The original tells of Orpheus and Eurydice and the story of her death, but focuses on Orpheus and his efforts to locate her and bring her back to the world of the living.
Sarah Ruhl‘s Eurydice focuses on what happens to Eurydice in the Underworld.
She dies on her wedding day, kidnapped by the Lord of the Underground who promises her a letter from her dead father.
She arrives, confused and with no memory of life among the living. Her father, who has never forgotten her, finds her and together they rebuild her memories.
Meanwhile, Orpheus tries everything he can think of to get to the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife. His music makes the gatekeepers weep, and he is let in to bargain for her return. There’s a condition for her departure, Orpheus mustn’t turn back. Turning in response to hearing his name called, Eurydice is sent back to the Underworld, where she dies a second time.
San Jose’s City Lights Theatre Company’s bilingual performances in American Sign Language and English provided an exquisite twist to the usual theatre production. Each character was portrayed both by an English and an ASL speaker. The ASL actors made it a sort of play within a play, interacting with their English speaking counterpart and each other. CLTC’s intimate setting is a perfect place to see small productions like this.
It’s been about a week since I attended and I’m still struggling with how to write about it. The theme of love, both filial and romantic made me tear up in unexpected ways. As did themes of memory and communication. To be loved that much, to be cared for that deeply, to be led back to memories and learn better communication … I found it moving, unsettling, challenging, and thought-provoking.
Most memorable for me is Lauren Rhodes as the English speaking Eurydice, whose shouted, “I’m very angry at you!” made me proud. Women are so rarely allowed to show their anger, that to allow Eurydice to express hers is a high note. It’s one that sticks with me even now.
And I must mention Erik Gandolfi (English) and Dane K. Lentz (ASL) who perform the Lord of the Underworld with unhinged glee. Gandolfi’s costume in the underworld features a school boys’ uniform with short pants and a bright red jacket. The eerie little boys’ voice made this performance all the more chilling.
After Orpheus loses Eurydice the second time, he stands at the threshold to the world of the living expressing his anguish and grief. In a cross talk dialogue, he says, “Your timing was always off! I would tell you that if you didn’t come in on the downbeat, you’d lose everything.”
Meanwhile, Eurydice stands in the Underground shouting, “I’m sorry!”
Stephanie Foisy (ASL) added a poignant dimension to the already distraught Orpheus, portrayed by the English speaking Robert Sean Campbell.
As I left, tears in my eyes and my heart filled with unprocessed emotion, I walked past a table with pieces of paper and pens made available for anyone who wanted to write a note to someone who’d died. It occurred to me that I didn’t really get to say a proper goodbye to the friend I’d known for over 30 years who died from cancer nearly five years ago. So I stopped and wrote a little note to him.
Out into the bright Sunday afternoon light, I tried to make sense of how such a performance could have a profound effect on me. A week later, I’m still sorting it out but no longer hurting as deeply as I was then. Emotions wax and wane, it’s their nature. We just gotta hold on for the roller coaster ride.
Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
Title: Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth
Author: Stephen F. Knott
Publisher: University Press of Kansas
Publisher’s Blurb: …explores the shifting reputation of our most controversial founding father. Since the day Aaron Burr fired his fatal shot, Americans have tried to come to grips with Alexander Hamilton’s legacy. Stephen Knott surveys the Hamilton image in the minds of American statesmen, scholars, literary figures, and the media, explaining why Americans are content to live in a Hamiltonian nation but reluctant to embrace the man himself.
“The image of Hamilton fashioned by Jefferson and his allies has endured and flourished, and the Hamilton of American memory is a Hamilton who championed privilege and who was a foe of liberty.” (Knott, p. 26)
Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Stephen F. Knott’s Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth offer a unique insight to both the man, and the legend of the man.
And while I have pondered long and hard about how to write about Hamilton without turning into a Thomas Jefferson bashing machine, it is difficult to talk about one without the other. Thanks to Jefferson and his network of devoted mouthpieces, Hamilton’s reputation remains in tatters centuries after the founding of the US.
That it took a musical based on Chernow’s book to address, and repair, Hamilton’s reputation is a statement on how deeply entrenched lies and rumors become. It’s also a statement on how easy it is to believe the worst in people instead of looking for the best.
Not that Hamilton was a complete paragon of virtue, and could, “at moments of supreme stress, … screw himself up to an emotional pitch that was nearly feverish in intensity.” (Chernow, p. 115) It is hard to imagine how a man with such an towering intellect could have so many blind spots, and be so stupid.
Soaring blind spots seem to go hand in hand with towering intellect. Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and James Madison, all seemed to be intimidated by Hamilton’s intellect. “The byzantine, interrelated nature of his programs (e.g. central banking, professional standing military, international trade with Britain) made him all the more the bane and terror of his opponents.” (Chernow, p. 349)
Nuance, and the lack of understanding thereof, is the two-edged blade of smart people everywhere. It’s baffling how so many around us just don’t understand what we think is an easy idea. “… things were so blindingly self-evident to Hamilton that he was baffled when others didn’t grasp them quickly – an intellectual agility that could breed intolerance for less quick-witted mortals.” (Chernow, p. 119)
Knott picks up this thread, “At bottom, Jefferson could not countenance the fact that an immigrant upstart without the appropriate pedigree … dared challenge him.” (Knott, p. 11)
Jefferson presented the image of a down-home gentleman farmer who understood the agrarian slave-holding farmers of Virginia. He came from wealth, owned property and was a slaveholder. That the bastard child of poverty from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean should rise up and challenge him was more than Jefferson could tolerate.
As is also sometimes true of very smart people, Hamilton was not a crafty plotter and “often could not muzzles his opinions.” (Chernow, p. 176) The myth which has stuck to Hamilton most is that the people are a “great beast,” not to be trusted with direct democracy.
Hamilton was right, but there’s a nuance long missed by his detractors. Trusting a mob mentality to make sensible decisions, especially those involving running a government is a bad idea. As individuals, we are smart and sensible. Of course we know, individually, what we want and need from our government leaders. Put us in a big group and mob mentality takes over, and no one has a good idea, not even what’s for dinner.
This myth about Hamilton continues to live because of he understood the unruliness of a mob. On this point, he was accused of hating all people, especially the less-privileged and standing for something like a monarchy in America. Lesser minds were too busy making up lies and spreading gossip to try to understand the nuance in Hamilton’s statements.
He wasn’t against a democracy per se, he was against allowing the unruly mob have such power. Among other political factors, this is one of the reasons we’re stuck with the electoral college. How else to avoid the mistakes of mob rule?
In the late 18th century it was impossible to believe the republic would ever be big enough, educated enough, and sensible enough to have good decision making processes. Women read? Slaves freed and owning land? Hah, never happen.
Except Hamilton sort of expected it, even if he couldn’t get past the hypocrisy of being white, educated, (male), and marrying into money. His heart and ideals were in the right place, though. His background prepared him well to understand why paying and supplying the militias was important. He championed a standing professional army, precisely because farmers arriving on the field of battle with a pitchfork were woefully unprepared for the rigors of professional fighting.
Hamilton even understood the need for a centralized federal bank for economic stability. (And that’s all I’m qualified to recount because the only thing I know about banking is there are too many fees.) He was, according to both Chernow and Knotts, an economic genius. Well, they’re not the only ones, economists over the centuries have sung his praises too.
But these lofty ideas were held in contempt by those threatened by his enormous mind and his exceptional work ethic. I can understand his disinclination to pander or be less forceful when expressing ideas. We just want to get stuff done and don’t have the energy to play the political games at which others are so good.
And those blind spots? How about Hamilton as participant in the nation’s first sex scandal? For over a year, Maria Reynolds, and her husband, caught Hamilton in their thrall and blackmailed him. “Quite understandably, [there were those who] could not conceive that someone as smart and calculating as Hamilton could have stayed as long in thrall to an enslaving passion. Hamilton could not have been stupid enough to pay hush money for sex, [they] alleged, so the money paid … had to involve illicit speculation. In all fairness, … it is baffling that Hamilton submitted to blackmail for so long.” (Chernow, p. 530)
And Hamilton, rather than quietly admitting it and moving on, wrote volumes to be published in newspapers describing every sordid detail. Career was the motive for this, not worry over his marriage to Eliza and their family. After the affair, Hamilton never strayed far from his family, remaining close by until his death.
Which, of course, leads to the duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton, “born without honor, was exceedingly sensitive to any slights to his political honor.” (Chernow, p. 237) Born without honor, meaning born of suspect parental lineage. Believed to be a bastard, the quickest way to get him riled up was to mention this.
“[Burr] was a chameleon who evaded clear-cut positions on and was a genius at studied ambiguity.” (Chernow, p. 192) He was an opportunist, and could figure out endless ways to profit from any political wrangling surrounding him. Further, Chernow writes, “… Burr was a lone operator, a protean figure who formed alliances for short-term gain.” (p. 421)
He was bent on revenge for Hamilton’s part in Burr’s ostracism from the Jefferson administration and losing the governorship of New York because Hamilton was freely quoted as saying Burr wasn’t fit for office. Hamilton can hardly be blamed for Jefferson dropping Burr from the ticket as VP. The quote about not being fit for office, that part was true.
Weehawken, NJ on July 11, 1804 lives in infamy as the place Burr shot Hamilton, thus ending the career and loving marriage of Alexander Hamilton who only ever wanted to see the US become a strong nation. Burr’s life ended that day too. “…Hamilton committed his last patriotic act, for he ensured that Aaron Burr would never again be a viable player in the politics of the early republic.” (Knott, p. 1)
But, Hamilton’s legend lives on. Depending on the era, he’s been seen as selfish and elitist, interested only in money and power. Depression-era scholars and politicians blamed the Depression on Hamilton, despite being dead for 125 years.
Even his scandalous affair made an appearance during the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998 when his team presented “a thirty page brief to the House Judiciary Committee citing Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds and the reluctance of Congress to pursue the issue after concluding it was a private matter.” (Knotts, p. 225)
The profound effect Hamilton had on government is immeasurable. Chernow’s nearly 800 page biography follows Hamilton from Nevis to his rise in US politics and his death at the gun of Aaron Burr. Chernow admires Hamilton but doesn’t let that get in the way of the facts as presented.
Stephen F. Knott also admires Hamilton and defends Hamilton against the scurrilous myths which continue to be taken as truth. Between the two, Chernow and Knott present an interesting and entertaining read of a man too intellectual and uncompromising for the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr to respect.
Chernow has the best last word, “Any biographer foolhardy enough to attempt an authoritative life of Alexander Hamilton must tread a daunting maze of detail.” (Chernow, p. 733)
Title: Shadow Ops: Breach Zone
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Ace (now Penguin Random House)
Publisher’s Blurb: In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.
When Scylla’s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil…
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone is book 3/3 in the Shadow Ops series
This series is a mess. At first I thought it was because Mil SF isn’t my thing. But then I like John Scalzi’s writing just fine.
Because I enjoyed Cole’s Sacred Throne trilogy so much (third one due in October, 2019) I had hopes for Shadow Ops. What I will say, emphatically, is Cole has grown a great deal as a writer. Heloise is the hero we’ve all been waiting for.
To recap, Control Point saw Oscar Britton make some of the most bone-headed, selfish decisions ever in the history of everything. It’s in this book that Scylla is unleashed on the world. We know in no uncertain terms, she is the most dangerous and evil creature in this world, and Britton has freed her for his own selfish reason.
Book 2, Fortress Frontier, introduces us to Alan Bookbinder, a Pentagon paper-pusher who Manifests a power no one else has and is sent to the Forward Operating Base in the Source until everything goes to hell and he ends up the commanding officer. Oscar Britton is a bit player.
And now we come to Book 3, Breach Zone. It’s all come together, in one big horrifying pornographic death frenzy in Manhattan. Harlequin, a secondary character in the previous books who’s always played it by the rules, because rules are what separate the good guys from the bad, is put in charge of the defense.
Now Brigadier General Bookbinder is stuck on a US Coast Guard cutter, whose lunch is getting eaten by water goblins and leviathans, has to find his way to Harlequin’s base of operations to use Bookbinder’s unique magical power.
Oscar Britton doesn’t show up until very late in the book, still being let off the heinous thing he did in book 1. The epitome of the misunderstood hero. The monster he unleashed is leading an army of monsters to demolish Manhattan. Scylla wants to start the new world order.
And just to make sure we understand why this is personal for Harlequin, intermittent flashbacks from six years before set the scene. The romantic scene, of course.
All the complicated politics weight in. Street gangs, loyal to no one scoff when asked to join the good fight. Politicians and career officers want to use force against everything. And, in typical fashion, only Harlequin and those on the front lines actually understand why fire power won’t work, only magic will.
There’s barely any mention of the Indian part of the Source, and Bookbinder’s experiences trying to save the US FOB. Murica is truly on its own.
Then, buglesblaring, Oscar Britton arrives, makes a pretty little speech and everyone shows up to fight and save the day. Peace, justice and the American way.
Or something …
Sacred Thrones is light years better from this. I’ll call this a cautionary tale about back catalogues. Cole’s worth reading, but this series isn’t.
Title: Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction
Author: Sara Upstone
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher’s Blurb: Literary theory has now become integral to how we produce literary criticism. When critics write about a text, they no longer think just about the biographical or historical contexts of the work, but also about the different approaches that literary theory offers. By making use of these, they create new interpretations of the text that would not otherwise be possible. In your own reading and writing, literary theory fosters new avenues into the text. It allows you to make informed comments about the language and form of literature, but also about the core themes – concepts such as gender, sexuality, the self, race, and class – which a text might explore.
“… criticism, then, is where we find the interpretation of literature. Theory, in contrast, is where we find the tools to facilitate that interpretation.” (p. xii)
This little book is packed with literary theory goodness. In 260 pages, Sara Upstone covers 19 different schools of theory. And while I don’t always agree with her assessments, or placement of movements within theories, Upstone’s overview is a great place for anyone to start learning about Literary Theory.
Having this at my fingertips has helped me figure out how Modernism and/or Post Modernism might apply to N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, an exercise assigned by my mentor. If Modernism is trying to make sense of the chaotic changes in a book, then The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate offer a lot to be interpreted through that lens. People of the Stillness must make sense of their new world as the rift and the coming of a Fifth Season wreak havoc.
Further, if Post Modernism is the questioning of reality itself, The Broken Earth Trilogy again offers an opportunity for that interpretation. Is Alabaster turning into a Stone Eater a reality? How it it possible he was taken into the middle of the planet by a Stone Eater and lived to come out the other side?
Mind you, these are just notions I’m playing with as I explore what both Modernism and Post Modernism mean to a critical reviewer and whatever book she happens to be reading.
My biggest quibbles with Literary Theory: A Complete Guide have to do with the dates used to place each school in a context. I will grant that cultural anchors must exist in order for events to have a context within the greater stories. However, as a person with a background in history, I also know that dates aren’t hard and fast. World War I may be marked as beginning the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, but that’s not really what started it all.
I mention this only because I want to caution readers not to get stuck on the dates Upstone uses as absolutes. Surrealism, sequestered in the Modernism school of theory, had its precursors in authors like Arthur Rimbaud and André Breton.
And while I’m at it, if anything, Surrealism belongs with Post Modernism if we are to take the definition of Post Modernism at face value.
But, those are of little import when it comes to the actual information contained within this small volume. It’s best to consider the essence of the overviews of each school of theory. And by all means, we should give consideration to our own thoughts about what we’re reading.
Sara Upstone’s Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction has earned itself a permanent place on my reference shelf. If, that is, I can ever get it to leave my desk.
Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.
Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is 2/3 in the Shadow Ops series.
Myke Cole’s second book in the Shadow Ops series is just as jam-packed as the first, Control Point, was. And it can be just as confusing.
I’ll be honest, I dug into Fortress Frontier for the simplest reason ever. I wanted to know what happened to Oscar Britton, last seen trying to make things right after he selfishly released Scylla who immediately laid waste to the SOC, opening it to invasion from the enemy indigents.
The things I had problems with in Control Point, bigotry and pick a frickin’ side would ya (Oscar Britton) are still present in Fortress Frontier. But I may have a clearer view of the larger picture being written in this series. Only book 3 Breach Zone will tell me if I’m close.
The heart of the Shadow Ops series is learning to cope with the changes brought about by unexpectable magical power manifestations. Rumors abound, and people are scared. Which leads to governmental manipulations and other ugliness well-known in this sort of fantasy world.
What Myke Cole brings to this is an inside look at what that chaos is like when the military and the governments try to handle change this massive. Cole’s writing keeps things tense, and moving along. The story he’s telling is one of great forces at play.
One of the big themes is how do you know what’s really the right thing to do, especially in the face of conflicting evidence and your own strong desires? Shadow Ops has a very strong X-Men vibe to it. People who manifest powers are subject to government control. Fear is a strong motivator.
In Frontier Force, Alan Bookbinder is a rule-following Pentagon bureaucrat who manifests an unusual power. Unlike Oscar Britton in Control Force, Bookbinder turns himself in and is subsequently sent to SOC in the Source.
Bookbinder and Britton have one thing in common, loyalty to the armed services, and to the government. The difference is Bookbinder maintains that loyalty even when his very life is threatened. Through this, Bookbinder becomes a leader people trust and follow into harrowing events.
Britton reappears in Fortress Frontier, but is pretty much as ineffective as he was in Control Force. He has agency, but every step of the way, bad decision making dogs him. The harder he tries to make up for his sloppiness, the worse it gets. It’s difficult to like or understand what Britton is about. His motivations are still selfish.
Bookbinder, on the other hand, takes the problem of being cut off from home and leads his troops through it. And part of Colonel Bookbinder’s journey is across the Source to the Indian/Hindu version of FOB. There he meets the Naga, snake like creatures who offer help but aren’t particularly forthcoming.
I wanted so much to like this book, and I did. I liked it much more than Control Point. But that doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend the series.
Still, Cole has earned enough of my readerly trust with his story-telling ability in The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows that I’m willing to finish the trilogy with Shadow Ops: Breach Zone. Stay tuned.
Title: The Obelisk Gate
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Publisher’s Blurb: The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.
As I read The Obelisk Gate, it became deeply personal, often driving tears to well up as I felt the searing pain of bullies, including parents whose lives can only be understood in retrospect. Nassun’s search for identity and her confusing relationship with her father reminded me of my own confusing relationships. What matter the details, save that Nassun’s search for the warm glow of love she’d once felt transferred to another father figure? Nassun finds herself the smartest, most talented in her small class, and one mistake nearly undoes the entire sense of community she’s found. It is a lifetime hard task to come to terms with one’s self and the way others react. And it can be brutal, as it proves to be for Nassun. She, at least, has the orogene power within her to make it stop. Karma’s a bitch baby.
The Obelisk Gate is a coming together. Factions find each other, comms welcome new citizens, old friends are reunited. And yet, The Obelisk Gate is about division. Factions find each other but begin plotting their war against other factions, the new citizens in comms cause disruption and new lines are drawn.
At its core The Obelisk Gate is about politics. Political identity of the orogenes, who are welcomed with open arms in Castrima. Family identity as Essun’s daughter, Nassun, wrestles with who her parents are and what that means to an eleven-year-old girl. “Good” Guardian vs. “Not so Good” Guardian, but who determines good? Stone Eaters trying to set agendas. And a narrator who, it is revealed, plays an all too godly hand in Essun’s part in powering the obelisk gate, and catching the moon.
Nowhere is safe, everyone is struggling to dig in and survive the Season which, thanks to Alabaster’s creation of the Rift in The Fifth Season, will be the longest in history, lasting thousands of years.
We follow Nassun on the road with her father, Jija, going to a place he is convinced will cure her of her orogeny and return his little girl to him. His resentful anger gets in the way of their relationship, his narcissism does not allow him to see Nassun is right in front of him and doesn’t want to be cured. Her power is big, and she’s dedicated to learning everything she can about using it. Even after giving him a warning, showing him just how strong her power is and what she can do with it, Jija is still determined to make her into his ideal daughter. Things don’t go well for Jija, and Nassun has no regrets
In Castrima, Essun gets pulled into the politics of the comm. Seeking consensus and advice, Ykka is trying to keep human prejudices from becoming deathly problems. Suspicion builds as Essun’s self-control frays around the edges. Alabaster holds the key knowledge Essun needs to reshape the world and give everyone a chance to survive.
And a very changed Schaffa is at the comm, Found Moon, where Nassun ends up. His role with Essun, when she was Daya, is mirrored in his relationship with Nassun. Only now, he expresses regret for the many horrible things did in the name of the Fulcrum. In his work with the orogenes at Found Moon, and most especially with Nassun, he sets about making amends.
The Obelisk Gate is big and complex, dark and intense. Just as The Fifth Season was filled with bigotry and violence, so too is The Obelisk Gate. Orogeny stands as the proxy for all the ‘ism’s we face in our lives; sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, all of them. And under the stress of the Season, fractures become breaks.
At the equator, Nassun, Schaffa, and their group which includes at least one stone eater. In the south, Essun and her group introduced to us in The Fifth Season. Thousands of years of history come into play, new elements are introduced, and identity politics rise to a fevered pitch. One comm wants to absorb every resource it can while on raids. Castrima will have none of it. Stone eaters circle each other, and Nassun and Essun.
Alabaster’s final words for Essun are, “First a network, then the Gate. Don’t rust it up, Essun. Inno and I didn’t love you for nothing.” While saving Castrima, she understands what he means, and as Castrima packs up to move northward into a now vacant comm which will support them for years, Essun knows how to do what she needs to do.
It is Nassun who has the last word. “Tell me how to bring the moon home.” In The Stone Sky, it will be up to mother and daughter to catch the moon, settle the rivalries, and stop the Seasons. It will be an epic battle. Just as deep and intense as the preceding books. Just as complicated, and as simple as catching the moon.
Title: How Fiction Works
Author: James Wood
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb: James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.
Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.” Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.” Knowing how craft works is the difference.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.” We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that. A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.
Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work. In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions. Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.
When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like. “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.” As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.
Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review. As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.
When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story. I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.
Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing. For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”
“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever. Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that. Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way? Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling. Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.
Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer. How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading. Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.
Title: Shadow Ops: Control Point
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Ace (now Penguin Random House)
Publisher’s Blurb: Lieutenant Oscar Britton of the Supernatural Operations Corps has been trained to hunt down and take out people possessing magical powers. But when he starts manifesting powers of his own, the SOC revokes Oscar’s government agent status to declare him public enemy number one.
Shadow Ops: Control Point is 1/3 in the Shadow Ops series.
“They want me to kill a child,” is the opening line in Shadow Ops: Control Point, which just sucked me in. That is a “wait, WTF is going on here” first line if I’ve ever read one.
And it just spins out of control, fast and furious from there. Control Point blazes hot, and scorches anyone in its path. It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, and who’s doing what. Oh, and who’s the bad guy … no wait … good … no wait …
Oscar Britton has the rug yanked out from beneath him too many times, and after a while it gets tiresome. I feel sorry for the guy, he has to cope with so much immediate change it fucks with his decision making process at every turn. Everything he thought he knew and a life time of training are called into question the second he manifests a magical power he doesn’t understand and is forbidden by the government.
All the flip-flopping isn’t necessarily Britton’s fault, he’s just written that way. Honestly, it’s hard to have much faith in Britton, the government (contractor or otherwise), anyone who says they know how to help or fix things (except maybe for the token good guy Goblin called Marty).
At every turn, Britton is put in situations which cause him to question everything all at once, again. It gets to be a bit much. Maybe having a bomb implanted in his heart just causes Britton to make extremely bad decisions which lead to even more death and destruction until almost everything he’s come to depend on is gone, or dead.
And we, the readers, are left hanging in an unfinished story about a man in search of his own redemption. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, here I come.
Author: William Gibson
Publisher’s Blurb: Before the Internet was commonplace, William Gibson showed us the Matrix—a world within the world, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace. Henry Dorsett Case was the sharpest data-thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.
Author: William Gibson
Publisher’s Blurb: A corporate mercenary wakes in a reconstructed body, a beautiful woman by his side. Then Hosaka Corporation reactivates him, for a mission more dangerous than the one he’s recovering from: to get a defecting chief of R&D—and the biochip he’s perfected—out intact. But this proves to be of supreme interest to certain other parties—some of whom aren’t remotely human…
Mona Lisa Overdrive
Author: William Gibson
Publisher’s Blurb: Enter Gibson’s unique world—lyric and mechanical, sensual and violent, sobering and exciting—where multinational corporations and high tech outlaws vie for power, traveling into the computer-generated universe known as cyberspace. Into this world comes Mona, a young girl with a murky past and an uncertain future whose life is on a collision course with internationally famous Sense/Net star Angie Mitchell. Since childhood, Angie has been able to tap into cyberspace without a computer. Now, from inside cyberspace, a kidnapping plot is masterminded by a phantom entity who has plans for Mona, Angie, and all humanity, plans that cannot be controlled . . . or even known. And behind the intrigue lurks the shadowy Yazuka, the powerful Japanese underworld, whose leaders ruthlessly manipulate people and events to suit their own purposes . . . or so they think.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Neuromancer, p. 51)
This from a man who sat down at a typewriter and wrote what’s considered the seminal work of cyberpunk. On a typewriter. Gibson didn’t own a computer at the time, but he had this idea, which he almost gave up on after seeing Blade Runner.
Even in 2019, when cyberspace is a part of everyday vocabulary, and most have a general idea of what it means, none of us knows what it looks like. Gibson got there first, hypothesizing what cyberspace would look, and feel, like and how humans might interact with it.
“[Case] jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” (Neuromancer, p. 6) Emotionally, it was “bodiless exultation,” (ibid, p. 7). “Nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension.” (ibid, p. 63)
Disembodied, nonspace, grey, blob, or blotch. All descriptors for that which cannot be described. The books in this trilogy are filled with non-descriptive descriptions of what cyberspace looks like, and feels like. A “cowboy” jacks in by plugging a cable from the computer into a jack/port in their neck. It made complete sense to me while I was reading. Trying to describe it in my own words is difficult and stultifying. How do you describe a banana to someone who’s never seen one?
Gibson’s writing is dense and often difficult to follow, which makes sense if you’re trying to describe something undescribable. He only succeeds because he has a larger canvas to work with.
In Neuromancer, AIs in search of their other half involve complex human machinations and architectural wonders which only work in space. The AI Wintermute sets things in motion, leading Case and Molly on a merry search for its other half, the AI Neuromancer. Wintermute is manipulative, pushing humans to do its bidding. The reader’s mind isn’t the only one blown.
Two years later, in Count Zero, Gibson still grapples with describing the indescribable. We bump against a more terrestrial landscape to set the stage, but are no closer to understanding what cyberspace is.
Vodou gods appear in cyberspace so as to interface with the humans inside the matrix. It’s rumored the superconsciousness is losing bits, explaining the multiple gods encountered. Or maybe it’s another AI shoving its non-existent weight around.
Again, Gibson uses vague notions to describe what it’s like, “…a flickering, nonlinear flood of fact and sensory data, a kind of narrative conveyed in surreal jump cuts and juxtapositions. … [changing direction randomly] with each pulse of nothingness. The data had never been intended for human input.” (Count Zero, pp.23-24)
And yet, humans keep trying to be a part of the landscape. Building better and bigger tools to get inside, navigate, and stay inside. Bobby Newman, aka Count Zero from Count Zero is comatose and jacked into an infinitely large cyberdrive called an aleph, a mathematical concept I cannot even begin to wrap my brain around. It’s not infinity, it’s something else. Theoretically, the aleph has uploaded the Count’s personality leaving enough room to evolve with access to all data in the known universe.
Gibson’s idea of cyberspace involves direction (up and downs), grids, and definitively shaped objects. More than that though, he uses nothingness, everythingness, all-at-once-ness.
So how does one explain the unexplainable, the invisible, the not physically there presence? Gibson’s struggle continues to be technology’s struggle. VR and AI are upon us, and engineers have to develop vocabularies to go along with it. When all else fails, we fall upon what has gone before.
William Gibson wrote the framework, extrapolating to an existence which has yet to come. Twenty years ago, the Wachowski siblings gave us The Matrix trilogy which carried the idea of machine overlords enslaving humanity in virtual reality as an energy supply.
Here too, there’s a struggle with vocabulary, although visual media has the ability to present a form of cyberspace which can be seen and, therefore, believed. The Wachowskis and their matrix came 15 years after Neuromancer. Gibson was at the forefront, and is given credit for coining the term and pushing us to think about a computer network’s relationship with humans. The Wachowskis gave us one version of what that relationship might be. There are many other versions, and we can’t possibly know which one is “right,” or “wrong,” because we’re still trying to describe the invisible undescribable space between bits of data.
Title: Binti, Binti: Home & Binti: Night Masquerade
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2015, 2017 & 2017
ISBN-13: 9780765385253, 9780765393111, & 9780765393135
Publisher’s Blurb: Binti is a story about a brilliant young woman, and the responsibilities she bears: to her society, her family, and to herself. While travelling through space for the first time in her life, Binti must survive and adapt to an encounter with fascinating and deadly aliens.
“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otijize is red land.” (p. 13)
There’s no way anyone could prepare themselves for the times their self-identity bumps up against bigotry. This is one of the things I admire most about Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy. In choosing the incidents which would populate Binti’s life, Okorafor chose to include the prejudices her traveler would encounter, both from outside and within herself.
It’s hard to write about this without cliches. Pain of all types makes us stronger, we hate when people say that to us, but there it is. The most incredible part of reading these books was the honesty with which Okorafor writes; of war, prejudice, outright hatred, ignorance, and fear. And that she managed to wrap it all up in 462 pages, while flinging us through the stars and back again is amazing to me.
I think what I want to say is no one is safe from prejudice or bigotry. It’s a part of the very fabric of being sentient (human). We are all different, we are all insecure about something and we all compare ourselves to others hoping to make ourselves feel better. This comparing and contrasting can make us even harder on ourselves for not having the life we imagine someone else has.
Binti is brilliant, and as self-aware as she can be at the age of 16. It’s frequently difficult to remember she is still a teenager, and lacks the maturity that only experience can proffer.
Along the way, she literally becomes a part of unlikely families. Some, like the Meduse, are another species altogether. Others, like the Desert People, turn out to have been family all along. They all play a part in her evolution, taking her on a journey which is more than just a university education. What she is taught along the way is she must be careful of her own prejudices, making sure they don’t keep her blind to the work she is destined for.
The story is almost magical, and nearly breathless, in some places. Nnedi Okorafor’s tight writing tells a big story which deals with complex issues. The character Binti studies the lessons we should all study. Learn to accept yourself, and others, as they are. Don’t force your set of rules onto someone else. Hesitate before you say or do something you’ll regret.
Most importantly, I think, is the lesson to face our fears and look deeply into the hard truths we don’t want to know. That way lies the harmony we all struggle to find.
This slender trilogy is a big story about an adolescent Himba girl who learns to stay grounded, fly among the rings of Saturn, fall in love, and forgive herself for the imagined pain she’s caused herself. Okorafor’s writing is splendid, and I’m looking forward to exploring her other books.