the aunt lydias of our generation | 2019.12.15

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood | Review

Atwood, Margaret_The Testaments

Original Publication: New York : Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, [2019]

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 419

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback

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In this book, Atwood does not hold back her descriptions of child abuse, both psychological and sexual. Some of the scenes may be hard to stomach for real world survivors. Yet I was struck by Atwood’s bravery in portraying this nightmarish aspect of our culture with such raw honesty. As dismal as some of these depictions are in the novel, I don’t think Atwood was writing for the shock value. The agenda she is dealing with seems to go much deeper.

If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you might anticipate the abusive behavior in The Testaments, as well as the religious atmosphere that Atwood has set up in these books as the systemic stage on which these horrific abuses are allowed to rampage.

To fully understand this precarious stage within the speculative universe Atwood has created, we need to remember that in The Handmaid’s Tale society longs for a promise that will fix a specific societal “problem” (under-population due to a drastic drop in the rate of conception). Solving this problem is the primary objective of Gilead’s speculative religion-driven government.

Again, governments such as this should not be that shocking to our modern reader, especially if that same reader is familiar not only with current events but also with how a manifest-destiny-driven culture has over the last couple hundred years redefined the foundational goals of the United States of America. Ideas like being a nation blessed by an elusive god have proven again and again to lead to a forced “us versus them” perspective. Not to leap to conclusions, but history has unequivocally shown that wars are started by this type of thinking, abuse is left under the carpet of saving face, and the oppressed are told to be grateful in the midst of their suppression. Ultimately, these aspects of our cultural tendencies should scare us.

With all this set in the reader’s mind, Atwood presents her readers with an additionally challenging plot twist in The Testaments. Just as history is often written by the victors, it becomes easy to despise those same victors of the distant or near past, no matter what side we are on in the present, no matter where we likely would have stood if we’d been present at the time of the true story we can only speculate about while reading the history books. This usually happens because people are often quick to become disgusted at the sheer force that is needed to take power and proclaim control. The hatred we might feel for those we see as the oppressors can be all-consuming, especially if we originally thought these same oppressors should have been on our irrefutable side all along.

The example I’m thinking of from The Testaments is seen in the Aunt Lydia character. Through this character, Atwood paints a startling picture of the women within our society who have, unwittingly or not, obstructed justice for the more outspoken, the more ready-to-rage women of our expanding feminist culture. In The Testaments, Atwood makes the hard-to-swallow point that sometimes people like Aunt Lydia, those we long to categorize as advocates for justice merely by gender associations or other similarities of experience, commit their sins against humanity while in the throes of self-preservation.

Is this an excuse? I’m struggling here too. In the end (spoiler ahead), Aunt Lydia’s character tries to right her past wrongs by helping the book’s other female characters to escape the oppressions of Gilead. Whether Aunt Lydia is vindicated by her more altruistic efforts, and whether the audience can finally see her as an individual with relatable fears and goals, is left up to the individual reader.

This, then, begs a more pressing question: “Who or what are we really fighting against?” Are we fighting against literally anyone we perceive is adding to the oppression we want to demolish? Or are we fighting against the systemic injustice that started all this devastation in the first place? And do we have the bravery to see the difference?

Atwood’s newest novel should give us pause in its portrait of the Aunt Lydias of our society. Extinguishing the people in power may still leave us with the underlying poison of oppression and other abusive behaviors. History has proven that oppression, alongside the abuse that oppressive manipulation ever-so-subtly passes into the realm of “normal” for each new generation, is always ready to spring back to life unless we can not only root out its systemic cause. We must also replace the habit of oppression, manipulation, and abuse with something better, something healthier, something more noble than being “right” or being in ultimate control.

Through a broader view such as this, we might finally be able to give voice to the otherwise voiceless. Perhaps we’ll finally grow ears brave enough to truly listen. Perhaps we’ll have a chance at stopping the abuses and manipulations that have so violently permeated our history, and that have pulled our next generations either toward abject silence or rage-filled retaliation.

jane eyre retold | 2020.01.18

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys | Review

Rhys, Jean_Wide Sargasso Sea

Original Publication: New York, Norton [1966]

Genre: Postmodern Fiction

Pages: 171

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback

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A few years ago, I went to my first aerial dance performance. And I have to just say, wow! Those people are some sort of next-level strong and disciplined, for sure. The dances at this particular performance were themed after the tales told through classical literature. The production was a wonderful salute to libraries and reading, however, the last piece would especially haunt me.

A woman walked slowly onto the stage, all on her own, dark music and dark lighting, a single ominous chain hanging from the theater’s rafters, waiting, waiting for her fateful grasp. After the fun and ruckus interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, The Cat in the Hat, and others, this seemed to be the performers’ way of foreshadowing something deeper was on the brink of exposure.

This last piece was the story of the “mad wife” locked in the attic of secret propriety in the well-known, much-loved Jane Eyre story that Charlotte Bronte’s ghost has woven into the hearts of many modern readers. As the woman on that stage climbed the chain and wrapped herself again and again high above the stage, I found myself explaining to my partner the backstory of the book that the dance was referencing. After summarizing the story of Jane Eyre in a few sentences, my partner’s expression furrowed. I looked closer at the scene displayed before me and breathed a sigh of agreement with him.

Jane Eyre’s Bertha character was nothing more than a plot device, seen from this vantage point. How could we have agreed that this perspective was ever acceptable? Why was she allowed to be left by her husband to languish in that cold, dark attic? The story Bronte tells leads society to believe that Bertha was in the way of true love’s indispensable force. But what brought Bertha to her “madness” in the first place? Maybe being married to such a man as Rochester would drive anyone to insanity.

Rhys’s is known, by those who have had the privilege of being exposed to her work, for diving into the behind-the-scenes stories of the misfits of society’s constant need for constant propriety. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys imagines the story of Bertha’s Jamaican-born backstory and Rochester’s manipulations, but she does this by exposing the messiness of money-driven class structures and the narrow options women faced during Bronte’s time in our cultural history.

After the aerial dancer’s and Rhys’s interpretations of this canonized tale, I don’t think I have it in me to ever see the tale of our lonely and much-lauded Jane Eyre in the same way. All I can do is question why Bronte’s heroine would ever choose to return to the man who would dared to lock his wife in a damp and dark attic, trying to hide his shame at having been saddled with a “mad wife” while perhaps he had been the catalyst, while perhaps he might have tried harder to help her find her way back into the community he had ultimately forced her into and then, in the same breath, ostracized her from.

How can a person win when the only option is to stay quiet and not speak out against the abuses reined down on them? Throughout history, women have constantly been beaten and locked away into submission because of the voices they dare raise. Rhys shows this tragedy from the perspective we should have been seeing from the outset. Shame on you, Ms. Eyre (and, really, Ms. Bronte) for abandoning your fellow woman in the name of “love.”

polite independence | 2019.11.02

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman | Review

Honeyman, Gail_Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Original Publication: New York, New York : Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, [2017]

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 327

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

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What is the definition of polite social behavior? Does it mean you don’t ever bother anyone with your troubles or your individual needs? And does this predicate the definition of loneliness, as the title page’s quote from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone seems to indicate? Implications of “normal” raced through my mind as I read Honeyman’s book.

A good friend recently loaned me her copy of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She later told me that she had wanted me to read it because she saw a lot of similarities between the main character and how I handle my day-to-day interactions with people. (Well, golly gee . . . thanks!?) After giving the book a try, Reese Witherspoon’s book club sticker on the front cover aside, I suppose I can sort of see what my friend meant.

Yes, I’m not shy about asking what most people consider to be tough and sometimes annoying questions of “why, why, why” because I struggle to understand how “normal” people function. Okay, fine, I don’t seek out personal help very often because I think of myself generally as being, like Ms. Oliphant, completely fine. And if I’m being completely honest, social interactions and all the connotations they usually involve baffle me on a regular basis. But is this, as the book seems to imply, a recipe for loneliness? And is it really that abnormal? (Notice how many goddamn questions I’ve already racked up and we’ve hardly gotten started on this review.)

When I was a teenager, my favorite movie (hold your judgment please) was without a doubt While You Were Sleeping. But, it wasn’t until all-too-recently that I realized the why behind my love of watching Sandra Bullock’s character and her cat in her lonely apartment in the city was predicated on a deeply held desire for untethered independence. However, the movie’s message, which was lost on me in my adolescence, is that this young woman needed a family and a husband (a community, really) to pull her back from the brink of being completely and forever alone in this universe. But the aloneness of Lucy’s character was truly the best part, in my estimation.

Reading Honeyman’s book, my emotions ran a similar gauntlet, as I cheered for Ms. Oliphant’s fierce, immovable schedule of complete independence (the two bottles of vodka every weekend withstanding). Sure, the relationships that she ends up building are sweet-as, and they help her to recognize her repressed depression that was blanketing her ability to process fully the trauma of her childhood.

That’s all lovely and well and good. Having a community is essential, I’ve come to realize, because the view from inside oneself is always going to be restrictive. But I also loved the way Honeyman’s book didn’t let itself fall prey to the age-old adage that the lonely little woman needs a husband, a lover, or a provider to save her from herself. Oliphant is allowed to keep her own independent personality in the midst of the growth her character experiences. I’m glad society is creating room for the individual and independent Oliphants in this world. It’s okay to be quirky, especially if that’s the most honest version of oneself.

So, bring on the lonely city apartment with the cat and the independent schedule of pasta and salad, the occasional frozen pizza, and a now-and-then outing with a friend to help give perspective and to feel the benefits of now-and-then solidarity. But let’s also say it’s okay to keep it at that, shall we?

a mother’s right to safety | 2019.10.12

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff | Review

Wolff, Tobias_This Boy's Life

Original Publication: New York : Grove Press, [1989]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 288

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook

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Searching online for what others have to say about this book, I found the National Endowment for the Arts’ proclamation that “Wolff may have invented the contemporary memoir.” The intersection of family and societal expectations which permeates Wolff’s retelling of his early childhood experiences has certainly become a very popular topic in the recent rush of the memoir craze.

Wolff spends a tremendous amount of time in this book recounting his memories of the very adult responsibilities that were repeatedly laid at his preteen feet. These responsibilities centered around his being tasked as the only male of his family to make decisions that had crushing ramifications for those he loved, primarily his mother, while he was not yet old enough to truly comprehend the existence of such consequences.

This might sound harsh, but from my reading of this book, most of the weight of these responsibilities seemed to come from Wolff’s mother and her inability to recognize her own need for safety in the shadow of her maternal longing to live up to society’s definition of what a proper life for herself and her young son should look like.

Specifically, Wolff uses his memoir to describe scene after scene where his mother asked him to choose what life situations might best save their twosome family from starvation and homelessness. More often than not, however, the decisions Wolff thought he was supposed to be making put his mother, not to mention himself, in harms way. These decisions sent them both crashing straight into the paths of manipulative, single-minded men whom Wolff’s mother felt forced to associated with. Later, she would join herself in marriage to an abusive and alcoholic husband after abdicating the decision of her matrimony to the young Wolff. At such a tender age, Wolff could only guess that a man with a job and a house would give himself and his mother the security of happiness and prosperity.

But, was the tendency of Wolff’s mother to give this type of decision-making responsibility to a small child truly a failing of her character? I hesitate to make such an accusatory conclusion. The social pressures put on women in the 1950s made for extremely constrictive options. Women often had to make decisions that ultimately silenced and endangered their personal wellbeing for the sake of meeting society’s then ridiculously narrow view of propriety.

Modern feminists might shudder at how Wolff’s mother constantly denied her own safety, and at times that of her son, so that she could secure father figures and male incomes to care for her tiny family. Highlighting the incongruities of the past, however, is one of the ultimate powers of memoir. Even though the truth of the past is more complex than our current attitudes might want to concede, Wolff makes a valuable point in his book about the importance of a woman’s right and need to speak up. He does this by showcasing the paradox of how the options available to women at the time of his youth were slim at best.

Here is a memoir all about the dangers of trying to fulfill culturally-mandated duties within a society that refuses room for independence or true safety. Here lies a story filled with the heartache and sacrifices that maternal longing can push to the forefront, often at the risk of a mother’s safety. The relatability of Wolff’s story and the story of his mother broke my heart in the end, as it reminded me that many aspects of our present-day society still have such a long way to go in remedying this type of systemic disease.

social deformities of the thumb | 2019.09.24

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins | Review

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues_Robbins, Tom

Original Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [1976]

Genre: Adventure Fiction

Pages: 365

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

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This was my first exposure to Tom Robbins, and I found his writing to be absolutely hilarious in the best ways. Amidst all the ruckus character descriptions and philosophical debates about life, love, death, individualism, and religion interlaced with all that sloppy and explicit sex, sex, sex, I was struck mostly by this book’s apparent attempt to advocate for the feminist perspective. This surprised me, perhaps wrongly-so, because Robbins is (as far as I can tell) a male author. As a result, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from the feminist foot (or the glove from the thumb . . . oh dear) that this book continuously seemed to push forward. Well, I guess I should perhaps give Robbins a hardy, although somewhat-still suspect, “Alrighty then, friend!”

The novel’s main character, Sissy Hankshaw, is a young, bisexual woman born with magnificently enormous thumbs. The nickname “Thumbelina” litters the pages now and again in a joking, and yet, somehow, complimentary way. The compliment of this nickname came across, from my perspective, in how the book’s plot again and again referenced Sissy’s personal love of her physical oddity even in the face of society’s repeated rejection of her thumbs as a deformity to be pitied, gawked at, and ultimately solved. The quandary this poses within Sissy’s internal dialogue is the first hint that something greater than just a funny, tall tale is going on in this book. (The overwhelming beauty of the rest of Sissy’s person is a troublesome point, however, and one which I’ll address later in this review. I appreciated what Dayna Troisi had to say about this aspect of the novel in her review.)

Sissy argues at one point, and pretty early in the novel at that, “we can live with nature’s experiments, and if they aren’t too vile, turn them to our advantage.” She accepts herself just as her mother’s cervix introduced her to the universe, without need for shame. Sissy continues in the aforementioned section of the text to comment also that she feels sorry for those who have to suffer the “deformities” imposed by society and its constant need for adherence to the norm, because “social deformity is sneaky and invisible,” making “people into monsters or mice.”

I loved this reference to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where the main character of that story is turned into a monster-murderer because society is baffled about how to return his embrace of deep and unrequited love. Instead, the society around him becomes bent on the only justice they know how to exact.

While Lennie Small didn’t have the advantage of anyone to teach him how to steer his powerful being toward more life-giving actions, Sissy is her own advocate, arguing stubbornly throughout Even Cowgirls that she is not disabled in any sense and that she, therefore, does not need to be “fixed.”

She wavers in her resolve on this topic toward the book’s climax, as we all do from time to time.

The climax of the novel runs concurrently with extensive descriptions of an almost-lost gaggle of whooping cranes. Whooping cranes? Really? What is happening here, Robbins?

The idea is this: The whooping cranes of the Western Hemisphere have mysteriously disappeared. The cranes’ absence has caused national distress, with conservationists and environmentalists spurring on the nation’s grief. Finally, the cranes are found, as the last of their species have settled quite contentedly at the cowgirl ranch that features a now-and-then center of the narrative’s stage. We learn that the cowgirls have unwittingly drugged the cranes into staying at the ranch so that they have abandoned their natural migratory patterns. If the cranes continue on at the ranch, they will die because they will miss their chance to escape the all-too-cold winters they are not built to inhabit long-term in that part of the United States.

Reading this portion of the novel, it hit me what (perhaps) Robbins was getting at. The cranes are a metaphor for Sissy’s thumbs, of course! And more-largely, their predicament represents society’s constant need to control everything in its maniacal reach. Suddenly, the cranes’ interjection into the novel’s larger story makes perfect sense when held up to our all-thumbs lady of wonder, Sissy Hankshaw. Her sudden waffling on the subject of whether she desperately needs to just fit in already, even if this means rejecting her natural and very unique state of being, takes on a new light.

For myself, fitting in at the expense of staying true to one’s personal reality and personal need is not worth that kind of ultimate sacrifice.

While Robbins does a good job of exemplifying this conundrum, I was sad to realize that the conclusion of Robbins’s novel gives itself over to putting Sissy in the tired and overly traditional position of a mother-eve characterization. It is even implied that she ultimately becomes subject to continuous impregnation by the males around her (suggestions of Robbins being included is this turned my head full ‘round in the last pages, to be sure). Despite Robbins’s predicating Sissy’s power on her being subjugated to the masculine seeds around her, I found Sissy’s ability to repopulate the world with large-thumbed peoples who taste sweetness where all the other philosophers of our species have tasted only bitterness and disgust to be an interesting idea.

My latching onto this aspect of the book is probably driven by my personal need for a change in what society categorizes as “objectively this or that.” I applaud Robbins’s attempt to elevate perspectives outside the norms of society in this novel, and so, in that respect, I found it to be a refreshing food-for-thought dish of words and storytelling.

Do I wish Sissy had been more relatable in all the other aspects of her physical being besides her thundering thumbs, those thumbs that exemplified the unique power of an individual existence? Well, sure! But this is because I think the pedestal that society continuously makes out of physical “womanly” beauty is not the measure women want to hang our very individual hats on. While physical blow-you-away beauty is not completely un-relatable to the condition of womanhood, most women still want value to be assigned beyond their physical appearance, thank you very fucking much. No matter the scale, the beauty-measure becomes in this way just another hindrance, a kind of disability all its own. Hence my hesitant “alrighty then, friend” initial reaction.

I would like to say, on the other hand (or thumb?) that this book has so many nuggets of introspection regarding religion and society’s herd instincts (strangled root to that one, I know). Truly, Robbins excelled most, I felt, in this book by his promotion of the idea that it takes true courage to see real-life beyond the mantras that are constantly bombarding our consciousness (the objective this and that, so to speak). His philosopher-character states boldly that it doesn’t take true courage to just follow societal masters blindly, but that “the brave and liberating thing to do is to embrace experience and tolerate the master” of societal group-think. And what could be more experiential than the true stories of the unique individual? All in all, I was satisfied to think that I’ll likely come back to this book to re-explore these ideas later in my life as I gather more of my own (hopefully) very unique and individual experiences.

rewriting history | 2019.09.14

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover | Review

Westover, Tara_Educated

Publication: New York : Random House, [2018]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 334

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

There are times when another person’s story seems to become an almost perfect mirror of one’s own journey through life. This is where solidarity is born, and I believe this is the primary purpose of any memoir. Yet, perhaps this is just a symptom of the human brain’s constant longing for meaning and relatability where perhaps none really existed before the careful observations of the curious mind began to tease import out of the chaos of daily living. Even if the nihilists want to argue, however, that there is no actual meaning or relatability available outside our own tenuous and perhaps emotive brain connections, I’m okay with the idea that, in the midst of all the chaos and hurt life so often offers, we should take what we can get and recognize every connection as a goddamn miracle.

Westover’s memoir had so many similarities to my own life that it almost scared me (somewhat because a friend and I have also been chipping away at creating a joint memoir with a somewhat comparable theme for the last five years, but that’s . . . cool, not to mention super inspiring). Westover’s book tells the story of how the gift of education helped pull her out from under the self-deprecating guilt of being continuously abused in the midst of a strictly religious family that held immovable beliefs about what parts of society a person should participate in and what parts they needed to stay away from. The lies of “safety” perpetuated by her family impressed me very much. In the end, Westover’s family rejected her disapproval of the ongoing abuse that she and her siblings had long suffered at the hand of the family’s older brother. However, the escape she ultimately found turned out to not only need a physical distance. She had to also reorganize (not just recognize, mind you) her own understanding of her very identity.

A person’s family and the identity that that person is given during their formative years can be a lifelong trap of recurrent wrongs and recycled misconceptions. Through her memoir, Westover explains the strength of will needed to recreate one’s own identity, and this against the prescriptions of a family bent on only seeing its members and the world through a particular lens.

I applaud her for writing her memoir (not that a person only gets one in their lifetime, as I’ll explain in a bit here) in her late twenties and early thirties. She talks about this in an interview with Better Reading, saying that while she understands a lot of memoirists wait until later in life to write down and explain their experiences on a particular topic, she wanted the emotions of her story (the ones particularly about leaving her family and redefining her self-identity, literally having to rewrite her own history) to be immediately available to her during the writing process. This is where the encouragement came in full force for me in reading Westover’s book, because I’m in agreement with her method, even though it may scare the shit out of my writerly pen at times. The bravery of such an endeavor is undeniable.

So what is a memoir, and why don’t you get just one in your lifetime? According to Marion Roach Smith’s wonderful guide book The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text, a true memoir finds its difference from what we might traditionally think of as an autobiography because a memoir is a snapshot of a theme inherent in a particular portion of a person’s life. To write a memoir and to write it well, that chosen theme needs to be exemplified through the telling of very specific instances from the author’s memories. The flashbacks, so to speak, that are artfully pieced together in a well-crafted memoir give voice to that theme, breathing life into the form that I mentioned before so that the reader can find relatable handholds with which to grasp a deeper meaning that might, hopefully, help that same reader transcend what can often feel like an otherwise depressingly solitary experience.

For myself, these handholds were available at almost every page turn in Westover’s memoir. Of course, it’s not a one-to-one comparison (because everyone’s story is a masterpiece that only he or she or they get to claim as their very own), but the similarities of our experiences made me want to fist-pump with joy at knowing that I’m not alone. While the religion of choice in Westover’s upbringing was predicated on fundamentalist Mormonism, mine was of a more conservative Baptist flavor; while the intellectual breakthroughs that helped Westover finally see her family’s religious fervor from a suddenly outside perspective happened primarily at Cambridge, mine came through my academic experiences at Oxford (aren’t rival universities just the best?); and while the abuse Westover survived was mainly coming from her older brother, mine came from the patriarch that my mother chose during my childhood to bring into her household. But the underlying theme seems to be riding the same lines of frustrations and guilt-riddled confusion in many ways. We both had to decide whether we had the strength to finally get out of there. We both had to come to grips with our own self-loathing handed down to us in the lies of constant failure that our families rained down on us through our growing up years in order to see ourselves at last in light of our own true, self-chosen identities.

I’ve mentioned this mantra before (from the wonderful and eternally gorgeous Lidia Yuknavitch) in a prior post, but it seems to really relate to what I think Westover was trying to accomplish. Yuknavitch’s misfits mantra reads: “I am not the story you made of me.” Westover’s boldness in telling her story reclaims her identity for herself. The bonus feature of the very publication of her story offers a sense of meaning for others, so I’m going to say this is a win-win . . . win! Thank you, Tara, for writing this for the world to find some much-needed handholds of relatability and for other misfits like myself to fist-pump to in the otherwise too-depressing realm of solitude. Thank you for flipping the solitude of loss and abuse into the solidarity of connection and similar experience.

the language disease | 2019.08.15

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson | Review

Stephenson, Neal_Snow Crash

Publication: Bantam Books, 1992

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 470

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

This book started with one of the strangest premises I’ve seen yet. (Hold the phone, however, for a review of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, coming soon.)

The main character of the story, the one-and-only Hiro Protagonist, is introduced as a pizza delivery employee in the midst of a futuristically-now reality where franchises have taken over the globe’s economic structure, where a digital reality gives space for data collection under the pay of a menacing and yet ever-shrinking governmental entity on some very scary and self-imploding steroids, and where sword-fighting becomes just another day-to-day gambit of survival, baby. The book’s also littered with gaggles of young Kouriers who fly down highways and byways on souped-up skateboards, magnetically harpooning the most convenient vehicles that happen to pass in the direction of their desired destinations, a mafia to give the Godfather himself a real run for his money, and an ancient verbal and neural virus predicated on some weirdly and religiously frisky business to be sure.

As an introductory book into the mind of Stephenson as an author and critic of our current socioeconomic status, the constant tongue-in-cheek way about his prose hooked me immediately. Everything was up for grabs, from neuroscience to archaeological treasures, political commentary to conjectures about how religion has survived and thrived through the history of human existence.

If this all seems a lot to bite off in the one fell swoop that is this ruckus book’s layout and plot, well, the ridiculousness of the premise should tell you what tone Stephenson was after. I literally couldn’t stop laughing and gasping in horror at each turn of every new page. The action scenes are artfully interlaced with snide comments regarding the state of society at the time of the book’s publication. Yet the book also wasn’t without a sprinkling of healthy now-and-then breathers designed to let the reader rest and reflect on the grander philosophies of the universe and humanity’s struggle to exist therein.

My favorite portions of the book, by far, (although not to disregard the beauty and excitement of the endless, heart-pumping action scenes, by any means) were the philosophically and anthropologically rich sections that used Sumerian myths and history to stand up a frightening theory of linguistic development and disintegration.

This leads us to the origin of the book’s title. Snow Crash is the novel’s primary nemesis, a simultaneously digital-based neurological virus and a linguistically mind-fucking drug that has the power to reverse the mythical (perhaps historical . . . it’s up for debate) effects of the famous Tower of Babel. If you’re not up on your Sunday school Bible tales of the structure of ancient civilization, the story of the Tower goes like this: Humans were all connected through a common language once upon a time, and because of the minimal communication issues this posed, they devised to build a tower to heaven itself, but when the god in that same heaven got a whiff of their intensions, he/she/it/they splintered humanity’s common tongue into a thousand-billion languages all suddenly incomprehensible to each other so that the tower-project was forced into abandonment in the wake of miscommunication and linguistic frustration.

Stephenson delves pretty deeply into this subject, spending pages upon pages to explain his philosophy of language’s constant tendency to diverge into cultural and regional specificity with no coherence in sight. Historians of human dialect will tell you that his research is spot-on in this area.

The idea that we can’t ever truly communicate with the world at large also harkens back to Descartes’s idea that “something that I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.” In a phrase, all we think we know is bullshit. We can only know what our brain tells us we are perceiving, and nothing in reality is actually realizable. This, sadly perhaps, makes language just another layer of confusion.

If miscommunication is such a bad egg, why did Stephenson set up his book’s primary villain to be encapsulated in a drug that would smash the ever-annoying wall of constant human miscommunications by bridging our otherwise inability to communicate fully? Because, according to Stephenson in the realm of this book, free-floating communication is a virus that stays the ability of creative and freely formed thought, why of course!

If you’re feeling as skeptical as I am, no worries. While the philosophical quandaries may get a bit strangled along the route, there’s lots to plunge into in this book’s text beyond Stephenson’s linguistic conjectures. Besides, the throw-back of technological advancements, minus the Kouriers’ constant ‘pooning, the body-computers, and the weird sword-fighting pizza delivery guys, I’d still like to revel in the irony of the Google Earth predictions, the smoking ambulance drivers, and the limousine printers. Let’s not forget the digital Librarian who helps our Hiro Protagonist through thick and thin digital battle scenes, and the Vietnam vet who is so disfigured from his war encounters that he has to rig up a semi-truck as his neurologically responsive all-terrain wheelchair.

I found this book to be a wondrously cyber-punk action story in the end, with lots of political and cultural tidbits to chew on along the way. Well worth reading, is what I’m saying. So, what are you waiting for? What I’m saying is, get your hands on this one and bask in the light of all things bizarre, philosophical, and culturally obtuse but simultaneously, somehow, poignant.

cultural preservation | 2019.08.30

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine | Review

Martine, Arkady_A Memory Called Empire

Publication: New York : Tor, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 462

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

There’s a lot to chew on in Martine’s debut novel. The two most poignant themes that caught my attention, however, were the ideas this author weaves into her plot concerning colonialism and the best way to preserve institutional/cultural knowledge. Let’s take each in turn, shall we?

For a space opera novel such as this, descriptions of a society that governs via colonial conquest couldn’t be a better place to start. Martine borrows from her historian’s background to bring to this space epic a reminiscence of the Byzantine Empire and the European colonization of the New World.

This theme has been especially on my mind lately with some of the other books I’ve been plunging into and sampling the last few months. What gives a culture the idea that it has a particular right to impose itself so fully on all the other cultures it gobbles up in its perpetual need for acquiring? Perhaps this is just another example of evolution’s “survival of the fittest” mantra—-as if this justifies all societal injustices. Perhaps we’re simply dealing with The Poisonwood Bible revisited, a kind of “institutionalized oppression gone wild” ideal.

The cultural confusion Martine’s main character displays throughout the novel is a good example of how sideways this type of “my right is the only right” mentality can go. Yet Martine also does a good job of allowing her main character to keep her mind set on the cultural goals of her own distant society. Mahit Dzmare is a true ambassador for her non-empire-absorbed Lsel Station as she works within the story to fight against the Teixcaalan Empire’s continuous hunger for more and more domination of the worlds they say they are simply inviting into the “civilized” world.

Any definition of what makes a culture or society civilized is hard to pin down to be sure, both in real life history and in this book, because the subjectivity can too easily get lost in a war of “the mightiest always win.” And this is where institutional knowledge (a.k.a. culturally historical, in this novel, as opposed to a company’s knowledge-base . . . this is a shout-out to all the other archivist nerds, of course) comes into play. A better term for the concept displayed by Martine’s Imago technology in the book might be categorized as institutional memory boxes. These Imago devices, a well-kept cultural secret among the Lsel characters’ society, act like time capsules in my archival-based mind. They at once allow the user to understand the ideas and first-hand experiences of their predecessors, all while the Imago machines also consciously work to specifically not overrun the next generations’ own experiences in realtime.

In this way, the Lsel Station culture, in my estimation, wins out over the Teixcaalan Empire in the race of ever-expansion. Because Lsel’s culture is a convergence of both the past and the present, built meticulously on the gift of perpetual learning from its ancestors so as not to repeat the mistakes of those that have gone before. The Teixcaalani, on the other hand, only have their unchanging, tradition-held oppression-model to copy again and again, so that the cultures it engulfs get swept under the rug at each new conquest, and nothing is gained except a recurrence of what has always been known. Ideas of what is culturally acceptable are pressed again and again into the minds of the conquered until they become ultimate truth without consideration of “the other” as a result. I would like to argue that the Teixcaalani model is not a true example of actual growth because history has shown enlightenment can’t truly be obtained through a simple recycling of the past.

Martine has promised more novels in this universe, and I’m hopeful that she’ll play with these themes more in her books to come. A Memory Called Empire seems to only scratch the surface of the potential inherent in ideas like memory preservation and cultural expansion in all their multifaceted forms. But this is an archivist talking, so, yeh, the bias is pretty strong, to be sure.

perpetual rat-race | 2019.08.17

Snowpiercer: The Escape by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette | Review

Jacques, Lob_Snowpiercer 1 The Escape

Publication: London : Titan Comics, 2014

Genre: Science Fiction, Graphic Novel, Dystopian Fiction

Pages: 110

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

What are the characters escaping in this story, exactly? This graphic novel seems to suggest in its opening pages that its characters are escaping fate, or at least they’re attempting to in the name of perpetual human survival.

And any individual or collective failings blamed on fate aren’t really that individual’s or group’s fault, right? They can’t be! Or so the main character proclaims in the final desperate panels of this story. Besides, circumstances of fate are meant to be fought against, not blamed on anyone within the collective, right?

Lob and Rochette really drive this question home through the examples posed by the actions and decisions made by their characters in this story. As much as we’d like to mask our intentions, the heart of the “why” that drove us ever forward still lives on. Similar to how the characters in this story had to finally take stock of what drives the Snowpiercer’s perpetual engine ever forward, we would probably do well to also pay special attention to that catalyst—-the “why” of our decisions and subsequent reactions—-before any productive forward momentum can truly be attained.

And continual, perpetual motion is the primary goal . . . or is it? Remember, the train in this story isn’t really going, um, ANYWHERE! There’s absolutely no destination its passengers have to get to, because the name of the game is a pure, shark-like “Just Keep Swimming.” So round and round and ever goddamn round the characters in this story go, no rest in sight for the perpetually weary. If ever I wanted an artful example (they call these analogies, I suppose, in the lovely world of literature) of modern society’s endless economic rat-race, Lob and Rochette couldn’t have been clearer, I feel.

So, what are we escaping in this no-goals story? Perhaps guilt. Perhaps peace of mind, since there’s none to be had for those stuck in Snowpiercer’s metal tubes. Perhaps we’re escaping ownership of the consequences inherent in the circumstances that our individual and collective choices have surged on ahead of our ability to foresee. Will ridiculous mounds of ice and snow, or perhaps some other unavoidable death sentence for humanity be ultimately of our own making? Will we rise above the consequences of our own need for perpetual winning, the perpetual circling of our own drains to nowhere? How will we conquer our constant rejection of everyone else not in our class or of our self-perceived social stature in the midst of the endless night of humanity’s unquenchable longing for more?

I’m excited to read the sequels to this truly epic story that is a journey all its own through odds as apparently unbeatable as the human will to survive. Sometimes I wonder if the universe might have another plan, however . . . and I wonder if that might be alright.

difficult discussions | 2019.07.20

Any Man by Amber Tamblyn | Review

Tamblyn, Amber_Any Man

Publication: New York : Harper Perennial, [2018]

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 272

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

When this book was suggested for my Ladies Forward Book Group this summer, it came with the caution that Tamblyn’s novel includes some extremely explicit rape scenes. The group was warned that these may prove difficult to discuss even in all-female company.

First things first, why is rape, and sexual assault in general, difficult to talk about? Well, there’s what might be categorize as the most immediately obvious: If you’ve experienced rape or other forms of sexual assault or trauma, these very serious experiences can be tough to bring up in a public forum. One reason for this aversion to openly discussing such a personal experience like rape is because the visceral aspect of trauma continues to live deep in the brain long after the traumatic events have physically ended. The fight-or-flight reaction can very difficult to escape after such experiences.

On the other end of the spectrum, trauma can often stay hidden in the subconscious for years on end until just the right trigger pops the memory screaming and crying out of its self-preservation shell. Scarier still, studies have shown that the best-preserved memories are those most rarely recalled. The less a memory is replayed in the mind, the more shocking it is when it at last rears itself fully in the forefront of consciousness. Christine Blasey Ford was being anything but cutely poetic when she proclaimed, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.”

On top of all this neuroscience is the social stigma that survivors of trauma “should just get on with their lives already.” We are often taught that the reliving of a traumatic event isn’t the forward motion our progress-driven culture wants to even think, much less talk, about.

Okay, so there’s all THAT! And then secondly, what does “extremely explicit” mean, anyways? As I reached the last pages of Tamblyn’s Any Man, I suddenly realized how under-explicit the book’s descriptions of the multiple rape scenes had been. They were, from my perspective, all veiled in implications, a full-on “show, don’t tell” escapade, focusing more on showing the societal aftermaths instead of on telling any realistic details of the events themselves. Which was fine in some ways, because the reader gets the picture.

Okay, so there’s also that.

All in all, I found that the heart of this book was all about the reactions of the society-members surrounding those who had survived the sexual assault scenes the author alludes to within the novel. This is where the power of the novel is trying to reside, I’m going to argue. The book is less about actual explicit descriptions of rape and sexual assault, and spends more time showcasing the disgusting behavior of the exploitation that our society often adopts when faced with the stories of those who have experienced traumatic events like rape and sexual assault. (If you want to understand the true violence of sexual assault and rape while also exploring real-life examples of societal reactions, I recommend reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.)

Perhaps the most difficult part of Tamblyn’s book (to the horror of many critics, I found) is found in its efforts to give the experience of having been raped over to men (Tamblyn’s serial rapist in the novel is a woman, by the way—-a plot point at which I’m not sure she wants the audience to cheer or to be appalled even further). Tamblyn has gotten some backlash because of this flipped power-dynamic, but I wonder if there may be something to be said for the empathy aspect Tamblyn says she is trying to inject into her male readers through the stories she presents within this novel. With her male rape-survivors’ stories in Any Man, Tamblyn seems to be trying to mirror what women go through after having been raped. Sure, men can certainly be raped, too. It’s not a trauma that only women experience, but it is a violence that women more publicly bear the brunt of in the realm of societal judgement. And herein lies the importance of the empathy-aspect that I think Tamblyn is going for. And if, as I’ve been mentioning again and again in these book review posts, feminism is about equality between the multiplicities of gender, then empathy is a very important part of our dark societal forest that we need to visit and perhaps ultimately embrace.

I fear (like the above-mentioned critics), however, that the empathy she is encouraging might diminish the repeated horrors that women have had to endure in the face of sexual assault and society’s inability to cope with the truth-telling of specifically female survivors. I fear this book might instead just shift the limelight of the realities of rape and sexual assault again in a more male-dominated direction. But, it cannot and should not be denied that any survivor of rape or sexual assault, no matter their gender, needs all the room we can give them be heard purely and not from the perspective of the story society wants to make of them.

This brings us full circle. Topics like rape are difficult to talk about not only because survivors may be forced to relive their experiences by their very brave decision to simply share those experiences out loud, but also because popular culture has, up until very recently (with many failings still, as the vote for that infamous supreme court justice last year evidences), only taught us to point and stare at, turn uncomfortably away from, or accuse those who have survived experiences as severely traumatizing as rape and sexual assault.

This is our failing, friends. Society should be quicker to empathize, to recognize, and to ultimately act against true pain and injustice. When we’ve finally learned to put away the Twitter feed of titillation and see the individuals behind the news stories, perhaps we’ll stop being “uncomfortable” at another person’s trauma so we can be the shoulder they probably just need to fucking lean on already. It’s a hard ask, for sure, but there’s no shame in practicing until we get this right.