Posts Tagged ‘united states’

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter undergoes a transformation here, and I’m not sure if people talk about it. In Book Three, having become fed up with his nonmagical family, he grabs his school things and wanders into the night. He takes a bus to London and puts himself up in a public house for a week or two, at the age of thirteen. Harry is no longer a poor boy who suddenly finds himself with money; he’s a rich kid who didn’t have access to his accounts over the summer. The Dursleys are no longer the permanent reality; they’ve become a temporary inconvenience while he waits to get back to his ‘real’ life. Harry has begun to act privileged. And while I love this book a lot, it might be my favorite of the four I’ve reread this year, I don’t really have a whole bunch to say about it.

In the fourth book Hermione responds to the privilege being enacted around her by trying to unionize the house-elves. There’s some discomfort here in Rowling’s portrayal – it’s a common thread in British literature that some people are born to be servants and they’re only happy if they have a firm master who knows how to keep them in their place. We often call it colonialism, though it seems to apply to Dickens’s servants as well. There’s less of a sense of personal obligation and affection with the house-elves, but it’s just as alarming. They are almost all happier as slaves because their sense of identity comes from their service. Without a master, a house-elf sees herself as nothing, a failure. Winky is so programmed this way that of course she ends up an embarrassing drunk.

I also wanted to complain about the message of gender roles that the film teaches that isn’t supported in the book. In the book, there’s a mix of genders from both of the foreign schools, but in the film Durmstrang has boys and Beauxbatons has girls. Why? Is it so inconceivable that Fleur Delacour could be chosen as a champion when she’s competing against boys? Are Frenchmen unfilmable? Their movie industry would lead me to believe that isn’t true, nor does being French make a man effete. I also don’t think there’s anything especially masculinizing about Eastern Europe – their women are strong and beautiful, quite the equal of women from any other part of the world. Okay, so now I can’t remember any moments with Durmstrang girls in the book, but if there is sexism in the selection process we can blame it on the fact that Karkaroff is a bad guy.

Just a quick review – in Book Two the government responds ineffectually to a crisis; in Book Three two innocents are condemned to death and the main characters help them escape; and now in Book Four the highest government officials refuse to accept what is happening in front of them and begin the policy of denial that leads to so much trouble later on. It’s not often a series of children’s books represents this type of authority figure as being neither good nor evil, just stupid in a realistic, non-cartoonish way. It reminds me of the importance of choosing the right people to lead the community, as if living in the United States for the last three years hasn’t been enough of a lesson in that.

 

The Coming of the Quantum Cats (Friederik Pohl)

I was really disappointed by the lack of interstellar feline companions in this book. The title comes from Schroedinger’s cat, the thought experiment about how observation influences reality. By now, most of western culture is familiar with the idea of multiple dimensions of reality, or the multiverse: every time you make a choice, reality splits to create two parallel worlds, one where you turned right and one where you turned left. In this book Pohl explores the idea of travelling between these alternate realities. When we first meet Dominic Desota, he’s a mortgage officer in a world where North America has been taken over by Arabs. He gets arrested for taking his shirt off at a public swimming pool. There’s another world where he’s a senator, and a third where he’s a quantum physicist, and a fourth where he’s a mid-ranking soldier. Major Desota’s America has decided to invade and colonize the other realities, which makes the boundaries between thinner and thinner, so that people, objects, and weather events start slipping into the wrong reality. It’s really interesting to see the same group of characters cast in different roles, but when things get going Pohl pulls a deus ex machina out of thin air, so the plot ended up being disappointing. The bad thing about Cold War-era environmental novels is the idea that there’s always somewhere else we can go. If we screw up this planet, we can just blast off in a rocket to another. If we damage this reality, there’s always an unspoiled Eden dimension we can shift to. In the 1980s we never had to learn from our mistakes, no matter how destructive they were.

 

The City and the City (China Miéville)

Now, remember all that alternate reality stuff and imagine applying it to just one city. At some point in the past, we’re not sure how or why, the city bifurcated into two realities – Beszel is eastern European and Ul Qoma is southwest Asian, but they overlap. Some areas of the city are completely one or the other, and some are crosshatched. There are strict laws about crossing from one to the other, so people have developed a set of visual cues to establish their reality – colors and mannerisms are defined by which city you’re in. The people train themselves to see only their reality, and they ignore (unsee) the people and buildings in the other. Protagonist lives in Beszel, but an Ul Qoma commuter train goes right by his front windows, which he is partially aware of some of the time, as the commuters are only ever partially aware of him. There is a border crossing with customs agents and everything, but you can shift between cities if you start noticing what you’re not supposed to see. It’s illegal and the mysterious secret police will come, but you can do it.

All that being said, this isn’t a sci-fi book like the Pohl was. This is a Raymond Chandler-style noir murder mystery. The critics invite Kafka comparisons, but I think that’s out of place. Orwell is a little nearer the mark, but this isn’t a representation of where we could be going, and I guess you could make arguments about immigration and open borders, but it doesn’t seem closely related to our world at all. Miéville does follow the dialectic structure – Thesis/Beszel, Antithesis/Ul Qoma, Synthesis/Breach – but the government isn’t the primary antagonist like it is in 1984. It’s much more of an old-school mystery than it is anything else, so as ever, just ignore the quotes from critics that are chosen to convince you to buy the book. Besides, comparing any author to our cultural monoliths does him a disservice. If you spend your time thinking about how similar (or not) he is to Kafka, you don’t notice how great he is in himself. This is a fantastic, compelling book in its own right, a fascinating mashup of two of my favorite genres, so let’s celebrate that.

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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

A little girl starts to taste people’s emotions in the food they make. She is exposed to a lot of adult emotion at a young age, particularly her mother’s depression. I was really interested in reading a kid trying to describe what anxiety tastes like. It’s a hard childhood, particularly with her brother melting into the furniture, but she seems to become a functioning adult with a strong sense of self-care. I liked this one a lot – a model for growing up to be healthy even with a childhood full of trauma.

The Long Walk (Stephen King)

This one was hard to read. At one point, a character feels like he’s in a Shirley Jackson story, and there are some parallels to make with “The Lottery.” Teenage dystopias have become quite popular, though, so I’d be more likely to connect it with The Hunger Games. Every year, one hundred teenage boys are selected to walk through Maine. If they stop moving, they get killed. There is, of course, one winner. I wonder if any of the winners survive; it is not good for the health to walk continuously for four or five days, especially not with Maine weather. It works as a sort-of allegory for the human condition and our walk through life, with the relentless grind of daily activity and a not-really-benevolent Major watching over you, ready to reward you if you win. The outlook is intensely bleak, as Ray Garraty makes friends and watches them all die. The only way this makes sense is as a form of population control, but really, there are more efficient and private ways of getting rid of ninety-nine teenagers. That’s not quite two per state per year; I’m sure more die from influenza or leukemia. A sad, sad book that grinds you down.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling)

Note the title – this is the original text, before it was Americanized as The Sorcerer’s Stone. The publishers thought that American kids wouldn’t know what the philosopher’s stone was, or maybe that they wouldn’t be able to pronounce philosopher. I think that changing it was insulting to the kids and dumb of the publishers, because it’s not like sorcerer is any clearer.

I think the plot is fairly familiar by now – Act I, emotionally abused child discovers he’s a wizard and prepares to go to a magical school; Act II, he makes friends with this year’s Weasley and gets through Christmas; Act III, he makes friends with Hermione and the three of them stop the most evil wizard ever from granting himself eternal life, just in time for summer break.

People talk about how revolutionary this story was, for a lot of different reasons, but I find revolutionary the treatment of Harry. He is essentially a dumb jock (excuse me, an athlete of moderate academic ability), which usually means he’d be the villain of the piece. Instead, Rowling puts him at the center – the protagonist of a book aimed at children is a child who doesn’t read for fun, which was really rare when I was a kid.

There are details that I didn’t notice when this was the only book I had read in the series – Bathilda Bagshot has been writing Harry’s textbooks since Year One, and he goes to visit her in Godric’s Hollow in Book Seven. Sirius Black is an important character in books three through five, but here he’s just that guy who lent Hagrid a flying motorcycle to bring Harry Potter to the Dursleys. I’m impressed with the way Rowling plants seeds for herself, in this book that was written before the others were conceived, and then she waters those seeds and they become fully realized characters and change the course of the series. I know that I’m going to forget the centaurs again – so many of the minor characters blur into the background for me – but maybe I’ll remember better this time. Even if I don’t, I know that I’ll enjoy continuing to read this story.

Raving Fans (Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles)

I hated this book so much. This is an essay on customer relations that could fit into fifteen pages at the most, but Blanchard dresses it up in the guise of poorly written fiction with an angelic fairy godmother (male) obsessed with golf and an unnamed protagonist called simply the Area Manager who seems most competent at avoiding work so he can spend time shopping and hanging out with his imaginary friend. There are some good points to be made, but if the TLDR version can be put on a one-page handout, I’d rather have the handout. Instead, my professor made me read a 130-page narrative that tries to be an allegory but doesn’t understand how.

Night Shift (Charlaine Harris)

I love Charlaine Harris. I really appreciate her portrayal of life in the South – her books seem natural, as if the characters live just down the street. This is the last of the Midnight, Texas books, and its storyline is covered in Season One of the television series. Fiji is back to her central role, and she’s great. She spends the book with her body image issues in the front of her mind, as a demon bent on taking her spreads death throughout the town. She’s a virgin, which supposedly makes her an incredibly powerful witch, and I have a hard time with the idea of sex weakening a woman’s power, but the townies hold a ritual where she loses her virginity with someone who isn’t a demon and drives the evil back to hell. When they decide on this, just about every guy in town offers himself. Several of them are genuinely excited about her, and even the two gay guys would consider it an honor. The only ones who don’t volunteer are the town priest and that one guy who’s married. In the end, it’s the guy she’s always loved who gets to fuck her in the town square while everyone else watches. The town secrets are all out, at least to the reader, and there are no plot hooks for a sequel. It’s a book with closure, which is another thing I admire. I had a writing instructor in undergrad who said that it takes talent to know where to begin, but I think it takes just as much talent for a writer of popular genre fiction to know where to end. These series tend to go on forever.

The World and Other Places (Jeanette Winterson)

This would be a fantastic introduction to Winterson for someone who isn’t familiar with her work. It hits all the right themes without taking the time for much other than theme, except maybe character. The writing is beautiful, as ever, but there isn’t time for a lot of world-building in a short story collection. I think that I’d read “The Three Friends” in one of the earlier novels, but I can’t say for sure. Love. Loss. Imagination. Dogs. Gender. Lesbians and other women. Winterson’s writing always makes me feel full, nourished, alive (while insisting that nothing alive is simple). Her books are always worth reading.

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.

I feel like there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this book, except that this is how colonialism works. Or would work under this set of circumstances. In previous readings I’d focused on the first part of the book, all the different initial contacts between America and Mars, but this time I was more interested in what happens to the earth. The stories are placed between 1999 and 2026, so of course his timeline is off (In 2018, the extent of our Martian travel is a droid that sings Happy Birthday to itself once a year), but that is what science fiction is all about – telling us about human nature, revealing the cultural moment, it’s never about A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s about the here and now. Bradbury’s here and now is the United States of the late 1940s; several of these stories were published in periodicals in 1948, though the entire collection came out in 1950.

Bradbury’s Martians are telepathic and technologically advanced. Stage One is killed by a jealous husband – his wife connects with the Earth Man in a way she can’t with him, so he meets the man at his landing site and prevents him from stepping foot on Mars. Stage Two is believed to be insane – when you’re telepathic you project your hallucinations onto other people’s minds, so they think the Earth Men are projections and kill them. Stage Three is just trapped – the Martians build a town modeled on Green Town, Illinois (the one from Dandelion Wine) and disguise themselves as beloved relatives, then they kill them all. Stage Four is successful because by this time almost all the Martians have been wiped out by the chicken pox. And thus we see American strategy: just keep throwing men into the meat grinder until you get lucky.

Most of the book happens before the end of 2005, so there’s really just six years of colonization, in which time the Americans manage to kill an entire planet and do their best to recreate their own in its stead. One guy wanders all over the place planting trees, and they grow up unexpectedly quickly, providing the necessary oxygen. The Americans of color (pre-civil rights, if you’ll recall) all band together to leave their center of oppression and create a new community far away from the white men, who seem anxious to perpetuate their privilege at the expense of women and ethnic minorities. I read an article recently that commented on the destructive logic of terms like Third World and developing countries, so it used ‘minority-world’ to describe the United States and other countries whose lifestyle is similar to ours, and ‘majority-world’ to describe those countries that continue to suffer from food insecurity and a less technological standard of medical care. Which makes sense because worldwide they are in the majority and we are the minority. It’s like we stamped out apartheid in South Africa while ignoring the global similarities, a minority of white Europeans running the world at the expense of the numeric majority of darker-skinned peoples. Can we all take a moment to ponder just how Eurocentric the UN is at a structural level?

In “Usher II,” all the conformity of mid-century America comes to Mars. One man combats it by building a house modeled on Poe’s House of Usher, and it’s full of scenes from Poe’s most famous stories, with a bit of Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. He kills the rightmindedness committee and replaces them with robots who will keep the heat off. Now that I think of it, it’s sort of astonishing how many of these stories are about murder, but I guess that’s part of The American Way as well. Why else would we need a movement that calls itself Black Lives Matter, and why else would people get angry about it?

Then, in 2005, nuclear war breaks out and all the Americans get called back to Earth to fight in the war. This is an excellent example of Bradbury’s bending the facts to fit his theme – if nuclear war had broken out, we wouldn’t have asked the Mars colonists to come back. Nuclear wars aren’t fought by numbers of men – it only takes one to press a button, and if you took all the button pushers it would require to destroy the entire planet, you could invite them over to your house for a party and still have plenty of room for them each to bring a plus-one. It’s the same meat-grinder mindset that began the colonies, the idea that in order to accomplish anything the United States needs a lot of men who are willing to die for their country. Because they will. Because we can’t imagine any other way to do things. Because human life is not something our culture values. Because we see death as poignant and beautiful as long as it is happening to someone else. Because it’s better that people should die than that we should be inconvenienced or grant the privileges we enjoy to someone who seems different from ourselves. Because the only way to make sure that your life matters is to be exactly like the people in power – conformity saves lives, because white American men need to destroy everything that is different and replace it with themselves.

But wait! I hear you say. Aren’t you a white American man? Indeed I am. You’ll also notice that I’ve spent most of my adult life in areas where the white majority is particularly strong. Now that I’m in a city with a higher concentration of people of color, I am constantly interrogating my attitude toward them because it comes up so much more often than it used to. And I do sometimes have problems with difference, like when I see people blatantly not recycling or wearing lime green T-shirts with khaki slacks or speaking loudly in public. I’m not running around murdering people, but I definitely understand the desire to force the world to conform to my own ideas. I have to concentrate on not judging people for the decisions I don’t agree with, and most people make decisions I don’t agree with, which is why it’s so much more relaxing to hide at home instead of going out. People are hard because they are different, and the difficulty is frustrating, but that doesn’t give me an excuse to wipe them out. Difference is valuable, however difficult. We have to stare that reality in the face, just not all the time. It’s exhausting.

As ever, Bradbury’s stories are worth reading and thinking about. His prose is lucid and unadorned, as people preferred it in 1950. I know that I’ve talked about colonialism without bringing up the colonization of the American continent by European settlers, but the comparison is too obvious and too painful to go into. I’d like to think of my ancestors as having been more peaceful, but we were among the first. It’s not realistic for me to imagine that. Colonists didn’t survive by being peaceful; they survived by being tough and killing people who were different than they were. That’s where I came from; that’s what America means; that’s what we have to be proud of. Murder, conformity, and the ability to endure long enough to reproduce. It’s a wonder anyone lets us near global decision-making processes. But I guess if they stood in the way of our making the world exactly as we want it, we’d kill them too. Sometimes I think that 45 may not be the president we wanted, but he may be the president we deserve.

Oh! And I almost forgot about the body-shaming! The last man on Mars meets the last woman, and she can finally eat as much as she wants without people shaming her for liking sweets. Through the man’s perspective, Bradbury fat-shames this woman like nobody’s business. I was really uncomfortable with this story, both because it makes food seem gross and because the guy would rather never see or speak to another human being for the rest of his life than marry a fat girl. It’s a terrible thing to see. I think some readers would have found this story humorous, but our culture is swinging away from body-shaming now, and I think that’s good. It’s just one more way we have failed to celebrate difference.

This book may have been written seventy years ago, but the themes are still pertinent. It still points out to me the ways that I’m not completely satisfied with myself or the culture I grew up in. It’s worth reading because we haven’t learned our lesson yet. I hope we do. I hope my children are more tolerant of difference than I am. I hope the world is moving toward justice and equity. I hope that I’m part of the solution and not the problem.

It’s not always labeled as such, but this is a Dungeons and Dragons story. Well-written fantasy, but in a world that already feels familiar to some of us. I have never studied economics; even in high school, my civics class was all government and no economics. This book puts the basis for some of our economic problems into terms that I can understand.

It’s like this. Hero work ostensibly exists for the improvement of society and making the world a better place, but it really all boils down to money, sort of like the American education system. Heroes go out and kill ‘bad’ guys and take their stuff. Society measures their accomplishments by looking at the tangible results, the loot. Corporations or guilds see the loot coming in and want a piece of it, so they choose a hero and invest in getting him better armor and weapons so that he has a better chance of getting the loot. In exchange, he promises them a percentage of the take. It was all well and good for a while, but then a couple of things happened. First, heroes started running out of ‘bad’ guys to kill. Too many heroes, not enough loot. The competition gets more intense for a lesser reward, so the investors are less interested in putting their money into something that will not pay. Second, the bankers figured out that you can invest in a hero, get him outfitted and all that, but then while he’s gone slaying the dragon or suppressing the orc menace, you sell your share of his loot to someone else. You get your profits faster and without risk, because you’re passing the risk along to someone else. The hero has now become a hot potato, with everyone selling the shares around until he comes back with a wagonload of gold or something. When dealing with actual companies and small business owners, I imagine that the hot potato can be passed around indefinitely, as long as the company stays in business.

The idea of who is bad and who is good opens up a whole can of post-colonial immigration worms. It’s typical to see the player races – humans, dwarves, elves, halflings, etc – as the good guys most of the time, and some other races as being bad all the time – goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, the less sexy fantasy creatures. Protagonist Gorm Ingerson is a dwarf berserker, and the story begins with him befriending a goblin. They don’t speak the same language, but Gorm recognizes that the only chance the goblin has of not being killed is for him to give him a job and get him properly registered with the government. He’s not necessarily less prejudiced than the people around him, but he does have some compassion for the innocent. Eventually someone starts teaching the goblin the common language, but for most of the book Gorm calls him Gleebek, the goblin word for Hello.

Speaking of post-colonial worms, let’s talk about the Elgin marbles. Once upon a time, Greeks built huge temples to their deities and covered and filled them with statuary and other stone carvings. Among these was the Parthenon, which is still considered a national treasure today, nearly 2500 years later. Around five hundred years ago, Greece and its Parthenon were captured by the Ottoman Empire, who turned it into a Muslim prayer site. Around two hundred years ago, the Earl of Elgin got permission from the Ottomans to haul the statues back to England, pagan statuary not being essential to Muslim worship. Some pieces were fairly simple to haul away, but some had to be cut off the building. Byron (poet, member of the House of Lords, and enthusiast for all things Greek) was especially voluble in condemning Elgin for defacing and looting the pride of an ancient people, but Elgin sold the marble pieces to the British government for placement in the British Museum, so nothing bad ever happened to him. Shortly thereafter, Greece won its independence and now they want their marbles back. The English are refusing to give them back, because they bought them from Elgin fair and square, and Elgin had the proper permits from the Ottomans, and it’s Greece’s own fault for being conquered in the first place. Now, imagine that the English are elves and the Greeks are orcs, and that the Elven Marbles have been stolen in transit. Gorm and his pals are hired by the elves to get the Marbles back, even though they really belong to the orcs. But, you know, orcs are evil and smelly and dangerous (foreign), so can anything really belong to them? I mean, they don’t speak English.

Well, Gorm’s pals are not really his pals. The team is assembled Avengers-style, and this party is really questionable. The most important danger in Dungeons and Dragons is not the supposed villains, it’s your own party members. People will get each other killed in a heartbeat, either by wandering off or being spiteful in battle. In time, there are pairs of people who start to work well together, but the group never really coheres. They’re all different levels (as DM, I would not have gone along with this), all fairly independent and belligerent, and none are that friendly. Working out your party dynamic is essential because these are the people who will get you killed. The game is more fun when the players aren’t wasting their energy arguing with each other.

Another social issue is the drug addiction. In a world of magic combat, of course there are healing potions, which means that of course there are people addicted to healing potions. The elf in Gorm’s party tends to sneak off by herself, cut, and then heal. It’s sad and frustrating – the addiction cost her a lot of prestige and skill, but most people don’t know about it. She keeps it secret and somehow manages to function most of the time, and this is how addictions work in the real world as well. We accept the fact that our friends are quirky and if we’re not really that close we don’t look under the surface. I know that I have an addictive personality and a body that creates dependence quickly, so I try to be careful about drinking coffee and alcohol or doing anything else. Those habits are expensive, and easy to form. I’ll have a drink occasionally on the weekends, meaning maybe a couple of drinks once in four to six weeks, but when I feel stress my brain jumps to alcohol as a solution. Even if it’s 6:30 a.m. and I just woke up. A long habit of denying myself anything has kept me from ruining my life with addiction, but not everyone was trained in self-hatred the way that I was.

Of course, the Elven Marble thing is a setup and Gorm realizes too late that there is no right solution and that the banks, guilds, and corporations are all ready to destroy the world to increase their own profits. I’m used to distrusting institutions, so this part of it feels familiar and right to me, even though it’s a big double cross and the friends I play D&D with would not appreciate this kind of plot twist.

So, this is a novel set in a familiar fantasy landscape, but demonstrating the evils of capitalism run amok, sort of like what we have here in the United States today. I enjoyed it, and if you’re into this sort of thing, you probably will too.

Brett Halliday wrote a series of popuar mystery novels back in the 1950s and 60s featuring detective Mike Shayne. Shayne is a tough, sexy redhead, and his books are full of naked women and murder. Of course there were a few films. Of course there was a television series. Of course hardly anyone remembers him now. Halliday was a pseudonym, and when he got good and sick of writing Shayne novels, he retired and the publisher got a few other people to carry on the franchise. Guilty as Hell is post-retirement.

I was in the mood for a little mystery, cheap and easy. That’s exactly what this is. I know that I often go for the enduring and timeless, but the only reason this one has survived fifty years is that they used to print on higher-quality paper. But I enjoyed it, and I’m planning to look for more.

Mike Shayne is a private eye, the classic hard-boiled detective. The only thing that distinguishes him from any of the others is that after a gang beats him up, he has to wear a cast on his broken arm. The orthopedist implants brass knuckles and a scalpel blade in the cast so that Shayne can keep fighting. It seems like overkill, as ridiculous as anything out of Army of Darkness or that movie with the cyborg with the glowing blue cock that had to be started with a pullcord like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. People who feel guilty find him intimidating. Some women find him attractive, but he resists the naked teenager and finds her some clothes.

Candida Morse is the real antagonist, even though she’s not the killer. Her official job is secretary to the president of a corporate recruiting agency, but she has all the brains and does all the work. Many of the executives funnel secrets back to her, so she’s really running a city-wide ring of corporate spies. Candida knows that in Miami in the 1960s, women don’t have a lot of power, directly. But if a girl is beautiful and intelligent, she can make a man do whatever she likes, so her indirect power is only limited by her ambition. She also knows that if a woman isn’t that intelligent or ambitious, she can still be useful. Candida also employs a number of girls who get secrets by sleeping with the right men. I suppose this makes them sex workers, but they’re not the streetwalking type. These ladies are by appointment only.

So, someone gets killed in a ‘hunting accident’ and the typical hard-boiled tropes ensue. Candida keeps trying to trap Shayne one way or another, but he slips out of all the traps and finds the real killer. He takes a page out of the hippies’ book – he saw them having lock-ins, trust-building through forced physical proximity, kind of like churches have now only with lots of marijuana and sex. He forces all the suspects to stay in and talk, nobody sleeping, all night until the right someone confesses.

Well, well, Mr Bill of Rights in person, the guy who thinks queers and floozies are covered by the United States Constitution.

Wait, what? This minor character unexpectedly drags the book into contemporary issues. There’s a vice cop with a rather small part, mainly because Shayne is so good at dodging him. Like many Americans, he believes that people who are suspected of crimes lose their rights. This is why we have the Bill of Rights – to protect citizens from a legal system that jumps to conclusions and is quick to be cruel and unusual.

Ever since I saw you tonight, I’ve been thinking about some of those uncalled-for remarks of yours about frame-ups. Somebody’s a hooker, or a flagrant fag. Everybody knows it. They’re guilty as hell, and we can’t bring them in unless we catch them in the act.

It really bothers him that sex workers and homosexuals exist in the world without being in jail. I understand that it’s his job, and the work we do shapes our thinking, but really. What harm are these people doing to society? You don’t have to be gay or paid to pass along STDs, and the fact that they are available doesn’t force innocent straight men away from their wives or girlfriends. I’ve never understood why homosexual activity was a crime punishable by law – how is it anyone else’s business? I first considered the sex worker industry when I was in college, and I stand by the decisions I made then: the women are victims of an economic and education system that leaves them with few options for independent living, and social problems often leave women with little education, no income, and no safety at home. Don’t imprison the women; imprison the men who objectify them and limit their access to the resources they need to be independent and successful.

It was the vice-squad detective named Vince Camilli. He was tieless, but he wore a jacket over his gun, which he used far too often. He had a handsome dark face, a loose mouth. He was the department’s top scorer in both homosexual and prostitution arrests, and Shayne was sure that the total included many entrapment cases using fabricated evidence, as well as shakedowns that had failed to pay off.

Don’t be like Camilli, whose job is to convince people to have sex with him and then arrest them for it. He also tries to extort money in exchange for their freedom. He’s a bad guy, and he kind of symbolizes the hatred of average citizens for the people who are marginalized by the social systems the average citizen benefits from.

Just to be clear, there are no out-and-proud homosexuals in this book. They’re only brought up to show how rotten Camilli is.

Another minor point is the carphone. Were this book not actually written in 1967, I would have screamed about anachronistic technology. However, people were putting telephones in automobiles in the 1940s, so the fact that a private detective has one in the 60s actually makes sense. You don’t see them anymore because they can’t be tracked by the 911 service. In the United States, 911 is the number for emergency services. They need to be able to position phones so that if there is an accident and the person calling can’t speak or doesn’t know where they are, they can still get help. If you dial 911 and set the phone on the floor and don’t speak into it, the police will come directly to your home and assess the emergency, whether it’s an intruder or a health crisis. They can globally position cell phones, but not carphones. Because they can’t find where you are, you don’t get to have one.

So. Sexism. Racism. Homophobia. Murder. Drugs. Statutory rape. It might seem that the only logical response to this type of a world is to burn it all down. I don’t really fault Candida for her crimes; they seem the only reasonable way for a woman to get ahead. Things are different now, and I’m glad for that. Not necessarily better, but different. This was an entertaining little read, full of things that offend me now but were fairly normal at the time. Halliday’s writing isn’t especially beautiful, but it’s clear and communicates the story well, which is what’s required in this genre.

After reading a few literary novels and the memoir, I have to admit that I was ready for some brain candy, and the skeleton hand clawing the gravestone on the cover promised that this would be just the ticket. And of course, the tagline

To possess the amulet is to be possessed by evil beyond imagining

meant that this book was going to be way too lurid to be thought-intensive. And man, were my preconceived notions justified. I know that old adage about judging a book by its cover, but in this modern world of marketing and maximizing customer experiences, I feel like book covers can be pretty reliable.

I’m not sure if they ever use the word, but this is a book about a zombie attack in a small village in the UK. There are some aspects of this town that are strange to start with – both the head librarian and the police inspector are far too young to occupy such roles of authority. Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal in the 1980s, but these days we don’t expect a twenty-two-year-old man and a twenty-one-year-old woman to do that sort of job. We value age and maturity, which these two lack. They’re a married couple, so I suppose that most readers would rather read a sex scene between two people young enough to have strong metabolisms. I mean, I’m in my late thirties and my new guy is nine years older, but the sexual experience is just as intense for me now as it was back in my newlywed days. In writing, we describe sex as the characters perceive it, so they don’t have to be porn stars like Neville’s protagonist and his wife, the Lamberts.

You know, it’s a trope of horror stories that people who have sex end up dead, and that’s seen as proof that the writers/directors/producers need to punish the beautiful fuckers, but this book made me doubt that interpretation. Yes, the teenagers who engage in premarital intercourse get zombified immediately, but the married couple are fairly sex-positive and have quite a few graphic scenes without getting killed. You could argue that they survive because they’re married, but I think there are two strains converging: (1) nearly everyone dies in these stories, so whether a person has had sex on camera or not isn’t really the best way to differentiate, and (2) guys like sex just as much as women do, but most of your sexually graphic material is contained in romance novels and directed at women. A book like this gives men a chance to read some juicy bits in a story where they can recognize themselves as the obvious hero, where the emotions are simple and not harped on about.

So, the action starts with a grave digger finding a magic amulet on a corpse buried outside the cemetery. I think they were preparing the ground for consecration or some such. The amulet turns him into our Zombie Zero, the origin of the plague. From there, things progress as they do in zombie pictures – people disappear while the undead take over the streets at night. The amulet provides the opportunity for some anti-occultism, because this was the ‘80s. I think there’s some social commentary going on here as well; the prevailing narrative seems to be that the British lower classes are only waiting for a tiny spark to turn on each other in heartless violence, and that it’s necessary to preserve the aristocracy to protect them from themselves. While the police inspector and his wife have personalities, most of the characters are fairly unimportant and flimsy. This is the story of an entire community, so the individual faces aren’t often significant. Zombie stories are, after all, about losing a sense of individual identity, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether a person is alive or undead, they’re all part of the mass.

I’m an American, but I consume a lot of British media, so English ways don’t always seem foreign to me. However. I had forgotten that the British police don’t carry guns on a regular basis. I know that there’s the stereotype of the gun-crazy American, and I don’t usually fit that, but during a zombie outbreak you need some guns because cricket bats just don’t have enough range to keep you safe. So when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost run to the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead, it’s because the rifle over the bar is the only gun they’re aware of in town. Lambert and his officers have to go to Nottingham to get some guns, and then they have to train with them because none of them are any good at shooting. As an American, this seems appalling. Our law enforcement officials are prepared for zombie outbreaks at all times. Or, you know, outbreaks of normal peaceful living by people of color.

The gun thing doesn’t seem like a big deal in the long run, because most of the zombies are killed when Lambert burns down the cinema. George Romero’s zombies congregated in a shopping mall because conspicuous consumption was the cultural attitude he was protesting; I guess Neville feels that the English are obsessed with American media (sorry, we make more movies than you do) and thus losing their individuality.

The ending sort of displays some of the plotting issues Neville had with the novel as a whole. We spend most of the book thinking of Zombie Zero as the principal antagonist, and he does lead the zombie recruitment brigade, but Lambert shoots him as part of a crowd of zombies. There’s no big emotional death match. But then there’s Mathias, the medieval wizard who created the magic amulet. A minor zombie escapes and places the amulet around the dead wizard’s neck, resurrecting him for a big one-on-one battle in an ancient church. But the thing is, Mathias only appears here in the final battle. Debbie Lambert, the porn star head librarian, spends a good part of the book translating a Latin text about him, which shows the problem of fighting zombies before the internet, but we get so few details about him that it’s hard to generate the kind of feelings that we want in a final battle. Tom Lambert is supposed to be redeeming himself – he was driving drunk and wrecked his car, killing his brother in the process – but fictional emotional catharsis follows the same law as homeopathy: like cures like. Defeating Mathias and saving the town isn’t similar enough to the car accident to make it feel like it should cancel the preceding guilt. The bait-and-switch takes place at the wrong moment – it would have been better if Mathias had arisen at the beginning of Act III instead of at the end. And, the Lamberts aren’t smart enough to destroy the amulet, so the epilogue implies that the whole story will begin again years later. He’s such an idiot he can’t even save the town right, guns or not.

Amazon doesn’t have any other titles for this author, so it may be a pseudonym, or the contemporary reviewers may have been unwarrantedly harsh and crushed his career. Either way it’s unfortunate, because it’s really not a bad little book. It was precisely what I wanted when I picked it up, and while I am planning to give it away at my earliest convenience, I don’t think of it as a waste. We need pleasant little interludes, a break from the heavily literary diet.