Monday, April 23, 2018

2018 read #11: Walking with Spring by Earl V. Shaffer.

Walking with Spring: The First Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail by Earl V. Shaffer
154 pages
Published 1983
Read from April 18 to April 23
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

It's been a while since I read a hiking narrative; the last one I completed was apparently in March 2016. Part of the reason for that is I've already read most of the ones currently in print. While you would expect the success of Wild to have cleared the way for a spate of copycat publications, I haven't seen any new ones in a while, at least none available through my library system. Maybe the more recent "classes" of thru-hikers have been concentrating their efforts on YouTube and Instagram, rather than dead tree publication.

As overexposed and overloved as all the big trails have become, there's a bit of a culture shock in reading early accounts of the AT. Shaffer's famous (and occasionally contested) 1948 thru-hike took him along a trail essentially abandoned, whole sections of it gobbled up by timber sales or lost to the broader dislocations of the war years. The conservation ethos as a whole was a different beast back then, with officers appointed by forest districts to eliminate natural predators. I'd love to see a thoroughly researched history of the co-evolution of the AT and of conservation principles in the American consciousness.

That hypothetical book is, of course, far beyond the scope of what we have here. Shaffer writes of his journey with mechanical descriptiveness, enumerating landmarks and meals and incidents of travel with only slightly more passion than a checklist. It is interesting as a primary document of sorts, but scarcely a classic of the genre.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

2018 read #10: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer.

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer
380 pages
Published 1994
Read from April 9 to April 18
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

A common motif you'll find in my reviews is my perennial search for "lost classics," by which I generally mean pretty good (or even great) fantasy and science fiction books from decades past, books that, for one reason or another, seem to have been forgotten. It has always baffled me how the likes of the Wheel of Time, or the Shannara series, or even the festering garbage pile of the Sword of Truth, could have become, and remained, so popular, becoming almost the default entry-point books for two generations of nerds, when they weren't even that good by the fantasy standards of their time. (Let alone by the standards of today, when fantasy and serious literature overlap so beautifully. Why on Earth would anyone read Wizard's First Rule in 2018? If someone makes a Best Fantasy Novels of All Time list and it isn't 50% books published after 2000, odds are it was written by some grognard who uses "social justice" as a pejorative. Or maybe they just don't like beautiful prose in their fantasy.)

The question of how certain IPs become popular while others languish has always fascinated me; it seems to be an intersection of what promotional effort publishers are willing to invest initially, and a certain tendency in pop culture to conflate bestsellerdom with merit. The default example of this is, of course, the Twilight/Fifty Shades cluster, but the fact that male nerds zero in on these instead of, say, Shannara demonstrates a certain level of misogyny... all of which is getting pretty far from whatever point I was trying to make.

The flipside of the popularity equation -- why certain books that are demonstrably better than the Jordans, Goodkinds, and Salvatores never become bestsellers and are ultimately lost to the pulp pile -- is closer to what I'm investigating here. I have a certain fondness for the underdog, and an admitted tendency toward "Oh, you hadn't heard of that one?" hipsterdom. Few book-reading experiences satisfy me as much as getting my hands on some forgotten fantasy novel from the 1980s or 1990s and discovering that it's pretty darn good. War for the Oaks is my default example, but I could also single out Wizard of the PigeonsSideshow, Pavane, Thomas the Rhymer, and really, anything at all by Ellen Kushner. (Where is my Swordspoint HBO series?)

Joining this august company is A College of Magics. Unlike Swordspoint and War for the Oaks, which you might find on internet best-of lists if you dig deep enough, I'd never even heard of College until I was browsing a local library and noticed the distinctive '90s Tor font on the spine. (Caroline Stevermer, on the other hand, has appeared in my reviews before; she co-wrote "The Vital Importance of the Superficial," one of my favorite stories in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells.) It is, for its first third or so, a tale of a magical finishing school, where young ladies from all over Europe are educated in deportment, classical literature, and the Balance of the Spheres in a coastal stronghold inspired by Mont Saint-Michel. There is a blond, aristocratic bully who uses her magic to torment the hero; a wise, intimidating, ultimately compassionate headmistress dressed in green robes; an adjoining town where the students sneak out for pastries; and banter exchanged among a core group of friends in a commonroom. Leaving aside the most obvious point of comparison, the only clue that College is NOT a young adult novel from the last ten years is the fact that every character in the book is white and straight.

Also dating the book: A scene in which our hero, held captive, is kissed against her will by a weaselly and manipulative resistance leader -- and decides that she "likes" the kiss, despite her own personal revulsion toward him. The '90s were a time when authors demonstrated their feminist bona fides with sex positivity at all costs; the importance of consent as a basic concept has only recently infiltrated fantasy fiction.

Our hero Faris speeds through her magical education at Greenlaw, covering three years in 126 pages. Which is a pity, as that section was thoroughly charming. What follows, according to a jacket blurb summary, is "a Grand Tour of an imaginary Europe," if a Grand Tour of an imaginary Europe consists of a Paris hotel room, a train ride, and political machinations in some vaguely sketched nation-states. The broader setting (outside of the lovely expanses of Greenlaw) is so hazily defined that it wasn't until the gang raced around Paris in a motorcar that I realized the setting was 1908, rather than the Regency period.

The political machinations were the weakest part of the story, I think. Fantasy politics requires investment in character, and Faris stands alone as the one semi-developed character in the book. Her unfailingly helpful companion Jane is fun, her bodyguard and inevitable love interest Tyrian is just another iteration of stoic competence; between the two of them, Faris never seems to be in real danger. Even her wicked uncle Brinker strains to make enough of an impression to become hateable. In some ways, it's not that hard to figure out why College appears on no best-of lists.

Nonetheless, despite all these flaws, I just can't help but be charmed by this book. Greenlaw ranks nearly equal to Hogwarts on the list of homey magical schools, and the magical wardens of the Earth were an interesting fantasy concept, rendered memorably. The climax, when Faris must undo the magical error of her grandmother, is a bit wobbly, yet has a taste of Studio Ghibli in its vivid imagery of lions and crystal stairways. This is a world I would love to see explored more thoroughly, and Faris was an agreeable companion for the brief Grand Tour we received.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

2018 read #9: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton
Introduction by Kingsley Amis
186 pages
Published 1908
Read from March 24 to April 3
Rating: 3 out of 5

I honestly don't know how to approach this book. I rarely make pretensions to actual literary criticism, relying more on a metric of whether I liked a book or not, mixed with rambles of doubtful relevancy. But this is one of those meaningful, allegorical novels that (spoilers!), despite the "it was all a dream" ending alluded to in the subtitle, demands some level of critical analysis just to unpack its authorial meaning. The politics of the novel are distasteful: heteronormative family, religion, and "duty" are, at least in the eyes of our viewpoint character, the building blocks of any "free" society, whereas radical progressivism (including such modernist fancies as philosophy, feminism, and vegetarianism) is posited as the antithesis of "sane." Yet the depiction of the anarchist menace (however quaint that sounds now) carries with it some insights that still seem startlingly perceptive today:
"Mere mobs!" repeated his new friend with a snort of scorn. "So you talk about mobs and the working classes as if they were the question [source of concern]. You've got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always been objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats are always anarchists, as you can see from the barons' war."
The true menace of Trumpism, one might say, would lie in the coup scored by the rich in getting the (white) working classes to embrace and worship a particularly kleptocratic form of anarchism that undermines the very government the working classes rely upon. Chesterton's insight here has current resonance, even though one gets the impression that the nebulous "aristocrats" he has in mind align more with the 21st century fantasies of George Soros using his wealth to suborn family, religion, and duty, rather than the actual oligarchic catastrophe sweeping the planet.

Some substantial spoilers ahead.

I thought myself clever when I deduced, not even a third of the way through the book, that the "Council of Anarchists" (each named for a day of the week) were all police detectives recruited by the monstrous Sunday for some subtle scheme. The days of the week all fell in line with my guess, sure enough. What I did not anticipate was the whole thing taking a hard left turn into biblical symbolism and allegory, as the days of the week all returned to Sunday's feasting table during a fantastic masquerade, each day representing their respective associations from Genesis, with Sunday himself the embodiment of the vast "peace of God." There was something (borrowed from the Christ myth) about the forces of creation, or the archangels, or the "guards of Law," or whatever it was that the days were supposed to represent, experiencing "suffering" in order to fully understand, and thereby counter, the modernist complaints against society. It was a heady scene, one with much to unpack, and an especially bizarre way to cap what amounts to a comic spy caper or surreal detective novel.

And then, true to the subtitle, it turns out to have all been a dream.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

2018 read #8: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
449 pages
Published 2017
Read from March 21 to March 23
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

One unsettling realization I've had over the last couple years is the likelihood that, if I had been born black, I wouldn't be alive today. On at least two occasions in my teens, off the top of my head, police drew guns on me. The first was when my father and I were in rural Idaho one snowy night. Like many other paranoid people, my father had a police scanner, which he purchased in hopes of keeping tabs on the vast governmental conspiracy to harass him. (When the airwaves were conspicuously silent in this regard, he shifted the goalposts: They used frequencies unavailable to commercial scanners, and then later They used the internet.) This one night, we overhead a police dispatcher relaying an exact description of my father's station wagon, advising all units to be alert for it, as it was used in an armed robbery of a jewelry store. Within minutes, despite the remoteness of the road, we were pulled over by a swarm of cops and ordered, rather violently, to exit the vehicle with hands in the air. The second occasion was when my father and I, homeless, spent an ill-considered night in a city park. Uneasy and unable to sleep despite my exhaustion, I dimly became aware of lights and voices approaching. Soon enough, a patrol car arrived, and I was ordered to show my hands and not move. These were scary situations for a white boy; had I been black, I can all too easily imagine how events could have taken a far bloodier turn. And that's not even getting into the desperate two days I spent hitchhiking in order to finally get away from my father when I was 18.

White Americans, for the most part, are wholly insulated from the realities of being black in this country. Most of them, in fact, violently resist even the slightest attempt at education -- just witness the vitriol flung at "social justice warriors" and the very concept of privilege. Or, for that matter, witness the Electoral College appointment of Donald J. Trump. Books like White Rage should be required reading in high schools and colleges, yet instead white parents get fragile and violent should their precious Aryan snowflakes be exposed to the idea of privilege in public school. Social change takes generations, but it can be hard to stay optimistic for the future when such a substantial cohort of enraged white authoritarians have essentially taken over government at all levels, despite being a minority of voters.

I'm hardly exempt from the general white tendency toward ignorance. My own social justice awakening, such as it is, has been a gradual climb from soft, toothless Democratic Party liberalism. As recently as 2005, I wrote pieces on my blog about how affirmative action just wasn't fair, and how what society should be striving for was equality. It's cringe-inducing to recall, but it's important to remind myself that I will never truly be a "perfect" ally; I'll always have a lot of growing to do. I mean, even now, I scarcely know (on a personal level) more than a handful of people of color.

Many words have been written about the power and grace of The Hate U Give. Thomas' elegant and absorbing prose and excellent story are worthy in and of themselves, and might perhaps get lost in the importance of the book's didacticism and its message. As for those latter two attributes, Hate should join White Rage on must-read lists around the nation, a narrative illustration of the litany of horrors given in the latter book. All of us, not just the reactive right, need to seek out the stories and realities of the black experience. I'm just getting started, but luckily these two books have been a great place to begin.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

2018 read #7: The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany.

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
242 pages
Published 1924
Read from February 22 to March 7
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

This book had been on my must-read list for a number of years. Early modern fantasy often gets overlooked, as if the genre sprang fully formed from the pen of Tolkien in 1937, but I've always been drawn to origins and primordial stages of evolution. As a would-be fantasist myself, there's an appeal to discovering lost phyla from the genre's early diversification, before the success of Tolkien encouraged so many imitators. Of course, there are any number of good reasons for why only the crunchiest of nerdlings discuss the likes of Lord Dunsany, as I was doomed to discover here.

Lord Dunsany was primarily a short story writer, and it shows in the episodic chapters, strings of vignettes connected by repetitive and unnecessary padding. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I claim that a good editor could salvage an excellent story from this book by trimming about 80% of its bulk. My favorite passages deal with the moor-witch Ziroonderel, whether relating how she casts a stupendous sword that unites the magic of runes with the science of meteorite metal, or having her give a climactic speech that delivers the book's thesis statement: "And you that sought for magic in your youth but desire it not in your age, know that there is a blindness of spirit which comes from age, more black than the blindness of eye, making a darkness about you across which nothing may be seen, or felt, or known, or in any way apprehended." It is a generational truism that any younger demographic might apply to their elders, but which feels especially apropos when a generation that congratulated itself for decades about Woodstock votes in a fascist.

Ziroonderel is the most interesting part of the book, but the rest of it wouldn't be so bad... if, again, one could trim it down to about fifty pages. Because fifty pages is pretty much all the story there is. The rest repeats, with minor variations, motifs of getting to, leaving, and wishing to return to Elfland, or longing to return to Earth once there; the second half of the novel bogs down in an endless cycle of unicorn hunting, which my Beagle-nurtured sentiments found almost obscene. Dunsany attempts to emulate heroic poetry in his prose, but his attempts pretty much amount to repeating a few set phrases every few paragraphs. I would not be surprised if an analysis revealed that "the fields we know" comprised no less than 10% of the total word count. It's no wine-dark sea, let's say that much.

In the end, I'm glad I struggled through Elfland. A few rare moments of genuine magic shone through the dross of Dunsany's aimless wanderings in search of an editor. But I'm gonna have to put off any attempt to read MacDonald's Phantastes for a while. I'm gonna need to read some books from the age of efficient storytelling, first.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

2018 read #6: White Rage by Carol Anderson.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
166 pages
Published 2016
Read from February 9 to February 21
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

When I was young, one excuse my father scraped up for keeping my brother and I out of public school was a never-defined bogeyman named "busing." The way he spoke of this dread thing made me fear it like a punishment, though to me it sounded a lot like riding the bus downtown with my Grandma, which left me confused -- because what could me more fun than riding the bus downtown with my Grandma? I only learned what busing was much later, by which time I had mostly forgotten the venom in my father's voice and how determined he had been to avoid it.

I never went to public school for more than a few months. Not a few months at a time -- a few months total, out of my entire childhood. Busing was only one excuse. The fact was, my father was delusional and paranoid to the point where he could not function, and me living in a car traveling aimlessly across the country with him was merely an incidental side effect.

Fast forward to 2018, when the entire country is paralyzed and unable to function thanks to the delusions and paranoia of somewhat less than half of the electorate. The America I had glimpsed with my father inside gun shows and Oklahoma gun shops -- what back then seemed like a fringe, with its Deep State conspiracies, toxic hatred and masculinity, military rations, survivalist manuals, and monolithic Whiteness -- now parades openly under the light of a thousand tiki torches, its pathetic sociopathy given a physical shape in an orange would-be dictator whose whinging insecurities are applauded as manly resolve. Despite my upbringing, despite seeing the fetid roots of Trumpism with my own eyes way back in the early '90s, I had been completely floored by ascent of White populism. How could an obvious fascist, with all the charisma and legitimacy of a toy from a Crackerjack box, have swept into power? What happened to the vaguely comforting soft-liberal platitudes of acceptance and progress I had absorbed from cartoons and PBS as a kid, then so scorned from my rarefied Social Democratic perch in my 30s? Growing up in a car, absorbing a picture of American sociology from '90s kiddie pop culture, had sheltered me, hidden the ugly realities of American Whiteness from me until the paranoid gun show crowd suddenly ran every branch of government, and the America I believed I had known turned out to be a Saturday morning fiction.

White Rage is required reading for any of us who entered the Age of Trump with a sheltered, privileged perspective on race. One by one, Anderson picks apart the pleasant myths of Civil Rights progress to show the pale termites destroying the substance behind the fa├žade. Every step of the way, from dismantling Reconstruction to destroying public schooling rather than desegregating, from suppressing the Black vote with poll taxes and literacy tests to suppressing the Black vote with voter ID requirements and gerrymandering, and all the insidious and rarely-questioned "everybody knows" myths of American public policy, Anderson presents a methodical picture of White America's inability to tolerate Black American success and advancement. Each chapter is an emotionally exhausting survey of the evils that systemic, deep-rooted anti-Black racism has perpetrated, climaxing with the triumph of the Southern Strategy, the Nixon-Reagan Supreme Court, and the simultaneous release of crack into the inner city and the criminalization of Blackness under the "War on Drugs." It is horrifying, appalling, enraging. And it makes me despair for any true progress in a post-Trump America.

As with many books about conservation or biodiversity, Anderson closes with a hopeful epilogue musing on the possibility of positive change, if only enough of us would unite to repudiate White rage and build a truly free and inclusive future. And as with all those books about saving the environment, the hopefulness of that epilogue (written and published before the 2016 election) is in a sense more depressing than the litany of horrors that went before it. Right now, at least, it doesn't feel like much will change. Trumpism and anti-Black fascism have been political forces throughout White America from the very beginning; the facile belief that "all of that was in the past," which informed so much of my worldview in the '90s and '00s, was in fact part and parcel of the sociopolitical effort to reframe and minimize the Civil Rights struggle. Maybe things will get better in a generation (assuming some insecure fascist dictator doesn't push a button, on either side of the Pacific), but right now, it's hard to see how.

And that in itself is another vital dose of insight from this book.

Friday, February 9, 2018

2018 read #5: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
342 pages
Published 1985
Read from February 1 to February 9
Rating: 4 out of 5

In subject matter, Fire and Hemlock fits with the trends of its time, when urban fairy tales like Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and modern retellings of old fairy ballads like Charles de Lint's Jack the Giant-Killer, helped reinvent urban fantasy. Yet the comparison I kept coming back to as I read it is an urban fantasy from another era entirely: Jo Walton's Among Others. Which is not to say that Fire and Hemlock is ahead of its time. Wynne Jones repeatedly and appallingly has her adolescent protagonist Polly worry about her weight, even having her muse about starving herself to look thinner for an older male admirer; Polly is subjected to casual harassment from nearly every man in her life, ranging from her mother's new boyfriend to the bookie on the street corner; she mentally takes responsibility for "tempting" them all with her charms. The lechery of the men, and Polly's feelings of provoking their behavior through her temptations, is given scarcely any commentary in-text -- rendering it to all appearances normalized. Especially when you consider that this is (based on its publication history more than anything else) a work of juvenile fiction, it makes for some cringe-inducing reading in the #MeToo era.

Those unpleasant details date the book firmly in its era (or possibly even earlier, to the late 1970s adolescence much of the book describes). Yet much of Fire and Hemlock feels like a prequel to Among Others, which is to my mind quite the au courant post-fantasy. Both novels follow bookish protagonists from the wreckage of broken homes; both devote many pages to the solace of reading books and finding one's own place within their pages, listing formative titles with evident tenderness and reverence. Both books expertly balance their sense of unreality, remaining ambiguous for much of their length about whether anything "fantastic" has actually occurred. Far more so than its urban fantasy contemporaries, Hemlock integrates the fairy story seamlessly with Polly's quotidian adolescence. The Queen of the Fairies appears to be merely a rich, beautiful woman who lives in a mansion, her curses dealt out in phone calls and train stations, their sting found in the barbed words of an abusive parent. The flashy fae of War for the Oaks are largely supplanted by unseen machinations beneath the surface of the everyday world, and Hemlock is all the better for it.

Hemlock is far from perfect; aside from the aforementioned problematic elements, I found that certain chapters ran a bit overlong with at times tedious verisimilitude. (As with other young adult works, I might be less bothered by this if I were within the target demographic.) But I found it absorbing, moving, and at times edge-of-my-seat tense all the same. Definitely among my new favorites.