Tag Archives: speculative fiction

The Book I Read: Books as Gifts, The Hidden Life of Fifteen Dogs, and Budgie Danger

I have admitted in previous entries that I am a relatively slow reader. I read well, I think, but slowly. Perhaps I’m a better reader because of it. But because I love reading, and because I have the English major’s obsession with a list of things I want to (and think I should) read, I am sometimes paralyzed when friends gift me books. Recently, as in within the last year or two, I have been gifted a couple of books, books for which I had no previous knowledge or awareness, but books, as I came to understand by a very cursory digging around, that are well-known, well respected, critically acclaimed, examples of the dreaded “classic I’ve never heard of” category of books, or the “contemporary genius I’ve never heard of” category of books. Of course, then, they must be added to the list of books I want to (and think I should) read. And that’s all fine and good. But because they have been GIFTED to me, in each case by people I love and respect, there’s this added sense of responsibility toward putting those books at the top of the list–of reading those books before others on the list, because, you know, they were gifts, thoughtful gifts, and there’s this feeling that I am obligated to read and share my reaction with the very kind friend who gifted me the book. In at least a couple of occasions, that obligation, that sense of responsibility toward my benefactor, has gone on for a year or two. In that time–lots of guilty wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It’s time, then, finally, to fulfill my obligation and tackle once and for all the gifted books, or at least today, one of them.

I love dogs. Growing up, I always had dogs. As an adult, my wife and I through our long history together have rarely ever been without a dog. Now we have two. And, you know, if you are, like us, somewhat in love with your dogs, they end up making their way into your social networking feeds–you’re posting cute pictures of them with funny captions, you’re revealing their most recent exploits (ours love to escape into the neighborhood to flirt with death and pillage like pirates), you’re writing poems about them, or you’re taking selfies of them napping with you. I try to be careful about this. I don’t do it a ton. I love them–but they are not the absolute center of my existence. Nevertheless, the few times I have posted dog activity inspired a good friend of mine, the poet Terri Ford, to send me this book under discussion today, The 2015 Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize winner, André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs.

A book I have owned but never read is The Hidden Life of Dogs, although I know vaguely that it is a non-fiction study about what it’s like to be a dog–how a dog thinks and feels as it exists, you know, as a dog. This novel by André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs, is a different kind of study. It is a novel that asks the question, what if, not all dogs, but fifteen dogs, had the capacity to think and feel like humans do.

Here’s the set up, right out of the gate: two gods walk into a bar–no, this is not a joke–two gods actually walk into a bar (Apollo and Hermes, to be precise) and over five rounds (they’re beer drinkers) they begin a philosophical discussion about the relative significance of human beings compared to any other living creature. Apollo sees them as no better, no worse. Hermes argues that they are more interesting, more complex, more amusing than any other creatures. Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had the intelligence of human beings, and Apollo wonders whether, with that kind of capacity, animals would be as unhappy as humans are. Apollo suggests a wager: a year of servitude that, given human intelligence, animals would be more unhappy than humans. Under one condition, Hermes insists, that if just ONE of these animals is happy when they die, Hermes would be the victor. It is agreed, and, walking out of the bar the two gods spy a kennel–so a decision is made: let it be dogs. And it was. The fifteen dogs staying overnight at this particular kennel, through divine intervention, are given human intelligence. This group of randomly assorted breeds, then, immediately put that human intelligence to good use and escape from the kennel. And we are off to the races.

There are early and devastating results. Three tragic and clearly unhappy deaths immediately ensue. There’s a conflict between the remaining pack of dogs as to whether or not this new ability is a blessing or a curse. One dog begins reciting original poetry and is summarily shunned. Very soon, we have a Lord of the Flies type situation on our hands. Whereas, in Lord of the Flies, children on their own act like animals (but that’s probably not fair, as Golding seems to be saying that human beings are a far inferior species, and that the children, as opposed to acting like animals, are just really acting like adults–who act like animals), in Fifteen Dogs, animals act like humans, but then, many of them, try to avoid acting like humans, the result of which is that they become dogs acting like humans acting like dogs who are aware of the contradiction. The remainder of this highly engaging, super richly woven, intensely and seriously witty novel follows the survivors of the initial chaos as they navigate their lives without the original pack and as the wagering gods, among others (the Fates and Zeus himself), follow their progress. Which of them, if any, will die happy? Morbidly enough, in order to have an answer to this question, all these dogs must die–and they do. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, really–I mean, it is, but it isn’t, because the joy of this novel is immensely more than the answer to the survival question.

Despite the tone our 3rd person omniscient narrator takes, one of serious reportage, almost a clinical narrative of the facts and just the facts, the novel is hilariously funny in parts, deeply moving in others, philosophically rich, and interestingly enough, humane.

Let’s begin with the funny bits, just a few that were highlights for me: the first time, Prince, the poet dog, recites one of his poems-the reviews from the pack are terribly mixed. And later: “Prince had spoken another poem … and Max had wanted to kill him on the spot.” If Alexis’s hand can be seen anywhere, it is perhaps in his mockery of poetry–“For one thing,” Alexis writes, “like most poets, Prince’s way of reciting his works was eccentric,” a manner of recitation that “would have been strange for any human that was not a poet.” And there is the dog that memorizes the opening passage of Vanity Fair to please it’s literary human master. One of our main character dogs, Majnoun, with his new and beloved human companion, learns film criticism, another dog’s sense of hierarchy is completely befuddled by his human companions’ tendency toward kinky sex.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the novel–funny–yes–but also touching and, to me at least, philosophically truthful, is a scene where Majnoun’s human companion Nira asks him if dogs have stories. He says, of course they do, and then proceeds with a kind of nonsensical thing and perhaps what you would expect to be standard dog fare, a story about looking for a mate and digging and more digging and calling out and finally feeling hungry. Nira says, it doesn’t really have an ending. And Majnoun replies: “It has a very moving ending. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?”

We anthropomorphize our pets anyway, don’t we, and most animals? By some strange act of trickery, Alexis allows us to see dogs in kind of the way we already imagine them–so, we are really not all that surprised with the stuff that these dogs do and think–and because the dog language in this novel is not, initially, human language, it’s even easier for the reader to be convinced of this reality. Only when the dogs start conversing with human beings in English is our credulity kind of pushed to the limit–but again, we should not have a problem with this, right? We know we are not reading realistic fiction–we know this is fantasy, or fantastic, or speculative, or, as the author points out on the title page, it’s “apologue” (a word I had never heard until I picked up this novel) a moral fable, especially one with animals as characters.

So what are its morals? I think there is much here about the nature of things–the nature of happiness, the nature of dog, of humanity, of the symbiotic relationship between the two, about companionship, about finding one’s true nature, about the way we die and qualitatively, how. The power of poetry, whether it lasts or not. The poet dog–despite Alexis’s funning with his art, is maybe, ultimately, the hero of this tale. Morals. It’s not like an Aesop moral, an admonition against or for a particular behavior. I struggle teaching theme to my students and I often warn them about turning theme into “the moral of the story.” Themes have moral implications, I say, but they are not often, morals per se. Don’t do this. Do that instead. Not so much. Rather, and I think this novel achieves this in flying colors: Fifteen Dogs tells us about how things are, not how they should be.

To conclude, I would like to give thanks to the gods for dogs and this novel, but especially, thanks to Terri Ford, who gifted me this book, who is a lover of dogs, and a poet of extraordinary gifts. Her collection of poems, Hams Beneath the Firmament, is a marvel. She is one of the most wildly inventive and playful poets I have ever read. With her permission, let’s close this week’s blog with a poem by Terri Ford from Hams Beneath the Firmamentnot a dog poem–but an animal poem nonetheless, one in her series of poems about Budgies–which is a bird, by the way, a bird that some people have as pets.

Death to the Budgie: A Public Service Announcement

There’s a menace wields a skillet: Teflon is the silent killer.
The budgie life is a life of PERIL. Beware of anything on this list:
burning candles, scented candles, plug-in air fresheners (deadly oil
that seeps), air conditioners, drafts, monsoons. If you deign let
your budgie out: ceiling fan blades, dastard children (hight pitch, sudden
moves), halogen lamps (death by flame), doors in motion, bathtubs, sinks
& toilets. Enjoy your budgie. Keep him safe
from the proverbial glass full or half (he could drown!!),
bookshelves budgie could fall behind, electric cords, your goddamned

feet, dogs, cats, yarn, open windows, and of course the drunk
with her tiny window of judgment opening cage doors on a lark.

Terri Ford

There is just so much to love about this poem. But I chose it because I think it’s a fitting parallel to this lovely novel. It’s a dangerous world out there for dogs, people, and budgies. We gots to be careful. We have to take care of each other and our animals. We try to avoid becoming the playthings of the gods, the fates, and/or stupid, dumb, bad luck. Thank you so much for tuning in. So long. Stay cool. Be kind. Cheers. Take care!

Listen to the podcast version of this entry here

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Teaching Controversial Texts: In Defense of Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

kalpa.m

So I wrote a little blog post some many months ago now.  It was 2000 words long.  It was a furious little rant about how one of the books I teach in 11th grade IB English, Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, was being removed from, or at least being considered for removal from, or, as I see it now, being reconsidered for approval in our curriculum as the result of some complaints by parents and concerns by our principal.  I decided not to publish that blog post.  As I understood that the book was being removed, that blog essay was written in the heat of a full month of fuming and without ever speaking face to face with the parent or parents in question. The essay made some assumptions, perhaps, about the book’s detractors and might have been construed as mean-spirited and unfair.  While I am the kind of guy that likes to call things as they are and is not afraid of controversy, I also am a peaceful dude by nature, and cautious, meaning that I thought that maybe the way I saw things was not REALLY the way they were.  So I did not want to bring further conflict or distress on people I do not know, who then might take it out on people I do know and have to work with.  Hence, this resulting blog post, a kind of compromise, a kinder, gentler approach to the problem.

Our principal, to avoid further conflict and controversy, I suppose, and, for personal reasons, because she couldn’t see herself defending this particular title to the death, initially had simply asked us to consider another text to teach instead of Kalpa Imperial.  In some ways, this is not the most heinous or destructive or even prohibitive request a principal could make.  New books!  Whoopee!  There’s hardly anything more rewarding than being allowed to choose a new book to teach–it is a rare experience for English teachers, especially in times of budget difficulty, or in our case, crisis. But there are two problems with this request to replace the Gorodischer novel with another text.  The first is that we are in a time of budget crisis; and while the IB English program in our school has purchased two-plus year’s worth of new curriculum over the last several years, my English department colleagues have not had that opportunity. I could not tell you when last my fellow English teachers adopted a new title, let alone two year’s worth of new titles.  And the second problem with the request is this: no matter how sweet sounds the opportunity to adopt a new book, ultimately we would all be complicit in an act of censorship, of book banning–at least within the walls of a single classroom–because of a minority voice of dissent.

I want to keep teaching Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, translated from the Spanish by Oregon’s own Ursula Le Guin.  Here, I plan to talk about why this book is great, why it’s an important addition to our curriculum, but also to address as specifically as I can some of the complaints I understand my principal, parents, and their students have about the novel.

Kalpa Imperial is a fantasy novel, broadly speaking, and perhaps incorrectly so.  It’s also known as speculative fiction, or as a sub or side genre to fantasy called fantastic fiction–and fantastic here does not mean superlative in the way we mostly mean it when we use the word, but rather imaginative or fanciful.  The line that distinguishes fantasy from fantastic is fuzzy, but it is a distinction the author herself makes about her work, preferring the latter term. However, the basic premise of Kalpa Imperial, reduced to it’s very simplest form, is this: the novel sets out to tell several interconnected stories or episodes from the history of an empire, an empire of a totally indeterminate time and place, over the duration of a kalpa, a sanskrit word meaning aeon, or roughly 4.32 billion years. Each chapter in the novel tells the story of a distinct era in the empire, but as readers, we’re never quite sure whether these eras are arranged chronologically or not, how far apart the eras are from each other, or even if the empire described from one chapter to another chapter is geographically the same.  Time and place in this novel are slippery fish.  A narrative line that runs from start to finish, also a slippery fish, if not an altogether invisible fish.  The novel is unconventional, to say the least, and at times, difficult.  Some kids love it.  Some kids hate it.  The reviews aren’t often mixed–although some students, bolstered by curiosity and an inquiring spirit, wade their way through, ask lots of questions, and come to a deep understanding after all, despite their misgivings.  And these students are the real rock stars, because they are exhibiting characteristics of the kind of student who is most successful in an IB English class.

This is  unrelated, essentially, to the reason the book was questioned in the first place, but sometimes a book is controversial because it is difficult.  Kids and adults alike are often afraid of, suspicious of, or dismissive about things they don’t understand or don’t immediately “like.”  And yet IB English is a college level literature course.  And the IB learner profile asks students to be open-minded, inquiring, thinking, knowledgeable, and (especially relevant to the task of a rigorous and potentially controversial curriculum), risk–taking. Sometimes the language in the novel is difficult, sometimes the sentences are complex, but the difficulty of reading Gorodischer’s novel is much more related to the description above. The aspects of the novel that make a long work of fiction accessible to most readers, namely, a through plot, an identifiable setting, and the contiguous development of a group of characters, are mostly slippery fish in Kalpa Imperial. 

Nevertheless, Kalpa Imperial is a masterful novel and it is unlike anything students have likely ever read.  Novelty alone does not make a work of art great, but there is profound educational reward, I think, after studying through one’s entire school experience works of drama, fiction, and poetry that are conventional or traditional, and mastering the language and academic concepts that apply to that kind of reading, in discovering something new, something that defies the rules, that flies in the face of all the conventions in one’s previous understanding.  That is learning–real learning–in the most powerful sense.

Stylistically and structurally, Kalpa Imperial  is inventive, but its cohesion and its real value comes, I believe, from its thematic arc, from its philosophical implications.  Paradoxically, while the whole novel is “spoken” by a series of storytellers, the novel is less about story and more about idea. Each tale in the series of chapters raises powerful and thoughtful questions about themes that are relevant, useful, challenging, and intriguing to anyone who cares about the way societies work, the characteristics of effective leadership, the truth and how one arrives at truth, how history is recorded and by whom, the ways in which power is used and abused, where wisdom is found, encounters with “the other,” the way in which culture is spread, the way culture changes and mutates over time.  Most importantly, perhaps, Kalpa Imperial, through its succession of various speakers, talks about the importance of storytelling as a key device for passing on culture, values, meaningful ideas—which touches the very heart and soul of any serious study of narrative art. It is my belief that these things completely and utterly outweigh the potential controversy caused by short sections of the novel.

Kalpa Imperial does contain potentially controversial material.  It contains description of violence and battle scenes, explicit in varying degrees from very general to mildly graphic.  There are short scenes that could be seen as sexually explicit—or potentially explicit, and these particular scenes are the ones that seem to be raising the most hackles. These scenes include one very short passage in which an intersexed military leader plans and fails to sexually abuse a male prisoner of war, and an absurdly comical scene in which a human curator of a freak shop wishes to have relations with some kind of fantastical bug.  These two scenes take up less than a paragraph of the novel’s whole. There are other chapters in which gender is ambiguous—potentially controversial for some readers, perhaps, uncomfortable or limited in their own understanding of gender roles and gender identification, or the possibilities thereof.  There are chapters also that deal with issues of spirituality unrelated to any known world religious practice, but perhaps analogous to some eastern religious philosophies—again—this could be controversial for readers who are hyper-sensitive about these things or otherwise intolerant of religious views different from their own, or who cannot imagine a world, fantasy or not, that does not include their own spiritual practice, as was the case in our school’s recent controversy over Life of Pi, when parents and students could not fathom or tolerate an interfaith person or character.

In each case, it seems to me, where Kalpa Imperial dips into controversy, the argument against the censorship of such material is easy to make.  What does literature do?  Often, even in the fantasy genre, great literature describes the world as it is–and not as we’d like it to be.  And as the world contains ugly stuff, literature often portrays that ugliness.  It does not condone the ugliness, it only describes. If it condones or glorifies the violence or if it titillates the reader with graphic sexual content (healthy or not, abusive or not, intersexed or not), we’re not dealing with literature any more, but with pornography–and Kalpa Imperial is no Fifty Shades of Grey.

In a recent meeting between my principal, two administrators from the district office, myself and my IB English teaching colleague, the question was posed: why this particular book? Good question.  But why any particular book?  As an IB school, we must choose a text from a prescribed book list on which Kalpa Imperial is listed with hundreds of other titles.  IB makes no claim that any of the books on their list are superior or more worthwhile than any other books on their list.  Schools must choose.  And we chose this title because it fit certain characteristics we were looking for: it was written by a woman (our literature program is notoriously and traditionally male), it was written in Spanish (our neighborhood is becoming more and more Spanish speaking), we liked it (it’s no fun teaching a book you’re not interested in), and it provided sufficient rigor and challenge for a high school English class through which students can earn college credit.  There it is. And, lest I forget, it was contemporary; no more stodgy classics for our kids! (I personally love the stodgy classics, I just prefer not to teach them).  And yet, even here, by choosing contemporary literature, we run the risk of controversy; the more modern the text, the more risks in this vein it is likely to take.

But ultimately, my final argument is that controversy in a literary text should be embraced and not shunned, for all sorts of reasons, but primarily, because it gets us thinking, it gets us asking questions, it asks us to examine our values. Will it corrupt us?  Not likely, because most often, I believe, great literature is moral–even if it describes the most heinous of heinousness–and Kalpa Imperial is tame compared to some of the alternatives, alternatives far steamier and more violent, alternatives that are indeed on the IB prescribed book list. And this novel, I find, is particularly moral in light of all of the thematic implications I’ve listed above.

It looks like, as of this writing, Kalpa Imperial has won a reprieve.  I will be teaching it this year. But the conversation and the commitment to teaching intellectually challenging and controversial literature will continue, I am sure of that, and we will see what next year brings.

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More Reasons Why You Will Love My Novel: Adventures in Self-Publishing and Self-Promotion Part Two

Let’s recap, why don’t we. I do not have a history of being a very capable or enthusiastic self-promoter. I have difficulty asking people, cajoling people, insisting that people come to see my band play a show, for example, or buy our records.  It’s not that I don’t think we’re worthy of their patronage, but that I feel somehow like I’m imposing on people. It’s awkward.  It’s immodest.  It’s uncomfortable telling people how great you are.  But now I am turning over a new leaf. I am so pleased to be publishing a novel and feel perhaps more confident in myself as a fiction writer than I do in myself as a musician, I hereby vow to shout my barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world, to impose a little, to tell people how great I am in order to get people interested in my new book, Monster Talk.

In part one of this two-part blog entry, I established three initial reasons why you, dear reader, will love my novel.  I gushed about the cover, the art, the artist who created it, the lovely picture of myself on the back and the flap, the effective, succinct, and tantalizing synopsis on the other flap, and the engaging sample on the back cover of the hardback.  Reader, you are too smart to believe that a cover makes a book good, but you are also wise enough to know that good cover art and compelling cover text are both important aspects of the successful marketing of a novel, that, in fact, we judge books by their covers all the time.  Okay.  Monster Talk has a nice cover.

I also insisted that if you love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you will also love this novel, as its premise comes from that beautiful and so often misrepresented English classic.  And finally, I argued that whatever your predictions or preconceptions about a novel by me about a subject like this might be, you would probably be pleasantly mistaken.  In other words, I think, dear reader, that you will be surprised.

So for what other reasons will you love my novel?

#4. You like smart children and like them as main characters in stories.  You like novels that are respectful of the wisdom, intelligence, and perspective of young people.  And you like your child-main characters to be believable.  They don’t have to have magic powers; they don’t have to be wizards in training; they don’t have to be vampires–and they don’t have to be monsters.  

#5. You may not be a huge science-fiction fan or a lover of what we call fantasy fiction, but you love stories in which the super-real crosses over or connects with the fantastic.  You might enjoy magical realism as a genre.  And why is it, exactly, that this kind of thing turns you on whereas interplanetary travel,  space aliens, dwarves, elves and schools called Hogwarts leave you feeling unsatisfied? It might be, dear reader, that you read often for a higher purpose; you distrust literature that is purely escapist.  And while you know that ALL fiction to some extent allows us to momentarily escape the confines of our daily lives, you have an expectation that the fiction you read reflects or illuminates some aspect of reality, some issue that is relevant, something that you recognize and can identify with.  And you know that real life is often fantastic–the journey you’re taking in this life on this planet is often remarkable in the way that even a fire-breathing dragon can’t equal.  So you’re totally down with the metaphoric power of magical, unnatural, supernatural elements in an otherwise realistic piece of fiction .  Monster Talk is a realistic novel with a fantastic premise–and you’ll love that.

#6. You love serious fiction that makes you laugh.

#7. And finally, you love the fact that you are supporting an independent publishing venture.  You understand that small press and independent publishing is often where our literature is richest, and you value the democratizing effect that new technology has made possible in the world of the word. So, for all these reasons, you will love my novel.  Thank you, in advance, for your support.

And here are some quick links to on-line retail channels:

http://www.amazon.com/Monster-Talk-Michael-Jarmer/dp/1475915950/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1338234633&sr=1-1

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/monster-talk-michael-jarmer/1110919984?ean=9781475915969

http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000540199/Monster-Talk.aspx

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