We waltzed slowly around the room, between the rows of booths, past the pool table and the chairs, never hitting anything. I guess the loser had spent so much time in that bar that he knew where everything was. He had the gift of all the best dancers: he led you so that you felt as though there was no leading or following involved … The scar tissue above his empty white eyes was furrowed with concentration, and he smelled of sweat and gin.
“Are you beautiful?” the loser whispered toward the end of the song.
I lied a little. “Yes,” I said. “Very.”
The loser smiled to himself and closed his sightless eyes.Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham, p. 52
Just when you think you’re getting your hands around something, it gets to wriggling around on you. You ever notice how that is?Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham, p. 250
“But … but …,” Taran stammered. “Coll? A hero? But … he’s so bald!”
Gwydion laughed and shook his head. “Assistant Pig-Keeper,” he said, “you have curious notions about heroes. I have never known courage to be judged by the length of a man’s hair. Or, for the matter of that, whether he has any hair at all.”The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, p. 24
You’ve been warned, friends. If you don’t want to read a post about possible space aliens, you are welcome to leave the room with no hard feelings. Goodbye, and I’ll see you back here next week!
Finally Facing the News
You guys may have noticed, there has been a spate of news articles and videos about U.S. Navy pilots sighting what appear to be UFOs.
I’ve ignored these news items for a long time, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with them. Now I’m ready to give my analysis. It will be just as expert as anyone else’s, and no more expert than any comments you may leave.
Problems with all the Possible Theories
- This is all just a big hoax by our government, to distract us from the attempted power grab by [fill in your favorite villains]. The problems: First of all, it’s not working if that was indeed the plan. The media have not camped on this nearly as hard as on some other, less sensational things, and even when they have run stories, the public (including me, I might add) seem much more interested in their own problems. The government and media are not using these reports to whip up fear or preparations for an intergalactic war, nor are they trying to turn this into a scandal about past administrations’ lack of preparedness on the space alien issue. They have just kind of thrown out all this newly declassified information with a clunk, a shrug, and a big trombone slide. Secondly, the pilots who were interviewed seemed like sane, professional people. They did not seem like people who “want to believe” in space aliens. Thirdly, some of these reports and videos go back for decades.
- These aircraft belong to another world power, such as China, which has developed technology far more advanced than we suspected. Possible but implausible, because again, these sightings go back for decades. It’s hard to imagine a geopolitical rival having advanced millennia beyond us in terms of their technology, and not having already used it to conquer us. Regular earth people don’t have that kind of self-control.
- The aircraft belong to a private, independently wealthy genius, like Elon Musk, who does not want to take over the world but just zips over the Pacific Ocean as a hobby. Possible. Very possible. Although again, it would take phenomenal humility and self-control for a private organization to have these capabilities and not try to leverage them for whatever their own pet project is: fame, space travel, stopping perceived climate change, etc.
- The aircraft belong to an advanced civilization of space aliens. The first problem with this is that, if this is an invading force, they are taking their time. At the risk of repeating myself: these sightings go back decades. So if these are space aliens, they frankly don’t seem super interested in us. Perhaps they are just here as tourists. The Pacific Ocean would certainly be a worthy destination for tourism, and perhaps it is more interesting to them than humans. But there is another huge problem with the space alien theory; that is, if we are imagining these space aliens as they are usually conceived of: physical beings, designed to live in three dimensions, like us, physically inhabiting a very different ecosystem on a distant planet or planets in a distant solar system. The problem is this: any possible life-supporting planets in our universe are prohibitively distant for vehicles traveling at normal speeds. The time (and, if I may say so, the risks) involved are not at all practical for tourism or warfare, or even for beings not designed for space to survive the journey probably. Of course, there is a that hoary sci-fi trope of hyperspace (going faster than the speed of light). But everything I’ve ever heard about this indicates it’s either not possible, or would almost certainly destroy any object that accelerated to that speed, and would certainly kill any physical being, designed to live in three dimensions, that tried it. All of this makes it impossible for me to swallow a Star Wars or Avatar-like scenario where there are physical aliens living galaxies away, who have traveled through hyperspace to get to Earth. But there is another possibility.
In the short satirical novel Flatland, the protagonist is a square who lives in a two-dimensional world of geometric beings. These two-dimensional beings are visited by a sphere. The sphere shows himself to them by intersecting his body with the plane of their universe. The way this looks to the two-dimensional beings is that a point appears out of nowhere, then becomes a rapidly growing circle as the sphere inserts more of his diameter into their plane of existence. When he wishes to, the sphere can move out the other side. This looks to the two-dimensional shapes as if the circle shrinks and then vanishes. The sphere can then move to somewhere else on the two-dimensional plane and appear there, again giving the impression that he has appeared out of nowhere. Later, the sphere takes the square on a mystical journey to observe lower dimensions, so as to give him an idea of how higher dimensions might exist. There is a one-dimensional world (a line) where the inhabitants are all line segments. Each can only see the end of his neighbor (he or she looks like a point), but they can hear one another and communicate by harmonizing. The square is also shown a universe that consists of a single point. This point is the only being in its universe and thinks it is God. It is impossible to communicate with this point. If it hears a voice not coming from within its own universe, it imagines that it must be having auditory hallucinations.
Returning to the vehicles in the section above, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. If these mysterious vehicles turn out to be piloted by nonhuman beings, it seems most probable to me that they would be creatures designed to live in more dimensions than we do. Creatures in a higher dimension can do things that appear miraculous in lower dimensions, such vanishing abruptly or appearing to defy the laws of physics. Though wild, the “higher-dimensional beings” theory seems to me more plausible than the idea of three-dimensional beings who are subject to the same laws of physics that we are, yet somehow have managed to pull off intergalactic travel and vanishing through “technology.”
And, by the way, notice your own reaction to this. Did you breathe a sigh of relief? Does the phrase “interdimensional beings” sound way more intelligent than “space aliens” or “angels”? I confess it rolls off my tongue much more smoothly. (More syllables = better?) Some people might say that interdimensional beings was what they meant all along by “aliens,” and moving through multiple higher dimensions was what they meant by “technology.” O.K., that’s fair. Such beings would certainly be alien to us. Still, I think it’s a helpful distinction to make, because I don’t think “creatures designed to live in a higher dimension” is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear “aliens,” or especially “space aliens.” We might think of aliens as having the ability to mess with higher dimensions than we can, but I think most people think of that as a sort of extra, while conceiving of the aliens as primarily creatures like us (perhaps smarter and uglier), who make their primary home on a physical planet and are anchored in the three dimensions (four if you count time).
The Third Circle of Weird
Ready to get even stranger with me? Let’s go.
On this blog, I have in the past reviewed the excellent, very odd, very mind-blowing Collision Series, which consists of the books The Resolve of Immortal Flesh and The Formulacrum. That series is a lot of things, including a hilarious, Hitchhiker’s Guide-style romp … but more than anything it’s an extended exploration of this idea of interdimensional beings. Human characters in the series get ahold of a vehicle that can travel in higher dimensions. They exploit their access to higher dimensions to move through walls, travel the depths of the sea, and vanish when there’s trouble, and they do it a lot. Of course, the convenience of this is limited by the fact that throughout the books, the human protagonists are at different times being hunted by beings who also have access to these higher dimensions.
A major thesis of these books is that the beings we are used to referring to as angels and demons are actually interdimensional beings whose goals intersect with human life in complex ways. One interesting thing that comes up is that humans do in fact move through some of these higher dimensions, but we do so without knowing it. We experience our interdimensional blunders as intuitions, insights, creepy feelings, etc. This makes sense. After all, in theory there’s nothing to stop a two-dimensional creature from blundering through the body of a three-dimensional creature, right? Anyway, that’s an interesting detail but I’m getting off track here.
Helped by Rich Colburn, the author of The Formulacrum, I am now ready to cap off the weirdness by integrating this interdimensional beings idea into the world view of my own book series.
The Long Guest and The Strange Land both proceed on the premise, taken from Genesis 6, that in ancient times “the sons of God” (interdimensional beings?) walked the earth in some kind of physical form that allowed them somehow to reproduce with human women, thus producing a race of monsters. The resulting chaos was in fact the main reason for the Flood: God was doing triage to save the human race as originally created. This horrifying period in history was also the source of the all the legends and origin stories about gods, giants, and monsters that we find in cultures worldwide. For more on this theory, see my post, here, or the book Giants: sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn.
So, yes, strange as it sounds, I am speculating that your “aliens” might be what the ancient world called “gods” … but only if we specify that they were not regular “space aliens” but interdimensional beings who could probably appear as people or animals or whatever they wanted to look like (hat tip to the Greek myths).
So, Why Am I Not Terrified?
I’m not terrified because the gods ain’t what they used to be.
I see the “gods” as having less influence on human life now than ever before. I basically see three phases of this. In the first phase, they were actually here, manifesting physically, demanding worship in person. God put a stop to that with the Flood.
After the Flood, people still remembered the gods, and they seem to have continued to be pretty active on earth, but unable to manifest physically. So, each nation had a god that was responsible for it (or that it was responsible to). They built altars to these gods, identified them with different stars and constellations, and kept trying to get in touch with them physically even though that door had now been closed. “In the past,” Paul says, “God let all nations go their own way.” He picked one people and told them not to worship false gods (gods which were not the Creator and which, in many cases, didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were evil). If we look at legends and even recorded history, it seems to me that often these gods were actual spiritual presences who, though they could no longer manifest physically, could have quite an influence on human life through things like visions, possessions, illnesses, and disasters. For example, in Palestine in Jesus’ day we see many cases, unironically reported, of people being possessed by “unclean spirits.” This is in a region that had been heavily Hellenized, and where people were definitely still worshipping the Roman gods, the Greek gods, and the pre-Hellenistic local deities such as Artemis of the Ephesians. In this second phase, it was truly a dangerous thing to turn from your local deity to worship “the living God,” the God of Israel. Local deities perhaps could actually harm people they took a hate-on to. God spends a lot of time in the Old Testament reassuring the people that if they forsake the fertility and rain gods, and worship Him, He will bless their households and crops and will take care of them.
So, in phase two, God has set some limits on the interdimensional beings but there are still lots of manifestations from other dimensions and lots of communication (or attempts at such) between them and humans.
In phase three, we get Jesus. He opens the way for all human beings to relate directly to the living God. When people turn to Him, they turn away from the worship of the lesser gods. And when people do this in large numbers, a funny thing happens. Paganism no longer works any more. It’s as if the lesser gods have been banished — not partially, but completely now — from their traditional territories. In the Christian era, as worship of the true God spreads slowly but surely throughout the world like leaven, the world becomes less and less spooky. Now, 2000 years later, in many parts of the world, interdimensional/spooky/spiritual manifestations are so rare that we do not have to worry about them and many people don’t even believe that they exist or ever did. If we see a weird thing, we have to find some kind of physical explanation for it, whether it’s a hallucination caused by chemicals in our brain or physical, three-dimensional beings from somewhere else in our physical galaxy.
I’m OK with this change, frankly. It might make the world a little more boring … but, my gosh, it makes it so much less scary! It even means that, if these tic-tac-shaped spacecraft are being driven by interdimensional beings, we probably don’t have to worry. Probably the reason they have not used their capabilities to enslave us is that they aren’t allowed to interact with us in any significant way. Zip around a little, make us scratch our heads, yes. Manifest, show their power, attack us, no. Those days are gone. Christ is the victor. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.
This review was recently posted in shorter and sloppier form on Goodreads.
I give Black Elk in Paris (2006) by Kate Horsley five stars for its amazing historical research, French-doctor voice, and dynamic characters.
A few years ago, I stumbled across a children’s book about Lakota medicine man Black Elk. My response to him was pretty much the same as that of this book’s fictional heroine, Madeline: I was fascinated. (I mean, look at him!) At the age of nine, Black Elk had a troubling vision that encouraged his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness. (They were going to need this later.) At age 15, he was present at the battle of Little Bighorn. Later, he went to England with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.
None of that is in this book.
Apparently, Buffalo Bill accidentally stranded Black Elk and one other Lakota guy in England. They took up with a character called Mexican Joe, who was running a knockoff Wild West show, and toured Europe with him. Black Elk ended up in Paris, where he stayed with a Parisian woman and her family until eventually he was able to get back to his homeland.
This book imagines the effect that Black Elk had on the Parisian woman, her family, and her doctor friend, Philippe Normand. It so happens that the period the Lakota warrior was in Paris coincided with the building of the Eiffel Tower in preparation for the Universal Exhibition (the Paris world’s fair). The tower is mentioned frequently in the book as the characters watch it grow menacingly over their usual haunts. They never call it the Eiffel Tower. It’s usually “the metal tower, looking like a dead tree” or something like that. An ongoing theme in the book is the tension between the apparent triumph of colonialism, including modern science and medicine, with the appeal of Black Elk’s way of life.
My hope had been that we would get to see Paris from Black Elk’s point of view, but alas, he is not the point-of-view character in this story. Perhaps it was wise of the author to create a little distance from Black Elk, not to presume to speak in his voice, which has been well documented. Instead, she writes in the voice of Normand. The 19th-century French tone is spot on, right down to the navel-gazing, romanticism, and cynical asides about human nature. The writing honestly comes off as if it were translated from French, and in fact, each chapter opens with its first sentence in French, then in English.
Normand is on the cutting edge of medical developments. He is friends with many famous historical doctors and goes to their weekly meetings where they argue theory, banter, tease each other, and engage in petty backbiting and politics. Normand honestly wants to relieve human suffering with medicine, but is frustrated by the limitations on what he can accomplish. And over the few years that the book covers, he begins to see some problems with the arrogant and intellectualized attitude taken by French doctors and psychologists of the day. At one point, he complains that he has witnessed doctors not trust the patient to report on his or her own symptoms!
Consequently, though Black Elk does change Normand and Madeline, this book is more about Paris of that time than about the Lakota. My first impression, as a reader who was eager to get to the part with Black Elk, was what awful people these 19th-century Parisians are. (They are snobs! They do recreational drugs! They sleep around! They say the most horrible things to their friends and family!) I definitely did not like Normand at first. I think I was going through culture shock. Normand changes, however, and as he grew and I got used to him, he became as much a hero of this story as Black Elk.
Horsley has, in this book, pulled off the accomplishment that I aim for in my books. She has examined a cross-cultural relationship sensitively, without romanticizing or demonizing either culture. She has also written in an authentic voice from one culture, but told the story in such a way that we can gather some of Black Elk’s perspective as well. The story does not tie things up in a neat little bows, but it is more about connections (however tenuous) that the characters make, rather than about an inability to connect. Also, kudos to her for noticing these two very different worlds touching each other at an actual point in history and making us notice it. To the extent that the book ultimately comes down on the universal human condition rather than on cynicism, it validates both Black Elk’s spiritual values and Normand’s ideals. Not every book set in Paris does this. Nor does every book about colonialism.
Read this if you are interested in the French or, to a lesser extent, the Lakota.
The following is a re-post of a review that I put up on Goodreads. Five stars!
I read A Wizard of Earthsea probably 15 years ago, and just now, re-read it. My gosh, I had forgotten; it is sooo good. The prose is almost like poetry. But not in a way that makes it hard to read; quite the opposite.
Ged is a young man with an incredible talent for magic. Even in a world where many people have that talent, he stands out. Consequently, he is arrogant, hard to teach, impatient to get on with things and to realize his greatness. The main danger in this book comes NOT from some dark, ancient force outside of Ged, like Sauron, but from within his own ignorant, arrogant, immature young heart. But this doesn’t make this book boring. Ged’s flawed nature takes on a creepy, demonic reality outside of himself, and he must fix the evil he has unleashed before it destroys the people he loves.
Ursula Le Guin isn’t a Christian, and I would say this book flirts with the Jungian idea that we all need our shadow side and need to “embrace” it in order to be whole. But there is so much wisdom in this book as well. The novel recognizes that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and that humans must face this fact. This is a fact about the world, taught in Judeo-Christian doctrine but also observable to anyone. And Le Guin has observed it.
Another big perk of this book is the worldbuilding. Earthsea is a world of oceans, archipelagos, and “far reaches.” Each island has its own distinct culture, and the fact that some of them are more remote and you of course have to sail to them, gives that expansive feeling of exploring exotic new territory that readers of high fantasy look for. Although islands, the world seems to be temperate to Arctic in climate. So it doesn’t give the feel so much of the Pacific as of ancient Britain. A lot of scenes take place in the snow or in the cold rain.
“Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”
That’s right, I am participating in the “How LJ and Rom Saved Heavy Metal” blog tour.
There’s a lot to say about this book, but I am not going to say it here. Just feast your eyes on that cover art (which drew in my 11-year-old, and sadly, I had to tell him he was not allowed to read it), and on the following excerpt:
[Rocker Dom] didn’t feel so well.
The increasing groan and churn of a speeding vehicle’s ratty exhaust and moaning tires came barreling through the air in the distance, and soon followed a chanting noise. It was approaching fast, coming from the direction of the road leading to the highway.
The chanted words became audibly coherent just before the older model Toyota Tacoma skidded down the pavement and into Dom’s gravel, circular driveway.
“Get back with the band! Get back with the band!”
The driver was flipping the bird out the window, hand above the truck’s cabin while the truck slung rocks into the air, aimed right at Dom and [his pet monkey,] Deevin.
“Bah! Look out, Deevin!” Dom blurted.
Deevin screeched and panicked. The front windows beside the door shattered into a thousand pieces. Dom instantly turned his head and shielded his pet monkey from the flying rocks and broken glass.
The truck continued around the driveway just as fast as it had entered. Drifting tires spinning in the gravel sent rocks into the air like mini missiles, pelting Dom’s old Buick LeBaron as the truck pulled out of the skid, screeching when the tires hit pavement again. The noises of the chanting, moaning off-road tires and ratty exhaust faded into the distance.
“Good God! I’m wondering why I even got out of bed at all today,” Dom said, muttering to himself and Deevin.
Things were progressively getting worse ever since he’d split with the band. Deevin’s hurt leg, the crappy birthday party, the poor sleep, and now this.
Dom lay back in bed, quickly fading back to la-la land as if it was the house telling him to go to sleep. He didn’t realize it yet, but it was obvious the universe was sending a warning message.How LJ and Rom Saved Heavy Metal, by S.K. McKinley, pp. 80 – 81
Yes, I’m a serial reader. If nothing else, I am definitely that.
But this tag is about book series. A book tag is something that comes with a bunch of questions or prompts that the blogger answers. Normally, the blogger is also supposed to “tag” a bunch of other people, like one of those chain e-mails from back in the day, but I don’t usually do that part. I personally got this tag from Fran Laniado. It was most likely created by Dutch blogger, @Zwartraafje in this post.
From which series did you read the spinoff series?
First, I read a number of books in the Emberverse series. The premise of this series is that one day, inexplicably, in the middle of the 90s, a bunch of technology stops working: engines, electricity, and gunpowder. This event, which people begin to call “The Change,” throws the world back into preindustrial technology. Naturally, the first book (Dies the Fire, above) is post-apocalyptic with lots of starvation, hand to hand fighting, and horrendous die-offs in the cities especially. As the series develops, people rebuild a medieval-style world. (Because it turns out that in the absence of gunpowder, you need a warrior class and a peasant class to support them.) Eventually, the young hero goes on a quest to find the source of all the weirdness, which seems to be centered around Nantucket. It turns out that right when The Change happened, modern Nantucket was replaced by an ancient version, from well before Europe colonized the New World.
All of that is background to set up the spinoff series. This is called, not surprisingly, the Nantucket series. In the first book, Island in the Sea of Time, the modern island of Nantucket and a ship near it are suddenly transported back into the Bronze Age. The islanders have to learn how to survive without any mainland. Eventually, they make their way to England and meet the original builders (or at least users) of Stonehenge. I’ve read Island. I own the second book in the series, which opens with King Agamemnon realizing how much he loves artillery. I just needed a break from this spinoff series, but I’ll come back to it some day.
With which series did the first book not sell you over from the start?
Stretching the meaning of “first book” a bit, I’m going to go with Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police procedural series, starring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
Unfortunately, these books are not labeled as a series, though the contents do have a chronological order. So when I say “first book,” it’s the first one I happened to pick up. I just got unlucky. Unlike most of the Chee/Leaphorn books, most of the action in the one I picked up does not take place in Dinetah (the Navajo homeland in the Four Corners area), but rather in Washington, DC. Also, in that particular book one of the major point-of-view characters was a stone-cold killer with a back story that was just so sad I wasn’t sure I could handle any more by that author. Luckily, later I caved and picked up another of Hillerman’s books.
Which series hooked you from the start?
Well, I mean all of them. If I read any distance into a series, it’s usually because it hooked me. But I am going to have to go with The Belgariad. It opens with the hero, Garion, growing up in a big farm kitchen on a hardworking, prosperous, devout farmstead similar to the one in Farmer Boy, but bigger and more medival. Garion’s Aunt Pol, who we later learn is a sorceress, is first introduced as an amazing cook whose dishes can make farmhands from other farms weep. I’m a sucker for this kind of simple, wholesome stuff.
Which series do you have completed on your shelves?
I have The Chronicles of Narnia, because somebody once gave me a nice, thick doorstop where all the books are together in one volume. Also, I just last week acquired a nice hardbound copy of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. It was on the sales shelf at the library! I am very excited about this, because it’s a brilliant trilogy and I feel that finding it in hardback is like finding treasure.
Which series have you read completely?
The Chronicles of Narnia, all the Brother Cadfael books (I think), The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all The Three Investigators books (I think), all of Susan Howatch’s Church of England series except the last one, The Little House books, everything ever written by Agatha Christie (not really a series), the Belgariad & Mallorean (but not the spinoffs), the A Wrinkle in Time trilogy.
Which series do you not own completely but would like to?
Well, this is a tough one. In theory, I would like to own a complete set of every series I like. In practice, until recently I moved house every few years (sometimes much more often), and I have a limited budget. Both of these factors make it difficult to build up a dream library. Also, I have plenty of bookish friends and relatives, so if I want to re-read something, often I can borrow it. I guess if I had to name a series that I would like to own all of, it would all of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop books and also all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries. I’d also like to own all the Tintin albums and all the Asterix albums, because those are great for kids, table reading, and art inspiration. But that’s one where it’s possible to borrow.
Which series to do you not want to own completely but still read?
Which series are you not continuing?
There are plenty of contenders here. Life is short.
The latest series that I started, enjoyed several of, and then broke off was Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series. The later books aren’t bad, it was just that once I’d learned Odd’s tricks, it got so that I could take or leave further books.
Which series you haven’t started yet are you curious about?
Which series did others love and you did not?
The Legacy of Orisha series. I read the first book: Children of Blood and Bone.
Here’s a sample of an incident that drove me crazy: the romantic hero, who is also sort of the villain, is the son of a king who has oppressed magicians with harsh purges. He is just starting to discover that he himself has a magical power: he can directly sense others’ thoughts and feelings. He has a terrifying moment when he picks up on a memory of the heroine. It was the lynching of her mother. He is shocked and horrified by what he sees and feels. And then he concludes, “I will never understand her pain.” Even though he literally just did! He literally just lived through it! But that line is a clue that the author is not going to give him a redemption arc or let him out of the role of oppressor. Nor is the author going to let him and his sister off the hook for “not seeing sooner” that their father was an awful tyrant, even though they are about 18 years old and just came of age themselves. So, if you like merciless class war, you’ll love this series.
Sorry, that might not be the most cheerful note to end on, but that’s the way the tag crumbles. Have a great day, everyone!
It’s no secret that I like bears.
My upcoming book, The Strange Land, even features … a bear. (Spoiler alert.) (Pray for the book, by the way, if you are interested in reading it. Let’s not allow some petty formatting issues to stand between you and any literary bear.)
But I will never be on about bears as much as author, graphic artist, and funnyman Ethan Nicolle.
He works for the Babylon Bee. But that is only the beginning of his ursine depths.
His first bear-related book was Bears Want to Kill You.
This is a reminder we all need. But I haven’t read it.
He also has to his credit the following typology:
I was given this for Christmas. Actually, my kids were. And boy, am I glad that someone cared enough to warn us about the existence of the Beaardvark, Bearilla, Bear Crab, and of course the Abearican Eagle.
But I am mainly here to talk about this:
Brave Ollie Possum is the awesomest chapter book/family read-along that I have encountered in a long time. It just so poignant, twisty, tense, funny, and gross. The early chapters gave us nightmares. In the later chapters, some passages were so disgusting that as I read them out loud, I had to suppress a gag reflex. (Perfect for school-aged boys!) Other passages were so funny that we had to stop and laugh it out before we could recover. This is the book for you if you never knew how much you needed to watch a possum use the kitchen of an Italian restaurant to cook a late-night pan of lasagna for his forest friends. Other than that, I won’t spoil the plot except to say, What better animal than a possum for an author to explore themes of cowardice and courage?
Also, of course … bears.
“Why do you think anyone would want to read about you?” I asked.
“I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.”
“But you’re not a proper detective. You got fired. Why did you get fired, by the way?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Well, if I was going to write about you, you’d have to tell me. I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.”
“Is that what you think?”
He shook his head. “I don’t agree. The word is murder. That’s what matters.”Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder, 2018, p. 25
The blurb on the back of this book calls it a “meta-mystery,” and that’s a perfect description. It is so, so meta.
Horowitz writes about himself, Anthony Horowitz, the guy who has created the TV series Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War and who has written a popular series for kids, and is now trying to break into the adult market. He has just published The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Conan Doyle. He’s approached by this ex-detective, Hawthorne, who still sometimes does consulting work for the local police force. Hawthorne’s idea is that Horowitz will follow him around as he investigates, turn the investigation into a crime novel, and make both of them rich and famous. The problem is that the investigation has just begun, and it’s unknown whether Hawthorne will solve it and, if so, whether it will have a satisfying ending. Also, though Horowitz naturally has to be present while Hawthorne interviews suspects, he is under no circumstances supposed to interrupt, ask his own questions, or contribute in any way. If Hawthorne misses something due to one of these interruptions, it’s Horowitz’s fault.
But How Meta Is It, Really?
I still don’t know how much of this novel is truth and how much is fiction. I think the whole thing is made up. But references to Horowitz’s past books and TV shows, and his descriptions of the industry, seem to be real.
There’s a very funny, agonizing scene where Horowitz is in a meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg to show them the script he’s written for a planned second Tintin movie. He’s been working on the script for months, and he’s feeling excited as well as startstruck to be in the same room as Spielberg. But Spielberg abruptly tells him that the Tintin book he has turned into a script is the “wrong” book, even though that’s the one he and Jackson had agreed to use. Into this tense moment, Hawthorne bursts in. He fails to recognize Spielberg, but recognizes Jackson and compliments him. He then insists that Horowitz leave with him. The directors insist that Horowitz leave too, saying they will call him back, which they never do.
That sounds awfully realistic, even if it didn’t happen with Hawthorne. Even if there is no such person as Hawthorne. There is also no such person as Damian Cowper, the British movie star, recently relocated to Hollywood, who is at the center of the mystery.
So, on the whole, I think this actually is, as they say, a “fiction novel,” weaving in nonfiction glimpses into Horowitz’s career, modern London, and the conditions in the publishing and movie/TV industry. Horowitz’s insights about writing and marketing his work are enjoyable. And the novel is extremely professionally written. The characters, the writing itself, the clues, and the satisfying nature of the mystery all show that Horowitz has been writing mysteries for many years.
The Tintin Rant
I do have to take one side trip to rant about a rant of Horowitz’s. If you will pardon a long quote:
Tintin is a European phenomenon and one that has never been particularly popular across the Atlantic. Part of the reason for this may be historical. The 1932 album, Tintin in America, is a ruthless satire on the United States, showing Americans to be vicious, corrupt and insatiable: the very first panel shows a policeman saluting a masked bandit who is walking past with a smoking gun — and no sooner has Tintin arrived in New York and climbed into a taxi than he finds himself being kidnapped by the Mob. The entire history of Native Americans is brilliantly told in five panels. Oil is discovered on a reservation. Cigar-smoking businessmen move in. Soldiers drive the crying Native American children off their land. Builders and bankers arrive. Just one day later, a policeman tells Tintin to get out of the way of a major traffic intersection. “Where do you think you are — the Wild West?”The Word is Murder, p. 148
O.K., Mr. Horowitz.
First of all, I can tell you the exact reason Tintin isn’t popular in the United States: It’s just not available. Oh, sure, it’s available now. Now we can get anything, with the Internet. But when I was a kid, there was just nowhere in the U.S. that you would see Tintin albums for sale. I was first exposed to them because we knew a family who had lived in Europe for a time, and once we knew of his existence, my siblings and I enjoyed Tintin just as much as any kids would. The same goes for Asterix and Obelix, by the way. It’s still kind of difficult to get good-quality A&O albums. When I tried to buy some for my kids, one arrived with the pages falling out.
Secondly, it never occurred to me, reading Tintin in America in the 1990s, that it was a “vicious satire” of America. I just figured it was all the silliest and most extreme stereotypes about America, which is the same treatment that Herge gives pretty much every country he portrays. And, the idea that Americans would be shocked by this portrayal? I don’t know, maybe in the 1930s. But this generation Xer would like to point out that gangster movies are one of our most beloved film genres, and that we are taught from knee-high about the injustices done to the Native Americans (besides many films and books being made about same). And in fact, Herge’s portrayal of the way the Indians talk would not be considered acceptable in America today. So, yeah, Mr. Horowitz, I realize you are very smart British author — and it’s obvious from your craft that you are smarter than I will ever be — but I think you may have overestimated Americans’ provinciality just a tad, while also underestimating our IQ.
The best thing about this book, in a way, is the detective, Hawthorne. He is also the most unsatisfying thing. He never does allow Horowitz to get to know him. He really does prove to be brilliant, and Horowitz sort of ends up playing Hastings to Hawthorne’s Poirot. This is all the more frustrating for Horowitz (and for the reader) because Horowitz is not dumb and he knows it. He’s an adult with a good career well underway, and he knows his way around a mystery novel. He just hasn’t had direct experience with real-life investigating.
Hawthorne is the sort of person that all of us have had to work with at one time or another. He comes off as unwittingly controlling, always telling Horowitz his business. He doesn’t like the title “The Word is Murder,” for example. He wants it to be “Hawthorne Investigates.” (Spielberg and Jackson back him up.) He doesn’t like the way that Horowitz sets the scene in the first chapter. Although not a writer, he thinks that Horowitz should methodically introduce every detail that Hawthorne would notice, without any atmosphere or description. He gives advice about choice of words. Whenever Horowitz objects “But I’m the one you asked to write it!”, Hawthorne says something like, “Hey, don’t get all upset! I was just trying to help.”
This is the kind of person that you cannot be around for very long. Unless you are pathologically conceited, all their “help” can’t help but make you doubt yourself. Although we cannot work long-term with such a person, it is nice to see one portrayed in fiction (if this … is … fiction?). It lets us know that even pros like Horowitz have had the same experience.