randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Upwallsworld_cover.jpgI had to look it up in my book log (fortunately it was near the beginning), but it turns out I read this novel before I read any of Tiptree's short stories. It appears that I read it when the paperback came out in 1979. This time I read the first edition hardcover that I picked up used somewhere along the way. (Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons! Boy, that was a different era of publishing, wasn't it?) So it's funny that my memory was that I was disappointed by the novel. Apparently I wasn't disappointed because it wasn't as good as her short fiction but because I didn't think it worked as a novel.

That's the standard criticism of Up the Walls of the World, and it's justified. For example, it doesn't so much end as trail off, with the characters still ferociously imagining multiple alternative futures for themselves. Tiptree tries to finesse this by having the last viewpoint character conclude, "Let's try it all!" It's not a bad hand wave, because what the characters (and the reader) gradually realize over the course of the novel is that the characters are now facing eternity.

Which is to say that what Up the Walls of the World lacks in structure it makes up for in sheer scale. It's as if Tiptree told herself, "I'm writing a bigger story, so I'm going to expand my speculative scope accordingly." It's pretty literally epic in scale. At times it reminded me of the Star Trek original series episode about the planet destroyer and at others the first Star Trek movie about V'ger. The novel opens with a chapter from the point of view of an absolutely enormous but nebulous space-roving entity that thinks of itself as an evil murderer. I vaguely remember that when I first read the novel I didn't like the use of all-caps to represent the voice of this entity, which eventually becomes know as the Destroyer, because what it does as it roams through space is destroy star systems. I still think the use of all-caps is a clumsy, ugly way to represent vastness, but it certainly didn't bug me as much this time.

So we start big, and then we switch to the POV of a manta ray-like alien living in what seems to be something like the great storm of Jupiter located on an alien planet called Tyree. Tyree is in a star system that's undergoing attack from the Destroyer, and the aliens are desperately looking for a way to survive extinction. Part of what Tiptree has accomplished here is what Gwyneth Jones calls "some the most convincing non-humanoid aliens ... I've ever met." My only caveat is that the characters of the aliens still feel very human to me, and I'm not sure how it could be otherwise without staying out of their minds entirely. But the way they communicate with light and color, and the way they navigate through their environment, have sex, raise kids, perceive the world, all feel very different than any other aliens I've seen depicted in any format, rivaling the Jotoki in Donald Kingsbury's "The Survivor".

On top of these two bits of speculation we are then introduced to a group of humans who are part of a military test of psi powers. The central character in this group is a doctor who suffered a horrible loss in his past and has been self-medicating with opioids ever since. He is skeptical of the experiment, and worse he finds himself overly-sensitive to the pain all of the experimental subjects feel. He falls in love with a black computer scientist, but she is very distant and hard to approach, having suffered a traumatic injury in her own past. The band of experimental subjects is quite various and outstandingly characterized, from the paranoid, to the motherly, to the lesbian couple who are a mix of exuberant and victimized. The only thing all the experimental subjects have in common is pain and fear and lives lived as outcasts, because they are freaks of nature.

Jones says the novel is in a different mode than the short stories -- "a joyous and starry-eyed sf." It's true, but it still has a heavy serving of Tiptree's signature anguish, not least in the genocidal annihilation perpetrated by the self-hating Destroyer, but also more intimately in the fears, injuries, and losses suffered by the Tyreens and the humans. It's one of those stories about endurance of extreme suffering in the cause of a greater vision. That vision does end up being "starry-eyed," but not till the very end. Still, the sheer spectacle of the frantic, star-spanning action and the incredible world-building were enough to keep me happy through all the anguish. The awkward interaction between the aliens and the humans is very smartly portrayed, as is the gradual way they incorporate each other into a new community. This is widescreen baroque SF at its finest, despite the structural problems. As Jones notes, it's also a good example of an ethical solution to the problem of power that doesn't involve domination and exploitation. Echoes of Star Trek in that too?
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Slonczewski A-door-into-ocean.JPGGwyneth Jones writes about this book a number of times in her collection, Imagination/Space. She has a conflicted response to it: "Don't do it! was my cry. Don't claim the moral high ground; the sf guys' club will love you for it; doesn't that tell you anything ...? A woman doing just what she's supposed to do, being gentle and nurturing, looking after our spiritual growth, being moral so we don't have to be ... That's not the revolution. I feel differently now, because these are different times. Best feature: A Door into Ocean works like mainstream sf. Okay, it's about the sixties US under the skin, but the skin is proper, sciffy, rich, and strange sfnal skin." (in "(Re)reading for a Chapter on Feminist SF")

This novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1986, which is certainly a mainstream SF credential, and it was eventually followed by three more novels comprising the Elysium Chronicles. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it: "The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans ... whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch." Sloncewski is apparently a Quaker, and her pacifist beliefs are definitely explored in this novel. What's interesting is that the Patriarch is light years away from and thus invisible to the planets he rules through an intermediary called the Envoy, and so he works as a kind of metaphor for the Christian God that the Quakers also worship. Perhaps Sloncewski's willingness to explore her conflicted feelings about her religion is part of why the novel feels so personal and honest, despite the way it stacks the moral deck in favor of the Utopian female society.

Like a lot of '70s feminist Utopias (cf Russ' Whileaway, Charnas' Motherlines, or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) Slonczewski's matriarchy reflects the political division within the womens movements of the time, with more militant factions, some that are more spiritual, and some that are more separatist, for example. Nobody gets let off easily, and a lot of the novel is taken up with the anguish various characters (including the militarist males) feel about the decisions they make. The deep history of the novel seems to be that the Shorans are descendants of people they call the Primes who thousands of years ago destroyed their civilization with "fire," probably of a nuclear nature. This forced them to change their culture and their science. Now perhaps the Patriarch is interested in resurrecting that old technology for his own purposes, or whatever other weapon technology the descendants of the Primes are capable of creating with the new science.

As Jones implies, what makes A Door into Ocean particularly fascinating is that the women of the ocean moon Shora are advanced genetic scientists, using only organic means to manipulate genes and cells. Slonczewski's background as a microbiologist shines through in the marine ecology she creates on Shora, where all life forms are interdependent and healing is practiced through enzymes and specially-bred lifeforms rather than pharmaceuticals and scalpels. (The split is reminiscent of Sterling's Shaper/Mech stories, I guess.) It's a work of hard science, and a highly original one. The only similar worldbuilding I can think of is in Varley's Eight Worlds stories and Gaia trilogy. Slonczewski goes much deeper, to my mind, creating a fully-imagined world that brought me that vicarious pleasure of exploring the alien that I remember from my adolescent encounters with science fiction. The sexuality in the novel is interesting too, with the one relationship that we see most closely being between one of the merwomen and a male (or malefreak, as the all-female Shorans think of him) from the planet that is invading their world. They are biologically incapable of having reproductive sex (in fact they are basically toxic to each other on that level), but the sex they are able to have is smoking hot.

Despite the painful subject of genocide and resistance, there is a joy to this novel that is a pleasure to behold: a science fiction writer in her prime hitting on all cylinders of imagination and speculation. Great stuff, highly recommended.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Imagination Space.jpegI went through a Gwyneth Jones phase when the Aleutian Trilogy was being published by Tor. Dave Hartwell was her editor at Tor, and I used to talk about her books with him. I went back and read all of her adult SF and fantasy, starting with Escape Plans, and I read one Ann Halam YA book too. My favorites were Divine Endurance, White Queen, and North Wind. In her I found an heir, both literary and feminist, to Joanna Russ. I found the third book in the Aleutian Trilogy, Phoenix Cafe, a big disappointment, and between that and the fact that Tor dropped her after that, I lost track of her career.

On my TAFF trip in 2003, however, I did manage to pick up a British paperback of her next novel, Bold As Love, which I'd heard her read from when she taught at Clarion West in 1999. (I wouldn't have remembered that date, except she mentions it in the acknowledgements to the novel, where, alas, she also refers to the Crocodile Club, which is actually called the Crocodile Cafe. Ah well, a very minor error in the grand scheme of things.) So as part of my ongoing project of reading mostly books by women, I finally pulled it off the Pile a couple of weeks ago. Alas, I found it completely impenetrable -- which was also true of her first two novels, now that I think of it. I didn't care about the characters and couldn't keep some of them straight, I couldn't figure out the political factions, I couldn't distinguish the different bands or which characters were in which band. In short, I found it completely incomprehensible. On the off chance that it was the chemo causing the confusion, I consulted with the temporarily-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter, who I knew had had some problems with the book too, and she confirmed that she had had many of the same problems I was having. Worse, she told me it was the first in a five book series, not the diptych I expected. I gave up on it at the point.

I was considering the semi-retired [livejournal.com profile] fishlifter's recommendation of another novel by Jones called Spirit when I recalled that I had one of Jones' non-fiction books on my Pile. Since I'd been vaguely feeling that I've been reading way too much fiction lately anyway, I started reading Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which was published by Aqueduct Press out of Seattle. Two days later, I had read the whole thing. Although I had read some of the excellent reviews and essays on her website during my period of infatuation with her writing, I hadn't heard that in 2008 she had won a well-deserved Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of science fiction scholarship. She turned out to be an heir to Joanna Russ as an incisive critic and reviewer as well as an author of self-critical feminist science fiction.

However, at first it seemed like a bad sign when the first essay in the book -- "What Is Science Fiction?" quoted extensively from the book I'd just bounced off of, Bold As Love. But I admired the essay greatly for not trying to pin the origins of SF to one book or one literary movement. Instead she cites multiple roots in the Gothic (expecially Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula), travel writing of the ancient past (e.g. Herodotus), the Romantic concept of the Sublime (citing Burke's essay on the subject), and the more modernist genre of the Grotesque (e.g. Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I love this kind of genealogical, very literate, influence-spotting approach to genre history, so this was a perfect essay for me.

Another favorite piece was "Postcript to the Fairytale", subtitled "A Review of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ." This is one of Russ's most slippery, shifting, difficult works of fiction, and Jones does a brilliant job of tracing Russ's wrestling match with the contradictions of exercising power as a woman in a patriarchal society and her resistance to the common feminist urge to retreat into fantasies of female superiority. Like Russ, Jones is not much for the easy answer, and she is as pointed and balanced in her criticism of feminists as she is of sexists. Of course The Two of Them is partly about the ways women are complicit in their own oppression. Jones sees her own complicity too in brilliant passages like this:

The story behind the fiction, the story of a generation, always starts the same way: I was a girl-child in the fifties. I was attracted to the alien culture (indubitably alien!) of a set of books with rockets on the spines. Maybe I was influenced, though I didn't really know it, by my mother's memories of the halcyon days of World War, when women's work was needed outside the home and she had a life. Maybe I felt her unease, though she never talked about it, at being socially engineered back into the kitchen and the negligee. (Maybe I called this "not wanting to be like my mother.") The books were exciting and adventurous, and there were plenty of tomboy girl characters. I didn't know they were there for decoration, I thought it meant the genre had a place for me! So I ran away with Science Fiction, to start a new life. And here I am, still happy to be dressed in long underwear, with my raygun, but sorely disillusioned about those tomboys ... And then the story divides. The unregenerate tomboys keep their rayguns; the alpha female fans create a female, womb-friendly space within sf; but aren't both playing by the rules of the boy club? The Two of Them examines this dilemma, with illustrations. (p.48)

Jones is frequently provocative. Her essay about the links between horror, sexual arousal, and science fiction is called "String of Pearls," which although derived from a work of criticism, it is a work of criticism about pornography, which leaves the sexual suggestion intact. Her essay on video games connects that industry to the science fiction field in ways that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, although that likely reflects my own lack of interest in video games. She provides fascinating insight into her own working methods as a writer, specifically in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural" about tagging after a female molecular biologist, Dr Jane Davies, while researching her novel Life, which is about a non-Darwinist concept of evolution.

As with any good work of criticism, I come away from it with a list of other books I now want to read. Jones provides not one but two lists of top feminist science fiction, and I've already started reading Joan Sloncewski's A Door into Ocean, which she mentions more than once, not necessarily disparagingly, as an example of "a female, womb-friendly space within sf" and has long been on my big list of books I'm interested in, largely due to the advocacy of a feminist writer-friend of mine. Indeed Jones' Life now seems like the next novel of hers I want to try, but based on this collection I'd also like to track down her previous non-fiction collection, Deconstructing the Starships. I thought Imagination/Space was completely fascinating and riveting, and I'd like to read more of the same.

Long tail

Jan. 26th, 2017 08:27 am
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
I had an MRI and visit with my new neuro-oncologist yesterday. The MRI once again revealed that the tumor hasn't returned yet. My conversation with Dr. Taylor was an eye-opener to such an extent that I decided to sleep on it before sharing it with anyone other than my family and housemate.

I had some questions about survival rates, and in the course of asking I rehearsed the survival stats I was given in the beginning: an average of twelve months for people who don't take treatment, fourteen months for those who do, thirty percent survive at least three years, and only ten percent survive at least five.

"That sounds like the statistics for the whole population of people with glioblastoma," Dr Taylor said. "You need to look at the statistics for those like you who have the IDH1 mutation." She said they are now seeing that the IDH1 mutation makes a pretty significant difference in survival rates and that between having the mutation, the methylated MGMT gene (which is apparently highly correlated with having the mutation), being relatively young (under 60), having gotten most of the tumor out surgically (achieving 95% resection of the tumor is apparently more common in people with the mutation, and Dr Silbergeld seemed very confident that he had gotten as much of the tumor as humanly possible), and having survived the surgery in very good health, both physically and cognitively, she thought it was likely that my survival time would be on the long tail.

I don't know what that means exactly. I'd say it's still likely that the cancer will eventually kill me, but this still feels like a reprieve. My radiation oncologist, Dr. Halasz, was willing to say that all my favorable factors would likely put me in the 10% who live at least five years, but Dr. Taylor is saying something significantly different, to my ears. But what, exactly? That I have a strong chance of living for quite a while with this beast? I told her that my mom would be insufferable, because she's been saying this all along. I was going to be that guy who survived for twenty years and died of a heart attack, not cancer. I kept telling her she was in denial (at least in my internal dialogue with her), but maybe her optimism was correct all along. She's certainly feeling pretty smart right now.

"How was she able to understand?" Dr Taylor asked.

"She was a transcriptionist in a Pathology lab for a number of years."

"Ah, so she can actually read the lingo."

"Better than I can anyway."

The article about the mutation that I linked to echoes some of the stuff that Dr. Taylor told me while amplifying other things. They now think that the mutation occurs in some people when a lower grade glio moves up a notch. It also sounds as though one of the main helpful features, which is how I understood the positives of the methylated MGMT gene too, is that it works well with radiation and chemo to improve the body's ability to kill cancer cells. One section of the article talks about a study in which "the median survival in the IDH-mutant group was 163.4 months (13.6 years)". That was for one subgroup in the study. For another subgroup with the mutation the study showed a median survival rate of "118.7 months (9.9 years)." I can't say that I follow much of the technical discussion distinguishing the two subgroups, but either of those medians is far better than any median survival I've run into before. Of course this was one study of about three hundred people with GBM, 113 with the mutation, 222 without.

The article also says treatments are being developed to specifically target GBM patients who have the mutation. Again, the discussion is too technical for me to follow, but it all sounds pretty hopeful, which I assume is why Dr. Taylor was willing to be so optimistic right to my face. I feel torn between wild optimism on my own part and cautious skepticism. No doubt I'll need to read and discuss it further, but damn if I didn't immediately start thinking, "Maybe I *will* get to see Celine grow up!"

In other news, I started round eleven of chemo last night. Only one more after this one. I'm excited that chemo will soon be done, so I'm just feeling giddy in general today.
randy_byers: (Default)
DARS Gang.jpg
With Tom and Kathy at a Washington State DARS conference in Ellensburg probably in the late '90s (Photo by the fourth member of our team, Susan)

Yesterday I cleaned out my desk in Schmitz Hall, and amongst other things I discovered this photo from a long ago work conference. December 31st was my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm now officially retired, and I've specifically applied for a disability retirement, although that hasn't been approved yet. This, however, is the story of how an English major ended up working in the Academic Data Management Office. Not that my trajectory is all that unusual for the early days of the Information Revolution.

My first job in the Office of the Registrar, which is currently located in Schmitz Hall, was a temp clerical job in the Graduations Office in 1988. The supervisor there, Virjean, liked my work well enough that when a credentials evaluator position opened up in the office in February 1989, she hired me. The cred evals processed graduation applications, which meant we determined whether students had completed their degree requirements and could be granted a degree. So in four years in this position, I became thoroughly familiar with the University's undergraduate degree requirements.

A few years after that, around '91 or '92, the U bought a license to the Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS), which was a software package that allowed schools to encode their degree requirements, feed a student's classes into the system, and let the program determine whether the degree requirements had been fulfilled. Since I was familiar with the degree requirements and was considered a pretty smart guy, in 1993 I was given the job of implementing DARS from the degree rules side. Susan (who took the photo above) was the COBOL programmer in charge of installing DARS on the mainframe and figuring out how to feed the requirement "encoding" and student records into the system.

The mainframe version of DARS came with screens for entering the requirement encoding, but the mainframe team was short-handed in those days. They didn't have the bandwidth to implement the entry screens. The first stage work-around was to have me manually create text files in which each line and each position within each line was mapped to the DARS data structure. Needless to say, this wasn't a very user-friendly solution. So they decided to have me develop an Access database with forms that allowed me to enter the data in a more intuitive way and then export it into a flat file like the text files I'd created earlier. I don't think I had any knowledge of Access at the time, or if I did it was just a couple of entry-level training courses that introduce you to the concepts of tables and queries, forms and reports. I'm not sure why they thought I'd be able to figure Access out on my own, other than they thought that I was a smart guy with good analytical abilities.

So I spent six months learning how to use Access, including how to write procedures in Visual Basic. This was definitely one of the strangest periods in my working life, because I was essentially being paid to learn. I spent all day, every day, reading Access manuals, trying to figure out how to do what I needed to do. Eventually I developed a database with data entry forms that allowed me and others to encode the degree requirements for DARS in a relational database and export them into flat files for upload to the mainframe every night. If there was any kind of error in the data, the upload would abort. However, it worked well enough that eventually we were able to hire two more encoders to begin the job of putting all of the UW's undergraduate degrees into the system. I also developed a diploma back-order database for the Graduation Office, and I was pretty darned pleased with myself.

The first woman we hired to encode turned out to be mentally unstable. She had scars on her wrists from previous suicide attempts, and she tried to commit suicide while she was working for us too. The story she told us of that attempt is actually pretty funny in a morbid way, because everything she tried failed, including closing the garage doors and starting up the car, only to have it run out of gas. Anyway, it was less funny when she accused me of emotional abuse, and we had to go through a long, painful process to determine that I wasn't actually being cruel to her.

I think by that point we had hired Tom, who was a gay man from Minnesota. He was tighter with his money than anybody I know, except for maybe my brother's friend, Steve, who funnily enough is another Lutheran-raised Minnesotan. Tom's partner loved opera and had hundreds of CDs that he loved to listen to at top volume, which got on Tom's sensitive nerves. So, like my Mom, who insisted that they add a room on their house in Crooked River, so that she didn't have to listen to Fox when my half-deaf father had it on full-blast, Tom and his partner had a grandmother apartment separate from their house where Tom's partner could listen to loud opera to his heart's content.

Eventually, much to everyone's relief, Kimberly moved on to another job, and we hired Kathy to replace her. Kathy was a much more down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who was also taking care of her sick mother. Things in DARSland stabilized for a while until Kathy's mom started going downhill and Kathy had to look for a less demanding job so she could spend more time caring for her.

I'm not sure why I went into such detail about these folks, other than to give some context for the photo. In the meantime, because I needed to pull in representative students to test our requirement encoding against, I learned how to write queries against our student data and started to learn the structure of the relational data warehouse of the mainframe flat files. I even took over the creation and maintenance of the official degree codes for the university, because I had become so familiar with them through using them in DARS. Also, once we hired Maggie to replace Kathy, we were well into the maintenance phase of DARS, and I started to lose interest in the project. While we were in the implementation phase, it was the first time that I had ever felt I got my greatest sense of fulfillment in life from my job rather than from my hobbies and pastimes. This was also the point at which a client-server version of DARS came along, and all my Access work was scrapped.

By this point, my knowledge of student data structures and Access query writing were good enough that in 2007 I was moved over to a job in the Academic Data Management Office essentially writing ad hoc queries as well as running stored queries and processes that more knowledgeable people had written. Eventually through a process of attrition through death, retirement, and post-Great Recession layoffs, I became the last person standing on the data side of the office, which also included some non-data functions such as desktop support. I always felt like a total imposter, because I didn't know how to write SQL from scratch, but I kept reminding myself that nobody knew the underlying data structures better than I did. By the end of my career in that department I was *the* go-to guy on the campus for questions about which tables had which student data and how to join the tables. If I didn't know the answer to the question, I knew who did know the answer. Needless to say, this stuff wasn't written down anywhere, and our data dictionary was always a work in progress. So I guess I earned my keep despite my lack of SQL proficiency.

And that's the long-winded story about how an English major ended up in a semi-technical job. Aside from my knowledge about the data structures, accrued over time, my other important skill was the ability to problem solve in a methodical way when things weren't working. I was good at analyzing where things were breaking down and then working my way toward a solution by a process of elimination. At least one person I worked with who was far better at SQL than I had no ability to trouble-shoot, because when she started getting bad results, she always jumped to the idea that there was something wrong with the underlying data rather than accepting the more obvious possibility that there was something wrong with her SQL. Of course she was also mentally unstable, so there's that.

Anyway, needless to say this career path was not anything I had in mind when I earned my English degree and started looking for work. But I wandered along the way, going with the flow, and found my own idiosyncratic path.

Name Plate.jpg

Corflu 34

Jan. 15th, 2017 07:36 am
randy_byers: (shiffman)
I've purchased a membership to Corflu 34 in LA. I'm curious what kinds of pre-convention plans people have.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Norton X Factor.jpgI guess I'm done with crime novels about psychologically bizarre characters, so I'm not going to read the last two novels in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus. I got one chapter into Margaret Millar's Beast in View and thought, "I can't take any more mental illness!"

So I retreat to some comfort reading: Andre Norton. The X Factor is classic Norton. Like Kilda in Dread Companion, Diskan Fentress is the child of a three-year marriage contract between a Survey scout who was soon reassigned to another planet and a planet-bound mother who was unable to raise him because she died during his birth. So he was raised in a government creche. Unlike Kilda, she had no mentor to look after her, and Diskan became an outcast held in contempt for his mental slowness and physical clumsiness. So a typical orphan/outcast protagonist for Norton, and soon he's jetted off to an unexplored alien planet, where he undergoes a survival ordeal while exploring ancient abandoned ruins and encountering a race of sentient furry aliens (the brothers-in-fur) who see potential in him where his fellow humans saw only disability.

Norton likes nothing better than to have her characters wandering around lost in an underground labyrinth of ruins. Diskan finds allies, both human and alien, to wander through the ruins with him, and eventually he discovers the talent within himself that only the aliens could see before. Once again, a human protagonist in a Norton novel survives either by becoming alien or by learning from aliens. There are archeologists also trying to understand the ruins, and Jacks (basically pirates) looking for buried treasure. It's a survival adventure with some great action and a coming-of-age story, and I found it very satisfying in a comfort-reading kind of way. Norton takes me back to the Golden Age of science fiction, which is the age of twelve.

I know that Norton eventually made contact with fandom even while she was still living in Cleveland, where she lived until 1966 -- the year after this novel was published -- and where she knew Harlan Ellison, for example. If she didn't understand that it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, her love of ostracized-alienated protagonists seems ready-made to appeal to the fannish subculture.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
Blunderer.jpgI've long been interested in Patricia Highsmith, largely because of the number of films based on her books, including the excellent Carol (based on Highsmith's The Price of Salt.) Now that I've read one of her crime thrillers, however, I'm not sure I'm going to like her books. The Blunderer was her third published novel -- a crime novel about three repulsive characters being cruel to each other. I admit the structure is quite interesting, but I found the execution a little repetitious.

The basic set-up is that the story opens with a man murdering his wife at a cross-country bus stop. We then switch to the protagonist, Walter Stackhouse , who is a lapdog to his neurotic harridan of a wife, Clara. I guess I should say the novel is about four repulsive characters being cruel to each other, but Clara really only interacts with Walter, not the other two main characters. One of those two is Melchior Kimmel, an obese, mostly blind dealer in collectible books who is suspected of being the murderer of the wife that we saw in the opening chapter. Walter visits him through some bizarre compulsion after Clara dies under similar circumstances, although apparently by suicide. The fourth protagonist is the police detective, Lawrence Corby, who starts investigating Clara's death and then becomes fascinated by the Kimmel case, too. Like all the other characters, Corby has an ugly and possibly psychotic personality. He hammers at both Walter and Kimmel, including physically torturing the latter, in an attempt to get them to confess to the murders.

And that's pretty much the material of the novel. These four characters go at it over and over, chewing on each other like a dog on a bone. That's the part that I found repetitive after a while. Highsmith repeatedly soaks the reader in these charged episodes of people being psychologically (and sometimes physically) abusive to each other, while Walter blunders from one idiotic misstep to another under Corby and Kimmel's pressure. What's interesting is that who is guilty and who isn't almost becomes moot after a while. Everyone is guilty, at least in their own minds. Desires and paranoia and dominance games abound. Highsmith keeps it interesting enough with the intricate, submerged parallels between the Kimmel and Stackhouse cases, and then by capping it off with a satisfyingly bloody, apocalyptic ending. But I found it a slog to get to the ending.

On the other hand, this does make me more interested in The Price of Salt, since the movie is intricately psychological in its own right and isn't a genre crime novel. This one may have suffered from the demands of genre.
randy_byers: (cesare)
I'm just back from my second trip to Rockaway Beach on the Oregon Coast with my friend Kristal. Kristal is a breast cancer survivor whom I met at the beginning of the year through my co-worker Abi. Kristal has been a huge support to me while I've undergone treatment, accompanying me on long walks to help me keep my strength up, and sharing her own harrowing treatment stories. The chemo she went through not only took all her hair and eyelashes, but eventually her fingernails too. In the beginning Abi was usually part of the outings, but eventually she found a boyfriend, and Kristal and I started walking and talking on our own. Then one day she invited me to join her on a day trip to Lummi Island, and I felt that something was beginning to happen between us.

Not long after that she invited me to join her on a two-day trip to Rockaway Beach to celebrate her birthday. I wasn't sure what her intent was, but I took it as an opportunity to get to know her better. So I asked her a bunch of nosy questions including why she had invited me. She told me that she just liked me and thought I'd be fun to hang out with in one of her favorite get-away spots. Fair enough. However, my own affection for her was starting to change in response to getting to know her better: her camera-shyness; the way she obsessively listens to the same music over and over (currently Bon Iver); her dysfunctional family background; her love of poetry; her desire to enjoy life to the fullest while she still can; and her mad skills as a photographer.

So I was the one who pushed for another outing to Rockaway this month. Last time we hit the coast on November 8th and then watched with horror as America elected Trump as president. That really ruined everything, including our attempt to escape the world for a little while. This time would be better, we hoped. Unfortunately, despite all the signs that she wasn't interested in me romantically -- the lack of physical affection, the way she immediately deflected any flirtation or expressions of affection on my part -- failed to penetrate my silly heart, and I started feeling frustrated by her unresponsiveness and emotional distance. Eventually I started feeling pretty grumpy and alienated about it. I woke up on Friday in a foul mood, thinking I didn't understand her or what the hell was going on. I walked out into the front room before sunrise in order to stew upon it in the dark and spotted the three-quarters moon hanging over the trail from the cottage to the beach.

2016-12-16 Moon Path.jpg

It was like the beginning of a pirate movie, or a gothic thriller, or an A. Merritt super scientific adventure. I felt that I had suddenly been transported into a much larger, more glorious universe, where my romantic confusion was a piddling bunch of bullshit that had been blown completely out of proportion. I threw on some warm clothes, raced down to the frigid beach, and felt myself in the presence of an archaic power much more ancient than life or love and before which I was completely helpless. Which I think is Kristal's goal in these trips to the ocean: to connect to a deeper sense of mystery and awe than we generally experience in our day-to-day lives, and that is a particularly healing solace to someone with death by cancer looming over their future.

Today she confirmed that she just wants a traveling buddy, not a boyfriend. I've been on the other side of that divide, so who am I to pout? Well, a human being, that's who, but I hope the pouting doesn't last long. It turns out I very much do understand her and what the hell is going on; I was just in denial. Why waste time on minor riddles of the heart, when there are much vaster mysteries at work? Mysteries that can open me like a can opener and swallow my innards whole in an eyeblink. It happened to me last December, in fact. My world and life have been transformed for the worse, but it's still full of beauty that takes my breath away. I yearn for love, but I've always made do with a sense of wonder. Meanwhile, I hope that Kristal and I can continue to console each other for the shitty bad luck we both ran into when we ran head first (or breast first, in her case) into cancer.

2016-12-16 Moon Ocean.jpg

POSTSCRIPT: I know that at least one of you saw a post I put up briefly after the November trip. If you saw that one, I ask you to pretend you didn't and restrict your comments to this one.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Because not everybody reads Facebook or sees all the posts there. By the way, today is the anniversary of my brain surgery. That means I've survived a year already -- longer if you consider the fact that I clearly already had the tumor when I had my first seizure in early August 2015.

My last MRI, which was on November 30th, once again showed that the tumor has not returned, huzzah! I started my ninth round of chemo that night, and finished it the next Sunday. Three more rounds to go.

This has been my worst round of chemo of the nine. Two days after my last dose, I started struggling with nausea, but after getting a break from it on Thursday, it came back with a vengeance yesterday. Usually by this point in the cycle I'd be getting my appetite back and starting to take long walks again. It could be that the chemo in my body has built up to a saturation point. I'll talk to my new oncologist about that when I meet her later this month. The last three rounds have actually been increasingly difficult, nausea-wise, but the first time I thought it was because I didn't take an anti-nausea pill before the first dose and woke up in the middle of the night feeling horribly sick. I thought maybe that primed my body to react to the chemo with nausea. That continued to be my theory when last time the nausea hit me the day after my last dose. Now I'm beginning to think there's something else going on.

We'll see what the oncologist has to say. Friends are pointing out that I can quit the chemo if it's making me miserable. It's a good reminder, but I'd rather gut it out if I can. I got there with radiation too, but I stuck it out to the end.

Anyway, that's about it for now.

ETA: I've been reminded that today is the anniversary of surgery to remove my tumor. Not one I'm going to be celebrating, as much as I'm glad that the tumor was removed.

A friend also posted a pointer toward this article about cancer, fragility, and racism, which I have mixed feelings about, but it includes some great bits of quoted poetry.

From Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

And this from Tracy K. Smith's "Duende":

If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.

"Love tossed into the ecstatic void." Story of my life, and it hasn't been a bad one.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
1990ish Graduations Office Halloween webres.jpg

I just got a call from my HR rep saying that Friday is my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm feeling slightly shocked, not only because I was expecting more warning than that, but because it's the official end of a major part of my life. I worked at the UW for 26 (nearly 27) years, starting in February 1989 (not counting a year of temping for what they still called the Steno Pool before that). Not quite half my life, but pretty damn close. I've known it was over for at least a year, but now that it's come, I feel suddenly naked somehow. Not that anybody ever understood when they asked me what I did and I tried to explain.

I did a lot of things over the years: graduations, residence classification (for tuition purposes: are you in-state or not? A job I hated, because people would actually cry if we denied their applications), a brief attempt at supervising (fail!!), implementing the degree audit reporting system (huge success!), and finally various flavors of data management (widespread fame and acclaim!). Anyway, above is a photo from more innocent times (circa 1990, and a Halloween, whichever year it was) with the old Graduation Office, which has gone through a number of name and personnel changes since then. On the left is Fred (who tried to call me just as I was starting this round of chemo, so I haven't gotten back to him yet), Virjean (the supervisor), Barbara, Pat, and me. I haven't missed work one iota, but I'm feeling a pang now.

Since I know she follows this LJ, I just wanted to thank Virjean for hiring me, mentoring me, and putting me to good use over the decades. With apologies to Matt S., you'll always be my favorite boss, not to mention a fine human being.

This probably deserves a deeper dive at some point, but I wanted to spread the news.

P.S. Notice the dumb terminal and the IBM Selectric on the right side of us, both of them mine. To my left, but hidden from the photo, was a PC running DOS 6.0, as I recall.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
Mischief.jpegCharlotte Armstrong's 1950 novel, Mischief, is the fifth in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s omnibus. Although crimes do happen in the story, it's not a story about murder like the first four books, so it comes across as more of a thriller than a crime story. Others refer to it as domestic suspense. I guess all the novels in this omnibus are called domestic suspense or domestic thriller in order to distinguish them from the hard-boiled detective crime stories or international espionage thrillers that were also being written at the time. They are often about the invasion of a household or family, and they often have a romantic element as well, usually seen from an atypical angle for a romance.

One thing all five of the novels I've read so far have in common is an interest in abnormal psychology. It may have been David Bordwell who said they were all psychological thrillers. Mischief is about an emotionally troubled girl named Nell who is called in to babysit for a couple who are in town for a ceremony honoring the husband. They don't know Nell, but her uncle is the hotel elevator operator, and he offers her services when the husband's sister cancels her offer to babysit at the last moment. Meanwhile, Jed and Jen are a couple on the verge of making a deeper commitment, who get into a spat over Jed's careless selfishness and break up. Jed is staying in the same hotel as the couple, and he returns to brood. He spots Nell acting flirtatious across the way, and spontaneously calls her up. Then things start getting weird.

There are at least four female viewpoint characters in the novel, and maybe only one male viewpoint character. The women are Ruth, the mother of the child who needs looking after; Nell, the dangerous babysitter; another woman staying in the hotel who sees something odd going on in the couple's room and dithers about intervening; and Jen, who dumps Jed and then realizes immediately that she's made a mistake and spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out how to make it right. All of these women are neurotic to some extent or another, although I suppose Ruth's self-doubt could be chalked up to normal parental anxieties and uncertainties. She's a lot like the mother in The Blank Wall: Constantly worried about her child and constantly worried that she worries too much. All of these characters question their own motivations, argue themselves out of doing the right thing and then argue themselves back into it. Part of the suspense is what, if any, action they'll eventually take.

Jed is a work of narcissistic art. He's stung to the quick by Jen's accusation that he's cold and cynical and uncaring, but to his credit he actually does achieve some self-awareness over the course of the novel. One of the ways that Armstrong evokes his self-centeredness is in the way his internal dialogue addresses himself by his last name: Towers. At times he reminded me of Dix Steele from In a Lonely Place in the way that he endlessly works to justify himself to himself, and in the swiftly shifting tides of his self-confidence and self-doubt.

Nell is emotionally disturbed, but it wasn't clear to me what kind of mental problem she had, or if Armstrong was even thinking in those categorical terms. She's impulsive, unable to foresee consequences, and a glib liar who is able to concoct explanatory/deflecting stories on the fly. The evidence is that she has murdered somebody in the past, although during a moment of dissociation. She has spent time in a mental institution of some kind because of that, and has only recently been released. Armstrong does a great job of capturing her spasms of serpentine charisma, mixed with dissociative fugues where she loses all emotional affect, not to mention the plot.

There's another interesting character who passes through the story without leaving a trace. This a black woman staying in the hotel, who immediately recognizes that Nell is deranged and tries to bull her way into the room to see whether the child is okay. What's interesting about this character is that Armstrong clearly shows that the main thing blocking her from intervening is racism. Her son keeps pulling on her arm and telling her she can't treat a white woman (Nell) like that. Eventually he pulls her away, and that's the last we hear of her. From a structural point of view, she leaves no impact on the story. So why did Armstrong include her? Was it just an acknowledgement of the Civil Rights movement gearing up even as the novel was published? Armstrong also lavishes quite a bit of physical description on the woman, and none of it seemed demeaning to me. It's a very rich, detailed portrait for such a brief and uneventful appearance.

Mischief is about people wrestling with their inner demons while they try to figure out how they want to react to events. Jed isn't the only one who seems to find himself in the crisis. The mother, Ruth, also finds that her inner demons have their uses when it comes to fighting to protect her family. It's a nervy novel that comes to a complex climax of clashing psychological agendas.

It was made into a film noir called Don't Bother to Knock in 1952. The movie streamlines the book by concentrating all the action in the one hotel and playing the events practically in real time. Jen is a singer in the hotel bar, and Nell's past trauma doesn't involve her parents but a fiance. Nell (played by Marilyn Monroe) is cast more as a sympathetic self-injurer than as the psychotic threat of the novel, although when push comes to shove she does all the threatening things she does in the novel. There's no sign of the extraneous but fascinating black woman,
randy_byers: (machine man)
The two great cliches of action shows, "This isn't over!" and "This ends now!" are flipsides of each other. (My Facebook post from December 2, 2015)

One year ago today, I walked to the University of Washington on my regular work commute. But instead of going directly to my office, I first went to the UW Medical Center Radiology Department to get an MRI of my head. We were trying to figure out why I had had a series of seizures starting the previous August. After the MRI I walked to my office, picking up a cup of coffee at Bean and Bagel along the way. As I sipped the coffee at my desk, I could feel a seizure coming on. Because my working theory for so long had been that the first seizure was caused by stress and anxiety, I wondered if this one had been triggered by the coffee. I tried to warn my officemates, Doug and Bill, about what was happening to me, but by then I had already lost the ability to speak. They soon figured out that something was wrong and called our boss, who called 911. The EMTs who checked me out suggested I go to my clinic and see a doctor about the seizure. So my boss drove me to the UW Medicine clinic at Northgate. My regular doctor wasn't available, although he spotted me in the lobby and came over to ask how I was doing. I suspect he had seen the MRI results by then, but I don't know for sure. In any event, there was another doctor who could see me. It was a longish wait before I was let into an examination room, probably because she was reviewing the MRI and discussing it with more senior physicians and preparing herself for what she had to tell me. As soon Dr Sairenji came in, I could see by her face that it was bad news.

She informed me that the MRI showed that I had a tumor in my brain, and the radiologist who read the MRI was calling the tumor glioblastoma -- which later really pissed off my neurosurgeon, because he felt only pathologists can determine the type of cancer, looking at cells from the tumor itself. In retrospect my guess is that an experienced radiologist can probably recognize glioblastoma from the MRI, even if they can't tell the exact type and grade, which is in fact incredibly important information, because Grade I and II are generally not terminal, whereas III and IV (my grade) are. Dr. Sairenji answered my questions and to reassure me as best she could. I'll never forget the sorrow on her face. She had never met me before, but she was the one who had to tell me I had potentially lethal cancer. When I started crying she gave me a light hug with one arm around my shoulders. The news actually wasn't a complete shock, because as soon as I'd had my second and third seizures, three months after the first, I began to wonder whether I might have a tumor. Still, I had tried to set that thought aside and to hope for better news. So in fact -- to heck with the nuance -- the news shocked me to the marrow.

I had called or texted Denys asking if he could come pick me up and take me home, because I knew I wouldn't be going back to work. As soon as I saw his concerned face and started telling him the news, I started sobbing, as he cursed furiously while welcoming me into a big, comforting hug. It was even worse when I got home and called my mom. I doubt it's difficult to imagine how little she wanted to hear my news. All I could think to say was, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Undoubtedly the hardest, most heart-wrenching conversation I've ever had in my life.

A lot has happened in the year since that day: surgery to remove the tumor, diagnosis of the tumor (confirming that it was glioblastoma, and of the worst kind), a course of simultaneous radiation and chemo, and then a longer (and ongoing) course of chemo and a new electromagnetic treatment technology called the Optune. It's been a long, hard road, but my family and friends swiftly closed ranks around me and have carried me on their backs through all the turmoil and trouble. My mom, sister, brother, sister-in-law, and Denys have all been particular champions, and I cannot possibly thank them enough for all they've done for me, from feeding me, accompanying me to doctor appointments, advising me when I was confused about the options facing me, and helping to pay off our remaining mortgage, to taking on most of the household chores and changing my Optune transducer arrays twice a week. Many, many other friends have corresponded, created single-issue, single-copy fanzines for me, come to visit, cheered me in Facebook and LiveJournal comments, walked with me to keep my strength up, shared their cancer treatment stories, sent me care packages and gifts of food, books, and music. It's been a crappy year of debilitating treatments, but I've learned a lot about love and friendship in the process, such as the fact that it can be completely invisible to you (or at least to me, Captain Oblivious) until you need it in the worst way. I haven't worked a single day since that first MRI, and I'm in the process of taking a medical retirement. I've made new friends who stepped in without hesitation to give me support. I have added many more Facebook Friends, many of whom I don't know personally, who follow me now because they know my Mom or my sister and want to follow my story, because it's part of their story. Old friends who I'd lost contact with are coming out of the woodwork as the news slowly filters into the world. People have been amazing.

It isn't all friends and family either. I've met with, talked to, and been treated by a phalanx of doctors, neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, neuro-oncologists, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, receptionists, radiation techs, MRI techs, phlebotomists, clinical psychiatrists, nutritionists, Optune reps, pharmacists, long term disability insurance reps, Social Security Disability Insurance bureaucrats, University of Washington HR bureaucrats, and social workers. It takes a village to treat a cancer patient. Not all of them have been equally competent or caring, but in general I've found the people at the Alvord Brain Tumor Center and at the UW Medical Center as a whole to be very kind and helpful. Good people who are committed to quality of life for the terminally ill. Considering all the bureaucracy involved, it's kind of amazing how good the treatment has been.

A lot has happened in the last year and I'm hopeful that there's more amazement to come, but I thought it was worth marking that a year ago I walked through a door into an examination room and exited a stranger in a strange land that had such people in it.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
Holding The Blank Wall.jpgThe Blank Wall is a 1947 crime novel that's been adapted to film twice: once as a film noir called The Reckless Moment (1950) and the other a contemporary thriller (that is, set in the present day of 2001) called The Deep End. The basic scenario in all three versions of the story is a suburban mother trying to hold the family together while her husband is away at war. Her underage daughter becomes enamored of a sleazy crook who wants to blackmail her, and the mother is sucked into a criminal underworld that is completely outside her mundane experience as a home-maker. (In The Deep End, the gender of the child who is imperiled is changed from female to male, and the son is gay.) I don't believe it's a major spoiler to say that the sleazebag is accidentally murdered, and the mother gets involved in covering up the murder only to have another blackmailer show up with letters her daughter wrote to her exploiter/boyfriend, which he threatens to send to the newspapers unless the mother pays him five thousand dollars.

The novel is very much a melodrama, in the sense that it's about a woman unhappily trapped in a social role that doesn't fit her. Lucia is deeply insecure and very bad at being a housekeeper and mother. She writes letters to her husband that are complete torture to her, because they are so inane and disconnected from the turmoil she's going through, which she feels she must hide from him. Her daughter and son are both spoiled brats who torment her with their back talk and disobedience and contempt, and she is helpless to do anything about it. In fact, she's so helpless in general that I had a hard time maintaining my sympathy for her. The novel was initially serialized in Women's Home Journal, and it seems aimed at women who are bored with their domestic lives and maybe wishing for some excitement or adventure. The woes of the protagonist probably appealed pretty directly to the experience of the women who read the magazine.

As a crime story it's unusual for focusing on domestic issues like motherhood, the limits on women's power to run their own lives, and suburban gentility and pretense. Poor Lucia has to run around town trying to deal with grocery shopping during war time rationing, trying to get her refrigerator fixed when the repair company is already overbooked, trying to borrow money to pay the blackmail when she has no collateral to offer, and generally having no idea how to deal with the problems she's facing without her exposing her whole family to shame and criminal charges. The other unusual thing about The Blank Wall is that the second blackmailer she meets is a gentle man named Donnelly who gradually falls in love with her. In the film noir version, directed by the great Max Ophuls in his brief Hollywood sojourn, it's implied that maybe the feeling is mutual and maybe it goes further than just feelings. The book is very clear that, despite the fact that she does have feelings for him, nothing happens between Lucia and Donnelly, but Lucia agonizes over the appearance that something has happened between them, which is constantly thrown in her face by her horrible children. The 1950 film also implies that the daughter did more than write letters to her sleazy boyfriend, whereas the book again maintains her innocence of sexual involvement.

The unusual setting and stakes is what sets this book apart from most crime novels, although the focus on romance aligns it with the other three novels in the Library of America series of mid-century crime novels by women. The thing that really made the book stand out for me, however, is the character of Sybil, the black woman who helps Lucia run the household. It's interesting to me that Sybil is missing from both film adaptations, because she is absolutely key to the novel. Basically, she's the person who makes sure that the house is run properly, handling everything that Lucia is incompetent to do, and she makes sure Lucia stays out of trouble with both the criminals and the law, interceding whenever Lucia starts losing her grip. Lucia depends on her entirely, and there comes a point when Sybil tells her the story of her husband, who has been in prison for something like twelve years for hitting a white man who hit him first. Through Sybil, who is portrayed very vividly through Lucia's eyes, we get a vivid portrait of the husband, who is an idealist who still believes justice can prevail despite the cruel injustice perpetrated on him by Jim Crow America. It's an utterly fascinating burst of raw social realism in the midst of an oddball romantic crime story. The best part of the story, for me, was the unexpected portrayal of the deepening friendship, even partnership, between Lucia and Sybil. Sybil is Lucia's true better half, not the absent husband. It's not clear to me whether Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was expecting us to see these two women as the real domestic partners of the story, but that's how it came across to me. It makes The Blank Wall feel at least obliquely radical for its time.
randy_byers: (wilmer)

This is the second time I've read In a Lonely Place. The first time was because I loved the famous film noir adaptation so much and was curious about its source, and I was astonished at how different the movie was from the book -- starting with the fact that in the book the protagonist, Dixon "Dix" Steele, is a serial killer of women, whereas in the movie he's just a tormented guy with a violent streak who is a suspect in the murder of one girl. The novel struck me as a tour de force in its first-person depiction of a psychotic personality. This second reading was because I'm working my way through the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus, and this time I was able to identify some of the strands that the film-makers took hold of as they transformed the crime novel into a personal story about how the Hollywood Dream Factory crushes dreams. In the book Dix claims to be a writer, and in the movie he really is one -- a bona fide artiste, in fact, who detests Hollywood's focus on selling popcorn. The novel also does have a love affair between Dix and his neighbor, Laurel Gray, who has dabbled in acting in both the book and the movie, but who primarily seems to be looking for a man she can love. In the movie, Laurel leaves Dix because she's afraid of his violent temper, although she still loves him.

Having now watched the movie again since re-reading the book, it's interesting how the book is changing my view of the movie. I've always loved the tragic romanticism of the movie: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." The novel is if anything anti-romantic. Compare Hughes' description of the end of Laurel's love for Dix: "He knew but he did not admit. It might have been a week. It might have been a day or two, or perhaps there was no time. But the restlessness was coming into her. She could not be content too long to be bound within the confines of his dream. It might have been the way her shoulders moved to a dance orchestra over the radio. It might have been the small frown as they sat again for dinner in the living room. It could have been her evasion to his questions about her hours of that particular day. Or the way in which she stood in the doorway, looking out into the night." The transition is more dramatic in the film, more dreamlike in the novel.

But perhaps more importantly the two main female characters, Laurel and Sylvia (the wife of Dix's best friend, Brub, who is also the detective investigating the murders, in a clever touch from the novel) are both stronger characters in the book. This is debatable when it comes to Laurel, who, as Curtis Hanson points out in a featurette on the DVD I have, basically becomes the point-of-view character in the second part of the film. We go from sympathizing with the tormented Dix to fearing for Laurel, as his paranoid anger transfers to her. That's a very powerful switch, but the novel never portrays Laurel as a woman-in-peril. Instead she's ahead of the game, knows Dix is trouble, and teams up with Brub and Sylvia, who also recognizes immediately that Dix is a psycho. Laurel is an ambivalent character in the book -- she clearly has gold-digger tendencies -- but she's been around the block enough to know that Dix can't be trusted. Sylvia is a severely reduced character in the film, although I'll give the film-makers credit for beefing up the role of the housemaid, Effie, and creating an interesting masseuse/confidante for Laurel who may be a lesbian and who recognizes Dix as a disaster in the making.

Like the other two books in the LOA omnibus, this one has a pretty blunt take on sex and sexuality. Dix is a rapist as well as a murderer, whereas the film explicitly says that the murder of Mildred Atkinson is not a sex crime. Dix and Laurel have a torrid sexual affair. This is hinted at in the movie, with some suggestive shots of Gloria Grahame in the shower, naked in bed under the covers, and getting a massage, but the novel makes no bones about it. Dix relishes the physical intimacy and yearns for it when he loses it. As in the film, there's a suggestion that the sexual fling reduces the tensions inside of him, and he stops his predation on women while he's with Laurel. It's also interesting that in the novel Dix is shown to be very fashion conscious. ("He dressed in the suit he liked best; he didn't wear it often. It was distinctive, a British wool, gray with a faint overplaid of lighter gray, a touch of dim red.") He's always very precise about what clothes he's wearing, and he frequently notes what other people are wearing and judges them for it. I'm not sure whether that's just Hughes indulging her own interests, or whether we're supposed to read anything into it.

The main thing about the novel is the way Hughes captures Dix's psychosis, the ebb and flow of his frantic emotions, the tides of his self-confidence, his constant scanning of the people around him to try to read their thoughts and reactions. Dix is constantly pretending, constantly preening about his awareness of what's happening and his ability to control how other people perceive him. (Is *that* part of the fashion consciousness?) When he's feeling good, the world is his oyster and there's a kind of romanticism akin to the movie, but when he's feeling out of control, his paranoia turns the world into a giant closet full of monsters. Hughes' great triumph is her ability to capture the way his mood swings and flows, unhinged from everything but his own deranged caprice. Dix is almost a textbook case of hysteria, and that may be Hughes' secret joke/irony: the murderous misogynist with the classic feminine dis-ease. He's so nervous and twitchy he reminded me of an AE van Vogt character: "He felt Sylvia cringe at Laurel's use of the word dick for detective. He didn't see it; he saw nothing. His mind was knotted too tightly, so tightly the room was a blur. He steadied himself against the table."

Hughes is perhaps a little too obvious at times in pointing out the variety of lonely places in her story, but it's still a potent metaphor for psychological isolation, post-war social alienation, romantic abandonment, and even the kind of dark coastal gully or suburban cul-de-sac where someone might get away with murder. It's a remarkable novel that was turned into a remarkable movie that's about something completely different.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Or as we say on LiveJournal, Happy birthday, [livejournal.com profile] don_fitch. Hope you're enjoying your new accommodations. Please don't tell me you've been living there for five years already!
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
A few bits of good news from the past week, mostly having to do with insurance:

1) After receiving three letters from my insurance company saying that coverage of the Optune was being denied after all, I received confirmation from my oncologist that he was still confident they would relent in the end. Then came a fourth letter saying that, yes, they would be covering the Optune after all. The letter does not explain why they changed their tune.

2) After receiving two further forms to submit for SSDI and a third form received by Denys(!), I complained to Allsup, which is the third-party company hired by my long term disability insurance company (the Standard) to help me apply for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance -- a federal program in the US), and they said they'd intervene on my behalf. So this week I received confirmation that I had been approved for SSDI.

3) Yesterday I took the last dose of my eighth round of chemo. Only four rounds to go. I'm two-thirds of the way there and champing at the damn bit.
randy_byers: (cesare)
Jackson Castle.jpgI read this novel after a discussion on Facebook when I posted a picture of an Aminita muscaria mushroom and Rich Coad quoted the opening of We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Aminita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom."

This is a very odd, uncategorizable book. A lot of people call it gothic, and it certainly has elements of the gothic: an old, gloomy, isolated house; an atmosphere of the uncanny and the macabre. Others have called it a fairy tale, which also make sense, because it seems to take place in a magical Never Never Land remote from mundane reality. As the books opens, we learn that Merricat (short for Mary Katherine) is living in the old Blackwood mansion with her sweet sister, Constance, and doddering uncle, Julian. We learn that six years earlier, Merricat's parents, brother, and aunt (Julian's wife) were poisoned to death with arsenic. Julian also ate the poison, but while mentally and physically damaged, didn't die. Constance was accused of the murder but acquitted.

The book consists of Merricat's descriptions of their strangely idyllic life and their mutually hostile relationship with the hateful village they live outside of. Merricat is a complete savage, constantly dreaming of the deaths of those she hates, while at the same time living in a sweet adolescent world of the imagination that infuses every aspect of her life with magic. She loves her sister and her cat, Jonas. The novel as a whole is a psychological study of Merricat, and she is one hell of a character: agoraphobic, cunning, childish, loving, hateful, terrified, brash, murderous, and whimsical.

Eventually the isolated world of the three survivors is punctured by a greedy cousin who comes looking for the family fortune, and things start to spiral out of Merricat's tight control. Yet the action of the novel, such as it is, settles in a highly unusual way. The whole thing is highly unusual. I can't think of another book like it, and that's kind of an amazing accomplishment. The setting is gothic and morbid, but Merricat's observations are frequently very funny or absurd, so the only people I could think to compare this to were Charles Addams (The Addams Family) and Edward Gorey. Jackson seems like one of those oddball American writers -- Charles Portis would be another -- who aren't easily categorized and don't fit easily into American literary history.

Joyce Carol Oates has a much more detailed review at The New York Review of Books.
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2016-09-28 Optune Sore.jpg
A sore caused by the Optune

I know a lot of my friends are intrigued by the Optune, so, since I just talked to the oncologist about it yesterday, I figured I'd give a little report on how life with the Optune is going and what the future looks like.

Wearing the Optune certainly isn't all fun and games. The new version is much smaller and lighter, and that has made life easier, but I still have to pay attention to the fact that I'm connected to it and need to pick it up if I want to move anywhere. If it's plugged into a wall outlet, I need to make sure I unplug it before I move. If I'm not plugged into a wall outlet, I need to keep an eye on whether the battery is running out of juice. The biggest discomfort is that I have to wear it almost nonstop. The transducer arrays are literally glued to my scalp, so it can feel quite claustrophobic at times. A couple of weeks ago when I peeled the arrays off so I (or rather Denys) could put new ones on, it felt so good I started to cry. They warn you upfront that the most common side effects are headaches or irritation of the scalp. I haven't had any headaches, but the picture above is of a sore caused by the Optune a couple of months ago. It wasn't painful, and they gave me some non-stick gauze to put over it. After that it healed very quickly. Other than that there are occasional irritated spots that Denys makes sure he avoids when he puts the next set of arrays on.

As I think I mentioned earlier, over time I've learned that there are people who have been wearing the Optune for years. I wasn't sure what that meant, so yesterday I asked Dr Mrugala whether I'd be wearing the Optune after I finish chemo in March. What was interesting about his reply was that he basically said it would be up to me. What would I base my decision on?' I asked. Mostly how well I was tolerating it, he said, for example whether it was causing major scalp problems and whether I was able to wear it for an average of 75% of each day, as they prefer.

The reason I was asking him about the Optune was that I want to go to Yap next May. I asked him whether, if I chose to continue with the Optune, it would be okay to take a three week break while I traveled. No problem, he said. My impression from this part of the conversation was that they simply don't have enough data on the effect of the Optune to be able to give much advice. My pattern of usage (which they download into a database every month) and ultimate fate will be another data point in the research. Eventually I'll want to ask if there's any length of break that they *know* is too long, but my guess is they probably don't know. It's too long if the cancer comes back during the break. For all I know at this point, maybe the cancer comes back eventually whether you take a break or not.

My insurance company denied coverage of the Optune in the beginning, but Mrugala and the manufacturer appealed. While the appeal was being processed, the insurance company allowed me to start using the device. Now I've received three letters from them in the last week saying the appeal has been denied, because there's no proof that the Optune improves treatment outcomes and therefore use of it is merely "investigational," which they won't cover. Mrugala is confident that he and the manufacturer can persuade the insurance company to cover the device in the long run. Meanwhile, this bureaucratic battle makes me feel like a guinea pig on the frontlines of science.
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eustis1.jpgThis is the second novel in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and '50s. I reviewed Vera Caspary's Laura previously.

I had never heard of Helen Eustis before. She apparently wrote only two novels and enough short stories for a collection. Her second novel, The Fool Killer, which was adapted as a film, also sounds fascinating: a boy’s adventures wandering the Midwest with an amnesiac veteran shortly after the Civil War. The Horizontal Man was published in 1946 and won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947. It's a very eccentric, ambitious murder mystery that starts out with the brutal murder of a professor of English at a small college near the Berkshires. (Eustis got her bachelors degree at Smith.) We then get a tour through the heads of a number of characters, many of whom are mentally or emotionally imbalanced and one of whom turns out to be the killer.

The novel is called a satire of liberal arts colleges, and certainly it comically mocks the types of people found on such a campus. But what most struck me was the psychological derangement of some of the central characters. In his appreciation of the novel, Charles Finch, calls it a novel of hysteria, and indeed it's almost Lovecraftian in the way that characters seem to be always on the verge of going completely mad and losing all touch with reality. Here's a passage that illustrates the tone I'm trying to describe:

And the snow, the delicate fragile snow, lying crystal on crystal like a thousand thousand lovers in a common bed, and the blue blue sky, blue as a steam whistle or a loud blast on a brass trumpet. He was strung and humming stripped like catgut, over bridge and around key. He shook and vibrated in response to the breath of the universe like the tautest violin string.

There are at least three characters who have basically lost their minds, and I actually got a little impatient with their inability to maintain a grip. Therefore, the most fascinating character by far was the splendidly-named Freda Cramm, who is a forceful ramrod of a woman who is beholden to no one, completely self-assured to the point of arrogance, seductive, fleshy, imperious, and really altogether unlike any other fictional character I can think of. In my review of Laura I said I couldn't detect the free love sexuality that Vera Caspary practiced and apparently felt was embodied in the character of Laura, but sex is all over the place in The Horizontal Man. Freda is a woman of voracious sexual appetite, the murdered professor at least likes to brag of his many sexual conquests, whether they were real or not, and two other characters have (off-stage) sex during the course of the novel.

Between the multiple points of view from multiple unreliable narrators and the raging sexual energy running through the story, it feels very modernistic. Eustis started working on a PhD in English Literature before she turned her hand to writing and translation, and while this is definitely a genre work, it feels very literary in its own peculiar way. Eustis perhaps announces her literary intent with an epigraph from Auden that gave the book its title (although I confess that I don't understand this little poem):

Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.

Of course, the title refers to the dead professor (reverse-fridging decades before the critical term "fridging" was even coined), and perhaps the poem is meditation on how we value the dead more than the living? Whatever the case, I thought this was a firecracker of a novel, and I recommend it highly. It reminded me of Laura in its multiple contesting points of view, and it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place (next up in the LOA omnibus) in its use of psychotic first person narrators.


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