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The sort of film criticism I can get behind

The sort of film criticism I can get behind published on No Comments on The sort of film criticism I can get behind

After recently taking a swipe at straight white cis bourgeois dude off-gassing disguised as movie reviews, I’m happy to report that I’ve found someone whose film crit I can indeed endorse: Kaye Toal. Specifically, Toal’s commentary on toxic masculinity in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Harry Potter, the Prequel, Part 1 of N, Where N is an Exhaustingly Large Number cheers me up with its down-to-earth tone, intersectional considerations of masculinity, misogyny, and race, and its overall good writing.

Oh, who am I kidding? I was prompted to write this entry because the author describes the antagonist Grindewald as “played by longtime alleged domestic abuser Johnny Depp in styling and makeup that looks like somebody’s high school OC from a bad Harry Potter Livejournal roleplaying community.” That’s the most perfect burn on an overacted, self-consciously theatrical weirdo that I’m still chuckling. Since there was another movie review, which I can’t find a link to, sadly, that compared Depp’s portrayal to David Bowie for some reason, I assume there’s heavy face painting, dramatic intonation, and general scenery chewing involved. Too bad I can’t stand Rowling, Depp, and the entire Harry Potter media juggernaut, or else I might actually watch the movie for said scenery chewing.

EDIT: Ah, here we go. Jeffrey Bloomer, in an article about gay not-so-subtexts in the movie, writes [emphasis added], “Alas, the end of Fantastic Beasts will not put an end to the speculation about Grindelwald’s sexuality. When the real man is finally revealed, he’s played by a snarling Johnny Depp, his hair dyed platinum and his manner suggesting a deeply alarming cross of David Bowie and Milo Yiannopoulos. We get only a few moments of his giddy Aryan flamboyance, but the performance so far certainly seems … suggestive.”

Okay, never mind. Given that Milo Yiannopoulos’ insufferable smugness provokes violent rage inside me, I think I’ll pass on investigating the scenery chewing further.

Slant strikes again with gratuitous obfuscatory bloviation.

Slant strikes again with gratuitous obfuscatory bloviation. published on No Comments on Slant strikes again with gratuitous obfuscatory bloviation.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like reading books or articles of the so-bad-it’s-good type. As I have previously noted, Slant, a site dedicated to the fevered mental off-gassing of a bunch of straight white cis dudes who think they’re movie critics, provides copious entertainment. For today’s jollies, we turn to Chuck Bowen’s review of Anna Biller’s Love Witch.

Well, perhaps review is too generous a term. That implies a result both descriptive and analytical. Yes, there is [exhaustive] description in Bowen’s lucubrations and some ostensibly evaluative discussions. Mostly, though, it’s an incredibly intense experience orchestrated by an author that either a) won six consecutive Most Overheated trophies in the Annual Euphuistic Society’s Awards for Godawfullest Prose, b) needs an editor with a better bullshit detector to put a damper on that, c) gets hopped up on hella cough syrup before sitting down to the computer, or d) several of the above.

Basically, Bowen argues that, in the case of The Love Witch, form follows function. The use of bright, sensual Technicolor and other objectifying techniques from classic 1940s and 1950s films evokes the sensual pleasures of objectifying the performers. At the same time, the constant insertions of modern details remind the viewer of the messy, dehumanizing results that come from uniting objectification and desire. He could have just said that, of course, but did he? Nooooooooo.

Instead we have to slosh through a bunch of fucking metaphors [literally]. Bowen demonstrates his “cleverness” with statements like “Desserts are emphasized by Biller with a carnality that also rivals Elaine’s allure, as she rhymes sex and violence with immaculate pastries and sauces.” He caps his pièce de résistance with the claim that “The Love Witch is an earnest and haunting dramatization of this war [viz., between self-loathing because of one’s desires and the joy in gratifying one’s desires]. Appropriately, it’s both a pastry and a dildo—dipped in acid.” What the hell are we talking about here — a condom-wearing eclair that’s taken a bleach bath? How would the puff pastry shell maintain its structural integrity if it were soggy with hydrogen peroxide solution? Why is no one asking these important questions???

This review is the textual equivalent of Paul Jenkins’ infamous Lamborghini Gallardo stuffed with pudding and flying off the edge of a cliff. It’s ludicrous wankery created by a smug criticaster who thinks that overdoing it = cleverness.

Forced whimsy of Paul Jenkins’ Curioddity

Forced whimsy of Paul Jenkins’ Curioddity published on No Comments on Forced whimsy of Paul Jenkins’ Curioddity

Curioddity by Paul Jenkins is about a P.I., Wil, who killed his imagination long ago when his kooky scientist mom died. He lives his days in miserable routine until he is hired to recover a box of levity missing from the Museum of Curioddity. Standard Issue Modern Fantasy Plot 11-J-X5 ensues, in which blah blah blah his eyes are opened blah blah blah to a second world of wonder blah blah blah that only a gifted few can see blah blah blah and he embraces the world of imagination blah blah blah and brings back joy and adventure to his days blah blah blah and his mom’s not dead after all blah blah blah. Well, okay, I’m only on page 64, so I haven’t confirmed the last supposition, but I betcha anything it’s the case.

I’m down with Standard Issue Modern Fantasy Plot 11-J-X5 if it’s done with verve, originality, a sense of humor, writing skills, talent, and/or some combination of the foregoing. Shame that Curioddity doesn’t just lack these qualities, but contains their antitheses in such quantity that it’s an actively sucking vortex of badness. Reading this book is the literary equivalent of watching someone, convinced that he’s an expert with guns, repeatedly blow bullet holes in his feet. Though Jenkins believes himself a talented writer, he’s actually not, although I suppose the argument could be made that his delivery of consistently excruciating prose could be some kind of anti-talent.

There’s something wrong on nearly every page. Here’s a sampling:

P. 4: “Wil settled into a medium-paced trudge, which soon took him across an old stone bridge in the center of town. … Each passing vehicle rattled the bridge in such a way that Wil was reintroduced to every single one of his silver filings as he crossed. Up ahead, an old brown edifice loomed on the skyline like a fungal growth of brick and mortar: the Castle Towers. Wil’s office on the nineteenth floor was the only place in town where he could afford the rent, and from which he was under constant threat of eviction. He glowered at the Towers, and they glowered back at him. It was Wil who blinked first. He sighed, feeling inadequate. If his life had a soundtrack, he imagined, it probably sounded something like this: Trudge, trudge, trudge…KLONNG.”

Jenkins often tries to be witty with his descriptions, but they end up as abstract vacuities. Case in point: Castle Towers. First described as drab and hulking, it then takes on characteristics of Wil’s melancholic worldview and becomes a “fungal growth.” Okay, fine. But then he has a staring contest with the building, and it wins. This might make sense if Jenkins personified the building, establishing that Wil perceived it as an enemy with personality, before it glared at him. But all we have to go on is a prior comparison to fungus, and fungi are not people. Fungi have many traits to use in metaphors — their quick growth, their sudden appearance, their proliferation during damp, the close resemblance of edibles with poisons, their smoke-like spores — but they have neither eyes nor temperaments. I’m left puzzling over contrafactual mushrooms with eyes, which do not exist and, as such, provide no interesting or useful metaphoric information about Castle Towers.

And then there’s that bit about Wil’s life’s putative soundtrack. I can understand the source of trudge trudge trudge, since Jenkins uses the verb in relation to Wil a godawful number of times in the first few pages alone. However, while the word does have a heavy, dull sound, it’s not really onomatopoetic. Thus it doesn’t work as a soundtrack element. By contrast, a verb like galumph, being imitative, would fit as an element in the music of someone’s life.

While I see where the trudge comes from, I have no idea about the KLONNG. Obviously, this particular word is onomatopoetic, but what is it referring to? It sounds like a ringing noise, but there are no clocks, bells, or any metal-on-metal impacts in the preceding paragraph to which it might conceivably be associated. And it’s certainly not the cars on the bridges or Wil’s filings in his teeth making that sound. These are portrayed as rattling, not issuing a sonorous single tone. At first, I thought that Wil had walked into one of the bridge pylons and conked his head, but nope. I suspect Jenkins might be trying for an Existential Knell of Doom, but there’s not enough textual information to support this interpretation.

Pp. 5-7: Wil visits Mug o’ Joe’s, “an isolated pool of happiness in his world” [p. 5]. Jenkins notes that Wil resented the cafe’s temporary name change to Ye Olde Towne Cafe so much that he boycotted the cafe till it changed its name to Koffee Korner. Wil orders coffee, rejecting the cafe’s lingo [Hefty] and insisting on a “large” [p. 6]. “I’m not using your terminology because it doesn’t make any sense. … Just because someone in marketing happens to own a thesaurus, and just because your shareholders insist all of your drink sizes must appear bigger than they are, and just because you are between liberal arts colleges … , it doesn’t mean I have to join in[,]” he says. Less than a minute later, he’s “glowering in the general direction of the Castle Towers,” reflecting that the “daily dose of caffeine confrontation … was beginning to grate” [p. 7].

What we have here, folks, is a paragon of self-serving entitlement whose unhappiness stems from the fact that the world nastily refuses to cater to his whims. Plenty of people roll their eyes and/or make jokes about the size of fast-food drink containers and their names. However, only a very few take these corporate decisions as a personal affront and upbraid the counter staff. And you know why only a few people deliver venomous rants to clerks who are doing a demanding, thankless job, earning minimal pay, and exerting no control whatsoever over their business’ beverage names? Because most people have a modicum of politeness, decency, and care for their fellow human beings that prevents them from spewing bile on others. Also most people understand that the fast-food restaurant that they choose to patronize does not have a personal vendetta against them, as expressed through product names that people might find absurd. That’s because most people have some small understanding of the relative priorities of the world, which, amazingly enough, does not revolve around them. Wil’s pointless boycott of Ye Olde Towne Cafe is accompanied by the sententious observation that “one had to make a stand somewhere” [p. 6], so Jenkins is trying to make Wil an acerbically witty, admirable teller of those little truths that are universally acknowledged, but never spoken. Nope, sorry, Jenkins — your protagonist is just an asshole who flies off the handle at innocent college students trying to do their jobs.

P. 20: The source of the KLONGG finally appears: an off-kilter clock tower that raises a cacophony and doesn’t keep proper time. “Wil hated this monstrosity more than he had ever hated anything in the known universe, not to mention a substantial portion of the undiscovered bit.” I dunno — he seems to hate the old stone bridge, Castle Towers, Mug o’ Joe’s, baristas, coffee, and all that is virtuous, shining, good, and happy a whole hell of a lot! Also the clause about the undiscovered bit doesn’t help. I’m sure it’s supposed to be a witty authorial flourish, but it just brings me out of the story and onto a tangent about the concept of the known universe — which, now that you mention it, is a lot more interesting than this book.

P. 34: Mr. Dinsdale, curator of the Museum of Curioddity, introduces himself. I’m beginning to think that Jenkins had one good idea — the portmanteau word of the title — and decided that was evocative enough to build an entire book around. Sure, it’s a great foundation…but only if you have more than a single good idea.

P. 42: Wil finally encounters the Museum itself: “ornate Ionic pillars … wide marble steps … massive lead-lined windows [suggesting] an expanse of space within. The building screamed ‘museum’ in much the same way a stadium with a diamond-shaped playing field might scream ‘baseball.'” You’d think Jenkins was being paid per word or something, as the whole last sentence could be replaced with It looked like a quintessential museum. Nothing would be lost, except for Jenkins’ odd preoccupation with failed personifications.

P. 47: Inside the museum, Wil feels intimidated by the sexy, but blase, desk clerk: “He’d never been very good at talking to members of the opposite sex, and whenever he attempted a genuine compliment it usual led either to a slap across the face or worse, an angry and enormous boyfriend approaching from the opposite direction.” Socialized masculine entitlement rears its head. He wasn’t hitting on them, honest! He was just “genuinely” telling them how nice they looked, and then they slapped him for no reason he could figure out. They just can’t take a compliment — too uppity. Or they sicced their hulking boyfriends on him. Women are so mean. How’s a Nice Guy like Wil supposed to get any action? This insufferably arrogant whingeing reads like the author’s self-insertion.

P. 49: Mary, the cruel desk clerk, strikes again: “His lifetime of reading women’s disdainful body language told him that Mary Gold’s ‘uh-huh’ could roughly be translated as, ‘You’re off the hook for now but one false move and I’ll call the nearest security guard employment agency and hire one just so that I can have you thrown out on your ear.’ Quite a mouthful, Wil thought, considering so little had actually been said.” Apparently it’s not enough for Jenkins to mention Mary’s loud, obnoxious gum chewing, her “disdainful” stare [p. 48], and purposely limp handshake [p. 49]. No, he has to go further and explain in painfully minute detail just how hostile Wil perceives her to be. Lacking confidence in the reader’s ability to draw conclusions from the information provided, Jenkins explicitly informs them exactly what conclusions they should make. Translation: he thinks the reader is a dolt. Strangely enough, I don’t particularly like it when my fiction insults me.

P. 65: “To Wil, events were now flashing by like a pudding-filled Lamborghini Gallardo that had been driving off the edge of a cliff. The whole thing was moving too fast, and while everything appeared to be headed directly toward a very damaging conclusion, he reasoned that the experience might at least be fun in the few moments it would take to arrive.” This simile makes no sense, and it’s not even interesting or entertaining nonsense. It’s just inane. I assume that pudding is supposed to connote fun here, but the author seems to have overlooked an obvious result of his hypothetical wacky scenario. Namely, it’s impossible to have fun in an out-of-control car, even if it is filled with dessert, for the simple reason that the car is out of control and will soon become a fiery explosion of death and dismemberment. I don’t know about you, but, if I were in this situation, I would be too busy screaming and flailing to enjoy any of the mousse slopping all over the passenger’s seat. In other words, a pudding-filled sports car en route to the bottom of a gorge is a mess, a terrifying mess…you know, kinda like this book.

Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck published on No Comments on Missed opportunities in Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

This year, Adam Cohen came out with Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Buck, a white, working-class Virginian, was raped by the nephew of the Dobbses, the bourgeois couple in whose house she was working. The Dobbses thus had her categorized as “feebleminded” and institutionalized in the Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. There she attracted the attention of various assholes [Albert Priddy, director of the Colony, Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who drafted the Virginia law, and Harry Laughlin, veritable Nazi who served as expert witness for the prosecution] who wanted to use her as a test case to secure the constitutionality of Virginia’s recently passed eugenics law.

Like many other states at the time, Virginia was caught up in the burgeoning enthusiasm over eugenics. Ostensibly about improving the human race through selective breeding, eugenics was actually about breeding more straight, white, cis, able-bodied, rich, smart virtuous WASPs like us and keeping those defective, vicious, disabled, vacuous, non-white people out. Anyway, Virginia’s law allowed state-sponsored sterilization of people with various “mental defects.” Despite the evidence being made up entirely of unscientific, sexist, racist, ableist, classist lies, the Amherst County Supreme Court upheld it.

The assholes, however, wanted their law to be ratified by even higher authorities. Buck’s “defense” lawyer, who was so in cahoots with the opposing counsel that his picture appears in the dictionary under the definition of moral bankruptcy, appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The higher court upheld the appeal in 1925, and still the assholes carried bravely on. In 1927, Buck v. Bell went before the United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land ruled in favor of state-sponsored rape, with a ringing endorsement coming from Chief Justice Asshole Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three generations of imbeciles [Buck’s mother, also institutionalized at the same colony, and Buck’s daughter included, though no one had really tested Buck’s daughter’s mental abilities] are enough!”

Buck was re-institutionalized, given a nonconsensual salpingectomy, and not at all informed about the consequences of the operation. She was also deprived of the chance to form a relationship with her kid, who, for some reason, was being raised by the Dobbses, who institutionalized Buck in the first place. She was eventually released from the institution; she then worked intermittently as a household cleaner and seasonal orchard picker, married twice, apparently loved her husbands, and, when she heard about what the salpingectomy had done to her, always grieved her inability to have kids.

Laws such as the one tested in Buck v. Bell gained popularity, peaking in the late 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 drew attention away from “mental defectives” and toward a horrendously tanking economy. It also didn’t help that the guy who served as eugenics expert witness in Buck v. Bell, Harry Laughlin, enthusiastically sucked up to the rising Nazi regime. Despite these factors and the expose of eugenics as junk science, legal eugenic sterilization persisted in the United States till at least 1983, when Oregon finally dissolved its Board of Institutionalized Bigotry Social Protection. In fact, Buck v. Bell remains “good law,” according to Cohen, and courts continue to cite it, even in this millennium, as justification for sterilization of disabled people. Indeed, the current fetishization of the genome and the rising popularity of genetic testing for disease markers both raise the unsettling possibility that the eugenics movement will pop up again.

Anyway, not only is reproductive rights a timely topic, but Buck’s story is a dramatic one, so Cohen has potent, pertinent material here. In measured, well-documented prose, he tells the story of Buck v. Bell with two chapters each on Priddy, Laughlin, Strode, and Holmes, bookended on either side by a chapter on Buck. He applies keen analysis to some aspects of the story, but totally misses other significant opportunities. Thus it’s an uneven book.

Cohen excels at his treatment of socioeconomic class, his analysis of Strode, and his takedown of Holmes. In terms of class, he is always attentive to the ways in which class pressures and expectations shape the players’ lives. He observes that the Dobbses’ push for middle-class respectability required the disposal of their working-class servant in a “colony” for the “feebleminded” when she had the audacity to be raped by the Dobbses’ nephew. He also demonstrates the influence of class in Holmes’ life; born among the socially conservative, neo-Puritan snobs of the Boston Brahmin class, he owed every single advancement in his life to the behind-the-scenes connections fostered by this good ol’ boys’ club. With details like these, Cohen ably proves that Buck v. Bell exemplified contemporary concerns about social class — in particular, the nasty poor people, with all their vices and feeble minds, becoming too numerous and steamrolling the awesome rich people, who were naturally smart and good.

Also particularly strong is Cohen’s portrayal of Strode, the lawyer who drafted the original Virginia bill and followed it all the way up to the Supreme Court. Scion of one of Virginia’s elite families and avowed Confederate sympathizer, Strode might at first glance seem to be a garden variety Southern bigot, especially with his hand in having nonconsensual sterilization enshrined as the law of the land. However, Cohen shows Strode as a complex figure, progressive in the areas of women’s rights and higher education, who probably didn’t even support eugenics at all. He purposely drafted the initial law to be as narrow and restrictive as possible, and, unlike Holmes, who wouldn’t shut up about his magnificent majority opinion, barely mentioned the whole subject of eugenics in his life afterward. Cohen makes these points not to garner sympathy for Strode, since Strode clearly chose to draft the bill and serve as prosecutor for the case, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Instead, Cohen’s portrayal of Strode’s ambivalence neatly encapsulates the country’s own ambivalence on the subject of eugenics.

Finally, Cohen does a masterful job of replacing the saintly ideal of Holmes with a more accurate picture of the man’s full character and motivations. While Holmes may be remembered for his aphorisms on free speech, Cohen argues that his upbringing as a member of the hierarchical, ancestry-obsessed, self-important Boston Brahmins largely shaped his political views. He was actually more of a pro-business, anti-civil rights conservative who regularly struck down or dissented on cases of reducing work hours for laborers or improving working conditions. He had an essentially passive, reactive view of the law, which was basically that it shouldn’t be socially activist in a way that changed policy, but that it should just execute whatever was passed until someone stepped forward to challenge it. This passive, socially disengaged perspective extended throughout his life; for example, he bragged about never reading newspapers and seemed to make a virtue of being clueless to events and trends occurring beyond the tip of his nose [except for eugenics]. Enamored with his self-concept as a brilliant, eloquent, accomplished genius, he chose to ignore the fact that his brilliance was completely untempered by compassion and social consciousness, his eloquence called into service for arrogant, venomous, mean-spirited opinions attacks, and his accomplishments largely the result of the socioeconomic class in which he was born. Cohen uses both close analysis of Holmes’ opinions and a close reading of Holmes’ private letters to effectively puncture the myth of Holmes as practically perfect. It’s very satisfying.

All this said, Cohen only tells part of the story. He fails to include material that would make his book even stronger and more convincing. His treatment of Buck, disability, and race are ultimately unsatisfying. In terms of Buck, though she has two chapters, just like all other major players, they are ultimately scant. For example, though Cohen refers to Buck’s elementary school report cards as evidence of her average mental capacity, he quotes them only once. Even more egregiously, when he has the chance to use Buck’s own words, he doesn’t take it. He uses the most direct quotes in the final chapter, describing Buck’s later years, including her efforts to have her mom de-institutionalized. Yet he also refers to Buck’s letters in general, commenting on the neat penmanship and only sporadic grammar mistakes. This leaves the impression that Buck produced a lot of firsthand documentation of her post-trial years that Cohen omitted, except for a superficial comment on Buck’s ability to hold a pen. For someone so insistent that Buck’s voice was never heard at all in these cases [beyond her statement at the initial trial “that her people” would “take care” of her, which suggests that she had no clue what was going on], Cohen certainly devalues Buck and her experiences.

My close reading of Cohen himself reveals telling details about why he silences Buck. He wants to depict her as a pathetic, innocent victim who did nothing wrong whatsoever and was totally betrayed by mean, rich men. To this end, he is obsessed with the adjective “helpless,” one of his most-used descriptors for Buck. Indeed, Buck was helpless before the straight, white, rich, cis, WASPy men who used their privilege to rape her, but she also had agency in other areas of her life. I understand that this book focuses more narrowly on the Buck v. Bell case, but Cohen’s exaggeration of Buck’s supposed helplessness turns her into a bit player in her own life.

Cohen not only fails Buck personally, but he also fails in his portrayal of eugenics in general by inadequately addressing the ableism and racism at work in its rise. Yes, I am aware that Cohen is telling the story of a white woman, Buck, who has no intellectual or physical disabilities. That doesn’t excuse, however, his omission of the ableist and racist implications of eugenics, as well as the ableist and racist purposes to which the United States put eugenics laws.

Beyond being a way for rich people to try to literally cut poor people out of existence, sterilization — and indeed the whole eugenics movement — was also against people with mental and physical disabilities. Cohen gestures toward this when he follows the history of sterilization laws, in which blind, deaf, and or “crippled” people were sometimes included as eligible populations. For the most part, though, he strenuously avoids a disability rights analysis. For example, his preoccupation with arguing that Buck wasn’t “feebleminded” seems particularly wrong-headed. Her mental capacity is important insofar as all the pro-eugenics people flat out lied in their claims that she, her mom, and her daughter had intellectual disabilities. But even if Buck and her family members were intellectually disabled, re-raping her via salpingectomy would be morally repugnant as a breach of her right to bodily integrity. Again, Cohen alludes to such ableist violations when quoting some anti-eugenics rulings, but he doesn’t face the infantilization and objectification of disabled people head-on. He seems more interested in stoking reader outrage by harping on Buck’s average intelligence, the implication being that institutionalization and forced sterilization of a person without disabilities is worse than the same fate for a disabled person. I smell ableism — and not just in the historical record, but in the historiography itself.

Finally, the whole concept of eugenics is a racist fallacy, pitting white/Anglo-Saxon/Aryan proponents against people of other colors with other racial identities. Cohen illustrates this well in his discussion of Laughlin’s sucking up to the Nazis, who, inspired by eugenics work in the United States, expanded the racism to genocidal proportions. Strangely enough, however, Cohen leaves out the racist practices fostered by Buck v. Bell that occurred in the U.S. As Nancy Gallagher capably shows in Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, eugenics/sterilization laws disproportionately burdened not just poor people and/or people with [real or imagined] disabilities, but also people who weren’t white. In Vermont, the Abenaki Indians were seen as the racial undesireables and so particularly pursued for sterilization, but, in other states, other populations were victimized. Lack of attention to the racial minorities in the U.S. who were persecuted gives the unfounded impression that eugenic racism only happened over there in Germany, with those evil Nazis. No, it happened here too, and it’s vital to emphasize that it happened in the U.S. — indeed, pretty much started in the U.S. — because part of Cohen’s conclusion warns that the currents of eugenics may be at an ebb right now, but could easily swell again.

P.S. Cohen’s title, Imbeciles, also really rankled me. As I mentioned earlier, Buck was never categorized as an “imbecile,” but as a “moron,” both of which were official categories back then referring to putative mental age and ability. I assume that Cohen’s title derives from Holmes’ “three generations of imbeciles” bullshit and also the fact that “morons” just doesn’t flow off the tongue like the slightly longer “imbeciles.” Still, it’s a rhetorical flourish that’s factually incorrect. Furthermore, the placement of “the Supreme Court,” a group of individuals, right after the colon transfers connotations of “imbecility,” along with contempt and negative judgment, to the justices. Thus Cohen uses the tired ableist tactic of turning a term of intellectual disability, albeit outmoded, into an insult. In conjunction with Cohen’s problematic treatment of Buck’s intelligence and his general omission of eugenics’ ableist consequences, the title exemplifies Cohen’s own problematic perspective on disability.

This is your periodic reminder not to judge a book by its cover…or its title…or its premise…or its first third…

This is your periodic reminder not to judge a book by its cover…or its title…or its premise…or its first third… published on No Comments on This is your periodic reminder not to judge a book by its cover…or its title…or its premise…or its first third…

We went to the Fourth of July book sale in Williston, a yearly extravaganza in which Alling Library volunteers stock the gym of Williston Central School with tables of books, organized roughly by category, and then stand back and let the hordes descend. The library raises money, and the horde gets cheap books. Fun for all!


This year I acquired, among other things, Demon Lover by Juliet Dark, which is either the best or the worst pseudonym for a paranormal romance novelist, depending upon which second I’m making the judgment. It combines the inexplicable fetish US authors seem to have for folkloric fairies of the British Isles with the inexplicable fetish that people from outside New England and northern New York have with small, elite, liberal arts colleges in these locations. It follows 26-year-old assistant professor of demon sex visited regularly by — you guessed it! — a sexy demon. Plot ensues.

Okay, this is cool. I’m all up for academic types running up against the fictional objects of their research actually existing. Then you get the chance for them to deal not just with reality shifting, but a particularly personalized clash thereof. You also get the chance for the academic type to apply their intelligence and knowledge to the situation at hand in a way that, one hopes, would be more interesting than the response of the average person who knows nothing about, say, sexy demons.

Well, not with this book you don’t. Instead we have the Triple B — that is, a Badly Boring Book. How do you make a book with such a cool premise a tedious slog? I’ve provided a handy numbered list below.


  1. Make the main character’s entire existence revolve around the male love interest in the most egregious way possible. Main Character [MC, since I can’t be arsed to recall or  look up her name] studies sexy demons because one started hanging around after her parents died. She wrote a book about demon sex based on her research, and her book got her a job at Adirondack Fairy U, and now she teaches about demon sex. Her life is driven by the sexy demon, but we’re not done yet; we have to suffer through an entire book about MC’s present-day, demon-motivated activities. At this point, MC comes across as the emptiest of ciphers, with no motives, personality, or significant relationships of her own, unrelated to the sexy demon. Here we have the sexist trope of fictional woman as nearly irrelevant appendage of  male love interest taken to a stupefying extremity. I remain crashingly indifferent to MC and to the sexy demon, who has predetermined the entire narrative by grooming MC since puberty to be his alarmingly devoted partner. Where’s the plot, character development, exploration, surprise, or pleasure in that? It’s uninteresting and screamingly pedophilic to boot.
  2. Give the main character expertise in characters like the love interest, and then prevent her from applying that expertise. MC is supposedly an expert in sexy supernaturals, but this seems to have no effect on her own experience with one of ’em. She teaches a class full of books on demon lover-like characters, but these only appear as name drops without affecting MC’s self-awareness or insight into her predicament. She knows, for example, that this type of sexy demon will eventually exhaust her with sex and kill her, but she never seems particularly alarmed. In fact, MC might as well not be an expert in sexy demons because, the one time she needs specific info on the aforesaid sexy demon, she turns not to her own research, library, or personal associates, but to the Fairy Queen, who dropped a vague passing reference to the sexy demon having been human once. The author writes many opportunities for MC to demonstrate individuality, assertiveness, or, at the very least, a fleeting modicum of original thought, and then stonewalls every single one of them. You can literally see the author forcing her ostensible heroine into passive, ineffectual, clueless twittitude, much as the sexy demon does. I’d feel sorry for the main character, but she’s not enough of a person to really merit any sympathy.
  3. Railroad the sexy supernatural for a significant portion of the story. For a while there in the beginning, MC and the sexy demon have rapey encounters [still not clear on whether she consents to any of this, especially as she thinks it occurs in her dreams] and subsequent dramatic conflicts. Then MC tries banishing the sexy demon, and the story just flattens out, even when a dreamy new prof appears, and MC starts getting it on with him. Of course, to the surprise of absolutely no one who has been following the moonlight imagery associated with the sexy demon, the new prof is the demon, just in human form and totally not banished at all. Yet this is incredibly boring because all MC and the new prof do is…uh… have lots of hot, consensual sex. That’s it; that’s their entire relationship. No character development! No explosions! To be clear, I’m not campaigning for persistently rapey love interests here. I’m just saying that we read paranormal romance for dramatic conflicts and sexy supernaturals, and the author provides neither for long enough so that my mind wanders.


In summary, this treatment of the demon lover trope greatly disappointed me and, even worse, bored me. Hey, even though Father of Lies disappointed me [probably even more], it approached the same subject more engagingly — in much better prose too. 


A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie, or, Baudelaire is a sick, sick puppy

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You can arguably translate A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie to To a Bitch Who’s Too Hot for Her Own Good. And then it goes into a particularly virulent permutation of Baudelaire’s favorite theme, the Misogynist DeathSex. I mean, seriously — I don’t even want to write about it — it’s that repulsive. Let’s just say that I was woefully underinformed when I made the sophomoric judgment [literally] that this individual was the best poet of the French language.

Media I can no longer bring myself to partake in:


  • anything having to do with Rocky Horror
  • pretty much anything by or about Charles Baudelaire the racist, sexist, classist, misogynist wonder

Okay, I’ll make exceptions for the following:


  • Correspondances for the synaesthesia
  • Spleen for the sheer Gothiness
  • Le Revenant for evoking the dubious allure of the sexy vampire in just 16 lines
  • Femmes Damnees because of the queer women, some actual character development, and the fact that I got word-drunk on it and wrote an exhaustive paper about it, and I AM IGNORING THE LAST FOUR STANZAS, OKAY?!
  • La Chevelure for giving my French teachers a legit means of classroom introduction to the concept of sexual fetishes, as well as exoticism, and also for introducing me to a beautiful word that I really wish we had in English

Father of Lies V: miscellaneous thoughts

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Miscellaneous thought 1: My identification of Lucian as a psychopomp owes much to my own psychopompic story character, Lucian, who pesters Ellery over in Me and My Muses. [Insert link to his first appearance in the comic, during which he utters the immortal lines, “Hello, my name is Lucian. Let’s have sex.” Actually, I’m much more a fan of “Ta dah! Now let’s do the horizontal mambo!” myself, which comes in the episode after. But I digress.] Interestingly, though, given that I first read Father of Lies when it was published in 2011, i.e., before I started working on Me and My Muses, my Lucian quite possibly owes something to Turner’s Lucian.


Miscellaneous thought 2: Lucian could be an imaginary character and function of Lidda’s mental illness, or he could be an actual supernatural entity who has chosen to associate with her. I have to admit that the possibility of him as an actual supernatural entity would help to explain some of the odd implications of previously quoted statements. For example:

  • P. 4: “It is lonely here… I yearn for warmth…to be in a living being…” Possible implication: He’s a discarnate spirit looking for a host.
  • P. 114: “I have knowledge beyond your wildest dreams, you poor child, stuck in this backwater of a town.” Possible implication: He’s much more widely traveled, urbane, and experienced than Lidda could imagine.
  • P. 118 [when Lidda asks where he comes from]: “That does not matter. You do not need to know that.” Possible implication: He’s a being separate from her who wishes to keep his true origins a secret.

Of course, I do not think that Turner supports a supernatural origin for Lucian. For one thing, Turner shows that Lidda’s universe contains no magic whatsoever. Despite the Salem residents’ claims of magical persecution and spectral torment, Lidda perceives that conspiratorial human malice drives the panic. Turner’s materialist, societal explanation of the witchcraft outbreak implies that any other supposedly supernatural phenomena in the book — i.e., Lucian — may also be adequately explained as functions of human behavior.

Second, Turner argues more directly that Lucian is a figment of Lidda’s mind, rather than a magical being possessing her. In fact, Lidda herself gestures toward this idea when she compares her “fits” to those of the accusers, concluding that the accusers’ come from external cues [i.e., secret gestures to coordinate behavior or the influence of ginned-up xenophobia], while hers come from “within” [p. ????] — that is, from inside her. Furthermore, Turner’s afterword, About Bipolar Disorder, notes that hallucinations symptomatic of the disorder may have a “dark, demonic appearance” [p. ??????]. A threatening presence [at least at first] in Lidda’s life that most people around her would deem devilish, Lucian fits the description perfectly of a sinister illusion. He’s not an unreal, magical demon. He’s a real, imaginary hallucination.

Miscellaneous thought 3: This book isn’t perfect, of course, but several things keep me coming back: Lidda’s overall dignity as a mentally ill person, Lucian as the quintessential psychopomp, the strong, ambivalent relationship between them, and, finally, the writing. Whatever her failures with historical accuracy, Turner sure knows how to write well. Her style remains clear and straightforward throughout, but she constantly hits grace notes when she evokes Lidda’s perceptions in immersive clarity. [Check out Lidda’s first full sight of Lucian, which I quoted in part III, or her synaesthetic experience of colored music, which I quoted in part IV.] The specificity and immediacy with which Turner transmits her protagonist’s sensations facilitates the reader’s sympathy for and identification with Lidda. Ultimately the good writing subserves Turner’s overall characterization of Lidda as unusual [because mentally ill], but also understandable [because human — just like the reader], and thus contributes to the book’s strengths.


Miscellaneous thought 4: Since historical Salem, Puritans, and witchcraft outbreaks represent Turner’s largest failures, I think Father of Lies would be greatly improved by changing the setting to the present day. All the well-done elements could remain essentially the same, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to find some other repressive bullshit for Lidda to speak out against. If Turner wanted to sustain the socio-religious conflict, Lidda could be a child of evangelical, Dominionist Christians objecting to the limited possibilities available to her as a young woman. Or she could involve herself in intersectional feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. She could agitate for anti-racist causes on account of debates on Islamophobia and increasing numbers of refugees. Hell, she could even propound the truly radical notion that trans people should be allowed to use the bathroom. [You can see where my interests lie… :p ] She could be the exact same person chafing at the exact same prejudices in the community around her, and we could even have the exact same ending of her running away from home and Lucian coming back. However, there could even be a realistic glimmer that she might survive and even thrive — perhaps not in her culture of origin, but in some other subculture. If Turner wanted, she could create a more convincing hopeful conclusion.

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III here.


Part IV here.

The most horrific scene in Clarissa…

The most horrific scene in Clarissa… published on No Comments on The most horrific scene in Clarissa…

…is not actually the rape scene, in my opinion. It’s the scene in which [yet again] Clarissa has escaped Lovelace’s clutches and found refuge in some nice person’s house.

Lovelace finds out where she is and barges in. He claims that Clarissa is his wife. In excessive anger over a disagreement, she, the silly thing, is now denying their marriage. He has, however, come to take her home now.


Clarissa, understandably vibrating with fear and barely able to support herself at the sight of her jailer and abuser coming after her [yet again], says that she is not his wife. He is not her husband. He’s vile, horrible, contemptible, and mean, and she wants nothing to do with him.


And the women who stand between Clarissa and Lovelace, guarding Clarissa, don’t know what to do. They hold their ground in compassionate defense of the obviously terrified and distressed Clarissa. And yet they can’t dismiss Lovelace out of hand. He has cleverly predetermined the situation so that every statement of Clarissa’s may be interpreted as the unreasonably incensed blather of a hysterical wife. Plus he’s a straight white cis aristocratic dude, and, just as the women are used to deferring to him and his ilk, so he is used to receiving deference.


That, right there, is the horrifying crux of Clarissa: the realization that straight cis white rich dude privilege may be employed to break links of compassion, altruism, and resistance so that even allies start thinking that they should betray each other for a man’s favor. It’s this sort of scene that demonstrates the chilling omnipotence and inevitability of straight cis rich white dude privilege.

In such a setting, Clarissa’s choice to opt out of the toxic system entirely by dying appears less like the Instructive Apotheosis of Virtue and more like The Only Thing She Really Could Do. I pretty much loathe Heroine Deaths for the Promulgation of Moral Sentiment, but I can accept Clarissa’s death because, besides being morally sentimental, it arises straight out of Clarissa’s character, conflict, and setting. She chooses to die because, as the bulk of the novel demonstrates, it’s the sole action she can take on her own terms. It’s not a happy ending, obviously, but, given the fictional universe and its populace, it’s right and fitting and good. [The happy ending is when Lovelace dies. > :p ]

I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night.

I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night. published on No Comments on I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night.

No one really knows how long Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa, first published in 1748, is. The exhaustive story of a young rich white woman’s struggle for self-determination is, however, considered the longest novel in the English language. If you’d like to follow the story, I’ve modernized, condensed, and dramatized it for you in a single blog post below! You’re welcome. Continue reading I finished an abridged version of Clarissa last night.

Father of Lies IV: Lucian the psychopomp

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Welcome, folks, to part IV of my enumeration of the strengths and weaknesses of Ann Turner’s YA novel of Salem witchcraft accusations, Father of Lies. Though Father of Lies founders under loads of anachronisms [particularly protagonist Lidda’s feisty feminism and her imaginary friend Lucian’s shirtless sex appeal], it accomplishes things that I have rarely seen in fiction. For one thing, Turner treats Lidda with respect and empathy, instead of the rank ableism seen in so many descriptions of people with mental illnesses. For another thing, Lidda’s relationship with Lucian depicts the exhilarating, ambiguous messiness of having a guide/guardian/friend/pest/sex object character in one’s head.


Though Lucian manifests as he does in large part because of Lidda’s mental illness, I’m referring to exhilarating, ambiguous, messy characters more generally. I’m talking about Lucian as one of those characters created by people — who may or may not have mental illnesses — in a desperate attempt to learn more about themselves. Let’s call them psychopomps, after those supernatural entities supposed in many religions to guide a dead person’s soul on its travels from its body to the realm of the dead. Anyway, when creators like Lidda personify unknown aspects of themselves as psychopomps, they can only go so far with their characterization. After all, we can’t delineate in detail what we don’t know about ourselves. We thus end up with imaginary people encompassing our unknown aspects and, as such, behaving in ways that we can’t fathom. Their unexpected actions and obscure [at least to our conscious minds] motivations make these characters seem like independent, separate beings. The knowledge that they provide can bring comfort and a sense of security. At the same time, their apparent otherness destabilizes the order that they were ultimately created to support. Throw some experimentation with sexuality and/or gender identity in there, and it’s an ambivalent whirl of excitement and panic. Turner never explicitly identifies Lucian as a psychopomp, but he acts just like one.


Lucian works as a wish fulfillment for Lidda. For example, he represents himself as older, smarter, and wiser than her. He sets himself up as a subversive teacher, claiming, “I have knowledge beyond your wildest dreams, you poor child, stuck in this backwater of a town” [p. 114]. In this way, he functions exactly as Lidda wants. Scared and confused by her unique perceptions, she wants to know why they occur, where they come from, and what they mean. She wants to be understood and to understand herself. Lucian, who implies that he has a handle on everything and a particular investment in Lidda learning his skills, is the ultimate wish fulfillment for a 14-year-old girl who has heard all her life from authority figures that she should sit down and shut up. In other words, he’s a person with power who treats Lidda as someone with potential and promise of her own.


Though Lidda gives Lucian traits of her fantasy authority figure, he’s mostly her match, her equal, her counterpart. To illustrate this, Turner makes him similar, but not identical, to his creator. Lidda experiences the world  less through language, analysis, and word-based thought and more through full-body perceptions of sensation. In a particularly illustrative scene, she thinks of Lucian singing, but she’s not really paying attention to the content of his song, so much as what it looks like: “Lidda felt the notes slide down her arms and legs, and circle up through her head; they had colors like sky birds — orange, yellow, blue, purple, and a kind of green almost beyond imagining, like the tiniest, brightest, newest leaf just before it unfurls, all curled in upon itself. That kind of green” [p. 151]. She concentrates on what words feel like and look like. Lucian has his own linguistic interests, but more based on semantics [e.g., what his name means]. Lidda senses intuitively when people are propagating bullshit around her, and Lucian gives her the words to precisely call it out. When they get along with each other, they form a team that gives Lidda enough confidence and courage to make her voice heard amidst the clamor of the witchcraft outbreak.


Even Lucian’s manipulative button pushing rings true for psychopompic characters. Lucian reassures Lidda that, whatever’s rotten in the state of Salem, it has nothing to do with her vaguely preternatural ability to detect bullshit and everything to do with feuding villagers lathering each other up into senselessness. Thus he turns her sense of isolation into a virtue of analytical detachment. At the same time, he urges her to laugh, dance, and behave in ways that earn her censure. In other words, he sometimes gives her a sense of comfort and security that she craves, while simultaneously provoking her to actions that make her feel frustrated and humiliated. His alternating niceness and snideness correlate to his status as both known and unknown creation. Lidda made him to help her make sense of the world; when he gives her answers, she looks on him favorably. However, when she reaches the limits of her knowledge, Lucian highlights her ignorance and seems nasty and arrogant. Being a part of Lidda, he knows exactly how to flatter her and make her feel good, but he also has enough intimacy to know where she’s most vulnerable, so he knows as well how to wound her. And yet she made him have what she wants — “truth and lies…and the wit to tell the difference” [p. 39] — so, even though he regularly irritates and unnerves her, she can’t stay away from him.


The cracks in Lucian’s facade of masterful superiority also help to characterize him as Lidda’s psychopomp. My favorite exposure of his limitations occurs when Lidda asks where he comes from. As Turner puts it, “There was an answering silence, then something that sounded almost like a cough, and a muted reply: That does not matter. You do not need to know that” [p. 118]. This is a moment that’s at once hilarious, pathetic, and realistic. It’s hilarious because, at least for a moment, Lucian quits acting like some omnipotent, omniscient magical being and suddenly comes across as an fallible person who’s embarrassed and possibly ashamed about something. It’s pathetic because, being part of Lidda, he obviously partakes of her self-examining anxiety, but, even though she bares the inside of her head to him, he doesn’t reciprocate. Instead, he keeps from her the source of his perturbation. Finally, it’s realistic that he avoids answering Lidda’s inquiry about his origins because Lidda, who made him, has no idea what said origins are. She can’t answer the question that she created Lucian to answer, so of course he’s going to squirm out of a point-blank response.


As a figment of Lidda’s mind tasked ultimately with helping Lidda [though his methods often seem infuriating and questionable], Lucian works desperately on her behalf to assuage her worst fear: that she’s going to be alone forever. When her mental illness causes her suffering, it literally separates her from the rest of the world. At several times in the novel, she tries to escape hallucinations by running outside, away from the dinner table and her family to the outhouse. To put it another way, at her most miserable, Lidda sits in a stinking shit heap, sobbing, overwhelmed by inarticulate confusion that she can share with no one. Thus Lucian’s first words — “It is lonely here… I yearn for warmth…to be in a living being…” [p. 4] — basically describe the chill sense of divorce with which Lidda associates her lowest points of depression. Because he’s part of her, he knows exactly what such excruciating despair is like.


Like Lidda, Lucian has no interest in remaining in a frigid shit heap, so he does everything he can to ensure that he and Lidda avoid such a fate. That’s why he says to Lidda, “Yes, girl, I am here, with you always” [p. 56]. She fears being alone, with its stench of sadness [and shit], so she makes up someone who, even though he doesn’t always answer her summons, proves a more constant companion than the fickle townsfolk.  That’s why he says, “I do not wish you to marry. …Because you belong to me” [p. 38]. Realistically speaking, if Lidda did not marry, she would end up without a husband, without the opportunity to have legitimate offspring, without children, without a family — in some sense, she would be without context, without identity, without a place in her Puritan society. On the margins of the community, she would face general suspicion, disapproval, and a certain measure of ostracism. Single life would bring some of the loneliness that threatens her so much. Terrified by that possibility, she tries to change it from a negative absence of family, friends, and community support to a positive presence of an internal companion, guide, and friend. Lucian is such a strong, vivid creation in part because Lidda wants so much not to be alone that she attempts to make herself a friend out of a piece of her mind.

As Father of Lies closes, Lidda interrupts the hearings at the Court of Oyer and Terminer, describing the witchcraft outbreak as not Devil-induced suffering, but lies wielded on purpose by people who want to harm others. Fearing that she will bring accusations of witchcraft upon herself or, at the very least, that she will subject her family to ignominy if she stays, she runs away from home. She plans to travel on foot to Boston and obtain “a position in some household” [p. 235]. Her brother gives her a little money to help her. Lucian, who has been absent for a while, reappears, congratulating her for her bravery, and — scene.

In other words, at the end of the book, Lidda separates herself from her family and social supports. Now on the aforementioned margins of society, she faces an uncertain life. With “a strange excitement,” Lidda contemplates the possibility of being herself, “with no one to criticize her” [p. 235]. However, the fact remains that her worst fear — solitude — has come to pass. Furthermore, since her behavior has reduced her already limited prospects as an unmarried young Puritan woman in Massachusetts Bay Colony, her chances for an expansive, uncensored, liberated existence remain dubious. I think Turner is trying for a happy ending here, but I don’t buy it.

Over in my [cynical] head, I imagine that the book stops at this particular moment because Turner doesn’t want to look several years into the future. In a few years, Lidda may have found a place as a servant, but her masters abuse her physically and emotionally. Upon perceiving her symptoms of mental illness, her masters berate her as “distracted in her wits,” which was the term back then for being mentally disturbed. The family she works for claims that no one else would accept such an unreliable worker, and they use her fear to keep her with them as a convenient punching bag. Dancing, laughing, and speaking up now seem like luxuries for Lidda, who expends more effort on mere survival. Lucian no more promises delights, but he does teach her skills of dissociation, which help with the pain. At the same time, even though she vowed in the past not to consider it, marriage to a fellow servant ten years older is looking good. He lacks any sort of “spirit,” as Lucian would say, but he’s unobjectionable, and he has nearly saved up enough to strike out on his own. Right now, that looks like the best she can hope for. The [much more realistic] end.

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part III here.


Part V here.



Father of Lies part III: Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams

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Welcome back to the third part of my extensive rant about Ann Turner’s Father of Lies, a YA historical fiction novel about a teenager, Lidda, with mental illness and a very interesting character inside her head, Lucian. This book does some things horribly and other things excellently. As I’ve detailed, Turner’s version of 1690s Salem during the witchcraft outbreak falls apart under multiple anachronisms. At the same time, the author gives Lidda and Lucian dignity and seriousness almost never granted to fictional people with disabilities, especially when said people are written about by authors without disabilities. Reading Father of Lies is an exercise in frustration, as it’s the novelistic equivalent of the little curly-haired girl of nursery rhymes. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, but, when it’s bad, it’s horrid!

Sometimes, just to put my poor emotions through the wringer, Father of Lies manages to be very, very good and horrid simultaneously, mostly as far as Lucian is concerned. As Lidda’s most active hallucination, he shares her restless contempt for the restrictions of her small-town life, as well as the repressive model of Puritan femininity to which Lidda is supposed to adhere. At the same time, he crystallizes Lidda’s often-inchoate tendencies toward physical rebellion [dancing, tree climbing, not wearing her stays] into an articulate stance of license in all respects. He mocks the villagers’ petty, dissembling behavior; he pushes Lidda to speak out in favor of the truth. He even challenges Puritan religious orthodoxy when he asserts that he has nothing to do with God and then helps Lidda to the conclusion that witches do not actually exist. While he directs her fidgetiness into intellectual rebellion, he also adds sexual aspects to Lidda’s disobedience, as, for example, whenever he appears half naked and then comments that she would look good naked [“You would like being naked, girl. No stays or petticoats to trap you like a snared rabbit” (pp. 102-103)]. In response, Lidda views the smart, sly, sexy, borderline blasphemous Lucian as a private ally, imperceptible to everyone except herself, and spends a lot of time trying to figure him out and please him. His running commentary on her experiences and her disputes with him form the entertaining, engaging core of the book.


As the overview in the previous paragraph intimates, I think Lucian is a wonderful character, but he also has serious flaws in his construction. Just as Lidda is essentially modern into her proto-feminist critique of Puritan beliefs and culture, so Lucian seems to have time traveled from the 21st century back to the tail end of the 17th, a fact most apparent when you take a look at his appearance, described in breathless detail on page 88:


“Then, like something becoming clear under the surface of a rushing stream, piece by piece the creature assembled himself so that Lidda could see him in the darkness of her head: He unfolded his body, starting with his long, elegant feet; up his lean legs, encased in shining black breeches; his bare torso became visible, gleaming as if from distant firelight; then his long smooth arms and hands with exquisite pointed fingers; and last his head, which was frighteningly handsome, more glorious than anything she had ever known, with black hair cascading down his back, waving in an invisible breeze. Complete, there, unlike anything ever seen before in the drab confines of her village.


“But his eyes! Silver like a running stream — a straight nose — and a mouth that curved in an intimate smile over pointed teeth.”


Given that your average Puritan man wore layers of clothing, including a hat, at almost all times and regularly tied his hair back or wore a wig, where does this hatless hottie come from? And what’s with the dramatic, flowing locks, sharp teeth, and silver eyes? Lucian looks like the bishonen fever dream of someone who’s been reading too much vampire romance manga. His sexiness is discordantly ahistorical. [“Hey, everyone, it’s Discordantly Ahistorical Sexiness, opening for Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams!” I imagine both of these groups as New Wave in sound, though Discordantly Ahistorical Sexiness looks like Cotton Mather by way of Adam Ant, while Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams looks like William Stoughton crossed with classic V-kei. Incidentally, both of these groups sound awesome!]


Just as I wonder where Lidda’s image of Lucian comes from, so I wonder where she gets his personality. Lidda uses Lucian as a way to consolidate and refine her iconoclastic thoughts and practices, some of which do have some grounding in her own experience. For example, Lidda’s criticism of Puritan life derives from contrasting it with what little she has heard about the practices of local Native Americans. When Lidda resents wearing her stays, she reminds herself that Indians don’t wear such uncomfortable clothing. Since the Puritans at large were scared shitless by the Indians, whom they regarded as marauding tools of Satan, I can’t believe that a Puritan teenager would admire the dress of the natives. However, that’s what Turner writes, and, while Lidda’s distaste for Puritan fashion rings false historically speaking, it works in a certain way. Lidda’s contrast between Puritan and Indian dress gives a real-world context for her annoyance with restrictive clothes. Thus Lidda’s — and thus, by extension, Lucian’s — interest in loose clothing and the idea of naked frolicking [as well as, now that I think about it, Lucian’s penchant for hanging around in the equivalent of underwear] makes sense.


I can see where Lidda gets Lucian’s concepts of physical rebellion, but I remain at a loss to explain Lucian’s [i.e., Lidda’s] proto-humanist critic of the Puritan religion and worldview. Obviously people other than Puritans lived in and around Salem in the 1690s who could have provided alternatives to the Puritan perspective. Turner mentions two possibilities in Father of Lies: the local Indians and then Tituba and John Indian. The New England natives, however, appear only in the context of a clothing contrast, so they do not serve as a philosophical counterpoint. Likewise, Tituba and John Indian, characterized as dark-skinned servants of Samuel Parris who look and speak differently than the white people, function as contrasts of appearance, not as contrasts of thought. Turner does not set up either Indians or Tituba and her husband as possible influences on Lucian’s anti-Puritan perspectives.


The most historically believable model for Lidda and Lucian’s proto-humanism would have been the Quakers. The Puritans mistrusted the Quakers as they mistrusted the Indians, but, since the Quakers were supposedly civilized and also white speakers of English, like the Puritans, the Puritans tolerated them somewhat more. According to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, Quaker beliefs posed a significant threat to the Puritan establishment. Puritans viewed religion as a hierarchical chain of command with God at the top, who then imparted His Word to the [male] ministers, who then imparted it to the people. Quaker theology eschewed the patriarchal rigidity of Puritan practice because it emphasized each individual’s direct, personal experience of God. Both men and women, in Quaker belief, had the capacity for Inner Light — their term for personal knowledge of the Divine. Several aspects of Quaker belief — their insistence on a unique, individualized knowledge of God, their potential for equality of men and women before God, and their resistance to being ordered around from the pulpit — could have convincingly correlated to to some of Lidda and Lucian’s contrarian views. However, the Quakers do not appear in Father of Lies, and so my question remains. With no in-world role models for her modern, anti-Puritan rhetoric, how in the hell does Lidda develop Lucian’s sophisticated, occasionally ironic analysis and detachment?

While I’m discussing Lucian’s failures as a character, I would just like to say that I still can’t get over Lidda’s easy acceptance of him as a non-demonic entity. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this makes no sense, as both devils and angels were real and ubiquitous to your average Puritan. Therefore, if someone like Lucian appears out of thin air and starts chatting with you [and he’s not someone you recognize and thus a spirit], he’s either a devil or an angel. Although devils may disguise themselves as angels and try their hardest to fool you, you can usually determine the nature of an apparition by its topics of discussion. Is it, for example, giving you advice on a cure for your sick family member or exhorting you to renew your commitment to God? If it encourages you to support Puritan society, it’s an angel, and you can trust it. If, however, it recommends swimming naked, doubting the existence of witches, and otherwise contradicting the tenets of Puritan society, it’s a devil, and you should resist it by quoting Scripture, praying, and loudly proclaiming your devotion to God. In other words, everyone around Lidda would, at most, interpret Lucian as a demon and tell him to shove off or, at the very least, have serious reservations about him, but she doesn’t.

Lidda’s welcome of Lucian represents a problem insofar as her entire culture would read him as a devil and a generally bad, unwanted thing. It’s also a problem because Lucian characterizes himself as demonic, but Lidda doesn’t really seem to care. He tells her very early on [p. 12], “Heaven has nothing to do with this, girl,” implying that the other place, Hell, does. Slightly later, when Lidda asks who he is, he says, “You may call me Lucian, light bringer. … I deal in truth and lies, and to you I give the wit to tell the difference” [p. 39]. He might as well say, “Hi, I’m Lucifer, and I’m a fallen angel,” especially since Lucifer, another name for the fucking Devil, means light bearer in Latin. Of course, at this point in the story, I’m screaming at Lidda, “He just equated himself with the Devil and told you he was a sneaky bastard — don’t trust him! And, if you want to be historically accurate, run to your nearest minister for spiritual guidance!” But nope — fictional characters never listen when I yell at them.

As an aside, though, I suspect that Lucian’s oblique comparison of himself to Lucifer constitutes another historical inaccuracy, mostly because I don’t think Puritans referred to the Devil by that name. I’ve read an exhaustive amount about the Salem witchcraft outbreak, and I remember primary sources referring to “the Devil” and “Satan.” Even when warning that the Devil could deceive people in the appearance of an angel, the clergy commentators at the time apparently didn’t remark on the Devil as “the fairest of the fallen” — or, at least, not as far as I know. Then again, I’m not conversant with the history of appellations for the Devil, so I could be wrong.

Yet again, I have gone on much longer than expected and hit my bedtime. More later. Maybe, in the next section, I’ll finally get around to what I think is so awesome about Lucian.

Part I here.

Part II here.

Part IV here.

Part V here.

Father of Lies part II: disability = difference

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I just reread Father of Lies by Ann Turner, and I both love it and hate it in equal measure. Briefly put, it’s about Lidda, an unconventional Puritan girl who lives in the time of the Salem witchcraft outbreak. She feels compelled to denounce her town’s mass panic over the supposed machinations of Satan. Her developing relationship with an invisible man inside her, Lucian, who encourages her defiant, rebellious behavior and claims to give her the power to see the truth of the witchcraft accusations, makes her life somewhat more complicated. Much to my dismay, Turner completely misrepresents Salem, a failure that I have discussed earlier at great length. As the Goblin King would say, “What a pity,” because Turner does so well at other aspects of the story. For example, her depiction of Lidda and Lucian’s relationship — indeed, Lidda’s mental illness in general — is powerful, sensitive, nuanced, rich, and basically everything that I wish her treatment of Salem was.


Regarding Lidda’s mental illness, it is neither a surprise nor a spoiler that she has one. The Library of Congress data at the front of the book categorizes Father of Lies as a book about “1. Manic-depressive illness — Fiction,” even before “2. Trials (Witchcraft) — Fiction.” If that ain’t explicit enough, Turner dedicates the book to “all those with bipolar disorder who work so hard to make lives for themselves.” She also includes an afterword entitled About Bipolar Disorder, in which she makes it clear that all of Lidda’s strange and frightening perceptions [racing thoughts, seeing auras, uncontrollable movement, hallucinations] may be adequately explained by the disorder. Though she concludes with an open question about Lucian’s reality, Turner obviously characterizes him as a hallucination, an unreal product of Lidda’s imagination, and thus the most salient symptom of her mental illness.

Okay, so Lidda has a mental illness, and she directs much of her time, energy, and interest to Lucian, a person who does not exist outside of her head. Now, if this were a typical book written by an author without a mental illness and/or characters in their head, Lidda’s mental illness and her relationship with Lucian would be horrible barriers to happiness, fulfillment, or satisfaction. Lidda’s inability to be like everyone else would cause her no end of distress; her relationship with Lucian would just highlight for her what she was missing in relationships with people outside her head. In other words, she would be wretched and miserable because of her mental illness. She would only attain peace through managing her symptoms, denying her unique perceptions, and almost certainly killing off Lucian. And the narrative would stink of condescending pity for the poor little mentally disabled protagonist.


But this is not your typical book written by someone without a mental illness [and, I’m assuming, without characters like Lucian in her head]. Nope, in fact, Turner takes both Lidda and Lucian seriously in Father of Lies. While definite that Lidda has a mental illness, of which Lucian is a particularly egregious manifestation, Turner accords Lidda robust characterization without ableist authorial pity. Because of her mental illness, Lidda suffers physical and emotional pain that those around her do not: when she feels chilled and overheated in rapid succession, for example, or when she panics upon seeing flames emanating from her sister’s head. Yet she also experiences unshared joys: the sense of flight and freedom in a wild onrush of thoughts, the secret solace of a friend inside her who admires her for those traits that people around her chastise. As Turner writes it, Lidda’s mental illness makes her life different from that of most people around her, and it frequently contributes to the difficulties she faces. However, Lidda’s mental illness is never shown as inherently bad, wrong, pathetic, or burdensome. It may be disabling on occasion, but mostly it’s just a difference upon which the author places no negative judgment.

Turner’s respect for Lidda comes across most subtly and pervasively in the way that Lucian is written. As noted, Turner’s descriptions of Lucian as a voice in Lidda’s head, a sensation centered in her belly, and sometimes a shifting, flickering form on the wall demonstrate to the reader that he is an imaginary, unreal hallucination and byproduct of Lidda’s mental illness. To Lidda, however, he is a true, concrete, separate individual with his own agenda and personality. She jokes with him, argues with him, asks his advice, wonders where he goes when he won’t talk to her, fantasizes about him, and otherwise treats him like a real person. Turner reports all of Lidda’s interactions with Lucian in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Turner never looks down on Lidda for believing in Lucian, nor does she invite the reader to do so.  Avoiding the evaluative and contemptuous distance endemic to so many portrayals of people with disabilities and/or mental illness, Turner’s portrait of Lidda shows that she is mentally ill, but also fully human, fully sympathetic, and fully dignified.

I must note that Turner’s treatment of Lidda isn’t perfect, verging as it does on the stereotype of Super Crip with Compensatory Powers. In the concluding paragraph of the afterword, Turner writes, “Was Lidda mad, or was she saner than the villagers? You decide” [p. 239]. Ignoring the artificially binary choice, we can discern that Turner wants us to answer yes to both questions. She wants us to think that, yes, Lidda was “mad” or mentally ill, and, yes, she was “saner” — or, more precisely, more reasonable and accurate in her analysis of the witchcraft outbreak — than the villagers. In fact, because Turner has Lucian tell Lidda that he gives her the wit to separate truth from lies, Turner effectively argues that Lidda’s reasonable, accurate analyses derive directly from her mental illness. Like Daredevil, Professor X, Daphne in Heroes, or any other superhero who loses some capacity, but then gains a magical ability that allows them to do way more than they ever did and thus basically renders the lost capacity irrelevant, Lidda has the superpower of seeing the truth. Her superpower comes from her mental illness and reinforces her unfortunate status as an insufferable Visionary Before Her Time Doomed to Pass Her Days Among the Small-Minded Masses. [See my analysis of this anachronistic concept in part I.] In other words, Turner risks defining Lidda by — and thus reducing her to and objectifying her with — her disability. Turner’s sympathetic and respectful treatment of Lidda ensures Lidda’s full humanization, but the deleterious authorial tendency to objectification yet remains.


Despite my caveat, I generally approve of Turner’s deployment of mental illness in Father of Lies. Though it occasionally smells like a crashingly obvious metaphor that Turner uses to highlight the “true” “madness” at play [i.e., the anti-witchcraft panic], Lidda’s mental illness mostly functions with a refreshing realism. Sometimes it contributes to her distress, sometimes to her happiness, always to her unique interpretation of reality. While Lidda’s mental illness sometimes estranges her from people and causes her difficulties because her perceptions don’t accord with others’, Turner does not ask the reader to pity Lidda because of her disability. The matter-of-fact way in which Turner reports on Lidda’s treatment of Lucian demonstrates that Lidda recognizes her difference from other people, but does not think any worse of herself for it. In a culture where the treatment of people with disabilities defaults to snide objectification, Turner’s well-rounded, compassionate characterization of Lidda is a radical [and depressingly uncommon] argument for disability rights.


Well, it looks like I don’t have time tonight to expatiate about Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams. More later….

Part I here.

Part III here.

Part IV here.

Part V here.

Ann Turner’s Father of Lies part I: flunking Salem

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Two kinds of books automatically draw my interest: 1) those about the Salem witchcraft outbreak and 2) those about girls or women who talk to people in their heads and fear that they might be going insane. A book about a girl who talks to someone in her head and fears that she might be going insane in the context of the Salem witchcraft outbreak will thus make me drop everything and read. Since Ann Turner’s Father of Lies — featuring fourteen-year-old Lidda as the girl in question and Lucian as the ambiguous person inside her — combines both of these interests, you can see why I snatched it up eagerly. Unfortunately, Turner uses these combustible, promising subjects to tell what I consider is the wrong story.

First, a little plot summary. Lidda, as I have mentioned, lives in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, on the verge of the eighteenth century. She has no desire to comport herself as expected; she does not want to be a sober, modest, God-fearing wife. She likes the tales of murder and flirtation in the Bible, but has no patience for the apocalyptic visions of doom and punishment that the ministers conjure up regularly. She would rather dance, wear bright colors, climb trees, and speak her mind. She wishes that she lived someplace more exciting than Salem.

As if Lidda’s inability to accept any aspect of the Puritan status quo wasn’t enough, two other complications mess up her life. First of all, she has these episodes with inconsistent symptoms. Sometimes her thoughts race, and she can’t control them; sometimes her bodily sense of temperature is off, or she sees burning auras around people, or she can’t help but yell, laugh, or dance. During these episodes, this man, Lucian, appears inside her at intervals, alternately mocking and complimenting her. He claims that he has given her the power to tell truth from falsehood, but Lidda’s not sure what to do with that.

Lidda’s Lucian-granted power of discernment would certainly be an asset in the case of the second complication, which is, to put it simply, an infestation of evil. Starting with a few girls around Lidda’s age, people all over town have been falling into fits, tortured by the specters of witches. Most people believe that, indeed, devils and witches live among them, lurking, waiting for the chance to ambush and torture. But Lidda, who has overheard the afflicted girls planning their accusations, knows that there is no witchcraft here, only petty vengeance and a sense of self-importance magnified by a panicked mob mentality. How can she speak out against this dissembling without being called a witch herself?

…And here we arrive at the problem. Turner frames the central conflict of this story as the struggle of an insightful, independent-minded, rebellious girl to tell the truth in a repressive, ignorant, and sexist setting. Not just any repressive society either, but the Puritans, who, as conventional wisdom tells us, were quite possibly the most uptight, humorless, judgmental, prejudiced, irrational, retrograde, philosophically constipated, and generally miserable people in the history of the United States. In other words, Turner is writing not The Father of Lies, but The Tragedy of Lidda Johnson vs. the Evil Puritans, with Bonus Salem Witchcraft Outbreak to Illustrate Just How Evil the Puritans Really Are. And that’s the wrong story, mostly because it’s a historically inaccurate crock of shit.

If we want to be historically accurate [and much more interesting] about this, the theme of the story should be something like one girl’s struggle to identify good and evil in a society ravaged by war, violence, and political instability and characterized by fundamental uncertainty. And, just to make things even more difficult, let’s throw the entire community into a crisis of faith and pitch the girl into her own personal crisis about the nature of reality and her experiences. Woo hoo! Now step back, and watch the action begin.

Turner’s simplistic concept of the Puritans diverts her from one of the most salient aspects of the setting: the constant terror. Her portrayal of the witchcraft outbreak as cruel games orchestrated by some power-drunk girls, which were then enhanced by gullibility and rabble-rousing, completely ignores the levels of pain, suffering, and fear that these people lived with on a daily basis. First of all, they lived in a culture of rudimentary, ineffective medicine and high mortality [especially of mothers and kids], when so many babies died young that they just recycled the dead kids’ names for the next ones to be born. Second of all, they lived in New England, which, with its long, snowy, cold winters, impassable mud season, and short, hot summers, is a climatological craphole. Third of all, back then, Salem was on an unstable, war-torn frontier, isolated from what the Puritans considered civilization [i.e., Great Britain] by an entire ocean. People died in wars against the French and Abenaki all the time. Indians kidnapped, tortured, and killed settlers just miles away. Everyone knew someone who had died in such violence. In summary, Salem was not a good place to live; physical suffering was ubiquitous.

Puritan religious beliefs compounded the bodily suffering by adding spiritual and emotional dimensions. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were born sinful. They would not know if they were part of the elect — that is, if they would go to Heaven — until they died and actually ended up there. God determined who was saved and who was damned according to some secret process that no human could fathom and that no human could affect. Not even good works and piety could guarantee one’s place among the elect. Furthermore, assuming that one was saved was arrogance of the worst sort. One should always interrogate oneself, looking inside for signs of worthiness. This left your average Puritan in an endless introspective recursion of helpless anxiety, vacillating between hope that they were Heaven-bound and terror that they weren’t.

With this information in mind, we can see how the Salem witchcraft outbreak is not primarily about silly, superstitious people being easily whipped into a pointless panic, as Turner would have it. It’s more about people who, already on edge, physically miserable, and emotionally tortured, find themselves besieged by their worst nightmares. Let’s face it — if, on top of the shitty weather and the high mortality and the dubious health care and the upheaval of frontier life and the casualties of war and the threats of Indian invasion and the fact that you’re a born wretched sinner and the possibility that, no matter what you do, you might not go to Heaven, you also have to deal with your neighbors having fits and your friends and enemies hurling witchcraft charges at each other and the Devil taking other people’s shapes and invisibly tormenting people and an ever increasing number of townsfolk confessing to alliance with the Devil, you might be slightly concerned that reality as you know it appears to be coming apart at the seams. Please note that I am not discounting the superstitions, racism, classism, sexism, religious bigotry, and socioeconomic factors that shaped the Salem witchcraft outbreak. The point I’m trying to make here is that every single person affected by the Salem witchcraft outbreak faced a fundamental, epistemic terror that led them to see witchcraft as both a personal and a community threat.

While the historical Salem and environs labored under a burden of fear, Turner’s Salem lacks such pervasive anxiety. Lidda herself epitomizes this anachronistic insouciance. For just a few examples:

  • The Puritans hated the Indians, feared them, thought them subhuman, murderous monsters, and elided them with the Devil, but Lidda does not see them as a threat. “Perhaps she would run off and join the Wabanaki Indians farther north,” Lidda thinks [p. 11]. “Were they as cruel as the tales said? She thought people exaggerated…” Instead, she fantasizes about running away to live with them because they don’t make their kids wear corsets.
  • Puritan society, including the ministers, who were considered general experts and role models, had a complicated relationship with magic. Even though belief in God and the Devil predominated and was supposed to exclude a belief in magic, the principles of sympathetic magic circulated as general cultural knowledge. Not everyone practiced magic, but Puritans thought that it could be a good supplement to more Godly activities — a way to hedge bets, so to speak. At one point, however, Lidda concludes that the baking of a witch cake, a piece of folk magic designed to identify the witches in their midst, arises from a combination of “fear, lies, and stupidity” [p. 83]. Lidda’s harsh condemnation of the cultural vocabulary of magic thus seems unconvincing.
  • All the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony worried about the state of their souls. They wondered incessantly about their damnation and/or salvation. While the Devil was always a real and imminent threat to them, the witchcraft outbreak turned him into a particularly personal adversary. You had to watch out for him because he was going to do everything in his power — corrupting your neighbors and family, sickening your animals and crops, sending nightmares and physical pains, even taking the shape of innocent people and plaguing you — to turn you to evil. However, the Devil does not seem to bother Lidda. When Lucian appears in her head, inciting her to rebellious behavior and implying that God has nothing to do with him, Lidda barely entertains the thought that he’s demonic. In fact, she rejects that conclusion: “How seductive he was, how beautiful, just as Reverend Parris spoke of the Devil, except she did not think Lucian was evil. Something else, but not — the Evil One” [p. 56]. She interprets him as her friend and a flattering source of evidence that she possesses perspicacity that everyone else lacks, even though Turner gives Lidda no reason for her conclusions.

In other words, Lidda is a thoroughly modern fourteen-year-old, inserted into Puritan Salem solely to foment righteous indignation at her plight in automatically sympathetic, modern-day readers. Ugh. The Noble Struggles of the Feisty Proto-Feminist in a Time of Sexist Bullshit is one of the least nuanced, least accurate, and least satisfying interpretations of any historical event ever. It’s also a cheap, lazy authorial ploy to gain reader engagement at the expense of sophisticated character development and historical depiction. Worst of all, it flattens out the glorious messiness and ambiguity of history into a boring linear teleology of increasing progressiveness, of which we — O glorious, enlightened moderns! — are naturally at the apex.

I’m so very disappointed that Father of Lies turns a volatile subject, full of my favorite narrative elements [marginalized women and girls, magic and magic users, the power of storytelling, endless self-examination, queries into the nature of perception and reality, moral ambiguity, existential dread], into a simplistic morality tale. In fact, my disappointment feels particularly acute because, for all that she botches the historical part of her fiction, Turner does a virtuoso, amazing, fascinating, suggestive job with the other part of her fiction: viz., Lucian. Tune in next time when I discuss the strengths of Father of Lies in a little segment I like to call Lucian and the Bishonen Fever Dreams. [Hey, that’s a great name for a band…]

Part II here.

Part III here.

Part IV here.


Part V here.

“It’s a novel; it’s not a manual!”: the problem with 50 Shades of Pooooooo

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50 Shades of Poooooooo somehow came up in discussion at the Friends of the Library meeting this evening when we were talking about the prospect of a book swap and donations this spring. I felt it apropos to mention that the first book in the series keeps getting stolen from the library, so I keep donating copies to replace it. [Okay, just twice, but still…]

Favorite response: “Why would you steal it?! It’s a novel; it’s not a manual. You’re supposed to read it and then return it, not keep it for reference!” That cracked me up because clearly the speaker was not thinking about the pleasures of rereading. I was also entertained because, distressingly, people actually do take the series as a manual for either an ideal relationship and/or how to practice bdsm.

On the subject of pooooooooooo, a friend has sent me a pdf of Masters of the Universe, which is, of course, E.L. James’ Twilight fanfic that eventually spawned the Media Juggernaut of Poooooooo. If I don’t get lost in some infinite wormhole of recursion upon reading it, I might post a thought or two about it here.

Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant

Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant published on No Comments on Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant

Please note that this discussion of Joanna Wiebe’s Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant contains critical examination of huge spoilers. Don’t read further if you want to maintain the mystery. Read further if you want detail on how this otherwise promising debut fails disappointingly.Continue reading Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant

Not angry at, just disappointed in, Erika Johansen’s Invasion of the Tearling

Not angry at, just disappointed in, Erika Johansen’s Invasion of the Tearling published on No Comments on Not angry at, just disappointed in, Erika Johansen’s Invasion of the Tearling

I should start by saying that I liked the first book in Erika Johansen’s fantasy trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling. While set amidst Ye Olde Tirede Fantasie Elements [princess raised in secrecy must ascend to throne and deal with treacherous nobles while fending off an evil, magical queen who threatens to invade], the book distinguished itself by considering how a young noble woman might fare, coming of age in such a setting. Frankly, I’m bored by princes Finding Their Destinies, but I read The Queen of the Tearling with interest, as it lavishes attention on protagonist Kelsea as she both rises to the challenges of her role and chafes at unfamiliar restraints. The story of a young woman with a bad temper and an egalitarian, reactionary perspective coming into her own in a conservative, sexist, hierarchical society fascinates me. Thus I finished book 1 eager to learn how Kelsea’s new magic powers and the impending invasion of her country would affect her character, particularly her impulsiveness and her reformist tendencies.

Continue reading Not angry at, just disappointed in, Erika Johansen’s Invasion of the Tearling

Girl, implicated: the child in the labyrinth in the fantastic

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Greer Gilman, master of purple involuted mock-Jacobean epics, muses about one of my favorite themes. The girls who have adventures in labyrinths fare differently compared to the boys. [Also she has a bone to pick with Tehanu’s crabbed domesticity in Ursula Le Guin’s novel of the same name. So do I, Gilman. So do I.]

I like her observation that the girls [Ariadne, Alice, Eilonwy from — yack! — the endlessly irritating Book of Three, Arha/Tehanu, Sarah] find their ways out; they know where they’re going. Meanwhile, the boys [Theseus, the White Knight {?}, Taran, Sparrowhawk/Ged, Jareth] don’t; they get lost and bonk around aimlessly. They’re "clueless," Gilman says, which is to say without a clue…or without a clew, Ariadne’s map-like ball of thread that knows the way through the passages. ["Clue" as a hint of a guide derives from "clew" qua thread. I love etymology!]

So why do we only hear of the boys getting out and through the maze? Why don’t we ever hear of the girls who get to know their labyrinths and walk through the darkness, unafraid of Minotaurs?

Beats me. For some reason, Inanna’s descent to the otherworld ain’t considered as compelling. Why not???


Goin’ to read Moonwise again, even though it drives me up the wall.

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From The Book of Three [1965] to The Arkadians [1995]…

From The Book of Three [1965] to The Arkadians [1995]… published on No Comments on From The Book of Three [1965] to The Arkadians [1995]…

…Lloyd Alexander tells only one story: inexperienced and obtuse male hero + trickster-like storyteller/bardic character + unaccountably crabby female love interest + unfunny comic relief non-human animal-like character + irritating verbal tics for practically everyone + epic quests + secret royal heritage + Destiny = profit. I’m reading [or trying to read] The Book of Three right now, and it’s driving me up the wall. All the characters come across as grating and annoying, with the exception of Gwydion, who’s sensible and low-key and who just seems to belong to a different, less slapstick story.

Of Alexander’s extensive YA oeuvre, I remember most fondly the Vesper Holly series.  Impossibly smart and improbably gifted, teenage orphan and heiress Vesper bounces from adventure to adventure in 1875 in various fictional countries, death and daring at her heels. She’s a charismatic and indefatigable Mary Sue, but the stories work, in large part because they are told by Brinnie, her comparatively useless guardian. As an old straight white dude, he gets on my nerves to no end, but his combination of befuddlement, admiration and ultimately love for Vesper allows the reader a more accessible peg upon which to hang their sympathies. I really enjoyed these books growing up, and now I’d like to seek them out again…


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The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver: take your huge talking rat and go home.

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Yesterday I picked up Lauren Oliver’s Spindlers from the library. As I could tell from the cover, it involves a brave girl descending into darkness to rescue someone she loves from creepy monsters. I always have loved stories of girls going underground, the modern Urtext of which is that book that people today think is Alice in Wonderland, but is really Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. [Sidebar: the ancient Urtext is that possibly of Persephone or maybe even Inanna.] Anyway, such a basic story of transformation is very difficult to do justice to, and, unfortunately, The Spindlers fails.

The Spindlers follows protagonist Liza as she goes underground to save her younger brother from arachnid creatures that have stolen his soul to eat. Oliver writes well, even beautifully at times, but she can’t plot, can’t pace and can’t tie anything together. Guided by a large nervous talking rat, Liza trudges from event to event. There’s a market of lost things, a seductive palace dance, a ridiculous kangaroo court, a river of knowledge, a forest of evil trees, a rickety bridge guarded by a keeper who demands a fee, a drugged smorgasbord, a threat of being devoured, a helper who turns traitor, a distraction of monsters by throwing rocks to set them upon one another, a hall of misleading mirrors, an invitation to stay in the dream forever, a traitor turning back into a helper in the nick of time, a showdown in which the ruler falls to pieces along with the castle, blah blah blah. 

I can handle threadbare elements if they’re well executed, but these here ain’t. Modern tales of girls going underground tend to be about the messiness of perspective, the slipperiness of life and the challenge of maintaining one of the few constants — love, affection, loyalty, family, one’s own moral compass  — in such a promising, threatening morass. I, however, have no idea what The Spindlers is about, but it’s not that. Why does Liza have these particular experiences? Instead of being Liza’s own psychological landscape, the underground functions as a vacuous adventure dispenser. There are no unifying concepts or themes, just a serialized circus of oddity without significance. The Spindlers takes a nifty concept and runs it into the ground with triviality.

It’s really a Labyrinth ripoff. It’s like Oliver discarded all the good parts of the movie [the context provided by Sarah’s room’s contents, wonderfully designed puppets, the odd, very British flashes of humor, that dude with the balls] and, for some reason, decided to run with the concept of a whiny kid fighting some royal villain for custody of her little brother. The Spindlers really jumped the shark when Oliver, for no particular reason, gave Liza a penchant for saying, "That’s not fair!" — which is, of course, Sarah’s refrain in Labyrinth. I then became distracted, imagining Liza’s words in young Jennifer Connelly’s petulant whine. Ugh.

This is not a book that pisses me off. This is just a book that disappoints me. Clearly it’s time to cleanse my mind by reading all of Alice’s adventures. 

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How not to write, part seven zillion and two in an infinitely extensible series

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Today we’re examining The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker. I picked this up because it looked to be in a similar vein as Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, a silly but agreeably diverting series with occasional intelligent grace notes. In fact, Harkness endorsed Barker’s debut novel as "a marvelous plot [with] clever dialogue [and] complex characters…a perfect escape from humdrum reality." I mentally translated this as "fun, shallow escapism" and settled in for some entertainment.

I have not been entertained. Instead, Barker has been providing object lessons in how not to write, here presented for your delectation in no particular order:

1) Spend a significant portion of the book having the protagonist raped and brainwashed, and then forget about it. Nora, a 30-year-old unhappy grad student in English literature, somehow accidentally pierces from this world into the realm of Ye Olde Standarde Faeries: that is, supernatural assholes who appear like beautiful humans but really look disgusting and who enjoy kidnapping humans and messing with their minds. The first 80 pages of the novel detail her transformation into a thoughtless automaton, coerced into a muzzy-headed state of permanent compliance. She is essentially drugged, threatened, gaslighted, forcibly married to Raclin, a draconic fairy prince, raped by Raclin, beaten by Raclin and, finally, terrorized by Raclin’s mom Ilissa until she miscarries. By this point, the reader just wants the torture to end, but no such luck. Aruendiel, a human, male magician, rescues Nora, and we still have about four-fifths of the book left to go.

The remainder of the book, however, doesn’t adequately address the aftermath of Nora’s ordeal. Barker discusses Nora’s physical healing from Raclin’s assault, as well as the disconcerting experience of having a huge amount of fairy glamour lifted from her. We also get a little bit of ambivalence from Nora about having a miscarriage, but that’s about it. We don’t, for example, see Nora angry or ashamed at her seduction, regretful that she has left behind the lap of luxury for a hardscrabble life with Aruendiel, proud that she managed to get out or even frightened that the fairies might come after her. She does not appear to have been emotionally affected by her torture at all. For God’s sake, she shows more impassioned feeling in her discussion with Aruendiel of his language’s sexist deployment of gendered conjugations and declensions than she does about her repeated mental and physical violation at the hands of the fairies.

2) Fail to establish credible antagonists. Of course, the fairies do indeed come after Nora once Aruendiel rescues her; Raclin, in the form of a dragon, chases her on a few separate occasions, but is thwarted when Aruendiel a) pop-flies him into the stratosphere, b) leaves him with a much larger and very pissy lake monster and c) turns him into a rock. Aruendiel’s casual [and silly — seriously, pop-flying him into the stratosphere?] dispatches of Raclin make the prince seem less like a truly threatening abuser and more like an annoying bug. Because Nora and Aruendiel always repulse the fairies, the fairies fail come across as creakingly obvious devices with which to move the plot [such as there is] forward.

3) Use ableist and racist stereotypes in place of character development. In the ableism department, Aruendiel represents one of the most tedious types, the Aloof And Commanding Cripple With A Broken Body, But A Restless Mind, Whose Rudeness And Grimness May Be Excused By His Secret Tragic Past [But It Wasn’t His Fault]. In Aruendiel’s case, he killed his wife because [somehow] he thought this would free her from an enchantment that Ilissa had put on her. Then he was fighting in some war with Ilissa, and he fell out of the sky, broke lots of bones and died, but his friends brought him back to life. He does not, however, think that he was worth reviving. Why are the Tragic Cripples always so whiny and self-pitying?

In the racism department, one of the most interesting characters unfortunately ends up being the most exoticized. Hirizjahkinis, Aruendiel’s friend, is the only female magician in a book where the main culture’s characters think of female magicians as highly improbable, if not impossible. Hirizjahkinis skirts the sexist restrictions of Aruendiel’s society by being a foreigner from some hot, jungle-covered, southerly place [lazy Africa equivalent] with a tradition of female witches. Physically, she is dark-skinned — the only non-white character in the entire book [a fact noted by the white characters] — with her black hair in cornrows. When Nora first meets her, Hirizjahkinis is so exotic and foreign that she wears both a kimono-like robe and a leopard skin over her shoulders. Yes, folks, a leopard skin: the stereotypical sign of a comic-book "jungle girl" or "savage!" Oh yeah, and she’s bisexual — the only non-hetero person in the entire book [also noted by the characters]. Even though she is warm, friendly, patient, competent, unflappable, sexy, badass and clearly the most lively and engaging character in the whole book, Hirizjahkinis suffers from intersectional objectification because, for some reason, Barker thought it acceptable to turn her into an egregious token, the embodiment of all that is different from the straight, white majority in the book.

4) Focus on a vacuous protagonist. I have no idea why Harkness thinks that this book involves "complex characters." They are the least complex I have come across in a long time. The protagonist Nora has no personality whatsoever, and the structure of the book, in which events happen to Nora through no agency of her own, certainly doesn’t help matters. Nora is stalled in her dissertation by her advisor, dumped by her boyfriend, accidentally sucked into another world, abducted and raped by fairies, rescued and healed by Aruendiel, etc., etc., etc., shuttling from one event to another like a pinball being smacked by paddles of plot. It is possible to write a fascinating story about a protagonist who experiences dramatic changes in her life that are outside her control, but this is not that story. Said hypothetical fascinating story requires a protagonist with an interesting inner life whose interpretation of events offers counterpoint and/or insight into the whole structure of the plot. Nora, who apparently has no phenomenological experience whatsoever [see her lack of reaction to her rape], is not that protagonist.

Barker does Nora no favors on the development front by depriving her of a history. Sure, she’s got an ex-boyfriend and a female friend, but we quickly breeze past these people so that Nora may be brainwashed and raped by the fairies. Quick summaries of Nora’s relationship with her ex or an explanation of her friend’s personality provide no revealing details about Nora as a person.

And what about Nora’s family?  Heck, it’s not until two-thirds of the way through the book, when she visits her 10-year-old sister through a two-way scrying spell, that we see that her sister has a shrine to their dead brother and that it now includes a photo of presumed-dead Nora as well. Why didn’t we hear about her little sister and dead brother earlier? Why does Barker pass up a chance to forge significant relationships and thus a bit of individuality for her main character? Why does she withhold such important information about Nora’s dead brother until practically the end of the book, when the reader is so stultified by the pointless plotlessness that they have no energy left to give a shit? The poignant conversation between Nora and her sister, who thinks she might be a ghost, contains more emotional heft than all the pages before it, but apparently leaves no lasting effect. In conclusion, Nora, a character apparently impervious to the effects of life, bores the poop out of me.

4) Tell the wrong story. Barker spends most of her time on a) Nora’s torture in fairyland, b) Nora’s physical recovery from her assault, during which she does a large amount of chores with Aruendiel’s housekeeper, c) Nora’s failed attempts to learn magic and d) her increasing, inexplicable infatuation with Aruendiel. To this, Barker tosses in interminable discussions of human/fairy politics that never seem to impinge upon the plot, scads of silly made-up names ["Hirgus Ext" being a typical example] with no logic behind them [she seems to think that telling the name of everything constitutes convincing worldcraft] and Nora’s continual frustration over the sexism in Aruendiel’s society. If there’s a plot or anything of consequence going on in there, I missed it in the wash of extraneous details.

Meanwhile, there’s a much more interesting thread running through the story: that of the conjunction between magic and death, fairyland and the afterlife. Nora enters fairyland through an abandoned cemetery, and it’s mentioned that she has always liked old graveyards [a fact that’s never enlarged upon]. When she determines how much time has passed in the magic world, she figures that her family must think that she is dead. In her adventures with Aruendiel, she encourages him to bring back to life a young girl. Her interest in life and death takes on new significance when she converses with her little sister and sees herself in the same category as her dead brother: enshrined in absence. Nora has a cautious, curious, mournful relationship with death, which is probably the only interesting thing about her.

Aruendiel does his own dance with death. As a magician, he has used magic enough so that his life has been extended to a few centuries, time enough to see generations of friends and family grow old and die. He has killed a bunch of people, including his own wife, which seems to affect him less than his own death and revivification. Part of him kind of wishes his friends had just let him stay dead, but part of him clearly wishes to keep on living. 

I’d like to hear that story — the tale of how two people so personally invested in death navigate the trials of life — but no. Instead we get the housekeeper teaching Nora how to chop up apples. I stayed up way too late last night, reading this book, waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did.

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Rape ad nauseam in Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times

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I was going to write a long, learned essay about how much the short story Hatchling in Laini Taylor’s collection, Lips Touch Three Times, pissed me off, but fuck it. Let me get to the meat of the matter: Laini Taylor, your voluptuous prose cannot distract me from your moral vacuity.

Continue reading Rape ad nauseam in Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times

The problem with the Beautiful Creatures series summarized in one vignette

The problem with the Beautiful Creatures series summarized in one vignette published on No Comments on The problem with the Beautiful Creatures series summarized in one vignette

Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl have collaborated on an exhaustive quaternary of YA Southern Gothic romances, the Beautiful Creatures trilogy. There was some interesting stuff going on in the first book [although I’m still not sure what happened during the climax], as well as a vivid, if rather stereotypical, setting, so I kept reading.

Recently I plowed through the last installment, Beautiful Redemption, which had significantly less plot, character development and complexity than the previous three episodes. I’ve been detecting all along Garcia and Stohl’s strangely uncomplicated and idealized portrait of the southern US, but one moment in Beautiful Redemption encapsulated all that was problematic about the series.

Toward the end of the novel, [white] protagonist Ethan has come back from limbo and reunited with his [white] angstball girlfriend Lena and his other supporters. Ethan asks his [white] friend Link what Amma [a literal Magic Negro + Mammy twofer who acts as Ethan’s maternal figure, then ultimately sacrifices her life for his] was talking about when she mentioned that she caught Link doing something shameful in the cellar when he was young.  Link explains that Amma caught him dressing up in a Civil War uniform. The uniform did not belong to the Confederate ancestors of which his family was so proud, but to some acquaintance’s Union ancestors.

Garcia and Stohl write [pp. 440-441]:

I burst out laughing, and within seconds so did Link. No one else at the table understood the sin in a Southern boy — with a father who led the Confederate Cavalry in the Reenactment of the Battle of Honey Hill, and a mother who was a proud member of the Sisters of the Confederacy — trying on a Civil War uniform for the opposing side. You had to be from Gatlin.

It was one of those unspoken truths, like you don’t make a pie for the Wates because it won’t be better than Amma’s; you don’t sit in front of Sissy Honeycutt in church because she talks the whole time right along with the preacher; and you don’t choose the paint color for your house without consulting Mrs. Lincoln, not unless your name happens to be Lila Evers Wate.

Gatlin was like that.

It was family, all of it and all of them — the good parts and the bad.

Right there the authors trivialize an entire history of racism, slavery, sexism, cruelty and oppression by equating support of it to talking in church or painting one’s home without talking to one’s neighbors first. It’s just a harmless peculiarity, a peccadillo, that causes Ethan to feel uncritically jubilant and nostalgic about his hometown. While he does acknowledge "the good parts and the bad" at the end of this quote, his laughter demonstrates that, while he may struggle with the made-up Southern history of mortals vs. magicians, the ominous real Southern history of torture, war and suffering bothers him very little.

Way to go, Garcia and Stohl. Thanks so much for, among other bilge, perpetuating the myth that the United States is a "post-racial society."

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How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

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I picked up Eon by Alison Goodman after reading some laudatory reviews on Amazon and also being marginally intrigued by the concept, in which a young woman adopts a boy’s identity to compete for the chance to communicate with dragons and wield great magic, which is, of course, reserved for men. Of course, Eon wins the chance to communicate not just with any dragon, but with the super special awesome Mirror Dragon, the most powerful of all. Then she becomes involved in imperial politics, and eventually the fate of the emperor’s succession and the kingdom depends on her. Of course it does. :p

I did not expect this book to be quite so shitty. It really reminded me of The Diviners in that it was a textbook example of how not to tell a story.

Do you need to learn how not to write, kids? Okay, then pay attention to the following precepts, in no particular order.Continue reading How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

How not to write, part seven zillion in a neverending series

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I just finished Libba Bray’s latest doorstop trilogy opener The Diviners. Set in New York City in 1926, it follows a group of teenagers with magical powers as they pursue and attempt to thwart a murderous fanatic who wishes to cheat death by bringing about Hell on Earth [or something — this point wasn’t entirely clear]. Characters include protagonist Evie, an obnoxious flapper wannabe and burgeoning lush, who can learn about owners by holding their possessions; her best friend Mabel, whose major conflict in this book is about whether she should bob her hair; Evie’s new friend Theta, a Zeigfield girl and apparent pyrokinetic; Memphis, Theta’s boyfriend, who has healing hands and a possessed little brother; Will, an absentminded professor stereotype, who heads a museum of the occult and ostensibly watches over Evie; Sam, a pickpocket and male version of Evie [only with less alcohol], who can become invisible; Jericho, a tragic cyborg with the power of hulking menacingly; and Naughty John, the aforementioned murderous fanatic. Shenanigans ensue.

I’m going to finish this series because Bray knows how to write mindlessly engaging entertainment. I am not, however, finishing this series for its literary merit. In fact, the book presents many beautiful examples of how not to write. I have gathered them in a list below for your convenience in no particular order.

1. Perpetuate the very racism you’re clearly attempting to avoid. Bray strains so hard to be modern and non-racist by making Memphis, an African-American kid who wants to be a poet in the Harlem Renaissance, a point-of-view character. Furthermore, she takes pains to demonstrate that Will is enlightened enough to disapprove of the Ku Klux Klan and that Jericho is liberal enough to detect the racist and classist subtexts of the eugenics movement. In her occasional overview vignettes, in which Bray tries to capture a cross-section of the country in its anxious modernity, she even regularly mentions Native Americans. See? See? She’s progressive!

Actually, she’s not really. Memphis’ world, while convincingly realized, also comes across as an info-dump truck that the author uses to haul in and show off all the research she did about Jazz Age Harlem. [See my note on the perils of research below.] Furthermore, for all her direct engagement with some of the racist currents of the day, Bray uses an offensively coy, glancing euphemism — “a name he didn’t like” — for “n****r,” without even trying to evoke the rage, shame and vulnerability that Memphis might feel upon hearing himself called that. This omission that makes it clear that she doesn’t really care about her characters of color.

Bray’s treatment of New York City’s Chinatown also demonstrates racism. Evie and Will go there for unknown reasons, and Evie, the terminally ignorant, sees what the denizens are doing — worshipping, placing protective charms, etc. — and asks Will what’s going on. Will answers her with textbook-worthy, objectifying explanations that make the practices in Chinatown seem like inscrutable, laughable superstitions. Apparently Bray spent all her empathy on her depiction of Harlem and had none left over to make Chinatown as robust and sympathetic.

To add to the dehumanization, a young Chinatown woman who can see the future appears at least three times in the book. Given the fact that Naughty John’s victims are named, biographically sketched and given interior monologues before being bumped off, I assumed that this prophetic woman would rate the same treatment. Nope. She doesn’t even get a name. In fact, she suffers the indignity of being referred to only as “the girl with the green eyes,” a fetishization of her mixed-race heritage. We never learn what’s going on in her head either, though I’m sure it’s much interesting than what’s going on in Evie’s.

2. Perpetuate the very anti-gay bias you’re trying so hard to avoid. Theta’s best friend Henry is also a struggling artist. He plays the piano, writes show tunes and serves as Theta’s Best Gay Friend [TM], providing moral support when she has relationship difficulties. Could he be any more stereotypical? In a truly unrealistic display of acceptance, Theta has no problems whatsoever with Henry’s being gay. Bray loses the chance to accurately portray the rich and secretive gay subculture of Jazz Age New York City by shoehorning a modern stereotype into the 1920s and leaving him at that.

In another example of homophobia, Bray introduces one of Naughty John’s victims as a gay Mason who lovingly thinks of giving his partner cufflinks for his birthday. Then he’s killed. What’s the point of taking pains to establish a character as gay if he’s just going to die two pages later? This comes across less as a bit of humanizing characterization and more as yet another tired example of The Queer Character Bites It.

Also there are no lesbians.

3. Perpetuate ableism. Jericho’s backstory is rank with it. Jericho got polio at an early age and had to be put in an iron lung. His parents abandoned him in the hospital [Tragic Cripple stereotype]. Then some secret government project recruited him with the promise that he could escape the iron lung and walk once more [Obsession with Ambulation stereotype]. Jericho joined other men, including veterans of the Great War, in becoming cyborgs, but he was the project’s only success. The other test subjects had mental and physical breakdowns. In fact, Jericho’s friend, a veteran with no legs and one arm [described as “less than half a man” — the Disabled Person as Less than Human stereotype], asked Jericho to help him commit suicide [Mercy Killing of the Tragic Cripple stereotype], which Jericho did. Jericho now hides his cyborg innards and his dependence on an unidentified blue serum from everyone except Will [Disability as Shameful Weakness stereotype]. The reader falls asleep from the sheer unoriginality of it all.

4. Make your protagonist a) exceptionally obnoxious and b) dull compared to everyone else.
As I mentioned, protagonist Evie spends much of the book getting drunk, having hangovers and using every single piece of Roaring Twenties slang that Bray could possibly scrape up. Evie’s also a self-centered, manipulative, whiny person who requires being the center of attention. Her momentary insights that she probably parties too much and that she regularly steamrolls her supposed best friend do not redeem her because they do not prompt any lasting change in her actions. I think Bray means for readers to be attracted to Evie’s insouciance, but she comes across as an insensitive brat who doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut.

Furthermore, Evie has the least interesting backstory and interior monologue of nearly all the main characters. Her parents send her to Will’s house because she scandalizes her small Ohio town when she reads an object and learns that the village’s golden boy had sex with a servant of his. I’m actually much more interested in her relationship with her brother, who died in the Great War, and why she keeps having vivid dreams of being on the front, watching charges ignite and people’s faces melt. These points are not really enlarged upon, except insofar as the dead brother gives Evie a Tragic Past [TM] that activates a key plot point during the climax.

Compared to most of the other cast members, Evie’s pretty flat. I care much more about Memphis, who runs numbers during the day and, by night, hangs out in cemeteries writing about his mom, who he failed to bring back from the dead. I’m also very curious about Theta, an orphan who escaped an abusive adoptive stage mom by tumbling into an abusive marriage with a handsome guy, who she may have inadvertently killed with her pyrokinesis, after which she escaped, had an abortion [?!] and moved in with Henry. Heck, I’m even more invested in the smarmy Sam, the name-changed kid of Russian immigrants, on a search for his missing psychic mom that led him to run away and join the circus. I just don’t care about Evie, and her complete lack of insightful interior monologue just adds to my apathy.

5. Never use a single detail when 85 will do. Bray, as she informs us in the acknowledgements, did copious research in preparation for this series. Unfortunately, it shows, and not in a good way. Her idea of evoking Jazz Age New York City involves hitting the best-known highlights of the period and hitting them repeatedly. A typical chapter in The Diviners includes flappers, bee’s knees, a hot tomato, the berries, the cat’s pajamas, Bolsheviks, Wobblies, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Klan, Langston Hughes, Lost Generation malaise, speakeasies, police raids, Zeigfield girls, Rudolph Valentino, etc., etc., and then all of these elements mentioned again at least five times elsewhere in the book. Bray does not write with parsimony or suggestiveness. She writes with anvilicious brute force, and it’s painful.

Bray’s worst offense appears in her use of 1920s slang. Evie cannot say a sentence without at least two period terms. I’m not talking about period terms that remain intelligible today, like “baby” for “sweetheart,” “heebie jeebies” for “goose bumps” or “nifty” for “great.” I’m talking “cheaters” for “glasses,” “chin music” for gossip and “giggle water” for “booze.” Bray seems to go out of her way to toss about terms that do not remain intelligible today, thus giving the impression that the 1920s were a strange place where people spoke a foreign language. The indiscriminate slang slinging does not impede my understanding, but it’s certainly distracting. It’s also a huge irritation. I positutely swear — if Evie says, “You betski” one more time, I’m going to beat it and get ossified, since that’s much niftier than this baloney. I’m under the distinct impression that Bray set The Diviners in the 1920s merely because she thought it was cool.

6. Use the wrong word. As I wrote above, the antagonist of the book is referred to as Naughty John. To me, “naughty” means “bratty” or “mischievous,” sometimes “risque.” It is entirely too mild a word to describe a creepy, merciless weirdo who kills people and eats their selected body parts in a bid to gain immortality and rule the world. Wicked John, Evil John, Creepy John, Cannibal John, even the rather generic Bad John — all of these would work. Naughty John just makes the guy sound less evil and more silly.

7. End abruptly, in the middle of a scene, without resolving anything. I know about the narrative requirements of trilogies, as well as the narrative requirements of cliffhangers. In trilogies, the first book almost always sets up the major players and storylines, resolving some important B plots by the end, while leaving the larger A plots for future development. In cliffhangers, the story builds up enough tension to draw the reader in, then frustrates their expectations by cutting off at or just before the climax, thus forcing the reader to wait for the next installment.

All of this is to say that the end of The Diviners is neither appropriate for a first book of a trilogy or a cliffhanger. It resolves no significant B plots, thus depriving readers of any intermediary satisfaction and sense of reward that would propel us to continue with the series. It also does not cut off at a moment charged with suspense. It ends when Evie kisses Jericho in an attempt to forget for a moment the impending doom of unresolved plotlines. I have to assume that this passes for a conclusion since Bray, exhausted from larding her doorstop with 1920s slang, had no energy left for an actual ending.

Followup on Tiger Lily’s death toll

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When I first wrote about Jodi Anderson's tedious slog of a novel Tiger Lily, I predicted that Pine Sap, Disabled Stereotype Extraordinaire, was going to die.

Now, having finished the book [give me a medal for endurance], I would like to apologize. I'm sorry. I was wrong. Pine Sap does not die. Instead, he becomes Tiger Lily's Consolation Prize Husband after Peter leaves Neverland to grow up in the UK as Wendy's husband. [I'm not gonna even go into how narratively wrong that is.] Pine Sap's status as Permanent Runner-up is not at all an improvement over my assumption that he would be the Tragic Dead Guy. He's still portrayed as inherently pathetic and not as awesome as Peter because of his disability.

So guess who dies? Tik Tok. Yes, Tiger Lily's adoptive dad bites it. On insistence from a shipwrecked "Englander," the Sky Eaters force Tik Tok to change his gender presentation and wear men's clothes. He loses his spirit and commits suicide as an instructive object lesson to Tiger Lily about what happens when you try to deny your true self.

Really, Anderson? You're gonna go with the Tragic Dead Queer trope? You realize it's a fucking evil stereotype, right?

…No, apparently you don't. Boy, you really do have shit for brains.

Dear Caitlin R. Kiernan…

Dear Caitlin R. Kiernan… published on No Comments on Dear Caitlin R. Kiernan…

Trans people are actual people, not Thematic Elements That Underscore the Protagonist's Ponderous Musings About Mutability. It's stupidly disingenuous of you to claim, through your protagonist, that you are not making the protagonist's trans girlfriend a Thematic Element when you end up explicitly making the girlfriend a Thematic Element a few hundred pages later. Kindly fuck off until you learn the secret to writing trans characters.

Hint: It's NOT A SECRET, and you, being a published author of some experience and renown, should know it already. Here's the hint: you write about a human being with the attribute of being trans, instead of writing about the concept of Transness that incidentally has the attribute of being human. You can do it with your queer cis female characters. Why can't you do it with your queer trans female character?

Do you care about trans people at all? [Do you even known any?] Or do you just think that writing "tr***y" makes you grittier, edgier and more shocking? I'm going with option C, given your colossal cluelessness.

I am so disappointed in you. I am never reading anything you write again, which is a pity because I liked The Red Tree.

You do realize that The Drowning Girl, catalyst of my ire, is nothing but a flaccid, digressive, anti-trans Red Tree wanna-be in need of ruthless editing, right?

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson: offensive AND boring

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson: offensive AND boring published on 1 Comment on Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson: offensive AND boring

Peter Pan was published in 1911 by the British author J.M. Barrie, based on a 1904 play called Peter and Wendy. It’s the story about three British kids, Wendy, John and Michael, who go to the Neverland of their imaginations. There they have adventures with pirates, mermaids, wild animals, lost boys and, of course, the boy who wouldn’t grow up: Peter Pan.

The concept of Peter Pan and the crude outlines of the story have exerted a fascination over US and British readers for more than a century. Thanks to Disney’s 1953 animated adaptation, most US fans have rather superficial ideas about Peter Pan, chiefly involving flying, fairy dust, pirates and maybe a crocodile. Naturally, the play and the novel are much messier and more interesting than our cliched ideas about them.

Having read Peter Pan many, many times, I could provide you with rants on everything from the authorial interruptions to the treatment of female characters, but right now I am focusing on the Indians. Yeah, there are Indians in Neverland. They are members of the Pickaninny tribe, referred to by that narrator as “red men,” and they scalp people. I am not making this up; Barrie specifically writes that the name of the Indians’ group is a racist term for African-American people. Furthermore, the Indians have silly nature-related names like “Great Big Little Panther.” They also talk like stereotypical Japanese people who can’t pronounce their Rs. In short, the Indians are a horrible farrago of Edwardian racist stereotypes, which kind of makes sense, if you figure that Neverland is populated by Wendy, Michael and John’s ideas of Indians gleaned from idealized and disparaging media they have consumed.

The only Indian in Peter Pan to develop something like an individual personality is Tiger Lily. Described as the trite Ice Maiden who “staves off the altar with a hatchet,” she is beautiful, imperious and aloof to all potential suitors. For some reason, though, she has a rather pathetic crush on Peter, declaring, “Me his velly nice friend.” [See what I mean about the stereotypical broken English?] Her major scene occurs when Smee and Starkey kidnap her, but untie her at Peter’s orders, as they think he is Captain Hook. Tiger Lily does the smart thing and immediately jumps off Smee and Starkey’s boat and swims away to freedom. Other than that, though, she’s a barely personalized bit of scenery.

One hundred years after Barrie published the original novel, Jodi Lynn Anderson decided to vomit forth her revisionist response entitled Tiger Lily. In this version, narrated by an observant but mostly uninvolved Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily is merely referred to as a “native,” a member of the Sky Eater tribe. A teenager, she lives with her adoptive father, the cross-dressing shaman Tik Tok, and excels at “masculine” pursuits and suppressing her emotions. She meets Peter Pan and falls in love with him, an experience that, of course, feminizes and gentles her. [I fucking hate that trope.] Her impending marriage to a cruel lout, as well as the arrival of Wendy, John and Michael, messes everything up. Angst ensues. As far as I can tell, this is a cheap attempt to capitalize on the paranormal romance subgenre by employing, for no discernible reason, the trappings of a previous author’s universe.

As soon as I heard about Anderson’s book, I began to cringe. Why is she so interested in rehabilitating stereotyped Indians? What makes her think she has the authority to tell Tiger Lily’s story? Why do we need yet another white author with no native connections treating the Indians of Peter Pan like shit? [I’m serious. In all sequels and adaptations of the story that I’ve read or read about, the Indians fare extremely poorly. Please check Debbie Reese’s “Peter Pan” and “Peter Pan in Scarlet” tags on American Indians in Children’s Literature for details. Reese is an author and activist tribally enrolled in Nambe Pueblo (New Mexico), and she knows what she’s talking about.] The answer to these three questions appears to be 1) no idea, 2) absolutely nothing and 3) we don’t. Yet Anderson forges ahead.

I decided to give Tiger Lily a chance, though. I was right – it is cringeworthy and terrible. The persistently clueless portrayal of the Sky Eaters combines with the talentless writing to create a literary disaster.

This book is so bad that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start, for want of a better place, with the subject of consistency. All of the “native” tribes of Neverland appear to be named after their location – the Bog Dwellers and the Cliff Dwellers, for example – except for Tiger Lily’s tribe, the Sky Eaters. Why aren’t they named after their location as the Forest Dwellers? What’s this irrelevant business about the sky and eating it? Here’s just one clue of many that Anderson hasn’t thought her world through.

The Sky Eaters behave like a loose collection of Native American stereotypes. They live in huts; they have a medicine man, Tik Tok, even though he is called a shaman, who heals people and works magic; they wear deerskin clothes; they have long black hair and high cheekbones; many of their names follow the stereotype of Literally Translated Natural Phenomenon; they worship many gods or spirits…argle bargle bargle. Despite this, they don’t seem to have any culture. Anderson will often add asides about the Sky Eaters’ marriage customs, religious beliefs or bathing habits, but we never see these things affecting the characters’ actions or the development of the plot. Tiger Lily’s little village, populated by the Loving Adoptive Dad, the Disabled Kid With a Crush on Her, the Teen Exemplar of Femininity, the Evil Suitor, the Evil Suitor’s Mom and Various Uncomprehending and Gossipy Tertiaries, could appear in any other setting without a problem. It’s a thoroughly generic story and a thoroughly generic setting, which Anderson only gestures at making specific. And, unfortunately, her idea of making the Sky Eaters specific involves tossing them into a pit of Indian stereotypes.

Even though I’m only halfway through, I’m dogged by the sense that Anderson is telling the wrong story. As I mentioned, the depiction of Tiger Lily and the other Sky Eaters is so vacuous as to deter sympathy, identification and investment in Tiger Lily’s experiences. Furthermore, Tiger Lily and Peter Pan have a tediously formulaic Forbidden and Doomed Love piece of crap going on, which is also boring. I’m much more interested in…well, basically anyone except them. For instance, what’s Tik Tok’s history? How does Pine Sap [Disabled Kid with a Crush on Tiger Lily] feel about being a sensitive, thoughtful butt of tribal jokes? What’s the relationship between Smee and Hook? Why does Tink have a crush on Peter? Where the hell are all the other faeries anyway? Where’s the magic?

Neverland holds such a grip on our imaginations because it’s a problematic, messy, dangerous, powerful place. Anderson commits a crime against fiction by sticking it somewhere in the Atlantic, leaching out the magic and populating it with racist and sexist cliches that wouldn’t grow up.

P.S. I just know that Pine Sap is going to die. The disabled character always bites it in this kind of ableist tripe.

Jodi Picoult is a cheating cheater who cheats.

Jodi Picoult is a cheating cheater who cheats. published on No Comments on Jodi Picoult is a cheating cheater who cheats.

I just finished Vanishing Acts, and it enraged me, just like every single book of Picoult's does. I'm so pissed that it's difficult for me to articulate why I find her work so narratively offensive, but I'll try.

Let me first give you my idea of novelistic success: a story motivated by characters' actions, featuring robust, believable people who just happen to live on paper. In the best novels, characters act according to their nature. Their actions are not propelled by the plot; they propel the plot with their actions. Even if what they do is surprising, it's exactly what they have to do because that's who they are. They are psychologically consistent people whose actions provide insight into their heads.

Picoult does not start her stories with robust characters at all. Instead, she starts with abstract concepts. In the case of Vanishing Acts, she's got Memory, Divorce, Alcoholism, Parent/Child Relationships, argle bargle bargle. Upon such a Procrustean bed of Big Important Themes, she throws the generic skeletons of her "characters," or, more precisely, "authorial puppets," who then twitch according to her grindingly blatant plot machinery. And we're supposed to accept this as a story?! Your average car commercial on TV has more genuine, compelling drama.

Now I enjoy a cleverly and neatly turned plot as much as any reader, but that's not what's going on in Picoult's work. What's going on is plot-driven melodrama trying desperately to pass itself off as a Significant Work of Our Times. You can tell it's Significant because there are [obvious, boring, unenlightening] Parallels Between Characters! There are Appropriate Poetic Quotes before each section! There's a Magical Negro Indian character who exists solely to fulfill the whiteys' epiphanies by infodumping Hopi mythology [which then becomes nothing more than a metaphor for…Lord knows what, as I was skimming at this point] and then conveniently offing herself! That makes this book Thematic and Deep, right? Right? Why are you laughing at me???

Picoult's books are all essentially diagrams of checkers games put into words. I was going to say chess, but that's too sophisticated. Maybe Connect Four is a better analogy. She's a cheating cheater who cheats because she tries to pass these diagrams off as stories.

I have really got to stop reading her books. It's like eating something that tastes good while you're chewing it, and then you get a little indigestion several bites in. You ignore it because you want to finish your portion. You continue, and your aches and pains increase. By the end, when your stomach is full, you feel bloated, heartburned, constipated and utterly unable to contemplate anything but the sore state of your digestive system. That's about how I feel right now, literarily speaking. Ooog.

I actually like looking at this sometimes…

I actually like looking at this sometimes… published on 4 Comments on I actually like looking at this sometimes…

Slant magazine provides some of the most pretentious, convoluted, obtuse, overwritten, horribly bad movie “reviews” I have ever read. Here’s an example. Basically the author dislikes the movie for being overly sympathetic to all characters and not judgmental enough. But God forbid he come right out and say that. Instead we get Death by Adjectives and phrases like “limning a milieu with extraneous humanism,” which sounds like it just came from the keys of someone who has recently discovered the thesaurus [or maybe the Increase Your Word Power! section of Reader’s Digest].

As you can see [if you can make any headway in the impenetrable thicket of purple prose], the reviewers make it a point to dislike pretty much everything. Then they expound on their dislike with the grandiloquent bloviation worthy of those self-important people who think that they are too stupendous to crack jokes. To a man [and I think they’re all men], they’re acutely allergic to clarity of expression and direct communication of ideas. They clearly believe that, the more subordinate clauses their “reviews” have, the better they are.

I like to read stuff like this occasionally, just to roll my eyes at its egregiousness. It reminds me what not to do.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a milieu that needs some limning with extraneous humanism. :p

P.S. This also brings up the question — if you hate movies, both generally as a concept and specifically as individual films, which the writers of Slant apparently do, why write about them in the first place?

This sounds so stupid.

This sounds so stupid. published on 2 Comments on This sounds so stupid.

Elsie Chapman’s first novel, Dualed, sounds like a cross between a bad Hunger Games ripoff and the stupidity of someone who has never actually thought about what it’s like to be an identical twin. It’s about a city where people prove their worthiness by killing their identical twins, who are raised apart from them.

The stupidity hurts. Why is one half of the population murdering the other half? Are they in a competition for scarce resources? In that case, why keep both twins around at all? Why not selectively abort or turn to infanticide?

Furthermore, the ableist and eliminationist implications of this are disturbing, to say the least. If one twin has a disability and the other doesn’t, there are many ways in which the twin without the disability could exploit the other’s disability to kill him/her off. Has the author thought about the bias against disabled people inherent in her worldbuilding? To be clear, I have no problem with ableism in worldbuilding. I do have a problem, however, with ableist bias in worldbuilding done by an author without a grain of self-reflectiveness.

You know, if you really wanna run with this “kill your twin” premise, why not attack the inherent ableism head on? Give both twins disabilities. One could be a deaf person with agoraphobia and an anxiety disorder. The other could be a person with depression, narcolepsy and binge/purge syndrome. Then they could grow to be friends. Maybe they would even fall in love. They would decide that this whole “kill your twin” thing was, in fact, incredibly stupid and struggle to make their own lives in a society that a) expects them to try to kill each other and b) devalues people with disabilities anyway.

Man, that would be a much better story!

Let’s play a game.

Let’s play a game. published on No Comments on Let’s play a game.

I’ll say a phrase, and you tell me the first words that come to your mind.

Okay? Ready? Here we go:

“Lesbian vampire erotica.”

Continue reading Let’s play a game.

In which the author yells at books and they do not respond

In which the author yells at books and they do not respond published on 2 Comments on In which the author yells at books and they do not respond

Hey kids! Are you ready for your daily dose of outrage?

You are? Well let’s get crackin’!

I just read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio. More precisely, I tried to read it, but ended up throwing it against the wall in disgust about 50 pages in.

Ostensibly, the book is a feminist reclamation of the word “cunt,” which apparently amounts to a long discussion of how wonderful uteruses, Fallopian tubes, ovaries, eggs, menstruation and all associated hydraulics are. I don’t object to the concept — we need more appreciation of these long-devalued body parts — but I object strenuously to the execution.

Muscio insists that all women have cunts. Yes, she actually writes that. I promptly yelled at the book, “NO THEY DON’T!!!!!!!” but this did not alter her erroneous assumption. Apparently all the women I know who don’t have cunts aren’t women??!?!?!?!?!?!? Keep your essentialist claptrap to yourself, Muscio.

In one of the book’s early chapters, Muscio talks about her childhood in which she was shamed and characterized as unclean for menstruating. She then recounts her reacquaintance with her reproductive system, her determination of her own reproductive schedule and her switch from “feminine hygiene products” to sea sponges and rags. There is also a huge tangent about the ocean and the moon and how this somehow relates to fertility [hint: it doesn’t]. Yay hooray, she liberated her reproductive system, and she feels good about it.

The problem arises when Muscio prescribes her reproductive liberation program for all women. First of all, as I mentioned before, not all women have the same biology. Second, even if they do have the aforementioned long-devalued body parts, they don’t all menstruate. Third, if they do menstruate, they don’t necessarily do it on a regular schedule the way that Muscio apparently does. [“Fun” experiment: try figuring out your menstrual “schedule” if you have PCOS!] Fourth, the ocean and the moon have nothing whatsoever to do with menstruation. Fifth, some of us have slightly more complex relationships to our bodies than “Ick, I’m disgusting; the patriarchy has oppressed me!” then transforming into “My womanhood is wonderful!” However, Muscio presents her experience as the sole option, thereby foreclosing on the full and varied range of experiences that a full and varied range of women have in their bodies.

This is not feminism. This is simplistic, biologically reductionist bilge in complete denial of multiple axes of oppression.

Paint It Black by Nancy Collins [Sonja Blue #3]: banal in its badness

Paint It Black by Nancy Collins [Sonja Blue #3]: banal in its badness published on No Comments on Paint It Black by Nancy Collins [Sonja Blue #3]: banal in its badness

Just finished the third book in the Sonja Blue trilogy, Paint It Black by Nancy Collins. Kinda funny how she took the title from a Rolling Stones song that was more original, memorable and deeply felt in a few verses than the entire Sonja Blue trilogy was in 3 books. Anyway, I think there was something in there about Sonja's consummation of her quest for vengeance against her vampire maker, but it was lost in an incredibly tedious string of rape, murder, murder by rape and rape by murder that was trying hard to pass for plot.

I was mostly reading the book because I was curious to see how Sonja's adopted vampire/human hybrid daughter Lethe would turn out. When Lethe went into a cocoon, popped out as a teenager after a few weeks and raped her adoptive father [Sonja's partner], then flew around the world [without a plane], raping 24 other guys, with the goal of producing some sort of master race with super psychic powers, I was disgusted. I was disgusted by the complete vacuity of the whole enterprise and its venomously misanthropic, morally bankrupt imagination. It was bad because it was stupid and stupid because it was bad.

I swore an oath to myself that I wouldn't swear any more in my LJ, but I have to break that oath now because the Sonja Blue trilogy was the shittiest shit that ever shat. It's an offense to good writing, good plotting and good character development. It's an offense to all people of any sex and gender presentation, but especially women. It's an offense against anyone who believes in kindness, respect, humanity and fairness. It's an offense to originality and creativity.

I've concluded that it's not actually a trilogy. Instead, it's an actively destructive vortex of hostility. It's a testament to the sad depths of banal depravity of the human imagination. It's a diseased mutation of novels, a literary cancer born from kyriarchical nastiness. It's deeply revolting on every level — line by line, cliche by cliche, regurgitated theme by regurgitated theme — and potentially damaging. I live in the kyriarchy; I already experience multiple axes of oppression daily; I don't need the inhumane dicta of the kyriarchy concentrated and injected directly into my amygdala in the form of this trilogy.

If, for some bizarre reason, you want to read a series that hates you and enjoys doing so, I heartily recommend the Sonja Blue trilogy. You can have my copies. Take them, please. I would burn them in cleansing fire, only I don't think there's any place around here where I can do so without violating some sort of city ordinance. Barring that, I'll settle for tossing them in the Dumpster or recycling them in the vain hope that the pages might contribute usefully to society in their next life.

I don't just hate this trilogy. I reject it. I repudiate it. It represents all the vile oppressions against which I struggle every day. This trilogy is just one of my many enemies and oppressors.

I will not let it win.

The Sonja Blue trilogy by Nancy Collins: damn…this series is misogynist!

The Sonja Blue trilogy by Nancy Collins: damn…this series is misogynist! published on No Comments on The Sonja Blue trilogy by Nancy Collins: damn…this series is misogynist!

A while back, when I still lived in Massachusetts, I was housesitting overnight at someone's house. I found some cheap paperbacks by Nancy Collins there — Sunglasses After Dark and In the Blood — and read them quickly, staying up late. They followed the adventures of Sonja Blue, a reluctant vampire trying to suppress her monstrous nature, which she termed "the Other," while also taking vengeance on her maker and ridding the world of supernatural menaces along the way. Back before urban fantasy devolved into a set of cliches, this trilogy [capped by Paint It Black] entertained me and made an impression on me in the way that Sonja's vampirism was portrayed as an alien entity in her head against which she struggled.

Harboring happy memories of this trilogy, I recently got all 3 books off and settled in for a bit of fun. I quickly realized that the Sonja Blue series is a) full of cliches [not urban fantasy cliches, but cliches in general] and b) horribly misogynist.

Speaking of a), I don't even know where to start. All the characters are stock types, and they all speak exactly as expected. For example, the British pimp spews a debased version of Cockney slang ["ducks?" "guv'nor?!"] dreamt up by someone whose experience with the British idiom extends to a single viewing of Disney's Mary Poppins. The oleaginous evil dude makes a suave proposal to our male protagonist of In The Blood that's all ominous inneundo and silly euphemisms. I could go on, but I'd exhaust myself in listing the ways in which the characterization is lazy.

Speaking of b), the series doesn't come right out and hate women blatantly, but it does so in more insidious, structural ways. Sonja moves in a world where most of the people she meets are men, while the women are usually reduced to sexualized window dressing. The one exception, her main antagonist in Sunglasses After Dark, Caroline Wheele, is defined as the widow of a charismatic evangelist [she killed him] for whom, with her psychic talents, she was the power behind the throne. When Caroline dies, the spirits of her victims pull her to pieces, reducing her to an insensate object in the very way that the author reduces all female characters.

The trilogy apparently really hates sex too. Any sex scene is one of transactional exploitation, without any appreciation or emotional connection. Sexual and psychic violation forge both Sonja's and Caroline's personalities, and they go on to perpetrate the same abuses on others. Actually, now that I think about it, there's almost no sex acts in the trilogy. It's all rape, all the time. Anyone whose perspective automatically makes sex an abuse of power has a serious problem. Of course, the trilogy's hatred for sex ends up being a hatred for women, since all the women are reduced to sex objects.

Finally, Sonja herself is constructed as a misogynist character. She doesn't hate — or at least tolerates — male characters, with whom she occasionally forms mutually beneficial relationships. But she really doesn't like other women. At best, she feels comtempt for them, at worst, as with Caroline, hatred. Furthermore, Sonja is that most tedious of types, the Exceptional Woman [see my criticism of Brave for details], whose value only lies in her repudiation of her status as a woman and her embrace of pursuits and skills coded as masculine. Blah blah blah yuck.

I'm finishing this trilogy, and then I'm getting rid of it.

Disabled people aren’t your metaphors, Susan Gubar!

Disabled people aren’t your metaphors, Susan Gubar! published on 1 Comment on Disabled people aren’t your metaphors, Susan Gubar!

I was all excited to read Memoir of a Debulked Woman, Susan Gubar's account of her diagnosis and treatment for advanced ovarian cancer. Since Gubar is a noted feminist literary critic, I expected a powerful combination of personal details and polemic yielding a strong, thought-provoking critique of the medical industrial complex.

I did not expect gratuitous similes about people with disabilities. At least twice in the half of the book that I read [before throwing it across the room in disgust], Gubar compares her social withdrawal and disinclination to talk about her condition to having autism.

NO! Your social withdrawal and disinclination is NOT like having autism, Susan Gubar. More accurately, your social withdrawal and disclination to talk about your condition correspond to your personal stereotype [also a cultural stereotype at large] of how autistic people act in social situations.

In any case, please shut up. You are not like a person who has autism. Only people with autism are like people who have autism. And do I need to remind you that people with autism are actual, real people, as opposed to fodder for your literary flourishes?

While I'm on the same subject, people need to stop using "blind," "deaf," "crippled" and other words that refer to people with disabilities as metaphors. No, in fact, you're not "blind" to the obstacles facing you or "deaf" to criticism and therefore "crippled" by your inability to heed advice. You may be inattentive to obstacles, heedless of criticism and therefore challenged by your inability to heed advice, so use the right words, rather than ones that don't belong to you.

Also, everybody, stop using any form of the word "lame" to refer to something that you think is pathetic, insignificant, not good enough, unconvincing, etc. Look at how many synonyms I just listed in the preceding sentence! Pick one of them instead, not a term that shows how horribly prejudiced you are against people with disabilities.

I mistrust books with reading group guides in the back.

I mistrust books with reading group guides in the back. published on No Comments on I mistrust books with reading group guides in the back.

They always signal to me that the book wants to be taken seriously as Important Literature. However, if a book has to try that hard to inspire Deep Thoughts [TM], it will never be anything more than a second-tier novel.

I also find reading group guides rather insulting. Do the publishers really think that little of the readers? Do they think that we can’t come up with our own topics of discussion? We’re not stupid!

I should really check the back of books for reading group guides before I decide to read them. I could save myself a lot of grief that way.

While I’m at it, will someone please tell Jodi Picoult that she should stop dressing up her books as Srs Bzns? She writes entertainingly good stories, not Classics For The Ages. And that’s perfectly fine…if she’s honest about what she’s doing.

Crystallized while reading Postmortal

Crystallized while reading Postmortal published on No Comments on Crystallized while reading Postmortal

As much as I'm interested in the concept of the novel [a cure for aging and its effects on the world], I DO NOT CARE AT ALL about the adventures of the protagonist, a straight, cis, white, middle-class, able-bodied, US man with a societally acceptable body shape and a slag heap of unexamined privilege.

Seemingly THE ENTIRE WORLD revolves around the adventures of straight, cis, white, middle-class, able-bodied men with societally acceptable body shapes and slag heaps of unexamined privilege. They're tedious, boring, self-indulgent and overdone. Find a new narrative, people.

P.S. And if you're a straight etc. man whose protagonist happens to be a straight etc. man, you're suffering A FAILURE OF IMAGINATION. The world don't look like you no more. Get over yourself.

SHUT UP, Cassandra Clare!

SHUT UP, Cassandra Clare! published on No Comments on SHUT UP, Cassandra Clare!

Cassandra Clare writes popular YA fantasy series. I have no problem with that; in fact, I enjoy them as mind candy. I really wish she would stop quoting British literature, though. In the Infernal Devices series, a quotation from some British novel or poetry begins every single chapter for no apparent reason. Furthermore, the characters spew poetry at inopportune intervals too. Why? Why? Why?

This incessant quoting serves no purpose. The pre-chapter quotes relate, sometimes in very strained, tangential ways, to the events in the chapter, but that's it. The characters' useless quotations do nothing to further the reader's understanding of the story or the characters, unless your understanding is furthered by knowing that the protagonist likes books. There's no thematic, sustained, interesting, clever or relevant treatment of the quotes or the works they're from. They don't do anything except waste space. At best, they prove the author's prowess in Googling public domain works of literature. Must be some sort of self-congratulatory textual porn for English majors whose intellectual achievements peaked with their close reading of Dickens' Great Expectations [snore] during their sophomore year at a small New England liberal arts college.

As an English major from a small New England liberal arts college [ask me about my close reading of Emily Dickinson!], I'm real impressed. :p

News flash: early version of Song of Solomon unearthed!

News flash: early version of Song of Solomon unearthed! published on 5 Comments on News flash: early version of Song of Solomon unearthed!

Val alerted me to the fact that a rough draft of the Song of Solomon has recently been discovered. This is evidently the version that was written when the collaborators were drunk, high, feverish, hallucinatory, sleep-deprived and suffering from concussions. Continue reading News flash: early version of Song of Solomon unearthed!

Virtual Vampires of Vermont

Virtual Vampires of Vermont published on No Comments on Virtual Vampires of Vermont

No, seriously. It’s the title of a real book. Since they’re virtual, they aren’t tied to a particular location, so why are they in Vermont, aside from alliterative value? Furthermore, what do they feed on: pixelated gore from first-person shooters?

EDIT: A riveting preview, full of One-Sentence Paragraphs Of Emphasis and Italics Of Doom!! Apparently nothing Vermont-related was employed in the creation of this hackwork entry into a series. How disappointing.

An irritating supernatural romance: Bustin’

An irritating supernatural romance: Bustin’ published on No Comments on An irritating supernatural romance: Bustin’

Bustin’ by Minda Webber would like to be a light-hearted, wisecracking supernatural romance, but it fails. Heroine Sam, supposedly an exterminator of paranormal pests, suffers from a tendency to rant, which makes her seem unhinged and prejudiced, rather than charmingly eccentric. The setting suffers from gratuitous alliteration, unimaginative pop-culture puns and a cast of secondaries who compete with each other to see who can be the quirkiest. I hear that Sam exterminates ghosts [one of which is a soup-can-painting spirit named Andy *GET IT hah hah hah winkwink nudgenudge*] for a vampire prince, meanwhile falling in love with a werewolf, but I put the book down before the love interest arrived. As a native Vermonter, I could not forgive Webber for setting a book in Vermont and refusing to describe the state in any remotely convincing detail.

City of Bones, Trashcan of Dead Plots

City of Bones, Trashcan of Dead Plots published on 3 Comments on City of Bones, Trashcan of Dead Plots

I just read City of Bones [Book 1, Mortal Instruments trilogy] by Cassandra Clare, in which 15-year-old Mary Sue Buffy Princess Leia Clary and her dorky friend Xander Simon [who has a crush on her] experience the supernatural world of the Hellmouth New York City.

While grooving at the Bronze Pandemonium, Buffy and Xander Clary and Simon happen to see Cordelia and the fangirl’s Draco Malfoy Isabella and Luke Skywalker or maybe Han Solo, since he acts like a douchebag most of the time Jace dust a vamp kill a demon. Turns out that Cordelia and Draco are super-special supernatural Slayers Shadowhunters whose fated burden it is to dust vamps kill demons with a variety of cool weapons and magic.

Naturally, Buffy discovers that she too is a Slayer, so she accompanies the Scoobies to Hogwarts the Institute, a wizarding academy Shadowhunter school, presided over by the grandfatherly Dumbledore Hodge [who has a pet phoenix raven]. She learns about her special Slayer heritage while making goo-goo eyes at Draco and kicking monster butt with l33t skillz that will only surprise you if you’ve never read any Mary Sue stories at all. There’s some crap about a banished evil resistance of anti-mudbloods anti-demon, pro-purity wizards Shadowhunters headed by the charismatic and deadly Darth Vader Voldemort Valentine and the pursuit of a Goblet of Fire One Ring Excalibur Mortal Cup, all of which drives the plot. Princess Buffy and and Draco Skywalker run around, getting on each other’s nerves, until they find the Cup and the truth about their parentage, which is that Darth Voldemort is their father and that they are siblings. Blah blah blah, cliffhanger ending with gratuitous flying motorcycles.

Now I have a long long love affair with fan fiction, especially since my sister and I were doing Labyrinth-based self-insertion tangential fantasies [super-powered twins with Jareth as a father and Sarah as a sister in a world where magic existed, along with many mythical beings and characters from Back to the Future, Disney’s Little Mermaid, etc.] from the age of 8. We shamelessly ripped off our most and least favorite media and spun weird sci-fi plots and make countless overdone jokes. Then we developed our own individual styles of writing and creating, which were clearly reformulating and addressing the media which we had grown up with, but were obviously doing so in an original way.

I am not saying that fanfic is stupid and immature and published professional fiction is better and more mature. I’m just saying that there are different expectations for professional published fiction. In professional published fiction, you have to cite your sources, either literally if you are quoting directly, or figuratively. To do so figuratively, you put your signature on the old tropes so that we know that you’ve actually paid attention to them and not just regurgitated them whole. Clare has not sufficiently degenerated hah Freudian slip! differentiated City of Bones from the rest of the garbage in the Trashcan of Dead Plots.

As I’m sure you gather from the sarcasm in my plot summary, I do not think that Clare cites her sources at all. I think she just hurks them up in such big, obvious chunks that I can easily identify what books and movies she devoured earlier in her life. I don’t want to look at your recycled lunch, Cassandra. In fact, I don’t want to see anything more from you until you can convert the media you consume into actual food for original thought.

P.S. Your vampires were supremely dull.

You make me happeeeeeeeee when skies are grey.

You make me happeeeeeeeee when skies are grey. published on 1 Comment on You make me happeeeeeeeee when skies are grey.

In Sunshine, Robin McKinley revisits her favorite obsession, Beauty and the Beast. This time, a cold, clammy and remarkably honorable vampire, Con [stupid name], serves as the Beast. Much to my frustration, however, McKinley takes an almost failproof idea [Beauty + Beast + vampires + magic = awesome] and sabotages it by not building it a foundation.

On the subject of worldcraft, McKinley doesn’t offer Sunshine enough historical grounding. The Voodoo Wars, which split Sunshine’s world into antagonistic factions of humans and supernatural Others, strongly inform the events of Sunshine, but we never hear about the specifics of these wars. Who won? Who lost? WHY do humans hate the supernatural Others so much? You won’t find the answers in Sunshine.

On the subject of character development, the only person who has any is Sunshine. Even the Beast, Con [stupid name], remains opaque. Not only is he stiff and impenetrable, but we also have no idea of his motivations. He insists that he is “different” from the sadistic vampire Bo [stupid name], but we don’t know why he is or how he got that way. Without a history, he remains a grey, clammy cipher.

Instead of offering readers the essentials of a good story, McKinley kills Sunshine with minutiae. She tells us how many pages Sunshine’s favorite romance novels have. She repeats, word for word, Sunshine’s disturbance when a vampire is in the room, the disgusting texture and feel of Con’s [stupid name] skin and Sunshine’s worries about her bond with Con [stupid name].

All of this goes to show that even brilliant, accomplished, award-winning authors can fail at writing a good vampire novel.

How far can YOU walk in ballet boots? :p

How far can YOU walk in ballet boots? :p published on No Comments on How far can YOU walk in ballet boots? :p

The Turning by Jennifer Armintrout has one interesting idea in its pages: the concept of the blood tie, a BDSM-like compulsion that exists between new vampires and the person who vamps them. The blood tie, like lust, short-circuits the new vampire’s brain, strongly predisposing him or her to submission before his or her maker. The comparison between sexual desire and the blood tie is apt because, at least how Armintrout writes it, the blood tie often occasions hot monkey sex between maker and new vamp.

Hooray! I’m all for struggling with irresistible compulsions and people trying to accept/go against their natures. Unfortunately, Armintrout flushes the concept down the toilet by using it as an excuse for a wholly unoriginal love triangle in which doormat doctor and new vamp Carrie is jerked between two vamps. One, her sire, Cyrus, is the sickest puppy in the vamp world, while the other, Nathan, is morally righteous. Blood calls Carrie to Cyrus, while hormones call her to Nathan. Armintrout hits all the cliches of romance novels on the way down: Carrie’s spitfire comments to Nathan, who patiently keeps rescuing her; Carrie and Nathan’s angry sex disguising their true attraction; Carrie’s sympathy for perverted Cyrus; Cyrus keeping Carrie as a pet and charming her with feminine refinements; Carrie pretending to seduce Cyrus in order to save Nathan, et hoc genus omne ad nauseam. Carrie’s violent, unmotivated mood swings rival Bella’s in velocity.

Besides being a hack of the first order, Armintrout also wouldn’t know consistency if it came up and bit her on the neck. For example, in a truly memorable detail, Cyrus provides fetish shoes for Carrie to wear during the climactic sadistic party/massacre where she’s supposed to escape. Armintrout explicitly describes the shoes as basically pointe shoes with heels or ballet boots. Since ballet boots force all of a person’s weight onto his or her toes and the very narrow heels, they are difficult to balance in, much less walk in for a night, much less run around in while fending off evil vampires. Yet we’re supposedly to believe that she successfully participates in a revolt against the evil vampires, including stabbing Cyrus in the eye, while wearing such footwear. The Turning contains numerous examples of such unrealistic bullshit. Very dull.

It does not help that the photomanipulation on the paperback cover makes it look like dyed paper is coming out of the woman’s neck instead of guts.

Some day I’ll write about the romance novel trope of Requisite Seduction By Frilly Dress, but not now.

Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, aka Chris Moore can’t write female characters worth shit.

Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, aka Chris Moore can’t write female characters worth shit. published on 2 Comments on Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, aka Chris Moore can’t write female characters worth shit.

So I finished Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, which was grotesquely overrated, unfunny and generally stupid. It’s about a pretentious loser of a wannabe writer, Tommy, and his vampire girlfriend Jody. 

I cannot emphasize enough how dull and jejune this book is. All the characters are unironic, lazy stereotypes, from the gormless callow youth who somehow snags a sexy lady [Tommy], to the funny stoner coworkers, to the Wise Fool homeless man who helps to defeat the evil vampire [the Emperor], to the overbearing mother [Jody’s mom]. I get the feeling that Moore wants to coast on his supposedly witty writing, but he tries too hard to be funny, so both characters and joke come across as stale and desperate, rather than fresh.

Furthermore, Moore can’t write a convincing female character worth shit. Jody, who has the most interesting character arc as she learns how to be a vampire, has about as much personality as a paper bag. She doesn’t have an original thought in her head. For example, her first realization after she turns into a vampire is “I need a man.” I can think of many possible reactions — “I need medical care/answers/my friends/my family/my significant other/a drink/a shotgun/revenge/a nap/a moment to think/a cup of O positive/a way to calm down” — that would be believable responses to being vamped. “I need a man” is not one of them. “I need help and some sort of unquestioning stability; therefore I will exploit a lovestruck patsy” is conceivable, and it’s pretty clear that this is Jody’s plan, but “I need a man” is just a stupid false note. The only way “I need a man” would make sense is if women were dependent, weak, flaccid creatures without turgor pressure who needed men to provide life support and exoskeletons for them. Since they aren’t, Moore just reveals his limited understanding of what women think about. Boooooooring.

Up next: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris because I like both vampires and mysteries.

Dark Needs at Night’s Edge

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While I was at W**-M**t buying my own copy of Twilight, I noticed an infestation of OTHER vampire romance novels all over the bestsellers shelves. I poked my head into Dark Needs at Night’s Edge by Kresley Cole because it sounded vaguely promising. Neomi, insubstantial and glammy ghost ballerina, is bound forever to haunt her property, unseen by all. Fortunately, entertainment arrives in the form of Conrad, a slightly looney vampire whose specialties are frothing, gnashing and — hooray! — viewing Neomi. Plot ensues.

This one was hilarious, primarily because of Conrad. If you follow the link, you can read an excerpt from the book, which portrays his internal monolog as follows: “Tales of his insanity spreading once more. I’ve never missed a target — how insane can I be? He answers himself: Very fucking much so.” To such inane rhetorical questions, Cole also adds constant, redundant commentary on the action: “Just as his hands are about to meet around the Lykae’s corded neck, the beast claps something to his right wrist. A manacle? Clenching harder, he grates out a rasping laugh.” Furthermore, Cole makes Conrad curse constantly, just in case you haven’t realized how BAD-FUCKING-ASS he is, okay? Conrad, incidentally, does not come across as particularly bad-ass. He comes across as a weirdo with a puppet show in his head.

I can’t tell you what happened in the rest of the book because I didn’t have time to finish it, but I assume that Neomi and Conrad had sex [somehow] and then lived happily ever after, at least until Neomi caught a whiff of his internal monolog and laughed so hard that she dissolved.

“And then everyone in the book gets pregnant at the same time!”

“And then everyone in the book gets pregnant at the same time!” published on 1 Comment on “And then everyone in the book gets pregnant at the same time!”

After an excoriation of Nineteen Minutes, Vanishing Acts and My Sister’s Keeper last night, Jill and I determined that Jodi Picoult is actually writing romance novels gussied up to look like Big Important Literature. I personally have a great appreciation for both romance novels [good and bad], as well as Big Important Literature. What particularly pisses me off about Jodi Picoult, though, is that her writing has such transparent, sweating pretensions to Big Important Literature, but her bad form betrays her.

And by bad form, I mean that

she protests that she addresses serious, soul-searching problems, but she always escapes any real emotional or psychological weight through a deus ex machina, rather than pursuing her knotty dilemmas to their knotty and complicated limits. For example, in My Sister’s Keeper, the main story is something about a teenager who was conceived as a potential marrow donor for her older sister. The teenager tries to become emancipated from her parents, which brings about the implosion of the family. Anyway, at the end of My Sister’s Keeper, Picoult killed off her main character basically for no other reason than to fuck with the readers. In an interview in the back of the paperback copy, she insisted that she was being realistic to have a random tragedy occur to said main character, but it was irrelevant, adding nothing to the story, serving only as a pyrotechnic display to get readers to remember the book.

Another example of Picoult’s bad form is her ham-handed bungling with themes and symbolism. One of the characters in My Sister’s Keeper is a fire fighter who ends up fighting a fire that his son, a budding pyromaniac, lit. The fire fighter broods extensively about fire as a metaphor for situations getting out of control, while not realizing that the situation with his family is burning out of control IN THE SAME DAMN WAY THAT HIS SON IS SETTING OUT-OF-CONTROL FIRES. I could forgive the unsophisticated irony if Picoult didn’t bang me over the head with it every time the fire fighter and the son’s viewpoints came around. Her stupidity with symbolism reminds Jill of Johanna Lindsey writing in Warrior’s Woman something to the extent of the fact that her doofus alpha male lunkhead’s name, Challen, “lacked only a G-E to make it ‘challenge.’ She wondered if it was symbolic.” Of course it’s symbolic, and, if you think your readers are impercipent enough to need it spelled out for them, you’re insulting your readers AND demonstrating what an unskilled writer you are. [NB: That’s a rare stupid moment in Lindsey’s book. The rest is pitch-perfect for what it is, and what it is is a sadomasochistic lust novel. Anyway, the stupidity that Lindsey evinces only momentarily appears terminally throughout Picoult’s work.]

Just to make it clear, I respect a good romance novel as much as a good piece of Big Important Literature. I respect even more a good romance novel that pushes the generic conventions, The Spanish Pearl by Catherine Friend being a pretty good example. And I respect Big Important Literature that uses romantic tropes and themes [anything by the Brontes, for example]. I just don’t respect romance novels that push generic boundaries BADLY, and Picoult does it BADLY. She would write perfectly zippy, compelling, melodramatic romance novels if she would just stop trying to address Important Ethical Dilemmas and Heart-Wrenching Current Events and just admit that she is writing soap operas and GO FOR IT!!

Jill says Nineteen Minutes is pretty interesting, despite a high dose of drama… At least, she says, it’s better than Vanishing Acts, which she wants me to read so we can bitch about it together. I love a good, meaty piece of schlock…

Die, vile protagonist: killing off the Mary Sue!

Die, vile protagonist: killing off the Mary Sue! published on 3 Comments on Die, vile protagonist: killing off the Mary Sue!

In a paper about “150 years of Mary Sues,” Pat Pflieger comments about the coup of killing off a Mary Sue — that is, the character that is the author’s shill. Why is a dramatic death the ultimate end?

1. Mary Sue is too good for you. Like the saintly, sickly paragons of Victorian novels [Helen in Jane Eyre, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop], Mary Sues become too talented, too virtuous, too stupendously amazing, for this world. So there’s really nothing else to do except kill them off. In a fanfic that’s full of the highest highs, deepest lows, widest loves and most passionate hates, a Dramatic Death makes an orgasmic conclusion.

2. Hah, you really loved her, didn’tcha?!?!? Like the original rebellious female character who loved the evil man [Clarissa], Mary Sues die to afford the author and reader some perverse glee. Since everyone loves Clarissa [and the Mary Sues], everyone feels devastated when she dies. Thus, pre-death and even post-death, the author and reader can bask in the secondary characters’ grief because the grief proves how greatly the main character [Clarissa or Mary Sue] was loved.

3. You’ll remember her forever. Because they’re so damned good and because everyone loves ’em, it’s guaranteed that the characters will not forget the Mary Sue. Her virtues will shine as a noble beacon forever. Secondaries will idealize and idolize her. She will never leave their minds. More wish-fulfilling whack-off on the author’s part.

Hmmm, and I thought killing Anneka was just a good way to literalize a huge change in her life. Nope…it was the Orgasm of the Mary Sue!

Dear Loremistress  — If Mary Sues are so hated by other writers, why do you think LHF, which is so obviously teeming with Mary Sues, is well-liked?

Go read what the Loremistress muses about Mary Sues. She’s good. 😀

Thoughts on aforementioned critical analysis of Labyrinth

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I just got a chance to read the whole chapter, thanks to some creative messing around with Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book!” feature. See below for a summary. Continue reading Thoughts on aforementioned critical analysis of Labyrinth

Salacious tales of graveyards

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I checked out a bunch of books about death and cemeteries last night and read through one of them, Cemetery Stories, by Katherine Ramsland, quickly. Riding the mainstreaming of Goth lite, Ramsland skims over the death trade [coroners, embalmers, morticians, gravediggers, etc.], ghost stories and sick stuff people do with dead bodies. Rant below about the supposed connections between people who take pictures of gravestones and people who screw corpses. Continue reading Salacious tales of graveyards

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