The Scorpio Races

What it’s like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood. The fastest and strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It’s speed, if you’re lucky. It’s life and it’s death or it’s both and there’s nothing like it. Once upon a time, this moment—this last light of evening the day before the race—was the best moment of the year for me. The anticipation of the game to come. But that was when all I had to lose was my life.

Scorpio RacesFor four of the last six years, 19-year-old Sean Kendrick has won the annual Scorpio Races in the island town of Thisby. His special connection with his horse, Corr, makes them fast and focused, even when surrounded by the predatory capaill uisce, the predatory water horses whose fierce hunger makes them monsters, as well as the best mounts a racer can imagine. Sean loves the capaill uisce, especially Corr, but he knows better than to trust them. It was nine years ago when he saw his own father die in the Scorpio Races, torn from Corr’s back by a grey stallion mid-race.

Puck Connelly lost her parents to the capaill uisce, but they weren’t racers. When the water horses are on the move, no one is safe on the water, and Puck’s parents were attacked by wild capaill uisce when they were out on their boat. Now, she and her two brothers are eking out a living, avoiding the races entirely. Until Puck gets the idea that running the race could keep her family together just a little longer.

My sister Kelly, who knows Maggie Stiefvater, introduced me to her books last year, urging me to try The Raven Boys, which I enjoyed but not nearly as much as I did The Dream Thieves. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should perhaps also mention that Kelly put me in touch with Stiefvater for a work project  after I’d read the books, so we’ve exchanged a few e-mails about her writing career.) The Scorpio Races is actually Kelly’s favorite of her books, but she thought I’d like The Raven Cycle books more. But as I eagerly await the publication of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Kelly’s love of this book, along with Ana and Jeanne‘s reviews, got me to give me a try.

Jeanne notes in her review that if you’ve read any horse books, you probably won’t have a lot of trouble figuring out how this story is going to go. And that is true. The set-up gives us a weary champion in Sean and a plucky upstart in Puck, the first woman to run the race. The champion draws resentment for being great, especially when his greatness eclipses that of his employer’s son. The upstart draws resentment for bringing change, not just in  herself but in her choice of horse. The stakes are high for them both. Sean is running for Corr. Puck is running for her home. Some elements of the set-up are implausible. Puck’s initial reason for joining the race makes little sense, although a later development makes her situation more desperate and the race more important and likely. Her brother Gabe’s plans make sense, but his silence surrounding them makes him into a jerk—and a jerk I couldn’t believe in, when telling his family would be not just a courtesy but a practical necessity. So I had to get past some stuff. And I could.

The thing is, even within the not entirely unpredictable outline of the horse book with a dash of romance, there are a lot of things that could happen. The question of which of those things will happen is where much of the book’s magic lies. The race-day sequence is almost unbearable because no outcome could be wholly happy. The first-person narration throughout alternates between Puck and Sean, and during the race, the shift point of view keeps readers just enough in the dark about each of them when, in the chaos and blood, they lose sight of each other.

Thisby is a small community, losing people every year to the mainland, where there is more money and no monstrous horses. But home is not always safe, and neither is love. And what’s safe for one person is deadly peril for another. Each person has to know him- or herself and work out how to bring desire and need and talent together to create the best possible life. Both Puck and Sean are racing toward their futures, the sand flying under their horses’ hooves. They push their horses forward at a breakneck, yet they’re still figuring out what they want their destination to be. Much of this book concerns itself not just with winning a race but with knowing what the race’s goal is, knowing what you want and weaving your own desires with those of others. A complete win for everyone may not be possible, but the possibility is there, and so there’s a reason to race.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 3 Comments

Life at Grasmere and Reading Other People’s Diaries

LifeatGrasmereSeveral years ago, I subscribed to RSS feeds for the diaries of Samuel Pepys and George Orwell. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea. The feeds updated on dates recorded in their diaries with the entry for that day, so readers could experience the years along with them. It would be like reading their diaries in real time.

I subscribed to those feeds for months, and in all those months, nothing of interest happened. Pepys went to meetings and dinners with people I knew nothing about and then came home and went to bed. Orwell gathered eggs, keeping a count of how many he gathered each day. I’m sure something of interest happened eventually because both of these men led interesting lives and are good writers. In fact, I’ve read Pepys riveting diary entries about the great fire of London in 1666. But weeks of boredom meant I often marked the diaries as read in my feed reader without even looking at them. If something interesting happened—and I know it did—I missed out. It turns out that random diary entries aren’t necessarily interesting, even when the diarist’s writing is generally worthwhile.

I remembered those diaries when reading this little book from Penguin’s English Journeys collection. The book is mostly made up of diary entries by Dorothy Wordsworth from May to November 1800, when she and her brother William lived in Dove Cottage at Grasmere. I picked up the book on my last trip to London (four years ago!), during which I actually visited Grasmere. It seemed like a nice keepsake to have.

Dorothy’s diary—at least in the entries preserved here—chronicles daily life at Grasmere, mostly focusing on walks she took alone and with her brothers or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a frequent visitor. She mentions visits they make and visitors they receive and some of the poems they read and write. And she notes some of the cooking that she does. It’s a simple account of ordinary life, with little additional introspection. It’s the kind of thing that might interest a Wordsworth biographer or someone studying daily life in the 1800s. But as a general reader, with limited interest in Wordsworth, I didn’t find much here, especially given that the small volume contains hardly no notes or explanatory text putting these months in the context of the Wordsworths’ life. In fact, I didn’t realize until well into the book that the John she mentions so frequently is another brother.

The poems scattered through the book are perfectly fine poems, if you’re a lover of Wordsworth, which I’m not. I don’t dislike his poetry—I just find it rather dull. The poems appear when they are mentioned in the diary, usually because Dorothy copied the poem out or because William read the poem to her. Only in a couple of cases do we learn more about the writing of the poem.

I don’t think this book is meant to be in-depth in any way—it’s a small, keepsake-type book. But it raises a question in my mind about what I’m looking for when reading a diary. The form appeals to me very much, but I can think of hardly any diaries that I’ve read and loved. In truth, I think I like fictional diaries like that of Bridget Jones.

The trouble, I think, with actual diaries, is that daily life is not inherently interesting—it’s the telling that makes it so. A record of daily activities is valuable to an anthropologist, but becomes little more that a repetitive list of activities to those without a special interest in the topic. A more introspective diary could provide some insights into a person’s mind, but when I consider the own unpolished and introspective journals that I used to keep, I can see how that sort of thing can become just as repetitive. (I used to pick away at the same dilemmas and worries for weeks and months on end—I gave up journaling because the thought patterns bored me!

It occurs to me that diarists are not necessarily writing for an audience, and so they aren’t trying to be interesting or avoid going over the same things again and again. Diarists write for their own purposes—to get their thoughts out or maintain a record. Writing for an audience changes the writing. Anne Frank revised her diary over the years with a future audience in mind. And even when a diarist isn’t considering, editors may prune out the extraneous material or offer some explanatory notes to enrich the dull bits.

So what do I want when I read a diary? I want a vivid and compelling voice, first and foremost. I love learning about times and places that I couldn’t otherwise experience, but that may require a diarist (or later editor) to fill in gaps that wouldn’t be filled in a personal, private diary. Rougher writing, with less context might be acceptable in the work of a someone whose thinking I’m highly interested in. But that could be a stretch. I read unpolished writing on blogs regularly (and I write it myself!), but blogs are written for an audience. Someone has to consider the audience.

What do you think? Are there diaries you find particularly wonderful? What makes them so great?

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry | 26 Comments

Civil War: A Marvel Comics Event

Civil WarI’ve written before about my tentative steps into the world of comics after years of interest that was always stifled by intimidation. As I’ve explored superhero comics, I’ve so far stuck with new titles that stand alone, like Hawkeye and Ms Marvel. But with the growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve come to love Captain America and Black Widow and several other characters from the movies. And I’m curious about other characters and potential storylines. I might enjoy some of the classic books, but then I’m back to the whole question of where to start. When a friend mentioned that a civil war storyline exists that would be a great potential storyline for the third Avengers movie, my interest was piqued. It turns out my library had a copy of the omnibus that collects all seven issues from the 2006–2007 story arc by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven. (This edition does not include any of the other related titles that connected to the main series, such as the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four Civil War arcs.)

The story begins with the New Warriors a group of young superheros with their own reality TV show coming across a supervillian hideout. Even though the Warriors know these guys are out of their league, they choose to go after them, hoping for a ratings boost. The ensuing fight concludes with an explosion near a school that kills hundreds. Outraged, U.S. citizens ask the government to take action against costumed vigilantes, and the Superhero Registration Act is born. All superheros must register, and those wishing to fight crime need to be trained and licensed.

This is, of course, a controversial measure that ultimately pits superheroes against each other. The pro-registration group, led by Tony Stark/Iron Man, is given the task of hunting down those in the anti-registration group, led by Steve Rogers/Captain America. As the story goes on, characters shift their allegiances, massive battles are fought, and ultimately one side does face defeat. The war doesn’t just cause rifts between colleagues and friends; it splits up families. And not every hero survives.

Civil War SidesI’m sure that fans of Marvel Comics got a kick of the massive panels showing dozens of characters preparing to face off. As a relative outsider, I didn’t know a lot of the characters, but this did work as a quick introduction to lots of characters I didn’t know at all, like Hank Pym and Sue Storm. And I got a kick out of seeing Kate Bishop/Hawkeye turn up, although Clint Barton/Hawkeye was not part of the war because he was, I think, dead at the time. Plus, the central characters, Cap and Tony, are well-known from their own movie franchises.

One impressive aspect of the comic is that it avoids making either side the villains. Both have valid points to make. Cap is on the side of freedom, and Tony on the side of safety. Yet Cap believes in safety and Tony in freedom. You could make lots of parallels to recent political debates, like those surrounding gun control or the Patriot Act, but none are a perfect parallel. This is fantasy, after all. The storytelling seems to tip slightly to Cap’s side, but his choices aren’t above criticism.

Some of the characters choose their sides not out of ideology but out of loyalty. And some shift their allegiances because they object to certain tactics. The whole thing becomes a huge mess, as war does. And the ending, while startling and unsettling, is excellent.

Personally, I’m not sure that Cap’s position was articulated as well as it could have been. My gut was on his side, but my head says that vigilantism is not a good thing. And one thing that didn’t come up was the difference between people who have actual powers, often powers that they didn’t choose to have, and people who are just highly skilled. Spider-Man and Kate Bishop seem like different categories of hero to me, but the series puts them all in one box. Mutants are another thing altogether, and at this point in the Marvel storyline, they’re all monitored, and they remain neutral in the war. I’m not sure how Spidey and the Fantastic Four are, practically speaking, all that different from mutants, even if the means of acquiring powers are different.

The hardcover omnibus includes scripts and commentary from the Millar and others involved in the series. I enjoyed learning a bit about how this storyline bled into others, and I was interested to read about some of the struggles the team had in coming up with an ending and Millar’s own opinions about who was in the right. There’s also a highly entertaining edition of the Daily Bugle.

This book was fun to read, but I doubt it’ll lead me on a deep dive into the Marvel archives. I’m mildly curious about the X-Men arc that led up to this and the Captain America storyline that came after, but Google will answer a lot of my questions. Still, I’m figuring out that reading comics is not that different from reading any other kind of book. You get recommendations of books both new and old, see if you can find copies, and read. With comics, the books may be part of an even bigger series, but you don’t have to read them all to enjoy them.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Adam Bede

Caveat: I discuss the ending of this book in this review, so if you haven’t read it, you might not want to read my entire review. Nutshell version: it’s fantastic and I recommend it.

* * *

adam bedeHere’s an odd thing: while I was wrapped up in Adam Bede, three or four of my friends asked me what I was currently reading. When I told them, they gave me a look of surprise (one of them as close to aghast as a person gets about a 19th-century English novel) and said, “Haven’t you read that yet?”

Well, I have, actually. I read it in 10th grade, which in my school system was British literature, and I didn’t understand it well or like it much (though I won’t enumerate my painfully lame complaints for you), and besides that’s [mumbles, counts on fingers] 27 years ago now. Time for a re-read, surely?

This novel takes place right around the turn of the 19th century (that is, about 60 years before George Eliot was writing it) in a rural village called Hayslope. The plot mostly follows four characters: the young, extremely pretty and self-centered Hetty Sorrel, her unacknowledged suitor Adam Bede, the young squire Arthur Donnithorne (also unhappily smitten), and a fervent, virtuous, and gentle young Methodist lay preacher named Dinah Morris. This brief overview doesn’t give even a hint at the complexity of the novel and its many minor characters, or the deep relationships that tie the community together, or the humor underlying many of its scenes, but stay with me, okay?

Almost the first thing that struck me about Adam Bede (despite the title) was the primacy of the female characters. Several characters try to convince Dinah that she ought to move away from her home in Stonyfield, because she doesn’t have family there and could be more comfortable and happy in Hayslope. One or two characters try to intimate that her Methodist bonnet is unflattering. No one during the entire novel, so far as I can remember, tries to convince her that her vocation is invalid, tells her that her sermons are stupid or too emotional, or shows her a Bible verse that says women should be silent in church. Mrs. Poyser, Dinah’s aunt, is outspoken (particularly about men) to a degree that ought to be offensive or even impossible, but her husband is manifestly proud of her and of the way she runs their dairy. She speaks up even to someone who ought to be her “better” (the old squire Donnithorne), and never considers herself too unworthy to have a voice. Even Hetty may be young, vain, and foolish, but she’s not an idiot. In Eliot’s hands, no female character is a caricature, and every one has more resilience, strength, and wisdom than it first appears.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the intertwining of class, gender, and religion in the power relationships that form and re-form. (George Eliot: intersectional since 1859!) Adam Bede is older than Arthur Donnithorne; he taught Arthur what he knows about carpentry and cabinetmaking when Arthur was a child. Now, Arthur is offering Adam a good job on his estate, and Adam is properly grateful — no upsetter of the status quo, is Adam. When Arthur trifles with Hetty’s affections (and worse — the scene in which Arthur puts a pale pink neckerchief in the waste basket is heartbreaking), however, Adam has no second thoughts. Honor takes precedence over gratitude, old friendship, and social class. It’s the same with Dinah. She is perfectly content to sit quiet and unnoticed, and has no aspirations to be a gentlewoman. But when some soul needs her, she simply assumes that her calling is a password anywhere she wishes to go, barriers of class, gender, power, education, and religion notwithstanding. The scenes of actual education are interesting in this regard: grown men struggling to learn their alphabet or the basics of arithmetic. What arcane passwords are they learning, in the face of the established order?

As with the other novels I’ve read by Eliot (Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss), the prose in Adam Bede is glorious. She uses a rural dialect for characters like Adam and Mrs. Poyser, which slowed down my reading a bit, and I was glad to be slowed down when I got to passages like this first description of Dinah:

There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations; they had the liquid look which tells that the mind is full of what it has to give out, rather than impressed by external objects. She stood with her left hand towards the descending sun, and leafy boughs screened her from its rays; but in this sober light the delicate colouring of her face seemed to gather a calm vividness, like flowers at evening. It was a small oval face, of a uniform transparent whiteness, with an egg-like line of cheek and chin, a full but firm mouth, a delicate nostril, and a low perpendicular brow, surmounted by a rising arch of parting between smooth locks of pale reddish hair. The hair was drawn straight back behind the ears, and covered, except for an inch or two above the brow, by a net Quaker cap. The eyebrows, of the same colour as the hair, were perfectly horizontal and firmly pencilled; the eyelashes, though no darker, were long and abundant—nothing was left blurred or unfinished. It was one of those faces that make one think of white flowers with light touches of colour on their pure petals. The eyes had no peculiar beauty, beyond that of expression; they looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer could help melting away before their glance.

But I could have chosen any passage, really: a description of a birthday feast for Arthur, a description of Hetty decking herself in her cheap finery to look pretty for a fair, a description of the July landscape. It’s all precise, detailed, beautiful, full of symbolism and small connections with the reader.

I think it would be easy to get lost in that skillful prose, that beautiful rural landscape, and forget that this book is a tragedy. Hetty’s terrible journey while extremely pregnant, to find the father of her child and find out what to do next, is horribly painful to read. The sequel, when she is seeking suicide but is too firmly alive to find the requisite despair, is worse; the finale of that journey, when she murders her child instead of herself (and is persecuted by the child’s cries, which can only be in her mind) is chilling unto the bone. The scene in the prison when Dinah brings back a mentally and emotionally traumatized woman to the land of the living through the power of love, is (in my view) the most moving of the novel, only marred by Arthur Donnithorne’s hero complex. No Arthur, you do not get to be the savior today.

I remember when I was in 10th grade, I didn’t understand the logistics of why Hetty disappeared. Now I do — her sentence was commuted — but I still think it is taking the easy way out. Either she should have died, or she should have come back to her community, so that everyone could face the pain and grief. “Out of sight, out of mind” for both transgressors is a little too simple.

But by saying that, I don’t want to take away from also saying that this was a wonderful novel, layered and beautiful and complex. The fact that I wanted there to be even more of it is a testimony to how good it was. I don’t know why I haven’t read all I can of Eliot by now (perhaps that’s what my friends were really asking me? I’m not sure.) But I will. Oh, I will.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 16 Comments

This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you

this-isnt-the-sortAs soon as I read Teresa’s review of Jon McGregor’s book of short stories, This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, it was on my TBR list. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to read: short stories in which the author is doing something odd with the medium, playing with form, engaging the reader in interesting ways while still telling a real story. I don’t mind if it’s weird, or if I get to it around several corners; in fact I like it, and I think short stories are a particularly sustainable way to do weird things. Extra points for a little menace. Menace, to me, adds flavor.

The stories in this collection, as you might guess from the title, revolve around what is not: the unrevealed, the undone, the hidden. Many of the stories work so well because what is hidden from the narrator was open to me. In “Watching Over the Sheep,” for instance, the male protagonist has come to see his daughter in a school nativity play. I could see during the first paragraph that he’s trouble, and my conviction (even dread) grew through the rest of the story as I picked up one cue after another from his internal monologue. He, however, is blind to those cues — and when he thinks that “someone is going to be asked, in no uncertain terms, to explain,” I realized that no explanation will ever be enough. “Wave and Call,” the story Teresa described in her review, is like this: we understand the protagonist’s fate long before he does himself, and the story is both gripping and wrenching because of it.

Sometimes I knew less than the narrator did, carried along on the current of the story. Stories that played with form, like “What Happened to Mr. Davison,” a brisk mistakes-were-made speech given to a neighborhood society following a traumatic event, or “Supplementary Notes to the Testimony of Appellants B and E” (which consisted only of footnotes, and I had to imagine the text they were appended to) were like this. I had to work at creating a version of what happened, when everyone in the story already knew. What was the truth this person was trying to hide, or spin, or manage? How awful could it be?

Sometimes — in my favorite stories — the truth was equally hidden to me and to the people in the story, and we worked it out together. In “Wires,” a young woman who has just been in a car accident involving a rogue sugar beet has to determine her own real danger. In “Which Reminded Her, Later,” an American woman — a total stranger — comes to stay with a vicar and his wife for several months and actively refuses to make any sort of personal connection, including sharing her name. In “If It Keeps On Raining,” a man observes the river near his home and slowly, slowly reveals the pattern of his thoughts — it may sound dull, but for me it was the most interesting story of the entire collection.

This was a satisfying collection to read. The stories were all very different from each other, and all interesting. I enjoyed the entire thing, and found it well-written and well-balanced. I will say that I probably would have liked them even more if I hadn’t read George Saunders’s Tenth of December. Saunders writes in a similar vein, and plays with form like this, but his stories are even better: he digs deeper into the weirdness and wickedness of human behavior, and he finds, eventually, some form of hope. I’d recommend both collections to you. Do you know more authors who write like this? I could read this stuff all  day long.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

The Wee Free Men / A Hat Full of Sky

Wee Free MenJust a week after deciding she wanted to be a witch, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching had her first chance to test her powers when she spotted a group of six-inch-tall men being chased up the river by a green-haired creature with sharp teeth. Using her younger brother Wentworth as bait, she lured the creature into her path and knocked it out with a frying pan. Tiffany would have no such ridiculousness on her farm. And when her brother is later kidnapped by a fairy queen, Tiffany is determined to get him back, not because she likes the sticky little annoyance, but because he is hers and the queen has no right to take him.

Tiffany’s practical, no-nonsense attitude is one of the things that makes these books great fun. She’s willing to roll along with events, no matter how outrageous they seem, but when she decides something needs correcting, she won’t stop. Her adaptability enables her to get along with the Nac Mac Feegle, the thieving fairies who claim “Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master!” She doesn’t necessarily approve of their thieving, but she recognizes their sense of honor and sees that they know things that can be useful to her. She also teams up with a toad who may once have been human and Miss Perspicacia Tick, a witch who discovered Tiffany’s talents when looking for a witch on the inauspicious chalk lands where Tiffany lives.

The story in The Wee Free Men, Tiffany’s first adventure, is extremely loopy. What logic there is in the plot is hard to find and follow. This is largely because so much of it takes place in the land of dreams, but I admit that reading this on a family vacation, when I was prone to nap and easily distracted by family chatter and activity, probably didn’t help. Still, I enjoyed the book for its characters and for Pratchett’s comic voice. Tiffany won me over early on in this dialogue with a traveling teacher she consults for information about the green-haired creature in the river:

“Hello, little girl,” he said, which was only his first big mistake. “I’m sure you want to know all about hedgehogs, eh?”

“I did this one last summer,” said Tiffany.

The man looked closer, and his grin faded. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember. You asked all those … little questions.”

“I would like a question answered today,” said Tiffany.

“Provided it’s not the one about how you get baby hedgehogs,” said the man.

“No,” said Tiffany patiently. “It’s about zoology.”

“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?”

“No, actually, it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

Hat Full of SkySo I liked that Tiffany is something of a smart ass, and even if I found the plot of The Wee Free Men nonsensical, I liked her enough to read the second book, A Hat Full of Sky. In this book, Tiffany goes away for witch training with Miss Level, a witch who uses her power to bring aid and comfort to her neighbors, usually through such mundane activities as visiting and bringing by some extra food. It hardly seems like witchcraft at all, but in the world of these novels, witchcraft is really about seeing what is really there and responding. Some witches focus on spells and mysticism, but the great Mistress Weatherwax assures Tiffany that such activities aren’t the point:

Mrs. Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colors and wands and … and toys, nothing but toys!” She sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”

Even though the witchcraft in these books is focused on practical help, there’s no lack of magic. Tiffany herself has learned, all on her own, a spell that uses her gift of seeing to allow her to see herself. But that spell carries a danger that Tiffany is entirely unaware of. In this case, the magic takes advantage of Tiffany’s own insecurities, turning her worst self against her best self. Her friends the Nac Mac Feegles see the danger coming, and they act to help Tiffany.

The storyline of A Hat Full of Sky is more coherent than in the previous book. It helps that the main conflict involves a typical human problem, with the magical elements being a metaphor for our own moral dilemmas brought to vivid life. There are some baggy bits, particularly those involving an unlikely relationship that developed in between the two books. This relationship takes on greater significance than seems likely, given the characters’ actions and attitudes in the first book. And Tiffany’s memories of her Granny Aching seem muddled to me. I think that’s a mystery meant to continue throughout the series, however, so the confusion is intentional.

Tiffany herself, along with the Nac Mac Feegles and other characters, is what makes these books worth reading. Even if the plot doesn’t always make sense to me (and this may be my own fault), the characters are such fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while reading these books. I’ve been interested in reading Terry Pratchett for years but hesitant because the Discworld universe is so vast, but this series, while part of the Discworld series, stands well enough on its own.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 14 Comments

No One Is Here Except All of Us

no one is hereThis book by Ramona Ausubel opens on a tiny, isolated village in Romania in 1939. The citizens are about to learn of the doom that awaits them, but there are no warning signs:

One Friday evening, the sun hung heavy and waiting to drain, syrupy, into the wheat fields. Men walked home carrying evidence of the day — a scythe, a leather satchel full of needle-nose tools, a roll of receipts, a bag of cabbages, an empty lunch box. At the door, children like me had scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit. “Shabbat shalom,” we children said to our fathers. “Good Sabbath,” the fathers said.

When a mysterious stranger arrives, bearing news of death and destruction coming their way, the town must decide what to do. Flee? Where? Hide? Impossible. The stranger’s advice (along with the 11-year-old narrator’s): start over. The Jews have always been a people of new beginnings: after Eden, after the flood, after Sodom, after Babylon, after the diaspora. Start again. Tomorrow will be the very first day of a new universe in which the people of this town are the only people on earth, new-created. They will accept a small, circumscribed universe, with none of the glory and none of the exotic animals, in return for being kept safe.

There are several false starts. The townspeople have never tried to create a new world before, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. There are joys and misunderstandings and some genuine heartbreak, and of course the old traditions find their way back in, some of the time. But the heart of the effort is in the storytelling: the old stories are all forgotten by necessity, and the new stories can be whatever they desire. We build a temple to the Lord in the barn, for humility. This is a new constellation, for mercy and justice.

Up to this point, I was feeling quite restive and uneasy about this book. I couldn’t settle down to it. It’s prettily written, with a lot of the list-y sort of prose that you can see in the excerpt above, and a kind of lovely dreamy tone to it — very much a storytelling voice. There was enough going on in the village to keep me interested and reading, too. But I really could not get behind a book that was going to give the message that you can shape your reality by the story you tell about it, if that meant you could escape the Holocaust by explaining that you had created your own universe. I mean, the stories we tell are crucial in many ways but they do not actually fend off the Gestapo.

But then, more than halfway through, things change for the village, and for the now-adult narrator, in ways they had feared and anticipated but couldn’t precisely have predicted. Their practice in storytelling, and more vitally in starting over, becomes a shield and a weapon through some of the most terrifying and heartbreaking experiences of their lives: they are allowed to listen to their own stories, and to trust, sacrifice, float, weep, and be exiled accordingly.

I don’t always give contemporary authors very much credit, I admit. But I should have given my friend Laura, who recommended this book to me, all the credit she deserves. This book turned out to be strong, intelligent about engaging its faith and its history, well written, and dead-on about the way we rely on our self-created universe when everything has gone wrong. People sometimes say that a work of art looks at a horror like the Holocaust “unflinchingly.” Well, this book flinches — it weeps — and it should. But it doesn’t distort or deflect. I’m glad I read it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments

Beasts

otherwiseBeasts is the second novel I read this summer in Otherwise, the omnibus collection of John Crowley’s three early works. It pictures our own near-future world, in which resources are scarce and politics have taken a drastic shift. One of these shifts, which gets at not just politics but involves a recent scientific accomplishment: the government has created human-animal hybrids, the most successful of which are lion-human hybrids called leos. Now the powerful Union for Social Engineering (USE) wants to study them, categorize them, eliminate them from the world’s accounting.

The novel draws together three thick, complex threads. First is from the point of view of Loren, who used to rear peregrine hawks before his funding ran out. He is given the education and training of a wild, intelligent young man named Sten and his cousin Mika, in order (he gradually discovers) to fit them for the constellations of government. The second describes Genesis Preserve, a community that has drawn itself apart from the violent world:

Utterly self-contained, it replaced what it used of Earth’s body exactly, borrowing and returning water and food by a nice reckoning. And yet the air was troubled by its mass; stuck up into the sea of air like an immense stirring-rod, it could raise and distort winds wildly. Once a year or so a vast pane of amber-tinted glass, faultily made, was sucked by wind from its place and went sailing out over the Preserve for hundreds of yards before it landed. When that happened, they went out and found it, every splinter, and melted it, and used it again.

This community sees itself as loving the earth, in harmony with it, hurting nothing. But when the crisis comes, their pristine isolation may have served to cut them off from the earth rather than letting them really know it.

The third thread is from the point of view of an indentured servant (essentially a slave, as her contract can be bought and sold) named Caddie, who is given over to serve a leo named Painter. At first, his nature, his goals, his personality (his animality?) are completely hidden from her because they are so other. These are not people in furry suits; Crowley does not sentimentalize or patronize. This is alien; this is animal. But as Caddie spends more time with him, forging her way deeper into the wilderness, she and the reader begin to understand better what Painter’s life and plans are all about.

The work of the novel is to weave these three threads together, warp and weft, man and animal, animal and man. The thrust of the novel — the place Crowley puts all the weight of his astonishing prose and the force of his ideas — is to convey the isness of the animal-human hybrids: the leo, the kingmaker Reynard, the dog Sweets. He writes from their point of view, consciousness and instinct, animality and personality mingled, and he also writes about the deep, intimate, troubling reactions they awake in humans. Meric, one of the men from Genesis Preserve, observes the leos bathing in the river and laughing in the sun:

Meric, estranged on the bank, felt dirty and evanescent, and yet privileged. He had wondered about the girl, how she could choose to be one of them when she so obviously couldn’t be; how she could deny so much of her own nature in order to live as they did. He saw now that she had done no such thing. She had only acceded to their presence, lived as nearly as she could at their direction and convenience, like a dog trying to please a beloved, contrary, wilful, godlike man, because whatever self-denial that took, whatever inconvenience, there was nothing else worth doing. Inconvenience and estrangement from her own kind were nothing compared to the privilege of hearing, of sharing, that laughter as elemental as the blackbird’s song or the taste of flesh.

Usually, when this type of question arises in a science-fiction novel, it is phrased, “What makes us human?” Clones, robots, mutants — who is a person? In this book, it’s aslant. What makes us human, yes. But what makes us animals, and is that equally sacred? What do we have the right to call monstrous? Can someone be a slave to an animal? Is that different from being a slave to a human being, and why? If we use animals as test subjects, can we use an animal-human hybrid, who has awareness and can talk to us and has a family? What if we classify him as having a low IQ and no loyalty to the scientific community who created him? Can we test him, then? What is education and training for, if it unfits us to be free?

Loren teaches Sten and Mika how to think about politics, how to know monster from man, how to identify an assassin, how to tame a hawk, but the cousins are as wild as hawks themselves, judging justice and mercy on their own terms. Sten, in a moment of rebellion against Loren’s teaching, sets the hawk free, knowing that once he has tasted the air, he will never return to a master’s hand. It’s only then that the three threads begin to converge: human politics, Genesis Preserve, the pride. This novel considers who will inherit the earth: the King of Beasts or the lords of creation. It’s a marvel.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Elizabeth and Hazel

David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, revolves around the by-now iconic civil rights photograph of two fifteen-year-old girls:

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This photo, taken by journalist Will Counts, shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who were denied entrance to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Behind her is Hazel Bryan Massery, in a crowd of other Little Rock citizens, shouting racial epithets at Elizabeth. Both those faces became representations of the South at that time: dignified perseverance and sorrow on the part of African-Americans; insane rage and hate on the part of white people.

elizabeth_and_hazelMargolick spends the book exploring what happened after the shutter clicked — after that moment in time became unfrozen. Teresa’s review of this book from 2011 does a wonderful job summing it up: Elizabeth’s experiences at Central High School were profoundly scarring, and led her to a life weighed down by depression, disability, poverty, and fear. Though she eventually found her voice, it took decades for her to begin to use it for her own, or anyone else’s, advocacy.

Hazel, on the other hand, began to think about the consequences of her actions almost immediately. In the light of the 1960s and 1970s, she rethought racial and gender privilege and was eager to take responsibility for her own actions. She even called Elizabeth in 1963 to apologize for her share in what happened at Central High, long before the ambient temperature of the South had cooled down for race relations. Later still, the two women became friends — what a moment of hope for Little Rock, especially during the Clinton years! — and then, more quietly, the friendship fell apart again in a haze of wariness and misunderstandings. What does this say about race in America?

It’s interesting, of course, to find out what happened to the subjects of an iconic moment. We know what happened to all the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, for instance, while we don’t know what happened to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” Margolick takes the significance of this particular photograph and, in my opinion, pushes it pretty hard. The history of the Little Rock Nine and their treatment at Central High is fascinating and important, and I also think it’s vital to know that it was not an inspiring and uplifting experience for all civil rights pioneers. Could most children have gone through constant harassment and isolation and violence, even for a year, without succumbing to it? I know that I couldn’t, and that’s with all my privilege and support network. I’d have liked to see Margolick expand his thoughts about the power structures at play: it wasn’t just Elizabeth’s depression that made her leave Knox College, for instance, but the fact that she was almost the only African-American student there. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s depression that caused her son’s “suicide by cop,” but a whole delicate interplay of poverty, welfare, mental health, gun control, and other matters that frequently pivot on race.

Later, though, when Margolick begins to analyze the friendship between the two women, the gears slip a bit. I understand why there was pressure for these two to meet and be friends. But what did they really have in common? Not upbringing, history, religion, education, or a circle of friends. If the only thing, culturally or in my background, that I had in common with another woman was a love of flowers, I doubt we would ever be close. Margolick puts the weight of the entire racial tension of the United States on the state of friendship of two women who were caught in the same photo at the same time. It’s far too much. They’ve gone from one iconic photo to another, and neither treats them as individuals.

I agree with some of Margolick’s conclusions about race in America. I think that sometimes, some white people have gotten bored with the push for equal rights, and would like to see some gratitude for all the hard work and good faith they’ve put in, not realizing how very far that attitude has to go to attain any version of equality. It’s the same with this book. As important as the topic is, if we believe both Elizabeth and Hazel are unique human beings, equal to each other and to all of the rest of us, how can we expect their friendship to mean anything more than our own friendships, which come and go, like our lives and our love?

Posted in Biography, History, Nonfiction | 12 Comments

Bad Feminist

Bad FeministIn the essay, “Bad Feminist: Take Two,” Roxane Gay writes

I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.

She then goes on to catalog some of her areas of wrongdoing: despite having a good job, she wants to be taken care of; she listens to “thuggish rap” with misogynistic lyrics, she loves pink, she shaves her legs, she knows nothing about cars, she loves the excess of weddings—and so on.

Is there a feminist in the world who could not generate such a list of ways we’re supposedly doing it wrong? I doubt it. The image some have of feminism is indeed limiting, which is perhaps why so many women still feel a need to say, “I’m not feminist, but” before making some feminist statement. Gay is not shunning the label of feminist in this collection. Not at all. What she is doing is acknowledging that she is an individual woman with her own opinions and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. That, all on its own, makes her a good feminist. Even if she sometimes wants to sing along to “Blurred Lines.”

I’d read several of Gay’s essays online before getting the e-galley of this collection. In fact, this collection includes two of her essays that I’d found particularly memorable—“The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” (about trigger warnings) and “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help.” Gay’s essays frequently explore some aspect of contemporary culture through a black, feminist lens. In a direct and thoughtful voice, she considers such subjects as sexual violence, racial profiling, and gay rights. Her topics come from the day’s headlines, best-seller lists, and TV ratings charts—whatever is a subject of conversation.

One of the things I like about Gay’s writing is that she’s able to be both passionate and measured. It’s a difficult thing to do—and both aspects of her voice are equally important. She’s often angry about subjects to which the only proper response is anger. How else should we react when women are treated as objects to be groped without any consideration of consent? In “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” an essay about misogyny in popular music, Gay writes, “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.” But Gay reserves that level of fury for the most deserving targets. This collection is not all indignation all the time. When she writes about how Orange Is the New Black falls short in its depiction of black woman, her tone is one of disappointment and frustration that the bar is so low.

Although I liked the collection overall, not all the essays are hits. I think Gay is at her best when she chooses just one or two targets to focus on. Essays like “Not Here to Make Friends” and “How We All Lose” that tried to tackle multiple works on a similar theme ended up seeming overly long and rambling. In both cases, her excellent main points got lost in lots of plot summary.

I should also note that some may find it better to read the essays one or two at a time, rather than all at once, as I ended up doing. After reading Kim’s review, I decided to slow my reading pace down because the first chunk of essays that I read were leaving me exhausted. But as I read on, the essays got shorter (or seemed shorter because they were more focused), and I was able to pick up my pace without finding the reading tedious. In fact, I ended up having trouble putting it down. (Interestingly, Kim seemed to like the earlier essays better than the later ones, but she attributes that to reading them all at once.) As someone who’s admired Gay’s writing for years, I was glad to get a chance to read more.

E-galley received for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 20 Comments