Oct 14 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

You know what would be really scary? A novel written from the point of view of one of the women who believed wholeheartedly in the tenets of the Republic of Gilead, who rejoiced in the work they were doing, who revelled in her role as helpmeet, as implementer of God’s will on an earth that is fallen but that can, with hard work and stern discipline, come just a little bit closer to redemption. Because there would be such women. Scarier still would be the number of people who would take up the book and see the narrator as an upstanding example of Christian womanhood.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1984 novel, posits an America transformed into a repressive theocracy, rapidly remade into a new society by the combination of long preparation and a bloody precipitating incident. As she writes in her February 2017 introduction to the current edition, “Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. It can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” (IX) I’ve lived in a country that was invaded by a neighbor’s army. One afternoon we were watching our kids dance and sing at the school’s end-of-summer-term program, the next afternoon it was impossible to get to the western half of the country because the road and railroad bridges had been bombed and fallen into the river they spanned. Fourteen hours later, because we were very, very privileged, we evacuated across a peaceful border, having told our small children that we were going on vacation.

Gilead is a plausible American theocracy for another reason. “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available.” (X) It owes a bit to Iran after the 1979 revolution, a bit to the Puritan polities of early America, and plenty to the expressed desires of 1980s conservative Christians.

Atwood tinkers with the background a little bit to produce the setting she wants to write about and the story she wants to tell. There are multiple wars, somewhere; she implies that at least some nuclear strikes have been involved. Gilead has Colonies, where dissidents and expendables can be sent, a sort of external gulag. The book’s characters never hear much about the Colonies, so they can retain the vagueness they need to work.

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Oct 14 2018

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It often happens that the very best books are hardest to write about. I discovered TNC’s blog fairly early in his tenure at The Atlantic, and I made sure to keep coming back. Time zones — I lived in the South Caucasus at the time, even further from US schedules — meant that I missed much of the debate and discussion, especially because TNC would (wisely) close comments on contentious discussions during his nighttime hours. Occasionally conversation would stray to things that I knew reasonably well, the Cold War or Eastern and Central European history or post-communism in those areas, and I could make a contribution that he and the commenting community seemed to value. I tried to get a friend-of-a-friend at the US Embassy in Paris to invite him to France. I told them that they had a chance to bring over someone who was going to be huge, and they should do it early because not only was he brilliant, he loved France and would be perfect for outreach. Well.

I saw some of the essays in We Were Eight Years in Power as the ideas took shape in TNC’s blog writing, and I am fairly certain that I read each one when it initially appeared in the online pages of The Atlantic. The book is more than just a collection: “Before each of these essays there is a kind of extended blog post, one that attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time. Taken together they form a loose memoir, one that I hope enhances the main pieces. At the end of the book, there is an epilogue that attempts to assess the post-Obama age in which we now [October 2017] find ourselves.” (xv)

One of TNC’s great virtues as a writer and a thinker is his openness. He knows he’s brilliant, of course, but he also knows how big the world is, and he has the strength to go out and discover how much he doesn’t know. A whole category of his blog posts are called, “Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid.” He was never stupid; it’s just that some topics were new to him. But his willingness to learn in public was a great joy of the blog, and his restless, relentless, powerful intellect taking in new context and experiences is clear to see in We Were Eight Years in Power. “Each of the essays in this book takes up some aspect of an argument … They are me in motion, thinking matters through, a process that continues even as I write this introduction.” (xv)

“Relentless” and “unsparing” are two other words that come to mind to describe how TNC thinks and writes. He’s clear-eyed about himself as well:

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Oct 13 2018

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

The Shepherd’s Crown is the end, and no way around it. The forty-first and last Discworld novel, after “The End” on page 328 there’s nothing more but what readers imagine might still happen on the Disc. Rob Wilkins, Pratchett’s chief assistant writes in an afterword that The Shepherd’s Crown was “not quite as finished as [Pratchett] would have liked when he died.” It shows; quite a bit of the joists are still visible. On the other hand, that Pratchett was able to write a book at all, let alone one with as many splendid scenes as this one, while suffering from advancing Alzheimer’s surely counts as an act of magic worthy of a top graduate of the Unseen University.

One of the most affecting scenes is the extended sequence surrounding Granny Weatherwax’s death. On the Disc, witches and wizards know well in advance when Death is coming for them, and they each prepare in their own way. Granny Weatherwax tidies up, takes leave from all of the creatures near her cottage, and sets things up so that her chosen successor will find everything just as it should be.

Nanny Ogg’s words at the wake might also apply to Pratchett:

“No long faces for Granny Weatherwax, please,” Nanny proclaimed. “She’s had a good death at home, just as anyone might wish for. Witches know that people die, and if they manages to die after a long time, leavin’ the world better than they went an’ found it, well then, that’s surely a reason to be happy. All the rest of it is just tidyin’ up.” (p. 82)

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Oct 13 2018

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Hunh. So, okay. This book is super rich in ideas and philosophy and science, and posits a logical extrapolation of capitalism to its vilest ends. The question of autonomy vs indentured servitude, and the heartbreaking necessity in this future of individual (en)franchisement, plus the stranglehold of corporate patents on technology, are all discussed and examined in ways that are persuasively cautionary. As to the characters, I really enjoyed getting to know Med and Threezed and even Krish. I didn’t really care for Jack, despite her being the ostensible heroine of the piece: for someone so passionate about freedom, so hurt by what Krish had done to their creation, she was awfully cavalier about determining Threezed’s future for him. I don’t expect my heroes to be perfect, but I certainly expect a little more growth then the belated realization that Krish hadn’t meant to hurt her all those years ago (also, three months in prison is a bit of a boo-fucking-hoo. Prison is no joke, and her cellmate was something else, but it’s hard to dredge up a lot of sympathy for that short a term.)

And then, hoo-boy, Eliasz and Paladin. Paladin’s journey is fascinating as she discards the identity given to her by her human makers in the course of finding love. The portraiture of Paladin as someone who doesn’t particularly care about her gender identification, and who worries about her autonomy and where her feelings come from, is an excellent deep dive into consciousness and what constitutes personhood vis robotics.

What I did not love was how Paladin shaped her identity primarily to please her homophobic boyfriend. It’s great that she didn’t care either way, but it was unhealthy that she just let him make assumptions about herself in order to fit with his bigoted world view. And that whole passage about transgender identity towards the end was just weird, crammed onto a situation that I, for one, didn’t think at all relevant. Paladin’s change of gender identity has nothing to do with her sense of self but something she assumes simply to put Eliasz at his ease. Equating that to transgender challenges made me deeply uncomfortable.

I also did not appreciate the significance of what had been done to Actin until way after what I thought was a vast overreaction on Paladin’s part. This is both a result of Annalee Newitz’s somewhat indifferent writing style and also, in my opinion, the very weird couching of Paladin and Eliasz as being a couple we should root for while they’re consciously and unquestioningly working for a body that pretty much represents everything evil in this dystopian future. I really feel like the fictionalization is a sort of grudgingly applied candy-coated shell to better transmit the intriguing philosophical concepts; as such, while the ideas are great, the plot is disappointingly flimsy and personal motivations are given short shrift in favor of Big Concepts. Autonomous is one of those books you should read for its intelligence but not, I’m sorry to say, for its odd lack of heart. Tho I wouldn’t be averse to reading more of Med and Threezed: a romantic relationship there would be genuinely interesting given the fact that Threezed isn’t a roaring asshole.

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Oct 12 2018

Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious and Grace begins with Mma Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, reflecting on the people in her life: people who are late, others who are still with us; family, particularly her husband Mr J.L.B. Matekoni; friends and colleagues, from the formidable Mma Potokwani who runs the local orphanage to the capable but occasionally prickly Mma Makutsi, who has worked her way up from secretary to become co-director of the agency. These reflections remind returning reader of the novels’ cast, and serve as a way of bringing new readers into the setting, but they also set up some themes of the book: whether people can change, how to deal with people who are nasty or unkind to others, and the importance of tea in preventing conflict from coming too far out into the open among people who are permanently part of one another’s lives.

Four mysteries, or if not mysteries then questions, drive the events of Precious and Grace. Fanwell, the remaining journeyman mechanic in Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage runs over a dog while out on an errand. The dog is not seriously injured, but Fanwell cannot find anyone to claim the dog, and it seems to be forming a powerful attachment to him. What is the responsible course of action? A client named Susan spent an important part of her childhood in Botswana before her parents’ jobs took the family back to Canada, ostensibly “home” but a place that Susan had no relation to until she was whisked to the cold prairie. She asks for the agency’s help in locating her childhood home, schoolfriends from thirty years previous, and if possible the nanny who looked after her. Mr Polopetsi, an underemployed chemist who sometimes helps Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, has been telling people about a club for cattle investors that promises twenty-five percent returns. He has recruited a few investors, but it sounds too good to be true, and Mma Ramotswe’s insight into character both human and bovine tells her that the kind Mr Polopetsi may be in over his head. Finally, Violet Sephoto, who has been an antagonist at several points in the agency’s history, is one of two finalists to be Botswana’s Woman of the Year. Can anything be done to stop her? And what if she wins?

Most of the story concerns the search for Susan’s nanny. One possibility emerges as likeliest, but in the course of a conversation, both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi become convinced that the woman in question could not be the nanny. They do not call her a liar directly — that would be an intolerable breach of etiquette even in fast-moving modern Botswana – but Mma Makutsi implies it so strongly that the lady asks them to let her out of Mma Ramotswe’s little white van immediately, even before they have returned from their destination. The incident prompts a reflection on truth, on why people claim to be things that they are not. Later the same evening, though, Mma Ramotswe comes to doubt her assessment, leading her to think further about the relationship that clients of a detective agency have with truth, and how much of it they are likely to share with detectives; indeed, how much they may be concealing even from themselves.

Precious and Grace has all of the virtues that have led me to treasure the series: human warmth, sharp observation of both foibles and virtues, people making sense of the ways of the world and reacting to it in their individual ways. I found two of the endings not up to McCall Smith’s usual standards. The resolution of Mr Polopetsi’s was more sketched than portrayed, and I thought that was a missed opportunity. The book’s main conclusions about grace and about dealing with difficult people are presented, literally, in a sermon. Even though there are some good observations about churchgoing, and about how people actually behave in the pews, the preaching felt heavy-handed. Other, more effective, scenes more than make up for these shortcomings, however.

There is Fanwell’s compassion with some new orphans who do not speak any of the local languages; his time outside of Botswana has given him a common language with these particular children, and McCall Smith shows how just a little efforts opens them up. He also shows their spirit when the older of the two says, “Water first, then talking.” There are moments when Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni talk past each other slightly, as long-married couples sometimes do when their attention wanders. There is Mma Makutsi’s steadfastness in her opinions. Some of these moments are universal, some are particularly Botswana, some are unique to the individual characters. Each of them is a pleasure in the long-running story of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

The seventeenth book in the series may not be the best place to start, although the first chapter gives enough background to bring a new reader up to speed and events in Precious and Grace do not particularly depend on previous books. It is a lovely series, full of McCall Smith’s warmth for his characters, respect for the setting, and love for people of all sorts.

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Oct 05 2018

Steeplejack (Steeplejack #1) by A.J. Hartley

It took me three tries, but I finally found enough time to get past the first five percent of the book to dive into this excellently rendered fantasy world. Which isn’t to say that the first five percent was bad, just that it’s awfully dense with chimney-climbing stuff, and given my heavy reading load, it was a challenge to carve out enough time to really get into this novel. It probably helped that I read elsewhere that the setting is based on South Africa, which helped a lot, as before then my brain had been stubbornly trying to pattern the city of Bar-Selehm on parts further north and constantly running into incongruities that really took me out of my reading.

Anyway! Steeplejack is essentially a murder mystery with conspiracy elements, investigated by our heroine, Anglet Sutonga, an impoverished but extremely talented steeplejack (a.k.a building climber, primarily for the purpose of cleaning chimneys but also for repairing masonry) who is recruited by a politician to look into the murder of her new apprentice. Anglet is surprised that someone besides herself cares, but when Berrit’s murder looks like it could be linked to the disappearance of a valuable gem, she quickly realizes that her new boss, Willinghouse, was correct to worry that the seemingly small death is part of a much vaster plot that could destabilize the city’s fragile peace.

I really enjoyed so much of the plotting of this novel, from murder mystery to race relations to Ang’s struggles not only to solve the crime/foil the plot but also her family relations and interior life. I loved how she recruited Dahria to help, tho am less enamored of her attraction to Josiah. I’m #TeamMnenga all the way. I also didn’t really understand the collective fascination with Vestris. Am definitely looking forward to reading the rest of the series, tho have to persuade my libraries to pick them up first. Wish me luck!

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Oct 01 2018

From Page To Screen: A Simple Favor

I likened reading Darcey Bell’s A Simple Favor to enjoying a bananas smoothie of noir tropes and modern mom issues, and will extend that simile to say that I wasn’t sure how much I liked the aftertaste, but was pleased to have read it ahead of seeing the movie starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and (the Malaysian — I may never stop saying that, I’m so proud) Henry Golding. I’d heard that the movie differed significantly from the book, so was glad to go in prepared for what turned out to be a wickedly adorable suburban noir. Instead of a smoothie, Paul Feig and co have whipped up the most delectably bananas sundae, that I would venture does the source material one better in that it eliminated that weird aftertaste while still holding true to the murderous, treacherous noir precepts. Making the movie more overtly a black comedy than the novel really plays to the strengths of the actors, particularly the two female leads as well as the trio of suburban parents who serve as a sort of Greek chorus for the goings-on. The chemistry between Ms Kendrick and Ms Lively is off the charts, and they bring their frenemies to pitch perfect (ahem) life. I’m especially impressed that a lot of the stuff was ad libbed. I sincerely hope that the duo keep doing projects together, particularly if they’re as smart and stylish as this one.

Spoiler-free notes on other significant differences between the book and movie: I felt like the movie did a much better job of showing how good a mom Stephanie was, and acknowledging how exhausting that is even to watch. While the movie changed quite a bit about Emily’s background, I did like that it gave Blake Lively’s acting chops a chance to shine. I also think they translated Stephanie’s blog to a vlog really well. And did I mention the superior ending? Perhaps it’s conventional of me to prefer the movie’s denouement to the book’s, but I’d absolutely watch the movie again before rereading it’s source, which is less a slight against the book than a compliment for the film.

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Sep 28 2018

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

I hadn’t read Swordspoint in a long time – certainly not this decade, probably not this century – but it had stayed in my memory as one of three perfect books. At some point, I heard that there were two more novels that shared Swordspoint’s setting, one by Kushner and one she co-wrote with Delia Sherman. I would check for them occasionally on the used book markets, but Kushner seemed to have found the sour spot where there was enough demand for the old editions to command premium prices, but not enough for a new edition to appear. Last month, though, when I was in London I made it to Forbidden Planet a quarter of an hour before closing time, and what did I find? Nice new British editions of The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings. Wonderful!

But first, re-read Swordspoint. Would it live up to my recollection? Had the Suck Fairy paid a visit?

Swordspoint takes place in an unnamed but fairly typical fantasy city, and Kushner establishes from the very beginning that artifice will be an important part of the story. The city is divided between Riverside – where the story opens, where crime flourishes but life is vivid and rough justice prevails – and the Hill, home to the nobility, the money, the power, and very little justice. The story follows Richard St Veit, the greatest swordsman of his generation. The city’s nobility have ceased fighting, but they have not stopped intriguing against one another. They call on swordsmen to challenge other nobles, and the hirelings settle the affairs of honor. St Veit is the best in the business, and he knows it. He also knows that it’s usually a short life and appears to have made his peace with that.

St Veit’s latest love, Alec, is a scholar who has been sent down from the University and who speaks in the Hill accent of the very wealthy. He says nothing about his past, but captivates St Veit with his obvious intelligence. He also has a self-destructive streak that attracts the swordsman and matches St Veit’s own, buried, embrace of a life that’s likely to end sooner rather than later. As Swordspoint opens, St Veit has just dispatched two dedicated opponents during a garden party on the Hill, and he is the talk of the town. Half of the talk is about his skill, and the other half is speculation about who is behind the challenges. Swordsmen live by their own codes, and proclaiming who stands behind their deadly strokes isn’t done. St Veit is prouder than most; he is choosy about his clients; he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t kill women, he doesn’t work as a house guard, and he doesn’t stand as an honorary guard to ornament a rich noble’s wedding. He’s also profligate with money when he has it, and neglects to convert to cash the jewels some of his jobs have brought. As a result, he is poor at least as often as he is rich.

St Veit likes to believe that he can just do his jobs without thinking about the purposes the nobles have in mind. He disdains them as much as they dismiss the people of Riverside. Inevitably, though, personal jealousies and ambitions prove stronger than the codes of honor and social distance that are supposed to regulate relations between swordsmen and nobles, between Riverside and the Hill. People’s virtues prove to be their undoing, or nearly so. It is a novel of style and facades, but also one that shows a deep understanding of people, passions, and the prices they are willing to pay.

The book is chock full of tasty details and elegant set pieces as it veers between the decadence of the Hill and the rough energy of Riverside. There’s the pickpocket at work among the gawkers at a fireworks display, the banter on the nobility’s river barges during the same display, banter that may just be for amusement or may set up feuds that can turn deadly at a challenge’s notice. There’s a play-within-the-novel, about which the swordsmen have superstitions. St Veit flaunts the superstitions for all to see, and of course betting starts immediately about whether the curse will fall on him, too.

Kushner manages her large cast with aplomb. It’s not difficult to tell Lord Horn from Lord Ferris from Lord Halliday or many more among the nobility. They are rounded characters, showing their strengths and foibles, even if they are not at the center of the narrative. It’s a brilliant swirl, with danger lurking around many corners, delight around others, and maybe both right across the street down in Riverside or up on the Hill.

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Sep 23 2018

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Late Discworld offers at least one great book before the end: I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth Tiffany Aching novel. In contrast to all of the Discworld books aimed at adults from Monstrous Regiment onward (with the possible exception of Thud!), the story and conflicts in the Tiffany Aching stories arise from the characters themselves rather than from some element that Pratchett has decided in advance to examine within the framework of life on the Disc. By her fourth book, Tiffany has grown enough so that the precociousness the story requires is not as much at odds with the age that she is supposed to be within the story.

As I Shall Wear Midnight opens, Tiffany is a teenager doing something very typically teen: thinking that everyone is watching her and wondering about what she is doing. Only in her case they actually are, because she is the only witch in all of the Chalk. People see what she does because witches naturally stand out, and they pay extra attention because she is the only one they know. It’s a balance of awkward and self-assured that Pratchett captures perfectly, with an added dash of the absurd because Discworld is a fantastic farce at heart.

When you were a witch, you were all witches, thought Tiffany Aching as she walked through the crowds, pulling her broomstick after her on the end of a length of string. It floated a few feet above the ground. She was getting a bit bothered about that. It seemed to work quite well, but nevertheless, since all around the fair were small children dragging balloons, also on the end of a piece of string, she couldn’t help thinking that it made her look more than a little bit silly, and something that made one witch look silly made all witches look silly.
On the other hand, if you tied it to a hedge somewhere, there was bound to be some kid who would untie the string and get on the stick for a dare, in which case most likely he would go straight up all the way to the top of the atmosphere where the air froze, and while she could in theory call the stick back, mothers got very touchy about having to that out their children on a bright late-summer day. That would not look good. People would talk. People always talked about witches. (pp. 2–3)

There’s the awkwardness and also one of the key themes of the book: how witches fit in with the communities where they live, and the uneasiness all around that, especially in a place like the Chalk, which had been known to burn witches in the past and only accepted Tiffany because she was so emphatically one of them. Amidst a seemingly jocular description of the scouring fair of the Chalk — a three-day event where the people of the Chalk come together for feasting, games, and scouring the outline of the giant so that the white chalk that formed him (“and he was quite definitely a he, there was no possible doubt about that” p. 5) was free of any grass that might have grown over it in the course of the year — Pratchett strews clues of how the story is going to develop and what it will involve.

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Sep 23 2018

The Price of Blood and Honor by Elizabeth Willey

Elizabeth Willey got better as a writer with each of her three interrelated novels about Argylle, and I am sorry that there aren’t more of them. The Price of Blood and Honor is the third in publication order, although it is the middle book in terms of the internal chronology. It picks up right after the end of A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, about a generation before The Well-Favored Man.

Prospero has lost his bid to topple the Emperor Avril in their native realm of Landuc. Avril has forced an oath from Prospero to give up sorcery, destroy the books that contain his learning, and yield his lands. All of this is the price of sparing Prospero’s daughter, Freia, and Prospero himself. But the old wizard still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Dewar, one of the possible titular characters of A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, surprises most of the cast by revealing he is Prospero’s son by the sorceress Odile, and he has sufficient power to ensure the emperor holds up his end of the bargain. Further, he copies a significant part of Prospero’s library in the few days before the elder conjurer has to fulfill his oath, ensuring that the knowledge is not lost. Before the war, Prospero also made over most of his lands to Freia, so that what the emperor can confiscate directly is not a great loss. Most important, Prospero’s newly created realm of Argylle and its Spring of immense magical potency remain unknown to the emperor and all who owe fealty to him. But the emperor has tricks, too. He offers Freia betrothal to his heir (who is flamingly gay in a society that seems to acquiesce in same-sex relations but depends on hetero relationships to perpetuate its rulers), an offer that cannot be refused. Wheels turn.

One of the pleasures of the first part of the book is seeing how crisply and deftly Willey shows her characters’ actions. Relations among them are complex, as they would be among real people. Freia and Prospero each love the other beyond all reckoning, and bear great burdens for one another, but they are burdens taken either unwittingly or unwillingly, and the two of them talk past one another a great deal. They are often at loggerheads, and ultimately each wants the other do be or do something that they cannot and still remain themselves. That is a price of blood as much as the ransom that Prospero pays to Emperor Avril.

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