Posts Tagged ‘witch’

October Books

Wormwood (Poppy Z. Brite)

This collection of horror stories was originally titled Swamp Foetus. Brite now identifies as male and goes by Billy Martin. The naming can be a bit confusing. These stories were written by someone who has spent a lot of time in North Carolina but has since fallen in love with New Orleans, and also thoroughly enjoys modern witchcraft. As ever, some selections are better than others, but in general I don’t much care for this collection. It revealed to me why I like some horror stories and not others. Barker’s stories celebrate life because it is fragile and precious; Brite’s stories celebrate death because it is strong and inexorable. While there is a lot of homosexual male love, it’s generally sidelined by the overwhelming fascination with death. Hooray for the representation for gay goths, but maybe there are some guys in the world who like wearing black and listening to heavy metal who don’t want to kill themselves or anyone else. In this book, if there are, they are likely to fall for a murderer or someone with a terminal illness. I had a professor once who told us that you can tell the implicit values of an author by seeing who the murderers and the victims are – they are the ones the author is punishing. If all your gay men kill or are killed, is that really positive representation?

The Longest Journey (E. M. Forster)

Really? A Forster novel that doesn’t go to Italy? Yup. We do still have the critique of mainstream British middle class, but they stay in Britain this time. A young man has a lot of revolutionary friends in college, but then he graduates and gets a job at a boys’ school and his ideas change. It’s about the confrontation of ideals with real life, particularly as it regards the educational system. I have a lot of experience with this conflict myself, which is why I am no longer a teacher. I also wanted Protagonist to admit his love for his former classmate, but Forster’s explicitly gay stories weren’t published during his lifetime. The longest journey of the title is the one that we all take, through life into death. It’s one that we all ultimately take alone because of the difficulties in communicating our ideas and experiences. This is a book of isolation.

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

This was a fantastic story. In the late nineteenth century, there were several communities of immigrants living in New York, and the European Jews and the Syrians didn’t really have much communication between them. The golem was built to be someone’s perfect wife, but he dies on the crossing and she has to figure out what to do with herself now that she’s freed from building her life around this one man. She develops skills, gets a job, and ultimately builds a community of friends. The jinni was trapped in a bottle for twelve centuries until a metalsmith accidentally frees him. He also works on getting a job and developing skills, adapting to the new culture and nourishing his memories so that he can figure out how he got stuck. They both distrust humans and feel confined because they can’t share their true identities with the world at large. Of course, the woman made of earth and the man made of fire meet each other. I was very pleased to see, though, that they don’t fall in love with each other. I’m pretty sure the golem is asexual, though that word is never brought up, and the jinni is very sexual, which gets him into trouble. It is possible to have a book about two people who don’t get all romantic. Despite the setting, the writing is of our own time, the firm, focused prose that we favor in both popular and literary novels. Recommended for most adult audiences of readers.

 

November Books

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Yukio Mishima)

There’s a thirteen-year-old boy trying to navigate early adolescence. His friends are sort of terrifying, identifying themselves by numbers instead of names (Chief, One, Two, Three . . .); it’s more of an intellectual, anti-sentimental cult than a group of friends. He learns about sexuality by watching his mother through a knothole in the wall between their bedrooms: first he spies on her masturbating, then continues when she meets a man to bring home. The romance between the sailor and the business owner is sweet and a little Hallmark-ish: they meet when he’s on shore for a few days; they fuck immediately, fall in love, and write each other letters while he’s gone for six months; and then they marry. Moderately wealthy career woman, lower-class hunk with a connection to nature – it’s the stuff American movies are made of. For the first half of the book. After the marriage, the sailor tries to learn business and stepfatherhood and life on land in general, and loses the kid’s respect in the attempt. But as it turns out, the Japanese law at the time determined that no one younger than fourteen could be tried for any crime, so the Chief reminds them that they can do anything they want in these short remaining months before their birthdays. Even murder.

The Mabinogion (Trans. Sioned Davies)

It took me quite a long time to read this book. It’s a group of fragments of Welsh epics, around a thousand years old. There was a specific story that I was looking for, the one about Cerridwen and her cauldron of inspiration, but it’s not here. It’s part of the Tale of Taliesin, because of course they treat a woman as a supporting character in a tale about a man, and the commonly known version of Taliesin has been determined to be mostly spurious, written in the nineteenth century I think. So I missed that one and got instead the authentic, traditional Welsh stories. There are eleven divisions or manuscripts, but don’t let that fool you. There are dozens of stories in this book, and they come so quickly that I could never read very much at a go. I need processing time. I care about understanding what happened, which takes a little digestion, and I also read to share in the emotional experiences of the characters, which just were not explored with the level of detail I (as a twenty-first century reader) prefer. If you’re looking for Arthurian chivalric tales, then this is the right place. Forget Lancelot and Galahad, and read up on the other knights, the ones that get left out of the modern tellings, like Geraint and Culhwch. It’s like we only care about Arthur as a cuckold, because watching Lancelot have sex with Guinevere allows us to vicariously defy authority and we like that. Here, her name is Gwenhwyfar, and women aren’t simply pawns in conflicts between men. The attitude toward sex is remarkably un-Victorian. There aren’t really any deities – maybe a little light Christianity every now and again, but these myths are about people, and sometimes giants and magic-users. My edition is heavily footnoted, maybe a little too much. The writing style is abrupt and forceful, and there’s a little too much Might Makes Right for my tastes. I do like the way that people refer to others as “the man/woman I love best”; it feels beautiful and right. It acknowledges other loves and other types of love while also recognizing the primacy of this individual, and it separates all that from titles and formally recognized relationships. It’s a weird and complex group of stories.

Dead Man’s Quill (Jordan Castillo Price)

The final novella in the series. Dixon and Yuri meet Dixon’s missing uncle who’s been causing havoc and together they resolve all the problems. I don’t think they manage a sex scene, which is a little disappointing, but it wrapped up the series perfectly. The author implied in a postscript that there will be more stories, but I’m satisfied with the closure I got here. I will probably reread all four stories again, as if they were a single book, but I don’t think I need anything more. They’re cute, yes, both the stories and the characters, but I like closure and don’t want any sequels.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)

I liked this book a lot. There are ten first chapters of novels, tied together with a frame about you, the Reader. It is assumed that you, the Reader, are a white European heterosexual man, which I find unfortunate but inevitable in a novel written by an Italian man in the 1970s. The Reader enjoys all of these separate books, but runs into trouble finding the rest of the books, whether through printer errors, sudden interruptions, or the incompletion of manuscripts. He finds a young woman, the Other Reader, and they try to hunt down the books they’re reading, to no avail. Because they are separate human beings with different attitudes and experiences, they can never quite agree on the nature of the books they read, and we only see things through his perspective. The stories start off a little paranoid and Hitchcock-y, then around chapter seven things get very sexual indeed, and finally we drift into death and the dismantling of the story. The last few pages involve a discussion of why and how we read, which explains why we can never quite read the same book – even if the text doesn’t change, we do, so the experience is always different, from one reader to another, from one reading to the next. Great for people interested in exploring the nature of reading as they do it, but the metafictional elements both explain why critics love it and why it seems to have passed mostly out of the United States’ cultural consciousness.

The Body in the Library (Agatha Christie)

This is my first Miss Marple book, and technically it’s a December book because I read the last third on Dec 1. I was surprised at how little she actually does; the story focuses primarily on the police officers investigating the murder. She solves it, of course, but the clue-gathering is seldom in her hands. A body appears in the library of a country estate, and the owner’s wife is friends with Miss Marple, so of course they work the case together. Very little action as clues are revealed mostly through dialogue. Positive representation of the disabled, less positive representation of the working class, no representation of ethnic minorities. But she’s writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place, so these things are to be expected. I appreciate the community-based approach to solving the crimes, even though I am uncomfortable with just how narrow and homogeneous the community is.

August

Hide and Seek (Wilkie Collins)

In this novel Collins starts his interest in writing about the disabled, with Magdalen as his deaf heroine. She’s a real angel in the house, and we conclude with the same brother/sister ending that we had in Basil. I’m kind of hoping that he gets off of this kick, because while I do acknowledge the validity of love between people who aren’t having sex, the fact that Collins keeps replacing the traditional married couple with a pair of siblings makes me wonder about the nature of the relationship, especially in a story like this one where the two kids don’t know about their consanguinity for most of the birth-mystery plot, so they toy with romance a bit before they realize. One of the strongest themes for me is the suspect nature of visibly excessive virtue – the people who are strictest with others have the most to hide, as in all those leaders of conversion therapy camps who later come out as gay. And not the quiet, domestic sort of gay that I am – we’re talking rowdy rent boys in loud techno sex clubs gay.

Sunjata (Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute)

This is a west African epic, in this edition transcribed from a couple of performances by famous bards. It is difficult to capture the magic of a live performance in a written medium, but the editor sure tries his hardest. I think this edition is useful for those of us who are interested in traditional stories but don’t have our own immediate access to traditional African bards.

Zeus is Undead: This One Has Zombies (Michael G. Munz)

The sequel to Zeus is Dead, which I read back in June. The characters who annoyed me in the first book are either absent or only appear in cameos, so I prefer this one. Instead of drifting around to several different characters, Munz keeps a much tighter focus on a single protagonist, Athena trying to win back her divinity by solving the mystery of the zombies’ origin. As with any good sequel, this book is about the consequences of what happened in the previous book, and you can’t just go around killing goddesses and expect nothing bad to happen.

Sugar and Other Stories (A. S. Byatt)

Reading this book, I was actually wondering what I was going to write about it here. I thought about aboutness, a real word/concept we use in cataloging. This book is about the emotional lives of intelligent women. [Find me a Library of Congress Subject Heading for that.] Like many of the women in this book, I was a smart child who grew up and wanted to be known for his heart rather than his brain. So many people treated me like a disembodied intellect, and I went along with it – it’s rather a job to make up for lost time and balance myself out now. I recognize that it’s easier for me to be smart because I’m a man and people either expect me to be intelligent or at least to believe in my own intelligence, which is the opposite of what they expect of women. Byatt’s argument, here and in many of her other early works, seems to be that women have both heads and hearts, and can use both effectively, even simultaneously.

The Lord Won’t Mind (Gordon Merrick)

Okay, so I recognize the groundbreaking nature of having written a gay romance in 1969. I know the cultural issues surrounding coming of age in the United States in 1940. But the protagonist of this book is so racist, so misogynist, so homophobic, so toxic that I had a hard time reading about him. Charlie is a terrible person who, when a girl sets boundaries about what he can do with her body, thinks that he ought to rape her because she ‘deserves’ it. There is a lot of explicit gay sex in the first part of the novel, and it’s really hot and really works for me, but then Charlie gets all stupid and breaks up with Peter and marries the first woman he can find. Then he gets abusive and breaks up with her, after he’s beaten her so hard that she’ll never act again, and go finds Peter again. Peter has been nothing but sweet, honest, and tolerant this whole time, so I really worry that Charlie’s going to beat the shit out of him too, leaving him too disfigured to turn tricks, so I don’t want to read the sequels. Charlie’s not anyone I want to spend my time reading about.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

A novel without a real plot. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about the cities he’s visited and heard of in his travels, most of which are impossible to really exist. They all have women’s names, so I wonder if he’s speaking metaphorically about people he’s met. As the stories go on, it becomes less easy to know what’s real and what isn’t, who’s speaking and who’s listening, and where the story is being created, if there even is one. It might be a bit destabilizing, but I thought it was very good.

Weight (Jeanette Winterson)

Yes, I’ve read this book before. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m allowed to reread. It’s easy to focus on Atlas, the man carrying a heavy burden who learns to let it go. This time I saw the story of Heracles, the bragging, self-centered idiot who is changed by carrying a weight too heavy for him that he dare not lay down. It’s not just the physical weight of the world; it’s the weight of being alone, afraid that the loneliness will never end. When it does end, he’s still changed by it.

The Invention of Heterosexuality (Jonathan Ned Katz)

If you will recall, a little more than a hundred years ago people in the United States created the concept of whiteness as a way to pacify the masses of poor immigrants, I’m thinking of the Irish and southern Europeans. Yes, your lives are shit and no one will hire you or speak to you in a language you can understand, but at least you’re not black. You’re white, and there will always be a place in our slums for you. Katz gives a similar historical survey of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tracing the formation of the heterosexual identity. As gays and lesbians became more vocal about their existence, innate dignity, and basic human rights, heterosexuals began to examine their own sexual orientation identity and to codify what it means to be ‘straight’. In what situations is it acceptable for same-gender heterosexuals to express affection, and how should it be expressed? What habits of dress, mannerism, and behavior characterize the heterosexual American? The book is very interesting in looking at the changing nature of ‘normal’ and the codification of homophobia; I don’t think it should be labeled for gay/lesbian studies (eh-hem, publisher who printed that on the back of the book). I think that in some places Katz’s analysis is a little slap-dash, and his understanding of American history seems a bit incomplete (we didn’t all land at Plymouth Rock), but there’s still a lot of value here. I think this book is a good starting place, but that we need more granular perspectives, a closer reading of specific times and places. The United States is hardly a single monoculture, even today. Katz tends to homogenize the country as he decries the homogenization it performs on itself.

Let’s Talk About Love (Claire Kann)

YA asexual romance. Protagonist is a biromantic asexual college student, starting with the breakup from the girlfriend she loves but doesn’t want to have sex with and working through the friendship that becomes her next relationship. Our culture puts so much emphasis on sexual license for people in their late teens and early twenties that a young woman of color really has to fight for her right not to have sex. She works at a library, which makes me happy, and falls for the guy who volunteers for storytime. He’s straight, so when they do finally have the talk about sex (after having already broken several touch barriers), it’s a struggle for him to deal with the fact that they’re not going to do it. There’s a happy ending, where he says that all the passion and connection he looks for in a sexual relationship are already present with them, but I personally tend to doubt what he says. He loves her, yes, and he’s not a rapist, but I don’t think he’s going to be long-term happy with lifelong celibacy. It’s very much a happily-for-now, not a happily-ever-after.

 

September Books

The Hangman’s Daughter (Oliver Pötzsch)

Historical mystery. The author comes from a long line of executioners, so he did some research into life in small-town Bavaria in the seventeenth century and wrote a murder mystery featuring his however-many-greats-grandfather. Kids are being killed during the week of Walpurgisnacht, and when found they have alchemical symbols drawn on their bodies, so everyone assumes witchcraft. Despite the potential for emphasis on women’s wisdom (and the title referring to a woman), female characters are not really terribly important (the woman of the title is identified by her relationship to a man, not anything inherent in her). This is a book about the hangman and the doctor in love with his daughter, their interest in herbal medicine and modern surgical methods as opposed to the traditional four-humors style of healing by opening veins and forcing laxatives. When women appear, they are fantastic and strong and wise, but we spend most of our time in the heads of the men investigating and perpetrating the crimes. As with the witchcraft itself, women are a distraction or a misdirection, red herrings all. Some of the characters I read in the voice of angry Nazi officers in films, both American and German, which adds a layer of fear that I don’t know was intended. The fact that I can do this seems to point to the quality of the translation – I take it it’s very good.

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” Maggie Tulliver is a girl who holds tightly to the ties of mutual history that bind her to her family, no matter how miserable they make her. Eliot spends a good bit of time setting up the tug-of-war tragedy of Maggie’s adult life, so it can seem a bit slow at the beginning, when everyone is talking about the future. The foreshadowing is heavy, and then the reflection on the past is heavy as well, and the weight of all that is not present tense crushes her. I really want Maggie to focus on right now for a few minutes, but when she does she breaks convention so strongly that she’s shunned for the rest of the book. I identified very closely with Maggie on this reading; my family vexes, ignores, and intolerates me, but I feel equally unable to cut the ties, no matter how loose they have become, no matter how many Stephen Guests tell me it’s okay to do it. Sometimes I feel so distanced from them that my own last name seems foreign to me. Spending time with them feels like I’m complete, as if I’ve misplaced a part of my identity that only lives with them, even though/even while they constantly reinscribe my role as Lost Child, the tabula rasa who hides his own personality like a palimpsest, wanting to be valued but afraid to be seen.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (E. M. Forster)

This is a story of cultural contact, looking at the way Englishpeople respond to Italy. The fools rushing in, implied by the title, are the English family who seem determined to destroy the life of a handsome young Italian. All the English know that while Italy is beautiful, both by nature and as home of Renaissance art, actual Italian people are dirty and evil, no matter how sexy (probably because they’re so sexy – there’s no way someone that pretty and that dark could be good). It’s easier to stay racist at a distance, so when the English come to Italy they can’t hold onto their resolutions, leading to blunders and foolishness and ruined lives. It’s not always clear when Forster is speaking in his own voice or narrating the inner monologues of his characters, so it’s not always clear where the racism is coming from, but the broad strokes make it clear that the English are idiots and the Italians are better off without their meddling. Misogynistic philanderers, maybe, but also close to nature, closer to the marrow of their own lives. If you can stop thinking of love as monogamous and possessive, then modern Italian culture as Forster portrays it can be really beautiful as well. They just experience chivalry differently than the English do. There’s a strong sense that the English experience goodness as passivity and part of Italian evil is the willingness to act, but I think that good and evil are not easily mapped onto passivity and activity – I don’t think either of these binaries actually exists except on a spectrum from one extreme to another, and that inherent nature (which I perceive to be good, distinct from the dominant culture’s perception of good) always lies somewhere in the middle.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

Another book about Man’s relationship to Time. I use Man in the gender-specific sense because women are not prominent in this story. They can act as ideals for men to practice their chivalry upon, but if they take up any space in the narrative at all it’s as the fallen woman or the evil witch. It’s a story of men learning to accept the aging process, not trying to speed it up when we’re younger or reverse it when we’re older, not placing sole value on our existence between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. Will and Jim are thirteen-year-old best friends, and in one of the easily-forgotten-yet-foundational early scenes, they watch while a couple has sex with the window open. I guess pornography wasn’t readily available in Bradbury’s Illinois, so Jim is continually drawn back to staring in the window of adulthood while Will keeps pulling him back toward childhood. The dark carnival arrives almost immediately, turning the literal growth of sexuality into surreal metaphor. Will’s father Charles occupies the opposite end of things, older than most first-time parents, so much older than his wife that people mistake him for her father. Realistically, she’s probably only ten or fifteen years younger, but Charles looks old for his age. He’s the janitor at the library, which I find interesting because (a) there’s no stigma attached to his work, and (b) there are no librarians. Librarians were mostly female at this time, and the profession was consciously trying masculinize itself in its rebranding as library SCIENCE. Charles Halloway manages to use the library resources in the absence of the trained library employees, as if to point out that all that education women get in organizing and providing access to resources is unnecessary to a man who is determined to root out evil. The book has a way of erasing women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities, leaving us with a world of ‘straight’ white men eradicating evil through the power of their contempt and desperate self-control. I do appreciate the lesson that we see later on in Harry Potter’s boggarts, that the best way to deal with fear is to laugh at it, but Green Town is such a restricted view of the United States that I find it claustrophobic, creepy even without Cooger and Dark’s. Bradbury’s writing is beautiful, but very firmly rooted in the conformist part of the early 1960s.

Stop Thinking, Start Living (Richard A. Carlson)

This is the recent rebranding of Carlson’s first book, You Can Be Happy Again! The premise is that all you need to do to be healed of your clinical depression and anxiety is to stop remembering that you have them. Well, actually, he starts by saying that all you really need to do is have an epiphany, but you can’t force yourself to epiphanize, so everything after the first few pages is an effort to guide you into a purposefully serendipitous experience.

For ages now I’ve been going back and forth as to whether depression is something that is inborn and I just have to put up with, like coeliac disease, or whether it’s something that is done to me, like a respiratory virus. Carlson introduces a third option – it’s something I’m doing to myself. Of course I don’t like this option because it means that I have to change, and I don’t like change.

Fortunately, Carlson gives me a lot of reasons not to listen to him. First, he attacks his entire profession. If all you have to do to cure depression is quit thinking about it, then nearly all psychotherapists are selfish gold-digging charlatans. Second, he attacks his readers as well. He keeps calling us who are depressed and seeking help for it silly and ridiculous, and he blames us for all our mental problems. Third, and clearly the most important, there are no double-blind tests or any other efforts to do quality scholarly research. Nor is there any secondary research. His points are seldom backed up by any evidence, and what evidence he presents is purely anecdotal. There is no reason for anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills to believe anything he says. Fourth, it’s so repetitive that eventually you start to believe him just because he keeps saying the same thing over and over again.

When you stick with it and get close to the end, things get better and he starts to acknowledge that there are some traumas that really do need professional attention, and maybe some people have problems that need more than purposeful ignorance. Because, you know, it’s not always the best thing to just ignore problems and hope they go away on their own while you’re waiting for your epiphany.

This came out way bitchier than I intended. Sorry about that. This is what happens when people blame me for my problems, however justified they might be.

In the Ring (James Lear)

This author usually writes his gay porn as James Lear, and he has a real name that he uses for more reputable work. And normally I don’t write here about the erotica, but the Dan Stagg series starts to drift away from the strictly porn. Lear is focusing a lot more on story in this book, and First-Person Narrator even desists from describing a couple of sex scenes because he thinks we must be bored of reading about him fucking (we’re not). This is the third in the series – in The Hardest Thing, he was hired as a bodyguard, and in Straight Up he was solving a mystery for some of his military friends. This is much more James Bond-ish, with Stagg hired by the CIA to go undercover in a boxing/organized crime thing. Yes, there’s still some graphic sex with super-muscle-y athletes and spies, but it’s seriously de-emphasized. So, more of an action novel than a gay sex romp, but still a good quick read with some scenes that make me happy.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Marlon James)

This book is amazing. It’s a graphically violent horror-fantasy, so a bit Tolkien and a bit Clive Barker, but instead of being based in British mythology, it’s all Africa. So there are spirits that do all sorts of mystical stuff, sometimes called demons, and there’s some vampire content, and people turning into animals. Quest narrative with a nonstandard ending, doors that appear in midair, government corruption, evil creatures who walk on the ceiling, a girl made of blue smoke, a man who becomes a leopard, and a tracker with a powerful nose and an eye that’s borrowed from a wolf (he’s the first-person narrator).

Someone has already purchased the film rights, but I wonder. One of the main thrusts of the book is to normalize QBTIPOC, and it’s hard for me to trust people. Is he planning to make a film of this, with all the gay sex between Africans who haven’t been corrupted by nonexistent Europeans, or did he buy the rights to stop anyone else from making the movie? Just to be clear, most of the main characters are gay men, but there’s a lot of homophobia too. I mean, it’s not like American homophobia, where they call us a bundle of kindling which means that the best thing to do with a gay man is light him on fire. They just call them boy-fuckers, which is at least descriptive of what they actually do. There’s also some of that internalized homophobia where tops get more respect than bottoms, but if you look at their abilities and nonsexual actions, there’s really no difference in masculinity. As he says close to the beginning, blaming a man for which way his dick points is kind of like blaming a compass for pointing north.

People who are religious are advised to turn away, because there’s a lot of profanity, and Tracker’s favorite way of swearing is to say Fuck the gods. There’s all sorts of wishing for the gods to go get fucked, which I enjoy but you might not.

Seriously. I loved this book. It’s gripping and adventurous and paranormal and awesome. It’s supposed to be first in an upcoming trilogy, so that’s going to be great. I recognize that it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

Sacred Paths for Modern Men (Dagonet Dewr)

This is sort of like a pagan man’s Wild At Heart, the Christian book about how we should all be Braveheart. Instead of the one archetype, Dewr gives us twelve, pulling examples in a Golden Bough fashion from the classic mythologies, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Tolkien, and a splash of Judeo-Christian. The result is an examination of the nontoxic bits of masculinity that have always been a part of our culture but that we’ve ignored. It’s good to know that the pagan world has inspirational nonfiction, and I enjoyed this bit of it. I’m looking forward to reading more, as a sort of gearing up for the deeper study of what this community believes, searching for what I believe.

Each archetype has a couple of rituals, one for private study (often with arts and crafts projects) and one for groups. I haven’t practiced any of them yet, but it’s good to know that they’re there when I’m ready. I’m very interested in symbols, so rituals are very meaningful for me.

It’s a good book, about possibilities. The author spent a lot of time at the ManKind project, so he plugs it rather frequently. One of the things that interests me the most is that he refers to his flavor of faith as Storytelling Wicca, and that is definitely a concept I want to learn more about.

Once on a Time (A. A. Milne)

This is a fantasy book written for adults (now probably considered YA). Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inappropriate for children here, merely that they are not the primary audience. There are people who are bad and unhappy because they are miscast, and Milne makes sure we understand that – a good leader can be an underhanded, manipulative follower, and a good swineherd can make a careless, aggressive king. The difficulty in life is to figure out what people’s strengths are, what they are truly well-suited to, and then putting them in those roles. I’m seeing a lot of that in my management class, but it’s true here as well. Magic kingdoms that are somehow excessively small, transformations, foolish men, women who don’t actually need help – it’s a great book.

The Biology of Luck (Jacob M. Appel)

I read this book in unhappy circumstances, sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, but I don’t think I’d care much for it in the best of contexts. Protagonist writes a book for the woman he loves, recounting the day that he finally gets the courage to ask her to marry him but from her perspective, and then he waits for the day he has the letter from the publisher either accepting or rejecting it to ask the big question. So, we see the day from his side, as he gets his letter and tries to hang onto it during the course of his day as a tour guide. We also read the book he wrote, telling the day from her side, but the two stories keep intertwining, so Protagonist predicted the day accurately, with its deaths and disasters and everything. A better writer would take a little time to speculate on the nature of reality, whether Protagonist is trapped in his own story or whether he is influencing future events in which he is not involved, whether free will exists or we are all pawns in some cosmological plan that he got an accidental glimpse of, but Appel ignores it all. There is no meditation on the fabric of events because Protagonist is completely obsessed with this girl Starshine. She doesn’t think of him at all. He fills the same role in her life as the gay best friend, only without being gay. I’m really confused as to why he would portray the woman he loves as a manipulative bitch, but he does. The common folk would call her a cocktease – she holds the possibility of sex in front of men in order to get them to do what she wants, but she prefers not to actually let them touch her. The boyfriend she meets for lunch is fabulously wealthy and wants to take her away to Europe; the boyfriend she meets after lunch is fabulously sexy and wants to take her away to Europe as well. The first one is young and entitled, the second is older, muscular, and revolutionary. Sleeping with two men is enough; she doesn’t need more sex in her life, but she still presents herself as available to other men so they will donate to the nonprofit she works for or do whatever else she wants. Why does protagonist love her? He digs all into her psyche, but I can’t find anything there to justify his feelings for her.

This book is another example of how New Yorkers think that a book is good, interesting, and important simply because it is set in New York. There’s nothing else to recommend it.

The Witching Hour (Anne Rice)

I first picked this book up in the staff room at my workplace ten years ago. I read through the first chapter, and I knew that this book could completely take me over, so I put it down and decided to leave it alone. Until now. There’s something about Anne Rice’s writing that feels real; it didn’t feel like reading fiction at all. It was a complete experience for me. Which is good, because at over a thousand pages, it took me nearly three weeks to get through it.

This is really two books. Nestled in the center is an epistolary multigenerational Gothic novel, along the order of Daphne du Maurier, about a family of witches. In seventeenth-century Scotland, a girl named Suzanne was a local healer. She slept with a witch hunter who told her all sorts of stories about witches are supposed to be able to do, so she went outside and called forth a spirit who whipped up a storm. She named him Lasher. He guides, protects, and supports her descendants for the next three hundred years. Lasher picks up various tricks from them over the years. The witch gene doesn’t stick with only female children, though, so he gets the idea to breed them for magical talent the way a puppy mill inbreeds for floppy ears and gentle dispositions. There’s some gay content here, but since the gay men in the family also tend to fuck their sisters/aunts/daughters/mothers/nieces, it’s not as gay-positive as I’d prefer. The Talamasca is a group of scholars who try to learn about the paranormal and protect the Mayfairs from their own witchcraft. They provide some genetic material for the line as well.

The frame story, the second longer book, is about the newest witch, Rowan Mayfair. She’s a neurosurgeon sworn never to see the family in New Orleans, who rescues a hot drowning guy and falls for him. He’s a poor Irish from New Orleans as well, so just her type. He gets some psychic powers after his near-death experience, as well as a driving mission to help the Mayfair witches. Not the ones living now, all the dead ones. Lasher’s in on it too, glad to have finally found a Mayfair who understands enough about anatomy to give him corporeal form. I’ll admit that my attention started to flag sometime around page 850, but I pushed through and things got intense there at the end. It’s a good book, just very long. The other two books in the trilogy are of a reasonable length.

The Consumption of Magic (T. J. Klune)

This is the third in the series about the magically bitchy twinks who gather dragons to put down the Rising of the Darks. When we finished A Destiny of Dragons, Sam hadn’t quite forgiven his mentors for concealing some details from him, but he gets over it here. Things are getting too dangerous for him to pass up allies, and this is a book about reconciliation. Even Gary and Kevin get back together, and we’re all glad we don’t really have to imagine what unicorn-dragon sex looks like. Knight Delicious Face is still dashing and immaculate, though once Sam starts telling his own secrets things change a little. Prince Justin is a bit less of an asshole than he has been, so maybe Sam’s charisma is winning him over at last. As ever, Klune’s writing is a joy and a delight, and if I knew him I would be begging for a beef injection. I love this series so much. This isn’t the end, and this installment finishes on an Empire Strikes Back sort of a note.

 

I know that I usually discuss books in the month that I read them, but it’s the afternoon of March 2 and I’ve already finished two more, so I’m going to go ahead and discuss these as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)

I’ve heard people say that this series takes a dark turn in the fourth book, that the death of Cedric Diggory changes the series in less pleasant ways. I’d disagree – things get really dark here in Book Two. I know the movie makes him look like a Pixar chihuahua, but Dobby the Self-Harming House-Elf is really disturbing. Far from being the friendly sidekick, he’s one of the primary antagonists, despite the way he gives himself severe burns and bludgeoning trauma. It’s a miracle he hasn’t had any amputations. Then two fourteen-year-olds steal a car, only to have two twelve-year-olds steal the same car a few chapters on. Fortunately for it, the car goes feral and hides in the Forbidden Forest. Then there’s the giant spider, and the even gianter snake who kills on sight. Hagrid continues to be incredibly irresponsible with the children, even though it’s strongly implied that he’s sixty-three, so I feel like he should be more mature than he is. How long do half-giants live? How long does it take them to grow up? There’s also a great deal of cynicism in relation to celebrity culture and government authority, which will persist throughout the series. Bring on the darkness.

Prater Violet (Christopher Isherwood)

I read this book in about twelve hours, and most of those I was asleep. It’s the fictionalized account of Isherwood’s involvement on a motion picture in 1933 and 1934. The book focuses on his relationship with the Austrian director. There’s a lot of talk about politics, Hitler, and preparing for war – writing in 1945, Isherwood knew where things were going so he makes a big deal out of it, but the character Isherwood doesn’t know that World War II is just around the corner and just tries to keep the peace. The real meat of the book, for me, is in the last ten pages, where Isherwood starts thinking about what the experience means. What are we living for? In the midst of a worldwide economic and psychological depression, why do we bother to keep ourselves alive? It’s an expensive business, stuffing food and water in your mouth so that the cells keep replicating. It’s an interesting and intense burst at the end of the book. It got me thinking – he talks about how he takes lovers to hide from his fear and depression and hopes that eventually he will reach a point where he doesn’t need a man’s body to distract him from his terror and despair. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing. Why am I still with this guy? And if I do shake him off, how long will I stay single? Am I into relationships for the sex, or am I using men to avoid facing who I am and how I feel? Am I so in love with being alive that I really think it’s better than the alternative? Haven’t I always wanted the sort of adventure you never come back from? How aware am I of what’s going on in Venezuela, and to what degree does that make me complicit? Maybe I am just a stupid American, using more resources than an entire village, taking up more space than anyone has a right to, foolishly optimistic about the future and so not working to stop war or climate change. I’m hearing the girl from The Last Five Years, singing “I suck! I suck I suck I suck!”

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

mythologies

I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

witches of eastwick

Continuing to celebrate Halloween, here’s one of those novels whose title has gotten stuck in my head somehow and is as closely associated with October as Frosty the Snowman is with December, but is quite different from the Mitchell novel I read earlier in the week.

The first question is one of style. I tried to sit down and read it all at once, but Updike’s sentences resist being read quickly. Halloween being the season of personifying the inanimate, one could argue that they don’t like to be read at all. There is a profusion of detail that can seem ponderous, all those subordinate clauses pushing their way in so that it is sometimes hard to see what the subject and verb are, or maybe that heart of the sentence is intentionally hiding, enfolding itself in the extraneous as a means of self-preservation. Which sounds ridiculous, because the only life words have is when someone reads them. Stories are a complex act of shared creation between a writer and a reader – he suggests a shape, and I breathe life into it with my imagination, a complex, unique spiraling shape of personal experience and genetic memory. But Updike is seldom content to suggest; his riotous excess of description leaves little for the imagination, and since the imagination works more quickly than the reading eye, the process is slower. It was very challenging for me to take Updike’s mind into my own, and his style is very indicative of the Literary Novel of his time, the 1980s, and I’d say that it continues to influence the self-consciously literary writers of today.

Another issue is that of subject. Witches? In New England? How original. Updike is a man writing about women’s lives from women’s perspectives, which always seems highly suspect to me. It’s in many ways a book of all the things men accuse women of doing, like the way that most of the book is a transcription of gossipy phone calls. Some of it also seems like men’s fantasies of what women do, like the unspoken bisexuality of the witches, where it seems that every woman is trembling on the cusp of lesbian porn. The climax of Act One is a hot tub orgy with one man and three women (we know Updike is a heterosexual man because he never mentions the size of the penis with such power).

Maybe it was modish in the 1980s to refer to homosexuality a lot in your book, but the way his characters talk about it pushes men like me away. That word for us that I find the most upsetting, a British cigarette, gets tossed about like it’s as normal and inoffensive as iron or book. I’m not sure why I find this word so much more upsetting than all the other ways people describe me, nor why the shorter version is so much more upsetting than the word that means a bundle of sticks, but I’m apparently having a rainbow snowflake moment and I’ll thank you to respect my feelings, Mr Updike. The reviewers talk about his great sympathy for his characters, but as a homosexual male I felt outside the realm of his empathy. It seems natural for me to be angry at being the only one included in the book but excluded from sympathetic treatment, so maybe the rest of you (meaning women or heterosexuals) won’t feel the same way that I do. This book is about as pro-gay as the Christopher Reeve film Deathtrap.

But then again, maybe what seemed like sympathetic treatment in 1984 won’t seem sympathetic today. I believe that many women of my acquaintance would take umbrage at the idea that femininity requires taking the place of a man’s mother, just as I find it offensive that many people even today believe that men are perpetual children in need of mothering. For an example, watch the later seasons of Arrow. In the first season The Green Arrow is very Batmannish, but by season four he’s surrounded by women, a little sister and a few friends, and one of them takes over as CEO of his family business and they all boss him around as if he were a child, despite being younger than he. They all talk about how dumb and helpless he is, despite the fact that they know he’s a fucking superhero. He might be a filthy rich masked vigilante with serious top-shelf hand-to-hand combat skills and an amazing body, but he’s still ‘just a man.’

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

Our witches are three divorced women in their thirties, which was quite shocking in the late 1960s, when the book is set (distanced from author and reader in either time or space, as a Gothic novel should be). And yes, they set about having affairs with married men, and frankly it seems that everyone in town is having an affair with someone else and they all whisper about it but no one does anything about it but talk. When another woman in town gets left, they remark on the fact that she’s now gained the power if she’ll do anything with it, but they don’t make any effort to invite her to the coven. Sukie is the youngest, a bright redhead who writes for the local paper; Jane is the angry one, a cellist who also teaches piano; and Alexandra is the leader, being the oldest and most powerful.

The portrayal of Alexandra got on my nerves, too. This is entirely personal: she’s my age, height, and weight, and she thinks of herself as old and fat, and no one disagrees with her. I’m actually not sure how much I weigh – I haven’t weighed myself since I dated that guy in Texas, when I gained twelve pounds during a two-month relationship – but Lexa is the weight at which I no longer feel like I need to lose weight. He of the Midwest asked me the other day how much weight I’ve lost in North Carolina, and again I have no way of knowing, but I will say this. I can no longer grab an entire handful of excess at my side, and the tendons in my hands and feet are showing themselves again. I don’t have one of those sexual foot fetishes, but a man’s feet can be a pretty good indicator of how much body fat he’s carrying, and when I lived out there I had these thick pads of fat on top of my feet, and now they’re almost completely gone. My belt is getting loose, and when I put on my trousers yesterday I just pulled them up and fastened them without holding my breath or lying down or trying to stretch the waistband an extra inch or two. In Illinois I thought my trouser zippers were going to kill me, and now I don’t think of them at all.

On the first page they’re talking about a new man who’s moving to town, and while you may remember this as the same beginning to Pride and Prejudice, it’s not really anything like. At first they think he must be gay because he’s from Manhattan and has never been married, but once he gets there they all fall for him and he encourages all three. It’s never made explicit, but he’s very much a Satanic figure, and the name Darryl van Horne does sound a bit devilish. He fills in the wetlands, displacing the egrets that nest there; Alexandra doesn’t always see his aura when she’s surrounded by the peacock tails of color that other people’s emotions manifest; at one point his legs seem to be jointed the other way, as if he had goat legs; his face always seems cobbled from disparate pieces that don’t belong together; and he takes charge of their art and ends up controlling the witches. They eventually suspect that they’ve been serving him all along, but with no proof, they drift away from each other. There’s also all the magic going on that they’re not doing, and the way that their lovers end up dead. I also think it’s weird that his hot tub room and bedroom are both completely black. I suppose this draws more attention to the white bodies on display in those rooms, but it’s a little strange.

I don’t remember what gender politics were like in 1984; I was still too young to attend school back then. Maybe this sort of portrayal was normal or enlightened back then, but it’s not any more. It’s a book about women’s power, but the power comes from ceasing to have loved a man, so it’s still very anti-Bechdel. They may be empowered to the point that they have uncoupled copulation from procreation, but they freely admit to neglecting their children, and while the witches all have progeny, none of those children are main characters. Their pets are more important to the book than the children are. Their power makes them independent, outsiders in their own families and community, reliant on each other and no one else. It’s as if being a feminist requires (or induces) social isolation.

I suppose part of this review should mention love as the binding between the sexes, but I don’t see much of it in this book. I see desire and attraction, control and power and a lot of things that have nothing to do with love but get substituted for it. I think the lack of love is part of my trouble with the book. People are selfish and isolated and horrible to each other. In the beginning, Alexandra reminds herself that magic always has a price, a sacrifice necessary to maintain the balance of nature, and it bothers me that as we roll along they forget that. Maybe the dissolution of the coven is a result of their lack of sacrifice, their desire to get something for nothing, but Updike doesn’t address that explicitly.

He does address suicide. The only time we see something from a man’s perspective is when a guy kills his wife and then hangs himself. If this is a trigger, be ready to skip ten pages or so from the middle of Act Two.

I keep trying to wrap this up in a nice summative fashion – a story that builds and builds but doesn’t go anywhere, no Act Three climactic finish, the worst kind of realism – but all I can think of are more things to disagree with. I wonder how much of it is the book and how much is me. Recently someone told me that I’ve been saying No too much lately, so the other night I decided to say Yes to the drag show in a neighboring town. I had only been to one other drag show, and while the entertainment hadn’t been very interesting to me, the man I’d met there was amazing. So I tidied my apartment and cleaned myself up and went, only to find a crowd of around twenty people loosely centered around the door to the club. I walked through and stood for a moment directly in front of the door, cocking my head inquisitively at the handsome man stationed there. He told me that they couldn’t admit any more people, and I heard some of the students around me muttering about how shocked they were that any place in this town would be full, so I nodded at the handsome man and walked on down the street. I decided to find something else I could say Yes to, but there’s not much in that town, and I didn’t feel like drinking with a lot of straight college students (I wasn’t in a talkative mood), so I drove back to this place where I live, but I don’t know this town well – I’ve been in and out of the area for almost twenty years now, but I’ve never spent much time in this town – so I got lost and didn’t find downtown and eventually just came back home, thinking, This is why I keep saying No to the world. I did say Yes to the deer wandering in the road, meaning I didn’t hit her, and when I got home I looked up at the stars and said Yes. They’re always so amazing, out here away from streetlights, and I saw one suddenly rush to the ground, and I made a wish. The same wish I always make: Love.