14 October, 2016

The List: Reading July through September 2016

Surrounded by good books this summer, I nevertheless read less than usual. At times I felt guilty for letting so much worthwhile literature sit unregarded while I absorbed myself in other concerns (time-sensitive and fairly important though they were). There was a two-week stretch during which I only worked out once and didn't leave the housing unit for a single rec period — a pretty good indicator of my monomaniacal drive. But dammit, I got done what I set out to do.

As they so often do, my dear Mum, the good Lady Val, and Prospero's Tom Wayne collectively sent more books than my busyness allowed me to read before this quarter was up. I did my level best. Two still sit on my shelf as I type this. There's a temptation to take one up right now, but with the completion of my latest big project (HTML-related — don't even ask) I've felt the return of my muse and have been daily progressing on my long-unfinished novel, ignored these many months. The fiction on my shelf can wait a little longer.

* * * * *

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
The way it crackles with possibilities and breathes with Egan's multifarious, lifelike prose, I hardly wonder why A Visit from the Goon Squad won so many prestigious awards (National Book Critics Circle, New York Times Book Review Best Book, the Pulitzer). She created a veritable solar system when she wrote this novel, an intricate series of orbits — some closer, some farther distant — with her character Bennie Salazar in the role of its sun. Bennie's rise and fall and resurrection in the music business is the novel's ostensible plot. Leaping, skipping, shuffling, and spinning around years and continents, the book's numerous voices resolve themselves into a chorus by tantalizing degrees as their interconnectedness dawns on us, a brilliant and subtle affirmation of life's ephemerality and infinite potential.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
His luminous language always delighted me before, and this, Rushdie's second novel, from 1981, proves to be no exception. It won the Booker Prize then, and got voted "Best of the Booker" in 2008, probably because it's practically the Platonic ideal of a novel.

The story of Saleem Sinai, a "nine-fingered, horn-templed, monk's tonsured, stain-faced, bow-legged, cucumber-nosed, castrated […] grotesque creature," whose destiny and India's tragicomically mirror one another bore some superficial similarities, in its telling, to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. It's not derivative, though. Not by a long shot. And the only thing about reading Midnight's Children that I didn't like was the impossibility of ever reading it again for the first time.

César Aira (Katherine Silver, translator), Dinner
Twee turns sensational, then ruminative, in this novella by the prolific Argentinian, which landed flat, for me, after a perfectly nice setup: an aging bachelor and his mother, just back from dinner with a rich friend, return home and see live television footage of risen corpses slurping the brains of panicking townsfolk.

"Was it a nightmare, the result of a bad case of indigestion, poor television programming, or did something truly scary happen in Pringles that evening after dinner?" asks the back-cover copy. Thus the story plays fast and loose with certainties, dreamlike, in the manner of David Lynch films or Jesse Ball novels, only without those works' usual credulous perspective. Midway through Dinner, narration switches to an omniscient voice implying that what we're reading is only a dream, which robs everything that follows of any consequence (as well as my interest).

Amber Sparks, The Unfinished World: And Other Stories
Many short-fiction collections start strong as hell, then rapidly devolve into mediocrity…or worse. Not so, this one. The first story here risked losing my interest from the get-go. It took me two more before The Unfinished World, Sparks's genre-agnostic second published book, offered anything memorable.

By the collection's end, I understood why. Despite her often-ingenious premises — space-station janitors, Arthurian heroes resurrected to aid treasure-seekers, unrequited love between famous Victorian naturalists, an Eternal Library that physically houses abstract concepts — Sparks shines when her tales have room to spread out and develop those ideas' potential. She's competent at short-shorts and flash fiction, but since when does "competent" stir readers? The longer stories here, particularly the novella that lends the collection its title, are engaging, darkly beautiful pieces that lift The Unfinished World to another plane altogether.

Jon Duckett, HTML & CSS
Being locked away and denied computer use for an indefinite period hasn't dampened my interest in all things webby. CSS had yet to be widely adopted by web developers in 2001, when Missouri took me captive. XML was just coming into use. Flash held boundless promise. People still liked RealPlayer.

My, times have changed.

Once I got past the remedial opening chapters (this colorful book being an extremely beginner-friendly how-to), I had quite a few fun aha moments, taking me back to an uber-geeky past life when I could roll around in code for hours on end and not realize five minutes had passed. Nostalgia meets enrichment — it doesn't get much better than that.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Like Orwell's 1984, this novel deserves several readings per lifetime. (Both are on my list of forty favorite fiction works.) Vonnegut was a satirist nonpariel, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a fine reminder of how effectively humor communicates ghastly truths. His life's work consisted of fourteen novels, several story collections and plays, and some nonfiction, and although he was old when he died, in 2007, it seems like there should've been so much more.

So it goes.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Wait, a novel? More like a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale, then back again. The connective tissue of these nested narratives is the lives of the souls the book follows, the echoes and repeating motifs occurring from one incarnation to the next. Mitchell does the voices and cleverly frames them so well, the recurrances strike the reader like lightning even though they're written as mere dejá vù.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Joan M. Burnham, translator), Letters to a Young Poet
Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke's six-year correspondence with an admiring unknown sparkles with wisdom and friendly tokens of affection, and it's so rewarding to read. I hesitate to say more. In his inaugural letter to his young acolyte, Rilke cautioned:
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no words has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
These letters have long outlived their sender, their recipient. They endure for precisely the reasons art does, because they are art.

Robert Kirkman, et al., Outcast by Kirkman & Azaceta, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him
Highbrow to low-, my reading habits surprise even me at times. This comic was loaned to me, but don't be misled: I'm a true-blue comic-book geek from way back. Funnily enough, the last comic that I read was also borrowed from another prisoner, and it, too, was written by Robert Kirkman.

COO of Image Comics (Marvel and DC's only serious competition), and creator of, basically, every human being's favorite TV series, The Walking Dead, Kirkman's kind of a hot commodity at the moment. Until my friend Zach told me about Outcast, though, I was oblivious to its existence. (My subscription to Wizard lapsed a while back. I don't know if Comic Shop News even survived the '90s. I'm out of touch.) It's cool stuff.

The comic's laconic bits-and-pieces disclosure style would be familiar to Walking Dead fans. The similarities end there. Outcast is supernatural horror — The Exorcist meets Constantine. For all the demonic possessions, you'd expect more action, and my take is that twenty-two pages (the standard length of contemporary comics) is nowhere near enough for this story to gather its momentum. If I had picked issue #1 off the rack and perused it, I'd have left the shop with a back issue of Spawn instead.

The thing is, fans collect issues and read trade paperbacks like this volume, which collects the first six issues. Before I reached the end of Vol. 1, the only quibble I had was not being able to stroll over to Clint's Books & Comics, my old fanboy haunt, and buy Vol. 2.

A.C. Grayling, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
During an appearance on The Colbert Report, Professor Grayling described his impetus for "making" this book, a distillation of hundreds of distinct philosophical works, as being a desire to see a single-volume secular guide to living a good, meaningful life. The Christians have their Bible, the Muslims have their Koran, the Hare Krishnas have their Bhagavadgita, and so on, so why shouldn't humanists have our own collection of parables, proverbs, histories, and general wisdom, just without all that supernatural stuff? Grayling acknowledged how ambitious, even arrogant, the idea sounds, and confessed that the end result falls well short of perfection, but it's nevertheless an impressive undertaking and an inspiring text to absorb. Who knows, maybe a couple of thousand years' edits, additions, and redactions at the hands of others will render The Good Book a monument of human brilliance, industry, and loving kinship. We have to start somewhere.

28 September, 2016

When Prison Culture Meets Black Lipstick

Tony and I were walking from the dining hall to the housing unit when he caught up to me. He'd seen the teaser for MTV's 7 September episode of Unlocking the Truth, the one introducing my case, and of course wanted to tell me so.

"They showed a picture of you in drag, all painted up."

I practically snorted, thinking, Good one, Tony. The photo in question shows my pale young face, cheekily glancing away from the camera, wearing eyeliner and a black-lipped smirk. My black velvet shirt and black coat can barely be seen. My fifteen-hole Doc Martens are out of the shot altogether, as are the silver chains draped from my right shoulder. I don't recall wearing jewelry more outrageous than my everyday piercings and two handfuls of silver rings that evening, but that doesn't mean I didn't. Jokingly calling this gothy getup drag was typical Tony, and I accepted the dig amiably.

Only later, replaying our conversation in my head, did I realize that Tony might not have been kidding around. He's been locked up for a long time; might he not know the vast difference between drag and goth? And if he doesn't, what could that mean for others who see the show — people around the prison who don't even know me as tangentially as Tony does?

For the very first time since Unlocking the Truth started delving into my case, I was nervous.

The average convict isn't known for his open-mindedness or reasonableness. Penned in by razor wire and walls, the tattooed swastikas, neighborhood affiliations, and gang code on most prisoners' bodies speak to their intolerance of the Other. Ask almost any citizens on the street and they'll likely supply two accurate facts about prison life: (1) it's governed by a rigorously enforced power dynamic; (2) it's run through with a current of barely contained sexual frustration. What might the sight of me in the summer of my eighteenth year, made up and dressed for a party, inspire in the mind of Billy Badass, DOC number 40926, who's been down since 1981 and ain't never seen no shit like that in his jerkwater hometown, where only whores and queers wear makeup, and the livestock are all a little jumpy? Would his shuttered mind compute? Or would he default to the old mental schema, Lipstick is for girls. The boy in the picture wears lipstick. So he must want to be a girl. I will make him my girl, thereby inciting an unpleasant circumstance for all involved? You can understand my concern.

The episode in question, when it aired, glossed over any meaningful definition of goth, probably because MTV's demographic has grown up in a culture that's more inclusive than those of previous generations. I suspect that every Millennial had at least one goth kid at their high school. My lawyer's description alone, that labeling someone "goth" was how law enforcement, post-Columbine, branded that person as "bad," didn't seem like enough for the population of Crossroads Correctional Center to comprehend the goth subculture.

Walking the yard with my friend and former cellmate, Zach, the following morning, every comment that came my way (there were more than I anticipated) was complimentary.

A neighbor said, "I loved how, in your interview, you threw in a little humor. When you said, 'I was a weirdo — I'm still a weirdo,' that really got me."

Some guy I'd never before spoken with said, "That's exactly what prosecutors do: they dehumanize you to prejudice the juries. You got right to the heart of it, there."

Another guy: "When they came, at the end of the show, and played that phone call, I was like, 'Damn, people, he didn't answer her question because he doesn't respond the same as other individuals would: he's weird.' I just needed to let you know, I believe you, man. Fuck that lying crackwhore."

And so on, from countless strangers and acquaintances alike, for days. No one made so much as a peep about the party photo Tony saw in the teaser. If anyone was struck by my smoky-eyed makeup in almost every other pic, they uttered not a word about it to me. It seems like my concession to weirdness wiped away any questions about my particular, peculiarly dandyish, brand of masculinity.

For decades I've held that the elegance of honesty needs no adornment. My outspoken truthfulness sometimes lands me in trouble, but this time the maxim is right.

19 September, 2016

The Fragile Collection

Where we lived in southern Wyandotte County, Kansas, was quiet without being too quiet. The suburban houses were widely spaced, constructed in a mishmash of styles, over multiple decades, an architectural grab bag. Most of our neighbors were older, and I was one of maybe five kids within a one-mile radius. A lot of the neighbors we knew by name but weren't close enough for block parties or borrowing cups of flour. What the neighborhood did have was an ample selection of nooks and semi-hidden passages that would've been irresistible to any free-range seven-year-old.

Mama and Papa's ease with their little boy's unsupervised traipsings wasn't negligent or crazy. The kid whose room was as organized as an entomologist's specimen drawer, who once laid a trash bag on the foyer floor before going tromping through backyard mud, and whose reaction to the "stranger danger" talk was a faintly irritated "I know" — he needs minimal minding.

I was forever picking up stuff while roving. Of the random rusty machine component half buried until my inquisitive fingers pried it free, I wondered what it did, then visualized some Rube Goldberg contraption it operated inside. If I found an out-of-place rock in a sand heap, I'd theorized about freak geological events that could've brought it there. Every child's curious about the whys and hows of things, and at least in this respect I was no different.

Lots of the objects I gathered got imaginatively repurposed. A seafoam-green glass insulator off a power pole became a bookend. Ball bearings found their way into my bag (which itself once sheathed a Crown Royal bottle) of marbles. A length of flex tubing made an arm for my robot costume. But not every object had practical potential. My "useless" finds usually gained a place of honor in the box.

If the box smelled weird because of what it held, I considered it a good weird. That scent: dry paper, soot, a hint of vinegar. Just sniffing the box could be gratifying. Careful not to tip it and disturb its contents, I liked lifting it from the shelf, bringing it near my nostrils, and taking in a deep breath. Maybe the box smelled the way Egyptian mummies do, the way ancient scrolls do, the way treasure buried on a desert island does. I fancied likening my stuff to priceless antiquities, since what I kept in the box was priceless — at least to me.

FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE, read the lid. Without measuring, I had concentrated very hard on making my letters big enough to span its width precisely. I also put permanent-marker cautions on the sides. Who might go into my room and rummage through its shelves of bric-a-brac, I hadn't the faintest idea, but wasn't safe better than sorry? Further insurance: a lining of cotton balls glued to the underside of the lid, and to the box's interior bottom and sides.

To open the box you pulled forward a fold on the front. Two tabs slid up, then the lid clamshelled open, revealing the trove within: my Fragile Collection.

My mental inventory of the box is still mostly intact, thirty years later:
  1. Ant, large unknown species
  2. Ash, volcanic (Mount Saint Helens)
  3. Butterflies/moths, various species
  4. Coral, fan
  5. Egg, robin
  6. Egg, quail
  7. Flowers, various species
  8. Honeybee, queen
  9. Honeybee, worker
  10. Honeycomb
  11. Nest, mud dauber
  12. Nest, unknown bird species
  13. Nest, wasp
  14. Oil, crude
  15. Poop, moose
  16. Quills, porcupine
  17. Skin, garter snake
  18. Skin, reticulated python (partial)
  19. Skull, mouse
Excessively keen of touch, smell, and hearing, my affinity for the delicate makes sense to me now. Saying that my sense of life's hardness developed prematurely, leading young Byron to marvel at how soft, brittle, gossamer, crepey, precariously formed things flaunted their easy destructability in our red-in-tooth-and-claw world, would be overstating it. But I had an inkling. When I weighed the robin's egg in my palm, feeling its tiny earthward pull, a kind of empathy was at work. We're all just barely here, flying through the void on this sphere, minuscule marvels of chemistry and physics. The blown-empty eggshell was a memorial to a life that might've been — except it, too, was doomed to destruction. The world couldn't let it last.

My Fragile Collection survived as long as I was its curator. Whatever happened to that box? Has the papery wasp nest crumbled to dust? Did the plastic bottle of Mount Saint Helens ash crack open and scatter its ultrafine contents with the wind? And what about me? Consigned to fire, I was somehow tempered, rather than charred. In the process I realized that the naive young collector's kinship with those fragile things was misplaced. He didn't consider the wide gulf, between existence and death, called living.