The Sea Spicer

The Sea Spicer
Yours truly

Friday, February 9, 2024

An Optimist at the End of the World

American Southwest desert, brick cave under rock
Desert Southwest

Survival Hints from Three Novels

Deadlands: A Novel; 
The Flock: A Thriller; 
The Dark Wind: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

I’m an optimist. 

Some of my friends say they hate optimists. Fools, we are. Some of these friends are hunkered down in bunkers out West.

I have never been West. I have often been moved to write about books I love set in the American West.

The West is both the beginning and the end of the world.

Going west, sailing the seas, going to outer space are all actions of optimists, no? (I love sailors and astronauts, too.) Not that these things aren’t capable of quite a bit of wreckage along the way.

Do you read dystopian literature, apocalyptic novels? I always liked science fiction, and I suppose speculation on the future has always been filled with warning and dread. I  gravitate toward optimistic takes on the seeds of promise in the future, in the hope that something of the good in people survives. 

Remember Ray Bradbury’s story, where the family gets their glimpse of the first Martians, on seeing their own reflection. 

My heart rose at the resurgence of technology in Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, when after the darkness, they finally see a street row of electric lights in the distance. (Not everyone reads it the same way. I know readers who experienced that implication of the presence of other humans with technology as menace.)

Is it just a matter of inclination, to find hope in a work and feel uplifted? I assume it is the author’s intent, or maybe the writer has to find the right reader? 

As it happened, by pure circumstance, I had read two or three end-of -the-world, wasteland novels in a row. Or were my choices guided by Spirit?

Do you judge best books by their life-changing effect? Something stays with you which comes to mind again and again through your future outlook? I do. A book can be just entertaining of course, I love books which entertain, but I just don’t continue reading any which don’t entertain me. 

My favorite of this particular trio is Deadlands: A Novel, by Victoria Miluch.

[May contain spoilers?]

I experienced some dread in the course of reading this book, but the story had me anxiously anticipating bedtime so I could keep reading. I was spellbound. 

A girl and her brother are living with their father in an abandoned compound in the desert Southwest. Or perhaps they had built the compound as part of a community themselves, and something happened.

“The fruits of our labor you can enjoy by living here. Can I not call that a claim? Surely it’s more legitimately defensible than the right of conquest or the principle of first possession.”

I wonder, is it just land that's claimed, conquered or possessed, or did he mean people are subject to claims?

The father is clearly the head of their current little group and the family is living off the land and their own agricultural and engineering ingenuity. They are homesteaders and gatherers and have learned all the admirable kitchen basics from scratch, self sufficiency and thrift.  

[Did you have home economics back in the day, with an older lady teacher, who taught us economy in the kitchen, managing scraps and spills of ingredients? Now I find the time left of my life is more valuable than the avoidance of making waste...sometimes. Selfishly. Guiltily.]

Her father has taught them that survival demands “control, restraint, sacrifice.”  Sometimes he refers to a “contamination” which took the others. 

The girl has no experience of a life among civilization, but she does collect fossils in the desert, and artifacts from human culture, and wonders about them, much like Ariel the mermaid under the sea.

Then a man and a woman arrive at the compound and are sheltered with the family. The couple seems mysterious in their relationship: are they really husband and wife? It is hard to assess whether they are each other’s allies or enemies, and to guess at what history they share, probably not unlike many couples in real life, to an outsider’s view. 

My trepidation arose from the stranger’s attraction to the girl, or her attraction to him, and the sexual initiation I anticipated. Her complex adolescent feelings and actions in the situation with the man and his wife are handled really well though and seem true enough.

It’s a hot, dry, sweaty world in Deadlands, lonely and claustrophobic, with characters confined too close with a few people by chance, not choice. 

However! My wild, irrational optimism is finally sated, when the family encounters an old rebel friend of her father’s who has seen the Domes where pockets of people still live in cities.

"So the world really is falling apart out there?' I ask.

“Pretty much. But I don’t think it’s the end.

“When you’re knee deep in problems, like we are, when hundreds of acres are becoming new deadlands daily, maybe you can’t imagine a way to fix your problems without an intermediate solution to keep you going. Otherwise, it’s too easy to give up and think there’s no point. And my thinking these days is, there is a point. It’s been like this before, you know? Not in this particular way, but in ways that also meant the end of civilization as people knew it."

With her exposure to other possibilities, the girl comes to think of her father and brother as fossils, whereas she herself: “Who knows what I’ll morph into next. It’s strange to me that I think of this with curiosity, not dread.”

When the girl visits a convenience store for the first time, with iffy solar generated electricity, in smoggy Phoenix, she finds an array of junk food in disposable packaging, all alien to her.

She doesn't despise such things, she is just curious. In the settlement, she would have preserved the peculiar pop bottle as a relic. “Here, it’s one of dozens in the convenience store, only too common to be special. …The bottle of liquid a potion: marking me as either free or forsaken."

What I rejoice over, and carry with me from Deadlands, is this:

“It’s a heady experience, even here, in this day and age. Half the shelves empty, the bottom-of the barrel dregs nobody else wants, and we still have all that choice.”

I was less keen on this darker novel, The Flock: A Thriller, by J. Todd Scott, but it kept me reading.

This one’s a murder mystery set against the background of a doomsday cult which considers itself an Ark against the End of the World. Once isolated and inbred, cult association is now widespread but disguised in the community, involving certain law enforcement officials and unexpected other people you'd trust. The first chapter title promises "This is How the World Ends." And that “[f]ear breeds faith. And faith makes all things possible," a dark foreshadowing of horrors to be revealed.

People raised in the cult family look for signs of the end. Raining birds. Fires. “The entire Southwest is on fire again, flames more than three hundred feet high, higher than our blue spruces will ever grow, although that doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing does…”

A young woman, marked as uniquely blessed, had escaped. She now remonstrates with her sister, raised alongside her in the cult but who persists. "You have no idea what you’ve unleashed, how hard it will be to control.”

It is noted that the messenger isn't worthy, but only the message matters.

I am not a huge reader of murder mysteries. This FBI thriller is darker than my preference, and resolves with survivor grief, (probably more realistically than a cozy murder resolution though, right.)

After the trauma, the only hope left is this: if you go off the grid to live, you won’t even know when the world is ending. And for the moment the birds can be just birds, and not harbingers. 

"Signs" are debated in another desert novel, The Dark Wind:A Leaphorn and Chee Novel, by Tony Hillerman.

I read this novel because I’d seen one episode of the TV series and the desert landscape was so emphatic. And blessedly the desert figured just as beautifully astonishing in the book.

My most interesting experience of this novel is how the different values of two peoples are contrasted without judgment on either. 

This passage of desert beauty introduces the distinct cultures in their interpretation of signs:

"The cloud loomed in the southwest. The sun on the horizon lit the underface of its great anvil top a glittering white, but at its lower level its color varied. A thousand gradations of gray from almost white to almost black, and–from the dying sun–shades of rose and pink and red. To Cowboy Dashee’s people such a cloud would have sacred symbolism. To Chee’s people, it was simply beautiful, and thus valuable just for itself." [Emphasis added.]

But with his cultural education as a tracker, Chee does look for signs, a gift in solving murders. He puzzles over connections between the marks of incidents:

“Nothing in his Navajo conditioning prepared him to accept happily the fact that coincidences sometimes happen.”

Chee is a hunter, and approaches the work of catching a criminal with ceremony:

"From their very beginnings, the Navajos had been a society of hunters. Like all hunting cultures, they approached the bloody, dangerous and psychologically wounding business of killing one’s fellow beings with elaborate care. Everything was done to minimize damage."

This murder mystery kept me reading. The mystery, and tracking of the criminal; the unique perspectives; the exotic (for me) desert landscape, as a natural and beautiful creation and not just a wasteland of human error and grief–[notwithstanding the horrors of historic relations between whites and the tribes]–all gripped me. Most of all, I felt at home with the innocence, or purity perhaps, of the detectives. Their moral discomfort with or acceptance of conduct aligns with their ceremonies seeking spiritual identification with animals.

I'll leave you with this telling observation:

"And now her brother, too, was revenged. At least Chee thought he was. It wasn’t a value taught, or recognized in the Navajo system and Chee wasn’t sure he understood how it was supposed to work."

I embrace these messages from the three novels, as tools I can use now:

  • Joy in all the good things we have, and in freedom and choice. [I remember a former POW saying that if there's a doorknob on the inside of your door, you have everything.]
  • Life in the moment.
  • Tolerance. We might not understand someone's thinking because they are steeped in a different culture.

I wish you a happy future. What books bring you hope?

Saturday, March 25, 2023

My Nightly View Addiction: Outer Banks

I love Outer Banks. The streaming series. It’s even better, for me, than Stranger Things. Same warming nostalgia for youth as in Stranger, but the kids are teens in Outer Banks, and out of that awkward phase.

I mean they’re gorgeous. Beautiful people in beautiful places. It’s always sunny and it’s always summer there, like your teen memories. It’s rarely dark, except when the sun sets and there’s a bonfire and twinkling fairy lights. 

The girls aren’t chicken-legged in the manner of all other screen entertainment. Is it the shorts?  They are long-legged in cheeky cutoffs, but with those lush fat-over-muscle cheerleader legs, in the whitest kicks or the grungiest Chuck Taylors. The boys get broader-shouldered each season and have heartbreaking jawlines. 

The young people get convincingly crispier tans and beach hair after long weeks of boats and desert island strandings, under layers of string bracelets and puka necklaces for all. They get around mostly by bicycle and the “Twinkie”, a beat van. The older men are grizzled and the older women have bleached-to-straw hair. The midlife traders, fronting illicit transactions with fishing, are suitably large, hairy and hatted.

The sound track is largely of my youth, the background for outdoor parties and drives to the beach, and kissing.

I watch the whole episode every time with a doting smile on my face, not drooling– a grandma admiring the young, remembering being a girl watching sweet boys and dangerous boys. But they were all just boys.

And like Stranger Things, the very few limited fumblings with sex are gratefully off screen. This one's about remembering the tickle, the butterflies, the flush of desire, the look of love, instead of the leer. (I can’t answer for any leering in the viewing audience.) 

I even identify with the youngsters’ testing, working their way through the group, trying on different couplings, when it’s all new meeting ground, and no one rushes to speak the commitment words.

We witness hesitant flirtation and pure Romeo and Juliet infatuation and attachment. And also anger and jealousy, in the sly pain of girls and the occasional violent explosions of male competition. Yes, that testosterone thing, but the conflicts expose not only the worst but their better nature, (even of the sometimes bad guys), when the target of affection is watching.

(I am thinking of Topper’s turning the other cheek during John B’s assault, and of Rafe’s sparing his father because of a new girlfriend’s belief he’ll do the right thing. I think not a spoiler, since this kind of action goes round and round through the seasons …)

I totally forgive the treasure hunting plot, which pops up and twists and turns and adds and destroys treasures, to give all the characters the drive and urgency to keep moving. Hey, how is the Upside Down any more believable? Suspend your disbelief for good ol’ gold, curses and mortal healing of El Dorado. 

The absolute best reason to use young people in an adventure plot is that any stupid choices they make are believable because they're young. They don't have the savvy of the experienced men and women. They don't get how the world works yet. But sometimes a split-second risk taken pays off, and they start to learn something about it.

I just keep thinking what a great serial of Kindle Vella episodes each would make, every suspenseful episode cliffhanger leaves me chuckling. I don't know if Outer Banks started as a book, but I wish I’d written it.

Sunshine and summer. The darkness is inside the houses and in shadows falling over the children’s expressions, as they feel so intensely their family, friendship and love problems.  Maybe they look the other way out of respect for each other, but the whole showboat bobs and pitches on the persistent currents of their real problems.

The OBX is an arena where the wealthy, the “Kooks”, play and conduct business alongside the “Pogues”, resident dockworkers, mechanics, country club servers, fishing industry, thieves, drug smugglers, orphans, teachers and police. One relentless current is the class divide and discrimination. 

I am not at all offended by this. I don’t imagine other viewers are offended by it. They say that most Americans consider themselves middle class, regardless of how the pollsters rank them; it's only others who are rich or poor.  

I identify with the Pogues, but also with the children of the Kooks, because we knew them, worked alongside them, too.  Even though I had, and have, so many privileges, I can identify with the Pogues' financial insecurity, bitterness and self doubt about being less than, not one of, not born into.

The class tension affects the characters’ own relationships not only with each other but with their families, of course. Parents are worried about maintaining status for their children, or of acquiring status for them through education. 

Parents are the overarching conflict in Outer Banks. JJ has a life and a father like Huck Finn’s. John B’s is the idealized missing father, who may just become an albatross for his son, and subject to a reassessment. Rafe keeps trying to win his father’s love and respect, a rival to his sisters for dad’s affection, and in competition with dad to win manhood. Pope’s parents want him to work his way up out of Poguelandia. Kiara’s parents wonder if enforced discipline, imprisonment, would keep her safe from falling from her place in the moneyed culture.

All the while, everyone in both camps will excuse the kids if their alleged reason for running off is to catch a wave. 

I never leave the show feeling stressed, at all, I’ve just been basking in the warmth of their sun.

I don’t know if my grown children enjoy the series the way I do. Perhaps they are not far enough removed from the struggle to smile. Maybe they enjoyed less freedom at that age than I, maybe more. 

I’ve never been to the Outer Banks. I’m a Jersey shore girl (a handful of times) and our other settings might have been a pool, tennis courts, a jalopy, a park, yard or patio. I slept in the sun after intense play, and leaned near at night to the warmed skin of friends. 

But I’ve been there.

#OuterBanks #RomeoAndJuliet #HuckFinn #OBX #StrangerThings #JerseyShore #the70s #theSeaSpicer

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Turning from Carnival to Lent, The Witching Hour, and the Washing Up


My final four Christmas amaryllis blooms, on Mardi Gras, foreshadowing Easter lilies....

[Some readers may find traumatic the references to abortion, incest and rape in the discussion of the Anne Rice book The Witching Hour, The Game of Thrones and other literature referenced.]

Anne Rice is a Witch

I totally accidentally happened to read Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour during Carnival season, fortuitously finishing before Lent. 

At least originally I’d thought it was accidental. I’d read Rice’s vampire books back when they were new and I was a young bride. We were a hip couple, before there were hipsters of course, and we partied with the most interesting people, including friends who were sometimes maintaining underground identities.

In current times, I’ve been observing with interest the phenomenon of diverse Instagram witches. So when browsing for books, I happened upon The Witching Hour and snapped it up. It was written in 1993, after I’d given up parties and steamy reads for parenting and children’s books and sleep. I thought I’d remembered the Lasher books coming out, but only in passing. 

My first thought was that I couldn’t write about this reading, because surely Anne Rice is canceled now. That was back in the day and she, we, meant no harm, but–generations of New Orleans witches with appurtenant “mulattos” and small-b black help, when the language has since changed? And, you know, I thought incest was considered verboten in publishing and advertising. And: a main character sure seems to have a great and awesome grief for the aborted, (while acknowledging that of course the legal right in the pregnant person to decide is the only defensible legal, political position). So what do you think, canceled? 

Well I’m relieved I guess to find, not canceled. Also I see that it wasn’t at all an accident that I was able to scoop up the Witching Hour. (I bet you already figured that out, how it happened, what algorithms, put the title before me…)

It seems there is a new streaming series coming out, or already out, called The Mayfair Witches, based on Rice’s series of books starting with The Witching Hour. 

So, not canceled. We can talk about it.

Oh and that’s right, incest, rape, are OK to witness since Game of Thrones! Truth, I didn’t actually see GOT, (my grown son didn’t want his mother to see it, too pornographic!), but I did read A Song of Fire and Ice, so I know the story, mostly excellent reading btw. (My old dad is currently enjoying listening to a superb audio rendition.)

Though incest repels readers and frightens publishers, it is a classic literary theme. [I am sorry to be so academic about it, for anyone who has suffered the actual trauma.] Committing the act in ignorance is chronicled between King Arthur with a sorceress sister, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and I think even the Tolkien origin stories involve a brother and sister if I recall, in Children of Hurin? And remember Twin Peaks? And as we know from GOT and from history, royal bloodlines sometimes intentionally try to consolidate or concentrate power by inbreeding.

But Anne Rice. The author is a witch. 

There’s a scene where she maddeningly bewitches the innocent reader. She writes a scene where a man, by fraud and trickery and sorcery, is helplessly drawn into sexual relations with his daughter. 

(Don’t worry, I don’t believe this is a spoiler of any of your suspense if you will read or view. I haven’t named which ancestors in the long line are involved, truthfully I don’t independently remember without checking, it’s a weighty and repeating family history. But only in this one scene do you have to watch it happen.)

Rice’s passage is such a perfect example of twinning the reader’s experience with the story unfolding as experienced by the characters. The author manipulates the reader, the reader who would reject the act in disgust and horror, and is manipulated in the precise way the sorceress-or-demon, (whichever bears responsibility), manipulates the man into performing the acts. Rice writes an erotic scene, veiling identity, with multiple women serving as the succubi to arouse, and the reader is sucked in too so that even with some foreshadowed anticipation of the impending repellent act, the reader is aroused to read it and even forced to feel stimulated by it. Just so the male character, knowing now what he is about, continues the evil acts repeatedly and forcefully, as he continues as a prisoner in the chamber. 

A reader might feel violated, like the character who can’t help herself from enjoying a demon incubus’s uninvited sexual trespass (I’m sorry, she herself isn’t sure whether to call it rape until later). 

That power of the author witch is awe-inspiring and scary. 

The spell-casting episode relates to a significant theme of the book: the continuing debate over fate and free will. Characters are doomed by their destinies, or do they have choice? 

Or is fate merely a probability, resulting from genes and environment, something the rare and most singular people, saints, can overcome with action. 

Saints, she points out–but also, the few singularly evil, who can corrupt the fate of the world. 

So perhaps, while we may prefer free will, being bound on destiny’s tracks is safer than apocalyptic derailment by the free will exercised by a monster. 

I find the debate interesting, perhaps even dated? because of the suggestion by current science that human actions are predetermined. Discussion and citations for another time …

I do know I was launched and compelled by author witchcraft into consuming and enjoying this story; just as I was manipulated by commerce and media to purchase the book, (when I thought it was serendipity or my independent little find!), because there is a streaming series coming out. 

Christmas to Mardi Gras

The Carnival season begins with the Christmas season’s Twelfth Night and continues until Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. Both Christmas and Mardi Gras frame The Witching Hour. The protagonist Michael retains childhood memories of the supernatural figure Lasher in the church at Christmas, and memories and dreams of the flambeau and the ritualistic drums for the final orgiastic Comus celebration on Mardi Gras. After multiple recorded (and repeating) histories of the Mayfair family through time, Michael’s story builds from a Halloween wedding to the terrible climax on Christmas Eve at midnight, the Witching Hour. Then the falling action includes a separation, waiting and perhaps healing time, after revisiting Mardi Gras.

It’s perfect for a series, the Mayfair witches go way back and can go on forever, there will be endless seasons. Questions remain unanswered at the conclusion of The Witching Hour.

For one, the issue of maintenance, restoration and renovation of the New Orleans House, caused conflict throughout the story. Was restoration of the house finally for the good, or the opposite, or was it merely a distraction? 

 I doubt I’ll be reading more of the series, only as I tend to be a series sampler. 

I was glad to have read the story for Mardi Gras by happenstance,(!) and to complete it by Ash Wednesday. I looked long at the Christmas amaryllis blooms withering with the end of the Christmas season and the Carnival season and felt glad to be done with the long festival season.

Ascetic Aesthetic

Which brings me to the washing up. 

I have been organizing stuff since the Christmas season, out of necessity for various boring reasons. As a result I can’t find anything. I did want the peace of a clean house, really! and I still want peace, the simplicity of empty space, and order. 

But it seems to require constant fussing. Maybe cleaning up is the distraction, instead of the trash. Maybe dirt is the desert away from civilization for a penitential hermit.

I want to turn in.  Perhaps write some letters, or just write.  Because of all the putting-away, I had to search out the charging cord, the stationery. Now there’s stuff all over the table again, but that is the price for some stillness right now. I will, by Easter, turn to spring cleaning. But right now I choose to be Mary over Martha.

At least that’s what I tell my family, that this is a holy mess.

Engraving print titled "Thought Plagued by Spirit of Distraction". Don't know how it became skewed, woowoo

#TrueTalesOfGhosts #AnneRice #TheWitchingHour #Lent #MardiGras #CLVadimsky #MayfairWitches