Archive for January, 2015

My room is full of books that I’ve read three or four chapters of, half-completed job applications, and knitting projects I’m a third of the way into. I felt it to be a victory that I finished this book, because it means that I’m making some progress somewhere.

This is a novel written by a professional magician and narrated by a stuffed animal. That makes it sound much more infantile than it actually is.

Lumberjack sock stuffed with a woman’s nylons. Yeah, the old lady washed them. She washed me all. I was created clean, but that smell is deep. Deep. Deep. It’s a smell of the soul, and my soul is a lumberjack’s sole. I’ve been worn. My soul has walked miles of barbed wire to smell the nylons of my innards.

Hustler eyes, lumberjack skin, the heart of a woman’s legs, and a grandmother’s spoiling love. I got it all, baby. I got it all, my little baby boy. Drool on me. Grab me. Carry me. Rip me apart. I’m a bad monkey.

The Little Fool calls me “Dickie.” That’s my name.

“Why do you call him ‘Dickie’?” the parents ask.

“Because he’s dickie colored,” the Little Fool answers.

They laugh. They laugh at how cute the Little Fool is.

But he’s lying. He learned how to lie from my button eyes. He calls me “Dickie” because it’s the baddest word he knows. And I’m the baddest wammerjammer monkey he will ever love.

He will rip me apart with his love. And he will grow big. He will be very big. And he will never forget me.

And I’ll love him forever like a bad monkey. Like a very bad monkey.

The self-aware sock monkey starts off with himself, but after the first couple of chapters he gets out of the way and lets the story happen. Mostly. You see, the Little Fool (aka protagonist) left his radio on all the time, so the monkey’s head is full of song lyrics. The blurb on the back of the book says that he “references a treasure trove of 1970s and 1980s pop culture,” but those two decades are just a starting point. The Beatles, the Gershwins, Marcy Playground, and September 11, 2001, all get referenced as well. Sometimes it’s kind of obvious, as with the sex and candy references, but sometimes you have to work for it, as in “silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells” – I was rather proud of myself for recognizing Simon and Garfunkel in that one. Honestly, I didn’t catch probably more than half of his references, but that’s okay. I studied literature in school to develop the habit of letting the confusion wash over me and constructing meaning from the driftwood of sense that stays on the beach of consciousness.  Dickie mentions his name here in the first chapter, but it’s not really important. He usually calls himself “his monkey,” because he has no consciousness independent of the Little Fool, and because he was serious about loving him.

The Little Fool is not little. I don’t think he’s really a fool either. And as for The, well, there are so many little fools in the world that the determinate article can hardly be appropriate either. Nevertheless.

When you see the Little Fool, when you love the Little Fool, you want to call him something like the Little Fool. “Callow Youth” was what Irving chose. He was so close to the real sock monkey name. One quick consultation with the Sock and he would have changed to “the Little Fool.” He’s not little and he’s not a fool, but he thinks of himself that way, and those who love him should use that true name.

We’re not dealing with a child here, just a man who hung onto his favourite childhood toy. The Little Fool is all grown up, six to eight inches taller than I am, and significantly stronger because he’s a diver for the New York Police Department. He lives by diving into rivers of shit and chemical waste to drag up dead bodies. It’s not a total waste because it gives him a perfectly delightful body, and his mentor during his teen years gave him some useful advice about what to do with it. Irving’s not important to the story, but his advice is, and I think it’s good advice for straight men and lesbians.

Irving had said, “Ask the smart girls out. The mousey ones in the sweaters. The ones with glasses. The ones who are always reading. Get yourself into the advanced study groups and act like a punk. Check out what they’re reading. It’s Henry Miller and Anais Nin. The seduction has already been done by the best. Just go in and collect. The cheerleaders have to negotiate with the only commodity they’ll ever have. The smart girls, they’re waiting for you. Be a smart bad boy. And then just ask them. Make sure your looks will scare their parents, and then ask the smart girls. Don’t play games. Just ask.” How could all these others have won those Nobel Prizes and not Irving the year he had given that advice? It had changed the Little Fool’s life. The popular kids had been dating; the Little Fool had been working his way through the Kama Sutra.

I wish that someone would send this message through the community of people who are attracted to men. I’ve got glasses, sweaters, mousey hair, and the right reading material.

Irving’s advice led the Little Fool to Nell, whom we meet as a corpse he fishes out of the river. That’s right, we may begin with the childhood stuff, but this is actually a murder mystery. But it’s a sock monkey’s murder mystery, so there’s just the one dead body the Little Fool really cares about; the others are strangers. In a city the size of New York, it doesn’t really make sense for the protagonist to know the killer and more than one of the victims, but this is a novel. Tommy and the Little Fool solve the murder mystery, but they skip the genre’s less realistic conventions. Instead of using the bodies as pawns in a sick game between detective and murderer, our sock monkey focuses on the grief of the people left behind. There’s a lot about grieving for a book narrated by a sarcastic Freddie-Mercury-quoting sock monkey.

The Little Fool had been telling Stank stories about the Little Fool’s Mom and Dad. Wonderful stories. Funny stories. Stank didn’t laugh. He had kept wincing and looking away. Stank explained that he couldn’t bear to hear people with living, loving parents tell stories of that love. Stank could look into the eyes of filial love and see the future pain the parents’ deaths would cause his friends. Stank said it with a lot of carny ejaculations and slang, but that’s what he said. The Little Fool believed Stank was crazy and, well, Stank was indeed crazy, but he hadn’t been wrong. After Mom and Dad died, the Little Fool felt the same way. The Little Fool couldn’t stand people who had their parents, and loved them, talking about them. The embryonic pain living right below the surface, waiting to cause pain, was too much to take. Future bereavement for a loved one is a benign tumor that grows with love and gets malignant with death. Since Nell’s death, the Little Fool could see those tumors growing everywhere, in every couple. Every happy couple, laughing, nuzzling, holding hands, was just a few stopped heartbeats from pain bursting through one of their skulls. Bone-hard tumors of woe ready to burst through like the Elephant Man. The Little Fool looked at beautiful young women and knew that when they lost their biker boys in motorcycle accidents, those girls would be disfigured and drooling.

I’m sometimes amazed by how little death has affected my life. I have more family than anyone has a right to, but they just keep living, on and on. A hundred years ago, a thirty-five-year-old man would not still have three living parents, one grandparent, a couple dozen aunts and uncles, plus a few dozen cousins, six siblings, their spouses, and thirteen nieces and nephews, plus my own three children. Half of us at least would be dead. I’d probably be in the dead half of the family. I am not as grateful as I should be that we’re all still here. I don’t understand this grief. A good friend of mine just lost her father, and I feel helpless when I think of what she must be going through. Giving her the space to work through this with her partner seems to be the right approach, so I’m leaving them alone right now. The Little Fool, though, goes right up to the families of the dead women and joins with them. He’s dealing with Nell’s death, so it’s easy for him to empathize with them, and he needs to be with people who are feeling the same things that he is. Hence Tommy.

Tommy doesn’t fit with the current political narrative about gender and sexuality. Nowadays we’re all “born this way,” because the most effective way for us to be accepted by mainstream society is to tell them the lie that gender and sexual orientation are fixed binary positions. Sometimes I think that it actually harms us to focus so much on Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re the ‘good gays,’ and the rest of us are only good and only gay inasmuch as we reflect EDG and NPH. Well, the reality is, we’re not all fabulous. We don’t fart glitter or sneeze rainbows. We’re normal people. And sometimes we make conscious choices about things that the mainstream narrative says are genetically determined.

Tommy is a gay man. Okay, we can accept that. However, for several years in his youth, Tommy took hormone-replacement therapy because he wanted to improve his drag act. He didn’t feel like a woman trapped in a dick-ridden body; he never seems to have felt that the penis didn’t belong there. But his job was to make people think he was female, so he got all estrogened up without ever really insisting on a transgender identity. Once his popularity faded and it became clear that he had been replaced with younger queens, he got off the stage and quit taking the hormones. Now he’s a gay man, because he chose to be. Which is fine. He is a grown fucking man and can make his own choices about his body and sex partners. The Little Fool is a heterosexual man, again because he made a conscious choice to be so.

In high school, when the Little Fool had been a dietary aid (dishwasher) at the hospital, he worked with a cook who was very gay. The Little Fool talked to the cook about music. The cook, Charles, had given him Bette Midler and Yma Sumac records. Charles and the Little Fool became very close. Charles cooked special lunches for them to eat together in the walk-in refrigerator just to be wild. They talked about everything together. The Little Fool finally got up the nerve and asked Charles what homosexuals do. The Little Fool knew what heterosexuals do. He believed that homos had some real perversions. Charles went down the list of everything gays do, and there was nothing on the list the Little Fool couldn’t do some version of with a girl. Nothing. That was when the Little Fool decided not to be gay. If anything, gays had one less option. It was depressing.

So, this isn’t just a murder mystery. It’s also a gay romance. Again, it’s a sock monkey gay romance, so there’s no sex involved (that we can see). Tommy and the Little Fool meet because the Little Fool is investigating Nell’s death and Tommy was her best friend. They start working at solving the crime themselves, and they become more physically affectionate over time. The Little Fool starts taking his shirt off when he’s over at Tommy’s. He kisses Tommy sometimes. The sock monkey refers frequently to the love between them, and eventually the Little Fool starts dreaming about having anal sex with a girl who looks an awfully lot like Tommy. If they hadn’t solved the mystery, who knows what would have happened? But, for a book that thinks about sex almost as much as I do, there’s none actually going on. Just like me.

This is also an atheist novel. Belief isn’t so much mocked (most of the time) as it is shown to be completely insane. It reminds me of going to see my oldest brother. He went to the local Christian school for his business degree, so he ended up with a shit-ton of religion classes. He wanted to get an MDiv and become a pastor; that didn’t work out, but he still feels called to preach to everyone who gets close enough to listen. I end up nodding and going “uh-huh” a lot, because responding honestly would be like slapping him in the face, and the strength of his belief already crushes me. It feels like a weight he’s pressing on me that I can’t get out from under; in other words, it’s a bit like unexpected choke sex. You don’t know how you ended up in this position, it scares you, and there’s no way out, so you do what you can to survive until he’s done and leaves you alone.

The buddhist wasn’t a real buddhist – he was a college student buddhist. If it’s stupid to believe in a religion with a god who looks out for you, how stupid is it to believe in a religion that has no god watching over you? Buddhism is the slowest competitor in the Special Olympics that is religion.

The killer is religious, but he’s not one of those cartoonish religious people you see so often in fiction by atheists who have no idea what it’s all about – he gets it. He understands the stakes. And he lives accordingly. Of course there’s murder involved.

Imagine that as we sit here there’s a truck coming at me. And you see the truck. And you hear the truck. And you smell the truck. And you taste the smoke of the truck. And you feel the truck rumble the ground under your feet. And you know the truck is real. And it’s coming right at us. And you move out of the way, and you’re okay. And I look at you and say, “I don’t see the truck.” Do you say, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion?” Remember you can feel the fucking truck. Do you smile and nod? No. You mention the truck again. You say, “Get out of the way.” You preach the gospel of getting out of the way of the truck. And if I still don’t listen, and if you love me like you should love all men, do you shrug and say, “Well, it takes all kinds”? At some point, if you’re a good person, you grab me and knock me out of the way of the truck. You hit me and you drag me and if you have a baseball bat you use it and you get me out of the way of that truck.

But that’s just to save my life from a truck. Life doesn’t matter. But the religious, those who know there’s a God, those who can see God, and smell God, and taste God, and hear God and feel God, know that it’s not just the loss of life they have to stop; it’s the loss of eternal life. If you would pull someone you didn’t really know out of the way of the truck, how could you not pull a person out of the way of the Atheism that would snuff out eternal life?

This is what religion is really about. Especially in America, today. Especially in the communities I’ve lived in. Damnation is hurtling at us all like an out-of-control tractor trailer coming down Cowee, and we’ve got to pull everyone out of the way before they die and go to hell. It has that urgency, that conviction, that fear. In some ways my brother scares me more than IS, even when I lived in the Kingdom of the Two Sacred Mosques. He’s not the only Christian who would kill for Christ.

Despite the fact that crazy religionists share a book with gender-ambiguous homosexuals, there’s no sex-shaming going on.

I’m speaking now of sane people. There are insane people who need to hate the people the insane people are sexually attracted to. Men and women who go to topless clubs feel the sexuality and believe the people who provide it are evil. We won’t be dealing with that level of wrong in this story. We’ll be dealing with decomposed dead bodies in raw sewage, huge puncture wounds, rage, pain and murder, but we won’t touch upon the kind of hate that’s contained in even the slightest anti-sex position. There are certain things a sock monkey can’t stomach. In my story, there is no one sick enough to have negative thoughts towards a stripper. We’re going to keep it clean and happy. Everything is beautiful.

So. It’s a sexy atheist gay romance murder mystery told by a sock monkey obsessed with the pop music of the entire previous century. There are all sorts of asides and seeming non sequiturs, but it all comes together beautifully. It’s a real shame that Penn Jillette doesn’t write fiction more often, but his very active professional life probably keeps him busy.

One of those nearly-finished knitting projects is a sock monkey that I started five or so years ago. Maybe I’ll finish it to remind me not to rely on imaginary friends. If faith is really like a drug (Jillette’s comparison), I’d like to stay clean.

Anais Nin is not best known for her male readership, but I try to read at least something by well-known authors, so I tried it out. Her writing is beautiful, though it’s not in a style or about a subject that will immediately appeal to most men these days.

Jay could not retain any sequence of the people she had loved, hated, escaped from, anymore than he could keep track of her very personal appearance as she herself would say: “At that time I was a blond, and I wore my hair very short,” or, “this was before I was married when I was only nineteen” (and once she had told him she had been married at the age of eighteen). Impossible to know who she had betrayed, forgotten, married, deserted, or clung to. It was like her profession. The first time he had questioned her she had answered immediately: “I am an actress.” But when he pressed her he could not find in what play she had acted, whether she had been a success or a failure, whether, perhaps, (as he decided later) she had merely wished to be an actress but had never worked persistently enough, seriously enough except in the way she was working now, changing personalities with such rapidity that Jay was reminded of a kaleidoscope.

He sought to capture the recurrence of certain words in her talk, thinking they might be used as keys, but if the word “actress”, “miraculous”, “travel”, “wandering”, “relationship” did occur frequently, it remained impossible whether or not she used them in their literal sense or symbolically, for they were the same to her. He had heard her say once: “When you are hurt you travel as far as you can from the place of the hurt,” and when he examined her meaning found she was referring to a change of quarters within fifty blocks in the city of New York.

She was compelled by a confessional fever which forced her into lifting the veil slightly, only a corner of it, and then frightened when anyone listened too attentively, especially Jay whom she did not trust, whom she knew found the truth only in the sense of exposure of the flaws, the weaknesses, the foibles.

As soon as Jay listened too attentively, she took a giant sponge and erased all she had said by an absolute denial as if this confusion were in itself a mantle of protection.

Sabina manages a number of love affairs, some of them very well-described for the 1950s. Her husband is the most important and yet the one who appears the least. Her relationship with him reminds me of many people’s relationships with God: he is the foundation of her life, the one thing that she can’t survive without, the one person whose opinion she values the most, and yet she doesn’t let his opinion of her behavior influence that behavior. She does what she likes and hides it from him. The lies she tells heap up around her and twist over each other in uncomfortable ways, and Jay’s experience in listening to her talk is a mirror for the reader’s experience with the novel. It’s not clear when things happen, so maybe all the affairs in the short little book are happening concurrently, or maybe she only does one at a time. This tangle of detail is where the title comes from.

It was when she saw the lives of spies that she realized fully the tension with which she lived every moment, equal to theirs. The fear of committing themselves, of sleeping too soundly of talking in their sleep, of carelessness of accent or behaviour, the need for continuous pretending, quick improvisations of motivations, quick justifications of their presence here or there.

It seemed to Sabina that she could have offered her services or been of great value in that profession.

I am an international spy in the house of love.

I’ve sometimes thought I could be a spy, but I don’t have Sabina’s talent for deceit. But this tension she experiences seems similar to what I went through when I was married. I reached a point where I could no longer hide from myself that I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to tell my wife yet. So I avoided her when I could and avoided talking to her when I couldn’t, and got into the habit of clearing my web browser history all the time. I knew that if we had any sort of serious discussion, I was going to tell her and she was going to leave me, and I didn’t want that, so we didn’t discuss anything. She accused me of being distant, and I was, but I wasn’t about to explain why. I didn’t feel at home in the places we lived, like I was always a foreigner, an intruder, a spy.

The core, where she felt a constant unsureness, this structure always near collapse which could so easily be shattered by a harsh word, a slight, a criticism, which floundered  before obstacles, was haunted by the image of catastrophe, by the same obsessional forebodings which she heard in Ravel’s Waltz.

The waltz leading to catastrophe: swirling in spangled airy skirts, on polished floors, into an abyss, the minor notes simulating lightness, a mock dance, the minor notes always recalling that man’s destiny was ruled by ultimate darkness.

This core of Sabina’s was temporarily supported by an artificial beam, the support of vanity’s satisfaction when this man so obviously handsome walked by her side, and everyone who saw him envied the woman who had charmed him.

Yes, it was like dancing toward a bottomless pit, but only I could see it. When she was young, her parents took her to the Grand Canyon. Their first afternoon it was too foggy to see anything, so she and her brother ran along the trails just as they did here in Pisgah National Forest. Their parents kept telling them to be more careful, but they couldn’t see the danger. The next day it was clear, and her heart caught in her throat when she saw how close they had been to plunging to a certain death. The last couple of years of our marriage were like that.

I could see how much she relied on me, and it was very flattering to have a woman so beautiful so dependent. When we walked through a parking lot into a store, I’d see other guys nudge and point as we walked by, sharing the joy that the sight of her figure brought. After she had our first son she dropped a few dress sizes, and it’s pretty close to ideal in our society for a woman to be a 34C up top and still a size 4. When she put in her contacts, our friends often compared her to Anne Hathaway (Now that I think on it, this is sort of ironic, considering the role she played in Brokeback Mountain). I used to say that if she wasn’t the perfect woman for me, there was none. And, well, I was right.

Sabina doesn’t just show how easily men are cuckolded; she reduces her lovers to a feeling that she gets from them or a few key traits, just as men have been doing to women for centuries. She chooses them as one does items on a menu: pick what you’re in the mood for tonight, and tomorrow night pick something else.

The music stopped, he came to her table, sat down and gave her a smile mixed with a contraction of pain.

“I know,” he said. “I know . . .”

“You know?”

“I know, but it cannot be,” he said very gently. And then suddenly the anger overflowed: “For me, it’s everything or nothing. I’ve known this before . . . a woman like you. Desire. It’s desire, but not for me. You don’t know me. It’s for my race, it’s for a sensual power we have.”

He reached for her wrists and spoke close to her face: “It destroys me. Everywhere desire, and in the ultimate giving, withdrawal. Because I am African. What do you know of me? I sing and drum and you desire me. But I’m not an entertainer. I’m a mathematician, a composer, a writer.” He looked at her severely, the fullness of his mouth difficult to compress in anger but his eyes lashing: “You wouldn’t come to Ile Joyeuse and be my wife and bear me black children and wait patiently upon my negro grandmother!”

Sabina answered him with equal vehemence, throwing her hair away from her face, and lowering the pitch of her voice until it sounded like an insult: “I’ll tell you one thing: if it were only what you say, I’ve had that, and it didn’t hold me, it was not enough, it was magnificent, but it didn’t hold me. You’re destroying everything, with your bitterness, you’re angry, you’ve been hurt . . .”

“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been hurt, and by a woman who resembled you. When you first came in, I thought it was she . . .”

“My name is Sabina.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you at all.”

But when she rose to dance with him, he opened his arms and as she rested her head on his shoulder he looked down at her face drained of all anger and bitterness.

Paradoxically, there’s something freeing in this sort of commitment-phobic attitude toward love. No one man has to be everything to her. The English fighter pilot just has to be the complete PTSD-ridden ex-soldier (who is really hot), and she’s satisfied. The drummer can be as serious as he likes; she’ll accept him as he is, and get what he can’t supply with someone else. Bacon and eggs are truly wonderful, but no one wants to eat them three times a day every day for the rest of her life.

They also elicit different things in her. She feels like she has this multiplicity of selves, and she has to be a different one for each man she’s with. Donald wants a maternal figure, so she cooks for him and babies him and feels like her mother. Other men want someone to listen, or to watch spy movies with, or to fuck in all the positions their wives don’t like. She remakes herself every time, becoming the woman that every man wants her to be. None of them really know her, not even Alan, and she doesn’t really know herself either. At the end of the book she realizes that she wants to know herself and be whole, a unified personality, but she doesn’t seem to know how to become this, and I don’t think she succeeds. Nin collected this with four other interconnected novels, so maybe Sabina reaches wholeness later; this book is about realizing that her promiscuity is a quest for unity of personality. In this sense, it has some similarities to the final portion of Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In this discussion, it’s probably seemed that I value promiscuity over fidelity, but my feelings on the subject are a little complex just now. The ex and I were very possessive of each other, which belied a great insecurity in the relationship. I’d like to be confident in the love of my partner. I don’t see the value of celibacy, so I’m going to continue to try people out until I find someone who wants to hang onto me, but serial monogamy fits my personality better than random promiscuous activity. I don’t understand the impulse that Sabina follows, stacking up guilt upon guilt until she telephones a lie detector who may or may not exist. If you’re with someone who expects faithfulness, give him that. If you’re going to keep a string of lovers on the side, be honest with him and them. Secrets are a poison that diseases the consciousness. As for me, it’s been almost six months since the last time a man told me that he loves me, then stripped me down and beat me without actually fucking me, so I’m ready to try dating again. After one of those experiences, it takes a while for the loneliness to outweigh the risk. I’m really hoping I find someone genuinely nice this time, or at least more upfront about what he wants to do to me.

Nin mentions misogyny once or twice, but generally she ignores the systemic difficulties that women faced sixty years ago and focuses on the specific experience of one woman.

Above all he possessed a most elaborate encyclopedia of women’s flaws. In this gallery he had most carefully avoided Joan of Arc and other women heroines, Madame Curie and other women of science, the Florence Nightingales, the Amelia Earharts, the women surgeons, the therapists, the artists, the collaborative wives. His wax figures of women were an endless concentrate of puerilities and treacheries.

“Where did you find all these repulsive women?” she asked one day, and then suddenly she could no longer laugh: caricature was a form of hatred.

I can’t tell you how much I hate the sentence, “You have to admit, that’s funny,” nor how many times I have heard it. No, I do not have to laugh at a comment that dehumanizes me or any group of people, whether I belong to that group or not. As Nin points out, such comments ignore the best (and even the typical) aspects of human experience, highlighting the worst in all of us and blaming huge groups of people for the faults of a few. Telling jokes that rely on the gender of the people involved is sexist. Differentiating between gay men and real men is homophobic. Joking about your ignorance about Islam is offensive. We don’t have to laugh when you are actively involved in hating us or the people we love.

Anais Nin writes beautifully, and this book is rather sexy. I should have liked it more than I did. Throughout, there was some ineffable barrier between me and the writer. I don’t know if it was cultural (I’m American, she’s Cuban-French) or just that being a man makes it hard for me to connect with the material. But it’s not even 120 pages; I should have had no trouble knocking it out in an afternoon, but it took me almost a week. Maybe it was Sabina’s unhappiness, her lost-ness, her inability to resolve her conflicts. Maybe it was something else. I’ll need to read another of her books to see if this was an exception or the rule.

Oh, come on, you remember Robin McKinley. She got Newberys for The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword back in the ‘80s. I loved those books when I was little. Well, that was the beginning of her career. She’s still writing now. Spindle’s End was first published in the year 2000, and these days she has an online serial that she’s doing, alongside other projects for print. Sometimes I reread books from my childhood, and I can’t imagine how I ever got through them, even when I was ten (Roald Dahl, I’m looking at you). Not so here – I was pleased to see that McKinley’s style stands up to the test of adulthood (and a couple of degrees in literature).

We know this story. Not only is Sleeping Beauty one of my favorite Disney cartoons, I just saw Maleficent this summer. But as I’ve mentioned before, we seldom read for plot. An experienced reader knows what’s going to happen pretty early on, no matter what he’s reading; we rely heavily on convention when telling stories. We keep reading because we love the characters and we love the language. But as you would expect from an author who writes about female dragonslayers, the king’s daughter will not wait passively to be rescued.

The first thing McKinley makes clear is that we’re dealing with a place where magic infests everything. It transforms, it binds, it protects, it attacks, it keeps physics from working as it should. As a result, there are fairies, who have the natural ability to work with magic, and magicians, who learned in an academy. [There are also priests and religion, but they’re not very important.] Magic can also have nothing to do with the professionals; a piece of household furniture that is very loved can take on magical properties. She doesn’t make this explicit, but love can be the most powerful form of magic.

Barder’s gift was a little flat medallion of ash, carved, like the plaque over the door of Cairngorm’s pub, in the shape of an egret; but while the pub’s egret stood, gazing over the green marsh at its feet, Barder’s egret curled into the small oval space, its long neck folded gracefully back against its body, its long legs tucked out of sight. Even in so tiny an area Barder had cut the feathers to perfection; Katriona half-expected them to yield under her touch as she stroked them. “A memory charm, eh?” said Aunt, admiring the egret. “He’s given you his own charm, I think, a charm for remembering where to come back to.”

“Barder isn’t – ”

“Not that kind of magic,” said Aunt. “But real for all that.”

And, of course, if there are powerful women and magic, cats won’t be far behind.

Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic – which was what all magic was – it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on you knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody’s knee and purred. Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you could call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were always more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona’s theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight enough answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren’t true.

Yeah, sounds right.

We’re just coming out of a spate of gift-giving in this part of the world, and I managed to avoid getting anything but one. Fortunately there weren’t any curses attached. Sleeping Beauty is, after all, a story of gifts going wrong. Normally I’m not into gifts and getting things, but twice a year, birthday and Christmas, the lack of them makes me feel especially lonely. Instead of going to a party New Year’s Eve, I was with a friend whose kids were staying up to midnight for the first time, so I rang in 2015 with a Phineas and Ferb marathon. Nice for a change, fun because I don’t do it often, but if I’m going to spend all year watching cartoons . . . that life isn’t worth living. But anyway, for Christmas my mom gave me my grandfather’s briefcase. I don’t have any specific memories of it, but I love it because it reminds me of him. It’s like when Rosie carves Peony a new spindle end for the princess’s birthday, and she says,

I’m sorry it’s only new.

I think that a gift should bring the giver to mind, so it’s nicer to get things that are either handmade or old. New-bought things are great and all, but there’s very little of the self that the person is giving to you. It gets you the possession you want, but it doesn’t draw your community closer as a gift should.

This last week I went visiting friends and family Down East. One of my friends saw that I was reading this and told me how much she loved it, which told me something I’d already suspected about it: this book is completely kid-friendly. She’s not any younger than I am, but ever since we were teenagers she’s feigned an extreme innocence. The illusions help her square her experience of the real world with her religious conservatism. She wasn’t very supportive when I came out of the closet, but we’re back to being good friends now, probably because I don’t talk with her about my love life. She’s happier putting it out of her mind.

People forgot; it was in the nature of people to forget, to blur boundaries, to retell stories to come out the way they wanted them to come out, to remember things as how they ought to be instead of how they were.

She said there was one moment in the book that struck her as weird and off, but that I hadn’t reached it yet. Later, when Rosie kisses Peony, I knew I had found it. It’s not really weird or out of character, actually, unless you’re a homophobic American. Rosie and Peony meet when Rosie’s family moves from the country into town. Rosie has always been a little butch, wearing trousers, talking to animals, and hanging out in traditionally masculine places like the town forge. She’s the best large-animal veterinarian around because she can ask the horses what their problems are. Peony is the perfect little femme, with all the airs and graces and little household skills you would expect from a princess. Rosie tries to hate her at first, but can’t. Despite the polar opposites of their personalities, they become close friends. Rosie first notices romantic feelings in herself when Peony falls in love with someone else. When Rosie begins to prepare for her twenty-first birthday and final showdown with Pernicia, Peony volunteers to be her stunt double. They tell everyone that Peony is the princess – which is more believable than presenting the kingdom with a short-haired, big-boned, misanthropic horse-girl – and they cover the two of them in binding spells so that even magic spells will confuse the two of them. They breathe in unison and cast only one shadow. So when Peony jabs her finger on that sharp spindle, she doesn’t die because she’s the wrong princess. Rosie goes off on a quest to save her friend (revived by her fairy blacksmith boyfriend performing CPR, not kissing her), which ends in Rosie putting the spindle end that symbolizes their union between Peony’s hands and kissing her. The dramatic moment when Sleeping Beauty is awakened by true love’s kiss, and it’s between two not-quite princesses. They both have heterosexual relationships, but there’s something at least a little lesbian between the two of them. However, as mentioned, the book is kid-friendly so the homosocial content is presented in a world where any sort of sexuality is nearly effaced. You can read it as I do, that there’s an offstage GFY romance, or you can read it as simply two very close friends who spent their teenage years without the company of other girls their age. My religious friend has four sisters, and she’s always been close with at least one or two, so she goes for the second reading, which makes kissing on the lips a little weird, but that interpretation allows her to enjoy the book, so I won’t tell her what I think of it.

Spindle’s End is a good book. It’s especially good for people who like fairy tales, fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery type (but with not many swords or sorcerers, just an everyday sort of magic), coming-of-age stories, and strongly implied feminism. If you need profanity or sex scenes to enjoy a book, you’re better off reading something else.