And in the the Garden was . . . .

What is your memory of gardens?

Like so many things, my memory of gardens is of books. I had plants in my yard as a child – the mint patch that defied any attempts to plant something else; the clump of cattails that I can never quite be certain actually existed; dandelions, used on cheeks as yellow blush; Azaleas, flanking the path to our house like two shaggy, ornamental lions; pokeweed, the berries happily used to stain our fingers brightest pink. But all of these, except for the dandelions and pokeweed, were inert. A background, as it were. Flat and interchangeable with imagination.

In books gardens often are characters. Even when they are not, there is a certain kind of book that, without ever having any actual gardening in it, still speaks of them in hushed voices. Certainly Anne of Green Gables would make anyone long for glades of velvet violets, and most older books sprinkle fresh flowers about until you’re certain they are being conjured out of air. But it is Mandy and the Sunflower Garden and Cicely Mary Barker’s faeries, and even the water colored flowers in one Ariel picture book, that I draw my definition of a garden from. Those and The Secret Garden, which filled many a day with the exulted wonder of seeing things grow. Maybe that is why I am discontent with giving up and washing my hands of green things, or maybe it is less conscious than that, an assumption, seeded into mind during childhood, that gardens are as much a fact as breathing and cake. Even Bilbo had gardens. Gardens large enough to justify hiring someone just to tend them.

My plans for my garden this year are modest. We reap what we sow, after all. No fig trees. No hand built containers. Just seeds. And a blueberry bush. My parents have two large planters that they’ve never used which I have relived them of, and I’ll need to get dirt, of course, but other than that my shopping is done. Well, mostly done. I do want to get some Arp Rosemary. And maybe some lemon grass. But other than that my shopping is done. My list is a funny, malformed thing. Half practical, half fanciful. There are no roses, none of the heavily scented flowers I dreamt of last year. No larkspurs, which always make me think of Nancy Drew. Mary Crawford would likely not be too inspired by what is essentially going to be a scraggly vegetable patch. The drama is to be supplied by echinacea, luffa gourds, chard, and nasturtiums, but otherwise it is all business. All small lettuce and baby bok choy, long thai egg plants and small french radishes. And herbs  – fanciful ones, chervil and rue and crinkled garden cress.

In all of this, it is apparent that the thing which grows strongest in my garden, besides the mint and the weeds and the love-in-the-mist, is my own undaunted optimism. Perhaps that is the flower most worth cultivating.

 

 

 

Here and There Again

I just feel like words.

 

It’s like a craving for chocolate, or seaweed, or popcorn after walking past the movie theater, catching the soft edge of its salt and oil smog. The warmth of that smell is an edible thing. A flavorful thing. You, almost, could be satisfied just to pause there indefinitely. Drinking in the aroma. Satisfying your soul with it.

 

But then, of course, you’d remember that the smell is not the popcorn. Your heart would break over the cruelty of a world that could tantalize you with such wonders and yet deny you even the smallest claim to them. And you would have to choose: withdraw or enter?

 

Thus I stand with words right now. They follow me around at work; creeping into my notes, tripping around the edges of my tongue, and tangling with my thoughts until I can hardly concentrate. The warm weather is not helping. Today was so bright and green, it felt like the 15th day of Spring instead of the beginning of True Winter. Far be it from me to complain though, I like all days, and it is only fair winter has its cold ones to balance out the heat we get in August. Still, the cold has had a bite this year. A vampiric bite that clamps in and refuses to let go, draining you of all healthy marrow and replacing it with brittle steel. You can not merely bundle up more if you wish to defeat it. You must employ outside aid against this foe. Hot drink by your hand (properly capped, of course) and the oldest, heaviest, warmest laptop you can find to balance on your knees.

Between the gothic cold and the false spring, my mind has been all a buzz, in a true excess of words, and so I have done some creating to purge them out. I got an excellent dumpling book for Christmas, and crimped my first batch with surprising ease – although my arms were sore for the next few days. Pathetic. I have ordered my garden plans, and my garden seeds. I have started another sewing project to add to all the other ones I have languishing untouched in my little green room. And I have tried instagram.

 

It was a short experiment.

 

The trouble started when I realized I couldn’t change my language. My browser is in Japanese and, sometimes, sites, in an attempt to be helpful, will mimic that. Most of them are thoughtful enough to provide a handy language picker in their footer for when things are Not What They Seem. Not instagram. But then, it is a picture site, so words aren’t really necessary. I set it up, followed a few people, uploaded a profile picture, and then put the app on my phone. Yes, the app annoyed me pretty instantly, but only with all the little-normal things that are assumed nowadays. It wasn’t until it stopped letting me use the app without a phone number that I gave up and uninstalled it. Then I un-gave up and went back to my computer . . . . and found that my account no longer existed.

 

True Story.

 

I probably could have summed that whole debacle up with a gloomy photo of the login page saying, in red Japanese, that my username wasn’t in their system, but the words would not have it. Paint with us, they almost screamed.

 

And so, here I am, making another practice sketch. Letting my words play here and there across the page. Maybe here is not a place I can stay in everyday – maybe too much page is as bad for a person’s soul as too much popcorn is for the stomach – but as long as the words whisper to me amidst the silent days, here is where I will be.

Adventure is just around the kitchen

Strawberry Fields and Military Sci-Fi

Aldis had freeze dried strawberries in the nut section last time I went in.

I have been curious about freeze-dried fruits, and, more specifically, how they would do in granola for about as long as I’ve been into making granola so naturally I bought a bag, combining a crushed handful of fragrant redness with (shelled) pumpkin seeds, almonds, candied ginger, vanilla extract, and honey syrup.

Conclusion: It does right well in granola, though more because the powder clung to the ginger than becasue the chunks are noticeable. Next time I will add less sugar, but for now the strawberries are pleasantly tart and smell heavenly; when topped with chunks of fresh peaches it is divine.


I’ve since used the strawberries, powdered, as a base for salad dressing and as an addition to candied walnuts. I have a little bit left in the bag . . . . maybe something traditional like scones? I haven’t really had time to think about it: for the last 2.5 day I’ve been slogging through the muggy jungles of Marduk in a 1,000 page crawl of the Empire of Man’s opening half. I’m recuperating while my hold requests for the last two books are fulfilled. I do have three other books on my table, all also courtesy of the library (one on loan from a completely different county, using the Marina system. Magic) but, in all honesty, I don’t think I could read another line right now. Not with enjoyment, anyway.

Part of that is becasue all the books I’m reading are just similar enough to start running together. I’ve been kind of on a military sci-fi kick lately – it’s my new whodunit, I guess. For years I loved reading Agatha Christie and Arthur Doyle during the summer but, now that I’ve read a fair number of those stories and sampled a few others in the genre, I’m rather mystery-ed out. Even with my love of formula, between the literally cookie cutter nature of some mystery books, and the inevitable ruins they makes of the characters’ lives, I’m a bit numb to them. I can get my seasonal dose of scandal from police dramas, thank you.

Military sci-fi fits in perfectly to the void thus created. The situations are equally convenient, the characters unimportant, and the plot merely a carriage for death, cunningly achieved. At times authors of either genre will wander into arm chair philosophy; the whodunit focusing on the psychological origins of human evil and the military covering honor and death and what the struggle to live means when that struggle includes being willing to lay down your life for an outside cause.

Not that the characters in military fiction are merely bits of wood for the bullets to hit. However, they do sometimes seem so in comparison to longer epics that don’t make battles their primary focus but instead are full of random character dialogue. The Belgariad comes to mind as the best example of this – the characters are the reason you read the book and, when you are done reading it, you feel you know them inside and out. The Belgariad is such a part of me that it’s difficult to not hold other long, drawn out sagas to the same standard of camaraderie, even when they are obviously in a completely different category. And military fiction is a completely different category than Fantasy or Sci-Fi. Instructional rather than inspirational, Military Fiction is for the quartermaster in all of us. It’s about logistics and order in the midst of lack and chaos. That is what I love about it the most: the orderly, detailed unfolding of battle.

But that is also why it occasionally comes across as, well, flat as a cartographer’s masterpiece. Take the Lost Fleet series, of which I’ve waded through three out of six books. The battles are delicately orchestrated to be daring and dangerous while at the same time letting the characters survive without outright cheating death. They are filled with exhaustively persistent reminders that something ten light-minutes away will take thirty minutes to reach you if you’re going at point one light speed.1 If, by the end of the first book, you are not mentally begging for a good ol’ warp drive you have not been reading it closely enough. The human drama element is there – but it is there becasue that is a part and parcel of war and you couldn’t really have one without the other. As such the characters are sometimes conscripted to speak or act in ways inconsistent to their personality2 but necessary for the moment, effectively killing off any chance of the audience relating to them. This is good, becasue there are only three categories for named characters in war: the doomed, the enemy, and the hero. All in all, it is a wonderful argument for the chain of command and the military mindset and will make you ponder deeply the complexities of waging war in a vast 3D plain. It will get you thinking, but it’s not going to leave tears streaming down your face.

Of course there are military books that have relatable characters as well – L. E. Modestt’s scholar portfolio in the imager universe comes immediately to mind. But even here it is not all the characters. It couldn’t be – too many people die to keep track or care about all of them. And, let’s be brutally honest, no matter how much people are willing to follow a military leader there is something so tragic about them that it is almost impossible for them not to be somewhat isolated in the midst of their troops. They may know the name and backstory of every soldier, but at the end of the day the knowledge that they are sending these men to their deaths will wall their hearts round with guilt. Truly, MF can be almost as emo as a vampire love story. Which, of course, is just another reason to love it, becasue military fiction reminds us, again, that sometimes the hardest of us are also the softest, that it’s rare to have hate without love, and that numbness can only exist where feeling is possible.

I think it’s the juxtaposition of these two concepts – the obsessive attention to niggling detail and the yearning to serve and protect what you hold dear – that really makes military sci-fi. As a culture, we tend to divide things to their basest elements, putting the brain here and the heart there, but this one genre welds them together with spit, wire, and pure grit. This is the-needs-of-the-many level philosophy, where you must constantly weigh the worth of lives today against the uncertainty of victory tomorrow. In a strange way, it is a place in fiction where the hero will always survive but will never truly win, because every time a life is lost he fails. In a world that continually invites you to fall, how can we not relate to the relentlessly battered warrior, who sees his actions time and time again take the life of friend and innocent alike? Perhaps it is as much for the hope they lend – the encouragement to press on despite our despair –  and not just for the ingenuity of war that we continue to write and read them.

 obligatory ending photo

Incongruous Tart

Socks Off    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Or whatever the actual figures are. I’ll admit, my love for a logical world was not strong enough to figure out how soon two ships would come together if they were five light minutes apart and one was moving at 1.4LS and the other at .9LS. The answer was, invariably, “not as quickly as it takes to tell it.”
  2. Assuming they were lucky enough to merit a personality in the first place

The New Old Thing

After I finished reading about apocalypse-by-bee, I picked up Level 7, by Mordecai Roshwald. I can not seem to help reading in themes – Herzog’s book wasn’t even the start. When I read these books I was knee deep in a study of Revelations.

 

Level 7 is a thin, black, hard back published in 1959. My great-grandmother, from whom my grandfather received a large number of his collection, has written a lengthy epistle all over the fronts piece and title page. Her letter made a touching preface, helping me sink back in time to a place where the threat of utter annihilation by bomb was very, very real.

Even with that as a warning, I was still unsure of what the book was for the first few pages. Was this a real life account? Did this actually happen? Only when the main character was sealed up in a sterilized town thousands of miles below the surface of the Earth did I finally feel confident in proclaiming it pure, if informed, fiction.

The sum of the story is simple enough. The main character is a button pusher for the military, trained to launch missiles at The Enemy if the worst should come and they found themselves under attack. He and about 200 other people are more or less tricked into populating an underground safe house where they are told they must pass out their days. The first half of the book is a methodical journal of the daily life of these people. It’s fascinating, but in a morbid kind of way. The 50s were not kind to interpersonal relations, and none of the 200 people feel real. The women are as bad as the men, except they talk more and so expose themselves more openly. No, I take that back. The main character talks the most, and I found myself torn between sympathy, frustration, and amusement over his plight, naivety, and assumptions.

 

The second half of the book is an equally methodical detailing of the world going to pieces at rocket speed. In case you haven’t already gathered, this is not a cheery, feel good book. Everyone dies: some just die slower than others. And of course the real tragedy is that it’s all for nothing. Well, naturally: if everyone dies this must be so. But even beyond that, the first missile was launched accidentally by a computer – a simple coding error that started a chain reaction of automated destruction. With the amount of thought that went into building these machines, it is not surprising that there was so little left over to design defenses. We take it as a matter of course that none of the precautions put in place to protect civilians from the fall-out worked – the radiation penetrated the shallower shelters and poisoned the water of the deeper stations. But the dernier cri, the ultimate expression of irony, was that our little subterranean town was completely safe from the atomic fallout caused by their actions. They only died of radiation poisoning becasue their nuclear generator developed a leak.

The last pages of the story are written by our doubtful hero as he lies in bed, dying. . . .

 

It was rather subduing. I’ve always said I was a passivist, not a pacifistic. The idea that selfish people can share a planet without dissolving occasionally into fist fights seems dangerously naive to me. But as I read books like this, and ones like Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams and Wouk’s The Hope, I find war stripped of any younger associations with glory and valor. It can be honorable to fight, I still believe there is a time when we must answer war with war, but even more obvious is the importance of cultivating meekness in our interactions with others. True honor, whether in a conqueror or a servant, comes from humility not pride. From defending another’s rights, not extending the limits of your own. Nobody wins in war. Only when peace means turning a blind eye to human suffering should such a sorry stalemate be sought after.

 

This was book 2 out of 12 for TBR 2016. Read in March, I’m still currently reading my third book for the challenge – a modern, non-fiction book which is both exotic and exasperatingly familiar. Will I be able to make up my two month deficit? Stay tuned to find out . . . .

The Latest Buzz

Another belated posting of an older piece, this one from mid-January. Spell checked and published to, hopefully, get me back into the thick of things.

It’s a quiet evening, and I have all the weariness you would expect in a body after working and then coming home and washing dishes for an hour. And yet, there is a strange thread in my limbs that is screaming for action. It is this silent, insistent need to create which has sent me here, to drivel across the page. So here I am, driveling away.

It’s a strange task to assign to a list-maker: to wander aimlessly down a page meant for other people to view. No outlines, no matching topic sentences. Just words leading to words leading to . . . well, nowhere really.

It’s so unnatural I just have to stop and fill up space with something. Something like, say, a review of Arthur Heizorg’s The Swarm, a la 1975.

Now here is a book to discuss. It is, in essence, a beach book. A mass market thriller full of the imminent destruction of man kind. Or at least, of people in the USA – for some reason the bees were very respectful of the Canadian border.

  Yes, The Swarm is about bees. Specifically it’s about jumbo, mutated African bees (old adansonii) that have adapted to use plastic in their hive walls in order to survive the winter, and military grade, top secret chemicals in their sting in order to better survive us. Or out survive us, as the characters in the book start to fear. The whole thing should have been one long eyeroll. Instead I feel quite educated. The book is written to be as histor-real as possible, with footnotes scattered throughout to properly cite and defend all scientific information. Real citations, too, or at least this one was. This is a fast paced, high stakes, drama peopled with the lowest of the nerd pool – entomologist, geneticists, chemists, and medical practitioners. And not one person ever bemoaned or otherwise called attention to their narrow, intellectual way of life. In a world in which geek and nerd have become utterly meaningless, I found this refreshing. The atmosphere of the book was excellent.

As an aside: It also had an interesting perspective on females and their position in the world. The token female (she generated maps of the bee invasion) was a highly capable scientist in her own field and yet was continually disrespected and outright ignored by the majority of her peers. Living in a wonderfully uncomplicated subsection of the universe, a large number of social issues seem rather too dramatic to be taken seriously. This kind of understated writing lent credence to a concept I normally find surreal.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and there were some bits of the book that I appreciated less. The use of the bee’s long forgotten genetic origin, instead of their Latin name, vaguely annoyed me toward the end. And the obligatory love-story was both off-screen and yet too present. I realize this is what I expect from sci-fi books – the outline is all that’s needed since the relationship is not the main focus of the story. In some ways I respect this, but I think the better answer is just not to include it at all. The worst thing about this book though is its ending. The last third of it felt like an all-nighter – indeed, the cast pulled quite a few to fill it. The characters died for stupid reasons, their plans failed for stupid reasons, and the whole nation was saved by some stupid reason or other. The delicate balance of terror and hope that managed to exist in the first part of the book crumbled as the bees toppled one obstacle after another like a never ending wave of over-powered heroes gone bad. With the falling away of suspense went the need for hope – the magical trance in which I had been held could not sustain itself alone for very long. I lost belief in the world, and with belief went enjoyment.

My favorite of all the silly things in the book was that the whole attack plan was manned by dozens and dozens of faceless laborers and about five specialists. As the months dragged on and the crisis grew, those five people struggled on in forced hermitage (about three hours away from D.C.) with less and less sleep. Two people died for no other reason than the lack of personnel. For this alone the bees probably should have won.

 

This was my first TBR book of 2016. I’m pledging for twelve this year, and saying that eight of those have to be non-fiction. Like all the future books I’ll read, this book was a gift from my grandfather. Curious to see what I’ll read next? So am I.