Book Review: DERVISHES

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Dervishes by Neal Starkman seems to be equal parts beat novel, radical feminist ethnography, and discarded Woody Allen script with a dash of someones’ physics dissertation thrown in as a garnish. It had a decidedly John Barth-esque quality to it.

The book is structured as the diary of a one Carolyn Anderson: assistant physics professor in Seattle currently facing a crisis in her professional life when her research funding dries up. Carolyn, in a fit of teenage cheekiness, dubs her diary “Lady Di.” The entries are conversational; an ongoing back and forth between Carolyn and her silent foil. Lady Di is a good listener and gives Carolyn the space to dig up her old war wounds. At the time she starts diarizing, Carolyn identifies as a lesbian, but she uses much of her diary to excavate her relationship with Philip Lester, a former lover with whom she never quite got the closure she needed.

In the mode of Woody Allen, the book tries to weave together philsophizing and blase comedy. Sometimes, as with an anecdote about a wayward crab on a beach excursion that starts horrifying and ends bittersweet and funny and revealing a humanity about Philip I didn’t think would ever get revealed, it works marvelously. Sometimes it doesn’t. Always, it’s ambitious.

The philosophical questions that the book wrestles with—that Carolyn and Philip and Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, wrestle with—are largely questions of identity and authenticity. To what extent, Philip asks, can one be truly authentic when one pins one’s identity on the prattle of others? If you say ‘I am X’ (a lesbian, a feminist, a socialist, a professor) to define yourself, and take on the trappings of that group, then you buy yourself some comfort from thinking. You buy yourself an in-group. But what is the cost of that?

Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, is a radical lesbian, and she veers the other direction. For her, everything is the movement, the community. If you are not fully bought into that, Stephanie seems to feel, then what’s the point? What are you contributing?

Carolyn spends the book spinning between these two extremes. And they are extremes, each as equally misinformed as the other. Philip’s myopia about groups and affiliation leaves him more and more isolated. His insistence that he might be a man, sure, but his refusal to engage with what having been raised as a man and what living in the world as once means drives a wedge between him and his beloved Carolyn as she develops more and more of a feminist consciousness. Stephanie, on the other hand, takes things as given which should not always be taken as givens, and her reluctance to ask questions leaves Carolyn suspicious.

This is, all in all, a curious book. I love that it’s voice is Carolyn’s—a lesbian scientist, someone who is not perfect and does not pretend to be, someone who struggles and questions herself and those around her. But I wish that Carolyn herself had been more front and center. She too often faded into the background for me; though it’s her book, her story, and her diary, it often felt like she was reporting on what other people did around her. And in specific, though she was a lesbian, much of the text was devoted to the autopsy of her relationship with Philip, poor doomed misanthropic unlikable Philip, who all too slowly mansplains his way right out of her life.

Some of this can be attributed to Carolyn herself, perhaps. Maybe she perceived herself to be more passive than she really was. It’s her diary, after all, and there is room to interpret her as an unreliable narrator. But that could also be wishful thinking on my part. I wanted her to take her life by its reins. She does so at the end, but over and over we watch, as ‘Lady Di’, trapped as this brilliant woman (she has a doctorate in physics, come on) gets pushed and pulled this way and that. Her inner monologue as it’s poured out to her diary is acerbic and sharp. I wanted her actions to be as acerbic, as sharp.

But, still, there’s much in the book worth liking. The characters are well drawn—though I would’ve liked more time with Stephanie to have fleshed her character out more. Generally I am wary of men writing from women’s perspectives, but Starkman was a pleasant surprise. Carolyn felt authentic to me.

3 stars

Book Review: THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING

thegirlwhowouldbeking

Kelly Thompson’s THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING is a strange little book. Slim and quick, the book follows a pair of young women who stumble upon ancestral god-like powers. The pair exist as a fixed duality: Bonnie Braverman is the good one, and Lola LeFever is the bad one. The book switches between their perspectives as both grapple with their newfound abilities.

This book is one part homage to and one part send-up of superhero cliches. There are dead-parent-origin-stories and mad-cackling-at-oddly-named-henchmen. There are several explosive fights between the hero and the villain. This book has the strengths and the weaknesses of its specific genre, and for my money, it falls prey to a common issue: the villain ends up being so much more interesting than the hero that I ended up rooting for the wrong character.

I gave this book three stars, and if I’m honest, it’s because I’m splitting the difference. Bonnie’s sections were a two. I found her flat, two-dimensional. She is an example of “goodness” reading as lacking in depth or complexity. She starts at least a little interesting: when the book opens, Bonnie is a silent seventeen year old living in a group home. She’s been in the system since she was six, when both her parents died in a car crash which she instinctively knows is somehow related to her shocking strength and speed. She stops speaking. She becomes a ghost in her own life, and then the power grows and pushes her to intervene, to protect the people around her. And then she . . . gets a boyfriend. And starts speaking. And works a quirky bookstore job and makes a quirky bookstore friend and becomes less and less interesting with each page. The fact that she spent literal years in silence is not addressed. The feelings of displacement and uncertainty she seems to feel from being an orphan and ward of the state clear up right quick. It is possible to write an extremely good character who is also very compelling and idiosyncratic (see Atticus Finch or Minerva McGonagall) but Bonnie is not that character.

Standing in sharp contrast is Lola. Her story opens with a carefully plotted matricide. Her voice is immediately funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and the clumsy-witty sharpness of it does not let up once in the book. Her sections were a pleasure to read. The entire book is written in a stream-of-consciousness-lite first person-present tense, but Lola’s sections held much more immediacy and urgency than Bonnie’s did. Even as she falls prey to standard villain killers—madness, a moment of misplaced mercy, hubris—her voice remains distinct and arresting.

Honestly, though, what drew me so much more towards Lola’s narrative than Bonnie’s is that Lola’s is, deep down, an abuse narrative. It’s about Lola trying to make sense out of what she is and how she was treated and why she was treated that way. Replace “superpowers” with “mental illness” and basically you’ve got my childhood (without the matricide). Lola’s story encapsulated a lot of questions I’ve spent my adult life asking myself: if my abusive parents and I share genes, but they also raised me, then what parts of me that are messed up are because it’s encoded in me and what parts are scars left over from all those years in that house? How could I possibly untangle that? Where is that fine line between compassionate acceptance of my flaws and permissive self-enabling of my destructive tendencies? If history has repeated itself for generations—my great-grandmother abused my grandmother who abused my mother who abused me—then is it even possible to break that cycle? Lola reminded me of myself at eighteen, fresh out of a crappy home life and trying to posture and swagger into a better version of myself without realizing all the posture and swagger were the worst things about me.

She is a deeply real character, finely realized, and desperately tragic. I ended up rooting for her because in real life I rooted for myself. I kept hoping Thompson would subvert the Big Trope and pull a fast one on me—I very much wanted Lola to emerge as the good one, to have a redemption, to become sane and stable. That is not what happens. Well, she gets a redemption, of sorts, but it’s a hollow one. All in all, the GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING is a standard by-the-numbers retelling of superhero tropes with one truly standout character.

3 stars

Book Review: THE SCAR

thescar

China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag is a strange, fascinating, massive place. THE SCAR, the second of Mieville’s trio of Bas-Lag novels, starts the story in New Crobuzon, where PERDIDO STREET STATION took place, and then quickly moves out to explore far, exotic corners of the world. The worldbuilding, this organic exploration, represents the best part of THE SCAR.

THE SCAR takes place immediately after the events of PERDIDO STREET STATION. The fallout from PERDIDO STREET STATION sets the plot of THE SCAR in motion: the New Crobuzon militia is rounding up all of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s known associates. Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac’s, flees the city before they can get to her. She learns an arcane language and secures a place on a ship bound for Nova Esperium, a fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. She plans to lie low in the colony for a few years until the heat dies down. She is forced to run, but Bellis is certain it’s temporary.

Bellis’ plans are ruined when the Terpsichoria is taken by pirates.* The ship is boarded, the commanding officers are shot, and the ship is comandeered. The pirates steer the Terpsichoria to Armada, a legendary city of stolen ships adrift in the Swollen Ocean. The remaining crew and passengers of the Terpsichoria are absorbed into Armada’s population, given housing and jobs, but are told in no uncertain terms that they can never leave the floating city. Some, like Bellis, are horrified. But there were others on the boat who don’t mind so much. Tanner Sack, a Remade man grotesquely punished for a crime by a magical reshaping of his body, was on the ship as a prisoner sent to Nova Esperium to serve as slave labor. While the press-ganging robs Bellis of her freedom and agency, to be treated as any other citizen, to be paid for his work, gives Tanner Sack his dignity back and wins his loyalty in the process.

Armada is the real star of the book. The story is primarily told through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack, both new to the city and press-ganged, but the heart of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue and the obligations those in power have to those they are supposed to serve. Armada reads as a real place, with a real economy. It’s a parasitic city, but it’s a living, breathing place. The factions that make up Armada spar with each other, try to undercut each other, and ultimately coexist to keep the city alive. Mieville’s descriptions of the city itself, from the way comandeered ships are repurposed to become city parks and industrial areas and living quarters, to the petty rivalries between the city’s leaders, are endlessly fascinating.

Madness and greed exist in Armada, too, personified here as the Lovers, the rulers of Bellis’ district. The Lovers, a pair of scarred people whose codependence is both deeply disturbing and awe-inspiring, have conceived of an ambitious and dangerous plan which involves a sea monster, an ill-fated scientific expedition and quantum mechanics. The Lovers’ obsession horrifies and fascinates both Bellis and the reader, and ultimately endangers the city of Armada and everyone within it.

The book is well-paced and well-plotted. The worldbuilding is wonderful. The abstract concepts Mieville toys with here are interesting. But, ultimately, the book didn’t quite work. This was one of those rare books where I was totally in love with it at the start and slowly, inexorably fell out of love with it by the end. The reason was Bellis. I loved Bellis—I loved her misanthropy, her urgency, her cold, intellectualized take on the world. I loved having her as the dominant narrator. At the start of the book, Bellis was a breath of fresh air. Finally, here was a smart, remote woman lead who found her way through the narrative on her own. Truly, this felt like her story. In Bellis’ voice, Mieville exercises a degree of stylistic control rare for him. The writing was simple and smirking and evocative.

But by the end of the book, Bellis is utterly, completely stripped of agency. It was as if, over and over, Bellis had to be taught a lesson, had to be cut down to size. That Bellis turns out to have been the pawn of a half-dozen equally arrogant and willful men over the course of the book bothered me. It undermined everything I liked about Bellis, everything that was subversive about her in the first place. And, honestly, I thought Mieville was better than that. Bellis Coldwine is, more or less, the polar opposite of Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist of EMBASSYTOWN, which I loved. He writes Avice as a woman who is brilliant and decisive and who changes the fate of an entire world. She doesn’t really see herself as the driver of those changes, though she undeniably is. Bellis, on the other hand, believes herself to be doing things, making changes, and has that ripped away from her by the end of the book. That she wasn’t seems to be a thoughtless choice. Bellis is made a fool of and for no good reason. The book is still interesting and engaging, but Mieville’s misuse of her character was enough for me to realize that I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to or tried to.

3 stars

*Honestly, Bellis is a case study in terrible luck.

Book Review: SWEET THURSDAY

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John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday revisits the people and places of Cannery Row. Set after World War II, some of the cast of the Row has changed—Lee Chong has moved on, and his store is taken up by a clever criminal by the name of Joseph and Mary Rivas; the Bear Flag brothel is now under the care of a star-chart-reading madam named Fauna; while Mack and Hazel still remain at the Palace Flophouse, the rest of the tenets have changed over the years. The book is centered around the two biggest changes: Doc has gone to war and come home again, and a girl named Suzy arrives on Cannery Row. Both are wounded, stubborn, deeply lonely people, and the folks of Cannery Row take it upon themselves to get the two together.

As is typical for Steinbeck’s work, Sweet Thursday appears simple but is actually rather complex. It is, on the surface, a somewhat saccharine love story. It’s a love story mostly about how a woman can save a man, can fix him, which means that the love story is really about the man and much less about the woman. That’s one of my least favorite kinds of love story, frankly, which meant this book was not always what I wanted it to be or what I wanted to read. But a deeper reading makes this a weightier, darker book. This book is as much about redemption as it is about love. It’s as much about reconciling the past as it is about building a future. Doc comes back from the war changed—hollow and flat and listless and angry, or what we today might call PTSD-stricken. We don’t know what he saw in the war, but I’m sure it was nothing pleasant. Suzy shows up on the Row penniless and hungry, on the run from what is hinted to be a nasty failed marriage. She is angry and listless, too.

To some extent, this is a slapstick book. Steinbeck’s raucous, corny style of comedy is in play throughout. But counterbalancing that is a weirdly pervasive casual violence. Characters who seemed so gentle in Cannery Row, like Hazel and Doc, pick fights, break bones and nearly strangle others. Doc spends several pages literally enraging octopi to the point of death. It’s threaded through the book, start to finish, and I found it a little disturbing. Everything in the book reads like a desperate scramble to right things, to get things back to the equilibrium of the first book, both in the plot and in the writing itself.

Sweet Thursday is not Cannery Row—and I doubt it’s really trying to be, so while one is a sequel of the other it’s ultimately an apples-to-oranges comparison. It’s a different book: where in Cannery Row the characters were the backdrop and the place was the protagonist, the characters take center stage here. Sweet Thursday has a much more linear and traditional narrative plot, which, perhaps, comes as part of it being more about the people than the place. It is a good book on its own merits, but it feels unfocused. It feels like Steinbeck’s heart and his brain were trying to write two different books here, and he was never quite able to resolve those inconsistencies.

bookreview3stars

Book Review: DUST

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Dust is the final installment in Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga. In Dust the plot threads introduced in the Wool books and the backstory exposited in the Shift books come to their inevitable head.

I enjoyed Dust—I enjoyed it more than the Shift books but not as much as the Wool books. But after Donald’s three shifts, I was ready to return to where Wool 5 left off: Juliette, the renegade cleaner, has returned to her silo determined to break the truth about her world to her friends and neighbors. Juliette, probably the most intricately drawn character in the the Silo Saga, stays true to form. As a reader, I trusted her to explore, to push boundaries, and to eventually lead her people out of her silo, and she fulfills that promise. Howey, characteristically, makes it a Pyrrhic victory once again.

Dust ties together Juliette’s plotline and Donald’s plotline, which was prefectly fine but not all that interesting to me. The banality of knowing where the silos come from has consistently failed to generate my interest when compared to the cloistered, claustrophobic lives of the other silos’ inhabitants. The books work best for me when we see the ways in which an entire life in a silo shapes people’s minds: the way the scope of the world narrows and how shocking and incomprehensible it is to Juliette and others when they realize there is so much more world than they ever thought possible. Donald and the others in Silo 1 feel patronizing and unnecessary. Donald’s storyline is there mostly to push exposition along and to ratchet up the stakes, but honestly I think that the stakes would have felt higher if he had stayed a disembodied voice on the illicit radio.

The exposition he delivers never quite pays off. Dust falls prey to the same thing that kills so many spec fic series: it’s got a myopia about the nuts and bolts that obscures the narrative. Ultimately, many of the revelations—what the argon in the airlocks really is, the state of the earth just beyond the hills, Thurman’s Pact—left me unsatisfied. Juliette’s struggles really sing, and her strengths and weaknesses as a leader drive the narrative beautifully, but Dust stumbles over its own clever trappings too often for it to fulfill the promise of the first five Wool books. Not every mystery needed to be explained, and Dust suffered in its insistence in spelling everything out for us instead of focusing on the heart of the narrative.

bookreview3stars

Book Review: SHIFT (Omnibus)

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I was a couple years late to the Wool party, and the upside is that I didn’t have to wait to read the next installments in Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga. I finished the Wool books in bed and immediately bought the Shift omnibus on my kindle.

The Shift omnibus includes books 6, 7 and 8 of the Silo Saga: First Shift, Second Shift and Third Shift respectively. The Shift books functions as a series of nested prequels to the Wool books. Like the last three books in the Wool series, each of the Shift is structured around parallel or related narratives. Where the Wool books organized themselves according to location—Silo 17 or Silo 18—the narrative threads of the Shift books are separate by both time and space.

The titles of the books refer to the shifts of a man working in Silo 1, which controls and monitors the other forty nine silos. The people of Silo 1 were cryogenically frozen. Most are scheduled to be thawed back to life periodically for shifts six months long apiece. The Shift books track the histories of Silos 17 and 18 through the watchful eyes of one of Silo 1’s shift workers.

The Shift books have many of the strengths of the Wool—specifically the Howey’s sparse writing and knack for pacing. That said, without the dazzling newness of the worldbuilding Howey’s weak spots are weaker here than they were in Wool. The characterization tends to be thin throughout. The interpersonal complications outlined in Silo 1 have none of the heft or sharpness of life in the other silos, and the character whose shifts we follow is not fully realized enough to carry the books. The other figures in Silo 1 are sketched really just in relation to him, which leaves them one-note and flat. Given where Wool left us, Shift makes the mistake of squandering all that momentum instead of harnessing it.

bookreview3stars

Book Review: BORDERTOWN

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Bordertown, an anthology of short stories edited by Terri Windling, has the distinction of being both a sparkling example of a shared-world concept and was a hugely influential excursion into the genre that would become urban fantasy. Written in the 1980s, this collection of short fiction marries high-fantasy constructs (elves, magic, etc) with punk rock sensibilities. The conceit is as follows: a long, long time ago magic was part of our world. For reasons no one now remembers, the Elflands departed and took magic with them. The two worlds existed in parallel until, with no explanation, the Elflands returned. A city—Bordertown—sits on the weird boundary between our world and the world of faery, existing in a liminal stretch where neither human technology or elvin magic works with anything like consistency. Bordertown, like all other fascinating cities before it, attracts runaways from both sides of the border. The collection includes four short stories, each set in a different part of Bordertown and each written by a different author.

I’ve read Bordertown and most of its companion collections several times each.* I read them a few times through as an adolescent who was distinctly an outsider in my home town (you can read a little bit about there here). I read them again in graduate school when I began to write my own fiction in earnest. I am one of the many genre-addicted misfit kids deeply influenced by this collection. Were I reviewing Bordertown on reach or downstream influence alone, five stars would not be adequate. I say all that by way of caveat, because I’m going to review the book, instead, on the text itself.

Bordertown is composed of four stories—“Danceland,” a murder mystery set in a punk night club; “Demon”, a story which explores the intersections of elvin and East Asian forms of magic; “Exile,” a quiet little thing about a very peculiar elvin girl; and “Mockery,” a love story set that reads like a La Boheme homage. Together, the four stories provide distinct snapshots into the lives of the youth of Bordertown. There’s no direct connection between the characters, no overarching plot. It’s a survey of what it’s like to live in Bordertown in a particular moment in time, a survey with a particular focus on the runaways and the kids just scraping by. But, as a glimpse into those people’s lives, it’s strangely romantic. I made a similar critique of Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids; having known kids living these kinds of lives I can say with some certainty than not everyone makes it out in one piece. There are cursory nods to drugs and addiction, most explicitly in “Danceland”, but the most common and terrible outcomes of that kind of life, as well as the reasons substance abuse happens in those circumstances, are brushed neatly under the rug. Bordertown, for the people followed in these four stories, should be a much, much grittier place than it appears on the page. This is highlighted by the fact that a number of the protagonists we follow (with the notable exception of Michelle in “Demon” who inhabits a distinctly gritty and working class life) actually come from intact middle-class families either in the human suburbs on the edges of Bordertown or in the well-to-do elvin neighborhood uptown. These are kids, essentially, playing pauper. That’s a whole different ballgame than actually being a pauper. As such, the book dazzles us with its inherent coolness, a coolness I would like to point out still oozes from the pages, which is somehow not anachronistic in spite of how tied the book is to the decade which spawned it. Bordertown is escapist in nature. It’s exactly, precisely what I wanted to read when I was fifteen. Now I prefer a bit more nuance and realism in my fictional discussions of class in secondary universes, but this is pitch-perfect for the misfit teenager I used to be.

Taken separately, the stories are hit and miss. “Danceland” reads very much as the strong first chapter of a novel and less as a strong short story. And, indeed, the characters in “Danceland” appear down the road as protagonists in a couple of full-length Bordertown novels. “Demon” is an interesting conceit, but the writing left me flat—the author has a noticeable habit of head-hopping, or flitting between POV characters in a hard to follow and distracting way. “Exile”, I think, is the strongest of the bunch—it is the most grounded in simple emotional truths, it does a lot to explain and explore the foreignness of elvin culture through just a little insight into a elf girl cast out from her world, and it reads as a complete story populated by real people. “Mockery” I found overly long and overly romantic, but, my god, it influenced the hell out of me as a kid. Some years ago I wrote a novel which will never see the light of day, and that novel more or less completely ripped this particular story off wholesale. Yeah, my characters were musicians not painters (except one of them, extra oops) but the whole idea of very young and very talented and very wild kids living together and raising hell and changing things goddammit is stolen directly from this story. So, while I was less impressed by it this time around I will say that “Mockery” has a power to it.

Again, the influence of this collection can’t be overstated. Taken just on its own merits, though, I give Bordertown three stars out of five—it’s a book with a lot of heart, a lot of fearless gusto, but a book of short stories that could have used a couple more drafts.

bookreview3stars

*I own but have not yet read the most recent collection, Welcome to Bordertown. I felt like I should reread the past collections before diving into the new one, hence this reread.

Book Review: STEELHEART

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Steelheart, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy, is a terrifically plotted but flat book. It is fast-paced and intricate in its action, but it ultimately lacks thematic focus or characterization. And I am a reader that gobbles up deep characterization.

Steelheart takes place in a world where every superhero is actually a supervillian—imagine if every single X-Man was Magneto and you’ve got the gist of it. When a mysterious celestial body named Calamity appears in the sky one night, a handful of people begin to develop monstrous god-like powers. Some of the regular humans who remain are the Faithful, those who believe that eventually a good and heroic Epic will appear who will protect the weak and vulnerable unchanged humans. The hopes of the Faithful have been as yet unfulfilled: every Epic is a force of oppression and destruction. One of those Epics, an invincible man who goes by Steelheart, killed David Charleston’s father. David Charleston spends the subsequent ten years gathering information on both the Epics and the sole rebellious force of Reckoners—normal humans who assassinate Epics—in a personal quest to avenge his father’s death by taking out Steelheart.

What follows is some of the best written battle scenes I’ve ever read. Seriously, Sanderson wrote the shit out of those. There are also a pair of forseeable but well executed plot twists which set up the next books in the series. It is a decidedly readable book, and I fully intend to read the next two installments in the series. But this is not a book which will stick with me. The book itself suffers from the same pitfalls as the Epics themselves: it is one-dimensional, it has little heart, and it drives itself forward on force and momentum alone. The protagonist, David Charleston, is the latest bland installment of the plucky, scrappy kid looking to make good. He’s enthusiastic and clever and swayed by pretty faces and…that’s really it. The Reckoners come across as characters even less developed than David. There’s the scowling but very hot Megan who serves as David’s love interest and foil. There’s the soft-spoken giant Abraham who fixes things. There’s Tia, the cola-drinking researcher. There’s Cody, the peculiar Southern sniper*. And there’s Jonathan Phaedrus, called Prof, who is the remote and enigmatic team leader.

The problem with this—besides the fact that each of these are stock characters I’ve seen before and will see again with very little added—is that what should be differentiating details for this characters ring hollow. For a particularly egregious example, Cody, the Southern sniper, consistently misuses the word “y’all” throughout the text. For those of you who did not grow up in the South (and a cursory Wikipedia search shows that, indeed, Brandon Sanderson is a product of elsewhere), “y’all” is a contraction of “you all.” We use y’all to refer to groups of people, to indicate a collective or plural ‘you’. No one uses y’all when addressing a single individual. Except that Cody does this over and over and over again in the text. And for me, who is fluent in y’all, it was confusing as hell—I kept trying to figure out who the other person in the scene was. Take also the fact that before Calamity Phaedrus was a fifth grade science teacher who, despite his nickname (Prof), has no graduate training. Except that it is nigh impossible these days to teach without a Masters’ degree. All of this is to say that Sanderson was much more concerned with the cool lasers and gadgets (and they are very cool) which moved his plot forward than spending time getting the details of his characters perfect—and when those details are less than perfect what I, as a reader, was left with were a bunch of characters so lacking in dimensionality or realness that it was difficult to get emotionally attached to them no matter how fun the ride was.

bookreview3stars

*Note to non-Southerners: not every Southerner is a sniper, folks.

Book Review: EROS THE BITTERSWEET

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Eros the Bittersweet, by Anne Carson, is a short and curious set of essays about the nature of desire. That sentence alone captures very little of the scope and character of the book: Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet is a reflexive, paradoxical, expansive and narrow work. It is fine as filigree in its craftsmanship, and Anne Carson, as always writes in an easy, conversational, endlessly approachable style. It is, I can see, a great scholarly work, a great piece of thought, but it is unfortunately not a book I particularly enjoyed.

Let me explain. Anne Carson starts the book with a fragment of a poem by Sappho:

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up

The rest of the book is devoted to exploring what this phrase Sappho has coined—sweetbitter*, or as we more commonly refer to it, bittersweet—really means. Where does it come from? What is this dyadic, split experience we have of desire? Her explorations of the bittersweet nature of Eros take her through the lyric poets of Ancient Greece, through the novelists of Ancient Greece, through paintings, through ice, through insects, through modern novels. The breadth of sources Anne Carson marshals in her scholarly inquiry of Eros’ bittersweetness is sweeping. The point of desire becomes first flexible, then reflexive—what we desire, she argues, is the act of desiring. Then, she employs this lens to literature, to the alphabet itself, to the act of reading and writing. She poses the reader of a work of fiction as a lover (one overcome with Eros), but poses the writer of a fiction as a nonlover. The ideas are rich, endlessly rich. Sometimes the work borders on wordplay, but even then Anne Carson is a clear-eyed enough thinker that you go along with it.

Ultimately, though, what was most interesting to me about the book were the things it did not address. The whole frame of the book is from the lover’s perspective—a perspective Anne Carson (and Sokrates, and Sappho, and Aristophanes) claims is a position of utter loss of self-control, of selfishness, of personal obliteration. It is a position of devotion to the beloved, but really just the idea of the beloved and really just as long as the beloved is out of reach. It is clear, to me, where the bitterness of love comes in: the mismatch between the lover and the loved. A mismatch, it needs to be pointed out, that currently and has historically manifested as violence wrought on women’s bodies. Emotional violence, physical violence, sexual violence, all of it. This consistent idea of loss of self-control, of Eros as a force beyond ourselves that we can’t (and Sokrates claims we shouldn’t) fight against is the root of rape culture we can trace all the way back to ancient Greece. And, excepting Sappho and a line or two from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the voices Anne Carson uses and engages with throughout the text are those of men. Yes, sometimes a great beauty can come from desire. Sometimes it’s reciprocated. But the destructiveness of it when it’s not reciprocated is haunting to me, and that’s something that Anne Carson deftly seems to sidestep.

Related to this is the fact that the beloved in Anne Carson’s many triangulations of desire never becomes a subject in their own right. This is a point made more than once very explicitly—Anne Carson dissects desire and comes to the conclusion that the beloved as a reality (as a real person) matters very little. The beloved is only ever a symbol for something the lover wants but can’t have. And I would agree that in many cases, especially in terms of infatuation, which seems to be what she codes as Eros, this is true. But the effect of it combined with the continual assertion that under the spell of Eros one has no control is to dehumanize the beloved. The beloved has no voice, no relevant needs, no respected boundaries. In terms of Freud, whom Anne Carson invokes more than once in the text, the beloved is always and statically an object to the one who loves them, and never a subject. There is embedded in this the idea that once the beloved is real enough, three-dimensional enough, to become a subject they loose the seductive quality that infatuated the lover in the first place. How lonely that is if it’s true.

It was a strange book for me to read. As you can see, I struggled with the structure of her arguments and their precepts. Confusing me further was that the book reads, to me at least, as a celebration of the powerful whirlwind that is erotic desire. The last chapter discusses how empty and bland a city without Eros would be. Earlier in the book, she discusses Phaedras, who argues with Sokrates about the merits of a speech by Lysias concerning whether it’s better to be in love and try and freeze time and the beloved even while knowing to do so will end in disaster or to love dispassionately (as a nonlover) and allow the beloved space and room to grow. And the thing is, I like boundaries. I like companionate love, the safe and stable kind where each person involved is a subject, where there is room to grow. I have always been leery of the intoxication of love, of the idea that infatuation is overwhelming and inescapable. There are levels of desire, multiplicities of love, but Anne Carson here defines love and desire very strictly and very narrowly in ways that never sit comfortably with me as I read the book.**

It’s possible I’m misunderstanding her or misreading the text. I am no classicist, and many of her references went over my head. I do believe, and will admit, that I took a more literal approach the to question of erotic desire than she presented. I was unable to loose erotic desire from sexuality in order to climb the abstract slopes with her. I was unable to pull erotic desire out of its cultural-historical contexts, and despite drawing from so many times and places this is not a book overly concerned with cultural-historical contexts. That said, the book ends with this:

It is a high-risk proposition, as Sokrates saw quite clearly, to reach for the difference between the known and the unknown. He thought the risk worthwhile, because he was in love with the wooing itself. And who is not?

I finished the book, and all I could think was this: I’m not. I am not in love with wooing; wooing makes me endlessly nervous. I am in love with having already wooed, having already learned the unknown.

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*If you ask me, Sappho had the right of it: ‘sweetbitter’ has a better cadence and a more pleasing ring to it than ‘bittersweet.’

**And this is peculiar because in Autobiography of Red and it’s companion piece Red Doc> she explores the variegations of love with such finesse and nuance.

Book Review: JUST KIDS

just scrappy little urchins who ended up counterculture icons, that's all

just scrappy little urchins who ended up counterculture icons, that’s all

Just Kids by Patti Smith is a rare little gem. To me, Patti Smith has always exuded a punk rock swagger, an only half-bridled aggression. I see her, and I see only the hard, sharp angles of her. And Robert Mapplethorpe: leather, whips, unapologetic sex acts with a peculiar defiant dignity to them. Both of them are creatures who seem to have been launched straight from the scene, fully-formed and antagonistic right from the start.

But they weren’t. Just Kids is a memoir by Patti Smith about her time living in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe while they were both shaking off the dull scraps of adolescence and trying to break out as artists. Strewn throughout the book are pictures of them as very young excitable artists-in-training joined at the hip.

Smith’s prose reads like a soft-focus fairy tale. The sections set in the Chelsea Hotel, especially, have an almost Dickensian quality to them; they read as a quaint story full of larger-than-life characters, most of whom have hearts firmly of gold. Reconciling this wistful retelling of her youth with the persona I associate with her was intriguing to say the least. And obviously I am not the only one who found the disconnect between Patti Smith’s presence and her internal life jarring — there are places in the text where she discusses how those around her took her for a lesbian (she is straight), or a junkie (she seems not to have experimented with pot until she’d moved out of the Chelsea). Her prose is light and airy, and her memories sepia-tinged and wholesome, despite the fact that anyone who knows the history of that scene knows just how much death and self-immolation is happening just off screen. Patti Smith herself seems to have waltzed through it unscathed, and her writing dances along the edges of the darkness that her scene held*. Without the debauchery, the excess, the Chelsea Hotel in the 70s reads as an almost Victorian affair.

The book is structured in a circle: it opens with the moment Smith hears of Mapplethorpe’s death, then jumps back in time before they have met. Smith discusses her teenage pregnancy and the process of giving her child up for adoption, her failure at teacher’s school, and her time on a New Jersey assembly line in a brisk and somewhat sanitized fashion; again, there seems to be in her writing a distaste for discussions of the negative, of the hard and bleak moments of her life. From there, the book jumps forward to her first meeting with Mapplethorpe, their sweet and heartfelt romance, the little poverty-stricken life they build together, and how hard they worked to evolve their relationship with each other when their life trajectories began to diverge. The book ends with a far jump into the future, back to those last few weeks of Mapplethorpe’s life and ends with his inevitable death, right back where the book started.

Given that the book is told from Smith’s perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that her motives and desires are clear throughout, but over the course of the book Mapplethorpe becomes more and more opaque. A boy who seems simple when she first meets him grows into a man full of contradictions. The person whose viewpoints and life goals seemed to mirror hers so closely at first winds up yearning to be part of the social circles that Smith herself actively avoids. It became increasingly unsettling as I read the book. What does he get from her that keeps him around? How does he see her and their ever-changing relationship? Very little is explored here in the text, and Smith herself seems to take their relationship at face value, as a thing complete in itself with little context surrounding it. It just is for her, and her wholesale acceptance of it is so radically different from the way I, personally, live out my significant life-altering relationships that it was hard for me to understand at times what their relationship was exactly. But there is an authenticity to her writing that explains the halcyon haze through which she remembers that time of her life. That period, above anything else, was her period with Robert Mapplethorpe, for whom she had a love so total and accepting it is essentially blank, without specificities, and all the hardness of that time is drowned out in remembrance of him.

Just Kids is, like most memoirs, ultimately a work that says as much or more about its author than the subject matter itself. The story there is as much in the telling as it is in the content. And it’s a fascinating look into the mind of a woman who is so very different than the person I assumed her to be. It is a love letter to the late Robert Mapplethorpe, but it’s a love letter to her young self, as well. I can’t help but wish there had been some balance to it, some acknowledgment of the difficulties of living so poor, or of loving a man who seems to fall into and out of and into and out of love with her, or of the pain of watching her friends get consumed by drugs right in front of her, but that’s not the book she wrote. It may not be a book she’s able to write. I can’t help but think of her as an unreliable narrator for her own life, but ultimately that’s what we all are. It’s hard to tell the bald truth about your own life. It might be impossible. But still, the unanswered questions nag at me. I found this book absolutely fascinating, but when it was over, it felt insubstantial. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

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*Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov of Warhol’s Factory crew is a bird’s eye account of the dark addictions Patti Smith seems to prefer to keep just out of frame. I highly recommend it, too, and it works as a very interesting counterbalance to Just Kids.