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.

Writing in seclusion

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a rustic tea-fueled two-person writing retreat

I’m on vacation right now, which I very much needed. I am on vacation visiting a friend whose taste in books is very nearly completely compatible with mine, and who is as much of an introvert as me. Being with her is sublimely restful. She had been considering a trip to a remote cabin in the woods, and I sort of gently invited myself along, which (it turned out) she was sort of hoping I would do. So, I flew out to Chicago, and we rented a little red car, and I drove us to the Wisconsin woods next to the Mississippi River. The cabin was twenty miles away from any cell phone reception and had electricity adequate to power my laptop but no distracting internet connection. We returned to civilization yesterday and are now in a re-entry to society day where we’re pleasantly sitting in her apartment with her cat and watching Foyle’s War and eating oreos. Tomorrow I return to Denver and my family and my job, and I’ll return restored and replenished and feeling more like myself than I have in weeks.

We didn’t do much in the cabin. We sat around drinking coffee and tea with vegan marshmallows in our hot, caffeinated beverages and talked a lot about feelings and parenthood and Supreme Court decisions and The Iliad. At one point we ventured outside to meander up a dry creek bed, but we were both stoned and neither of us navigated the rocks there with any sort of competence, so our excursion was short-lived. Really nothing happened but the tea drinking and the talking and reading and watching fireflies and some writing, but that was perfect, and the Wisconsin woods was a prefect place to be doing that particular kind of nothing.

And the writing–travelling, for some reason, brings a focus to me and makes it extremely easy to write. I rarely find it difficult to write, but there’s something about the solitude of travelling alone and the distance from the every day grind that lets my mind drift into that little writing pocket with virtually no effort. I wrote 2,349 words on the plane on the way to Chicago. I wrote another 8,772 words in the cabin itself. It was effortless writing, and it was an ideal time for some effortless writing because I managed to establish the voices of my POV characters. My friend doesn’t read my writing. She’s generally interested and we talk about writing in the abstract, and we read the same books at the same time(ish) quite frequently, but I’ve never asked her to read anything of mine and she’s never asked to read anything of mine. I think it was better this way. There are times I very much want someone around invested in what I’m writing, pushing me to get it out, wanting to consume it as much as I want to create it. And there are times I want to create things in a private, hidden bubble. I think the lack of expectation involved in writing around a friend who is not a fan of mine helped the writing.

All of this is to say that the writing for A TALE OF REBELLION is clipping along.

Depression and THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

I am currently re-reading the Harry Potter series, which I have not done since the last book came out some years back. I have a tendency to read books too fast the first time through–inhaling them as quickly as humanly possible, sprinting through the text like the pages are on fire. This means I have a tendency to miss the nuances of books the first time I read them.

I’m not sure if that’s what happened, or if it’s because in the intervening years since I last read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I’ve survived major depression, but I noticed a lot of depressive imagery this time around. Much has been written about the dementors, so we’ll start there. J. K. Rowling has gone on record saying that they are a manifestation of depression, and certainly their portrayal as this vague, unfaceable creature sucking all the joy from your life is accurate for many people. But the depressive imagery in the book, I think, goes far deeper than that.

There’s Sirius’ animagus form, the massive black dog, which lurks around Harry unexplained through most of the book. Harry’s plagued by the constant sightings of the black dog–The Grim, which suggests impending death, the worst of bad omens. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Rowling uses the imagery of a black dog which matches perfectly with Winston Churchill’s personification of his own struggles with depression as a black dog that followed everywhere he went.

But Rowling is an enormously subtle writer, and I think Prisoner of Azkaban is deeply steeped with depression. Depression, as anyone who’s survived can tell you, is not just dementors and black dogs. It’s everything, it’s a totality. It’s a sense of foreboding, of loss, all the more confusing because you don’t know where it’s come from or if it will ever lift. It’s a sense of being trapped and missing out (like when Harry alone of the third years can’t go to Hogsmeade), and it’s a threaded through with a twitchy anxiety and this nagging feeling that you’re getting nothing done and never will because the hours have become so slippery (Hermione’s time-turner).

Rowling’s is a textured, multi-layered depiction of depression. It captures the way depression turned into a mindset, a frame for interpreting reality, the way it leaks into any and everything.

Website update: Published Articles List

Hey all! While I have not formally published fiction yet, I do have a number of scholarly and nonfiction pieces floating around. I’ve compiled a list for any and all who are interested, which will be updated as things come out here. Below is the list of my work to date:

Sanders, B. “Pregnancy and Parenting While Genderqueer.” Hoax 7: Feminisms and Change. 2013. http://www.zinewiki.com/Hoax_Zine

Sanders, M. R. & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Under the radar: The role of invisible discourse in understanding class-based privilege. Journal of Social Issues, 68 (1), 112-217.

Sanders, M. R., & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Social dominance orientation and John Henryism at the intersection of race and class. Political Psychology, 33 (4), 553-573. 

Edelstein, R. S., Stanton, S. J., Henderson, M. M., & Sanders, M. R. (2010). Endogenous estradiol levels are associated with attachment avoidance and implicit intimacy motivation. Hormones and Behavior, 57, 230-236.

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” Justice 20 March 2008. Print. http://rngton.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=790

Cheng, C., Sanders, M. R., Sanchez-Burks, J., Molina, K., Lee, F., Darling, E., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Reaping the rewards of diversity: The role of identity integration. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1182-1198.

Darling, E., Molina, K., Sanders, M. R., Lee, F., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Belonging and Achieving: The Role of Identity Integration. In M. Maehr, S. Karabenick, & T. Urdan (Eds.)Advances in Motivation and Achievement: Social Psychological Perspective on Motivation and Achievement, Volume 15. Elsevier Press: NY.

Sanders, Melissa. “A Military Mother Speaks Out Against the War — An Interview with Sara Rich.” Justice 23 May 2007. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=548

Sanders, Melissa. “The Case of Suzanne Swift — U.S. Female Soldiers Doubly at Risk.” Justice 4 April 2007. Print. http://socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=528

Seid, Jon & Sanders, Melissa. “Washington’s racist plan to divide U.S. & Mexican workers.” Justice 15 Nov 2006. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article15.php?id=462

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexism in the Military — What the Army Brochures Wont Tell You.” Justice 1 July 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=70

Sanders, Melissa. “Stealing With the Rich to Pay for the War.” Justice 1 March 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=131

Sanders, Melissa. “Why I Am a Socialist.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. https://socialistalternative.org/news/article22.php?id=1305

Gallup, John & Sanders, Melissa. “The Myth of American Democracy.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article10.php?id=1297

Edmond Barrett

One of interest to writers and would be writers.

It began as the kind of logical argument that seems airtight to anyone who has never studied logic.

If the New Yorker is the most desirable literary magazine in the world, and if the New Yorker can have any short story the New Yorker wants, then whatever story the New Yorker gets would—logically—be so intrinsically desirable that all lesser literary pubs (e.g., everyone) would pine for it. Just like the prettiest girl at the dance: the guy she picks is the guy chicks dig. Basic deduction 101.

After a few glasses of two-buck Chuck I was ready to test my hypothesis. I grabbed a New Yorker story off the web (no, it wasn’t by Alice Munro or William Trevor), copied it into a Word document, changed only the title, created a fictitious author identity, and submitted it to a slew of…

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Siren Song- Margaret Atwood

Thoughts of Broken Dreams

Siren Song
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
siren song

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