Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Dang Townsfolk

Okay, I finally, finally finished Hex, though I'm still kind of asking myself why.  Why did I finish that book?  In my last post on the subject I said I wanted to know how the story ended, but really I think it was like a car accident I couldn't look away from.

So the interesting thing that I learned, from Goodreads and the afterword, is that it is, in fact, a translation.  The author is Dutch, and the original version was published and set in the Netherlands. There was a translator, but the author polished the final version and wrote a new ending in English, in which he is fluent.

Now, I had thought before I started reading that it was Dutch, but when it took place in upstate NY, I assumed I was wrong.  So this clarifies things.  There's a good amount of local geography--someone did their research--but there is a decent amount of clunkiness here, and I'm wondering now how much of that is the translation and how much is my opinion of the writing.

I said before that the writing was okay--I think I was wrong about that.  There are just a few too many places where I couldn't picture what was happening, or places where characters spoke in what was really narrator-speak.  Example: I spent two pages trying to figure out what an "A-frame swing" might look like before I realized he meant an A-frame swingset, at which point I got it.

Also, try saying this sentence out loud as though you really needed to communicate the idea to another person: "What about our loved ones who were out of town?" (I have never called my loved ones my loved ones out loud, especially not in a moment of panic.) "She's as terrified with Katherine as she was obsessed." (Aside from the misuse of "with" to go with "terrified," that is not how anyone talks extemporaneously; the reversed sentence structure is a rhetorical flourish you primarily see in written text.) And what teenager thinks of seeing/making out with/doing it with his girlfriend as "kindling renewed passions," even in the narration in his head?

Other weird things that threw me out of the writing: people mention being Americans all the time.  The third person omniscient narrator switches from using characters' first names to the "Mr. Hampton" construction at weird moments. A high school student is allowed to have his girlfriend sleep over with barely a passing mention. Someone makes "druidic gestures."

But okay, that's the writing, possibly the translation.  At the core of the book, though, I have a couple of pivotal problems.  One is, as I mentioned in my other post, the weird thing with women.  When the townsfolk (oh, there are SO MANY townsfolk in this book--they are referred to collectively and very frequently) start having weird visions, a LOT of them are about things like a woman being sexually attacked by an animal, or a big pile of children strapped together in the shape of a breast (yeah, that one makes NO MORE SENSE in the book than it does here), or a local woman's naked, flaccid flesh. There are all kinds of moments where a husband and wife go through something, and the husband is presumed to be the actor (should he speak up? should he do something?) while the wife encourages or discourage or is proud of or disparages him.

There are so many examples of this.  But the weird foreignness of the women is really just related to the weird foreignness of everyone's internal life here.  The townsfolk problem isn't just about the overuse of the word.  You know in books like The Stand and 'Salem's Lot, where Stephen King takes these long moments to give you a glimpse into the life of a character who will never appear again?  Like, the world is falling apart, and here is Mrs. Humphrey in her kitchen deciding whether to hide in the basement or join the mob running past her house. Here is Bammy (ugh, that name) finding her new hometown on fire.  Those are to humanize people who are doing inhuman things, to show you enough of their internal life to understand that even when they're behaving like sheep, they still exist, these people, as individuals.

None of that here. Townsfolk act like idiots, vote for whatever their benevolent dictators tell them to, join a mob, gossip, whatever--and they do it as a group, with no individual thought.  They're sheeple.

But in real life, even when people are acting like a violent mob, even when they're psychologically subsumed by the mob, they still exist as individuals.  They go home after that to their separate houses and think their separate thoughts.  The townsfolk just don't get that kind of respect here.

And the worst part is, that's kind of the point of the book.  Like, both that they're not acting rational and the fact that they're accountable for it.  It's hard to explain without giving the whole thing away, but basically the direction the story takes leaves this omission of agency to be not just a frustrating lack of style but a big hole where the emotional center of the book is supposed to be.

Finally, I'll tell you one thing that I thought was pretty interesting about the premise that was never really explored at all until in the end it was supposed to seem important: the people in Black Spring have two separate problems: the witch (who is creepy, and whom evidence suggests is dangerous if not properly managed) and the oppressive, dictatorial, quasi-religious local government that has sprung up to manage the situation.  Even though the story revolves around people who push the edges of the Emergency Decree rules (don't interfere with the witch; don't tell Outsiders anything), no one in the book seems to notice this at any point at all.

Part of me wants to go on; the rest of me wants to go to bed.  Sold.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Diverse Books Tag

I saw Jenny's post with this tag and took it upon myself to tag myself, because I really wanted to make this list.  So, without further ado:
The Diverse Books Tag is a bit like a scavenger hunt. I will task you to find a book that fits a specific criteria and you will have to show us a book you have read or want to read.
If you can’t think of a book that fits the specific category, then I encourage you to go look for oneA quick Google search will provide you with many books that will fit the bill. (Also, Goodreads lists are your friends.) Find one you are genuinely interested in reading and move on to the next category.
Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.
Find a book starring a lesbian character.
I have been wanting to read Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour, for ages.  I'm pretty sure it's new adult romance, which is not always my jam, but it's about a set dresser in Hollywood, which kind of is, so I'm excited.

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist.
Oh, here I want to talk up Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham, because it's a really fun teen detective book with a vaguely supernatural and very Veronica Mars vibe. Scarlett's relationship with her sister and her sense of family are tied closely to her religion, and I love the way she honors those things without necessarily being a believer.

Find a book set in Latin America.
Alaya Dawn Johnson wrote The Summer Prince a few years ago, and I've always regretted not reading it.  There was some discussion about the use of Brazilian culture by an author who is not actually Brazilian herself, but the discussion was interesting and the book sounds very well done, and like something I very much want to read.

Find a book about a person with a disability.
Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis, is about a boy who has visions every time he closes his eyes (and, in a separate but connected storyline, about the girl he has visions about). This causes him all sorts of problems concentrating and managing life, and he lost a leg in an accident at one point because of this.  The girl in the other part of the story is mute, having had her tongue cut out when she was made a slave.

Find a science fiction or fantasy book with a POC protagonist.
Oh, there are so many places to go with this one.  Let's see, I think I'll hit N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, because it's one of my absolute favorites.  But that's pretty famous and I've talked it up before, so I'm going to throw in a little nod for a comic that I haven't heard much about--Bayou, a creepy, Wonderlandesque story about a little girl in the South in the 1920s whose father is accused of killing her white playmate.  Lee goes into the swamp to try to get the girl back and prove her father's innocence, but the world she has to travel is both marvelous and dangerous. Sadly, only two volumes came out, but they're wonderful.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.
Mala Nunn's A Beautiful Place to Die was a gorgeous mystery novel that is very much about place, both geographically (the South African veldt), historically (apartheid), and culturally (a small town in the 1950s).

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.
This is just what this tag was meant to do--this one sent me hunting.  I mean, I could have gone with one of the Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich books that I've loved or that I'm excited for, but instead I went looking for something new.  What I picked is Ragged Company, by Richard Wagamese.  It's about four homeless people who spend their days in a movie theater.  When they find a winning lottery ticket but can't claim the prize without proper identification, they get one of the regulars at the movie house to help them out, and their fates become entwined.  It sounds fascinating, and like one of those "glimpse inside the world" books that I really enjoy.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.)
Looking at my Goodreads, I think everyone I know has read Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger except me.  And I love a good antihero protagonist. So let's fix that problem, shall we?

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.
I'm reading one right now! Corinne Duyvis's On the Edge of Gone is about a teenaged girl trying to take care of her drug-addicted mother and find her missing sister during an end-of-the world scenario involving a meteor.  Denise and her mother are Dutch, but her father is Surinamese, and this is one of many ways that Denise often feels apart from the people around her.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.
I'll take this moment to plug Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, which I read a couple of years ago and really liked. It's a pretty straightforward story of a trans guy dealing with high school--coming out to his parents, friends, and acquaintances, and the pleasure he finds in music and the local radio show he DJs. It's "just" a slice of life book, but I found it honest and really lovely.

Friday, June 17, 2016


I've been reading Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvalt, and I'm a quarter of the way through and I might need to take a break.  I'd say that I might need to stop reading, except I actually do find the story interesting and want to know where it goes.  It's good horror.

But--oh, the buts. The writing is adequate; when I am occasionally confused, it's usually cleared up by pushing through for a while till I get to a part where it makes sense again. At first I thought it was because of the worldbuilding that was going on in the first couple of chapters, but no--sometimes it's just not clear in a scene who is doing what, or how the person who was standing over there is now sitting over here.

Whatever--that's nitpicking, and if it's detracting from my ability to get lost in the story or trust the author to take care of the details, I can live with it on the path to the creepy old witch. 

The place where it really falls apart, though, is the squicky woman problem.  Really, it's a broader problem of the characters all being pretty shallow and caricatured. The head of the "police" force is singleminded and kind of crude; our main focal character is an upright, settled, liberal man of middle years. There's the smart teenager who wants more, the troublemaker, the perfect wife, the wise and levelheaded neighbor, the beaten woman who's maybe a little unstable.

But the thing I keep noticing is that in this loosely outlined world, the women are helpmeets and sidekicks.  It's all very 1950s, in feeling if nothing else.  Our hero's wife is a great partner, but we get no glimpse of her personality, except that she was once very excited to move to Black Spring because of the local geology. Another woman, a new neighbor whose arrival allows an infodump explaining the town's curse, is named Bammy (which strikes me as kind of gross for some reason) and her only notable moments are using a particularly prudish and original euphemism for sex and asking her husband if it's all right to relate information to the people they're conversing with.  Another local woman was beaten by her husband, and her personality and feelings about that were clearly written by someone who has very little insight into the minds of others.

I don't know, maybe it's just that I'm feeling emotionally rough today, but I don't have it in me to watch this author condescend to these characters. There are moments of casual sexism (and racism) that are clearly intended by the author to provide information about the characters who think and say these things, but the more minor offenses that the author commits himself keep me from trusting him to be using those bad-guy-mannerisms carefully. 

Basically I feel kind of punched in the face, and I'm just not in the mood. I'll definitely finish it, and maybe I'll blog about it again with some details.  For now, though, it's getting set aside for something more thoughtful--if equally trashy.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Good vs. The Great

This is not a question about good books vs. great books.  It's about several books I've read (some lately, some just lately called to mind) in which someone striving for greatness has lost some of what I would call their goodness. So the question before us today is this: is the Good the enemy of the Great?

I talked about this a little bit when I read Roses and Rot, a novel about artists who are competing for an opportunity to live in the realm of Faery for seven unpleasant years and then return guaranteed to be the greatest artist of their generation. The characters feel bad about it, but it is generally considered to be the most desirable thing, and people are turned against each other over this prize.  People cease being good to each other in pursuit of greatness.

Before I go on, let's define our terms.  By "goodness" I mean virtue and kindness, either to oneself or others.  Spending time with your loved ones, participating in the day-to-day life of the people you care about, doing the small things that keep the world running smoothly.  As I type this, I'm realizing that a lot of this is really emotional labor and is coded feminine.

And "greatness," of course, is Accomplishing Something Big.  In a lot of my examples here, it's about art, but there are other areas that are coming to mind--intellectual or research pursuits, politics--any kind of world stage stuff, really.  Big projects that aren't about you or people you know, but about putting something out there into the world that goes beyond yourself.  Though that makes it sound more altruistic than it sometimes is; a concern for your legacy can be tied up very tightly in accomplishments that have their own merit.

I started thinking about this again when I read Scott McCloud's The Sculptor, which is an amazing book and really deserves its own review, except this is the main thing I thought about the whole time: what kind of person would give up living their life to leave a legacy?  There's a lot more going on there, and maybe I'll get to talk about it, but that's the sticking point--the protagonist of that book, David Smith, is single-mindedly devoted to Art, on principal, as an ideal, to the point where he is often not a very good person in his pursuit of his vision.  Aside from the things he gives up for himself, he ignores or lives on the goodwill of his friends, he blows up at people he cares about, he loses most of his ties to the world, because all he cares about is this big, abstract thing called Art.  All he sees is the greatness, his or someone else's, and he's not a very good person.

Look at the female lead in that book--she is a very good person, whose goodness is a large part of what she is and the things she does.  She helps homeless people, she does street art, she wants to touch individual people, not a vast Society.  Her legacy is in a million tiny touches.

Where this really started to come together in the non-art world, though, was when I read the incredibly amazing Raven Boys, which is just a gorgeous examination of privilege and how close you can be to someone and not be able to walk in their shoes at all.  Again, a million things to say about the book in general, but look at Gansey.  Look at his search for the ley line and the lost king Glendower.

Look at how hard he tries to be a good person, and how bad he is at it sometimes--because he treats people who are completely unlike him in exactly the way the he would like to be treated.  They love him for it, because they know that he is being good and generous to them, even when he is hurting them. But in Gansey's desire to do something great--something that makes him worthy of being in the world in a way that he doesn't quite feel--he can forget that the people in his orbit do not have the resilience of safety and money and confidence and privilege that he lives in without even knowing it.

Gansey works hard to be good, even when he doesn't quite understand what's involved.  But whenever his quest comes to the front, everything else takes a back seat, and the greatness he longs for pushes the goodness that he's striving for out of his reach.

And now I'm thinking of Hamilton, and how many hard moments and personal losses are about the obsession with legacy, and how he gave up the trust of his wife to protect his political legacy (more or less). Or even just the vacations that a person doesn't go on with his children in pursuit of a grand ambition.

Or the dinners that a boyfriend misses because he's working on his art.

Or the rift between two sisters when one wins the prize the other wanted.

I suppose goodness here can be seen as the pleasures of the small life, and greatness as the larger life in the public sphere.  When you put it this way, it's very clearly coded as feminine and masculine.  And when you bring these things right down to it, some of the choices are just about resource allocation; a person only has the time and personal energy to devote to a few things, and the more you put into one area, the less you will put into another.  Big things take big personal investments, leaving much less for the rest of life. 

There is an E.M. Forster quote I've always liked: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." I've always admired this, but I've also thought about it a lot--do I feel that way?  If both are betrayals, isn't my country a bigger one; aren't many of my countrymen also my friends?

I have always chosen the personal over the wider world, and never really doubted it.  Part of that is fear, or lack of ambition.  Part is the value and satisfaction I get from my relationships, more than accomplishments.  But if you start breaking down your values--art, knowledge, your nation, the future--aren't these things enormously important?  And do they have to come at the cost of everything else?

I should have an answer.  I should be able to at least sum up the argument.  All I can give you is that it's a big question, the kind that is better served in the argument than the answering, and the stories that wrestle with it in interesting ways and make unexpected points about it are the ones I want to read more of. 

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Goodreads Book Tag

Just when I was feeling kind of blah about all my potential blog posts, Elizabeth at EMM Blogs posted her answers to these questions.  And lately I've found looking at books and thinking about books is almost more fun than reading them, so let's play!


1. What was the last book you marked as ‘read’?
The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz. Way more fun than it had any right to be. And with an almost-too-happy ending, which is my favorite kind!

2. What are you currently reading?
Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. This book is incredible.  This morning on the train I made a noise that made other passengers stare at me.  That good.
On the Edge of Gone, by Corrine Duyvis. Epic disaster book.  I love the POV character.
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo.  Audiobook. A fun heist book, though Bardugo often has trouble holding my attention as much as I want her to.
Rogues, edited by George R. R. Martin. I've been reading this one for months and months; it's a good anthology, but I can't read short stories all in a row. I read somewhere between one a week and one a month. They're pretty uniformly good, though with a wide variety of styles.

3. What was the last book you marked as ‘TBR’?
A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham. Kelly and Cora's recommendation; I don't think they've ever steered me wrong.

4. What book do you plan to read next?
Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. The Booksmugglers liked it, and the premise sounds fascinating.  The first few pages are a little confusing, but I definitely want to see if it's as creepy as it sounds.

5. Do you use the star rating system?
I do, though almost everything gets four stars.  5 means it's on my longlist of favorites; 3 means I don't regret reading it. 2 means it was not a very good book, and 1 means it offended me.  But I don't rate books that I don't finish, so there aren't that many 1s or 2s--only when I finish them for a reason, whether it's book club or because it's so awful I can't look away.

6. Are you doing a 2016 Reading Challenge?
Nope.  I'm putting some attention into trying to read more POC authors, but book clubs are enough of a commitment to me.  I like to follow my whims, book-choice-wise.

7. Do you have a wishlist?
I have an offensively long wishlist at the library.  Like, obscenely long.  I have the maximum allowable number of ebooks on reserve.

8. What book do you plan to buy next?  I use the library for most of my new book acquisitions. I do really want to buy a copy of Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon, to reread with my son.  I adored that book.

9. Do you have any favorite quotes, would you like to share a few?
What always leaps to mind when someone asks this question is the first paragraph of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
10. Who are your favorite authors?
I feel like as soon as you ask this question my brain freezes up and I can't answer it.  I can list off a few of my favorite books, but a lot of them are by authors I haven't read a million books from.  Christopher Moore is amazing, though.  Ann Leckie, Jo Walton, K.J. Parker, Sharon Shinn.  Terry Pratchett.  

11. Have you joined any groups?
I never have gotten the hang of Goodreads groups, which is a shame, because I do so much bookish lurking on the internet, it seems like I'd love it there.

12. Who do you tag?
Lianna! I know your blog is mostly a writing blog, and that I'm asking you to take time from your real task but I want to know your answers. Keep this one in your pocket for when you need a break from writing! 

Monday, June 06, 2016


I really want to write a post about Scott McCloud's The Sculptor, but it's turning into a huge post involving a bunch of other books, so you're going to have to wait.  Meanwhile I've mostly drifted a bit from all the amazing books I'm reading (The Raven Boys and On the Edge of Gone) because I've been sucked in completely by Lisa Lutz's The Passenger.

I don't need to wait till I'm done with that book to talk about it, because whether or not it's great literature (it's not), I cannot. Stop. Reading it. I think that says all you need to know.  It's a book about a woman on the run--Tanya, who soon becomes Amelia, who soon becomes...well, it's complicated.  And so on.

We're not talking super-talented spies here--we're talking about the best you could do if you walked out of your house tomorrow with a suitcase and some handy cash and tried to disappear.  There's a small amount of planning, and she's not a bad pickpocket, but that's about it.  Going from place to place, drinking, motels, meeting people and maybe trying to find--what? 

Well, when she hooks up with another troubled woman, things get more interesting, and distinctly more complicated.  Tanya/Amelia/our narrator is pretty much the passenger in her life--drifting along and trying to keep out of trouble.  It's kind of a how-to on half-assedly (well, maybe three-quarter-assedly) going on the lam. I love how-to novels.

There's also the central question of what sent her off in the first place.  Tanya's husband dies by accident on the first page, but the reason she runs is that she's run before, and she knows she can't explain herself in even the most cursory investigation.  But what's in her past that she's running from?  This is a gimmick I usually hate--where the Big Reveal is a story that everyone in the book already knows but is kept from us by the narrator.  But it does a good job of building tension here, because it doesn't really matter to the story.  It's an interesting tidbit, but it has little to do with whatever's trouble she's in right now. 

I got this book from Netgalley and I'm so glad I did.  And I'm reminded of another Netgalley book I haven't reviewed yet, Playing Dead, by Elizabeth Greenwood, a nonfiction exploration of the art of faking one's own death.  Tanya/Amelia/our narrator needs a copy of this; I'd better read that next to brush up in case I have to bug out.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Epic WTF-ery: A Book Review

I have led my poor book club down the path of this book that got such good reviews, I can't even.  I don't know where to begin.  Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace, came so highly recommended by the Book Smugglers, I threw it before my book club with confidence and encouraged their votes until it was our pick for the month.

Fortunately, it seems to have bothered me more than anyone else.  The writing was admittedly rocky, but some felt the story had a strong core.  And if you describe the plot, I suppose I can see how that might be true: Wasp is the Archivist of the goddess Catchkeep; feared and respected by her village, it is her job to record her interactions with the ghosts that are everywhere, and to banish them (I think? What happens to ghosts when she gets rid of them?). Once a year, the upstarts from the shrine get a chance to try to kill her and take her place as Archivist.  The Catchkeep-priest lords over all.  Good times.

She finds a ghost that can talk (which goes against the very nature of everything she's ever learned about ghosts, but she gets past that weirdly quickly) and asks for her help in finding his long-lost ghost-friend. She signs on because she kind of hates her life, and they take a journey to the underworld, which is like a long, weird dream sequence where doors open up into different places and you run into people all out of context and big dogs try to kill you and you just have a feeling about something.

I hate dream sequences.  This is a fact about me, my own pet peeve and peculiarity, but a really consistent one.  I like dreaming; I hate reading about dreams. So the fact that about half this book runs on dream logic takes a big chunk out of my enjoyment from the get-go.

Part of being a ghost is losing your memory, so the ghost she's following around doesn't have much to go on.  But they discover that Wasp can see some ghost memories (with her magic Archivist knife, for some reason), so she fills in the gaps of his past--a high-tech society with supersoldiers fighting a war.  So we have two dystopias--Wasp's distant future of crumbling hardscrabble village life, and the ghost's our-future/Wasp's-past of high tech war. 

So, I have a million questions, and I don't necessarily believe the author could answer them if I had her here to ask.  Like, why are there no ghosts in the memories of the past, if they're just around everywhere now? Is the afterlife really just wandering around for eternity, either on earth or in the ghost world, until you dissolve or someone does....whatever it's Wasp's job to do? That last memory trip--did the ghost go with her into it? Was he himself, or a bystander? How did he talk to both the woman and Wasp in the same interaction? How did that relived memory have any outcome in the real world?

Also, wouldn't it have been SO MUCH EASIER to keep track of everything if the ghost had had a name--or even just a narrative descriptor that separated memory-him from ghost-him?  And how did the tools that he carried from before he died have any effect on living flesh? And how come the prospect of just living in the world seems like a curse until later it just isn't?

Okay, that last one might make psychological sense, if I think about it.  But the thing is, I don't trust the author at all enough to believe that any connection I see is part of what she's trying to do with the story.  It's too sloppy--on a micro level (antecedents that I can't pair with their nouns) and a macro level (literally what happened in that last memory scene?).  Kelly made a great point in our meeting about the parallels between Wasp and the ghost, and my first reaction was "I don't think so." She's right, all those signs are there, some even pointed to deliberately.  But the story is just so sloppy that I had trouble perceiving the patterns even when looking for them.

Oh, also?  That house that is described as "abandoned" at the end of the book?  It was being burned down 200 pages earlier.  If I have to do this for you, there is a failure here.

There was some good stuff--I liked Foster; I liked the creepy apocalyptic landscape of Wasp's time (which turns all green and rosy at the end--is there landscaping version of the pathetic fallacy?); I really liked the mythology around Catchkeep and the other gods.  I just wish that even those neat parts had fit together better, felt more organic, or, god help me, made a lick of sense.