I’ve actually had Angelmaker around for a while now, and had started reading it at least twice, only to set it down. It took me a few runs at it to really get into it, and I’m very glad I did. It’s strange, to be honest, because, if memory serves, I devoured Harkaway’s previous, The Gone-Away World, in one sitting, two at most.
Angelmaker is a similar book in some ways. There are themes of duality here (though not as blatant as the previous), in the use of the protagonist’s double name, Joshua Joseph Spork. It’s interesting how, in scenes of the character early in the book, it’s always Joe or Joseph, but in flashing back, the dual name is used, or even the shortened Josh. The chosen name acts as a marker for the aspect of Spork which developed. As the book progresses, we see more of the Joshua that could have been, until Spork becomes his own balanced combination of the two, his Crazy Joe persona.
There’s also a sense of constructivism at work, an unease with the machined and the mass-produced. Very much what Marx was railing against in noting the theft of the soul of the worker, the distancing of the hands and the heart from the end product. It rings especially loudly in that England was the place Marx most felt the dehumanization of mass production and most felt his Communism could take root.
That same dehumanization is taken literally in the path of the Ruskinites, whose adherence to the hand and the soul in their work is evidenced early on, yet is perverted in their search for meaning and existence in a mechanized world. They turn into that which they railed against, mass-produced, mechanized simulacra of their creator.
There is a sense that there are references I miss, as one who is Angliphilic, but who is not a full fledged Anglophile, let alone an Angle. I’m sure there are jokes and jabs and plays on words one would get were they immersed in English culture, but I never found myself at a stunning loss.
Finally, Angelmaker is a prime example of one of my favorite types of stories, those about fathers and sons. I find a depth to stories about the expectations of and for children and the ways these expectations emerge, both overtly and covertly.
Harkaway has a way with words that seeps into you, alters your thought patterns. A highly recommended experience.
(As I read through my book list, I’m going to pay special attention to new words I’m learning. Harkaway has some choice ones I particularly enjoyed. Partially because they’re chiefly used in British English, but also because they, in the manner of Twain, are the right words.)
lissom - adjective
(of a person or their body) thin, supple, and graceful.
barbican - noun
the outer defense of a castle or walled city, especially a double tower above a gate or drawbridge.
houri - noun
a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise.
actinic - adjective [ attrib. ]
(of light or lighting) able to cause photochemical reactions, as in photography, through having a significant short wavelength or ultraviolet component.
amanuensis - noun (pl. amanuenses |-ˌsēz| )
a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.
seraglio - noun (pl. seraglios) historical
the women's apartments (harem) in an Ottoman palace.
doughty - adjective (doughtier, doughtiest) archaic, humorous
brave and persistent
In Greek mythology the Graeae, also called the Grey Sisters, were three sisters in Greek mythology who shared one eye and one tooth among them. Their names were Deino, Enyo, and Pemphredo.
Tricoteuses - noun (pl. same)
a woman who sits and knits (used especially in reference to a number of women who did this, during the French Revolution, while attending public executions).
And finally, some favorite passages, among so damned many:
“There’s a pause while the chairman considers the possibility that he may have revealed rather more of himself than he had intended.”
“He thinks everything that happens anywhere on Earth is in some way his fault,” she replies. “My brother says it’s some sort of inverted egotism.”
“This is a wicked world. There are islands of joy, but they are small and the tide is rising, and even on dry land there are those who would embrace the tide.”
“His grandfather was scathing about ‘speculative faith’, which is the kind you get from worrying about the possibility that God exists and may be cross with you. Daniel Spork observed that God, if there is one, is well aware of the interior dialogue, and most likely unimpressed by it. Much better, he said, to get on with being the man you are, and hope like buggery that God thinks you did as well as could be expected.”
(Disclosure: I originally wrote this for a website that didn't publish it. Oh well.)
A sputtering madman come too close to truth for comfort's sake, a sibilance, snake-like, winding through tall grasses of the mind, filled with visions in blinks and blasts, scenes that simmer and smolder and staunch away the blasé. Words that are caught within you, language in movement that molds the mover, reiterates the brain. These rhythms not only alter your patterns of thought, they re-lay the foundations. These are the ways of Jason Stumpf.
A slim volume, but not a thin one, his A Cloud of Witnesses is a taste upon the tongue, a dance of dialogue, words wrapping like ribbons around the little fingers of your brain. There is a music in them, these poems, a symphony told in blasts of scat beats, like thick little windows with differing views of a glorious whole. Take, for instance, this piece of “An Evening’s Entertainment,”: “The brute pianist broadcast the timbre of a piece not only by his digits on the tusks but in the way his nether-lip hung with each dissonance, quivered with each clever cadence to the one.”
These visions take the form of prose poems, mostly tight paragraphs, half a page at a throw. Not that they conform, however, to any paragraphic limitations, any inhibitions or predilections toward the expected. Dialogue, italicized, flitters through some of the works, a commentary either from or within the speaker or speakers referenced therein. Others, like “Line Upon Line” and “A Summary of the Missing Chapter,” read like lists. “How To Paint in Oil Colors” is told as a telegraph, stopped and started and stopped, like expressed breaths, shouts of insight from an unseen afar. And though they are poems, they are also stories, told tightly, in rhythmic breaths. “Dinner-Time,” for example, is short on words but long on implications: “Then, seemingly without alarm, in pantomime, and nearly in unison, each gentleman stretched his arms in an exaggerated yawn before excusing himself from the table, each one, to ensure the security of his secret.”
The use of language in A Cloud of Witnesses is masterful, meaningful, with the right words at the right time to pluck the right chords of the mind. Though the poems can feel disjointed, that disarray is played as a melody, rather than a cacophony, a swelling of symbol and metaphor. The lines have meaning in themselves and in layers and as pieces of a poem that plays its own part of a larger whole. There are sagas told in similes, lines thick with meaning implied and inferred.
There are references here, to the heavy hitters, the Joyces and Hardys and Tennysons and Nerudas, but also to films and paintings, and to that bounty of inference, the Holy Bible, from which the collection’s title is drawn and many of the poems’ images draw their inspirations. From “MCMXLIII,”: “From Adam to the epistles, male to mail, he read, and in dreams that year saw a flotilla of begats sailing near.” Stumpf is not afraid to cite his sources, to point to his points of inspiration, but the magic he makes from their collective spells is all his own.
In his “Epilogue,” the speaker makes a final request: “Things happen slow, you know, in plots so plan to stay a time and too, Dear Reader, burn this book when you are through, or else bury it. Idle things, they say, are the Devil’s.” Though I cannot condone this advice, I will request that if you should dispense with this volume after having consumed of it, that you lay its lines across your mind before you let it slip away. It won’t be hard to let them linger; they’ll find their own way in.
(Full Disclosure: I am a graduate of the University of South Florida's English: Creative Writing undergraduate program and Katherine Riegel was one of my professors, from whom I have taken one course (Intro to Poetry) and from whom I would have taken many more, had the slots not filled up like lines for registers on Black Friday. I like her, she's a nice person. I also took classes from her husband, Ira Sukrungruang, who is also a nice person, and one hell of a disc golfer. Know, however, that as much as I like someone, I am not afraid to savage the things that they do or make. Not that I plan to do so, as I was enthralled and enraptured by this work, but you know, honesty and all. That said, let us begin.)
It's a poetry collection, but it isn't. These pages drip with honeyed truth, with lines that ache in reflection and refraction, with memory through thick stained glass. There is more than creation here, more than whim, more than words made wonderful through selection and style. There is truth here. I can't just call it poetry. It is, to co-opt a term, poetic non-fiction.
From the earliest memories of failure in "Art" to the ones that have yet to be remembered in "After Both My Parents Are Dead," the poems of Castaway go beyond the dichotomy of truth and beauty to turn a life lived into a scattering of polished gems. They bear their cracks and weatherings, they resemble the pressures under which they were formed, but they come out shining and beautiful. There are rhythms here that one hears only in the afterglow, in the reflection of memory upon which one gazes in the quiet moments, after the dust has all settled. These poems kick up the dust, throw open the windows, spread a new light across old memories.
Here we are, in the heart of football season, as the last of the gold and ochre leaves turn and fall and are covered with the first wisps of snow. In high schools across the country, champions are being crowned, and at the collegiate and national level, the final, crucial games of the year loom large. Football is not the national pastime, but it is the national obsession. Here we have a book for the obsessed.
Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, in twenty-two article-style chapters, outlines the evolution of football from the birth of the single-wing under Pop Warner to the edge of innovation, the A-11, through interviews and overviews with the men who revolutionized the game. From Vince Lombardi to Don Coryell, from Buddy Ryan to Dick LeBeau, and with dozens of stops between and beyond, Layden dives into twenty-two of the revolutionary offensive and defensive systems which revolutionized the way football is played for one team and forced change in all the others.
The book is not for the novice, the absolute casual fan, through Layden's writing is incredibly approachable and inviting. One should come to it knowing the difference between the 4-3 and the 3-4, should have at least a passing knowledge of the passing game. It is also not a manual, not a step-by-step breakdown of how to run the Veer or the Triple Option.
What this book is, and what makes it so great, is a sort of genealogy, a history of the offenses and defenses you watch your teams execute every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Layden visits the coaches, watches the game film, has the diagrams drawn by the men who first drew them. He goes to the source, the originators of these systems, even finding, most times, that the sources are obscure, are a panoply of innovation through desperation and an incredible amount of co-option and cooperation, more than one would even imagine for a game that can be so cutthroat, so violent and unforgiving in action. Layden opens his book with a quotation, by famed Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, that introduces the ethos that is so peculiar and so prominent throughout his many interviews:
"Aww, hell, that's the great thing about football coaches. They'll kick your ass on Saturday afternoon and then they'll tell you how they did it."
Coaching is a fraternity, as Layden discovers, and most coaches are quick to acknowledge that their innovations are mostly polished mirrors of what some other grizzled coach had come up with when he knew his boys were outmatched. Whether it is the vogue of the Wildcat and its Single Wing roots or the dozens of flavors of Air Coryell, coaches are quick to use anything they can to gain an edge, and quicker still to pass that knowledge along to the next guy who needs a leg up on a stiffer opponent.
If you are intrigued by the Xs and Os of the game, are fascinated by the magic in motion and the cerebral aspect of the game, you cannot go wrong with this book. It is insightful, inspired, and at times downright hilarious, for the legends Layden looks to are still only men, with turf under their toes and hints of smiles in their eyes. Their passion bleeds through to the lessons they impart and the young men they feel blessed to tutor. Pick it up and give it a read. You'll never look at the game the same way again.
Well, see, there are a bunch of reasons. For one, because it is, in fact, a science fictional story and because it is, it is also a story about who we are as seen through another lens. Science fiction, or at least all good science fiction anyway, is an askew view of the normal, a way of looking into things by looking at what they are, are not, could be, could not be but are hoped to be, wanted to be, or even desperately hoped never to be, even as they seem more and more to be that way, at least a little further down the line. They are an extrapolation that points not forwards and not really backwards but at the now and what the now portends.
For another, because it is a time travel story, and to do a time travel story well, as this story most definitely was, one must take some serious forethought into it. Charles Yu has done his homework and shows us that he has without showing us that he did. I know, I know, it's all a bit roundabout, but it doesn't make it untrue. The best sorts of speculative stories adhere to Hemingway's Iceberg Theory. Yu's just happens to be one whopper of an iceberg. A bow breaker of an idea.
For a third, because in the bends and loops and twists that Charles pulls us through, he arrives at these truths that are so true that we know them to be so, know them to be so obvious that we nod along with them, both in acceptance and also in a little inward sort of anger, anger at ourselves for not having thought them before, or thought them so simply or so eloquently as he has. For instance:
"Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years."
See what I mean?
But why, beyond all that, did I love this book? Because it is the kind of story I love the most, a story about fathers and sons. My own impetus toward writing has a great deal to do with, and a great stemming outward from, the conception of the father figure and the role that plays in the construction of the son. What motivates the father also tends to motivate his son, in such a way that we want so badly to be what we know to be good in our lives: what our fathers are, or to be what we know to not be good in our lives: what our fathers were. This struggle between two sorts of ideals, two conceptions of who we are as blurred copies of what we came from, drives young men to greatness and ruin, and has for ages and ages. Stories of fathers are stories of triumph writ large upon the tableau of their sons, and the interaction between the two, especially here, most definitely here, echo the same forces that all young men come to deal with at some point in their lives, whether they prefer to or not. We are our father's sons, either in reflection or in opposition, but that voice drives us in ways we have trouble understanding or accepting. This story was a great example of such.
Pick it up. I highly recommend it.