Monthly Archives: October 2013

Republic of Thieves

republic of thieves

There are some spoilers herein. I’m not giving away the whole book or anything, but if you’re sensitive to them I would stay away. That is all.

This was a vast improvement over the previous installment. It corrected almost all the problems I had with the previous book, as well as picking out and keeping some elements that I really did cheer for.

By this book, Scott Lynch has found a formula that appears to be working for him. Just as with the second book, the beginning of the third book finds Locke and Jean struggling with the aftermath of all the things that went wrong with the disaster that ended their previous adventure.  Jean lost his lady love (in a move that I still feel was unnecessary and the fate of all too many fantasy novel ladies), and Locke is still poisoned with the apocryphal substance that, it seemed, would turn out to be the bullshit that 80% of what they are involved in winds up being- until the final few pages when it was made clear it was not. Locke secretly makes Jean take the only antidote to the poison, which means that Locke is the only one left poisoned- effects to be made apparent six weeks or so after the close of the second novel. To boot, they are left with not much alternative but to leave their current city, with very much less than the funds that they had planned to have (because for all their cleverness, they are not as clever as they think they are- this is the part where George Clooney and the gang discover that Vincent Cassel beat them to their mark and all their cleverness doesn’t matter so much. Only there’s not much of a clever back-up plan to redeem them in the rest of the movie.)

As before, Scott Lynch uses this time to indulge in a pause in the plot that allows for him to tie up loose ends and show off some of both the most and least attractive traits of his protagonists. It picks up two months or so after we’ve last seen the boys, in a new city where they’ve landed by virtue of Locke being too sick to go on and running out of funds. Jean is desperately trying to find Locke a cure for the poison, no doctor can help, Locke has reached the point of self-pityingly trying to get Jean to leave him to die (is this sounding familiar?). As in the second novel, Scott Lynch writes accurately and incisively about the ugly, dark nature of depression, and how hard it is to continue to like someone when they’ve sunk that far down- often everyone around the person has to get ugly themselves. He does some interesting psychological analysis of the “death wish” and what we would call Locke’s manic depressiveness or possibly some form of bipolar disorder. Having kept up with the reasons behind the late publishing of this book, it is hard not to see some personal experience creeping into the book here, but it makes what could have been a meandering opening powerful and persuasive.

At this point, Lynch introduces the ever convenient fantasy deus ex machina of magic and intrigue that swoop in to change the boys’ life and give them the kick in the ass to keep going on to the next high flying con. The proposal comes to them from a member of the Bondsmages, which fans of the series will remember from the delightfully evil Falconer in the first book. Her proposal is to help Locke in exchange for his help in a little matter of her own. There are elections happening in Bondsmage-ville, which this lady would very much like to turn out a certain way, and which for Reasons she can’t interfere with directly. But she would like to interfere indirectly very much by putting Locke and Jean on the case. Oh and did we mention, because OF COURSE, this case pits Locke and Jean against their old friend and Locke’s forever-lady-love Sabetha?

Hijinx (interspersed with some capital-D drama), you can safely say, ensue.

Lynch doubles back to his manner of storytelling from the first book. He opens us in the midst of the present action, and then once we get going, he does his character development and adds pathos and history and humor and breaks from the action through episodic throwback memories to the days of glory of the Gentleman Bastards. In this case, there is a heavy dose of memories of Locke’s growing relationship with and then feelings for, Sabetha, the only female member of their little gang. This evolves into a progressing ancient-history con (including some long-dead friends who get to come back to play!) that moves forward alongside the present day con.

At times this device can break up the action a bit too much for my taste- to the point where I feel and I feel that Lynch is much less invested in the present day plot because it gets so much less attention than the one being told through memories. But then again, by book three we’re all in it for the characters and we’ve waited this long to meet Sabetha so I’m betting that not too many people are complaining.

Although Locke’s love-at-first-sight-from-childhood thing was less than convincing, once I accepted it as a fact, I got over it and ended up finding it as charming as I was meant to. I also liked her, overall. I do feel that she’s a bit much of a standard fantasy type of woman- beautiful, intimidatingly smart, and very very prickly and ill-tempered for no apparent reason but making her seem cool and not girly-girl typical in any way. I appreciated her insistence on independence and having her own life. I liked how self-aware she was about her hang-ups and how aware of Locke’s flaws she was. It made her more distant than I liked, but as the book progressed we saw the shell crack and I suspect that we’ll find out later on that she’s much less distant than she appears. I also really liked the time that Lynch took to let her and Jean have a relationship too- and remember that she and Locke with their Twooo Wuuuvv were not the only ones with a history.

The con/plot itself is fun, and much more tightly plotted than the last one. It mostly consists of “What crazy thing did Sabetha do now? How are we going to respond to that crazy thing and get crazier ourselves?” It was episodic and cinematic and I could hear the soundtrack of wackiness playing as I read it, but that, I thought, was a sign that everything was moving along as it should be, at least in the present day section of the plot. The whole Locke/Sabetha  courtship aspect was a wee bit unrealistic given the apparent danger both of them would have been in from both sides (although I suppose there’s an argument to be made for Locke’s near-death experience and his general impetuousness/possible impulse control issues), but who the fuck cares at this point? Again, I defy you to tell me that anyone wanted less screen time for their romance by this point in the series.

By the end of the book, Lynch seems to be finally giving hints that the rest of the series may start to operate at a more macro level, with the whole book universe getting involved in a larger plot, more like a traditional epic. Heretofore, and for the most part in this book, Locke and Jean’s world is heavily confined to the present city and moment that Lynch has built- but it seems all this world building will not be for nothing. I suspect it is going to start all being woven together slowly over the course of the next few books until the boys (and possibly and more than likely Sabetha) will somehow be involved in the central A plot climax this has all be leading to.

But there’s also plenty of personal drama to come as well. Sabetha is fled, and the character who seems to be being set up as a Big Bad or at least Locke’s personal long-term nemesis basically ends this book running off maniacally into the night laughing, “Mwahahaahaha!”

I’m not sure how I feel about this whole “Locke is magic and fantasy” element that’s being introduced, but Lynch has left the door open for it all to turn out to be bullshit, and I must say that I hope it does turn out to be just that because one of the strengths of Locke Lamora’s character is that he has avoided being caught up in a lot of the tropes of fantasy epics. Going in for the “magical, dark unknown past, hey it turns out you are a prince with important parents and are a special snowflake!” thing would be a bit much. But hey, Lynch proved me wrong with this book- it was much better than I had hoped. Here’s hoping he can pull that off too if that’s the way that’s going.

This is getting exciting, sports fans! I’ll see you at the next installment. Seems we’re gearing up for another Sabetha centered plotline, the one that was hinted at  in this book, moving around the governmental collapse we’ve heard about distantly in Emberlain. New city, new characters, and you know what that means… new con! Can’t hardly wait.


Are Editorial Decisions an “Author Behavior”?

Roughly a dozen reviews of books edited by Trisha Telep were deleted recently in the purge of reviews about “author behavior” on Goodreads. All of the anthologies had been shelved do-not-read because of the editorial decisions of Telep concerning the anthology Wicked Pretty Things. Gather round for this story, friends.

Now, I don’t have the lowdown on everything that went on, but the broad strokes are as follows: Jessica Verday submitted a story to Telep which had, for its romantic leads, two boys. Everything was very g-rated in terms of content, but still, boys fell in love. It was rejected on the grounds that Telep thought a YA anthology should be “light on alternative sexuality”, and Verday was asked to change one of the boys into a girl. She refused, and pulled out of the anthology. Verday wrote about why she was pulling out of the anthology, which resulted inseveral other writers pulling out of this anthology. Additionally, a couple writers pulled out of other Telep edited anthologies, and more than a few calls for boycott of all of Telep’s work, if not Running Press entirely, went out. More than a few writers spoke publicly. Running Press issued a bizarre statement, somehow standing by both Telep and the LBGT community. Telep did eventually issue real sounding apology, though it was buried in a comment thread and apparently posted under someone else’s account. Running Press, in an op-ed in Publisher’s Weekly, wrote a nasty, inaccurate hatchet job of Verday, presumably to get her blackballed in the industry for being a trouble-maker. Eventually, the anthology was cancelled, presumably because so many people pulled out.

Here’s the thing: I see a lot of chickenshit marketing decisions made by editors, from whitewashing to…what is this called? straightwashing?…usually for the usual bullshit marketing reasons that “people racists won’t buy a book with a black face on the cover” or “OH NO TEH GAYS”. It’s out of my hands, they say, and I have to pander to the racist/sexist/homophobic common denominator because otherwise the book won’t sell. Also, occasionally, TEH CHILDREN: THINK OF THEM.

And it’s a tough call, as a reader, as to how we deal with these chickenshit editorial decisions. I have a collection of editions of the book A Wizard of Earthsea because that book is my heart. Earthsea has a black protagonist, and has, since its publication in the 60s, been whitewashed both in covers and in movie versions, and a lot. The original 1968 Ace paperback depicts a shirtless, well-cut blond man, arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose, with a blue-black beastie hulking on his shoulders.

In addition to being hideous and dated, this cover turns the main character, Ged, into some kind of gym-bunny with white skin, when he’s specifically described as having black skin in the book.

One could argue that the original cover was just a product of its time, but the whitewashing has persisted for decades. The 1991 Macmillan hardcover is slightly less egregious, at least in terms of art stylings, but Ged’s still a white boy. A figure in a blue monk’s cloak, or possibly a dress, fights off a shadow being with a staff.

(Or maybe he’s a girl? I don’t even know what’s going on there, given that all of the conflict in the story is emotional.) The 2004 SyFy channel miniseries “Earthsea” – which uses material from the first two Earthsea books -cast Ged as the blond, blue-eyed Shawn Ashmore, in addition to greater sins of adaption.

Or let’s take this more current. I was really discouraged by the cover for The Best of All Possible Worlds, which looks to me like a whitewashing. I presume that’s the main character, who is, again, specifically described as having dark skin in the text. A white face in close up is superimposed on a blown out white background. It’s possible this is just a dark face hyper blown out, in a nod to Kubrickian science fictional style, but it doesn’t exactly sit well given that he novel itself addresses race in interesting, clever, and sly ways, very carefully talking about how appearance informs culture and vice versa. I, personally, was able to overlook an editorial decision to get at a book that was so much better and more thoughtful than the cover.

But the editorial decisions by Telep, at the very least in this one instance, cut out the other and the sly, straightwashing these stories into the heteronormative usual. Buying this book wouldn’t be me overcoming an editorial decision to get at a more interesting content; it would be me buying into a vision of young adult literature that’s afraid of “alternative sexuality.” (I object to this phrasing.) Not that I can buy this book anyway, but the point stands: there are times when I think editorial tempering is so bad that I don’t want anything to do with the book, or the editor in general.

I’m too damn lazy to look this up, but I get the impression that lots of young adult literature is consumed by old adults, and pandering to the prejudices of a bunch of fully formed bigots instead of writing to the forming sexualities of teens, many of whom might be OH NO TEH GAY, is the worst kind of editorial cowardice. I know many people read young adult literature because they are scared of cussing and sex scenes, which I guess is fine as a personal preference, and of course the prim deserve reading material too. (But also kinda fuck those people, btw.) But I’m going to draw the line at coddling pearl-clutchers who can’t handle even the idea of gay teens in books for teens, as there was no sexual content in Verday’s story.

It is my firm belief that young adult literature should be for young adults, all of them, no exceptions. I do actually read young adult books, and have, mostly by accident, read one book edited by Telep, so this isn’t the idle thoughts of someone outside the genre. I thought the one Telep-edited book I read, Clockwork & Corsets, was pretty terrible, so maybe my decision not to read other books edited by Telep isn’t what you’d call a hard choice. I honestly don’t know if there’s been a capitulation on the part of Running Press or Telep since the mess two years ago. There is the one public apology, weird as it is, that seems to be earnest, although at least one writer who came forward saying that Telep had asked them to “de-gay” characters before (though anonymously) and it could be a more widespread thing with her editing. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, just give you the information as I see it.

But to bring this back to the review deletions: there is absolutely no good reason that Goodreads should be deleting reviews that mention this controversy. We all have to make choices about how we deal with the editorial decisions surrounding books, and straightwashing and whitewashing are so prevalent in the industry that silencing mention of them is not just foolhardy, but on the wrong side. For example, there’s been criticism of the casting of the movie version of Divergent for casting Four as white, when he has been described as biracial by the author, though interestingly, not in the text itself. Or the howling by racists that went up when Rue from Hunger Games was cast as black because –  surprise racists! – she was described as black in the text. Let us decide for ourselves with the full knowledge of the situation. We’re not idiots or children, and I resent immensely being treated like one.

And Goodreads should also get out of individual people’s decisions to boycott an editor or a writer for political reasons, and for reasons that are so inextricably bound in our notions of genre. I doubt very strongly that there would have been even the one apology if there hadn’t been significant pressure both from the writers pulling out of this edition, or readers putting their personal boycotts to bear. This anthology would have gone to press, and the bigots would have won. Public mention of this editorial decision is and was vital engagement. Goodreads has absolutely no business getting in the middle of this, silencing readers who have made choices about how they define and engage in a genre. Trisha Telep has one vision of young adult literature, and I reject it. I think erasing gay people from narrative is pretty terrible.

The thing that burns me is Goodreads’s continued silence, their lack of a clear definition of “author behavior”, and this mulish insistence that what they have in their FAQ is good enough. People keep saying that Goodreads apologized to the 21 users that had their reviews deleted, when what they really apologized for was deleting the reviews without notice. The original 21 were all warned not to repost of any of their reviews. I take this to mean that I am outside TOS right now, and that mentioning editorial interference is an “author behavior,” never mind how asinine that is. Never mind that this book cannot have reviews strictly about its content because it was never published; never mind that all the reviews standing are about this controversy as a result. The more I look into the delete list, the more incoherent and unworkable Goodreads’s definition of “author behavior” seems to be.

Goodreads owes us a godamn definition of “author behavior”, and they owe us a site-wide announcement. I swear to god I’ll keep writing these “author behavior” reviews about the reviews they deleted until they delete me or I get one.

Rise up while you can.


Is Being a Racist an “Author Behavior”?

(This was originally posted on Goodreads)

This is one of the books that had reviews deleted in the recent purge about “author behavior” here on Goodreads. You wanna know why? This author is an asshole and you shouldn’t read the book because of that.

But let’s talk about what exact kind of asshole Theodore Beale slash Vox Day is, and why you shouldn’t read this book. (The nom de plume Vox Day is a clever pseudonym meaning “voice of god”, gag.) Then let’s talk about how it’s egregious bullshit that Goodreads is silencing discussion of an author’s political and cultural views, views he has absolutely no qualms about voicing publicly and often, views that make me absolutely sick.

But let’s back up a bit. I’m an unapologetic science fiction nerd. So much so, that I actually pay attention to the teapot tempesting that goes on in SFWA. SFWA is the Science Fiction Writers of America, “a professional organization for authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres. Esteemed past and present members include Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey, Ray Bradbury, and Andre Norton.” SFWA is responsible for the Nebula Award, which, along with the Hugo Award, constitute the two most prestigious awards that the genre offers (in the US of A at least.)

Nebula nominee N.K. Jemisin delivered a speech in Australia last year on the subject of race in science fiction. As much as love the crap out of the genre, science fiction and fantasy can be embarrassingly heternormative and whitewashed, a series of idyllic futures and perfected pasts that erase, ignore, and otherwise delegitimize the voices and personhood of huge swaths of people. Her speech was was just balls-out fantastic, putting voice to all kinds of things that I, science fiction enthusiast, hadn’t seen articulated that exact way before. Big <3s, Jemisin.

Which is why I watched with horror when Theodore Beale took a racist dump in the SFWA Twitter feed, calling Jemisin a “savage” and…let me just let Beale speak for himself:

Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious reason that she is not.

She is lying about the laws in Texas and Florida too. The laws are not there to let whites “just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence”, those self defense laws have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages in attacking white people.

Jemisin’s disregard for the truth is no different than the average Chicago gangbanger’s disregard for the law…

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support. Considering that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilised after their first contact with an advanced civilisation, it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do so in less than half the time with even less direct contact. These things take time.

Being an educated, but ignorant savage, with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by “a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys” than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine, Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity with SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance…

Reconciliation is not possible between the realistic and the delusional.”

I…do I even have to explain why this is the fucking worst? He was expelled from SWFA for this bullshit. Educated but ignorant savage? Genetic fucking science that a black woman is somehow less than human? Are you fucking kidding me?Ugh, omigod, I have to go walk around a while and calm down.

Okay, I’m back. Heretofore, all these discussions of “author behavior” in the sf/f world have focused on the canonical but, um, problematic writer Orson Scott Card. So he’s a vociferous anti-gay activist, Ender’s Game is fucking sweet! Which, fine, compartmentalize the author from the work; that’s totally valid. When you’re dealing with hugely successful, important formative works of the genre, maybe compartmentalization is a thing. But here we’re dealing with some pseudonymous asshole who purports to speak with the voice of God, calls black women savages, and thinks that his racist “science” supports him.

Why on God’s green earth should I spend my money on this dick’s books? More importantly, why should Goodreads shut me down when I talk about this in my review space? Why have they shut down this discussion in even one instance?

To put this review on-topic – I see you, Intern Jimmy – I have almost an allergic reaction to high fantasy that’s all about fearsome Witchkings and mighty Amorran legions, a post-Tolkien stew of Elves and Men, with a bunch of apostrophes in the names to prove the situation is serious and whatnot. I would rather eat glass than deal with yet another Tolkien-clone that strips out the folkloric baby and leaves the bathwater. Which is one of the many reasons I’m not reading Beale’s book, his racist asshatery aside. I shouldn’t even have to put in this on-topic disclaimer though. That is both stupid and ridiculous, and one of the many reasons I want Goodreads to explain their policy, and what the fuck they think they are doing. Right now, they are on the side of racists and child pornographers, and it doesn’t look that good.

amazingly broken

Is Plagiarism an “Author Behavior”?

(This was originally posted on Goodreads.)

I’m going to talk a little off-topic here for a while, Intern Jimmy, so read to the end before you summarily delete this review. Thanks.

This whole Goodreads “author behavior” thing has gone on a number of tangents, at least insofar as the garrulous activities of the most invested Goodreaders are concerned. I’m not saying this is a problem. I think any community works best by the active engagement of its citizens. I’ve been around for some controversies here on GR, from Semennact to VirJohn, to the before-my-time Ginny Jones plagiarism mess. This sometimes very, very heated discussion thing is something we Goodreaders have always done. It gets ugly and personal a lot, and I have seriously considered punching and/or unfriending a number of people in this whole mess. It’s a testimony to our commitment (whichever side we’re on) that it’s such an emotional, fractious, wide-ranging issue.

Which is why the deletions for “off-topic” really bother me: instead of allowing the argument of one group of Goodreaders, Goodreads has opted for silencing them. Setting aside the Hydra reviews (which haven’t really been my thing, as I think they alienate and annoy people) it is absolutely ludicrous that Goodreads deleted a review of a book about censorship when the reviewer herself was talking about the concept as applies to Goodreads. That’s an unbelievable dick-move, and also bullshit. These are both technical literary terms. Sorry to be so litcritical.

But rather than chase down tangents, I want to back up and talk about why I’m so damn irritated with Goodreads in the first place. The narrative got set real early that the initial deletions were about bullying and trolling. Isn’t is reasonable that a book review be about the book? Why should we defend ad hominem nastiness? To the second question: threats and the like were already forbidden on Goodreads, so the policy change seems to be aiming at something else entirely. And to the first: many of the reviews deleted under this new policy had nothing to do with “author behavior”.

A lot of the reviews I’ve been writing recently have been test cases, because Goodreads refuses to talk about what exact kind of author behavior they deem actionable. I’ve written about a writer being a convicted pedophile, and about an author being a serial plagiarist. I even wrote a review about the single book in the serial plagiarist’s catalog not recalled by the publisher warning people off. Science writing has standards, friends, and Jonah Lehrer does not have them. People have flagged these reviews for me, and both kinds of reviews were deleted in the initial purge, and sometimes for the exact same book. (You can find a list of the deleted titles here.) The reviews the initial 21 had deleted did nothing different from mine, and they were deleted while mine still stand.

I would like some clarification on this point, Goodreads. Fuck you for deleting reviews that ask for that clarification in a review field, when you’ve completely abandoned your own Feedback thread weeks ago. Intern Jimmy, here comes the on-topic part.

Which brings us to this book. Three four people (at least) in the initial 21 had reviews of Amazingly Broken deleted. They all noted, just like almost literally all the reviews on Goodreads for Amazingly Broken at this point, that Jordin Williams plagiarized from (at least) Tammara Webber’s Easy and Jamie MacGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, and the book was removed from sale because of that. Given my test reviews, and others I’ve written in the past about plagiarized content (Q.R. Markham’s book being one), Goodreads doesn’t have a problem with me noting this “author behavior”, so why did they delete these three reviews? What standard are they using? Why won’t they even talk about this?

Also, who vandalized the Goodreads database to remove Jordin Williams’s name from this book? That’s galling. Her(his?)  name should be on the record, just like that dipshit Jonah Lehrer and all his fabulations. Removing this information, which is highly pertinent information about the book in question, is wrong. This book IS a book. Presumably copies exist, as it was a popular download there until it was unmasked as containing plagiarized content. It’s just a book no one can read at the moment, but before the book came down on Amazon, the information was important to readers considering spending their money. Presumably, some of these reviews were written then.

Maybe now it doesn’t matter because the book is off sale, and resurrecting this little controversy just looks like pettiness on my part. I’m okay with that. I am feeling incredibly petty after being ignored and condescended to by Goodreads. After having to go through the deletion lists of the first 21, there are scads of titles like this one, where the users in question shelved a book for reasons that have fuck all to do with author behavior. I’m going to keep writing my little off-topic reviews about these titles until someone can explain to me what the fuck is going on.

Next set of reviews: is noting a book is pulled-to-publish fan-fiction really about author behavior? You tell me, Goodreads. Your deletions certainly suggest that’s the case.

carol and daryl

Review: Walking Dead: 30 Days Without an Accident

Walking Dead offers very few meta moments where the writers tip their hands and remind you this is a show. It’s far too earnest for that, blending tightly constructed spectacle against the almost drearily telegraphed lack-of-soap operatics of living post-apocalypse. So it was fun to a see a little fan moment, where Carol and Daryl are chatting about Daryl’s new standing as trusted badass with the new members of the prison group, and she tells him to accept the love. She also calls him pooky. This was a just adorable nod to Reedus’s fan-favorite status, and threw a bone to us Carol/Daryl shippers who want acknowledgement that Carol and Daryl are going to get married and have like a million babies.

As far as the rest of the episode went, it was a fairly perfect example of the things Walking Dead tends to get right with just enough stuff to worry me about what the writers think they are doing that I’m not too comfortable. Which in some ways is meta in it’s own way. This season looks to be about how the prison population has adjusted to the new normal with a modicum of safety and competence, and how that’s going to go to shit. Everything from the cold open, which was, per the best of them, wordless and packed with meaningful detail, to the almost casual beginning as the group goes to loot the Piggly Wiggly shows how our group has built strategies and coping mechanisms for their new world. They’re not running anymore; they’re not just sitting still; they’re building.

One of the things Walking Dead has always knocked out of the park are their gory action set-pieces, and “30 Days Without an Accident” delivers in spades. Because of the Big Bad last season, many of the set-pieces felt small or freighted with emotional weight that the characters cannot deliver (though the actors sometimes could, despite writing failures.) The zombies-as-threat had given way to humans-as-threat, which is a perfectly cromulent dramatic shift, but I don’t think Walking Dead has ever pulled off character work that convincingly. Too many torture sequences, too many growled conversations, too much posturing, not enough fucking zombies eating your face. There was too much set in the set pieces, like the zombie MMA sequences that felt like they were occurring on a sound-stage in Burbank.

But the Piggly Wiggly sequence: this was awesome. My husband and I screamed and sang “It’s raining zombies!” though the whole thing, shrieking when the bodies hit the ground, doing that thing where you shift out of the way like you can make the character see the zombie coming right for them! It was glorious and disgusting, and maybe more importantly, it established the themes for the season. So yeah, you’re clever with drawing out all the walkers with a boombox wired to some car batteries and you’re tight formation but you didn’t factor in the rotting infrastructure of a World Without Us. (One of Weisman’s observations about what happens to human-built structures with no maintenance: if you want to take down a house, cut an 18 inch square hole in the roof and stand back. About a year should do it.)  The crew have adjusted to zombies, but they haven’t adjusted in many ways to the changing parameters of the world. The rot isn’t just in the splashing bodies, but in everything, even the living. We’re all just meat sacks in the end. We kill or we die. Or we die and then we kill.

Which brings me to  the disease outbreak in the prison. This storyline has a lot of potential, and seems a logical extension of the whole zombie mechanism we have here. If anyone who dies turns, and anyone can die from even mundane illnesses, you have a situation were there needs to be a lot more security even within relative safety. But I’m a little perplexed by the conversations about naming things – the pig, then the walkers – and what this was supposed to be about. Here we are, three plus years from the zombie apocalypse, and people (though admittedly children) are having conversations about the relative humanity of walkers? Who even does that? If this is supposed to be some broad semaphore that the kids from Shelbyville are out of touch, then that’s pretty lame, given what they’ve undoubtedly been through since the shitshow at the end of last season.

Rick’s conversation with Crazy Irish was a similar mix of good stuff and perplexing. I liked her truncated and obviously obfuscating stories about what happened to her and her group after the world went to hell, but this sequence (fairly long sequence) didn’t do much other than set up an unsurprising reveal, and did almost nothing for Rick’s character that hasn’t been done before. (Also, thanks for the bullet point conversation with Hershel. “I could be her” indeed, Rick.) I did like the bit where Rick didn’t even go to look at the zombaby, because in a world of horrors, who needs another one? But like the conversations between Glenn and Maggie, this was mostly wheel-spinning retreading of “conflicts” that have never had much juice, and are getting thin with reiteration. If that isn’t a mixed metaphor. Moving on.

I think I’m in the stray observations part of the essay. I’m pleased to see Michonne both smiling and joking! – who even knew that was possible – and I liked seeing Beth doing something other than having huge liquid eyes. She’s given a boyfriend and a fairly interesting monologue after he’s dispatched, which makes me wonder if she isn’t bullseyed for death next episode. Walking Dead has a fairly annoying tendency to dispatch minor characters right after they are given absolutely anything to do – RIP T-Dog, and mustached pedobear, and every black character not still living, and Milton – so I don’t have much hope for her continued survival. I still hate gravitas-mouthpiece Hershel with a white hot intensity. The dude who got stuck under the wine bottles: this was a fairly hilarious sequence where he’s obviously telegraphing his temptation to the drop and then WHAM, a huge metaphor just fell on your legs. I almost took joy in it, because it was so ham-fisted.

This episode felt mostly like scene-setting, which I don’t count as a bad thing. Here is our new normal, and here are the threats to that normal. So far, I don’t see anything (or anyone) arising as the new Big Bad – Michonne’s obviously off on a hunt for the Governor, but that’s not given much time. I’m not sure that’s a problem, exactly, because Walking Dead seems to falter when drawing out conflicts based on personality or (God help us) philosophy. I would be incredibly happy to see a season based on more mundane, personal, physical survival mechanics, the heretofore interstitial pieces like Carol’s knife lessons given more prominence.  Much as I like watching them die, I want to see how they live, and not as some abstract conceptual piece, but on a nuts and bolts level. We’ll see how that goes for me.


My Russian Professors

Actually there was only one; but he contained such echoes – of Nabokov, of Brodsky – that I attribute his lessons to a larger culture, to a lineage of Russians. Alexander Dolinin announced his fastidious standards in the first lecture. He was skeptical of group identity (“individual genius is all that counts”) and refused to teach verse in translation (“Pushkin in English is not Pushkin”). Dolinin’s survey of Russian prose fiction was my first class at the University of Wisconsin. Outside – the crisp and glittery end of summer on an elm- and maple-wooded isthmus dividing a pair of algae-green glacial lakes. For the next nine months I would always be reading some Englished classic of Russian prose. We followed Dolinin from the faro tables and winter balls of Pushkin’s prose Petersburg to the lustily mown acres of Levin’s estate; from the crowded Crimean pier where Anna Sergeyevna lost her lorgnette to the Arctic reveille of Denisovich and the zeks. The Oxford World and Penguin Classics provided only the silhouettes of Russian writers, and we were yawning undergrads in an early-morning elective, and Dolinin couldn’t go very deep – but nonetheless he was able to model an intellectual sensuousness, an impassioned relation to tradition that I did not encounter elsewhere.

Dolinin’s was a tall frame, usually bagged in a big sweater and loose cords. Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of Alexander Korovin, seen in a traveling Mir Iskusstva exhibition, once prompted me to recall his face – the half-haired head, the light eyes, the mouth held in a seemingly pained, tight-lipped sneer-smile that displayed, I thought, the contest of scandalized disgust and patient pedagogy.

Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916
Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916

I saw the sneer when he riffed Humbert-like on a local mattress store (“The Happy Sleeper? The sleeper has no fears, no regrets?”), and when, reaching for some contemporary specimen of Gogolian poshlust, and finding the beloved Titanic, he provoked the howling protest of the entire class. He smiled during forays among us. Despite Pushkinskii Dom and the glasnost editorship of an illustrious émigré he did not hold himself aloof behind podium and pre-typed remarks. Holding a ragged reading copy he would step down and wade out into the hall, darting neo-Platonism, James Joyce and Horatian tags at heads being covertly supplied from a single earbud or bent over an issue of the student newspaper folded many times to isolate the daily crossword in a small, stashable square. Neo-Platonism was for the Silver Age poets; Joyce for the resemblance of Leopold Bloom to one of Babel’s narrators; and Horace’s commonplaces – for centuries pass phrases among the learned – for, well, everything. These digressions or self-annotations held one as much as the testable topoi for traces of which, however garbled or fleeting, the grad student graders combed our Blue Books. Dolinin brought his erudition to bear. His digressions were pitched slightly above our heads – the connections to books beyond the syllabus graspable, but only just. The refusal or inability to completely cut the material to our teenage range was notice of our novitiate status, a subtle spur to further reading.

So spurred, I read Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One in the lamp-lit afternoons of the long winter break. I penciled “Dolinin” next to Mandelstam’s definition of Acmeism: “nostalgia for a world culture.” Mandelstam’s attitude is not, as Brodsky would have it, “distinctly Russian” – Europe’s unity is a mirage common to the intellectuals on its fringes – and as a scholar Dolinin was at home in many literatures as a matter of course. But the passage did strike me, even if it did not explain him. I thought of Dolinin again – recalled his age and his manner – when I came to Brodsky’s elegiac evocation of his 1960s cohort of book-burrowed internal émigrés, “poorly dressed yet somehow still elegant,” with their love for the “non-existent (or existing only in their balding heads) thing called ‘civilization’” – “the only generation of Russians that had found itself, for whom Giotto and Mandelstam were more imperative than their own personal destinies.”

Brodsky's bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.
Brodsky’s bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.

Learning as a personal imperative was precisely what made Dolinin a distinctive teacher. One day, lecturing on We, he asked to whom Zamyatin was alluding when he named a character “Mephisto.” No one answered (or was willing to raise a lone hand). “You all live in a cultural vacuum,” he sneered. To us the idea of being educated to a canon was inconceivable – when not an ideological anathema. And few professors, among the statistically inevitable number of instructors required to staff the nation’s many colleges, would have dared scold us.


All I possess are eight slim volumes, / And they contain my native land.

(Khodasevich, on his Pushkin set)

In 1939, Vladislav Khodasevich – for Nabokov “the greatest poet Russia has yet produced in this century” – died of cancer, penniless in Paris. (I see too readily the flat where he was too ill to receive visitors, and the dingy tiles and flimsily screened separate agonies of the municipal ward Nina Berberova after visiting him called “a hell on earth.”)  A decade before his death Khodasevich ceased to write verse. He situated his personal tragedy in a general twilight of Russian literature, as Pushkin’s “long, life-giving ray” (Nabokov, in The Gift) dimmed over the diasporic cities and the younger émigrés. In an obituary Nabokov reminded the émigrés that whatever Khodasevich’s tribulations he was “safely enshrined in timeless Russia.” “Timeless Russia” sounds like an Orthodox iconostasis of the gleaming sainted, but I now picture, after years reading Nabokov (in 1939 poised on his career as a Russian professor), the comprehensive stacks of a North American research library. A miraculous mirage of Russia, a monastic repository untouched by war and upheaval, is how the Waindell College Library appears in Pnin. Timofey Pnin, so awkward in his American milieu, finds refuge in the library where he has his “scriptorium in the stacks…his paradise of Russian lore.” Despite its remote location and warehouse-like steel shelving, Waindell’s Slavic collection is an enchanted portal through which “dewy-eyed Timofey” re-enters his father’s library and handles the same Russian classics in “horrible and pathetic cameo bindings, whose molded profiles of poets” – “Pushkin’s slightly chafed side whisker or Zhukovski’s smudgy nose” – he had idly palpated as a child.

The gratitude announced in Pnin, and obliquely mentioned in Lolita (Humbert’s “nympholeptsy” is quelled, though not cured, by “the solace of research in palatial libraries”), appears again in Nabokov’s 1964 Playboy interview, in which he names “great libraries and its Grand Canyon” among America’s wonders, and says he may return to roam the nation’s “library stacks and mountain passes.” He told the Paris Review that a “first-rate college library with a comfortable campus” was a “fine milieu for a writer.” In a letter to Edmund Wilson he called Harvard’s libraries “wonderful,” and while researching his Eugene Onegin translation and commentary, marveled at finding in the Widener stacks a copy of the eighteenth century dream manual Tatiana consults in Canto Four.  John Updike said it is pleasant to think of Nabokov working on his Onegin “in the libraries of his adopted land,” “laboring with Janus-faced patriotism” on a bridge “whereby the genius of Pushkin is to cross after him into America.”

In the Slavic stacks of the UW Memorial Library I followed up lecture hall glimpses of this “timeless Russia.” I loved Silver Age memoirs, the necropoles of the Symbolists; and I came to inhabit, alongside the Boston and Bloomsbury of my declared major, Ivanov’s Tower, the Stray Dog Cabaret, and the House of the Arts. Not quite believing I was doing so, I opened a first edition of Nabokov’s first novel (Mashenka, Slovo: Berlin, 1926), a jewel in the general stacks. Its title page was stamped with a little Bronze Horseman – the émigré printer’s nostalgic device.


I examined editions of Pushkin, some handy and demotic, others monumental, shrines of scholars. Scanning his stanzas I knew that under my ignorant eye the alien Cyrillic signs “reflected and renewed one another, shared each other’s heat, sheen and shadow” – and each line was alive with a secret, hieratic iridescence.

The Pushkin bardolatry is a more ardent tradition of criticism than the one modeled by my excellent English professors who, dwelling in the different centers and centuries of the empire of English, rarely projected the focused, scripturo-tribal intensity I found in the Pushkin criticism of Nabokov, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva and Ahkmatova. I obtained a good literary education eavesdropping on Russian scriptural debates. The critical functions of allusion and parody; the innovations of remembering; the writer’s selection of his sponsors from the mass of predecessors – all first demonstrated to me by Dolinin or by the reading he spurred.


My high youth! The great roads in every weather, a supernatural sobriety, a disinterest matched only by the most accomplished beggars, and such pride at having no country, no friends—what idiocy that all was! I’m only realizing it now!

(Rimbaud,  A Season in Hell)

 I finished high school in schiolistic raptures over Pale Fire. For graduation I got every Nabokov book, except Strong Opinions – and so checked into the dorm with a stack of pastel paperbacks; many old emotions are pressed in those pages.

“In hospitals there is still something of an eighteenth century madhouse,” Nabokov told an interviewer. The all-male dormitory is another vestigial Bedlam. There was often shit on the bathroom walls, in childish smears and swoops. My neighbors lounged in grimy underwear, their doors open, swigging gin – Hogarthian tiple! – from plastic bottles, amid the din of video game gunfire. Early one morning my roommate twitched awake, wobbled to his feet, and pissed all over the floor and the small fridge. The water fountain sometimes held a puddle of puke – hearty and stew-like, with burrito bits, or foamy and thin, with a yeasty tang. Whatever this was – and I still don’t know – it was not a place for the fastidious. And I was fastidious.

Because this hive of country boyhoods – let’s call it that – surpassed my experience of squalor, I didn’t believe it was real. The metaphysics of Invitation to a Beheading – the grotesque sham world in which Cincinnatus is imprisoned ruptures and dissolves just before his execution, and he makes his way “in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him” –  became mine. I even typed out and pinned to the bulletin board of my dorm desk this passage:

Not here! The horrible ‘here,’ the dark dungeon, in which a relentlessly howling heart is encarcerated, this ‘here’ holds and constricts me. But what gleams shine through the night, and what—. It exists, my dream world, it must exist, since, surely, there must be an original of the clumsy copy.

But the book usually open on that desk was The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. I re-read again and again the wistful urban suites of the early 1920s – “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” “A Guide to Berlin” – in which Nabokov celebrates his place of exile with the curiosity, optimism and receptivity he would retain through a further half-century of geographic and linguistic displacement. The night-strolling narrator of “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” delicately registers “an aged Great Dane whose claws rap on the sidewalk,” and locates happiness

in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

City dogs, wet pavement, and dancehalls also appear in Khodasevich’s embittered final collection, European Night (1927) – I encountered a handful of these late poems in David Bethea’s biography of Khodasevich – but not as sources of enchantment: “another [dog] will scratch with its sharp-clawed/paw the well-worn granite”; “the orchestra blares, the ass sings”; “And my rage and grief seethe/ and my walking-stick incessantly taps/ on the alien granite.”

I felt like Khodasevich – but imitated Nabokov. I compiled “A Guide to Madison,” a group of sketches – gratefully lost, entombed in a defunct computer – with which I pushed myself to record, in that awed, wistful tone that grates if at all forced, such delicate trifles of my surroundings as I thought might be redemptively, Nabokovianly “enchanting.” I recall something about a city bus stripping a shower of dead leaves from a low bough; and sparrows wheeling and dipping against a gray-gold winter sunset. But the tone was forced; and the liveliest images of those years are lively from spleen. Of the beery provincial waste that is the setting for Sologub’s The Petty Demon a sneering Dolinin said: “sounds like here!”




Four Quartets


I am sure that the scholarship on this work must be legion. I am sure that it has approached Ulysses levels of annotation of every line, of AS Byatt’s mockery of the Ash Factory chasing down every half illusion for a quarter century. I am sure that it is of the highest quality and that in the years to come, I will delight in pouring over every line of it and forming opinions of my own.

For now, I have read none of it. I have no idea if anything I am about to write is true, or comes anywhere close to the poet’s intentions or his feelings when he wrote it. And that’s exactly the way that I wanted it. As a wonderful fictional lady once said, Forgive its faults, forgive me…., but this time… this time it was just between me and whatever phantasms, images and impressions I have gathered. There’s time enough for me to be correct.

For now, I just wanted to be true.

Burnt Norton

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities–mapped the minds–of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity–to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back.

-          The Odyssey, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Word games. That’s probably what your first quick glance at the opening lines of this quartet would reveal. Just simplistic word reversion like the most typical Wildean wit, but taking itself so seriously that there’s no possibility of a punchline coming. It’s all nonsense isn’t it? You’re playing with me. You don’t want me here, not if your welcome mat is this:

“Time present and time past,

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past,

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.”

God, I can hear the judging starting now- pretentious twaddle, What are you even on about?, Say what you mean, Ugh- this is why I don’t like poetry I may not know much about TS Eliot, but even I know enough from my short acquaintance to know that he is famously overeducated- if there is such a thing-  I know that I don’t need another project, some puzzle to unwind-

No. Please. Stop. Just stop. Stop and read a little farther with me.

None of it could be farther from the truth. Please keep reading and give him a chance to welcome you properly, let him lead you the way it should be done, let him speak slow and measured and hold out a hand:

“… Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Toward the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

                                                But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

                                Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them

Round the corner. Through the first gate

Into our first world, shall we follow…”

It’s not a word game at all. It isn’t something pretentious, something modern and new and twisted into form to dance for the sake of dancing in a new fashion. It’s the oldest thing there is- it’s an incantation, a prologue. It’s the words that break you out of whatever world you’re in and guide you into the one where you should be. Eliot starts with something gentle, something we’re used to from fairy stories and nursery rhymes from our childhood- the talking animal, the wilderness tamed in a garden that offers artificial enchantments, necessary and fenced in politely:

“And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music in the shrubbery

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern…

To look down at the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly

The surface glittered out of the heart of light

And they were behind us reflected in the pool

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.


Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality….”

Now we have passed into another realm and the light has changed, it has dappled around us, so now we can begin to speak of the magic underneath the reality, the blood magic that is no longer so polite, with harder words and harder truths gathered in among his continued recital, with syllables that are no longer quite so smooth or reassuring, but have begun to form, gradually, the rhythms of a chant:

 “Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

The dance along the artery

The circulation of the lymph

Are figured in the drift of stars…”

Garlic and sapphires, a witch’s brew. “Clot,” a hard effect for a soft “bedded” tree- a modern “wire” introduced among the blood, words that are no longer so conversational, but have instead acquired the rhythms of poetry, the sounds and parts that echo off each other gently and loudly and pause only on the word where it seems eminently suitable for them to do so.

And then there’s an invocation, an incantation, where we all join hands and circle faster around the fire and jump in its shadows, speeding up in perfect unison:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point….”

… of the turning world , never said, just understood in a blank space as the chant continues, hoping for “inner freedom from practical desire,” “by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”.

Then we get back to the part everyone knows, the Our Father that we know we will be reciting in many languages without needing to know what the person next to us is saying before too long. It’s recited with a driving intensity, a continuous beat, but softly, softly:

 “Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future

Only through time is time conquered…”

And he has us now. We’re moving with him wherever he needs to show us- his rhythmic, circular structure is quickly interrupted by a slideshow of striking imagery delivered immediately on the other side of the rabbit hole:

“Only a flicker over the strained time ridden faces….. Distracted from distraction by distractions… Tumid apathy with no concentration… Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time…  fingers of yew be curled… After the kingfisher’s wing has answered light to light, and is silent the light is still and the still point of the turning world…”

And see, there, he keeps it controlled, he brings us back on-point, on the path, so we don’t go too far into someone else’s fancies, but stay inside a tightly controlled series of opposites that blend.

We end, once again, in seeming simplicity, moving en pointe, delicately, half-inch by half-inch across a tiled floor filled with eggshells, as Eliot lays out our problem and our hopes for us:

“Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight.”

And…. There you are.

Where is that? Tell me, please. For myself… nowhere near where I started from, in the strict physical sense, but everywhere that I dream. Everywhere that I escape to in music and film and art. Everywhere that is too intense to live all the time, but which gives the beauty and the impetus to the everyday that we seek out between the cracks. This is falling through those cracks to that place.

This section should be read over opening orienting shots and montages that lead us into quiet end credits. It should be read calmly from an audiobook out of the radio in Wallander’s solitary Sweden, it should be sung throughout the opening five minutes of Melancholia- Wagner’s got nothing on it. It should be read like a prayer from the pulpit and turned into a Gregorian chant. It’s the words that should fill the silence when you look at a truly great landscape for the first time and there’s all that space just sitting there.

This section is the key, the rusty key to the garden gate that we haven’t found in years.


East Coker

“For the spell is older than experience. For the tale is older than the record.”

- Marina Tsvetaeva

After an opening section so determined to transport us, to translate us to somewhere else strange and yet entirely familiar in ways we would not expect, it makes sense that our next subject is history. We invoked the muse and now we must give her something to sing about- so then this moves into the other oldest kind of tale- the epic poem, the historical chronicle beautifully told:

“Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended.

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires

Old fires to ashes and ashes to earth…

Houses live and die: there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots…”

Rot, decay, recycle, reuse, begin again in the same pattern, mourn the loss and preserve the monuments… there’s a roundup of historical notions, negative and giving all round up into one. The time passing sense in a straightforward stanza, nonetheless placing us in the here and now, “leaning against a bank while a van passes/And the deep lane insists on the direction/Into the village, in the electric heat/Hypnotised.”

But Eliot is true to his slippery relationship with time and takes us back and beyond those more common reasons for “history,” for the record of materials put together in pleasing fashion to be remembered, as a record of man’s industry and the rise and fall of civilizations, back to something more elemental and essential- the slippery nature of chronological time when all the timeless things are what matter

“In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire….”

I don’t have to go on- you know where it’s going. Pure Catholic paganistic fascination- perhaps. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is only ruin lust carried over into the middle of the twentieth century after a horror show that forced it back into the front and center, but that’s not all of it. It’s still about time, and it’s even more so about Eliot rejecting history itself as complete bullshit. Experience doesn’t get you a goddamn thing, and no one is going to learn from it the next time- especially not you- you’re too old to profit from it:

“There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience

The knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived

Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way

But all the way, in a dark wood in a bramble…”

What is the use, he asks, of history? History is nothing, not next to myth. Not next to the story. Not next to the eternal things that I can stop telling you about five lines in because you can fill in the rest.  History will teach us nothing and the democracy of death will take us all after which it will mean nothing to God who you were.

I love that with the greatest of poets, the greatest of writers, touched by even a hint of Catholicism (and it may not even be all they possess- and it is not at all with Eliot- eastern religions and paganism and doctrinal protestant preaching brimstone is all in there)…. it all comes down to love. It’s all a nursery rhyme in the end, a catechism to remind us:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting,

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing

Whisper of running streams and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy…”


“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”


It’s NEVER more complicated than that. History couldn’t possibly matter less next to that, but we get lost in it, we forget the essentials, we get too bound up with the van and the electricity and we forget the mystery- for a man like this, the Mystery.

Don’t you see? All that matters is

“The houses have gone under the sea.

The dancers have gone under the hill.”

And we’ll never recover from that.

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”


The Dry Salvages

First Voice

‘But why drives on that ship so fast,

Without or wave or wind?’


Second Voice

‘The air is cut away before,

And closes from behind.


Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!

Or we shall be belated:

For slow and slow that ship will go,

When the Mariner’s trance is abated.’

-Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Sea, The Sea… there is no framing needed for this section other than that. There’s no formal structure other than the seafaring tale. It’s a brilliant choice for two opening sections so bounded by ancient, formal rules and so immediately engaged with discourse, with human speech and record and sound, to free itself by taking to the waves.

Eliot wanted to put us back in touch with the Mystery in the last section- to make use remember what is wild and untamable and untouchable and unforgettable- and being forgotten. He lived through a time that was broken and broken again until it seemed all the threads had been cut and we began again, Modern Man, anew, without history to bind us, of course.. but without history to steady us and steer us and embrace us close.

He wants to give us back what matters- the threads that, we have to realize, can never be cut, the things that will always continue, whether we like them or not. Experience is bullshit and aging is a lying thief, but continuity and recognition is there, and will always be there, despairingly. And what better place to realize that than The Sea, The Sea:

“Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing

Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless…”

It is not all irredeemable, though, not if you can live through it and realize that you might have

“had the experience but missed the meaning

and approach to the meaning restores the experience….

Past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations-not forgetting something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance of recorded history,

over the shoulder, towards primitive terror…”

But we don’t do that. We live in experience, our bodies connect the moment with what is happening and we process it through our senses the way we were meant to do and we can only say what our senses told us a moment later and our brain is often quite left out- we cannot gather data as we experience the world in that half-way.:

“For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music,

While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action

The hint have guessed, the gift half understood, is


And so return to the sea, breathe deeply and remember the Ancient Mariner- remember the things that last and then step away again and try to remember what it was that mattered to you before.

Little Gidding

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Prologues have epilogues, especially in Eliot’s tightly circled world where stanzas and refrains return, straightforward or twisted to read between the lines of the poetry.  The chant rises again and the images return for us to drink in and for us to remember how we got here at the start. Funny, the chant sooth-said us enough to walk us down the path into somewhere new, to forget the cultivated home that we came from, and upon returning, he reminds us that there was once a garden that we came from with an empty pool where the birds spoke and the surface “glittered out of the heart of light.”

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallejuah that we’ve found it again, as inevitably as we would have, that we can now step into the circle around the bonfire and join hands with the others as easily as if we always knew how, Pater Noster and blessings of the gods. Of course it is the gods and the mystery he’s on about once again, but it isn’t even that so much as it is the image of that, it is the essentials, dying and being given back to you once more- earth, water, air, fire. There’s not a van in site and I don’t know what electricity is. History is still bullshit, and don’t be deceived that just because you’ve made it to the end into this kaleidoscope of beauty that I give you, into this repeating waltz of glory- don’t be deceived that we have found the place where this all happily wraps up in a bow. All we have found is the way that it always was, and we can join in, for a moment, at least:

    “We shall not cease from exploration

                And the end of our exploring

                Will be to arrive where we started

                And know the place for the first time

                Through the unknown, remembered gate

                When the last of earth left to discover

                Is that which was the beginning

                At the source of the longest river

                The voice of the hidden waterfall

                And the children of the apple-tree

                Not known, because not looked for

                But heard, half heard, in the stillness

                Between two waves of the sea…”

We will forget again and fall out of the circle, we will need to be lead through the garden by an innocent thrush once more and find the pool filled with sunlight and the garlic and sapphires by the yew-tree, but we have the key now. We can return.

And I will be. Again and again and again.

“Say not fare well, but fare forward, voyager.”



The Last 24 Hours on Goodreads

If you’re coming into this mess cold, a little back story:

On September 20, Goodreads “announced” by posting a thread in their Goodreads Feedback group that they would be deleting reviews focused on the ill-defined concept of “author behavior”. I’ll note here that the Feedback group has a little over 13,000 members, a fraction of a percentage point of the 20 million users Goodreads claims. Posts in Feedback do not go out as a general announcement even to the group’s membership. This was also done on a Friday, and Goodreads is notoriously absent on weekends. Customer Care Manager Kara eventually noted that Goodreads had only deleted the reviews of 21 people.  She refused to comment on the content of their reviews, only giving a hypothetical review – “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that” – that would be forbidden under the new policy. The thread was  quickly abandoned by Goodreads; it’s currently at over 5,500 comments, and climbing.

Kara’s characterization of the reviews they deleted turned out to be a miscaracterization, at least according to my research. A group of Goodreaders including myself started tracking down the original 21 people who had reviews deleted, and we eventually found 13 of them. Many of the reviews Goodreads deleted had no content – neither a rating nor anything in the review field – and Goodreads had taken action solely on the content of the threads below. (A quick note on nomenclature: it’s called a “review” on Goodreads whenever you shelve a book at all, even if the book isn’t rated, or there isn’t any written essay that you would normally call a review.) From the book list given to me by the people affected, the reviews about “author behavior” Goodreads deemed actionable ranged from plagiarism to faking or paying for reviews (which I’ll note is illegal in some places), to pedophilia to racist or homophobic statements to pulled-to-publish fan-fiction to just the usual gamut of social media meltdowns.

At this point the protest reviews started. I reviewed The Secret of Castle Cant by convicted pedophile K.P. Bath, because at least two people had their reviews of this book deleted in the new policy about “author behavior” in the initial 21. So far, none of the protest reviews have been taken down. Mike reviewed Mein Kampf using almost the exact wording of Kara’s hypothetical review – “This author is such a dick. I’m not even going to read it!” Many reviews of this book followed suit, and as far as I’m aware, none of them have been taken down. Reviews of books by plagiarizers and sexists followed, again, with none of the reviews coming down. Some of the protest reviews found books or titles that the reviewers used as a springboard for criticism about the new policy, books like Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship or Civil Disobedience or, most importantly, The Hydra.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because Goodreads started deleting these reviews as “off-topic”. Apparently you’re cool going after the books Goodreads initially targeted in their purge, but use the review platform for dissent, and you better watch yourself. The email to users who had their reviews deleted says at the end, “Please note that if you continue to post content like this, your account may come under review.” Goodreads has taken its gloves off; they may delete your account for your naughty behavior. A good round up of the initial deletions can be found here, but the upshot is, Goodreads began deleting the often-playful, arguably off-topic, and absolutely critical of Goodreads reviews of some of their most prolific users.

hydraAt this point, it’s far too difficult to detail the number of protest reviews out there, cheerfully thumbing their noses at Goodreads management and their ill-defined and self-serving review rules. I’ll just note one case for example. Manny’s review of The Hydra served as a template for the protest reviews, the image of the hydra being a call for other Goodreaders to copy & paste the original content of the review if they were worried about their review being deleted by Goodreads. Some of these Hydra review have been deleted by  Goodreads as plagiarism, despite the explicit call for re-posting. Some users have added disingenuous (but hilarious) “reviews”  of the book to to keep the review under guidelines. Hydra reviews are proliferating all over the site, a full on revolt. I’m honestly interested to see if Goodreads is willing to play whack-a-mole with their most active users, slapping their wrists and threatening their accounts with deletion as the days wear on. I’m interested to see whether they will start deleting accounts. In the past, the Goodreads MO has been to simply freeze us out – witness the complete abandonment of their own Feedback thread – so I’m guessing this will be their course of action now.

But the actions of Goodreads, and their generally closed-mouth and inscrutable actions don’t really worry me at the moment. What worries me is the gutting of the Goodreads community as Goodreads’s top users jump ship for less censorious locales. Elizabeth, one of the top 20 reviewers worldwide, (who is fellow Soapboxer, in full disclosure) wrote a piece today about how she’s no longer posting reviews on Goodreads, making her just the most recent casualty of the new “policies”. I myself (also on that list) have begun taking down my 500+ reviews. From anecdotal evidence, dozens of very prolific users have taken down their content or deleted their accounts, people like Abigail A, BunWat, and Archer, often people who had been users since the very beginning, with thousands of reviews.

Maybe this is no thing. Maybe, as people keep telling me, there at 20 million Goodreads users out there willing and able to review two books a week on a wide variety of subjects, with a broad following and the trust that they’re not just corporate shills, only these hypothetical new users are willing to play ball. That’s why Amazon bought Goodreads, after all, isn’t it? To find a stable of reviewers to aid in the discovery process, a process much hampered by Amazon’s own review strictures: no profanity, no ties to the author, no personality, and downvoting outlying opinions into oblivion. Relying on the 1% rule, likely the active membership of Goodreads is significantly less than their bandied 20 million, a community of lurkers watching the output of the very few. Goodreads has it in their best interests not to lose these people, unless they are relying on the most narrow and inflexible ideas about what constitutes a good readership. Which, certainly, they may be.

In a Forbes article about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads, the writer notes:

For me, there are no “professional” critics that matter anymore. In our new social world, the crowd must decide. That means authors and readers everywhere now have greater access to each other and the best books won’t be held back by traditional road blocks. Obviously, for authors, this makes it more essential than ever to have a solid social media plan, to be accessible and to build a following – because relying on the old publishing guard won’t cut it anymore.

That age is over.

Goodreads is trying to sand the edges off the crowd, silencing the voices most trusted, most invested in their reading, because sometimes the crowd decides certain books aren’t worthy of either reading or review, and that apparently can’t be allowed under the new mercantile system. With the proliferation of self-published works, the avid readers on the frontlines are acting as slush-pile readers for million of books, and if they (we) decide a book shouldn’t be undertaken because it’s likely that a negative review will result in the author flaming or doxing you, that’s not on Goodreads to get in the middle. It’s not on Goodreads to police reviews as “off-topic” when it’s clear that they’re just silencing dissent. There is no “off-topic” in a robust social media, which is ultimately the problem here, right?

So far, I’ve been writing as bloodlessly as possibly, doing my citizen journalist shtick to the best of my ability. But this change on Goodreads’s part is killing me. I haven’t cried so much about social media in a long time, each review I take down feeling like a lost thumb, each time I see posts by [deleted member] another lost companion. Due to my call to find the initial 21 users, and then later to hear from anyone who had deletions, I’ve had an inbox full of messages from users detailing their deletions. So many of these messages were confessional, long stories about being hounded over multiple media platforms by people who are technically “authors” for something the reviewer said or did, often not even about the “author” in question. I can take 50,000 words, not even in any particular order, and upload them to SmashWords or Kindle, and poof, I am an author. So many of these reviews about “author behavior” were the personal reactions of people being harassed on social media by other people hawking unedited ebooks that would never, ever make it off a slush-pile. That this is out of bounds on a social media platform, that I can’t decide what’s on-topic, that’s a shift in policy quiescent content-generation and away from a social media. We Goodreaders are either a product, or a community, and right now the fight is on.



General Grant goes around the world

In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenced his travels before he and Twain were well acquainted, and even if they had been Twain was a famous author with a schedule of lucrative lectures, not at all what Grant needed and found in John Russell Young – a pure correspondent, an instrumental reporter whose lively dispatches from the epic world tour (Liverpool to Nagasaki, May 1877 to September 1879) would keep Grant in the domestic eye and impress the American voter (who might be asked to consider a third Grant administration) with the honors Europe and Asia were showering on the ex-president. Young notes that while cruising between Malta and Naples on an American warship, Grant read and enjoyed Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

This edition is an abridgement of the popular two-volume coffee table book – or parlor piano-top book – Young published after he got back. Around the World with General Grant was a lavishly illustrated atlas-cum-gazetteer that allowed Americans to glimpse exotic geography, culture and politics over the shoulder, as it were, of a national hero and nominal Everyman. In the engravings Grant is familiar and repeated, Gorey-like, talismanic; the beard, the cigar, and the frock coat, though his headgear varies: a bowler while strolling European streets, a pith helmet in the desert and in the tropics, a glossy top hat in official receptions.

“Smooth twaddle” is what Henry James would have called Young’s narrative. But Young’s glibness is overpowered by the interest of the historical moment – a moment in which Grant, as the voice of a young New World power whose recent consolidation and display of military prowess has stymied British and French designs, preaches anti-imperial idealism to Asians oppressed by European powers – and by the drama of the witnessed scenes, which show Grant discussing the cares of state with Bismarck; blushing before the dancing girls summoned by the Majaraja of Jeypore; mediating a Sino-Japanese dispute (the chapter on Grant in China is amazing); candidly talking shit about colleague and opponent generals in the American Civil War; and much more.Young’s account for the most part presents an officially masked, phlegmatic and platitudinous Grant, but there are glimpses of the spirited solitary and restless horseman later biographers have revealed:

We had an escort of lepers as we took our places in our wagons, and were glad to hurry away. We kept our journey, our eyes bent toward Jerusalem, and looking with quickened interest as Mr. Hardegg told us that the blue mountains coming in view were the mountains of Judea. Our road is toward the southeast. The rain falls, but it is not an exacting shower. The General has found a horse, and when offered the affectation of an umbrella and urged to swathe his neck in silk, says it is only mist, and gallops ahead.