A mosaicist’s pebble

Today with my workout I watched Eight Men Out, which I have seen before but not for years, probably decades. If you’ve only seen one movie by John Sayles, it’s probably that one. I have seen most of the movies by John Sayles and also read two novels. I love John Sayles. He is one of my favorite directors and filmwriters, and incidentally or perhaps not I also love his two more recent novels. I always feel weird knowing that Eight Men Out is the one people have seen, though, and watching it again showed me why. I feel like a brilliant mosaicist has just handed me one really beautiful pebble.

Mosaicists are quite good at picking pebbles! It’s their job. This one is green. And under another circumstance, he is very well aware that he could make it someone’s eye, or a tree, or a flower. But this one is just one pebble, very smooth, self-contained.

It’s the self-contained part that gets me, because…nothing else Sayles does is like that. Nothing. And I can see the places where he doesn’t go off the map. Arnold Rothstein, Ring Lardner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis–I can almost hear him whispering to himself: not now, John. Reel it in, John. He doesn’t tell you about Joe Jackson’s hometown. About Fred McMullin’s connection to Bill Burns. Not a whisper, even, of the influenza pandemic that directly affected the game, and that’s the thing that made me sit upright and say–aloud to myself, because I am a terrible television companion, I talk to the screen–this is a John Sayles movie? This?

Because he knows all this stuff, and more to the point, he cares about all this stuff. He cares about all the connections, the way that it all fits together. He cares about whether any of the Black Sox were ever on record favoring votes for women. What their various attitudes were to the actually Black people around the stadium. 1988 John Sayles is still John Sayles–he still makes sure there’s a Black person having a line about how it’s the best white team he’s ever seen. But he manages, in this one movie, in 1988, just this, not to go into that man’s story. Not to go into the wives’ stories. To keep the neighborhood kids’ stories only in their emotions about baseball, not their home lives, not their ambitions. Just this.

He makes a baseball movie that is substantially–almost uniquely, among baseball movies–about baseball. He could have passed the Bechdel test in it, if the Bechdel test had existed and if he’d wanted to, by having Helen Weaver and Rose Cicotte talk earnestly about the new tighter-wound baseballs they were talking of using next year–because all of these characters, all of them, eat, sleep, and breathe baseball. I would absolutely have believed it.

I can’t recommend it if you don’t like baseball. Because it’s about class, and it’s about how power structures like these corrupt. It’s about the end of a gilded age, and labor, and who gets left holding the bag, sure. It’s still a John Sayles movie. If you watched it at a John Sayles film fest–oh, what a beautiful thought that is–the kind of people who would show up for that, the kind of people like me, would be stifling full on horror queen shrieks when Kennesaw Mountain Landis came on screen. “He cleared out the Reds during the War”–oh run, children, run, this is not going to be good. Do people who are watching this as their only John Sayles movie know that? I think the message comes through, but…not in the same way without the rest of the body of work. The implication, the denouement, are so feather-light. It feels so strange to take it in isolation like this. To know that for so many people this speck of green is not going on to Matewan, it’s not going on to A Moment in the Sun, it’s not touching Lone Star or Brother or any of that, the mosaic that is class and corruption and America is not part of a leaf, it’s just its own flash and then gone.

And then there’s this: this man’s pebble is a full two-hour feature film. This is what he does for flash fiction.

I wish there was such a thing as a John Sayles film fest. I do. Because it makes me understand a little, though I try to fight it, why people invest personal identity in their fandoms. Because the sort of person who would show up for a whole weekend of John Saylesiana…well, I won’t say I’d like all of those people, but I think they’d inevitably have to have some substantial interests and personality traits overlapping with some of mine. And it would be interesting to talk to other people who have gone all in on all the other much messier works about this one much tidier one.

I believe reining himself in made this more accessible. More popular. I don’t think it’s an accident that the one where he told this story and just this story is the one people know. And it’s a good film, I’m not saying it’s not. But I am left wanting all the rest of the mosaics. I’m left so relieved, so incredibly relieved, that he made all the other films, that he wrote those big messy books, that are full of connection and depth and…a little bit of chaos. Even if it means that I am left flailing trying to get anyone who doesn’t already live here to talk about A Moment in the Sun with me. (“Wanna read a thousand pages of fiction about America in 1905? Hey, where are you going?”) I’m willing to indulge this one cleanly told story. But you can get a cleanly told story almost anywhere. With Sayles I want the whole thing. I know it’s a lot. I’m a lot too, John. I can take more than just the pebble.

It’s a really nice green, though, I’ll give you that.

Year of the Nurse: A 2020 Pandemic Memoir, by Cassie Alexander

Review copy provided by the author, who is a Twitter-and-sometimes-conventions pal.

Cassie (not her real name) is an ICU nurse in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a very raw, very immediate memoir of how her year in went, in nursing and in life. It’s got all the blood, all the tears, and all the swearing left in. In another decade someone will write a cool, polished, considered memoir with considered perspective about what it all meant now that we’ve thought it through; in another century, a series of bugcrusher histories of nursing in the pandemic, using primary source. But this is what we have right now.

This is what we need right now.

Because Cassie talks not just about what she experienced but about what she doesn’t know how to do next. How she doesn’t know how to rebuild relationships with those who said they loved her and then turned away from her experience of this last year, trying to save lives in grueling and heart-rending conditions. And we all need to think about that, not just nod sagely about yes, how hard, but really think about that.

If you’ve lost someone in an ICU situation, COVID or not, there are going to be some tough moments, and maybe you’re going to want to time this carefully. If you feel like the previous US presidential administration did a great job with COVID response and you don’t have a lot of patience for blaming it for any choices…frankly I don’t have a lot of patience for that, read this anyway, maybe especially you. And if you’re prone to suicidal ideation and may be triggered by reading about someone else’s suicidal times, okay, yeah, skip this one, because it turns out that trying to save people’s lives while constantly being thwarted by an extremely toxic system is very hard on a human being, it was very hard on this particular human being, and this is not a book that lets you look away from that, but I think Cassie would be the last one who would want to harm you with the things that harmed her.

She says over and over again: she just wants us all to be okay. I believe her. Let’s just…do the best we can, okay? Let’s all do the best we can.

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Do you want a retelling of the story of Empress Wu as a teenage mecha pilot? because that’s what this is. It is a retelling of the story of Empress Wu as a teenage mecha pilot.

Do you need more information than that? Okay but WHY though. SIGH. FINE. It is an utterly ferocious flail against institutional sexism, “a triangle is the strongest shape” comes up in context, the Four Symbols get mecha forms, and there are aliens for the mecha to fight in dramatic battles. But really: Empress Wu as teenage mecha pilot, that’s the sort of pitch that sorts out the people who want it from the people who don’t pretty fast.

(I am a people who do.)

It makes me sad and angry that Zhao needed an author’s note saying that the institutional sexism examples in this book were Chinese because that’s the culture they were drawing on in this case not because Wow Those Sexist Chinese Good Thing No One Else Has Institutional Sexism. They were absolutely right that they did need that author’s note, because people absolutely would make that inference, and by “people” I mean “a certain subset of racist white people unfortunately too large to ignore.” I wanted to stand whitely next to them and make mean faces at anyone who did make that inference. Institutional sexism: it’s not just for one culture! It should be for no cultures, but here we are! In any case: if you can’t cope with portrayals of institutional sexism at the moment, put this aside until you can, but if you want to watch Wu Zetian absolutely trouncing the sexists, with help from lovely people of various genders, on with the show, here’s Iron Widow.

Books read, early July

Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer. Reread. I had forgotten how this starts with the trope from every abusive fantasy school and then spits in its face. I had forgotten how it ramps up the beginning of this thing. I’m going to reread the whole thing, eventually, but this: yes, this is a good start.

David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. They don’t let me pick the titles for these things, or I would have called it @#%&%$ Proto-Indo-Europeans, How Do They Work. But this was good too I guess. Lots of stuff about what we know about Proto-Indo-European and the people who spoke it and how to figure out things about animal domestication. I enjoyed it a lot.

Aldous Huxley, On the Margin: Notes and Essays. Kindle. Gosh, he was willing to just lean into his opinions, wrong or not. Mostly quite wrong, with the perspective of a hundred years. Just thoroughly, enthusiastically wrong, in very readable prose.

DaVaun Sanders, Sharise B. Moore, et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 19. Kindle. The first two stories of this issue were the stand-outs for me, in very different ways. I liked the non-traditional shape of “To Rest, and to Create,” by L.A. Knight; I liked that the conflict mostly predated the story and that the shape of the story was mostly the realization that it was okay not to be wracked with conflict now. And “Meditations on Sun-Ra’s Bassism” by Yah Yah Scholfield was a more traditional shape of science fiction story but with different cultural references than this shape of story usually has, and I liked that too.

Danna Staaf, Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods. Short, pithy, full of lots of squid taxonomy and archaeology. Squids have a fairly similar organ for direction sense to ours, did you know that? which means that squid could have a balance disorder similar to one of mine, which I find companionable.

Amy Stewart, Miss Kopp Investigates. Discussed elsewhere.

Tasha Suri, The Jasmine Throne. Lush and full and lots of hard choices and people struggling with fantasy worlds full of unknown consequences. So much fun with this.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art. A long and thorough look at what we know about our Neanderthal cousins and how they did things in various aspects of life and development, very cool stuff.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds. Uncanny Magazine Issue 41. Kindle. My favorite thing in this lovely issue was Octavia Cade’s poem, and I can’t wait to share it with you in August.

Nghi Vo, The Chosen and the Beautiful. In case you hadn’t heard the press about this one, it’s a retelling of The Great Gatsby with fantasy elements, and frankly I am not sure our neighbor Scott deserved it, but he got it anyway, thank you copyright term expiration. There’s papercutting magic, there’s literally demon rum (well, demoniac), there’s Jordan Baker getting dimension of her own, there’s Vo deciding that she wants her own set of metaphors and just going out and making some, and it’s lovely, as I said far lovelier, I think, than the original possibly deserved.

Helene Wecker, The Hidden Palace. The sequel to The Golem and the Jinni, and it is very very sequel-y, so really read the other one first, but just like the first one it had that very compelling nature, the quality that made curling up with it the thing I most wanted to do while I was reading it. Early twentieth century cultural clashes and combinations, yes please, so magical even in addition to the magic.

Miss Kopp Investigates, by Amy Stewart

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Oh lovely! I said to myself when I saw this title available. She’s written a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun. So…it turns out that this is the seventh in the series, not the second. Oops! Luckily for me this did not interfere with my enjoyment in the slightest, and I have all the middle volumes in the series waiting for me. (Whew.)

So. The Kopp sisters. They’ve been up to quite a lot since last I saw them, maybe less since last you saw them if you’ve been keeping up with the series better than I have. But still quite a lot. They’ve gone their separate ways in the First World War, which is now over, and their brother has died, and what on earth are they going to do to keep body and soul together and help their sister-in-law with the children in the changing postwar economic landscape? The answer varies quite a lot by personality, although none of them is quite pleased with the way that circumstance and family need have overturned her personal plans.

The center of this particular book is the youngest Kopp sister, Fleurette, whose plans for a life on the stage have been upended, and whose new experiences as a professional divorce co-respondent are showing her a side of domestic life that she did not anticipate and does not entirely like. And the things that Miss Kopp has to investigate are not the traditional murder mystery, but something entirely itself, historically based and interesting and well-characterized and frankly a lot of fun.

Travels With Friend Robot II

Friend Robot is confused in these latitudes
Sleeps often, wakes fractious:
Where are we? What’s happening?
This is not where you said you’d stop.
I don’t know these people
I can’t find my friends. The sun
Stays overhead so long, and I can’t help.
It is my turn to soothe:
Here is your tether. Though confused,
You are not powerless. I will show you
Rocks and moose. So many trees.
We still have the lake, the compass
Yellow apples, my notebook.
My mother still loves me, my friend
Writes poems without the ringing of your bell.
Sleep softly, Friend Robot, and in the city
I will tell you tales of the animate north.

Books read, late June

Pat Barker, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. Rereads. I read these more or less in one go, as a trilogy, and that’s how I recommend doing it. There is an interesting phenomenon with some books that break a lot of ground in their time, because they sometimes do not look as astonishing in retrospect because people have gone on so much further after. Which is not to say that these are not still quite readable books–in fact I tore through them–but Barker was doing so much less with both sexuality and the war poets than I remembered. The first volume had such an incredibly light hand with sexuality, in fact, that I think a new reader to it would say, “I thought she said a theme of this trilogy was….” And the war poets rather the opposite: Siegfried Sassoon is a protagonist of the first, certainly, but I remembered him and Owen looming much larger throughout than they did. In short what she was doing here was not what I remembered her doing. Was it interesting, yes; but the things that were striking to me when I first read it nearly twenty years ago were less so now, and there were different directions. I’m still not sure what I think of the use of Rivers’s ethnographic work in the last volume. Huh. I’m not sorry I reread it, and I probably will want to reread it again in another twenty years for another look.

Nancy Marie Brown, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Assassins of Thasalon. Kindle. I like watching Lois think through all the different implications of the theology of this world and what it would do to actual people, and the compassion she approaches it with. This is very much the latest in a long series and I wouldn’t start here, but I enjoyed it as such.

Stephanie Burgis, The Disastrous Debut of Agatha Tremain. Kindle This was light and fun and just what I needed at its moment, the kind of 19th century-inspired fantasy that Steph does so well.

Elias Lönnrot (Eino Friberg trans.), The Kalevala. I was told that there was a new translation of the Kalevala, but alas, there is a new edition of a 1989 translation, and it does not even have new introductory material that could discuss use of words like “sq–w” that have no place in a translation of a Finnish poem, honestly what on earth was Penguin thinking. What are new editions even for. Why do they put introductions on things that tell me the entire plot of novels I haven’t read yet if they can’t put them on other things to apologize for (and/or amend…) racist language from past translators. Among my many gripes with the Friberg translation: it is mostly metrical but only mostly, so the places where it breaks meter are extremely glaring and do not appear to be for poetic emphasis or characterization, and mostly I could see how I would fix them myself in the moment I was reading it, which threw me out of the poem narrative. Also Friberg uses very cutesy translation words to try to keep meter in some places, like “snackbite” and “bigly,” which: stop that, Eino, what are you doing. Bigly. Now really. And when you have an epithet that breaks meter, returning to that epithet again and again when you could choose an epithet that does not break meter–oh, it’s dreadful. This is not what I meant when I said I wanted to compare translations. I hope the next version is better, or I’m just going to huddle in the corner with Francis Peabody Magoun and glare. (Magoun also uses “sq–w.” Why the fascination. Stop it.) Where is our Finnophone version of Maria Dahvana Headley? Where Emily Wilson? Whither Shadi Bartsch? I would give that person several of my very own cash dollars. I would rally my friends. I know several people. Is there a reverse Kickstarter where you put cash on the barrel and sort of a rope snare and translators wander through the forest that is the internet and when there is enough tasty cash they try to take it and translate poetry. I also want a Kalevipoeg more recent than W. F. Kirby in 1895. I don’t ask much. I’m a reasonable person.

Tehlor Kay Mejia, Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares. Discussed elsewhere.

Zin E. Rocklynn, Flowers for the Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Dorothy Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon and Lord Peter. Rereads. Here is where my sense of Bunter comes from. There is more Bunter here than in the rest of the series. I had been thinking my reader’s 50% was really more like 80% when it came to Bunter–which would be understandable for class reasons–but there’s a lot more of him here, hello Bunter, I’d missed you. There were some really interesting things here, and also some appalling ones. The last story in Lord Peter, in particular, is that thing that happens with people of that era: it is an entire story that is more or less completely written in defense of capital punishment. If you ever get to making the mistake that people of past generations who are sensible in one regard are sensible in all, read “Tallboys” and you will be soundly disabused, because it is start to finish a whole-hearted defense of beating quite small children with sticks and how great it is and how much they love it and how much people who say one oughtn’t to beat children are hypocrites who would do it at first opportunity. You often see this sort of thing among science fiction writers of the same age as well. It’s horrifying particularly in the context of a series that has been seriously considering the problem of equality in heterosexual relationships. It’s a very weird note to end on and makes me very strongly anti-recommend reading the short stories last.

Fran Wilde, The Ship of Stolen Words. I read an earlier version of this in manuscript, and I’m delighted that it is now published and available to the rest of you! Goblins steal Sam’s ability to apologize, and he has to chase them and their word-hunting pigs through Little Free Libraries to get his words back. Sam’s frustrations and struggles and joys are utterly charming and delightful. Highly recommended.

Flowers for the Sea, by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This debut novella is listed as both epic and dark fantasy, and I would say it trends strongly toward the latter. Until we got to the ending, I was inclining toward calling it horror–there is a strong component of what I would describe as body horror here, subcategory pregnancy body horror. If that’s a theme you struggle with, you may want to leave this one for another day (or even another reader), because pregnancy (and nursing) body horror is a substantial portion of what we’re doing here.

This is a story of the outcast, and it is a story of the sea. I was wondering if there would be sharp twists, but no, it’s more like the tide, it’s inexorable like the tide. The razorfangs, the sea, the survivors and their treatment of each other including the ostracized other among them…the question of her humanity…it’s all there, you know this song, it’s a question of how vividly Rocklyn brings it to its conclusion, and the answer is, very vividly indeed.

The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, by Nancy Marie Brown

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I found this book both interesting and frustrating.

Interesting, because there was a lot of good solid information about textiles and trading. Much archaeology, lots of reconstruction! If you want the details of what kinds of paint substrates were being used in the Viking era, Nancy Marie Brown has your back. I do in fact want that. I want that a lot. So this is very useful to me. I expect to some of you also.

Frustrating, because she is very much willing to make assumptions based on herself personally and go galloping forth with them. There is a little note after the main body of the book where she blithely tells the reader that Neil Price encouraged her to take a complex view of gender and she decided not to do so. Oh really, says this reviewer. Well, isn’t that a choice you made.

In Brown’s favor, she is willing to revisit previous positions when there is evidence that they are utter nonsense. Unfortunately this means that there are long sections of this book where the person she is arguing with is not me, not Neil Price, not any of a great number of other people who have been thinking thinky thoughts about the Viking era and gender for decades now (I have restrained myself from listing half a dozen personal friends in this location), but in fact…Previous Version Nancy Marie Brown. For example she says out loud! without prompting! that she personally did not used to believe in women wanting to fight with swords, which was so phenomenally stupid that I nearly shut the book and went off to go reread Neil Price instead. It’s always possible to consider other people having preferences unlike oneself, the more so when they are removed from oneself by an entire millennium, sort it out before you visit it upon the rest of us in several published volumes.

But really there’s quite a lot of useful stuff about dyes and paint substrates and that. Even if her “reconstructed” fiction sections demonstrate why she is not a fiction writer. If you’re thinking of a project in this era you might well want it just for what furs are common where and so on. If you take it all with a grain of salt about how willing this particular author is to generalize from the particular person she has closest to hand.