Looking Up

I woke up this morning about 5am. I usually do. The alarm is set for 5:20, and I often get up before the alarm so that I can take my shower and then have a few minutes to relax, browse the internet, eat breakfast, make even more coffee; though my morning timing is more dependent on my wife, who gets up after I do, and then has to finish her morning so we can go to work together around 7:45. First thing I do when I wake up every morning is take the dog outside, since he hasn’t had a whiz since the night before. Usually I take my phone, look at Twitter; he’s only out there for thirty seconds, maybe a minute. No big deal.

This morning when I opened my eyes, I saw light coming through the windowshade, and I thought, “Oh, right – blue moon, supermoon, blood moon, right? Cool.” So when I went outside with the dog, I looked up at the moon.

It was eclipsing.

It threw me off, at first; I had a student tell me that the eclipse would happen between 5 and 7 pm, the evening before (Though at this point, I realized he had probably seen the times and not realized that they were am, and this is why I don’t trust student recommendations of things.), so when I saw the moon looking less than full, I was confused. But I quickly realized that it was shadow that I was seeing, not a different phase of the moon.

I tried to take a picture: didn’t work. I only had my phone, and it isn’t set up to take precision images of celestial events. So I just looked at it for a minute while the dog trotted around the yard, and then I went inside to take my shower. I glanced out the bathroom window, and I could still see the moon, so I checked on its progress, which was much faster than I would have thought; so I hurried. I went back out to look at the moon before I brushed my teeth, because I wanted to catch a glimpse of the almost-but-not-complete eclipse.

Here’s the thing: I have a telescope. A pretty nice one, not an observatory telescope, but a step up from the Junior Astronomer telescope that grandparents buy their science-y grandkids. I never really use it, sadly, but I do have it sitting in the corner of the living room. But clearly now is the time to bust it out, right? So I take it outside, fumble off the lens caps in the pitch black cold, and then I swivel it around in the general direction (After trying to use the spotter sight on the side of the telescope, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t set that thing up right, as it never shows what the main eyepiece sees.). And it takes a minute, because my dumb luck is actually pretty dumb, but eventually, there it is! The lunar eclipse.

I mean, it’s a gray-white blob, part of it darker than another part of it. I focused the telescope better, and now it is – a gray-white blob with some dark patches. Those are craters. I think: they might be mountain ranges. The most interesting thing is actually a tiny point of light that zips around the edge of the moon’s disk, and is either an interesting effect of the sun’s light, or some imperfection between my eye and the telescope. I am not riveted, is what I am saying. And I’m cold.


My best camera photo of the eclipse. SEE HOW IT’S NOT ROUND?!? COOL, HUH?!?

So I went inside to brush my teeth, and then wake up my wife. This is when I would be sitting down on the couch, petting the dog while I look at the internet, starting with social media and then moving to the New York Times. (Hey – there was a State of the Union speech last night. Another craggy, reddish-white object that I didn’t watch as it turned slowly darker and more shady. Fancy that.) But instead, I went back out to look at the moon, which was now fully eclipsed, and starting to turn reddish: the Blood Moon.
Now, I love the idea of a blood moon. I’m a fantasy/horror fan, and a writer of same; the blood moon is vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. It’s awesome. I’m also a longtime collector and player of Magic: The Gathering, and I have a card called Blood Moon, which I’ve used to good effect in the past. (If you don’t know the card but do know the game, it’s a red enchantment that turns non-standard lands into mountains. I had it in a goblin/mountainwalking deck with two Goblin Kings – who give all goblins mountainwalking. Mwahaha. If you don’t know anything about Magic, sorry for the delay: back to the actual moon now.) So I am psyched for this blood moon. I’m happy that I have a little free time in my mornings, so that I can do some gazing. I’m happy that I have a telescope so I can see it close up.

Except now I can’t see the moon in the telescope. It moved in the intervening ten minutes while I was brushing my teeth and getting coffee, and now I can’t find it. I also can’t work the controls that make the telescope move, because though I learned how to do this, it’s been too long since I have done it, and it’s too dark outside to see what the various dials and gadgets do. I keep trying, fidgeting with the fine adjustment wheels, unsure if they’re actually doing anything because all I can see in the field is blurry darkness and occasional stars. And sometimes the very edge of what appears to be a very large circle of light, which is either light pollution zipping across the lens, or the end of the world, I don’t know which. Finally I tip the whole telescope, lifting one of the tripod legs, and the moon shoots across the field. Success! I hold it there and try to find a way to move the controls to make it point at that exact spot without me holding it up.

I can’t do it. I don’t know which levers to loosen, which wheels to turn; when I find something that can turn, I can’t tell if it’s working, or whether or not it’s going in the right direction, so do I keep turning it, or do I turn it back the other way? I picture my students laughing at my telescopic incompetence. I get more and more pissed as I spend more time trying, and still failing, to center the telescope. Goddammit – my morning is ticking away; the blood moon won’t last forever; I’m getting cold – WHY CAN’T I TURN THIS FUCKING TELESCOPE?! WHY?? WH – Oh. There it is. I finally get the moon in the field, and I see –

A gray-white blob. Somewhat reddish. Mostly blobby. I focus, and I see – a gray-white blob with dark spots. Still somewhat reddish. Those are craters. I think.

I lift my head and look up into the sky, and I see: a blood moon. Big, fairly bright, definitely red, quite clear. It’s excellent. I look back through the telescope, having to adjust it again to center the moon in the field; it looks – I mean, it’s a little larger, a little clearer. But without the whole sky to frame it, to make it into the moon I have looked to all of my life, it’s . . . boring.

So I spent a few minutes looking at the moon, this morning, while I drank my coffee. I put the telescope back inside, and when Toni was done with her morning shower and all, I called her out to look at the blood moon, and I just pointed at the sky. “Wow,” she said. “Beautiful!”

So it was. When you just looked up at the sky.


You know what I thought about today? I thought about how often I try to look very, very closely at things – particularly literature, since that’s my job; but also my life and what I’ve accomplished and what I’m worth; my reflection in the mirror and how my hairline is changing, and my jawline, and the shape of my eyes; my career, what I can do, what I have done, what I should do – and how, when I try to look really closely, I take away the bigger picture. Often I am looking through a lens that I am not using correctly: when I decide to write a blog about politics, for instance (as this one was going to be when I first thought of it), I’m setting myself up to have a hard time, because I just don’t know enough about politics to really see clearly. I know there are people who can use telescopes and could have used mine to see far finer detail of the eclipse and the blood moon than I could see with my naked eyes; I know there are people who can see far more nuance and historical significance in political events than I can see. For me, I just sort of fidget around for a while, turning things and twisting things, getting more and more frustrated, and nothing gets any clearer.

When that happens, I should step away, and just – look at the sky. It’s worth seeing, all by itself, even without a telescope.

This morning, I saw a blood moon. It was wonderful.

This is hard.

I wanted to explain why I haven’t been blogging very often, and why I haven’t been talking about the effort to publish my book. Why I don’t  write about writing. As a writer, I should — shouldn’t I? If I’m a writer? And even now, while I am trying to find the words for this, I immediately want to start apologizing for it. I want to say that I know this is a cliché, that everyone who writes, and everyone who makes art, we all have this same problem: that things have been said before, and why would I think that my way of saying them would be any better? I want to say that I know this isn’t interesting to anyone, but I felt a need to write it, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it: unapologetically apologizing. I feel like I’m lost in a fog, and I keep bumping into things, into people; I’m clumsy, and blind, and — sorry. Sorry! Oh, that was your foot. Sorry about that.

I want to apologize a lot. I’ve done a lot of things wrong, as a writer: I’ve made a lot of clumsy mistakes, often fallen on my face. I want to apologize for my first book being too long, which kept it from being published; I want to apologize for giving up on seeking an agent to represent me, and I want to apologize for taking so long to get into self-publishing. I want to apologize for being a teacher, and for being good enough at it, and believing in it enough, to take time away from my writing; clearly I should have taken a shit job so I could focus entirely on accomplishing my dreams. I want to apologize for wasting my years being happily married and not having kids; because even though I never wanted kids, the best reason that I can give anyone who asks me why not is that I wanted to focus on my career; and after all this time, I haven’t done enough to earn justification for that decision. I’m sorry. (Still not sorry I didn’t have kids. Absolutely not sorry about my marriage.) I want to apologize every time I write on this blog, because my book reviews aren’t good enough, because I don’t socialize with other bloggers enough, don’t follow enough, don’t comment and Like enough. I want to apologize for my essay/rant/blogs because I’m sure I’m offending someone, either because what I say is offensive or because it isn’t offensive enough. I want to apologize for not having enough expertise to really teach a general audience something they didn’t know before, and therefore wasting their time with my mediocre insights and tired, angry humor. I want to apologize for not writing short stories and poems, for not getting published in literary journals, for constantly shifting my blogging style and my intent with this blog.

Basically, I want to apologize for being me, at least the me that I think I am, though I’m probably wrong, probably indulging in some ridiculous fantasy so as not to face the truth of my mediocrity. I’m sorry. All I can say is, this is hard.

I’m pretty well lost in the dark out here; I don’t know where I am, or the right way to go, or what’s at the end of the path — or even what’s the path. I think I know what it takes to be a writer, but it’s hard to remember what I think I know, and it’s hard to believe, still, in what I think is true, no matter how many times people, including people I respect and admire, say the same things: never give up. Write every day. Write what you know, and write what you want; don’t try to chase the latest trend or the hottest thing: just don’t give up. I want to hold onto those touchstones, follow that map laid out for me by those I would be honored to follow, whose footsteps I dream of walking in.

But see, those are great writers who say that. People who have found success, who have published books, who have sold books. Not me. They have an audience: people want to read what they have to say. They have interesting and useful thoughts, crafted from the perfect words. They know what they’re doing, they can see the way to go; they can see it all so well that they notice the tiny details, they see little moments of beauty, or oddness, or even horror. I can’t even see the ground under my feet, can’t even see my feet, when I start writing: what makes me think that my thoughts, my words, are the right words? And if they’re not the right words, what the hell am I doing? I could be getting ahead on my school paperwork, and I could be playing video games and binge watching all the shows I haven’t seen. I’d be more comfortable at my day job, and I could participate in the conversations about pop culture. I’d know where I was, and I’d know what I was doing. I’d know what was right.

But when I decide to write, I step away from that comfortable, familiar assurance, that life like an easy walk through a mall. Air conditioning, clear lighting, You Are Here maps. And I step into confusion. Every time I write, I have to wonder: What is the right thing to write?

Who is the right me to be?

Figuring that out is hard. Not that actual figuring: I think that’s pretty simple. I mean, I think I am a writer. But I don’t really know why I think it. Every reason I can think of to support the assertion that I’m a writer, I can instantly, with no trouble at all, think of a counterclaim to disprove it. I’m good with words: but I don’t do enough drafts, don’t spend enough time on the work. And . . .

Oops. Turns out I can’t even think of a second reason to call myself a writer. I can keep going with reasons why I’m not a writer: I haven’t had any success, never sold a story, never got accepted for anything, been blogging for ten years and never broke 100 followers. I have never written a way out of the darkness where I go when I try to find the words. Never reached the light.

It is very hard to keep thinking that I should in fact keep writing at all, let alone finish this blog, let alone keep writing books that I don’t believe anyone will want to read. I mean, really, what’s special about these words? I didn’t create anything new with them. I didn’t describe anything that’s never been described before; in fact, I don’t think I described anything. They’re just words, and they’re just from me. Who cares?

I’m sorry for wasting all of our time.

I’m trying to come up with a final epiphany, an affirmation that can sustain me, keep me writing, make people understand why I do this, and why every other creative should continue to do it, too. (But then the voice in my head says, I’m not that creative. My book concepts are entirely derivative: a vampire story? Really? You wrote a book about a pirate? TWO books? Oh, good Lord. Let me guess: your blogs are about you being an angry progressive who doesn’t understand why our country is so stupid, right?

Have you ever considered that maybe it isn’t the country that’s stupid?)

Sorry. It’s hard to keep that voice silent. Hard to think that all of that isn’t the simple truth.

It’s hard to think.

I also get afraid, sometimes. I don’t deal with depression, myself, but so many artists and writers do. Today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday, and she’d think everything I’ve ever written is absolute shit. She was one of the best writers who ever lived. She killed herself. So that means either that I can’t be a good writer because I don’t have the same problems that the good writers have and had; or if I ever get to be a successful writer, I’ll hate every second of it, and want to get back to where life was simple. I’ll want to walk away from writing, from the place I worked so hard to get into. I’ll get there, and I’ll want to run away.

Why the hell do I do this, again?

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep repeating myself. It’s a bad habit. I think I’m looking for something familiar. Safe. Known. Which writing is not. Really, I shouldn’t be writing at all: I have way too many bad habits, and I don’t spend enough time taking extra classes, and studying exactly what my favorite writers do,  and carefully scrutinizing every line of prose I’ve ever written to determine how it could be improved. That’s why I’m not a good writer, which is why I’m not a successful writer. Because writing is hard, and I’m too lazy, and too cowardly, to actually do it right. I’m also too old: all the great writers publish their first great books much younger than me. I’m 43: clearly time to get to work on finding some other hobby that would be better for me, that wouldn’t cause me as much consternation, that wouldn’t be so hard. I can’t keep doing this one. I can’t.

But I’m still writing. Doesn’t that show that I am, in fact, a writer? Maybe even a good one, because I don’t give up? Because I try to be honest? Share what I feel and what I see in the world?

Sure, if what I shared and felt wasn’t shit. But if it is, then people are just rolling their eyes and laughing at me. I mean, I guess I don’t care if people are laughing at me, but I also don’t see any reason to keep going if people aren’t appreciating and enjoying my work.

And yet I’m still writing. Still trying to find a way to finish this, to make a point. I think I may have written myself into a corner with this whole “I should stop doing this” thing. I think I already contradicted myself pretty badly, and I’ve probably confused the shit out of anyone who is reading this. I’m pretty lost, myself.

This is hard.

I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to need readers: I want to write for the sheer joy of writing. I feel that sometimes. I get excited about stories. There have been some moments when I’ve looked back over what I’ve written, and I’ve impressed myself. I want to feel that the thousands upon thousands of words that I have put together are an accomplishment, that they mean — I don’t know, something.

And in my best moments, I do think that. I do think that anyone who has written four books — Jesus, four books! And hundreds of blogs, book reviews, essays, along with two-thirds of two other books — I mean, that person has to be a writer. Right? I don’t know where the line is between writer and non-writer, but I’m pretty damned sure that nothing else I’ve done in my life compares to what I’ve accomplished as a writer. (Not counting the things that matter, but aren’t really accomplishments, like being happily married and taking good care of my pets and such. If those are accomplishments, I’m proud of myself for them. If those define me, I’m proud to be those things.)

Actually, that’s not an if. I am proud of the husband I am, of the marriage I have helped to build and keep. Toni and I have been together for 23 years, and she is still the one thing in the world that makes me happiest. She is my world. I have given a home to an iguana, a dog, and a bunny who have all passed on after long healthy happy years; I am currently taking care of a dog, a cockatiel, and a Sulcata tortoise who are also living happy, healthy lives. I am absolutely and unequivocally proud of that. I am happy to be defined as that man, that husband, that father of many pets. I have no doubt of that: knowing that is not hard. This is where I am comfortable, where I am — mostly — sure of myself, and of the ground on which I stand.

I wish writing was the same way. That art was the same way. Comfortable. Sure. Easy.

But the truth is, it isn’t. Art isn’t easy. Art is never sure. Art is never comfortable. We live on mostly solid ground, and we can see all around us; but art is off the edge of the map. It has to be, because it is created. It could be created out of familiar pieces, it may be shaped to resemble something that we’ve known, but — it’s not something we’ve known. It’s something new. To make something new, you have to go away from solid ground. Where everything floats, and nothing is clear. You can’t see where you are, can’t see where you’re going. That’s the only place you can make art: can make a new place to stand.

Art is too big, too impossible to define, too hard to understand. It’s larger than we are, you know; I mean, of course. Of course the English language, and every concept that can come from all the creative minds that have ever existed, of course that’s all larger than me. And when I compare myself to that, of course I am insignificant, a bug, a nothing. Nothing at all. Trying to find my way in that unending expanse, that eternally shifting and growing universe, that limitless world being created and re-created every day, by every artist? Of course that’s hard. It should be.

And I’m still writing. Goddamn it, I’m still writing. Not as well as some others do, maybe not even as well as I could, given the perfect circumstances: if I didn’t have to work, say, or if I had some perfect storm of idea, and passion, and time, and could burn through my own Fahrenheit 451, my own Bell Jar, my own God of Small Things. But given everything I carry with me when I go marching into this unknown, into this mysterious world where art exists, where I make art, where I am past the familiar, through the looking glass, where even the landmarks do not exist until I create them — I think I do as well as I can. I don’t know if it’s good enough. I don’t know what “good enough” means.

But I’m still writing. Maybe it’s even more impressive if it isn’t good enough, because if I can’t have enough talent to really be good, at least I can have enough courage to keep trying, to keep writing, to keep going out into that chaos of formless possibility, and deciding: choosing: determining: building; and then going back to where I was, to the real, solid, familiar world, and carrying with me the thing I made — which is never like the real world, and every time I compare it, I know that what I made is not as clear, not as solid, not as real as the real world. But still, I bring it back here with me, and I give what I write to other people, and I say, “Here, read this. Look at what I made. Tell me what you think.” That does take courage, to dive into the unknown, and try to build yourself a place to stand before you fall: and then to invite other people to stand there, too. That takes courage.

And I’m still doing it.

I’m still writing.

I said I would still rant a little.

Let’s talk.

I know I just said last night that I was going to reduce the rants and move towards a simple journal about my experience trying to be a published writer. I also said I was terrible at arguing. Both of those things are true.

But also, I think that continuing the conversation is vital to our democracy. People frequently blame our president for his continuous denigration of the media, and you can see the results in how frequently that charge is echoed by his supporters; but the free press alone is not enough to protect our country and our liberties. We all need to think about it, and talk about it. The women’s marches, last year and this, are a wonderful example of citizens participating in the conversation, and the interview I heard this morning on NPR in which a woman criticized the marches for not having a clear message was, I think, missing the point. If you are determined that the answer must be clearly known and entirely solidified before you speak up, before you take action, then you’re assuming that the answer is simple, and therefore so is the problem.

We’re talking about our country. Our democracy. It is not simple. Especially not when you also include women’s rights in our society, women’s issues within our culture, gender politics, and the culture of sexual assault and harassment in the conversation. I recognize that the woman making the comment on the radio was trying to say that we should limit the conversation to a single talking point, but then it becomes easy to discard because that single talking point doesn’t affect everyone. Sometimes a single issue should be the exclusive focus, but sometimes it should be broader. Both types of conversation are necessary: a marriage can’t be considered healthy just because the two people have figured out who does the dishes, but no marriage can go on without figuring out who does the dishes.

So here’s a conversation I came across and that I would like to participate in. Not as an argument, just a conversation. It’s a couple of days old, now, but if Fox News will let me, I will link to this blog in the comments, and see if anyone gives me a response. I welcome responses of any kind.

It’s an op-ed called The Truth About Trump’s First Year, by Allen C. Guelzo, a professor of history at Gettysburg University. The first victory for the president, according to Professor Guelzo, is simply that he is still president:


But despite the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, despite the unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages, despite President Trump’s hiring of staff he was forced to fire, and despite his much-criticized tweets, the president is still in charge at the White House. And he appears to be wearing down all but his severest critics.


The last sentence is the thesis of the essay (though Guelzo goes a bit further than that by the end of the piece), that the President is convincing all and sundry that, actually, he’s doing a better job than we have given him credit for. The slant of the piece is apparent in the list of “despites:” the Mueller investigation is not over, of course, and Professor Guelzo does not list the various elements of the investigation that have already called the president’s actions and associations into question; the “unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages” is a wonderfully loaded phrase, calling into question both the rationality and impartiality of the pundits, and also implying they are undemocratic, unlike the Man of the People in the White House (I will not point out that Mr. Guelzo is himself declaiming on the opinion page, as I’m doing the same; but I will include this picture of the Man of the People.);

Image result for trump private residence the tweets are “much-criticized” not because we’re all biased against the President, but because the man should not Tweet as he does – and nearly every interview I hear with a supporter of the President says the same. You think there’s broad bipartisan support for DACA? Run a poll on whether or not Twitter should close the President’s account. So I think that Professor Guelzo is already discounting things that should not be discounted, in any assessment of the President’s first year in office.

But let’s see how the President is wearing down his critics. The first issue raised is ISIS: Guelzo refers to a New York Times op-ed that discussed the collapse of the Islamic State this past year; the author, Ross Douthat, who describes himself in the piece as focusing primarily on finding fault with the President’s actions, grudgingly gives the President some of the credit for ISIS’s collapse:

So very provisionally, credit belongs where it’s due — to our soldiers and diplomats, yes, but to our president as well.

But Douthat’s argument isn’t terribly good, either:

I mean the war against the Islamic State, whose expansion was the defining foreign policy calamity of Barack Obama’s second term, whose executions of Americans made the U.S.A. look impotent and whose utopian experiment drew volunteers drunk on world-historical ambitions and metaphysical dreams. Its defeat was begun under Obama, and the hardest fighting has been done by Iraqis — but this was an American war too, and we succeeded without massive infusions of ground troops, without accidentally getting into a war with Russia, and without inspiring a huge wave of terrorism in the West.

Right, so as Douthat himself states, the war effort began under Mr. Obama, and was fought primarily by troops from the countries involved – Iraqis in the struggle to overthrow ISIS in their country, and Kurds and Arab soldiers in Syria; at least 160,000 fighting troops, and about 2,000 U.S. advisers, plus the American personnel carrying out airstrikes and artillery support – and so I immediately have to question how much of an American war this was. Yes, we were involved; but the President changed very little about that, he didn’t send more troops, didn’t appreciably change the strategy or the resources, didn’t bring new allies into the coalition. He gave the U.S. generals more freedom in deciding strategy, but how much influence did that really have? Were our generals behind the actual strategy as carried out by the fighting men? And then the success markers Douthat lists – we DIDN’T send in thousands of American troops, we DIDN’T get into a war with Russia, we DIDN’T inspire new terrorists (Well. Not yet. Right?) – I mean, that’s a low bar. I didn’t do any of those things, either. Can I have credit for the victory? (Snark aside, this article from the Guardian makes a compelling argument that the collapse of the actual Caliphate was inevitable, and that we have not yet seen what will come of ISIS as a stateless terrorist organization, which is what we have made of al Qaeda and the Taliban – both of which we are still fighting. I think this is not much of a victory at all, let alone a victory for the President. I will also say that the collapse of the Islamic State is a good thing, and that U.S. forces do deserve some credit.)

Next in Professor Guelzo’s argument is this:

Douthat’s observation was followed by never-Trumper and fellow columnist Bret Stephens’ insistence that, despite the collapse of ISIS and other achievements, President Trump must remain beyond the pale because he lacks “character.”

What Stephens didn’t say was that the Constitution does not list “character” as a prerequisite for the presidency, nor do voters necessarily reward it – or punish a perceived lack of character.

The issue of “character” certainly did nothing to affect Bill Clinton, or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Stephens’ attack was a pout, and when pundits turn to pouting, it means they have lost faith in their own argument.

This is, unsurprisingly, a poor rendition of Stephens’s argument. Stephens, who calls himself a conservative, discusses how the conservative viewpoint was once the one that touted character as the most important criterion for political office; he describes how the President’s particular personality has had harmful effects on his own administration. He makes a dozen points to support his contention, and to dismiss them all with “Well, character’s not in the Constitution!” is a pretty ridiculous red herring. Guelzo’s other point about character not affecting Clinton or Kennedy or Johnson is obviously false: Clinton was destroyed by the Lewinsky scandal, and Gore was sunk by the same torpedo; whether or not Kennedy would have been affected by character assassination was made moot by the other assassination. Professor’s Guelzo’s argument regarding this President seems to be that if one gets elected, and does not specifically violate the requirements in the Constitution, then that shows that one is satisfactorily performing the office.

I suppose we’re not going to talk about the emoluments clause. Did you know that Trump never even set up the blind trust (which wasn’t going to be that blind since his children are not exactly disconnected from him) for his company? I didn’t know that either.

Guelzo then refers to a third New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who wrote about how people meeting the President are surprised to find that he’s not actually a lunatic in person. I suppose that’s a victory. This is followed with these critiques of the left’s response to the President’s inauguration:

[A]s we turn the page on President Trump’s first year in office, the dirigible of anti-Trumpism is assuming an amusingly deflated look. It actually began deflating in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, after Antifa thugs gave the “resistance” a self-inflicted black eye and a “Women’s March” made the wearing of funny hats its biggest accomplishment.

All right: so “Antifa thugs” that gave the resistance a black eye is only valid from a specific point of view, one that was looking for a black eye to give the left after the largest single protest movement in the history of humankind – which, apparently, only accomplished the wearing of funny hats. I think the only response to this is to reverse it: the white supremacists in Charlottesville gave the President’s party a black eye, which they tried to cover up with their MAGA hats. No, that’s not all the Republican party and the conservative movement accomplished in the last year, and the very worst elements affiliated with the right should not taint that entire half of the political spectrum. So too with the Women’s March or Antifa, which all by itself should not be tainted by its worst members – none of whom, I will say, drove their car into protestors.

What’s next, Professor Guelzo?

President Trump succeeded in getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. In addition to Gorsuch, the Senate has confirmed 22 Trump nominees for federal appeals and district courts, with another 43 awaiting action.

What’s more, as Jonathan Adler of the Case Western Reserve University Law School has said: “The overall intellectual caliber of Trump’s nominees has been as high, if not higher, than any recent predecessor. That’s almost the opposite of what you might have expected.”

Okay, this is certainly an accomplishment; the appointment of Justice Gorsuch was one of the most pivotal issues that swung traditional conservatives to support the rather unconventional candidate picked by the GOP’s base. Turns out that this is actually an impressive number of judicial appointments:

Trump ranks sixth of 19 presidents filling the highest number of judgeships at the Supreme, appellate and District Court levels in their first year in office, while Obama ranked tenth, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis Friday.

The president has appointed 23 judges, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a dozen appellate court judges and 10 District Court judges. Obama appointed 13 judges—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, three appellate court judges and nine District Court judges.


Of course, context is everything. You know that, Professor: you’re a teacher. You teach history, for Pete’s sake. Why would you drain all the context out of this, if not to achieve a slanted partisan talking point?


Trump’s success comes in part from the fact that the GOP holds a slim majority in the Senate, which confirms Trump’s picks. In addition, Republican senators in Obama’s first five years blocked three dozen judicial nominations, Politifact found. Democrats used a simple majority to pass most judicial confirmation votes, not a super-majority of 60.

“Nominations pretty much came to a halt until the start of the Trump administration when the Senate started quickly confirming his nominees,” University of Georgia law professor Susan Brodie Haire told the LA Times.



And as to Professor Guelzo’s comments about the intellectual prowess of Trump’s nominees, this is why he went with the opinion of a single pundit using a single subjective metric:

However, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated four of Trump’s nominees as “not qualified,” which is close to 14 percent of his picks and a higher percentage than recent presidents.

Of the 23 confirmed judges, only nine have previous judicial experience and most have backgrounds in litigation in either private practice or government. The association bases its ratings not on candidates’ politics, but their “integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament,” its guidelines state.

And while 23 confirmed appointments and 43 awaiting processing is impressive,

There are still more than 140 vacancies in the federal judiciary.



Context, Professor.

At this point in the piece, however, Professor Guelzo does take on a more fair and balanced view of the President’s first year in office.

And despite an undeniable string of misfires with Congress (especially on the “repeal and replace” of ObamaCare), there are now more grins than grimaces among Trump loyalists from the increasing number of successes the president has scored over trade deals (withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the repair of the crucial diplomatic relationship with Israel, the decline in illegal border crossings, and the economy.

I mean, the withdrawal from TPP may have been a victory, but I have heard nothing but negatives about the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the attempted scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal. I suppose we have improved our relationship with Israel, though of course there are two sides in Israel and we have pleased the hardline conservative faction while upsetting the more liberal faction, so it’s more that the President shifted our relationship with Israel than that he repaired it; the President’s decision to move the U.S. embassy has also made our relationships with Arab nations much more difficult, especially Jordan, a nation whose population is 30% naturalized Palestinians, with another 2 million Palestinian refugees living in the country.

So what’s the clear victory here? Must be this:

“It’s the economy, stupid,” was once a Democratic battle cry; it may now become President Trump’s.

The Dow Jones industrial average has soared from 18,259 on the day President Trump was elected to over 26,000, in what one analyst called “the most doubted bull market of all time.” New jobs created topped 200,000 in December, driving the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent – the lowest in 17 years.


I mean, how can I argue with this?

Luckily for me, I don’t have to. Professor Guelzo argued it for me.


Anti-Trump diehards will argue that these are not really Trump accomplishments at all, but the last successes of the Obama years. There is probably some truth in that. The reality is, though, that it’s irrelevant.

Every president takes the credit (or assumes the blame) for what occurs on his watch, and harvests the votes afterward.


Simply put, I don’t think the truth is irrelevant. I don’t think the ability to “harvest votes” (A strange phrase, when one thinks that every vote is a person) justifies all. He’s right, of course, that every president takes credit for things that aren’t his doing; but that sucks, and we shouldn’t accept it, let alone encourage it.

So let’s tell the truth. President Obama was not the greatest president in history. Nor was President Clinton. The Democratic Party has done some really bad work in the last two decades, including the catastrophe of the 2016 primaries that led to Hillary Clinton’s nomination. (Some specifics: President Obama never dealt with Guantanamo; the continued and in some ways intensified involvement in Middle East nation building – the longest war in our history, presided over by Obama longer than any other president including Bush – has had terrible consequences; Obamacare is a travesty of a gutted compromise when what we should have had was single-payer healthcare, or nothing. President Clinton ravaged the welfare system, took down the Glass-Steagall Act and thereby was the single most important precursor of the 2007 Wall Street collapse, and yeah, really did lack character in important ways, which have continued to resonate to this day. And the 2016 primaries? Superdelegates and collusion among the DNC leadership, anyone?) I also have argued and will continue to argue that the President should not be impeached until and unless he is proven to have committed high crimes and misdemeanors against this nation, just as I argued that President Clinton should not have been impeached just because he cheated on his wife; the idea that he lied about it and therefore perjured himself was too much of the snake eating its own tail. I think the Russia investigation is important to restore some faith and credibility to a democracy that got invaded by Russian hackers; but I doubt that it will bring down the President, and unless Mueller finds evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the President, evidence that has so far been nonexistent, it should not bring him down.

And on the other hand: it’s the economy, stupid. Our current President deserves little if any credit for the unemployment rate, which has been going down steadily since its height in 2008-2009. The arguments that conservatives have been using to knock that progress, that the official unemployment rate doesn’t include those who gave up looking for work, and that the current rate doesn’t reflect the number of people who are underemployed, are still true. The bull stock market only increases wealth disparity, as it concentrates more wealth in the hands of those who had the money to invest big in the market before it went up, an issue which the tax overhaul only intensified, and no amount of short-term tax cuts for the 99% can counteract. Income inequality is the number one place where our entire government, of millionaires for millionaires, fails to act to protect our country and our citizens; I hope I don’t need to actually argue that the election of a billionaire real estate developer has not brought progress on this issue. The deficit and national debt have been increased, as it always is by the majority party when they are in control, and despite past Republican claims that they would rein in spending, despite the President’s claims that he would drain the swamp and oppose the entrenched Washington interests. Did you see, by the way, that the President has now said that he will campaign for incumbents? Or at least that he’ll avoid primaries?

At the same time, the President has launched an all-out war against immigrants, which has had the effect of scaring millions of people, and therefore both reducing border crossings and increasing tension with other countries; I can’t see it as a good thing in the final summation – though it has not yet run its course, so we’ll have to wait and see before we can judge that. He has agitated our enemies (Iran, North Korea) and insulted our allies (Germany and the EU, the Arab nations, and all of those shitholes). He has, whether Professor Guelzo wants to admit it or not, so soiled the office of the Presidency that even his staunchest allies are forced to turn hypocrite or offer weak criticisms of his Tweeting while ignoring the bullying, the accusations of sexual assault and misconduct, and the clear racism. It’s true that poor character is not the exclusive province of the President; but it’s also true that he does exhibit it to an extent that Americans should decry, regardless of their positions on policy. It’s a tired trope, but I would get fired if I did half the shit that the President does, and I’m only responsible for a hundred or so students. That’s the truth.

Conservatives may be pleased by the reduction of regulations, by the dismantling of the EPA and the Department of Education; they should be pleased by the appointment of conservative judges, particularly Justice Gorsuch. I’m sure corporations are still whooping it up over the tax cuts, and those who are seeing direct benefits, such as the increased wages and the bonuses, should be happy too. The current administration has had victories, both symbolic and practical.

But that’s not the whole story. And the conversation should continue, and continue to be as honest as we can possibly make it.

A Letter to My Readers

Okay so here’s the thing.

I’ve been having something of a crisis of confidence. Maybe not a crisis, actually, because it’s been going on for quite a while; I’m still not out of it, in fact. But I’m realizing that it is probably more important than I’ve been giving it credit for being, and it almost certainly has to do with this blog, and what has happened to the kinds of things I post on here. I think this is the reason why I’ve reduced myself to posting only book reviews (Not that there’s anything wrong with that), and why all of my intentions to post frequently have fallen by the wayside, so that now I’m lucky if I get one post a week on here.

What happened is that I found out that I’m not actually very good at arguing. I think quickly, but I think shallowly; I tend not to do much research, I don’t argue about things that I have spent years learning; I jump in with both feet and start slinging opinions around everywhere. Then I get angry, and I start insulting my opponents – sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much – and when they insult me back, then I get huffy and leave the argument on my high horse. Though frequently, I say I’m leaving the argument but then I don’t; I just take a little longer to think up my next response, or I let other people talk for a while and then I wade back in. Basically, I’m really, really annoying, and the main reason why I always thought I was good at arguing was because I surrounded myself with people who agreed with me, and who therefore complimented me on my ability to take down my opponents. I don’t think I actually took them down very often; I just needled them into shutting up, or else I made wittier fun of them than they made of me, and so my audience applauded.

I don’t like this, but it’s true. It may be a little too harsh; I have had many arguments, and some have gone well, and sometimes I do know what I’m talking about. But ever since I found this out, I’ve noticed how often I talk without thinking, how often I ignore the need for facts to support my arguments, relying on words and, y’know, “logic.” Meaning explaining my thoughts and expecting other people to agree with my thoughts, which is mostly what we mean by logic. I have noticed how often I get angry and then say something shitty. And so I’ve started deleting those nasty comments, and more importantly, I’ve started avoiding arguments. Which I think is a good thing.
Along with that, however, I’ve stopped thinking that I should be ranting about the state of the world, and then sharing those rants with the world. I no longer see myself as a natural authority on truth, justice, and the American way, because my reason for thinking that was mostly that I could win arguments, which I thought made me right. It doesn’t. And if I’m not right, what exactly am I bringing to the table when I post about politics or the state of the world?

Not much, as it turns out. I don’t have a whole lot to offer society as a whole. So I’ve stopped wanting to offer it.

But there’s good news. I still think I write well. I think I have good stories that I’ve written, that I am writing. I think I do a decent book review, though there are certainly others who do more thorough assessments of their books, and who give more useful information; but I think mine are okay, so I’ve kept writing them. But that isn’t the exciting part. The exciting part is that I have kept writing fiction, and other than the fact that I have to spend much too much of my time working and also living my life, I have been writing fiction the whole time I have been pulling away from blogging and ranting and arguing. Which, yeah, that’s good news. Because I write well.

And then this last week sometime – the days all blend together, it seems – I had another realization. While I’m going through this fiction-writing adventure: why the hell am I not blogging about it? I mean, sure, it’s a change from what I’ve done in the past, but if that stuff was not very good, maybe this is a good change. Maybe I should stop ranting for a while, and instead keep this blog as, y’know, a blog, a weblog, an online journal detailing what I’m living through right now.

So to that end, I plan to start keeping a record, as often as I can manage, about this new thing I’m doing. I may still rant sometimes (I certainly will have some ranting to do about school and the world of education, I have no doubt) and I’ll keep up with the book reviews as much as I can; but otherwise, this will be the subject of this blog. Rather than trying to be Just Dusty, I’m going to make this – just Dusty.

Oh right. So what am I going through, you ask? Those of you who are still reading this, that is? Both of you?

I’m publishing my book.

I did this before, but I did it in such a terrible way that I don’t even count it. I wrote a book, completed it in 2006, and then when it wasn’t picked up by an agency or a publishing house after fifteen or twenty query letters (I think; I don’t even remember at this point how often I sent it out, though I do remember buying at least three Writer’s Markets to look for leads), I decided to self-publish it as an ebook. I joined Amazon.com’s Kindle publishing program, followed their instructions, and uploaded my book to the Kindle Store. I made an author profile, and – that’s about it. I didn’t really edit the book — still had more than a dozen simple typos, and I don’t know how many clunky passages, because I didn’t go through and smooth them out. It didn’t have a cover; I found a pattern image on my cheap-ass graphics program, slapped the title and my name on the front, and called it good. Here, this is it:


The Dreamer Wakes (The Dreamer's Tale Book 1) by [Humphrey, Theoden]


My plan was actually to include a plug for my book in all of my Amazon reviews, because at the time, I had something like 100 book reviews on the site which had garnered some thousands of positive votes; seemed like a good opportunity to say, at the end of my long and detailed reviews, “Hey, maybe you should go check out my book, too.” But when I added a line at the end of my reviews, Amazon pulled them from the site. Because you can’t advertise for a book in the reviews of a different book. And of course I get that – but also, why the hell not? The whole page is designed to get customers to look at other books, other books by the author, other books that people bought after looking at this book, other books that Amazon thinks are related to the one you’re checking out. My review plug clearly wasn’t Amazon’s choice for readers, only mine, so I didn’t see why they got pissy about it. Anyway, I pulled the plugs out of the reviews, and then I did nothing at all to promote the book. It’s still there, still for sale, but in the two years – three years? – that I’ve had this particular blog, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned it before.

Turns out I’m not only bad at arguing, I’m also bad at advertising.

But it’s okay! I’m really not trying to denigrate myself. It’s still a good book. (Though the larger problem now is that it is actually the first book in an intended trilogy or tetralogy, and I’ve never written the other books. Which is vile and wrong of me, and considering how much crap I’ve talked about George R. R. Martin for never finishing the Song of Ice and Fire series of books before he turned into a TV mogul, it’s really pretty appalling that my only work available for sale is an unfinished series.) It’s just not the story I’ve been writing.

The story I’ve been writing, which I have brought back for its second go-round as a serial blog, is The Adventures of Damnation Kane. It’s the story of an Irish pirate from the 17th century who finds himself, with his ship and his crew, in 2011. I started this story in 2013, kept it as a serial blog for about a year, and then stopped. But I love this story, and I want to finish it all the way to the end; and this time, while I’m writing it, I also want to publish it. This time, I have a real plan. This time, I’m going to do it right.

And that includes trying to talk up the book wherever and whenever I can. I want people to be as excited about the book as I am.

Which means that I should be talking about it – here. Among other places, of course, but certainly, at the least, in this space, which is supposed to be a collection of my thoughts, of the things I believe are important. If I don’t put my own book into this space, what the heck am I doing? If my own work isn’t important to me, then what is?

So here’s the deal, you two people who stuck it out through all this navel-gazing: The Adventures of Damnation Kane are currently available, from the beginning, on my other blog. But only until I get the book published, and then the chapters will come down; I will keep up a couple of the first chapters so a new reader could get an idea of what it’s all about; and I will keep posting new chapters every Saturday as I’ve been doing for ten months, now. The first volume of the Adventures will be available in trade paperback form, and also as a series of four short ebooks; my readers on this blog who review books, I will be asking you all to write me a review, if you would be so kind. And in the meantime, while I am working on getting these books out into the world, I will be writing about the process and the experience of writing and publishing books.

I hope and believe that this time, I’m on the right path. Thanks for coming along with me this far.


Dusty Humphrey

Book Review: The Bell Jar

Image result for the bell jar

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

This is one of those books that I don’t know why I’ve never read.

There are several of them, and there are several reasons why I haven’t read them. (For instance: never read most of the great Victorian novels, never read Jane Eyre or Middlemarch or anything by Dickens, though I read Oliver Twist a year or two ago and I have Hard Times on my TBR shelf; never read much of the work of Faulkner or Joyce; haven’t read much of the great Russians, never read War and Peace, never read Crime and Punishment; never read Madame Bovary nor Lolita, never read Moby Dick. I could go on. And the reasons? I skipped a year of high school English; I went to a non-traditional college to study literature, where I took a class in Hong Kong literature and another in the films of Howard Hawks, but didn’t read a single Shakespeare play as an undergrad; neither of my parents are readers of the classics, so with their encouragement I read lots and lots of fantasy and science fiction.) This one I didn’t really know anything about. I know Sylvia Plath, know her story, at least the bare bones of it; I have grown to enjoy her poetry since I’ve read it in the last couple of years. But I never read her novel.

Until now. Until a friend and colleague of mine, who told me she was going to be teaching it to her Pre-AP students (who will become my AP students next year), when I said I’d never read it, said, “Oh, you have to!” And I said, “Okay.” And I went to our local used book store and I got myself a copy, and I read it.

Now I need to read it again.

It’s a good book. I can see both why it is now considered a great book, and why it became such a sensational book. For those who do not know, the book is largely autobiographical, and describes a time in Sylvia Plath’s life when she, to use the cliché, descended into madness. She had a breakdown, she attempted suicide, she was given shock treatment (Hey, it was the 1950’s, after all), and then she was institutionalized. That’s as far as the book goes, and Plath’s life story doesn’t go much farther: she moved to England, met and married the poet Ted Hughes, had two children with him, wrote this novel and some extraordinary poetry, and then, at the age of 31, she killed herself. The Bell Jar hadn’t been on the shelves for more than a year, and since it tells of something so intimate, made so simultaneously chilling and vital by the death of the author, it was an immediate bestseller. And then there was controversy regarding its American publication (It was initially published in England, to mixed reviews), because her mother believed that Sylvia would not have wanted the book published in the U.S. because many of the characters are recognizable from Sylvia’s life, and the book is not a kind one. But it was eventually published here, and with its crystal-clear depiction of mental illness, and of mental health treatment, and of society in the 1950’s and particularly how society treated young women at the time, it became an enormous bestseller and a classic.

The book is about a young woman who goes on an internship in New York City during summer break, for a month. It’s a little strange to read about how college worked then, because college now is so solidified: you start when you’re 18, you finish after four years with a bachelor’s degree, or after six years with a Master’s, or never if you pursue a PhD; but Esther, the protagonist, is 19, has finished her first two years of college and is about to enter her senior year. But this is also a time when she is caught between her dreams, which vary widely over the course of the book – she wants to be a writer; she wants to be a professor; she wants to be a magazine editor – and the need to have something solid and steady, which means she should learn shorthand so she can be a secretary. It’s a time when young ladies take classes in deportment. When everyone is so obsessed with marriage and with chastity before marriage that the unavoidably human obsession with sex means that no social interaction has to do with anything else: the boy that Esther has developed a relationship with – though he’s a shmuck and their “relationship” consists of him inviting her up to Yale for proms and then treating her like an inconsequential decoration that also serves as an audience for his ego – is derided as a hypocrite because he’s had sex and yet insists that Esther remain a good girl if they are ever to marry (which her mother desperately wants her to do, of course), and every date she goes on, she considers as a potential husband, or else a potential sexual partner. I suppose that not much has changed on that front, but I’m sorry, this virginity shit is ridiculously stupid.

And beside the point, though it and the need to have an active social life and be seen as popular and dating quality people (like a Yale man! How exciting!) are important elements of the book and of Esther’s life. But then the point becomes something else. It isn’t clear what happens, as I think it wouldn’t be; there isn’t a single traumatic moment, though Esther has some bizarre experiences and some extraordinary pressures to deal with. It begins to come to a head when she goes on several dates and outings towards the end of her internship with another girl in the program, a young lady named Doreen; Doreen has been having a sexual relationship with a charming rock DJ, who appears to have no decent friends and therefore hooks Esther up with jackasses – the last of which assaults her. She finishes her internship without any definite plans for her next step, for her last year of school or for the career afterwards, or for her social or family life; she simply goes home. She leaves all of her clothes in New York, and she goes home in a borrowed outfit.

Once Esther is home, things get worse. Her mother pressures her to move on, to date, to marry, to succeed; and Esther is drawing inward, instead. She goes through a severe depression, which is when her mother takes her to a psychiatrist, a complete shithead who soon recommends electroshock therapy. Because, y’know, it makes you feel better. Except it isn’t done right, and Esther feels agonizing pain during it, and then feels no better. That’s when she begins to think about suicide. She makes several half-hearted attempts, to drown herself, to hang herself, to cut her wrists, and then finally, she finds a place to hide and she takes an entire bottle of sleeping pills which she got because she can’t sleep due to her depression. She survives, and goes to a mental hospital, where things go back and forth between getting better and getting worse. And though I won’t spoil the ending further, I’ll just say: that’s how it goes throughout the rest of the book. It is never entirely clear if it is getting better, or if it is getting worse; when things seem to be going better, Esther’s narrative voice is not any happier or more comfortable. It never gets happy or comfortable again, all the way to the end. Though really, I’m not sure how happy or comfortable it ever was: this is not a happy, comfortable book. I think Plath was not a happy or comfortable woman.

What she was, was entirely honest, with crystal-clear perception, even if the things she was perceiving were not real. Though this book clearly stretches the boundary of fiction: when an author fictionalizes her own life, and describes accurately sensations and experiences that are not real, hallucinations and disassociated thoughts and feelings – is that fiction? Did she make it up? The writing is occasionally beautiful, haunting, poetic; mostly, though, it is so clear and easy to read and understand that you feel very much what Esther feels. I do not myself have experience with depression or suicidal ideation, but I’ve been close to people who have, so I recognize the accuracy of this depiction; and I understand more now than I did before I read the book. As a writer, and a devoted lover of the works of many authors who have gone through what Plath depicted (Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace are two of my favorites, along with several others who drank or drugged themselves to death, Poe and Dylan Thomas and so on, so on.) And though I plan to re-read it and look more carefully at the writing (Because this is a book that would go very well with others that I teach, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catcher in the Rye particularly), on the strength of one reading alone, I would highly recommend it.

Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi


I wish I’d written this book. And not just because I wish my last name were Bacigalupi – though I do wish that, too. This is the kind of book I wish I could write: it’s an outstanding idea, it’s a fast-paced thriller, and it has a wonderfully relatable hero that made it possible for me to feel like I was in the story, along with characters that hint of far greater depth to the world, which makes me want to read the “companion” book, The Drowned Cities. And I probably will.

On the other hand: because there are hints of depth to the world-building, and especially to the most interesting character, the half-man Tool, which are left entirely out of the story, I feel like this book was just gutted by editors who wanted to pick up the pace and cut down the word count so it would sell better. I know that if I had written this book, it would be at least twice as long, and so I’m kind of glad that I didn’t write this book because I would hate to have my book cut in half – and then have it be successful? Have it be a finalist for the National Book Award? That would drive me crazy. I realize, of course, that the success and the accolades that accrue to a book this short with this rapid pace tells me something about my own writing – it’s too wordy and slow to ever enjoy this kind of sales in the modern market – but I still hate the idea of taking out all the good stuff to pander to a readership that gets bored inside of fifteen seconds.

(There’s a lot of background to this, by the way. I’ve written four novels, all of which have been repeatedly rejected by agents and publishers; the two times I’ve gotten interest in short samples and sent in longer portions of the work, I’ve been rejected both times after a second reading because my writing is too wordy and too slow. Rather than cut out half of my stories to make a book like this one, I’m self-publishing my long works, because fuck ’em if they like their books short. Yes, I’m an idiot. But I also wish that prizes like the National Book Award didn’t go to the short fast books. Though this one is probably good enough to deserve to be a finalist even in its presumably truncated form. And maybe I’m wrong all the way, and Bacigalupi wrote it exactly like this. But I wouldn’t have, so there it is. I’m bitter, and he’s successful. Moving on.)

The story is set in this wonderfully real and timely dystopia: climate change has raised sea levels and created Category 6 “city killer” hurricanes, and corporate capitalism has so run amok that it seems to be the only basis of social organization; all else is might-makes-right anarchy. The story mainly takes place in a beach – uh, I guess it’s a “community” – in the Gulf of Mexico; the beach is strewn with the rusted remains of the old steel ships, cargo ships and oil tankers and the like. Oil has now become rare enough that it is no longer how cargo is moved: the modern cargo ships are sleek hydrofoils called “clipper ships,” and they sail with wind power – jet stream winds, that is, since they have huge sails that they launch, with cannons, several miles up into the stratosphere. And the people in the book make a living by ripping the old steel ships apart for salvage. Hence the title.

The main character, Nailer, is a teenaged boy who lives a hard and brutal life among the ship breakers. This is where the writing really shines, because Bacigalupi has created a society where environmental and economic devastation has made life a thousand times worse than it is in our world today – and yet, the problems on the human level are exactly the same. (I have no doubt, as well, that there are places in the world that are pretty much exactly like this place, and it’s only science fiction to me because I live in the sheltered part of the world. Like Lucky Girl in the book.) Nailer’s mother is dead and his father is a violent drug addict; Nailer has to work to earn his own food and possessions, and he is constantly having to prove himself or else someone else will take his job and he will starve – he can’t take time off when he gets hurt at work, for instance, or he will get replaced. Nailer lives in a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone fights everyone else for everything they have, all the time. Almost no one is willing to help anyone else, because it puts themselves at risk; we see this early in the book, when Nailer, whose job in ship breaking is to crawl through the duct work and collect copper cable, gets trapped in the depths of a derelict ship, and when he turns to another person for help, he is refused and left to die. His death would be more profitable to the other person than his life, and so that means – Nailer is left to die. (Spoiler: he doesn’t.) Because that is his world, the most important thing to him is loyalty, and the greatest virtue is – kindness. Generosity. It is the rarest quality, and so it is prized.

That leads Nailer into the main conflict, when a modern clipper ship is wrecked on their beach, and Nailer discovers it – and the survivor aboard, one of the people from the other side of the world, where wealth protects and shelters you from all of the terrible conditions that Nailer lives with on a daily basis. And again, despite everything else that is going on in the world and around them, the things that matter at that point are loyalty, and kindness. That’s the story of the book.

There’s more: but not enough more. The story ends with the resolution of the main conflict, but it ends right there; you don’t get to know what comes next, even though a number of things change, in very important ways, for the main characters. The half-man, Tool, is a great creation; the half-men are genetically altered mixtures of human and canine DNA, and they are fanatically loyal to their owners, even dying, samurai-like, when their master dies – except for Tool, who has no master but himself. He’s a remarkable character, and I desperately want to know his backstory, but I never get it; he also vanishes at a certain point in the book, and we never find out what happens to him, which also drove me batty, and is the reason I think the book got the crap cut out of it before publication. And I understand the need for a book to be fast-paced and exciting, especially when it’s YA fiction like this one; but dammit, I want to know Tool’s story. I want to know what comes next in Nailer’s story. I want more of this book!

Ah, well. This is a good book, a fast read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I definitely recommend it. Though I hope that people also look for and buy the books that go more in depth, that give a reader something to think about beyond the bare essentials, that give you a world and characters you can sink your teeth into. (Maybe buy my books, for instance. They will be available soon. Don’t worry: I won’t turn every review into a sales pitch. Just this one.)

Book Review: Essays by Virginia Woolf

A former student of mine, who graduated just this past June and is now halfway through his freshman year in college, came back to give me a gift. This was cool. It’s never happened quite this way before: he wanted to give me something to thank me for teaching him how to write. I’m not sure that I did, but I’m sure that I helped him get better at writing; I was his English teacher for three of his four years of high school at the tiny charter school where I work, so yeah, I suppose I deserve a fair amount of the credit and the blame for whatever he can do in terms of literary achievement in school. He said he did well in his English 101 class, and so he wanted to give me something. First Thank-you-for-teaching-me gift I’ve ever received. (I’ve gotten thanks, I’ve gotten several really glowing compliments, and I’ve gotten presents; never gotten one like this before.)

He got me this:

It’s a first edition of a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf. It’s awesome for a number of reasons: it’s a first edition, which is neato; it’s essays, which I love and always want to write and to read; it’s Virginia Woolf, who is one of my absolute favorite writers and strongest influences; and it’s called The Captain’s Death Bed, which has a nice pirate-y feel to it. Awesome.

So I read it, of course. It did take me two tries: not because it’s terribly complicated – Woolf is too good and too clear a writer to make her reading that hard to understand – but for two reasons: first, because this is the last of four volumes of her unpublished essays collected after her suicide in 1941, and so a number of the pieces in it are more obscure in subject; and second, because right when I started reading this book, I was finishing up my semester and grading about twenty thousand student essays, and then the day after the semester ended, I had a wisdom tooth removed, which included a half-day fast, my first 24-hour period without coffee in over 25 years, my first time under general anaesthesia, my first time taking Percocet, and of course, a whole lot of pain. So I read about a third of the way through the essays, and then stopped; and then picked it up again two days ago, when my head was a bit straighter on my neck and my brain was readier to read.

I’m glad I picked it back up. Turns out it was really the first several essays that were too obscure for me to enjoy: they are mostly responses to literature which Woolf read, and which I never have – never read Carlyle, never read Turgenev, and certainly never read the half-dozen diarists and memoirists she wrote about, mostly English pastors from the last 300 years. I also couldn’t relate at all to those kinds of books, as I am not a big reader of biography or published diaries; so the first several essays really didn’t speak to me.

But the rest of them did. Did they ever.

There’s a lot here. There’s a wonderful piece about being a good writer versus being a great writer; I don’t know that I agree with Woolf’s examples of a great writer (She includes Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, James Joyce, all of which I can take or leave – and Joyce I’d rather leave; she doesn’t include herself, who I would prefer over all of ’em. Though of course I understand not putting herself into the list of great writers in her own essay.), but her essential idea is this story she tells of getting into a train car and seeing the end of a conversation between two strangers. One of those strangers she calls Mrs. Brown, and describes her in some detail; it’s never clear if this is a real person or not, a real event or a created example. She says that the writers she considers good, who include H.G. Wells and a couple of Brits I’ve never read, would talk about everything in the world other than Mrs. Brown; they’d talk about the town where she lives, about the educational or economic system that created her, but not about her. The great writers would tell you about Mrs. Brown, and they’d do it poetically.

This gave me pause. I don’t know that I write about Mrs. Brown. I think I actually do. Though I am not and never will be a great writer, I like that I’m at least focused on the right subject: the characters. The people.

Then there’s a great piece about reviewing books, in which she ends with the conclusion that reviewers should shut the hell up except to give their honest, informed opinion to the author of the book they read. I don’t know what to do with that, either. This piece caused a conflict for me, because at the end of it, her husband and literary executor, Leonard Woolf, added a note in which he disagreed with her, and said that reviewers are necessary to give the reading public an idea of what books to buy and where to spend their time and money; I like that answer better, but I found it so incredibly distasteful that the guy would throw his two cents into the argument of HIS DEAD WIFE when she couldn’t respond back that I can’t agree with anything he said. So I’ll have to think about the way I write reviews.

Then there are the beautiful pieces: there’s one called The Sun and the Fish, one called Gas (about going under anaesthesia at the dentist; how perfect is that?), one called Reading, and my favorite, Flying over London, that are all nothing more or less than a lovely experience packed into a few pages. It’s magic, really.

I recommend reading Virginia Woolf. I haven’t read a lot of her fiction, but I’ve read a fair amount of her non-fiction, and it’s all fantastic. Especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of essayists – David Sedaris, George Orwell, Diane Ackerman, and especially David Foster Wallace, who wrote like Woolf (and died like her, too), then you should read her essays. I have no doubt there are dozens of collections of her work in various editions, and probably one that collects the good ones out of this book without the obscure ones; but it doesn’t matter, because any collection of her writing is going to be beautiful.