Wednesday, March 31, 2021

LORD KALVAN OF OTHERWHEN and GREAT KINGS' WAR, the first two works in a Paratime Multiverse


Pequod Press
99¢ ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.9 nostalgic stars of five

The Publisher Says: The Paratime Police patrolled the vast number of alternate time dimensions. Their aim was to keep the existence of the alternative Earths a secret and prevent these Earths from mixing and destroying each other.

But the Time Police made mistakes, and they made a big one when a seemingly ordinary Pennsylvania State Trooper named Calvin Morrison was accidentally switched into the Aryan-Transpacific sector, Styphon's House subsector.

In just a few weeks, Morrison was being hailed as Lord Kalvan, and was masterminding a campaign that could blow the whole Paratime secret sky high!

My Review: It has been said since there were people to say it that you have to leave home to find yourself. It was never more truly said than with Corporal Calvin Morrison, Pennsylvania State Police. He had to leave Earth as he knew it in order to feel at home at last.

Calvin, you see, ran afoul of a glitch in an alien (though still Earthly) technology, was swept into a temporal conveyor, and despite being thrust into a unique environment, still managed to defend himself against a fellow cop's energy weapon (versus Calvin's .38 revolver), and escape from the unknown but self-evident threat of that weird place.

But where in the world was he? It looks like the same spot he just left, only...not.

He comes to discover that he's traveled laterally in timespace, he's in the same geography as the Pennsylvania he left, but the people in this place aren't like him in culture or language. They're early-Renaissance level of technology, polytheistic Aryans from Asia. And their kingdom, Hostigos, is about to be swatted like a mosquito by the Big Baddies: the priests of the House of Styphon, the Gunpowder God. Thus does Calvin morph into Kalvan, the war leader, the bringer of miracles, the architect of a complete shift in this world's future history.

Now remember that alien-but-Earthly technology? Those Earthlings are from a different time-stream from thee and me, and from the Hostigos (called “Aryan-Transpacific” which specifies the direction of the ancient migration) time-stream. They developed high technology long before we did, and consequently used up the resources of their own Earth before we have. The Paratime Secret, which is the existence of aliens who can't be told from the natives, is policed by the Paratime Police, now headed by Tortha Karf who's designated Verkan Vall as his successor, and whose observation of Kalvan was supposed to be an elimination until some bright academic realized Kalvan was a rare case of a man out of time who was IN his new element, more so than he was in his native time-stream.

And so is born the Kalvan Subsector, a set of adjacent time-streams that define a new direction in history. It's a priceless chance to see how one exceptional individual can change the course of the world.

I bought my first copy of this book, published in 1965, from The Book Stall on Burnet Road in Austin, Texas, in 1970. It was a dime, and my mama blew a fuse. She had given me the dime to buy two National Geographics, and was furious I chose mind-rot over edification. As a result of this tantrum on her part, I treasured that little book until it finally and definitively disintegrated in 2006.

I loved the parallel universes in the book. I eagerly looked into strangers' faces, hoping one of them would be a Paracop and whisk me away from the life I didn't much like into a romantic, exciting life hopping the time-streams. (Not long after this, I encountered The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, and my fate was sealed...I was a chrononaut/Paracop Without Portfolio, and still am.)

I loved every pulpy, overheated sentence of the book. I said things like “yesterday at the latest” and “Dralm dammit” so often that Mama finally blew a fuse and took the book away. I didn't know then, though I strongly suspected it, that Piper was a crappy writer with a gift for the cliché. But hell, who gives the ass of a rat when you're swept away into a world different from and better than your own?

I feel the same way today. It's just that, at mumblety-*cough*, I know it's not good writing. But I still don't care, if the story can sweep my considerable intellectual and physical avoirdupois off my aching, elderly feet.



Pequod Press
$2.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Great Kings' War was first published in paperback in 1985 by Ace Books. This 2nd Edition is a revised and expanded version of the long awaited sequel to H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, chronicling the further adventures of Calvin Morrison, Pennsylvania State Policeman—forcibly retired.

This new edition is revised and expanded (over 60,000 words) by the authors with new maps, including Hostigos Town, Hostigos and the Five Kingdoms, and a new dramatis personae.

Calvin Morrison was a pretty good cop in Pennsylvania—until he was scooped up by the cross-time flying saucer and transported to Styphon's House Subsector, a 16th Century equivalent parallel time-line. Here the Indo-Aryan invasions went east across Asia and down the Aleutian Islands into North America, where they have stagnated for thousands of years. Dropped off into the middle of a local dispute, Corporal Calvin Morrison comes face to face with warriors armed with pikes and broadswords, not petty criminals. Lord Kalvan, as the locals call him, transforms the petty Princedom of Hostigos into a fearsome warrior Kingdom by inspired leadership and advanced military knowledge.

Now, after having created and saved his new nation of Hos-Hostigos from destruction by Styphon's House, a tyrannical theocracy that holds sacred the secret formula for gunpowder, Kalvan, now Great King of Hos-Hostigos, faces his greatest challenge—keeping what he has won.

The Holy Host of Styphon and the Royal Army of Hos-Harphax, two of the greatest armies in the history of the Five Kingdoms, are on the move and Kalvan will once again have to call upon his knowledge of military history to save his family and friends. This time it's personal!

My Review: Really more of a four-star read, rounded up because I'm a sucker for military SF/fantasy that really knows what the hell it's talking about, and I will (with reservations explored below) read on; but the structural infelicities really do bother me enough that I have to take that half-star off as fair warning to others.

Sequel to Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper, in the Paratime Universe (see the Complete Paratime series for details).

A novella-length book, the last written by its mentally ill author (who probably starved himself to death because of some absurd sense of "honor"), spawned a series of sequels exploring in detail (see the author of this work, and successive ones, at his website Hostigos) the accidental transposition of a man out of time on his own world, into a world exactly suited to his strengths. "The Road to Hostigos" section at the website explains this with admirable brevity.

This first sequel is the story of the first year after Kalvan's metamorphosis from Corporal Calvin Morrison, apostate Presbyterian clergyman and Korean War veteran, into Great King Kalvan of Hos-Hostigos. We're in the Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Kalvan is the rare survivor of cross-time contamination and, in the view of the academics at Dhergabar University on First Level, is a Dralm-sent opportunity to test paratime theory's self-evident but ordinarily unexplorable real-world action. Will Kalvan, whose arrival from nowhere makes his ideas and knowledge and opinions reek of Divine Intervention, succeed in staving off the doom slated to fall on Hostigos for its impious defiance of the local theocrats? Will the multitudes of fates altered by this uncontaminated-by-planning accident change enough about the multiverse to rank as a Subsector? Is the Great Man Theory right after all?!

One thing Author John F. Carr gets absolutely right is that academics are bloodthirsty political infighters. This book contains a good bit of that world. It also contains passages from the points of view of people who were merely names in the original novella. It also contains points of view absolutely unique to the expanded world. It contains, in fact, a lot of words that I don't entirely agree are necessary to tell a cracking good yarn set in this multiverse. Points of view of the vile theocrats? They're reinforcing what I already knew: They're unbelieving con artist scumbags. ::shockhorror:: Points of view of minor players in the battles, I get; they can realistically and without obvious infodumping clue us in to important action. But all of this comes at the expense of a cohesive narrative for the two parties I came to this bar to talk to: Kalvan and Verkan Vall, the newly minted king and the Paratime Police leader whose interest in Kalvan's ability to beat out a trained, technologically advanced security apparatus and then set himself up as the new power in the Earth he's landed in, is what's keeping him alive.

The players are many; the action is constant; but the problems are real. Kalvan's impending fatherhood is the only thing that's prevented his Great Queen from leading an army to defend what was, until he arrived and changed everything and won her heart, her future realm. It is her difficult pregnancy (ie, because she's a Girl) that keeps her pinned down. Her own mother having died in childbirth, Kalvan suffers some sleepless nights wondering what the hell he'll do if she dies too. But folks: SHE WAS THE HEIRESS TO THE THRONE UNTIL HE GOT HER PREGNANT AND SHE "HAD TO RETIRE." She's already proven herself an able politician and a brave commander of men. And now she's going to be a wife and mama?

Well, as it happens, no. She's royalty. The child she bears has a wetnurse from the word go, and within a month, The Great Queen Rylla's on horseback and bringing her husband supplies and men at a siege (along with a mentioned-on-page entourage for childcare). Much to his Our Time Line 1960s-cop distress. But Author Carr did us a solid, and an unusual one considering this book was written in the SFnal universe of the 1980s. Kalvan *listens*to*Rylla* and acts on her advice. They have a bruising fight...they reach an understanding...and they roll over the opposition, in tandem, partners.

I was not expecting that. I'm glad I got it.

A lot more "of its time" is the dismissive homophobia and the gratuitous fatphobia. I don't like it, but it's there, and it's not foregrounded. I guess I like the candy of multiverse-battle-politickin' enough to screw up my eyes and wrinkle my nose at the frankly-coulda-been-worse social attitudes we don't hold with anymore.

This series has been chugging along now for almost sixty years. Wargamers took to it with cries of glee. (The maps...!!) The incels and Proud Boys see it as Aryan enough to make them happy, and while the evidence doesn't support a full patriarchal view of this world, when has that stopped them from ignoring what they don't care to see. It's not a series I will be warbling my fool lungs out to beg you to pick up, because most people will bog down in the battle scenes and the tactical details that make my geekly heart go pitty-pat.

But if you like 1632 and its myriad follow-ons, or Warhammer 40,000 et alii, this is another option for the moments you're feeling a bit done with what has held your attention a minute too long.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

REBEL and KING'S MAN, a story and a novel in a new MM romance series

REBEL: An Outlawed Story

Self-published Non-affiliate Amazon link
99¢ ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Falling in love is just the beginning...

Samuel Hutchinson has lived his whole life in Rosemont, Rhode Island. And as far as he’s concerned, his future is fixed: complete his legal training, marry a respectable woman, and settle down to raise a family.

But Sam never counted on meeting Nathaniel Tanner.

Clever, urbane, and dazzling, Nate has been banished to Rosemont by a father determined to remove him from the rising political tension in Boston. The last thing Nate expects to find in the sleepy Rhode Island town is a man who’s not only interested in Nate’s radical ideas, but who interests Nate in return.

In every conceivable way.

Over books and conversation, their friendship deepens. But when Nate dares to confess his true feelings, Sam faces a stark choice—reject his friend and continue to live a lie, or rebel against everything he’s been taught and embrace his heart’s desire…

This short story is approximately 12,000 words and comes with a HFN guaranteed.


My Review
: What mattered to me most, in this precursor tale to what I expect will be a very interesting and exciting series, was that the men who fell in love with each other weren't just...okay with it. Right before the Revolutionary War in a provincial backwater Rhode Island town? Yeah, right, I was prepared to think.

Instead I was treated to a genuine coming out. Nate Tanner, Harvard educated Boston sophisticate, was exiled to this little burg to keep him from the fleshpots of a sinful city (Boston! sinful! a city!! *snort*). Apparently his father, the exiler, didn't know the whole of it or the exile would've been a lot more severe. Nate is all his father isn't: a nascent revolutionary, a free-thinker where gawd is concerned, and an avid shirt-lifter. He reads novels, and Richard Barnfield's The Affectionate Sheppard and Rousseau and Plato and...thinks about them. Ponders what he's read. I think he's my ancestor.

Sam Hutchinson is one of life's submissives. He believes what he's told; he doesn't question, does internalize the guilt and nastiness of his preacher father's revolting religion, feels he's Bad and Wrong and Must Be Punished. For all that, he's powerfully horny, and that speaks louder than gawd's blatherings when the near occasion of sin is seducing you with words and ideas and the promise of loosening that horrible knotted rope around your mind.

It's the first of a romantic-novel series. There was no mystery that the two were going to get their freak on. It was in an adorably eighteenth-century-virgin way, and it wasn't yee-haw-the-organs-go-mad. I still do not recommend the read to the squeamishly heterosexual. But it's 99¢ so if the idea of two men learning to love each other fully clothed and then learning to pleasure each other doesn't make your gorge rise, spend the buck.



Self-published Non-affiliate Amazon link
$4.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Two weeks on the road together. Two weeks trapped in a carriage. Two weeks to win him back, or part with him forever…

Had there been no war, Sam Hutchinson and Nate Tanner would have lived their lives together, as friends and secret lovers. But when the revolution convulsed America, it threw them down on opposite sides of history....

Five years later, Sam is a Loyalist refugee in London, penniless, bitter, and scrambling to survive amid the city’s shadowy underworld. It’s a far cry from his respectable life as a Rhode Island lawyer, and the last person he wants to witness his ruin is Nate Tanner— the man he once loved, the man who betrayed him. The man he can’t forgive.

Now an agent of the Continental Congress, Nate is in London on the trail of a traitor threatening America’s hard-won freedom. But the secret mission of his heart is very different. Nate longs to find Sam Hutchinson—the man he still loves, the man he lost in the war. The man he can’t forget.

When their lives unexpectedly collide, Sam and Nate are thrown together on a dangerous mission. Still nursing his resentment, reconciliation is the last thing on Sam’s mind, but every day he spends on the road with Nate weakens his resolve. And despite everything that divides them, old passions begin to reignite....

Can they seize this second chance at love, or is the past too painful to forgive?

This novel is approximately 76,000 words and comes with a HEA guaranteed.


My Review
: What you need to know is that I loathe Sally Malcolm inexpressibly. You see that "HEA guaranteed" half-truth purveyed above? Shyeah, like she means that. Burgling and being arrested on a hanging offense and all while guilty of being a sodomite in a London that loved killing its citizens as much as Texas does now? Being subjected to period-accurate violence and imprisonment and all while numbed-yet-hypersensitized by your very most belovèd's horrible silent betrayal?! I mean! (Oh and ABSOLUTELY read Rebel before even thinking of reading this book. Ab so lute ly imperative that you do.)

Does any of that sound like it's leading to "happily" at all, still less "ever" and there's nothing but after when you're so broken, so violated in your core, that the notion of living is gone and the drudgery of existing feels too burdensome most days.

And you know what? The cotton-candy version of "HEA" is not only NOT guaranteed, it's risible even to moot it. So what's left? How the hell does a romance novel come from this set-up?

I'm elderly by world standards. Old enough by American ones. But in these sixty*cough* years and counting, I've learned that breaking up with the past is the worst, least successful break-up you'll ever attempt. In fact, I've never seen it succeed. Nate and Sam don't have a future together after the events of a horrible night in 1778. They are never, ever going to get back together, not least because they're prideful men but also because it's the eighteenth century and getting unfindably lost is so very easy at the best of times, but during wartime it's damned difficult not to even when unplanned. And Nate's going to go around the world pining for the unfindable, unfixable Love of His Life. Who, oh y'know how ya do, he totally and utterly failed when failure could've been lethal. So he figures why not go the rest of the way down the weasel-hole, becomes a spy, and ends up in London searching for a certain special kind of traitor to the newly born United States. Like his much-mourned belovèd.

Sam, that belovèd, isn't an easy man. (I suspect he's a Taurus born in 1757, the Year of the Ox. He's damned near the perfect match for the profile!) He's quite stubborn, he's pig-headedly unwilling to compromise when it's A Matter of Principle, he's sunny and sweet and deeply devoted...until betrayed. His country, this colony America, the town of Rosemont in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, has lost its fucking mind and is going to war with the *winners* of the planet's first World War (comme d'habitude, started by the Germans)! Yes, the British Parliament needs to welcome Americans if the laws they pass are going to apply to them and no, the taxes that pay for the colonies' protection from the French aren't wrong and besides who the hell likes tea anyway?

(I might've made that last bit up.)

These are men whose very essence is called into question by the other. And yet that is an attraction that's utterly unkillable, Opposites Attract, and its power is awe-inspiring. So they meet in the last place either really wants to be: London! A million people...just think of how *staggeringly*huge* that is to men who think Boston is a city!...and Fate *glowers at La Malcolm* in her blind ill will smashes the two into each other in a completely unavoidable, unignorable, and intimacy-demanding way.

What happens then is really quite fun, although it involves a lot less sex than I was expecting. The mud-wrestling (of a carriage!) doesn't count; the skinny-dipping (a perfectly astounding amount of the smexytimes in this series appears to be al fresco) isn't like that, and, when they Get It On at last, they're only slightly more ready to roll than is the reader. A vile person in the form of a barely-ennobled Baron does vile things to keep them apart. It works. There are misunderstandings, and missed opportunities to speak plainly (which, for once!, do not feel contrived to me), and machinations of people whose agendas have little to do with the spirits of two badly wounded, barely coping men who should be beside the Pawtuxet River fishing for their Sunday dinner. The entire time I was making my way around England with them, I felt so sad and bereft that they could never go back to Eden.

And really, that's what I mean about the obligatory HEA here...the two men who lost their demi-Paradise did not find it again in England's green and pleasant land. They found each other's bodies. But they had to work, and work hard, to find the way to be back in relationship. Like any long-term love, there are dark bits and things we don't say out loud and long, long silences. For many people, there isn't anything to cause them to seek ways to fix the broken bits. For Sam there isn't any way to forgive Nate's betrayal; for Nate there isn't any way to batter down Sam's walls.

It takes Death to do that job. And do it She does. That's your HEA for you, snatched from the actual jaws of Death Herself is the clarity and the love and the means to live with the awful hurts that never, ever go away, that leave scars. Tattoo a rose around the scar...make a feature out of a anyway, harder than ever.

Oh, and Author Malcolm...about that hit I had to place on you...tell your husband I am ever so sorry, but the w-bomb you dropped at 51% is simply not to be tolerated and Standards must be maintained.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

LIFE IN THE IRON MILLS, essential 19th-century reading tells us about the 21st century

LIFE IN THE IRON MILLS and Other Stories
(Tillie Olsen, editor; Kim Kelly, Foreword)
The Feminist Press at CUNY
$15.95 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Originally published in 1861 in the Atlantic Monthly, “Life in the Iron Mills” remains a classic of proletarian literature that paints a bleak and incisive portrait of nineteenth-century industrial America. Rebecca Harding Davis was one of the first writers to depict a working class that was exploited and exhausted as capitalism’s mills and factories destroyed both the natural environment and the human spirit.

Davis's work was first recovered in the 1970s by the Feminist Press and writer Tillie Olsen, and then expanded in the 1980s to be the most comprehensive collection of her work to date. This reissued edition includes an updated critical introduction, and shares a uniquely prescient capitalist critique with a new generation.


My Review
A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer's shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent throuhg all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.

Choosing to bring her story to us via a first-person introductory passage was a stroke of genius by Author Harding Davis. At first, I felt very nervous because the idea of first-person present-tense narration for a whole novella's length isn't, um, too terribly appealing to me; but we get into the action when she has the narrator say that the people he's going to talk about lived there thirty years ago and....

Well! All is on track, then! Stand down, adrenal gland.

But mere lines later, my mind hit another conceptual pothole:
She did not drink, this woman,—her face told that, too,—nothing stronger than ale. Perhaps the weak, flaccid wretch had some stimulant in her pale life to keep her up,—some love or hope, it might be, or urgent need. When that stimulant was gone, she would take to whiskey. Man cannot live by work alone.

Wow! That's not even a little bit judgey, is it. (And "nothing stronger than ale" must resound oddly in the modern Puritanical no-booze no-sex no-fun ear! The paeans to the clean air and the purity of this bygone world make me itch. The entire world drank some sort of beer or wine because drinking water could kill you via cholera and/or diphtheria and/or typhoid fever.) Kim Kelly (author of Top Ten Words Women Hate which is short and to the point besides having a great title), in her Foreword to this second Feminist Press edition, says of the author:
Rebecca Harding Davis was born into a life of relative ease and had next to nothing in common with the workers in her story, and yet she writes about them and the proletarian struggle with such compassion and depth of insight that it's hard to believe she was merely watching from the window.

I must decline to co-sign, Kim Kelly. To my elderly man-ears, this story sounds like the Abolition era's standard christian social-reform literature à la Uncle Tom's Cabin. Built into its very real sympathy is the distancing judgmental mind-set inescapable by a woman of Author Harding Davis's background. She isn't all about the judgments, it is true, because her point is to bring into sharp relief the inequitable, really iniquitous, world that has done this to Deb, the character described here. But baked into the clay is that vocabulary of blame and othering inescapable in 1861's world-view.

The capitalist mouthpiece character is a piece of work. He's called Kirby, but really could've been called Carnegie or Rockefeller. His anthem:
"I do not think. I wash my hands of all social problems,—slavery, caste, white or black. My duty to my operatives has a narrow limit,—the pay-hour on Saturday night. Outside of that, if they cut korl, or cut each other's throats, (the more popular amusement of the two,) I am not responsible."

In that unlovely speech, addressed to one Mitchell, the dilettante character of no special moral fiber but a deep and abiding aesthetic sensibility, one hears echoes of "I don't see race" and its ilk, doesn't one. Mitchell is moved to say in riposte, "Money has spoken!"

Kirby and Mitchell are discussing the existence of one of the mill-hands, Hugh Wolfe. He is a true Other, a man out of place in his place of residence. He has had a modicum of schooling; he is aesthetically aware of the world around him; therefore he is the subject of the other mill-hands' bullying. He has created a statue of great aesthetic interest to Mitchell, a carved woman whose anatomy Mitchell criticizes for being not starved-looking when Hugh tells him the korl sculpture is meant to be hungry. In a passage that felt to me more than a little codedly homoerotic, Wolfe, Kirby, and Mitchell pass around the idea of bodies on display (half-naked men abounding in the smelthing-furnace heat, summer or winter) being essentially lower-class unless they are Art.

Mitchell ends his part of the conversation with a "cool, musical laugh." ::eyebrow:: Then Author Harding Davis delivers this about him:
Bright and deep and cold as Arctic air, the soul of the man lay tranquil beneath. He looked at the furnace-tender as he had looked at a rare mosaic in the morning; only the man was the more amusing study of the two.

The hairpins are dropping...nay, flying! And then she has him speak Scripture, "De profundis clamavi" no less!, at which juncture he is compared to the Devil. Now I do not know Author Harding Davis's other works, but these are Uranian markers in nineteenth-century gay parlance. Mitchell, and to a lesser degree Kirby, are assessing Hugh Wolfe as a sex object. And he's right there with 'em.

Think not? Thus Hugh of Mitchell, so recently departed and he fears and expects not to return:
Then flashed before his vivid poetic sense the man who had left him,—the pure face, the delicate, sinewy limbs, in harmony with all he knew of beauty or truth. In his cloudy fancy he had pictured a Something like this. He had found it in this Mitchell, even when he idly scoffed at {Hugh's} pain: a Man all-knowing, all-seeing, crowned by Nature, reigning,—the keen glance of his eye falling like a sceptre on other men.

And the rest of the story might as well have been A Tragic Gay Romance. I'm fine with that, and don't feel the need to chisel away my impression of what Author Harding Davis did because it might not be what she intended (note use of conditional).

If you've paid me the slightest attention at all, you'll know that the anti-capitalist message of the story is so in tune with my own thoughts about a properly run world that this really needs no belaboring. I was absolutely sure I'd enjoy this story when I read this:
Everything old is new again, including the tension between the workers who make and the bosses who take. How many more Hughs are there out there now, working dangerous, soul-sucking jobs instead of following their passions? How many more will have to suffer before this wretched capitalist system finally breaks down and sets us all free?

I don't know, Kim Kelly. But the short answer is "not soon enough."

Saturday, March 27, 2021

THE DELICATE APE, an oddly SFnal thriller by Dorothy B. Hughes

The cover of the 1947 Pocket Books mmpb edition that belonged to my father

Open Road Media
$9.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Terror of the Hunted

Piers Hunt was followed—by a rat-faced little man, by a detective named Cassidy, and by a dark, soundless shadow, felt rather than seen. But worse than the fear of his followers was Hunt's terror of a beautiful and passionate girl. With his emotions he loved her violently; with his mind he hated her. She was evil—a seductive force in evil hands. They all wanted what he had: information which no one but himself must know for a week. On Sunday he would tell it, not to a chosen few, but to the entire world.

This story by Dorothy B. Hughes, author of The Fallen Sparrow and Dread Journey, is more than just a whirlwind tale of spies and intrigue. As Will Cuppy said, "Miss Hughes offers an exciting story wrapped in an idea that is certainly on the side of the angels. Complete with murder, valuable papers, problems to solve, and not one scrap of nonsense. A necessity for Grade-A addicts."

(The above is the back-cover copy of the 1947 Pocket Books mmpb edition that belonged to my father. I think it's better than the modern editions' efforts, so here it is.)

My Review: Look at her Wikipedia entry linked'd never know how much of a Thing she was back in the day. She was Miss Hughes by the "courtesy" of the times; she had three children with her husband, Lewis Allan Hughes, Junior. Her burst of creativity came in the 1940s, when twelve of her fifteen novels appeared. The last was published in 1963, The Expendable Man; it had been eleven years since the novel before it appeared and none would follow. (A far better condensation of Author Hughes's affect and effect is in the LA Review of Books, not paywalled.)

Hughes was, however, astonishingly prolific as a writer of criticism (winning an Edgar for it in 1951); she was awarded a Grand Mastership by the Mystery Writers of America in 1983 for her decades of critical work, and, I believe, in no small part for her 1978 biography, Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. It remains my very favorite biography—it's really what we'd call today "a life" in that it's not full of footnotable "and on Wednesday the nineteenth came a surprise" stuff—of a mystery writer. It's got the insider-thriller-writer knowingness and the loving appreciation of a fan, coupled with a woman (who rejected the label "feminist" her entire life) who sees what he's doing there's tolerant tutting.

I decided that this book, an oddity in Author Hughes's career, needed a review. Most of Author Hughes's most popular works feature a woman lead. Here, not for the first time, she writes from a man's point of view, though honestly Piers doesn't feel like a man so much as a machine-part, a character without that much character. It's no one's favorite of her works, poor thing, though possibly for that reason. She wrote it in 1942-1943, set it in 1955, and made a lot of assumptions about how the post-war world would work. They are all completely wrong.That should surprise no one. After all, SF writers get *gleefully* bashed and pointed at when they get things wrong, so why exempt Author Hughes?

In a weird way, this 1947 printing is a near-future story about the US Secretary of Peace and his dealings with an about-to-be de-occupied Germany. And that, we're let in on, is a Very Bad that even gets people killed for so much as conceptualizing. If there is to be a change in Germany's occupation, you see, it must be one that allows Germany to rise again or it will cause more wars! (If they're released from under the occupation, of course, there will be more, one might wonder, what the hell's the difference?)

Piers is in possession of evidence that will somehow derail the whole peace convocation. It isn't like anyone doesn't know he has it...the femme fatale Morgen, the love of Piers's life, is sent to violate her marriage vows to collect the information from him on her husband the German General's certainty that he is still besotted...but Piers isn't having it. The Germans must be kept down! Like the Chinese are keeping those losers the Japanese in their place!

See? She really got everything seriously wrong here.

But what she didn't get wrong is the pacing of the chases. As Piers dodges bullets and babes, as he does every-damn-thing in his power to prevent a murderous cabal of powerful profiteers from returning this peaceful 1955 to the charnel house-filling state of perma-war Author Hughes cynically posits they want, she never once takes her foot off the gas pedal. In under two hundred pages, she delivers a set-piece of an ending that wraps the speeding car of story around the lamp-post of inevitability.

It's a weirdo, a little misshapen bump in the road of her career. I think it's all the more fun for that. I also think that the pleasures of reading it are sharpened if one deals with it as alternate history of World War II's ending.

Don't be fooled by Dorothy B. Hughes's factually unsupported claims for her fictional 1955...she saw what was coming. She wasn't a fan of the Germans. She wasn't fooled by the industrialists' patriotic mouthings. She was limpidly clear about what a raw deal ordinary people will always get, especially when they're standing up to be counted for the Right Thing to be done (read The Expendable Man!!).

And she wrapped it all in clear, clean prose that ages like single-malt whisky.

Friday, March 26, 2021

UNLIKELY ANGEL, the songwriter whose performance-art career you might've heard of

UNLIKELY ANGEL: The Songs of Dolly Parton

University of Illinois Press
$14.95 ebook editions, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The creative process of a great American songwriter

Dolly Parton's success as a performer and pop culture phenomenon has overshadowed her achievements as a songwriter. But she sees herself as a songwriter first, and with good reason. Parton's compositions like "I Will Always Love You" and "Jolene" have become American standards with an impact far beyond country music.

Lydia R. Hamessley's expert analysis and Parton’s characteristically straightforward input inform this comprehensive look at the process, influences, and themes that have shaped the superstar's songwriting artistry. Hamessley reveals how Parton’s loving, hardscrabble childhood in the Smoky Mountains provided the musical language, rhythms, and memories of old-time music that resonate in so many of her songs. Hamessley further provides an understanding of how Parton combines her cultural and musical heritage with an artisan’s sense of craft and design to compose eloquent, painfully honest, and gripping songs about women's lives, poverty, heartbreak, inspiration, and love.

Filled with insights on hit songs and less familiar gems, Unlikely Angel covers the full arc of Dolly Parton's career and offers an unprecedented look at the creative force behind the image.


My Review
: I was a teen in the 1970s, when Miss Dolly was really gaining fame. In my social circle, such as it was, country music was not the first choice of listening on the car stereo. We ran to Rick Wakeman and Electric Light Orchestra and show tunes. (Drama fag here, if you're wondering.) As I, almost alone among my friends, had much-older sisters, I'd hear things overlooked by the pop-pups. Joni Mitchell wasn't big among them, but my sister gave me her old copy of Hejira when she moved, starting a love affair with Mitchell that's lasted to this very day. Then came the day she played "I Will Always Love You" and we laughed our snobby selves silly! "She sounds like a 45 played at 78," I commented, and got an approving laugh from the older audience. But that's a beautiful song, and if one is even a little bit susceptible to sentimental love poems, it's a gripping story. It's been remade and made into a hit in every decade since its first release in 1974.

Now, I can't even imagine anyone over ten years of age, not from a place that has no electricity, will not know who Dolly Parton is. So I will spend no time explaining her. Still, on the off chance you've never heard of Miss Dolly, go here.

All done? Good. Now that I'm all the way sure that you know the basics, let's us have a come-to-Jesus about the parts of Miss Dolly you've been ignoring, were foolishly dismissive of (like me), or were unaware of. The lady acts and performs and sings. But she IS a songwriter. "I Will Always Love You", written to mark the end of her early and formative loving partnership with Porter Wagoner (man charted eighty-one singles in his life, betcha most people reading this blog never heard of him!), is in the American Songbook by virtue of it ubiquity and popularity with singers and audiences alike.

Author Lydia Hamessley is a musicologist, a scholar of Southern Appalachia's musical heritage. She is a thorough academic, and that is not bad thing because her subject here isn't the media star Dolly Parton!!! but the creative dynamo songwriter behind the entertainer. Many thousands of songs have come forth from Parton's pen. Many hundreds have been recorded by herself, and many other artists. (By the way, did y'all know Miss Dolly wrote a song called "Backwoods Barbie"?!
"Don't let these false eyelashes lead you to believe
That I'm as shallow as I look,
'cause I run true and deep"
This is the same smart businesswoman whose public persona uttered the deathless aperçu, "You'd be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap!" and variations thereon, in countless interviews.)

Oh, sorry. Anyway, Author Hamessley's text is academic in purpose and execution, so I won't lie and say it flowed past my eyes like limpid creek-water down a holler. Miss Dolly wrote an autobiography for you, if that's what you're looking for; I wasn't, and I asked for this book because I wanted to know about the creative, and also the businesswoman behind the persona.

And that is precisely what I got. Say hallelujah and bring the jubilee!

In Author Hamessley's (overlong; I did say she was an academic!) Introduction to the book, she wrote this:
Two of Dolly's comments have been foundational for my work and analyses of her songs. First, "I can't stop writing songs. That's what I mean—I am so serious. If people really knew how serious I was about my music." Second, when Dolly set out on her solo career she asserted, "I'm saying a lot more in my songs than a lot of people may know. Even the simplest of my songs, I've got really deep feelings inside of them."

The fact is that this↑↑↑right here is the beating heart of Unlikely Angel, this is the thing that you're going to get in the case studies and the anecdotes: Dolly Parton is no more "just" a simple country gal who boobed her way to the top of a killer cutthroat business than she is a cold, calculating manipulator with steely discipline and rampageous ambition. She's all that, and she's more. The producer of her first solo album, Hello, I'm Dolly, (the Broadway-based story behind this is another brick in the foundation of my love for Miss Dolly!) said of her "All the same things put together made something different this time."

So Author Hamessley set out to unravel, in nine songs, one in a chapter..."In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)," "Coat of Many Colors," "My Tennessee Mountain Home," "These Old Bones," "I Will Always Love You," "Just Because I'm A Woman," "Me and Little Andy," "Light of a Clear Blue Morning, and last but not least "There'll Always Be Music"...the creative and cultural arc of a six-decade career built on entertaining others and comforting the needy, loving the good times and defying the hard ones, and generally letting her force-of-nature personality loose on a gobsmacked world. (As an aside, I'd like to suggest to readers of the book that they make a playlist of the songs each chapter focuses on. I did; I listened to the whole playlist all the way through, then put the songs on as I got to a chapter. Sometimes two or three listens during a chapter helped me really get slightly abstruse-to-me points.) It's greatly to her credit that she accomplishes as much pure-D unadulterated entertainment as she does.

What she doesn't accomplish is, I suspect, down to the fact that she's telling a story while making a point. Academia requires a point beyond just spinnin' a good yarn. It's not like she fails to identify multiple very good points in the book...woman-in-business, artist-responding-to-the-world, public/private dichotomy...but she's not humanizing them with gladsome prose. This isn't, I acknowledge, her brief in a book for Univerity of Illinois Press! But it does tend to militate against a truly casual reader's sense of value recieved justifying the pricey purchase. This is something I want to be clear about.

One of the not-emphasized truths about a career containing over 3,000 (!!) songs written is that not all of them are autobiographical. Author Hamessley doesn't bear down hard on this fact. She does, in ways subtle or oblique, make it part of the idea of a chapter. This is all to the good, in my opinion; there's nothing more absurd and prurient to me than the urge to conflate performer and performance.

Steve Buckingham, author of the Preface and long-time friend of Miss Dolly's, gets the last words because I think they say everything you need to know about Miss Dolly and about this book she so generously helped bring into the world:
Over the decades Dolly and I sometimes talked about how the "cartoon" she created (her word, not mine) often overshadowed her talent as a songwriter and musician. We always strove to put the music first. ... Make no mistake, Dolly Parton is a phenomenally gifted songwriter who neverruns out of ideas. Just ask her peers. And don't let the long fingernails fool you!

Author Hamessley, thank you for this delightful deep dive into a world-beating talent's work.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

CRY OF MURDER ON BROADWAY, a lost moment of Women's History

CRY OF MURDER ON BROADWAY: A Woman's Ruin and Revenge in Old New York

Three Hills
$13.99 ebook editions or $28.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Cry of Murder on Broadway, Julie Miller shows how a woman's desperate attempt at murder came to momentarily embody the anger and anxiety felt by many people at a time of economic and social upheaval and expanding expectations for equal rights.

On the evening of November 1, 1843, a young household servant named Amelia Norman attacked Henry Ballard, a prosperous merchant, on the steps of the new and luxurious Astor House hotel. Agitated and distraught, Norman followed Ballard down Broadway before confronting him at the door to the Astor House. Taking out a folding knife, she stabbed him, just missing his heart.

Ballard survived the attack, and the trial that followed created a sensation. Newspapers in New York and beyond followed the case eagerly, and crowds filled the courtroom every day. Prominent author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, championed Norman and later included her story in her fiction and her writing on women's rights.

The would-be murderer also attracted the support of politicians, journalists, and legal and moral reformers who saw her story as a vehicle to change the law as it related to "seduction," and advocate for the rights of workers. Cry of Murder on Broadway describes how New Yorkers, besotted with the drama of the courtroom and the lurid stories of the penny press, followed the trial for sensation.

Miller deftly weaves together Norman's story to show how, in one violent moment, she expressed all the anger that the women of the emerging movement for women's rights would soon express in words.


My Review
: The thing about writing books about illiterate people is that one has no direct access to their thoughts. While a diary, or a body of correspondence no matter how quotidian, might be suspect in it honesty, the lack of such a diary or correspondence makes the project feel removed, remote, untethered to the person in the crosshairs.

This is a built-in, and serious, structural flaw. I believe Author Miller chose Amelia Norman as a subject anyway because she was a woman who attempted to revenge herself on the man who callously and cruelly deprived her of a woman in her class's only possession: Her reputation. Her story attracted a great deal of attention from the press and the reality-TV-watchers' ancestors who went to trials expecting to be entertained by "...what amounted to a serial drama." Establishment pillar and publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, was among the media fanners-of-flames who, not coincidentally, are the only reason we have any idea who she was or what the heck Amelia Norman was thinking at all. He began his involvement in the case condemning Norman, Fallen Woman:
{T}he vengeance of a woman upon her despoiler cannot be checked, when jealousy and desertion goad her to its accomplishment."

At that time, a woman seduced and despoiled could seek no redress against her seducer. A father or master (pre-Civil War days, there were slaves galore in, though not owned by citizens of, New York) could sue the seducer for depriving him, the father or master, of the value of the woman's labor of which her pregnancy and child-birth were responsible for. (Mere rape? No mention. And we're clearly told that Norman bore Ballard's child despite his insistence she abort it.) Norman's lead lawyer, one David Graham, Junior, "...attacked the seduction tort...seeking to make it possible for a woman to sue on her own behalf":
In the age of the movements for abolition {of slavery} and women's rights, reformers, including legal reformers like Graham, were seeking to jettison the idea that anyone could own the labor of another.

(Not coincidentally, Lawyer Graham was described by one judge whose court he had argued in as having "...eyes {that} are in their gaze as strong as affadavits"! Having the right counsel is very important; having the handsomest is crucial, as the modern media circus trials have proved.)

Which context makes the case of Amelia Norman, wronged woman, hugely important and explains why so many of the Great and the Good of the Abolition's heartland took up her cause. This last assured that the hoi polloi would remain riveted to the proceedings. Publisher Bennett's initial sympathy for Ballard, Norman's victim, softened over time; one senses that he was a bellwether and as famous popular writer, abolitionist, and national newspaper columnist Lydia Maria Child inserted herself into the proceedings, felt the wind of opinion changing direction. As a circulation-seeking businessman, he trimmed his sails to catch the new wind.

As the trial parts of the book get going, the pace of my reading picked up as well. The reason is as simple as the legions of reality-TV watchers goggling at The Bachelor and The Bachelorette as they go through their race-relations horrors, their allegations of many kinds of abuse, and the unexamined tawdriness of pruriently peering into the complicit cast's intimate moments. Frankly, #MeToo needs a big old perspective check because I hear nothing against these shows and triple-decibel shouting about porn. They are not different.

So, while I'm not entirely guiltless of titillation-seeking, the Herald's Bennett both purveyed the prurient details of the trial in his newspaper and tacitly supported the cause Lydia Maria Child and Lawyer Graham espoused in the Norman case, namely the criminalization of "seduction" and opening the path to women having the power to bring suit for themselves. Author Miller says that:
{Bennett} suggested that the ruin spread by men like Ballard spread beyond women to everyone harmed by a society that was becoming increasingly impersonal, transactional, exploitative, and mystifying. Ballards are everywhere, he warned, "in Wall Street—in the warehouses down town—lounging about the hotels—at the club-rooms—behind the scenes at the theatres—even in the house of God..."

Clearly the Epsteins and Weinsteins of the world are not new monsters. The culture of toxic masculinity is just maybe starting to give up its primacy. We can hope, anyway. One hundred seventy-three years on from that stirring of revolution...nothing like taking one's time, not act in haste....

So we're moving through a trial that, in its well-analyzed in this text result, affected deep and abiding injustices in the law and society of the United States. A woman's right to bring a lawsuit on her own behalf in the circumstances Amelia Norman found herself in was immeasurably advanced by the "Not Guilty" verdict returned on that January day in 1844. The crowds were jubilant, having decided that ugly-souled narcissist and seducer Ballard brought this assassination attempt on himself by his callous actions. It helped shape the public sentiment of a time of great change, and of increasing progressive social activism. In 1848, a mere four years after this trial's conclusion, Lydia Maria Child took part in the Seneca Falls Convention, the pioneering women's rights convention. This was a moment of revolution, and its sparks would ignite much action for the rest of the century and much of the next. One of those sparks was the passage of New York's "Act to Punish Seduction as a Crime." That was the beginning of developments that Author Miller spends the last third of the book contextualizing and analyzing with what, to me, was deft and involving erudition of prose.

A brief mention must be made of Author Miller's characterization of Ballard, the miscreant's, lawyer Edward Sandford. He comes across as the 1840s ancestor of Rudy Giuliani, arguing in court that the Bible accuses Norman's entire gender because the first seducer was Eve, and "...women had been tempting and seducing men ever since. {Child wrote in response} This was putting the saddle on the wrong horse, with a vengeance!" This is from Sandford's address to the jury during closing arguments:
{If Norman is acquitted, prostitutes would be empowered to} go out into the public streets and kill their seducers. ... I would ask you if you have not sons as well as daughters, and will you not protect them against the dirk of the assassin. Who among you would not rather that your daughter loose (sic) her virtue than that your son should be stabbed in the streets by a prostitute."

...where do I begin...I mean, leave aside the presumption that you're perfectly okay with your son exploiting a woman as a sex object. Ignore the barb about your daughter's "virtue." Home in on the tone-deafness of a man who's listened to a stellar case presented by one of the superstars of New York's legal world that the defendant was *not* a prostitute but a woman spurned and scorned by a man who simply didn't want to take responsibility for the baby he'd fathered on his mistress. Apply this standard to these notional sons...what kind of christ-awful crappy men are these that are being defended from the menacing sexual snares of Eve's Seductresses?! Subnormal intellingence clearly is a problem among men, to hear Sandford tell it. And absence of moral fiber. And total want of empathy. Poor things indeed, but not in the sympathetic sense; poor specimens of Humanity!

I'm quite certain you will all be shocked, shocked!, to learn that Norman wasn't just allowed to sink back into anonymity. She, her family, and in time the country riled themselves up about tawdry secrets carefully hushed during the trial itself. More ink was spilled when a woman resembling her was seen in, um, compromising circumstances for the day. But Child defended her in every forum against all charges and, in the end, it was her success that allowed Norman to vanish from the public records.

Which fact, in and of itself, tells me that the verdict of Not Guilty was indeed right and just. Absent her own words expressing her own thoughts on the subject, I believe her complete vanishing arrests, no documentation of criminality...tells us she was just an ordinary woman who wanted, and ultimately was able to, live an ordinary life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

THE QUEENS OF ANIMATION, very much a factual and tendentious read

THE QUEENS OF ANIMATION: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History

Little, Brown
$29.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Queens of Animation, bestselling author Nathalia Holt recounts the dramatic stories of an incredibly influential group of women who have slipped under the radar for decades but have touched all our lives. These women infiltrated the all-male domain of Disney Studios and used early technologies to create the rich artwork and iconic storylines that would reach millions of viewers across generations. Over the decades—while battling sexism, domestic abuse, and workplace harassment—these women also fought to influence the way female characters are depicted to young audiences.

Based on extensive interviews and exclusive access to archival and personal documents, The Queens of Animation tells the story of their vital contribution to Disney's golden age and their continued impact on animated filmmaking, culminating in the record-shattering Frozen, Disney's first female-directed full-length feature film.


My Review
: I didn't start this book as a Walt Disney cultist. In fact, quite the opposite...I know about his obnoxious labor practices and frankly was unsurprised at his appalling gender politics, both generationally as well as personally...but WOW. The details of what happened to Bianca Majolie are, in a word, repugnant. (And it's really played to the hilt for nastiness in the book...there's no certainty that it happened as written because it's not from the horse's mouth, as it were.)

And yet he hired Mary Blair, an extraordinarily gifted artist; he hired Majolie (though apparently fired her so fast she figures in the bulk of the narrative not at all), and Grace Huntington, Retta Scott, Sylvia Holland...all of them who were guilty of Working While Woman in the Disney snakepit of the 1930s and 1940s, at least were working. Most wouldn't have been considered in other animation studios, and all needed the paychecks. Quite a lot of deadbeat dads through the generations. Single moms will work for less because "this is beneath me and you're not paying me enough" means nothing to a hungry kid.

One area where Author Holt did her subjects proud was the mind-bendingly complicated process of animating a feature-length film. She stints not in the telling and retelling, through memories of the women she's interviewed, the pre-computer days and the zillions of tiny steps required for the simplest movements to come to life; the brain-meltingly detail-oriented task of creating and assuring continuity of backgrounds; compositing, editing, oh my Muse of Painting, and Dance, and Epic Poetry, the lists and lists and it really is all necessary for you to know! It is! And not paying attention isn't gonna work because you will be so lost without it, this detailed information....

What the women who worked on Fantasia and Pinocchio and Bambi all did is quite incredible. These classics are what they are, and have the impact they all have, because all or most of the women Author Holt tells us of were doing the work of many men. The men who, when tasked with creating fairies or flowery bowers, whined that this was girls' work so give it to the girls. The upside to their childish idiocy is that the scenes are stunningly beautiful and now, at long last, we know who really did the hard, tedious, and ultimately gorgeous work of bringing sensitivity and glorious beauty to the screen.

There are moments when this "at last we know" technique gets used against one of the women. Mary Blair, a white lady, comes in for some finger-wagging because she failed to stop The Song of the South from being the appallingly racist and stereotype-churning horror that it is. Um...Author lone woman, already fighting at home and at work to survive and get to the next paycheck, is kinda sorta gettin' a pass for not adding Civil Rights Campaigner to her resume. At least from me she is.

And what was the reward for this work, absent the credit they merited? A fat paycheck? Oh hell no, Disney was a cheap bastard (which is one big reason his labor force wanted to unionize and even forced a studio shutdown!) with everyone except himself. And the women were underpaid accordingly. Yeah, they had jobs; no, they had no respect or credit; and then, on payday, they got less than the men around them did. It's enough to make you into a wold-eyed revolutionary with a taste for capitalist-bastard blood!

It did me, anyway.

Author Holt has a Ph. D. You've read one of her other best-selling books, most likely: Cured: The People who Defeated HIV and Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. She's written for every major outlet for science news and popularizations of complicated non-fictional topics: The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, Slate, Popular Science. This is one helluva resume to bring to the topic of women's lives and work. You'd be excused for expecting the organization of the material in this book to be faultless. But it isn't.

Bianca Majolie, mentioned above, gets one (possibly sensationalized) passage; some passing mentions for her music selections and their, um, responses; and a closing anecdote about how she found out she was fired. None of those things were close to each other, none were made much of, and now I'm left wondering who the lady was. I know the most about Mary Blair, because she had serious horsepower and a steely inner something that made it impossible for her to go unheard forever. She is, however, the character...the others are a collection of one-off stories and the occasional halftone photo. (There is a modest glossy photo insert. Given what these women did, surely there had to be some not-copyrighted-by-Disney something to show other than personal photos and an ID card issued by Disney! I think there were three artistic-ish photos. This is, however, pretty minor hence the parenthesis.)

I alluded above to the details Author Holt included about animation and its labor-intensive nature; the role of technology in creating animated films is astounding as a story of development. The 1930s labor movement wasn't wrong, in this case, to holler about machines taking people's jobs. And Author Holt, science popularizer that she is, does not downplay the personal consequences of automation in animation. Nor does she neglect the beauty that the animation freed artists to create, or the benefits to production schedules and thus to our childhoods' aesthetic development. You might not think of it, unless prompted, but a large part of what seems beautiful to you is probably down to one or more Disney films seen in childhood.

Honestly, I find that chilling...but Mary Blair and her fellow animators, while not paragons of socialist virtue, were at least fine artists and possessed of enough soul to make the worst of Disney's early excesses less awful than they could have been. Author Holt is a fair and reasonable guide to the ins and outs, the ups and downs, and the sheer astounding virtuosity and verve that Disney, at its height, gifted the world with. That the people involved in creating it were flawed is undeniable, despite decades of denial.

One of the most tendentious passages in the book is also one with which I am in complete agreement:
The rise of women in the workplace, no matter what side of the world it occurred on, was frightening to some men, and they approached the perceived threat much as toddlers would a monster under the bed—by crying about it.

It's a bitter, nasty sentence. It's uttered with the unattributed authority of A Truism. And it is, by all that's unholy, inarguable on any evidence I am aware of.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

CLEAN: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less, does too much therefore too little

CLEAN: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less

Riverhead Books
$14.99 ebook editions, available now

MAY 2021 UPDATE $2.99 on Kindle now!

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: One of Smithsonian‘s Ten Best Science Books of 2020

“A searching and vital explication of germ theory, social norms, and what the modern era is really doing to our bodies and our psyches.” —Vanity Fair

A preventative medicine physician and staff writer for The Atlantic explains the surprising and unintended effects of our hygiene practices in this informative and entertaining introduction to the new science of skin microbes and probiotics.

Keeping skin healthy is a booming industry, and yet it seems like almost no one agrees on what actually works. Confusing messages from health authorities and ineffective treatments have left many people desperate for reliable solutions. An enormous alternative industry is filling the void, selling products that are often of questionable safety and totally unknown effectiveness.

In Clean, doctor and journalist James Hamblin explores how we got here, examining the science and culture of how we care for our skin today. He talks to dermatologists, microbiologists, allergists, immunologists, aestheticians, bar-soap enthusiasts, venture capitalists, Amish people, theologians, and straight-up scam artists, trying to figure out what it really means to be clean. He even experiments with giving up showers entirely, and discovers that he is not alone.

Along the way, he realizes that most of our standards of cleanliness are less related to health than most people think. A major part of the picture has been missing: a little-known ecosystem known as the skin microbiome—the trillions of microbes that live on our skin and in our pores. These microbes are not dangerous; they’re more like an outer layer of skin that no one knew we had, and they influence everything from acne, eczema, and dry skin, to how we smell. The new goal of skin care will be to cultivate a healthy biome—and to embrace the meaning of “clean” in the natural sense. This can mean doing much less, saving time, money, energy, water, and plastic bottles in the process.

Lucid, accessible, and deeply researched, Clean explores the ongoing, radical change in the way we think about our skin, introducing readers to the emerging science that will be at the forefront of health and wellness conversations in coming years.


My Review
: There are three books in here. Any one of them would be very interesting to read sequentially; simultaneously, there is too much and too little information on each topic. I'm interested in all three books...history of "cleanliness", politics of "health", and research into the existence of astonishing worlds we haven't been able to see until quite recently...but am satisfied by none of them in this busily overstuffed and distracted narrative.

These quotes should tell you why the topics interest me:
He explains that if you really wanted to kill all the bacteria on your countertop, you’d have to leave a disinfectant (like Clorox) in contact with the surface for ten minutes. The product isn’t “killing 99.9% of germs” in the way that anyone actually uses it—a quick wipe-down. This was, both in concept and in practice, misguided. And the magnitude of its effects on our lives is now starting to become clear.
Public-health advocates are pressuring the FDA to ban parabens in products sold in the U.S. The European Union did this in 2012—but the economic influence of industry on regulation in American politics makes this unlikely.
When we clean ourselves, we at least temporarily alter the microscopic populations—either by removing them or by altering the resources available to them. Even if we do not use cleaning products that specifically say they are “antimicrobial,” any chemistry applied to the skin will have some effect on the environment in which the microbes grow. Soaps and astringents meant to make us drier and less oily also remove the sebum on which microbes feed.

Because scientists and doctors didn’t have the technology to fully understand the number or importance of these microbes until recently, very little is known about what exactly they’re doing there. But as this new research elucidates the interplay of microbes and skin, it is challenging long-held beliefs about what is good and bad.

Any one of those statments by itself contains multitudes and is deserving of solid, sustained attention. They're not really given space to get that solid, sustained attention. This is by design: The book is written to be a popular-science title and is marketed as, then what's that political anti-industry bit doing in there...? (And I am by no means pro-industry, remember: "Capitalism sells nothing so effectively as status" is music to my increasingly leftist ears.)

Even the chemistry bit, about the Clorox, is played for scares. "It doesn't work the way you're using it!" Nonsense. It works fine. The world isn't an operating theater, your kitchen and bathroom do not need to be germ-FREE they need to have fewer germs overall. The fluids and aerosolized solids present in the average dwelling-place would, if they were visible, cause most Westerners and more particularly Americans to collapse into screaming meemees. The point of cleaning is to keep the loads manageable for our immune systems, not create sterile bubbles. So the industrial concerns are promoting an unattainable, not to mention undesirable, end when they tell you their bleach kills 99.9% of germs? Umm...maybe hold off on tossing that bathwater. The scares outweigh the nuanced analyses in this regard.

The stuff about microbes and mites and the astonishing colonial organism that is our skin was what I came to the party ready to learn about and to kvell over. The fact that we *are* learning about the biology of our bodies outweighs, to me, the many ways that knowledge is flawed in its use.
Some of the most cutting-edge research is coming from people funded by or working directly for companies that are developing products to sell. There are few experts one can talk to who don’t have money in the skin care game.

Am I a naive oldster to believe that, uses be damned, the edge is still cutting? There are so many ways improved hygiene has improved lives via scar-tissue and skin-grafting research and the concomitant research into skin's many functions that it's hard for me to get exercised about Purell. Especially in the Plague Year.

Well, enough of that. There are points that the author makes which are, in my observation, largely unconsidered, disregarded, or wrongheadedly opposed:
We may not be doing a lot to change our biomes by showering less, but by conceptually getting over the idea that microbes are bad, we might consume less and use less of the antimicrobial products that do indeed create microbial “superbugs” that threaten all nonmicrobial life on Earth.
The best advice right now is to think of hygiene as similar to medicine—extremely important in some scenarios, and also very possible to overdo.
From pharmaceuticals to soaps and other personal care products, Americans are clearly overpaying for—and overusing—products and services that are supposed to make us healthier. The pattern of consumption is unsustainable, and much of it may be doing more harm than good.

This is an amusing read, packed full of good information, and as such deserves the attention of the general reader. Don't go into the read expecting to be more than backgrounded, not educated, and it will repay you with much food for thought.

Me? I wanted more of what the subtitle sounded like it promised but didn't deliver.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Marguerite Duras, Literary Legend: Sea, Sex, Ennui

I discovered the joys of reading Marguerite Duras after I began working for John Calder at Riverrun Press in New York. It was a fabulous fringe benefit indeed.
(tr. Barbara Bray)
Open Letter Books
$12.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A young man on holiday in Italy walks out on his mistress and meets Anna - a beautiful, enigmatic woman who lives on a great white yacht. Anna is rich, and her life is entirely occupied with searching for her lover, the sailor from Gibraltar. She takes on the young man temporarily as her lover, and recounts to him the story of the sailor. The young man accompanies Anna on her search - a journey which takes them to France and Africa - even into the heart of the jungle. Slowly, love grows between them, and the sailor becomes not an impediment but an excuse which allows their love to flourish. Yet they exist in a state of suspension - for the sailor may always turn up to claim Anna.

My Review: A lush, louche, languid read about a woman who can't be bothered to make up her mind what to do with all the world's goods. A rich American, a bored French dude, a yacht, and Africa. It went straight to my head like any cocktail with too many ingredients will. The hangover was Calder's lack of desire to reprint and sell it...I wanted to tell people about how cool it was.

Give it to your COVID-addled college-age nephew to scratch the itch for adventure safely and vicariously.


(tr. Ann Lenore Derrickson)
Out of print
$14.00 and up

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: “There are no vacations from love….”

In this careful translation from the French novel by Marguerite Duras, five Parisians spend an interminable three days of their vacations at a dreary Italian beach resort. There is nothing to do but talk, drink bitter Camparis, and contemplate (or perhaps consummate) a love affair or two. As the days wear on, they imperceptibly change some of their beliefs, from “For some time I have not liked the idea of changing the world at all costs” to “But certainly it is necessary to change the world,” concluding with “There are no vacations from love….Love, it is necessary to live it completely with its boredom and everything; there are no vacations from that.”

My Review: Not for the young. It is brutally frank and unspeakably cruel. It possesses itself of, in, a kind of soporific addictive ennui that someone who has never been in love with an other for a long time can dare to conjure, still less enact.

This is the burden of the book's refrain:
“There are no vacations from love,” he said. “That does not exist. Love, it is necessary to live it completely with its boredom and everything; there are no vacations possible for that.”
He was speaking without looking at her, facing the river.
“And that is love. To distract yourself from it, one cannot. Like life, with its beauty, its shit and its boredom.”

If that frightens you, read it; if it confuses you, don't.


(tr. Barbara Bray)
Grove Press
$16.00 all editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

MAY 2021 UPDATE $1.99 on Kindle!

The Publisher Says: A man hires a woman to spend several weeks with him by the sea. The woman is no one in particular, a “she,” a warm, moist body with a beating heart—the enigma of Other. Skilled in the mechanics of sex, he desires through her to penetrate a different mystery: he wants to learn to love. It isn’t a matter of will, she tells him. Still, he wants to try . . .

This beautifully wrought erotic novel is an extended haiku on the meaning of love, “perhaps a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe,” and its absence, “the malady of death.”

My Review: Women are the bitterest, cruelest, most reductive misogynists known to Humankind.
You say she mustn't speak, like the women of her ancestors, must yield completely to you and to your will, be entirely submissive like peasant women in the barns after the harvest when they're exhausted and let the men come to them while they're asleep. So that you may gradually get used to that shape molding itself to yours, at your mercy as nuns are at God's. And also so that little by little, as day dawns, you may be less afraid of not knowing where to put your body or at what emptiness to aim your love.


(tr. Barbara Bray)
Out of print
various prices

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Emotionally charged, sparsely written, and vicariously compelling, Marguerite Duras's novel centers on the desire of a young man for another man he has only glimpsed once, but with whom he falls desperately in love.

My Review: To be honest, it felt to me like this was a book whose existence was not to entertain others but to codify and clarify Duras's sense of women's interchangability to men. Men LOVE and with a weird intensity in all Duras's stories of whatever stripe. But the objects of their love, their obsessive needy desperate addiction, can...shift.

All the way to gay, in this book. But what does he do, our impassioned and exquisitely aesthetic lover? He seeks and finds a woman who looks like His Man and talks about it to her.

Very, very French. And it's in a squalid, down-at-heel seaside resort. Very, very Duras.

I believe this could very easily be the most profound idea Duras ever uttered in her novels:
She says people ought to learn to live like them, with the body abandoned in a wilderness, and in the mind the memory of a single kiss, a single word, a single look to stand for a whole love.

PERSEPHONE STATION, seven-eighths perfect noir space opera, one-eighth perfect lesbian SF

Saga Press
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Hugo award-nominated author Stina Leicht has created a take on space opera for fans of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop in this high-stakes adventure.

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.


My Review
: Okay...see...the trouble I've had with publishing this review has been the fact that there are two books here. One, the one you've seen advertised, is a noir space opera with a lesbian/non-binary cast. That book is *fabulous* and I get all verklempt and must retire to the fainting couch when I realize just exactly how hungry I've been for this exact combination of storyteller and story told for my sixty-plus years on this planet.

Then there's a different book, a truly terrifying anti-capitalist cli-fic tocsin rung in your damned scatty ear, demanding that you pay fucking attention to the simple, selfish way you're making your decisions because the planet's just about had it with you and me and the guy behind the tree. It's giving itself a fever to burn out the goddamned infection that's harming it.
As inhospitable as Brynner was, the rest of the planet was far worse, with storms ranging across thousands of miles of landmass and winds of 135 knots or more. The areas not regularly engulfed in severe weather were plagued with hostile life-forms.

I like both books, but telling you about one without mentioning the other...and I've seen plenty of reviews either miss this crucial pont or simply decide to belt up about it...despite the fact I fear you'll now think this is another eat-your-kale book with long-faced Prognostications spoken by Archetypes and ending in DOOM! or worse, ending in Savior-Rescue-Sunshine-Lollipops-and-Rainbows!

Author Leicht has labored mightily practicing her craft for more than ten years, been Hugo-nom'd, and is of finer stuff than that. What is here is a story that will pound your pulse and sweat your brow without rolling your eyes.

Now. What's so hard about that, you're wondering? A lot, let me assure you. Author Leicht is not unknown to me, and I am lucky if I hear from her should I say something she finds stupid or offensive about her work...which, I hasten to add, isn't untrue even of authors to whom I am as unknown as dark what to do? Mention the apparently-stealth aspects of the read and suddenly find myself unfriended, or go along with the herd?

Well, you're readin' it, so here's to hoping I don't screw stuff up too terribly.

My major grouse is simple. What's feminist about this read? Why, in 2021, should I find it in any way remarkable that a woman is a warrior, a leader, a badass? My mother left her husband, took three jobs, and supported me in 1960s Texas. I am not unacquainted with double-X badassery. Anyone who's witnessed a birth knows how warrior spirit comes to children from the women who bore them. So...lesbians? Is that it? I grew up with lesbian grandma-equivalents, a couple who were Together for most of the twentieth century. Lived together, stayed together, were quietly but obviously the South!

A thumping good read, this book; but feminist? How?

That said, let's look at the world. Persephone Station barely enters into the story, but the planet is...fascinating, yes, but also maddening because *I*WANT*MORE* around how the central surprise about the way it works is accomplished and sustained. I want more about the Emissaries, and I want more about the unusual health effects of the Serrao-Orlov Corporation's primary target. Wouldn't the quality of immortality-tied-to-place rather make the whole thing less attractive? But the sheer joy of Angel realizing she's been played but knowing *why* in the same moment, and entering the conspiracy of silence willingly, can't be overstated. It is an frequently fallen into trap for authors to forget that readers invest in the main character's world-view. Not so Author Leicht. Angel's betrayed, yes; but this betrayal she goes along with and therefore I felt comfortable doing so, too.

And space opera dudes? Your worries about this being all talktalktalkfeelingsfeelings are unfounded. The action scenes are...wait for it...killer good. Angel's a disgraced member of a warrior clan who takes nothing about her strategy, her tactics, or her weaponry for granted. That means you can't, either. And that is a good thing in a space opera. The downside of that is that there isn't room for smexytimes. Of the two things, I can find smexytimes in about a trillion places and I can find lesbian-led SF in under a dozen.

My last observation is about the AI in this book...the Forbidden Being. A woman's body inhabited by a rogue AI, one that's developed sentience and emotional intelligence of a sort, is possibly the most SFnal thing in the book. We've gone beyond Robot, readers. The entry of this character into the book is a turning point. Our space opera finally has an alien. (The Emissaries are cool...they aren't terribly alien, they want what people want.) The way the AGI (as it's known in the book) inserts itself into human affairs often made me think of the paranoid QAnon people who believe in the Deep State hoo-hah...they should love this, I smirked to myself more than once...but in point of fact, it's not far-fetched at all. That was a moment for pausing and reflecting....

Whatever else I can say is a development of the theme "whyever is anyone surprised that women write good, solid SF that centers women as leaders and warriors and do it with panache", so here endeth the lesson. Go buy the book.