Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Last Day of Teaching

This was my last day of teaching for the semester. (I'm still going to be working with students on papers and grading, right up to Dec 17.)

It's been an odd semester. The first one when we were all back in the classroom, and yet I continued putting most of the work online -- we did not hold in-person conferences, for instance. In some way, the work was more, and others less; but I don't feel I bonded with the students as well.

Also, we were all exhausted, I think. Me, of course, but also the students. Several of them  for Covid, and others had friends or family get sick. I don't think anyone died, but that was constantly on their minds, and mine. That's just exhausting.

The ones who got sick early in the semester, and had to isolate for ten days, had trouble from that point on, even though I put the work online. It's hard to miss that much and then pick up afterwards. And maybe there was some Covid-brain in there, though I don't think anyone was very sick.

I remember when this first started, when I was sure it was all going to be over by summer.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

What I'm Reading Now

Jodi Picoult, Wish You Were Here

I started out feeling meh about this one -- the main character, in the first few chapters, is sort of unlikeable, and honestly I thought it was way too soon to write a book about Covid-19. But within 50 pages, I was all in. This is a really good book.

The main character, Diana, is working for Sotheby's when the pandemic kicks off, consulting on impressionist paintings; she and her boyfriend. Finn, are about to head off on vacation to the Galapagos Islands. But he's a resident, and he has to cancel his vacation to deal with the surge of Covid-19 patients. You go without me, he says.

Next thing we know, Diana is arriving at the Galapagos, except the island is locked down due to the pandemic. She can't get a signal, and can't make calls or send emails, though she does receive them, mainly from Finn. While she wanders the island, meeting a troubled fourteen year old and her father, Finn sends her a series of more and more horrifying emails, detailing his experiences dealing with first surge of the pandemic. The contrast between the quiet beauty of the locked-down island of Isabel and the horror of the island of Manhattan works perfectly, as does the (spoiler) midway through.

This is probably Picoult's best book. Brilliant writing, excellent use of detail, and with a deeply satisfying ending. I read it straight through in one day. Highly recommend.

Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock

I dnf'd this one, as I do most of Stephenson's fiction. He can't stick the landing, though I don't always know why. Lots of good ideas, but while that was enough for science fiction in the 1940s, it really isn't now.

In this case, he really had too many characters and I found it hard to care about any of them. Even the feral hog hunter, who was probably my favorite character, was mostly a cipher. The queen, who should have been doing a lot, did almost nothing. I'm still not sure what Laks was doing in the book. I mean, I liked some of the episodes involving him, but what did he have to do with climate change? (I admit this might have been revealed in the last hundred pages of the book, but I could not go on.

Here's another take on the novel.

Stephen King, The Shining

This is a re-read -- I read this first when I was probably 15 years old, and have read it a couple of times since then. The story, basically, of a haunted hotel. The real story is how abuse gets passed down from generation to generation, and how hard it is to climb out of that abuse.

I remember reading somewhere that King thinks the father in this story, Jack, was actually a good guy and a good father, who just got taken over by the hotel. That's not the case, of course -- Jack is abusive to his kid and his wife even before he takes a job at the Overlook. It's more the story of how abuse can continue to fuck us up years after the event, and how hard it is to fight against that.

Also about what alcoholism can do to someone, about which King knows plenty.

There's also an interesting strand in the story, about Wendy not being able to leave Jack because where would she go, and what would she do? Women, as we all know, cannot make a living or support themselves. (This, even though Wendy was supporting all of them while Jack finished school.) It's true she has a five year old son, which might limit her options somewhat; but King's own mother was a single mother who support herself and her two kids for years. So you would think King would have known better. Very much a product of its time in that regard. 

A side note: on twitter recently someone made herself famous by advising that we should all give away books once we had read them, since we'd never "consult" them again. When people pointed out that many of us re-read novels, this person wondered why anyone would ever re-read a novel. I've heard this from before from other people -- why would you read something you've already read? -- and it's always puzzled me. You re-read to enjoy the novel on a deeper level, clearly, the same way you listen to a sing more than once. 

This person claimed to have a degree in English literature, and I am puzzled. Surely the joys of re-reading is what brings us all to the study of literature?

Maybe not. 

Monday, December 06, 2021


Our university is holding an in-person commencement this semester, as they did last semester. Last semester, faculty did not attend; this semester, they've made it optional.

And they're requiring masks. So that's something.

Last semester I volunteered to work the gate, making sure people had masks and an invitation (only three people per graduate were allowed to attend). This year, with the rise in cases, not to mention omicron, I'm opting out.

Almost fifty percent of our population is vaccinated. That's not enough, obviously. And we do have Trumpsters shrieking about the the vaccine is a plot to mutate us all or make us all sterile or kill us -- one person on FB solemnly informed us that anyone who got the vaccine would die two years to the date after getting the vaccine.

Meanwhile, I am working on giving feedback for final papers and also working on my book review for Asimov's. Also reading Jodi Picoult's new book. I always like them about on the 80% level and this one so far is running true to form.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Global Climate Change in Arkansas

 It's 76 degrees on the third of December here in the Fort.

I may have to put the AC on tonight.

But yeah, it's all just a liberal plot to destroy capitalism.

See also this.

I'm currently reading Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson, about rich Texan who decides to do something about global warming his own self. Stephenson, who would be a better writer if he could quell the urge to include snide comments amounting to "LOL librals are silly" every 40 or 50 pages, makes good points about the expense of climate change. I'm not entirely convinced by his fix, and the book badly needs an editor -- it's over 700 pages long, and honestly should have been half that.

Also, the feral hogs seem a side issue, frankly. But I'm only on page 419. Maybe they make more sense later.

Thursday, December 02, 2021


 And if anyone thinks for a minute that conservatives are going to stop with abortion, I have three words for you: HA HA FUCKING HA.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Spend my Money

 I will probably about $100 or $150 in holiday gifts from various relatives. What should I spend it on?

(1) A Roomba. The cheapest ones are around $200, so I'd have to put some non-gift money into that. Do I really need a Roomba? I have a broom, after all.

(2) A Kindle. My ancient iPad died, so if I want to read e-books, I have to do it on my laptop. Kindles are well within the $150 I might have.

(3) Shoes. Do I need new shoes? I already have three pairs, one for commencement ceremonies, one for snow, and one for everyday. Who needs more than three pairs of shoes? I only have two feet.

(4) More books. I always need more books.

(5) Save it for emergencies. God knows one will be along any moment.

Tell me what you think!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Doing 20 to Life in The Fort

I turned in Part I of my annual evaluation today. This is the part where I tell the school what I plan to accomplish in the upcoming year, so it has to do with what I'll be writing and teaching, and the committees I'm on -- standard stuff.

But one blank to fill in is how many years you have been at this institution. I have been nineteen years at this university.


People have done less time for murder.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What I'm Reading Now

 I'm working on my second guest review for Asimov's, so much of my reading is directed toward that. But here are some works I'm reading just for fun.

Mona Clee, Branch Point

This is a SF book published in the mid-90s. It's got both AU and time travel, so it's hitting my buttons. The initial situation has Kennedy swerving in the wrong direction during the Cuban Missile Crisis, touching off a nuclear war which ends up destroying Earth's population and ecosystem, all except for a handful of people who survive in a bunker in northern California. These people too are doomed, so they spend most of a century developing a time-travel device, which can only be used four times. They send their three best young people, two women and a man, back in 1962 to warn Kennedy. They can't come back, so they're supposed to monitor world events and fix things if another nuclear war ever happens. In the event, they have to stop three more nuclear apocalypses. The book reaches through 2019, which means we get a look at what someone in 1995 thought the early 21st century would be like, always fun. Clee predicted the first black US president, for one thing, but she's waaaay off.

This is probably more interesting to people who lived through the end of the 20th Century, since there's a lot of recent history that gets discussed and played with. Several times, Clee spends pages and pages discussing the history of this era of that one. And there are some unlikely as well as some queasy moments, as James Nicoll notes in his review.  Still, I enjoyed this one enough that I'm planning on reading her other book -- apparently she only wrote two.

Joe Haldeman, Forever Peace

Another 1990s book. I think this is the only Haldeman novel I have never read. It's supposed to be one of his best, along with Forever War, but I didn't like it all that much. It's not a bad book, mind you. Like Forever War, Haldeman's experiences in Vietnam inform both plot and theme. So we get a lot of pretty horrific violence, all being excused by those committing it because, after all, this is war, and the enemy is evil. 

This is not Haldeman's point of view -- he's showing us how it works, and how people come to fervently believe the truth of it. I remember being told as a child that it was okay to shoot small Vietnamese children, since (after all!) those (slur deleted) used them to kill American soldiers. I also remember adults in my neighborhood explaining that "nuking" Vietnam (and then later Iran) would be a good thing, since "those people" were commies who killed Americans.

Anyway, in this novel, "soldierboys" are used to fight "terrorists" in Central America. Soldierboys are drone-like machines, powered through link to actual soldiers, lying in a "cage" thousands of miles away. These soldierboys are almost indestructible, so the enemy (that being anyone who lives in Central America, including small children) doesn't have a chance. There are hints that the war is being continually ramped up because of a religious sect in the US, the Enders, who want to bring about Armageddon; and more hints that it is being ramped up because of profits being made by arms manufacturers; and more hints that the war continues because the best way to create enemy terrorists is to continually destroy their families and communities in drone strikes.

The tech people have a fix, and through the last half of the book we watch a race between the Enders and the scientists -- one wanting to create endless peace, the other to destroy the planet. I'm not sure why I felt lukewarm about this one. The endless gore and violence, maybe. It needed to be there, but I'm just exhausted by it. 

Interesting point: Apparently one of the controversial details about this book when it was first published in 1997 is that some of the soldiers are women. 

Anne Bernays, Growing up Rich

This is a re-read, which I enjoy mainly for the look it gives us of life in 1940s New York / Brooklynn. An obscenely wealthy rich girl, Sally, who is also neglected and unloved by her skinny beautiful mother (Sally is slightly plump), loses her parents in a plain crash and has to go live with a (just slightly less wealthy) friend of her stepfather's. So we get to look at live among the haut in New York, and then life among the upper-middle-class in Brooklynn. The details and the writing are what make this enjoyable. The plot is unsurprising -- the rich girl learns to like life among the warm and loving (slightly less rich) middle class. Also she loses weight.

Bernays wrote some other books, none of which I have ever read, but I see my library has one. I might give it a try.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Being Thankful in America

 According to a NYTimes editorial, liberals can't be happy because we can't convince ourselves that inequality and injustice are super cool, and Jesus is real.

Also, we need to be married and have babies and be conservatives. If we could just do that....

I'm always suspicious of research that depends on self-reporting, and even more so in this case, since I've been living among Evangelicals for the past 20 years. I know that group. When my kid was in school, one of his friends (a little girl) was punished if she ever said she was unhappy, or if she ever even looked unhappy. Being unhappy was a sin, see, because Jesus.

Anyway, if "happiness" means I have to convince myself that up is down and slavery is freedom, then yeah, I'll take being a bit moody now and then.

Meanwhile, my kid and his roommates and Uncle Charger are all coming for the big dinner today. We're combining Thanksgiving and Hanukah, since Hanukah is very badly placed in this year's calendar.

On the menu:

  • Butternut squash soup
  • Turkey
  • green bean casserole
  • Sweet potato casserole 
  • mac n cheese
  • cranberry sauce
  • rolls 
  • pumpkin pie

Everything except the sweet potato casserole is made from scratch by Dr. Skull. I do the sweet potatoes. Cum marshmallows, of course! 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Psyche of a Writer

 Me (sitting down after folding a load of laundry and glancing at the clock on my laptop): Holy hell it's almost 1:30 and I haven't done a thing.

(I have spent the morning doing laundry and dishes, sweeping, grading student papers, and making a run to the grocery, but apparently only writing novels counts as actual work in my stubby little lizard brain.)

Monday, November 22, 2021

Movies in the Movie Theater

I haven't been to the movies since the early days of the pandemic -- the last movie we saw in the theater was Little Women.

Now the theaters are open again, but all the local theaters are showing are (1) superhero movies (2) horror movies or (3) Christian movies. 

Also kid movies. I could go see Clifford the Big Red Dog in three different theaters.

I guess I'll keep watching Netflix for a while. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Today's Young Conservatives

This is the end result of thirty years of conservatives working to discredit and destroy the public school system. They have taught their children that public school teachers are beneath contempt. Note the racism also.

When children grow up in a household and community in which their parents are constantly shit-talking teachers, as well as women and black people, this is the result.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Deep inside the Cave

Watching today's conservatives (really reactionaries/fascists) talk about what progressives and liberals are like is just so strange.

It's not so much that they're deep in Plato's cave, explaining earnestly to each other what the shadows on the wall mean and how those shadows really are reality. It's that they're so so far down in the cave they can't even see the shadows. They're sitting huddled together in the dark, around a fire they have made by rubbing the sticks of their ignorance together, creating shadows by making shapes with their fingers, and declaring those shadows to be the only reality.

And then having screaming hysterics when one of their number catches a glimpse of the shadows further up in the cave -- Plato's shadows -- and mentions that maybe they should climb up a little out of the darkness, see if there's anything to those shadows.

This post brought to you by (1) Rod Dreher's reaction to David Brooks' editorial in the NYTimes and (b) this really, really, really bizarre post.

See also this

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

In case you were wondering

 Have a watch here

It's ten minutes long, a video outlining the work done by Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale who studies fascism. Every tactic he notes is a tactic currently in use by the American Right. See Rod Dreher's blog, for instance, which does every one of these things, over and over.

It's a little worrisome.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Doing a Re-Read

Since I ran short of new books (I'm still waiting for my library to buy some more -- they've been buying a lot of kids books lately, which I am all for, but...) I began re-reading John Barnes' Century Next Door series. 

It's what it says on the tin, a series of four books set on a near-future alt.history Earth, one in which everything goes to hell when a series of biological attacks lead to an all-out global war that lasts most of a century and ends with the Earth's ecosystem and its people all but destroyed.

There are SF elements -- mainly the bioweapons and something called "memes," which are AI that can run on biological parallel processors, which is to say people's brains -- but the books mainly deal with the aftermath, what happens during a giant climate-and-world catastrophe. Including pandemics. So these novels are instructive to read for just that reason -- here is what climate refugee-ism will look like, here is what happens when the world economy really crashes, here is the world without public schools or a social safety net or functioning infrastructure. That kind of thing.

I've taught three of the four in SF classes, so my books are filled with marginal notes, things I wanted to be sure to ask/tell the students. It seems like I liked Orbital Resonance best, and Candle least.

Kaleidoscope Century is horrific, since the main character is delights in his war crimes, and relates the things he has done in a matter of fact way. I'd skip it unless you have a strong stomach.

But all of the characters except those in The Sky So Big and Black (in which the murder/rapist/torturer from Kaleidoscope has a cameo) are some flavor of sociopath, so KC guy fits right in.

These are good science fiction, in that they force us to look at the world in from a new perspective -- they make it strange, as Darko Suvin says all good SF does. And the writing is good.

Don't read them if you're looking for a good time, though.