Thursday, September 30, 2021

THE ANTIDOTE FOR EVERYTHING, a charming romantic story with much-needed humor

Berkley Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In this whip-smart and timely novel from acclaimed author Kimmery Martin, two doctors travel a surprising path when they must choose between treating their patients and keeping their jobs.

Georgia Brown’s profession as a urologist requires her to interact with plenty of naked men, but her romantic prospects have fizzled. The most important person in her life is her friend Jonah Tsukada, a funny, empathetic family medicine doctor who works at the same hospital in Charleston, South Carolina and who has become as close as family to her.

Just after Georgia leaves the country for a medical conference, Jonah shares startling news. The hospital is instructing doctors to stop providing medical care for transgender patients. Jonah, a gay man, is the first to be fired when he refuses to abandon his patients. Stunned by the predicament of her closest friend, Georgia’s natural instinct is to fight alongside him. But when her attempts to address the situation result in incalculable harm, both Georgia and Jonah find themselves facing the loss of much more than their careers.


My Review
: This is, apparently, one of my reviews that got struck because of the actions of someone truly cowardly and contemptible. No matter now! Their claws have been pulled, which is a thing I wouldn't even do to a cat.

When Georgia, a kind-hearted and very busy doctor, flies to Amsterdam to a conference, she is gifted by the universe with a hot guy, Mark, to have a vacation romance with. The problem is she's got a world of distracting trouble at home that impacts her found family, most especially her gay BFF Jonah. The solution is for Jonah to pack up and join her (and Mark) in Amsterdam.

As they're doctors, this doesn't strain credulity. They can afford it; they're neither one married or even involved (except Georgia's thinking about Mark that way and is wondering if he is too). The time they spend playing together in Amsterdam is illuminating...and you just know what will come of that when they get home! Mark's cool with Jonah the gay BFF, and with Georgia being herself. In fact, he's just a really, really great guy. This is always a good sign!
“I see,” Mark said, a perplexed look on his face as they all took seats. Georgia and Jonah did that to people sometimes: the syncopated rhythm of their speech, their obvious closeness, the unadulterated fun they had in each other’s company—all these things had bothered previous boyfriends of both of them, even though neither of them, of course, could possibly present as a romantic rival. But Mark didn’t seem threatened, just alert. He shifted his attention back to her.

All fun must end; all good things come with hideously high price tags, if the small-souled religious jackanapes have anything at all to say about it. And, in South Carolina where Georgia and Jonah practice medicine, they certainly do:
“That’s a widely held misconception, that science and religion are incompatible,” she said. “And if you’re Southern and religious, everyone assumes you’ve got the brainpower of an amoeba and you fit in socially somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.”


"I've read the Gospels," she said, pausing, "word for word, and I feel strongly that Christ would not have said to me, 'Suffer unto the gays urinary retention; but everybody else can see the urologist.'"

I absolutely adore that line. It's so exactly and precisely accurate, true, and a devastating rebuke of the misuse of Religion from within the church! I know it's a no-brainer...but I am enraged at this (fictional; barely) nightmarish homophobic, transphobic, heinously unchristian use of their stupid religion's *actual*expressed*foundational*tenets* at every turn. That's what elevates this read above the herd and makes me wish I could push it at more people.

Another facet of Georgia (and, to my surprise, mega-rich-guy Mark) is the anti-materialist commonsensicality of them both:
Here she was, primed for action, and stuck with nothing to attack except a herd of smug Danish modern sling-back chairs the color of a polished acorn.


She beckoned toward a mohair-covered daybed, strewn with cashmere throws in various flaming colors: fuchsia, orange, lime. “This could take a while. Why don’t you join me on the divan? I’ll make cocktails.”

“This thing looks like a crayon factory vomited on a cotton ball,” he said, but, obediently, he removed his suit jacket and flopped onto the mohair concoction.

It's a lovely little grace note...not only does Georgia not check her brain at the church door, she doesn't fall for the blandishments of the overpriced and underdelivered "luxury goods" industry. Mark, we're told, is a businessman with a track record of success, so it makes a little less sense to me for him not to use the glossy surfaces of things to advertise it...but I will gladly accept Author Kimmery's decision.

What happens as a result of this authorial decision is that, as the stakes pile up and begin to form the auto-da-fé pyre, I am deeply and intensely invested in it all. I am not going to tell you anything I wouldn't've wanted to know going into this read: There's serious and disgusting amounts of sexism, homophobia, and deeply toxic patriarchal masculinity that gets weaponized against both our main characters (and thus, in Mark's eyes, against him too). There's a lot of soul-searching and conversation that ponders the real costs of the kind of stupidity and hatred that passes for "politically conservative morality" (in reality not political, not conservative, not moral):
In this day and age, people believe whatever fits with their worldview, no matter how strong the evidence against it is.


"The only thing that matters—the only antidote for discrimination and corruption and every other evil that plagues our society—is integrity. Behaving with honor. Shining a light on the truth. Not gaming the system to suit your . . . aims.”

There's a lot to unpack in those sentences. I am always surprised when someone writes down and gets published what I've been saying in my head for a long time. It's definitely happened here.

The way this book ends is, suits the story. I think it should tell long-time readers of my reviews everything they need to know when I say I forgot to count the w-bombs Author Kimmery dropped on me...I forgot to notice them after two or three. I was that deeply and passionately involved in this well-told tale of what Family means, of how Faith should look, and what Fairness demands.

Definitely recommended reading.

Monday, September 20, 2021

AWAKE, Pliny the Elder's final days writ large

(tr. Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen)
New Directions
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In a shuttered bedroom in ancient Italy, the sleepless Pliny the Elder lies in bed obsessively dictating new chapters of his Natural History to his slave Diocles. Fat, wheezing, imperious, and prone to nosebleeds, Pliny does not believe in spending his evenings in repose: No—to be awake is to be alive. There’s no time to waste if he is to classify every element of the natural world in a single work. By day Pliny the Elder carries out his many civic duties and gives the occasional disastrous public reading. But despite his astonishing ambition to catalog everything from precious metals to the moon, as well as a collection of exotic plants sourced from the farthest reaches of the world, Pliny the Elder still takes immense pleasure in the common rose. After he rushes to an erupting Mount Vesuvius and perishes in the ash, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, becomes custodian of his life’s work. But where Pliny the Elder saw starlight, Pliny the Younger only sees fireflies.

In masterfully honed prose, Voetmann brings the formidable Pliny the Elder (and his pompous nephew) to life. Awake is a comic delight about one of history’s great minds and the not-so-great human body it was housed in.


My Review
: First, read this:
Sex can be either play or labor, depending on the participant's role and reasons for taking part, but as we have eliminated the category of play, there is only one option left. Sexual activity can only be defined as a kind of labor, and all participants would do well to strive for the superior work ethic of the slaves who know they must endure it. You won't hear them cursing and fuming and acting out whole other are trying to nap—trouble springs from the perceived masters of the situation, who trust that their ejaculation, under the right circumstances, is for pleasure, and never realize that their urge is but earthly slavery imposed on them.
It's different with women. I would not go so far as to suggest that women are more shameless than men as several examples of the female pudicitia exist, but perhaps their shame os more general, shame felt on behalf of an entire species rather than the indivivual alone. Even as they indulge their shame and allow themselves to go mad with desire for bloodspattered gladiators and dusty donkey herders, it can hardly be considered personal.

It flows from there....

Pliny the Elder, a titanic figure in Western culture for his unbelievably vast (and hubristic, if you ask me) effort to contain a description of all of Creation in one encyclopedic work, is here in his subligaculum. It's a wry, ironic character who addresses us. It's not, however, a recital (perish forbid! he did poorly at those) but a polyphony of perspectives on the topic "privilege."

What the novella does at its best is bring the reader that quiet, deeply personal glow of happy recognition, that connection to the character we seek so often fruitlessly in less meditative works. What the novella does not deliver, nor in my opinion does it promist to do so, is Action. Pliny the Elder is, well...elder...when we meet him. He's suffering from what sounds to me like congestive heart failure. He's lost interest, such as he had to begin with, in the pleasures of the flesh and even the world. He's forcing himself to remain connected to the suffering planet because he does not yet KNOW EVERYTHING and that is an intolerable pain.

As someone who believed that finishing a book a day for decades would enable him to read All The Books, this is a delusion the pain of losing which I can relate to in a deeply personal way.

The other voices in the polyphony are his priggish, licentious nephew Pliny the Younger, whose very sneering judgments of his uncle are mercifully kept short...I wouldn't have been able to endure too much more of the rotten-souled grasping whoremonger!...and his slave Diocles, a youngish Greek scribe whose hands are worn out and blistered in copying Master's words as he emits them...all while he dreams of mounting, well, anyone. He can not focus on the raspy reedy wheezing bloviations of fat old Gaius Plinius Caecilius for long, not unserviced as he is! And Master is surely dying, he won't miss that silver ewer but Diocles will miss the services the professionals will give him for it!

I think of Pliny the Elder as the lunatic whose curiosity got him killed in Pompeii's eruption. Author Voetmann is a more subtle man than I can aspire to become:
I certainly do not believe that life is so valuable it must be prolonged at all costs. You who are of the opposite opinion will die nonetheless, even if your life has been prolonged by perverse acts and abominations. Therefore, let each take the following to be the soul's greatest remedy: Among all the gifts which nature has bestowed on man none surpass a timely death, and the best thing is that anyone can procure it for himself.

"Perverse acts and abominations" indeed....

This slim book comes out tomorrow, heralding the translations (at last! this is a 2010 publication!) of the other two parts of "his trilogy about mankind's inhuman drive to conquer nature," as the publisher's promotional material says. It also says this short work is at times wildly unpleasant, well actually Claire Messud said that in Harper's, but it's oddly true. The reason I say oddly is that the book's prose is never aiming for vulgarity or puerile transgressivness. It is aiming, insomuch as that feat is possible, for the world-view of man dead for almost 2,000 years rendered as comprehensible as it's possible to be...there's much of credulousness, pompously pooh-poohed in Pliny the Younger's tiresomely superior interpolations, in Pliny the Elder's worldview. His memories of Novum Comum's lake-side rituals were particularly the topic of scorn...his gardens in Tusculum, the ones Pliny the Younger swears he failed to catalog, are the source of an anecdote that sounds half-remembered and half-repurposed by the angry younger man.

I prefer to remember Pliny the Elder thus:
Greetings, Nature, mother of all things, and deign to give me your favor, I am alone among Romans in praising you in your every expression.

He loved what he possessed, and it pained him not to possess Nature utterly.

Let that sink in.

Friday, September 17, 2021

SAVING PROXIMA, a real rocket scientist tells a first-contact story


Baen Books
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A message from space leads to a desperate race against time and across space to our nearest stellar neighbor in a new hard science fiction thriller from Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson.


The year is 2072. At the lunar farside radio observatory, an old-school radio broadcast is detected, similar to those broadcast on Earth in the 1940s, but in an unknown language, coming from an impossible source, and originating at an equally impossible location—Proxima Centauri. While the nations of Earth debate making first contact, they learn that the Proximans are facing an extinction-level disaster, forcing a decision: will Earth send a ship on a multiyear trip to provide aid?

Interstellar travel is not easy, and by traveling at the speeds required to arrive before disaster strikes at Proxima, humans will learn firsthand the effects of Einstein’s Special Relativity and be forced to ponder the ultimate questions: Are we alone in the universe? What does it mean to be human?


My Review
: What you need to know right up front is that the authors are actual rocket scientists. So, even when there's disbelief to be suspended (the planetary science of Proxima b isn't likely to stand up to a planetary scientist's scrutiny), it's made as easy as possible to suspend.

What made me want to read the book in the first place is Author Taylor's Aughties appearances on The Universe and the like. He's got a likable way about him, and clearly understands his subject well. That and a co-author with whom he has a lot of collaborative writing experience led me to expect I'd get a second helping of the character types I'd enjoyed from an earlier collaborative book of theirs (see below). He adds his very definite personality to the stories I've read by this team. I can hear his voice as I'm reading.

As to the story, I found some parts easier to accept than others. I wasn't convinced by the means they explained away our long-term SETI searches missing the Proximans. And now, suddenly, exactly when Earth tech is stretched-but-capable of making the trip, the Proximans make themselves known? Hm. I am allergic to such high doses of handwavium....

Anyway, the story's a good old-fashioned saddle-up-and-ride tale of interstellar derring-do. I liked the science that the middle third of the book handed to us in abundance, so I don't think of it as an imposition or an infodump. For me, it was involving and intriguing. What was permaybehaps not quite so effective was the ending. I don't think it's a huge spoiler to say that the mission to Proxima b is a success...would the title be SAVING Proxima if it failed?...and that there is a reason the Proximans are so very readily able to understand us, to relate in so many ways to Earth people. The notion of panspermia is ripe for exploration in what I confidently predict will happen, ie a sequel. There's no promo for it in this book, but it honestly would be a rotten trick to play on the readers not to give us one and a poor use of the well-loved set-up if the Baen folk don't!

In my never-remotely humble opinion, this read's success depends on you. If you're in the mold of traditional sci-fi readers, those who enjoy the adventure of space travel and the science that underpins it, then this is your book. I am numbered among you, so it was mine, and I enjoyed the heck out of the read.



Baen Books
$6.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Realistic thriller crackling with action and danger as an asteroid threatens the Earth, and dedicated astronauts and scientists try to save the planet.


It's the beginning of a new golden age of space exploration. Finally, humanity is taking the commercialization of space to the next level—mining asteroids. The new gold rush of the commercial space era has begun.

Another commercial venture, an attempt to put a hotel on the Moon, is seeking the space tourism gold of the ultra wealthy. And it seems as if the dream of finally sending people to Mars is finally going to happen using a ship propelled by a powerful nuclear rocket.

But space travel isn’t cut and dry, and there is nothing routine about it. In order to mine an asteroid the goal is to bring it closer to Earth, but orbital mechanics are tricky and close to Earth proves to be far too close for comfort—with looming destruction from space about to become a grim reality. Now astronauts, scientists, engineers, and people in all the burgeoning space businesses must team together to stop the asteroid before it is too late for humanity and the planet it calls home.


My Review
: The authors wrote this book five years ago and here I am reviewing it at was the SpaceX launch of Inspirati④n that brought it back to mind. I can honestly say that the Gold Rush into space has begun with Inspirati④n and its all-civilian crew. And that's the basic premise of this book: A crew of space capitalists are screwing with an asteroid in order to get the riches it contains close enough to Earth to profit from when it all goes sideways. Scientists and engineers and some seriously brave astronauts are going to fix what greed broke (if they can) and, in case you thought that wasn't a big deal, the situation if they fail will be Chicxulub-y. Well, maybe not *that* bad but nasty enough for it to matter a lot that it not happen.

I think my favorite thing about the read was the fact that there's never, and I mean this literally, ever a moment without action. The story is full-throttle adventure and would make a terrific film to supplant Armageddon at last. The authors are, in their day jobs, rocket scientists. They do not bring their B-game science to the table. But, unlike Saving Proxima above, there's not extensive explication in this book. Some science talk, I'd've been disappointed if there wasn't any, but not as much as above. To be expected...the problems to be solved aren't those of serious long-distance relativistic travel.

I'm not politically aligned with the authors, and that is noticeable. I think the Chinese rogue agent is a single mustachio-twirl away from being Dr. Fu Manchu. Since I grew up reading Golden Age sci fi, I'm pretty adept at filtering that into background noise. Luckily for me, it did not form a *huge* part of the narrative. Of course not at all would've been better....

Feminists...women in general, persons of Chinese descent, and my more vocally progressive friends are strongly cautioned. This isn't like Thanksgiving with your MAGA uncle. It's like ice-water tea with his wife. Quieter but still Very Very Sure They're RIGHT. One area where I think we can all agree is that the authors strongly disapprove of cutting corners out of greed. I'm not all the way convinced that Business can solve problems...but the action's great, the story's one I suspect they'll be hailed as prescient for writing, and sometimes one (this one, anyway) needs a solidly crafted action narrative. And here it is.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

SLEWFOOT, Brom's latest tale of unease and injustice

SLEWFOOT: A Tale of Bewitchery

Nightfire Books
$29.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.


My Review
: Maybe it was the teen angst. Maybe it was my allergy to Villains Without Nuance. Maybe I'm just getting old.

I don't like this book much. I should...spooky dos in Puritan times? folk horror? Revenge?! yes please...and I think I might have if I hadn't taken against Abitha so very strongly. Adolescents whose sense of themselves as Right and Hard Done By aren't enjoyable companions for an entire book. I felt Abitha's difficulties with Authority were period appropriate...totally bought that she was justifiably angry with the entire male world...but she comes across as a modern woman. Then when Slewfoot-the-character wins her over with no effort? He's an innocent, albeit one with tremendous Powers, and Literal goatly horns. But Abitha just...accepts. It strained me to buy into that.

I'm not insensitive to the appeal of the Other to those trapped in rigid, conformity-enforcing social milieus. But Abitha's ready acceptance of this, um, extremely Other that resembles the goat we meet her losing...and she even calls him "Samson" after the didn't scan for me with a seventeenth-century woman. Not even one whose upbringing was as peculiar, her mother a root woman and her father a drunken sot, as hers was.

My most favoritest thing is the animate Forest that Slewfoot (he has other names throughout the story, all of which carry their own shades of meaning and of humor) cohabits with, that has re-summoned Slewfoot from a liminal state to deal with Forest's concerns about its future. (I loved Jesus Thunderbird's name for it carried so many levels, from a beautiful butterfly to a scary demon via an early American novel about the Noble Savage slur. A quick trip to the internet will give you literal *hours* of perusing pleasure.) Perhaps the most unsettling of Brom's illustrations is the one he made for Creek:

It's perfect, it's unsettlingly Other, and completely relatably familiar all at the same time. What's missing here is the essence of Creek's Wrongness, Otherness...scale...Creek is tiny and looks like that. Sweet dreams!

These being hallmarks of Brom's works, and the source of my relatively high rating for a book I wasn't all the way in sympathy with, so I was rolling along fine until...the torture porn began. Abitha and her mother, women accused of witchcraft, were in for a bad time. I accepted that. But I was revolted by the deeply prurient recounting of the torments meted out to the women, guilty as charged by the lights of the community they lived in though ambiguously so in modern eyes. They transgressed...they paid dearly for it...
"I want to burn them to the ground, All of them. All of it. Their church, their commandments, their covenants, their riles, edicts, and laws, their fields, their homes, and most of all their fucking bonnets and aprons. I want to hollow them out, make them know what it is to lose everything, everything, to lose their very soul!"

Nothing in this life comes for free...the bigger the ask, the bigger the price. There is more truth than you can fully know in the ancient adage, "Be careful what you wish for lest the answer be Yes."

Monday, September 13, 2021

INSEPARABLE, a never-before-seen novel by Simone de Beauvoir

INSEPARABLE: A Never-Before-Published Novel
SIMONE de BEAUVOIR, intro. by Margaret Atwood
(tr. Sandra Smith)
Ecco Press
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3 trepidatious stars of five

The Publisher Says: A never-before-published novel by the iconic Simone de Beauvoir of an intense and vivid girlhood friendship

From the moment Sylvie and Andrée meet in their Parisian day school, they see in each other an accomplice with whom to confront the mysteries of girlhood. For the next ten years, the two are the closest of friends and confidantes as they explore life in a post-World War One France, and as Andrée becomes increasingly reckless and rebellious, edging closer to peril.

Sylvie, insightful and observant, sees a France of clashing ideals and religious hypocrisy—and at an early age is determined to form her own opinions. Andrée, a tempestuous dreamer, is inclined to melodrama and romance. Despite their different natures they rely on each other to safeguard their secrets while entering adulthood in a world that did not pay much attention to the wills and desires of young women.

Deemed too intimate to publish during Simone de Beauvoir’s life, Inseparable offers fresh insight into the groundbreaking feminist’s own coming-of-age; her transformative, tragic friendship with her childhood friend Zaza Lacoin; and how her youthful relationships shaped her philosophy. Sandra Smith’s vibrant translation of the novel will be long cherished by de Beauvoir devotees and first-time readers alike.


My Review
: First, read this:
Madame Gallard had indulgently told Mama the story of Andrée’s martyrdom: the cracked skin, enormous blisters, paraffin-coated dressings, Andrée’s delirium, her courage, how one of her little friends had kicked her while they were playing a game and had reopened her wounds. She’d made such an effort not to scream that she’d fainted. When she came to my house to see my notebooks, I looked at her with respect; she took notes in beautiful handwriting, and I thought about her swollen thigh under her pleated skirt. Never had anything as interesting happened to me. I suddenly had the impression that nothing had ever happened to me at all.

All the children I knew bored me, but Andrée made me laugh when we walked together on the playground between classes. She was marvelous at imitating the brusque gestures of Mademoiselle Dubois, the unctuous voice of Mademoiselle Vendroux, the principal. She knew loads of secrets about the place from her older sister: these young women were affiliated with the Jesuits; they wore their hair parted on the side when they were still novices, in the middle once they’d taken their vows.

Here is a world limned in a few lines...we're given the vast scope of the world surrounding the small, claustrophobically so it will turn out, world of our story, and it is utterly impossible to look away from it.

Simone de Beauvoir was a master of the craft of storytelling.

Author de Beauvoir did not write solely for women, of course, though she deliberately treated subjects of importance to women. But, by her choice of this wildly romantic subject matter, it does not hurt to be deeply identified with women to obtain the fullest impact of the story. I acknowledge that it's simplistic to say that, to be fully satisfied with a deep dive into an adolescent passion, one would most likely need to be a woman. I am not alone in holding this reductive opinion, though, if one simply goes by the marketing materials of similarly-themed work. I am aware that this generalization will cause irritation and displeasure among significant parts of a book by Simone de Beauvoir's audience. But the subject matter limits the appeal, even if that's not the case with her writing. No criticism of her writing is really possible for me, as I have read translations of her work only; the most I can say is that, based on the pervasive beauty of the phrase-making in the work of de Beauvoir's I've read, the likelihood of her own creation being other than beautiful is very low.

That said, at some risk to my Comments section's peacefulness, I don't think the book should be down-rated for that quite piffling (if explanatory of the comparative dearth of male reviewers looking at it) quibble. The consensus of critical opinion comes down on the side of this work's value and beauty being high:

  1. Deborah Levy in The Guardian brings up the story's main thrust: "The enigma of female friendship that is as intense as a love affair, but that is not sexually expressed is always an interesting subject."

  2. Tatiana Nuñez in Los Angeles Review of Books says pithily, "Interestingly, the novel’s title is invoked not to show how close the girls are but rather how little they understand each other and, by extension, how difficult it is to be known, even by someone you love and with whom you want to share yourself."

  3. Merve Emre in The New Yorker reveals, "Sylvie’s feeling for Andrée as they grow up is not just love; it is a transcendent love, the love by which all other loves must be defined and judged."

  4. Publishers Weekly's unsigned review states baldly, "The trailblazing feminist writes bracingly of the complexity of female friendships. Beauvoir’s mastery of fiction further demonstrates her bravura."

  5. Normally phlegmatic-to-dour Kirkus Reviews' anonymous reviewer quite piercingly laments, "It is heartbreaking to think of the author, with her brilliant, incisive mind, absorbing Sartre's casual misogyny the way the tragic heroine of this book absorbs the narrow-minded values that destroy her," then gives the book its deeply coveted star.

So who the hell am I, a little nobody book-blogger with a few hundred faithful readers (hi y'all! thanks for coming!) AND that most unpopular of things, a (supremely cisgender) man, to say, "she was right to keep it in a drawer"?

Author de Beauvoir's fame stems in part from her long, convoluted, complicated Grand Passion for/with Jean-Paul Sartre. Much of what she said and why the Establishment of her day paid her to say it stemmed from his fame. Hers was a reflected fame during her lifetime; it is the modern world's absence of desire to continue to privilege men before women that has led to de Beauvoir's words increasingly being considered on their own quite considerable merits. Her critical reception is ever less bound to her relationship with Sartre. The brightening light of Fame she shines now is increasingly her own, independent of any other's existence or accomplishments. This is, to my mind, exactly and precisely as it should be; this is a development deeply to be desired and one that deserves celebration.

Margaret Atwood's Introduction to this edition of the book, excerpted at Literary Hub, reads in part:
Without Zaza {the Andrée character in the book}, without the passionate devotion between the two of them, without Zaza’s encouragement of Beauvoir’s intellectual ambitions and her desire to break free of the conventions of her time, without Beauvoir’s view of the crushing expectations placed on Zaza as a woman by her family and her society—expectations that, in Beauvoir’s view, literally squeezed the life out of her, despite her mind, her strength, her wit, her will—would there have been a Second Sex? And without that pivotal book, what else would not have followed?

Furthermore, how many versions of Zazas are living on the earth right now—bright, talented, capable women, some oppressed by the laws of their nations, others through poverty or discrimination within supposedly more gender-equal countries? Inseparable is particular to its own time and place—all novels are—but it transcends its own time and place as well.

Read it and weep, Dear Reader. The author herself weeps at the outset: this is how the story begins, with tears. It seems that, despite her forbidding exterior, Beauvoir never stopped weeping for the lost Zaza. Perhaps she herself worked so hard to become who she was as a sort of memorial: Beauvoir must express herself to the utmost, because Zaza could not.

So, I find myself in august company on the one hand...agreeing with Author Atwood entirely on all the above yet dissenting from the essential context of this Introduction to Inseparable. I don't think Author de Beauvoir is well-served by the publication of this slight and unenlightening tale.

I could go through some reasons I felt this way. I'm not a scholar, though, so no one who disagrees with me would fail to point out that fact with their (possibly) unspoken subtext being, "...and I should care what you think about this work by a monadnock of Feminism and Existentialism because...?" I will confine myself to this observation: "How is Sylvie's utter, consuming passion for Andrée, that so obsesses her and fascinates her that we-the-reader have little to no sense of Sylvie's essential being, any different from Simone's for Jean-Paul?"

I did not enjoy this fictionalization of the essentially destructive and rigidly confining nature of romantic obsession nearly as much as I would have had I seen some glimmer of recognition of that destruction and confinement's consequences for the subject...and, by not-very-great extension, the author.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

THE 1976 CLUB...not a title, an Event

I periodically participate in the Internet-wide read-and-review year-based "Clubs" that some book bloggers do. This one coming up is The 1976 Club.

First Alfred A. Knopf edition, 1976
I decided to read Marge Piercy's feminist SF time-travel classic, Woman on the Edge of Time. It's been on my TBRadar since ~1977, has come so close to being read that I have purchased it at least twice, but somehow hasn't made it to the top of the pile...until now. If not for Neglected Books, Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, and Simon from Stuck in a Book (linked above), who knows when/if it'd ever have happened.

                                   My 2016 Del Rey Books edition
So, anyone else want to try something from 1976? Look at your library on your cataloging site (on LibraryThing, a free site, you can sort by copyright dates!). Wikipedia has a handy-dandy listicle of "notable" things published that year; the various awards given all have their honorees listed by date, eg the World Fantasy Award lists annual winners at this link and it includes multiple categories! There's no reason to limit a/some/all the novel(s)/story(s)/poem(s) on the Pulitzers list, or any other list of Awards/Prizes/Medals given in 1976 at the Awards Archive.

This is a chance to read something unexpected, read something new to you, read something exactly like/opposite to your usual preferred length, category, genre. Or embrace your guilt, choose something you already own that was published that year. Do it, in other words, however the heck you want...and still have a special time period to do it in (or by, if you read slowly)...with as many or as few others you'd like to tell about this fun Internet Event.

Sounds pretty much can't-lose-ish to me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

THE MATTHEW VENN MYSTERIES: THE HERON'S CRY second of Ann Cleeves's "Two Rivers" mysteries

(Two Rivers #2)
Minotaur Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
Kindle edition on sale for $2.99

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: North Devon is enjoying a rare hot summer with tourists flocking to its coastline. Detective Matthew Venn is called out to a rural crime scene at the home of a group of artists. What he finds is an elaborately staged murder—Dr Nigel Yeo has been fatally stabbed with a shard of one of his glassblower daughter's broken vases.

Dr Yeo seems an unlikely murder victim. He's a good man, a public servant, beloved by his daughter. Matthew is unnerved, though, to find that she is a close friend of Jonathan, his husband.

Then another body is found—killed in a similar way. Matthew soon finds himself treading carefully through the lies that fester at the heart of his community and a case that is dangerously close to home.

DI Matthew Venn returns in The Heron's Cry, in Ann Cleeves powerful next novel, proving once again that she is a master of her craft.

Here's Author Cleeves reading a piece of this book in the landscape in which it's set.


My Review
: While I'm a fan of Author Cleeves's writing, I'm also a fan of her mystery chops...the way a story comes together from the bits and bobs she makes it out of. In this entry into the Two Rivers series, DI Venn has murders and suicides and some extremely upsetting issues to deal with.

Oh, and his husband invited the Gorgon who gave birth to him, then rejected him for being queer, round to theirs for her birthday. Sunday roast, yorkie puds, cream-embellinshed birthday cake...champagne even!

How he didn't pass out from the stress I do not know.

But family drama is always good for a mystery. Put three families under stress and, multiplies. In this book, in most approved Cleevesian fashion, we see Lucy and Maurice from the book before; we visit several beauty spots marred by tragedy; Jonathan goes whole-hearted and unthinking into best-friend mode when he should stop and think a minute; Matthew, well, he thinks himself into many corners and gets out when Jen and Ross need him to fix things for them.

And, in the end, when the deaths are finally apportioned to their causal agents, he's there to be thanked by those who have lived and cursed by those whose guilt was narrowly revealed. Jen, god bless her cotton socks, is a good friend. And Ross, a seriously bratty entitled goofball, might be salvageable yet. A bit like Sandy in the Shetland mysteries, it's not like he's a bad person just bad at self-control and self-reflection.

But possibly the most grim and revolting parts of this death-fest are not to be spoiled. I want y'all to experience the, to me at least, appalling and nauseating manner in which some people choose to conduct themselves without any prior warning. When you come across the information I'm referring to, you will know immediately. To my disgust, this is not something Author Cleeves dreamt up. It is a very real thing. It just...words can not do justice to the *fury* it inspires in me. I had to research the reality of it, and then re-write my review several times before I realized I can't say anything at all about it.

I hope it goes without saying that you are never, ever alone if you need help with suicidal ideation or emotional crisis. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline fields calls 24/7 for anyone with suicidal thoughts or who are in crisis. You could also get US help by texting "HEAL" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Web searches for other countries return the same kind of information in seconds. Take that action before taking any other actions. Please. It can not be said often enough: That investment of mere seconds can do you no harm.

I'm sure there are many out there who, like me, very much appreciate the severity of the mental health crisis in the world today. This story is one that will cause a goodly number of its readers to think about issues that they might not wish to think deeply about...but really very much should. I hope the way the story is told will help you, if you're simply unaware of it, to process the delicacy of the hold many people maintain on their relationship to life. Please, even if you think you know, check on the reality of those in your orbit who strike you as troubled.

(And Ross gets off too easily in the end!)

Monday, September 6, 2021

THE MATTHEW VENN MYSTERIES: THE LONG CALL starts Ann Cleeves' new "Two Rivers" mystery series

ANN CLEEVES (Two Rivers #1)

Minotaur Books
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five



The Publisher Says: In North Devon, where two rivers converge and run into the sea, Detective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his estranged father's funeral takes place. On the day Matthew left the strict evangelical community he grew up in, he lost his family too.

Now, as he turns and walks away again, he receives a call from one of his team. A body has been found on the beach nearby: a man with a tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death.

The case calls Matthew back to the people and places of his past, as deadly secrets hidden at their hearts are revealed, and his new life is forced into a collision course with the world he thought he'd left behind.


My Review
: Don't you hate being Right? It's the police's job, though, isn't it; they have to be Right or the consequences are so dire for so many people...innocent people who don't know their trust has been abused.

And that's why we read mysteries! They're ma'at in action, aren't they? Small demonstrations that when our Negative Confessions come before Osiris, Hapi won't need to open those toothy crocodilian jaws and end our existence. And I'm using ancient Egyptian examples for a very specific reason.

Matthew Venn is a new series character for mystery veteran Cleeves, she of Vera and Jimmy Perez (Shetland) fame. She's chosen England's most beautiful county (and her own native ground), North Devon, for her setting. She's decided the twenty-first century's not going to take her down without a fight, so Matthew's gay, and a lapsed member of one of the seemingly innumerable weirdo strict-constructionist christian sects. His involvement in matters churchly having perforce lapsed when he came out, he doesn't have contact with his former friends despite being back among them in his posting as a Detective Inspector. He does have a lot of community ties, though, as he's married to the man responsible for the local arts-and-social-services venue.

And now that sense of place is established....

Murder and maleficent doings are afoot.

People who are possessed of money mistake its power for their own. They imagine that, because they can push money into open palms, they're the ones with Power. But the only ones without money, but who want it, are the only ones whose hands are open enough to close their minds, their eyes, their hearts. Those who don't care, whose worlds don't revolve around the money-god, are a sight more open to concerns that aren't important to the obsessed.
He was a man who’d turned his personal likes and dislikes into a moral code; because he didn’t enjoy spending money in the Woodyard cafe, there was something morally suspect about the people who did. The Brethren had been much the same. Matthew thought they’d created a God in their own image, hard, cold and inflexible.

It's this dichotomy that Author Cleeves mines for the plot of this tale. It is about power, and its abuse, and the only person who won't stay quiet about it is the one whose hands aren't outstretched for more, but in finger-pointing accusation. The moneyed, the influential, can't have that and they rally around the problem of their own positions, their absolutely justified and necessary access to More.
Looking at the assembled group, the families and the ardent young converts, Matthew had had a sudden understanding, as the early evening sunshine shone through the dusty glass, a vision close to a religious experience: this was all a sham. The earnest elderly women in their mushroom-shaped hats, the bluff good-natured men – they were all deluding themselves. They were here for their own reasons, for the power trip or because they’d grown up with the group and couldn’t let go.

It's such a shame that some Others must die to maintain it.

As always, Author Cleeves will lead you a merry chase and make your head spin with information you think could be important but...and then there's...what's her stock in trade. All those Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez novels aren't accidental! But here's my beef with this all Author Cleeves' work, there is a startling amount of sexlessness here. Matthew and Jonathan aren't even allowed a cuddle (British sense) on the page...there's no suggestion of sex in any of her books. Of the healthy sort.
All night, he’d been aware of Jonathan sleeping beside him, motionless, the gentle breaths not moving his body. Jonathan had a gift for sleep that Matthew envied more than anything. More than his husband’s easy confidence, his courage, his ability to laugh off hurt and insults. Now Matthew was alone in bed and that rarely happened. Usually he was the first up.

And that continues here. I quite strongly wish she'd move past this, what? reticence? distaste? whatever it is because this is new territory for her. These are the first gay people in her books! Use this freshness as a chance to stop pathologizing sex. Matthew needs Jonathan's comforting bodily presence as any husband who's just been through a physical and emotional ordeal would. But he isn't granted it. And it's true none of her other sleuths are, either, which is why I'm bringing it up now.

When Matthew's police work results in a resolution for this case that I must say I dismissed as improbable when it occurred to me, I was surprised. Author Cleeves brought in motives I didn't expect. She made me think, hard, about how she'd placed her tells and her Maguffins. If that isn't a sheer, unadulterated pleasure for an old, experienced bird-dogger, I don't know what is.

Book two of the series comes out tomorrow! You *will* want to get one. It's a new-series Cleeves could you possibly resist?

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

DEER SEASON, debut novel from seasoned short-fictioneer runs Life through her paces


University of Nebraska Press/Flyover Fiction
$21.95 all editions, available today

#University Press Week celebration! For the rest of the year, until 12/31/23, University of Nebraska Press's entire catalog is available for 50% OFF. Enter coupon code 6HLW23.

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s the opening weekend of deer season in Gunthrum, Nebraska, in 1985, and Alma Costagan’s intellectually disabled farmhand, Hal Bullard, has gone hunting with some of the locals, leaving her in a huff. That same weekend, a teenage girl goes missing, and Hal returns with a flimsy story about the blood in his truck and a dent near the headlight. When the situation escalates from that of a missing girl to something more sinister, Alma and her husband are forced to confront what Hal might be capable of, as rumors fly and townspeople see Hal’s violent past in a new light.

A drama about the complicated relationships connecting the residents of a small-town farming community, Deer Season explores troubling questions about how far people will go to safeguard the ones they love and what it means to be a family.


My Review
: Have you looked at the cover image of this book? Go on, get your nose up to the did you notice the shape of that "D" in "Deer"? There's a clue in it.

Author Flanagan, no stranger to the "Flyover Fiction" series with two story collections in it, here gives us her first novel. It's set thirty-five years ago in a rural place that, in our own time, has doubtless vanished entirely. Farming being the corporate endeavor it is now. This time, the one we're inhabiting in this novel, feels like something from a Russian novel with peasants and kulaks and tsars in their palaces so far above us. Actually, it's just families farming land they'd inherited and living lives they don't feel embarrassed by.

The major event of the novel is the disappearance of teenaged minx Peggy Ahern. The rampant drinking culture of the area and era was the source of the problem...Peggy, too smart and too young to control it yet, was in the habit of sneaking out on weekends to partake of the big, wild world of the after-hours partying at Castle Farm. You know, as practice for when she'd be off at college.

But one fine night...the one before her little brother's going to be confirmed in the Lutheran Church, no less...she doesn't come home to have her hangover in her bed. And days go by. She doesn't come home; she isn't Found; and the town decides that Hal Did Something. Hal, big and nice-looking but sadly with an intellectual incapacity, has about an eleven-year-old's scope to understand the world. And an adult man's body, and an adult man's needs; without the wherewithal to get context of Peggy's flirting, or realize when he was going too far in responding to her. As he does for the first time at a town picnic. In front of everyone, including Peggy's drunk father.

But Alma and Clyle step in, as usual. They are his de facto parents and they, as has been their habit for a decade or more, disentangle him from the worst of the consequences. They took him on when he was still in high school, and really into their family, partially because they could never have kids. They're in their late fifties, so a twenty-eight-year-old man-child is the right age and, though Alma would bristle at the idea, his absence of adulthood soothes an ache left from desiring motherhood and not being given it.

Now, the town that Clyle isn't much inclined to leave but Alma genuinely despises is in formation against Hal, their only family, their changeling chick, and despite their staunch stance in support of him they begin to wonder. After all...temper and strength of a functioning social sense...pretty girl he fell for when she flirted with him....

There's a long, slow road to follow, like driving on the noisy gravel roads of the area, to get to the deeply saddening and utterly infuriating resolution to the plot. But you already know: Hal will never, ever be free of the stain of Being A Suspect. Rightly or wrongly accused, accused is enough. In the end, the resolution to the disappearance is...curiously irrelevant. Secrets get unburied in hearts that just don't open that easily. Words are said, the kind that never heal, the kind that have to lacerate for the pain to find a way out. But the world changes every day, and how many times do we get to look that change in the eyes as it comes at us? To decide, yes I will do this or no I can't be that any more. To use the horror of a life-altering misery for good; to sluice the life-long wretchedness of old and dirty hurts out.

Those moments are, and I expect all y'all know it, rare, and horrible, and greatly to be treasured.

What Author Flanagan does with this story is to make the inevitable a damn sight more high-stakes for everyone than it usually is in real life. Milo, the preteen brother, is the one who quietly and completely revamps his life. Alma and Clyle are old, but there's no need to die before you lie down! Their souls, despite never getting what they wanted, still the world after the crisis is resolved (and the resolution made me so goddamned mad I screamed at the book) takes a deeply familiar form.

It's a funny old thing, fiction, it lets us work through our bitterest disappointments safely. It doesn't promise it'll be fun. In the case of this novel, the satisfaction of the plot's resolution is mostly schadenfreude. I know some people think there's a Sanctity about Motherhood, but I am decidedly not among them. I don't think Author Flanagan is, either. This is her third book, though first novel, all in the "Flyover Fiction" series. Her two story collections, 2013's It's Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories, and 2005's The Usual Mistakes, all have mothers without maternal credibility in them.

I can't give the book all five stars because there are so many w-bombs dropped that I've got sleaze-shrapnel in every single one of my eyes. I don't enjoy stories with as much helplessness as this one made me feel...the fact is that from the moment we learn Peggy's disappeared, we know there can't be a Happy Ending...but this story's not about the ending. It's about the ways and means of putting a life together when you don't have a single solitary scrap of hope. It's about loving someone enough to be sure they have dinner when you'd like to brain them with a rock. It's about what happens when you can not even try one more time, then you get up and do the chores because they don't do themselves.

I would strongly encourage you to read it, to get your eyes into it. The way the world is today, we need this example of making the effort because there's work that needs doing inside, outside, betwixt and between. And Author Flanagan (her penchant for w-bombs aside) does this with assurance and in a style replete with the smallest pleasures of being in this world of the senses.