Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran

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There’s a recursive strangeness to reading about an English professor in a foreign country when your own native language is English. It helps highlight the weirdness that must be Iran after the Revolution – a place where The Great Gatsby is immoral because apparently censors can’t figure out that Gatsby’s not a hero.

I wanted to feel like this memoir would be enheartening – and there is something uplifting and optimistic about Nafisi’s obvious love for the written word. She understands the moral, social, and psychological nuance that make Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen relevant and powerful even centuries after their works were written. I wish that I had as comprehensive an understanding of the art generated in my own native tongue, but sadly I lack her grounding and knowledge of our greatest writers.

Mostly, I found myself with anger at those who would deny people the simple pleasures – the novels in the book, of course, but also the examples of people arrested at holiday on the Caspian Sea because they were hanging out in mixed company, religious police empowered to search for satellite TV dishes and hidden alcohol, and self-righteous students’ organizations that deny their members an education by forcing out professors deemed ‘insufficiently revolutionary’ regardless of what those professors may actually be trying to teach. This anger is in part due to the political moment we find ourselves in right now – a Religious Right becoming ascendant in Presidential politics and on the Supreme Court. It’s not an Iranian problem that moralizing busybodies will throw ideas like freedom and individuality into the maelstrom to further their own power; it’s a human problem and we see our own class of opportunists who see the tribe of “the religious” as a natural base for their political ambitions here in the US.

I wanted to get more out of this book, but the anger blinded me to most of it, and I don’t think that anger was what Nafisi was trying to generate with her memoir; her love of literature comes across too strongly, and you don’t build a base of anger upon a fascination with the written word. I can only hope for liberation for Iran – that Persians will soon live in a society that permits them to read what they might like, watch what they might like, and hang out with whoever they might like. And hope that the rest of the world doesn’t backslide as the Iranians work their way there.

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

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Manju Kumar and his brother Radha are pushed by their father to play cricket well, above all else. To someone like me, unschooled and ignorant of the ways of cricket and the fundamental basics of the game, this might be a poor choice for a novel that would keep me engaged. Instead, I found it an easy read for it’s not actually about cricket at all! Even the “cricket glossary” at the back of the book is really just an excuse for Aravind Adiga to write a bunch of jokes into a serious and sobering novel (trigger warning & spoiler: there’s some scenes of how Manju & Radha’s father abuses them, and that’s a vitally important part of the story.)

 

Rather than spending his time on cricket as a game, cricket becomes a greater metaphor in Selection Day for India, aspirations, and the escape from the economic oppression of poverty. Manju and Radha are from the slums of Mumbai, and while Manju dreams of becoming a forensic scientist while watching episodes of CSI, the overbearing influence of his father (abandoned many years ago by their mother) forces him into cricket practice every day. As unrealistic as the expectations of salvation from privation due to excellence in sports are; it’s a very real feature of poverty that the only apparent escape into wealth and the safety wealth brings with it is the fame and glamor of excellence in professional sports. In America, we usually think of that as the kid who wants to play basketball or football, and our literature and our society is filled with stories of the kid who made their fortune that way. I worry about the kids who expect that to be their path, and are disappointed when it becomes clear that not everyone can be a LeBron James or a Johnny Unitas and make it to the highest levels of the game, but it’s a very real aspiration, and it’s impossible to fault those who have little else that could serve as an example for their success and freedom.

 

I do love about this novel that it’s not about “cricket superstar Manju.” Instead, the story focuses on the person Manju, and when he gets the opportunity to give up cricket in favor of attending a college for science, what he does as a teenager who doesn’t conform in a variety of ways, and how he reacts to the dilemmas of love and hope in a world that is calculated to grind him down. The cast of characters that surround Manju is fascinating, from his rival Javed to the bizarre characters of his cricket coaches and the very strange investor Anand Mehta, whose bankrolling of Manju’s father to provide for the tutelage of the Kumar sons in cricket is alternatingly hopeful and disturbing. Anand becomes a point-of-view character in a couple scenes, which is helpful for Western readers because he was educated in the United States and lived in New York for years, loving his adopted city before moving back to Mumbai.

 

Anand is particularly interesting – not only does he have vast moral conflicts within himself that he is failing to win, but unlike many of the characters – Manju’s father with his ‘secret knowledge’ about how to raise amazing cricket player, Tommy Sir with his obsession with rewriting history to impose changes, Sophia with her need to have a gay friend – Anand’s perspective directly highlights his failings:

Yes, he would lead the good life – servants, a big flat, a wife, home-cooked food, weekend fucks in air-conditioned hotels near technical colleges – but he would also do good things for his motherland. It would be simple enough, he had imagined. There would be Rotary clubs and blood banks on every street – a man would just have to sign up and show his face on Sunday mornings; moral glow would be one of the ancillary benefits of living in India. Now, watching the old man strain his muscles to row his boat, Anand Mehta wondered: What if doing good in India was like going against the current? You can barely make a buck here, and in earning it, what if you end up screwing the poor, the people you imagined you would help a bit in your spare time? The boat struggled to reach dry land; Anand Mehta dreamed of New York.

Needless to say, Anand Mehta does not wind up helping people in this novel; and is a bit of an irresponsible threat.

 

I was a little flabbergasted by how many characters in this novel held weird and bizarre beliefs about antibiotics, superstitions, sports, economics, the law, and so many other things. Everyone seemed to have their own quirky hobbyhorse counterfactual. I don’t know if this is a technique Adiga uses to individualize characters, if this is something common everywhere, something specific to India – I have no idea, but I found it fascinating, if somewhat disturbing to my empirical leanings.

 

I found Selection Day an easy and dramatic read, for its heavy material. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a serious story, and ask those uninterested in cricket to set aside that worry, since understanding and interest in cricket is not required to enjoy this novel.

Ann Leckie’s Provenance – where is Ingray coming from?

Ingray Auskjold has a problem, and it’s fair to say that the scheme she begins the book with; freeing a prisoner from the anarchic “Compassionate Removal” and whisking him away to their homeworld, Hwae, will not solve it. Nor will solving the murder that occurs later in the book, or even winning the affections of the romantic interest character for her. I like this about Ann Leckie’s writing – that she is talented at creating characters whose concerns reveal that they have not read the blurb on the back of their own book’s dust jacket, but are living some sort of life both inside and outside the pages of the book they’re in.

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Ingray isn’t always thinking about the events that dominate Provenance for her, she’s thinking about life, and that’s unusual enough in a novel’s protagonist that it feels oddly disconcerting. She has concerns beyond those of the immediate crisis; she’s not just trying to survive to Tuesday (well, she is trying to survive to see another day) but she is also realizing that she has to think about next month, next year, and what she really wants as a direction in life. Especially in science fiction, there are a lot of protagonists who do not reliably think about, or try to create, their futures. Mark Whatney from The Martian has reason to be so short-focused, and is believable in that context, but is Case from Neuromancer really thinking about career choices and his life beyond the MacGuffin that will free him? Or Hiro from Snow Crash? Do either of them wonder what will happen when the family gets together again for the holidays next December?

Science fiction and fantasy plots have a tendency to place their characters in situations where the immediate concerns of survival and crisis resolution absorb all the waking moments the characters have, leaving nothing for the concerns that an actual human might have for the long-term future: if you have to stop the runaway robot right now, or you have to save the world from the Dark Lich, that leaves very little room for the questions “who am I?” and “what do I want?” (nod to the Shadows and the Vorlons there.) But Ingray is wrestling with this, and as a reader who absorbs a lot of ‘standard’ science fiction and fantasy, this feels unusually strange to me. I only realized upon coming to the end of the book why it felt strange to me, and how I have for so long thought about characters who seem now unfairly stunted in their thoughts and planning in my reading. Coming to Provenance after so much Asimov and Robert Charles Wilson, authors I like, but who do not have the same talent Leckie has for characters that want to thrive after the events in their books wrap up. This might be what brings me to enjoy the characterization in a very different author, Adam Rakunas, who I might not otherwise compare to Leckie, but whose characters also want something that will tempt them from after the last page of the novel.

It reads as though Leckie is recreating science fiction in some ways, and just as surprisingly as Katherine Addison did with The Goblin Emperor, she’s writing books that pull it off. Those scenes that fans of an older form of science fiction writing might decry as ‘boring’ and that aren’t immediately related to the action that the characters are a part of; those scenes are important to Ingray, and that’s what makes them essential to this book.

I think a little about my own life, and how little I have in common with Fraa Erasmus or with Susan Calvin; and while I love those characters, it’s not my fault that I don’t see myself in them – I wasn’t designed to be in them, or them in me. There’s more than a little of myself that I can find in Ingray Auskjold, though, and that’s both a good thing for the character and a healthy thing for the novel Provenance. It’s not really a sci-fi escape caper, a murder mystery, or a thriller, although elements of those genres are found throughout the book, but those elements are all a part of the coming of age of a woman from a very different culture who needs to make her own way in her world, and find out how to go from where she’s been to where she needs to be, just as we need to make our own way in ours.

The Dreamblood Duology

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The Dreamblood Duology is a book (two books you can find in one volume) you need to read. “Assassin priests” for real! When does that ever happen? Not only does that part of the cover blurb pay off, but N. K. Jemisin has built a world where it even makes sense. Gujareeh and the lands explored in Killing Moon (the first book of the Dreamblood Duology) and Setting Sun (the second book) are dominated by the magic of sleep and dreams, narcomancy.

Jemisin starts from the premise of a society like that of ancient Egypt, but for the fact that it is dominated by and founded upon narcomancy, sleep-magic that enables healing, manipulation of the soul, and other powers. The religion, run by a church called the Hetawa, is the center of life in the riverside city of Gujareeh and has a profound impact on the people’s lives in a believable way. Jemisin is a rock star of world building and character creation, and only after I finished Killing Moon did I discover that it was her first novel. She was so thorough in giving her characters independent motivations and desires, excellent arcs in which to grow and develop, that I thought it was the work of someone who had already mastered her craft rather than a newcomer.

The religious order and the city around it make fascinating parallels and divergences from our own world. I can see a fervent religion of magically empowered adherents saying “How can we eliminate ‘corruption’ in our city? I know! Let’s train priests as assassins and have them kill the corrupt people!” The motif of reaching for the hammer of violence every time a human nail appears is far too common in our own history and present for anyone to be skeptical of this. There are also hints that the Gujareen may mean something quite different by “corruption” than what a modern reader might believe is encompassed by that term. Jemisin uses this introduction to her world to guide us through issues including faith and power, oppression and occupation, the legacies and expectations of chosen families and biological ones.

She clearly draws on the experience of the modern world, our own entanglement in the Middle East (while much of the book deals with fictional politics, it is not a thinly disguised treatise on modern geopolitics,) the filters through which we see the world and perceive inaccurately both other people and the ways in which we can make the most improvements on the world around us. I’m particularly fascinated as the Duology addresses people with a great deal of faith (Ehiru, one of the assassin priests, especially demonstrates the effects of ‘strong’ faith on a person’s choices) and the effects of families (those who make the Hetawa their family, or choose other characters over their biological relatives, as well as the expectations of fathers (mothers are in the book, do not fit as prominently into this theme.)

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Since reading Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy last fall/winter, I’ve been a little obsessed with her writing, and have quickly burned through every book of hers I could find. I’m loving the wild ride her books take my imagination on, and heartily recommend them to anyone else with even a passing interest in fantasy writing.

Southeast Alaska: Day 5, Orcas in the Chatham Strait

 

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An adult male Orca (Orcinus orca) in the Chatham Strait

During the afternoon of Day 5 we left Baranof Island and headed north through the Chatham Strait to Chicagof Island. On the way we sighted a trio of Orcas (Killer Whales) chugging north, alongside us within a few hundred yards of Chichagof Island’s eastern shoreline. They weren’t in any particular hurry, as they meandered mostly north, the M/V Sea Lion slowing to pace them. There was some good activity to watch as the adult female with the group repeatedly lobtailing/tail slapping the surface – a behavior seen a lot in the whales with social lives and structured cultures like the Orca.

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A female Orca lobtailing at the surface

It’s impossible to know exactly what is intended by the repeated lobtailing behavior – the meaning of signals like this can probably vary a great deal by context (were the other whales with this large female offspring? Or siblings? Was the large adult male we would encounter a mate? Or a stranger?) But the activity made for great watching. On the other side of the ship, a large male Orca (the one in the upper photo in this post) was seen. This whale seemed pretty comfortable around our ship, crossing under it a couple times so we got views of its right and left sides as we all puttered north, and even graced us with a breach. I did not, alas, manage to get a photo of the breach. That was a little bit of a downer, but only because I did not know what the evening of Day 5 would hold.

Southeast Alaska: Day 5, Lake Eva

We arose on the fifth day of our Alaska trip to a beautifully clear sunrise, lucking out with an absence of the overcasts and mists that characterized other mornings during this Alaska trip.

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We were lucky enough to see the sun on most of our days in Alaska, but on Day 5, the sun showed up bright and unusually early in a partly cloudy sky.

We continued our passage off Baranof Island, moving north through the Chatham Strait between Baranof and Admiralty Islands, and soon pulled into Hanus Bay for a morning excursion on land. After we disembarked, we immediately found evidence that we weren’t the only ones who had been to the beach that morning.

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Bear tracks on the beach in Hanus Bay

A large bear had passed by, leaving its prints in the sand as shown above. Our greatest precaution against bears in Alaska was staying in groups – bears in general, brown and black, will not attack groups of people, and are much more likely to be alerted to the presence of a group than an individual. This awareness on the part of the bear eliminates a likely cause of bad bear/human interactions – surprise when a bear realizes there’s a person all up in its business too quickly. Baranof Island, where this photo was taken, is only inhabited by brown bears (Ursus arctos,) black bears (Ursus americanus) do not live on Baranof or a couple of the neighboring islands. The expedition naturalists all carried large bottles of bear spray, but I got the impression that using the spray would have been an extremely unusual situation. Encountering a bear (as one of the other hiking groups did) was safe, and done from a safe distance. Far enough away from a bear, and it probably won’t care too much if you’re there and watching it. It’s when people get too close (or if bears get too close) that problems arise.

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Close-up of a stump in the forest on the Lake Eva trail, Baranof Island, AK

This is another situation where I’m underwhelmed by a color version of the photograph above, but a black & white version brings out a lot of detail and texture in the photo that can be lost to color. I like this one, even though I didn’t much like the same photo in color.

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The thriving forest floor supported a lot of banana slugs (Arilomax sp.)

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the invertebrate contingent – represented here by a humble banana slug. They consume detritus – all the dead plant material, fallen leaves, animal droppings on the forest floor – and break it down so their own droppings become an essential part of the soil recycling in a natural forest. They’re also really interesting in that they’re simultaneous hermaphrodites (each individual is both male and female at the same time) that can’t reproduce with themselves, but still must find a mate. When they do find a mate, the exchange of gametes is a two-way street and both individuals provide sperm and get their eggs fertilized. They also breathe air through a pore called a pneumostome, which is closed in this picture, but should be on the side of the slug opposite the thumb. The pneumostome opens to a lung, which is a somewhat uncommon feature among invertebrates in general, which often breathe through gills, spiracles, book lungs, or even their integuments, but the lung found in terrestrial slugs and snails, and provides one of those rare pieces of common ground between ourselves and the mollusks.

As the morning ended, we re-embarked on the ship. I’ll have to save Day 5’s afternoon for another post, because that’s when we found Orcas!

Southeast Alaska: Day 4, Chatham Strait

After leaving the Bay of Pillars, we crossed the Chatham Strait and found a narrow fjord for exploration:

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The M/V Sea Lion explores a narrow fjord off Chatham Strait. Eager passengers and crew keep an eye out for wildlife

The protected waters of the fjord allowed for a glassy surface where marine mammals or fish would show up easily, and this particular fjord was an excellent place to find sea jellies at or just below the wavelets.

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Sea jellies in Chatham Strait – I’m pretty sure both upper jellies are lion’s mane jellies, noting the eight-part symmetry of the bell. I’m not sure of the identity of the two lower jellies.

And, to wrap up, one more shot of the fjord:

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Bright sky, dark waters…

Southeast Alaska: Day 4, The Bay of Pillars

The Bay of Pillars is a gorgeous spot with some of the cutest wildlife we could possibly find on the whole trip, maybe even in the whole state of Alaska:

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A Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) pup watches us from mom’s back, while she’s just busy swimming. I can imagine how tired she gets as the pup gets closer and closer to her in size.

It doesn’t take very many otters to provide an overload in the cute department, and the Bay of Pillars provided them. The calm, flat waters of the bay gave us plenty of opportunity to view several pairs of otters, and the occasional lone animal. In fact, it was so glassy flat that I could even get photos of sea jellies from the ship’s deck:

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An Egg Yolk Sea Jelly (Phacellophora camtschatica) floating placidly in the Bay of Pillars.

As the ship anchored, the Sea Otters moved off into the small channels and coves off the edges of the bay. Probably the best for them even if it wasn’t the greatest for our views of them, the otters have no way of knowing this huge hulking ship with its rattling anchor wouldn’t mean them any harm. We did get to explore the Bay of Pillars by kayak, which is the best way I could imagine exploring the bay, with all of its shallow offshoots and branches.

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Kayaks lined up for exploring the Bay of Pillars, AK.

I usually try for photos of wildlife, but the snaking line of kayaks stretched out behind the Sea Lion was too much for me to miss. I thought it made a pretty shot.

From the kayaks, we found more Bald Eagles, Spotted Sanpipers, sea otters, and even a little family of Common Mergansers:

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Momma Merganser’s going to be really mad when she realizes the kids have been sneaking out to play in kayak traffic.

Even though the kayaking ended in a little sprinkling rain, you don’t go kayaking without expecting to get a bit damp. The Bay of Pillars really left an impression on me as a gorgeous and pristine bit of wilderness, the perfect place to get away from it all… except the birds. There’s no getting away from the birds there.

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A Google Maps map of the trip so far, with major stops or sightings marked.

Southeast Alaska: Day 3, Frederick Sound NIGHT WHALES!

Wowee! Night whales! Whales, but at night! Like, in darkness.

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Two humpback whales at the surface at night (or sunset) in Frederick Sound, AK. The pectoral fin of the whale on the right is arching over to almost touch the dorsal fin of the whale on the left.

Most whale watching happens during the day, when you can see them. I was pretty happy that after dinner, near sunset (the above photo was taken at 9:30 PM,) we found more whales. Two humpbacks, doing some leisurely feeding at the surface, ignored the ship as we idled to watch them.

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I can’t help but be excited even at just the mundane breathing and surfacing of the whales at sunset. I never get to see them with these colors.

The water was calm enough that as the whales came to the surface to breathe, we could hear each breath clearly. Alaska has these great passages between islands that are deep and wide enough to hold significant amounts of food for whales, and are protected from the open ocean enough that they provide an excellently flat surface for viewing.

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A fluke of the humpback, waving goodbye to us.

Southeast Alaska: Day 3, Cascade Creek and muskeg near Petersburg, AK

Southeast Alaska doesn’t just look like ocean and mountains, it also looks like this:

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Cascade Creek, which runs through the Tongass National Forest near Thomas Bay

Alaska is a place with rainforest – more than 100 inches (about 109 in/277 cm) of rain a year for Petersburg, AK. Most of the Earth’s rainforests are tropical: the Amazon, along the Congo River, Southeast Asia. But temperate rainforests are vital to the Pacific northwest, and Alaska’s are beautiful to walk through. The glacially-carved valleys trails in Alaska wind through can be challenging, but they are worth the effort.

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Fungi and lichens thrive in the damp Alaskan rainforest (Cascade Creek, Tongass National Forest, AK)

After a few miles hiking in the rainforest in the morning, we got back on board the Sea Lion for a move to Petersburg, Alaska. Petersburg is, surprising, no relation of Saint Petersburg in Russia, even though this part of the continent was occupied by the Russian Empire for almost hundred years between the mid/late-1700s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. Petersburg is actually named after Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian who established a cannery and docks in the early 20th century.

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Entrance to a trail through the muskeg (although this shows forest rather than muskeg) in Petersburg, Alaska

We disembarked in Petersburg first for a hike through the muskeg, and later for wandering through the town.

The muskeg was fantastic – an extremely acidic soil bog with twisted, stunted trees, wide vistas, and even carnivorous plants. The openness made it an easy place to watch birds, and we saw a Bald Eagle and three Merlins (it’s a common joke among California birders that if you’ve seen a Merlin, you haven’t; because Merlins are so relatively rare in coastal California.) I didn’t get a photo of the exciting Merlin mating contest. I’m not 100% sure that the three Merlins swooping down from the sky in a group, with one chasing off a another Merlin, and the remaining two flying off together, was actually mating behavior, but it is consistent with what I’ve seen of raptor mating before.

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Merlin perched on a stunted muskeg tree, Petersburg, AK

The merlin stopped once for a good view – just long enough for me to switch lenses to get a shot of him/her before zooming off.

More happened on that third day, but it will have to wait for the next post.