Friday Book Club: Prepare For The Hitchhiker’s Guide!

SWT-Book-ClubsThis February we’ll be reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.  You can participate here, and/or come to the Arden Dimick Open Book Club in person on February 23rd.  We meet at the Arden Dimick Library at 2PM, and this month we’ll be following our discussion with a screening of the 2005 movie version starring Zooey Deschanel and Martin Freeman.

So grab your guide and start reading, and meet us here next week!  The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of my favorite books and I can’t wait to share it with you.  As The Guide advises, grab your towel, and don’t panic.

This Week’s Arrow: “Tremors”

MV5BMTYzNDYxMTkzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODUzMjMxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_I missed the first ten minutes of this episode.  I’m consoling myself with the knowledge that probably five of these ten minutes was devoted to “Previously, on Arrow…”   Apparently I missed Roy slapping water as part of a training montage – see, that’s why you gotta be on time, people.  I regret missing that deeply.

Also, like everyone else on the planet, I am sick, so this is the shortest short list of highlights ever.  I thought this was a fun episode, with the plot zipping along, revelations dropping right and left, and so very many pretty outfits to look at.  Here’s some highlights:

Line of the week:

Ollie:  “Do you have one of those hoodies with you?”

Roy:  “Seriously, do you even need to ask?”

Too funny – but boys, a hoodie does not a disguise make.  Roy couldn’t even keep that stupid thing on.  Gotta work on the costume, Roy.

This fools no one.

This fools no one.

Runner up line of the week:

Felicity:  “Oooh, you have angry face”.

Love you, Felicity, never change.

Plot stuff:

Oh, look, there’s Moira and Walter!  I always liked them.  Get them back together, show.  In other news, Moira is going to run for Mayor.  What could go wrong?

Am both confused and delighted by super-mature Thea.

Laurel, Laurel, Laurel, Laurel, Laurel.  I was amused by the fact that when her Dad pointed out that she’s not the only person to have lost somebody and been fired, she restrained herself from replying, “Oh yeah?  How many people have survived being tied to a chair and threatened with a gruesome death by an insane serial-killer taxidermist?  Huh?  I’ll tell you – NOBODY!”  See, Laurel, that’s the kind of sharp comeback you could come up with if you weren’t drunk all the time.  Work on that.

Oooh, we’re getting a squad!  A squad of bad guys!  Oh hey, Sara’s back!  Woah, someone stole an earthquake machine!  Back on the island, Slade and Ollie are hugging it out – that’s sweet.  But doomed.  So much plot excitement!

They hug in a manly way.

They hug in a manly way.

OK everyone, I’m going back to bed. Leave your comments here!



Book Review: Inside Straight, Edited by George R.R. Martin

super17Sometimes a book succeeds in spite of itself.  Inside Straight had a confusing back story (I had to resort to Wikipedia to figure it all out) and a disjointed plot but it did two very important things for the Wild Cards series:  it made me interested in and invested in the characters, and it made me wonder what happens next.

The Wild Cards Series is a set of books and short stories that are co-written by a group of authors and usually edited by George R.R. Martin and/or Melinda Snodgrass, depending on the volume.  The first set of Wild Cards books told the story of an alternate history in which an alien virus is unleashed over Earth in 1946.  The virus kills 90% of people who are infected with it.  Of those who survive, some are deformed (Jokers).  Others became Aces – people with superpowers.  Some people are Jokers and Aces.  For example, a person with wings might be considered either or both if the wings are both visible and functional.

Inside Straight is the first volume in a series of Wild Cards books about the new generation of Jokers and Aces – kids in their late teens and early twenties who can’t remember a world without superpowers.  The contributors are Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R.R. Martin, Ian Tregillis, and S.L. Farrell.  The first part of the book brings a group of young people together in a reality show but many of them become dissatisfied with seeking fifteen minutes of fame.  One of them in particular seems fated to go to Egypt, where Jokers are being persecuted.  This has huge consequences for the rest of the group.

I suspect everyone has a different favorite character.  I’m especially fond of Rachel, AKA Dragon Huntress, a little girl who carries a backpack full of stuffed animals that she can bring to life (and make life-sized).  My favorite line in the book is, “No, you can’t come with us to the genocide!  MAybe when you’re twelve”.  She doesn’t get much page time but I look forward to seeing her in other books.  My REAL favorite is Michelle, AKA The Amazing Bubbles.  I first encountered her in the Dangerous Women collection (my review is here).  She stores kinetic energy as fat and then disperses it as bubbles, which can be as hard and large as a cannonball or as soft as a soap bubble.  she’s compassionate, funny, courageous, and has some awesome positive body image messages going on.  I want her to be my best friend.

I don’t think this is the best book to start the series with.  I had a difficult time understanding how things work.  Nor did I think it was a great book in terms of having a unified story.  The jump from reality show to war in Egypt was abrupt and the timeline didn’t seem realistic.  The section regarding the reality show was not compelling because standard reality shows are not compelling.  The section set in Egypt was plenty compelling but frankly it didn’t make much sense, especially when the Aces are trying to figure out strategy in a tent.  Where is everyone else?  I realize the politics are complex but I do not believe that there is not one person with military experience, officially or unofficially, who wants in on this.

But here’s what I loved about the book  – it made me interested in the characters and it made me curious about their future.  As soon as it was over, I clicked on my library’s catalog to reserve the next book.  And that had less to do with plot than with the fact that the authors kept surprising me with what characters did and said.  Almost every character got a chance to shine and most of the characters grew in ways that surprised me or demonstrated sides of themselves I hadn’t expected.  what was impressive about this was that no one’s revelations or growths seemed arbitrary.  They were consistent with the character.  I can’t wait to spend more time with these people!

Friday Book Club: The Art of Being Jeeves

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome back to Friday Book Club, where we’ve been reading Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse!

Although some recall Jeeves as a butler, they are mistaken.  Jeeves “can butte with the best of them”, but his primary occupation is that of valet to Bertie Wooster.  So what exactly does a valet do?  I’m referring here to an ordinary valet.  “Rescue your employer from a continual series of farcical mishaps” is not generally part of the valet’s job description.

A valet is the male equivalent to a lady’s maid.  Basically, the valet is the gentleman’s personal assistant.  He lays out his employers clothes in the morning and makes sure they stay clean, ironed, and dust-free.  He may personally order new clothing for the gentlemen.  He helps the gentleman dress and undress and lays out and cleans shaving implements.  He may also be the gentleman’s barber.

A valet may help arrange travel for the gentleman and will certainly pack and unpack the gentleman’s clothing.  While other servants will usually clean the gentleman’s rooms, the valet ensures that the rooms stay tidy and comfortable (lighting a fire on cold day, airing the rooms, etc.

A valet is not a butler, but in many households a valet will do double duty and fill both roles.  Jeeves fills in as a butler on several occasions in the P.G. Wodehouse novels, and he does it well, as he does everything well.  The difference between a butler and a valet is that a valet attends to the personal needs of one person, while a butler is the head of male staff and may in some cases manage the entire household.

Want more details?  Here are links!

Jane Austen’s World lists the duties of a valet in great detail, using information from these sites:
The Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton, 1881 edition, page 978

The Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy Thomas Webster, Mrs. William Parkes, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852

And the duties of a valet don’t seem to have changed much.  Here’s an ad from an agency, TriState Domestic, that will help you hire your very own valet.  Please note that I am NOT endorsing this agency – I don’t know anything about it.  I mention it because I found its very existence to be fascinating.  One assumes that the modern valet uses modern technology to achieve his aim, but the actual job requirements seem pretty much the same as those in the 1800’s.  Note that “computer literacy” is a must if you wish to be hired as a valet by TriState.

This Week’s Arrow: Blind Spot

MV5BMTYzNDYxMTkzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODUzMjMxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_This was not the greatest episode of Arrow, but not the worst either – this is another one where things get slotted into place.  The short version recap is that Laurel tries to out Sebastian Blood as a bad guy, but no one, including Arrow, believes her, especially when Blood tips off the cops that there are a bunch of drugs in Laurel’s apartment.  Then one of Blood’s minions tries to kill Laurel.  If you were going to try to kill her, why bother with the drugs?  I thought the beauty of the drug thing was that it got Laurel out of the picture without doing anything other than revealing a secret Laurel really did have.  Laurel is a wreck, she’s fired – it’s basically another episode of “Kick the Laurel”.  For the love of all that is holy, could someone please get this woman a basket of kittens.  It’s an emergency.

All better now.

All better now.

Back on the island, Sara reveals that Laurel new Sara had a crush on Ollie and set her up to be grounded so Laurel could make her moves.  See, this is why my dear daughter should be grateful to be an only child.  Sara has a chat with Ivo and throws in her lot with Ollie (maybe).

Roy has issues because of the serum he was injected with and Sin spends the whole episode being awesome and trying to get him to tell Thea what’s going on, but he doesn’t, because Roy is a moron.  And now Arrow has a protegé!  Whee!

No major romance developments except that Ollie has “a blind spot” when it comes to Laurel and despite the fact that Thea has suddenly become the most mature person on the show, Roy continues to keep her in the dark.  No one likes a pouter, Roy.

Bizarre tech of the night:

Felicity doing a lie detector test on a guy remotely…how?  I dunno.  It’s being done by Felicity, so I’ll accept it.

Best Lines of the night:

Felicity finally says what we’ve all been thinking:  “Well, his last name’s ‘Blood’.  That can’t be a good sign.”

Sin:  “Good thing Thea and I are tight”.  Friendship between women!  I am now officially logging my request for a Thea/Sin spin-off show.  Sin proceeds to rock the entire episode, from her face as Thea leads her to find a “first date outfit” to her response to a john who says, “You’re pretty”  (Sin:  “You’re disgusting”).  Sin, NEVER CHANGE.

Ollie:  “He doesn’t like to talk about his feelings”, to which Diggs, replies, “Not like us!”

Sin, AKA: My Hero.

Sin, AKA: My Hero.

Book Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

On_Basilisk_StationOn Basilisk Station is the first in the sweeping Honor Harrington series.  This is space opera at it’s finest, in the tradition of earthbound classics like the Horatio Hornblower series and Master and Commander.

Honor Harrington is a Commander in the Royal Manticoran [Space] Navy.  In this series, which takes place in the far future, planets and planetary systems jockey for power in ways analogous to those of the major powers in the Regency period on Earth.  Honor is stated by the author to be inspired by Horatio Hornblower and Admiral Nelson.

In this book, the first of Honor’s many adventures, she is assigned a ship with a newfangled weapon that can’t work effectively in combat.  She makes it work anyway and is assigned to Basilisk Station as a sort of unspoken punishment.  Basilisk Station is a remote trading station where the Navy has failed to follow through on its many responsibilities.  Honor is desperately under shipped and understaffed but she goes about whipping things into shape, winning the loyalty of her crew, and becoming involved in complicated political intrigue.

This series has been running since On Basilisk was first published in 1993.  It’s easy to see how this series could run pretty much forever without ever running out of steam.  It’s created such a complex system of space travel and sweeping empires that other characters could have their own stories long after Honor retires (or gets blown up, heaven forbid).

For these same reasons, it’s easy to see why this series is beloved.  The plot is complex, the maneuvers are described in loving detail, and the Navy atmosphere is well-rendered.  It’s refreshing that in this book, Honor does not have any romantic relationships.  As an avid romance reader, I’m certainly not opposed to romance, but I get tired of the automatic assumption in many stories that if there’s a woman and there’s a man than sex is sure to follow.  I gather that Honor does get to fall in love later in the series, but it’s clear that her romantic life does not define her.

I only have one problem with this book, and it’s a big one.  In this book, one of Honor’s duties is to help protect the planet Medusa.  Medusa has an indigenous population of people who are at approximately a Bronze Age level of technology.  They are treated as people to be protected, used, manipulated, or killed.  They are discussed with a high level of casual racism.  We never meet one of these indigenous Medusans, never hear one speak for him or herself.  They are plot points – either incompetent, violent, or both.

This is ugly in any context but it’s even uglier if you consider that if Honor’s home system, Manticore, is analogous to Regency England, then Medusa is analogous to India or Africa under English colonization.  There’s no sense of awareness on either the parts of the characters or the author that this diminishment of an entire planet of people to childish, stoned killers might be bad.  This is especially sad if you reflect that even English writers during colonization, even very racist writers, sometimes gave indigenous people a voice and some compassion or understanding.  For instance, Rudyard Kipling wrote some appalling racist things (“The White Man’s Burden” for one) but he still managed to also portray an Indian water bearer as a hero in “Gunga Din” – one who is stated to be superior to the English officers he works for.

If Rudyard Kipling could manage to write about people from India with some scrap of humanity and respect, however little, than I’d expect an author from 1993 to be able to write about imperialism in a way that acknowledges the uglier aspects of imperialism.  It’s not that I think Weber owes us a utopia.  My problem is that Weber doesn’t seem to notice that one aspect of his book (the colonization of Medusa) is dystopian.

I haven’t read further into the series, but I have a sense that the problem with the portrayal of the Medusans may vanish simply because Honor and co. don’t stay at Basilisk Station.  This may be yet another case of me having picked the one book in a n otherwise inoffensive series with racist elements.  I’d say anyone who enjoyed The Master and Commander Series, by Patrick O’Brian, or The Vorksignian Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold, will probably very much enjoy the Honor Harrington books. These books are driven less by character and relationships than by politics, world-building, strategy, and tactics so prepare to read the books with some thought and attention to detail – no skimming!

History’s Hidden Heroes: Roger Arliner Young

young_roger_airlinerRoger Arliner Young was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in zoology.  This is especially noteworthy because she earned the degree in 1940, which was a difficult time for women and for African-Americans, and she lacked most of the economic and social support systems that most scientists rely on.

Dr. Young was born in 1889.  She was 32 years old when she took her first science course, and she got a C.  But her teacher, Ernest Everett Just, an African-American biologist, encouraged her to pursue science and became her mentor for many years, until they had a bitter falling out in 1935.  Her family struggled with poverty and during her adult life Dr. Young cared for her disabled mother.  Dr. Young struggled with logistical issues and serious mental health issues throughout her career.  Despite the challenges of gender, race, economic hardship, and family obligations, she contributed greatly to her field.

Young was best known for her teaching career and for her research, which involved the effects of radiation on marine life, the way paramecium are able to manage salt intake, and the hydration and dehydration of cells.  She was the first female zoologist to publish in the journal Science.

We like stories with a steady arc – person is born with some sort of disadvantage, they have a dream, they pursue it, they succeed.  Young’s life was not that kind of story.  She had ups and downs.  She gave up her academic studies for a while she lost jobs and got jobs, she struggled with her mental health, and she does not ever seem to have had a happy personal life.  But she held on to science against every obstacle and made significant contributions in her field.  She put herself through school and was the sole support of herself and her mother, and she struggled with finances and mental health issues until the day of her death at the age of 75.  I find her story to be, in a way, more inspirational than many with happier endings.  When it came to science, you just could not keep Roger Arliner Young down.

For more detailed information, check out this article – they so very politely included a full citation for me to cut and paste that I’ll leave the whole thing here instead of just a link:

Hodges, Fran. “Young, Roger Arliner 1899–1964.” Contemporary Black Biography. 2001. 1 Jan. 2014<>.

I also used this source, which provides hours of reading about women in science:  Women in Science, from the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Friday Book Club: Behold the Banjolele

SWT-Book-ClubsIn Thank You Jeeves, Jeeves quotes Bertie’s employ because Bertie will not stop playing the banjolele.  It turns out that the banjolele is a real thing.  It was most popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s but keen-eyed and sharp-eared fans will recognize it being played by classic rockers Brian May and George Harrison.  It’s one of those instruments that appears inexplicably and then never goes away – also known as the banjo ukelele or banjo uke.  It’s basically a banjo with the neck of a ukelele.  Want to hear what it sounds like?

One assumes that Bertie’s level of playing was slightly less adept.

Music is used for comedy in the Wooster books but P.G. Wodehouse was an accomplished lyricist.  He wrote lyrics for songs with Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, among others.  Here’s one of his most famous songs, “Bill”, from the musical Show Boat (music by Jerome Jern).  Helen Morgan was the first of many performers to sing this.  This version is from the 1936 film version of Show Boat.

This Week’s Arrow: Blast Radius

MV5BMTYzNDYxMTkzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODUzMjMxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_So this was a weird, filler episode in which there were a lot of explosions but nothing much happened.  Men ran around being manly, with the occasionally manly grimace of emotional vulnerability, women were stealthy, Sean Maher was totally wasted in his part as a mad bomber and basically the story inched forward just a smidgen while I screamed at the screen, “Kiss her, Ollie!  Kissherkissherkissheryouidiot!”

Let’s get this party started with:

What You Need to Know

1.  Ollie is totally freaked about the Wonder Drug of Doom

2.  This is because back on the Island, when Slade took the wonder Drug of Doom, he became even more of a jerk than usual.  Luckily when he tried to strangle Ollie, Sara was standing by to smack him with a tree branch.  That’s why we love you, Sara.

3.  My imaginary pretend boyfriend (Barry Allen, Duh) is in a coma (don’t worry, he has a spin-off show coming soon, he’ll be fine).  Felicity has been hanging out in Central City with comatose Barry a lot and [insert sing-song voice here] somebody’s jealous!

3.  Ollie is a total jerkass to Felicity, who was in Central City at Barry’s bedside when the first bomb went off.  Ollie blames Felicity for basically everything on earth before finally apologizing to her and exuding sexual magnetism all over the place.  Huh, that sounded less gross in my head.

4.  Roy has superpowers that he won’t discuss with Thea (Roy is a moron.  We all know this).

5.  Oh yeah, there are bombs, because Sean Maher (from Firefly!) plays a mad bomber – but honestly it’s not that important.  Except that my manic googling reveals indications that he’ll be back in future episodes.  If he appears with Summer Glau, there will be great rejoicing.

6.  Sebastian Blood is totally evil (which we knew).  Laurel has figured this out – which is impressive since she stole her Dad’s pain meds and is drugged to the hilt constantly.  Yeah, that will end well.

Line of the night:

“Were you apologizing to me, or were you talking to your quiver?”

Romantic developments:

Thea and Roy

Thea, acting almost mature

Thea, acting almost mature

I have never cared about this couple.  Is anyone out there losing sleep with regard to Roy?  Anyone?  God forbid he should have an honest conversation with Thea for five minutes.  Thea has had her own moments of relationship fail, but in this episode she really tries to be there for Roy and he’s as dumb as a bag of bricks.  BTW, the whole scene in the club where Ollie tries to find out what’s up with Roy was great, especially when Ollie’s mom shows up and talks about how great it is that Thea has made such a great business from Ollie’s “hobby”.  Moira has to spend so much time either seeming sort of villainous or super angelic that this moment in which she drives her son completely crazy with an offhand comment was really refreshing – it was exactly the kind of annoying things mom’s do and it bugged Ollie in exactly the kind of way I’d expect it to.

Ollie and Felicity


See, I’m conflicted, because I sort of don’t want Felicity and Ollie to get together.  I really want Felicity and Barry to get together, but since he’s going off to his own show with his own canonical love interest I don’t think we’re gonna get that.  Not for long, anyway.  And I don’t think Ollie is capable of being anybody’s boyfriend right now.  He’s very empathetic and supportive of troubled women (he has bonded on at least some level with Laurel, Sara, Huntress, and Isabel) but he himself is a total mess.  Being able to understand another person does not necessarily make you capable of navigating the day-to-day complexities of dating someone.

But Ollie and Felicity have good chemistry, and she adores him so much, that I sort of root for them anyway.  and the chemistry in this episode was huge, as Ollie has a pretty honest conversation with Felicity.  He even stutters a little, which is so…cute.  He’s supportive of her relationship with Barry (during this last conversation) while acknowledging his dependence on her and her status as an equal.  It was a great moment in an otherwise flat episode.

General questions to ponder and one missed opportunity:

1.  How is Laurel able to stay so alert on prescription painkillers?  Because if I so much as look at a Vicodin I fall asleep.  Think of the eye-hand coordination involved in applying her mascara so perfectly.  Maybe that’s her superpower.  By the way, it was so nice to see her do something competent in this episode and finally get some information that could make her more of a player.

This is not the hair of a stoned woman.

This is not the hair of a stoned woman.

2.  It’s sweet that Ollie has a pal in Sebastian the Devil, but is it really wise for a politician to publicly ally himself with the Queen family right now?  Aren’t they still pretty unpopular, what with Moira having helped kill hundreds of people?  When did they become popular again?

Sure, I'll trust him.  why not?

Sure, I’ll trust him. why not?

3.  A missed opportunity:  When Felicity tells Ollie to get his head out of his ass, and Diggle suggests they all take a breath.  No, Diggle, don’t stop them now!  I want to hear Felicity yell at Ollie some more!  She’s really good at it!  Let ‘er rip!

Don't mess with Felicity.  Just don't.

Don’t mess with Felicity. Just don’t.


See you all next week, with an episode in which Laurel turns to Arrow for help with Sebastian Blood, and Sebastian does not appreciate it, not one little bit.  You can leave our comments here, or catch up with our chat at Harlequin Community Forums!

Wednesday Videos: Jeeves and Wooster

WednesdayVideoToday you get a medley of Wednesday videos!  Jeeves and Wooster  was a series based on the Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse that ran from 1990 to 1993.  It starred Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster.  Fun fact:  Emma Thompson introduced Fry and Laurie to each other, thus sparking a comedic duo of epic proportions.  Here are a few clips from YouTube to give you the feel for the thing.

Here is Jeeves meeting Bertie for the first time:

There’s nothing Jeeves can’t handle, including syncopation:

And I haven’t the foggiest idea of what’s going on here but I laughed so hard I almost dropped my laptop.  “We should loosen his collar!”  “Oh, I hardly think such drastic measures are called for.”  Harrrr!

Book Review: Dangerous Women

52a0fc54463a6.preview-300Dangerous Women is an anthology of stories about, you guessed it, women who are, in one way or another, dangerous.  The anthology is edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois and includes a Game of Thrones novella by Martin.  I was thrilled about this book, picturing a bevy of kick-ass women of both the wits and the weapons variety.

Well, I can’t quibble with the quality of the writing in this anthology.  Every story is solidly written.  All the authors have a good use of language and world-building.  One of my favorite things about this book is that it involves a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, noir, and western.

But although the technical level of the writing was very high, I was disappointed by the content.  Most of these stories weren’t particularly empowering.  Many of them were about women who use sex as a weapon.  A surprising number of the stories were narrated by men, and dealt with men’s fears about women wielding sexual power.  Those stories weren’t always bad, but for me when it comes to exploring the idea that women can use sex as a weapon against men, a little goes a long way.  Not all the stories were like that, but more than I had expected.

Although I was little disappointed in the anthology as a whole, there were several stories that I thought were remarkable.  Not only did I like the stories while I was reading them, but they stayed in my mind long afterwards.  Here’s some standouts:

My Heart is Either Broken, by Megan Abbott

This is a haunting, chilling contemporary noir about a couple whose baby is kidnapped – maybe.  This story is clearly influenced by the Casey Anthony case and it manages to infuse the story with compassion and unexpected twists.  I never felt like I knew what was coming up and I did not expect to feel the parade of emotions that I went through.  It’s a tiny gem of a short story that is a master class in how to accomplish a great deal in a short space.

Neighbors, by Megan Lindholm

This is a contemporary with a hint of fantasy/horror about a woman who has reached the age where her children want her to move into a retirement home because they fear for her safety, and she refuses to leave her house.  I wanted this story to be more fair to the woman’s adult children, especially the daughter, who comes across as a one-dimensional jerk.  But it does do a good job of allowing some of the son’s very valid concerns to show through his impatience.

The fantasy elements of the story are far less involving than the day-to-day terrors of the older woman who is running out of options.  The moment when she looks around her house and suddenly realizes that it actually is falling apart is shattering.  The descriptions of suburban mom life that she relates in flashback are spot on – I say this as a suburban mom myself.  If you read one story from this anthology, make it this one.

Lies My Mother Told Me, by Caroline Spector

This is the only story I read that made me crazy to run out and find more stories set in the same world.  Structurally it’s a little weak – it feels more like part of a larger story than as a complete short story.  It’s part of the Wild Cards universe, a literary universe shared by a ton of amazing authors who all write different stories set in the same world.  It’s inventive and funny and scary and touching.  This story involves some outrageously bizarre superhero women and how they work together to protect their families.  I loved these characters so much I wanted to bring them all home to live with me forever.  Except the bad guys, who I loathed with an appropriate (high) level of loathing.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly, by Nancy Kress

A lovely, harrowing, somewhat hopeful tale about the importance of beauty and art in a dystopian world.

Gateway Drugs: The Humor Edition

door opening onto poppiesIn January, February, and March, the Friday Book Club is looking at books by humorists.  In honor of this, I give you Gateway Drugs:  The Humor Edition!

Humor is personal and everyone likes something different.  These humorists made some kind of lasting mark on literature with their humor writing.

I’m splitting this into three sections:  The Classics, Those Wacky Brits, and The Crazy Americans.  I have read things by authors from other countries, but it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t read much humor writing by authors from Africa, South America, Australia, or Asia.  If you have a favorite humorist, please share in the comments, especially if they are from one of the parts of the world I’ve neglected.  Some of this neglect is because in general I’m just not as well-read when it comes to places other than Northern America and the British Isles and some may be because humor is difficult to translate.  I’m not specifically listing Shakespeare’s comedies because you all know he’s funny, right?  RIGHT?

Really, to try to keep the focus on novels is silly.  Humor writing blurs all over the place – people read the plays, they act out scenes from novels, stand up comedians write down their sketches, and let’s not forget the joys of humorous poetry.  In addition, some of the best humor is often found embedded in other genres.  Joss Whedon is particularly famous for blending humor, drama, and horror.  But I’m sticking to humorous novels here with one exception purely to narrow the field – which is huge.  These aren’t necessarily my favorites so much as they are a small sample of selections that I think have had a big influence on genre.

The Classics

Lysistrata, by Aristophanes

Our one play on the list, this is one of the earliest “battle of the sexes” stories and one of the earliest works in which humor is used to make a serious point.  In this play, originally performed in 411BC in Greece, them women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands until their husbands end the Peloponnesian War.  This play is poignant, funny, and gleefully risqué in it’s wordplay.  Sample line:  How true the saying: ‘Tis impossible to live with the baggages, impossible to live without ’em.”

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes

Influential, funny, and sad, this is sometimes considered to be the first novel ever written (certainly it’s one of the earliest and most influential novels).  Everyone interprets is differently but everyone agrees this novel is touching and important.  Sample line:  “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Candide, by Voltaire

Why, hello, satire.  This novel of snark and sarcasm follows the misadventures of Candide, an optimist who ends up having all kinds of terrible things happen to him until he becomes a pragmatist.  Voltaire uses allegory to take on the establishment, much like Jonathon Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels, another incredibly influential humor novel (although modern readers tend to take it more as straight fantasy and miss the jokes).  Sample line:  “Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The most influential romantic comedy since Shakespeare, Jane Austen launched a genre that remains beloved today.  Sample line:  ““For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Those Wacky Brits

The pinnacle of British humor is surely Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  As far as modern novels go, I give you:

The Jeeves stories and novels, by P.G. Wodehouse

The stories of aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, give us some of the funniest wordplay and metaphors, and some of the craziest slapstick comedy, ever.  Also, they permanently defined two archetypes – the twit of nobel birth and the servant with the level head who solves all problems.  A whole parade of capable butlers followed in Jeeves wake (my personal favorites being Alfred, from Batman, and J.A.R.V.I.S., from Iron Man, but the list is not limited to science fiction and fantasy).  And Wodehouse’s use of metaphor, simile and pun has never quite been matched although many have tried!  Sample line:  “The voice of love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number”.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

I’m not sure how to define the influence of the Hitchhiker books expect to say that I simply can’t imagine books without this series.  Its wacky, bizarre, sardonic look at life influenced, well, everybody.  Sample line, ““For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett created the sprawling, loosely connected series of books based in the fantasy Discworld universe.  Each book is a satire of a different topic.  For example, one of my favorite of his books, Maskerade, is a parody of Phantom of the Opera that turns into a loving deconstruction of the insane world of theater.  His wordplay has influenced writers both in and out of science fiction and fantasy genre.  For instance, Jennifer Crusie, who is best known for contemporary romance, cites him as an influence).  Sample line: “But that was just it – hate was exactly the right word. Hate is a force of attraction. Hate is just love with its back turned.”

Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding

Love it or hate it, Bridget Jone’s Diary sparked a new genre, rather insultingly nicknamed “ChickLit”.  This modern take on Pride and Prejudice launched a new genre and a million conversations about modern women.  Sample line:  “I looked at him nonplussed. I realized that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where believe nutritional idea is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy they cannot stop themselves from breaking out and ruining their diets.”

Those Crazy Americans

The Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Mark Twain had a glorious literary career during which he made fun of pretty much everybody.  His book Tom Sawyer painted a picture of growing up in small town, pre-Civil War America that very much defined the ways people picture that period of time and way of life.  But nowhere was he more scathing or his legacy more controversial and enduring than in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which a runaway outcast boy travels down the Mississipi River with a runaway slave.  Sample line: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

This dark satire shows that war is not only cruel but also ridiculous.  If you are a fan of films like M.A.S.H. and the literary works of Kurt Vonnegut, you owe a shootout to Catch-22.  It also coined the phrase “Catch 22”), as seen in this sample quote:  “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown

Rubyfruit Jungle is a ground-breaking coming of age story (published in 1973) about a lesbian girl’s transition from being a child in the South to an aspiring author in the big city.  It’s explicit and ribald and launched so many coming of age stories that people sometimes criticize the book for being cliche, forgetting that this book originated the elements that became cliche later on.  It’s not unlike a lesbian Sex in the City.  Sample line:  “Whoever heard of a neurotic frog? Where do humans get off thinking they’re the pinnacle of evolution?”

Friday Book Club: P.G. Wodehouse and Race

SWT-Book-ClubsOf all the books and stories about Jeeves I could possibly have picked for our book club (and there were 35 short stories and 11 novels to choose from) I accidentally picked the one where Bertie Wooster uses That Word (read on to find out which word, if you dare).  The bad thing is, I suspect I put a lot off people off Wodehouse for life.  The good thing is we now have an opportunity to talk about the many different meanings one word can have.

In Thank You Jeeves, much of the plot involves the fact that a group of minstrels of African descent is performing at the country estate where Bertie is staying.  Bertie expresses nothing but admiration for this troupe and is quite eager to meet them, because he expects they might be able to advise him on his banjolele playing.  But he uses the word “nigger” to refer to them.  He uses the word three times, completely matter-of-factly.  I considered using “the n word” or something similar in this post to avoid causing offense and above all to escape my extreme discomfort with typing it, but it seems foolish not to stare that word, with all its ugly history, right in the face, and that means I have to spell the damn thing out.

The word “nigger” has become so incredibly inflammatory in our society that I can barely bring myself to type it.  Its ugliness brings us right out of the story.  Bertie is supposed to be an affable, sweet, dim but soft-hearted guy – how could he use such an ugly slur?  I think the answer to that is that in the context of the times and the country, that word was slang (and we know Bertie loves slang) but it doesn’t seem to have had the full pejorative meaning that it developed later on, at least not in the self-consciously pejorative way it would be used today.

In terms of historical usage, the word in question was used to describe any person who was not from the British Isles and who had dark skin – this included people of Asian descent as well as African and Middle Eastern.  The word was still in common use in the 1950’s – for instance, there was a brand of candy cigarette with that word in the title (sort of a perfect storm of cultural norms that have fallen out of favor for excellent reasons).  By the 1970’s the word was universally considered an insult in Britain much as it is in the United States, although in the USA it fell out of semi-acceptable common usage much sooner.

There are a lot of clues in Bertie’s behavior that he is not particularly racist despite using a word that today practically defines racism.  He doesn’t look down on the minstrel troupe.  He admires them.  He can’t wait to meet him, because he acknowledges that they are better than him at music and he hopes they will teach him how to play his beloved banjolele better.  He never makes fun of them or insults him other than using a word which today is a great insult.  We never see the minstrels so there are no insulting scenes of he minstrels bowing or scraping or otherwise having to behave in a demeaning fashion.

To me, the most compelling evidence that neither Bertie the character nor Wodehouse himself does not intend to cause offense is that Bertie (and Wodehouse) almost never intend to cause offense.  Bertie is  a kind person, but he’s not a thoughtful or intellectual or introspective person.  He uses whatever slang is popular at the time with no thought of its connotations.  Jeeves, who is more formal and more thoughtful about social niceties, does not use that word.  He uses the word “negro”.  Although the word “negro” has fallen somewhat out of modern favor, it was considered to be the most polite word available for a person  of color at the time.  It’s still used today by civil rights organizations such as “United Negro College Fund”.  Although we sympathize with Bertie throughout the series, our admiration goes to Jeeves, so it’s significant that the true hero of the series uses the most courteous language at his disposal.  This suggests that Wodehouse is not trying to be hateful in his attitudes in general.

But despite his lack of malice, Bertie is not completely off the hook, and neither is P.G. Wodehouse.  When I look up the history of the word “nigger” in England, I find frequent references to it being a generally accepted word, one that was in common usage well into the 1940’s.  It seems to have been used as a commonplace word, not as a calculated insult.  The problem is, I can’t seem to find anything about how people reacted to this word who were actually black, and I also know that racism was a huge problem in England’s history.  I’m less interested in what Bertie meant than in what the minstrel group would have felt if they had heard Bertie address them using that word – and they have no voice, so I don’t know.

There’s a phrase I hear a lot these days:  “Check your privilege”.  It means, take a look at your words and actions and make sure that you aren’t overlooking the viewpoint and/or struggles of those who have to struggle for respect and survival.  P.G. Wodehouse and his characters are all about privilege and they have no interest in checking it.  If a modern white character called a black character “nigger” than we could assume that a calculated insult was being delivered (the term is used in hip-hop culture in ways that I’m not well-educated about, but in any other context an insult would be pretty much guaranteed).  In Wodehouse’s day, the word may have been used innocently by Bertie, who doesn’t want to hurt anyone but just wants to practice his banjolele.  Even when he puts on blackface, it’s not to make fun of anyone – he just wants to escape his captor (and the fact that then he can’t remove the boot polish he used makes it something of a cautionary tale).

But just because Bertie isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt anyone, and the same could be said for P.G. Wodehouse.  As Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility” and when it came to social issues, P.G. Wodehouse assiduously avoided great responsibility.  Reading classics lets us see the values and norms of an earlier age – and sometimes those values and norms aren’t pretty.

Here are a couple essays that helped me formulate my thoughts (I also looked up some language background on Wikipedia which was both interesting and depressing):

FreeThoughtblogs:  Bertie and the N-Word

Wodehouse and Racist Epithets, by Neil Midkiff