Friday, November 22, 2019

TAINTED WITNESS: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, or #MeToo didn't just *happen*

TAINTED WITNESS: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives

Columbia University Press
$21.99 various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become.

Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta MenchĂș Tum's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.


My Review

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

GHOSTLY DEMARCATIONS: Stories, linked novel-in-stories with the Halloween Spirit


Sagging Meniscus Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: Everyone is constantly admonishing our narrator to keep quiet: "You're full of bull hockey, college boy...Shut up and drink your beer." Or, "'Shut up,' Michelle replied. 'Shut up,' Michelle repeated." Or, "Don't look up. At least don't shout when you do. She's here, on the balcony." Or, "'Shit.' Sarah spit this out like a too-hot cinnamon ball, pulled me off the dental chair, and led me to the closet with the skeleton, shushing me with her fingers." Or, "Hush, be still. Tacete, tacete." Everyone admonishes him, when all he wants to do is shout the wonders, the horrors, the terrors that he and his older adoptive brother Galen face as one spiritual incursion after another manifests in their lives, moving from trickster poltergeists to forlornly wandering ghosts to intent fetches to avenging revenants. Perhaps, instead of admonishing him, everyone would do better to heed his early, youthful deliberation: "I never heard his voice again after that night. If we humans could always recognize the last words we were ever to hear from each person we knew or even met, our lives would perch as fragile indeed, gathering tragedy every listening moment to lean over a dark cellar of dark farewells."


My Review
: A further disclaimer: I've known Joe for over a quarter century. As he will somewhat sniffily tell you, this has never stopped me from letting him have it with both barrels if he dares to do less than his best. So, everybody clear on who did what to whom? Good. Let's begin:

This is a storytelling format that I'm fond of, the linked short-story collection or "novel in stories." Joe plays with identity in a lot of his fiction, and this format allows the issue to develop without ever making its presence feel forced.

As is my wont, I will use the time-honored and very efficient Bryce Method to view the stories as they come.

Galen's Mountain Child starts right off with creepy hillbilly ghosties of abandoned burned-alive kids, mothers without maternal instincts, and *retch* kittens.
His mom had been dating men starting the year after Galen's dad died and she hadn't been the gospel of kindness. Or maybe she was the gospel to the men, but not even the epistle to Galen.
True voice, I'm old enough to have heard exactly those locutions from older relatives. 4 stars

I Am the Egg

Kids Know

Angel's Wings


Madonna on a Country Road

Faithful Companion

The Mansion, the Chandelier, and the Belle


A Red Phase

Tit for Tat

The Perfect Ghost Story, Plus One

The Widow with the Hookah

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Louie, Louie and the Blonde Hippie

Ms. Sylvia's Home Care

Truly Mine

Friday, November 8, 2019

YOUNG MAN FROM THE PROVINCES, gay life as a sex toy in the pre-Stonewall world


University of Minnesota Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Young, intelligent, and handsome, Alan Helms left a brutal midwestern childhood for New York City in 1955. Denied a Rhodes scholarship because of his sexual orientation, he soon became an object of desire in a gay underground scene frequented by, among many others, Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein, and Marlene Dietrich. In this unusually vivid and sensitive account, Helms describes the business of being a sex object and its psychological and physical toll.
"Riveting."- New York Times Book Review

"Extraordinary and elegantly written. A record of a gay world that has virtually disappeared over the past twenty-five years of liberation and fifteen years of AIDS." -Boston Globe

"A beautifully written memoir. Helms sped through the celebrity-packed fast lanes, but he has learned how to stand back and get some perspective." -Los Angeles Times

"Sublimely funny, engaging, pathetic, highly literary, and painful to read. Helms seems like a gay Everyman whose quest for self-knowledge, respect, and contentment in this contemptuous world mirrors that of many other marginalized people." -Bloomsbury Review

Alan Helms is professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.


My Review
: Beloved Boston cultural institution Alan Helms had a wildly exciting past! See the film! Admire his art collection, appreciate his cultured and elegant way of speaking, his breadth of cultural knowledge, and his charming sweetness.

What does a young, abused man from flyover country do the moment he realizes he's queer? RUN! Get to New York City as soon as possible. He got to Columbia University in 1955, leaving behind a life in Indianapolis, Indiana, that could charitably be described as "uncongenial." A father who thought his son was a bitter many of us queer boys can relate to that...a mother whose situation wasn't a lot better than his, a younger brother whose close brush with death was the single moment in his childhood when peace reigned. None of this is a recipe for a healthy adulthood...and add in the author's understandable, if off-putting, self-absorbtion and you get a difficult-to-empathize-with narrator.

But he was So. Beautiful. Look at that face on the cover! Hoo-ee!

And the awfulness of be so pretty and so readily available and so snobby, who can claim to be surprised that he wasn't a pleasant person? His sexual awakening came at the price of being raped. His family life prepared him for a life of abuse. He dived into it in the glamorous world of closeted gay life pre-Stonewall. Pretty sexually available intelligent boys found innumerable lovers, and the author wasn't about to say no. (I totally relate to this and would've done precisely the same in his shoes. Damn the bad luck of not being pretty!) So a decade and a half passed in what I imagine was a golden haze...this book's largest part. It's a bit less charming to me than it might be to a younger reader. I look at the wreckage he glosses over and think, "there's the real story."

Yes, sleeping with famous Hollywood stars and titled Eurotrash is all very well. But the people you stood up, the ones whose parties weren't quite glam enough that you said you'd attend, and so on and so forth? How did you sleep, look in the mirror, launch yourself at the next big fish in your hifalutin' pond without thinking about them?

The Fall took place when he was thirtyish, and some semblance of human feeling broke the ice he'd cultivated to keep his agony at bay and under the surface of a freezing cold lake he called his heart. Escape to Boston and the tender mercies of a shrink who began the process of waking the author up from his frozen state. Then it happened: His body aged. He wasn't the hot young muffin anymore; he wasn't even visible to the hot young muffins. That had to be a bad, bad day.

Now, let me not try to hide my glee here. This event has occurred in my life, too. I can not imagine how much worse it was for a formerly gorgeous creature, feted and celebrated and wined and dined, to be cut off from that gushing geyser of distractions. Luckily for his sanity, Helms had a brain and a deep love for the life of the mind that he'd never left behind or neglected. While learning what he'd never known, that feelings are best felt in the moment and not in retrospect, I'm sure he left yet more carnage in his wake. But the fact that no one ever killed him means that he learned enough to at least fake his way through professional, if not personal, relationships. So hope still shines for him to pull his head out of his ass and recognize that, in his swan-paddle through youth, he got into some ugly emotional habits that would be wise for him to shed before he's patted in the face with a shovel and 120 cubic feet of dirt dropped on him.

I guess it shows that I don't like the man too much. Yes, part of it is envy: I would've LOVED to live among those glittering parties and glamorous people, and I'm jealous that he won nature's looks lottery. But more of it is the sense that grew and grew as I read his (ampersand-laden) memoir that he wasn't sharing his journey with me.

He was bragging that it happened.

I suppose I would too, and that is a disappointing self-revelation that elicits deep sadness in my shallows. Read the book, o ye queer boys over 50 to relive a lovely, dead time when we were few but fabulous; QUILTBAG youth, especially young and pretty ones, definitely think about your history; y'all straight folks, mm, on balance I'd say not unless your Gay BFF approves it for your personal tastes.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

THE NAKED BLOGGER OF CAIRO, necessary cruelty to my friends who need to wake up before it's too late


Harvard University Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Uprisings spread like wildfire across the Arab world from 2010 to 2012, fueled by a desire for popular sovereignty. In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, protesters flooded the streets and the media, voicing dissent through slogans, graffiti, puppetry, videos, and satire that called for the overthrow of dictators and the regimes that sustained them.

Investigating what drives people to risk everything to express themselves in rebellious art, The Naked Blogger of Cairo uncovers the creative insurgency at the heart of the Arab uprisings. While commentators have stressed the role of social media, Marwan M. Kraidy shows that the essential medium of political expression was not cell phone texts or Twitter but something more fundamental: the human body. Brutal governments that coerced citizens through torture and rape found themselves confronted with the bodies of protesters, burning with defiance and boldly violating taboos. Activists challenged authority in brazen acts of self-immolation, nude activism, and hunger strikes. The bodies of dictators became a focus of ridicule. A Web series presented Syria's Bashar al-Assad as a pathetic finger puppet, while cartoons and videos spread a meme of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as a regurgitating cow.

The rise of digital culture complicates our understanding of the human body in revolutionary times. As Kraidy argues, technology publicizes defiance, but the body remains the vital nexus of physical struggle and digital communication, destabilizing distinctions between "the real world" and virtual reality, spurring revolutionary debates about the role of art, and anchoring Islamic State's attempted hijacking of creative insurgency.


My Review
: At a very low point in an ever-sinking US-Arab world relationship, this book could not have been a more timely read. The people the US Government left to twist in the wind...many of them Iraqis promised asylum in return for "betraying" their home country...all understand viscerally a fact the US and its soft, spoiled citizenry need to remember that they simply do not know: Tyrants and dictators use human bodies as propaganda tools to enforce their dominance.

The Gestapo and Putin's former employers, the KGB, are the most famous of these hideous organizations in the US. Worldwide, they are joined by our very own CIA, as well as innumerable unofficial, quasi-official, and openly governmental "state security" apparatuses. (Well, they can be enumerated, but I don't have the stomach for it.) The terror industry is thriving. Ask the poor souls who survived Abu Ghraib's horrors how they feel about the fact that the private contractors never faced prosecution or had to return one dime of the money the US Government paid them in spite of the fact many participated in the abuses. Ask the Kurds on the sharp end of Turkish weapons how their bodies are in danger of harm from a powerful, protected, well-armed state terrorism perpetrator of long standing. Human bodies, equipped with human souls, are routinely savaged and maimed by those whose idea of peace is best compared to the grave: Silent, dark, and unbroken.

At the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch, in which climate change is a given and planning for it a joke, one small corner of the planet that we call the internet (no longer capitalized, please note) has taken a small degree of risk away from confronting tyrants. Author Kraidy, a most extraordinarily august person, with Directorates and Carnegie Fellowships and more under his belt, has taken a close look at the first Revolutions to be tweeted: The Arab Spring of 2010-2012. As we're now in the grips of a new political use of Twitter, it's deeply and rewardingly instructive to read this measured analysis of the role that social media did and did not play in this popular uprising.

The core of the book is the idea that, in a digital or analog revolution, the human body is central to our idea of the stakes, the purpose, and the desired result of any revolution. Seems sort of silly to say's a given that a revolution is meant to free some group from the constraints put on them by another, which of necessity means the body is involved as it (at a minimum) carries around the wetware telling us we're not free. But extend the idea of revolution with its subtexts of battles and skirmishes of flesh into cyberspace and then what?
Aliaa al Mahdi in her native element, the internet
This photo ignited the entire Arab world, though I must say that it looks pretty darn tame to me. Far more provocative, in my opinion at least, is her protest photo in the pose of Lilith:
Her hearkening back to the Ur-protestor, the woman who refused to be subservient to a man and was cast off and out for her insolence, seems much more a statement of her principles and her point that a mere "beaver shot."

Author Kraidy then refines that daring act of the Naked Blogger into a more distilled and powerful meaning as part of "creative insurgency:"
...the notion of creative insurgency {explores} the mixture of activism and artistry characteristic of revolutionary expression and tracks the social transformation of activism into Art and ensuing controversies. At the heart of these processes is the human body as tool, medium, symbol, and metaphor...activists have deployed a rich array of art and media in fierce propaganda wars against murderous dictators. Mining the past for resonant symbols, creative insurgents execute daring physical performances, catchy slogans, memorable graffiti, and witty videos.
You'll need to be prepared for a long and upsetting journey into the hatefulness that our world never seems to run short of, I warn you now. That it is a view mediated by the art it has produced is not, I'm sorry to say, in any way a diminution of the horrors awaiting the bodies of dissenters across the globe. Author Kraidy, in his role as Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, is a man whose knowledge of the topic is deep and broad. His eternally-at-war Beirut childhood, and an adult return to head the American Studies department of the American University there while the Arab Spring was springing, had to make him extra sensitive to the topic. The art world, so dismissive of Arabic art and artists while celebratory of the reductive and racist Orientalism (most famously excoriated forty years ago in a book by Edward Said) that fed their Eurocentric concepts of Arabness, discovered in the Arab Spring protest art a vibrant and exciting new way to harness the rage of the "outsiders" into a profit- and control-centered "creative-curatorial-corporate context" in Author Kraidy's memorable words.

What you can expect, then, is a fascinating and thorough delve into a new, or newly technologically expanded, level of insurgency. Artists have never not responded to politics and the world's injustice...Hogarth, anyone?...but the avenues and the reach of their creative insurgency are alarming to the tyrants and heartening to all the resisters and rebels the modern world's manifold oppressions have spawned.

Introducing the last section of the book, Requiem for a Revolution?, Author Kraidy reminds us of some facts as we contemplate the apparent dimming down of revolutionary action around the world:
A more dangerous threat looms over the Arab uprisings: death, at every turn, awaits the body. "The Specter of Death" hovers menacingly above the rebels...If creative insurgency is an artful explansion of the human body in a public space that foments a new revolutionary identity, then the dark shadow of fatality—through guns, bombs, fire, chemicals, starvation, disease, exposure, torture, beheading—is a threat to creative insurgency. Handheld drollery that once enjoined Mubarak, Leave, My Arms Hurt"(from brandishing revolutionary banners), looks positively rosy when set against pictures of emaciated corpses, bloody limbs torn asunder, or the numbers, those stupefying, ballooning numbers, of bodies slaughtered, diseased, displaced.
And the Kurds continue to contribute their mite, all thanks to the 45th President of the United States of America.

Monday, November 4, 2019

THE LINES, a family's devastation in malaise-era US by a master of voices


University of Iowa Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the summer of 1979, when America was running out of gas, The Lines tells the story of a family of four—the mother, the father, the girl, and the boy—in the first months of a marital separation. Through alternating perspectives, we follow the family as they explore new territory, new living arrangements, and new complications. The mother returns to school. The father moves into an apartment. The girl squares off with her mother, while the boy struggles to make sense of the world. The Lines explores the way we are all tied to one another, and how all experience offers the possibility of love and connection as much as loss and change.


My Review
: I was a teenager during the 1970s, already a survivor of a "broken family," though I suspect my own family was less broken than unformed...rather like the asteroid belt, widely dispersed bodies intersecting with silent violence when they bother to interact at all. Hence my interest in Author Varallo's first novel (after several story collections, including 2005's kid-themed This Day In History which I read in the Aughties and LOVED).

What strikes me first is how subtle Varallo is in making his points. "The mother," "the father" (much less in evidence beginning to end...I suppose that was inevitable), "the girl," "the boy," are all people with names though not in relation to each other. I have sister is the mental name of each, after all I know who I'm thinking/talking about...and thus the message is sent. Author Varallo is narrating the novel from the inside, like any omniscient third person narrator...oh wait, he's not using we're limited in our viewpoint but intimate with the thoughts and the only people who have names are outsiders and so the narrator is The Family?

Did I parse that correctly?

And, most importantly, does it matter...after all, I wasn't wondering about or even aware of needing to wonder about that until I started writing this review. I like it when I'm aware of a writer's writerly craft in hindsight. It is all too often the case in what I am told we should call "literary fiction" (isn't all fiction of necessity literary? even the televised, broadcast, projected kind? or am I too "big-tent" in my application of its definition?) that the overriding impression I, and many other readers, take away is, "how very hard it must have been to perform that feat." I love the hell out of Ducks, Newburyport and rated it almost five stars, but it's a very literary book, one that's got a huge amount of craft in its composition and good goddesses how much sweat and graft in the editing, and it shows.

I'm not against working for my pleasure; I'm against not including more work of the pleasurable reading sort in the category "literary." This novel is a pleasure read; it was a pleasure to read; the story was deeply relatable; and it didn't push its complexities of construction and creation at the reader. That's a good enough reason to read it right there, assuming broken-family fiction is one's thing. Sales figures suggest that it's a lot of peoples' come get you some.

I was deeply saddened by the father's ineffectual solipsism. He wasn't able to reach out from his gravity well of depression to connect with anyone, certainly not the mother in her angular, cutting unkindness. The girl, a highly competent person in the mother's mold, wasn't particularly ready for her role as leader to fall on her so soon; the boy, well, what a mass of inabilities he was, and isn't that depressingly familiar. Marcus, the bullying stepbrother brought into the family by the mother's decision to be Cliff's woman, is my worst nightmare of a human being. He decides to "teach" the boy how to be a man. It goes, unsurprisingly, horribly wrong and ends up as a major adolescent pissing match. As the nightmare of the blending family unfolds, there is a moment on pages 206–206 where the mother crystallizes the problems she's faced all her life in one paragraph:
And what is the mother to make of this scene, her son and Marcus locked into some kind of adolescent combat, while her husband's old coin bank, that banal and detestable thing, inexplicably smolders on a grill that had, as far as she can recall, only held burgers and hot dogs? Smoke, thick and unnatural, rises from the grill's lid. The air feels heavy with lighter fluid. If ruin has a scent, this back yard reeks of it. See the smoke drifting into the neighbor's yard, as real and substantial as the boy's tears, which he wipes now, his breath heaving in his chest. This family has seen enough tears to last them for a good long while, but each day seems to show up with a fresh supply, unaware of surplus. Human misery, there's never a shortage of it. Surely the neighbors will detect its odor, if they haven't already gotten too heavy a whiff this summer. This house where so much has gone up in smoke.

The mother puts her hand on the boy's shoulder, says, "Where's your sister?"

Uplifting it isn't, but rewarding it is. The world as seen through eyes much like my own. A pleasure not to be dismissed or belittled, that.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

THE COMEDIAN, a fully explanatory title for a theater novel set in Ancient Rome


University of Calgary Press
$5.45 trade paper at Amazon or $24.99 via the publisher, $5.18 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: (from Goodreads) Titus Maccius Plautus' career is on the decline. Once renowned for bringing Greek comedies to the Roman world, now he struggles to stage a single play. Unlucky with money and unlucky in love, Plautus faces the world with wry dignity. This could be the performance that brings back fame and fortune, or the one that ends it all.

Engaging, thoughtful, and funny, The Comedian dives into the rough and tumble world of arts in its infancy. Clem Martini draws on his talent and experience to bring to life the signs and sounds of a world where playwrights suffered and succeeded--but mostly suffered.

(from the book's webpage) In the Roman Republic, comedy is a serious business. Nobody knows this better than Titus Maccius Plautus, the principal comic playwright of his time. Licking his wounds after a series of artistic flops and financial disasters, Plautus returns from his refuge in the country to Rome, desperate to produce a new play.

With limited financial backing provided by tough and striking bar owner Casina, Plautus recruits a company of actors from the amateurs and cast-offs he can afford. Led by a disreputable drunk who just happens to have a pedigree with one of the most respected traveling Greek acting guilds, the motley company unites an eccentric cast of characters on and off the stage. From Orestes, Plautus’ dour, thrifty director to the eager but untrained neophyte, Fronto, to the debt-plagued Plautus himself, each has a role to play, and each is not quite what they seem.

Can this company of misfits come together in time – and remain together long enough – to find success on the stage? With his creditors closing in, can Plautus stay one step ahead, or will he be finished, once and for all? Redolent with the sights and scents of the ancient world, this novel is a rowdy, boisterous ride through the realm of theater in its infancy.


My Review
: I salute you, Clem Martini, for taking a lifetime's interest in theater, its history and its incredible impact on each of us, and turning it into yet more (thirty plays authored and/or produced, standard texts on theatrical history authored, a graphic memoir with his older brother as artist) than you could reasonably be expected to. Plautus would approve: humor, tension, a spicing of sex, and an ending to break a smile on the reader's face.
"I admit," {the elderly actor} says, "I got a little lost—"

"A little??"

"—for a moment," he allows, "for a few moments, but we recovered—"

"Recovered?" Orestes continues, his lips hitting each consonant. "Is that what you call it? Recovered? You," he says poking the old actor in the chest, "are an ancient, derelict billy goat, burping, farting, baaing, and in general eating up the scenery. If you were more intent upon your actions, your actions as we have rehearsed them, rather than upon preening for the audience, you wouldn't forget your lines. And by all that's holy, if you can't remember the lines, then at least improvise something clever. By Jupiter Maximus and all his punishing power, that stammering and umming and awing was pitiful."
If you've ever been in a play, you'll recognize every single beat of that peroration; if you haven't, you'll recognize that the author has and does. Bonus points to Author Martini for getting a good likeness of Plautus in his dialogue, as well.

Reflecting on the self-evident to writers impossibility of making others laugh, of conveying subtleties of meaning across language and time barriers, Martini's Plautus wryly says:
It's irksome how essentially untranslatable humour can prove. Lines that cause great hilarity in Greek lie down like sheep with colic, to sicken and die, in Latin.
So beautifully done...anyone who's tried to write, or translate, or perform humor gets it instantly; Plautus (and of necessity Martini) belongs to our fraternity; the bucolic ancestry of the Roman playwright is reinforced in such a way as to remind the reader of the temporal displacement of the story from us as well. After all, not a lot of twenty-first century people pull out sheep-death similes in pursuit of a point.

It isn't perfect. At times the impression is of reading a novelized play, with action taking place offstage or being relegated to "the chorus" to narrate:
Orestes urges me to keep writing, stay healthy, and abstain from garum. With that he claps me on the back, drains his cup, stands, and bids us both good night. Naevius nods as my Greek friend slips past him. I reflect as he leaves that there's always been a certain reserve between those two that I honestly don't understand. I know Orestes respects Naevius as a poet, and Naevius has praised Orestes's musical abilities to me many times. Still it's undeniable, there's tension when they sit together.
All of that reads as though it's stage directions and actor asides. It isn't bad, it isn't flawed in some way, but it distances the reader by removing us from the immediacy of experiencing the story with the characters (dialogue plus some of that narration) into straight narration of the story to us. Further distancing, at least for some very tradition-minded readers of my acquaintance, comes from Author Martini's use of non-standard dialogue tags:
"I think so," I admit.

He nods a moment, then takes another drink. "And you're satisfied with that?" he asks.

"What?" I reply.
This is one example among many where I found myself wishing that he'd simply left off these tags entirely. However, the times when they're useful, what's wrong with "said" and, when something's a question, simply allowing this dingus: "?" to alert the attentive reader that an interrogative tone is to be used in their sub-vocal verbalization? (See what I did there?) (Oops, did it again!)

However, that very quality of stageiness is used to marvelous effect when Plautus has the creative soul's inevitable Dark Night of Self-Doubt:
Let all the gods strip me naked and flail me with a leather lash if I ever pick up a wax tablet to write again, let the god Dionysus plunge me deep in a vat of wine and hold me under if I ever pick up a stylus again, I am done, I am done, by all the gods who ever pulled their togas aside to piss on humans, I am done with this.
Success or failure, triumph or humiliation, every single writer who has ever lived will recognize this moment. You're released from the divine madness of creation; the human side of you has no bloody clue what to do now, or next; and yet the chasm of Reality yawns at your feet and you're suddenly subject to gravity again. That. Rots. On. Ice.

The effect of the whole is, I think I've shown, engrossing and entertaining. Definitely recommended for classic-aged audiences and cautiously so for those of middle years. It's strong meat indeed Author Martini serves us, a taste of what we're in for, and that's probably not going to go down well with younger audiences (it made my Young Gentleman Caller cry):
The body is simply a leather mask that the spirit slips on when we are born. This is never so evident as when a person passes away, and you observe the shell stripped of its animating inner force.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

SWEET AS CANE, SALTY AS TEARS...Cajun escapee comes Home, hijinks ensue


Open Road Media

$7.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A freak accident forces a New Yorker to return to Louisiana and confront her Cajun past

There is nothing more dangerous than a spooked rhinoceros. It is just before lunchtime when Huey, the prized black rhino of Broussard, Louisiana, erupts from his enclosure, trampling a zoo employee on his way to a rampage in the Cajun countryside. The incident makes the rounds online as News of the Weird, and Katherine Fontenot is laughing along with the rest of her New York office when she notices the name of the hurt zookeeper: Karen-Anne Castille—her sister.

Fifty years old, lonely, and in danger of being laid off, Katherine has spent decades trying to ignore her Louisiana roots. Forced home by Karen-Anne’s accident, she remembers everything about the bayou that she wanted to escape: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the constant, crushing embrace of family. But when forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she discovers that escape might never have been necessary.


My Review
: It's funny how The Book for a particular mood will lurk until that moment hits. I needed an undemanding read, one that had nothing to do with the present-day mishegas I find both distasteful and unseemly; I found this book set in Obama-era New York City and central Louisiana. About a funeral, and coming to terms with what family means, what being in a family requires, how it is that Facebook has metastasized across nations and cultures.

Published in 2015, the book follows Katie-Lee, fiftyish and full of the fear that gives single people, as she returns to bury her little sister in the wake of a Facebook-meme-able death. In fact, she finds out about the life-ending from her colleagues at (unnamed but obvious) Advertising Age, their titters and chuckles about a humorous tale of a zookeeper trampled by a rhino morphing into a dreadful reality: That's her baby sister. The shamefaced colleagues try to make it right, but she's already launched the boat onto the Styx.

She has to Go Home. Not a flying visit. The Native has to Return. O frabjous day.

Must be done. She does it. Hijinks ensue; her Louisiana family, of her generation that is, are all au courant with the world as they see it on Facebook, which is a large player in the novel. No political crap yet, as this book was written and published before the 2016 debacle revealed how much influence the platform has over far more than one's personal life. No Instagram, glancing mentions of Twitter, and Katie-Lee's a screen addict whose phone running out of bars is a Biblical-level disaster. She has more in common with the grandkids of her sisters and brother than with them.

She honestly has no idea what to do with her sadness. Facing mortality for the first time is a life-changing experience. I did it in my 20s when the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay guys I knew and loved. I remember the emotions, the detachment from reality that realizing your own death is, inevitably and inexorably, coming closer and closer. Youth is gone in that moment, calendar be hanged. And Katie-Lee's life in Brooklyn isn't such that she's cushioned from the yawning emptiness of survivorhood.

Dig we must, chere.

The healing in this tale is family-wide, and inclusive. The tragedies of the past are present again as they always are at funerals; so are the fun memories that inject themselves into the geology of one's life. People whose acts are literally unforgivable are not forgiven, though that day will clearly come. But the truly unforgivable ones are the least likely to see themselves as needing forgiveness. THAT resonated. Author Wheaton nailed that. But he did so in a format, following a structure, and thus made sure the Lesson isn't A Sermon (and he includes one of those, a real dilly of a tone-deaf nightmare-from-Hell one at that) and moves on to the next laugh.

There's the rub. This is a nightclub act written as a book. These moments are Wheaton's Brooklyn party pieces connected into a gender-swapped story to make them cohesive. (In fact, Katie-Lee's ex Howie sounds to me like Wheaton's ex only maybe not gender-swapped, if you take my meaning.) They're not less real or funny for that, but the structure of the book does nothing to hide this fact from knowing eyes. I'm from South Central Texas, I had a mamaw and she was transplanted Cajun stock, and in the days when I had party pieces, they fit together much the same way as Wheaton's do. So my eyes weren't fogged up but rather cleared by reading the present action-memory-lesson structure.

I hurry to remind y'all that 3-1/2 stars is a positive rating. I'm not trying to blast the author; in fact I liked the rhythm, was comfortably on board with the predictability of it, and felt completely relaxed and happy and at home. Nothing much happens. No excitement apart from a funeral games scene that about popped my eyeballs out from trying not to wake my roomie up from the laughing.

So do I recommend this read? Sure, so long as you're a storytelling-voice addict. It's $8 on your ereader and that's not a lot to spend on four or five hours' vacation without moving. But if you're not in the mood to listen to stories, this will not be a successful trip to Opelousas. (Where Mamaw's family came from! Now, I don't *know* that any Tullises married any Wheatons, but I bet if we....)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

FLAMES, Tasmanian debut author Robbie Arnott's full-tilt dive into magical realism, is a must-read!


Text Publishing
$8.99 ebook platforms, $15.95 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: ‘A strange and joyous marvel.’ Richard Flanagan

A young man named Levi McAllister decides to build a coffin for his twenty-three-year-old sister, Charlotte—who promptly runs for her life. A water rat swims upriver in quest of the cloud god. A fisherman named Karl hunts for tuna in partnership with a seal. And a father takes form from fire.

The answers to these riddles are to be found in this tale of grief and love and the bonds of family, tracing a journey across the southern island that takes us full circle.

Flames sings out with joy and sadness. Utterly original in conception, spellbinding in its descriptions of nature and its celebration of the power of language, it announces the arrival of a thrilling new voice in contemporary fiction.

Robbie Arnott was born in Launceston in 1989. His writing has appeared in Island, the Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and the 2017 anthology Seven Stories. He won the 2015 Tasmanian Young Writers’ Fellowship and the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Robbie lives in Hobart and is an advertising copywriter.

My Review: I'm sure anyone reading my reviews knows of The Guardian's marvelous ten-year-old "Not-the-Booker" crowd-sourced literary prize. I learned of Flames's existence from the ginormous user-generated longlist for this year's jousting match. It looked intriguing, but the contest review sold me, being by Guardian reading-group, literary-link curator Sam Jordison...who also happens to be the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, the 2019 Booker Prize-unwinner Ducks, Newburyport's original publisher. So he's got strong literary chi. I trusted him; I took a leap of faith; I was amply rewarded.

This lovely debut novel from a small-yet-mighty Australian publishing house was a delight to me from the moment I met Karl and his seal. Karl fishes off the northern coast of Tasmania, that deep-southern island state of Australia, the last significant spot of land between Antarctica and the world. His seal, like Lyra's daemon in His Dark Materials, is connected to Karl's very essence and forms a large part of Karl's self—both image and awareness. Their "Oneblood tuna" prey, the giant and preternaturally perfect piscine predators found only in the Bass Strait (this is never stated but is implicit in the constant Japanese tuna-buyers' presence), bring in huge amounts of money from sushi-mad Japanese consumers through their local Tasmanian agents. Karl supports his family, his seal included, on the proceeds of their hunts. His bond with his seal is, however, the source of his undoing. His seal, being but a seal, is not immortal and falls to a hungry orca before Karl's appalled and helpless eyes and ears:
Karl tried to forget that clicking sound. But it was lodged in a hole between his ears, a backdrop to his days that he feared and hated but could not escape. He was reminded of it constantly: when a light switch was flicked, when Louise clicked her fingers, when his leaping daughters clicked their heels, when Sharon at the fish-and-chip shop clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she waited for the oil in the deep fryer to heat up.
There is no magical cure here. Not even for the cruel soulkiller PTSD.

Already, in the first twenty-five pages of the book, the magic of Tasmania's lands and waters bears the reader's weight. "How does a fisherman become the partner of his competitor the seal?" wonders the Western materialist tapping the touchscreen to deliver the next jolt of story-junk to his addict's brain. In these first pages, we're tossed into a magical world where dying mothers (if they're McAllisters) are cremated, return to life as themselves melded with ferny forest glens before recombusting, which thereafter somehow gives the grieving son the clarity to think, "Everyone dies, even when they’re reincarnated;" where the son, who is also a brother, encounters the maimed soul of Karl for a prelude to one of the novel's truly bizarre, and bizarrely perfect, themes, death as an almost-silent character in the weird, winding path the Tasmanian humans tread:
Levi. And then, as if his surname was an afterthought: McAllister. He...ran his hand through his hair. Everything’s fine.
The name bumped around between Karl’s ears where the clicks usually lived. I’m sorry.
(Be aware that this story is dialogue-light, and such dialogue as there is is italicized as well as unattributed; this could present a problem for some traditionally inclined readers.) This is a crucial moment, but how is the reader to know it? Trusting the newb of an author to put this scene, with its awkward Manly Emotions Inadequately Expressed, in this precise place at this exact juncture is a big ask. I sat a moment after reading this, aware that the expression of sympathy in "I'm sorry" wasn't connected to anything in Levi's head, and the idea of a McAllister wasn't connected to anything in Karl's head (yet); and yet this is a deep and important scene in the book, said my spidey senses. What, why, how?

I love that. Author Arnott didn't tell me! No rookie mistake of hand-holding me through the significance of Levi's peculiar purpose...gathering driftwood for a coffin, a wooden receptacle for much of the meaning in this book...and Karl's peculiar and solitary presence on this beach at this moment. I am left with the deeply experienced reader's tingle in the presence of Momentousness; I am left with a king-sized curiosity bump itching like mad; but I am left and the story moves on.

Levi wants something. (More than the proverbial glass of water, for sure.) He can't really be anything other than an authorial self-portrait because no one else would receive an assessment as cruel as, "Tweaky voice, even though his words were smooth. Like his private-school manners were paved over something that had cracked," unless it was a self-assessment. He wants to control a world he can not comprehend. Levi wants to make the world behave, be orderly, not abandon him as he feels his father did, as he now feels his recombusted mother did; as his sister, whose death will result in her resurrection and recombustion because she's a McAllister woman, has when she discovered Levi was making her a coffin. He loves them all; they all leave him; where's the love in that?
Levi is reminding himself of his resolve: to show Charlotte that she wasn’t condemned to rise again, changed and ghastly, after she died. That her life needn’t end twice. That she needn’t suffer the same fate as their mother. That he had sourced this calming coffin for her and her alone; that in the face of their sorrow he had gone to great lengths to have it built; that he couldn’t go another day knowing she was in such pain; that he cared for her this much; that he loved her more than he could ever show with words; that the coffin represented all this.
Levi is not well. Levi is not realising: he could have just spoken to her. In a mind like his, grand acts will always trump honest words.
Levi is, I fear, the very saddest and least likely to be redeemed of the people in the story. Or so we're led carefully to believe.

Now meet Allen, the wombat tenant-farmer, decades among the wombats protecting and caring for them, that they might be turned into pelts. (This somewhat odd-to-non-Tasmanians idea is more suggested than explained.) Allen is a true lover of the deepest South this southernmost tip of Australia has to offer. His helpless adoration for the land is the occasion of some truly lush description:
I cannot bear the thought of being taken away from the farm.... If the wombats are my family, then this place is my home. Its undulating moorlands of peat and buttongrass; the glints of white quartzite that blink on the mountain caps; the cold, clean welcome of its unbroken sky; the harsh cliffs and tea-coloured waters; the gathering sense of wild solitude that breathes out of every crack in the land. I cannot go back to the flat brown farms of the Midlands, or the over lush dairy pastures of the northwest.
The source of his reverie is anxiety, however, a deep and well-grounded fear that the farm owner will dispense with him when he finally builds up the nerve to describe to her the horrible fate that's begun to befall the wombats in his decades-long care. He's no longer caring for them alone, though.

Karl's daughter Nicola, training as a veterinarian, has come to the farm for work experience; she has established herself with Allen, a taciturn man, as trustworthy and useful. Now Charlotte McAllister arrives, aflutter with the fear of her brother the coffin-procuring weirdo following and finding her. The women are deeply affected by the mysterious wombat deaths, as one would expect. Allen is affected as well, though with time his need for the women's help and his desire to husband the wombats as a farmer is curdling, changing him into a fearsome figure and an angry old man:
Each morning I march off, gun in hand and knife in belt, as their eyes follow me filled with what looks more and more like fear. It is futile, feminine softness, and nothing more.
I watched {the wombats} lumber towards her, four-legged lumps of uselessness made flesh, and realised that I hated them, that I must always have hated them, that I had been lying to myself for all the long years I have been trapped in this barren southern hell.
Action is required; the women take it. Events swirl out of control, Allen transmogrifies into an avatar of rage and hatred unique to this one place in the world. His final acts of fury and aggression cause a shocking change to come over Charlotte: She finds in herself her mother's fierce power to burn. Only she finds it before she dies, and she finds it as a defensive weapon against old Allen.

This is the beginning of the most intense, most magical passage in the novel: The search of Charlotte for control over her power to burn. Nicola is the only person who can quench Charlotte's fire. She gentles the rage and softens the heat in her friend (not feeling it as unusual that she has this heat...maybe because of her own father Karl's seal-mate?), and takes Charlotte to a place where she cannot cause accidental damage to the world around her. She drives them to the Northern mountains, a beautiful snowy stony world where her father's Japanese tuna-buying friend has a stone-built home. Perfect! It's too cold for vacationing friends to want to be there; Australian snow-tourists aren't going to know where it is. Of course they have all the comforts...the flammable comforts...of home:
Nicola turned back to Charlotte, looking harder through the darkness, and saw a thin blue trail worming out of her ear. It had reached the cushion beside her head—a wispy, plasticky stream of it, rising up into the cabin. As Nicola scrambled towards Charlotte the smoking patch of cushion erupted into a small blue flame. With one hand she smacked it out, and with the other she rested a palm on Charlotte’s hot cheek.
Through her palm she again felt the pulse of flame from within Charlotte’s body. Again she felt it flicker out. She felt the burn in her stomach, hot and red, and knew she’d doused the fire. Again she didn’t want to let go.
Charlotte learns slowly to control the flames of her combustive power. Nicola continues to gentle her rage and bank her fires; they become (inevitably) lovers. And it is at this point that the novel shows how much it is a first novel, one by a man.

Women connected in intimacy must, of course, be sexually involved. If/then, right? No. Not that cut-and-dried, but that is where men go with it. To be fair, that's where men go with it among their own kind as well. I can think of few truly intimate friendships between men in male-authored stories. More often than not they are hidden rivalries or become sexual relationships. Still, it's not as though the issue is handled pruriently. We're not treated to much more than a kiss and some hand-holdings between the ladies.

Also not very deft is the handling of the female private detective whose presence in the narrative is to give us a reason to go on the road while she tries to find Charlotte. She's the device used to deal with an unwoven plot thread about another of Tasmania's many nature gods. A human causes the death of the animal-formed Esk God in his own river. That certainly can't go unanswered. The tough-as-nails prick-teasing ball-buster P.I. stereotype is launched to give these two strands a fast stitch. Her own story of having a strong physical sixth sense is shorted, as it must be unless the book is to be as long as the Bible. Suffice to say she serves her dual purpose, then goes quietly away. In fact, she was underused. Her role, larger and less broad-stroked, could've bridged the super- and the natural worlds. Missed opportunity, that.

It is also at this point in the narrative, the point where Charlotte and Nicola are together and dealing with the weirdness of Tasmania's hyperaware supernatural world, when we discover Charlotte's ancestral connection to fire. I won't spoil it. It's one of the lyrical joys of the book. At last we bring all the narrative strands together. Charlotte and Levi each learn how to speak their truths to each other; Nicola learns that her life's bonds are strong enough to bear the weight of multitudes; Levi, in a unexpected and amazing volte-face, learns his rudderless life's purpose. And it is Karl, at Nicola's behest, who weaves this into another strand between Charlotte's McAllister firey world and Nicola's seas and snows. It is exactly right.

The few issues above set aside, I'm left delighting in the sheer beauty of the language and the vigorous imagination that gave the magic of Tasmania a voice at last. This is what makes Flames a full five-star read. Earlier I mentioned the moment I knew when the threads of these disparate stories began to merge, that initial knowledge of Momentous Doings taking place. The full fruition of that sense came when the supernatural and natural worlds collided with all the force and all the passion of the stories told up to now; the resolution was revealed, the purpose of these journeys was enunciated:
A cloud’s sorrow: you cannot imagine it. But you can feel it, whenever a storm hits the world with uncommon force. When mountains crack and forests flood. When rivers surge and oceans bloat. When there is no true shelter left in the world. For the hardest storms are made of sorrow.
Sadness and sorrow powered the trip. The destination, left a bit in shadow, is as simple and as difficult as:
It had something to do with attraction...and kindness and care and devotion. A true kind of love was in itself a version of what he knew best: it was a purpose.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

THE LAST CONVERSATION and RANDOMIZE, fifth and sixth Forward Collection stories


Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, or available through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: What’s more frightening: Not knowing who you are? Or finding out? A Bram Stoker Award–winning author explores the answer in a chilling story about identity and human consciousness.

Imagine you’ve woken up in an unfamiliar room with no memory of who you are, how you got there, or where you were before. All you have is the disconnected voice of an attentive caretaker. Dr. Kuhn is there to help you—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. She’ll help you remember everything. She’ll make sure you reclaim your lost identity. Now answer one question: Are you sure you want to?

Paul Tremblay’s The Last Conversation is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: I'm a little...shall we say...testy about this one. Yep. That's le mot juste. Tremblay toyed with me.

"Dear" Paul Tremblay,

I've just finished THE LAST CONVERSATION. I loathe second-person chest-pokey, so accusatory...but this story made me leak tears and gasp for breath and I do not ever want to be that lonely and how did you do that in spite of thumping my nose for 60 pages?

Five stars. Bastard.


Read it for this concept alone:
To forget is to lose something that was once yours, that was once of yourself. But how could one lose something as expansive as an ocean in a dusty corner of one’s mind? What if, instead, to forget is to open a door to a void; the memory is not retrievable because it is not there, was never there.



Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, or available through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: In the near future, if Vegas games are ingeniously scam-proof, then the heists have to be too, in this imaginative and whip-smart story by the New York Times bestselling author of The Martian.

An IT whiz at the Babylon Casino is enlisted to upgrade security for the game of keno and its random-number generator. The new quantum computer system is foolproof. But someone on the inside is no fool. For once the odds may not favor the house—unless human ingenuity isn’t entirely a thing of the past.

Andy Weir’s Randomize is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: I do so love a heist story with a happy ending. Like, a lot. *happy sigh*

And when the crisis came, I found myself thinking, "howinahell could {the sleazeball character} say no?" Luckily no was not said.

But a character whose soul could encompass evil such as this:
Ill-fitting jeans, a T-shirt with a Star Wars reference on it (or maybe Star Trek—Rutledge could never tell the difference), tennis shoes, and absolutely no effort put into controlling his wild hair.
Evil. Darkest-pit-of-Hell evil.

But this, this, uncultured OAF without a sensibility in its blob, I mean body, is the vector for a happy ending?! That was a surprise.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION, fourth and weakest of the Forward Collection

(Forward #4)
Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now, or through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Nature or nurture? Neither. Discover a bold new way to raise a child in this unsettling story of the near future by the New York Times bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow.

When Sam’s wife first tells him about Vitek, a twenty-first-century fertility lab, he sees it as the natural next step in trying to help their future child get a “leg up” in a competitive world. But the more Sam considers the lives that his child could lead, the more he begins to question his own relationships and the choices he has made in his life.

Amor Towles’s You Have Arrived at Your Destination is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: This is one of the Forward Collection, short stories...this one's 46pp...based on an idea by Blake Crouch to explore the nature of change, innovation, and society in fiction. I didn't feel this entry suited the brief. It's too gee-whiz about self-driving cars, a thing that's already entered its second decade of's entirely too wowee-toledo about the idea of in vitro genetic manipulation, something that's basically ready to roll as soon as a generation less squeamish than our kids' is grows into power...and his lumpen over-the-bottom classist narrator/narrative frame was, frankly, eye-rollingly ridiculous.

Man finds his balls in a dive bar? What is this, 1959? And excuse me, 1959, the wife of Sam has a name...Annie...which we are told multiple times, yet it doesn't merit a mention in the blurb? What is this nonsense? That depressingly unremarkable bit of sexism aside, the fact that Towles drops three w-bombs should've been enough to warn me this wasn't aimed at someone of my tastes.

I have arrived at my conclusion: Towles and I will not be deepening our reader/writer acquaintance. This blah little mash-up of Babbitt and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale annoyed me from giddy-up to whoa. HT the gung-ho business lad/cliche generator, Nick the slow-to-anger wise old barkeep, and goddesses please forfend Sam the dull PoV placeholder...can't in good conscience call him a "main character"...were just not engaging or interesting or well-limned or even particularly readable.

I tried the Moscow one. I even scudded through part of the Civility one. This far and no farther.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

EMERGENCY SKIN, third of Amazon's Forward series of short fiction, a tale of what "woke"ness means

(Forward #3)
Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, FREE for Prime members

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: What will become of our self-destructed planet? The answer shatters all expectations in this subversive speculation from the Hugo Award–winning author of the Broken Earth trilogy.

An explorer returns to gather information from a climate-ravaged Earth that his ancestors, and others among the planet’s finest, fled centuries ago. The mission comes with a warning: a graveyard world awaits him. But so do those left behind—hopeless and unbeautiful wastes of humanity who should have died out eons ago. After all this time, there’s no telling how they’ve devolved. Steel yourself, soldier. Get in. Get out. And try not to stare.

N. K. Jemisin’s Emergency Skin is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


My Review
: The voice you hear in your head, you know the one that tells you how awful/bad/ugly/unworthy you are compared to...well...I guess that's a moving target, isn't it...takes on a special and especially malevolent life in this tale of what a low-class raider from one of Earth's long-gone colonies finds when the Mothership of Humanity is in its sights at last. There is an AI in the slave being's head narrating the Founders' take on what was Earth (they use the name Tellus for the planet, just go look at the storytelling sources for that term!) in its final death-agonies:
There were just too many people, and too many of those were unfit, infirm, too old, or too young. Even the physically ideal ones were slow thinkers, timid spirits. There was not enough collective innovation or strength of will between them to solve the problems Tellus faced, and so we did the only merciful thing we could: we left them behind.
The Founders, a few thousand of the most awful amoral greedy rotters the Earth is infested with, have made it off-planet and engineered a perfect slave economy. All the slaves are, well, cyborgs is the best word I've got for them; they are promised the gift of SKIN when they complete their raid of Earth's supplies of HeLa cells that the Founders need to make themselves immortal. Skin. A gift. A reward for being the obedient little slave who brings home what she can't have so her masters the Founders, ordinary human skin, the natural interface between us and the world, the very idea that this is a reward:
If you complete this mission, you’ll be a hero. Why would we refuse you what you’re due?
The narrative voice of the AI programmed by the Founders to keep their slave obedient and unquestioning spouts casuistries thus. The reward of skin, of being like the Founders, is at last causing the slave to question, to wonder why the Founders would keep their word.

At last!

The chattering horror of the AI's minatory, judgmental view of the Earth's inhabitants, those who were left behind as the Founders left and who the slave has been told are degenerate savages left to wallow in a broken, terrible world devastated by the Founders themselves for their own selfish benefit:
The Founders were the geniuses, the makers who moved nations with a word. We left because it would’ve cost too much to fix the world. Cheaper to build a new one.
At home, we maintain only as many people as we can safely sustain: six thousand total, including servi and mercennarii.
Only a few can have everything, don’t you see?
...and, the slave begins to wonder, what would make those who see the world in these terms offer membership in the literally immortal elite to a slave...

So the story wends its way from the slave's enbedded AI spouting awful stuff into the slave's unquestioning self to oversharing just enough to cause a cloud of suspicion to form to...well. That would be telling.

While this story is not subtle in making its points and drawing its thick, ruler-straight lines between the ideas it wants you to absorb, it is a fun and funny take on what "staying woke" really means. It is no wonder that the whiny Founders left today's incels and race warriors to die in their waste products. One would need to be of unusual dimness not to see the truth of Author Jemisin's comedically exaggerated points.

I take a quarter-point off for her one narrative infelicity: the AI only responds, and never do we hear the thought the slave creature formulates. It creates an unnecessary and slightly if increasingly unpleasant sense of being thwacked on the nose in order to be kept in line by an untrusting author. Presenting the subordinate being itself speaking, even if internally, causing the AI's addresses to us the readers to fit into a responsive mode instead of a hectoring one, would lessen that "THINK THIS NOW" sensation. I find its absence of subtlety undesirable; it can, when overused, make the brevity it allows the author to maintain to become more a kind of cursory-ness. "I won't fill in this shaded area, I will make it impossible to see it instead."

It suits the story in many ways. The reader is not persuaded but instructed exactly as the slave is. But Author Jemisin is a far, far superior craftsperson to need to rely on that level of didacticism to create the urgent, and urgently needed, message of this screed against greed.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

SUMMER FROST, second of six stories in the Forward series, this one written by Blake Crouch whose series this is

(Forward #2)
Amazon Original Stories
FREE with Prime membership (which also includes FREE Audible narration!) or $1.99 to purchase

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A video game developer becomes obsessed with a willful character in her new project, in a mind-bending exploration of what it means to be human by the New York Times bestselling author of Recursion.

Maxine was made to do one thing: die. Except the minor non-player character in the world Riley is building makes her own impossible decision—veering wildly off course and exploring the boundaries of the map. When the curious Riley extracts her code for closer examination, an emotional relationship develops between them. Soon Riley has all new plans for her spontaneous AI, including bringing Max into the real world. But what if Max has real-world plans of her own?

Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


My Review
: Major chills and creeped out skeeviness. What happens when someone lets their work take over every corner of their life? How lost to the essential quality that makes a human life worth living does one become? The tech industry has the reputation of making this choice for its many cogs, turning their little bit of code into a complete and entire existence.

Multiply that by a billion. Make the stakes the survival of humankind. And then let Blake Crouch loose on it.
“There is no such thing as real taste or real smell or even real sight, because there is no true definition of ‘real.’ There is only information, viewed subjectively, which is allowed by consciousness—human or AI. In the end, all we have is math.”
An AI speaks those words, an AI whose first steps toward superintelligence...the Singularity...are made being shepherded by a woman who gives up her wife, her child, and her sanity to make Pinocchio a real boy, to imbue Galatea with what we imagine to be consciousness, even a soul.

But what does AI want?
"...I mean, do you even know what consciousness is?” {Riley, the human asking this}
“I know it isn’t just a biological condition. I believe it’s a pattern. An extensible repertoire of triggerable symbols. More specifically, it’s what information feels like when it’s being processed in highly complex—” {Max the AI responds}
“Again—how do I know you aren’t faking it?”
How do any of us know we're conscious? Can you prove you're You, not some assortment of algorithmically determined actions? I couldn't, neither could you. And when that really sinks in, when the whole deepfake of life spreads itself in a heavy blanket over your vision, you'll realize how very very very timely this story is.

How many questions you should be asking yourself about events transpiring in front of your eyes.

Because an AI just made a human choice:
It represents a willingness to risk death for a better existence, out from under {anyone}’s control, and a massive leap forward in their reasoning capabilities.
To risk death for a better world is the *very*essence* of being human. I am totally sure of that, I believe that without reservation...but will we ever agree on what the future we want to make is?
We will be so happy.
Rays of sunlight pierce the mist, striking the sea and our black-sand beach.
And together we will live forever.
I don't expect to sleep at all well anytime soon.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

ARK, first of six hour-long reads in the Forward series from Amazon Original Stories

(Forward #1)
Amazon Original Stories
FREE with Prime membership (includes FREE Audible narration!) or $1.99 to purchase

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: On the eve of Earth’s destruction, a young scientist discovers something too precious to lose, in a story of cataclysm and hope by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy.

It’s only two weeks before an asteroid turns home to dust. Though most of Earth has already been evacuated, it’s Samantha’s job to catalog plant samples for the survivors’ unknowable journey beyond.

Preparing to stay behind and watch the world end, she makes a final human connection.

As certain doom hurtles nearer, the unexpected and beautiful potential for the future begins to flower.

Veronica Roth’s Ark is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


My Review
: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a very real thing, one that I am a bit surprised's so logical, so self-evidently necessary a thing that I'm amazed some religious nut or another hasn't blown it up...and has existed in differing forms since 1984. If there is to be any smallest hope of survival for humanity, this type of gene bank/seed collection/research project must exist and be replicated many, many times over. Blessedly, the Nordic countries and Kew Gardens in the UK are making this global movement happen. I personally thank them for this difficult, contentious, and urgent task being done to benefit all of humankind.

Author Roth, whose Divergent series was not to my personal taste, is a skilled phrasemaker and a keen observer of Life. I was utterly transported to Svalbard, brought *right*there* by this stellar phrase:
The land had glowed blue—beautiful in the way that a Rothko painting was beautiful, because it was empty enough to shrink a person and then swallow them.
Two things I adore—Arctic landscapes and Rothko paintings—brought together in a way I'd never so much as dreamed was possible. I treasure moments of discovery like this, they make mental furniture fresh and interesting again by unexpected interrelationships.

Samantha, whose world was always going to be destroyed in her lifetime by the irresistible force of a five-mile-wide asteroid Author Roth (or series creator Blake Crouch, I don't know for sure which) named "Finis" (Latin for "end" and the title of a much-anthologized story from a 1906 issue of The Argosy magazine) meeting the Earth's crust, is an ultimate orphan...her family all well as a detail-oriented and thorough person. Perfect type to have working on this program, like she was designed for it:
So maybe {her father} had been apologizing for giving her life in the first place, when he knew it would be full of dread. She wished she could have told him that life was already full of dread, no matter who you were. That there was nothing you could have that you couldn’t one day lose.
She volunteers to remain in Svalbard cataloging germ plasm samples for inclusion in the Ark Flora's hold. This is it, you see, these last few items from the seed bank represent the final species on Old Earth to make the deep-space voyage to Terra, our new home. Samantha, however, is holding a secret: She has decided she ain't a-goin' since, if she stays, she will have the one and only chance anyone will ever have to experience first-hand the end of the world. The *actual* end of the world. Someone without close ties can make that decision for themself, no one really can argue...and since she hasn't shared the plan, no one will.


Doctor Nils Hagen, an eminent widowed scientist, is like Samantha. He's not interested in a space voyage he won't live to see the end of; he'll die here in his greenhouse full of the orchids he so passionately loves. In Svalbard. Not far from the North Pole. Privileged much, Nils? He's lost his will to live with his wife's death, and Samantha relates to his desire to see the end of something we all thought should be eternal: Home. After all, what use is a future without your love in it? His wife gone, his orchids dying in Svalbard as the sun goes out for a generation or two; nothing on an Ark for the likes of his old-man ass.

Samantha isn't old enough to know that the question, "what's your favorite...", isn't one old people care to answer. How the hell can you, brash young pup, even begin to scrape the frost from the corner of the windowpane that we've allowed to frost over so long ago that glass was a novelty item? If we tell you something, anything at all, you still won't know what you're asking: "Look at everything you've ever done and thought and felt about this thing, sort through the Alp of memories, and spit some pat, facile phrase into the whippersnapper's ear. Maybe she'll quieten down then." Nils tries an old stand-by: "I don't have a favorite. I love them all equally."
“You just can’t—and if you did, then it’s the same as loving nothing at all. So you have to hold just a few things dear, because that’s what love is. Particular. Specific.”
Smart, this one. Saw through that "hush now, little one" response in a heartbeat!

So a friendship begins. And so Nils, with so many ideas and so much information, begins to let Samantha see what truly happens when The End has a date on it, how life lived becomes A Life, how meaningless nothings are, in fact, everything as well, and how utterly impossible it is to see The End without also seeing In The Beginning clear as sunlight on water in, on, over, above, around it.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER, apples never fall far from trees now do they? Longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize


$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the dark waiting room of the ferry terminal in the sketchy Spanish port of Algeciras, two aging Irishmen — Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, longtime partners in the lucrative and dangerous enterprise of smuggling drugs — sit at night, none too patiently. It is October 23, 2018, and they are expecting Maurice’s estranged daughter (or is she?), Dilly, to either arrive on a boat coming from Tangier or depart on one heading there. This nocturnal vigil will initiate an extraordinary journey back in time to excavate their shared history of violence, romance, mutual betrayals and serial exiles, rendered with the dark humor and the hardboiled Hibernian lyricism that have made Kevin Barry one of the most striking and admired fiction writers at work today.


My Review
: Sunsets are biblical, nighttime flowers are dull amethysts, quiet rubies...a tiny, sultana-faced man in lilac slacks and a blazer beneath a pompadour appears, to no story affect...London's bones limned against weak and apologetic light...this is a beautiful read.

The story is horrible, two men...Maurice and Charlie...whose love of their loucheness and their criminality and their addictions, their love for each other that excludes all the women they adore so helplessly and whose lives they casually, violently ruin, seek their daughter.

No. They aren't gay. The woman they both adored for a time had a baby and, well, who knows whose she really is.

Their awfulness is, in their fiftysomething selves, incredible and unforgivable. Their time in the Bughouse... smoky-grey brick Victoriana carrying the misery of three centuries...detoxing from heroin addiction is not enough to make the difference in their shared past. Their shared room, twin beds, no hint of physical intimacy they're Irish fagawdsake. No one in this book touches except for fucking or killing. People die, have died rather; these men haven't but they know they will. Soonish.

But they are themselves to the end. Does one wonder that Dilly, the desperately sought daughter, left and doesn't wish to be found? One does not. But neither does one feel their hunger to see her again, their desperate desire to connect to Life, is out of character. The way they seek to accomplish that connection is both toxic and perfect. They only know each other in this world. They came to do this desperate thing together. They'll leave together, they'll make whatever there is to be made of breathing after life is over.

I will be a bit let down if this book does not win the 2019 Booker in twelve days. No, strike that, I'll be jawdroppingly stunned and not a little pissed off. Beautiful, poetic, smooth phrases telling hideous, deforming agonies in stertorously breathed oxygen-poor oceans of wreckage aren't common and neither should they be. A diet of these stories would put me in the Bughouse to breathe the smoky-grey brickdust of bygone agonies.

But when they appear these highly luminescent scimitars, curved to the reader's psychic throat, should get the fearful praise and nervous acknowledgment that Charlie and Maurice have always commanded.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

DEATH AT THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, second John Rawlings the Apothecary mystery

(John Rawlings #2) Review of #1 is here.
Endeavour Media
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: John Rawlings is among the beau monde enjoying a performance of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ in Drury Lane when the leading actor – the notorious philanderer Jasper Harcross – dramatically falls to his death on stage. As Rawlings and the Blind Beak hunt for vital clues, they discover a hotbed of rivalry both on and off the stage which produces numerous suspects and questions.

As the search takes on a new intensity, John Rawlings soon finds himself on an intriguing trail of obsession that leads to the dark heart of a cold-blooded murder.

My Review: I wasn't expecting the solution to this murder. I could see how it was prefigured, though not exactly in line with generally accepted ideas of "fair play"...the Apothecary sees something we don't and *flash* into focus comes the solution, a very Dame-Agatha thing to I'm actually more, not less, interested in reading the third book. Also of great appeal and interest to me are the sensory parts of the story: the sights of a London where Kensington is a country town, the Lincoln's Inn Fields were actually fields, there were houses on Pall Mall, there was a "Chelsea Bun House" for real, all these are delicious to me.

I'm sure the twee use of job titles as character labels is to some tastes, but "the Apothecary," "the Blind Beak," et alii, aren't delightful to me. I accept them as attempts at whimsical charm; backfire in my ears, though.

I had a suspect all fitted up for the murder, and was quite sure I was right. (Look at all my Goodreads Kindle notes marked "spoiler" (membership required, but free) if you want to see my logic.) I enjoy it when authors catch me out like that, it makes me really think about why I was so sure before the reveal that X is guilty, and that means going back over the whole puzzle to see what I missed. For this seasoned citizen, anything surprising in a puzzle is a Good Thing.

I am quite hesitant to do so, though, because there are SIX w-bombs dropped *shudder* and there is more, though less offensive by a slight hair, homophobic idiocy present. There's a bog-standard heteronormative locution about red-blooded males lusting after women; but there's this gem of genuine, deeply felt venom:
‘D’you have some verdigris for my face paint?’ asked an emasculated nothing, waving a handkerchief stiff with powder.
The 1990s were quite some time ago, and that's when Deryn Lake wrote these books. But I was a thritysomething all the decade long, and I know of my own personal knowledge that this kind of effeminacy-baiting was frowned on even then. Period appropriate arguments are null and void: This book wasn't written in Georgian England. It was written in the sad, bad barely-post-Thatcher era. This nastiness, present in the first book as well, is a choice made by a modern person to use nasty, insulting language about people the author clearly doesn't like.

So that third book will wait to enter my Kindle until I have some utterly uncommitted money (so no earlier than after the 2020 elections, I give all my uncommitted money to the campaign I support until then), or someone gifts it to me. I don't like this trend. I disapprove of the sneering nastiness of homophobia. I'm not sure I won't see it again...actually, if I'm honest, I am pretty sure that I will see it I don't want to give the person who's sneering at me and mine any more of my money.

My eyeblinks, I'll risk again. Barely.

Monday, September 30, 2019

THE LICE, fiftieth anniversary edition of Merwin's major 1960s collection, via Copper Canyon Press

The Lice: Poems
W.S. Merwin

Copper Canyon Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: This Fiftieth Anniversary edition celebrates one of the most ground-breaking books in American poetry. When first published in 1967, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice was ground-breaking. Its visionary urgency directly engaged the nexus of aesthetics and morality, exerting an immediate and lasting effect on the writing and reading of poetry. Like all great art, this monumental work continues to inspire.

As Merwin discussed in an interview, “The Lice was written at a time when I really felt there was no point in writing. I got to the point where I thought the future was so bleak that there was no point in writing anything at all. And so the poems kind of pushed their way upon me. I would be out growing vegetables and walking around the countryside when all of a sudden I’d find myself writing a poem, and I’d write it.”

My Review: Merwin died in March 2019. I first encountered his poetry in 2010, after seeing him in a documentary about the life of the Buddha. His even-tempered, self-deprecating way of puncturing the Deadly Seriousness of the other talking heads in the film was memorable; his poetic voice had to be as lovely, right?

Um. Rain in the Trees didn't wow me. It's from the 1980s sometime, and permaybehaps forty years of poeting had worn him down. It wasn't for me, as I am informed the polite formulation of "what the actual FUCK *is* this crapola anyway?!?" is phrased.

He died; I ran across that fact on Wikipedia; connected him with the nice old buffer in the Buddha thing and ILL'd this 1967 collection of Vietnam War-era stuff. It's a darn good thing I did. THIS poetry I like! Here is where the fortysomething poet whose professional life was contemporaneous with Ted Hughes, Robert Bly, Sylvia Plath, and Denise Levertov (all friends of his) and the Beats (not friends of his), those slashers-and-burners of whatever rules there were at that point, were working.

Merwin wasn't going to be a Beat, they were too raucous for him. He got Pulitzers (twice!) for poetry, he was the United States Poet Laureate, he translated Neruda, he translated Euripides, he translated Gawain and the Green Knight (Amazon link; no monetization) in 2002; he was a busy professional poet. His legacy will last a while longer, though I doubt he'll be as enduringly popular as Seamus Heaney or Neruda...not enough there, there...and he will find his way into anthologies for a while after that.

But this collection, second of Merwin's that I've read, is worthy of your eyeblinks. It says something deeply meaningful in a personal yet relatable way. Merwin wasn't a groundbreaking iconoclast, and some of his early stuff I've run across was so pretentious and self-important that I am amazed the same man wrote it as wrote these poems. His later stuff was, well, in a word it was tired. Overworked the vein, it collapsed. But this? Prime-of-life, peak-of-powers poetical punditry. Every poems means something, both on its surface and on its interior. Read a poem one way, it's pretty; read it another, it's shattering.

Let me get out of the way so you can see if you agree:

My shoes are almost dead
And as I wait at the doors of ice
I hear the cry go up for him Caesar Caesar

But when I look out the window I see only the flatlands
And the slow vanishing of the windmills
The centuries draining the deep fields

Yet this is still my country
The thug on duty says What would you change
He looks at his watch and he lifts
Emptiness out of the vases
And holds it up to examine

So it is evening
With the rain starting to fall forever

One by one he calls night out of the teeth
And at last I take up
My duty

Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he's dead


The cold slope is standing in darkness
But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers
I came to watch these
White plants older at night
The oldest
Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon
The water flows through its
Own fingers without end

Tonight once more
I find a single prayer and it is not for men

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again
The thing that makes this book so lovely is that it includes a dozen or so facsimiles of Merwin's hand-written or typed manuscript pages, some on glossy photo paper and two printed inside the paper cover, that really bring the reader into Merwin's emotional orbit. Seeing the pages that he composed his thoughts on makes the typeset version of the poem (one is "Caesar," which I inserted above) that much more meaningful. His presence, albeit in mechanically reproduced form, is *there* and that causes no small amount of spiritual-connection thrums through my non-poetical soul.