Mostly Unsurprised

Yesterday I took time off from housecleaning chores to finish Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War. It seemed incredibly apposite reading, given the American greased-slide into fascism. (Which I hope will be arrested, but it’s looking less and less likely.)

When an enraged Hitler Youth leader wrote to Rainier Schlosser, Goebbels’s head of theatres, denouncing the city’s Schauspielhaus as a ‘hotbed of reactionary sentiment’, it was Schlosser himself who explained that ‘theatres with a pronounced liberal atmosphere are essential because they cater for a certain section of the audience and ensure that [these people] ultimately remain under our control.’ (Stargardt, The German War, p410)

This led me, of course, to think of the “furor” over Pence being booed at Hamtilton. Which propelled me down an interesting mental road, classifying der Turmper as a somewhat accidental dictator with no real ideological fixation except self-aggrandizement. I have often wondered, if der Turmper didn’t exist, would the GOP eventually have had to create him? Der Turmper has no constellation of talent that he shares an ideology with to perform the services classical fascism depends on. Consider that Breitbart fellow, Bannon: he is, at best, a shabby bargain-basement imitation of Goebbels, not a pioneering propagandist in his own right.

I keep filtering news, movies, Twitterstorms, and much other media through a wad of “is this an opiate for the masses?” and being unable to decide. Then I wonder if that very confusion means the slide into fascism is accelerating, because it’s enough to overwhelm and paralyse.

Another aspect of the book was the sheer amount of projection authoritarians engage in. I understand it’s a very important part of the authoritarian mindset and personality, but the gigantic, endemic proportions continue to surprise me. (Related: Believe the authoritarian when they tell you what they’re going to do.) Again and again, the Nazi rulership accused its opponents, domestic and foreign, of the exact things it had already done or was planning to do. I don’t quite have the patience or the stomach to delve into American exceptionalism and the projection that accrues from such, but I cannot think it’s dissimilar.

What also surprised me was the amount of internal emigration, not just by intellectuals or artists, but by regular diary and letter writers. The problems and tensions of such emigration–and the conditions that make it an attractive or necessary option for survival–are particularly resonant. Just the sheer amount of ugliness and “what has that apricot narcissist done now” swimming around in the news is enough to make me want to retreat, to curl up in a ball and hope the storm will pass me by. Selfish? Probably. Tempting? Certainly. Fighting the urge takes emotional energy. No wonder people got tired and retreated. Engaging day after day, even just signal-boosting, becomes a burden. If one has the luxury, the privilege of internal emigration, one can easily mistake it for self-care.

Stargardt’s prose is finely tuned and his authorial voice manages not to shy away from the horrors he has to pitilessly show. Sometimes his disgust is palpable, yet his tone never wavers. It must have been exhausting to write, and it was exhausting to read and feel the shock of recognition over and over again. I see the same shifts in private conversations, the same shifts in propaganda, the very same excuses being used today as were used in the 30s and 40s. The signposts are all there; the only thing missing are guns and tanks on American soil. I’m still absorbing the thought that if there isn’t an existential threat (like Russia’s invasion of Germany after Germany’s 1941 almost-went-all-the-way invasion of Russia), fascists will create one; Trump’s neuroses and the GOP’s pandering to hatred has done its best to Frankenstein one together. (“Immigrants! They’re Taking Away Our Things!”)

I’ve gone straight from Stargardt to Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. The differences are only outweighed by the parallels. People are the same the world over, and the scourges of war, ethnic hatred, and authoritarianism are too. It’s not a particularly comforting thought right now, but at least I feel a little more prepared. After reading history, I am doomed to watch others repeat it, but at least I will be mostly unsurprised.

With that charming thought, I shall bid you adieu for the day. These copyedits aren’t gonna review themselves. Although sometimes I wish they would…

The State of the (Reading) Lili


It was a long weekend, my friends. The best part was Quasi-Surprise Houseguests, and the kids got to go see Fantastic Beasts. I did not want to go–I’m all Pottered out, I think. Besides, putting Eddie Redmayne (and his lips) in everything is beginning to wear on my nerves a bit. He’s a good actor, but I’ve reached full saturation on him for a while. But hey, the kids liked it! I’m told it’s very visually stunning.

Instead, I spent the movie evening at home with Mann’s Death in Venice, finishing it the next morning as I stood in my office, spellbound. I’d never read any Mann before, and this was the Heim translation, which I’m told differs significantly from an older one. Now I suspect I’ll have to compare/contrast translations. It’s sad that I can’t read it in the original, a German-speaking friend tells me the sentences are marvelous bits of architecture.

I went straight from that into a book on the Korean War, but I bounced off that pretty quickly. There was a passage of breathtaking racism, not from an interview but from the author, and that killed it for me. I’ve moved on to Reza Aslan’s Zealot and Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed; the former is extremely readable and I’m hoping the latter will scratch my itch for something similar to Sir Walter Scott.

My bedtime reading, however, is Schom’s The Eagle and the Rising Sun, which is also eminently readable. Schom has an eye for human details, and though at least one reviewer got snitty about it, I enjoy my history with such little pleats and finishes sprinkled through. I hadn’t quite realized what an asshole MacArthur was in the Second World War. In the First he was a hero, there is no doubt. In the Second, well. Schom is clear about the old-boy network that protected MacArthur from the consequences of his actions, compounding the error and basically spitting on those who died as a direct result of his malfeasance and arrogance.

My Civil War research for Afterwar has reached a bit of a snag. I was halfway through Stampp on slavery in the antebellum South, but I had to lay that aside for a little bit. Current events make it even more stomach-churning than normal. Maybe when I finish the Manzoni I’ll be able to handle it emotionally. I think I have enough stuffed in my head that I just need to let it bubble and start finding my handholds inside the shape of the story itself. Later I’ll research for specifics and work my way through the backlog, but I need a breath or two before the plunge, so to speak.

I started logging my reading in an Excel spreadsheet a couple years back. It sometimes provides a necessary spur, but my inability to make charts of the information is maddening. It’s not Excel’s fault, it’s a function of my own complete non-understanding of even the most basic spreadsheet things, which drives me even crazier. I dislike being awful at things (who doesn’t?) and it would be nice to see, for example, how male and female authors stack up in my yearly reading total. So far this year, I’ve only finished forty-four books, but in my defense, that includes monstrous ones like War & Peace and Foote’s Civil War trilogy. I’d love to go at the moderate pace of a book a week, but life interferes. *sigh*

For now, it’s Monday, and that means a run and the creation of more words. I was able to luxuriate in reading for the past two days, but now it’s back to producing. Fueled, the engine inside my head is already at a high rev. It’s time for Callas singing Medea and some initial wordcount before I run to jar the rest of the day’s work loose.

Over and out.

War and Euphemism

I took a break from reading Foote on the Civil War to read a few books on Marines in the Pacific during WWII. I’ve since finished Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, and last night started Robert Leckie’s Helmet For My Pillow. Very early on in the latter, I came across probably the greatest paragraph I’ve ever read in a military memoir.

Always there was the word. Always there was that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing; an insulting word, it was never used to insult; crudely descriptive of the sexual act, it was never used to describe it; base, it meant the best; ugly, it modified beauty; it was the name and nomenclature of the voice of emptiness, but one heard it from chaplains and captains, from Pfc.’s and Ph.D.’s—until, finally, one could only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting. (Robert Leckie, Helmet For My Pillow)

It reminds me of “The Proper Use of English Word Fuck“. Sledge, bless him, could not bring himself to write about the military habit of blasphemy, and Leckie had to content himself with euphemism to describe it. But what euphemism! The structure alone of the marvelous paragraph above delights me, with its call and response, its tension of opposites resolved in a single blaring call of hilarity.

I plan on reading some James Jones too, even though novels are not quite good for me to read while writing one. Reading fiction feels like work when you’re writing it, and it can exhaust one’s slender leftover resources after a day of chipping words free of the cranium. I feel like reaching for a red pen if I read too much fiction during my writing stage or when revisions heat up. I read a lot more nonfiction because I don’t feel the urge to edit or dissect the prose inside my head. (Unless, of course, it’s egregiously bad.) The memoirs kind of straddle that line, but they’re what the Muse wants right now, and what that bitch wants she gets.

I had to put the Foote Civil War books down after reading about a raider pulling up to a Yankee whaling ship that had just killed a whale and was harvesting the fat. The raider took the crew prisoner and fired the ship and the whale’s carcass, which made my stomach turn. A useless death of a beautiful, noble creature, murdered and set afire on the sea. It’s to Foote’s credit that his description of such things is so powerful, but it turned my stomach and I had to take a break. Reading about the waves of horses dying in battle or ridden to pieces on raids is difficult, too. War is a brutal fucking waste.

Anyway, I’m deep in the first flush of honeymoon writing, working on a book that will never be sold. I should be concentrating on a paying project, but I’m stealing time to write something for my beloved agent, and enjoying the hell out of it. I love the books that grow organically from a single hallucinatory scene best, but a close second are the books I do for my writing partner or my agent because I love them and want them happy. It feels good to give a gift.

Now, after a lunch of triple-ginger gingersnaps and very cold milk, it’s back to work.

In Which I Enjoy a Problematic Movie

So yesterday I played hooky after a doctor’s appointment and went to see Legend of Tarzan. It was serviceable–I have a thing for the Tarzan story, even though Burroughs is problematic as fuck. Margot Robbie was a decent Jane, and the CGI was great. Skarsgard looked fluid and very lithe, and clearly liked Robbie a lot. Their pairing had chemistry. It was Samuel L. Jackson and Skarsgard who had the most screen time together, and their chemistry is pretty brilliant. I would love a Jackson/Skarsgard buddy movie. HOLLYWOOD, GET ON THAT.

As for the rest of it, well, it’s a Magical Honky[1] Film based on a huge series of Magical Honky Books, so it’s not going to be anything other than–you guessed it–problematic. And oh, that source material! Before going in, I skimmed the original Tarzan one and two, and rolled my eyes in all the usual places.

I wouldn’t mind seeing a film about the early stages of Tarzan and Jane’s relationship, with Skarsgard and Robbie on deck. That’s what I’m really into the Tarzan thing for, and while I got a bit of it here, there was much more roller derby and not a lot of girlfriend. Which is okay, I like roller derby.

All in all, it did exactly what I wanted it to do, even though I winced at all the Magical Honky tropes.

So today it’s back to work. I’m glad I listened to my writing partner, who said, “THIS IS TOTALLY YOUR NARRATIVE CRACK, GO SEE IT AND ENJOY IT FA CRY-EYE.” I have been hitting the “work work and nothing else” button a little hard lately. Sinking back into the Cormorant Run world is…strange, and a little disconcerting. It came out of my head in such a rush, all its sharp edges tearing, and those places inside my skull are still tender. I keep flinching, having to force myself to look at what happens next, because I know things just get worse for pretty much every character, and now I’m really slowing down and describing the “worse.”

I needed a little restoration, and a little time off from the discomfort. Now it’s time to get back into the fray.

Over and out.

[1] This is the trope where a white boy is Better and Faster and Braver and More Super than any of the darker-skinned people he’s raised by/rescued by/comes into contact with, and ends up ruling them. The darker-skinned people are often, in this trope, conflated with animals/savagery somehow, which makes the whole thing patronizing as well as racist.

REVIEW: The Vegetarian


I read a review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian not so long ago, and was intrigued enough to pick it up. I read it all in one sitting–well, mostly, with only a short break to make and consume dinner with the Little Prince–and, when I had finished, felt as if my interior space, physical as well as psychic, had been violently pummeled and made larger by the experience. The writing, translated by Deborah Smith (who also translated Kang’s Human Acts) is stunning, simple, and incandescent.

The book centers on Yeong-hye, a young Korean wife who has a disturbing dream one night and consequently refuses to eat meat. But that’s a little like saying The Metamorphosis is about bugs. The Vegetarian is densely layered and extremely brutal in the way only true things can be.

The structure of the book is interesting–three interlinked novella-length sections, each told from a different point of view. The first is told Yeong-hye’s husband, the second by her brother-in-law, and the third by Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. If that seems odd, you’re right–we are given almost nothing from Yeong-hye’s point of view except two very short passages that might or might not detail the “disturbing dream” that sets the entire book in motion. Those passages could be read as her husband Mr Cheong’s imagining what the dream might have been, and that’s only the first of several layers of contrasting interpretation, meaning, and allegory.

At first, The Vegetarian seems to be about the dissolution of Yeong-hye’s marriage, since she not only steadfastly refuses to eat meat but also to wear a bra. She simply Bartleby the Scriveners her way out of both things, simply, quietly refusing to ingest what she doesn’t want to or confine her breasts. Mr Cheong, having married her thinking she was absolutely ordinary Korean housewife material, is alternately ashamed of and infuriated by his inability to “control” her the way Korean society thinks he should and he has come to expect. Mirroring his fury is Yeong-hye’s father, who at one violent family dinner tries to assert a right over what his (until now passive and obedient) daughter will do with her body. Young-hye’s resistance is largely passive and turned inward–since patriarchal strictures hem her in so thoroughly, the only way she can opt out is through refusal and, eventually, self-harm.

The middle third of the book shifts to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist who allows her sister In-hye to support him while he’s “blocked” creatively. He’s obsessed with using Yeong-hye’s body as a canvas for one of his works, and the attempt to do so destroys his marriage as well. Paradoxically, his obsession gives us an insight into what Yeong-hye might actually want, although in the following section, we find out she may have still been heavily medicated all during the interactions and thus robbed of even that small measure of consent or agency.

The last third of the book is where everything is truly ripped open and The Vegetarian ascends to the level of a masterpiece. Everything leading up to it has been filtered through male perceptions and a patriarchal search for control of a female body, as well as the violence that ensues on several levels when said female body (not to mention the female owning it) refuses even tacitly. Yeong-hye’s sister visits her in a psychiatric hospital, and the unflinching examination of the stripping away of Yeong-hye’s bodily autonomy by the medical personnel is only part of the agonizing pain. In-hye has done everything “right” and been a model child, wife, and mother, and yet she’s in desperate agony. In-hye is forced to examine her relationship with her sister, the cruelty of their upbringing, and the pressures on women in Korean society. Wondering if her sister’s methods of coping with said cruelty and pressure are any better or less self-destructive than her own is a powerful question, one In-hye can barely bring herself to articulate, much less face.

The complexity of In-hye’s emotions around the caretaking of her sister and her son, the utter betrayal of her husband, and the emotional labor she performs for her family, all hit me right in the solar plexus. Realizing, once I had finished, that I had identified so thoroughly with In-hye that I had come to regard her sister as a symbol just as Mr Cheong and In-hye’s husband had was a nasty shock. Colluding in the strictures that attempt to rob women of bodily autonomy is almost impossible to avoid in most of the world, and Kang deftly performs the almost-impossible trick of implicating everyone, even the reader, in the violence of trying to make Yeong-hye conform. Not only that, but the allegory of the pressures on women in Korean society is so stunning that it also eclipses her, implicating the reader even more thoroughly.

I suspect I have not done this book half the justice I want to. It went straight back on my to-be-read pile for another go once my head has cleared, which is not at all usual. I feel like I have to go back and reread, maybe to try and find Yeong-hye under all the differing perceptions of her, maybe just to marvel at the sheer effortlessness with which Kang piles on and pulls away different layers of meaning. I also want to find Kang’s other work and devour it whole, which will either have to be through interlibrary loan or maybe selling some plasma to pad out my book budget next month.

TL;DR: Simply amazing, completely savage, and well worth buying in hardcover.

Back to Work

I get to go back to work today! I get to revise Cormorant Run! Everything is itching under my skin from trying like hell to take a few days off. I know I needed it–my head was not a pleasant place to hang about, last week, being full of the noise and clamor of the internal engines winding down. But it was unpleasant.

I did finish reading a couple books, though. The best of them was Sarah Wise’s Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England. Wise is an auto-buy for me, everything she does is a cracking good read and backed up with well-organized notes. Her bibliographies and appendices are things of beauty, too. You can feel her joy in history radiating from the page.

Her observations near the end of the book about the mid-twentieth century’s use of the Victorian concepts of “lunacy” or “moral insanity” and the connections to eugenics were startling and thought-provoking. She ends with saying that’s another book, and I devoutly hope she’s writing it.

Next up on my list is the Norton Critical edition of Brothers Karamazov, as well as Judith Herrin’s history of Byzantium. The latter has some problems, true. My eyebrows have nested in my hairline at some of the typos, as well as Herrin’s extremely evident good-feelings towards Christianity somewhat muddying the analytical waters. For all that, it’s a good general introduction to Byzantium, though not as magisterial and readable as John Julius Norwich’s work on the Eastern Roman Empire, which I reread every now and again, generally after I’ve had another bout with Gibbon.

I am pleased to report Miss B’s leg is doing well, too. I am still not taking her on runs, or even on gentle walks. The problem seems to be a muscle sprain just below her ankle, and that needs to be good and healed before she can chase anything down the hall or go on walkies. The poor thing is beside herself with impatience, and I can’t blame her. I feel the same way when an injury sidelines me. However, many snuggles and plenty of canine massage to help the healing process seems to be a somewhat (if not thoroughly) acceptable substitute. This morning she even scrambled after Fearless!Cat, who had come upstairs to investigate whether the dog bowls had leftover bacon grease suitable for feline snacking and hairball-easing.

After I revise Cormorant I need to make some decisions about which project to finish next. I’m thinking it will have to be Afterwar, my near-future Band of Brothers homage crossed with mutation and maybe, if I can shoehorn it in, some cyborg action. It’s still in the planning stages, but it’s a trilogy, and I feel like sinking my teeth into a series after finishing a spate of stand-alone books. This particular project scares the hell out of me, because it is big and there are so many ways it could go wrong. But it’s the type of terror that makes me fiercely determined to do my best to pull it off.

And that’s all the news from this corner of the world, except for an upcoming event at a local bookstore (more on that later) and Odd Trundles’s perennial quest to hoover up any item anyone in the house drops on the principle that sooner or later it will be something edible. This weekend he almost gobbled my phone, two sets of earbuds, a handful of cabbage meant for the cavy, a few catalogs, and a tube of rose-scented hand lotion. Thank God I’ve been rolling high on every “grab that before the dog gets it” interaction. Training for multiple years with toddlers has finally paid off.

Over and out.

REVIEW: Life and Fate

Life and Fate This last weekend I finished Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’d heard of Grossman several times, of course–along with Ehrenburg he was the Soviet war correspondent of World War II’s Eastern Front. Or, as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. (Ehrenburg would disagree with Grossman sharing his pedestal, I suppose. But I don’t.)

Grossman survived the war and even outlived Stalin, despite the latter’s vicious, senile anti-Semitism. Khrushchev, while not allowing Life and Fate (and other Grossman works) to be published, didn’t send him off to a camp or to the Lubyanka. (Small mercies, I guess.)

Life and Fate follows the Shaposnikov family and their circle, in various parts of the Soviet Union, through the siege of Stalingrad. The echoes of War and Peace are intentional, and indeed Grossman struggles with Tolstoy’s philosophy as well as his literary achievements. (Thankfully, though, he doesn’t betray a Sonya. He gets sort-of-close with Yevgenia Shaposhnikova, though.) His sort-of-protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, is part of the Shaposhnikovs through marrying Lyudmila; it is Grossman’s focusing on the women of that family that gives the book much of its strength. Even though Viktor is to a large extent Grossman’s authorial insert, it is the women who hold the book together, just as it’s the women who are always left to rebuild after the men kill each other in massive quantities.

Several times during the book, women are shown as more capable, more durable than men, and it is the “old peasant woman” in her many forms who holds society–such as it is under totalitarianism–together. There is the old woman holding a brick, who the observers clearly expect to bash the brains out of a German prisoner after the fall of Stalingrad. When she chooses something else, despite herself, Grossman’s own surprise is palpable. His habit as a journalist of describing what he actually sees despite it going against whatever preconceptions he may have is also palpable, and it made me enjoy myself despite some of the more wrenching parts.

What Grossman does best, really, is show the compromises–emotional, physical, spiritual, and in every other way–and the mind-numbing fear of living under totalitarianism. Viktor, after enduring the terror of waiting to be arrested by the NKVD, is suddenly restored to “citizenship” and grace because his scientific work helps the nascent Soviet nuclear program, and Stalin has just realized the utility of the latter. Once he is “redeemed” in the eyes of the State, he is presented with an awful quandary, asked to commit a betrayal. After sticking up for the “right” thing earlier in the book and suffering that completely devastating fear of arrest and reprisal, well.

People get tired, and they have to make choices under that fatigue.

Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed–while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end. Life and Fate, p. 840

During the war, Soviet citizens had a hope of freedom. The state and Stalinism relaxed their iron grip in order to save its own skin, because terrified slaves don’t fight as well. Many believed that after the war, the arrests and repression would stop. That was part of what they were paying for in blood and pain and sorrow.

Needless to say, the repression began again just as soon as the German siege of Stalingrad was broken. Stalin had no intention of allowing the terror that kept him in power to fade, even if it was tactically sound to loosen the strangling fingers temporarily.

Grossman’s eviscerations of Fascism sprinkled through the book both highlight the brutality of genocide on the Eastern Front as well as, more subtly, the brutality inherent in Soviet totalitarianism. He doesn’t quite explicitly state that the difference between the two dictatorships is only cosmetic–and what Soviet writer could? But the comparison is there. Fighting an evil does not automatically make one good, Grossman seems to be saying, and that is a distinction often (if not always) lost in the heat of ideology.

If there is a way out of the tangle of bloodshed and fear, Grossman says, it is kindness.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. Life and Fate, p. 410

Of course, the character reading the above passage is in a concentration camp, he’s a diehard Soviet reading a “mad priest’s ravings.” The tension between this small hope and the evidence all around Grossman and his characters of man’s inhumanity to man is overwhelming. Grossman was Jewish, and one of the first to report on the death camps. Viktor Shtrum’s mother–a Jewish woman in Eastern Europe–dies, and Viktor’s grief is palpable. The effects of anti-Semitism, a cancer in Soviet Russia just as in Nazi Germany, is a poisonous aquifer in the book. Grossman, no doubt, saw enough of it to fill him to the back teeth.

Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of–I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of. Life and Fate, p. 484

A neater–and truer–example of projection can rarely be found. Our own modern bigots and xenophobes do the same. If it’s not Jews, it’s Muslims, immigrants, what-have-you. Plus ca change

Reading Life and Fate was a marathon. Several times I had to set the book aside and take a deep breath. The tearing pain of bearing witness bleeds through the pages, made worse by the fact that Grossman saw the horror personally and could not bring himself to look away. I deeply respect that. He was also smart–and empathetic–enough to untangle the feelings of those who believed in Stalin or Communism, who had to believe or who could not imagine anything else. He didn’t shy away from the tragedy of the informer or the NKVD torturer as well as the victims, or the tragedy of those caught between and simply trying to survive from day to day.

Betrayed by his own state all his life, his books “arrested” and his own body failing him with stomach cancer in 1964, Grossman died without knowing that Life and Fate (and Everything Flows, his later book) would be smuggled out and published in the West in 1980, finally seeing publication in his own country in 1988. One suspects that as a journalist Grossman might have felt vindicated. And one can further suspect what he’d think of Russia’s current dictator-lite. Many thanks are due to Vladimir Voinovich and Andrei Sakharov for keeping the faith–and the manuscript–safe and bringing it out to breathe freely.

Wherever Grossman is now, I hope he can rest comfortably. He earned it.