Five by Five Books #3: “Nova” by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Set in the 32nd Century, Nova spins a space opera centered around a long-running dynastic feud between the Von Ray and Red families, both of which are seeking to secure and maintain economic superiority across a vast interstellar market. The potentially balance-tilting commodity in the narrative is Illyrion, a super-heavy element that is critical to travel between the stars, and which is only mined in trace amounts in the (relatively) newly-settled Outer Colonies. Captain Lorq Von Ray embarks upon a quest to triumph finally and absolutely over his arch-enemy, Prince Red, by harvesting Illyrion from the book’s titular imploding star, aided and abetted by a rogue’s gallery of crew members and shipmates. Nova features shifting point of view, jumps between flashbacks and the core quest narrative, and offers a unique blend of hard science, mysticism, art, culture, history and music of the future. Ultimately, though, it is the conflict between the Captain Ahab-like obsessions of Lorq Von Ray and the creepy casual cruelties of Prince Red (and his tragic, ill-served sister, Ruby) that powers this narrative, and Nova‘s story arc is powerfully resonant and memorable for all the right literary reasons.

Who wrote it? Samuel R. Delany is an author, literary critic, and university professor with four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, and a well-deserved place in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame under his belt. Early in his career, the iconoclastic Delany offered something of a shock to the science fiction establishment, as the challenges posed by a young, African-American, openly gay writer (like Delany) were enough to induce the vapors among the generally close-knit community of American science fiction writers whose politics and prose were generally rooted in the safe conservatism of the Eisenhower Era’s industrial-military complex. Nova marked a turning point in Delany’s career, standing as the capstone of what we now perceive as his earlier, more linear narrative period. His next published novel, Dhalgren, didn’t emerge until seven years later, and it was wildly different from Nova in many aspects of tone — radically experimental and fulsomely, frequently graphic — though it remains an equally riveting work in its own right. “Chip” (as he is known to friends and admirers) has served as a member of the English Faculty at Temple University since 2001, and continues to occasionally publish through a variety of serial or standalone outlets, in both fiction and nonfiction formats.

When and where did I read it? I purchased this book for the first time in Leavenworth, Kansas, circa 1976, when Bantam Books reissued a lot of Delany’s 1960s titles following his return to popular trade shelves with Dhalgren. I know I got it at a mall bookstore where I used to go spend hours trying to figure out which science fiction or music reference/biography books I would purchase with my limited middle school resources, but I could not tell you, exactly, what it was that attracted me to it over other choices at the time. (It had a $1.50 price tag on it, so that might have had something to do with my decision!) Nova stuck with me as a great adventure story with awesome characters for years after I first read it, though I think I was really too young to understand many of its themes. So when I unexpectedly found a copy in the USS Austin‘s wardroom library during a trans-Atlantic cruise in 1983, I was very happy to read it again, and I have consumed Nova at least two and maybe three more times since then, getting something new out of it every time I read it.

Why do I like it? Nova fires on all cylinders for me, when you get right down to it: a bracing main narrative, an imaginative back story that adds to the richness of the central quest, a plethora of fantastic characters, spectacular settings that span the galaxy (but include known cities from our own home world), and loads and loads of thought-provoking asides, props, theories, images and quotes. I liked the space opera elements the most when I read it for the first time: driven (and possibly mad) ship’s captain assembles motley crew of weirdos and outcasts who pull together as a team to achieve things none of them thought they could. But in subsequent readings, I’ve come to love the strange combination of hard science and mysticism (e.g. characters consult tarot cards before deciding whether or not to drive interstellar space craft toward collapsing stars), and the nearly perfect malice of Prince Red, a truly great literary villain for the ages. The book’s dynastic political and economic themes are also richly developed, so that the history of the dueling Von Ray and Red families feels tangible and important. Nova has an entry in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, which it deserves, though I’d go further and list it as one of my personal Top Ten Novels ever, period.

A five sentence sample text: “Most people go blind in blackness. I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head. The light lashed the rods and cones to constant stimulation, balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full. That’s what I’m seeing now — then you, outlined here, highlighted there, a solarized ghost across Hell from me.”

PRIOR FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

CLICK THE COVER BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY OF NOVA:

This is the version I first owned. I love that cover image, and think it's perfect.

This is the version of “Nova” that I first owned. I love the cover image, and think it perfectly captures the tone of the book, though the “USA” on the crashed probe is incongruous.

 

Hidden in Suburbia (Salvage)

Indie Moines was launched in December 2011, and Marcia and I have published about 220 new posts since that time. (Some of these articles have since been moved to our professional websites: J. Eric Smith and Marcia Brom Smith). After we established this domain, I decided to shut down and/or reorganize a variety of earlier websites, so I have also populated Indie Moines with about 800 additional posts — dating back to 1995 — that originally appeared on a variety of other commercial and noncommercial websites.

There are two downsides to this sort of consolidation. First, pages that had long been Google search favorites now have new addresses, so they’re a little harder to find, and generate a little less traffic than they once did. Second, internal links get hashed up as articles move from one domain to another, while their images or related pages either no longer exist, or remain on other servers with other addresses. These are both annoyances, but I decided that they were acceptable inconveniences, given the content density that comes from having twenty years’ worth of the best bits from a dozen websites in a single (virtual) location.

For most articles, especially standalone pieces, these structural inconveniences really don’t have any lasting impact. But for long-form, multiple chapter entries, or pieces with significant inline imagery, they can be catastrophic to understanding or appreciating what I originally intended to communicate.

Unfortunately, one of my most popular online pieces, the “Hidden in Suburbia” series, was particularly hard hit by changes in hosting locations and addresses. I ran multi-entry “Hidden in Suburbia” series in 2005, 2008 and 2011, and they were widely read, and still generate significant search interest. Alas, much of the incoming traffic generated by that interest now results in “404 Page Not Found” entries.

Here’s the original premise of the series:

I live in a nice area called Latham, New York, middle to upper-middle class for the most part, well-kept homes in properly manicured and landscaped settings, good schools, good investment value in property, all the things one generally expects in the nicer bits of suburbia. If you draw a circle with a radius of about two and half miles around my house, you will also see that there are lots of woods. This makes the neighborhoods look nice, with backdrops of green and nice, tidy (from a distance) wild areas separating one neighborhood from another.

This is good, because I have a deep fascination with woods. Not forests, mind you, but woods. Forests are the untamed, wild places where nature is still, for the most part, in charge, and where urban, exurban and suburban development are still ages, years and/or miles and miles away. Woods, on the other hand, are the bits of forest that are left when development occurs, stands of trees immediately adjacent to suburban civilization, the dark places where all the things that suburban civilization doesn’t want to think about go to die. Or to thrive, depending on what flavor they are.

It’s shocking to find a piece of trash in a pristine forest. In suburban woods, though, you expect to find trash. People dump in there late at night, so they don’t have to drive all the way to the landfill. Kids steal stuff and take it out there to hide it, then forget about it. Teenagers smoke, drink, make out, break bottles and blow things up in the woods, leaving a variety of interesting detritus. The woods are the places where suburbia’s darkness lurks in wait, like something from a David Lynch movie.

But it’s not the specters and spirits of the woods that interest me, really, as much as it the stuff you find back there, and how the community sort of turns its collective consciousness away from it all. It may be right behind your house, but if it’s in the woods, then it’s okay, as long as it stays there and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. But I like thinking about it . . . and so I ride and walk through muck, mud, weeds and woods looking for the things that no one else wants to.

All of the photos and all of the stories in this series are taken and told from within a circle with a five mile circumference, my house smack in the center. It doesn’t seem like a lot of space . . . until you really start exploring the spaces between the space . . .

While working to clean up some archives for another project, I decided to see what I could do to salvage the original three Hidden in Suburbia essays. The 2011 one was pretty easy to clean up and recover, since it was posted to WordPress on the defunct Indie Albany page, which was formatted very much like Indie Moines, and so could be exported and imported with most links and references intact, and because the images were hosted on a Flickr account that I still have. Clicking the link below will bring the series up — plus a related piece called “Academia (After the Apocalypse)” — with both words and images available as they originally appeared, with the last post first, and first post last, per normal blog convention. This post will appear on top, since it shares a coding category, but you can then scroll down and work back up to read them in proper chronological order, if you want; note that you will need to hit the “older posts” link at the bottom of the page to see the first two pieces:

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2011: Complete

The 2008 and 2005 articles, on the other hand, are damaged beyond viable repair in terms of re-knitting narrative and images together again, so the best I can do for the two of those series is to delete the damaged pages and upload the imagery into its own Flickr set, so if you’re interested, you can see it, and I can answer any questions about it, but that’s about it. Interestingly enough, though, I have found that going through these images as a slideshow is actually oddly fascinating . . . the lack of context, and the unrelenting oddness of the spaces where woods and civilization meet, creates quite an evocative experience. Click the link below to see the whole set:

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2005 and 2008: Photo Archive

I hope that these pieces will inspire you to explore your own woods and share what you’ve found. While these images were captured in and around Latham, New York, they truly could be just about anywhere in North America where stands of old trees menace suburban and exurban development, and the universal nature of these images is what has given them their appeal over the years.

Something terrible happened here . . .

Something terrible happened here . . .

Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone): 2014 UPDATE

In January 2013, I posted an article here called “Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone),” using an aggregated database that included input from a variety of public sources, and offering a graded list of the 50 greatest dining destinations in the Greater Des Moines Metropolitan Area. For everyone. I created the core database and resulting list in response (and contrast) to a “Best Restaurants” readers’ poll that the Des Moines Register had produced via public survey, because I know from my experiences in journalism that the combination of selection bias, ballot stuffing, vested interests, advertising budgets, insider knowledge, the reputations of sacred cows, and food snobbery among voters in such anonymous public dining surveys can often result in lists that have little bearing on what regular folks experience when they go out to eat, right here, right now.

“Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone)” has proven to be one of the most popular and widely read posts here since Indie Moines’ inception in December of 2011, so I feel a sense of public obligation to update it periodically, since the restaurant world is nothing if not dynamic, here and everywhere. For my 2014 update, I used the same methodology that I had developed in January 2013, populating the database with aggregated information collected from the ensuing 12 months that reflects the experiences of travelers and locals alike, and taps online and social networking sources as well as traditional media sources. Because these data reflect a span of time, rather than a single point in time, some restaurants that have since closed may still appear in the database, but that’s good, because it can be illustrative to consider why popular things die.

My goal in this project is to use my multi-source model to try to identify those sweet spots where “good” and “popular” overlap most effectively, since people vote for restaurants in the real world with both their taste buds and their wallets. Note that I do not exclude chain restaurants from the rankings, since local establishments have to compete with them within the market, and if a lot of chains beat the locals, then that tells us something meaningful about the regional restaurant industry, food snobs be damned. I also aggregate rankings for restaurants with multiple locations, since they’re all only as strong as their weakest links.

With all of that as preamble, I am delighted to present the following 2014 update to the Indie Moines list of the top 50 Best Restaurants in Des Moines (For Everyone), with their original January 2013 rankings listed in parentheses after the restaurants’ names. There were 226 restaurants evaluated. Congratulations to our new champion, first and foremost . . .

BEST RESTAURANTS IN DES MOINES (FOR EVERYONE), APRIL 2014:

  1. Centro (3)
  2. Flying Mango (2)
  3. Django (4)
  4. Jethro’s BBQ (11)
  5. Alba (10)
  6. Tursi’s Latin King (1)
  7. Proof (16)
  8. Court Avenue Brewing Company (8)
  9. Wasabi Chi (30)
  10. Lucca (7)
  11. 801 Chop (5)
  12. Fong’s Pizza (9)
  13. Miyabi 9 (6)
  14. A Dong (12)
  15. Chef’s Kitchen (25)
  16. Zombie Burger (22)
  17. El Bait Shop (Not in Top 50)
  18. Skip’s (13)
  19. Woody’s Smoke Shack (Not in Top 50)
  20. Hessen Haus (40)
  21. Splash (17)
  22. La Mie (15)
  23. Tasty Tacos (19)
  24. Americana (24)
  25. South Union Bread (Not in Top 50)
  26. Drake Diner (38)
  27. J. Benjamin’s (26)
  28. Jesse’s Embers (23)
  29. Johnny’s Italian (Not in Top 50)
  30. Ritual Cafe (Not in Top 50)
  31. Thai Flavors (31)
  32. Manhattan Deli (Not in Top 50)
  33. Smokey D’s BBQ (33)
  34. Hoq (Not Ranked)
  35. Cafe Fuzion (48)
  36. Raccoon River Brewing (Not in Top 50)
  37. Palmer’s (20)
  38. Haiku (Not in Top 50)
  39. Exile Brewing Company (Not in Top 50)
  40. Royal Mile (44)
  41. Tumea and Sons (32)
  42. Noah’s Ark (Not in Top 50)
  43. Christopher’s (21)
  44. Dos Rios (Not in Top 50)
  45. Continental (Not in Top 50)
  46. Cafe di Scala (28)
  47. Star Bar (Not in Top 50)
  48. Gateway Market (Not in Top 50)
  49. Louie’s Wine Dive (Not in Top 50)
  50. Waveland Cafe (Not in Top 50)

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 50 (with last year’s rank in parentheses): Waterfront (14), Baratta’s (18), Cosi Cucina (27), Chicago Speakeasy (29), Machine Shed (34), Gino’s (35), El Aguila Real (36), Hickory Park (37), Iowa Beef (39), Ohana (41), Bistro Montage (42), Olympic Flame (43), Gusto Pizza (45), Trostel’s Greebrier (46), Chuck’s (47), Nick’s (49), Francie’s (50).

I was glad to see a fair amount of swing in the numbers, as that is reflective of the dynamism of the restaurant world, and generally indicates that my model does not allow venues to live on past glories and laurels for very long. There are some relatively new venues making first appearances in the Top 50, and some venerable old-timers who drop out of the Top 50, also as it should be. Whenever I run these sorts of mathematical models, I always step back from them and consider the results: does this feel good from a gut standpoint (no pun intended)? And this list does. The top finishers aren’t all places I eat at regularly, but I am not the market, and the market is not me. I would worry if it just reflected my faves.

Happy dining, everybody, in the year ahead. You can expect an update of this list in early 2015, so here’s hoping that our local restaurants keep on the tops of their games, since we will notice here if they do not.

That’s My Team: In Praise of the Beloved Royals (And Others)

Despite the fact that it feels nothing like springtime in Iowa, I’m pleased to note that the Major League Baseball Season is underway, as I am cautiously optimistic that I might actually have something to root for this year.

Let me come clean up front about why that’s the case, since I am that rarest and most pathological of all baseball followers: a Kansas City Royals fan. Stop smirking, I’m serious. No, really. Stop it. Now. Last season, the Beloved Royals actually finished above .500 for the first time since 2004. Can they build on that this year? Perhaps even making the playoffs for the first time since they won the I-70 World Series in 1985, and invoked the Curse of Joaquin Andujar? Or is that just crazy talk?

Joaquin Andujar has a psychotic fugue on the mound as Beloved Royals win the sole World Series title.

Joaquin Andujar has a psychotic fugue on the mound as my Beloved Royals win their  sole World Series title.

It’s probably just crazy talk, but a deranged fan can dream, can’t he?

I do feel like I should note that my devotion to the Royals is not an affectation picked up since I moved to the Midwest, nor is it some sort of weird bandwagon jumping just as sportswriters seem to notice that there is actually a second major league baseball team playing in Missouri. No, my delusional fandom has far deeper roots than that.

As a kid in the Carolinas, I followed my Dad’s lead and was a devoted Washington sports fan. I diligently followed the Redskins, then the Bullets when they came over from Baltimore (and before they became the Wizards), then the Capitals when they came along. But in the early ’70s, after Washington lost its second baseball franchise, I was without a team to root for. Then we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a year, where the new-ish Royals were doing whizbang good for an expansion franchise, making the postseason for the first time in 1976.

Since I didn’t have a Washington-based baseball team to claim as my own, I quickly jumped on the Royals bandwagon that fall, becoming a dogged, diligent fan of great players like George Brett, Frank White, Cookie Rojas, Larry Gura, Freddie Patek, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry and so many others on the classic ’70s and ’80s rosters. Times were good then: the Royals made the postseason in 1976, 1977 and 1978, then made their first World Series appearance in 1980, losing 4-2 to the Phillies.

After a pair of quick postseason eliminations in 1981 and 1984, the Royals finally ascended to baseball’s highest pinacle in 1985, when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, and then beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series. Of course, the East Coast Sporting Elites wanted to sully my celebration even then, noting that the Royals were the beneficiaries of a series of ridiculously bad umpiring calls, not to mention Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar‘s monumental on-mound psycho meltdown in Game Seven. But I didn’t (and don’t) care. The Royals were the champs in 1985, and I gloated like a champ, as the only known Royals fan within a 500 mile radius of Annapolis, where I lived at the time.

It’s a good thing I gloated so much then, because the Royals have never returned to the post-season, and I haven’t been able to do so again since. I don’t believe in the Curse of the Bambino any more, but I do believe in the Curse of Joaquin Andujar, who most certainly directed so much antipathy towards the Royals and Umps who shamed him that they have never been able to get out from beneath the lingering cloud of bad karma that he tagged them with in that ominous, potentious seventh game. They won the battle that year, but clearly the war turned against the Royals and their fans.

Until this year? Maybe? One day into the season, despite an opening day loss, I’m still optimistic. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll let you know whether reality has set in or not.

While the Royals are certainly my most beloved major league team, and the one to which I’ve been unequivocally faithful over the years (no Yankees bandwagon jumping for me during the 24 total years I lived in New York, thank you very much), they’re not my only sports passion, so while I’m putting my heart out on a sleeve here, I’m going to go ahead and tell you all the teams I follow, so you can mock me pretty much anytime of the year, as the spirit moves you. I offer some explanatory words about each of these passions, since my nomadic upbringing results in something of a weird combo platter of cities and states.

Major League Baseball (MLB):

  • Kansas City Royals (American League): Duh. See everything above.
  • Washington Nationals (National League): As noted above and below, as a kid in the Carolinas in the ’60s and ’70s, Washington teams made regional sense, until we lost our baseball team. I followed the Mets for many years (picked up that habit while living on Long Island, 1976-1980), but once Washington got its third franchise, I reverted to classic Southern form. I should note that I actually prefer National League, no-designated hitter, baseball to American League baseball, so wish that the Beloved Royals had made the intra-league leap instead of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1998. Oh well, just another disappointment, nothing to see here, moving right along.

National Basketball Association (NBA):

Wes Unseld and The Big E guiding the Bullets to their sole NBA Championship.

Wes Unseld and The Big E guiding the Bullets to their sole NBA Championship.

  • Washington Wizards: I started following them in 1973 (we lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time) when the Baltimore Bullets moved to Landover, Maryland and became the Capital Bullets, then later the Washington Bullets, then later the Washington Wizards. As is the case with the Royals, I have one great and glowing memory of this team, when they won the 1978 NBA Championship (their only title) with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes leading the charge. They’re poised to make the playoffs again this year after a drought, so maybe something to excited about here, too? We’ll see.

National Hockey League (NHL):

  • Washington Capitals: Been following them since their inception in 1974 (also lived in the D.C. suburbs that year), and they are really the team that I love to hate, or hate to love, more than any other. They are truly maddening, year after year, losing series after taking 3-0 or 3-1 leads, capturing individual honors by the score while the team wallows in mediocrity, doing well in the playoffs when they barely squeak in as #8 seeds, and tanking when they roll in strong with the #1 conference ranking. They’re right on the cusp of missing the playoffs again this year, so will likely get in, win two series, then belly flop just as I get excited about them again.
  • New York Islanders: I was lucky enough to live on Long Island, five minutes from Nassau Coliseum by bicycle, during the glory days of the great Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, Potvin, Smith and Goring fortified Islanders. So I still follow them faithfully, because their subsequent pitiability fits in nicely with my sports worldview.

National Football League (NFL):

I got Herb Mul-Key's autograph in '73, during his breakout year as a kick returner.

I got Herb Mul-Key’s autograph in ’73, during his breakout year as a kick returner.

  • VACANT: My dad was a devoted Washington Redskins fan, and when we lived in the D.C. area during the early ’70s, I had the chance to see the team live a few times, and also have vivid memories of watching their first Super Bowl appearance in 1973, with the sole score coming on the infamous Mike Bass touchdown return of Garo Yepremian’s misguided pass attempt. I even got Herb Mul-Key‘s autograph that year! But after years and years of Dan Snyder and Mike Shanahan and Jeff George and all sorts of other annoyances and irritants, some time ago, I found myself realizing that my feelings for the ‘Skins had shifted from my usual love-hate type relationship to a more active hate-hate mode. So until Dan Snyder sells the team, and until it has a new franchise name, I’m going to have to remain a Man Without a Team. It’s the right thing to do. Boo!

Major League Soccer (MLS):

  • I’m sorry. I don’t know the name of any of the teams, or if this league still exists. So can I claim the New York Cosmos of the original NASL or the New York Arrows of the original MISL as nostalgia, picks, since I saw them play in the late ’70s, when I actually cared, just a tiny bit, about soccer at something below the World Cup level?

College Basketball:

  • University at Albany Great Danes: I worked here and got a degree here, and watched their first NCAA Tournament appearance when they put a scare into mighty UConn back in 2006. They’re an exciting, rising program, and it was great to see them win their first NCAA tournament game this year in their fifth Big Dance, even if it was a 16 vs 16 seed play-in game.
  • Navy Midshipmen: My undergraduate alma mater. David Robinson was in my Navy company his freshman year, so it was exciting to be there for the greatest moments in Navy men’s basketball history. I regret that Navy left the Colonial Athletic Conference some years after I graduated, downsizing into the Patriot League. I think that has hurt the program in the long run, as there was a day when they had the potential to be an ongoing Mid-Major powerhouse.
  • North Carolina State Wolfpack: My grandfather, father, brother-in-law and many other friends and family members went to State, so I grew up rooting for them, though as a kid, I referred to them as “The Wolf Patch,” so
    Lorenzo Charles wins the Wolf Patch their second NCAA Championship, while I stand at attention in a hallway.

    Lorenzo Charles wins the Wolf Patch their second NCAA Championship, while I stand at attention in a hallway.

    that’s still a source of mirth for the family. I watched their first National Championship (David Thompson era) with my Dad, then listened to their second National Championship (Lorenzo Charles era) while standing at attention outside of my Naval Academy Company Wardroom, since I was a plebe at the time, and plebes were not allowed to watch television. I don’t think I saw the famous Lorenzo Charles winning shot nor Jim Valvano’s run in search of hug in their entirety until the Youtube era. Sadly, both Coach V and Lorenzo are no longer with us, but I remember them fondly.

  • Iowa State Cyclones: College sports is a very serious business out here in Iowa, and one of the defining characteristics of households hereabouts is whether they are Iowa State Cyclone or University of Iowa Hawkeye fans. I very quickly decide that I would ally myself with the Cyclones. They are closer geographically, for starters, and our next door neighbors who are avid sports buffs are both alums. I also don’t like the Big Ten (the Hawkeyes’ home conference), since I hold them and their greed responsible for a host of ills in college athletics, so that pushed me toward the Cyclones, too. Finally, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffrey used to coach at Siena, and they’re a rival to UAlbany, so that was the clincher. We watched a ton of Cyclone games this year, and they had a great run to the Sweet Sixteen. They’re the one Iowa team that’s captured my heart so far,

College Football:

  • Navy Midshipmen: No question about my number one football loyalty here. The Army-Navy Game is America’s
    navynd

    You can’t spell “Notre Dame” without a “NO.”

    best annual sporting event, and one of my greatest sports memories of all was watching Navy beat Notre Dame in triple overtime to end a drought that went back to Roger Staubach’s playing days. Outside of the Army-Navy game, I always root for the Black Knights, since they share so many traditions, experiences and commitments with the Midshipmen. But I always, always, always root against Notre Dame, in every sport, all the time, world without end, amen.

  • North Carolina State Wolfpack: Again, as noted above, I grew up rooting for the Wolf Patch with my Dad. He died in fall of 2002 after an auto accident; one of the last things he did, and the last lucid conversation we had, was about his beloved ‘Pack beating Navy soundly in football, preserving what was then an unblemished record. I didn’t mind my Midshipmen getting whacked since it made him so happy. And I still root for the Wolf Patch in his honor.

College Hockey:

  • Union College Skating Dutchmen: We moved to the Albany area in 1993, and I worked in downtown Schenectady, which wasn’t really a very nice place to be at that time. For lunch, when the weather was nice, I would get some bread and cheese from little Italian bakery called Perrecca’s and take it over the nearby Union College campus, which was an oasis of shade and green in an otherwise bombed out urban cityscape. (Things have changed for the better for Schenectady since then, I am happy to note). That was the end of Union’s second season as a Division I hockey program (they are D-III for all other sports), and I started following the then-hapless Dutchmen at the time, and have done so zealously since. I had to suppress this enthusiasm a little bit during the five years that I worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since RPI and Union are fierce rivals within the ECAC Hockey League, but the passion remained, nonetheless. As I type this, the Dutchmen are ranked Number One in the USCHO College Hockey Poll, and are preparing for their second trip to the Frozen Four. It’s great to see such a tiny engineering college holding its own against huge schools like Minnesota, Boston College and the like. I’ll be watching eagerly April 11 and 12 to see if the Dutchmen can bring a national championship back to Schenectady. I think they can do it.

And in closing . . . . a reminder as the NHL season winds down:

Capitals+Hockey

 

Five by Five Books #2: “Skin” by Kathe Koja (1993)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Protagonist Tess Bajac is a talented metal sculptor who enters into a creative partnership with dancer Bibi Bloss and her posse of night (club) creatures. Their performing arts troupe — dubbed Surgeons of the Demolition — incorporates ever-increasing acts of ritual violence into their work, with Tess and Bibi’s collaboration resulting in a move toward powerful bio-mechanical syntheses. As their work grows stronger and finds its audience, Bibi engages in increasingly obsessive efforts to mortify her flesh through extreme body modification. Tess is torn by these developments: she knows that her work is achieving transcendence through her collaboration with the Surgeons, but she struggles to accept responsibility for — or to even want to be knowledgeable of — what Bibi slowly becomes. Skin is ostensibly a horror novel, but its grounding in a gritty, believable, industrial urban artscape lends it a resonance that few Gothic, fantastic, period, or supernatural horror novels achieve.

Who wrote it? Kathe Koja published five challenging speculative fiction/horror novels between 1991 and 1996, with Skin sitting smack in the middle of her initial print run explosion. Her first novel, The Cipher, won the Bram Stoker Award and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, ably demonstrating how well many of her works straddle traditional genre definitions. After publishing a short story collection called Extremities in 1997, Koja embarked upon a successful career as the author of young adult fiction through most of the early 2000s. She returned to intense and evocative adult fare with 2010′s Under the Poppy and its recent sequel, Mercury Waltz. Koja is an ensemble member of Nerve, a contemporary creative troupe that has brought her written work to stage in florid, interactive, theatrical environments.

When and where did I read it? Late 1990s, when we still lived in our townhouse on Harvard Drive in Watervliet, New York. I discovered Kathe Koja on a Saturday morning back when Katelin and I would make a father-daughter visit to the William K. Sanford Town Library in Colonie most weeks, so she could hang out in the kids’ section and load up on an assortment of reading material for the week, while I scavenged the grown-up shelves for my own edification. On this particular Saturday, something had recently reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat, which I had read in early high school days, so I went to grab and re-acquaint myself with that title again. Koja’s The Cipher was nearby on the shelf and caught my eye, so I grabbed it, checked it our, read it, and loved it. I then moved on through the rest of her early works from there, with Skin being the one that has retained the most resonance for me over the years.

Why do I like it? Kathe Koja does an absolutely extraordinary job of accurately portraying the shifting inter-personal dynamics associated with creative collaborations in evolving, amorphous or open group settings. I’ve read some reviews that criticized the “minutiae” of these interactions, but they feel very real, and they give the work much of its emotional depth and structural heft for me; this, of course, may be a function of my own experiences with such creative collaborative communities, but it works. As a long-time devotee of hard industrial culture of the Survival Research Laboratories and RE/SEARCH Publications varieties, (not to mention a fan of the garish Tetsuo: Iron Man), I was also deeply impressed at the care Koja took in exploring the motivations, manifestations, and ramifications of the creative bio-mechanical desires of Skin‘s protagonists. The story moves quickly, and characters flit in and out of the narrative (as happens in real life), and while you know early on that the whole thing is likely to end awfully, there’s a certain grandeur to watching the story arc play out to its inevitable conclusion. At bottom line, Skin is a wonderful oddball in my list of favorite novels, very different from what I normally read, and I applaud Kathe Koja for creating a powerful work that easily transcends genre stereotypes or expectations.

A five sentence sample text: “She remembered her real school, welding school: truck bodies and they had let her watch, they thought she was cute or something, had not driven her away. Hot, always, and the big ventilators going on and on and on, the endless revolution of blades big as bodies, rod and arc and the fountaining shine like stars ground to pieces, the endless eclipse one must not watch. Fascinated, silent, in roll-down pants and her hair skinned back, baseball cap and wanting to make the fire, make the metal run; she had never gotten over it, the idea of liquid metal. She remembered the smell of scorched clothing, heavy coveralls burned straight through, everything seen through the underwater gloss of welder’s goggle, the helmets most exotic; round-head spacemen with flat square eyes, the world’s most faceless mask. She had seen men — it was all men, only men — hurt, burned, once she saw a man drop the fluxless tail end of his welding rod into his low-cut shoe: hideous and funny his screaming dance; he had danced her into taped-up pant-legs as an article of faith.”

CLICK THE COVER BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY:

skin

PRIOR FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

McPhersonville’s Moment in the Sun

On March 22, 2014, Wikipedia (the world’s sixth most trafficked website) featured “Burning of McPhersonville” as its “Picture of the Day,” prominently displayed on its front page. I’ve posted a screen capture below (click the image to see a larger, linked version):

burnmcpherThis was a jaw-dropping surprise for me to see, since McPhersonville is the teeny, tiny, remote, no longer incorporated Low Country South Carolina hamlet (we always call it “The Village”) where my ancestors have lived for generations and generations. (I am eleventh in line of descent from the first permanent English settler in South Carolina). One of the mentioned houses left standing during the burning of McPhersonville was, in fact, my family’s home at the time.

McPhersonville is so seemingly insignificant in the grand narrative of South Carolina that I actually had to be the one to create its Wikipedia page, on April 13, 2006. The only image I included in that original page was the William Waud sketch of the burning shown at left above, which all these years on has risen in stature to being named a Wikipedia Picture of the Day. Huh!

If you follow me at the Indie Moines Facebook Group (and you should, if you don’t), then you’ve actually been looking at McPhersonville regularly for quite some time, since I use the following topo map as my cover image:

mcphtopo

I particularly love this map (found online), because right next to “downtown” McPhersonville, someone has hand annotated a surveying benchmark with the legend “Cocock.” Presumably, this is a misspelling of “Colcock,” the name of my mother’s mother’s family who owned this land all the way back to pre-Revolutionary days.

Cool and cool again!

Part II: And Why Iowans Should Be Rooting for UAlbany on Sunday Too

Thank you, Iowan friends, for warmly embracing UAlbany’s cause yesterday, as we happily watched the Great Dane Men’s Basketball Team take down Mount Saint Mary’s and earn a spot against overall #1 seed, Florida, in Orlando on Thursday night.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the UAlbany Men gave #1 Connecticut fits in 2006, so I’m optimistic that they’ll also put on a strong and credible performance tomorrow night. The 2006 Team’s motto was “Why Not Us?” I think that’s just as germane for this season: some day, some #16 seed is going to knock off some #1 seed, and until the final buzzer Thursday night, UAlbany is still alive on the list of team’s that have a chance to do it.

So I hope you’ll continue to watch and to pull for this scrappiest of underdogs, given all of those strong Iowa connections I mentioned yesterday. UA! You Know! Go Danes!

But, dearest Iowan friends, your work on behalf of the Great Danes is not yet done, because the UAlbany Women’s Basketball Team will be playing the Big 12′s West Virginia on Sunday on a neutral court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a #2 vs #15 match up. While the Men’s presence in the Big Dance this year was something of a surprise, since they finished the regular season in fourth place in the America East Conference, the Great Dane Women have been Bracketology locks pretty much all season. This is their third straight visit to the NCAA Championships, and they go in this year with a 28-5 (15-1 Conference) record, and a #4 ranking in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25.

I gave you a bunch of reasons to root for the Men yesterday, and they all apply to the Women too. But there are even deeper connections between Iowa and the UAlbany women, designed to appeal to both Cyclones and Hawkeyes alike. Continuing our numbering from yesterday’s column, consider this:

7. Head Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was a Parade Magazine and USA Today High School All American.

8. She played for legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer at the University of Iowa, making two NCAA Tournament appearances (including and Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen finish) with the Hawkeyes.

9. From 1994-2000, Coach Abe (as she’s know about UAlbany) was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Bill Fennelly’s Iowa State Cyclones. During her time on staff, the Cyclone Women earned a Big 12 Championship and four NCAA Tournament appearance, also earning and Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen finish, as she did as a player.

10. From 2002-2007, Abrahamson-Henderson was head coach at Missouri State University of the Missouri Valley Conference — no strangers in these parts, as they played home and home series with Drake regularly — earning three conference championships during her tenure.

11. Coach Abe’s husband, Michael Henderson, played with the Harlem Globetrotters. That doesn’t have anything to do with Iowa, mind you, but it’s just way cool.

While UAlbany doesn’t feature any Iowa-bred players on the current Women’s roster, their team is exciting to watch, and represents the true globalization of modern college sports, with players from Nigeria, the British Virgin Islands, Canada, Jamaica and New Zealand on the roster. They took the formidable University of North Carolina women to the wire in last year’s Big Dance, and I guarantee you they will not be intimidated by the West Virginia.

Yesterday, the Great Dane Men beat the Mountaineers of Mount Saint Mary’s. On Sunday, I want to see the Great Dane Women beat the Mountaineers of West Virginia. Doesn’t that just have fate, or kismet, or whatever, written all over it? I think it does.

So rifle your closets, Iowans, and pull out whatever purple and gold you can find, and join me Sunday in celebrating the UAlbany Women as they make us all proud.

Once again: UA! You Know! Go Danes!

Watch out, West Virginia. The are Great Danes in the house . . .

Watch out, West Virginia. The are Great Danes in the house . . .

Why Iowans Should Be Rooting for UAlbany Tonight

Following a late-season stumble, the University of Iowa men’s basketball team will be participating in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio tomorrow night against the University of Tennessee. The Hawkeyes’ travails (especially when contrasted with the ascendency of the Big 12 Conference Champion Iowa State Cyclones) have a lot of folks grumbling and out of sorts around here. And it could get worse, as it’s no gimme that the Hawkeyes are going to be able to beat Tennessee, who hung tough against overall #1 seed Florida last week in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

So to mitigate a potential week of disappointment and wounded pride, I’d like to invite all of my Iowa neighbors, of both Cyclone and Hawkeye persuasions, to adopt the University of Albany Great Danes tonight — as they are also in Dayton with the Hawkeyes, playing for a berth in the final field of 64.

Yeah, I’m partisan, sure. I got my masters’ degree from UAlbany’s Rockefeller College, and I later worked there as Executive Director of University Auxiliary Services at Albany, responsible for quality of living services (e.g. dining, book store, laundry, banking, vending, etc.) for the 20,000+ person campus community.

UAlbany earned its spot in the play-in game by winning the America East Conference Championship for the second year in a row as a #4 seed, beating Vermont and Stony Brook (who swapped places as the #1 and #2 seeds) both years to get there. They are facing the Mount Saint Mary Mountaineers, champions of the Northeast Conference — in which UAlbany was once a perennial powerhouse in football, before jumping to the Colonial Athletic Association.

So why should you, my fellow Iowans, root for the Great Danes of UAlbany? Because they have some seriously strong credentials that you’ll appreciate, as follows:

1. When the UAlbany men made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2006, they took #1 overall seed Connecticut down to the wire as a #16 seed, leading by 11 points halfway through the second half. They also hung in there with Duke last year as a #15 seed, so they will at least make it exciting when they play #1 overall seed Florida later this week.

2. The Great Danes’ star players in 2006 and in the following year (when they returned to the NCAA Tournament) were Brian Lillis — who grew up in Urbandale and went to Dowling Catholic — and Brent Wilson, who is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

3. Their current starting center, senior John Puk, is from Waterloo, Iowa. Freshman Dallas Ennema is from Sheldon, Iowa, and looks to be a star in the making in years ahead.

4. They came to Des Moines two nights before last Christmas to play (and lose to) Drake at the Knapp Center. And, really, you know that was no treat for them, right? We owe ‘em a solid for that trip, for sure. John Puk had a great Waterloo contingent rooting for him behind the UAlbany bench, which was cool to experience.

There’s also two bonus reasons for the Cyclone fans out there to root for UAlbany:

5. Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffrey’s prior job was at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, a northern suburb of Albany. Siena and UAlbany are fierce rivals in their local market accordingly, so rooting against Fran comes naturally for UAlbany people, including me, who are likely to be receptive to Hilton Magic accordingly.

6. The UAlbany Women are also in the big dance this year, as a #15 seed going up against #2 seed West Virginia. And I don’t need to remind you what West Virginia did to the Cyclones this year, do I?

So are you with me, Iowans? If so, clear your throats and repeat after me . . . . UA! You Know! Go Danes!

UAlbany Great Danes. John Puk (#44) of Waterloo, Iowa at center of frame.

UAlbany Great Danes. Senior John Puk (#44) of Waterloo, Iowa at top center of frame.

Five by Five Books #1: “Engine Summer” by John Crowley (1979)

(Note: This is one of an occasional series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experience, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Engine Summer is a post-technological road story about a boy named Rush That Speaks, who comes of age in a maze-like, clan-based community called Little Belaire. The story features a rich, anthropologically-sound depiction of a clan-based culture built around family “cords” and the art of “truthful speaking,” which precludes the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Rush That Speaks sets out on his coming-of-age journey after his beloved, Once a Day, leaves Little Belaire to join the mysterious Dr. Boots’s List. He hopes that his journey will set him on the path to Sainthood, although his understanding of what this might entail is fragmented at best. The story of Rush That Speaks’ travels through the post-apocalyptic wilderness outside of Little Belaire is interwoven with a narrative conversation between the boy and an Angel, both seeking to better understand the other.

Who wrote it? John Crowley is a novelist, documentary screenwriter and academic, best known in popular literary circles for 1981′s epic Little, Big, for which he won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. An early version of Engine Summer called Learning to Live With It was among Crowley’s first long-form works, though Engine Summer is actually the third book in Crowley’s canon by order of publication. Engine Summer was nominated for the both the British Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1980. Literary critic Harold Bloom has been a champion of Crowley’s works for many years, citing him as one of the 20th Century’s most under-appreciated writers. Crowley is currently a member of the English Department at Yale University.

When and where did I read it? I read Engine Summer in the early 2000s, mostly in our house on Cord Avenue in Latham, New York. I had heard of neither Engine Summer nor John Crowley himself until I read about the book and author in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. I was deep into a Philip K. Dick phase at that point, so I  went for a lot of the more “Phildickian” books (e.g. Alfred Bester, Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazy) recommended by Pringle before I decided to tackle Engine Summer. I actually picked it up somewhat by default because I finally reached a point where it was one of the few books left on the 100 Best list that the Colonie Town Library stocked and which that I hadn’t already read. The payoff for my wait, though, was immense, and I consider it one of my favorite books to this day.

Why do I like it? Crowley’s successes with language, story-telling, and the creation of a rich and believable world in Engine Summer are almost unparalleled in my experiences as a reader. The story’s pacing is slow and gentle, but that feels like a direct and intentional depiction of a world that is slow and gentle, too . . . until it is not. The conversations between Rush That Speaks and the Angel are artfully done, and it is in this narrative that the book’s climactic reveal unfolds. It was so perfect once it resolved that I literally went back and re-read the book again, and experienced it even more powerfully knowing what was coming. This gorgeous, bittersweet, and haunting book stayed with me in active thought for months after I read it, and I still find myself unexpectedly musing about Engine Summer all these years on, hence this first “Five by Five Books” report.

A five sentence sample text: “Little Belaire is built out outward from a center in the old warren where it began, built outward in interlocking rooms great and small, like a honeycomb, but not regular like a honeycomb. It goes over hills and a stream, and there are stairs and narrow places, and every room is different in size and shape and how you go in and out of it, from big rooms with pillars of log to tiny rooms all glittering with mirrors, and a thousand other kinds, old and changeless at the center and new and constantly changing father out. Path begins at the center and runs in a long spiral through the old warren and the big middle rooms and so on to the outside and out in the aspen grove near Buckle cord’s door on the Afternoon side. There is no other way through Little Belaire to the outside except Path, and no one who wasn’t born in Little Belaire, probably, could ever find his way to the center. Path looks no different from what is not Path: it’s drawn on your feet.”

CLICK THE COVER BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY:

enginesummer_1stus

Farrago

1. I am pleased to report that my Oscar Best Picture Model got the job done again this year, correctly predicting Twelve Years a Slave as Best Picture right after the Academy Award nominations were announced, with zero consideration for what other award organizations were doing, nor what the media had to say by way of predictions. The only year the model has failed was in 2013, when Argo won the big prize. But I am now confident that I wasn’t wrong that year, the Academy was. It’s the occasional anomaly that proves the long-term resilience of a model, after all.

2. I’ve been thinking of ideas for a new writing series, having recently finished another mega-review piece, this time with helpers easing the load a bit. Even with assistance from Wilson and Goat, though, that “Great Out of the Gate” project took a lot of time and energy, which is good, but hard to duplicate on a regular basis. So I’m pondering the idea of a series called “Five by Five Books,” which will provide the structure I like, but force it into manageable pieces that don’t lend themselves to the 25,000-word essays that I’m prone to create if not regulated. Here’s the concept: I will write about books I love on some periodic basis, and will cover five facets about my experience with each book, with each facet being covered in five sentences. The framing facets for each book would be:

  • What it’s about.
  • Who wrote it.
  • When and where I read it.
  • Why I like it.
  • A five sentence sample text.

That appeals to my sense of tidiness and structure. Does it have any appeal to any of you as readers, or am I better off sticking to what you know me for (long-form music stuff) than trying a new trick as a old blog dog?

3. I take convenience stores seriously, as evidenced by bullet number two in this post about things I expected to miss when I left Albany. So it’s with no small sense of import that I am now prepared to report, after two and half years in Iowa, that I have declared Casey’s as the best convenience store chain our region, giving it my official Indie Moines Seal of Approval, with various huttahs and wavings of hands. The chain’s distinctive red-roofed stores have become my desired stops whenever I drive around the state, which is often, and I will often go from town to town to town while on the road to get to the one with a Casey’s on the main drag. I’m also happy to have one about four blocks from my house, for those quick convenience emergencies, like “Oh wow, we don’t have any wine,” or “Gosh, some Twizzlers would be good right now, wouldn’t they?” While Casey’s doesn’t have the awesome ice cream selections that my much-missed Stewart’s offered in Upstate New York, they generally offer surprisingly good pizza, great donuts, good coffee, generous sandwiches, reasonably priced gas (especially if you buy the Iowa-subsidized Ethanol-fortified strain), and sizable beer and wine selections, sometime with large walk-in coolers, even. Plus, I appreciate the fact that there are no embarrassing misspellings in the name of their stores, unlike all the other convenience destinations out here, e.g. Kum n’ Go, QuikTrip, Git n’ Go and their ilk. Literacy matters to me, even when I’m just running out to get some beer and beef jerky, you know? Think of the children.

4. WordPress tells me this is the 1,000th post on this blog, which incorporates posts from prior blogs and websites going back to 1995. I am pretty sure that I have deleted at least 500 other posts from my various blogs over the years, e.g. after I finished the “Poem a Day” project in 2004, I deleted all 365 of those posts, the better to market the best poems in print outlets. That’s a lot of post. Thanks for reading and sharing in my obsessions. Weirdos.

%d bloggers like this: