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Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Come Tumbling Down

July 13, 2020

IMG_4088This year, for the first time in memory, I couldn’t make a plan to go swimming on my birthday; the pools aren’t open and the lake beaches are too crowded. So I put a lounge chair in the back yard, set up a sprinkler on my legs, and read one of the books I got as a present, Seanan McGuire’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This is the second in her Wayward Children series and just as amusing as the others.

Jacqueline and Jillian are twins and their parents don’t know what to do with them. I liked the part when they were newly born and their mother said “you’ve had a bottle….You’ve been changed. You’ve been walked around the house while I bounced you and sang that dreadful song about the spider. Why are you still crying?” And then the narrator says that they “were crying for some of the many reasons that babies cry—they were cold, they were distressed, they were offended by the existence of gravity.”

Jack and Jill, as they are inevitably called, find a doorway into The Moors, a frightening world in which necromancy pays and vampires rule:
“There are world built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. There are worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of those things. The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.”

Jill lives with a vampire while Jack becomes the student of a mad scientist and learns how to resurrect people with lightning. I love this parenthetical remark about how resurrection works in this world: “Those who had died once and been resurrected couldn’t become vampires: whatever strange mechanism the undead used to reproduce themselves was magic, and it shied away from the science of lightning and the wheel.”

Jack falls in love with a resurrected girl named Alexis and tells her “I could give you children….You’d have to tell me how many heads you wanted them to have, and what species you’d like them to be, but what’s the point of having all these graveyards if I can’t give you children when you ask for them?”

Down Among the Sticks and Bones was an enjoyable book to read all at once on a beautiful summer afternoon.

The day after my birthday was a road trip day, as I drove my daughter back to her apartment in North Carolina after her visit with us in Ohio, spent the night there, and then drove back to my house the next day. I have improved at our non-hydrated mode of traveling to the extent that on the way back, an 8-hour drive, I stopped only twice.

The day after I got back, while re-hydrating, I read Come Tumbling Down, the fourth Wayward Children novel and a follow-up to the adventures of Jack and Jill.

Come Tumbling Down really features resurrections. Sumi, who was previously resurrected (in Beneath the Sugar Sky) is in it, along with Alexis, Jill, and a couple of horses (one of which is a skeleton and so beloved of Christopher, the boy from Mariposa, the skeleton world). Kade and Cora go along for the adventure, and when Jack is filling them in on what has happened, Cora remarks “apparently, the rest of you go around raising the dead when you don’t have anything better to do.” In fact, Alexis has been resurrected twice now, and Jack explains to Christopher, at one point, that “while she might be able to get pregnant via conventional means, neither science nor necromancy recommends she attempt to do so.”

Sumi deals with The Moors matter-of-factly and gives more than one good speech about their predicament and the necessity of them acting as heroes. Here’s one of her speeches, made when it seems Jack can’t go on:
“The world doesn’t stop spinning because you’re sad, and that’s good: if it did, people would go around breaking hearts like they were sheets of maple sugar, just to keep the world exactly where it is. They’d make it out like it was a good thing, a few crying children in exchange for a peace that never falters or fades.”

Sumi also gets in a Monty Python line when Christopher wonders why she’s willing to help Jack, saying
“her sister killed you.”
“I got better,” said Sumi airily.

Even the happy ending of Come Tumbling Down involves a resurrection, as “on the slab, the dead man—not so dead any longer—opened his eyes.”

I’ll stand by my conviction that necromancy never pays in our world, but in the frighteningly amusing world of The Moors, it’s quite routine.


Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire

July 6, 2020

IMG_4074On our long road trip to South Carolina and back we listened to Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and it was entertaining enough. I like YA books in the car because they take just the right amount of my attention.

Once we got back, I looked for other books in the series. I’d had enough of the dark worlds so I skipped the second one and went right for the third in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, in which Sumi’s daughter Rini comes back to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children to get help on her quest to rescue her mother and they find a way to get to Sumi’s door, the door to Confection.

One of the members of Rini’s rescue party is Cora, a girl with green and blue hair who came from a water world. Like all the wayward children, she has trouble re-adjusting to life in our ordinary world, but Cora has more trouble than most because she
“had been fat her entire life. She had been a fat baby, and a fat toddler in swim classes, and a fat child in elementary school. Day after day, she had learned that ‘fat’ was another way to say ‘worthless, ugly, waste of space, unwanted, disgusting….Then she had fallen into the Trenches…and suddenly she’d been beautiful. Suddenly she’d been strong, insulated against the bitter chill of the water, able to dive deeper and swim further than anyone else in the school.”
Cora keeps being afraid that the other wayward children will call her names and despise her for being fat, but she finds that they are more accepting than the children she’s met anywhere else in our world. It takes her a while, though, as she has the feelings of anyone who takes up more space in the world than others do:
“Riding in backseats always made her feel huge and worthless, taking up more space than she had any right to. The only reason she’d been able to stand it was that Nadya had been crammed into the middle, leaving Rini, still a virtual stranger, on the other side of the car. If Cora had been told she’d have to spend the entire drive pressed against someone she didn’t know, she would probably have skipped having an adventure in favor of hiding in her room.”

The rescue party goes to the underground world to which the protagonist of the first novel, Nancy, has returned. She is happy standing still for hours or even days, saying “it’s an honor and a calling, and I love it. I love it so much.” When another character says, as the reader might, “it seems stupid” Nancy replies “that’s because you weren’t called” and the narrator points out “that was true, and simple, and complete: it needed neither ornamentation nor addition.” It makes a reader think about how often we’re inclined to poke fun at what we don’t understand.

The narrator even speculates on how and why the different worlds that these children stumble into were created:
“Maybe the first baker, the girl who just wanted to make bread, had come from a place where there was never enough food, or where the bread went bad before she could eat it. So she’d baked and baked and baked, until her stomach wasn’t empty anymore, until she wasn’t afraid of starving, and then she’d gone home, having learned the only lesson that a small and empty world had to teach her.
According to Rini, Confection was like a jawbreaker. Cora thought it was more like a pearl, layers on layers on layers, all surrounding that first, all-encompassing need. Hunger was about as primal as needs got. What if all worlds were like that? What if they were all built up by the travelers who tripped over a doorway and found their way to someplace perfect, someplace hyperreal, someplace they could need? Someplace where that need could be met?”

The group eventually meets the god of Confection, the Baker, and she bakes up a new version of Sumi, despite their doubts that this can possibly work, telling them that “baking something transforms it, and anyone who’s ever eaten a piece of cake will tell you that sometimes we can take baked goods and turn them into a part of ourselves.”

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a lovely little confection of a book. After I finished reading it, Ron got the results of his post-road-trip coronavirus test: negative. And so we can go on enjoying the delights of my favorite time of year, between the fourth of July and my birthday on the eighth, for a few more delightful days.


June 29, 2020

IMG_4051Every other June, on the week that starts with Father’s Day, we go to a beach in South Carolina with our friends from college. We’ve done this for more than thirty years, starting in our twenties, when my parents and some of the friends’ parents would join us. A couple of times friends who live in Colorado and Washington state flew out to join us. As we had kids, they got to know each other from the beach trips.

We always reserve the rental houses way ahead so we can stay near each other and walk out to the beach on the same access path. For this summer we had our house reserved a year ahead of time and half paid for by January. Then came Covid. Our friends who live in Toronto couldn’t come, and that meant the ones in New Jersey, who share a house with them, couldn’t come either. Our son couldn’t come, as it would have meant flying across the entire country. Finally those of us who could drive decided that we’d drive from Ohio to South Carolina in one long day, rather than our usual day-and-a-half with a hotel stay in the middle.

We detoured to pick up our daughter in North Carolina, so our friends reached the house first, wearing their masks inside to disinfect doorknobs, light switches and countertops while opening the windows to the hot and humid breeze. By the time we arrived they were still putting away groceries, enough for the entire week, supplemented by take-out food a couple of nights.

Our usual routine is to go out to the beach as soon as we wake up, stay until noon, and then go inside the house to eat lunch, out of the noonday sun. In the afternoon we’d usually rent kayaks or walk around the market downtown in Charleston and then go out to dinner at one of its many good restaurants. This year we didn’t even go into our favorite gift shop with a resident macaw. We stayed at the beach or in the rental house and did a whole lot of nothing.

It was great. I’ve never done that much nothing. I did a lot of sitting on the beach and gazing at the ocean, watching the ghost crabs dig and the pelicans fly. When there were two strong people to help me get past the breakers, I went out into the waves. No one got too near anyone else; there was none of the cooperative play that happens when little kids meet at a tidal pool. We didn’t make a big sand castle, as we have in other years, because even at an uncrowded beach it would not have been polite to take up so much room at the edge of the water.

I read a detective novel, Salt Lane by William Shaw, over the course of the week. I didn’t read as much as usual because that’s something I can do at home where I can’t look at the waves or watch people or play games, as we did in the evenings (a few of them online so my son could join in).

One morning my daughter and I were sitting together, watching the waves and thinking about Percy Bysshe Shelley rowing a boat out to gaze at the Sublime. And I was thinking about time, about all the years I thought nothing of being able to sit in the sand or keep my footing over uneven and shifting sands to walk out into the Atlantic. We were so grateful to be able to enjoy some vestige of our vacation that we were in a very Shelley-like exclamatory mood. Like in this poem by Shelley:


Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality!

And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Unfathomable Sea?

Who shall put forth but us, me exactly twice as old as Shelley was when he died, and my daughter almost as old as he was, almost the age I was when we started our tradition of going to the beach together.



All Adults Here

June 22, 2020

IMG_4011All Adults Here, by Emma Straub, is recommended by Elizabeth Strout, according to Ann at Café Society, who loved it, so I picked it up last weekend and was agreeably entertained. Any mother of adult children will find it pretty realistic.

Soon Ron and I will be headed for the beach in South Carolina where every other summer we meet up with friends from college and our adult children. This year we’re going to be missing most of the friends (two of them live in Canada) and one of my adult children (the one living on the west coast). My oldest child is a little worried that she could be the one to expose her parents to Covid-19 so I pointed out that we’re all adults and we’re making our own choices, which seemed to make her feel a little better. But did it? One of the things that Straub’s novel shows is how differently older parents and their adult children see things.

The older parent and primary point-of-view for Straub’s novel is Astrid, whose husband  died years ago, when her oldest child was in college. She is living in a small town called Clapham somewhere “in the Hudson Valley.”

From Astrid’s point of view, the events of the novel are precipitated when a woman of approximately her own age–a woman named Barbara who she’s known all her adult life–is hit by a bus and killed. Suddenly Astrid regrets her assumptions and omissions and sees that the days of her own life are numbered, so she tries harder to tell the people she loves how much she loves them. One of these is her hairdresser, Birdie, who for a number of years now has also been her lover:
“They were still careful in public, but truly, not more careful than Astrid would have been with a man. She wasn’t into public displays of anything except irritation at those who didn’t follow rules, like drivers who made rolling stops or those who didn’t pick up their dogs’ mess. It was hard to keep a secret in a small town, but as Astrid had learned, everything was easier when you were a woman over fifty.”

Astrid’s 13-year-old granddaughter Cecelia has come to live with her after an incident at her NYC-area school, resulting in her youngest son, Nick, Cecelia’s father, who has not come to visit very often as an adult, coming to Clapham more often. Her other two children, the oldest son, Elliott, and the middle daughter, Porter, still live in their hometown and see their mother fairly regularly. At the point when she tells her family about Birdie, Cecelia jokes that she thought “I was here because it was a stable home environment” and Birdie replies “trust me….There is nothing more stable than—forgive me, Astrid—an elderly lesbian.” We find out that Birdie is 59 while Astrid is 68.

At one point, when Astrid is talking to Mary, the mother of her contemporary who was hit by a bus, she thinks “human lives were so long, it was hard to stretch a net wide enough to hold all of a person’s experiences. What did Mary remember? Did she remember her wedding? Being a teenager? Did she remember Barbara losing a tooth for the first time, and how she’d tucked a crisp $2 bill under her pillow, fresh from the bank?” I looked up the age of the novelist, because when I was a kid the tooth fairy brought a quarter, and when my children were young it was a dollar. It turns out that Emma Straub was born in 1980, which seems to me to show that it’s not only human lives that are long but also geographic differences inside the U.S. that are wide.

Most of what the novel is about, though, is generally applicable. It’s about being a mother and feeling like you made mistakes: “Parents knew that the hardest part of parenthood was figuring out how to do the right thing twenty-four hours a day, forever, and surviving all the times you failed.” For Astrid, the mistake she was most concerned about has faded from her son’s memory, while something else she said in a habitual role-playing conversation with her husband that she didn’t know her son could overhear turned out to be one of the driving forces in his life.

It’s also about how your life changes when you become a mother, how you stop thinking “what if” about your past “because you know that whoever you give birth to wouldn’t be there if you’d made different choices….and so that past becomes perfect. The future can always change, but not the past.”

Cecelia’s perspective adds to the picture we get from Astrid, Elliott, Porter, and Nick, whose adolescent mistakes are over and done. One of Cecelia’s new friends is dealing with a big change, and she “felt that a much larger alarm should sound every time someone in school said or thought or did something enormous and life-changing, something that their adult selves would remember for the rest of their lives, every time a bowling ball began its heavy roll. But of course then that alarm would sound constantly, all day long, and no one would be able to learn anything at all.” She also clarifies what adolescents need most from their parents: “parents were supposed to be there. That was their whole job.” I liked that part because it’s the main thing I tried to do as a parent, be there.

Other parts are less reassuring, though. Every parent feels the truth of how hard it is to improve their relationship with their adult children. When Astrid thinks about her oldest child she thinks that she “wanted to make their relationship better, even though whatever she’d tried to do to make it better usually made it worse. Giving him space, not getting angry when he was out late, the way she’d been with Elliott. She had tried to correct mistakes! That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all, not in terms of missed communication and hurt feelings during an otherwise uneventful dinner conversation. Love couldn’t change the misread tone of a text message or a quick temper.”

Every mother has had the experience of mentioning something that seemed so important to a child that it could never be forgotten and have the child claim to have no memory of it. “Childhood was infuriating this way—she’d felt it over and over, when one of her children (all three of them!) would inevitably forget the words to a song she’d sung to them five hundred times, or a book they’d read, curled up together, six, seven, eight times a day, and then time passed and they had no recollection, and the information was stuck there in Astrid’s head, marked as important.”

I guess it will make all mothers feel a little better to know that other mothers are also wondering “how many things had she missed, how many choices, how many mistakes, how many heartbreaks?” And like Astrid, we all wish “that there was a button everyone could push that immediately showed only their good intentions.”

I’m not sure that I would like to have what Astrid wishes for at one point, however: “a printout of all the mistakes she’d made as a parent, the big ones and the small ones, just to see how many of them she could guess.” That makes me think of a line from a poem by Stephen Dobyns, “only in hell is memory exact.”

At the end of the novel, Astrid realizes that “she had failed, maybe not in the ways that she thought she had, but in so many ways she had never even noticed. This was the job of a parent: to fuck up, over and over again. This was the job of a child: to grow up anyway.” Which of course makes me think of the first line of another poem, this one by Philip Larkin: “they fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

I like the title of this novel a lot, as if the reminder that we’re “all adults here” will keep us from reverting to childish behaviors, as if we’ll all eventually achieve the state of adulthood sometime before we begin to be perceived as elderly.


Big Summer, Jennifer Weiner

June 18, 2020

IMG_4013Here’s Jennifer Weiner with a new novel and her best title yet: Big Summer. This one is a bit of a murder mystery with a protagonist who is big: twenty-something Daphne has a big heart and a big body and lives in New York City, where she works as an after-school babysitter and a plus-size Instagram influencer.

Daphne photographs herself every morning in an outfit of the day (OOTD) and posts it on her Instagram page and blog, which is called Big Time. Some of her clothing and makeup is free, from companies that want her to promote it, and sometimes she’s paid to wear certain items. She has just landed a job wearing clothing from a line that a designer claims will be “size-inclusive.” I liked the part where Daphne sounds her out about that claim, saying that “these days, designers who’d rather die than gain ten pounds, designers who’d rather make clothes for purse dogs than fat people, could mouth the right platitudes and make the right gestures.”

And who wouldn’t like the part where Daphne tries on the first garment from the collection:
“For all women—or maybe just all plus-size women, or maybe just me—there’s a moment right after you put on a new piece of clothing, after you’ve buttoned the buttons or zipped the zipper, but before you’ve seen how it looks—or, rather, how you look in it. A moment of just sensation, of feeling the fabric on your skin, the garment against your body, knowing here the waistband pinches or if the cuffs are the right length, an instant of perfect faith, of pure, untarnished hope that this dress, this blouse, this skirt, will be the one that transforms you, that makes you look shapely and pretty, and worthy of love, or respect, or whatever you most desire.

The descriptions of how Daphne takes and posts pictures of herself is informative in a way that the plot builds on. Early in the novel she describes herself as she
“went to my bedroom, clipping my camera into the tripod that I’d affixed to the doorframe. I fired off six shots of myself holding the garment bag, chose the best one, cropped it, threw on my favorite filter, and added the caption that I’d typed up on the trip home.”
Then she adds tags:
“I added the appropriate hashtags—“show us and #plussize-beauty and #celebratemysize, #plussizestyle and #effyourbeautystandards and—my favorite–#mybodyisnotanapology. I tagged the brands that had made the foundation on my face, the liner on my eyelids, and the berry stain on my lips, as well as my tunic, my leggings, and my shoes.”

Like most women, Daphne has to remind herself that what people who don’t know her say about how she looks shouldn’t affect what she does. We see her “plodding along Broadway, going nowhere in particular, mostly because moving through the real world reminded me that the online one was mostly an illusion—or at least not as real as it felt. Most of the people currently discussing my looks and my body were strangers, I would tell myself as I walked. Some of them weren’t even people at all.”

The plot is set in motion when Daphne’s former best friend, a rich, mean girl named Drue, asks her to be in her wedding, even though they haven’t spoken since high school. Daphne finally agrees, because she always tries to see the best in people:
“When she asked me to be in the wedding, I think it was the first time that she asked about me, and what I was doing, and really listened when I answered. It was the first time she didn’t see me as…oh, I don’t know. A sidekick. Someone lesser than she was. Or a cautionary tale. Someone she could look at and say, At least I’m thinner and prettier than she is. At least I’ll never be that.”
During the pre-wedding festivities it seems like Drue might have actually changed, but when she is murdered the night before her wedding she leaves lots of questions, including whether Daphne could be one of the suspects. It’s a great mystery, with several twists that I won’t give away here.

In the end, Daphne is building a relationship with a guy who is internet-averse. He says to her:
“the Internet is a place where people end up making themselves feel awful, or hurting other people. And everyone pretends….Everyone tries to put the best versions of themselves across. To fake it. And when they’re not doing that, they’re sitting behind their screens, passing judgment and feeling superior to whoever they think’s being sexist or racist that day.”
She tells him:
“You’re not entirely wrong. Yes, people pretend, and yes, they dogpile, and they edit the bad parts out of their lives. But that isn’t the only thing that happens. Young people—young women—get to tell their stories and find an audience.”

Jennifer Weiner tells a good story, and this one (unlike Mrs. Everything) is for her regular audience; it’s fun, it’s well-written, and it’s about a woman who is big in all the ways that count.


Network Effect, Martha Wells

June 14, 2020

IMG_4007A new Murderbot novel! If you’re just now asking whether you need to have read the first four novellas in order to enjoy Network Effect, by Martha Wells, all I can say is boy, do you have a treat in store: you want to read All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy. But of course you can read Network Effect and enjoy it on its own terms because Martha Wells is a whiz at constructing plot and delineating character, even if there is a story arc that runs throughout the first four novellas and continues in this novel.

This adventure starts when the former security unit (SecUnit) cyborg that calls itself “Murderbot” (because it was created to kill and has since rebelled against that imperative) finds itself protecting its adopted group of humans against raiders, who the SecUnit refers to as potential targets “(That’s ‘potential’ per the earlier conversation where Dr. Arada said Oh SecUnit, I wish you wouldn’t call people ‘targets’).”

I think the best possible way to review this book is to use Jo Walton’s question “what makes this book so great?” Let me give you a few examples.

There are many delightful examples of underplayed emotion. SecUnit is unfailingly loyal to those it cares about, but it doesn’t want to articulate that and it especially doesn’t want anyone (human or otherwise) to react to it. When SecUnit has just saved the life of one of its humans by killing a target, the person asks “was there any other way…” and the SecUnit replies “no” which makes its human respond by asking it “are you trying to make me feel better?” “No.” it says:
“I actually wasn’t. I lie to humans a lot, but not to Arada, not about this. “I wouldn’t try to make you feel better. You know what I’m like.”
She made a snorting noise, an involuntary expression of amusement. “I do know what you’re like.”
Her expression had turned all melty and sentimental. “No hugging,” I warned her. It was in our contract. “Do you need emotional support? Do you want me to call someone?”

The main human relationship the SecUnit has in this book is with Amena, Mensah’s adolescent daughter. Her adolescent interests reflect the SecUnit’s approximate emotional age and she helps it process what is happening as it realizes that it might be in love with ART, a ship’s intelligence it met during one of its earlier adventures and nicknamed “Asshole Research Transport.”

The communication between SecUnit and ART is beautifully done, some of it relayed through human conversations and some through private feeds:
“On the feed, Amena said, Sorry, ART.
Apology accepted, ART said. I felt its attention shift in the feed. (Imagine it staring meaningfully at me.) (It could stare all it wanted, I’m not apologizing.)”

Amena habitually articulates what the SecUnit hasn’t yet stopped to consider. At one point she says
“ART should know how you really feel about it! And this is serious, it’s like—you and ART are making a baby just so you can send it off to get killed or deleted or—or whatever might happen.”
“A baby?” I said. I was still mad at Amena telling ART about my emotional collapse behind my back. But I really wish ART had a face, just so I could see it right now. “It’s not a baby, it’s a copy of me, made with code.”
Amena folded her arms and looked intensely skeptical. “That you and ART made together, with code. Code which both of you are also made out of.”
I said, “That’s not like a human baby.”
Amena said, “So how are human babies made? By combining DNA, an organic code, from two or more participants.”
Okay, so it was a little like a human baby.”

In case there is any lingering doubt that the SecUnit is superhuman and gets the best parts of being human without some of the worst, we find out that one of the bad guys doesn’t even want them to return the body of one of his team who has died:
“That upset the humans and it sort of upset me, too, which you wouldn’t think it would, since the organic parts of dead SecUnits (and the parts that get shot off, cut off, crushed, whatever) go into the recyclers. But it did.”

There’s a climactic saving-the-world scene for the SecUnit and then a coordinated rescue operation when saving the world and surviving proves to be too much for one superhuman. The tragicomic high point of the rescue comes when an armored SecUnit shows up to rescue our hero SecUnit: “I almost triggered both my energy weapons but just in time I saw the sticker on its helmet. In compressed machine language, somebody had used marker paint to write ‘ART sent me.’” The moment is tragic because we know “this was 2.0’s SecUnit 3” but it’s also comic, and by the time you get to the end of this adventure the sad and the funny are so entwined that it’s impossible to separate them, impossible to tell if you’re laughing or crying.

The Murderbot’s narration will make you feel.

Docile, K.M. Szpara

June 12, 2020

IMG_4006 (1)Often I read several books at once and this week I experienced a mix of ideas that I’m still sorting through, some of them from re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the same time as I was reading K. M. Szpara’s novel Docile, which is science fiction about the visceral and sexual topics associated with slavery. Both of them are upsetting books. Reading the middle part of Beloved made me tear up four times (I kept count). Reading Docile was so upsetting that twice I had to put the book down and do something else even though I spent the whole time wanting to know what was going to happen next. Like I do with movies or tv shows that might be scary, I limited myself to reading these books only in the middle of the day.

If you’ve watched the TV series Firefly and the movie Serenity (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) you know another story about how it never works out when people try to make other people perfectly obedient. It’s a theme I could explore in kind of the same way I’ve explored the idea that necromancy never pays: another thing we learn from literature is that if you try to force someone else to do your will, eventually something will go wrong. Perhaps I should start making a list, but it would be unpleasant and upsetting and I’m not going to do it—although you are welcome to mention titles in the comments here.

The novel Docile has a subtitle: “There is no consent under capitalism.” It also has a “content warning: Docile contains forthright depictions and discussions of rape and sexual abuse.” So take it seriously when I tell you that this novel is upsetting. Since the issue of consent is central to the plot, however, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the descriptions.

Elisha Wilder, the protagonist, has grown up in a family who for generations were professionals but who now work at subsistence farming because “when the next of Kin laws went into effect, all their debt passed down to their kids after they died, and to their kids, accumulating over decades before people got smart about that kind of thing and stopped getting married. Combine that with credit card debts, student loans, utilities, mortgages, and healthcare, and suddenly you’re living in the outer counties of Maryland, four million under. It’s taken us years to get even this far—to fend off debt collectors and the threat of debtors’ prison. Took Mom ten years and she only sold off one million.”

Before his family is sent to debtors’ prison or his little sister has to do it, Elisha decides to shoulder his family’s debt by going to the ODR—the Office of Debt Resolution—and selling himself as a “docile.” In this world, debt slaves, or dociles, perform the kinds of personal service that have usually been performed in our world by desperate and sometimes undocumented workers. Elisha’s contract is bought by Alex Bishop, heir to the Bishop family enterprises, makers of “Dociline,” a drug designed to make the docile state bearable. But Elisha has decided not to take the drug because his mother’s use of it did not wear off as advertised. So Alex sets out to train him to be docile, using both negative and positive reinforcement.

It works. The problem is that Alex finds he has fallen in love with Elisha while successfully rendering Elisha unable to reciprocate, because Elisha has no will of his own anymore. So the first half of the novel is the story of how Alex forces Elisha to have no will but his own and the second half is the story of how they both come to a realization that they must work to bring down the system that allowed Alex to take such complete control.

The narration shifts back and forth between Alex and Elisha, which keeps either of them from being entirely unsympathetic to the reader. For example, when someone who grew up with Elisha asks him “are you on Dociline?” the answer is “’No.’ I laugh, but nobody else does. My smile fades. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’”

On his first visit home (he gets one every six months) Elisha doesn’t understand why his family and friends find him so different. His father says to him “when the stallion got tangled in the fence, did you stand around and wait for orders? No. You held its insides together with the shirt off your back. Now, you’d probably thank the damn horse for letting you watch it die.”

On p. 224 of this 489-page novel, Elisha uses the word “plan” in an absolutely chilling way, right before Alex is forced to realize that he should not be Elisha’s “only source of happiness.” After we’ve heard it from Elisha’s point of view, with Alex asking him to “show me there’s a sliver of a human being left in there. That I haven’t fallen for my own creation,” then we hear Alex repeat the same point from his own perspective: “I am Dr. Frankenstein and I’ve fallen in love with my own monster.”

What makes it possible to bring down the system is a lawsuit brought against Elisha by Alex’s father alleging that Elisha “seduced” Alex and the defense against that lawsuit provided by a group called “Empower Maryland” who promise Elisha that they will “cover you, regardless of the verdict” and ask “are you in?” Alex thinks:
“Am I? I can’t afford an attorney on my own. Can’t defend myself without Empower Maryland or Veronica. Despite how lost I feel, this situation is familiar. That someone is asking my consent as if I have a choice. Pay to see a doctor or suffer. Register with the ODR or go to debtors’ prison. Go down on Dutch or be humiliated—punished. Impossible choices I’ve made, if you can call it that.
I know when I say ‘Yes,’ it’s the same, here.”

The biggest reason that Alex comes around is that two of his childhood friends, Dutch and Jess, talk to him about the big gaps in how he sees the world. They were on Dociline for a few years as children, so they remember nothing of those years, while Alex can remember it all:
“You were a child, so I can’t blame you for not comprehending that Jess and I were incapable of refusing to play with you. But, for fuck’s sake, Alex, you’re an adult, now….Jess and I worked our asses off at the lab to pay for college and graduate school and we still ended up with debt. Luckily, once you had your degree, you were handed the highest-paying job in the company and brought us along with you.”
When Alex responds, saying “because you deserved it,” Dutch replies
“of course we did, but that’s beside the fucking point. Lots of people deserve the job your parents handed to you. People as qualified, who work as hard or harder than you, Alex, and have no chance of achieving your success. I’m grateful for the opportunities our friendship’s provided, don’t get me wrong. But we do not have the same worldview.”

Elisha eventually comes back around enough to be able to articulate who is to blame for his mother’s condition (and by extension, his own situation):
“The federal government for enacting the Next of Kin laws. Debt collectors and cops for forcing us to choose between the ODR and debtors’ prison. Bishop Labs for inventing and producing Dociline. The State of Maryland for creating our debt resolution system, and the people for accepting it as normal. For perpetuating it.”

Notice those last two sentences. Even if you think this particular fictional world is too far-fetched to be much of a concern, you should not be dismissing what Elisha says. Over the past three years, people have accepted increasingly ludicrous systems as “normal” and have perpetuated them by not getting involved, staying on the sidelines, trying to scrape by as their own little patch of earth gets smaller and smaller.

How small has this little patch of earth gotten, the one where you’re going to make your last stand? Here’s a novel that could wake you up before it’s gone.

Update: If you would like my copy of Docile, comment and I will mail it to you.


Saint Joan

June 8, 2020

IMG_4001George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan was published shortly after Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920, so one hundred years later it’s a good time to re-read it for #Jazz Age June. Today’s readers have perspective on the events of the “roaring twenties,” a decade of cultural conflicts and the rise of the “New Woman” asserting control over her own life.

The cultural conflicts of today, characterized by extreme ideological divides and name-calling, allow as little room for compromise as the unyielding Joan herself. Joan claims that her voices “come from God.” When a local official corrects her, saying “they come from your imagination” she answers “of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.” Many people feel that way about what they are saying today; possibly the most over-used word of the last few years is “outraged.”

Saint Joan was written at a time of rising nationalism, while today we’re watching barriers between nations go up as the idea itself is changing and perhaps starting to crumble. Shaw’s original audiences understood his ridicule of the churchman by the soldier who argues that “I saw something of the Mahometans. They were not so illbred as I had been led to believe. In some respects their conduct compared favorably with ours.” Today’s audiences (were we able to gather in theaters) would find the characterizations of people by religion, rather than nationality, quaint, even as some countries are fracturing along cultural lines defined by religion.

However, I think that until the last couple of weeks many of us did not believe that individual heroism could still matter to a nation. When Peter Cauchon says reprovingly to Joan that “you, and not The Church, are to be the judge?” she responds with “what other judgement can I judge by but my own?”. Those in charge of Joan’s trial are alarmed by this, calling it “the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God.” Those in charge of the U.S.A. today seem to be accepting the Orwellian doublespeak of a president who ordered an attack on peaceful protesters outside the White House with tear gas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets right after proclaiming himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” But the people out protesting and others who support them do not accept it.

It is Joan’s judges, the priests of the church and the princes of the world, who are on trial here,” as Michael Holroyd puts it in a review of a performance on Bastille Day (The Guardian, July 14, 2007). We see them rationalizing their own behavior, like the archbishop who defines a “miracle” as “an event which creates faith….An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.” Today we see our own capitalist society paying lip service to many “essential workers” without paying them a wage that corresponds to their importance. This is like Ladvenu admitting that what Joan says about her soldier’s dress having “a grain of world sense in it such as might impose on a simple village maiden” and Joan saying dryly that “if we were as simple in the village as you are in your courts and palaces, there would soon be no wheat to make bread for you.”

Saint Joan is about fear of change. Those who are afraid of change may try to hold it back, but it will eventually burst out, as we’re seeing this week in all fifty states of the United States of America and other countries.

In the epilogue to the play, one of Joan’s judges asks “must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?” And the answer seems to be yes. Right now we’re being asked to change; to use our imaginations and employ our powers of empathy. It’s easy to do this for a few hours in a crowd of theater-goers or protestors, but harder to keep it up day by day, on our own.

Queen of the Dark Things

June 1, 2020

IMG_3990Set in the same world as Dreams and Shadows, C. Robert Cargill’s Queen of the Dark Things can be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel or as a follow-on for those who want more from the main characters in his first book. This is a novel about dark things, and that includes human elements.

There are few things I enjoy more than the story of a skeptic coming face-to-face with the supernatural, and one of the early stories in Queen of the Dark Things is about a woman like me who consults a psychic, even though “This wasn’t the sort of place she expected to find herself. It was the last place in the world she wanted to try. It was also the last place she had left to turn to.” As she enters, she sees “a lit glass case stocked with candles, crosses, crystals, and stones, a cash register sitting on top with a credit card machine plugged into the side. This wasn’t the home of a psychic, Carol thought. This was a gift shop for the gullible.” But Carol does tell her problem to the psychic, who, in return, tells her the story of La Llorona and gives her the address of Colby. Colby tells her that the story is true “but the part about God is superstitious bullshit. God doesn’t make creatures of the night. We do. Beatriz made herself out of her own madness and guilt. That’s all that’s left of her now.”

Getting rid of La Llarona for Carol sets Colby off on a series of new adventures involving “the pretty little girl in the purple pajamas” who shared a teacher with Colby when they were younger. Their teacher was a “Clever Man” who warns the pretty little girl, who is dreamwalking, that she shouldn’t wish to stay out of her body because “wishes are dangerous. Especially for a spirit as powerful as you. You are exactly where you need to be to become exactly who you are supposed to become. Too many people be saying I wish I was this or I wish I was there and not enough people saying I will be this here and make this place better. If you want to like better the now you should think more like that.” Good advice for all of us, not just a dreamwalker.

This book has more excerpts from Dr. Thaddeus Ray’s fictitious The Everything You Cannot See, including a list of the villains of this piece: the Seventy-two: “I won’t name them by name, nor will you find them catalogued as you do in the apocryphal texts, The Lesser Key of Solomon, or throughout Crowley’s flawed manuscripts. Even their names have power. Just speaking them too loudly can damn you. They are a motley lot, demons and their unholy spawn, djinn and fallen angel alike. Nine kings of Hell, six princes, nearly two dozen dukes; the rest an assortment of counts, marquis, presidents, and knights.”

The fun of reading Queen of the Dark Things comes from watching Colby and the pretty little girl in the purple pajamas make the best choices they can and still turn into monsters, setting up a clash of the titans with readers as stunned spectators, unable to hope that either side will win. Since we sympathize with both Colby and the pretty little girl, we see how such things can happen. As one of the Seventy-two tells Colby:
“The difference between angels and demons is more than just whether or not we’ve fallen and given ourselves over to something…else. Angels see morality as a simple set of laws; there is right and there is wrong. There is no room for deviation, only law. Demons, on the other hand, believe that right and wrong are based solely upon the outcome, not the act. Measuring that outcome in years or decades or even millennia creates a decidedly different set of morals. Flauros is a master of rhetoric, but he’s also the bearer of Hell’s fire. His philosophy is blunted by the hundreds of thousands he’s charred to ash at the behest of others. A thing like that forces you to distance yourself as far as possible. He’s not wrong, but his view is…corrupted…by his need for perspective. It’s the humanity in him.”
“I didn’t see much humanity.”
“That’s because you, like most of your kind, only use that word to describe your best qualities. To be fair to Flauros, you really weren’t looking for what little of those he still has. When this is all over, the same might even be said about you.”

The stories in Queen of the Dark Things coalesce better than they did in Cargill’s first novel; this one is more of a piece. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t stories that can’t stand on their own along the way, however. Thematically, this little story might be said to sum up the actions of the novel:
“Aaron Brandon strolled down the street as if he was on top of the world. He felt virile, pumped, his parts still tingling. It had taken all night and fifty dollars’ worth of drinks to ply that girl out of her panties, and she could barely stand up by the time he had. After he’d finished, she could barely slur out her own name, let alone remember his. Last he saw her, she was still slumped in the alley, all but passed out in his juices, muttering something like ‘Wait, where are you going?’ before mumbling herself to sleep.
Aaron Brandon was a douchebag. A proud douchebag. All muscles, tribal tattoos, and twenty-four-karat-gold. And he was of the decided opinion that if she remembered tonight at all, it would be a blessing to that girl—a memory she would cherish of the time she’d made it with a real man. After all, she was only a six, and sixes were lucky to get it at all from anything but neck-bearded IT rats and balding men ten years their senior. She was lucky if she ever got anything close to him again. And now he was off to one of his favorite off-Sixth-Street dives to see if he could catch himself a closing-time loner for round two and a ride home.
Bill the Shadow stood in the darkest corner of the alley between two downtown buildings, just out of reach of the streetlamp up the block. He hated Aaron already. He’d seen him before, trolling the downtown bars for easy tail, and had earmarked him for a last-minute substitution on a light night. Usually Bill preferred darker souls than this—violent souls—but pickings were slim, he was hungry, and Aaron had it coming. The man was human trash, a worthless sperm machine pumping out mediocre sex in three-minute bursts to women who could barely tell what was going on around them.
It was an odd treat, drinking one of those. As big and badass as they might seem, they didn’t really understand their own darkness. They didn’t regard their own sins as anything of the sort. There was no remorse lurking in their gut. Only entitlement.”

How many of us don’t really understand our own darkness? More, it seems, than I would have suspected even last week. Queen of the Dark Things is a 2014 novel, but a good one to read with the state of the world as dark as it is right now.



May 30, 2020

IMG_3984 (1)The Kenyon library sponsored several online book groups in April and May, and I participated in the one discussing Jane Austen’s novel Emma. Ron and I had recently watched the new film version, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and I was interested in re-reading the novel to see if my thoughts about what the movie changes are accurate.

From readings of Emma earlier in my life, I don’t remember being quite so irritated with Emma’s father as I was this time around, being closer to his age. The book group talked several times about the narrator’s claim that everyone liked Mr. Woodhouse, that he was “universally civil,” while on the other hand he displays “habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself.” A reader might suspect that Emma chafes a bit more than she is aware from what she says to her friend about a possible suitor: “the older a person grows, Harriet, the more important it is that their manners should not be bad—the more glaring and disgusting any loudness or coarseness or awkwardness becomes.” But Emma is unfailingly dutiful and loving to her difficult father, whose money and position make it possible for her run her own household rather than have to become someone’s wife. Even when she considers a suitor, she considers that “in spite of her previous and fixed determination never to quit her father, never to marry, a strong attachment certainly must produce more of a struggle than she could foresee in her own feelings.”

Emma is also unfailingly conscious of class distinctions and her responsibility to provide a good example to those who might blur them, even going so far as to tell Harriet that she could not visit her if she marries a local farmer, to which Harriet replies “no, to be sure you could not; but I never thought of that before.” In the book group meeting we talked about how strange these class distinctions are to a twenty-first century American, but we also came up with a few examples of rules that a previous generation was taught were important and how strange they seem to us now, only sixty or seventy years later (Emma was published in 1815).

Emma habitually analyzes her actions so that when she makes a mistake she will never do it again, showing us how little wiggle room she has between remaining an example of a proper young woman and becoming an warning to others. When she analyzes her attempt at matchmaking for Harriet and Mr. Elton she thinks “it was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious—a trick of what ought to be simple.” It does seem that everything that ought to be simple is quite tricky, for Emma and any other woman of marriageable age trying to make her way in this society.

How tricky it is becomes apparent on the picnic at Box Hill, when Mr. Churchill proposes that Miss Woodhouse “desires to know what you are all thinking of” and Emma, “laughing as carelessly as she could,” declares that would be “the very last thing I would stand the brunt of just now.” In the newest film version, Emma’s insult to Miss Bates is a shocking moment, whereas in some of the previous versions the others in the party, like Miss Bates herself and possibly the reader, “did not immediately catch her meaning.”

The trickiness of Emma’s position is also apparent when she forces herself to listen to Harriet’s hopes for Mr. Knightley’s affections; she finds the “resolution to sit and endure farther with calmness, with even apparent kindness.” Her self-discipline is especially impressive because it immediately follows her sudden realization that “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Even at the moment when Mr. Knightley has finally declared himself to her, Emma must still keep herself under strict control: “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself.”

Eventually, the strict rules of her society require that Emma must give up her attachment to Harriet. The narrator explains that “their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill” because it is discovered that she is not secretly the daughter of a nobleman. But the narrator does get in a dig at the strictness of the rules by commenting on the discovery that Harriet is the illegitimate child of a tradesman, saying “such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for! It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman.”

These kinds of gentle reproofs are all through the novel, for the early nineteenth-century reader to notice and enjoy. Modern readers and movie-goers will have a hard time not noticing how uncomfortable are the strictures and inconsistencies of Emma’s society, as we watch her struggle to satisfy each requirement.

The main changes in the 2020 film version do correspond with what I remembered of the book. The age gap between Mr. Knightley and Emma, so proper in 1815, is narrowed in de Wilde’s film. Casting Bill Nighy as the father helps to soften anything objectionable in his character into lovable eccentricity. And Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma as a woman working within a difficult form, like a Hollywood actress who keeps her body smaller than it can be in order to make her career as big as she wants it to be.


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