Cumulation

1. Today is my father’s 75th birthday. Unfortunately, my family and I will not be able to celebrate it with him, as he was killed by an elderly driver in 2002, soon after he retired from a life of hard, hard work. Here’s a piece I wrote about him five years ago today, on his 70th birthday. All the sentiments still hold true, most especially how much we miss him, and how important it is that people surrender their car keys when they can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle. If you find yourself or a loved one in that circumstance, do the right thing and make the transition. It will be hard, sure, but the devastation caused by one little slip on the roadways is a whole lot harder, for everyone involved.

2. Marcia and I made a quick road trip to Chicago this past weekend to catch Yes in concert, performing their epic albums Fragile and Close to the Edge in their entirety. (Both of those records performed exceptionally well in my long form music essay, March of the Mellotrons, which attempted to identify the greatest classic progressive rock album ever, says me). It was a fantastic show, with new singer Jon Davison doing a magnificent job of hitting those high notes that Jon Anderson originally sang, as bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe added their signature harmonies. Geoff Downes was fun to watch as he switched between a dozen-plus keyboards, and stalwart drummer Alan White kept things swinging more than you might expect given the complexity and density of the music. Howe and Squire are the stars of the show for me, though, when it comes to Yes, and they are truly magical to watch onstage when they’re playing at the top of their form, which they were this weekend. Definitely a better performance than the last one I caught at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center when the group was touring The Ladder in 1999. Marcia won the “Good Sport” award for attending this one: when we sat down, we had a bunch of drum techs from Ludwig sitting around us, discussing their trade, while gaggles of gear nerds congregated at the front of the hall, snapping photos of the amps and keyboards. Not quite the same crowd we experienced when we went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Milwaukee last month, needless to say. She will get further Good Sport points when we travel to see King Crimson and Ian Anderson later this summer. I tried to parlay her Good Sportiness into a pair of tickets to this, but, alas, she does have her limits.

3. We also popped in to the Chicago Institute of Art of see their exceptional Rene Magritte Exhibition. We will be traveling to Magritte’s native Brussels, Belgium in a few weeks, so it was a good way to get a sense of his work in preparation for that trip. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, paced, interpreted, hung and lit — the latter being particularly important in establishing mood, with Magritte’s works floating like dreams in mostly dark rooms. Of course, we live in modern, selfish times, so our ability to appreciate the lighting work was often marred by people checking their cell phones or texting or shooting selfies, their garish screen glare and flash routinely destroying the night vision that some of the rooms required. I also found the use of audio wands to be distracting: while they’re probably better for your ears than ear buds are, it’s really annoying to be in a room where 20 people are playing them at high volume, creating a tinny, trebly, hissy background din, often exacerbated by the person with the wand having to explain to the other members of their party (at high volume) what the wand was telling them in real time. Whatever happened to the days when museums felt like libraries, and people knew to be quiet, reflective, and respectful? It seems to me that with good written interpretive materials, and occasional opportunities for guests to take guided tours, where docents provide additional context and information, museum visitors should be considered smart enough to enjoy art without having a noisy stick by their heads or a glaring screen in their faces. Call me old fashioned . . . but that’s how I’m running my own museum, and I think it’s an effective model, technology be damned.

4. Marcia got yet more Good Sport points for continuing to humor my desire to never make the same trip in Iowa using the same route, while trying to drive on as many highways, byways and dirt tracks as possible, seeing as much of the state as can be seen from the road. I’ve continued updating the map I started back when I did my original 99 County Tour of Iowa in 2012. See paragraph number four of this post to see the map when I finished the 99 counties. And then below is what it looks like these days. Ride on!

IAmap

Five by Five Books #5: “The Islanders” (2011) by Christopher Priest

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? The Islanders is written in the form of a travel guide to a vast, equatorial, globe-encircling chain of islands called the Dream Archipelago. The names, shapes, histories, locations, economies, and politics of the Archipelago’s islands are elusive and amorphous, defying ready mapping or simple narrative description. Several key characters (a mime, an artist, a social reformer, a reporter, a roustabout, a writer, a stage manager) appear sporadically throughout the text, on a variety of islands, and over wide spans of time, their stories occasionally over-lapping, all advancing through hints and off-hand references and casual mentions. The Dream Archipelago is, by law, ostensibly a peaceful buffer zone between two warring polar superpowers, though both powers wield significant influence and shape the narrative through varying degrees of skullduggery or outright aggression. An apparently unreliable narrator further complicates the proceedings, whoever he or she might be.

Who wrote it? Christopher Priest is a British novelist who cites H.G. Wells as a formative influence; he has served since 2006 as a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. His books and short fiction have won multiple British Science Fiction Association Awards, and he has also been nominated for or won various Hugo, Campbell, James Tait Black, Clarke and World Fantasy Awards throughout his career. He is probably best known in the U.S. for his novel, The Prestige (1995), which was adapted into a highly acclaimed and successful film of the same name by Christopher Nolan, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the lead roles. He has also written various film tie-ins and television screenplays under pseudonyms. The Dream Archipelago has been a recurring motif/location in his fiction, first appearing in 1981’s The Affirmation, where a possibly schizophrenic protagonist may or may not be preparing to undergo an operation that will make him immortal, a theme that again appears in The Islanders.

When and where did I read it? This is a relatively new one to me, since I just read it this past May, during the trip that Marcia and I took to Fort Lauderdale, Florida around my birthday. I was not familiar with Christopher Priest when this book showed up on the “Recommended for You” panel of my Kindle, probably because I had recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s somewhat thematically similar (in terms of its narrative ambiguity) Southern Reach Trilogy. The unmitigated weirdness of The Islanders‘s premise appealed to me, so despite my general reluctance to buy new books by unknown (to me) authors, I went ahead and downloaded it, and was absolutely delighted by my choice. I finished the book over a couple of days (it was addictive reading), and the lovely tropical opulence of our rental digs at Villa Amorosa provided an absolutely perfect setting and ambiance for the woozy literary magic that Priest concocts in The Islanders. I even dreamed about the Dream Archipelago, further cementing my sense that reading The Islanders was a very resonant, provocative, and haunting (in the good sense of the word) experience for me.

Why do I like it? I have always loved entering and experiencing well-created, fully-realized, wholly inhabitable literary worlds, in books, in video games, in movies, in online communities, anywhere. The Dream Archipelago is one of the most vibrant and rich such literary worlds that I’ve ever experienced, even though the descriptions that Priest offers of it are nebulous, shifting, and certainly lacking in the structural rigidity and formality of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. That being said, some of the details placed before a reader are sublime: the explanations of tunneling as an art form, or of a particularly nasty toxic critter, or of the denizens haunting a cluster of ancient towers, or of the activities of the polar superpowers’ drones, and so many other scenes, all of which are beautifully elucidated, and instantly memorable. Very little is ever explicitly explained in The Islanders; instead, the reader gains knowledge and perspective pebble by pebble, bit by bit, hint by hint, picking up a lot of information over time, while not actually realizing how much has been learned. The key recurring characters in the novel are also delightfully well-realized, and the often unexpected interactions between them provide some of the novels’ sharpest “a-ha!” moments, where revelation seems close at hand, though it almost always still slips through your fingers if you try to grab on to it too quickly or too hard. 

A five sentence sample text: (From Chaster Kammeston’s Introductory) “Here is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I know nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too: some of them I knew personally, or had heard about, and now rather late in the days have learned something about them. There is so much out there, so many islands to discover, while I am familiar with but one of them. I was born on the island where I live now and where I am writing these words, I have never stepped off the island, and I expect never to do so before I die. If there were a book about only my home island I should be uniquely equipped to introduce it, but for quite other reasons I would then not agree to do so.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

CLICK ON THE COVER OF THE ISLANDERS BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY:

islanders_rough