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Dreams and Shadows

May 26, 2020

IMG_3978During the time of isolation a friend sent me two fantasy books, the first one entitled Dreams and Shadows. It’s a 2014 novel by C. Robert Cargill and I enjoyed its humorous mix of fantasy with explanations about the nature of the supernatural characters, provided in the form of fictional excerpts from A Chronicle of the Dreamfolk by Dr. Thaddeus Ray, PhD.

The introduction sets the humorous tone, starting with “once upon a time, there were two people who fell very much in love” and ending with one of them finding a changeling in the crib of their baby, Ewan: “she could see the creature’s yellow, catlike eyes—black slits where the pupils should be—glowing in the dark of his crib. The creature who took Ewan, a “Bendith Y Mamau” is then described in the next chapter: “pronounced ‘ben-dish uh mo-may,’ a Welsh phrase meaning ‘mother’s blessing,’ they are the chief child thieves of any fairy court, and the first to whom a community will turn when they desire fresh infants.”

Next we get the story of a little boy named Colby who finds a djinn named Yashar in the woods near his house, the story of the djinn, purported to be excerpted from a fictional work entitled “Timm’s Lost Tales: The Arabian Fables,” and the story of how Colby makes a wish. This is where the fantasy starts to have stakes, to make you care about the characters. Yashar warns Colby that
“monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares. They’re jealous viziers. They are the things that we harbor within ourselves”….Yashar leaned in closer, poking a single stern fingers into Colby’s chest. “One day there may be a monster here. One with the teeth of a shark, the strength of a lion, and the cruelty only a man can bring to bear.”
Colby’s wish is to see all the supernatural creatures Yashar has told him about: “Fairies, angels, wizards. I wanna see ‘em all. That’s my wish.”

Readers are then taken with Colby to fairyland, and see some of the glamorous and fearsome creatures who live there, followed by Dr. Thaddeus Ray’s analysis of why the fairy creatures are so dangerous to humans:
“It would seem that these creatures feel emotion only to serve an end: to feed. Like a human being feels a rumble in its stomach to alert him to the need for food, a forest spirit feels love, jealousy, or anger. In this way they are both drawn to their food and possess the means to lure it to its doom.”

We get Dr. Ray’s version of the Tithe, a seemingly accurate description of how it works for the fairy folk in Cargill’s fantasy version of fairyland, a place called The Limestone Kingdom, and how it affects Ewan, a stolen human child raised on fairy milk. And finally comes the complete story of what happened to Ewan’s parents, how he stumbles into a love triangle with his changeling, Knocks, and a fairy maiden named Mallaidh, and how he meets and befriends Colby.

At the end of Book One, 200 pages into the novel, Colby has saved Ewan from the fate the fairies intended for him and the two boys have promised to be best friends forever. Yashar and Colby have “walked into the night, away from the first of their many adventures together. And while they did, in fact, go on many more adventures—taking them to many other great and terrible places—this was not where this adventure truly ended for Colby Stevens; for just as all little boys must grow bigger, so too must their problems.”

After another excerpt from Thaddeus Ray–about “dreamstuff” and “soulstuff,” which includes the information that a supernatural being is “comprised almost entirely of dreamstuff”– the adventures of Colby as a young man living in Austin, Texas begin. It’s clear that Cargill himself lives in Austin. He describes spring as Colby’s favorite time of year:
“It was still early in the season, when the days could get well into the high seventies, but the nights were a brisk, wintery forty-five. Austin weather was like that this time of year: dysfunctionally bipolar. It was a time of year trapped perfectly between two very different world. And Colby Stevens felt a certain kinship with that.”

The love story of Ewan and Mallaidh continues, except that Ewan has now forgotten most of what happened to him in fairyland and Mallaidh is pretending to be a human girl named Nora. Ewan is playing in a band he calls Limestone Kingdom and even though he doesn’t realize it, Nora knows that “they were fairy tunes she remembered from childhood.” And Ewan meets Knocks again, the changeling who was left in his place and now has good reasons (reasons Ewan can’t remember) to want revenge on Ewan. Knocks is a “redcap,” and ultimately he succeeds in making Ewan one, too, although not before Colby once again bargains for Ewan’s life. This time he gives a speech to the Limestone King and his Council:
“It was your fairies who took him from my world, your fairies who robbed him of his humanity, you yourself who put him on the sacrificial stone, and now it is your fairies again who set out to slaughter him for offenses he has not committed. You came into our world, you stole our child, and now you pretend that it is your place to judge his fate.”

Coyote gets more involved in the action, although no one ever knows what side he is taking or what his purpose might be. He rebukes Colby for thinking that he could take a side in a dispute that he sees as “putting bumblebees in jars to watch them fight.” He provides the serious perspective in Book Two, as Yashar did in Book One, saying
“The trouble with human beings is that when examining the actions of others, they always apply their own ethics and point of view, hoping to understand them in the context of what they might do and why they might do such a thing. When no answer lies in that examination, they always ascribe malice. Malice, you see, is the only thing people understand without explanation. You are born with it and thus come to expect it.
Do you know the difference between a good man and a great man? A good man looks around at his brothers, sees their ignorance, finds himself horrified by it, and sets out to educate them. A great man instead finds himself elated by realizing that his brothers will never know any better, using it to his advantage to forge an army of the ignorant, fighting to leave the world a better place. Ignorance is the only one truly unstoppable force in this world. And the only difference between a despot and a founding father is that the founding father convinces you that everything he does was your idea to begin with and that he was acting at your behest all along. Yes, people are sheep. Big deal. You need to stop trying to educate the sheep and instead just steer the herd.
No one wants to admit that they’re not smart enough to understand what’s going on, so they create such elaborate fictions to convince themselves otherwise. Fairies are the construct of man and bear with them both his arrogance and his ignorance.”

Even though I quote the moralizing bits, because they’re the heart of the story, the adventure and the humor are what propel the plot, even the excerpts from Thaddeus Ray, who begins an essay “On Ghosts and Things of the Past” by intoning solemnly that “there are no such things as ghosts.”

As the story of Colby and Ewan comes to an end, Colby banishes the fairies from Austin and prohibits them from ever again paying the Tithe with snatched human children. It’s a satisfying ending to an intricately interconnected series of stories, although it is left open for a sequel, a copy of which my friend thoughtfully provided.

 

The Birdwatcher

May 24, 2020

IMG_3968Crime novels are not my usual fare, but after reading about William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher at Café Society, I picked it up on an early summer afternoon to find myself absorbed.

The birdwatcher, William South, is also a detective; he believes that the note-taking techniques developed for birdwatching are also useful to the accumulation of detail he needs in his work for the Kentish police force. His story is interspersed with a story from his childhood in northern Ireland, until the two come together as he reveals the mystery of what can drive a person to kill and solves the mystery of who killed his friend and fellow birdwatcher.

The accumulation of detail serves William’s purpose, but it does produce an occasional dead end, significant in the way of details revealed in fiction only for revealing something about the state of the protagonist’s mind. For example:
“he saw ahead of him an old black Rover 90. Normally he wouldn’t have even noticed the car. Today it looked shiny and malign. Familiar.
It was driving at 40 m.p.h. along the clearway. As he passed it, South’s hands tightened on the wheel and he felt his stomach turning somersaults, but when he looked left, all he saw was a woman of about seventy dressed in a pink lace hat, hands on the steering wheel. She turned and smiled at him.
What was wrong with him? It was just a car.”
In the next chapter, told from the point of view of his younger self, Billy, we relive a frightening memory of a man who gets out of “a black Rover 90, one of those old-fashioned, round, heavy cars his father hated.”

Even the birds he sees reveal William’s state of mind:
“the redwings were starting to come through in larger numbers now. He sat in his police car at Greatstone and watched some brent geese passing far out at sea. The swallows were still going south in numbers, later than usual this year. Nothing was reliable. Something was broken.”

In the end, which comes much more quickly than I expected, William’s personal and professional lives come together over his concern for the daughter of a colleague:
“He walked down the road trying to guess which house the party would have been in. If he did find out which house it was, what was he planning to do? He was not sure. People here had money. This was an enclave of the rich. Excuse me, but are your friends bullying a policeman’s daughter?”
He follows his instincts, which have been developed by the habit of noticing if a bird is out of place, and finally the reader gets the satisfaction of seeing him find the murderer of his friend and “confronting him with the fact that everything he’d built up was a lie,” which applies to more than one of the characters in the novel.

Full of suspense, red herrings, and an albino buzzard, this could be the one crime novel you want to read this year.

The Sense of an Ending

May 19, 2020

IMG_3960Finally it’s warmed up enough to sit outside and read; on Saturday afternoon the sun came out over Ohio and it was excrutiatingly lovely, with azaleas blooming and the breeze scattering apple blossom petals across the deck. I picked out The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes to read outside, as I recently saw someone say “it’s exquisite…perfect.” Perhaps they meant a perfect portrait of selfishness; I found it mawkish, narrated by a self-absorbed baby boomer.

The title of Barnes’ novel is not only a reference to Frank Kermode’s 1967 lecture series entitled The Sense of an Ending, but also to the time period in which the novel is set. Here’s yet another book by a person who came of age in the sixties, narrated by a character who at least realizes that he was born at a time when “you somehow assumed that a decent degree would ensure a decent job, sooner or later.”

The narrator, Tony, surmises that because his college girlfriend didn’t communicate well with him and started dating one of his friends after their breakup that she must have suffered some kind of damage growing up. He believes that “we all suffer damage….How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions?” Despite the fact that he marries and has a child, Tony continues to obsess over the college girlfriend, Veronica. He spent one weekend at her house with her family and it colors the rest of his life, although it’s not clear why because nothing much happens. He makes much of small gestures, like that Veronica’s mother flips an egg into the trash can after breaking the yolk.

Some of the narrator’s musing is interesting, like that “this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” But the details he obsesses over are not as interesting to readers as they are for him, especially because he can never ask anyone straight out what they’re thinking. He seems to prefer to wonder.

After wondering for a while, the narrator begins to remember things he had forgotten, as if he’s filling in the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. On the very first page, we’re told that he remembers “in no particular order:
–a shiny inner wrist;
–steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
–gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
–a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams”
The river running “upstream” is the Severn Bore, and the thing he remembers that he had forgotten is that he saw it with Veronica.

Tony creates mysteries concerning Veronica’s behavior and then sets out to solve them without asking her anything. He makes himself increasingly ridiculous and eventually even repellent with conversational remarks like “there are a lot of fat people around nowadays. Obese. That’s one of the changes since we were young, isn’t it?”

Although Tony accuses Veronica of “inability to imagine anyone else’s feelings or emotional life” it’s Tony himself who is not capable of looking at anything outside his own experience. At some point it becomes obvious to the reader that Tony is an unreliable narrator. He believes that other people are “damaged” because he is, and he spends his time trying to figure out why and how something happened in the past while being insensitive to the needs of anyone else in the present.

By the time this narrator gets to his final musings, he thinks he understands more about his life; he has finally put together what happened during and after the weekend with Veronica’s family. I think his struggle illustrates the dangers of too much time spent on introspection.

He concludes that “you get towards the end of life—no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” He asks that question of himself but I would suggest that if he really wants answers, he should ask that question of someone else who could answer. What he seems to want is an outside witness to corroborate his version of events, but there’s no one else who has lived through all of these events, so in the end he is alone with his thoughts. And, presumably, whatever sperm he can produce to circle whatever drain he’s currently using.

Nothing could irritate me more right now than a beautifully-wrought story of a baby boomer attempting to craft an elegaic farewell after a long life filled with destruction, no matter how small the scale. Why should their generation get to have fully-rounded lives and leave everyone else to deal with the consequences of their actions? Perhaps we should be roused by reading this novel, taking steps to leave the world better off rather than simply sitting back to enjoy a few more nice days of sunshine and apple blossom before our own ending comes.IMG_3954

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

May 15, 2020

IMG_3952Last year I came home with the usual pile of books from ICFA and left some of them stuck into bookshelves around the house because I don’t have a special shelf for books I haven’t read yet. Somehow A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher got shoved out of the way and I didn’t think about it again until I read Heather’s review at Froodian Slip and went in search of my copy (which turns out to consist of uncorrected page proofs, but I’m going to quote from it anyway to show you how great this book is). The only reason I’m not kicking myself for not reading it sooner is that now is the perfect time to read it.

The worldbuilding is one of the best things about A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World. No one knows what caused the “end of the world” although the narrator, Griz, has heard “as many theories as there were suddenly childless people—a burst of cosmic rays, a chemical weapon gone astray, bio-terror, pollution (you lot did make a mess of your world), some kind of genetic mutation passed by a space virus or even angry gods in pick-your-own-flavour for those who had a religion. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ slowly became less important as people got used to the ‘what’, and realized the big final ‘when’ was heading towards them like a storm front that not even the fastest, the richest, the cleverest or the most powerful were going to be able to outrun. The world—the human part of it—had been gelded or maybe turned barren—perhaps both—and people just stopped having kids. That’s all it took.” Griz is an outlier, explaining that “maybe 0.0001 per cent of the world population somehow escaped the Gelding.”

The first-person narration is masterful and this becomes more apparent the farther you read. The narrator explains that Griz is “not my real name. I have a fancier one, but it’s the one I’ve been called forever. They said I used to whine and grizzle when I was a baby.” It seems like the reader knows everything that the narrator knows despite the warnings we get about how the family–consisting of “my parents, my brother and sister, Ferg and Bar. And the dogs of course. My two are Jip and Jess”—has learned to hold their cards very close to their chests. Despite the fact that we learn that “Jess is a rarity, because dog litters seem to be all male nowadays,” we’re never told how many other dogs there might be, and we see that when the family gets a rare visitor, Ferg remains hidden in case there’s trouble. And there is trouble when the visitor drugs everyone and sails away with the dog Jess.

The island where Griz lives is “called Mingulay. That’s what it was called when you were alive. It’s off the Atlantic coast of what used to be Scotland. There’s nothing to the west of it but ocean and then America and we’re pretty sure that’s gone.” We get the sense that there’s lots of dangers: “to the north there’s Paabay and Sanday, low islands where we graze our sheep and pasture the horses. North of them is the larger island called Barra but we don’t land there, which is a shame as it has lots of large houses and things, but we never set foot on it because something happened and it’s bad land….But Dad says if you set foot on Barra now you get something much worse than an itch, and because it’s what killed his parents, we don’t go….North-east of us are a long low string of islands called the Uists, and Eriskay, which are luckier places, and we go there a lot.”

What the narrator knows is a mixture of what Griz has been told, what is in the old books Griz has access to, and what Griz can surmise to fill in the gaps. Griz calls “Dad’s obsession with technical manuals and science books ‘Liebowitzing’, after one called A Canticle for Liebowitz about monks in a devastated far future trying to reconstruct your whole world from an electrical manual found in the desert.” When something is true, Griz asserts that and adds “that’s history, and I know it not just because it was one of Dad’s favourite stories, but because I read it, not once, but in many of the books we have.”

I admired one of the incidental but interesting things Griz says about books:
“When I was little I had a stash of old illustrated magazines about superheroes. I loved them for a bit, because they were so bright and drawn with a real joy for movement and design, some so vididly that the people seemed to be about to burst out of the page and into my world. They tended to walk around in really tight clothes and however much the writers tried to hide the fact, and however much they appeared to fret about what to do, all the stories ended up in a huge fight. Dad said they were written for younger boys really. I liked them despite that, until I didn’t. And when I realized I didn’t I also knew that it was because everyting was always a set-up for a punch-up. As if the only way you could solve a problem was by hitting it. Maybe your world liked fighting so much that it thought it had to prepare kids for that by telling them those kind of stories. Or maybe it was the other way round and your world liked fighting because those were the stories you were given when your minds were young.”

The adventures Griz has while pursuing the man who stole Jess include meeting a French woman who calls herself “John Dark. Even though that wasn’t her real name, only what it sounded like. And the name it sounded like wasn’t really her name either, I discovered. It was a joke.” Griz and John Dark use a French/English dictionary to communicate with each other, and John tells Griz that she and her horses used a tunnel to get to England. Griz says “I didn’t believe her, because even if there had been a tunnel under the sea, I’m sure it would have filled with water after a hundred years or so. And that’s assuming the rising sea water hadn’t submerged the entrances and filled it that way….I didn’t mind that she was lying. I hadn’t quite told her exactly where I was from either.”

Several of the adventures entail watching the characters encounter things that Griz can’t understand but the reader knows more about. For example, John Dark comes from “between what used to be France and Switzerland” and says to Griz, in her broken English, that
“there was a big circle, underground, and it was said to be full of a brain. That seemed wrong, so after some back and forth with the dictionary we agreed that by brain she meant machines, or a computer. She had never seen them as they were locked away in a circular tunnel a hundred metres under the ground, but they must be long dead as there was no electricity to wake them up and make them remember things. Her father’s father’s father had gone down into the rock and seen the endless curve with one of the last Freemen. He had said it hummed. And then the Freemen had turned off the lights and it had stopped humming and they had left it and locked the entrance as they went.
It was a story her family told, that they had come here when the last of the old people who worked on the big underground machines were very old, and had helped them until they were gone. Those old people were Freemen. They had worked until they died, trying to make the underground ring remember so much about what humans had discovered so that it became human too.”
Griz says that “it made no sense then. It makes less sense now even though I know a little more about the Freemen and the scientist who they named themselves after.” The reader, of course, understands that this is a story about what happened at CERN with the people who worked at the Large Hadron Collider.

That Griz is a reader and sees many things in terms of stories will make most readers identify with the character. I particularly like the part of this book where Griz thinks about The Hobbit:
“I wondered if the man who wrote about the hobbit had ridden through the greenwood like this. Despite the bird noise it was a peaceful place that lulled you. Without the compass it would have been easy to get lost. It was a maze without walls, just tree-trunks and bushes, and animal tracks beaten through them. John Dark with her hood up and the grey hair escaping it, astride a similarly grey horse had, from the back, something a bit wizardish about her, and it was easy to imagine there were other eyes in the forest watching us from behind a screen of leaves or brambles. It was even easy to imagine the bigger trees looking down on us and noticing us passing. I thought a lot about that book as we wove east among the oaks and beeches, and that is certainly why I called the house we ended up taking refuge in the homely house, because that was the name of the house the travelers in the story made a much needed halt in. And the homely house we found ourselves in did, in its way, contain a kind of magic, though the magic was, in truth, just the kindness of long dead people, not immortal elves.”

There’s a twist at the end of this book and then at least three happy endings. The dog does not die. I loved it that there were so many happy endings even though so many dark things happen during Griz’s adventures, and that some of the happiest news is related starting with the sentence “We weren’t able to bury John Dark as I’d planned to.” It’s a fun story and conveys a peculiar kind of optimism during tough times.

The Blue Castle

May 12, 2020

IMG_3932Lately I read about someone enjoying L. M. Montgomery’s book for adults, The Blue Castle, but for the life of me I can’t figure out who it was and properly thank them for the pleasurable couple of hours I spent with the main character, Valancy. She has a long and gloomy prologue to her story, which worked for me during a long and gloomy time of isolation with no end in sight.

Even though Valancy is only 29 years old at the start of her story, her thoughts are familiar to much older women: “as far as she could look forward it seemed certain to be just the same until she was nothing but a solitary, little withered leaf clinging to a wintry bough. The moment when a woman realizes that she has nothing to live for—neither love, duty, purpose nor hope—holds for her the bitterness of death.” But during the course of her adventures, Valancy frees herself of the expectations of a repressive family and community; she is able to do this because she believes she doesn’t have long to live. The pleasure of the book is seeing Valancy get everything she has always wanted and more.

The sketches of Valancy’s relatives are brief but devastating. I’m especially fond of the picture of her aunt who is “a massive, dignified, permanent lady” and the one who “twisted her mouth so unpleasantly in talking and had a great reputation for unselfishness because she was always giving up a lot of things she didn’t want.” I also love hearing the conversation at a family dinner when Valancy start saying what she thinks, especially her pronouncement that “people who don’t like cats…always seem to think that there is some peculiar virtue in not liking them.”

Valancy ends up living in the woods of the Muskoka region of Ontario with a husband who also loves the woods:
“Valancy thought they were splendidly free. It was amazing to be able to sit up half the night and look at the moon if you wanted to. To be late for meals if you wanted to—she who had always been rebuked so sharply by her mother and so reproachfully by Cousin Stickles if she were one minute late. Dawdle over meals as long as you wanted to. Leave your crusts if you wanted to. Not come home at all for meals if you wanted to. Sit on a sun-warm rock and paddle your bare feet in the hot sand if you wanted to. Just sit and do nothing in the beautiful silence if you wanted to. In short, do any fool thing you wanted to whenever the notion took you. If that wasn’t freedom, what was?”
They can do all this nothing because they don’t have to work. My favorite part is when she mentions something I love when I can manage it on our summer vacations: “sometimes she put her bathing-dress on when she got up and didn’t take it off until she went to bed.”

The best part of all, though, is that at the end of her story Valancy is off to see the world. When “Valancy and Barney turned under the mainland pines in the cool dusk of the September night for a farewell look at the Blue Castle” he says “we’ll be back next summer.” That’s what can make rural life in the north bearable—the chance to be somewhere else during the long, long winters.

Valancy’s story shows how survival can depend on imagination. We may all need that in the years to come.

 

Half Magic

May 10, 2020

9780786279524-usThe demand for grocery pickup times has eased to the point where I no longer have to make use of my periodic insomnia to reserve a time, but I’ve begun to think of ordering as learning to use Half Magic, as in the book by Edward Eager.

For a few weeks it was hard to get lactose-free milk; when I ordered one I got zero. So then I tried ordering different brands with different percentages of milkfat and twice as much as I needed and ended up getting almost enough. But then one week, ordering twice as much as I needed did not produce the hoped-for half magic; I got almost as much as I’d ordered. Tortillas were like this, too. After two weeks of getting half of what I’d asked for, I asked for twice as much as I needed and then got all of it. Grocery store ordering clearly does not work by the rules of Half Magic.

The rules are fairly simple and part of the fun is seeing the children figure out how they work. The first thing Jane wishes, before she knows her wishes will come half-true, is for some excitement, but after the excitement it’s scary:
“Is Jane magic?” Martha whispered to Katharine.
“I don’t now. I think so,” Katharine whispered back.
Jane glared at them…
“Are we magic, too?”
“I don’t know. I’m scared to find out.”
Jane glared. Once more silence fell….
“Will we be burnt as witches?”
Jane whirled on them furiously.
“I wish,” she started to say.
“Don’t!” Katharine almost screamed, and Jane turned white, shut her lips tight, and started walking faster.

The narrator explains that “when you have magic powers and know it, it can be a fine feeling, like a pleasant tingling inside. But in order to enjoy that tingling, you have to know just how much magic you have and what the rules are for using it. And Jane didn’t have any idea how much she had or how to use it, and this made her unhappy.”

Before they figure out how to use the magic, the children get the benefit of their mother’s experience (she takes the magic coin with her—for that is what it is–and when she wishes she were home, she ends up half-way home). Like the ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the magic coin has a way of hopping out of peoples’ pockets or wherever they’ve put it to keep it safe and ending up in another person’s possession, so when they make a wish it is unexpectedly granted, like when the youngest child, Martha, says to the cat “oh dear, if you could only talk,” and then for a while the cat can half-talk: “Purrxx….Wah oo merglitz. Fitzahhh!”

At the point when all the other children have just about figured out how the magic coin works, one of them who doesn’t know he has it, Mark, goes past a neighbor’s yard and “he wished, as he’d often wished before, that just for once the iron dog in the yard would be alive.” When he looks at it “he thought he heard a faint muffled bark, and it seemed as though the iron tail had tried to wag.” Then when he gets to a deserted school playground “he almost—but not quite—wished it were time for school to begin again; so all the kids would be back.” At that moment the other children find him and ask “what have you been doing?” His answer is “I was just wishing we were all on a desert island.” When he finds himself on sand and asks what happened, Jane replies “you just got half a wish….Desert, yes. Island, no.” So we see that it’s tricky to know which half of the wish will be granted.

The children also learn how to put things back to rights, like the iron dog. Mark wishes
“that this dog…may be twice as alive or un-alive as it wishes to be.”
Immediately the dog stopped trembling and stood still and cold as iron (which it was again).
“Wouldn’t you think it’d rather have been real?” said Katharine in wonder.
“I guess iron things are happier being iron,” said Mark, who had learned a lot in one day.

It’s not as simple as they think, however. When Martha wishes “that Carrie the cat couldn’t talk any of the time” the cat says to her “well, you certainly messed that up….Now of course I can’t talk half the time but the rest of the time I can talk perfectly plainly, not that I want to, of course, but here I go, talk, talk, talk, and here I will go for the next thirty seconds, and then thirty seconds of silence I suppose.” Jane tries, saying “I wish that Carrie the cat may in future say nothing but the word ‘music.’” Immediately “sick!” said Carrie the cat. “Sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick.” Then finally Mark says “better let me…I’ve had practice….I wish that Carrie the cat may be exactly twice as silent as she wishes to be.” That works, as “without so much as a look of gratitude at Mark for restoring her to normalcy, she hurried off after a passing robin.”

Our cats, Tristan, Pippin, and Melian, have not yet noticed that on my recent grocery order I asked for one bag of cat food and got zero. With any luck they won’t notice because next week the Half Magic will work and I’ll order two to get one.

The Man Without a Face

May 7, 2020

IMG_3925 (1)Before November 2016, I had never done anything more political than get out to vote, but reading Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin made me regret my previous inaction even more fervently and added to it the regret that I had not followed international news very closely. I think that as an American I am not alone in this–how many of us were politically active before 2016 and how many of us paid that much attention to international news? Busy with a career and children and trying to read a book every once in a while, I didn’t make time to notice that what affects other people in the world will also eventually affect me. If I had been paying more attention I would have noticed sooner that the current American president is trying to follow almost every move in Putin’s playbook.

Gessen’s book was published in 2012, before I read news stories about people who had lived in Russia being poisoned abroad and long before the news about Russian doctors “falling” out of windows. She starts with the Yeltsin government in the late 1990’s, saying that it “made the grave mistake of not addressing the country’s pain and fear,” the same mistake many Americans, like J.D. Vance, claim as a factor in the election of the forty-fifth American president. “The people of Russia,” Gessen says, “sought solace in nostalgia,” which sounds to me like the Americans who, two decades later, bought something like solace in the form of MAGA hats.

Gessen repeatedly shows that Vladimir Putin was a nonentity before he came to power, that “everyone could invest this gray, ordinary man with what they wanted to see in him.” When Yeltsin named him prime minister of Russia on August 9, 1999, it was mostly because he was “unobjectionable.” But Gessen also points out that “incongruities of scale haunt this story. A tiny group of people, besieged and isolated, were looking for someone to take over the world’s largest landmass, with all its nuclear warheads and all its tragic history—and the only thing smaller than the pool of candidates seems to have been the list of qualifications required of them.”

Gessen carefully analyzes events I half-remember reading about and points out that Putin was manipulating the Russian people and the media to make sure the stories were told the way he wanted them to be because “this was how he understood the word patriotism—just the way he had been taught in all those KGB schools: the country is as great as the fear it inspires, and the media should be loyal.” It’s easy to imagine him passing on this point of view to his protégé American president in their private meetings. The easiest thing is always for people to keep their heads down and continue to do their work—even when that work is journalism—as Gessen relates she did, following a raid on the company she worked for: “I think it is fair to say that the roughly seventy people who worked at my magazine and the hundreds of people who worked at Gusinsky’s daily newspaper and his television channel, NTV…all knew on the day of the raid that this was the beginning of the end of Russia’s largest private media company. Yet we continued to work almost as though nothing had happened.”

Even more alarming, when Gusinsky was arrested his lawyers couldn’t figure out how to defend him: “There are no charges….I can’t even understand what the crime is supposed to be. I can’t figure out where they got the figures they cite here. Here they say the very company was created illegally, but they reference a law that contains nothing pertinent.” After this, Gessen says, “many Russian legal cases would come to look just like this one: slapped together, full of contradictions.”

Quoting Boris Berezovsky, one of Putin’s friends and supporters in the early days, Gessen shows that even those closest to him had no idea what was really going on during the time a series of bombings was being publicly blamed on the Chechens: “I can tell you with absolute sincerity that at the time I was sure it was the Chechens….It was when I came here [to London] and started looking back that I eventually came to the conclusion that the explosions were organized by the FSB. And this conclusion was based not only on logic—not even so much on logic as on facts. But at the time I did not see those facts, plus I did not trust NTV, which belonged to Gusinsky, who supported Primakov. So I did not even pay attention. And it never even occurred to me that there was a parallel game to ours—that someone else was doing what they thought was right to get Putin elected.” So many of us can say that about politics now, that “I did not even pay attention” while these things were going on and didn’t see where they might lead.

In the U.S. we were sure that the kinds of shortages we’ve read about in Russia—tobacco, sugar, meat—would never happen here. Gessen describes what happened in Russia in 1990 when there were tobacco and sugar shortages and the “most important and most difficult job” in the city administration of Leningrad was negotiating for meat imports. Then in April 2020 Americans woke up in a country with state governors trying to hide their purchases of medical equipment for fear the federal government would seize them. And now we live in a country where things that used to be available in grocery stores are no longer on the shelves–toilet paper, hand soap, flour, and now meat. It seems to me that we’re dangerously near the point that Russians reached on August 19, 1991 when a six-month state of emergency was declared, partly in response to food and housing shortages. Gessen dismisses simple explanations and conspiracy theories surrounding the story of the August coup, saying only that “different people were telling themselves different stories.” Kind of like I see on social media right now.

The other observation Gessen makes about Russia in the early 1990’s is that “Russia’s new elite was busy redistributing wealth….all of the country’s new rulers treated Russia like their personal property.” Doesn’t that sound a bit like a president who charges the country for family trips to Europe, golf outings and even secret service hotel stays at his properties? “Putin,” Gessen points out, was good “at working the politics of fear and greed.”

In the past months, Americans have seen their president imitate Putin’s characteristic method of attempting to downplay a misstep by claiming it was a joke. The American president doesn’t even try to be subtle about it, urging his supporters to drink bleach one day and on the next claiming that of course he knew bleach is poisonous when ingested. Putin is usually more subtle:
“Putin had spoken at a banquet celebrating the day the Soviet secret police was founded….’I would like to report,’ Putin said at the banquet, ‘that the group of FSB officers dispatched to work undercover in the federal government has been successful in fulfilling the first set of assignments.’ The roomful of secret police brass roared with laughter. Putin later tried to downplay it as a joke, but on the same day he had restored a memorial board on the FSB building, reminding the world that Yuri Andropov, the only secret police chief to have become secretary general of the Communist Party, had worked there.”

Americans have also seen their president apparently unconcerned about American deaths, from the killings of Americans overseas to the victims of public shootings to the thousands of coronavirus deaths. In this, he seems to be imitating Putin’s response to Russian tragedies like the sinking of the Kursk submarine, after which a television reporter, Dorenko, showed him “tanned and relaxed in light-colored resort clothing, smiling and laughing with his holiday companions” while
“again and again, he showed Putin to have lied. The president claimed that the sea had been stormy for eight days, hampering rescue efforts. In fact, said Dorenko, the weather had been bad only during the first few days, but even that had no effect at the depth at which the Kursk was situated….Dorenko cut to footage of a state television interview Putin had given….the president said that it had barely been a hundred days since he accepted the burden of running the country. In fact, Dorenko pointed out, it had been 390 days.”
Like the forty-fifth American president’s attempts to blame everything on the forty-fourth, Putin’s lies show contempt for the people of his country.

Like the coronavirus updates which function as campaign rallies for the American president, Putin used a state television channel for his campaign, causing his staff members to explain that “these…were not campaign activities but the stuff of the president’s day job.” In 2004, Putin announced that “governors would no longer be elected….Nor would members of the lower house of the parliament be directly elected….Now Russian citizens would cast their votes in favor of political parties, which would then fill their seats with ranking members….All political parties had to re-register, which meant most would be eliminated…the president would personally appoint a so-called public chamber to review all bills….After these changes became law…there remained only one federal-level public official who was directly elected: the president himself.” Is that what could be in store for other countries, after similar “emergency declarations”?

I found the story of Garry Kasparov’s attempt to restore Russian democracy in 2005 one of the saddest Gessen tells. She says that “his chess player’s memory was invaluable….He kept a running tally of the percentage of local taxes each region was allowed to keep, the problems opposition activists faced, and details of speech and behavior that he found telling. Now that local and national media existed only to spread the government’s message, information had to be gathered in this piecemeal manner.” Right now, since we can’t meet and won’t be able to carry out campaign strategies in person this fall, my local political group has resorted to using Facebook, The Site That Commits Treason & Tells You What Your Parents Are Doing. “In the end,” Gessen says of Kasparov, “his money, his fame, and his mind proved powerless against the regime….Once the institutions of democracy had been dismantled, it was impossible—it was too late—to organize to defend them.”

What’s next for the U.S.? If we follow in Russia’s footsteps, as we seem to have been doing for a while, it’s seeing events that would formerly have been unthinkable happen more and more frequently. As Gessen writes about Putin, “I am struck by how quickly and decisively he acted….Putin changed the country fast, the changes were profound, and they took easily.” One of the next steps will be killings, and not only by stochastic violence. Gessen says “the simple and evident truth is that Putin’s Russia is a country where political rivals and vocal critics are often killed, and at least sometimes the order comes directly from the president’s office.”

Another step will be arrests of those whose money the American president and his cronies see a way to seize for themselves, like the 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which was actually celebrated in Moscow: “we should…fully support [Putin] in his task of taking back control of the country from the oligarchs.” That will probably end as it has in Russia, with “the open use of Stalin-era language to mean more or less exactly what Stalin had meant: that the courts existed to do the bidding of the head of state and dole out punishment as he saw fit to those he saw fit to punish.”

The only possibility I see that the U.S. won’t end up with an authoritarian president-for-life is the possibility that the institutions of democracy in this country may not already be dismantled to the extent that they can never be rebuilt. With the president’s enablers packing the courts and limiting access to voting, however, we have only until November of this year to do something. Is there anything you can do, while there might still be time?

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