How I hated this book! How much I wanted to quit it, midway through! How much I enjoyed finishing it!

I couldn’t stand Francis Crawford of Lymond. Couldn’t believe that people still sung the praises of this series, begun in 1961, now, when surely people ought to have learned at some point that the loveable douchebag archetype is one that should be long dead. It’s a lesson the guys I play DnD with, regrettably, still have not learned: being an asshole is not a stylish character choice, or a trick of roleplaying par excellance. It’s just being an asshole. Lymond’s “guys want to be me, women want to sleep with me” affectation was gaggingly awful to have to stomach for the first 2/3 this book. The assertion, made repeatedly by those close to him overtly and covertly, that oh no, he’s just misunderstood, he’s really deeply sensitive inside and all the caprice and vanity is just a front — god, that gets old. Believing that kind of tripe is how your best friends end up dating jackasses for years, excusing every callous disregard or careless cruelty as just another instance of the carefully-constructed front masterminded to conceal the delicate flower within.

Typically, there is no delicate flower within. Just a run-of-the-mill dick. Of the kind that’s currently trending meme-wise, even:



But dammit, I bothered to finish this book — something I’d promised myself not to do anymore; to soldier through on books I am not enjoying solely for the purpose of finishing them — and I do like him. Because of a legal scene, of all things. And I detest legal scenes!

“Patriotism,” said Lymond, “like honesty is a luxury with a very high face value which is quickly pricing itself out of the spiritual market altogether.

[…] It is an emotion as well, and of course the emotion comes first. A child’s home and the ways of its life are sacrosanct, perfect, inviolate to the child. Add age; add security; add experience. In time we all admit our relatives and our neighbours, our fellow townsmen and even, perhaps, at last our fellow nationals to the threshold of tolerance. But the man living one inch beyond the boundary is an inveterate foe.

[…] Patriotism is a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour.… A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony; the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad. He wants advancement—what simpler way is there? He’s tired of the little seasons and looks for movement and change and an edge of peril and excitement; he enjoys the flowering of small talents lost in the dry courses of daily life. For all these reasons, men at least once in their lives move the finger which will take them to battle for their country.…

“Patriotism,” said Lymond again. “It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Patriotism; loyalty; a true conviction that of all the troubled and striving world, the soil of one’s fathers is noblest and best. A celestial competition for the best breed of man; a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature and bigoted intolerance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power—

[…] These are not patriots but martyrs, dying in cheerful self-interest as the Christians died in the pleasant conviction of grace, leaving their example by chance to brood beneath the water and rise, miraculously, to refresh the centuries. The cry is raised: Our land is glorious under the sun. I have a need to believe it, they say. It is a virtue to believe it; and therefore I shall wring from this unassuming clod a passion and a power and a selflessness that otherwise would be laid unquickened in the grave.

[…] “And who shall say they are wrong?” said Lymond. “There are those who will always cleave to the living country, and who with their uprooted imaginations might well make of it an instrument for good. Is it quite beyond us in this land? Is there no one will take up this priceless thing and say, Here is a nation, with such a soul; with such talents; with these failings and this native worth? In what fashion can this one people be brought to live in full vigour and serenity, and who, in their compassion and wisdom, will take it and lead it into the path?”


In fiction, and for that matter in video games, I always enjoy most the fantastical stories that lean on love of country for their pillars. To a point. But unless our characters excavate those sunken pillars, realize the holes that riddle them and then decide whether to leave the foundation in place, holding up the ramshackle husk of the nation, or to let them topple — unless those dark places are entered (see: Malafrena, Tigana, and in a different way Stone’s Fall), it rings terribly hollow to me. For gapingly obvious reasons, I’m sure. Everyone should know better than to blindly respect the flap of a flag or the tattoo on a shoulder by now. If you probe deep enough to discover that those things are all that’s holding an individual together, and that without them, they are lost, fine, retreat. (As long as leaving them intact won’t harm others.) But if you’ve got a deeper framework that can withstand the self-interest and rot at the core of any scintillating spire of nation-based pride…cut it down. Call it out. Don’t make excuses for it.

Lymond’s comparison of patriotism with religion is not without cause. Blindly waving away the atrocities of your preferred group as insubstantial, too far past to be worth noting, or belonging to a group so wholly different than its current iteration that it might as well have been a different sect altogether, is as foolish as people claiming not to need to deal with their nation’s egregious past because “hey, I wasn’t there, why should care?” Because you exist at the level of comfort you do only because those atrocities were committed, to some profit, which profits were built on over time at the expense of others and for your ultimate, present-day gain. And if you still want to go and chant the anthem or sing a hymn because it makes you feel part of a whole, and less alone, fine…but you need to not be the coward who refuses to look into the empty self-interested maw at the heart of it. Look at it, and deal with it, and move on, singing or not as you see fit. But you have to look, dammit. You cannot pledge your life and what you imagine to be your soul to empty motions gone through out of unexamined habit; out of sheer ethical laziness.

Lymond, to his credit, looks, and has known for years how fragile are the loyalties that snuff out the lives around him like candles. He knows the animalistic, inglorious roots of such loyalties. But he limps after their good graces anyway, not because of any starry-eyed belief in their moral superiority but only to pursue, at what he feels is quickly becoming the end of his life, a final glimpse of the love in which he began that life. All his flippancy and volatility and interminable classical quoting aside, he is hollow and worn and wants only to be liked, a little, and looked at without loathing or greed, a time or two before he dies.

If he were any less humbled I would have loathed him still. But he’s been carved as empty as a jack-o-lantern by the end, and he’s running out of candle to light what’s left. This is perhaps the only way the loveable asshole archetype is made palatable to me: run the much-vaunted rascal so raw through the gears of life that all that horrid facade fractures and splinters, and cuts him deeply as the shards fall around him. If he does not have to learn loss as part of his becoming, his roots don’t run deep enough to be worth digging up.


kid vs producers

One of those dreams I wake up from with my hands aching from clenching them. But not out of fear? More out of…conviction.

And again one that started as someone else’s story and became mine, and then became someone else’s again. It was all animated, Pixar-style, because at first it was a movie about a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, who gains a power he doesn’t want. He can gain animal skills and abilities by thinking about them — claws to defend himself from bullies with, at first, when in the heat of the moment he strikes out and has claws — and ears to listen in on conversations with. But he doesn’t want to stick out like this and doesn’t know how to stop it, so he makes his hair grow larger and poofier to try to hide the ears (which he can’t get rid of anymore), and tries to hide his monkey tail (which he acquired for some feat of balance, I think to escape the second round of bullies who were coming to beat him  up for having claws) from his older brother, who immediately is pegged for a bad guy. But in a creepy way — he’s college-age, dropped out and stays at home in a treehouse he built in the middle of the living room, but he keeps making lewd sexual comments to his much-younger siblings, all under ten, and no one is around to tell him to shut his mouth. So he’s creepy and too-sexual and not at all A Good Guy to these little kids. Plus he mocks this kid with the animal magic, so. An adversary.

Then, though, at some point the little boy became a little girl and…the world fell apart. At the seams. And the seams were objects of some kind? Little things, seemingly of no consequence, that when seen or beheld were cause, according to the producers of the film — you could hear them in the background snickering, like those older muppets in the box seats in The Muppet Show — were justification for the world to be torn apart. (In the way that, for example, the sight of the 1970s penny in Somewhere In Time rips Christopher Reeve out of the past, because of its disjuncture.) The objects that triggered the destruction tended to be small and pretty mundane — a necklace, an eraser, a cell phone — but each of them mattered to someone, and the producers wanted to punish people for their materialism. For liking the things. So they deemed that the world would rip apart over and over again, like in Groundhog Day, every time one of these objects became what they decided was too precious.

And this girl, who used to be the animal magic boy, still had magic, and at 10 or 12 now was aware that she could try, should try, to use her powers to hold shit together. But it didn’t work. She was the star of the story and the producers left her there, again like Groundhog Day in that she could hang onto her knowledge of what would happen even though no one else could. But the world kept ripping open no matter how she cried, begging people to do or say or think things that would keep the producers happy. When the world fell apart it was pretty horrific — rooms and people bubbled and burst; images arising from the minds of those caught in the bubble came into being and faded; which meant being around the creepy older treehouse brother was Not Good because he kept floating violent sexual images in there and scaring the kids before they all ceased to exist, and his 12 year old sister kept yelling at him to stop but he’d just laugh as he vaporized. Class A Creep.

But the problems were bigger than him. When the girl realized she couldn’t stop the whole place from falling apart she’d try to hold onto just parts of it. She made a map of her block in plaster, like those quick-setting plaster kits you put baby feet in to make this-is-how-big-I-was flagstones, and tried to…focus, I guess, on that, reasoning that if objects undid the world, maybe objects would hold it together too. And it worked for a bit but the producers got angrier and angrier that she was trying to control their story, and everything around her block disintegrated into a a void, and eventually they ripped up the block too, sidewalk crumbling away chunk by chunk, with neighbors screaming and everything. Then it would restart again, as they thought to edit it, refine it, make it better, and only the girl knew what had happened and would be happening again shortly.

She got better at explaining what was going to happen. Family and neighbors started to believe her and to give her objects invested with non-material meaning that she thought might work. There were a lot of stereotypes here. Like a surly goth kid who, when she explains what she’s trying to do — hold the world together by focusing on objects of love instead of just material value, for which they were being punished — the goth kid without a word takes off the spiked collar he’s wearing, which was a gift from his dead girlfriend or something, and hands it to her to try and focus on. Stuff like that. The collar in particular held the world together for a fraction longer than it had before, and the producers were forced to change the way they ripped things apart — instead of pulling horrors from people’s minds to unleash upon them, they just started smashing through the world, so it broke like glass in long webbed lines. The girl was furious and screamed at them but at that point it was a void so one she knew heard.

The people who had donated objects came to believe her more easily every disintegration, because she could walk up to them and explain to them why she needed whatever thing, because it was most precious to them and had been given to them the day before their dad died, or because it contained a lock of their childhood dog’s fur, etc. etc. She garnered this rushed respect from them as she ran around trying to collect enough meaning to keep the producers from smashing the world to bits, but it was never enough. She tried holding it together in different places — atop a hill, on a boat at a dock, in a town square. Nothing worked. Everything fell to ribbons. Toward the end, people who believed her were gathered around her, crying, yelling all the things they cared about to the sky, trying to prove that they were kind and decent enough to deserve not to be rewritten. But it never worked. It ended with some sort of moody non-closure shot, the camera panning toward the spiked collar sinking to the bottom of the water by the docks where the girl had dropped it in despair, right before the water sloshed away into nothingness again.

There was a soundtrack. It was amazing. I assume instrumental with huge swells. I know there was a soundtrack (despite not being able to describe it) because after the movie ended — because now it was a movie again — I was in a group of people watching it, and someone immediately tossed me an LP of the soundtrack, mockingly, saying at least the music was okay and they knew I liked movie soundtracks and LPs so here. I was enraged. This movie was great, how shitty was it to throw all that on a kid, and then to keep the laughing in there, keep sniggering at her for trying to save things. It was a stupid animated movie, the gathered people agreed. Derivative. Like if someone tried to mix Monsters Inc with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Into the Void.

I was furious. So over the next few days I hunted down everyone who’d seen that movie with me and argued them into seeing its merits. That is maybe why my hands hurt, I think. I would make them care the way the kid couldn’t — wasn’t allowed to — fix her world. And I would bludgeon their careless disgregard of the (admittedly somewhat…overstated, I guess) heart in that movie into compassion. I cited all the personal shit I knew about them and demand they stop being judgey standoffish critic assholes and actually put themselves in the position of this kid and think wouldn’t they try, wouldn’t they try their hardest despite all their pronounced Not Giving a Shit About Things, to hold the world together, even a tiny part of it, for the people they loved? And is that really something, Giving a Shit, that is so goddamn dangerous to their fragile egos that they have to deride it constantly every time its possibility arises? And it worked. I never convince anyone of anything, especially regarding movies, but it worked.

And then I woke up.

the value of a good frame


I’m currently working on Voyageurs, by Margaret Elphinstone, and am enjoying it immensely. Not specifically for its subject matter, which I admit was what drew me to it the decade or so ago when I bought it. Nor even its characters, which remind me warmly, here and there, of Outlander (before we had to deal with Bree and her generation), on which I now await further books, since I am sadly caught-up. (And people wonder why I never finish series or shows; having to actually wait for the next bit is not my cup of tea.)

But what I enjoy most here is the frame: the knowledge that bookends this adventure into being only a memorable and life-changing adventure–not life-ending, and not life-changing to the point where our narrator’s end no longer at all resembles his beginnings.

I understand how uninviting this sounds. Or how chicken soupy — oh wonderful, so he gets back to where he came from, cool story bro. But there’s value in allowing a frame to promise us that whatever idiocy our narrator gets up to in-story, he eventually gains the self awareness with which to look back on it and gain more in retrospect, perhaps, than he stood to gain at the time, through the actual experience of the thing. In Voyageurs, a great deal of that reflection happens in the footnotes.


It isn’t as though footnotes always serve this purpose. Sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — they’re just poor editing. Or at least an insufficient amount of it, permitted by a too-indulgent editor. Sometimes they’re annoyingly tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes pleasingly tongue-in-cheek, fine, fine…) But these footnotes specifically always come from the frame’s place of much-older-Mark-Greenhow-looks-back-on-the-exploits-of-his-youth-while-editing-them, and it creates a kind of ease and comfort. Maybe some of this comes from the fact that the character clearly reaches a point of ease and comfort, to be able to pause his life and look back on his old writings like this, but still. It shifts our focus from “what will he do” to “what will he learn?”

And no, this isn’t just something you can do by asserting first person every which way. Quite often people who go in for the first person will skip entirely the self-reflection you might hope you’d get: “I barely remember the man I was,” “only decades later was I to recall that…” “ignore the intervening half-century between then and now and let me limit my reflection to griping about The Youths instead of giving any hard looks in the mirror.” It’s so cheap when people do that. You have the chance, if you’re doing a frame and have kept your narrator alive and cognizant, of providing, even if not genuine self-awareness, at least the chance for the character’s later selves to get a word in on their former selves. Maybe they’re arrogant and self-absorbed; maybe they’ve learned nothing; but at least if they address the passage of time we get to see that. Too often people skip this step. Maybe they think it’s boring; maybe they don’t feel up to it; maybe they all write it and their overly-strict editors kill it, I don’t know. But I wish more people would go this route. It makes for a much more fulfilling narrative.

Take Mark Greenhow in Voyageurs again. He’s a Quaker in the wilderness of the US-Canadian border on the even of the war of 1812, as staunch and stiff in his beliefs as most young men raised in a faith tend to be (allowing, of course, for the fact that youth — the shaping of your thoughts, as limited to the breadth of the world you were allowed to expose yourself to — lingered then in a way it doesn’t now). That’s 24-year-old Mark Greenhow. But 40- or 50-something Mark Greenhow can footnote his youthful self’s more stubborn takes on how this or that religious stipulation applies to life, and observe that he was then too young to see the inevitable gray areas. From religious people especially — characters or real-life — it is always a relief to see that age has caused them to realize that the complex mess of the world rarely allows for the cut-and-dried righteousness of their sect’s texts on whatever subject is at hand.

Footnotes, as set up by the frame of the story, make these observations far more palatable, to me, than writing such observations directly into the cadence of the narrator’s main text — either by adapting a too-precious, too-wise tone, or by depending on more parentheses than anyone wants to wade through in a given paragraph. Footnotes keep a firm barrier between the past character and the present character, such that our eyes are continually drawn to the differences between the two (as well as what similarities remain). That’s really valuable. Margaret Elphinstone does it well here. More people should try it.

books that stick

In general, I do not like lists. Not of favorite things. Or most meaningful things. Or most awful things. Most lists lack the context that is far more interesting than an item’s location on that list. They attempt to apply a purportedly objective framework to their structure, which is bound not to be objective and whose missing context is generally the cause. Far more interesting to me than a list of books you love or hate is why you love or hate them.

I haven’t used Facebook in years, but at least when it began — when it was still The Facebook — this tendency to try and sum yourself up in lists drove me up the wall. The assumption is that everyone will know things about you based on your list of favorite things, when in fact, without context, the conclusions drawn from those lists are going to be necessarily, radically different from person to person. Convincing yourself of some universal language by which everyone will suddenly connect with you based on your list of top ten films is ridiculous. It doesn’t work. If you want to test this, tell people your list of top ten books includes Infinite Jest. Watch their expressions.

But! Of course there is a but. There have been several books I’ve been thinking about lots lately, over the months, and most of them I’ve mentioned here on some level. But while I ascribe no particular “objective” rubric to them, they keep cropping up in my head. So I thought I’d note down why, to the best of my ability. Why things remain is so much more interesting than a bland roll call of such things, in numerical order.

This means spoilers. I’ll put a nice big image of the books up there to warn you, but I’ll warn you now too. This isn’t a tidy little summary of plots and people. Most of these books stick in my mind due to specific scenes therein — so please have a care if you mind spoilers (which, I mean, you should, in all honesty).


Book: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Why: The shooting of the horse.

Far and away. I read it in a coffee shop and sure, I cry easily at books, ever since I was 15 and thought my dad died in 9/11 until I could get to a phone. But all before that and long after I detest being seen to cry, and I read this scene in a coffee shop and was torn to ribbons. I undid my hair to try to hide my face. I couldn’t just stop reading; it was horrific and poleaxing. What should have been an act of mercy. Of kindness. What was only ever intended to be such. Instead, turning to ruin. Horror that could not be explained to the trusting animal now screaming, because of the lack of language. Horror that would be the last thing that animal took to its grave — because there was no time for explanations, for sobbing apologies while clutching a bloodied face (which happened, which happened), for desperate snot-filled attempts to please understand, no money, no time, you’re dying, I didn’t mean to, it should have been peaceful, this worst thing that ever happened to you has now happened at my hands and I can’t erase it, it’s the last thing you’ll remember and it’s the worst thing I could have possibly done to you — that undid me. Eventually I packed up my things, went into the dingy bathroom and just sobbed for a good five minutes. Long hair to hide my face. The unhelpful fury of shutting down questions from people later — I’m fine, it was a book, just read it, I’m not going back into it right now. But even though I connect to that book on so many levels, that is the scene that comes back to me most often. Especially now, with an aging animal in my care, one ear always turned her way in case she collapses again. Trying to read that bland animal face for pain or trust or peace. Knowing it won’t be found. Wanting at least to avoid this worst thing.


Book: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Why: The model city, and the jewel in the wall at the edge of the sea.

Again, context: I read this as my mother was dying. I physically had it in my hand when she “passed” (foolish word, there’s nothing gentle or graceful or purposeful about it; do not throw the word over the misery like a polite white sheet), though I did not know it at the time. But it isn’t misery that sticks this book back in my head. It’s the exacting care with which the father studied the world around him and recreated it in miniature form, so his blind daughter could navigate that world. And it saved her. From trapped rooms, from a life spent as confined as girls two hundred years before her time. From rape. From Nazis. From things the father couldn’t even imagine he’d have to protect his daughter from, he saved her, by making a world accessible with his hands. My father, too, builds whole model worlds. If he could have protected me from anything he would have buried the house in tiny lifelike trees made from dried lichen, and grass powdered down from a salt shaker.

That, then, but also that last scene: the unfurling of the location of the jewel. It is so beautifully done, so delicately, the explanation of the current location of the object that drew everyone through the story from the beginning. It ran — not that this is in any way an important or meaningful comparison — just as the credits epilogue to Inherit the Earth did: and here, gentle viewer, after you’ve seen all the fates bestowed upon your characters, here in this muddy tidepool is the final resting place of the object which drove our story. Even though I know such scenes are constructed to be precisely what they are — for closure, for a sly little smirk at all the fuss made over such objects, all the human toil that went into the caring for what are, in the end, just objects — I still value them. Compare these scenes to other object-driven storylines, like Lord of the Rings or The Wizard of Oz. The objects get close-ups, full crescendos of soundtrack, the works. The stories reward the characters for obsessing over these things; even if that “reward” is a permanent inability to function without them. Neither a character nor a scene in these tales ever says, in its essence, “it’s just a thing, get over it.” But it goes beyond that, what I like to hear — not just some high-horse moralizing about materialism but an earnest assertion that people matter more than what they convince themselves matters most. Feelings being dangerously mockable to have, it’s nice to see them brought to the fore in such scenes, even if disguised as snark or smugness. So yes, I love that last scene, and think of it often.


Book: Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Why: Who he thinks will be standing behind him as he faces away from the door, and who is.

Another last scene. At the time it stuck with me for the endgame reasons: elation over who survived, both physically and mentally; people rejoined who stories tell you don’t get to; whom this very story was telling you from the beginning didn’t get to join up. Who wouldn’t. Who were too different for that ever to work out. The social and cultural barriers torn down to make that happen; the joyous assertion that such things don’t matter and that it would be fine…this is what I reveled, in, at first. Something exultant after all that loss.

But as time passes it sticks with me less for Crispin’s sake or even for their union’s sake but for the courage it took Alixana to even appear. Worse, to remain, to stick out the end of that scene when after losing everything she loved most in such a disastrous way, the assumption based on the part of the last person who knew her as she was, or as she knew herself to once be, was that she’d be someone else. No calculated hauteur can hide you from the terror of not mattering to the last person who really knows you. Of not knowing if you matter, and of showing up across miles and miles and miles of dangerous countryside just to determine whether that is, in fact, the case. Whether you were not just known but loved. The courage, to stand there in that doorway and summon a quip when, within, you’re ravaged as a flash-flooded canyon. I think — I haven’t reread just this scene, and won’t; not until I reread both books, and not enough years have passed yet for me to do that — it’s even mentioned, that shadow in her eyes, her inability to entirely hide it anymore. Crispin bothers to see it, too. If he didn’t, fuck him — but he does. He ought to; he’s a details guy. And he does and thus is allowed (by me!) to have her. She deserves no less. And would survive with no less.


Book: Malafrena, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Why: “Is it so easy? You set out…to make yourself. To make the world…”

This quote. At least once a month it bubbles up to my surface, when something in the world you thought would be different, isn’t. I’m sure if I had kids, or if I just said it aloud to friends whenever it occurs to me, it would be dismissed as that annoying block quote I always refer back to. But it comes up a lot. That one professor who always whipped out Proust as a way to remind us all how much older and more jaded he was than us? This is mine. Here it is in full, again, because we all grow up thinking we’ll be Itale, and we all turn into Estenskar:

“Is it so easy?” he said after so long that Itale, befogged with exercise, fresh air, beer, and well-being, was not sure what he was talking about. “You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”

“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”

“That won’t last.”

“It will. It’s we who don’t last.”

Estenskar leaned against the doorway, gazing out into the country darkness.

“Now that I know that I can’t choose,” he said, “now that I’ve finally learned that there are no choices, that I can’t make my way and never could, that it was all deceit and conceit and waste–now that I’ve given up trying to make my way, I can’t find it, I can’t hear the voice. I’m lost. I went too far and there’s no way home.”

I know there’s no way to put it here in full and have it not sound terribly morbid and sad. But I don’t always retreat to that quote in moments of despondency. I think it is reassuring. Most of the people old and close enough to me to tell me of such things are dead, so books are where I turn. And it is reassuring to know that the…tarnishing of what you thought life would be is not endemic to you. I mean, I say this, having extricated myself from a variety of bad situations, in the fullness of summer surrounded by crickets at the beginning of what will be another beautiful day spent reading in a hammock. This quote is far beneath my surface, at the moment. But when the next new disaster oozes out of the news and into our lives? Yeah, it’s there. The fullness of summer gives way, always, and in the same way that you can relax in the doldrums of a grim and gritty November, knowing that it will come back — because that’s how nature works — Estenskar is there to be voice of wisdom I don’t have access to anymore. You set out to make yourself. But you don’t make what you planned, and there’s no room left, and you have to deal with that. Or not.

I was 14 or 15 when I first read this, and I’ve reread it since, and it is still meaningful. Maybe I care more about Piera than I did the first time around. Maybe I roll my eyes more at Itale swaggering around thinking of himself as part of a group of Important College Kids who Have Ideas. But it’s still powerful. And Estenskar only becomes more relatable, with time. I gather that though LeGuin started this book in the 50s, it wasn’t published until 1979. I’d be very curious to know how Estenskar evolved over that time. Did he even exist, in the beginning? Did the prose treat him with condescension, at first? At first, did he deserve it?


These are books which stick with me long after I’ve read them. There may be some overlap with those I’d read again in a heartbeat — like Malafrena, like the Sarantine Mosaic (of which Lord of Emperors is the second half) — but not always. Books I love dearly don’t appear here: Lions of al-Rassan; The Name of the Rose. I want to wrap myself up in those and disappear into them, like Skyrim. But the ones here, these are scenes I keep returning to in my head, years later. That’s a more meaningful thing to share, I think, than “according to my arbitrary rubric, this are the best books ever, hurr. I will spend the next 45 minutes telling you less about what moved me and more about why my rubric isn’t arbitrary but is, in fact, Utterly Objective.” Uh huh. Don’t waste my time. If you have the balls to be moved by something, tell me why. Otherwise, gtfo.

mothering sunday


There are these occasional stabs in Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, that are just beautiful. They are why I decided to buy the book, not entirely sober and tilting through the stacks in the last few minutes before the bookshop closed.

“…because there was anyway such an intensity and strange gravity to their experimentation, such a consciousness at least that they were doing something wrong (the whole world was in mourning all around them), it had needed some compensating element of levity: giggling.”

And I bought it.

It is absolutely unforgivable and unpitiable, this ownership I feel for sorrow, national sorrow even; this dogged refusal to account for others’ lack of understanding of how it feels. (In the midwest and even more so on the west coast, they do not know, it was a show for them, not and never a loss or a real fear.) This attraction to books, songs, people who do know. I who am no veteran’s widow; who do not wake in the night wracked with PTSD dreams. I am the last person who should counsel anyone on loss; when I found myself in the necessary position of doing so, I panicked at how utterly unequipped I was in the face of a woman who’d lost her daughter, who desperately hoped I could make social media stop rubbing her daughter’s death in her face.

But that’s why I bought this book. All the empty rooms. The strange neighborliness that results, the boundaries that are erased, by such vast and shared understanding of a vicious, echoing absence.

And I bought it because they giggled.

“Yes, it was tragic,” she said, with a voice like flint. And didn’t say, as she might have done–at eighty she could be oracular: We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?”


“And if you had yourself been comprehensively bereaved at birth–and that was her situation, wasn’t it?–how could you share in all that stuff, how could you have anything left over for it? The war wasn’t her fault, was it?”


You could hardly allow her to borrow books and then not allow her at least some time to read them. And the house was not any more, let’s face it, as in the old days, a firmly governed, a strictly regimented house. Look where regimentation had got the world.

This from the otherwise self-possessed and entirely unsentimental lord of a house. Seemingly on top of and in control of himself despite the loss of his sons (and everyone else’s sons) years, years ago, in the First World War. And from the mind of one presented to us as so contained, so in control, just that little unfurling of grief, that baring of a stark distrust, disillusionment in what he was in all likelihood brought up putting his faith in without question: order, command, the way of doing things. Regimentation. And it took his sons from him, and revealed itself not to be the keeper or restorer of anything. And he allows it to slacken and fall away.

That’s painful, but important. Agony to go through but important to see.

random music fridays : bonny light horseman (natalie merchant + lunasa)

I’m always curious about songs speaking supposedly from a woman’s point of view, addressing dead or dying menfolk. Typically because it wasn’t women writing these songs. So I always want to know if this is the way the men writing the songs want to be remembered? Or is it how they remembered their dead friends, and culturally they aren’t allowed to mourn properly, so they had to frame the song from a mourning widow or girlfriend’s point of view?

“Bonny Light Horseman” is one of these. Dating back, indeed, to the Napoleonic Wars it sings of, the song was distributed on broadsheets (which itself begs the question — was the whole damn ballad propaganda? was there, even in the 1790s, an office devoted to inflaming the nationalistic fervor of the people via song? was there a Napoleonic Wag the Dog situation going on?) published in London, Birmingham and Prestons. (Source.)

This version, done as a collaboration between Natalie Merchant — yes, the Natalie Merchant that filled the radio stations in high school — and Lunasa, is very much not the mournful drinking ballad. (It also makes me wonder if enough time has passed since Titanic for the general public to accept hornpipes again. I like hornpipes.) It’s too slow, for one. For another, it’s…oh, I don’t know. Do people even sing sad songs together anymore, drunk or otherwise? Do you keep needing to stand us up as vehicles for your sorrow? Surely not.

The idea that loss just flows in you like syrup and you can tap into it purely and fill a bucket with it, just loss, without having to filter out anger or flecks of yourself or something is terribly anachronistic. These songs that just have women wondering the moors in mourning are silly. We don’t just cry. We rage. At the ones who went off and died. At the people who sent them there. At everyone who didn’t care, or care enough, or cared too late.

As a resurrection of a historial piece, though, it’s pretty enough. These lyrics are the ones modified by Tony Rose in 1982. Interestingly, he changes the eagle of the earlier lyrics to simply “small bird.” I kind of want to ask him why. A small bird’s nest won’t hold the dead horseman’s heart, man, let alone his long cold body. Did you take our wide wings and pinions from us because you thought it too dangerous? Too unladlylike? Or too nationalistic? Mourning women have already been written into the national narrative; don’t try to make us clean again.

You could have at least let us keep our claws.