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Southern Lady Code

June 23, 2019

Trying to court the same audience who loved Steel Magnolias, A Southern Belle Primer, Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, Helen Ellis’ new Southern Lady Code is less funny and more pitiful.

Although there are a lot of things I like about the Sweet Potato Queens series, there were parts (for instance, about the “junior league”) that I chalked up to an effort to court women in the 1990’s Republican south. I learned a new phrase from these books: “out of pocket.” Do you know what it means? It means that you’re spending your own money, doing something unrelated to your profession, and are therefore unavailable in a way you can’t be when you’re responsible to others. Helen Ellis takes that kind of stuff a whole lot further, although much of it is wrapped up in her identity as a New Yorker rather than a southerner, like the Burberry trench coat she spent $1,895 on to replace one she already had that cost $795.

Rather than quirky, it’s just sad to read about Helen’s belief that the state of the place she lives in reflects on her (rather than on her and also anyone else who lives there). I’m not charmed by “dusting is meditative. Boiling the fridge relieves PMS. Making the bed is my cardio, because to make a bed properly, you have to circle it like a shark.”

It’s not funny, in June 2019, to read Helen’s pronouncement that “Alabama was not—and I don’t think is—an abortion-friendly state.” She tells a terrible story about being nineteen years old and going to a doctor to get a birth control pill prescription: “when I came out of the exam room I was crying. The doctor had put his hands on me in an unprofessional way and lectured me about the sin of premarital sex. He’d said ‘I’d never let my daughter go on the pill.’” Helen thinks it all turned out okay because her mother found a new gynecologist, never once seeming to wonder what happened after the “high school girls” who “really did have babies in my high school bathrooms” had to raise those children, presumably with fewer resources than a woman who moved to New York City to write books like the Southern Lady Code.

Helen is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t stop to ponder what life must have been like for her own “Grandpapa” or any of the other southern men she describes as genteelly closeted gays but crows about how wonderful it is to meet gay men in New York: “to me, a room full of gay men is like Narnia. It’s a place I hoped was out there, on the other side of a closet door, full of talking lions that I always deep down suspected could talk.” Here’s a hint, Helen. If you want magic, you need to help make it. Maybe you could write a book that encourages the women you left in Alabama to vote for reproductive health care, rather than the kind of patriarchal laws that wouldn’t seem out of place in the 17th century or Margaret Atwood’s neo-puritan Gilead.

Another part of the book that comes to us straight out of the New Dark Ages, where people believe in ghosts but think that feminism means letting women talk occasionally and take care of getting the children their vaccinations, is this:
“When their daughter, Katy Belle (who was named after Great-aunt Belle), spoke to the People in the Fireplace at four years old, and then at six woke to see a man drink a grape soda in her bedroom, and then at seven asked my sister if ghosts are real and Elizabeth said ‘oh yes, we are a family that likes ghosts!’ Stefan didn’t contradict her. He is helping to raise a funny intelligent glamazon.” Or, you know, a superstitious child.

Being “southern” is evidently the same as being so damaged you can’t even tell because everyone around you is also damaged:
“Our principals patrolled the halls with wooden paddles. Some drilled holes in the inch-thick wood in shop class so the paddles whistled when they swung. One vice principal never sat because he kept a yardstick down the inside back leg of his pants. We’d all been threatened or spanked at school or hit at home with a switch or a belt.
And everyone’s parents had guns.”

Other things this author claims are particularly “southern” are good manners and good sense, like writing thank-you notes and knowing when to say no thanks. And if she believes that the food her grandmother served in the 1970’s is particularly southern (“Hawaiian cheese log” and “Nutter Butter snowmen”) I’d like to introduce her to James Lileks and his “gallery of regrettable food.”

It’s not “southern” to make fun of someone and pretend they don’t know, despite jokes about “bless her heart” preceding insults in the south and Helen’s claim that she speaks in “code” because “if you don’t have something nice to say, say something not so nice in a nice way.” Animals may sometimes be fooled by that. Humans are not … unless they’ve completely tuned you out.

 

 

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The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

June 21, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, by Anissa Gray, is interesting and well-written; it should be a satisfying novel.

In the last few weeks I’ve been talking about the power of the personal in essays, how starting with the particular can illuminate bigger issues. In the case of this novel, however, I can’t make that work. I had problems reading the story of Althea and her sisters and daughters that I’m not prepared to explain in detail and which you probably wouldn’t share if I did. Sometimes the personal interferes with a person’s enjoyment of a novel, and that was the case with me and The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.

I was a ravenously hungry girl, in all the ways a person can imagine, but I did not react the way two of the characters in this novel do, by becoming anorexic or bulimic. I did enjoy it when the oldest sister, who raised two younger sisters and a brother, quotes something she claims her mother used to say: “words can either feed you or eat you alive.” And I agree with the bulimic character, Viola, when she says “it’s not as easy as eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough. Sometimes there’s never enough.” But even though you might think the food issues would make these characters sensitive to body issues, they talk about other characters like this: “a real sweet lady. Real fat, though. You know, the kind that’d be pretty if they lost some weight?”

I value loyalty over many other virtues, and so it was hard for me to sympathize with Althea’s daughter Kim, who has turned her mother in and gotten her sent to prison—even though part of why Kim did it is her mother’s relentless nagging about her weight. We see one instance of this through her aunt Viola’s eyes when Viola says:
“’like, just today, you didn’t have to call her out on her outfit in front of the staff. You must know how humiliating that is, Althea. And besides, that’s what the girls are wearing.’
‘Not girls like her.’ Althea’s eyes darted over in Kim’s direction with unmasked disdain. ‘She’s too big for skinny jeans.’”
And we hear from Kim herself, who is still “just a kid,” as someone reminds Althea, that the phone call to the police happened just minutes after the episode about the jeans, when Kim was overhearing the conversation between her mother and aunt and says “I just wanted to go home and to my room and before I knew it I had my phone out and I was calling the police on her.”

Althea and the other characters do come to an understanding about why they’ve acted as they have. Near the beginning of the novel, Althea thinks to herself that when she ran away to get married at eighteen, she was “thinking I’d never have to do anything I didn’t want to do again. That’s how young I was.” Then, near the end of the novel, she asks herself “If, as a mother, I am my father’s daughter, and I hate everything about him, what am I as a sister, who was all the mother they had?” We see that Althea, her father, and her brother have all felt, as her brother puts it, “the weight of being the head of his family, his struggles keeping everybody in line, and the problems that came from sparing the rod and spoiling the child.” The events of the novel take place as that weight is being distributed among the rest of the family members.

So it’s a fine novel, and well-written, even though it did not satisfy me.

Same Beach, Next Year

June 19, 2019

This afternoon I was in the kitchen putting together what my father’s recipe calls a “summer squash casserole” when I thought about a passage in a book I read yesterday and didn’t mean to review. I picked it up at the library because it’s about a group of friends who go to the same beach we go to with our college friends every other summer. By Dorothea Benton Frank, it’s entitled Same Beach, Next Year and it sounded like fun, but it was not.

As I sprayed the casserole dish with canola oil, I thought of the passage in which a husband whose wife is a good cook disdains the cooking of another woman when she starts by spraying the pan with a non-stick spray. Rather than get up and ask if he can make the omelet or even tell her the way he must have it done, he sits there critiquing the way she does it:
“I saw her spray the frying pan with cooking spray and thought, Oh boy, this is going to taste awful. Eliza always used a pat of butter to cook eggs, not some rank oil—and I knew it was rank because I could smell it as soon as it hit the heat of the pan. But Eve didn’t seem bothered in the least by it, so I didn’t say anything.” When he takes a bite, “the metallic oil was so overwhelming that my gag reflex kicked in and threw them out of my mouth.”
To me, this sounds more like the snobby feelings of someone who thinks food preparation matters a lot than the feeling of a character who has been well fed his whole married life. There’s a lot of food snobbism in the book. Most of it is very thinly disguised as characterization, while some of it is straight editorializing, like “I hoped the hot dogs had no nitrates in them and wondered if that kind of dinner pleased Carl and her mother.”

And let’s face it, I’m never going to understand a character who takes time to cook when she’s on vacation at the beach, much less one who spends the entire afternoon making hors d’oeuvres for a gathering that began when her husband asked another couple to come over in the evening for a beer.

Another thing I don’t understand and don’t want to is the attitude this author displays towards women in general. One of her characters is an older woman that the other characters all claim to be fond of, and yet she’s frequently described as “long-winded” or a “chatterbox” for making one conversational venture, and her husband is always doing things like this: “he put his arm around Clarabeth and gave her a squeeze to quiet her.” The good women in the novel know how to make a “nice” home for the men and like to cook. The bad ones don’t like to cook and talk too much.

The main character, Eliza, comes to a long-overdue realization that if she wants to go to Greece, she should go, rather than spend any more time trying to talk her husband, Adam, into going with her: “suddenly I realized that there was a control problem here. Adam calling the shots was more important to him than me fulfilling a dream.”

The writing throughout is little short of appalling. One of the women is briefly characterized like this: “Cookie was a trip. She always carried herself like she was related to the Queen of England. She dressed like she was Anna Wintour’s mother and tried to come across as royalty. When she opened her mouth, we all knew the devil had arrived.”

The friendship between the couples isn’t really a friendship, but entangled with romantic yearnings. There’s a crisis when Eliza and Eve’s husband Carl believe that Adam and Eve (yes) are in love, but it turns out that they’re not–mostly because Eve isn’t a good cook.

There is one moment I enjoyed, when Eliza has a realization about Adam’s longing for Eve that makes me think of a scene from the movie Moonstruck when Olympia Dukakis’ character realizes that the reason her husband is fooling around is because he’s afraid of death:
“I needed to tell him that time had no patience for his longing. Guilt would eventually take a bite out of his soul and he should remember to be grateful for all he had—me, the boys, all that…still. I knew that something in him remained unfulfilled. But did anyone ever find all they dreamed of and all they needed in one person?
It’s his age, I thought. He thinks he’s going down the fucking tubes.”
Any married woman who lives long enough probably has a moment when she comes to some version of that realization. But that one moment of insight can’t make up for the drivel about emotional infidelity and how to forgive someone for it. Especially in light of the deus ex machina ending of the novel, in which Adam gets so sick he almost dies and Eliza promptly flies home and forgives him even though he hasn’t changed any part of his problematic behavior.

As if the ending weren’t enough, there were two last straws for me. The first was an attempted parallel between Adam and the wife of a Greek chef Eliza is flirting with when she asks “so if my husband comes to his senses and your wife loses all that weight, we might love them again?” This, after about two hundred pages of detailed food description and when Eliza is about to return to the husband whose behavior hasn’t changed.

The second was a side-by-side description of how sad Eliza was when her dog died and how no one cared when her cat died: “now, a few months later when Crank the cat gave up the ghost, there was no crying and no ceremony. In fact, Crank was merely assumed dead because she disappeared from our property and our lives.” Really, if you can’t manage to love your own pet, I’m not going to care much about you as a character.

Even as a beach read, this one sucked…especially since it’s about a beach I love and long to visit. It’s been a dark, cool, and wet June in Ohio, and a bit of summer escapism would be welcome. I didn’t find it in this book.

 

Light From Other Stars

June 17, 2019

You know that trendy thing in fiction where the author switches back and forth between two different timelines? It seems like it would work well for a book about travel in time and space, but it kept me from caring about the protagonist’s quest in Erika Swyler’s Light From Other Stars.

The protagonist is an 11-year-old girl named Nedda. Part of her story takes place when she is first eleven years old, in a small town in Florida. The other part takes place a human lifetime later, when she is part of a four-person crew in space, heading for another planet. Although I am sympathetic to Nedda as a child, I don’t know enough about what happened to her or why she is headed for another planet to get interested in her exploits aboard the spaceship.

Oddly, this is not a science fiction novel, and perhaps it should be. Instead it’s a novel that wants to be literary fiction but with a science fiction topic.

The first timeline of the novel takes place the day of the Challenger explosion, and it has a big effect on everyone in the small Florida town called “Easter,” especially Nedda, who is interested in space and wants to grow up to be just like Judith Resnik. Nedda’s father, Theo, is a scientist who used to work for NASA but found a job at a college after he was let go during a series of cutbacks. His work on “half-life acceleration” becomes eccentric as he continues to work alone, missing his partner from NASA. Later in the novel, we find out that his partner uses Theo’s ideas to power a spaceship, the one Nedda is in.

We’re told that Nedda’s spaceship has been sent to establish a colony on another planet because of climate change: “droughts, wildfires, and Manila sinking.” We’re shown that her father’s impetus for inventing a time machine is a premature son who died an hour after birth and a chronic health condition–when he first finds out that his machine works, he thinks “of knees that never wore down, hands that never hurt, minds that did not tie themselves in knots with age.” We see that her mother Betheen, a chemist, had to deal with “the wonderful terror of seeing her light blue ballet flats in a room full of awkward men in loafers.” So it seems that Nedda needs to jump ahead 50 years in order to get the opportunity to go into space.

The time travel event, in this novel, is mostly an opportunity to tell stories like the one about a man who couldn’t get to work and so met his wife at a highway diner, a woman who tells the story to their daughter as one about “someone so in love with you…someone who’ll imagine up a whole town just to have something to talk to you about.”

In the last fourth of the novel, we find out why it’s important that Betheen was a scientist, how she and Nedda averted some of the crisis caused by Theo’s machine, and how this is relevant to what Nedda is doing on board the spaceship in the present. Getting there is not half the fun, though. By the time we get to the crisis and find out what is in danger, the details we’ve been given do not illuminate the events as they happened, in order.

For this story, the author would have done better with a more conventional narrative, one that could build up steam before exploding. Instead, we get a lot of character development, which does not move the plot forward. And the emphasis on the characters allows the author to use time travel as a metaphor rather than a way to move the action along. Too many passages like this one slow the narrative: “she felt them, everyone in Easter, bleeding together like water droplets, separate things fusing, all of one skin. A ripple of time moving through them.” By the time I got to the chapter about how Theo is flying around the universe “as a flickering aura” after his death, I was pretty much done with the Light From Other Stars. 

 

On Democracy

June 13, 2019

IMG_2728In light of my recent consideration of the cross-stitch sayings in the essays of Haze, a character in Lorna Landvik’s novel Chronicles of a Radical Hag, I thought it was high time to consider the ideas in a new collection of essays by E.B. White, On Democracy. I got an advance copy of this book from HarperCollins and read through it very slowly, so the book is already out.

Jon Meacham’s introduction to White’s essays describes the effect that those of us who write personal essays are always trying to achieve: “he was especially gifted at evoking the universal through the exploration of the particular, which is one of the cardinal tasks of the essayist.”

Besides essays, this collection includes poems, letters to the editors of various publications, and White’s characteristic “notes and comments.”

One of the poems is about a sensationalist radio news commentator named Boake Carter, now Salieri to White’s Mozart and Southey to his Byron:
“I like to hear the deep, sharp croaking
Of Boake, when he is really Boaking;
The sinister Carterial thesis:
A battleship is blown to pieces,
A town is stricken with paresis,
A mad king slays his favorite nieces,
Men strike, plants close, and all work ceases.”
Evidently, complaints about sensationalism in the news are really nothing new.

I was naturally delighted to find that White agrees with what I said recently about “certitude,” as he says in his essay on “Freedom” that “the least a man can do at such a time is to declare himself and tell where he stands.” But it’s discouraging to see that today’s problems are a version of earlier problems in this country; in the same essay, which takes a stand against fascism, White laments that “where I expected to find indignation, I found paralysis, or a sort of dim acquiescence….I was advised of the growing anti-Jewish sentiment by a man who seemed to be watching the phenomenon of intolerance not through tears of shame but with a clear intellectual gaze.” I see this every day–for instance, from people who shake their heads over the proliferation of confederate flags in our northern town but do nothing to try to stop it. And White’s description of Hitler sounds disturbingly similar to our current American president: “To him the ordinary man is a primitive, capable only of being used and led. He speaks continually of people as sheep, halfwits, and impudent fools—the same people to whom he promises the ultimate in prizes.”

White was quite far-sighted in an essay written three days after Pearl Harbor entitled “Intimations,” saying that “there will be a showdown on supranationalism after this war.” He then defines “supranationalism,” saying “before you can be a supranaturalist you have first to be a naturalist and feel the ground under you making a whole circle. It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the by-laws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members. A club, moreover, or a nation, has a most attractive offer to make: it offers the right to be exclusive. There are not many of us who are physically constituted to resist this strange delight, this nourishing privilege. It is at the bottom of all fraternities, societies, orders. It is at the bottom of most trouble.” And he adds that “my feeling for supranationalism, and my trust in it, are intuitive rather than reasonable. It is not so much that I have faith in the ability of nations to organize themselves as that I mistrust what will happen if again they fail to do so.”

Possibly the most prescient of all his essays was published in 1942, entitled “Treason, Defined (When Congress Delays an Issue).” White laments that “nobody calls it treason when a congressman helps a touchy issue to escape ‘until after the elections are over’” and says that “when you hear it announced that such-and-such an issue cannot be raised now because it is ‘political dynamite,’ the implication is that you yourself are mixed up in a cheap trick perpetrated by one section of the people on another section.” Unfortunately, no one even thinks of this as “treason” anymore, despite despairing jokes about inconsistencies like Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to the supreme court and his announced intention to fast-track any supreme court nomination that a Republican president might make in the last year of his term.

This collection includes White’s famous “Party of One” essay, in which he declares that “one need only watch totalitarians at work to see that once men gain power over other men’s minds, that power is never used sparingly and wisely, but lavishly and brutally and with unspeakable results.” It’s awfully disturbing to see that some people are not just making excuses for but actually rallying behind a man who has admitted that a foreign government attacked our 2016 elections to support him and he welcomed that help and obstructed the investigation. This week he even said he’d do it all over again, and there’s little outcry. White’s 1964 warning about Goldwater’s activities also apply to the current American president’s: “depicting the federal government as the enemy of the people, depicting social welfare as the contaminant in our lives, promising to use presidential power to end violence, arguing that the end justifies the means (catch the thief, never mind how), promising victory now in an age of delicate nuclear balance, slyly suggesting that those of opposite opinion are perhaps of questionable loyalty, and always insisting that freedom has gone down the drain.” So we need to “make America great again,” as the red caps say.

In many of the essays, White celebrates the many different sources of news in the US, and denigrates “the Russians” for “spreading what they call the Truth and…jamming the sounds that come from the other direction.” They’ve gotten better at that “jamming” in the last fifty years, too. White laments, among others, the demise of the Baltimore Evening Sun, mentioning that it was the paper where Don Marquis published his archy and mehitabel poems. He points out that “the press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity….For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases.” This is no longer true. And what are we doing about it? I subscribe to three different newspapers, which seems the bare minimum for something to do.

In an eerily modern essay entitled “Not Conforming to Facts,” White discusses the many new words used to spin U.S. foreign policy, and sums up by saying that “Russia will always be able to trim us in the use of language, since she doesn’t feel obliged to make it conform to facts” and so the U.S. should support the United Nations. Sadly, since 2017 we have become more like Russia in our use of language, and we have decreased our support for the United Nations.

White’s 1970 letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News says that then-Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s suggestion that TV commentators “be scrutinized by ‘government personnel’ to discover what ‘types’ they were and to see whether they should be holding the jobs they were in” is a suggestion “casting the shadow of government interference with the press” and “is perhaps the most radical suggestion I’ve heard advanced by a public figure in my entire life, and I’m 71.” One doesn’t have to wonder what he would say about Fox News, and about what has happened to democracy in the U.S. today.

Is the state of American democracy worse now than when White wrote the pieces in this collection? Certainly many of us are less shocked and outraged, even if it’s only because we have less faith now that our essays will reach as wide an audience.

 

Chronicles of a Radical Hag

June 11, 2019

When I saw at Rhapsody in Books that Lorna Landvik has a new novel out, Chronicles of a Radical Hag, I headed for the library, found it on the new books shelf, and read it in one afternoon. It’s an easy read, a novel that avoids controversy and provides recipes for desserts in order to keep things sweet and light, as the main character, Haze, is continually urged to do.

Haze has spent her life writing a regular and very personal newspaper column, and her regular readers have spent years writing letters in response to her columns, one urging her to stick to what he considers women’s work, while another says her ideas are too liberal and refers to her column as “a chronicle of a radical hag,” a title she afterwards tries to live up to. “His letters angered me,” she writes, “but they also made me proud of myself—and of him—for caring so much.”

The novel begins in July 2016, before the presidential election, when liberals and women were still hopeful. Haze has a stroke in July, and afterwards the staff of the newspaper, including a 14-year-old working there for the summer, go through her old columns and choose some to re-run. They learn about how the personal works in essays (what newspaper columns are) and even how reading about specific events in the past can spur thoughts about the present. And because theirs is a small community, a teacher at the high school makes it a class assignment to read and imitate the style of Haze’s old columns. One student reacts to a column by saying “I like how Haze writes about the little things in her own life…and then about big things in the world,” to which the teacher responds by saying “I think that’s the gift of any good writer….By bringing us into their own world, they bring us into the whole world.” That’s certainly always my hope, with these personal blog posts.

In her last column, Haze quotes George Bernard Shaw saying “you don’t stop laughing when you grow old. You grow old when you stop laughing” and comments that “if I liked those cutesy pillows cross-stitched with pithy sayings, I’d cross-stitch what Mr. Shaw said on one.”

Recently my family made up some kind-of-existential sayings we’d like to see done in cross-stitch:
Laugh like you just saw something Funny
Dance like no one
God Bless Our Yacht
As for me and my Warcraft guild, we will serve the Lord
We Are Happy
See Something, Say Something, Stay a While
I’ll be Bummed if you take my Gun
My neighbor’s Children are my Heroes
I wish I wasn’t In my House
I need Books to Survive, I need Food and Water to Live
You can take my Ice Cubes when you pry them from my Cold, Wet Hands
I grow several different kinds of Flowers
It is Comfortable Here
Don’t Worry, be less Worried
See dog, Say dog
A home is House with no Walls
Dogs make our house Louder
We know how to Read
Holy Symbols Protect Us

Although it includes a column about why not all women change their last names when they marry and another explaining why it’s important that no one should have the power to say “you must” to a woman who believes she can’t have a baby, this novel mentions controversy as a way of avoiding it, almost like one of our cross-stitch sayings.

 

A Darkling Plain

June 8, 2019

IMG_2717

Its title taken from the poem “Dover Beach,” the fourth volume of Philip Reeve’s young adult series that begins with Mortal Engines comes to a satisfying circular conclusion in A Darkling Plain with a story told by Grike about the city of London “chasing a small mining town across the dried-up bed of the old north sea” (which is how the first book begins). Grike is a “Stalker,” one of the “Resurrected Men,” built from human brains and robot parts and used as soldiers by the people of this world.

I started reading this series after seeing the movie Mortal Engines, which was more fun than I expected it to be. The images of cities rolling around on big tank wheels and chasing each other were as ridiculous as you’d expect, and yet there was an interesting story in the movie–told in more detail in the book–about the possible humanity of the Stalkers and even of the people of London, who are re-discovering weapons made in a previous era (ours), from before humans destroyed most of the world with their wars. The young heroes are Tom, a Londoner, and Hetty, who was raised by the Stalker named Grike.

The second book, Predator’s Gold, centers on the moving city of Archangel, its quest to cross the ice and find whether there is any livable area left in North America, and the undersea spy society of small boys who prey on the moving cities. Tom and Hetty are part of the story, which also includes the city’s young ruler, Freya, an adult liar/author named Pennyroyal who is always trying to save his own skin, and a boy named Caul who begins to have sympathy for the people in Archangel as he spies on them.

In the third book, Infernal Devices, all the characters are on the move. Tom and Hetty’s daughter, Wren, is trying to put together a picture of the world and decide on whose side she should take in the conflicts. She has grown up in a sheltered place, but now has to decide which people she can trust. The young adult point of view is still carrying on, as Wren “was fifteen years old and her life pinched her like an ill-fitting shoe.” She allies herself with a boy named Theo, who is from another part of the world.

There are a few delicious little bites of satire in the third book. One of the factions calls itself “The Green Storm,” and are so militantly environmentalist that if you could visit one of their settlements you will see “on spikes above the outer gates the heads of antiwar protesters and people who failed to recycle their household waste.” Another faction keeps slaves and when its city, “Brighton,” is attacked, the slaves revolt:
“arming themselves with spanners and pool rakes and meat tenderizers, they swarmed up the city’s stairways, looting antique shops and setting fire to art galleries. The good-natured actors and artists of Brighton, who had spent so many dinner parties agreeing with each other about what a terrible life the slaves led and organizing community art projects to show how they shared their pain, fled for their lives.”

In A Darkling Plain, the fourth and last book of the series, the world is at war:
“the Green Storm had swept down from their strongholds in the mountains of Shan Guo to spread war and destruction across the Great Hunting Ground. Their air-fleets and Stalker armies had surged westward, herding terrified Traction Cities ahead of them and destroying any that did not flee fast enough. Then Arminius Krause, the burgermeister of Traktionstadt Weimar, had sent envoys to eleven other German-speaking cities and proposed that they join together and turn to face the Storm before every mobile town and city was driven off the western edge of the Hunting Ground into the sea.
And so the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft was born. The twelve great cities, swiftly joined by others, swore that they would eat no mobile town until the Green Storm was destroyed. They would survive instead by devouring Mossie ships and forts and static settlements until they had made the world safe again for Municipal Darwinism, which every civilized person knew was the most natural, sensible, and fair way of life ever devised.
They turned, they fought, and they forced the startled Green Storm to a stalemate. Now, a broad ribbon of no-man’s-land wriggled across the Hunting Ground from the southern fringes of the Rustwater Marshes to the edges of the Ice Wastes, marking the boundary between two worlds. To the east of it the Green Storm was struggling to plant new static settlements and reclaim for their farmers land that had been plowed up and polluted by centuries of Municipal Darwinism. To the west, life went on almost as before, with cities hunting towns and towns hunting villages; the only difference was that most mayors sent a portion of their catch to feed the Traktionstadts.
Over the years there had been all manner of battles as each side tried to break the line. Stretches of churned mud and empty marsh changed hands again and again, at the cost of thousands of lives, but always, when the months-long thunder of thrust and counterthrust had faded, the line remained much as it had been before, a river of dead ground winding across a continent.”

Wren and Theo, along with Tom and Hetty and the Stalker Grike and other characters, are making their way through this war-torn landscape—or above it in the Jenny Haniver, the airship Tom and Hetty took after the death of Anna Fang, in the first book. Now the Stalker Fang, she doesn’t remember much about her human motivations and she knows the secret of destroying all life on earth, which is to activate an ancient satellite weapon that is still orbiting the planet.

There’s a little bit of satire in this book, too: On one of the small moving cities, “an alcove between the snaking air ducts held an eight-armed image of the Thatcher, all-devouring goddess of unfettered Municipal Darwinism.”

More than satire, though, this book is full of warnings—about war, about weapons, about human motivations, and about resurrection. One of the scientists who builds Stalkers reveals that he once found a complex “built by some forgotten culture” (presumably our current culture) and that he thinks the Stalkers were originally
“built to remember….I think that when a great leader of that culture died, their scientist-priests would take the body to the pyramid at the top of the world and stick a machine in their head and there they’d sit, remembering. They’d remember all the things they’d done in life, and pass on those memories to their successors, and tell the stories of the times they lived in so they’d never be forgotten. Except they were forgotten, of course; their culture vanished from the earth, and the Nomad Empires who came after them picked up a crude version of the same technology and used it to build undead warriors like old Mr. Grike.”

That our culture is no longer remembered is a warning, and that Grike ends the book by passing on the story you’ve just finished reading to a group of children far in the future of even this future world is a bigger warning. If the world we live in is not always to be a place “where ignorant armies clash by night,” then we’ve each got to work towards being one of the few people who, like the characters in these books, is motivated to learn how to provide joy, love, light, certitude, peace, and/or help for pain.

Of course, I think that if there’s one thing I provide here, it’s certitude that necromancy (by any other name) provides no rewards and is to be avoided. Sometimes it’s important to take a stand, rather than simply acknowledging that an issue is complicated. Have you ever taken a public stand on an issue, even if it’s partly (like mine) in jest?

 

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