The Wanderlust Tag

February is the month of romance, and the settings in this tag are as romantic as can be! I think this is most fun tag I’ve seen yet. I stole … er, got it from my faithful friend The Orangutan Librarian. She didn’t exactly tag me, but … she did say anyone can do the tag. So here goes!

Rules

  • Mention the creator of the tag and link back to original post [Alexandra @ Reading by Starlight]
  • Thank the blogger who tagged you
  • Answer the 10 questions below using any genre
  • Tag 5+ friends

The Questions

Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town … Many of Anne Tyler’s books are like this. Also, every almost every single Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie. Sometimes Miss Marple travels, and solves a mystery on a train, or in the Caribbean. But my favorites are the ones where she uses her knowledge of the character types, the dark dynamics, and the domestic history in a small town … her own small town, or someone else’s. As she always points out, small towns are not boring!

Salt and Sand: A book with a beach-side communityHave His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers. I’m not sure why the cover of this book looks the way it does, as the most striking scenes in it take place on a beach. This book stars Lord Peter Whimsey and his love interest, the tomboyish academic Harriet Vane, who is hiking along a deserted beach when she discovers the body of a man with his throat gruesomely slit. Harriet photographs the corpse, and after she leaves, the tide disposes of the evidence. Harriet herself becomes a suspect, and she and Lord Peter must put their heads together to extricate her.

Here there be dragons: a book with a voyage on the high seas … I don’t read many sea stories. In fact, this is the only one I can think of besides Treasure Island and the third book of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. Master & Commander is a really good book. When I was reading it, I even had dreams about it. They made it into a movie, which is also very good, but the movie only covers about half the material in the book, and not even the most sensational incidents.

Tread lightly: a book set down a murky river or jungle … There are many good missionary stories that take place in the remote jungle. These are novelized versions of real events. There is Bruchko (South America); Lords of the Earth (Irian Jaya); In Search of the Source, set in Papua New Guinea, by Neil Anderson; and Do You Know What You Are Doing, Lord?, which gives a very different perspective on the same events, written by Neil’s wife Carol. I am tempted to mention Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, but I haven’t actually read it.

Frozen wastes: a book with a frostbitten atmosphere … Ursula Le Guin’s Left of Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet that has two huge ice caps which reach well down into what on Earth would be called the temperate zones. The main character, an ambassador for an interplanetary council, ends up in a gulag-like camp, is rescued by one of the locals, and the two make an amazing trek across one of the glaciers to escape.

The boonies: a book with rough or isolated terrain … I think many books depend on rough and isolated terrain for the danger and tension in their plot. Think of every murder mystery you’ve ever read where the group of suspects is cut off from the outside world by the tides or snows or whatever. This also goes for lifeboat stories, mountaineering stories, and post-apocalyptic books, all of which throw the characters on their own resources because “help is not going to come.” But I am going to mention Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin.

Hinterlands and cowboys: a book with a Western-esque setting … OK, you know what I am going to say here. I am going to, once again, recommend the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn police procedural/Navajo cultural mysteries by Tony Hillerman. What, you say you still haven’t started reading them? Get to it!

Look lively: a book set across sweeping desert sands … There are quite a few of these. I guess the desert really fires our imaginations. But I’m going to name one that I discovered recently: Sand. by Hugh Howey. (The period is apparently part of the title?) I know I’m late to the Hugh Howey party because the cover of Sand. tells me that he is the bestselling author of another book, Wool. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could make an entire novel centered on wool, but after reading Sand., I believe he certainly could and I’m going to pick up Wool as soon as I see it.

Wild and untamed: a book set in the heart of the woodsA Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney. Teenaged Michael lives on a prosperous farm in Ireland. When he ventures in to the woods near his home, he passes in to another, much larger, forest, which is also the source of all the myths and legends of the past.

Wildest dreams: a whimsical book shrouded in magicThe Dark is Rising series. These YA books are pagan as all get-out, and seem to be based on a very good research into British and Welsh pagan lore. They do a great job of creating an atmosphere of this whole world of magic breaking in to a kid’s everyday life, in ways that only initiates can perceive.

… And may I mention that settings like these are the reason that I love reading and writing? It’s my ambition to write a book in each of these settings (except perhaps the high seas). I would say my books, to date, have covered Frostbitten, Boonies, Small Town and possibly Western.

And as usual, I tag … you, dear Reader! In the comments! Which of these settings do you love? Which will you never tire of?

Self-Pitying Quote of the Week

Mr. Haig-Ereildoun may be like me. Full of charm, winning everyone’s affection, but somehow not quite doing the job. I can say that the advertising agency chose me to fire because I was the youngest … But I know it was more basic than that. I did win awards. But I lost hours, days, weeks, trying to make jewels out of the twenty-five-cents-off coupons ads. Everyone loved me, but in a practical world I wasn’t what they needed. It’s hard, actually scary, being the kind of people Mr. Haig-Ereildoun and I are.

The Diary of an American Au Pair by Marjorie Leet Ford, Anchor Books, 2003, p. 182

The Seven Heavenly Virtues Tag

The Orangutan Librarian tagged me for this post that applies the “Seven Heavenly Virtues” to the world of our reading.

By the way. The Seven Deadly Sins are easy to remember, in groups of two, three, and two. There’s The World (Envy, Greed); The Flesh (Lust, Gluttony, Sloth); and The Devil (Anger … and the granddaddy, Pride). The seven virtues are the flip side of these.

Once when I was at university, the theme of our homecoming week was the extremely creative “We’ve Got Pride.” I will always love my fellow English majors who named their contribution to the parade “Beyond pride: the seven deadly sins.” They wanted to show that “[our university] also gots Envy, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Anger.” And of course it was true.

Onward.

CHASTITY: Which author/book/series you wish you had never read?

Hmm. It’s rare that I go on wishing I had never read a book. Usually if it stuns me with some horror, I hate it at the time, but as my mind assimilates the idea, I’m glad to have encountered it in a book so that I can grapple with that aspect of the world.

A good example is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. A major part of the plot is a sexual assault. It’s described graphically. The creepy lead-up and the lengthy aftermath include scenes from the point of view of both the victim and rapist. When I read this, it was the first time I’d read a rape described in detail (or, at least, the first time I understood what I was reading). It was very traumatic, and it led to lots of crying and praying for women who were real-life victims. So, as you can see, it bore some good fruit almost immediately.

Later I read another book by Ken Follett in a completely different genre, and it also featured a serial stalker and rapist, with many scenes written from his point of view. At that point I decided that I would not read any more books by Ken Follett, nor would I ever get on an elevator with the man.

TEMPERANCE: Which book/series did you find so good, that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

I don’t usually show temperance when it comes to serious, emotional reads. … OK, I actually don’t have much temperance at all. I once stayed up all night finishing Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

However, with comic series, I find that if you binge on them they can become wearing, whereas if you read one every once in a while, they are refreshing. For example, P.G. Wodehouse’e Bertie Wooster books and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

CHARITY: Which book/series/author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Well this question will contain no surprises to anyone who knows me or has followed my blog for any length of time.

The Emberverse series by S.M Stirling: I recommend this often because it encompasses a wide range of interests. The first few books are post-apocalyptic, and then it becomes more of a fantasy series. I’ve recommended it to people because it’s set in the Northwest (Idaho, eastern Washington and Oregon, northern California). Recently I recommended it to someone who is interested in retro martial arts such as sword fighting and archery, because there is a ton of that in these books, including descriptions of how the weapons are made and gripping battle scenes. The research on these books is both wide and deep, from ecology to botany to anthropology to martial arts to Celtic mythology.

Til We Have Faces: A searing, emotional novel about friendship, identity, divided loyalty, and religion. One of C.S. Lewis’s less famous works.

The Everlasting Man (non-fiction): G.K. Chesterton discusses paganism and why it expresses important things about being human … with the cheery paradoxes that only he can bring.

The Divine Conspiracy(non-fiction): With wit and wisdom, Dallas Willard applies the Gospels in a fresh way (which we all need frequently). This is so well-written that it’s a pleasure to read, and you just sail through it even though it’s quite thick.

Now, go forth and read these!

DILIGENCE: Which series/author you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

Agatha Christie. She has such a large corpus of work that even though I think I’ve read all her novels, I’m never sure.

Also, the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

Also anything by Tony Hillerman or Dick Francis.

It looks like formula mysteries are my genre for this.

PATIENCE: Is there an author/book/series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising, but ultimately proving rewarding?

Watership Down. It is gripping from the first, don’t get me wrong, but it is so long. Then when you get to the end, you discover that the author is doing things with it that only a really long book can do.

KINDNESS: Which fictitious character would you consider your role-model in the hassle of everyday life?

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Any strong, quiet, capable character who consistently takes care of others. Durnik in the Belgariad; Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies series; Bardia in ‘Til We Have Faces; Sam Gamgee, Aragorn, Gandalf, Aslan. And, of course, Zillah from my own books.

Unfortunately my gifts and personality are almost opposite from all these characters. But I’ve always wanted to be strong, quiet, calm, and capable.

HUMILITY: Which book/series/author do you find most under-rated?

This is a hard one to answer because I don’t always have a real great idea of what other people are reading. How can I know that the gem I’ve “discovered” hasn’t also been discovered by a bunch of others?

Apparently Thomas Sowell has a bunch of great books about economics and society that have helped the people who’ve read them greatly … but I have not read them, only watched videos of him speaking. There are many such examples.

Now, Discuss

I hesitate to tag people because it seems to freak them out. But if you get inspired by any of the questions in this tag, please answer them either at your own blog or in the comments.

So. This book.

A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.

From the jacket:

Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.

When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …

When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.

How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.

It didn’t.

I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.

The Good

First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.

She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:

Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.

Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.

pp 14 – 15

The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.

This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.

It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.

The Bad

A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:

In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.

page 352

Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.

Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.

Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).

But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:

Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.

page 310

So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.

Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,

The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.

page 294

Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.

At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:

The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.

Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.

I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.

That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.

As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:

“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”

Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.

It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)

So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”

About Forgiveness

Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.

Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.

So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.

page 406

What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.

First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.

But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.

I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.

Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.

And In Conclusion

So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).

I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,

“I see what you’re doing there.”

The Festive Christmas Book Tag

I got this tag from Em @ The Geeky Jock. It was created by Girl Reading .

1) A fictional family you would like to spend Christmas dinner with?

Whooo this is a tricky one!

I think the ideal place to spend Christmas would be in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, soo … Heidi? Problem is, I haven’t read it.

The Von Trapp family? Not fictional, and not sure I could live up to their standards.

How about Denmark? Hamlet’s family? Never mind, too much family tension.

Scotland? MacBeth? Nope … nope … nope.

How about a big English country house from an Agatha Christie novel? There is sure to be a murder, but on the other hand the food and the service would be terrific. But I would certainly make a fool of myself on account of not having sufficiently good table manners and not understanding the British class system. A fate worse than … death.

Bertie and Jeeves? Getting closer, but Bertie by himself is not really a family.

I’ve got it. Almost all the Grimms’ fairy tales take place in Germany. All I have to do is find a fairy tale family to spend Christmas with.

Cinderella? … Family tension again.

Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother? That would be great, except I think in the original version they die.

Hansel and Gretel? Yet more family tension, and they are starving. Maybe I could spend Christmas with Hansel and Gretel and their father post-witch.

Actually, now that I think about it, I have a pretty good family to spend Christmas with already. There is plenty of food, no murder, and a minimal amount of family tension. In this case, truth is better than fiction.

2) A bookish item you would like to receive as a gift?

An agent! A publisher! A BOOK DEAL! (hysterical laughter)

3) A fictional character you think would make a perfect Christmas elf?

Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s already an elf, so it’s not a stretch.

4) Match a book to its perfect Christmas song.

Game of Thrones … We Three Kings.

(I haven’t read it, but it’s about kings, right?)

5) Bah Humbug. A book (or fictional character) you’ve been disappointed in and should be put on the naughty list?

Austin Lively of Andrew Klavan’s serialized novel, Another Kingdom.

Austin, Austin, Austin. You spent the first two seasons transforming from a Hollywood wannabe into a brave and honorable man.

Now, at the beginning of the third season, you’re a powerful Hollywood SOB who is taking women to the Casting Couch.

What happened? Have you forgotten who you are, Austin?

You’d better remember quick, because until you do, I am going to be cheering over every bad thing that happens to you.

6) A book or fictional character you think deserves more appreciation and deserves to be put on the nice list?

Anthony Trollope isn’t as well-known as Jane Austen but his books are just as funny.

7) Red, Gold, and Green. A book whose cover has a wonderfully Christmassy feel to it.

A classic from my husband’s childhood.
I think of this little devotional as a Christmas one because we originally got it during Advent and the first chapter is about Christmas.

8) A book or series you love so much, you want everyone to find it under their Christmas tree this year so that they can read and love it too.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, starring Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi (both of the agency) … Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors … Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s hapless assistant, Charlie … the somewhat overbearing Mma Potokwane who runs the orphanage … and many, many others.

These books are just so heart-warming and they go down so easy. Although written in a certain order, it’s easy for the reader to jump right in even if you read them out of order. And they are addictive. I think a book or two – or a crateful – from this series would brighten any reader’s Christmas.

Book with the “Best Diverse Cast” (Calendar Girls Tag)

Whenever I see “Calendar Girls” I think of the hilarious British movie by that name, but in this case, it means a group of (girl?) book bloggers who treat a different bookish theme during each month of the calendar.  (So we will not be posing. I am sure you are relieved.) And this month, December, I was actually able to think of a book that fulfills the theme! 

Calendar Girls is hosted by NeverNotReading, who says of this month’s theme, “What I really like about this theme is it allows you to interpret diversity in whatever way is meaningful to you. Racial or ethnic representation, LGBTQ diversity, neurodiversity, whatever you’re passionate about, we want to read it too!”

Picking a book with a diverse cast felt somewhat arbitrary because so many of my faves have casts that are diverse in one way or another. Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women springs to mind, as do Ursula le Guin’s novellas set on the planet of Yeowe (navy-blue colored upper class, grey-blue colored underclass, red-brown foreigners with a very different culture coming from distant Hain).  Even the very Nordic Lord of the Rings has a main cast of four different species and minor characters that are even more diverse (Ents, anyone?).  And then there’s Clan of the Cave Bear, which features Neanderthals as main characters.

But here is the book I have settled on: Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman.

 Clowns is part of Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. It’s a mystery/police procedural series set in Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, which straddles the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.  Chee and Leaphorn both work for the Navajo Tribal police. Because of the way jurisdiction on Indian reservations is handled, they frequently have to work on their cases with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or Utah State police and/or with the FBI.

Books in this series usually take place on the Navajo reservations and the plot often turns on Navajo culture. That’s already “diverse” to an outsider like me. But it quickly gets deeper.  Chee and Leaphorn have each had a different experience of being Navajo. Leaphorn was of the generation that was sent away to boarding schools right around the time their adult vocabulary would have been developing. Consequently, his grasp on the Navajo language is a little shaky, and he thinks like a modern, secular white man. He doesn’t, in his bones, believe in Navajo cosmology. Chee, a younger man, was raised at home and enculturated, as per tradition, by his mother’s brother. He is a fully spiritual Navajo and wants to become a haatalii, or traditional healer, like his uncle (though Leaphorn, and others, feel the demands of being a hataalii would not mix well with a policeman’s schedule).

Sacred Clowns is even more diverse than the average Leaphorn and Chee book because in this case, the mystery takes place in Hopi culture, which is different from Navajo culture.  (For example, Navajos tend to invite everyone to their religious ceremonies, whereas Hopi ceremonies are held in secret and never talked about.)  In the opening scene, Chee is attending a Hopi cultural event that features clowns, which are supposed to show people their own folly. At one point, a Hopi clown mimes selling cultural artifacts to an outsider for a lot of money. He is clearly criticizing this practice, but Chee senses “there’s something I’m missing.”  When the clown first drags his little wagon of artifacts out into the middle of the square, the Hopi crowd falls silent. Chee wants to find out why, and this will get him digging into local politics and ultimately solving the case.

Chee isn’t at the top of his game during the event, however, because he is also there sort of on a date with Janet Pete. Janet’s father was Navajo, but she was raised on the East Coast by her Scottish-American mother. Chee really likes Janet, and he spends most of the book trying to find out whether it would be OK for him to get involved with her. The Navajo have an elaborate system of incest laws which prohibit you from marrying anyone whose clans have a historical connection to your own clans. Janet doesn’t know her father’s clans, and anyway the maternal clans are considered more important.

Meanwhile, Leaphorn, a widower, is planning a trip to China with his lady friend, who is a white anthropologist (Lousia Bourbonette – a French name: more diversity, and a romance between older people!).  He wants to visit Mongolia, because he’s read that his ancestors probably originated there.

And cramming in as many cultures as possible, there is another tribal cop, Harold Blizzard, who is Cheyenne.  About halfway through the book there’s a great scene where Chee and Janet Pete are at a drive-in movie, and Blizzard is there, sort of as a third wheel. The movie is an old Western called Cheyenne Autumn, which is a cult classic among the Navajo because the “Cheyenne” characters in the movie were actually played by Navajos. When they are supposedly speaking Cheyenne in the movie, they are actually speaking Navajo, and of course saying crude and saracastic things that were not in the script.  Chee, as the only person in the car who speaks Navajo, has to translate for Janet and Harold so they can understand why certain supposedly solemn lines are funny and why all the other (Navajo) moviegoers are laughing and honking their car horns. It’s this experience that gets Chee thinking about how much outsiders to a culture miss, and wondering what he was missing at the Hopi gathering.

Finally, when Chee consults some elders about Janet’s father’s clans, he gets an earful from them about how young people aren’t traditional enough. They are referring to the way that hataalii of Chee’s generation will sometimes break up the weeklong Navajo healing ceremonies over a couple of weekends so that people who work 9-to-5 jobs can attend them. According to the elders, this is not acceptable, but Chee will probably have to do it if he becomes a healer. He must struggle with how much he can adapt his ancestors’ culture and still remain Navajo.

All of Hillerman’s books do a great job exploring themes of culture and identity, but in this book he really outdoes himself.

The Perfect Book Tag

I was tagged for this by my favorite literate primate. How could I let her down?

n.b. “Perfect,” as I will use it below, doesn’t always mean perfect but rather perfect in its context or else merely “really terrific.” Especially when used of actual, historical people. As we all know, perfection isn’t perfect, right?

The Perfect Genre

“Pick a book that perfectly represents its genre.”

The Rise and Fall of Ben Gizzard is the perfect Western.

“Ben Gizzard would die on the day he saw a white mountain upside down and a black bird talked to him, but not before. An old Indian he cheated out of some furs told him this.

“This was good news to a man as mean and crafty as Ben Gizzard. He settled in treeless, birdless Depression Gulch and cheated, robbed, and killed his way to riches. How his life seemed charmed in that place where there were neither mountains nor birds!

“But one day a young artist arrived in town with a large black bird sitting on his shoulder. Oh, Ben Gizzard!

“Our slithering villain comes to his end when he least expects it, and the world is a better place without him, and a better place for the telling of his story, which is both funny and awesome.”

The Perfect Setting

“Pick a book that takes place in a perfect place.”

Gosh, there are so many books that I love for their setting. There is Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women (an aristocratic household in pre-Mao China), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (Wales, with magic), and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (modern-day Botswana).

But my top pick would have to be Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. It takes place in a beautiful, sensuously described version of Switzerland (example: the children picking fresh strawberries and eating them with cream for lunch) and, of course, the fact that everything is so mountainous is crucial to the plot.

The Perfect Main Character

“Pick the perfect main character.”

I’m gonna have to go with Bilbo Baggins here. His combination of humility and spunk cannot be beat.

The Perfect Best Friend

“Loyal and supportive, pick a character that you think is the best friend ever.”

Sam Gamgee would be an obvious choice, but there are class issues there, so instead, let me name Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Reason: Tumnus just met Lucy an hour or two ago and she has not done anything special for him … and yet he’s ready to put his own life on the line to protect her from the Witch’s secret police. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

The Perfect Love Interest

“Pick a character you think would be an amazing romantic partner.”

Playing “mad dog” with his children.

Charles Ingalls from the Little House series.

On the down side, he will drag you and your children across the American frontier, where you will almost lose your lives in every. single. chapter.

But on the plus side! The man can build a livable house, single-handed, in a few weeks. He can dig a well, provide food, and make friends with the Indians. He’s never met a stranger. He is gentle and kind with Caroline and his daughters, and he is unflaggingly cheerful, even when starving. (Read The Long Winter and watch him effusively praise the dehydrated cod gravy that Caroline breaks out to put some variety in the family’s totally inadequate diet.) And he can fiddle, sing, and dance! What more could you ask for?

This guy is a ball of energy and good cheer. There would be no better person to have by your side in the hairy situations that he will surely get you into.

The Perfect Villain

“Pick a character with the most sinister mind.”

“Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler, by now, to tell you that she fakes her own death and frames her husband for it, then fantasizes about “him getting butt-raped in jail.” It’s never clear what Nick did to deserve such a fate, other than fail to think she is sufficiently amazing. And that trick she pulls at the end of the book … well …!

The Perfect Family

“Pick a perfect bookish family.”

Photo by Kata Pal on Pexels.com

Since I was a little hard on the Dutch on Friday, let me rehabilitate them a bit. My “perfect bookish family” is a Dutch family, and they actually lived: the ten Boom family of Haarlem, circa 1935.

Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place describes how the family took in Jews during the occupation until they were turned in and went to concentration camps themselves. Even though the book is about the Holocaust, it is heartwarming and includes many laugh-out-loud moments. The heartwarming part is Corrie’s description of the family’s life in their tiny, ramshackle house/watch shop. The laughing out loud comes mostly from the personality of her father, Casper ten Boom, a true character and an amazing man of God whom I look forward to meeting some day. Corrie’s mom was also amazing, and I think it was her warm personality (and Casper’s) that offset the natural sternness of the Dutch of that time, making the ten Booms … the perfect bookish family.

The Perfect Animal or Pet

“Pick a pet or fantastic animal that you need to see on a book.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The humble chicken.

There are a few books with a chicken protagonist. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., is one. There is also a Russian fairy tale where a rooster saves two poor children:

“I, the cock, have a crimson comb / And the wicked czar has nothing like it! / He took away their fortune / from two poor little orphans / And he dines in style / while they go hungry!”

The Perfect Plot Twist

“Pick a book with the best plot twist.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert.

(Yes … it’s about lobstermen.)

Though it takes place on a tiny island in Maine, this book features a Jane Austen-worthy plot twist near the end.

The Perfect Trope

“Pick a trope that you would add to your own book without thinking.”

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Spiritual transformation of a main character.

Not only would I add this without thinking, I actually wouldn’t think of writing a novel where it did not happen. To me, spiritual transformation is a critical part of a novel.

(Not that I don’t enjoy books where this trope doesn’t take place. Mystery series, particularly, do well if the detective MCs are fairly static.)

There are a few novels where the transformation is almost the only thing that happens. I give you The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and all the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch. But much more commonly, the MC’s spiritual transformation happens as a result of a lot of other action in the plot, as in The Hobbit (fantasy), Identity Man by Andrew Klavan (crime thriller), and many, many others.

The Perfect Cover

“Pick the cover that you would easily put on your own book.”

My book is not St. George and the Dragon, but this is the artist I would have wanted to do my covers: Trina Schart Hyman. She’s gone now, but her art lives on. I have been trying my whole life to draw and paint like she did. I’ll bet she would have made the ruined Tower of Babel look amazing.

The Perfect Ending

“Pick a book that has the perfect ending.”

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

A Christmas Carol.

It’s the ultimate happy ending. We feel Scrooge’s childlike joy when he realizes he is being given another chance at life. Also, Tiny Tim is not dead after all and Scrooge has a chance to save him. “The spirits did it all in one night!” There is a strong sense of death and re-birth, not just of Scrooge but of his entire world.

I realize that everyone knows how the book ends and you might think of it as a cliche at this point, but really, if you read the entire book, hanging in there through Scrooge’s sad childhood, slow hardening, the horrific descriptions of poverty, etc., and then you get to the end and it doesn’t move you, well, I don’t know what to do for you, really.

The I Dare You Tag, a.k.a. “I Am Easily Guilted”

I was tagged to answer these questions by author of the wonderful blog The Orangutan Librarian. You should definitely go over there and check out her posts. Number one, she’s an orangutan, and number two, she has some great satirical pieces.

What book has been on your shelf the longest?

I was going to show a Bible picture book that I’ve had since I was 3, but it turns out it is not on my shelf any more as I have passed it on to a niece. So, here …

What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?

What book did everyone like, but you hated?

OK, this is the question that calls for courage. 

There are several that everyone agrees are great, and they probably are, but I’m avoiding them.

The Hate U Give, The Help, and The Secret Life of Bees.

I even have two of these on my shelf, but I haven’t cracked them open. 

Reason? I’m super easily guilted.  I don’t want to read a book that is going to call me racist, because even though I know I’m not, I’m going to feel responsible for all the bad stuff that happens in the book.  I will go around hanging my head just that little bit lower.  Then I’ll be angry that I am being blamed for segregation or for a police shooting in a city I’ve never been to, and … well, you get the idea.

What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t?

The Brothers Karamazov.  I’ve started it, and it was super good, and I know it has amazing writing and a ton of spiritual insight, but I’ve heard so much about it that I feel like I already know the ending.

What book are you saving for retirement?

At this rate, what I’m saving for retirement is probably my entire career as a novelist.

Last page: Read it first, or wait ‘til the end?

Wait, definitely. Unless you’ve read everything that came before, the last page won’t make much sense and, even if you can sort of figure out what is going on, it certainly won’t have the same impact.

That said, I have been known to skim ahead a page or two in a book, just to break the tension, when I sense that something really awful is about to happen.

Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?

Ok. I have lots of thoughts on acknowledgements.

In general, I like them. They are sweet.  I love it when the author thanks their spouse for all the sacrifices they made.  Also, the acknowledgements can be a way to find out the name of the author’s agent, which is helpful if you write similar kinds of books and want to query the agent.

But I’m not fond of acknowledgements that fill 1 – 2 pages and, seemingly, list every single person who had anything to do with bringing the book to print.  First of all, I can’t pay attention to all those names and my eyes glaze over, and then I feel guilty because clearly all these people deserve to be thanked.

Secondly, these long acknowledgement sections can be discouraging to a fledgling author.  If a dozen people are listed, and every one of them is thanked for their “invaluable edits and corrections,” and is a person “without whose work this book would never have come to be,” we get the impression that it’s impossible to write a book (at least, a decent book) without a team of at least a dozen at your back.  Which means that our current WIP is probably trash, which makes us doubt ourself since we know it’s not.

Also, I once saw a long acknowledgment section by Nicholas Sparks that was nothing but a bunch of puns on the titles of his previous books, none of which I had read. I didn’t end up reading that one either.

Which book character would you switch places with?

Bertie Wooster.  Who wouldn’t want to have Jeeves on hand?

Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life (place, time, person)?

Yes, all of them. 

(I once told a Medieval Lit professor that because of a certain past friendship I had “issues” around the entire corpus of Arthurian legends, and added, “I guess that makes me a real literature dork, right?”

And she said, “I don’t know, I think most people have issues like that with different works of literature.” I think she was right.)

Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.

A Meeting at Corvallis by S.M. Stirling. I read the first book in this series (Dies the Fire) by checking it out of the library. But I couldn’t find the second one in the library, though they had later books in the series. (What are you thinking, librarians?)  So I was forced to go online and order copies of the missing books.

This shows the value of authors getting their books into libraries, by the way.

Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special person?

Only all the time.  It’s called “forcing books on people.” It’s my social handicap (one of many). Apparently I communicate by giving, lending, and recommending books.

Which book has been with you the most places?

This is a tricky one. In my youth I was a world traveler, and I am one of those people who always have to have a book with them, so I have dragged many different books to some very remote places. But it’s never always the same one. I remember reading an Indonesian version of The Two Towers while on a canoe, and reading How Green Was My Valley (in English) sitting on an ironwood porch in the jungle.  Little House probably wins, though, since I re-read that one on the ironwood porch as well. 

Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two years later?

No. I liked To Kill A Mockingbird when we read it in high school, and loved it even more later.  I hated 1984 so much that I’ve never gone back to it.

Used or brand new?

Library.

Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?

I can’t remember.  I have read one by another person in a similar genre, and reviewed it here.

Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?

The Great Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio version). The film made the characters sympathetic and the story poignant, which the book didn’t do for me.

Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?

I don’t need a book to make me hungry.

I am easily guilted (is a theme developing here?) by books that feature starvation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy stars a 9-year-old boy who is always hungry and includes many detailed, sensuous descriptions of food.  Man, that boy could put away the pies! Of course, he was nine years old and was out ploughing all day.

Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?

Not sure this person exists.  Even people I respect greatly have different thresholds than I do.

Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual reading genre) that you ended up loving?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was out of my comfort zone and I avoided it for several years because I got the impression that it demonized missionaries as evil colonialists who don’t bother to learn anything about the cultures they enter.

Eventually, when I’d made some culture crossing mistakes of my own and been through some difficult personal stuff, and I had accepted myself as a flawed person and life had calmed down a bit, I felt ready to read it.

It is brilliant. 

I still think it demonizes missionaries to some extent, but it is such good literature that even the Baptist pastor villain is portrayed in a complex way. It does a great job of showing the huge learning curve faced by Westerners when entering a West African culture.  It deals with white guilt, parenting guilt, and more. At least three of the characters made me go, “This is me!

Also, the sections narrated by the pastor’s oldest daughter Rachel are hilarious because they’re filled with malapropisms.

Now it’s my turn to tag you.

Tag! You’re it. If you want to do this tag, go home and do it, and let me know. Or answer randomly selected questions from this tag in the comments.

Misanthropic Movie Review: Angels and Demons

Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

Reader response is a wonderful style of literary criticism which allows the reviewer to just note down their personal reactions, even if those reactions occurred while watching the show at midnight, when we get sleepy and our inner five-year-old emerges.

This post doesn’t explain the plot step by step, but it does contain all the spoilers and all the sarcasm.

So, my reactions to the movie version of Angels and Demons, in order …

1. Oooh, these Catholics are so mysterious and sinister!

2. Science-y stuff is happening inside the big collider.  The people are speaking French.  They think the collider might blow everything up, but they press on anyway because it’s Science.

3. Now they have made antimatter. 

4. The messenger from the Vatican speaks English with a cool, ominous accent.  He seems to be perfectly fluent, but he can’t remember the word formídable.  The closest he can get is for-mi-dá-blay.  The professor has to translate for him.

5. The professor is really smart. He knows more about Catholic history than the Catholics themselves.  Seems legit.

6. The Illuminati were a bunch of honest truth seekers who were absolutely, positively not into the occult.  They were just rationalists and scientists who were persecuted by the Catholic Church.  Now they want to use the antimatter to blow up a small country (Vatican City), but that is totally justified because the Catholics branded a cross on the chests of five Illuminati back in the 1500s.

7. The Illuminati have kidnapped the four preferiti, a.k.a. Cardinals who are being considered to become the next Pope.  The other Cardinals are in conclave.  The Great Elector, the leader of these, is obviously the bad guy.  He doesn’t want to evacuate St. Peter’s Square, even though it clearly might be a good idea.  He has “I WANT TO BE POPE” written on his forehead, and it’s possible he is behind this whole scheme.  He either works for the Illuminati, or is more likely using them. 

8. The Illuminati assassin is torturing the preferiti one by one and leaving them around Vatican City for the Professor to find.

9. VATICAN CITY SCAVENGER HUNT!!!

10.  Wow, I am just learning so much from this movie.  I had NO IDEA that the church adopted the symbols and holidays of previous pagan religions, or that Dec. 25 was originally … oh, wait.  Yes I did.  I wrote an article about it here.

11.  Also, English was the language of rebels and mavericks, like Shakespeare and Chaucer.  (Chaucer????)

12.  Honestly.  There are no admirable characters in this movie.  Not the Great Elector, not the Komandant of the Swiss guard, not the Illuminati assassin because torture, not the Professor because he always looks like everyone is getting on his last nerve with all this religion stuff … The only admirable character is a young priest who was the Pope’s protégé and who confusingly still loves the church as a place of simple people full of compassion even though he admits the church has “always sought to impede progress.”  I’ll bet he apostatizes before the end.  Either that or he becomes the next Pope.

13.  The Pope was murdered, by the way.  Turns out he didn’t really have a stroke.  I think we are supposed to feel sorry for him (or for the protégé), but the scene when they open his coffin displays a black, swollen tongue protruding from his mouth and spreading a stain over the rest of his face.  Clearly super symbolic.

14.  Speaking of symbolism, in one scene the Professor gets trapped in the Vatican Archives.  To preserve the ancient books there, oxygen is kept to a low level and the walls are lined with lead.  When the power goes off, the electronic doors lock.  The professor has to break out of this hall of old books where he cannot breathe or communicate with the outside world, or he will literally die from being stifled. The only way he can break out is to push a heavy bookcase full of priceless artifacts into the re-enforced glass, destroying these precious objects. 

Hmm, what ever could all of this symbolize?  Let me think …

15. OK, they have saved the one remaining preferitus.  And they have found the antimatter.  But – oh no! – they can’t replace the battery that will prevent an explosion, without possibly causing an explosion.

16.  The protégé is taking the antimatter up in a helicopter so the explosion doesn’t kill anyone!  He’s going to be martyred and made a saint!

17. Oh wait, he parachuted out!

18. But the explosion high over St. Peter’s Square is blowing his parachute all around! He’s going to die after all.

19. He survived!  Now the cardinals are finding an obscure bylaw that allows them to make him Pope. 

20.  But the Professor has just found a hidden video that shows the protégé was the one who hired the assassin!  He just made it look like an Illuminati plot!  It was him all along!

I did not see that coming.

21.  But the reasons he did it were the same old tired reasons we have been told all along.  He killed the Pope because the Pope was OK with the scientists making antimatter and the protégé thought it was blasphemous.

22. In other words, he did all this in order to impede progress because he thought it might diminish the power of the church. 

23.  The lady scientist feels guilty about having made antimatter because it was stolen by the assassin and almost used to kill thousands of people.  She wonders if they should go on making antimatter. 

The professor encourages her to make some more.  That’s good advice.  After all, what are the odds of something like this happening again?

24.  The Great Elector is now allowing the remaining preferitus to become Pope and is acting all nice & humble towards the Professor.  “Religion is flawed, but that’s because people are flawed.”

OK, I was wrong about the Great Elector.  Still, this feels like Dan Brown is trying to have it both ways.  He’s just spent an entire movie showing us that religious zeal is really really bad and destructive, but now he wants to say that it’s also not, with no reasons given.

Verdict: I ended up really enjoying this movie because it was so twisty.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it was a hatchet job.  Even the twists serve its purpose, because the person behind the evil plot turned out to be the character who seemed the most saintly and was certainly the most zealous.  He ends up setting himself on fire, murmuring, “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit” and then screaming and writhing like a demon as he burns.  If that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.