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Damned Spot

A while back I was chatting with a friend on Facebook when she recommended Ron Rash’s newest novel, Serena.  I immediately opened a new tab, found the book online, and ordered it (yes, I am such a technical kind of guy).  Although it arrived quickly, I had to set it aside until after classes and graduation were over, and then I was still finishing up my latest excursion through the O’Brian series.  I finally got to it early last week, and my friend’s recommendation was very worthy.  It is a very haunting novel that plays with many of my favorite themes; there is a strong ecocritical slant to much of the novle, and the prose is beautifully evocative in a very naturalistic way.

In brief, the novel is set at the beginning of the Depression and is about the scion of a timber family named Pemberton who returns to the logging camp in North Carolina with the new bride he acquired in Boston.  I use the rather loaded and paternalistic term “acquired” very advisedly, and very ironically.  Serena is, after all, not the sort of woman who would let herself become the property of any man, and it soon becomes clear that Rash has a copy of Macbeth sitting at his elbow as he writes.  The opening scene is as bloody as the “fair is foul” introduction to the Scottish play.  The newlyweds step off the train and are quickly confronted by a tough mountain man, fortified with some Dutch courage, and his teenaged daughter, who happens to be very pregnant.  With Pemberton’s child.  The mountain man brings out his big pigsticker of a knife, Pemberton takes out his Bowie (a wedding present.  From his wife.) and the two duel.  Dueling is too nice a term, though, for something that ends with one thrust.  The old man crumples in the dust and Serena, who seems oddly aroused by this, takes the man’s knife (a rather nice one) and hands it to the girl, telling her to sell it for money, because she’s never going to get anything from the Pembertons.  In other words, Serena makes the average black-clad femme fatale look like a pale weeping Nellie with a bad case of the vapours.

So the Pembertons set out to build an empire on chopped-down trees.  When all of the trees in North Carolina are gone, they plan to move to Brazil to cut down all of the trees in South America.  Their hunger for trees is frightening, and their ever-more rapacious greed becomes all-encompassing.  They are violently opposed to plans, partly funded by the nearby Vanderbilts (Biltmore is just down the road from the logging camp) to buy up huge tracts of the Pisgah Forest and turn it into a National Park.  They begin to oppose the park plan not so much because of economic reasons but because they just want to chop down more trees and that just for spite.  The fight between the park and industry is really more about the fight for their individual identities.  Without the logging, the Pembertons cease to exist.

Rash presents an interesting dilemma here.  While he is clearly on the side of the park, he is also very sympathetic to the men who work in extremely hazardous conditions (it seems a logger dies on almost every page, either from a falling tree or some other disaster) and to the hundreds of desperate and hopeful men who arrive on the trains looking for a job in the camp.  He seems to be trying to find a way to achieve a balance between our need and desire for nature and our need and desire for economic stability.  When the Pembertons finish logging an area, they quickly move on to a new spot, leaving many of the old loggers behind, so their model is clearly not sustainable.  On the other hand, the government’s heavy-handed and bullying arguments about eminent domain ring hollow to the hollow-eyed men hungry for work and who see the logging camp and the only thing that could possibly save them from utter annihilation.

The land eventually becomes a hellish wasteland.  The hills and mountains are stripped bare, and the slash wood, the trees no good for logging, are torn down, piled up, and burned.  In Rash’s descriptions I see a Dantean landscape, inhuman, inhumane, fit only for the otherworldly queen of death riding on her white horse through the smoldering ash.  As the novel progresses, the normal, recognizable world becomes twisted and freakish.  Serena had ordered a Mongolian eagle, which she trained to the glove; the image of her riding through the smoky haze with this huge bird perched on her fist is surely the thing of nightmares.  Her sidekick is a nearly speechless man who lost his hand in a freak accident; Serena had saved him from death by quickly whipping a tourniquet around his wrist and now he follows her like a mute and fiendish hound, killing her enemies for her without even hearing her explicit wish that they die.

The only serious problem I had with the novel is its unrelenting bleakness, which may sound like a strange criticism coming from me, the fan of Cormac McCarthy.  However, it was not so much the bleak tone but the single-dimensional qualities that unnerved me.  Serena is powerful and even noble in many ways, but she is unhesitatingly, unstintingly evil.  There is no compassion anywhere.  With Lady Macbeth, on whom she is modeled, I get the sense that she feels remorse, and her “Out, out–” speech pretty clearly points to some regret or conscience.  Serena never has her damned spot moment, and that is to her detriment.  She would have been a more interesting character for it.

Nevertheless, read it.

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Operation Mirror

Last year I read Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, upon the recommendation of a friend.  I liked it quite a lot, and found it to be a good, tautly written, psychologically complex murder mystery.  It combined the exacting detail of the police procedural with some dark hints of the uncanny, all presented with sharp, fluent prose.  When I saw French’s sort-of-a-sequel, The Likeness, in my birthday bookstore crawl, I grabbed it.  The verdict is in, and it is very, very clear: although In the Woods was a great novel, The Likeness is exponentially better, perhaps one of the best mystery novels I’ve read.

I said above that it’s a sort of sequel.  In the first novel, the action revovles around Rob Ryan and, to a slightly lesser extent, his partner Cassie Maddox.  We learn a little about both detectives’ backgrounds, with the tantalizing hint that Cassie had worked in Undercover, where she was stabbed by a suspect.  This sets the stage for the new novel, with Cassie taking over the duties of the narrator and playing a multi-layered role as undercover cop, murder investigator, and bait.  In her days as an undercover agent, Cassie posed as a Dublin college student named Lexie Madison; in her dealings with drug dealers and users, she had been stabbed by a pathetic suspect, and, on the strength of her undercover work, she got herself transfered to the Murder Squad, where we find her in the first book.  In the sequel, she has transfered to Domestic Violence, almost entirely because of the trauma caused by the investigation featured in the first novel.

She is quickly dragged back into the world of murder and undercover by an early morning phone call from her boyfriend, a detective in the murder squad.  He is frantic, and asks her to come down to a murder scene as soon as she can.  When she arrives at the old cottage she is startled to find her old boss from her undercover days, Frank Mackey, there as well.  His appearance is explained when she sees the murder victim: a young woman named Lexie Madison.  Not only does the young woman bear Cassie’s old undercover name, she also looks almost exactly like Cassie.  Mackey, who loves to play rough with the rules, sees this as the prefect opportunity to resurrect Lexie the undercover agent, using Cassie to flush out the murderer.  Although Cassie is at first horrified at the idea, she soon finds herself oddly drawn to it, and agrees to the outrageous plan.

Lexie–the murdered girl–had been a graduate student at Trinity, and she lived in an old Georgian mansion in the village of Glenskehy with four other graduate students in a strange, idyllic intellectual commune.  Daniel, one of the graduate students, had inherited the mansion from his eccentric old uncle, and he immediately shared his new home with his friends, making them co-owners.  There the five stayed, cooking together, reading together, living a completely isolated but apparently satisfying life.  The scenes of this life are some of the most remarkable in the novel.  In many ways, it sounds like the graduate school dream that many of us had: the students are free from worry about their living arrangements, and they move from their classes to their tutorials to their quiet, studious home life as if enchanted.  Their evenings are filled with books, intellectual discussions, card games, gentle teasing.

Outside the house, though, the world lurks.  Whitethorn (the name of the house) had been the home seat of the March family in the days of the Anglo-Irish landlords, and the locals in the village (which is presented as an almost primitively isolated and insular community) still detest the house and all it stands for.  This leads to a number of suspects.  Was Lexie murdered by an angry villager who had had enough of the Big House persecution?  Was she killed by a real estate developer who wanted to turn the house into a luxury golf resort?  Was she killed by one of her housemates?

The plot is never obvious, and although I suspected the killer early on, I never had quite enough reason to believe my suspicions, and I was easily led to suspect others along the way.  The entire time Cassie is playing Lexie and living in the house, French slowly but mercilessly turns up the tension until the final dramatic confrontation and resolution left me worn and twisted in agitation.  I read the last two hundred pages at a feverish pace, turnign pages as quickly as my eye could scan the words, needing to find out what was going to happen.

The novel, though, is not just a good page-turning yarn.  The prose is crystalline, and Cassie’s voice as she gradually falls in love with the house and its inhabitants is immensely seductive.  She comes across as clear-headed and analytical but also deeply passionate and alive.  French also deals with the history of Ireland and its harsh conflicts with honesty and heart.  The cottage where Lexie’s body is found is one of the many “famine cottages” found across the countryside, a cottage abandoned in the 1840s when its inhabitants either starved to death or immigrated.  The relationship between the big house and the village is eerily recreated in the relationship between Daniel and his friends.  Always lurking in the background is the Celtic Tiger, the loud, vibrant, electrified European hotspot that Ireland had become early in the millenium, an identity that threatens to overwhelm and destroy an older culture.  The older culture, however, is not sentimentalized, but is shown with all its flaws and violence.

I can’t wait to read what Tana French has planned.  This is a great book–read it.

Not the Best Week

Last week in the Wednesday Night World Championships (formerly known as the Tuesday Night World Championships), I actually had a teammate in the race to help out.  It was a points race, and he gave me a textbook perfect leadout for the first sprint, where I managed to take third.  I spent some precious energy chasing a couple of breaks, timed the next sprint wrong and ended up fifth (only the top three scored points).  A couple more dangerous-looking breaks formed, so I felt obliged to chase again.  The third sprint began with another perfect leadout, but I exploded, very badly and dramatically, about halfway up the hill.  The peloton passed me and I dropped off the back.  After chasing while trying not to hyperventilate for a lap and a half, I was shot.  I had my head down, trying hard to stay on pace to catch the group.  When I looked up, I saw myself heading straight for the curb.  I managed to hit my brakes and turn slightly so I hit the curb obliquely, but I nevertheless flew gracefully over the bars and did two or three neat somersaults on the grass.

After picking myself up and checking my bike for damage, I slowly pedaled back to the start/finish line.  My side was hurting, and I thought I may have bruised the rib I broke last August in another crash.  I sat down to watch the rest of the race, but I soon began to feel very bad.  My head hurt horribly, and I started to see the small auras I usually associate with a migraine.  Everyone was telling me I looked horrible (thanks, guys!), so Dorothy decided I needed to go to the ER.

The ER was very crowded for a Wednesday night (it wasn’t a full moon, either: not until Sunday), but I soon found myself strapped to a back brace and bound with a cervical collar.  After some waiting around, I was wheeled into another part of the hospital for a CT scan. Back to the room.  Then, they needed my room, so they wheeled me out into the hall.  Behind a curtain, a man screamed “Ow, ow, ow ow!” at the top of his lungs, over and over again, very monotonously.  The doctors and nurses in his room sounded out of patience with him and I thought they were inches away from smacking him silly.  Or sillier.  (I thought I might have overheard “PCP” as an explanation of his problem.)  Then the radio in the nurses’ station crackled into life as an EMT called in a patient.  In the background I could hear the ambulance siren.  I heard “GSW” and “forty caliber.”  Soon all of the doctors were tossing on gowns and gloves and running to the ambulance bay.

Eventually the excitement died down enough for my doctor to come back with the diagnosis: no brain bleeding, but a mild concussion.  I was advised not to do it again.  The nurse handed me a few percocet tablets, and we were off.

Despite the concussion, I decided to go ahead with my race on Sunday, especially because this race was on my home course.  Although our spring weather here in southern Connecticut has not been all that great, Sunday was one of those picture postcard days.  Highs in the low 80s, low humidity, a light breeze, a perfectly blue sky.  It’s the kind of day that shows up in the dictionary next to “Summer.”  I dragged out my folding chair and settled in to watch the races before mine.  Dorothy’s race was particularly fun to watch.  She did a great job, finishing right in the mix, taking 7th.  The masters (over 45, so I couldn’t do it) raced with the juniors, and this race proved to be unexpectedly exciting as two juniors took off from the whistle and lapped the field.  Finally, my race came up.

I was slightly nervous, but felt confident.  When the whistle blew, I stayed near the front, watching as the inevitable first lap solo attack went down its doomed road.  We caught him before the end of the second lap.  There were a couple more attacks, and I chased some of them before realizing that no one was going to be allowed to get away today.  Once I realized this, I settled back into the pack and took it easy, with my heart rate resting well at around 145.  As we got close to the end of the race, I started to move my way forward, slowly and carefully.  At two laps to go, I was about 15 back, which felt about right.

Halfway through the second to last lap, I felt a sharp sting in my hamstring, an electric zinging pain that radiated up and down my muscle.  I ignored it, though, and kept going.  At the bell, I started watching everything very carefully and set myself up for the sprint.  Although I started the sprint from a little farther back than is ideal, I still managed to pass many of the racers and finished in 6th place, which made me very happy.  I started this race with the goal of a top ten, and I got it.

The pain in my leg, though, was bothering me, and this, in combination with some other odd discomfort caused me to drop out of the next race (the pro-123 race) after a half dozen laps or so.  As we drove home, I started to itch everywhere, and in the shower I noticed that I had a horrible rash over half my body.  I downed a dose of Benadryl to quell the itch.  The next morning, Monday, the rash had spread to cover my entire body.  When I called my doctor and started to explain, I got all the way to “I got stung by something and now I have a rash–” before she cut me off and told me to come in.

Diagnosis: moderate allergic reaction to an insect sting but no anaphylaxis.  I do, however, have to carry an epipen with me now just in case.  Apparently the allergic reactions can grow more sever over time and repeated exposure to the allergen.  So, the next sting could be even worse.

As I said, not the best week.

I have never really taken to the Hartford Crit.  It is not a horrible course, though the road is rough, especially on the back stretch, and the corners can be a little tricky (more on this in a bit).  However, it never felt like a fun race.  The first time I did it, I struggled to hang on to the back of the pack, and that set the tone for all subsequent performances.  It felt too hard for what it was.  One year was marred by one horrible crash and one smaller crash; I got caught behind the second crash two laps to go and decided to pull myself out of the race.

This year was my first time to race with the Cat 3 group in Hartford, and I found it to be a much better experience.  Largely because of my less than happy memories of the crit, my goals were modest.  Goal #1 was to keep from crashing.  Goal #2 was to finish with the pack.  Goal #3 was to learn about racing techniques in the higher categories.  Happily, I achieved each of these goals, although they may have kept me from placing any higher than I finally did.

This year also saw a lot of crashes in the earlier races, and one racer, a teammate of SOC, went down hard and broke his femur.  Because of this, the whole race scene felt somewhat skittish as the 50-something riders lined up at the start of my race.  Nevertheless, I went to the line with a strange sort of confidence in myself, knowing that I would either not crash, or that I would try my hardest to crash well.  (Crashing well, by the way, means trying to take the fall in such a way to minimize injury.)  As I already said, I achieved that goal and finished unscathed.  In fact, there were no crashes in the race despite some close calls.

In the days leading up to the race, I kept envisioning the course and thinking about where I should be placed and what lines would be the safest to take through the corners.  With this pre-race mental preparation in mind, I lined up closer to the outside (left) edge of the course, with the idea that I couldn’t get squeezed against the curb as easily that way.  When the whistle started the race, I tucked in behind SDC for the first lap before moving up a little.  I wanted to stay with the pack and not get lost off the back.  One problem I have always had at Hartford is cornering well.  For many reasons, I always got pushed to the curb or let myself get pinched in an uncomfortable way, causing me to slwo down and back off in the corners, forcing me to accelerate hard to catch back up with the pack.  This time, though, with my mental imaging helping out, I took pretty good lines through the corners and managed to keep my speed fairly well.  As a result, I achieved Goal #2 and finished withe the pack, somewhere near the middle.

Goal #3 was more amorphous.  I wanted to get a better feel for the race and not just pedal fast around the course.  To this end, I relaxed at times, and did not worry too much when I found myself at the very back of the pack.  I used these times to practice moving through the riders to get closer to the front, and on a couple of laps I crossed the start/finish line in the top five or ten.  I did not aggressively defend a top spot, though.  This may not have been the best strategy for winning the race, however.  When I moved up in the back stretch, I hit a very hard and blustery headwind at corner 3, which ended up taking a lot out of my legs.  As it gave me practice finding a good spot to line up for corner #4, I’m satisfied.

Looking back on this race, I see many places where I could have raced more conservatively or more aggressively and done better.  I could have timed my moves through the pack better and been in a better place to launch a sprint; as it was, I was sitting too far back at the end of the bell lap to contest the final sprint.  However, by treating this almost like a training race or even a series of drills, I think I have made myself a stronger racer.  I am getting a better feel for how the race can and should play out, and, more to the point, I have more confidence in my own pack riding and racing skills.  Here is one example of what I mean.  Somewhere about the middle of the race, we were approaching the start/finish line when the pack squeezed together for some reason.  A guy coming up behind me got pinched so much that he came up inside my elbow, his handlebars brushing my hip and pushing against my right hand.  Instead of swerving or overreacting in any way, I simply held my handlebars tightly and worked to maintain my poise.  If either of us had had any weaker bike handling skills, there would have been a dozen bikes scraping the pavement at 25 mph.

In the end, it was a decent race.  It certainly will not rate terribly high on my favorite races list, but it was not as bad as the anxiety in the days leading up to the event might have foretold.  We were fast, with an average speed of almost 27 mph, and a last lap speed of almost 29 mph.  Despite the higher speed (the Cat 4 races I’ve done here in the past were a couple of miles an hour slower), this Cat 3 race seemed easier and smoother.

Absolutely Mental

I ride a lot.  Like any racer hoping to stay in a race and not get spit out the back of the peloton, I train at varying intensities, throw in a lot of hills, do some speed work.  My physical stats are not bad, except for being about 10 pounds overweight, with a resting pulse and blood pressure that always makes doctors and nurses stare (40, 100/60).  Last year, in the weekly training series B races, I was top dog.  This year, racing with the fast guys–category 1 beasts–I’m mostly pack fodder, sweating, drooling, crying in agony pack fodder.  However, in the transition from fast guy in a fast race to fast guy in a blindingly fast race, I have noticed that the physical aspect is a relatively small part of racing.

So far, I’ve raced in three of the A races.  In the first, I got gapped and finished 20 or 30 seconds behind the leaders.  In the second, I hung on for dear life as the leaders sprinted for points.  Last night, I tried to stay in the middle of the peloton, missed the 6 man breakaway, but managed to take second in the main field sprint, good enough for 8th overall.  My physical conditioning in each race allowed me to stay more or less with the pack (I never had to drop out, and I never got lapped), but by far the hardest part of racing turned out to be the intense mental strain.  My body hurt–in one race, my heart rate stayed in zone 5 (the highest zone of exertion) for the entire 44 minutes of the race–and my legs burned and ached all of the following day.  The real fatigue, though, came from the concentration necessary to ride at that level.

At one point in last week’s race, I was riding as hard as I could go when I realized the bike in front of me was pulling away.  If I lost that wheel, if that guy got too far in front of me, I would not longer have the benefit of the draft, and I would have to work harder, and I would probably end up out of the race.  Instead, I concentrated every particle of my focus on that wheel and more or less willed myself to stay in the draft.  Everything else ceased to exist for me except for that wheel.  My awareness narrowed so much that it was very much like tunnel vision: looking back, it was almost like I was staring at that wheel through a cardboard tube, with everything outside of that small circle of light at the end just a dark blur.

Last night’s race hurt in a different way.  I had eaten my lunch a couple of hours later than I usually do–2:30 instead of noon–so I felt a little sick during the race.  The other physical pains were not so prominent; my heart rate, for example, was slightly lower than the previous week, and my legs hurt a little less.  I kept thinking about dropping out of the race, though, as my stomach cramped and my late lunch considered making an unwelcome reappearance.  A big part of me did not want to end the race prematurely, and I kept reminding myself that racing with the fast guys was a great way to get faster myself.  Most of all, I just did not want to give up and then stand around after my race, watching Dorothy’s race, knowing I had quit.

Somehow, then, I managed to stay with the group, sometimes hanging off the very back of the peloton, forcing myself to work just a little harder, pedal just a little faster, climb that hill just a touch more aggressively.  When the bell rang for the last lap, I felt as if I had already won something: I was going to make it to the end!  The pack stretched out the way it does when someone is really pushing at the front, and small gaps appeared bewteen the bikes as racers started to crack.  I slipped in behind Pat, and thought I should have a good chance in the sprint.  Then, right before the last curve, I noticed that Pat had cracked and a large gap between him and the lead group was growing larger.  Without hesitation, I went around him and did a short sprint to catch them.

Just as I latched onto the group the final sprint began.  I shifted into my highest gear (a 53×11) and stood on the pedals with all my force.  As I started to pass people, I concentrated on keeping my form solid and my sprint perfect.  Nearing the top of the hill, I did not let up or fade as many racers seem to do.  Instead, I looked into myself and found a little more to pour into my legs.  I knew I would have the room to pass all but one of the guys ahead of me, and I caught the last guy two feet before the finish, taking second in the field sprint, which was good enough for 8th overall.

In the sprint, I did not feel my body at all.  This is probably a very good thing, because my heart rate in the sprint hit 183.  My maximum heart rate is 185.

It is far too easy to say something like “90% of any sport is mental.”  It has, after all, become a well-worn sports cliche to talk about the “mental game.”  The truth is that it is always mental.  We have nothing else.  I also don’t mean to suggest that anything we can think of we can accomplish, or any other stupid and cheesy motivational poster piety.  Like many, I still tend to think in that Cartesian mind/body split, where my body takes care of all the physical, while my mind deals with the more important matters.  But there really isn’t a ghost in the machine.  The ghost is the machine.

Teaching Abroad

I’m currently buried in papers and exams to grade. but I am so excited by the latest news that I decided to jump back to my sadly neglected blog and talk about it a little.  A couple of months ago I ran into one of my friends from another department on campus and he was bubbling over with his latest plan to teach a course on Irish film next year at our school’s study abroad program.  He suggested that I look into the possibility of teaching a course myself.  Naturally, I loved the idea, so I contacted the campus coordinator for the program.

Every year we offer short term study in January and May as well as full semester programs in Dingle, Ireland.  I met with the coordinator today, and I will be teaching a course in Old Irish literature next May.  It’s a two week program, with many opportunities for field trips and visits with guest scholars and speakers.  We will be able to see archaeological sites and get a very real taste of the scenes I’ll be teaching.  We will be reading, for example, Brendan’s Navigatio, and Brendan was born just a little east of there in Tralee, so we will have some geographical points of reference for the story.

It gets even better, though.  The faculty stay in small cottages separate from the school, both so we don’t infringe on the fun of the students’ pub crawls and so their pub crawling doesn’t infringe on our sleep.  I can have guests stay with me, so Dorothy will fly out and stay during the second week of class, and then we will go off to see more of Europe after the class is over.  Right now we’re thinking about going to London for a few days and then hopping over to Paris for a few more.  If I can teach the class again in a couple of years, we’ll go visit other places, like Edinburgh, Vienna, and Rome.   I can’t wait–this is going to be so much fun.

Pizza

At the risk of belaboring the point, beating a dead horse, and continuing ad nauseam, I have to say again that my students are a pretty decent bunch.  As I said in an earlier post, they were almost as excited and relieved as I was to hear that I had received tenure.  In the months we all waited to get the news, the students decided that they would storm the Bastille, or, in this case, the admin building, if I did not get tenure, so they were happy that such extreme action was not called for.

On Monday night, I posted my tenure news on Facebook, and students started commenting right away.  One student immediately decided that the American lit class needed to take me out to dinner in celebration, so I agreed to give up Thursday’s class time so they could do that.  The sacrifices I make…  After some discussion, the class agreed that a pizza place in Bridgeport would work well, so we carpooled down when we were supposed to be discussing mid-20th-century American lit.

We had a good time.  Perhaps it should be a little strange and awkward to to out with a group of friends and one professor, especially when I learned to my chagrin that I am the same age as some of their parents (!!), but it was very fun and relaxed.  The students seemed to be perfectly at ease with me, and I never felt like some old geezer hanging out with the youngsters.

There seems to be some sort of message in this about the teaching relationship, but I’m not sure yet what it is.  Perhaps we have as a culture become so afraid of the mere hint of impropriety that we move too far in the opposite direction and forget that our students are also our fellow humans.  Teaching has always seemed to me to be a very strangely intimate business: students bare their minds and their souls in a class, and I must do the same in order to bring them into the conversation.  I believe that we may not allow ourselves to become intellectually intimate because we fail to recognize the nuances of intimacy.

I’m sure there is an article or something hidden here somewhere, but I’m not quite sure how to find it.