Ivan

Ivan

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Stagecoach Mary, by Jess Nevins

(Full disclosure: Jess Nevins has “Tuckerized” me – which is to say, named a character after me – in this book, so if you’re expecting solid literary criticism you should go talk to an academic he’s annoyed. However, I’m being as candid as my massive ego permits.)

Stagecoach Mary is a Weird Western pulp-style collection set in an alternate Montana in the 1890s. Consisting of eight short stories and encompassing elements of horror, westerns, steampunk and modern sensibilities regarding such things as race and gender; it’s a delightful read in the summer and, I suspect, will be even more fun come Halloween.

If you’re unfamiliar with the historical “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, well, you’re in for a treat. In our reality, she was the first African-American woman star route mail carrier in the United States. Tough, stubborn, independent and successful, she was a remarkable woman. Actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony in which he said, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38,” which sounds like high praise in any era.

Jess doesn’t shy away from the racial elements of the time – you really can’t, writing about such a woman – but to my mind he handles it with grace. Alongside Mary’s own racial issues, the Blackfoot tribe and the trials of the Chinese in the American West are all presented with heroes of their own. (I will confess that Cool Hand Liú is, perhaps, one of my new favorite names.)

He writes each of the stories through the eyes of a young white American man, however, never trying to put himself into the shoes of the other characters; and while the narrator and the sheriff are perhaps remarkable for their tolerance in this time, if you can accept ghosts and river serpents you should be able to accept softer edges in a social milieu.

For the most part, the stories read with the quick action and tense excitement one would expect from this style. As in any clever collection, the two strongest stories serve as bookends. “The Hitchhiker” is a perhaps classic ghost story, but one with enough twists and turns, not to mention exciting scenes, to make one forget the urban legend at its core. And in “Stagecoach Mary’s Last Ride-Out,” a half-dozen more legends of the fictional Wild West make an appearance to fight alongside our erstwhile heroine, culminating in a shootout described with all the breathless intensity of the OK Corral.

Other solid stories include “Omahksoyisksiksina,” about those creatures the Blackfoot tribe may have left behind and to whom they eventually return; “The Phantom Airship of ’98,” featuring members of several tribes attempting to right a historically tragic wrong; and the aforementioned “Cool Hand Liú,” in which an alternate Paladin has his guns, and has certainly travelled. Each of these were well-crafted and enjoyable tales, with characters deeper than your average pulp and creatures described with feverish intensity.

The two weak stories, to my mind, are “Stagecoach Mary Outwits the Devil” and “The Madness That Overtook Cascade.” While “Outwits” is certainly well-written, and I enjoyed Jess’ Devil immensely, I was still unable to decouple it from its well-known inspiration, which you will recognize within a few pages.

My shrug at “The Madness” is, in a word, maddening, because I’m a huge fan of the work I believe inspired this one – HP Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories – and I believe I simultaneously wished for more mythic and doomed poetry while being unable to envision the story’s events taking place in a stolid American plains town.

That being said, Jess Nevins has an excellent grasp of the way people speak. His dialogue throughout gave me different tones and voices in the ear, and his descriptions of Cascade and its surroundings made me feel as though I was there myself. Unsurprisingly, given his reference works, Jess also knows how the pulp heart beats, and makes copious use of that knowledge.

I found Stagecoach Mary to be a wonderful collection of stories by a writer who is solidly in his wheelhouse, about a woman who deserves to be more well-known and regarded in the modern day. Pick it up and review it for yourself, if you’ve the time and inclination – you won’t regret it for a moment.

008: Your Favorite Quote

I used to keep a file of quotations. It grew to about 16 pages in Microsoft Word. Today I scribble them down in my bullet journal when they hit me especially hard, but I don’t go out of my way looking for them any longer.

I’m leaving aside the monologues I love – Richard III’s “Winter of our discontent,” Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” or Hamlet’s “Quintessence of dust.” While some of these could be considered quotes, they’re more performance pieces.

I’m also leaving out song lyrics. Even though there are some lovely sentiments in song, and some poems that masquerade as songs – looking at you, Lou Reed – I feel like the question is more literary and less lyrical.

Timing is also important. For example, while I delivered this Joyce Cary quote to my graduating senior class at Illinois Wesleyan University, I no longer believe it as fervently as I did in my maudlin youth:

“The truth is that life is hard and dangerous; that he who seeks his own happiness does not find it; that he who is weak must suffer; that he who demands love will be disappointed; that he who is greedy will not be fed; that he who seeks peace will find strife; that truth is only for the brave; that joy is only for him who does not fear to be alone; that life is only for the one who is not afraid to die.”

It still rings true to me, but it no longer seems a quote to live by.

Still, some quotes are timeless. At our core, we rarely change who we truly are, and our values are often reflected in the words which ring most true. When I pause to think, and sift through the dozens of quotes which have meant something to me, I continually come back to the one which has served as a rudder for me throughout the years:

“A moment of patience in a moment of anger can prevent a thousand moments of sorrow.”

This version of the quote is variously attributed, though the front runner seems to be one Imam Ali, about whom I know nothing. It’s a wonderful quote and a good reminder that when I wish to snap, I can play the clock forward to consider the consequences of my actions.

Of course, I recently came across another quote which seems to counterbalance the one above. Virginia Woolf tells us, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

This quote is part of the reason I took up the Ten-Minute Topic challenge. While I offer many of my strongest opinions – most of which are, sadly, political in nature – I have often been reluctant to offer smaller ones, or to share one on one with those who mean most to me and whom I fear may disagree.

By challenging myself to quickly write in response to these prompts, I am trying to see where my natural opinions and quirks arise, rather than working to polish them into a finely honed response. I’m already learning more about myself, not all of it good.

But by the same token, I am no longer avoiding life.

007: Pretending to Understand

What do you sometimes pretend to understand that you truly don’t?

I’m in something of a bind at work.

You see, the dayjobbery is in Information Technology, but I’m on the “administrative and quality” side of that technology. It’s not like I spend my days debugging or writing code, or figuring out which language works best, or comparing one program or tool to another.

The dayjobbery is also at a company famous for engineering knowledge, which means I’m already surrounded by very technically competent people who would be perfectly happy without people like me cluttering up the corridors and taking up bonus paychecks.

Now I am known to be the “most technical” member of my immediate team. Which may or may not be accurate, but is similar to saying I am the “most empathetic” public executioner or the “most honest” politician.

This sometimes combines in a situation where I am asked to own a technical application, the scope of which is often beyond me. And as previously discussed, I have trouble:

  • Saying no,
  • Admitting failure, and
  • Looking foolish or ignorant.

This is a potent cocktail for utter disaster.

It’s never come to disaster, of course. Historically, I have always been able to use a combination of Google-fu, a vast network of friends who are skilled at vastly different things, enough charm to delay the requestors and a certain low cunning to – in general – come up with an answer that satisfies people and fixes the immediate issue.

I have learned, too, to keep notes on how I fixed the thing that time, to ensure the next time it raises its head I have an answer, even if I don’t fully understand WHY this is the answer.

I have tried to make myself more interested in these technical components, but it’s a hopeless case. I don’t much care why a program or function works the way it does. I’m far more curious about why someone would lay it out in a certain way, or the history behind how this program was selected, or any of those other, more human factors that wrap themselves around the tool.

That curiosity makes me very, very good at the “administrative and quality” side in which I actually work. Just not at the technical sides of administering quality tools.

006: A Recent Dream

It starts with a dear friend. We are talking earnestly together, side by side, I don’t remember what about, but it seems like a very deep conversation. As we continue to talk we drift onto our backs, and are now floating through the air, like you would float on inner tubes down a lazy but still-moving river.

The sky above us is dark and full of stars, but not only stars. The fronts of houses, two-dimensional and in primary or secondary colors, appear along either side of my field of vision. I am put in mind of Venice, though these houses are colonial style, neither Mediterranean nor ancient.

There is a feel of age, though. And each house is a single color. They are more like cardboard cutouts, or proscenium backdrops for some theatre in the darkened sky. We are still talking, and now our hands are intertwined as we float and converse. It is intimate, but not precisely romantic. Sharing depths without the rise of carnality.

The sky vanishes, my friend vanishes, and I blink at the alarm clock (which I do not have) which now sits on my nightstand (which is not my nightstand). In twenty more minutes my alarm will go off, and I will have to get up, and I might as well get up now. So I go to the bathroom and shave using a badger brush and a straight razor, with a half-filled glass of red wine at my elbow. I’m tempted but I do not pick it up; it’s morning, after all, and a workday.

I do not drive to the office, there’s seemingly no need, for I am instantly there and in conversation again, this time with our new CIO – my immediate boss as of a week ago. He is asking questions and I am responding reasonably, but I’m tense despite this. I do not like the set of his eyes as continues to ask me questions. Eventually he nods, satisfied, and I leave his office.

It’s then that my *real* alarm, the one on my cellphone, goes off. It plays a tune by Joseph Fire Crow, a Lakota musician, titled Meadowlark Sunrise. The tune is sweet, played on a flute but with strings and percussion in the background. I find it a calming way to wake.

I’m not surprised by either half of the dream. My friend has been much on my mind of late, and I’d like to enjoy another late-night conversation that takes me out of the everyday. I was insistent that I could not oversleep this morning, as I had promised my team-mates to be present for a physical fitness challenge. And being under new management, it’s not surprising I should find the office intruding on my private visions.

I’m unsure of the meaning of the straight razor, though. Perhaps there’s more symbolism in that razor, in the wine, in the old-time alarm clock, brass and analog with two bells on the top. In the floating proscenium buildings which look beautiful but can never be lived in. Personal symbolism in a very personal dream.

Note: This was written in late March. Dates may not be accurate.)

On Art: Time and Tactility

I spent this Saturday afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, an incredible institution that never fails to inspire jealousy. Not the admiring jealousy inspired by the visual artists I know personally – the ones who found their craft in the visual or tactile realm and who work like demons to improve their skills (and I am jealous of you, one and all, for both your dedication and ability to create something that can be touched) – but something deeper, that revolves around a time when art seemed to mean more.

I always forget how much I adore John Singer Sargent and Ivan Albright. Both seeing the art from a distance, as it’s intended to be seen, and getting up closer than I’m meant to, to look closely at the broad strokes of thick paint and color. When I inspect those, I remember that each stroke was a choice made, a decision on color and thickness and direction. I remember that each of those tiny decisions, strung together, created a miraculous result.

I’m not foolish enough to believe this is only in classical paintings. Digital art is the result of just as many tiny decisions, strokes of a mouse or Wacom tablet. Photography requires painstaking work around composition, light, lenses and structure. In sculpture the placement of chisel to stone is, in general, less observed than the glory of the end result. And in good writing, every sentence takes as much work and effort as every brush-stroke.

All of those, however, are backstage work. Invisible unless you hold it close to your eyes and make yourself remember that human hands were behind this creation. The thick brush-strokes of the painters whom I admire and most envy reveal both the genius which went into the entirety of the composition, as well as into each individual component.

This is, perhaps, no more than some idealized artistic myth. I’m prone to both mythmaking and idolization.

Admittedly, my sister took me to the Institute to particularly see the revamped Arms and Armor exhibit, which she knew was always my favorite as a boy and young man. What red-blooded American boy doesn’t love knights and implements of destruction? The new exhibit remains impressive, and you should go to see it, but for the reasons listed above I am more struck as a grown man by Whistler’s Mother (also here on a limited run) and Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth).

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

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