Archive for January, 2019

 

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood (Wilkie Martin)

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse (Wilkie Martin)

Inspector Hobbes and the Gold Diggers (Wilkie Martin)

Full disclosure – Kobo offered me the three in a bundle, so that’s why I read them all in a row. There’s a fourth, and now you can get the four of them in a bundle. Or I can pay full price for the one that’s left.

These books are low-key paranormal mysteries. Inspector Hobbes, the resident Sherlock Holmes, is a large, hairy man with a keen interest in old-fashioned manners and a complete obliviousness to anything modern, like fashion or technology. Watson is played by Andy Caplet, who calls himself a journalist but he’s better at causing news than at reporting on it. He’s clumsy and awkward, and in the first book that leads to a tendency to incite riots. People react less violently in the later books, and the novels are the poorer for it. In the portrayal of trolls and vampires and other supernatural characters, Martin displays unflatteringly people’s tendency to racism and classism, and the gratitude that minorities have toward someone who just treats them like a regular person (maybe a little too grateful). That being said, there’s nothing in these cozy little mysteries to offend anyone, or even to make the heart beat faster. Read these books to laugh, not to be enthralled or horrified. The comedy is the most successful aspect.

 

A Ghost in the Closet (Mabel Maney)

I loved this book so much. It’s a lesbian parody of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, with a bit of Nurse Cherry Ames thrown in. It’s the third in the series, with two previous Nancy Clue/Cherry Aimless books. By the time this one opens, the squad has something like five lesbians traveling together – Midge and Velma are the stable couple, while Nancy and Jackie are fighting over Cherry. There are also several bits of the Hardly boys dealing with their own homosexual feelings (not for each other). The mystery itself is a cross between utter triviality and overblown world destruction, and the writing style is so alliterative I was giggling constantly. There are a couple of graphic scenes with the ladies, but not so graphic. There’s an emphasis on fashion and interior decorating that leads me to question the community’s interest in conspicuous consumption – are we really that materialistic?

“Let’s have breakfast,” Willy announced, shepherding the gang into his pleasant kitchen. Nancy relaxed for the first time in days as she watched Willy bustle about the cozy room, painted in soothing peach tones and decorated with starched white tie-back flounced curtains. Above the sink was a saucy shelf edged with ruffled gingham and holding a collection of dainty porcelain egg cups. She sipped her coffee as Willy tied an apron over his slacks outfit, took a bowl of farm fresh eggs from the Frigidaire and expertly cracked a dozen into a cast-iron skillet, next to a pan cradling a sizzling side of bacon.

A few minutes later he plopped a plate of just-right eggs, yummy-smelling bacon and crunchy toast in front of her. “You’ll feel better once you’ve had a bite to eat,” he smiled. Nancy blinked back tears. He had seen right through her brave charade!

 

Alien Quest (Mark Zubro)

Another gay book, this one not so much a parody as a clunky genre piece. Joe is a detective from outer space, and Mike is a Chicago waiter. There is nothing hot or steamy about the romance, and Mike routinely ignores the global consequences of events for petulant moments of self-absorption. Then, there are so many other things that get shoved in, because apparently no book about gay men is complete without (a) someone dying of AIDS and (b) the gay community adopting a homophobic teenager and converting him to tolerance. Seriously. I get so sick of the myth of the saintly minority. I know what it is to suffer, so I’m required to relieve the suffering of those who hate me? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Minor Character is out of the physically abusive situation he was in, but having to save the teenage jerk while trying to save the world was an unnecessary distraction. It’s like Zubro didn’t have enough plot with an alien detective, so he had to keep shoving more elements in until it reached critical mass. There are a couple more in this series, but I may end up having too many issues to read them.

Another thing that bothers me is how seldom the narrator uses Joe’s name. He’s always referred to as ‘the alien’, perhaps because he’s so normal that we might forget that’s what he is. It makes Mike (and Zubro) seem a bit racist against non-humans. If someone looks and acts like a human being, even down to having the same genitals and manner of employing them, why would you keep insisting on his difference?

 

David Starr, Space Ranger (Isaac Asimov)

Asimov includes a short note of apology at the beginning of this book, because science moved on and the story as he imagined it could not possibly happen. Interstellar radiation, or something like that. David Starr is the type of hero that the audience of the time would have really loved – young, rebellious, smart, asexual, and violent. Asimov was writing for boys in the 1950s; what do you expect? Female characters? Despite the complete absence of women, he avoids any hints of homosexuality, which is actually sort of amazing. The last page features two men swearing eternal friendship and companionship, but it’s not until the last page. It seems strange to me that there’s so much hand-to-hand combat, because I don’t think science requires the frequent application of fists to noses, but I’m from another time.

 

Old School (Tobias Wolff)

This is a book about books. First-Person Narrator is remembering his school days, at this uncomfortably elite school where they invite famous authors to meet the students. The first part, about Robert Frost, is sort of straightforward and introduces you to the world and characters. The second part disrupts the first – some fool invites Ayn Rand. She’s horrible, travels with an entourage of superfans, and treats everyone like shit. FPN is enamoured of her work until he meets her and realizes what a terrible person she is. I was going to say bitch, but that’s an insult to dogs. Things get really intense for the third author, Ernest Hemingway. Of course FPN has to submit a story, but he can’t force anything out until he reads a story in a girls’ school literary magazine, and her story hits so hard and seems so much like his own that he plagiarizes the entire thing. He’s chosen, and caught, because this is what Story requires, but Hemingway dies before the visit anyway.

This is a book about authenticity, told by a boy who is so ashamed of his Jewish heritage that he can’t admit it to anyone, not even other part-Jewish boys, not even when he plagiarizes a story about being Jewish on the edges of high WASP society. It’s sad and weird, but worth reading.

 

Alphabet of Thorn (Patricia A. McKillip)

This book was so fantastic. Protagonist is a foundling raised by librarians to be a translator, and one day she finds an untranslatable book written in a completely unique alphabet that only she can read. It tells the legend of ancient heroes, and with the increasing level of detail it becomes clear that it was written by the greatest magician of all time. Because history is as it is, a number of legendary historical figures are misgendered, so the books feels strongly feminist, literally taking a time-traveling fantasy out of the hands of men and making the real heroes women. Men are realistically portrayed, but they do tend to be either violent, dense, or both. My favorite male character accidentally turns himself invisible.

I like the way that McKillip is sex-positive without being erotic or graphic. In this book, sex is as normal, unquestioned, and not worth describing as eating. She normalizes it successfully instead of fetishizing it or making it a significant plot point. I’m now looking for all the books of hers I can lay my hands on.

 

The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle)

I had a hard time making it through this one. I started it back before Nancy Clue, but it took this long to finish, even though it’s a short little thing. The problem is that I hate Professor Challenger. Like David Starr, he uses his fists as much as his scientific intellect, but he looses his violence on reporters and colleagues, not anyone who is actually trying to pick a fight. His wife disagrees with him on something, and she’s in the right, so he punishes her by literally setting her on a pedestal that is too high for her to climb down from. It’s everything that’s wrong with Victorian masculinity condensed into one vain, belligerent asshole. He leads a small expedition – another professor, a reporter, and a big-game hunter – with its attendant racist portrayals of Brazilians to find an isolated plateau populated by dinosaurs. It’s hard to escape from, but apparently genocide helps. The reporter is the first-person narrator, and he’s Irish, but uses unmarked speech while his Scottish editor is portrayed as a dialect-employing idiot. So racist. So sexist. Also ends with two men agreeing to stick together because “Bitches be cray”; she told him before he left that he wasn’t good enough for her, so I don’t know why he expected her to stay single while he got himself lost in the Amazon. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but if they’re as bad as this, I may never come back to Doyle.

 

Faerie Tale (Raymond E. Feist)

Horror novel based on the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Phil and Gloria, a successful screenwriter and an unsuccessful actress, buy a house in upstate New York and move their family there. The twin boys are pretty standard American fare, obsessed with baseball and too young for girls, and the older daughter falls for a grad student working with Phil’s old mentor. He’s a good kid. There are also Mark and Gary, two folklore scholars who are studying the fairy stories and strange occurrences. They sound and act like a gay couple, even though Gary has a girlfriend. Her name is Ellen and she’s a very competitive, athletic tennis player who is almost never onscreen – the perfect lesbian beard. There’s a lot of secret society stuff, and sex is positive when it’s offscreen, as if rape is the only sex worth describing. Feist isn’t a bad writer, and I’ll probably read some more of his work, but there’s something dissonant about this book that I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s just me.

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Fromm is a social psychologist from the last century, and I’ve been working my way through his works a little at a time. This book attacks the idea that in 1950s America, healthy and normal were interchangeable concepts. Fromm begins by asking the question, are we sane? Is this a sane society? The answer, of course, is no. He determines this by examining the suicide and murder rates, which were already unusually high in the United States.

The next stage could be a bit controversial: determining what a person needs, regardless of culture. Making claims for universality is always a little dodgy, and although a European emigrant to the United States has had experience of several different cultures, his background doesn’t necessarily qualify him to discuss every culture. But since he’s focused on mine, I found his five needs to be relevant.

  1. Love. We need other people; not just any people, we need people who are similar to ourselves who welcome us. We need to feel like we belong. The failure of loving others productively is narcissism.
  2. Creation. He expresses it as transcendence, but I find that any explanation that uses the word ‘transcend’ becomes excessively numinous. We need to make stuff. I used to make blankets and sweaters, but now I’m making brownies and pies and casseroles. Sometimes I make poems or stories. Sometimes I add color to figurines at work. I like to make music. When we lose faith in our ability to create, we destroy. Later on, Fromm uses this need to explain why laziness is a capitalist construct and only exists when the work-life balance is skewed.
  3. Roots. Glancing back at the idea of love, we need to have a sense of our own origins. If we’re successful, we can distill that universal love into a positive feeling for those people we grew up with; if we’re not, then there’s incest to fall back on. Fromm really takes Freud to task here, arguing that his Oedipus complex and incest drives are abnormal, not part of healthy human development. He points out how ridiculous it is to assume that babies and young children have developed the sexual instincts of adults.
  4. Identity. We need to know who we are, apart from all the groups we belong to – family, community, nation, fandom, etc. Failure to establish an identity leads to conformity to the group. When we think back on the 1950s, it’s the conformity that seems most prominent in our cultural memory, but trauma has a way of forcing individuality on us, and World War II led to the expression of a lot of things that people didn’t want to face. If there’s repression, there has to be something trying to break free, and little packets of individual identity were breaking free all over the place. Kerouac’s On the Road was published in the 1950s, though most of those journeys took place in the 1940s, right after the war. He served in the US Navy for about a week.
  5. Belief. He talks in terms of orientation, which again is a little more abstract than is helpful for me. This is where he talks about reason – some people form beliefs based on observation and rational thought. They might be Christians or Muslims or atheists or Hindus, the thing believed in isn’t important, but the important thing is how they arrive at this belief. Less successful people grab onto superstitions and are guided by imagination rather than reason. Yes, a creative imagination is important; but CS Lewis didn’t believe Narnia really existed and that he could find it by poking around in the wardrobes in his home. A bird that is given food at random times will look for a cause to the random times, and will construct a ritual that it believes will produce the food. If it fluffs its wings just right, or whistles the precise tune, it believes it can cause the food to appear, even if it is still random. Even if the rituals don’t work, the belief persists. People aren’t much different.

 

The rest of the book (most of it) looks at the basis of society and asks whether it can promote these needs in the form it took then. There’s a lot of talk about authoritarianism, as in his previous books, but the thing that sticks out to me here is the commodification of people. Foucault would later write about this more extensively, the way that human beings are quantified and reduced to numbers, abstractions. Fromm takes a lot of time to talk about alienation, the way that we become abstractions to ourselves. It’s all right, even necessary, to work with other people, but when you start seeing yourself as a cog in a machine then something’s wrong. Human life is infinitely more complex and more valuable than the machinery we produce, and ignoring all of the value that people have and caring only for a small part of them is a destructive act.

Fromm also gets into Marxism, and the ways that people have distorted what was essentially a good idea. He really gets excited about socialism, of which I approve. He talks about the Russian attempt and explains how communism isn’t socialism (no matter what they name their republics), and all the ways Stalin got it wrong.

I have to admit that I started losing interest in this later part. I don’t have a strong background in understanding economic or political systems, and that made his arguments a little hard to follow. Also, times have changed, and some of his analyses aren’t relevant sixty years later. Some of it is also just depressing, as we in the United States keep clinging to an extreme form of capitalism that has produced an authoritarian president who is doing everything he can to destroy the country and make himself richer. It’s all quantities and numbers without an attention to the humanity being crushed to make blood wine for him and his fellow one-percenters. Trump’s election is a product of the alienation endemic to capitalism, and I could say some similar things about Bolsonaro. I just hope we can get rid of these bastards soon; I’m not trying to rob them of their human complexity (though some people do), I’m just saying that they are making bad decisions and creating unnecessary suffering for millions of people and I’d like it to stop.

I sometimes talk about being in favor of socialism, but to me that’s really only a second-best system. My ideal would be anarchy, people living quietly in peace without needing to be governed by an external authority. The problem with anarchy is, people are horrible, and left to themselves would rape and kill less aggressive people like me and swipe all our stuff. Because people suck, government is necessary. Because politicians suck, government is most effective on a smaller scale. Trying to govern however many millions of people there are in the United States with a single organization is sort of idiotic. Smaller countries, smaller communities, would work better. Fromm’s suggestions for creating a sane society are a little idealistic and unrealistic, given the nature and temperament of Americans, but maybe we could build a new society somewhere else. If Trump’s supporters get what they want and we’re all expelled to Big Gay Island somewhere, I’d like to think we’d make something better than what we’d be leaving. I like the fact that being gay in America means I’m expected to be in touch with my own feelings and respectful of those of others.

Fromm’s book is a little more connected with literature than the previous ones of his I’ve read – he makes a lot of references to Brave New World and 1984, though he spends a lot more time on Brave New World. We sometimes talk about Huxley’s book as instincts gone wild, but the people are much more mechanized (and hence alienated) than in Orwell. He makes frequent references to Kropotkin without explaining any of them, though he is more careful in examining the works of Marx and Engels. He wrote a book about literature before this one, but somehow I skipped it in my chronological reading of Fromm’s works. I’ll circle back to it soon.

It is always impressive to me that books like this can end in hope. People are shitty and create shitty systems to destroy each other, and it takes a lot of imagination and optimism to believe in the possibility of change. I haven’t been feeling the optimism lately. Apparently I read more books in 2018 than in any of the previous five years, and I think it has less to do with self-care and more to do with the need to escape reality. Reading isn’t always productive – it can be a self-comforting, addictive behavior. But I’m not Fromm, and he found hope that the world could improve, and he gave some specific suggestions on how to make it better. I’ll try to make things a little more beautiful where I can, but large-scale social change is beyond me. But if we’d all make things a little more beautiful where we are, it wouldn’t be beyond all of us.