21 September, 2018

Eighteen Books I Spent My Summer Reading

What better way to start the summer than with neuroscience? Longtime Pariah's Syntax followers know that I'm too big a book snob to fool around with thrillers, courtroom dramas, or anything by Dan Brown, which is why so few people recommend stuff to me — they think I'll snub their picks. At least this is my suspicion.

In any event, under my own advisement and typical degree of enthusiasm for promising reading material, I went all in on brain food (pun intended), with Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, by Bradley Voytek, who pair neuroscientific fact with fictional flesh-eaters for educational effect. The Zombie Research Society should've been my first stop, looking for information to help me with my novel; although, I can at least boast that there's nothing I've written so far, using my existing knowledge of biological science, that needs rewriting.

I followed this kind-of fanciful material with a more grounded book by David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. If you want to know why schizophrenics can tickle themselves, why low-interest Christmas banking clubs are popular, or how real-time brain imaging can curb impulse eating, Incognito might be the book for you.

Despite my interest in the subject matter, neither of these titles thrilled me, unfortunately. Drown, on the other hand, the debut short-story collection by the peerless Dominican American author Junot Díaz was an unsentimental look at immigrant life, alive itself with Díaz's vibrant prose, that I finished in a day and a half. Its stories made me think seriously about the voice of one of my novel's characters, who's also bilingual. More than an excellent read, Drown also gave me the reassurance to stay true to that character's inner dialog, irrespective of which language it flows in.

With Milan Kundera's earthy and profound novel of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (translated from the Czech by Michale Henry Heim), which masquerades as a love story, I shaved another book off of the "Reality Hunger" cagegory of my Amazon wish list. "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE," touts the cover of my 1984 edition, but I'd like to know how that happened. The book is internalized and ruminative. (I love its passages meditating on the concept of kitsch.) However sexy, the film has got to be a shallow simulacrum.

Next on my ''Reality Hunger" list was the Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Wow. When the seemingly freewheeling school-days narrative of Barnes's novel, having ratcheted up with a species of intrigue in the narrator's later years, lifted its final veil and lay bare the true import of all that'd come before, it nearly stole my breath away.

Moving down the list of Booker Prize-winners in the prison library, I lit on Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. It's a gorgeous, emotionally exhausting epic. Afterward, the conceptual majesty of Exit West: A Novel, by Mohsin Hamid, rejuvenated me. I'd read an excerpt from it in The New Yorker a while back and was still stunned by the beauty of this magical-realist tale of lovers on the run. Thanks go out to V.V., who ordered me this phenomenal text. Every page transported me.

And Emily: I know you selected the Kevin Brockmeier book Things That Fall from the Sky because it was on my wish list, but I really enjoyed critiquing its stories with you. In the end, it was almost like the first copy you ordered me hadn't even been destroyed in that Crossroads riot. Almost.

Kat the Human also got me a couple of books this summer. The first was the Raymond Carver collection All of Us. I can now say that I've read all of Carver's published poems. I might even be a better poet for having done so. At a minimum, some of his poems inspired new ones of my own, which, really, is how it always should be.

Back in July, when the blast-furnace heat absolutely drained me of any inclination to be outdoors, I sequestered myself with the fantastical imagination of China Miéville, which delivered me to worlds previously unthinkable (albeit no less miserable than mine). His 2016 novella, The Last Days of New Paris, a conceptual master stroke, I read in one night. His earlier, more deeply explored sci-fi novel Embassytown took somewhat longer and, surprisingly, pleased me less. Running low on Miéville novels to read, as I now am, feels like cause for worry.

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life misled me with that subtitle, which all but promises a collection of essays on the literary craft, by the venerable author and critic Joyce Carol Oates. It turned out to be a compilation of Oates's writings for The New York Review of Books, with a smattering of pieces from elsewhere. Of the former, her reviews, several read like stand-alone works in their own right: solid, entertaining, worth my time. But the book ends with three very blah boxing-related pieces, then a Lonely Planet essay, entitled "A Visit to San Quentin," that reads like what any moderately competent journalist could produce after a prison tour — not what I expect from a writer of Oates's caliber.

The young Londoner who authored What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories, Helen Oyeyemi, on the other hand, wowed me with these nine fantastic almost-fairy tales. She writes like a dream, lush and unsettling, and I'll be on the lookout for her other work, for sure.

Thanks to L.B., who follows @FreeByronCase on Twitter and likes all of my #ByronSays tweets (she's obviously too generous), a couple of surprise books came in August. In André Breton's short novel Nadja (translated by Richard Howard), the Surrealist offers a narrative of a relationship dubbed the epitome of Surrealism, the movement as a way of life. Funny, I was reminded, by passages like this one, of the kinds of romances I entered as a very young man:
[O]ne evening, when I was driving a car along the road from Versailles to Paris, the woman sitting beside me (who was Nadja, but who might have been anyone else, after all, or even someone else) pressed her foot down on mine on the accellerator, tried to cover my eyes with her hands in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever, save to each other, so that we should collide at full speed with the splendid trees along the road. What a test of life, indeed!
I used to think that interesting was everything, that anything less was as good as death. Breton writes, "It is by an extreme capacity for defiance that certain unusual people who have everything to hope and everything to fear from one another will always recognize one another.'' So of course I sought and found romances born of bizarrely destructive circumstances — but was my life, then, Surreal?

The other book that L.B. had sent was The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Great title, right? It's a quasi-memoir by David Shields, who wrote the book that recommended every title now listed under "Reality Hunger" in my wish list (and provided that category's name). The Thing About Life filled me with no small amount of existential dread, thanks to its barrage of actuarial data, but I'm fine with that. Sick, I know.

The second of the books sent by the above mentioned human, Kat, was another poetry collection, this one by Ann B. Knox. The listless, pastoral poems of Staying Is Nowhere did nothing for me, aesthetically, I'm sorry to say, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the gesture.

Much, much more to my liking was Zombies: A Cultural History, a surprise gift from an entirely different L.B., written by Roger Luckhurst. It wasn't materially helpful with my novel-in-progress but did enrich my understanding of the zombie genre/phenomenon in ways that'll doubtless improve the manuscript and (I hope) eventual book.

I finished out summer's last days wrapped in William Faulkner's sweltering world, with his breathless masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! — a gift from my mother (thanks again, Mum), who might know my tastes better than anyone.

16 September, 2018

Soft Water Makes for Hard Time

The first time I washed my hands here really got me in a lather. Furiously working them in the sink for what had to be the third minute of my wash, I finally turned to my new cellmate. “What is this, have they got a water softening system here?” He nodded, and I cursed with frustration at the oily sensation that would not rinse off.

This is my life now, standing at the sink, scrubbing, scrubbing, ceaselessly.

Look online: you’ll see page after page of universally positive reports detailing how soft water — water treated to remove the minerals that can dry your skin and scale your plumbing fixtures — is some kind of modern miracle. I haven’t viewed the results personally, since I lack Internet access, but I’m told that googling “does soft water leave residue” gets you only praise for the stuff. This is weird. A Season Two episode of the FX series Fargo, set in the late-1970s, included a scene of two gangsters voicing displeasure at a hotel’s soft water. And this dry humor (no pun intended, this time) worked because soft water does somehow seem like a throwback technology, the kind of thing your grandparents would’ve bout into, as passé now as Pet Rocks and polyester pants.

The only people I’ve ever known who could tolerate (in fact love) soft water were my paternal grandparents. They were Missourians, through and through, and fixed in their ways. Their three-bedroom house had built in the ’60s, out of what always struck me as cheap materials, and moved in to at some point in the ’70s, after which they never gave a thought to redecorating. A console TV and pilly brown couch populated the living room for as long as I can remember. A bland landscape painting graced the wall. Precious Moments figurines, sleepy eyes gazing from polished honey-gold wood shelves, mutely, as though narcotized just enough that they could hold their enormous heads steady forever while embodying Scripture. The rest of the house maintained the same mid-century Midwestern middle-class aesthetic.

As a kid I overnighted there on occasional weekends, on a twin bed that crinkled viciously, thanks to its plastic undersheet. A worshipful blue-eyed-Jesus print hung on the wall overhead, the guest room’s sole decoration, watching over my fitful rest. Grandma’s saccharine “Rise and shine, the morning’s fine!” always came too soon. Raisin Bran with skim milk didn’t improve matters. But more than any other aspect of the accommodations, it was the shower that soiled little Byron’s experience.

Grandma and Grandpa told me I used too much soap, too big a dollop of shampoo. If I simply eased up, they insisted, I wouldn’t need to linger under the spray, and they wouldn’t have to knock and ask what was taking me so long in there. Many were the fantasies I had of disabling their water softener. The problem lay in first finding the key to the utility room in their basement. Why keep it locked, anyway? I was tempted to imagine foul, maybe even supernatural, doings in there, all my grandparents’ Christian piety just a front concealing their true, demonological beliefs.

Water softeners don’t use salt to treat hard water, they use the rendered fat of unbaptized children! It’d be a Soylent Green-level revelation. News of this kind wouldn’t have surprised me much — it might’ve even explained the Raisin Bran and skim milk: keeping their grandchildren thin would deter Grandma and Grandpa from sacrificing one of us if their water softener supplies ever ran too low.

But I digress. Unpleasant simply what come to mind, the water run and run and weekends from my formative years are unbidden, when I’m standing, letting run. My hands hardly ever feel fully clean, these days. And showers are always a bit of a letdown. Contrary to what Google will show you (pro-treatment fake government websites included), not everyone’s happy using soft water. Once again, conspiratorial ideas dance in the shadowy regions of my mind. Why, if it’s so great, doesn’t everyone have soft water?

Eastern Reception, Diagnosic & Correctional Center has it, and I’m not pleased. This blog post is proof that soft water’s not as great as its proponents want you believing, and if it’s buried irretrievably deep in search results I’ll only be that much more inclined to suspect a diabolical soft-water plot. Keep close tabs on your unbaptized kids, my friends, and be wary of anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time bad-mouthing calcium. Better to be safe than sorry.

07 September, 2018

Grievance Addressed (If Confusingly)

Among the numerous topsy-turvyings elicited by the mass transfer of nearly 200 prisoners from Crossroads Correctional Center was the misplacement of a couple of boxes containing my legal files. Since a lot of the documents in those boxes were certified copies and original pieces of correspondence, I was concerned. Where had my transcripts, briefs, motions, attorney correspondence, and printouts of case law ended up? Who’d pay for their replacement (or, more accurately, the replacement of the stuff that could be replaced) if those boxes didn’t turn up? Were those boxes even salvageable, following the destruction of that part of the prison where they’d been stored at the time of the riot that led to these transfers in the first place?

I wasted no time in filing a grievance. The staff here at ERDCC knew mistakes had been made. So did the decision-makers in Jefferson City. My grievance, like those of everyone else who lost property in the transfer, was fast-tracked.

Over my seventeen years’ imprisonment, I’ve filed a handful of these formal complaints. They yielded favorable results about half of the time, which really isn’t bad, considering how the process tends to be weighted against. Maybe I know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m just lucky. The point is, I tried to keep my issues succinct, my requests modest, and my expectations low.

Here was the result:
It’s basically a fifty-fifty thing. The two boxes of my invaluable legal paperwork mysteriously manifested in the ERDCC property room, which is awesome. The short-story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, ordered some weeks prior for my reading pleasure, which I should’ve received before any of that insanity at Crossroads kicked off, was declared “lost and/or destroyed.”

Putting aside the wanton destruction that those thoughtless asshole rioters visited on everything in sight — the personal property of their fellow prisoners included — what irks me is that the Department of Corrections’ stance here is to say, in one breath, “CRCC assumes no responsibility for the loss of your book,” and then, in the next, quotes DOC policy, which holds that I should be reimbursed or have my book replaced because it was in staff’s possession when the book was “lost and/or destroyed” through no fault of my own. Typical bureaucratic doublethink.

I could’ve pursued it and had the Department pay to order me another copy of the book. Kevin Brockmeier, its author, would be pleased, surely, by the additional sale. But I decided not to appeal the grievance. By the time all was said and done, months would’ve passed, my patience would’ve frayed, and the book might even have lost some allure. Besides that, what if I actually won? Taxpayers reportedly are going to have to contribute some $10 million to repair and replace everything that the rioters razed. Why add to that? If I could extract the cost of the book from the accounts of those seventy-eight marauding pricks, then yes, sure. The thing is, even if they do succeed in charging the culprits for every penny’s worth of property that they destroyed, you can’t wring restitution from the indigent. Missouri taxpayers will still get stuck with the bill.

Another copy of the book came a couple of weeks after the grievance response, reordered from Amazon. I read it pretty quickly. It was worth the wait, in no small part due to the amusing anecdote I now get to share with people — the story of the ruined book and the absurd refusal to take responsibility.