Monthly Archives: August 2013

goodreads killer

The Goodreads Killer: Kicking Down

Not so very long ago, a site came online called Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I would urge you not to google this site right now, and I’m not going to link to it, but I am going to note its name straight up. Fuck Voldemort. I’ll name the blog that shouldn’t be named. They claimed they were taking a stand about the big meanies on Goodreads who had the temerity to write bad reviews; uppity bitches and all. The very first posts on the site were a series of profiles of Goodreads reviewers outing their real names, the names of their spouses, editorializing on their parenting skills, and, in at least one instance, noting the places they lunched, avowedly so they they could “get a taste of their own medicine”. This, friends, is a direct threat to readers, and more specifically on female readers (which they all were), offering up personal details of people to silence them with the possibility that psychos might call them at home. Which, again, happened in at least one instance.

Now, while I wasn’t targeted by the STGRB freaks in their initial outing, many of the people targeted were my friends, and I was afraid for them. Due to swift action, STGRB ended up scrubbing their site pretty fast of the most egregious and probably legally actionable content. Also, they were forced by a national organization against school bullying to take down the banners they had festooned all over the site. Unfortunately, the post I had that detailed the screencaps of their most terrible shit has gone down, but I saw all this stuff with my own eyes, and if my google skills were better, I could find documentation. (ETA: There’s a round-up of dozens of blog posts about STGRB and their tactics here.) There’s a lot wrong with STGRB’s tactics and philosophy, but one of the biggest problems is that it reduces the critical dialogue to personal threats. When I say, “I don’t like your book,” the response “I know where you live” is a critical non sequitur with teeth. I’ve fought with all kinds of readers about interpretation. I hate with a white hot intensity when people say that Lolita was complicit in her rape, for example. But a rebuttal of that nonsense that hinges on the other person’s address is no rebuttal at all.

So while I wasn’t targeted, seeing these posts scared me, because I know I’d be on the list eventually. Pretty much any woman who says anything in public is going to have to deal with rape and murder threads, from lobbying for Jane Austen on currency, to being a Labor MP, and daring to support said Austen money, to criticizing video games. I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s a scope creep inherent in any “outing” enterprise, and there are real world consequences of said outing. Mostly I practice security through obscurity, because while I may be one of the top ten reviewers on Goodreads, I’m not harboring any delusions of my wider influence or importance. Thank Christ I’m not actually famous, because just a little fame will garner me rape and death threats all day. And get this: I’m just a fucking person

Which is where I am at the start of my read of The Goodreads Killer. I’m kind of irritated just at the outset because this book is serious fucking click-bait, absolutely designed to get people like me – highly placed Goodreads reviewers – to download this shit, read it, and snark. It angers me that I’m doing just that, because while I think The Goodreads Killer is kinda brilliant in its ability to get me raging on the Internets, which will no doubt translate into click-throughs and downloads, it’s not actually any good, you know? I’m not even kidding when I say my husband and I just spent about an hour arguing about this book. My initial reaction was so personal, so fuck you, that I’m glad he talked me down, but be it known that those feelings thrum though this entire review. I am not a lit-crit machine or a blurb generator. This is an emotional response. 

Some fucking tosser goes down to the river to burn his self-published books because critics, is confronted by a smelly dude, and told to go see some Red Headed League or dire consequences. He and league guy talk about how critics are RUINING ARTISTS with their HONESTY AND BULLSHIT and eventually set on plan where self-pub dude is going to kill the critic Bryan. There’s an interlude at this point involving Mr. Writer getting what I think is a reverse cowgirl from a secretary, but the physicality is weak, and maybe it’s just a regular cowgirl. Frankly, I’ve read better sex scenes in monster porn. Also, I skipped every single word of the excerpts from writerman’s novel, because who gives a shit, seriously. Bad examples of “good” writing, if that’s what they are supposed to be. Writer psycho hunts down the critic and kills him in a full on abattoir. The end. 

After giving my husband this run-down, his eyes lit up in little hearts. “That’s brilliant!” he exclaimed! “He’s like totally baiting you with breaking the fourth wall and that set-up is amazing!” 

“Sure,” I said, hedging towards the back door so I could smoke contemplatively in the ridiculous late-August heat. “But it’s not like one thing in that book was intentional. He believes what he’s writing, I think, even if there’s this half-assed satirical gloss.” 

“When have you ever given a shit about intentionality?” I style for a minute, refilling my glass. 

“If this had been written by Vernon D. Burns, I’d know exactly where I stand in terms of latent misogyny and general fuckitude, but that’s not where we are. Michel Foucault in the essay “What is an Author? speculates: 

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

The author becomes a self-annihilating particle, a trademark logo at the edge of the interpretation, receding into the distance, stripped of personhood and imbued with categorical insight. But here the author murders the critic, laying his inevitable annihilation on some twat in Surrey or whatever. Readers don’t wreak the author; the author wrecks himself, because he should and does cease to exist in the work. If he doesn’t, he’s a self-insert looking for a reverse cowgirl from fangirls.”

“Whoa,” my husband said. “There’s no way you actually quoted that shit to me, plus this whole conversation thing is kinda trite, don’t you think? A little obvious and playing for the cheap seats?”

“Sure,” I say. “But it’s my fucking review. Look, I get that there’s some wiggle room here of interpretation, and maybe this is supposed to be a mordant satire of whackadoos who think that it’s okay to kill people because they drank some haterade about a book…” My husband breaks in.

“But what about the prologue!!” He yells!! (This is the only part he’s read.) “Obviously he’s funning. He’s joking around about his revenge fantasies. How many times have you read a review you hated because you thought it was wrong?”

“Every day? I hate reviews every day. But you know what I don’t do? Fantasize about getting cowgirls and then murdering someone. I imagine writing brilliant fucking retorts and then posting them. Sometimes I go so far as to write them, only I never post them. Because if I can’t bring myself to like a review, I’m not allowed to comment.” 

“How is this different? How is posting a hater review different?”

“Fuck, I don’t know; maybe it’s not different. But I see a difference between what I feel like are my personal codes of conduct and and what is acceptable. While I think punitive shelving is lame, I don’t really care if it goes on if it doesn’t cross the line into threats. And while I think bagging an author’s appearance is lame (and usually gendered), I think that’s hella different from posting their address and entreating fucking lunatics to ‘give them a taste of their own medicine’. Which would be what, exactly? Strongly worded email? At the place I fucking lunch? I don’t think so.”

“You’re back on STGRB, conflating them with the ‘pro-artist’ group in the book.”

“You bet my ass I am. Also, you are going to be so mad I’m putting words in your mouth, again.”

“I love you, babe.”

“I know. Anyway, all I’m saying is that this book is shitty on multiple levels, and maybe it’s trying to be clever, and maybe it isn’t, but because it’s so fucking shitty I can’t actually ascertain said cleverness. And I’m pissed I’m writing the review right now, because I’m in a house of cards of click-throughs and likes, where I feed off this bullshit to stay up in charts, and he eats my hater push, and it’s like a dance of the douches. I feel like a douche.”

“You should write that thing about Stephenie Meyer that you said because I kept calling this ‘brilliant’”

“Oh yeah! So, I think the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is fucking terrifying, but that book is a nuclear disaster, and I wouldn’t call a minute of it intentional. Meyer managed to hit a third rail there, managed to touch on something that I felt was profound, but I wouldn’t call it good, and I don’t think she planned it. She was writing from her lizard brain. Which is right where The Goodreads Killer is coming from. It might have hit me in a sweet spot because I’m one of however many people on Goodreads who gives a shit about shelving arcana and reviewer/author politics, but I think it’s mostly an accident, and I don’t like what I think it’s saying.”

“Reading is a passive event. It’s undertaken in interstitial moments, alone, and it’s accompanied by musing and dreaming. That this one book reached out, whether intentional or not, and shook you personally where you live is a notable thing. It’s a fascinating, unintentionally brilliant thing. It’s a fourth wall breaker that can only work for a specific number of people, and that you are member of that demographic, and that you read it, is really something. It’s a brilliant use of social media marketing bait. It doesn’t even matter that it sucks. If it were good, it wouldn’t have the same effect.”

“Yup. But still it sucks.” 

I’m going to dispense with this scenario while I grope to a coda. I am able to see why my husband thought the whole click-baiting, sloppily meta fourth-wall thing was neat, but then he works in advertising, so that sort of thing appeals to him. And I’m not in any way saying that the author of this book is threatening me personally, or that I think it’s some kind of incitement to violence. I’m not new to the concepts of damaged narrators or satire, thank you. I am also not clutching my pearls over cowgirls – forward or back – and I love well done goopy gross-out body horror. But I am way too close to the target of this little “revenge fantasy” – in fact I am the target, categorically speaking – and I have seen ideation like this result in real world consequences often enough for me to think it’s not fucking funny. 

My boy Freud observed that some jokes are masked aggression, and here the mask has slipped, and the anemic “just kidding” appended to the proceedings figleafs over some very misplaced rage. This is the “kicking up versus kicking down” distinction that Patton Oswalt makes in his essay about rape jokes. This book is kicking down. I don’t think reviewers are inviolate, and there’s a lot about Goodreads reviewing culture that I find tiresome. There is super fertile ground here to say some pointed things about all kinds of fascinating topics: anonymity, publishing trends, even the concept of citizen reviewing. Instead this reads like a petulant screed by a psycho who has some serious issues with women. I feel like I do after hanging out with racist family members at the holidays, putting up with a series of ethnic jokes that are as tired as they are hateful. Just kidding! Har har! No you’re not. And that I don’t find them funny doesn’t make me humorless, it makes me a person with working empathy.

Look, Fred, a Zombie Kangaroo: How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea

So, as I mentioned in my review of San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, I’ve been reading Newsflesh novellas as my big end of summer hurrah. While Browncoats corrected a lot of the things I don’t like about the Newsflesh world, being as it is an outbreak story unconnected to the events of the trilogy, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea hit every single thing I don’t like about Newsflesh, and then added a couple more, just for fun. This was a Scooby Doo episode, and not in a good way. 

The first thing I thought when I read the synopsis for How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea, a Newsflesh novella set in Australia was, are there going to be zombie kangaroos? Because lol, that’s pretty much what anyone thinks about when they think about Australia right, Scoob and gang? I’m on record as digging it when non-Americans write about America kinda broadly, because you can get some interesting parallax views that I would have never considered, being inside the boiling, melting pot myself, but this kind of adventure tourism based on the laziest of national stereotypes is much more suited to Saturday morning cartoons based on a talking Great Dane and his highass friends. I can’t even say anything about the Australian national character, but I’m going to call bullshit on Mahir’s mansplaining, the rabbit-proof fence, and the zombie kangaroo national preserve. Givez-moi un break, sheila. Here’s some hot Vegemite down your pants. 

Mahir Gowda, After the End Times blogger who was my favorite from the novels and tea-drinking Brit, goes to Australia to…something. Check out the zombie kangaroo preserve and hang out with some weirdos? Motivations are murky. He meets up with some new End Times bloggers, apparently hired after the events of the trilogy, who hew to the exhaustingly dumb character traits of blogging platforms in the zombie future. Blah, blah, Irwins are always on camera poking things with sticks, etc. Fictionals are dreamy and write poetry and Newsies something about truth and justice or whatnot. I have never ever bought the blogging trifecta outlined in the Newsflesh novels, and because it’s been a year since I’ve read them, so much of the world building stuff has slipped for me because it didn’t make any sense to begin with. At the time, I was willing to accept what I felt were dumb, impossible reactions (socially speaking) because I’d been boiling in them for hundreds of pages, but the river had sped on, and my foot went into something less to my liking and slipped. 

Apparently Australia has a much more loosey goosey attitude towards the six hundred billion blood tests necessary to fucking do anything ever in the rest of the anglophone world (which we’ve only really ever seen the UK and North America, so whatever about China, Africa, or the rest of you lot.) Mahir eye-bugs about having a picnic; there’s a lot of bush-piloting around and Coke-drinking; zombie wombats and some taxonomy about kangaroos. What really set my teeth was Mahir’s final speech to a group of semi-rioting outbackers about how they should totally cherish their kinda bullshit freedoms because the rest of us are so busy spooking at Muslim terrorists zombies that our lives are shit, but he wouldn’t want to live somewhere with zombats, because security. Also, please get me some tea because I’m British, you see. 

Just, ugh, this is so the kind of thing an American would write thinking they were being all thoughtful narrative about our paranoid security state – down to the polyamorous relationship that isn’t remarked on in any real way, but just kinda sits there as a thing. We just gutted the Voting Rights Act and DOMA, and one of those things is a shitshow, and the other is great, but I’m sick of zero sum games of rights and freedom and security. I’m sick of reductionist bullshit and other countries as allegory, because other countries are not our allegories. Look, Fred, zombie kangaroos! Bah. 

Well, phew, that was something of a rampage, and I feel like I need to pull out of my death spiral a little before I conclude. The thing that garnered this annoying, plot-arc-less story the extra star was a couple of brief asides about Georgia Mason as she is during the last novel. (I’m seriously trying to avoid spoilers here, and, fyi, there are spoilers all over this novella for Blackout, so if you haven’t read the series and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t start here.) Mahir got into the philosophy of the mind stuff that I thought was squandered in Blackout, even if the treatment was kinda cursory and topical. Two stars. Also, kinda fuck this book.

You Can’t Take the Con from Me: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

I am of the opinion that Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is perfect summer vacation reading. Even though those books are bloated by all kinds of Coke drinking, logistical chicanery, and wangst, the pages absolutely rip along, like finding a google hole of related self-important blog posts by a group of people who you kind of can’t stand, but also adore and want to have a drink with. I didn’t really track this while I was reading them, as I was too caught up rolling my eyes at the world mechanics – seriously, who is growing food or packing, shipping and delivering all the godamn stuff you assholes are ordering on the Internet - but Grant (possibly slyly) really captures the bullshit teapot tempest feel of the blogosphere. Only two privileged white kids who live with their parents can save us all! But, gosh, it was a lot of fun to read, and perfect for long summer evenings on the back porch. 

So I finished them up last summer, and in the last week of this summer, I discovered there are a bunch of enovellas set in the Newsflesh world. Sign me right up, gin and tonic in hand. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats feels a little like Hugo-bait (which I see worked, because this was nominated for the Hugo in the novella category for 2013). The Hugo is the more fannish of the sff awards, as it is decided by the participants in World Con, not SFWA or or other more trade-y organizations. Whether that sentence made any sense to you is probably a good indicator of whether this novella will work for you, as Browncoats is aimed pretty solidly at the nerd demographic. A novella about a zombie outbreak at a nerd con being voted on by nerd con participants is a good bet for the win. But hey, I’m a nerd and con goer, also for the win. 

But my nerdery aside, I think Browncoats minimized the things that bug me about the Newsflesh world: the tech-babble and less-than-punchy aphoristic intros and extros, the self-aggrandizement of douches, the shaky social architecture. The novella read much more like a lost chapter from World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, with the whingeing, bloggerly interjections of the After the End Times staff kept to a minimum, and the wide ranging events of the Comic Con outbreak related though multiple perspectives and points of view. My favorite of the End Times staff, Mahir, has gone to interview the last known survivor of Comic Con 2014 thirty years later, and the proceedings have that same Studs Terkel retrospective sensibility which both dampens the immediate arm-wheeling and tinges everything with sadness – two things the Newsflesh world could use more of, imao. 

Con kid Lorelei goes off to sulk in her hotel while her parents set up the Firefly fan booth. A young woman is rescued by a Jedi when a zombie panel attacks. A blind woman and her dog get stuck in the booth. A starlet for a time-travel cop show – “My TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit” – is abandoned by her handler with newlywed fans. There’s a lot of geek hat-tips to Who or the “fake geek girl” thing or – obviously – the Whedonverse, while pulling off a pretty good outbreak in a locked room scenario. 

Per usual with Newsflesh, I have some serious questions about Kellis-Amberlee, the disease that causes the zombiism, and why the zombies seem to hold off for a period other than narrative convenience and if they’re actually dead and stuff, but that’s not really no nevermind. One of the things I like about Grant’s novels is that the zombies are actually called zombies, not some coy new term. That a convention center full of geeks would leap to the term and start trying to hash out the “rules” for the outbreak based on fiction, even if they get it wrong, felt refreshing. Too often characters in fiction seem never to have heard of zombies, despite the zombie’s half-century of existence in its modern mobbing guise. 

So, my read of this was a perfect storm of situation and personality, aimed solidly at my demographic, fixing some broken things for me, and, ah, the drone of cicadas. It’s probably also the only of the novellas I’ve read so far that I might even recommend to people who haven’t read the trilogy, because as an episodic back story piece, you don’t really have to get into the whole thing. Fed is an alternate ending on Feed, and as such, is a major spoiler, and How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea occurs after the Newsflesh events, and is stupid. I haven’t read Countdown, but I will, Oscar, I will. It’s like 90 degrees and the first day of school, and for sure I can get it in before the leaves turn and the first homework is assigned. Allons-y! Rise up while you can!

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I went to look up reviews for this, and I am nervous about writing a review because so many of them say they have to wait to write a review? I checked into Netgalley, where I got this ARC, and there don’t seem to be restrictions? I guess I’ll just hang onto my thoughts, so I don’t end up on a blacklist somewhere for spilling beans too early. Spoiler alert: this is a really good young adult science fiction novel, which has shades of Shards of Honor and Solaris, but more claustrophobic than the first, and less airless than the latter. These Broken Stars is a ripping teen survivalist narrative that probably could have more exploration of the final philosophical conflict – the part that really had me sitting up – but still just a joyfully fun read with interesting, likable characters. 

In space.

 the universe is fucking rad

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

There’s an episode in Little House on the Prairie - the book, not the tv show. Jeez, people, I’m writing here on bookface after all – where Laura finds a book of Tennyson’s poems in the house. She realizes that it’s to be gift from her folks to her, and shuts up the book and puts it away, but not before reading these tantalizing lines, from “The Lotus Eaters”:

“COURAGE!” he said, and pointed toward the land,
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”

She obsesses about this: what will they do? What manner of monster will they meet? Will they have the courage they need to face the island and its foes? 

She receives the book, in due course, and is horrified, shocked, by the culmination of the poem: they do drugs, and wander off in haze of beauty and iambic pentameter, shucking all their dreary work. It offends Laura’s Midwestern Protestant Work Ethic that this happens, and gives her an excuse to tell us to Not Do Drugs, kids. Apparently, the American war on drugs has been going on for a while longer than we thought. 

I thought of this after reading Solaris, because there’s something of the “Lotus Eaters” in this book. It starts out, in medias res, with our protagonist, Kelvin, on his bumpy descent to the outpost above the planet of Solaris. It’s very Joe Blaster science fiction: the rocky ride, the will-he-or-won’t-he dock properly, the opening scenes in the station itself, with mayhem and blood on the floor, the protagonist looking for some sort of futurist scifi gun, etc. And then, nothing. Or not nothing, but a lot of thinking and considering, musing in the emptiness of space about the nature of consciousness, of God and Man. It’s the 60s, Woman hasn’t been invented yet. 

Despite my Midwestern Protestant upbringing (because of?), I rather liked this. It’s nowhere near perfect: Kelvin periodically gets himself to the library for some seriously painful info-dumps. We spend several chapters learning about scholarship about the planet of Solaris, or its topography, or whatever. I was seriously tempted to skip this stuff, and skimmed like crazy, but I was bothered by the sense I may be quizzed on this later. I wasn’t, so skip it if you’ve never read it. 

The central conceit: the person who most embodies your shame, your guilt, will appear in bodily form in the station above Solaris. The person appears to be a manifestation of the strange, long-studied, planet-wide ocean entity on the surface. Kelvin’s is his long-dead wife, who killed herself after they had a nasty fight. She is unable to leave his side, and moves doors off of hinges to stay with him. She is indestructible, immortal; when she is killed, and who wouldn’t kill the person of his shame? she resurrects, horribly. We never learn about anyone else’s “visitor” but Kelvin’s, but they are there nonetheless, in bangs and murmurs, the sounds of murders and arguments, the glimpse of a hat on the vid-phone (I mentioned that this is 60s scifi, right?) This isn’t Terminator; they don’t wake to a terrible purpose and murder Kelvin and his fellow scientists. Kelvin and his fellow humans become increasingly isolated from one another: locked into the rooms of their own shame, reading quietly while a resurrected lover sits quietly in the half-light. 

What if our first contact with an alien race was so alien that we could never understand that contact, and the contact, for them, was at best a reflex of the nervous system? What if that alien was a child, a god-child, unknowing and unknowable? Lem plays with this, doesn’t let us know anything but the unknowing, the voyage within, the self and its mirrors in the claustrophobia of our humanness. How can you understand what you’re not? Sometimes, its transcendent, beautiful, and his language soars in the kind of poetry science fiction is attuned to. Kelvin is talking; his colleague, Snow responds: 

“’No’ I interrupted. ‘I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a…sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems of mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, which now measures his unending defeat.’

Snow hesitated…. ‘There was Manicheanism.’”

Don’t you love this? Isn’t it funny and sad, this essential lack of communication between one person and another? C’mon, Snow, Manicheanism? Were you even listening? Sadly, I think you were. How could we hope to contact the alien when we’re so thoroughly baffled by the familiar?

But, unfortunately, sometimes this kind of story is just boring, and I feel like Laura, on the prairie, frustrated by all this thinking and not doing. Lem is definitely being subversive, the way he begins by shouting “Courage!” and pointing to the shore, but the shore is a mirage, and you’re left in boat, in an ocean that may not be real either, dreaming of status reports and neutrinos, whose reality is transitory, at best.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I started and chucked several reviews to this book that either went on wild tangents – the kind I could never hope to come back from – or rolling into sounding a ton more negatively about this book than I actually feel. I think I’ve finally figured out what my problem is, and in order to get this across, I will now go on a tangent, one I hope I can come back from. 

I had a really great evening last night. One of my oldest friends invited over a collection of her female friends. Most of these women I had never met before, except for one, who apparently went to the same high school as I, but I only vaguely remember her. We all told stories, drank wine, and ate some of the most excellent cookies of my acquaintance. It wasn’t earth-shattering; we didn’t solve the world’s problems or say anything particularly meaningful – although I did get to have a freak-out about another girl from my high school who right now, as I type, is correcting people to pronounce my name wrong – it’s ker-ID-wen, you bitch, not CARE-id-wen, and quit telling people different – and I always like to complain about her. But the really enjoyable part of the evening, for me, was driving home and realizing that 15 years ago, such an event – going to someone’s house to gab with women I didn’t know – would have left me in shuddering terror. I’ve outgrown my adolescent social terror. This is not to say I won’t continue to be socially awkward, because I am and I will, or that I won’t also contemplate on my drive home all the stupid things I said, and rue them, because I did and shall.

This book is like this experience in two ways. First, it’s better experienced than re-told, like most good times. I focused more on the food than the conversation in my little anecdote, because it’s easier to talk about the concrete than it is on the more ephemeral qualities of good conversation and good people – how can I get across to you that a little mini-conversation about the problems of bread-making slipped into a little moment of reverie about Grandma Dory and her Swedish Limpa recipe, which, only for a second, transported me to the smell of her basement and the baskets of onions and potatoes on the shelf? But then the conversation moves, and I hear an anecdote about bakeries in LA, which is shared with other memories of the city for other women in the circle. There’s a lot of incidental in Shards of Honor - an alien planet with weird floating vampire jellyfish, the shape and texture of space ships, the politics of two worlds and two lives that are told anecdotally between two people. 

A lot happens in Shards of Honor, from running about on an alien planet, to mutinies on space ships, gun battles, politics, torture, crazy people, sane people. Just…stuff. Cool stuff. Space opera stuff. But the real thing I enjoyed, the thing I dug, was the relationship between Cordelia and Vorkosigan. I don’t feel like I can bear down on this too hard, whatever that means, because their growing understanding is something interstitial, unspoken, something that unfolds quietly at the edges of action. They’re grown-ups – which is how I think my bs anecdote relates in another way – they have gotten over the flailing self-involved panic of youth, but that doesn’t mean that they get everything right or stop worrying about all the stuff they don’t get right. 

There’s some off-notes to this book – it skips around too much, and maybe it has too many endings – although the last ending, the one that is an unrelated vignette of a salvage ship recovering the bodies vented into space during one of the space battles has a melancholy empathy I really grokked. But it was enjoyable, something I look forward to reading again, the kind of story that lends itself to re-reading not because it blows your mind, but because it is familiar in a way that belies all of the space opera and scifi accoutrement. Two people tell each other stories, and in that telling, they find understanding, and understanding is the house of love. 

Crying Shames: Reader’s Block by David Markson

Godamn it. I wanted to love this so hard, but it just fell flat for me. Fuck.

I wanted to tear up and roll around in Wittgenstein’s Mistress for the rest of my life. Everything about it did it for me – the post-apocalyptic locale, the odd, glancing humor, the damaged narrator, the throat-strangling sadness. You guys! I found my post-Modernist writer! A writer who can kick the shit out of me in about 200 pages, while being experimental and allusive and just plain fun? Jeesh, that’s not something you run across every day, no sir. In Autobiography of Red, Carson talks about the Gertrude Steinian piece of meat, left in the middle of the Modernist trapeze to stink and rot, a heart that isn’t so much beating as writhing. That was Wittgenstein’s Mistress for me: Steinian meat in a box of scraps, at the end of the world, with a bunch of cartons of books in the basement. It made me freak out so bad I ordered a used copy of Reader’s Block because my libs didn’t have it, nor any other Markson. Shame.

But, no. In terms of the feel of the prose and the choppy, Twittery sentences, Reader’s Block is very similar to Wittgenstein’s Mistress: all these gossipy anecdotes and listing, personal stories of the art-set instead of the art of the art-set, fuckery about voice and who and what blah blah. If that’s what you’re into with Markson, then this is going to be cool. But I loved the fuck out of Wittgenstein’s Mistress for its central coathanger of sadness, this quick charcoal sketch of a woman at the end of all things who tears up and rearranges the artifacts of culture and then rolls around in them for the rest of her life. I can’t get on with this Reader construct, writing a non-novel with a character called Protagonist who might live by the graveyard. The graveyard’s got no ghost, yo. More importantly, it’s got no meat. Shame, it’s a godamn shame. I wanted to love this so hard.

Wake by Amanda Hocking

I picked up Wake last week when I was up north. Amanda Hocking is a Minnesota writer, whom you might have heard of because she is a self-publishing superstar. I think her success story is just adorable, I kind of love everything about it, and I’d resolved to read something of hers eventually. I was under the mistaken impression that Wake was about mermaids living in Lake Superior, so this seemed like the logical place to start. You know, because I would read the crap out of a novel about mermaids in Lake Superior. Wake is about mermaids (sort of, more sirens than half-fish ladies) but the locale is the Maryland coast. Not that my disappointment about locations really has anything to do with anything. 

The novel opens with a chatty, boppy little opening, establishing our two point of view characters, Harper and Gemma Fisher. The names are pretty indicative of tone. Gemma is our 16 year old protagonist, and clearly she was named first. Her name’s kinda chick-litty and unlikely – Americans don’t name their kids Gemma, and it reads as exotic/fancy – with a cute little metaphorical implication of someone named fisher being in a siren book, right? But then Harper Fisher? This is just straight up a terrible name, and I find it hard to imagine the kind of people who would saddle their kid with two occupations as monikers. Or if I can imagine them, they look very different from the parents here. 

These are book names: romantic, lightly metaphorical, and also kinda girly milquetoast. Gemma Fisher is what you want to be named when you’re 14 and someone just mangled your oddball Celtic name for the umpteenth time and then asked you if you had a nickname. No, fool, I would have just given you the nickname instead of going through fifteen minutes of you acting like I made my name up to make your life hard. Well, that escalated quickly. Also, I never wanted to change my name, but I can totally see the appeal of names like Gemma & Harper to teens, who were named Jennifer and Kristen before there were 27 Jennifers in every class, and they want in on the new name that there will be 27 of in every class. 

The opening of the novel sets up the sisters’ lightly sniping relationship, and a couple of boy love interests for the sisters, in addition to foreshadowing you with a two-by-four about a pack of mean girls. Harper and Gemma’s mom is packed away in a home because of a traumatic brain injury; their dad ain’t handling it so well; Harper more or less acts as Gemma’s mom in a caring but overbearing way, blah blah blah. This is going to be an uncharitable thing to say, but I thought of the writing advice attributed to Elmore Leonard: don’t write the parts people skip. So much of this was skippable, from reams of unnecessary dialogue – seriously, I did not need a whole run down of the breakfast options this morn – to the logistical wranglings – hey, I left my bike at the pool; can I get a ride – to the artless but inoffensive prose. It was nice that Gemma’s paramour was the sweet, nerdy boy-next-door, but, gotta say, their relationship had zero juice. 

I ended up just giving up because I could just see this muddling on to its three-star conclusion. I’m going to dig parts of it because I can see that it focuses pretty strongly on female relationships, and that is something depressingly lacking in a lot of YA. (Hell, in a lot of fiction, period.) The tension is going to be about Harper and Gemma’s relationship when Gemma gets all siren’d up; plus, sirens are a pretty weighty metaphor about female sexuality, etc. But there’s going to be a half dozen things that make me bananas, like Gemma’s solo night swims in the ocean. Everyone’s on her for it because she’s a swim team star and shouldn’t waste her swimming at night or something? No. Do not swim alone at night in the ocean ever. Don’t swim alone. I don’t care how strong of a swimmer you are; they might never find your body. 

Like the names, the night swimming is included because it sets up this romantic situation – ah, the water in the moonlight – but it doesn’t make sense that a swimmer wouldn’t have very basic water safety drilled into her by her coach, who would do more than sigh and shake his head if he found out about it. Oh, also, mama’s crazy, and I can see that going nowhere good. But! I can see why Hocking is so successful. It’s real mundane, but in a way that makes the mundanity just a little bit shiny. Gemma’s a good girl and Harper’s a book nerd, (I’m a good girl and a book nerd!) and they have pretty boring problems, (I have pretty boring problems!) you know, until dun dun (omg, college!). 

I can also see the appeal of the girlishness of the whole package here. I showed my six year old daughter the cover – and my daughter is a damn fine barometer of girlishness – and she was pretty into it. But then I peeled the cover off and showed her the poster that’s secretly on the back of the book jacket.

two swimmers in a blue background holding hands

She more or less freaked out about it. What are they doing? I want to go swimming too. Wake isn’t going to be about saving the world or huge action sequences. It’s not going to culminate in fisticuffs or explosions. Instead, it’s going to be this chatty, actionless parable about not fitting in and growing up and female sexuality, which is going to resonate for girls on exactly the same tuning-fork frequency as Twilight. I honestly think that’s great, the whole girl pulp for girls thing, and Wake seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of not being regressive and reactionary about female relationships slash sexuality. 

But I am, alas, old and cranky, and this just is way not for me. Frankly, Gemma and Harper are so muted, such nice people, that I had a hard time relating to them. (And that thing where girls can’t tell if they’re horny or just embarrassed – she wondered at the blush creeping up her cheeks, etc – is just weird. Can’t you tell that at a pretty young age?) I figure if I want to hear a story about a coven of mean girls, I’ll just re-watch The Craft.

the girls from The Craft having a picnic

The Days Grow Longer: The Age Of Wonder

I feel slightly apologetic about how much I loved reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, because it would be easy to sit down and enumerate all the things that are going to bother other people. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and do that right now. But I still adored this, despite its occasional weakness, because I closed this book and wafted around the cabin for at least half a day, completely filled with this bittersweet nostalgia and a strangely pleasant sense of doom. I keep telling people about it like an albatross. Which doesn’t really work as a metaphor, but whatever. 

The Age of Miracles reminds me very strongly of the films Melancholia and Another Earth, which are both nominally science fictional, but have trained their interest on the emotional upheavals of the protagonists much more than on whatever scientific bunkum was used to hand-wave the scenario. Here, the scenario that the earth’s rotation has begun slowing, somewhat rapidly at first – each day adding on hours, then even the slowing slowing. The story is told retrospectively from the point of view of Julia, who was eleven at the start of the slowing. 

According to the interview in the back of the book, the idea for this came from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami*, which was such a large geological event that it sped up the spin of earth by several microseconds and affected the tilt of the earth by a few centimeters. But, as the article I link to humanely observes, “The shortening of Earth’s day is no cause for consternation, particularly in light of the huge humanitarian crisis sparked by Sunday’s events. The death toll from the tsunami that lashed coasts across the Indian Ocean has now passed 100,000.” (The death toll would eventually rise to well over 230,000 people, with millions displaced.) The real story is not in wonky science facts, but in the lives affected the facts, which is why I don’t care about strict plausibility in why the slowing happened. If you’re the kind of reader who is bothered by the lack of scientific explanation in, say, The Road, then this isn’t the book for you. (Also, jeez, tin man.) 

The slowing isn’t devastating at first, more this tension of not knowing and disruption. There’s no looting and rioting – least not in Julia’s quiet suburb – more post-9/11-ish worry and can-hoarding and not going to work for a week until you decide that there’s nothing to be done, so you go back and live your life, even though everything is wrong and probably won’t be right again. Julia’s best friend – from a large, Mormon family, decamps to a settlement in Utah for some time, leaving Julia alone in the way only 11-year-old girls who have lost their best friends can be lonely. And when the bff comes back, she’s switched best friends and lets Julia know in the cruel way of the young that Julia was out. 

This never happened to me, but it did happen to my bff Christina, whom I picked up on the rebound from Annie. Annie had a new best friend every year, and while the friend-drop usually happened during summer break, in the fifth grade it happened inexplicably mid-year, and suddenly Annie was everywhere with Libby, freezing out Christina. I still remember Christina, in this weird bit of a shrug, identifying the fourth grade friend of Annie, the one she had replaced. She knew. God, that age is such a shitshow, and Walker captures it like fireflies in a jar, which you watch blinking in the darkness like wonder, and when you wake up, it’s just dead black bugs you shake out apologetically into the grass. Grass that’s dying, and then dead, and eventually you can’t remember the smell of grass because it’s extinct. 

And while I said there isn’t a real tight explanation for why the slowing is happening, the details of how people would react to the lengthening days and long nights felt true. People in the arctic go nuts during the white nights. My uncle worked for the National Health Service in Alaska – up in the crazy hard to get to parts – and his stories of the bleary, easy to upset children playing basketball in the bright midnight, their parents given up on porches with longnecks, would not be out of place. The authorities decide to put everyone on “clock time” – living according to a 24 hour clock, despite the sun or lack – because “real time” while Romantic, just keeps stretching and stretching into madness. But it’s all madness: the clocks, the sun, the dark, the slow, beautiful, horrible end of it all that doesn’t really end but just drips slowly. 

I bought a bunch of canned goods and water after I got screwed recently with a four day power outage after a storm downed trees and snapped lines all over the metro – which sucked, thank you – and I can see the water already evaporating, the expiration dates on the can ticking toward botulism. “That was the last day I tasted pineapple,” says Julia, the last day of whales, confused by the changing magnetosphere, beached and dying, the last day of birds. My husband and I have the “bigger problems” caveat when we talk about end of the world scenarios – who gives about the Internet or kissing boys or your parents slow, ugly implosion or whatnot when cannibal corpses are hungering for your flesh – but really, this is all smaller problems in the way that makes me think that smaller problems are only and ever the kind of problems to focus on. The water is going to evaporate. The bigger problems are so big as to be untouchable. 

I don’t know. Or, I guess I do know that The Age of Miracles will be dismissed as young adult literature for girls by some. As a woman who was once a girl who occasionally reads young adult literature, I can say this isn’t really aimed at teens: it’s too slow, too sorrowful, too retrospective. The Julia in the unknown future who is recounting this time period is a ghost, a mirage, and her reticence to explicate the details of her future existence shines the story into a welter of its own mirage, an oasis of all of the last things which are also first things. The first last things until the bigger problems came home, the time when everything slowed like lost summers. 

This isn’t going to work for a lot of people, I know, and that makes me a little sad. Sad not because I wish everyone could be like me, or have my childhood or my occasional despair which would make this work for them, but because my heart is somewhere in this mess, beating slowly in its real time, which is Romantic and untimely unworkable, but it’s the only heart I’ve got. Look here: my heart. Its days grow longer. But the days grow short here at the end of summer, the sky gone purple before it’s time to put the kids to bed. My daughter is asleep on the couch, and I will carry her to her childhood dreams. Amen. 

*Also, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds was based on some of particulars of Indian Ocean Tsunami – I hate to say “inspired by” because that’s a gross way to put it – just as a random fact.

Zombies Hate Stuff and I Love Them For It

Zombies Hate Stuff is stupid. Also, I loved it. These are not mutually exclusive things, obviously. After reading it twice – and “reading” is altogether an active verb for a book with 80 words and 56 pictures – I left it on the kitchen table, the way I do, and the kids picked it up. I spent the span of a salad preparation listening to my son read this out to my daughter – let me see! she’d yell, and he’d dip the pages – which he did twice before losing interest and wandering off. This left the girl, who is just out of kindergarten, sounding out a series of things zombies hate, or don’t mind, or really hate. For example, zombies hate kittens:

a zombie menaces two kittens

Zombies don’t mind magic:

a zombie being pulled out of a magic hat

But zombies really hate moon penguins:

moon penguins pointing a gun at a zombie

This is the kind of book I wish I had ALL THE IMAGES so I could show you my favorite, and then decide that wasn’t my favorite, and then show you my REAL favorite. For example, this might be the best:

a zombie spitted on the horn of a unicorn

Because I read the whole collection of Zombies Vs. Unicorns looking for a zed/uni combat, and I hate to say, I was disappointed. That someone has slaked my bloodlust on that front is worth something. Also, the author description of this book is hugely adorable: 

My history with the undead boils down to this: I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time in 2004 and thought it was really cool, so I started adding zombies to my paintings. Not gross, rotting ghouls like you see these days, but classy zombies who understand the importance of a good suit and tie. (The small amount of research that I did do showed that nine out of ten victims prefer being eaten by a professional living corpse who looks the part, versus some slacker zombie who thinks that it is actually okay to wear pajama pants in public.) Getting back to my incredibly enthralling artistic evolution: first I painted lone zombies wandering through pretty landscapes, then I unleashed the walking dead on a series of unsuspecting penguins, and finally I turned the ghouls against the entire world in a series of pieces entitled “Zombies Hate…” whatever. Eventually it occurred to me to organize all these random zombie hatreds into a book.

I mean, don’t you just want to hug this dude? I do. Unleashing zombies on unsuspecting penguins is the kind of genius that this country needs right now. 

So, I’m glad I got to work on vocab with the kids – you pronounce the qu like a k in mannequins - and I’m also glad I’m going to have nightmares about that outhouse zombie. It’s rule #3 after all. 

still from Zombieland