The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

Come to a place like this, far from the estates and the ring roads and the car parks and the black fields of beet and the screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianized precincts. Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home.

The place like this our nameless protagonist has come to, thirteen months past abandoning his wife and newborn daughter, is a ramshackle house amid the English moor. Here, he spends time contemplating the universe, comparing primeval nature to industrial humanity, and plunging his body into freezing water to surpass pain and selfhood alike. It’s good. Well-written, interesting, and posing uncomfortable but thoughtful questions such as: is it better to live as a miserable, suicidal person or abandon your entire family for over a year to potentially return as a better one?

There’s something primordially compelling about ‘man alone in nature’ type stories. Whether it be reading of this guy patching up a house, heating some sprouting potatoes on an old stove and living in thought and silence or something like William Vollmann living several days in obscenely low temperatures simply to experience it and learn something about himself, I follow along, rapt. I then brush it all off, knowing that I never would go live alone in the woods for years nor spend two weeks in the Arctic, but maybe, even being sure in that knowledge, I am closer to the allure that has captured these men than I give credit to. In any case, I certainly like reading about it and wondering how I would fare in their place. Indeed, the ‘reading’ part is key here. I generally don’t care for movies or reality shows of a similar stripe. I don’t need to see the tree fall, I want to delve into the realm of thought accompanying it. 

Alas, this premise only persists for the first 15-20 pages of Beast. Early on, a storm threatens the patchwork roof of the roughshod house. The protagonist climbs up to fix it. Next, we find him waking up, seriously injured, and more importantly, knocked senseless. The novel shifts, embracing a mixture of vague sentiments and surreality. He no longer thinks in specifics: his family, his former life, or even the saints and martyrs contemplated earlier. We abandon context and specificity, not to mention commas. It’s an encompassing vagueness — foggy landscapes, unclear physical sensations, and yes, a beast.

i had always thought that if i were to jump off a cliff i would be able to fly to control myself with my arms somehow to crash elegantly onto the rocks but no nothing works i flail and flap like i am boneless down and down and i will be eaten and if you have never been eaten then what are you.

While the newly christened refrain “if you have never been eaten then what are you” is kind of funny, it doesn’t hold up like anything the first dozen pages promised. I have never been eaten and honestly I just don’t find it a crucial component to self-actualization. On the other hand, I have observed/been one of those “screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West”. Even though the writing remains strong, it’s impossible not to be disappointed by the content.

I picked this up because I loved The Wake. Beast forms part two of a loosely related trilogy, despite there being a thousand years between them, and even for all of its faults, I’m still greatly anticipating the next one. Kingsnorth’s grasp on a distinct kind of English wildness and the prose he uses to elucidate it transports me. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

There’s two different kinds of prequels.

The first is most interested in the world of the story it is prequalizing. It will feel familiar in setting and tone, but the plot and events will only be distantly related. The story is self-contained, regardless of what occurs in the chronological future and literary past. I prefer this type.

The second is concerned with the characters and the events that led them to the place they start the original story. It elaborates on missing details of their personality or backstory and in general fills in the gaps. Unlike the first kind, this prequel relies on the reader having first read the original work. 

The Book of Dust, whose plot revolves around the fate of baby Lyra, the child protagonist of the His Dark Materials series, is the second type. While Lyra is not the main character here (she’s an infant), the story is all about answering questions of her past and putting her in the place she’ll eventually start the main series. The reason I like this structure less than the first is that the big important stuff has already happened. Actually, it has yet to happen but I’ve already read it. It makes everything feel like small potatoes as the the plot, regardless of how well written or interesting it might be, is all set-up for the big stuff.

I read the big stuff 20 years ago. His Dark Materials stuck with me as a young teen, as very few young adult books did then or since, which is why I picked this book up as soon as I saw it front-and-center at the book store. Pullman does not insult his reader’s intelligence and his splendid prose was (and is) far better than most authors writing for young people. The language is largely indistinguishable from an adult book and occasionally when he uses an unfamiliar word, Pullman will turn it into a learning experience. For instance, on page 3, you read:

More than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly.

Then a page or two later, Malcolm asks Sister Benedicta what a chasuble is. It’s a clever device. It bonds the reader to Malcolm by acknowledging you were both thinking the same thing and it establishes the narrator as a warm presence who is thoughtful in regards to how the reader is absorbing each individual word.

The Book of Dust, despite being lettered all big on the cover is actually the series’ name. Book 1 is technically called La Belle Sauvage, which is the name of the sturdy canoe of our eleven year old hero, Malcolm Polstead. Far up the Thames from London lies a cozy inn named the Trout, across from an old stone bridge where a Priory full of nuns sells baked goods and provides sanctuary to weary travelers and political dissidents alike. This is Malcolm’s world, as the son of the innkeepers, frequent student of the nuns, and river adventurer atop La Belle Sauvage. The first half of the novel lies entirely within this setting. The nuns take in a particularly unusual guest. Shady figures roam the inn and priory at night. The ever-oppressive Church invades Malcolm’s school. While slow-paced and somewhat uneventful, it’s easy to become absorbed in the day to day drama of the locale. It’s the book’s better half.

The second half of the book is the inevitable adventure awaiting all boys with trusty boats. The Thames floods and Malcolm is whisked away towards London, bearing a precious cargo. The setting shifts here, uneasily from science-based-magic to pure fairy tale. Underwater giants and faerie queens. Magic mirrors and fruit. It’s not a good shift. Pullman dabbles in archetypal stories and is simply not as good at it as he is with other themes, and worse, not as good as good as other writers who have done the same. Everything from impossible waterfalls to phantom villages peopled by ghosts are crucially lacking the enchantment they require. On top of this, the final confrontation with the main antagonist is stupid in like six separate ways. Too bad; he was a good villain. 

The climatic scene wherein we arrive in London is rushed (strange for a book twenty years in the making) and as I closed the back cover, I was left with a general feeling of “huh.” I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much of this was on La Belle Sauvage’s own merits versus the hoary roots of nostalgia sunk deeply in my childhood, but I’ll almost certainly continue on to book two.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes. 

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

cityofbohaneThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.

The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.

Ol’ Boy wore:

High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.

Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.

“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.

But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.

Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

Chekhov: seven short novels

chekhovI had never read any Chekhov. This was grave misstep, a gap in my western canon. I’ve read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but was missing the Russian who has a smoking literary gun named after him. He’s supposed to be the master of the short story. He’s so ubiquitous, this book doesn’t even have a title or an author but just says CHEKHOV on the front. How do I even index this? Chekhov by Chekhov?

Anyway. I’ve read Chekhov now. I probably should have read his better known short stories, but I started with novellas. And let me tell you, I now know just how miserable it is to be a 19th century Russian peasant. I can feel the cockroaches crawling in my sleep, taste the stale black bread and porridge.

 

The Duel

The Duel is my favorite novella in this collection. It’s the first story and unlike all the others, it’s not about the class divide of declining Tsarist Russia nor the impact of the Industrial Revolution on village life.

A bunch of Russian immigrants — the deacon, the zoologist, the government official and his wife, and other archetypes — live their lazy lives in a hazy desert outpost in the Caucasus. It’s so hot outside, you can’t do much more than swim in the warm sea or sit in the shade. Laevsky, the official, came out here to start a new life with his married lover, but has had enough. The plot revolves around him trying to borrow enough money to skip town, while lying to himself and everyone else that he’ll pay for his woman to come along later.

Much of the story is these characters having conversations while completely misunderstanding each other. The blurb on this book declares Chekhov’s interest in mutual unintelligibility. This is an excellent term that encapsulates the human problem of The Duel. None of the characters are bad people, though some are quite weak, they’re just locked into their own narrow vision of the world and cannot see themselves in anyone else’s shoes. Sound familiar? This story feels it. You could meet these people in your modern day to day.

 

Ward No. 6, A Woman’s Kingdom, Three Years

I’m lumping these three together because they’re similar in theme and also the least interesting to me. Ward No. 6 is about a doctor at a mental asylum, A Woman’s Kingdom is about an unhappy woman who inherits a booming factory business. They’re both about the divide between the people on the inside (wealth, class, etc) and the people on the outside (the poor, the workers, the mentally ill) and the various philosophies and personalities involved. I found them sort of interesting but mostly tedious.

Three Years, while still somewhat tedious, earns its tedium. Because it’s a story about tedium. A man marries a woman who does not love him. They move to Moscow. Both of them are miserable. There’s not much to look forward to when even romantic love has failed. They try to convince themselves love doesn’t matter but little else stimulates them. Yeah. Even the version I know was objectively good I found difficult to actually like. 

 

My Life

This one is great. A twenty something good-for-nothing from a formerly aristocratic family decides to become a working man and is promptly disowned by his father. As the title says, this is the first person story of his life. It’s meandering and melancholy. Life can be unfulfilling and unhappy no matter how hard you try to attach principles and meaning to it. But unlike the other stories, there are moments of joy, however fleeting. It’s almost like Chekhov arguing with himself here. The pointless tedium of life that he fears and portrays in other stories is present here but is shown as possible to combat. Maybe. 

 

Peasants and The Ravine

Peasants is an excellent depiction of living life poor in a village in the late 19th century. It was terrible. You cannot read this story without feeling honestly glad you live in the modern day and have at least some means that these poor sods didn’t.  It also has the best quotes:

The lamp went out. And the darkness, the two little windows, sharply lit by the moon, the silence, and the creak of the cradle for some reason called to mind only that life had already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back . . . You doze, lose consciousness, then suddenly someone touches your shoulder, breathes on your cheek– and there’s no sleep. Your body seems numbed as if circulation had stopped, and all the thoughts of death creep into your head; you turn on the other side– death already forgotten, but through your head drift the old, tiresome, tedious thoughts about want, about food, about flour becoming dearer, and shortly thereafter, you remember again that life has already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back…

The Ravine is more of the same but not as effective as Peasants, though it does include the most shocking and horrifying scene in the whole collection.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.

I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.

The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.

Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.

Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.

I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.

*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso

marriage.cadmus.harmonyLet us try to decipher this strange, dense book. Roberto Calasso takes on Greek mythology.

But what is Greek mythology? Capricious gods. Adulterous heroes. Many headed monsters. Irony. Hubris.

Calasso explains the difference between narrative and myth: A myth has several different versions, different retellings, but the thrust is often the same — there’s always a labyrinth and a monster and a hero and princess but how they got there, who they were, just how the plot played itself out must change. This is the essence of the myth. A narrative is a singular, crafted story. When a mythical tale is pared down to a single interpretation, specific plot-characters-theme, when its variants are lost, it is no longer a myth.

But what is Greek mythology? A panoply of sexual assault and women hanging from trees.

But what is Greek mythology? Duality. Phantoms. Twins.

“There are two strands to the story of the Pelopids: the tale of a king’s descendants, a succession of atrocities, each worse than the one before; and the tale of a series of talismans, each taking over from another in silence, each deciding the fate of men.”

Meanwhile, the Helen who launched the Trojan War, may have only been a phantom twin, swapped out when she was initially journeying to Troy (a point Calasso delights in returning to the whole book long). Athena finds her childhood playmate looked exactly like her and this is why Zeus tricked Athena into killing her. There should only be one Athena.

The heroes of ancient Greece all have godly-antecedents. Theseus, the Minotaur(bull) slayer, becomes a bull in the end, his stories all mirroring earlier feats of Dionysus, often depicted as a bull. The tale of Ariadne can be drawn back to multiple different goddesses. The warrior women of the time fall back to Artemis or Athena. Echoes.

But they all fall short. Achilles’ life is so brief because of how close he is to the gods.

But what is this book? Occasionally a straight retelling of many Greek myths, both popular and obscure and seemingly with an emphasis on rape and abduction. Laced with thematic analysis, historical conjecture, and anecdote, Calasso rewrites the ancient tales of gods and heroes, often multiple times with different results. He sounds kind of smug about it.

But what is this book? Fascinating symbolism extraction mixed with metaphysical nonsense. An unintended duality, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony vacillates between wholly engaging and hopelessly monotonous. One chapter, we are following Calasso down an engrossing tangent, as he introduces a king from Ancient Greece whose entire history and character has been lost to time, save for one repeated trait: hospitality. A very hospitable king. That’s all we know. Hospitable. Calasso then extrapolates this to mean that actually, this king was the king of the dead, the most hospitable king of all, as he welcomes all. Calasso fills in all this backstory and conjecture to make this somehow make sense.

Follow this into another chapter about the birth of ‘necessity’ and the goddesses who commanded such and how they can never be cowed and lord over gods and men alike except that one time when one of them got tricked and impregnated by Zeus as a goose (it rhymes!) and what this means is that man’s relationship with necessity displays its overarching conflict with beauty and Zzzzz.

But what is this book? Eh, it’s okay I guess.

“What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.”