Review: Another Kingdom

Despite it being a year where I’ve gone out less and stayed home more than any other year, I’m pretty far behind on this year’s Goodreads goal of 35 books.  About half of what I’ve read this year can be chalked up to Book Group Thing, my extremely technical name for the Hillsdaleian discussion group that has a video chat each month.

Normally I’m the last one finished, and have no time to spare for sharing my thoughts.  But this month’s book, Another Kingdom, by Andrew Klavan, went quickly enough and prompted enough musings that I figured I’d collect them.  Spoilers ahead, if you fear that sort of thing.

The premise of Another Kingdom is that Austin Lively, would-be scriptwriter in LA and actual script analyst, gets transported into another world by virtue of having read a certain book.  This transport happens when he passes through doorways, though not all doorways.  It somewhat resembles the Narnian wardrobe in its unexpectedness. 

Austin’s in danger in the world-through-the-book (Galiana) as well as in the ‘real’ world of LA; in Galiana, he’s accused of murder and nearly subjected to torture and execution, while in LA, he’s being pursued by a couple mysterious baddies.  He is just barely able to avoid being killed by virtue of switching worlds; he’s bathed and rested there, sewn up in a hospital here, rescued by magic there, and taught by YouTubes about swordfighting here.

As it continues, the storyline grows more coherent: Austin’s disinterested family turns out to be under the thumb of a billionaire maniac who wants to cheat death and take over the world; his black sheep sister really does appear to be on the trail of the maniac’s Evil Plan; the travel-between-worlds appears to be possible because of the queen’s magical plots. 

More importantly, as the story goes on, Austin gets somewhat less terrible.  For the first hundred pages or so, I hated him and most everyone around him; he’s self-centered, 2-dimensional, and describing other people in gross clichés.  Just listen to him:

“I followed the heartbreaking sway of her unobtainable backside across the white floor between the white tables past the diners all done up in sleek suits and spangly dresses specifically designed, it seemed, to make me feel ashamed.”

“She was full of magic yin, our Jane, and all I could think was what a shame it was, what a waste to spend that supernatural girl power on a spoiled movie star who wouldn’t even notice if her limo backed over her. A man of spirit, on the other hand, might live and die to make a girl like Jane proud and happy.”

He spends far too much time trying to convey the murderous Serafim’s androgyny, and never quite comes to terms with Maud’s appearance (despite her saving his life, guiding him, and spending enough time with him that he should really stop finding her so weird-looking).

Austin’s lucky enough to be set, briefly, against the backdrop of Sean Gunther, who loves hearing himself talk and regards women as essentially interchangeable.  This particular bit of absurdity makes it hard to regret Gunther getting shot shortly thereafter. 

I’m not quite certain I’d say Austin develops as a character.  The development happens to him: he is given the quest, given the armor and sword, led to the talisman – very much a Level 1 player who happens to get some good rolls.  The best thing you can say about him is that he keeps going. 

In the context of other books…I’ve begun rereading the Dresden Files, and Austin Lively’s descriptions of women are more cringe-inducing than Harry Dresden’s. Austin seems to be cut from the same cloth as A. Clarence Shandon, except that Galiana is not such a clear pastiche of literary settings like Silverlock’s Commonwealth is. Compared to the ladies of Spinning Silver (an earlier Book Group Thing selection that deserved a review more than this did, except I couldn’t quite summon up the wherewithal), Austin is both unskilled and passive. 

Overall, Another Kingdom started out as a two- or one-star read, but winds up at three (of five).  It takes a while to get moving and reach the part that Klavan’s really interested in: Austin when he’s developed enough to be at all believable as a hero, and when Galiana’s fleshed out enough to make a suitable backdrop. 

Review of sorts: A Month in the Country

I’m currently staying with my friend the Mead, in the final few weeks before her family raises their tentpoles to head south and east.  This time lends itself to a bit of reflection on the times one’s had, the times one might have had, and what all might be lying ahead – both generally speaking, and where one’s bookshelf is concerned.

Our conversation, amid two years’ worth of catching-up, jumped from what we’ve read and enjoyed, to what waits on the TBR list, to books that were pretentious or unnecessarily depressing, to promising new possibilities.  My friend recommended a few titles to me, including this one by JL Carr.

I didn’t read the blurb on the back and had to unfold for myself that the narrator, Tom Birkin, back in England after fighting in World War I, has been hired by a church in Yorkshire to painstakingly uncover a medieval mural that had been whitewashed over some five centuries back.  His benefactress had also, by way of putting it in her will, hired a fellow to come make a diligent effort to search for her ancestor’s remains; according to records, said ancestor had been excommunicated and thus buried outside the churchyard.  

So Birkin spends the summer at work, on a scaffold amid limestone ashlar, hassocks, balusters, and an inscribed catafalque.

Telling you anything further about the plot feels like a sort of betrayal – not because I am afraid of spoiling the story for you, per se, but because the story is so much more than the sum of those discrete events.

There’s a few lines running throughout which could be pulled taut, to become lines of tension or of humor: a Londoner amid northern folk, Anglican Church versus nonconformist Chapel (and their different approaches to purchasing organs), Birkin’s financial straits, and changing relationships (friendship or romantic alike).

Birkin understands the significance and meaning of this sacred mural, even if the battles of Ypres and ensuing shell-shock have driven out his own belief in God, and looks on the painted figures doomed to hell with a bit more sympathy than the less-compelling righteous heading for heaven.

The period of clearing centuries of grime off a painting (and what a painting, what costly materials were used, what a master composed it!) provides some rest as he is engaged in his work, smooths out the twitch and stammer he was left by the war, and reminds him of the possibility of love in this northern community.

And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart—knowing a precious moment had gone and we not there. We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

It’s a quiet little book, threaded with the melancholy of autumn’s backward glance.

The first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.

Review: Poetry in Michigan in Poetry

It seems strange to me, how many of these poems wind around death: by drowning, by black ice, a riot, drowning, shipwreck, drowning.

I suppose I still drive with the casual recklessness of one still too young to feel properly mortal,
and moreover, have not frequented rivers or lakes as much as one might,
and as such,
I have never regarded Michigan as, chiefly, the place that might well kill me.

Ten out of ten people die, after all:
in Texas, or Finland, or deep corners of close communities in Greece,
no matter how long that last death takes

(though that IS, perhaps, the matter, when black ice kills an undergrad –
perhaps the loud clear silences of grief float to the top,
the cream of all our poetic impulses)

– anyway, though Death surrounds us all and always,
it’s always seemed gentler here than otherwhere:
the nation’s, the world’s
earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes,
flash floods deeper than a broken sump pump’s 4 inches of water,
and calling Belfor to rid you of boxes
buried in your basement 20 years or more.

Of course the water can kill you
(Flint, anyone?  that
is what you call ironic)

but don’t forget that,
generally,
it enables you to live, first.

Review: World Without Mind

I finished reading World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech last week.  Given the Zuckerberg hearings in the past fortnight…this book is certainly of-the-moment, which means that (among other things) it’s overdue at the library.

In some respects, Franklin Foer strikes me as Neil Postman’s heir.  As Technopoly warned, technology has changed and expanded (and continues to do so) so quickly that it is difficult for anyone to be certain exactly what ideas, mores, or other cultural artifacts might be jettisoned as a matter of course.  There is no time to appreciate, much less anticipate, all the changes technology can wreak.

Foer alternates his attention between the tech itself and those who wield it.   GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), he says, have “imperiled the way we think” by leveraging their “intoxicating convenience” to “press [people] into conformity.”  He discusses the power of GAFA’s curation as manipulation of knowledge and an erasure of free will, but I’m convinced that Amazon making it easy to click on a book does not mean Amazon has forced me to buy it.  The gap between consideration and action is still, thankfully, large.

Among Foer’s other concerns is the fact that, increasingly, decision-making – and, perhaps, more creative work – is being given over to algorithms instead of humans.  Given his profession (staff writer/editor), one can understand why he’d feel threatened by the specter of automatically-composed reports.  He also seems somewhat concerned by Google’s pursuit of AI.  I don’t believe AI is actually possible, despite what Descartes thinks about humans as complex organic machines, so it seems to me that the bigger problem is Google’s tendency to ignore copyright law in its quest to digitize all published books as grist for the AI mill.

Foer is also Postman’s heir in that the solutions he proffers are weak in the face of the huge problems he diagnoses.  He describes how much these corporations lobby in Washington, details some of the strategies they’ve used to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, notes how the overlap of data and personal transparency is three steps away from a certain sort of authoritarianism, and notes again the ascendancy of algorithms – then states a need for antitrust legislation to break up this new type of monopoly, and a Data Protection Agency to force GAFA to give consumers a way to purge their data.

I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether this is even possible, much less likely.  If these corporations are already guilty of tax evasion on a huge scale, how would you force them to play nice with data, and why would you expect them to obey new laws about it?  “Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law,” according to one of the company’s attorneys (regarding the book digitizing effort in particular, but surely it applies more broadly).  Wired’s writeup of the hearings seems to agree: “Because these businesses operate differently from those in more traditional industries, they must be regulated differently. Congress, and by extension regulators, don’t understand enough about these businesses to regulate them, and risk further entrenching their power by attempting.”

Silicon Valley apparently believes that regulations or anti-trust efforts can’t threaten Facebook’s dominance, that privacy controls won’t make Facebook more appealing to consumers, and that those currently at the helm have good intentions.

I’m skeptical as to that last point.  As Lewis put it:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

So, what do we do about this, aside from government-based solutions that will probably fail in the face of an army of attorneys?  Foer has some recommendations for fighting at the grassroots level.  The popularity of organic, whole foods (and similar food-based trends) gives him hope that people who care about what they put in their mouths will also come to care about what they put in their brains, and where it came from.

He also proposes that “cultivated” people pay to keep journalism alive, that the pursuit of objectified cultural capital would draw sufficient funding to support journalism as a livelihood.  I rather think he conflates journalism with any and all writing or publishing, but either way the point stands.

(An aside: reading this book in between movements of Verdi’s Requiem was curiously appropriate and beneficial.  It gives one hope for the continuation of the arts; it reminds the soul of God, of religion, of miracles; and it also grants some perspective: no wonder how much control these companies have, they cannot destroy my inheritance.)

 

Some may find Foer too liberal for their taste; others might long for an orderly history of technological development that reads less like an old boys’ club.  Some, like me, might find Foer unable or unwilling to discuss humans as humans: interested in convenience until the tipping point where other considerations take precedence; stubborn; guided by the intangible and the numinous, not merely by what Big Tech serves up.  But overall, World Without Mind is a warning well worth reading, illuminating how privacy is all too often the price paid for convenient consumption.  Hopefully it is a timely admonition, rather than a moment too late.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

Review: This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, formerly of The New Yorker, spent at least a decade assembling this memoir, subtitled A Reckoning with Depression.  She labors to exorcise her own demons while shedding light on this murky condition:

If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.  There is little you can point to: no obscene rantings, no sudden flips into unrecognizable, hyper-energize behavior, no magical belief systems involving lottery numbers or fortune cookies.  It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression’s claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn’t look crazy.  

After 2.5 months without finishing a book, I tore through this one in less than a week.  This Close to HappyMy own mild depression has contributed to how few books I’ve read of late, so it was a relief to complete this one promptly (not least because I am one in a long list of folks requesting it from the library, and I’d feel guilty making those after me wait).

Merkin’s stated goal was to give “a report from the battlefield,” “to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside” – without making depression out to be some rare, elegant condition that only proves incapacitating on occasion for dramatic effect, but rather “as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self.”  

Overall, she succeeds.  There is no glamour surrounding her battles.  The three chief facets of her particular struggle with depression are how it arose chiefly as a consequence of her childhood; how it has resulted in at least three stays in psychiatric hospitals; and how, despite a plethora of drugs and hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, the thought of suicide (whether idle or longing) is never too far away.

“I can’t tell anymore whether it’s my chemistry acting up or the ancient griefs I carry with me rearing up in response to a present provocation…I only know it hurts to have to go on,” she writes, after pondering whether she is doomed to depression by her genetics or by her upbringing.  The latter sets the stage for a life of grieving and anxiety: well-to-do parents who hand their six children off to a grim nanny (chosen so that she would not usurp the mother’s place in her children’s affections); scarcity of food and paucity of clothing despite a household with a cook, chauffeur, nanny, et al; a general lack of attention or comfort or encouragement.  “With all that bothers me about myself,” Merkin says, “it is too large a stretch to imagine myself as someone else, sent into the world on a current of love.”  Phillip Larkin’s most famous line has never been truer than in her case.

The shadow of Daphne’s mother hangs over the entire book, as over her whole life.  Her desire for closeness, affection, comfort, and love – never satisfied in childhood – manifested in a clinging adolescence and adulthood: always and everywhere sharing her thoughts, her doings, her sex life, and the best of her writing with her mother (who, as described, reminds me of nothing so much as the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).  I do not often regard a piece of media with the thought “Daddy issues,” but it is impossible to read This Close to Happy without summing up at least a portion of it with “Mommy issues.”

Accounts of depression must be as many and varied as those suffering from it, which means that Merkin’s mother, her Jewish background, her home of New York City, her reading and writing, and her work in publishing are as much a part of the story as anything else.  So though it is an account from the trenches, bravely and openly assembled, it is not the report I look for – though I would be unsurprised to learn that what I seek is my own account: milder, less suicidal, but still given to the occasional numbness, the apathetic listlessness, the oxymoronic nature of a joyless Joy.

I came away with a sense of relief that I have not had to live Daphne’s life, but also questions: is my own dysthymia strictly a product of genetics, or is my own family somehow more dysfunctional than I’d thought?  My Christian faith, if not as vibrantly faithful as it ought to be, is not Merkin’s etiolated fragments of her Orthodox Jewish childhood; should I in fact have “a dazzling sense of purpose” because I still believe in God?  If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?

I’ll report back when I know.  In the meantime, it’s safe to say that I’m even closer to happy than Merkin.

Review: Luci Shaw

Every once in awhile, I find a new author (of prose or poetry, whichever) and decide to get as many of his or her books as possible, then read them in a great flurry to form a very clear concept of that writer’s style.  

It usually backfires, because I put off even the activities I enjoy, and fail to read them until they’re all due back at the library.  My tsundoku works against me and I end up reading, like, 2 books of a potential dozen.  

But that fate has been averted, more or less, with Luci Shaw.  I discovered her in trying to find poems about Petoskey stones (which, as you may recall, I adore hunting on the Lake Michigan shoreline).

shaw-petoskeystoneTurning up Polishing the Petoskey Stone: what a boon!  There’s only one poem about Petoskeys in it, but the book’s introduction explains why that title was chosen.  Shaw’s friend showed her how the fossils could be buffed on anything – one’s blue jeans, the arm of a chair, the fabric of a car door interior.  After a road trip’s-worth of rubbing at a stone, the resulting sheen made Luci consider God, polishing each one of us individually; our particular sorrows, joys, dull moments, energetic evenings, manic Mondays are all part of the process of making us shine forth.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone astonished me with its wisdom and imagery.  Every other poem, if not every single one, provided illumination of God’s work through a wealth of natural pictures: frogs, shells, the view from an airplane window, circles, blood.  So much of it provided new and weighty illustrations about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

I eventually recognized that the sub-headings within were not simply section titles but the titles of earlier collections.  Polishing the Petoskey Stone contains poems originally published in Listen to the Green, The Secret Trees, The Sighting, and Postcard from the Shore.  Not all of them, but about two-thirds.  

Likewise, a handful from The Secret Trees turn up in The Green Earth and Water Lines; accompanied-by-angelswhole sections of Water Lines in Water My Soul; various selections from this and that book in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.  Where there is any overlap of theme, there will be an overlap of poems. 

And yet, the introductions to each book, the occasional endnotes, the different structure, and the fact that good poetry is worth re-reading and rumination all add up to a complete lack of regret for getting them all out.  

I tried to read in order, more or less, but the strictures of time and the MelCat system mean that I read certain later books earlier on.  Harvesting the Fog is a later book – published in 2010, not the 70’s or the early aughts.  I didn’t care for it half as much, as it seemed more concerned with simple description than with embodying the intangible.  

I still have six books of hers to read, and 4 more to track down and read thereafter, but I doubt they’ll change my judgment of Shaw: carefully observant, fresh and evocative, somewhat familiar in subject and tone to those fond of CS Lewis (while different in form).  I commend her to you all as a poet who will refresh your soul.

Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.