Sunday, August 30, 2020

THE SLAVE YARDS, nightmarish Benghazi reality translated from Arabic

(tr. Nancy Roberts)
Syracuse University Press
$24.95 trade paper, $14.95 Kindle, available now

SAVE 40% on all books with discount code 05SNOW23 now through December 31, 2023. (link above)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in late nineteenth-century Benghazi, Najwa Bin Shatwan's powerful novel tells the story of Atiqa, the daughter of a slave woman and her white master. We meet Atiqa as a grown woman, happily married with two children and working. When her cousin Ali unexpectedly enters her life, Atiqa learns the true identity of her parents, both long deceased, and slowly builds a friendship with Ali as they share stories of their past.

We learn of Atiqa's childhood, growing up in the "slave yards," a makeshift encampment on the outskirts of Benghazi for Black Africans who were brought to Libya as slaves. Ali narrates the tragic life of Atiqa's mother, Tawida, a black woman enslaved to a wealthy merchant family who finds herself the object of her master's desires. Though such unions were common in slave-holding societies, their relationship intensifies as both come to care deeply for each other and share a bond that endures throughout their lives.

Shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Bin Shatwan's unforgettable novel offers a window into a dark chapter of Libyan history and illuminates the lives of women with great pathos and humanity.


My Review
: What a horrible life slaves have always led.

There's an earth-shattering insight for you. I can't believe anyone didn't say it before me, can you? Well, this book's like that. It's not telling you anything that you didn't know before. It's making you feel, see, smell it instead of intellectually knowing. Slavery, at its heart, is about bodies. The thing we take for granted, the autonomy of the corpus delicti of our lives as sinners on this, gawd's private torture grounds, is abrogated; no man controls his labor, no woman her womb, no child its curiosity. A slave exists, doesn't live. A slave possesses nothing, not even a soul, or else no religion would allow the practice. No religion has ever, to the best of my knowledge, forbidden slavery. At best a few wild-eyed bizarro outlier sects like the Quakers, or the Northern Baptists in the US, could even be bothered to protest its wrongness.
Many were the slaves who had forgotten the story of their enslavement and had integrated gladly into the life of those owned by Muslim masters. As for those who married other members of their own race and, in some cases, won emancipation, they were delivered from hunger to hunger, and from poverty to poverty.
That is a sad and eternal truth: Poverty closely resembles slavery, and as poverty is entirely curable, that cannot be an accident. It suits the people at the top to keep the system just unfair and evil enough that they can keep the best for themselves and run the lowest risk of the huge majority figuring out that they can't kill *all* of us and rebelling.

I hope to High Hallack that the US is at such an inflection point right now. But I digress.

At any rate. The Slave Yards tells a story, fairly simple in its outlines, about Atiqa growing herself up in Benghazi's Slave Yards, suffering multiple orphanings, and growing into a woman with a loving family, both made and born. Into that world comes a man with secrets to tell her about her past, secrets she buried during the worst night of her entire existence, and proofs that she was not just a slave girl and never had to be one. Too late, of course, to prevent the slave girl from suffering the degradation of not even owning the lungs she breathed with.

But Atiqa, the self-made therefore self-possessed woman of the story, doesn't come to this knowledge simply or directly. The whole novel is, as the title suggests, the Slave Yards whole and entire, its incredibly rich culture, its appalling degrading poverty, its joys and hates and endings and beginnings. The stories Atiqa remembers, tells herself anew, feels and smells again in her hard-earned, richly merited new life, are the meat of this book. Maybe "meat" isn't the word...the asida in the bazeen of this book. The story is dispensed with for long stretches of tale-spinning, of life-living memories. And that is a good, good thing.

I felt as though I had gone completely away from 2020 Long Island and its existential anxieties, thence to gain perspective:
Without a word {the groom} handed the bride's uncle a blood-spattered white sheet. The uncle...took it out to a group of men gathered in front of the house. This done, he gleefully set about emptying the contents of his shotgun into the air. ... The uncle unfurled it like a victory banner, the battle of innocence now won...they could hold their heads high in the knowledge that their honor was intact.
The present-day abortion-rights battles are the not-distant descendents of this kind of complete and utter idiocy. The entirety of monotheistic religion's thrust (please pardon wordplay) has been to stand on the neck of Womankind's autonomy out of anxiety. What? Anxious manhood? Perish forbid, say the abortion-deniers, and throw a thousand words into the void between their fears and the actual world. (THEIR daughters, white as snow, will always be able to get abortions...multiple women I'm related to had them pre-Roe-v-Wade. We're white. Connect the dots.) The real issue is control. The real issue is covering up for the men's fear of being robbed of their control over women's bodies:
Nobody seemed to notice that there was something wrong with the custom of having the groom use his hand {to break the woman's hymen} on the wedding night to determine whether his bride was a virgin. On the contrary, even the women thought is was perfectly normal. It had never occurred to them that it was just a way of covering up for a man's possible impotence.
Huh. Imagine that, a custom arising (you should forgive) to protect a fragile boy-ego at the expense of a woman. My pearls, my pearls.

So for a moment, I was swept into a world where the power imbalances made no smallest effort to hide themselves. It was a relief, in a way, to be in a place where the crushing and cruelty were open and acknowledged; were simply the way things are. Because to fight the way things are is to crusade, to smash and shatter and slaughter the old, the bad, but the *known* and the *open* awfulnesses. Today it is harder by far to protect gains not evenly spread, to defend boundaries set to deliberately disadvantage some, and then work to spread and reset them. The world of Benghazi in the 1890s, the 1900s was bitter to be Black in, and the wrongness of it was everywhere. To root out racism in the richest country on Earth? The battle never ends, the rebellion is bought and undermined and softened and, in the end, prevented from making changes that discomfit the wealthy.

Better to be somewhere else, then, even for four hours. To be, however temporarily:
...the legacy of those who didn't look at their dead, who closed their eyes so that they wouldn't see death's cruelty, leaving them open just enough to let their tears escape. I'm the plant that was watered by those tears.
Instead I look with horrified eyes at the photos of Emmett Till or videos of fucking racist pigs
and think, "slavery? what the hell's the difference between that and this?"
and I have no answer for myself.

Friday, August 28, 2020

KALPA IMPERIAL, Argentinian woman-authored SF in translation (by SFF monadnock Ursula K. Le Guin!) CW for regressive sexuality politics

KALPA IMPERIAL: The Greatest Empire That Never Was
(tr. Ursula K. Le Guin)
Small Beer Press
$8.69 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Emperors, empresses, storytellers, thieves . . . and the Natural History of Ferrets

Kalpa Imperial is the first of Argentinean writer Angélica Gorodischer’s nineteen award-winning books to be translated into English. In eleven chapters, Kalpa Imperial’s multiple storytellers relate the story of a fabled nameless empire which has risen and fallen innumerable times. Fairy tales, oral histories and political commentaries are all woven tapestry-style into Kalpa Imperial: beggars become emperors, democracies become dictatorships, and history becomes legends and stories.

But Kalpa Imperial is much more than a simple political allegory or fable. It is also a celebration of the power of storytelling. Gorodischer and acclaimed writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who has translated Kalpa Imperial, are a well-matched, sly and delightful team of magician-storytellers. Rarely have author and translator been such an effortless pairing. Kalpa Imperial is a powerful introduction to the writing of Angélica Gorodischer, a novel which will enthrall readers already familiar with the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.

My Review: In my honest opinion, the chapters here are stories. They're mostly self-contained, they have a my own mind, a single storyteller, with a really, really looonnnggg a narrator to link them; but they're not chapters in a novel. These are the Thousand and One Nights of forgotten and uninquired-about empires, none exactly named but the people and the rulers and the inventors all carry their names with the heft and pride of the people you know in your everyday life. They're Egypt and India and Songhai and Qin and Mexica empires, all one immense and eternal entity called the empire and it's the largest that has ever been known.

Are they worth visiting? I have problems with Author Gorodischer's sexuality politics. I'm not surprised by that, but I am less than pleased. I'm unenthusiastic about the misandry; I'm not going to pretend the collection is perfect to try to sell the idea of reading it to you.

I will say that, if I overcame these issues and read the stories with varying degrees of agreement but always with the certainty that I was in the presence of very, very high-level art, I think you should be able to as well. Comme d'habitude, we shall employ the Bryce Method to experience the parts, now that I've briefly characterized the whole.

The Emperor presents the foundation myth of an Imperial dynasty. The storyteller arrives and shows us his (stated explicitly on p14) vocal tics and verbal stylings.
Well, well, I've let my words run away with me, something a storyteller should take care to avoid; but I've known fear, and sometimes I need to reassure myself that there's nothing to fear any more, and the only way I have to do that is by the sound of my own words.
I suspect the truth of this isn't really that obvious to most of us in the privileged West. I suspect the tyrants' victims are the ones who know what fear so powerful that it enforces your silence on you is to be found more in places where the horror is physical, personal in the original sense "of the person or body," not virtual. No one should be bullied or threatened in our increasingly virtual world. But people whose speech can result in disappearance without return....
Well, you'll have to believe me when I tell you that once he'd sat in the seat of power, Bib became a giant. No, my friends, I don't mean that he grew taller or fatter. He was just as he'd been, smaller and shorter than most men of his age, but he thought intensely of himself not as an isolated person but as a part of something that no longer existed and that needed him in order to exist. And that, my friends, that's the kind of thinking that turns us into giants.
The most wonderful observation of a character becoming A Character...the most complete presentation of a misfit's power to create a space to fit themself. The power of simply being yourself is always huge. The confidence to carve the world's resisting substance into a pedestal and clamber up on it is so rare. And that is exactly what this story of Antiquity, of a long-ago rebirth of Empire, and a dynasty no longer ruling, is about. Another and safer way to tell people that their uniqueness is their power in a society only recently out from under tyranny is to set it long, long ago and make it about a genuine hero...who might or might not have existed....

The Two Hands is a polyphony of classes and stations, a mixing of the low and high in the Empire to tell of a man, a usurper, a creature of full manly vigor in contradistinction to his pathetic, weak, incapable usurped; Author Gorodischer has made it her purpose to tell fragments of a story in no special order and by doing so to reveal what the first voice, The Storyteller, knows and sticks to:
The tale of {the usurper's} life and works is banal, sorry, and inconclusive. Have any of you ever gone near the imperial palace? Have you seen the towers, the immeasurable terraces, the black walls, the fountains? No, nor have I, and even now it's very hard to do so. That's why this story belongs to other people. I'm the one they give presents to and butter up to get me to tell about old, forgotten things. But this time, though it probably won't work, I'm going to try—why not?—to say nothing.
And so the chorus begins, the Archivist, the chambermaid, the officer of the guard, the fisherman, all bring angles of the usurper's story that no one else could've seen or known to care about...and then, according to the above-quoted passage, comes our storyteller:
{The usurper} worked day and night, and under his rule good turned to evil with amazing speed. ... He was so busy that he ate and slept in the throne room, where officials brought the problems of the Empire to him and came away with ruinous solutions.
A usurper, an illegitimate ruler, who wrecks whatever he touches? Goodness, that doesn't sound familiar at all, does it. I mean, it couldn't happen IRL could it, so we turn to fiction to explore the idea.
And then the woman who had been the empress died and was buried in the Garden of the Dead, and the Emperor shut himself up in her apartments...where he was alone.
Utterly divorced from the reality of the realm he rules? No ruler could ever possibly enact that as a governing strategy! Seeing ever fewer ministers, finally none at all but communicating with them via notes left and returned, until people forgot what he actually looked like so were reduced to making up fearful tales of his nocturnal prowlings, resulting in a sense of eternal dread.
How vividly Author Gorodischer paints this impossible scenario. And, as all good stories develop, the changeless changes: A visitor, a ragged and dangerous leper, arrives to make the usurper's twenty-year-long reign of misery change, as the Archivist is privileged to tell us:
I know that it would be pleasing and suitable to say that his visitor was a mighty warrior or a great sorcerer, so that history could repeat itself and philosophers could draw conclusions from it. But what would become of the Annals of the Empire if we archivists started spinning fantasies like the storytellers? No. It was a beggar, lean, lousy, filthy, leprous.
Call things by their proper names, people, and don't let anyone at all spin you a tale in place of giving you the facts. Devaluing truth and disparaging fact lead to bad, ugly, dark, rotten places. Don't forget this.

The End of a Dynasty or The Natural History of Ferrets Wow. What a novella. Secrets, lies, dishonorable shenanigans, cruelties so subtle they are only exquisite and not truly terrible, possessing an evil artistry to elevate them.
No, I'm sorry, but I can't tell you the name of the Ninth emperor of the Hehvrontes dynasty, because I don't know it. Nobody does. It's a name that is not remembered. His guilt and treason, so they said, had been so horrible that his name was never to be pronounced again. Moreover, that name was erased from the annals, the laws, the decrees, from history books, official registries, monuments, coins, escutcheons, maps, poems. Poems, because the emperor had written songs and poems ever since he was a boy. Unfortunately, he'd been a good poet...{a}nd to tell you the truth, many of his poems survived despite everything....
To make art, even an art as debased by solipsism as I contend that poetry is, stands in glaring relief to the notion of a traitorous soul, says Author Gorodischer in the arch, snarky, yet eager to educate voice of the storyteller. Yes, that's the source from which this chapter flows to the restive bu receptive ears of the storyteller's audience:
Now even you people, with all the sensitivity of paving-stones, have figured out that {they}...had been drawn toward the young prince by more than mere chance. We may ask ourselves–ask yourselves, because I've done it already and come up with the answer–whether chance rules humankind or or if all our acts are foreseen...{a}nd it's no use asking this curious question of the wise, because some will insist that everything is chance, others will say it plays no part, and maybe all of them are right, since since they all suspect, behind chance or non-chance, the workings of a secret order.
This narrative voice appeals to me a great deal, it soothes my snobbish downward-gazing know-it-all to read the kind of words I've only barely learned to keep shtumm.

Stop laughing. I have so learned. Imperfectly, perhaps, but learned.

The storyteller regales the only barely willing ears of his audience with the growth of the tenth emperor into an adult over the course of a few short weeks. He is seven years old, trapped in a Gormenghastly nightmare of meaningless ritual and loveless display instead of intimacy; the others, rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, teach his blossoming inner man about realities of life and existence, give him a new identity (the ferret of the title), and ultimately unlock the rage he has borne since he was born.
He no longer hated his nameless father, if ever he had hated him as they had told him he he should do, because he loved {his interlocutors}. Every misfortune has its lucky side, say the wise. And I'd add that every good thing has its disadvantages, and the disadvantage of love is precisely that it leaves room for nothing else....
That is, as I assume my readers know, the simple and honest truth. Love simply is, and it is vaster than anything a mere human can conceptualize. Hard enough to express it, to encompass it , after learning what it is; words are so small, thoughts are so basic, the existence of a state/sensation/need like love can't be stuffed down into them, not even them all. We must try, though, or be strangled on their immensity. After all, as the storyteller tells us, "...the wise say that words, being daughters of the flesh, spoil if they're kept locked up.

Siege, Battle, and Victory of Selimmagud is distasteful, homophobic, and frankly indicative of qualities of mind that I saw in the relentless heterosexual binaries of Le Guin's famous The Left Hand of Darkness and the not-very-subtle homophobia of The Dispossessed (which so offended me that I actually erased it from my experience of the book until reminded of it in a recent guided re-read of the book). The uniformly victorious general of the Seventh Imperial Army of Assault is the "hermaphrodite" (or intersex, as we say these days) child of a lesbian Duchess and a gay Marshal. Because of course the Duchess of COLDWINTER would give birth to such a creature, as the General is portrayed as, in his slinky blond slenderness. Things go downhill from there. It taints my pleasure in this otherwise deeply pleasurable read.

Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities is as detailed, as lumbered with names as the begats in the Bible. Significantly more fun, however, and quite, in the end, a wry tale of life's innumerable Zen jokes. The storyteller tells us about the nature of History, Kleio not what's in old newspapers, the nature of the story of the past not the time gone by. So the storyteller sets us up in this universe, the History of the empire's multi-capital, as follows:
All these works of imaginative inventions unfortunately got into chronicles, which were made into books which everybody respected and believed, principally because they were thick, hard to hold, tedious, and old. And they got into legends, those tales that everybody says they don't believe in because they can't take them seriously, and that everybody believes in precisely because they can't take them seriously.
Well, yes. Too much taking seriously of things that can't bear the weight of seriousness leads to deep fractures in the foundations of society. I'm struggling to come up with a real-world example of this. /sarcasm

The storyteller is a wonderful and arch presence throughout the story.
When an ancient, poverty-stricken woman called {the failed usurper} to come in and share her midday meal, he wouldn't sit at the table, but ate humbly crouching in the doorway. That was when he discovered that he liked this job, not as much as the job of emperor, maybe, but it was all he had. That same evening he preached for the first time.
And thus, my ducks, the beginning of the end for stable secular society. Someone who understands politics gets the religious burr under their saddle and it's all over and no mistake.

But the ends of politics and religion, whether meshing or clashing, are as nothing compared to humankind's impulse to slaughter, destroy, wreck, wreak havoc upon, their fellow humans:
The Battle of the North lasted exactly fifty hours. The men attacked, broke, scattered, retreated, had a bite to eat, and returned to the attack. Telling such things one is sickened by what men are. They were not men; nor were they wolves, nor hyenas, nor vultures, nor eagles. They were blind organisms, mindless, nerveless, without feeling or thought, with only the power to wound, and blood to shed.
I trust you note in the above passage the explicit and ongoing (quite a lengthy paragraph continues on from this excerpt; I don't want to type it) gendering of violence. Both Author Gorodischer and Translator Le Guin subscribe to masculine culpability tropes in social illness. I don't think that's the whole story, but the evidence of male violent behavior is pretty damned obvious to anyone with eyes. And these eyes, the women and the mother who wrote and translated the story, are unsparing.

I don't blame them a bit.

Portrait of the Empress tells a lovely, fantasy-fulfilling tale of Virtue Rewarded. The Storyteller, bless him, revels in knowing secrets and telling tales; protest though he might about the Role of the Taleteller in spreading the word of the best, the worst, the rest of us, he is a creature of the Power that controls access to the world's powerful.
Power, bah! {the Great Empress would} say, looking disillusioned. Only if you forget about power can you govern well, she'd say. And it was true. She forgot about the power she had, which was immense, and so power, ignored and disdained, courted her, trotted after her...But she despised it utterly and made it wait like a beggar at the palace gates. Anybody could approach her, anybody could come into the palace and talk to her, for not depending on power she had no fear, and dispensed with protocol and ceremony. She was the first person on the imperial throne for centuries and centuries who kept no bodyguards, the first to go down in the streets unprotected...carried in a sedan chair like any rich woman, or on foot like any workman's or tradesman's wife. So it was that I knew her.
For yes, lads and lasses, the storyteller in his humbleness caught the august attention of the Great Empress! She, all uneducated, knew that she needed to know what a storyteller whose words wove magic from the lives of dead and gone people and places now crumbled to dust. Why on Earth, you ask (I did), should this be? How can someone attain an office people literally kill to occupy without knowing one blessèd thing about its history and the consequences of its misuses?! /sarcasm

In the Great Empress's case, by being canny, astute, flexible enough to speak truth to Power without belaboring the point being made. By being honest, within reason, by telling someone whose life differed from her own by the most astonishing and appalling degree the home truths that all of us need to know. By being, at all times and in all ways, clear-sighted and pragmatic.

I assume, then, you won't be surprised to know that the Great Empress was no believer in majgickq:
Magic can't be trusted, I assure you; what's useful is quickness and certainty in making up one's mind. And that's not magic even if it looks like it, because you can only do it when you've learned to think your own thoughts. In those few minutes I had realized that the Emperor was dying, that some of the people around him were fakes and the rest incompetents, and that here, at the throne, I could find a use for the energy I wasted...Once I knew that and knew I knew it and discussed it with myself and accepted it, when the emperor asked how I'd come by the {healing stone}, I told him the truth and added, truthfully, that he and I alone knew it.
That is the shortest road to power for the powerless: Never toady, never lie, never make more of something than it can bear. It was in telling the dying emperor these truths that the Great Empress put her feet onto the path to her world's highest and most august office, one she has occupied and executed with admirable restraint and honor.

Author Gorodischer posits a solution to the empire's ills that very much annoys me, one that I first encountered when I read Richard Sennett's urbanization-without-policing magnum opus The Uses of Disorder. Fifty years ago, he wrote this paean to the notion of urban libertarianism. The author here espouses a semi-urban libertarianism that makes me just as sick to my stomach. Gay people will most likely know why: The idea of a community setting its standards for itself, and enforcing them inside itself, is a recipe for persecution of the Other, the queer and different-colored and just different. Womyn-only spaces are safe! Unless you're some womon's tweenaged son. Black-only communities are safe! Unless you're trans. etc etc etc ad nauseam ad infinitum

There will never, utopian anarchists, be a day when it isn't someone's turn in the barrel.

And the Streets Empty is also unpleasant, containing revenge porn for women who are abused by men. Ableist, denigrates sex workers as so many of these stories do.

The Pool tells us of the many ways we lie to ourselves, for the best and worst of reasons, and become trapped in the illusions we create to hide our lies and their consequences from ruining our happiness. A doctor who practices his healing arts on Whiterose Street fails to accept the lies of the world, and so effects healing on his patients:
"We keep adding needless things, false things to ourselves, till we can't see ourselves and forget what our true shape is. And if we've forgotten what shape we are, how can we find the right place to be? And who dares pull away the falsities that are stuck to his eyelids, his fingernails, his heels? So then something goes wrong in the house and in the world, and we get sick. ... What's dangerous isn't having them, said the doctor, what's serious is loving them."
After great storms and mighty political upheavals and misguided attempts to be excluded from the universal laws of sadness and regret, the doctor's healing of a bad man, a man who has done bad things, a man whose criminal acts offend the idea of self he carries within himself, leads to this doctor's acquisition of an apprentice who wants to know the names of far-away flowers he cannot see. Other changes, less important ones, take place offstage...and the history books get rewritten again because of them.


Basic Weapons in which the storyteller tells us of a man, one without legs but with a serviceable set of wheels, who conceives of an envious passion: He wishes to wheedle his way into a rich man's home. He does this by committing, repeatedly, the worst sin a being can commit: To use the existence of another for one's own profit.
Then the boy did what the salesman had described: he danced. He moved first without changing place, both feet as if fixed to the ground. He waved his arms, lifted them held them out; he swayed, and he made circles with his body, twisting his waist, and with his head, that seemed to turn feel\y at the end of his long neck. Then he leapt, without ceasing to sawy the rest of his body. He spun on one foot, on the other, bowed down, swept the ground with his hands, straightened up, ran two steps to one side, three to the other, his arms held high, his head fallen back. ... And the dealer (in curiosities like the dancer)? He had felt the world begin to spin quicker than it had ever done, more dizzily than when it was an incandescent lump of rock under the attentive eye of God.
The salesman made his sale; the dealer had a deal that leads him into the halls of the most powerful, wealthiest old man in the district. The old man is, as who would not be in a world that has never known dance, by the blond boy he must rent by the performance from the dealer. And, as is the way of nature, the storyteller reminds us that there is no fool like an old, dying fool.

Unless it's a hate-addicted legless bastard with a beautiful slave.

"Down There in the South" they say, "Not all is said; it hasn't all been said." And they are right, it hasn't and, I suspect, it can't all be said or there would be no more empire or villages or lakes bleeding rivers.
Yes, and it's always been that way, always. There've been emperors who dreamed of subjugating the South. There've been emperors who tried it, and some thought they'd done it. But with what? I ask, with what? With power, weapons, armies, fire, terror? Useless, all that, completely useless: all power can do is silence people, keep them from singing, arguing, dancing, talking, brawling, making speeches, and composing music. That's all. That's a lot, you may say, but I tell you it's not enough. For what power can keep the earth from speaking to people? What weapons can keep water from running and stones from rolling? What artillery can keep a storm from crouching on the horizon, ready to burst?
A bad man, venal and corrupt and from the nobility, does a bad thing and runs away. So far, so "uh huh and your point is..." It is necessary for his fat, lazy, criminal self to move fast, think faster, and hide. None of these come exactly naturally from being a pampered noble cheat. But dig we must when a spade is beside us and a gun behind. Our vile man runs, perish forbid for a scion of the empire to do, but runs of necessity to the South.
He soon noticed that in the South the air was not that inert space he had known in parks, the suffocating perfumed mantle of bedrooms, the weary, stale atmosphere of casinos. The air he breathed here was as thick and fertile as the earth and water. The earth sustained everything and under it was the water; but the water rose up too and covered the earth, and the air that was above them both extended down into the earth enriched by the water, silent or noisy, and a white-gold dust floated and drifted around still things and among the insects with transparent wings and the greedy birds darting among fleshy leaves. And this joyous commotion went on all the time, everywhere, and he had to take part in it.
This is a place that will, that must, change a man walking through it into a being joining with it; or else he will die. (I'm in the die camp. I hate heat.) On his way through the South, he learns that men are dancers and women singers in this world, and that there exist thirty-seven dances. This, to his Northern self, is just flat freaky.

But there he goes, our not-the-worst-of-men, murdering cheating nobleman slowly with each step abrading away the false and brummagem from himself. He meets people, he learns their ways of doing and being in the world; he attacks no one, cheats nothing, arrives and leaves because coming necessitates going. He returns because parting means reunion. He is, simply put, never ever still but always being his way into becoming.

And what does our storyteller have to tell us about people who be their way into becoming? Why, that they become what they truly are and experience their life from the place they've readied themselves to occupy.
"They have fled," {the general} repeated. "In terror," he added with a complacent smile.

The emperor smiled too. I believe it was the last smile of his life.
I hope he enjoyed it.

The Old Incense Road added little to the gestalt. The Cat, a brat, does bratty stuff while an old man, Z'Someone, growls and grumbles and everyone does a few different things and honestly, I have no idea how this one is different from any fantasy story in the world except it lacks the storyteller's arch, dry wit. Not the story I'd've gone out on; calling this a novel doesn't make it one and this would be a crap ending to a novel anyway, and as a collection, that wasn't a good outro.

Because this book is ***PERFECT*** for book clubs, there exists a handy-dandy reader's guide to spark discussions that should, most likely will, lead to much vigorous side-taking. Bracing, exciting discussions ahead!

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE'S WEB, a deep dive into the soul of a book many have read and cried over

THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE'S WEB: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

Bloomsbury USA
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: As he was composing what was to become his most enduring and popular book, E. B. White was obeying that oft-repeated maxim: "Write what you know." Helpless pigs, silly geese, clever spiders, greedy rats—White knew all of these characters in the barns and stables where he spent his favorite hours. Painfully shy his entire life, "this boy," White once wrote of himself, "felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people." It's all the more impressive, therefore, how many people have felt a kinship with E. B. White. With Charlotte's Web, which has gone on to sell more than 45 million copies, the man William Shawn called "the most companionable of writers" lodged his own character, the avuncular author, into the hearts of generations of readers.

In The Story of Charlotte's Web, Michael Sims shows how White solved what critic Clifton Fadiman once called "the standing problem of the juvenile-fantasy writer: how to find, not another Alice, but another rabbit hole" by mining the raw ore of his childhood friendship with animals in Mount Vernon, New York. Translating his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into an al-time classic. Blending White's correspondence with the likes of Ursula Nordstrom, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, the E. B. White papers at Cornell, and the archives of HarperCollins and The New Yorker into his own elegant narrative, Sims brings to life the shy boy whose animal stories--real and imaginery--made him famous around the world.


My Review
: The well-studied life of Andy and Katharine White, The New Yorker's original power couple, would seem to be infertile territory for new and original uses of its rich, deep material. There have been books and books on the magazine, on the couple, on the people that they knew and the world they both created and lived in. But no one until now connected Andy, nature, and Charlotte's Web, arguably one of the 20th century's most influential children's books.

Sims does this unusual job deftly, providing us with the bare facts of Andy's life, expanding upon those facets that serve his thesis that E.B. "Andy" White was less a social maladroit than a man in love with the natural world, and not greatly interested in most of the manufactured world around him; this slantwise perspective is what allowed the shy guy to see the story he would write, where others would merely have killed the pig for supper and brushed the web aside on the way out of the barn.

Due attention is given to the work life and the marriage of the man, and since that's well-trodden territory, the author leaves it in bare-bones form. I agree with this decision because it lets him get to the more involving parts of the story: Why did Charlotte come to be? What forces shaped the story, where did they come from, and how did this book make its journey from brainstorm to commercial success? Here is Sims's strength: He never bloviates about His Ideas, he distills a prodigious amount of reading, thinking, and talking into a nuanced, interesting, and immersive read about a book that, I suspect, most of us born after 1950 and educated in the US remember quite clearly encountering for the first time.

I disliked Stuart Little as a boy. I'd seen the dog give birth before I read it for the first time; I told my mother, "That story's stupid, she couldn't have had a baby that small alive." Mama looked at me a minute and said, "You're a very practical person, aren't you daaahlin?" (My mother was a Texan.) She then gave me Charlotte's Web. I was forever changed. Death entered my world. I don't mean awareness of it; I mean the *experience* of death, when Charlotte dies, was completely and utterly real for me. Absence. Empty space where before was an important life. Re-reading the book, as I did three or four times, couldn't make death go away. Charlotte was gone, that was that, no way was she coming back and her daughters weren't her. It took some time to recover from this blow.

And then several things happened: 1) I found out the same guy wrote this wonderful book as the dumb mouse-boy book. 2) I suddenly, in a great flash, realized that stories require readers to live, and even if Charlotte was dead, the story wasn't. 3) Maybe Stuart Little wasn't as bad as I thought it was, because the same guy told it! (Actually, I still think it's stupid, and I don't like it to this good day, forty-plus years later.)

So this book arrives from its publisher, all pretty and invitingly designed, and it's about a book that changed my worldview, and it's got that great new-book, ink-and-paper smell; well, what else to do but put down everything I was reading and all the chores I should be doing, curl up on my breezy, cool sunporch, and immerse myself in the story of the story I've adored for most of my life?

I am so very glad that I did. I feel refreshed and energized, ready to take on my own storytelling tasks with renewed vigor. The book isn't life-altering, or possessed of an outsized grandeur, or elucidative of the Mysteries of the Ages, so I can't make a case for perfection; but to anyone who, as a sensitive child, was altered by that first encounter with Charlotte's Web, I recommend this book as a balm for your worn-out, worn-in adult soul.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

REWIRED, a data-driven look at the Digital Divide

REWIRED: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn
St. Martin's Press
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Look around at today’s youth and you can see how technology has changed their lives. They lie on their beds and study while listening to mp3 players, texting and chatting online with friends, and reading and posting Facebook messages. How does the new, charged-up, multitasking generation respond to traditional textbooks and lectures? Are we effectively reaching today’s technologically advanced youth? Rewired is the first book to help educators and parents teach to this new generation’s radically different learning styles and needs. This book will also help parents learn what to expect from their “techie” children concerning school, homework, and even socialization. In short, it is a book that exposes the impact of generational differences on learning while providing strategies for engaging students at school and at home.


My Review
: The subject of this book...the way the texting generation is being failed by teachers, schools, and bureaucracies that don't know, don't want to know, and can't imagine how these youngsters *actually* absorb one of un-overstatable importance.

You and I, fellow oldster, are not the ones who should be making the educational decisions of this generation. Why not? Because, on average, we're about as likely to say "g'wan, skip the textbooks, don't make 'em buy a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, do it all on their iPhones!" as we are to suggest Fahrenheit 451 as a model for the future society we want to see.

But let's be realistic: Do we want books qua books to survive? If yes, we'd best make sure that there are people willing to read them. And that means getting the texters to read, probably via KindlNooReadPad. School has always been the biggest breeding ground for accidental readers, the ones whose families have no books, don't read, and don't care. This will still be true as the texting generation gets their American History textbook via KindlNooReadPad. Some few of them will get the idea: Reading gives me a better picture of my world! Maybe if I read other things....

Larry Rosen makes an excellent case for delivering the traditional educational topics in this new, potentially enhanced way. He takes on the issue of trustworthy content on the Net, and offers some ideas as to how to teach critical thinking about what's out there. (I know some adults who could use his training.)

Frankly, I hate the Brave New World. It's out of sync with the lifetime of conditioning that I've got, in some very uncomfortable ways. There were things about that world I absorbed that I think this Brave New World would do well to incorporate, but I am not kidding myself: They probably won't.

But it's here. And even *I* can see the bold Helvetica signs on the walls: Change or become more irrelevant. So I tweet, and I have a Facebook presence, and I'm on here (sort of like the Old World That Passeth on the Internet, this is), and I even have a cellphone with unlimited texting because that way I actually *hear* from my grandkids. Am I happy about it? Not specially. But here it is, and I for one am not willing to sink quietly into invisibility.

Now why in the holy hell can't the SCHOOL BOARD see this, and do even what little I've done to get with the program?!?!

Monday, August 24, 2020

SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN, a hybrid literary biography/novel that miraculously transports us

(tr. Nathalie Lehrer and Cécile Menon)
Dorothy, a publishing project
$16.00 trade paperback, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: “I believe there is a miracle in Wanda,” wrote Marguerite Duras of the only film American actress Barbara Loden ever wrote and directed. “Usually, there is a distance between representation and text, subject and action. Here that distance is completely eradicated.” It is perhaps this “miracle”—the seeming collapse of fiction and fact—that has made Wanda (1970) a cult classic, and a fascination of artists from Isabelle Huppert to Rachel Kushner to Kate Zambreno. For acclaimed French writer Nathalie Léger, the mysteries of Wanda launched an obsessive quest across continents, into archives, and through mining towns of Pennsylvania, all to get closer to the film and its maker. Suite for Barbara Loden is the magnificent result.

Moving contrapuntally between biography and autofiction, film criticism and anecdote, fact and speculation, Suite for Barbara Loden is a stunning meditation on knowledge and self-knowledge, on the surfaces of life and art, and how we come to truth—a kind of truth—not through facts alone but through acts of the imagination.

My Review: As Duras says above, “I believe there is a miracle in Wanda,” writing of the only film American actress Barbara Loden ever created. “Usually, there is a distance between representation and text, subject and action. Here that distance is completely eradicated.”

A film more famous in our time than in the year it was released, Barbara Loden’s sole filmed work as writer and director went from an affront to American feminists—how dare a woman filmmaker represent a woman as a passive pawn in her own life!—to a smash reception at the 31st Venice International Film Festival, where it received Best Foreign Film honors—as the only American entrant accepted that year. Honestly, it might as well have been a foreign film right here in the USA for all the attention it received in the 1970s.

Loden was an actress who was famous if you knew who she was. She was the leggy, semi-clothed blonde bombshell sidekick to sophisticated sketch and improvisational comedian Ernie Kovacs on his critical darling of a revue show. She won a Tony Award in 1964 for playing a thinly disguised take on Marilyn Monroe in an Arthur Miller play. She was a featured actress in several of second husband Elia Kazan’s films (eg, Splendor in the Grass). Her Method acting was learned at the Actors’ Studio while she was a teen-aged dancer at the famed Copacabana nightclub. This was a woman of formidable ability and negligible self-confidence who, paradoxically, married two high-powered men (her first husband was film and television project distributor Larry Joachim, a major player in the early years of television) and left each of them yearning for the strength to control her.

French author Nathalie Léger is introduced to this subject of obsessive interest by a writing assignment: Create a composite entry for Loden and her single outing as a writer/director for inclusion in a film encyclopedia. Léger tells us that she got the instruction from said editor, “No need to put your heart and soul into it.” Sounds to me as though this was not the editor’s first go-round with Mme Léger. That was possibly the most wasted breath the editor had ever used to form speech. “I was trying to be as objective and rigorous as possible. To describe and only to describe, in as few words as possible,” says Léger of beginning her research. Instead, this encyclopedia entry blossoms into a combination personal essay, critical assessment of film, director, and star, and miniature biography of a minor player in the film world with a major talent.

At the very most, I’d expect someone charged with writing an encyclopedia entry to visit a film-school library, see if the subject’s only film was available in some format and give it a watch, at the extravagant end spend the money for an international phone call to an easy-to-locate colleague of Loden’s who was still living at the time. Léger flies to Pennsylvania’s coal country, the setting of the film; contacts film scholars in the USA as well as famous French star of the same era as Loden, Isabelle Huppert; haunts the late Loden’s son, who possesses “twenty-five boxes” of material on his mother and (not unreasonably to me) wants to know what specifically or even generally Léger is looking for; and can’t articulate to any of them precisely what it is she is seeking. I have the sense that, even as this beautiful and intimate mixed portrait of Loden, Wanda, and Léger was going to press, she wouldn’t have been able to articulate precisely what the purpose of her journey was except in terms of its result.

Loden and Léger are each on a road trip towards some sort of epiphany. Loden’s, as Wanda, is going to be fraught with the usual sort of misery and pointless, purposeless suffering that is the lot of the intellectually ungifted when they come unmoored from whatever habits and relationships they’ve tangled themselves into. Léger’s road trip is guided by that savior of the directionless, GPS:
Sky. The ocean floor. The earth’s gravity field. Lines, measurements, a shape, a time. What the experts call the figure of the earth. I don’t want to know any more. I allow myself to be guided; I don’t understand the organized collusion of data transformed into electromagnetic waves that come crashing mathematically into the rental car’s black box to dictate my itinerary. I’ve muted the sound; heading into this unknown country I rely only on the image of the infinite ribbon unspooling on the GPS screen. No obstacles, a marvelous, illusory continuity, the perfect representation of stupidity—what others might call an acceptable representation of reality. “The magic box,” the mechanic had said. I have heard that the GPS is altering our perception of our position in space and the way we travel from place to place. The very notion of an itinerary is problematic nowadays; some people go so far as to believe that everything, including time and emotions, can be localized. It seems to be becoming increasingly difficult to accept that we don’t always know exactly where we are, and by extension it is becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly where we are.
Where in the world is Léger? She’s lost; or she’s not found, anyway, not by the spirit she seeks so assiduously that, instead of knocking out two hundred fifty words or so on a minor player in the film world, she knocks on time’s doors and bangs her shins on the invisible furniture in the dark theaters where Wanda isn’t playing.

It is a very good film, if you’d care to watch its 102 minutes. Cinema vérité isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and while the ample-for-its-day budget of $110,000 is spent so that it shows on camera the seedy underbelly of the American Dream is pretty much intact and uncomfortably familiar. The upholstery is different colors and the TVs have flat screens. All of Wanda’s acting is done by Loden and her man, Michael Higgins; as Mr. Dennis, he’s the latest loser to tow her long behind him. He’s enough of an improvement over the husband she didn’t so much leave as simply drop and forget to pick up that Wanda makes every attempt to stay with him as his petty little control tactics become more and more desperate (throwing a new pair of slacks out the car window because “no slacks when you’re with me,” and “no curlers, they make you look cheap; do you wanna look cheap?”) as his unrevealed criminal plan begins to crack open. But for Wanda this is the big time, this is freedom from the hideous coal-mining burgs of her entire life, from kids she doesn’t care about, from people who know her and despise her. Author Léger relates this barren freedom to her own mother’s life, and does so in a way that makes clear what those 1970s American feminists were testy about: At every turn, these women exist, actually exist, only in relation to the plans and persons of their men.

The bleak truth is that many women in 2016 are in the same boat. Wanda’s cult classic status among the most sophisticated cinephiles does not make the subject matter more comfortable for today’s energetic and ever-more-successful activists to watch. And Léger, by writing a beautiful film critique mixed with a biographical sketch and a patch or two of memoir, has used artful image juxtapositions to create the unsettling but unignorable truth behind all of these stories.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

FOUR PERFECT PEBBLES, a timely (when isn't it timely?) reminder of the horrors of populism

(tr. Marion Blumenthal Lazan)
Greenwillow Books
$16.99 hardcover edition, $6.99 paperback edition, $5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s unforgettable and acclaimed memoir recalls the devastating years that shaped her childhood. Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Blumenthal family—father, mother, Marion, and her brother, Albert—were trapped in Nazi Germany. They managed eventually to get to Holland, but soon thereafter it was occupied by the Nazis. For the next six and a half years the Blumenthals were forced to live in refugee, transit, and prison camps, including Westerbork in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, before finally making it to the United States. Their story is one of horror and hardship, but it is also a story of courage, hope, and the will to survive.

Four Perfect Pebbles features forty archival photographs, including several new to this edition, an epilogue, a bibliography, a map, a reading group guide, an index, and a new afterword by the author. First published in 1996, the book was an ALA Notable Book, an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, and IRA Young Adults’ Choice, and a Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, and the recipient of many other honors.

My Review: In the annals of man's cruelty to man, the Holocaust stands out for its sheer, industrial-scale coldness and horror. There is ample literature attesting to the awfulness of being condemned to death for the mere accident of being born to a Jewish parent. This book, another entry into that crowded segment, is aimed at young readers.

I don't know that any book about the Holocaust is something I want young readers to read. It's too huge and too vile a topic to make me feel comfortable introducing it to those whose lives are still in the vulnerable and bendable stage. I wouldn't let my child read this book, far better she should read the Marquis de Sade than this kind of material.

But the world disagrees with me. So I am renewedly glad that I have no young children. But I think this story is one that makes the idea of the Holocaust, its especial and unique evil in human history, more painfully poignantly real than any other literary work I've ever seen: This is the story of a child who went through the system with her family intact, until the bitter horrifying end of the tale. This is what the horrible, vile, evil, disgusting Germans wanted to destroy: A little girl, her mama, her papa, and her big brother.

Because they were Jews.

Now look at the humanitarian crises of economic and war refugees being towed out to see and left by the Greek Government; the tide of Islamophobia wracking European countries; the perennial racism and populism of the US against Hispanic and native-born Black people; the Othering of every Asian minority because of a disease that was first detected in China; and tell me that this book is no longer relevant. Has nothing to say to you, your concerns, is old-fashioned.

It isn't.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

SHUCK, a gay man's roman à clef of 90s Manhattan


Arsenal Pulp Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: “Set in the late 1990s, Shuck describes with great clarity and verve the last gasp of a gritty Manhattan.”—Bruce LaBruce, film director

Shuck is the intense, dazzling diary of a male hustler in New York who tries to manage his reputation as the city’s porn star du jour when he’s not dumpster diving, tweaking, or trying to get published. A remarkable peep show of a novel about what binds artists and prostitutes, and the collateral damage of what happens when they try to recover what they have lost.

Daniel Allen Cox is a former porn star. This is his first novel.

My Review: In the late 1990s, hustler/street trash Jaeven Marshall gets rescued by remittance man/blocked perfectionsit artist Derek Brathwaite, who grooves on Jaeven's bruised and abused body. The two begin a peculiar and passionate love affair that never involves sex, but truly touches the heart of any romantic in its deep and vital connection. Jaeven uses Derek as a home base, a touchstone, and a security blanket. He rises (!) in the just-then-efflorescing porn world as a porn performer and a model, taking it as his 22-yr-old naif would: His due.

What no one but Derek, and the strange photographer/trick Richard, know is that Jaeven is a writer. A real one, one who writes and who sponges up images...the book is littered with lists Jaeven keeps of the "shit and ephemera" that Manhattan excels at putting in the path of the observant, letting the reader in on Jaeven's private coping mechanism for his rampant ADD (and his inability to break past the surface of anything, too) while he's using himself to live and eat and keep moving, he's fueling the creative rage inside himself. Derek, blocked because surfaces are all he knows, uses Jaeven's unpublished writing to break through into an actual creative frenzy, painting at last the gaudy and exciting colors that he's seen but never managed to reach inside to create before. Jaeven's downward track is, well, inevitable: He gets into meth, gets meth-mouth, stops getting calls from his various munificent tricks (except the peculiarly loyal Richard), and even manages to make Derek so angry that he gets thrown back onto the streets he's only just clawed his way up from. In the end, though, as is inevitable in a first novel, the redemption occurs and all is well.

It's a first novel, or I would've been more chary with my stars. I think it's a fun ride through a Manhattan that's been sanitized out of existence. I liked that Manhattan, I trolled it, and I felt at home in it; I'm inclined to spot Mr. Cox some points for that. It's reasonably clear to me that it's also a roman à clef, and that also counts in my ratings. I have no way of knowing how much of it is self-referential, but at a guess I'll say a lot. I like a writer whose take on himself isn't in any way reverential. I like reading about the world that my thirties were spent in. I like a lot the amiably nihilistic, irretrievably broken kid comes out (!) with hope, and therefore a future. It's not perfect, but damn it's good. Read it!

Friday, August 21, 2020

THE NEW FACE OF SMALL-TOWN AMERICA, a ten-year-old study of the realities that piss off White Nationalists

THE NEW FACE OF SMALL-TOWN AMERICA: Snapshots of Latino Life in Allentown, Pennsylvania

A Keystone Book
$24.95 trade paper, out of print

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Allentown, Pennsylvania, is a small city located along the Lehigh River in the eastern part of the state. Once the hiding place of the Liberty Bell, Allentown has become a popular destination for Latino immigrants. These Latinos, mostly from Puerto Rico, now make up about a quarter of the city's population, and their numbers continue to grow. The thirty-one stories collected in The New Face of Small-Town America do not reflect the reality of Allentown alone. With U.S. Census figures showing the arrival of Latinos in more small American cities than ever before, Allentown will continue to serve as an example.

These small cities have already experienced, or are about to experience, the transformation Allentown saw. Few communities embrace such change. It is only when one becomes familiar with a foreign concept (or foreigners) that fear disappears and understanding begins. Edgar Sandoval's essays show that behind the accents, ethnic customs, and other cultural differences exists a common humanity with universal problems and dreams. The Latinos profiled here want what everybody else wants: to fit in, to prosper, to offer their children a better future, to be recognized as important members of society by the mainstream. They want to coexist. These stories are not just about Latinos in Allentown, after all; they are about Latinos everywhere.

My Review: A series of newspaper columns written by a Mexican man hired to cover the largely Caribbean Latino population of the Lehigh Valley, this book offers a charming, if choppy and repetitious, insight into the new majority of many, if not most, smaller American cities, the Latinos.

Sandoval was hired by the (Anglophone) owners of the Allentown Daily Call to report on the 25% of the local population that the paper was simply missing. Typically, they hired someone from Mexico! These are *not* the same culture, not even a little bit, and the local Puertoriquenos and Nuyoricans and Dominicans were a little bit wary of the furrin dude with the wild-assed accent. He won them over by dint of his reportorial chops, his charm, and the way he could blend into the woodwork or the crowd, depending on the situational need.

The organizational thread of the book is...well...not very organized. It's all over the town, even the Valley. But it's a collection of newspaper pieces! It's NOT A NARRATIVE, so don't read it as such and you'll find it ever so much easier to enjoy. The book is intended by the author and the publisher to provide an Anglophone audience with a short entree into Latino life and community thought. This goal should be froemost in any reader's thoughts to make the book a successful reading experience.

Well, Mr, Sandoval and I hail from the same part of the world: Nine miles from Mexico, on the Texas/Nuevo Leon border. He's quite a lot younger than I am, but he was a reporter for The Monitor, the Rio Grande Valley's newspaper of record, so I betcha we know people in common: The longtime mayor of McAllen, Othal Brand, is a cousin of mine, and lots of the staffers at the paper know my brother from his years reporting there. So I started this book with a lot of points given to the writer for commonality of experience.

In the end, that is what gave me the reason to give the man 3.75 stars. Really and truly, the book isn't all that; not because Sandoval is deficient as a writer, but because the origin of the stories is a newspaper. There isn't any problem with that, basically, but it really doesn't make for a deep and hearty stew of a read, rather a tasty, lightly buttered toast-point with a decent pâté on it. Not bad at all! Just not something I'll charge about demanding others read instanter.

But do look into it if you're one of the many, many anti-immigrant idiots infecting the body politic. This is the story of your own ancestors, unless you're 100% Native American.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

THE SUMMER BOOK, Tove Jansson's novel of a child being fully present in a world about to change

(tr. Thomas Teal)
NYRB Classics
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.

Tove Jansson, whose Moomintroll comic strip and books brought her international acclaim, lived for much of her life on an island like the one described in The Summer Book, and the work can be enjoyed as her closely observed journal of the sounds, sights, and feel of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world.

The Summer Book is translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

My Review: I am a person who likes quiet. My home environment, when I'm able to force my will on my roommate, is free of audio pollution like TV and radio. Perhaps in compensation, I love spy stories and space-war epics and historical novels with battles, explosions, near misses with the main character dangling from rooftops...the very essence of un-quiet.
It was a particularly good evening to begin a book.
This is an attitude and a pleasure I cannot share within my present living arrangement, to my sorrow; so I read about it instead, I take myself there with Author Jansson (Moomintroll fame, I'm *sure* you already know).

The Summer Book is, in contrast, the quietest reading imaginable. Yes, there are island will experience a lot of those...there are misfit neighbors in ugly houses, and all of it is so much the proper order of things that they fail to create fear in the reader. The two or three hours you'll spend with this family as its members learn to grow, learn to let go, and simply earn their living won't be wasted.
'It's funny about love', Sophia said. 'The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.'
'That's very true,' Grandmother observed. 'And so what do you do?'
'You go on loving,' said Sophia threateningly. 'You love harder and harder.'

I'd strongly suggest this as a midafternoon sunny-day read, or the quiet and the rightness of story and style will lull the tense, stressed, relaxation-deprived modern person into a deep, satisfying sleep.
It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness.
Peace portrayed with elegant ease.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

BANANA, a good-enough book about an increasingly urgent global problem of food security

BANANA: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

Plume Books
$5.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

2019 UPDATE Climate change bids fair to deprive us of a childhood icon, says this book.
One step closer to reality.

The Publisher Says: A gripping biological detective story that uncovers the myth, mystery, and endangered fate of the world’s most humble fruit

To most people, a banana is a banana: a simple yellow fruit. Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined. In others parts of the world, bananas are what keep millions of people alive. But for all its ubiquity, the banana is surprisingly mysterious; nobody knows how bananas evolved or exactly where they originated. Rich cultural lore surrounds the fruit: In ancient translations of the Bible, the “apple” consumed by Eve is actually a banana (it makes sense, doesn’t it?). Entire Central American nations have been said to rise and fall over the banana.

But the biggest mystery about the banana today is whether it will survive. A seedless fruit with a unique reproductive system, every banana is a genetic duplicate of the next, and therefore susceptible to the same blights. Today’s yellow banana, the Cavendish, is increasingly threatened by such a blight—and there’s no cure in sight.

Banana combines a pop-science journey around the globe, a fascinating tale of an iconic American business enterprise, and a look into the alternately tragic and hilarious banana subculture (one does exist)—ultimately taking us to the high-tech labs where new bananas are literally being built in test tubes, in a race to save the world’s most beloved fruit.

My Review: This is yet another entry in the single-subject world of non-fiction. The narrowness of focus in books such as Salt and Cod and The Book on the Bookshelf and The Pencil and Longitude seems to be an increasingly prevalent trend in publishing. I am all for it on one level, since I like delving into the abstruse and wallowing in details that leave most people I know colder than a penguin's butt in the middle of the Antarctic winter; but on another level, I want to stop these publishers before they bore again with books inadequately edited and organized.

There are three pieces to the banana...the history of humanity's first cultivated plant (modern archaeological evidence (albeit disputed because perish forbid someone should change The Story white folks tell!) from New Guinea shows human cultivation from 9000 years ago was of bananas, but for their corms not the fingers we eat today); the politics of the modern cultivation of the banana (the term "banana republic", which I have used without thinking for 30+ years, has a very literal beginning and a scarily modern {2020 version} ring); and the future of humankind's most basic and widely distributed food crop (essential to survival in several parts of the world, the banana is also under threat from several pests that defy modern chemistry to abate, still less conquer, and squeamish food-o-phobes in wealthy countries oppose all modern genetic engineering that could save the survival crop of many parts of the world). These three strands are awkwardly interwoven, with no obvious guiding editorial hand to make sense of their interrelation.

It's a shame, too, because this is a huge, important topic, and the author's not inconsiderable talents are well-used in bringing the facts to light. The loss of our American favorite banana, the Cavendish, from grocery shelves will be an inconvenience at most; the fact that two major American corporations are, double-handedly (is that a word?), responsible for the spread of the blights that threaten the world crop with the complicity of the American government, should mean that we as a country are liable to find solutions to the pressing problems of food security in the places we've so screwed over. Free. But with 45 attacking US food security, that won't happen. You can bet the balance in your 401(k) on that.

Back to the book...too much narrative drive is lost in the author's back-and-forth cross-cutting of the basic story. I wish someone had said, "Yo Dan...first third of the book is the banana as a plant; second third is the politics of the banana; last is the science of the plant." I wonder if that was what they tried, and the interconnections of all the information prevented its success? I somehow don't think so.

It's a good-enough book on an important topic that SHOULD cause each person who reads it some discomfort at our societal callousness and myopia. I recommend it to those most likely to be irritated by progressive politics and social liberalism. Isolationists particularly encouraged to apply!

Monday, August 17, 2020

TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH, a fair and balanced view of a deeply dysfunctional family

TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man

Simon & Schuster
$28.00 hardcover, $14.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this revelatory, authoritative portrait of Donald J. Trump and the toxic family that made him, Mary L. Trump, a trained clinical psychologist and Donald’s only niece, shines a bright light on the dark history of their family in order to explain how her uncle became the man who now threatens the world’s health, economic security, and social fabric.

Mary Trump spent much of her childhood in her grandparents’ large, imposing house in the heart of Queens, where Donald and his four siblings grew up. She describes a nightmare of traumas, destructive relationships, and a tragic combination of neglect and abuse. She explains how specific events and general family patterns created the damaged man who currently occupies the Oval Office, including the strange and harmful relationship between Fred Trump and his two oldest sons, Fred Jr. and Donald.

A first-hand witness to countless holiday meals and family interactions, Mary brings an incisive wit and unexpected humor to sometimes grim, often confounding family events. She recounts in unsparing detail everything from her uncle Donald’s place in the family spotlight and Ivana’s penchant for re-gifting to her grandmother’s frequent injuries and illnesses and the appalling way Donald, Fred Trump’s favorite son, dismissed and derided him when he began to succumb to Alzheimer’s.

Numerous pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists have sought to parse Donald J. Trump’s lethal flaws. Mary L. Trump has the education, insight, and intimate familiarity needed to reveal what makes Donald, and the rest of her clan, tick. She alone can recount this fascinating, unnerving saga, not just because of her insider’s perspective but also because she is the only Trump willing to tell the truth about one of the world’s most powerful and dysfunctional families.


My Review
: First and foremost, this book is *NOT* a takedown of 45. It is *NOT* a cash-grab by an angry, estranged niece whose greed was stoked by envy. Sorry haters, Dr. Mary Trump outflanked you and wrote her own family's story.

It is the story of Fred Trump's family from the viewpoint of someone who, despite not being welcomed within it because her father needed to be himself, still was there inside the bunker until her father's death. A childhood spent among people like the Trumps is not a healthy childhood, and Dr. Trump clearly felt the miasma of wrongness that permeated The House (as her grandparents' monumentally ugly Queens home was referred to in the family).
Trumpshack in all its straight-from-the-factory glory.
These are formative memories, even though the occupants can't see the wrongness from within they leave their scars. Freddy Trump, Mary's father, wasn't someone who did a lot of sharing with his youngest child. But that did not prevent her from making memories, with or without him in them, that included all the extended family, aunts and uncles all.

It is the memory of a person whose entire life was formed by bad parents, her own as well as each of theirs. It is the analytical conclusions of a trained psychologist whose degree is from a highly regarded school. It is also chilling, infuriating, and deeply, deeply saddening to read.

Freddy Trump never got a break; he died before his life developed meaning and long after he stopped caring about it. Fred, father of the Devil's Brood, was a tyrannical, withholding man without a shred of empathy or a trace of capacity to experience, still less express, emotion. Mary Anne Trump, illegal Scottish immigrant, was useless and indifferent as a mother or grandmother.

And there is no doubt that 45 was formed in this nuclear reactor to be exactly who he is. Mary Trump, future psychologist, had a balcony seat to the process and tells us exactly what happened on the occasions she was present. This is not sensationalized or presented as a bid for pity. Dr. Trump made a concerted effort to tell us what happened *then* contextualize it on a psychological level.

I didn't want to read another hatchet job on 45. Of course I despise him. I don't need more fuel for that binfire (started as a typo...became what I really meant!). I do, however, need to have some context, some sense of *why* this catastrophe is unfolding. Dr. Mary Trump told me what I wanted to know.

The seeds of the present are always in the past.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF, forty-seven years old and still speaking to the essence of selfhood


BenBella Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: This classic work of science fiction is widely considered to be the ultimate time-travel novel. When Daniel Eakins inherits a time machine, he soon realizes that he has enormous power to shape the course of history. He can foil terrorists, prevent assassinations, or just make some fast money at the racetrack. And if he doesn't like the results of the change, he can simply go back in time and talk himself out of making it! But Dan soon finds that there are limits to his powers and forces beyond his control.

My Review: Danny's been livin' the high life, thanks to a bequest from his mysterious old uncle. One day, the gravy train ends, and Danny has to make his own way. With a belt. A very special time-travel-enabling belt.

An exploration of adolescent exceptionalism, a meditation on the establishment, building, and defense of identity, and an astonishingly rare representation of gay maleness in science fiction. The author, who penned "The Trouble with Tribbles" for the original Star Trek series, tackles all this heaviness in less than 200pp, and never makes it feel like any tackling is being done.

Deft and timely even now, Gerrold's unapologetically gay Danny is mildly surprising even in the modern SFnal world. The ewww-ick-they-do-WHAT? homophobes need fear nothing, there's no raunch in Danny's journey of self-discovery (of a sort I've never seen again).

For my teenaged self, this book blew into my life at a time when I was under emotional siege from the forces of Jesus. It was a lifeline thrown from a grown person to my too-young-to-run self. If he could write this book, there was a world that didn't loathe me, because here was something written, published, and sold with me in it! I endured many a screaming, hectoring, sermonizing hour thinking that thought.

If you suspect some youth of your acquaintance might be struggling to think positively of himself because he's probably gay, think about giving him this book. It can't hurt, and it might do him a world of good.

ETA a few musings and a quote. In going back over the 2003 edition of this book, I thought to compare it to the 1973 edition that blew my mind wide open when first read (I was not going to sleep a peaceful night until I found a room full of men having sex with each other and diving in). Gerrold has done a light but thoroughgoing job of making alterations to the book that reflect thirty years' growth in himself and the world. It was lovely to see, and BenBella Books deserves our thanks for making room in this timeline for it to happen.

I've pushed my rating to five stars because, thinking back on it, any minor quibbles I've made vanish in the arc-light of this novel's originality in a musty, stuffy, conservative genre. And world.

I've said in other reviews (see my review, then compare to Received Opinion about Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand) that re-reads of the peak experiences of bygone days are hazardous to one's ego. I've always praised Gerrold's book as a well-written, risk-taking, genre-expanding chef d'oeuvre by a writer whose fame came early. I was right then, I'm right now...this book's genre-bending continues because, despite the presence of many other QUILTBAG characters in current SF/F, the main character of this book remains unique and speaks with an evergreen honesty. The frame has been dusted and re-gilded to keep the portrait sharply focused. It takes nothing away from the central and beautiful idea of the book, the inner life of an infinity of people contained in one-many-same-different body-brain-spirit.

I worked and worked to make that sentence make sense and I think I was only marginally successful, but I don't know how to make it better. If I figure it out, I will change it.
That there's a better review of this book than any I could have dreamed up before.

And that quote:
My body has not experienced its years in sequence. But it has experienced years. And it has aged.
And my mind has been carried headlong with it—this lump of flesh travels through time its own way, in a way that no man has the power to change. ... Perhaps I'm not a mind at all. Perhaps I'm only a body pretending the vanity of being something more. Perhaps it's only the fact that language, which allows me to manipulate symbols, ideas, and concepts, also proves the awareness of self that precedes the inevitable analysis. ... I have spent a lifetime analyzing my life. Living it. And rewriting it to suit me.

Friday, August 14, 2020

#TIL: Today I Learned, an acronym you've probably pondered but were afraid to ask your (grand)kids to define

#TIL: Today I Learned: Hilarious, Entertaining, and Educational Trivia
Stephen J. Spignesi

$10.99 Kindle only, available now

The Publisher Says: From Abraham Lincoln to Babe Ruth, movies and music to politics and biology, New York Times bestselling author Stephen Spignesi compiles five hundred facts in this addictive bathroom reader trivia book.

From history and science to sports and literature, Spignesi offers eye-opening trivia in 500 facts inspired by the viral social media acronym TIL used on Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and Facebook. #TIL: Today I Learned is sure to intrigue even the most jaded know-it-alls and walking encyclopedias, including little-known anecdotes and stories involving some of history’s most famous people, places, and things.

My Review: It's Friday, it's been a craptastic week, and I don't feel like being serious.
There are approximately 100 million acts of sexual intercourse around the world each day.
Three billion pizzas are sold in America every year. Americans eat 350 slices of pizza a second.
And these represent the damnedest, weirdest, least likely statistics I've ever imagined someone collecting. I mean, *everyone* lies about sex, so who asked whom and then decided to trust the answer given? I'd respond to someone's nosy sex-questions with some tart observations on the need for some people to get themselves a less intrusive hobby; but how many would resist the chance to fuck with the poor grad student or bureaucrat and hand 'em a line of nonsense? And the pizza one, well, again we run across the "...according to whom?" issue. The pizza companies no doubt collect statistics. Then, depending on whether the puritanical fear-your-food idiots, the meddlesome make-healthier-choices crumb-bums, or the investors' earnings committee is asking, they can slice and dice the data to present the desired picture to make them go away.

So I'm a cynical, skeptical old fart. Big shock, right? Yes, stats are the best lens we have for viewing the world and its multivarious multitudes on a macro level. We need them to model data to help predict and (if they're given to actual decent human beings with souls) prevent things like pandemics. They're also famously fungible. Mark Twain said of them, "Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'"

But the bizarre statistics in this book, many of them so extremely strange that I want sources that Stephen Spignesi doesn't give, are leavening for my reading pleasure. The bread that's rising is trivia, the weird-but-true little flour particles ground so fine from the cereal grains of the world's astounding supply of facts and yeasted with those damned statistics. For instance:
The name of the zipper was created by the B.F. Goodrich company in 1923 when they started using the fastener in their rubber boots. They wanted something catchy or their promotional material, so they created a name based on the sound the clasp made when it was opened and closed: Zip!
Stay Puft Marshmallows have 100 mg. of caffeine in each marshmallow.
First: Oh my gawd that makes total sense, followed by "...and what'd they call 'em before 1923?" They were apparently first marketed as "hookless fasteners" starting in 1891 (see Wikipedia) but a more bloodless name I've never heard. Good on y'all, BF Goodrich, for giving the world an *excellent* new word.
What's it doing there? How'd it get there? Why do they leave it in/put it there? Is there really, not just ing Ghostbusters, a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Company? (As a matter of fact...)

Things we never knew (or cared to know) about famous people are the evergreens of the trivia world. No one who's ever played Trivial Pursuit can escape the realization that we're a nosy bunch when it comes to what others do/think/feel.
U.S. President James Garfield could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s most memorable quotes on slavery was, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to have it tried on him personally.”
What a tragedy that Garfield was assassinated so early in his term! And Lincoln, well, he was an amazing person. Spignesi has a little tendresse for Presidential trivia, you see, so we get a lot of it. I'm not mad. They're always interesting people, presidents, even if not always for positive reasons. Although the positive reasons certainly exist:
So far, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served twice as long as any other president, has been the only United States president who did not lose a single staff member or member of his administration due to a scandal or an indictment.
How perfectly astonishing. Especially given the virulence with which FDR was *loathed* by the right-wing reactionary segment of the US population! And the business community! Well, she who laughs last, laughs best, I suppose, and now we're existing in the opposite end of the pendulum's swing. While Spignesi doesn't make the claim that this is a political, let alone presidential, piece of trivia, I offer it here in the spirit of spite and unkind laughter that this moment in political history elicits in me:
In the pre-politically correct era of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, the bottom three categories for IQ measurement were “Idiot” (<70 IQ); “Imbecile” (70-80 IQ); and “Moron” (80-90 IQ).

I will leave the butt of my joke unnamed. I hope it's crystal clear.