Posted on December 31st, 2015
Sandra & td
Sandra & td
We are excited to announce that our second book, The Infinite Loop: a novella of spaceships, time warps and free pie, is available for pre-order in e-book format at Amazon. An elegant paperback version will soon be available at CreateSpace.
Lenie and Rachel are two old friends sharing a road trip and a new vision of life, beyond marriage and children. Things begin to feel strange out in the West Texas desert: a buzzing, tingling kind of strange. An aircraft appears to be following them and distant lights shine from a town that doesn’t appear on their maps. What awaits them there is a tidy RV park boasting modern amenities and fresh all-you-can-eat pie.
Feeling lucky to have landed in this quiet oasis under a star-strewn desert sky, the women are reluctant to leave, even as they find themselves drawn into a series of increasingly disturbing events. Is it the town, the pie, or some kind of shared hallucination? One thing they know for sure is that they can’t leave without seeing the local attraction that has beckoned them ever since their arrival: the Infinite Loop.
The water is again rising at an alarming rate in Houston, in Texas, in Louisiana, Mississippi, etc. And on a Halloween Saturday at that. Unfortunately, there’s no candy to be found in my house–trust me, I’ve searched–but there are always books and (as long as the electricity stays on) coffee. If you, like me, are planning to turn off the lights, stay in tonight, and maybe read a spooky story, I have a few suggestions:
Ghost Summer: Stories – Just a tip: don’t download this to your e-reader late at night and immediately start reading it. It’s not conducive to sleep and the stories will suck you into Tananarive Due’s fictional Gracetown where ghosts and monsters may be part of everyday life, but shouldn’t be mistaken for harmless.
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances – This is Neil Gaiman doing what he does best: telling creepy stories with an edge of dark humor. Highly recommend on audio, which is also read by Gaiman.
The Strange Library – This slim novella from Haruki Murakami takes a library, traditionally the reader’s refuge, and turns a fun house mirror on it, creating a world where a boy must try use his ability to absorb knowledge from books to literally keep his head.
The Little Stranger – If you’re looking to sink in for a longer read, this novel by Sarah Waters is an excellent choice. “There are a few dark-and-stormy and fog-enveloped nights, used to great effect and without apology. The overall impression is like watching a stain spread across your floor, as you pad about in the half-light looking for the leak, only to realise with dawning horror that it’s not water but blood seeping through your socks. Immersing and immensely fun read” is how Tina aptly described it.
The Hallowed Ones – Need a “guilty pleasure” read? Who knew there was a slew of Amish vampire books? Apparently it is a thing and I’ll admit that I’m reading this one. Don’t think that you’re going to find pretty, sparkly vampires here; these are the monster variety.
However you celebrate, here’s wishing you a Happy Halloween. Above the waterline.
The four of us stand together at the edge of the firelight. My little sister, Victoria, is the youngest. She’s twelve years younger than me; a happy accident for my parents and, once we’d grown up, my best friend. She’s also the creator of the smooth, intoxicating shakes we’ve just used to toast the night.
The other two are my friends Mallory and Callie. Standing here, the variations in height and shape and coloring—our skin and hair ranging from pale to dusky—that mark us in daylight fade away, and we are simply shadows. These women are my clan. They are the ones I call when life has been very good or very bad or just because. Today has not been a good day.
Like I said, Victoria made the drinks. She brought the rum, ginger beer, and good vanilla ice cream and blended them together. She said she’d sprinkled something special in them as well. Best not to question her when she says things like that. Mal and Callie “borrowed” their neighbor’s copper fire pit and picked up some lighter fluid and kindling. Victoria told them what to bring.
It’s funny. Mal, Callie, and I are all about the same age. We met in college years ago. We’re all outspoken, take-charge women; but Victoria, the quiet one, tends to control our flux and flow. Mostly, this is subtle, and while I can’t tell you how she does it, we all feel it. Now she raises her glass and says, unexpectedly, “To Ray,” and drinks deeply. Over the edge of her glass her eyes admonish us to do the same, so we do. Weakly we repeat, “Ray,” and drink.
I also met Ray in college and married him. Three weeks ago we celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary; not in Cabo San Luca as planned, though. He’d claimed to have a last minute emergency at work, so we postponed the trip and indulged in a weekend “staycation” at a resort here in town.
“So tell us?” Victoria says, in a softer tone this time.
“He cancelled the Mexico trip because she, Olivia, the man-eating bitch, didn’t want him to go. She said that it was okay to spend one last weekend with me, but—” and I have to stop because of the hiccuping tears. Mal and Callie step in closer, on either side of me. It’s enough.
“She said it would be leading me on to take me on a big trip. And I really hate that she was right. The bitch.”
“And then he left?” Victoria asks.
“And then he left.” I can see the scene so clearly. Ray leaving. Saying he’d be back for his things. Saying it was for the best. The best for whom?
Victoria nods almost like she can see my thoughts.
“You’ve got everything on the list?”
“Well let’s get this party started,” she says with a smile.
His sweaty gym clothes—including his Calvin’s—go in the fire first. The next item is one of his favorite ties, which I’d soaked in his cologne and then cut in half. I swear the smoke starts to smell like Ray. Then his Mont Blanc fountain pen. And, finally, his house key.
“That’s it,” I say, watching the fire.
“Almost.” Victoria tosses one last item into the flames; something that looks like a large gnarled rhizome and a wad of hair tied with a white ribbon.
“What was that?”
“A mandrake root, of course. With a little hair and blood.”
“Blood?” I ask, startled.
“My dear sister, these things always require blood.”
“But whose? How?”
“It’s not important. All you need to know is that no one was harmed. That makes a difference in the outcome, you know. Now, time for your wish. You’ve thought about what you want?”
She hands me a disturbingly large needle.
“Okay then. State it and then the blood goes into the fire. One drop for each wish.”
I could blame the rum shake, but really, my baby sister’s confidence in her own crazy suburban hoodoo is infectious, even stone-cold sober. I laugh as I poke my finger, like it’s some kind of joke and I might as well play along, right? But I’m not joking, and neither is Victoria. She grabs my hand and squeezes the pricked finger until my blood drips into the flames, while Mal and Callie lean in closer to count the drops. Then—to paraphrase Chekhov—an angel of silence flies over us. I sense nothing but the crackling of the fire and the heat on my face—the heat of the flames, the heat of the rum, the heat of my wild hope.
. . .
I had not wished for Ray to come back to me, so I have to say that his signing the bulk of our assets over to me, and our divorce going through without a hitch, made everything easier. Hearing that his business was not doing well didn’t make me feel as good as you might think. But opening the Sunday paper six months later and seeing that my cousin Olivia had married Ray’s now-former business partner and was honeymooning in Cabo? That was definitely an announcement worth toasting, with rum and fire and my three best friends.
Photo by Sandra Peterson Ramirez.
They sat facing each other, the aqua formica table between them. She had her hands clasped together, index fingers pointing at him. Did she pick that up from me? he wondered. The obviousness of the power play and her serious gaze unnerved him. He would never admit to anyone that he was just a little afraid of her. Even when she leaned forward to sip she didn’t look away. Her eyes, the same deep brown and creamy white as her drink, were huge. They reminded him of that fairy tale; the one where the dog had eyes as big as saucers.
She cleared her throat and said “You wanted to talk?”
“Oh. Right. Yes, there are some things I need to tell you.”
Her mouth twisted up a little. “This sounds bad.”
“Well, not bad.” He was trying not to panic, to keep control of the situation. “No, it’s not a bad thing. We just need to clarify some things. I think there has been some disinformation spread.”
“Disinformation?” She repeated it slowly, stressing each syllable, trying on the new word.
“Sorry, I think maybe you’ve been told some things that aren’t exactly true.”
Her expression cleared. “Someone lied? Who?”
“I don’t want to say lied. We’ll just say they were…” He searched for a word. “Mistaken! They were probably mistaken.”
One eyebrow drifted up just a little. Again he thought did she get that from me?
“I know your grandmother has—”
“Gramma?” She asked, cutting him off.
“Uh. No, your other grandmother”
They sat for a moment not speaking, his words settling between them.
“Go on,” she said finally.
“It’s about school. I know she’s told you some things, made you some promises, about how school is going to be this year, what to expect. And I’m sure sure she had the best intentions. It’s just that…I mean the thing is…”
As he spoke she continued to stare at him with those enormous fathomless eyes. She had leaned all the way back in her chair and pulled knees up in front of her, resting her heels on the seat of the chair. He could see her black patent mary janes and white socks edged in lace.
“The thing is you have to go to kindergarten like everyone else. I know she told you that you could go straight to high school, but you just can’t. I’m really sorry, but I thought you should know before you got there tomorrow.” He said it all out in a rush before he lost his nerve. “And there’s more.”
“More?” She said it calmly, but she was stabbing at her melting ice cream with the long silver spoon and staring at him, eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
“Yes, she also promised you that you would have a desk, right? But they don’t have desks in kindergarten. They sit in a circle. In chairs.”
Again they sat in silence.
“Chairs like these?” She finally asked.
“Well maybe smaller.”
She dropped the spoon into the glass, stood up, went around the table, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Time to go. Mimi is waiting in the car. I’ll see you next week Daddy.”
“Oh. Okay, Baby. So you’re okay with what I said? About school I mean?”
She paused for a moment, gracing him with her sweetest smile. She was only five years old, but already a mystery to him.
“Oh, we’ll see about that.”
She disappeared with the tinkle of the shop door.
Photo by Sandra Peterson Ramirez.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Here is the book blurb from Goodreads, for those wondering what it’s about: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives … Outline is a novel about writing and talking, about self-effacement and self-expression, about the desire to create and the human art of self-portraiture in which that desire finds its universal form.
It says something about Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary talent that despite most of her characters in Outline being, at best, tedious and vain, and at worst, rage-fueled and self-pitying, the book is still utterly engaging. These characters inhabit a world of extraordinary privilege which they are as blind to as fish are to the water in which they swim. As a reader, you have to sit with that through the entire book, as it is the foundation upon which it rests.
Nearly all of these people seem incapable of grasping the part they’ve played in their personal calamities, despite their astonishing clarity in describing their experiences. I did not find any of them especially warm or lovable, except for the times when their tenderness for their children shone through. Nor are they particularly interesting people, despite their intellectual and artistic endeavors; yet, Cusk’s attention to the details of their lives, and the delicacy with which she reveals them, a line at a time, is captivating.
It occurred to me about two-thirds of the way through that none of the characters really have their own voice. Cusk did not create individual voices. In fact, though each of the life stories are told to our narrator in first person, so that every character becomes an “I”, they all share our narrator’s calm, cool, somewhat detached style. They are not different enough in expression to be picked out, except by content. Stylistically, this worked well and created a coherence and unity that prevents the novel from reading as a series of separate pieces.
Although this is a feminist novel, I did not find the women any less obnoxious or more morally “in the right” than the men. In fact, they are no different from the men, in their self-obsession and their vanity. They are chronically unable to appreciate what they’ve got when they’ve got it. They exhibit an utter lack of consideration for what they might be like to live with themselves, whilst harboring resentment towards their intimate partners whom they feel either wronged by or too good for. All seem to believe they deserve better and more. Always more.
(Having said that, I genuinely liked the honey-guzzling playwright who makes an appearance in the final few pages, and who really had been brutalised. I wondered if Cusk added her in by way of contrast.) I am not sure if Cusk meant us to be left with these feelings of disgust for her characters, or not; but no matter. I loved Outline, because it’s so beautifully written and utterly engaging.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“‘Take my camel, dear’, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass’.” This wins as my favourite first line of any book I’ve read (so far, at least). “The Towers of Trebizond” was not what I expected — though, now I think of it, I am not quite sure what it was I expected. Let me think … well, for one thing, when I bought it, I thought it was nonfiction, which it is not; however, those who knew her say that much of Rose Macaulay’s own life is written into it, and that seems true. For another, the little I knew of the main character made me think that Aunt Dot would be like an English high-church version of Auntie Mame (another book and film I love). In fact, that was a superficial and not-too-accurate impression. Both aunties are bold, adventurous, over-the-top, and hilarious, and both are opportunists in their own ways. However, unlike Mame, Aunt Dot is at heart a high-minded and committed person with serious intentions in the world. And while “Trebizond” is a comedy, like Mame, it is also consistently philosophical and reflective, without being sentimental.
Another expectation I had was that I had thought the story belonged to Aunt Dot, but it is her niece, Laurie, whose tale this is, and we see and hear all through her. So, I had expected a very funny autobiography of a slightly mad middle-aged English woman romping across Turkey on a camel and getting into all manner of mischief (this happens, to be sure), while her niece tags along in the sidekick role; but what I got, in the end, was much stiller and deeper than that. The quieter voice and more introverted experiences of Laurie are a kind of anchor to Dot’s hi-jinx, and yet, the relationship between the two is more complicated than that simple description can capture. Aunt Dot has a certainty and a solidity about herself and her place in the world that young Laurie admires, but cannot achieve and which she believes may forever elude her. The heart of the book is Laurie’s narrative, played against the backdrop of a grand and romantic vision of the Turkish coast as she gallops along it, alone with Dot’s camel. (I won’t spoil the plot by telling you how and why the two become separated, because it’s the best part of the tale.)
The book, in topic and tone and sense of humour, reminds me of Barbara Pym’s writing (which is high praise). In fact, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Barbara Pym. “Trebizond” is also quite sad, in that way that Pym can be sometimes, too; but I must have been looking the other way as the plot went trotting past, because I failed to notice its heading towards a cliff until it had gone airborne. Still, everyone copes in the end, as one does when one is of a certain era and a certain class and a certain country. (I am still getting over it!)
A side effect of having finished Macaulay’s book is that I find myself eager to travel around Turkey and Armenia, circa 1956, on a dashing and deranged camel. This is why I read, of course.
“Day and night I always dream with open eyes.”
Civilization has been destroyed by some catastrophe or other. Most all of mankind has been obliterated. In fact, there is only Sheldon and Leonard, still in their apartment, still arguing over the minutiae of their lives, Leonard trying to explain to Sheldon that no, they will not be having pizza delivered. Or any kind of takeout for that matter. Sheldon steadfastly ignoring that one wall of their apartment is missing, open onto a gray and jagged cityscape in which things occasionally drift by. Floating debris? Drones?
I wake up and ask my husband if he thinks I should consider writing fan fiction because of the dream. Maybe it’s a sign. He kisses me and says he doesn’t see a future in it and leaves for work.
I slip back into that space between waking and sleep while mulling over his attitude. After all, isn’t fan fiction about the love for characters and fictional worlds? About wanting to add your own twist to them? Not everything has to be about big mountains of cash. As I fall back fully into dreaming, I’m back in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment. Sheldon is saying Sheldon-y things in a Sheldon-y tone about the end of the world not making it okay to revert to an uncivilized state. Social contracts must be honored.
Then I realize that there is a green girl drifting in and out of the apartment. Perhaps Gamora? Hard to say as she never stays long or interacts with the other two. But then she wouldn’t would she. I try to follow, but keep losing track of her. A light keeps shining in my eyes, obliterating my view of her.
Surfacing again out of the dream, I realize that the light is the morning sun filtering in. Did the green girl mean something? Green for money? Green for greed? Another possible sign?
Probably it’s just my mind clearing out its own debris. Probably doesn’t mean anything. Probably won’t lead me down some golden path.
Photo by Sandra Peterson Ramirez.
Some days I put the people in their places at the table, bend their legs at the knees, if they come with that feature, and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs. All afternoon they face one another, the man in the brown suit, the woman in the blue dress, perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved. But other days, I am the one who is lifted up by the ribs, then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse to sit with the others at the long table. Very funny, but how would you like it if you never knew from one day to the next if you were going to spend it striding around like a vivid god, your shoulders in the clouds, or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper, staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?
“Some Days” from Picnic, Lightning, by Billy Collins, © 1998, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. The image above is of a work by Laurie Simmons, from the Disturbing Innocence group show at FLAG Art Foundation. Curated by Eric Fischl. Oct 25, 2014 - Jan 31, 2015.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved everything about this book, and I would give it more stars, but I ran out at five. This review is a ramble, really, because I cannot talk about these essays without also talking about my own feminist stance, at least in part. Reading Gay made me constantly question myself, and engaged me in an ongoing internal dialogue over three hundred pages — a dialogue which I was really having with Gay, even though she was not there and could not hear me. (I didn’t let that detract from the conversation.)
I am happy to read a current take on feminism — or even “bad” feminism (though of course, it’s not) — that I believe must resonate with younger women. Many young women today seem to feel a disconnect with their older feminist peers, many of whom they perceive as strident, anti-man, and authoritarian regarding the “right” and “wrong” ways to be a woman. (If women wanted to be told how to be proper women, we could have stuck with men telling us that. We sure as hell don’t need it from the so-called leaders of the sisterhood.)
I just turned fifty, so do not count myself among the younger generation to whom I am referring; and yet, I have struggled, too, with the term “feminist” and what it means to declare oneself as such, publicly. With whom, then, am I claiming solidarity? There are certain feminists from the past and currently, whom I believe do and do not speak for me. Though I do now and have always thought of myself as a feminist, this has never made me feel a sense of connection with an amorphous “sisterhood”, and I do not allow anyone to set the standards for how I live my life.
Does that make me a bad feminist?
Can I not stand for some feminist social and political ideals, without supporting others? My own answer to that is “of course I can”. The whole point of feminism is giving women what they never had historically, and what many around the world still do not have: freedom of choice and the power to enact those choices. If we get boxed in by our own ideology, so that our choices narrow to that which suits the currently-accepted feminist discourse, then the solution has become the problem, hasn’t it?
One thing lovely about being fifty, cliché though this may be, is that it has somehow magically freed me to accept myself fully, without guilt that I should be someone more than, or different from, who I am. This doesn’t mean that I have given up on self-improvement, where needed, but it does mean that I am not too concerned with whether or not I live up to others’ ideas of what I should be. I consider the opinions of my family and friends, but I do not lose sleep worrying about upholding the mantle of feminism, or any other “ism”.
Having said that, I do feel that I owe some things to my gender, and these I am happy to give. I consider them to be the basics of feminist loyalty; and yet, they are given more with love, than merely a sense of duty. These include voting in our best interests, and speaking out against our oppression. In the recent past, it’s included a large portion of my career as a therapist, spent helping mostly-female victims of sexual abuse and interpersonal violence.
Gay is in a much trickier position than me, though, because she is looked upon as voice of modern feminism, and must feel a great deal of pressure to get it right — whatever “right” means. She questions herself constantly, and shares both her certainties and her doubts with us. I found her wonderful to read, because she is a feminist whom I can relate to, who recognises that she is “bad” at being a feminist in some ways, while she is righteous and on-fire in others.
Gay is unapologetic and direct about her own life experiences, her own biases and blind spots, and her love of pink — which I find charming — and fashion mags. Early on in this collection of essays, Gay is rhapsodic about the virtues of Francine Pascal‘s Sweet Valley High series, and what it offered her as a lonely and awkward young girl, alone in a room with her books. (I adored this essay.) She has some short, pithy essays about herself as girl and woman — my personal favourite being I Was Once Miss America, and one longish one about a Scrabble competition that is hilarious.
So, the collection starts off light, but that’s no true indication of how it proceeds. By the end of the book, Gay is comparing the public response to Trayvon Martin’s death, to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture. She discusses how Trayvon, a victim of fatal violence, had his life analysed as if he were the one going on trial; how he was viewed with suspicion, because he’d been a black boy out for a walk. As we’ve been learning over and over again, in many parts of the U.S., it is not safe for black boys to go out walking.
By contrast, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was no victim, but a perpetrator of mass violence, who nevertheless provoked efforts at understanding how he’d gone wrong, and a cringe-inducing sort of fawning. Why? Because he is white and has soulful brown eyes. Tsarnaev looked like he should be playing a guitar in a cafe somewhere; whereas, Trayvon, as Gay points out, looked as we imagine criminals look. By which I mean, black and male. (How sad, to be Trayvon’s mother and hear that your son looks like a criminal to half the population.) How to manage that mass cognitive dissonance, when our expected criminals turn into victims, and our poets into killers? Blame the victim and find excuses for the perpetrator? Clearly, that is one terrible solution to the mental mismatch this creates. As I read this essay, I remembered being sickened by the loving fan pages devoted to Tsarnaev, and wondered how families of the Boston Marathon bombing victims must have felt, seeing those pages. I also remembered a young, teenage me, who would have found Tsarnaev’s looks enchanting. And that’s what happens when you read Roxane Gay. You have to live with that.
In between the lighter and darker essays I’ve described, Gay talks brilliantly and engagingly about gender, sexuality, politics, race, and entertainment, as well as how all of these interact with each other, or fail to do so. She expresses, understandably, her alienation from a feminist discourse that is mainly white, middle and upper-middle class, and hetero-normative. She shows us, as a society, where we are getting it right on issues of gender, race, and sexuality, and where we still have so much work to do.
I was especially moved by Gay’s own revelations of herself and her life, both the funny and the traumatic. She is gutsy and unashamed in sharing her life stories, and does so with grace and a startling emotional clarity. “What We Hunger For” is an essay I started to skip, because it starts off talking about “The Hunger Games”. I am one of the five people in the Western world who has neither read nor seen this series; and yet, I may have to rethink that decision now. I figure if Gay likes it, then I will give it a try. But, this essay is about far more than a series of novels. It’s about being a girl who is fragile and empty, as so many of us are when very young, and desperate for someone to fill up that hole inside where our sense of self should be. It’s about the sometimes tragic outcomes that result when we are wanting love but don’t know yet what it looks like. It’s also about predators who set traps, and prey who fall into them, and in that way, it brings us full circle back to The Hunger Games. Gay is clever like that. You will be reading her essays, thinking “How’d we get here from there?” and then, like kaleidoscope pieces, it all comes together and the whole beautiful vision is revealed.
I had to read these essays only a few at a time. I did not race through them. This is because, while Gay will make you love her (and I defy you not to!), she will also draw you fully into her own emotional responses to the various topics she is discussing. I found myself laughing a lot, outraged a lot, and moved to tears on several occasions. Repeatedly, I found myself questioning my own attitudes and behaviours, most especially regarding race. This was provoked mainly during my reading of the essays on “Race and Entertainment” in which Gay discusses several American movies starring black actors, past and present, which have been loved by the public (so that’s good right?); but which stereotype black Americans, and focus fetishistically on black suffering. Interestingly, it is not only white producers and directors who catch her ire. She is especially indignant (that’s probably too weak a word) about how black women are routinely portrayed in low positions, and then kicked down if they try to rise above their stations (i.e. punished for wanting what everyone else wants, and for sometimes breaking the rules to get it). That is not to say that there are never exceptions to this, but it is an all-too-common theme.
I think I am not a racist. Is that true, or am I kidding myself? Gay supposes we are all a little bit racist, even if we don’t realise it. I am not sure, but I am inclined to agree with her. Certainly, after reading her essays on “Race and Entertainment”, I do feel that I have misunderstood a lot. Although I felt a bit smug for being one white woman who figured out right away that The Help was not a win for black women, I am still left unsure whether I was racist to love the movie version of The Color Purple so much. (And I did, I did. I really did.) Sadly, Gay was not able to answer this question for me, as her presence in my head did not extend to offering feedback outside the text. Still, I am grateful for the time I spent with her, and I am looking forward to reading her novels. If she ran for an office (any office!), I would absolutely vote her in.