Review of Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas

Quade’s Night at the Fiestas deserves every ounce of the praise it’s been given. Here is a collection firmly rooted and grown from the Southwest, particularly northern New Mexico, that tells the stories of the forgotten small towns, desert-blasted wanderers, and the conflict between those natives and the rich pilgrims who come to partake in New Mexico’s beauty. The setting isn’t glamorized as one might be tempted to do, but omnipresent, a sun beating down on the characters, although in a few places it comes forward in a carnival not unlike something from Poe. “The Five Wounds,” “The Cabin,” and “Family Reunion” (our comic relief, as it goes) stand out, “Cabin” in the vein of Carver and “Five Wounds” as O’Connor-esque but with more muscle, more heart. These are stories largely about betrayal, but the betrayal of humans simply being humans in the tragic way that wounds them all; we see here the ways that people, trying to be good or trying to steal something or another, are too nuanced to be judged, under the influence of forces too big to blame. These are stories of a cruelly nuanced world where the villains carry such obvious hurt we cannot hate them, or where the most luminous people we meet have their claws as well. It is a humanity of thorns brushing against naked skin, and people nevertheless reaching for them.

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Review of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

We’ve had no shortage of post-apocalyptic nihilism-fests in the last few decades, most of them arguing more or less that humanity will ultimately devolve into a frothing state of nature. The Road allowed McCarthy to showcase his particular virtuosity in bleakness; The Walking Dead routinely executes any character who talks too much about, you know, morality beyond tribalism and survival. Emily St. John Mandel has given us an extraordinary and courageous gift, sending Station Eleven into that conversation on the ultimate end of society to declare “survival is insufficient.”

Station Eleven weaves between the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of players and musicians performing in post-collapse North America, and the modern-day life of actor Arthur Leander and the people in orbit around him. We meet Arthur’s several ex-wives and friends who know him from his humble beginnings on a remote Canadian island to his wild fame in Hollywood. His life, and all the lives it touched, echo past the collapse and reverberate among the survivors now flung across the great lakes.

Besides supporting a plot of Dickensian intricacy, the contrast between the pre- and post-collapse worlds gives us a window into characters who are holding on desperately. The Symphony holds onto art—specifically Shakespeare—to retain something of the old world, or to offer it continuity into the new. Shakespeare himself saw the plague, actor Dieter reminds us, which looked no less consequential to him than the collapse to the Symphony. Kristen, our knife-throwing protagonist post-collapse, is determined that the new world not fall into violence and darkness, but keep its humanity. She should know—she suffers from a PTSD-induced amnesia that obscures her early years in the collapse, and bears two tattoos, one for each of the people she’s killed. Nonetheless, Kristen shows resolve and tenderness. She truly believes the Symphony’s motto that “survival is insufficient.” As a character who’s faced as much as any Walking Dead veteran, she carries some clout when she believes the world can be better. And so we believe her too.

But this desperation, holding out for some sacred, redemptive spark in humanity, isn’t limited to the post-collapse characters. In the modern day, Arthur, his first wife Miranda, and his friend Clark are beset by our time’s own dehumanizing forces. Arthur’s fame closes in around him like the paparazzi who dog his steps, and his own romantic equivocations disrupt his own happiness as well as that of his three wives. Miranda’s heart and soul goes into an art project, her graphic novel, while she spends her actual connecting-with-the-world life almost totally devoted to her logistics job. Clark, a corporate therapist of sorts, has his immense kindness walled into business-speak and strict parameters on how to turn problem managers on a 360° psychological fix. The pressures of modernity begin to look as desperate and hazardous to a human soul as the uncharted post-collapse wilderness is to its wanderers. Clark, one of the best-developed characters, seems to grow into his truer shape as those pressures fall away; he is kind, careful, and reverent. It isn’t that the loss of society suddenly freed him to be so—the collapse does no kindness to anyone—but his transformation reveals the dangers of the pre-collapse world, and how insidious they can be to the deeper parts of a person.

There are a few moments in Station Eleven when the post-collapse characters look back in time and wonder how we could have taken it all for granted. Clark imagines the whole history of a snow globe: how it was built, shipped, stocked, and sold, all those human hands and lives who touched such a simple thing. All the strands of humanity connected to every single thing. That awareness and gratitude lights the whole novel like a candle in that darkened world, giving it more soul than so many of our post-apocalyptic nightmares seem willing to put at hazard. Kristen, Clark, and the others believe in a humanity that can withstand the state of nature, and can endure those parts of modernity that seem to have forgotten the deeper needs of humanity. Station Eleven makes a good case to believe in it as well.

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Review of Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters

When I first picked up this book in Asheville’s Malaprops bookstore, I thought it was a collection of literary short fiction. Then a man stepped out of his skin in the first story and I began to doubt my assumption. North American Lake Monsters a collection with some solid horror staples—werewolves, vampires, the lake monster—taken very, very seriously.

Someone said the difference between genre and literary fiction is that genre exists for the reader, molding itself to her preconceived notions of the plot and characters, while literary fiction stems from the writer, who makes the reader empathize with a character who is not so predictable. Not that it’s about whether a character is predictable or not—it’s about meeting the character on his own ground.

In Ballingrud’s work, the monsters are secondary to the very human characters. Make no mistake, these are scary stories (the other difference between genre and literary fiction is apparently nightmares.) But they are scary because he portrays his characters with brutal honesty. Self-destructive neuroses, violent alcoholism, addicted poverty, and the grip of suicidal depression are monsters without claws and teeth. They roam whether it’s a full moon or not. They undeniably lurk under our cultural/ societal bed.

When the monsters do show up, they work really well. It’s been a long time since I read about werewolves and vampires, and the written word allows them a great deal of visceral, bone-crunching sensory realism. Ballingrud seems to take delight in the muscular violence of the werewolf in “Wild Acre” and the burned-out, Bourbon-street gentleman vampire in “Sunbleached.” He certainly has the skill to bring them to life.

Perhaps it’s a pitfall of horror that we have so many shorthand monsters. Ghosts show up to make us deal with the past, vampires with sex, zombies with apocalypse and our own conformity. Sometimes backing away from those tropes allows for something truly terrifying. The two scariest movies I’ve ever seen are Antichrist, which creates dread through nature and surreal presentation, and the Japanese Pulse which hardly needs to use its ghosts, so well does it bend technology to its themes of death, apocalypse, and loneliness. I give these examples to explain how sometimes the best metaphor is one that gets at the theme from a slant.

Lake Monsters’ final story, “The Good Husband” does this beautifully. Something from traditional horror tropes does happen, but in such an unexpected way that I was forced to interpret as I went, dreading what might come even as I experienced the hell that story puts its characters through. It’s a harrowing experience, but a profoundly humanizing one.

That story works because it holds its hand close. It’s one of those wonderful refractions of metaphor—it can potentially mean so much, but you can’t nail it down to a single connection. A few of Ballingrud’s stories fall into the trap of allowing the metaphor to be too obvious. A man who changes skin catalyses a woman’s drastic change of life; a hideous lake monster washes ashore as a convict gets out of prison to be with his family. These stories work interestingly with their horror-borrowed elements, but aren’t as powerful as “The Good Husband” or “The Monsters of Heaven,” in which the metaphor is nicely obtuse to the characters’ conflict.

Have a read of North American Lake Monsters if, like me, you love short stories and can easily spent hours looking at cryptozoological entries on Wikipedia. These stories are intense, dark, but deeply human, using the tropes and trappings of horror to get into the real monsters—those that live in our own neighborhoods, and our own minds.

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Great Books: How Proverbs Helps You Stay Sane on the Internet

Part of my “Ancient” book list for the Great Books included the Old Testament, a fun read any day. I’ve never really read the Bible as literature before, and it’s an interesting shift. The literary power of Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy is enthralling, moreso when I consider how very old those works are. On the other hand, the genocidal vision of retaking the promised land, a key theme of the the first five books of the Old Testament, is disturbing and difficult to redeem even in context. As is the very strong patriarchal bent to everything. But, there are transcendent moments and helpful wisdom both, one of which comes from one of the Old Testament wisdom books, Proverbs:

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” Proverbs 20:3, ESV.

There are multiple iterations of this advice, and as I kept coming across them, they brought to mind another ambition of mine, which was to develop a sane and healthy relationship to the Internet, especially social media.

I’ve gone back and forth on how necessary online debate might be. Twitter can be an influential playground of debate (with a similar level of maturity), but I suspect that journalists and culture warriors hold it in such high esteem because, well, they’re the main ones using it. Facebook offers the opportunity to shield debates from the whole watching world to one’s circle of friends, but I’m a little heartbroken to argue gun control with someone I haven’t seen in years, whom I’d like to still be friends with next time we meet.

To be sure, there is legitimate need for advocacy, activism, and discussion online. But I don’t think we’ve found an apt-enough metaphor for online interactions by which to understand what it should be. Some people see social media as a necessary battleground; I feel more and more like it’s a howling mob in one’s living room.

So, for me (and this is only how I approach things; it may or may not help anyone else), I’ve taken Proverbs’ advice to heart: avoid strife. Keep aloof. As a luminary on twitter said, “Nothing on the Internet deserves a response.” And it’s been wonderful. I skate right past the Hillary/Bernie debates and post on Harry Potter instead. Or better yet, I only allow 15 minutes of Facebook a day, less for Twitter. Real life has more time to breathe, and I can deal with my own problems and contemplations, not the eight terrible problems with the world, all of which I feel personally responsible for, posted by my wonderfully (or overly) informed friends on Facebook.

However, one of the problems with Proverbs is that it comes from sources firmly in social power. It is the wisdom of empire. So while it nods toward justice, its chief concern is material prosperity and social stability. Justice, most times, has radically different priorities.

But I’m still skeptical of how much good I can do via online debates. Instead, writing letters to legislators, participating with justice groups, and meeting people in the flesh to discuss issues keeps my blood pressure lower and, probably, has more of an impact.

Maybe one day we will develop social media to a more tolerable point. My guess is that development will need networks owned by their people, not by for-profit corporations who do not love us and want our money. Until then, I’ll take the centuries-old advice of Proverbs, and save the strife for when it’s truly necessary.

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Taking on the Albatross of the Great Books

When I started in the MFA program at the University of the South Carolina, the requirements included a comprehensive exam over a list of novels, theory, and short story collections totaling 130 books. Thankfully the director who took over in my second year lowered that distressing figure to 30. Although studying for comps in addition to writing, classes, and teaching took a heavy anxiety toll (not to mention a bar tab when we colleagues met to discuss them), I count that literary knowledge one of my most valuable experiences from the program. That goes for actually having read the books, and maybe moreso for discussing them with smart, wonderful people. There is a largeness to knowing the genesis and growth of my craft from Cervantes onward that gives both context and comfort. I know I’m part of something spanning centuries, an art form that embodies some of my deepest values.

So when I found Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind in a bookshop (the bookshop/travel store/coffee house Travel Bug in Santa Fe, a lovely place,) I was persuaded by her introduction: have I been wandering through my reading? Do I want a grasp of the greatest ideas of Western civilization? Of course! So I read her and came up with a plan to orient my wanderings: in the fall and winter, I’ll progress through a great books list, and in the spring and summer I’ll read new books. A plan!

Then the task came to actually make the list. I knew that I wanted to correct the imperialism and male- and white-supremacism that unfortunately tends to go along with great books list. (Bauer, for herself, acknowledged the Western-centrism of the Great Books but went on anyway; Harold Bloom seems to have taken such criticisms to heart in the breadth of his list.) First, I dug up that old 130 book comprehensive exam list and added a few things like Native American works, the Kalevala (thanks to Tolkien), and the Norse sagas. I’m all ears to any further additions, and I’ll be looking for them as the project continues. Finally I set out to find an actual great books list to pull from.

I had three sources: the syllabus of St. John’s College, one of the few Great Books universities and located here in Santa Fe, the pickings of Christian homeschool blogs who make up the bulk of great books information on the Internet, and Harold Bloom’s monstrous 2,500 book list. My focus is mainly on novels and poetry, so I left out some of the mathematics from the St. John’s list. I began copying Bloom’s list but quickly remembered, as I gazed over the mass of titles, how slowly I actually read. So, St. John’s and the Christian homeschoolers helped to cross-reference Bloom for the most essential works. I did leave off, from the Christian homeschoolers, everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote. The finished product, still a work in progress, is ambitious, and a huge mess. This year I’m tackling the Ancient works, hoping that the Santa Fe Public Library has enough resources to narrow down “Native American myths;”

Epic of Gilgamesh

Gospel of the Red Man, Native American myths: Hopi, Cherokee, Kiowa

Old Testament

     King James psalms

Mahabharata

Bhagavad-Gita

Ramayana

Update 1: At least based on an online catalog search, the Santa Fe Public Library has only two books on Navajo myth. There are a few on Hopi and Pueblo rituals, kachinas, and material items, and plenty of New Age-sounding books with adobe-orange covers. I went in looking for primary sources, or as close as I could get to them, on the stories and mythology. Perhaps as I dig deeper I’ll find some. But while we have Black Elk Speaks and dozens of other late 19th/early 20th century works, white authors invariably “interpreted” those Native speakers whose names appear on the cover, making it difficult for a reader to encounter a direct primary source, as the Great Books ideal encourages. I fear it was only in the 1960’s with authors like N. Scott Momaday that we began to see Native works written by Native people according to Native sensibilities. As much as this is a loss for the world in not having those parts of the human story available, it seems to be to be one more example of something far worse, what Momaday calls the sacrilege perpetrated on Native Americans; the theft of the sacred by white Americans from Native Americans. In this case, a theft of oral tradition and centuries of mythology.

Perhaps it is more appropriate that the stories that do remain are held privately by the tribes, with someone like Momaday or Louise Erdrich coming forth every now and then to gracefully invite readers into a portion of them. Fiction’s ability to do so—to offer any and all readers an empathetic, guided glimpse into a very intimate portion of another peoples’ life—is one of its incredible strengths. I think of Momaday, who wrote for Natives and not white people, or Toni Morrison who did the same for black people, and I am grateful that those works are open to us all. Such dynamics might even teach us humility. They might show us that our own, and our particular “people’s,” view of life is not the only one.

Update 2: Halfway through January, I’ve managed Gilgamesh, the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), and Proverbs. I am now fairly tired of the Bible and looking forward to those Navajo myths.

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What’s Good About the South?

I’ve recently come across several articles like this critiquing the South:

“As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.” (italics mine.)

This isn’t a new critique, and its flaws aren’t new either. Yes, the South has an enormous problem with racism, segregation, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism, inequality, and political stupidity–but these are American problems as much as they are southern problems. To blame the South for our nation’s problems is to leave real culprits, for example under-regulated capitalism, scot-free, while ignoring those movements from the South that have come closer than anything to fixing this country.

In the 1890’s the southern Progressive party was a viable, racially integrated threat to the planter aristocracy that nearly gave us a third political party. The Civil Rights Movement was born in the South as the most courageous political movement in our history. While the Occupy protests in New York fizzled because of a lack of direction, the sharp focus of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays protests have mobilized a coalition across racial, class, gender, and sexual orientation lines to continue the work of the civil rights movement across the South.

Perhaps it doesn’t help to list these incredibly strong movements which wouldn’t be necessary if our worst leaders didn’t seem to have a stranglehold on political power. But I do so to insist that painting southern politics as wholly destructive to the US leaves out those movements which have gone a long way in saving this country from all its excesses, southern and otherwise.

Regarding Southern culture, let me point out that the South is responsible for three-quarters of the American songbook and its musical genres, a portion of its great literature far out of proportion to the South’s population, and, let’s face it, nearly all the best cuisine. To dismiss all that at once is throwing out an entire nursery with the bathwater.

So yes, let’s lay the blame for the problems of unbridled capitalism, white supremacy, political dysfunction, and anti-intellectualism at the feet of those southern leaders to whom it belongs, both historically and presently. Let’s vote them out of office and refuse to let those ideologies into national dialogue ever again. But don’t blame the South for all of America’s problems and simply burn it. Sherman already did that once.

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The New Ghost Stories: Dear Esther and Gone Home

While there are arguments over whether these two titles are indeed games, Gone Home and Dear Esther are stunning works that the gaming world should proudly claim.

Unfortunately for the reviewer, the less said about Gone Home, the better. It is best to approach the game with no more knowledge than this: you play as Kaitlin Greenbrier, a young woman coming home from a year abroad in 1995. The gameplay is based around you exploring the house and examining objects. Anything further risks spoilers.

At its core, Gone Home is a ghost story. The eeriness of the empty house, the sounds of its settling, and the storm rumbling outside place the player firmly in horror territory, expecting danger (such as a home invader, Jack Torrance’d father, etc.) Gone Home toys with these genre expectations. In my playthrough, I turned on every light in that house, with a similar feeling of dread to the one that usually accompanies Silent Hill 2. Only twice does the game step fully over into horror territory: once, in the sole jumpscare, which is either evidence of an actual haunting in the house or a reminder that the player needs to worry about a ghost (or simply a coincidence, but not really. The instance is effective, if it shows the authorial rigging.) The second instance is much better executed. It is the one room in the house that cannot be illuminated and the only one I refused to explore, for that reason. See how well the game primes one’s senses? At its best, it uses the physical space to tell the story.

Mystery pulls the player through Gone Home and the Greenbrier house. There are questions from the beginning of where everyone is. Early details help us jump to conclusions, most of them horrible, since the game has primed us for such. As the player moves on, learning more about the Greenbrier family, a few tracks emerge. Primarily, Gone Home is the beautiful coming-of-age story of Sam, Kaitlin’s sister. A voiceover performance by Sarah Grayson lends a tenderness that I’ve seldom felt in a game. In addition, the player’s exploration–investigating rooms, reading notes and letters, listening to mixtapes–further fleshes out Sam’s story.

The Greenbrier mother and father, Jan and Terry, also have their tracks too. I found Terry’s interesting because his takes perhaps the most work to sort out. His track rewards in-depth thinking because more of his clues come not from his own letters, but from the objects that make up his life and from the house itself. In his case, Gone Home succeeds the most at its own conceit.

So that’s it: exploration. It’s all one does in both Gone Home and Dear Esther, and this seeming simplicity is the basis of the argument denying them as games. Yet both of these brilliant games hinge on interpretation as a feature of gameplay. Up until the final moments of Gone Home, nagging questions remain, forcing the player to assemble the fragments of the Greenbrier’s lives into a cohesive interpretation or narrative. This happens against the backdrop of horror tropes that never really shift us into horror, tropes that in fact distract us from the empathy it draws out from us.

Dear Esther functions according to the same mechanic: the player is limited to exploration and interpretation. But what a world in which to be so limited! The Hebrides island on which the game takes place is breathtaking, glorious. Part of the game’s power is that its environment, due to the simple gameplay, does not need platforming architecture, shiny items, or the linearity that limits other games. It looks like the real world.

Whereas Gone Home‘s interpretive playground closes once the game is finished, Dear Esther sets out to haunt a player long afterward. One way it does this is by adding a few magical realism-ish elements to its gorgeous environment: chemical formulas, Fibonacci spirals, circuit diagrams, campsites, standing stones, and flickering candles appear in odd places, painted all over the landscape as though a mad hermit scribbled them in search of a master theory. Thus even the setting tries to interpret. On a practical level, such things raise questions about who actually inhabits the island, and the voiceover segments point to a few possible suspects. On a deeper level, it reveals the island as a spiritual space or headspace more than a realistic place–and what better attitude can a game have about itself?

Dear Esthers narrative has several moving parts that shift on each playthrough. Foremost are the voiceover segments, triggered at various points just like the ones in Gone Home. However, while Sam is telling a linear, cohesive narrative, the narrator of Dear Esther shifts between stories about himself, a tragic car crash, and previous residents on the island. In some cases we aren’t sure which story he’s talking about at the time. It takes a good deal of interpretive work to piece things together. The assembled whole we make, diving as it does into Biblical myth, personal and local history, and grief, can be deep indeed.

The skillful move that Dear Esther makes here is that only some of the total available voiceover segments will play in a given playthrough. Also, the order is partially random. The effect is like putting several novels under a book guillotine and reading whatever pieces you happen to grab off the floor. Different playthroughs vary in tone and meaning.

Another randomized element of Dear Esther is a good example of its approach to narrative. At several points in the game (particularly an easy-to-miss one on a beach), ghosts appear, vanishing upon closer inspection. But according to the Dear Esther wiki, there are several ghosts: a man, a woman (who may be Esther), a cowled figure (who may be a monk who lived on the island), or a figure with a disfigured skull (who may be Death, a personification of the island’s curse, who knows.) Only one ghost will appear on a given playthrough. If the woman appears, we might say it’s Esther, comforting the narrator who may be her widow. If the monk appears, then the island’s former inhabitants are somehow guiding the player, for better or worse. It means, at least, that we’re not alone. The disfigured ghost is a threatening presence, darkening the tone of the story if for no other reason than he doesn’t fit neatly anywhere.

These elements make Dear Esther a game of interpretation without a clear end, a contemplative journey through a space designed to drive us into places deeper than games normally go. Gone Home, although more linear, uses similar mechanics to bring the player into empathy with Sam and the rest of the Greenbrier family.  What I admire about these games is that they take interpretation seriously. They go beyond a game simply “having a good story;” they use gameplay in a way that itself searches out the story. 

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