Category Archives: mermaids and selkies

The-Wizards-Promise

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format – The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.

 

I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

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

assasin's curse

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud - the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. :(

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

The Animal Family

I am not going to do The Animal Familyby Randall Jarrell justice, I know. This is incredibly beautiful, powerful, sad, wonderful stuff. My brilliant friend Georgeanna (and next door neighbor – Lyndale neighborhood represent!) pushed this into my hands when I freaked out about how wonderful The Last Unicornwas. She’s right – this is just as amazing, heartbreaking, literate, and poetic as Beagle’s stuff. Add in art from Maurice Sendak, and I am in hook, line and sinker.*

I am a land-locked soul, which is funny, because if I have a soul, it resides somewhere on a rocky beach on the north shore of Lake Superior. My soul watches the water, but it can’t swim, and spends its time trying skip rocks over the glass of the lake. Maybe this is why I freak out all day about selkie stories – freak out completely beyond the bounds. This isn’t necessarily a selkie story – she, who has no name, is referred to as a mermaid – but there’s something selkie-ish about the way the hunter and the mermaid find their connection on the spit of land between meadow and sea. Selkie stories** are about miscommunication and alienation and how they can be the basis of love, and how that is the most profound paradox to ever blow my mind.

 But she is a mermaid, not a selkie, and that works because selkie stories are usually massive bummers and this is not. I know from reading that if I am ever caught in an undertow, I am to swim at ninety degree angles against the pull, so that I may find myself in still waters. I’m not sure I would remember this if I were caught and drowning, but I know this now on land. I’m not a sea creature, and I can learn through telling, but that knowledge is incomplete and it always will be. I don’t know much about Randall Jarrell. I had this boyfriend once who loved him, and I hair-tossingly did not understand that love. (I was young. Shut up.) I associate him strongly with the WWII poetry that he is best known for:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  

 From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. 

 I guess he was also a critic, but criticism has a faster expiration date than poetry even. (Sorry, no offense all of Goodreads. We’ve lit our candles at both ends.)

 So a mermaid and a hunter find their strange love on a beach, and then they adopt a family of animals over the years: a bear, a lynx, a human boy. I can’t put my finger on why, but I found myself near tears at the oddest of points. And that’s weird. This isn’t the kind of tale that is determined to work your tear ducts – in fact, it is sweet and comic in its tone – but there’s this sorrow to it, an affectionate sorrow, an everyday sorrow, but a sorrow nonetheless. I don’t even know how to describe it. Here’s a passage, where the lynx is scratching the hunter accidentally in play:

 “Velvet paws! velvet paws!” The hunter would cry warningly.  

 The mermaid had got used to his saying it, but the first time she’d asked perplexedly: “What’s velvet?” 

 “I don’t know,” the hunter said. “But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in. My mother used to say it on the boat.” 

So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way – a little scrap of velvet between the forest and the sea.

Omigod, do you see it? Do you see how this is everyday, happy and sad all in the same smooth movement? I think I may be done reviewing for now. I go to freak out.

 *So I can’t decide whether I want to use the Oxford comma or not. Sue me.

 **I recently saw the movie Ondine, which is a selkie story set in modern Ireland. I loved it like crazy.

Review: Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson

I took the kids to the zoo on Friday because sometime late Thursday, I discovered they had the day off and we were suddenly at loose ends. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St Paul is an old school, Victorian zoo, a municipal pasture that was fenced in to hold three deer gifted to the city in 1897. Various attractions were added over the years, such as the ominous sounding “Monkey Island” which must be where the flamingos live now in the summer, or Archie Brand’s Seal Show featuring a succession of sea lions named Sparky. There’s a statue of the original Sparky, as well as one of the first resident lowland gorillas, a male named Don, who lived out his days at Como Zoo. He’s currently stuffed and in a case at the Science Museum of Minnesota across town. 

a woman in what looks like 1920's garb with a huge fur wrap around her shoulders feeds a black bear
Watch your fingers. 

The zoo has changed a lot since I was a kid. Mum used to joke that you more or less pulled open a fridge to see the penguins, which continues to be true, but the polar bears recently got a multi-million dollar upgrade on their previous, frankly appalling enclosure. Two black bears and a grizzly were visiting from someplace upstate that had been washed out by flooding. But I like how the Victorian bones of the zoological garden are still showing at Como, all this post-Civil War Age of Industry and Expansion, that drops a fence over a pasture and then calls it tame.

an undated black and white photograph that shows three large metal enclosures in a grove with lots of people milling around and looking. It's not possible to tell what's in the cages.
(The two above photos are from the Como Zoo website, and do not have dates.) 

My kids and I stood out in the weak November sun and watched sea lions circle their rocky tank. They were the only seasonal animals still out; the single desultory ostrich and his warm climate peers disappeared into basements or wherever they go when not on display – and the flash of the dark body, knifing silently through the water to nose up with the sound of breaking surface tension (not a splash) and then disappear again moves me in that enclosed way of all zoos. They remind me more of dogs than anything, with their big brown eyes and doggy snouts, but I can feel the fur just under my skin, like I could strip off my hairlessness and dive in. Lord, but do selkies do it for me.

a line drawing of a selkie skin, empty and discarded

Mermaids are a little different. They aren’t layers of wildness and domesticity, but a bifurcation of the two, an uneasy stitch between scale and skin. Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudsonby Mark Siegel takes place slightly earlier than the founding of this zoo, 1887, on the Hudson river. Sailor Twain (“Don’t call me captain”) plies the river in his steamer in the employ of a drunken Frenchman named Lafayette. The story starts with layers though – a broken Twain sought out for his story by an enigmatic woman, all shadows and cloaks, and then tells the tale lappingly, incidents building, reversing so that you apply new information to old assumptions, reimagine as you imagine. The Hudson, like the Thames, is a tidal river, and it flows both ways depending on the moods of the tides. Twain’s recountings start with his offhand observation of a stag in the river, and then the discovery of mermaid on his boat.

a charcoal drawing of a stag's head rising from the water in silhouette, a steam ship in the background

My husband called the art here “sophomoric” because he’s a jackass, but I do see his point. Twain is rendered almost naively, his big round eyes and unruly hair under his captain’s hat offset by his almost Puritanically dark figure. The mermaid – her name is unpronounceable, but translates to South – is both fishily sticky and voluptuously sexy. They enact their doom on the charcoal canvass of Industrial Revolution America, all smog and late evening. It took me a while to cotton to Twain’s rendering – why so cartoonish, so simple? – but I eventually dug it for its childlike lack of wonder, its earnest simplicity. 

Twain in the background while the mermaid sleeps in a bed.

I’m waiting for someone to flag this image, because Goodreads has a no nudity clause (something which I generally agree with – the pornbots are bad enough without encouragement) and I’m pretty sure that’s a nipple slip there. But it gets really tricky with creatures like mermaids. Their strange unconsummated sexuality is the seam of their existence – it’s what holds them together. The mermaid in Sailor Twainis bare-breasted in most of the panels she occurs, and it is frustrating me no end that I can’t replicate them here. I went and dug around the history of the Starbucks mermaid for a while this morning – I knew she had run into trouble in places like Saudi Arabia and with Christian groups for doing things like having breasts and being a woman-ish creature. 

original Starbucks cigar-band logo, with the mermaid's breasts uncovered by her hair
Now I’m just being a scofflaw.

Like the strange Starbucks mermaid with her fishy “legs”, there are a lot of doubled storylines and doppelgangers – Twain’s wife convalescing from some unnamed illness that has her legs tucked unworking into a blanketed wheelchair, her church solo like the siren song of the mermaid, but pious and tamed. Siegel makes use of all the metaphorical possibilities of a steamer captain named Twain – so much so, that I occasionally laughed at how they were deployed. But I think I was supposed to in these little odd moments of levity. Mark Twain himself wasn’t afraid of the narrative wink – although his tended to be whole body gestures.

I pretty much loved this story because I love inevitable tragedy – mermaid stories never end well – and doppelgangers, and Industrial Revolution America, and strange sublimated sexuality and doom. I love it like watching sea lions in an enclosure thousands of miles from the sea.