want a less-than-50-word description of Newford’s atmosphere, imagine the opposite of an H.P. Lovecraft story, where everything, the people and their surroundings, is not just going to hell, but went there centuries ago without anyone realizing it. (And RT is not saying that HPL is anything less than a great fantasy writer.)
RT could take out his technical toolbox and give a scene-by-scene account of De Lint’s writing chops, which are plain impressive. But he will only note that CDL’s nuts and bolts are solid, thoughtfully crafted, and remain scrupulously behind the scenes, where technical underpinnings belong.
These stories are accessible, comfortable, and, on a regular basis, brilliant. In particular, RT will single out “The Big Sky,” which takes the reader over the great divide and into the land of the dead. The afterlife in this story is as dusty as it is often reputed to be, but there is hope arising from, of all sources, Buddhist teaching. RT will also point out that the story’s setting is an excellent description of the horrors of Major Melancholy, a demon by no means to be dismissed in our own waking world. And if you want sheer talent, in “Passing” CDL takes us into the world of Gracie Street’s girlbars to experience the difficulties and satisfactions of love seen in the Goddess’s mirror (and through the story of Excalibur).
In a literary culture that often focuses on the horrors of history (and the last century’s in particular), CDL gives his readers healing: happy endings, but maybe not of the old-fashioned sort. There are benign spirits at work here, God, gods, mermaids, nameless sweet fates, and the subtler therapies of music and poetry. It’s not that Newford never heard of the Atom Bomb, not that there is no pain or darkness, but rather that the city’s denizens are resolutely and convincingly working to put the Bomb and other, vaguer, terrors back in the Nameless Box they came from. De Lint has sifted the debris of contemporary despair to find a tender, surprising, and romantic world. RT
Painting: View of the Colesseum by Night (c. 1830). Carl Gustav Carus. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT remembers his first encounter with Rendezvous with Rama; he was 13, living in Costa Rica and attending boarding school in Arizona. He had become a devotee of Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, through reading Clarke’s stories published in Analog (if RT’s memory serves him correctly). But Rama was something else again. RT was swept away by the power of Clarke’s vision of an enormous (50-km-long), cylindrical alien space ship, dubbed Rama by us awe-struck humans, racing through the solar system. An intrepid band of human explorers gains entry to Rama, and the story concerns what happens thereafter.
But RT’s life was racing along, too, and he soon moved on to more adolescent preoccupations.
Recently, however, the book has been haunting RT, and so this week he bit the bullet, checked out a copy at his local library, and reread it in a couple of days.
Early Sci-Fi takes a lot of flak from literary critics: its authors were scientists first and foremost, and their authorial skills, whether concerned with fiction technique or the realities of social relationships, are therefore supposed to be stunted. In proof, the usual suspects are marched out: elementary plotting and scene construction, limited and repetitive diction, cardboard characters, women who are men with breasts, and the like. RT cannot speak for Sci-Fi in the period from 1930 to say 1960, but by the time he started reading the genre in the early 1970s, things, at least among the most famous Sci-Fi authors, had begun to change; and the encounters he has had with more recent Sci-Fi suggest that the field has reached literary maturity and, indeed, an impressive sophistication.
That isn’t to say that Rendezvous with Rama doesn’t show some signs of the literary neighborhood that produced it: in particular, Clarke’s diction is repetitive at times and the plotting is very straightforward. But none of that affects the novel’s strengths: its sense of wonder and a certain atmosphere that RT will discuss in a moment. More troubling to RT are the Simps (that is, super-chimpanzees) that serve on the Endeavor, the human ship that has gotten the story’s characters to the eponymous rendezvous. The simps provide all domestic services on board. Equipped with an IQ of 60, they are pictured as ideal servants, capable of cleaning things up but not understanding what menial service means or experiencing what it feels like. Well, maybe it would work, but the idea that the ship’s captain will never have to soil his hands with laundry and that the simps will never experience a sense of being at the bottom of the totem-pole, is problematic. Isn’t hierarchy an invention of the higher mammals? Wouldn’t a topsy-turvy day when the captain washes the dishes be good for all concerned?
But RT’s caveats and quibbles aside, RwR presents a world that is truly alien, in which the ship’s alien inhabitants, or at least some of them, lack mouths, have eyes located in odd places, and appear to be organo-metallic: nope, there’s no common ancestor with terrestrial zoology here. More tellingly, though it’s evident that the Ramans possess a very high degree of intelligence, the human explorers find no written script. Do the Ramans possess writing? Can they speak? We’ll have to go to the book’s sequel, Rama II, in hopes of finding out.
But that’s what makes RwR so great: the continuous sense of discovery, of entering a genuinely new world. The appeal here is not to our assumptions; in the book they are often shown to be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that Rama is utterly alien: the spaceship possesses an oxygen atmosphere and, at its most hospitable, semi-tropical temperatures. Could all life, produced by whatever combinations of evolution, manufacture, and command, still have some common defining characteristics?
And so we reach the composite image, the total vision, that Clarke presents of Rama. The ship’s interior, while certainly strange and occasionally threatening, tends towards the wonderful, and most of all in the demands for growth that it offers to its human explorers. Do we want to be more like the Ramans, possess their accomplishments? The answer is, yes. We want to grow towards the unknown, at least sometimes. That is the source of book’s optimism, its underlying sweetness.
Utopias are odd. (And whatever else Rama is, it is a completely planned world.) They are meant no so much to be perfect as to be challenging. We would not wish our planet to become Rama, but if it could help us work towards a happier existence, we can only humbly thank its creators.
Image: Rama in Forest (date: 1920s; author: Raja Ravi Press). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT has learned from hard experience not to pronounce any manuscript of his finished, but he will allow that the latest round of corrections on A Daughter’s Song and Dance, his mom’s memoir of her childhood and early adult years, has brought that manuscript easily over the 200-page mark. What remains to be added? A new chapter to attach the last third of the story to the earlier parts, an epilogue, and a couple of sections here and there. After that? A read-through with his mother, accompanied doubtless by debate over what to put in and leave out (not to mention themes). a further set of corrections and any adjustments to take account of theme and message, and then, RT imagines, fine-tuning. Getting another editor to vet the manuscript, and well, then RT might be willing to use the joyful word, finished. And what then? The vast vistas of publication in, say, 5 or 6 months. He will only mention in passing such objects on the distant horizon as Gilgamesh; he’s still there, and doubtless the GE fever will grip RT at some unpredictable point, but for now he is beginning to savor something like relief…
… and along the way, RT has learned that the first car his mother owned was a Willys Americar…but really, that’s not what he’s feeling. RT
Photo: 1940 Willys Coupe; Author: http://www.flickr.com/people/phyls_photos/; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/phyls_photos/2944955112/. WikiCmns; CC 2.o Generic.
RT has been rather reticent these past two or more weeks: it’s hard to be garrulous when your teeth are aching. Ouch! This particular ache was deep and throbbing and resulted in the extraction of two teeth on Halloween, one of which was infected. Penicillin (remember that?) and ibuprofen got our fearless writer through his convalescence, and now he’s going to present an excerpt from his mother’s memoirs, A Daughter’s Song and Dance.
Plane Spotting (Late 1941–Spring 1942)
War fever was at a pitch, and many people who were not eligible for the draft began “to do their part” in the war effort. Opportunities abounded: from volunteering for the United Services Organization (USO) to participating in neighborhood “scrap drives” that collected scrap copper and brass for use in artillery shells to growing your own vegetables. If none of this appealed, there was plenty of work to be had at war production factories. Many young women took the places of men who had been drafted into the military; for the first time in the country’s history, women were able to find high-paying jobs. They worked round-the-clock in factories that produced materiel for our troops: everything from boots to tanks to bombers to k-rations. The wages they earned gave them an economic freedom—and independence—that they had never dreamed of before. Although the old social taboos re-emerged after the war, this taste of freedom would lead to the rights-for-women movement. The war-time production effort marked the beginning of a profound social revolution.
All of this had an effect on my mother.
Early in the new year, Mama joined the Red Cross, rolling bandages and supervising the training of other volunteers. Then she heard about the Civil Air Patrol, the plane watchers who were supposed to spot Japanese planes off the coast. The romance of this appealed to her, and she signed up.
She and the other airplane watchers would go out every day with their government-issued kits and binoculars; they would stand on the bluffs overlooking the ocean trying to keep track of the planes that flew overhead; they had gone to class to learn how to tell the airplanes apart. It made them feel they were doing something for the country besides giving up cream in their coffee and butter for oleo. To be honest, I can’t remember how long she was a plane-spotter, but she thoroughly enjoyed her duties.
In the meantime, rationing was a burden on everyone. Almost immediately, we were issued ration coupon books for all the basic foodstuffs: meat, milk, butter, and bread. Bacon was an unimaginable luxury. Gas and women’s silk and nylon stockings were also restricted, so for many people life became boring, if not monotonous. California is car country, and with rationing came the end of trips to the movies and Lake Tahoe. But we were lucky in one respect: we were able to grow a wide variety of vegetables in our now-famous “victory gardens,” which made meals both tastier and more nutritious—and gave us something to do. Even the borders along city streets were used to grow produce.
But perhaps the oddest thing about these years was that it marked a much-anticipated milestone in the country’s history: amid the tight rationing regime, the Depression had finally ended. The United States could not find enough workers; many states even allowed teenagers to work in factories, and a guest worker program for Mexican emigrant laborers kept the fruit orchards of Texas and California in production. In fact, America’s entry into the war marked the beginning of a decades-long economic boom that would transform the country. …
Copyright © 2013, The Rag Tree
great recommendations from a fine reader and writer…RT
(reposted from The Librarian who doesn’t say “shhh”!)
Food is a tricky thing. When we see a feast laid out before us, we naturally want to dive in and enjoy. But we might not be ready for the repast. Items that look familiar–chicken, say–turn out to be goose or some other unexpected dish; How are the courses seasoned–with salt, pepper, cumin, humor, anger, or fantasy? And do we really have to eat it all now? Couldn’t we put aside the caviar, or at least the foie gras, for later?
RT has been munching his way gradually through The Art of the Personal Essay (ed. Philip Lopate). It is a rich, rich meal, with a wide variety of authors and subjects: Max Beerbohm, Mary McCarthy (on American Communism in the 1930s), Michel de Montaigne (on love), Robert Louis Stevenson (on marriage); and Virginia Woolf (on the streets of London at night), among others.
There is much to satisfy a bored palate here–and much to challenge even an enthusiastic digestion. So far, RT’s favorite piece is Mary McCarthy’s “My Confession,” a droll, cutting, learned, and at times diffident essay on the social realities of being an American intellectual in the 30s and facing up to the realities of Communism in Russia. To what shall RT compare it? A Parisian Steak et Frites, perhaps: filling, substantial, and with enough spice to keep the reader turning the pages. This essay reminds RT of how hard it can be to fight a social/political trend (especially as a young person) and how much America has changed during the intervening decades. It’s hard to imagine any wealthy society today giving itself over to the political and cultural debates of the Depression. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine intellectuals having anywhere near the clout they had at that time.
And RT had forgotten what it’s like to read Montaigne, whose essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” is widely regarded as the masterpiece of the greatest essayist who ever lived. This essay, which epitomizes MM’s technique, is a plea for tolerance and a learned questioning of philosophical certainty (& touches on RS only briefly). MM wanders, let’s his ideas take him where they will, and peppers his words liberally with classical quotations. There’s no question here: we’re looking at roast beef with potatoes and endives. Bring a very hungry stomach and probably several days to make your way through Montaigne’s writing. You will emerge a better person than when you started.
As Lopate points out in his introduction, there is a contrarian streak in essayists, a thoughtfulness, a self-deprecating humor, and a need to challenge the certainties and hysteria of the moment. The essay can therefore be looked on as the wisest of literary forms, the one that most clearly reflects our experience (both personal and historic) and the desire to make things better. It is the product of a the most constructive kind of a leisure, a leisure that is increasingly hard to find: an isolation and an eloquence turned to account (or an accounting of a life). A good essay challenges us in the gut, And yet it also sustains us. Maybe the advent of blogging will help turn the tide and spread the life of culture and the mind farther afield than possible before.
Thank you, Mr. Lopate! RT
Image: A portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592). WikiCmns; Public Domain.