The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Read: 12 August, 2015

I’ve been aware of The Phantom Tollbooth for years, hearing from several friends that it was their first favourite book. Unfortunately, I was country-hopping at the age where I might have come across it organically or been assigned it in school, and so had never read before. Yet I knew of it, and picked it up when I found it at the thrift store.

I originally tried to read it to Kid, now that I’m transitioning him off from picture books at bedtime. That didn’t really work out, though. We only got about halfway through before he asked to read something else instead. And I can understand why – so many of the jokes either involve puns or knowledge that he hasn’t been exposed to, so all the humour was going right over his head. And without the humour, there isn’t really much left to the book.

But I’d made it halfway through, and I didn’t really want to abandon the reading entirely. So I decided to carry on on my own.

I quite enjoyed the book. The humour is right up my alley – with plenty of silliness, poking fun at adult convention, and loads of puns. As I said, there isn’t too much else besides that – the plot is flimsy at best, and the characters are either jokes or a blank slate to serve as a reader insert – but there doesn’t need to be. I can imagine the impact of reading this at 10-12, when the jokes would be more directly relevant.

It’s very playful and enjoyable, and a not too long read despite the stuffy British narration style.

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    The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

    I read this series fairly continuously between June, 2014 and August, 2015 – just over a year. That’s a pretty big investment of time, and the question I get asked most often by people who haven’t read the series yet is: Is it worth it?

    And that’s a difficult question to answer. There are things that I really enjoyed about the series – enough so that I don’t feel like my time was misspent, I don’t regret reading it – but there are also some pretty big flaws. So I guess I’ll just note my thoughts, and let anyone who reads this draw their own conclusions.

    I’ve heard complaints that Jordan did a lot of ripping off of Tolkien’s work, but I think that he did that intentionally, as a way of situating the reader (within the micro context of the Two Rivers) before taking us out into the wider world. In fact, I think that’s very much like what Tolkien himself was doing, in providing us with Hobbits who are in many ways so much like early 20th century Brits. I, personally, think that Jordan might have had a bit more faith in his readership, but the Wheel of Time series is quite popular for a fantasy novel – especially for one that requires the investment of reading 14 books at over a thousand pages each – so he was obviously on to something.

    Jordan’s writing leaves quite a bit to be desired. For one thing, it’s incredibly repetitive – a problem that I think is much more irritating in print than it is in audiobook. He seems to have chosen a default mannerism or catch phrase for each character and just gone to town (Nynaeve’s braid pulling and complaints about “wool-headed men” being the most frequently cited).

    His plotting suffered a similar issue. The first novel was quite action-packed and had a lot going on, but the series slowed after that – getting worse and worse with each new novel, culminating finally in the dreck that is Crossroads of Twilight. It felt like Jordan would sit down at his desk and just free-write until he managed to figure out where he was going, then hit publish on the whole thing (except that, with Crossroads, he never actually managed to get anywhere).

    This cleared right up with Sanderson’s books, though. Those actually moved, and really managed to reinvigorate my interest in the series.

    Jordan seems to have had a lot of gender hangups. It’s clear that he tried very hard to include women, giving them lots of active roles to play, making them powerful and interesting, and giving them lots of important social positions (with the Women’s Circle as the true leaders of Emond’s Field, and the number of reigning queens). The problem is that he just couldn’t seem to figure out how that level of equality might translate into day-to-day interactions.

    I do realize that some of that is due to the worldbuilding itself, and how the magic system is divided along gender lines. The problem with that explanation, however, is that the gendered magic wasn’t necessary. Without his assumptions about gender, Jordan could have come up with some different way to distinguish between magic classes. Or, at the very least, he could have avoided making wielding the female half of the One Power an act of submission and wielding the male half one of control. The dwelling upon female characters needing to learn proper submission, and glorying in submission within the context of their magic, was extremely awkward.

    In fact, the gender relations in general tried my ability to stay with the series more than anything. Jordan constructed a world in which men and women seem to be in open conflict with each other at all times, believing the other group to be stupid, weak, and incapable.

    And this came through most strongly when Jordan tried to write relationships. He did a fantastic job at writing female-female friendships, with those relationships being among the most complex, deep, and organic-seeming friendships I think I might have ever seen in fiction. His male-male friendships, however, were fairly absent from the series. The narrator told us that Mat, Perrin, and Rand were all friends, sure, but none of that was particularly evident in the series. They’d follow each other’s orders, or do favours for each other, but it just seems so superficial, and based on nothing more than that they all grew up in the Two Rivers and that the plot required them to work together.

    But it was in the male-female romantic relationships that Jordan really struggled. Rand and his girlfriends fell in love with each other because the narrator tells us that they did. At no point did they ever actually seem to have chemistry, or anything deeper than simply an acknowledgement that they are fated to be together. This is largely due to the fact that they spend practically no time together, and have little more to fuel their relationship other than Min’s assurance that they will be in one (Rand and Min do spend a bit more time together, and their relationship is a bit more organic than the other two as a result). This could have been interesting – with all the plot surrounding fate, what it means for something to be fated and what role individual agency can have within that context, there was every opportunity to fate them to be together but perhaps have one resist, just as an example. But instead, the three women are told that they will love Rand, so they automatically do and Rand gets to have his little harem.

    But things don’t get really bad until Perrin and Faile, in which the relationship seems to be based on mutual abuse, jealousy, and spanking. It was just sickening to see Faile – a strong and potentially very interesting character – only be happy in her relationship once she coaxes Perrin into yelling at her and hitting her. And for the narrator to let this play out as though it is simply a natural truth that strong women crave stronger men who can properly force them into submission. It was unnecessary and completely gross.

    Given how well Jordan can write relationships (as evidenced by his female-female relationships), it’s hard to see this as anything other than an expression of his gender hangups.

    My last complaint is with Mat, though this is less about Jordan and more about his fans. Mat was a nasty character, the butt of a joke. He’s a womanizer of the worst sort, who views women as objects to conquer, use, and then dispose of (at times, the descriptions of his “conquests” sound a little like they might be rape). He sees women as weak and inferior, and always in need of his rescue. He is a jealous friend, incapable of finding any kind of joy in seeing his so-called friends find happiness. He is an all-round, thoroughly nasty person. Which is fine. I’m okay with anti-heroes and dark heroes. The problem is that fans keep defending Mat, or laughing about all the “hilarious” situations he finds himself in (like, you know, getting raped and imprisoned as the sex slave of a queen). And that really worries me – that there are a whole lot of readers out there who can see Mat as comic relief, or even as a morally good character.

    So those are my complaints, all the things that made it difficult to get through the series. I’m glad to say that most of them cleared up – all or in part – in Sanderson’s final three books. I haven’t read Sanderson’s own works, so I don’t know how he handles worldbuilding, but he’s certainly a much better writer than Jordan. Compared to the previous dozen, the last three books were an absolute joy to read.

    In the positives column, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding, as well as several of the characters. The female characters, in particular, were really great to read – particularly in a genre that is so often male-dominated. I was extremely impressed by Jordan’s writing of the friendships between the female characters, and the way they interacted when the male characters weren’t around. I also really liked the amount of foreshadowing, and the way that something might be set up in an early book, yet the payoff wouldn’t come until the very end. It was just so much fun to keep having these “oh! So that’s what that was setting up!” moments of figuring out connections.

    In the end, I wish that the same series with the same plots had been in the hands of a better writer from the start. But as is, while there were times when I seriously considered quitting, but I’m glad I stuck with it until the end. Also in its favour is the fact that the series is now finished, so new readers needn’t worry about the Game of Thrones Syndrome that is so often a risk with lengthy series.

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      Wheel of Time #14: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

      Read: 12 August, 2015

      I started reading The Wheel of Time in June, 2014, after a friend’s recommendation. Since then, for just over a year of my life, I have had at least one book in the series (and its offshoots) on the go continuously. That’s a pretty hefty investment of my LCUs, and I had had a nagging worry that no pay off could be good enough to make all of that time feel worthwhile.

      Now that I am done, I am pleased to say that Sanderson pulled it off.

      I’m not much of a fan of action sequences. In fact, I often skim the climaxes of books simply because I’m just not interested in big boss fights. I say this because that’s what A Memory of Light was from start to finish, for over a thousand pages – one gigantic big boss fight (broken up only by a series of smaller boss fights), and yet I was actually interested the whole time. I was really impressed with Sanderson’s skill in keeping my eyes from glazing over.

      The pay off was fantastic. After fifteen books and over a year, I’ve grown a fairly deep familiarity with the world, and I felt that Sanderson did a really good job of making that familiarity pay off. Not to mention the great feeling of seeing how events that have, in some cases, been foreshadowed for a dozen or more books actually play out.

      My only reservation is with Rand’s great epiphany in his battle with the Dark One. I found it rather trite, and it would have been nice for the authors to come up with something a little more interesting. (SPOILERS: I’m also not quite sure how it works within the context of that world. Rand talks about a world without the Dark One as one in which people cannot choose evil – making it as repressive as a world in which the Dark One wins. And yet, throughout the series, we are exposed to people and groups who have had different, and conflicting, ideas of good, or who have made evil choices in the service of good that are explicitly said to be separate from the Dark One’s influence. The White Cloaks are an example of the former, and Shadar Logoth of the latter. So not only was the big epiphany rather overdone, it also didn’t really make sense within the context of Jordan’s worldbuilding. I found Rand’s “strength doesn’t mean you can’t feel” epiphany in an earlier book to be far more interesting.)

      But that small-ish complaint aside, I really enjoyed A Memory of Light, and found it to be a fitting end to the series. Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to do with my life – and my encyclopedic knowledge of the The Wheel of Time – now that I don’t have Rand and the others to read about.

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        Wheel of Time Graphic Novel: The Eye Of The World, vols. 1-3, by Robert Jordan, adapted by Chuck Dixon, art by Chase Conley

        Read: 3 August, 2015

        I took all the Wheel of Time-related graphic novels out from the library and brought them along on vacation. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that The Eye of the World comes in six volumes, and only brought the three my library has. I got to the end of the third pretty certain that a good chunk was missing and, sure enough, I’m only halfway through. Still, I figured I’d better write a review, since I don’t know when I’ll be able to get my hands on the next three volumes.

        I was quite surprised by how much of the first novel’s plot I could remember. The middle books, particularly around where it became obvious that Jordan had completely dropped the reigns of the plot, are a blur, but I had distinct memories of everything covered in the graphic novels. I’ve found the same thing with A Song of Ice and Fire – where the first book is also quite well plotted, with a much tighter storyline than later books. In both cases, I feel like the authors started off with a very clear idea of a beginning, and then much vaguer notes for the rest of the series. It’s a shame.

        Regarding the graphic novels specifically, I found the text to be much better than what I saw in the New Spring graphic novel. It was much easier to follow what was going on, and I think I would have been able to read it even if I hadn’t read the book first. I’m not sure how much of that is a real difference in quality and how much is just because the plot of Eye of the World is so much more action-oriented, relying less on narrative (and therefore more easily exportable to a visual medium), though.

        The artwork was a little disappointing, though. The images looked messy, for lack of a better word – like coloured sketches. This meant that it was often difficult to tell one character apart from another – particularly in the beginning. Some of that might have been intentional, to show how ordinary the three Ta’veren are at the start of the story, but I don’t feel like that came through very well.

        There were also quite a few consistency issues, particularly with Moiraine’s forehead pendant (which changed shape and style frequently from panel to panel).

        Generally, though, I thought it was fine. It was certainly readable. I’m just scratching me head over who the intended audience might be for these. There isn’t really a lot of added value for someone who has already read the novels, and I’m not sure how well someone who hasn’t read the novels would be able to follow along with the graphic novel version. It seems a bit superfluous. Or perhaps they are looking for people like me, who are at the end of the novels and want a refresher on the series without having to tackle the doorstopper tomes for a second time.

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          Wheel of Time Graphic Novel: New Spring by Robert Jordan, adaptation by Chuck Dixon, art by Mike Miller, Harvey Tolibao, & Joseph Cooper

          Read: 31 July, 2015

          I’m still making my way through A Memory of Light, but I came across the New Spring graphic novel at the library and thought I would give it a try.

          It’s been almost exactly a year since I first started the Wheel of Time series, beginning with the prequel (though it wasn’t published until the series was already well under way, I wanted to get the plot in order). So it’s been a while, enough time for the graphic novel to be a lovely refresher as I make my way through the culmination of the story.

          I was reminded of how much I hadn’t grasped when I first read the prequel. The biggest example of this is the Aiel. Since the descriptions of them in the book compared them to demons and dark friends, and their faces were always covered, and their culture was entirely alien to all the POV characters in the book, I had assumed that they were something more like trollocs than people. It wasn’t until a subsequent book that I realized they were just meant to be another culture.

          This made Lan’s chapters difficult to read. I just didn’t get them, I couldn’t picture the battles in my mind. With Moiraine, however, enough was familiar that I could find my footing pretty quickly.

          Having now fully submerged myself in the Wheel of Time universe, I was able to pick up a lot more from the graphic novel. For example, I had completely forgotten that Moiraine had met Cadsuane, and knowing who Cadsuane is now, that encounter makes a lot more sense. (Same goes for Elaida.)

          As for the graphic novel itself, it was fine. The art was mostly very clean (except for the last chapter and epilogue, where there’s a sudden change in style and drop in quality), and it was interesting to see how the characters were represented – even if the images don’t always agree with what I have in my head.

          I also felt like the artwork was overly sexualized. Most of the women are too skinny for their organs, and they all have perfect pert breasts. It’s a little jarring to see characters who are identified almost exclusively by their intellects in the book to all be supermodels in the graphic novel.

          This really comes through in Jordan’s e-mails, provided at the end of the book. In the e-mails, he is correcting errors made by the adaptation team, and frequently has to remind them to de-sexy the female characters. It’s unfortunate that, although he specifically mentions that there should not be any low necklines, and no off-the-shoulder dresses, on several occasions, and yet the final chapter (which I am given to understand was drawn after Jordan’s death) includes them anyway. I guess because he wasn’t there to to reign in the impulse for sexifying any more? It’s a shame.

          That said, I did really like the way that channelling was depicted. I’ve occasionally wondered how a graphic/movie adaptation could handle Weaving, given the way it’s described in the books, and I think they did a really good job.

          The dialogue was okay. They did that weird thing that I’ve noticed in comic books where they bold certain words, and I really don’t understand it. My brain always wants to put more emphasis on those words because they are in bold, but then it interrupts the rhythm of speech.

          I noticed some typos, or perhaps just very poor word choices that made the dialogue more confusing that it needed to be. I think, though I may be wrong, that this occurred more frequently in the final chapter – where the artwork suffered as well. I suspect the two are related.

          In all, I found it an interesting little exercise, as someone who has read most of the Wheel of Time series, to get to revisit part of the story in a different format. I couldn’t recommend it to someone who hadn’t already read the book, however. There’s just too much going on, too many subplots, and the graphic novel just doesn’t really do a very good job of providing backstory. I understand the constraints of the format, but I do think that the adaptation team could have done a better job.

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            Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

            Read: 22 July, 2015

            Anyone who has been following my book reviews for a while knows that I am rather fascinated by Christian fundamentalism, particularly of the Quiverfull variety. So far, I’ve covered Kathryn Joyce’s groundbreaking Quiverfull, as well as the Duggars’ (who popularized the movement through their reality show on the TLC channel) 20 and Counting. I also regularly read blogs like Love, Joy, FeminismBroken DaughtersDefeating the Dragons, and Cynthia Jeub’s new blog. And, of course, Vyckie Garrison’s No Longer Quivering that started it all.

            There’s a sideshow aspect to my fascination, I suppose, because the lifestyle and beliefs really are weird. But far more than that, I think I feel so attracted to these narratives is because of how familiar they are. When I read Garrison’s early posts, I could see her brain working the way mine works, her conclusions trending in the same directions. Had I been exposed to fundamentalist Christianity at certain points of my life, I’m pretty sure that I could have – that I would have fallen into the same traps. So when I read these accounts, it’s with the relief of a narrow miss, and perhaps an inoculation.

            In any case, all this is just to say that I was very intrigued when I heard about Devoted, and I ordered it through my library immediately.

            The book follows Rachel Walker, the second daughter and currently eldest in-house, of a family with eleven children. She is responsible for cooking, laundry, cleaning, teaching, and caring for her younger siblings. She is a mom in all but status – a mom to an industrial-sized family. Things start to change for Rachel when a miscarriage throws her mother into a terrible depression just as Lauren comes back to town.

            I really enjoyed Devoted. At first, I wasn’t too sure about Rachel. I was glad that she wasn’t a transplanted feminist, nor does her epiphany processes seem too easy. She just seemed so very immature, and I worried that it might be due to Mathieu’s poor writing. About a quarter of the way through, however, I realized that quite the opposite was the case. Rachel was immature because of course she was, she has been sheltered her entire life, denied all opportunity to form thoughts of her own. Once she starts thinking, however, she develops beautifully, and it’s wonderful to see that process. Mathieu handles it exquisitely.

            I really enjoyed the depictions of both Lauren and Mark. It would have been very easy to have them there to serve the purpose of progressing Rachel – Lauren could have said all the right things, Mark could have swept her off her feet. In the hands of a lesser writer, that’s exactly what would have happened.

            But Lauren is flawed, and she is still going through the same process as Rachel, albeit farther along and on a different path. And that’s the best part of her character – that she and Rachel are growing differently, coming to different conclusions, yet they are able to learn together and support each other. Seeing Rachel assert herself and firmly explain to Lauren that she can’t go from being under her father’s protection to being under Lauren’s protection was wonderful and very moving.

            I enjoyed the little games Rachel plays with Mark, and his efforts to be conscientious despite her needs being so alien to him. (SPOILERS: I was also very glad that they never kissed or entered into any kind of relationship – I didn’t feel that Rachel was really ready for that yet, even by the end, and it would have seemed somewhat predatory for Mark to approach her in that way while she remains still so innocent and child-like. Developing their friendship, allowing Rachel to learn that it’s okay to be around boys, to be friends with boys, struck just the right tone.)

            Rachel’s experiences are, to use her word, complicated, but Mathieu wisely didn’t make them horrific, though I do think she could have covered the good times a little more – Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism makes a point of talking about her family’s closeness, her good memories, to balance the bad, and Devoted didn’t really have any of that. Apart from Ruth, it didn’t really seem like Rachel had any attachment to her siblings, not even the little ones. I think it would have made her decision to leave her family more painful, and her initial depression more relatable. But that is my only complaint in a book full of great characterization.

            I really enjoyed Devoted. Mathieu made a lot of great choices, and I really had the feeling that I was getting to know the characters – to the point of being a little sad when the book was over because I wouldn’t get to be in their lives any more. She’s managed to provide a lovely companion piece for Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull.

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              Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

              Read: 17 July, 2015

              Sixteen years after Leviticus Blue undermined the city’s banks with his Russian-commissioned Boneshaker machine, Seattle is a very different place. The boring caused a gas to be released from deep underground, corroding whatever it touched and raising the dead as “rotters.” A wall has been built around the city to keep the gas in, but it’s only a matter of time before it comes spilling out.

              In the meantime, Blue’s son, Zeke, ventures under the wall, into the Blight, hoping to find the truth about his father. After an earthquake traps him inside the city, his mother comes in the hopes of rescuing him.

              With airships, fantastical machinery, and zombies, it’s hard to see where Boneshaker could go wrong. Unfortunately, there were a few key issues that prevented me from really liking the book. The first was the over use of coincidence. I can ignore it if it’s used only very occasionally, or if it gets the ball rolling, and it works in a series like The Wheel of Time where it’s explained by the world-building (in that case, it’s the pattern weaving itself toward certain outcomes). But in Boneshaker, major aspects of the plot were directed by coincidence – an earthquake that blocks an exit just when a character goes through a tunnel, an airship crashing into a tower just when a character happens to be inside it, another airship that just happens to be repaired and ready to take off when the characters need to escape, etc. Far too much of the plot relied on these big coincidences, and it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief.

              Overall, it gave the impression that Priest was writing on the fly, coming up with the plot as she went. Sadly, I found the characters suffered from the same problem; I found them very underdeveloped. They are always reacting, getting thrown about the city by circumstances as though they’ve paid for the tour. I was often confused by a decision, which seemed out of what I’d been able to construct of their character, until I realized that it was necessary to get them to the location of the next adventure, or to show us a new area of the city. (SPOILERS: Even the ending, when Briar and Zeke appear to decide to stay in the city where they’ve been miserable and have spent the last few days in a constant state of almost dying, seemed the author’s romanticised vision of the setting rather than anything the characters themselves would have chosen.)

              Many of the side characters seemed interesting at first, until they stuck around long enough for me to realize that Priest had chosen one interesting image for them, and that was it. They had cool armour, or an interesting look, or an implied backstory, but no depth. In fact, the only character that seemed to have any real personality was the setting. Which leads me to the book’s real strength: Seattle.

              There were some anachronisms, but the alternate history provided some cover there. I still always enjoy it when books have a sense of place, and the landmark details certainly did that. Priest also clearly put a good deal of thought into how the city might look in the Blight. The ambiance, with the need to wear gas masks and the moaning of the rotters, was fairly well done, and Priest certainly did a reasonably good job of building tension, except that I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. As long as I could tour the setting along with someone, I found that I really didn’t care much if it was Briar/Zeke, or if they were switched out midstream for some other “guide.”

              The mechanics of writing were mostly solid, but there were some very odd word choices that threw me. One that stood out in particular was the use of the word “for” instead of something more conventional, like “because.” It’s oddly archaic, and stands out from the text around it. I noticed the same thing in Huntress, and it bugged me there, too.

              My final gripe is about the ending. The plot structure is what could be described as an “onion” plot, in which the real goal is the discovery of a piece of information – in this case, what happened with the Boneshaker machine. The question is raised at the very beginning, with a reporter approaching Briar for information, and it is finally answered at the very end. Unfortunately, the answer that had all the characters guessing, and at least one character risking his life and the lives of others to uncover, was almost immediately obvious. I read the whole book knowing the ending’s big reveal, and my disappointment was dampened only by the fact that Priest seemed to care as little about it as I did. Sadly, it came with a missed opportunity, as I think that much more could have been made of the connection between Angeline’s daughter and Briar, if only the characters had had a little more depth to them.

              I found this to be a fun fluff book, and the setting is certainly interesting enough to make it worth reading. It could have been a lot better, though, and it’s a shame that the characters and plot weren’t able to better complement the location.

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                Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

                Room on the Broom is a delightful story about a witch riding around on a broom with her cat. Three times, she accidentally drops an item, and it is retrieved for her by a new animal who asks for a spot on the broom (and, of course, there is room). However, when the broom breaks, the witch is chased by a hungry dragon, until her new friends scare it away. They then make a new, and even better broom, together and fly off.

                I really enjoyed reading this to my son. The words are fantastic, with a very upbeat, musical rhythm that made it lots of fun to read. The characters are also distinctive enough that I found it very easy to come up with unique voices for each.

                The artwork looks simplistic, but gorgeous, at first, but there’s actually a fair bit going on in the background (usually to do with animals who react to the events of the story without being acknowledged by the text). The artwork is very colourful, and the character faces are expressive. My son enjoyed looking through them and telling me his own stories inspired by the background details.

                Room on the Broom is a well-rounded, quality children’s picture book.

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                  Adventures in writing

                  I haven’t done much writing of my own for a long time (blog posts and e-mails excluded). There’s always something getting in the way – a job, dirty dishes, children requiring attention…

                  But over the last few years, I’ve slowly and tortuously managed to write a novel-length piece of fiction. This is a pretty Big Deal for me. Growing up, I always had my verbal/writing skills praised, and this was couched in terms of intelligence. Even as an 11 or 12 year old, I can remember a specific incident of putting a writing project away and deciding not to continue because I feared that it wasn’t perfect enough, that anyone who read it would decide that everyone had been wrong all along and I would be exposed as the unintelligent fraud I had always been. Since then, I’ve found writing extremely difficult. I would start a project, get midway through my first draft (which is about where the initial euphoria of inspiration starts to wear out), realize that what I was writing was the kind of thing only an unintelligent person would write, and give up.

                  So being able to stick with a project for so long (and to actually reach an end, no less!) is a very big step for me.

                  Even bigger was letting anyone see it.

                  In addition to my concerns about appearing unintelligent, I also worried about what I might accidentally reveal about my private psyche. My main character is a lot like me, in both personality and formative experiences. Even though the situation she’s placed in is entirely fictional (there’s magic and vampires, so rather out of my realm of experience), her perceptions of those events are very much mine. And very much private. They are the things I would perhaps rather no one know that I secretly think about them.

                  I had to close my eyes when I hit “send,” but I did it. And it took me a week after getting the first review back before I was finally able to open it and look.

                  As worked up as I had made myself, the comments my reviewer left really weren’t that bad! Still, it’s quite a process to dissociate myself as I read. There are times when I play around with words or grammar, when I invent words that have the right feel for what I need, when I omit punctuation to convey a particular messiness of thought, that my reviewer didn’t grok at all. Worse, she thought them errors, and so I appear unintelligent.

                  But I expected those feelings, and the week I took before opening her comments document was precisely intended to prepare myself, to get into the right frame of mind to read her comments impersonally.

                  What I didn’t expect was her disbelief at several details of my main character’s past. These events, she writes (I paraphrase), wouldn’t happen like that. Couldn’t happen like that. Yet they would and could, and I know that because they did. The parts she found most unbelievable were the parts I had borrowed from my own experiences.

                  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I found it upsetting, so much as unsettling.

                  In any case, I’m glad that I went through the exercise, as painful as it was. I feel looser now, somehow, like I’ve already been for a swim in the deep end so there’s nothing to fear from the kiddy pool. I’m already excited to work on a final draft, incorporating the comments I’ve received (and I need to re-write the denouement, which is bloody awful right now), and then to move on to something new.

                  I’m also incredibly proud of myself just for finishing. Good or not, I did it, I wrote a novel. If I die tomorrow, my eulogy could honestly call me a novelist. I am brimming.

                    Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

                    Read: 29 June 2015

                    As with Starship TroopersStranger offers up a buffet of thoughts and philosophies, provoking quite a bit of introspection, if not agreement. The premise of the novel is that a human born and raised on Mars is brought back to earth, juxtaposing human (mainly North American, but there are smatterings of Islam) culture to the fictional Martian way of thinking. Much of the difference, it seems, stems from humans having two biological sexes, while the Martians have only one.

                    The problem, the same problem I had with Starship Troopers, is that some pretty awful things are presented as Truth, delivered by characters who are set up all-knowing (or close enough) Truth Tellers, without even so much as the balance of a dissenting voice. In Starship Troopers, what stood out the most for me was the proposition that we could solve our social ills by reinstating corporal punishment (from babyhood and into adulthood). Here, my big issue had to do with the novel’s attitudes toward women.

                    Women are treated rather atrociously throughout the novel. There are brief moments where Heinlein seems close to acknowledging this, such as when he has Jill bristle at being called “little lady” by Digby (and Harshaw underlines the point by bringing it up again, mocking Digby by using the term himself). This comes so close to being a condemnation of the casual infantilizing of women that was so common in the 50s and 60s. The problem is that Digby is far from the only character who does this (and his “crime” seems to be more the awkward repetition of the phrase, rather than its use in the first place). Throughout the novel, women are referred to as “little girl” (and equivalent terms), and generally treated like some odd cross between child and servant.

                    But the true shocker is when Jill claims that, 9 times out of 10, women are at least partially to blame if they get raped. This is presented as instructional, teaching Mike (the “man from Mars”) about The Way Things Are, and the statement is never challenged. It is simply dropped as a logical and accurate observation, one that anyone other than a cultural newborn like Mike would know, if they gave it any thought.

                    Even once we get to the nest stage of the novel, where Mike becomes a messiah figure leading his disciples in what is presented as a perfect human state, when the male and female characters are at their most equal, the banter still reveals deep prejudices. As do the assumptions made by the characters, and how many of the duties are arranged (it is women who do the bulk of the “service” work, such as running Harshaw’s bath).

                    The problem, as with the issue of corporal punishment in Starship Troopers, is that Heinlein presents himself as a philosophical forward thinker, capable of seeing through the cultural prejudices that blind most people. And yet, when it comes to certain issues, he seems just as unwilling to consider alternatives as anyone else.

                    The issue of homosexuality in Strangers (and in Heinlein’s broader body of work) is a much more complicated discussion. On the surface, Strangers seems as indisposed to challenge the social mores of the 50s and 60s with regards to homosexuality as it is with regards to women.

                    There main pull-quotes are:

                    1. Jill is very concerned that Mike, being from genderless Mars, might not know not to accept advances from gay men, so she issues a rule against it. She is relieved that Mike chooses men for his inner circle who are very masculine (and women who are very feminine), emphasizing both her ideal of sexual binarism and her distaste for homosexuality.
                    2. When Mike allows Jill to see women through a man’s eyes – as sexual objects – she is relieved to find that she goes back to viewing women in a non-sexual way once she sees them through her own eyes again. The narrator says that “to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much.” While the argument might be made that this is all from Jill’s perspective, a remnant of her somewhat conservative upbringing, the view is never challenged (even though Jill’s views in other areas are being challenged in nearly every scene in which she appears – first by Harshaw, then by Mike).
                    3. When Ben tells Harshaw of his visit to the nest, he is forced to admit that, in the nest, men kiss men. This, he assures Harshaw, is “not a pansy gesture.” Harshaw then talks about the Kiss of Brotherhood, and a fair amount of effort is put into reassuring themselves and the reader that there is nothing homosexual about the expressions of physical intimacy between men in the context of Water Brothers.

                    But then there are hints of a more accepting perspective. Jill is no Lesbian, we are assured, yet her Kiss of Brotherhood with Patty is described as “greedy.” Not only that, but men are expressing physical intimacy with each other, and frequently doing so while completely naked. Like I said, it’s a complicated issue, and one that I don’t feel prepared to parse out. I did manage to find a good article on Strange Horizons that tackles the issue. 

                    My final complaint about the novel is that Harshaw feels far too much like an author insert. He is an outsider, a prime mover, and he is a dispenser of wisdom through nearly the whole book. His role is almost exclusively to drop down into the other characters’ lives, tell them everything they’ve been doing wrong, deliver snippets of great wisdom, and swoop back into the sky. Pages upon pages are devoted to his rants, and all the other characters fawn over his superior logic and wisdom. At one point, a character exclaims that Harshaw is the only person to be capable of groking Mike’s mysteries without first having learned to speak Martian. It’s not until the very end that he is taken by surprise, and then it’s only to pump up Mike’s own specialness and to set Harshaw up as his spiritual successor.

                    The novel feels rather uneven, divided into two (arguably three) very clear parts that struggle to fit together as a whole. Still, I found the novel very interesting and thought-provoking, despite its flaws.

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