More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

While I was on my last library errand of 2023, I happened upon this one in the shelf alongside Språkets myller. Since I’m an incurable fan of George Lakoff and his work on metaphor I figured “why not?” and threw it on the pile. I finally finished it last week and here’s to hoping this will uncork the backlog of reading I have for the year. I accept my long-term 600+ book TBR as something like a calculus limit, to be approached but never quite reached, but the acute TBR has hit critical mass where I now have an inner urgency to do something. The current acute TBR: the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month). Until last Friday, More Than Cool Reason was also on the list. One down, five to go.

More Than Cool Reason is a much briefer work than the highly specialized Philosophy in the Flesh (what book isn’t briefer than that one) and also slightly shorter than the general interest Metaphors We Live By. This time Lakoff and cowriter Turner…turn…their attention to metaphor as it is deployed in poetry. Here their stated audience is undergrad-level literature students, so the book functions as an introduction to Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, with poetry specifically as a test case. They begin by dissecting a few short poems (or selections from longer ones), mixing familiar classics like Shakespeare sonnets and Dickinson with some translations from outside the classic English language canon, and note how the conventional metaphors we have for understanding everyday concepts make for effective poetry (“People are plants,” “Death is a journey,” “A lifetime is a day,” “A lifetime is a year,” etc.). There’s also discussion of what makes metaphors effective versus nonsense and some philosophical discussion of Lakoff’s theory, criticisms of it, and Lakoff’s response to the criticism. The book ends with a close reading of William Carlos’ Williams “To A Solitary Disciple” as well as some Chinese proverbs.

The other reason I picked up More Than Cool Reason was because I don’t get poetry. At the end of the day I’m just too literal minded to really be receptive to most of it, I think, so I thought that this kind of nuts and bolts approach to poetry would help me be a better reader. Did it? Unsure. I don’t know that I’m a better reader of poetry now, having finished the book—I would have to go out and actually read poetry with this insight fresh in my brain—but the approach Lakoff and Turner take in this kind of literary analysis is so thoroughly grounded in the text and in the concrete that I at least feel like I’m a better reader of the poems they dissected in the book.

I would rank Metaphors We Live By as the better general interest introduction to the topic. Not everyone is interested in becoming a more informed reader of poetry, but I think most of us are vaguely interested in becoming better communicators and in better understanding how other people think. I also wish that More Than Cool Reason had been course literature for my poetry class in undergrad (no shade on Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). For all I know, it would have helped demystify poetry for me twenty years earlier.

Empty Mansions

According to my arbitrary rules for the blog, I’m cheating with this pick since I haven’t finished reading Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions yet. It’s a biography, though; there’s no shocking twist or reveal to be had in here that might cause me to revise the opinion I’ve formed so far. It’s fair game to have an opinion now, even if I’m only a third of the way in.

Back in January I got lost down an Internet rabbit hole that I am now utterly unable to recreate and ended up listening to some author talks from the Amagansett Free Library released as podcast episodes over on The Internet Archive. The episode I found was a double header with Pam Belluck and Bill Dedman, each promoting their own new (at the time) book.

Back in 2009, looking at real estate in New England prompted Bill Dedman to investigate the mystery of a very empty and very expensive mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. Who owned it? Why were they selling it? Why was it empty? These questions led him to stupendously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark (now deceased, though still alive in 2009) and Empty Mansions is Dedman’s attempt to trace not only Clark’s life story but the historical context that shaped it.

To the extent that there is a mystery or hook in the book, Dedman resolves it fairly early on: Clark maintained the New Canaan mansion, and several other properties, as a place for the hired help to retreat to in case of unimaginable emergency. (The original mansion that sent Dedman on his quest had been purchased during the height of Cold War “Duck and Cover” paranoia, to give some context to her thinking.) I appreciate that level of honesty with readers: “I sold you this book based on a mystery but gave away the answer right away. If that’s what you wanted, you can put it down now. But I think the story behind the answer is a really fascinating one, so I hope you’ll let me tell it to you.” My words, not Dedman’s.

In the course of his research, Dedman was contacted by one of Clark’s extended family members, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the co-writer listed on the cover (now also deceased). Newell was in frequent telephone contact with Clark in the 90s and until her death in 2011, and the book includes several excerpts from these conversations in punchy little asides: Clark recalling a particular dinner party, or a family trip to Hawaii, those sorts of things.

I’m reading an ebook copy from one of my US libraries, and the short sections make it an excellent choice for phone reading on a commute. Empty Mansions is very easy to dip in and out at a moment’s notice, the same as with The Big Balloon. That’s probably the reason that it’s the book I’ve been reading the most at the moment, to be honest. I was originally fairly ambivalent about checking it out. I felt like I had a good enough sense about what it was and who it was about just from the podcast episode. Reading the whole book—when I have over 600 books on my TBR! oof—felt like…a bit of a waste of time? Or not a waste as such, but more like a book-length treatment of the concept was unnecessary. Thanks to the podcast episode, I now knew who Huguette Clark was, so I had already gotten to the end, so to speak. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. At any rate, every checkout is a win for your local library’s circulation numbers and therefore its funding, so in the end I figured it was at least worth it in that sense!

But Dedman also provides an account of Clark’s father, W. A. Clark, which makes for an interesting if breakneck tour of US history from the frontier days up to nearly the present day. Clark was born in 1906, when W. A. Clark was already in his sixties: he had been of age to serve in the American Civil War (though dodged the conflict by heading west to prospect).

Empty Mansions is thoroughly researched, and Dedman makes a point at the beginning to not put words in the mouth of a dead woman he had never met himself (she had passed away before the book’s publication). In that respect, it’s a stark and noteworthy contrast to A Lenape Among the Quakers, though Dedman had the incalculable advantage of abundant primary resources. That said, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or enlightening in here, either. Dedman doesn’t break new historical ground or propose any revolutionary new theories, and while several of the family photographs had never before been published, they’re not necessarily of historical import. At the end of the day, Empty Mansions is more entertaining than educational, but that’s what makes it such a great commute read.

A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman

One of the things about living abroad is that you end up feeling more like you’re from a particular place than you did when you lived at home. Maybe it has something to do with the desire to distinguish yourself from other people from the US, maybe it’s homesickness, maybe it’s a lot of things.

Whatever the reason, I’ve found that living in Stockholm has made me interested in filling in the gaps of my local history. The biggest gap is probably where the Lenape are concerned, so my reading started there. A reference to Hannah Freeman, or “Indian Hannah,” came up along the way and that’s how A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman ended up on my TBR.

The title (A Lenape Among the Quakers) and the subtitle (The Life of Hannah Freeman) pretty aptly describe the two parts and goals of the book. Author Dawn G. Marsh sketches out the events of Hannah Freeman’s life, interweaving it with the evolving (or maybe more accurately, deteriorating) relationship between Pennsylvania and the Lenape. Marsh is a professor of history at Purdue University, but the book is popular history written for a lay audience rather than a scholarly text. Still, it includes footnotes, a bibliography, and a small appendix with relevant historical documents, so there are avenues there for curious readers.

The framing device of Freeman’s life is a great way to examine standard fare Pennsylvania history from another perspective and level some well-deserved criticism. In terms of A Lenape Among the Quakers, the book is pretty solid. The benevolence and moral authority of Pennsylvania’s Quaker settlers compared to some of the other colonies is part of the commonwealth’s identity and mythos; pointing out that they weren’t cutting fair deals with their Lenape neighbors, even when William Penn was still alive, is a bitter and necessary pill to swallow.

When it comes to The Life of Hannah Freeman, however, the book deflates. In the absence of a robust historical record, Marsh hypothesizes about what life might have looked like for Freeman and speculates on how she might have thought or felt about particular events. While these suppositions are always clearly marked as such, and based in fairly reasonable historical assessment, it still feels like a stretch. On the one hand it’s important to be reminded of the human face of history, but in the absence of anything like journal accounts or other primary sources it’s pretty slim pickings. Black Tudors, which is a similar project in structure with even scantier primary sources, nonetheless engaged in far fewer creative exercises. However, Kaufmann had the advantage of ten biographies to include in the book rather than just one; there was enough material for a book without too much creative license.

And while Marsh is justified in criticizing the myth-making of Hannah Freeman by Chester County residents and Pennsylvania historians, it’s not clear that what Marsh is doing in this book is necessarily anything different. The last chapter focuses on Hannah Freeman’s memorial in Chester County and the public pomp and circumstance surrounding it in two different ceremonies (the first one in the early 1900s and the second one around a hundred years later). The memorial boulder, Marsh points out, isn’t even where Freeman is (most likely) buried. And the dedication events both times around were, let’s say, clunky.  The original ceremony had a lot of romanticizing of “the Indian,” with poetry and dramatic reenactments based on the “noble savage” stereotype; the re-dedication ceremony in 2009 included a smudging ceremony carried out by a member of the Cherokee, rather than Lenape, nation. (I don’t know enough to know whether smudging is even part of Lenape spiritual or religious practice.) Marsh criticizes both of these as events that miss the point and that flatten Hannah Freeman into a symbol to serve a myth-making narrative instead of treating her as a complex human being.

Yet Marsh herself has spent all of the rest of the book “[moving] Native American women’s history away from a narrative of loss and victimization toward a framework of resistance and adaptation.” It’s one thing to invite readers to reflect on what this moment may have meant or felt like for a human fellow traveler—it might not have value as reportage of historical fact, but it does have value in reaffirming the complex humanity of historical figures to readers who usually just think of them as names and maybe a handful of pertinent facts. It’s also one thing to recognize the biases inherent in the available historical record and seek to correct them or at least adjust for them in your interpretations. But it’s another thing to set out on a project with the goal of elevating a historical figure to a symbol of resilience and entrepreneurship. It still reads like the same symbol- and myth-making Marsh comes to condemn in the memorial dedication ceremonies.

It’s a fine line to tow, in the end. If you want to write a biography of someone like Hannah Freeman, you know from the beginning that much of the scraps of primary sources you have will be biased against your subject, maybe even outright hostile to them. On one level because of their gender, and then an additional level because of their race. As a result, these firsthand accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems like Marsh set out to write the The Life of Hannah Freeman portion of the book to justify her own opinion rather than chronicle a life.

En japansk näktergal

My sambo has tremendous thrift shop karma, which is how I came to be in possession of this lovely hardback book, a Swedish translation of an English melodrama/romance by Winnifred Eaton writing under the pen name Onoto Watanna*: A Japanese Nightingale.

Cover of the Swedish edition of "A Japanese Nightingale" by Onoto Watanna

As a hardback book from 1907 with several full color illustrations, it seems like it should be kind of rare and expensive, yet the going price for this book on Bokbursen wasn’t anything more expensive than your standard new paperback release and there were several listings for it. I guess it just goes to show how much I don’t know about actual book collecting.

Full color illustration from "A Japanese Nightingale."
There were maybe half a dozen of these full page, full color illustrations throughout.
Pages from the Swedish translation of "A Japanese Nightingale" featuring pastel green illustrations behind the text.
My photography wasn’t the best here, but those green splotches are illustrations. Left: three figures singing or playing musical instruments in a tea house. Right: flowers in a landscape.

All-American wealthy playboy Jack Bigelow is in Japan for unclear reasons. While he is waiting for his mixed-race friend Taro to come join him, Bigelow marries Yuki, a charming and mysterious mixed-race geisha. Even as Bigelow reflects on Taro’s contempt for foreigners who take temporary Japanese wives, he lets himself be talked into just such a marriage. Still, their relationship is a happy one, except Yuki’s mood swings and constant requests for money. Bigelow acquiesces, though not without misgivings and suspicions.

Taro finally arrives and—here’s a shocker—Yuki is his sister! Taro is shocked and appalled, both at Bigelow’s actions and at Yuki’s condition. It turns out that Taro and Yuki are from a noble family that conveniently ran out of money while Taro was at university in the US with Bigelow, and rather than reveal the change in their fortunes Yuki began earning money to support her brother by performing in teahouses. When that proved insufficient, she agreed to be married off by a nakoda.

Taro and Yuki are stunned to see each other. Yuki runs away, distraught at her brother’s perceived disappointment in her. For plot-related reasons, neither Bigelow nor Taro immediately follow her, so she is allowed to slip away and disappear. In her absence, Taro falls ill and dies. Bigelow promises the dying Taro that he will spare no expense in tracking down Yuki. He wanders all over Japan, Yuki wanders all over Asia, but eventually they have a heartfelt reunion at their old house in Tokyo and swear to never leave each other again.

The end!

On its own, A Japanese Nightingale is very dated reading. Is it an improvement over Madame Butterfly, which it is theorized to be a response to? I…don’t know? How are we defining “improvement” here, anyway? The happier ending with a reunited Bigelow and Yuki seems to imagine better prospects for interpersonal relationships between white Westerners and Asians (or just Japanese) than Madame Butterfly, which makes sense given Canada-born Eaton’s English father and Cantonese mother.

But much of the book feels predicated on Orientalism and appealing to Western fascination with Japan, which I guess still happens today but not in the same way as in the years immediately following the Perry Expedition. There are didactic little asides about Japanese culture and beliefs and customs, but judging from her biography Eaton never visited Japan. She was also “rebuked” by maybe the only Japanese person she actually knew, the poet Yone Noguchi, for her “masquerade” (to use the language of that linked timeline), but I don’t have the Google-fu to dig that referenced article up.

All of that said, I think it’s ridiculous to go into a book like this with the expectations and standards we have for books today. And I don’t just mean expectations about race and Strong Female Characters TM and gender relations—I mean even just the construction of the narrative itself. Authors in 1907 were writing to meet different expectations than they would be today. One of the more obvious examples of this might be the shift in narrative distance that’s come to be regarded as acceptable in third-person narration, but also things like suspension of disbelief, the role of luck and coincidence in a plot, characterization, etc. etc.

The clues about Taro and Yuki’s relationship are there for readers to pick up on, but the suspension of disbelief required to accept that plot twist is a big ask. Taro’s death makes no sense on a surface level reading (he faints and hits his head  and then…wastes away from a mysterious illness?) and is equally baffling from a plot perspective, since there’s no action or realization it prompts within Bigelow. Nor would Taro’s survival have impeded Bigelow in any way in his quest to find Yuki. The whole episode feels like nothing more than a melodramatic flourish to no purpose. Omatsu, Taro and Yuki’s mother, appears for a while during Taro’s lingering Mystery Illness, and Bigelow swears to look after her like she was his own mother, but then she gets shunted off to her own parents and never appears again.

To a modern reader, all those aspects and more are enough to make A Japanese Nightingale stylistically passé, never mind how completely unappealing a character and hero Jack Bigelow is in the Year of Our Lord 2023 or whether or not the depiction of Japan and Japanese characters is ProblematicTM and if so to what extent. Even though the book was by all accounts at least moderately popular in its time (it was turned into a stage play, and then a movie), it’s so “of its time” that the appeal today is one of historical curiosity rather than rip-roaring good yarn.

Oh! This was a translation, after all. Is there anything interesting I can share about Hilda Löwenhielm?

Not really. She was a teacher and a translator and died in 1927. Never married, no children. Well, cool.

The story itself may be underwhelming, but it at least it was delivered in a singularly attractive package that can serve a much more aesthetically pleasing purpose as an objet d’art.

*Onoto Watanna, what a wonderful phrase! Onoto Watanna, it ain’t no passing craze! It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy: Onoto Watanna!

Döden till mötes

I rescued this book from a “free to take” box along the sidewalk after a run sometime in summer 2020? 2021? What is time? Along with Miss Marples sista fall, because I can never say no to a free book, especially if it’s Agatha Christie.

There’s a Rian Johnson Tweet somewhere about how Christie’s novels are anything but formulaic and how she used the mystery novel as a front for experimenting in all kinds of other genres:

Something I love about Agatha Christie is how she never tread water creatively. I think there’s a misperception that her books use the same formula over and over, but fans know the opposite is true. It wasn’t just settings or murder methods, she was constantly stretching the genre conceptually. Under the umbrella of the whodunnit she wrote spy thrillers, proto-slasher horrors, serial killer hunts, gothic romances, psychological character studies, glam travelogues.

This element of Christie’s writing eluded me in my middle school whodunnit phase, but I think you can forgive a 12-year-old for not considering the finer points of genres like spy thrillers.

This quote came to mind as I was reading Döden till mötes (Appointment With Death), as did the fact that Christie rather famously couldn’t abide her fan-favorite protagonist. Appointment With Death came out in 1938, so there were still other Poirot books and stories to come, but already you can see Christie sidelining the Belgian detective as much as possible in order to tell another story.

Most of the book happens without Poirot present and, as Johnson’s observation above suggests, is a combination of gothic romance (the mysterious and alluring Raymond Boynton trapped by a domineering stepmother and protagonist Sarah King’s determination to rescue him) and glam travelogue (Christie’s eye for character is also turned to the landscapes of Jerusalem and Petra). And as far as that story goes, it’s…fine but dated. Anything set in Jerusalem these days is just going to come across as oof, to use a technical term. Even without the “aged like milk” setting, there’s a lot of surface-level psychoanalysis from the French psychologist Dr. Gerard that is meant to be narratively sound, and maybe even came across as reasonable and plausible in 1938, but today reads like pompous buffoonery.

On the other hand, Christie has a few conversations and observations that are still timely 80-odd years later. I don’t remember her roasting women quite so thoroughly in other books, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any so who can say. We have the tyrannical murder victim, Mrs. Boynton, who is quickly established as a vile and hideous creature through and through (the book never lets us forget that she’s fat!)*; we have the tiresome but accomplished Lady Westholme who is constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes, both for her domineering personality as well as her unattractive looks (powerful Hillary Clinton energy); and scatter-brained Miss Pierce is more or less dismissed by everyone. The golden mean of all three of these seems to be protagonist Sarah King, who can neither abide the airheaded Miss Pierce but who also finds Lady Westholme too much. As a result, King feels like a mouthpiece for Christie’s own opinions about women’s place in the world.

As for the whodunnit itself, it’s clever (to be expected!) but not as satisfying as other Christie novels. Some bits I untangled right away; other asides are dropped in that sound like they’re set up for a big reveal, but ultimately they just fizzle and go nowhere.

The Swedish translation is a job well done, though perhaps it’s easier to convey Agatha Christie in Swedish than Elmore Leonard. Regardless, Einar Thermaenius succeeded where Einar Heckscher failed; while my copy was fairly old, even new Swedish editions of Agatha Christie today are often still Thermaenius’s translation (his translation of The ABC Murders from 1938 saw an eleventh printing in 2015). Even “new translations” of Thermaenius (and others) are more often new edits of old translations rather than entirely new translations. Why mess with perfection?

*And a weird postscript to that. The English book covers all have covers that feature the landscape, elements of the plot, or spooky murder imagery unrelated to the actual story. It took a fair bit of scrolling to find one older example of a cover featuring Mrs. Boynton herself, and then rendered fairly neutrally:

The cover of "Appointment With Death" featuring an illustration of an overweight old woman in a pink dress in profile against a desert backdrop.

It took me zero seconds and zero scrolling to find much less flattering Swedish portrayals of Mrs. Boynton:

Cover of Swedish version of "Appointment With Death" featuring a caricature portrait of an overweight old woman with yellow cat eyes looking directly at the viewer. Another Swedish edition of Appointment With Death. There is once again an illustrated rendition of an overweight old woman sitting on a chair, but it only takes up a fraction of the cover space and she's not immediately menacing.

Are…are you OK, Sweden? Who hurt you?

Philadelphia Noir

My approach to gifts is fairly unstructured and sporadic. If I see something that a friend or family member would like during the year, I buy it and then save it for the next appropriate gift-giving occasion. Usually, also, this takes the form of a book, because I like to stay on brand.

This is how I ended up in possession of a copy of Philadelphia Noir, the Philly entry in Akashic Books‘ popular Noir series. I’m from the area, a bookish friend has a particular penchant for crime and noir…it seemed like a natural fit for gift from me to him! Of course, I would be remiss if I gave someone the gift of a book without reading and vetting it first. I had enjoyed the copy of LA Noir a friend sent me, so I could probably trust that the Philadelphia edition would maintain the same level of quality, but still.

Well.

“Some of the stories are better than others,” I wrote in the note that I included with the gift. Which is the most diplomatic way I can possibly phrase it. And some of the stories are really good, or at least fun, and I had a great time with them (“Princess,” “Secret Pool,” “A Cut Above,” and parts of “The Ratcatcher” and “A Fishtown Odyssey” stand out). Others were a bit rough around the edges and had a tenuous quality to them, as if the author had written and submitted the story for the collection at the last possible minute, or if the editor had a limited pool of stories to choose from. That’s okay; maybe they were someone else’s cup of tea.

The only one of those I feel like calling out is one of the historical fiction stories in the last section of the book: “Reality.” I wrote the “Some of the stories are better than others” comment about halfway through my reading; by the time I got to “Reality” I left am extra post-it note with the comment “skip this one.” The premise of the story is that first the author (not the narrator, this is not a fictional affectation; I mean the author) brags about being a descendent of a minor historical figure in the area for absolutely no reason at all, and then while walking her dog runs into what she believes to be Colonial-era reenactors just acting out a scene in the middle of the sidewalk. She deems them as “surprisingly good, actually,” and assures us that she would know because she’s a history nerd and author. She also goes to great pains to include “comedy” in the guise of a cliche sitcom family before showing us that the crowd is also loving it and thinks this is the best thing they’ve seen all day. This becomes insufferable when it turns out these aren’t actors. No! They’re characters from her historical fiction (mystery?) novels come to life! And they have a crowd of admirers hanging on their every word!

Powerful “and then everyone clapped” energy.

At a last grasp to make it vaguely noir-ish, one of the historical characters fires a warning shot from his musket to threaten another one of the characters and, plot twist, it hits and kills a father who had been especially laudatory and impressed with the performance (and constantly telling the author/narrator to shut up so he could hear more of the story). The story closes with his young son thinking that his father’s very real gunshot wound is just part of the great performance, which he was also definitely enjoying a lot as an eight-year-old! Not bored out of his skull, this one! “Mom’s gonna be real mad about the stain on your shirt though, Dad. Dad? Dad?”

Did the story have the intended effect of me looking up the author? Yes. Did it have the intended effect of me wanting to read any of her novels? Absolutely not. The other dodgy stories in there were at least just stories for their own sake, so to speak, and definitely fit the noir theme. This one felt like a weird cross between advertising, wish-fulfillment, and self-aggrandizement, with the ending tacked on to make it a barely plausible candidate for entry into a noir collection.

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

In keeping with my “one book per indie bookstore per city visited” rule for my vacation last August, when my hosts took me to Book People in Austin I stood resolute to acquire one (1) book. I went in, prepared to be ruthless and discriminating in my choices, but in the end that was unnecessary because the solution presented itself almost immediately upon our entrance. And on sale, even!

While a to-read list can quickly become a graveyard of aspirations, I still find it to be a handy filter for bookstore and library visits. If I have a vague awareness of at least some books I at one point wanted to read, then it can help narrow down my browsing. That was exactly the case when I more or less walked right into The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free.

I read an excerpt from the book during its promotional rounds on Lit Hub, and thought the excerpt and the premise of the book were both interesting. On to the TBR it went. Two years later, here I am! The downside is that while I might have knocked Barbizon off my TBR, over the course of reading the book I probably added five or six other books because so many of the illustrious personages Paulina Bren outlines in the book sound like fascinating people and writers. In that sense, writing about the Barbizon is a great framework for looking at women writers from the mid-to-late twentieth century. It would be a great idea for a literary anthology or series and I wonder why no one’s done it yet.

Barbizon is a quick read; I was able to knock it out in about a day and a half. Of course, I was on vacation with bookish friends who were happy to spend hours sitting quietly and reading, so I might be overstating how snappy the pace is. Regardless, it’s a fun and breezy look at a piece of American history I’d never known about (even though I’ve read The Bell Jar) and, as I told one half of my hosting couple, it made me happy that I live here and now instead of sixty, seventy, a hundred years ago. If you plopped me in the lobby of the Barbizon hotel back in the fifties, or if I had been a college student in the sixties applying for a Mademoiselle guest editor role, I have no doubt I would have been summarily dismissed and rejected for not being pretty enough. Nor would I have been cut out to be a homemaker or mother, which even the most talented and ambitious women who boarded at the hotel seemed to inevitably become. (And yet, with all of this freedom and free time available to me, I fritter it all away on nonsense. But that’s another issue entirely!)

If only the world weren’t on fire…!

Translation State

Ann Leckie’s Translation State was the only book I finished in October. Good thing I read enough during my trip to the US to balance that out!

Translation State is…fine? It’s hard for me to be fair in my evaluation because I recognize that I read it in A Mood, and I also went in with incredibly high expectations because Ancillary Justice was one of the top tier Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picks not only of the year, but of all time.

In short: everyman Reet Hluid learns that he isn’t entirely human, but actually the offspring of a wayward member of a terrifying and vaguely cannibalistic alien race, the Presger  (or rather, their test tube baby science experiment race, Presger Translators, humanoids cooked up to help the ineffable Presger interface with humans). This entirely accidental revelation of his ancestry rips Hluid from his otherwise unremarkable life to be matched with Qven, another Presger Translator who is on the outs with their society.

What do I mean with that nebulous word “matched”? I mean something akin to “set up with.” Presger Translators are casually cannibalistic, or at least sadistic—we learn from Qven that dismemberments and eviscerations are standard fare schoolyard games among Presger Translator children—but then when adulthood hits, this turns from cannibalism into a merging that no matter how much Qven insists isn’t “doing the sex” still reads as “sex,” where the two parties consume each other? physically merge with each other? and then become some kind of new entity split across two bodies that are now a kind of average of both of them.

Hluid and Qven bond over a cheesy space opera, only to get called up before a tribunal to discuss their legal status under the prevailing galactic treaty drawn up between the Presger and the other races within the galaxy (are they human or not?). Violence erupts and chaos ensues, and we learn a little bit more about what the Presger (or Presger Translators?) can do: muck around with spacetime. Hluid and Qven, after nearly an entire book of misunderstanding-through-an-abundance-of-caution, merge and become a more fully realized Presger Translator Adult in order to save the day. You can’t be mad about that being a spoiler, either, because what we’re reading is essentially an alien romance with neopronouns and political intrigue slapped on for good measure; the happily ever after is a given.

The fact that it’s a romance that snuck in through the back door to a more straightforward and high-concept space opera series like Ancillary Justice is maybe why I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy romance. I don’t watch a lot of TV, trashy or otherwise, so I don’t find it qUiRkY aNd sO rELaTabLe when sci-fi characters do. (Love you, Murderbot, but you’re also guilty of this sin.) And despite the neopronouns and the antagonizing, on both ends, about consent and BUT THEY PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO MATCH WITH ME ANYWAY, the relationship between Hluid and Qven still feels pretty normal and straight, and also not particularly believable. Whatever important conversations they have where they bare their souls to each other seem to mostly happen off-screen, while their on-screen (on-page?) courtship seems to consist exclusively of watching TV together.

The comparison didn’t occur to me while I was reading it, but in summarizing the book just now Translation State has pretty strong echoes of The Gods Themselves, at least in terms of Presger biology. Leckie, at least, has a better handle on gender than Asimov.

If you’re thirsty for more Imperial Raadch adjacent content, Translation State scratches that itch. But I wouldn’t hand it off to anyone as an introduction to the Imperial Raadch books or to Leckie generally. Save it for later.

Are You My Mother?

I am constitutionally incapable of walking into a library without at least paging through something. And so while I was at one of my home libraries in August to renew my card, I took a stroll around the main floor to see if anything caught my eye. My circuit ended in the graphic novel section, where Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was one of the featured books.

I knew Bechdel by reputation (who among us has not heard of “the Bechdel test” by now?) but not yet by works, even if I had heard of Fun Home and “Dykes to Watch Out For.” A memoir about parents? Well heck, very on brand to read while visiting one’s parents!

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unique in their unhappiness. That’s the mood reading people’s reflections on their own parents. How are mine like theirs? How are mine different? Do we have any of the same difficulties in our relationships with them? Can I learn anything from how this person managed it (or didn’t)? Plus a heaping helping of: thank God my parents are the way they are.

Not that Are You My Mother? is didactic, or instructional. There are a lot of asides about Donald Winnicott and child psychology and Freud, but only because they were Bechdel’s own interests at the time of writing. And lots of Virginia Woolf and To The Lighthouse, as well. I guess one day I should make a real honest effort with that book, but today is not that day.

My dad is not Bechdel’s dad; my mom is not Bechdel’s mom. My relationships with them have different wrinkles and potholes than Bechdel has with hers, though sometimes they overlap or resonate in a kind of harmony. Never enough that the suggestions from her therapists feel like they can apply to me, but enough for me to do the slow nod of recognition.

Berries Goodman

Like Emil and the Detectives, Emily Cheney Neville’s Berries Goodman was another parental library inheritance that was always just around the house, never fully absorbed either into my books or my brothers’. It made for a nice break from dusting bookshelves, as it turned out.

We start off in a conversation between teenage Bertrand “Berries” Goodman and his childhood friend Sidney Fine, who Berries hasn’t seen since he moved out of the fictional suburbs of Olcott Corners to New York City. Sidney is playing truant and heading off to New Jersey for the day, for reasons unknown, and has called on Berries in New York for help and to catch up.

Then we flash back to one year in Berries’ and Sidney’s elementary school lives, right after the Goodmans’ relocation to Olcott Corners from New York. Berries quickly befriends Sidney, while jokes and comments from the adults around him make it clear that there is a not-so-subtle strain of anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. When other children, like Berries’ neighbor and frenemy Sandy, repeat similar talking points, Berries reacts in anger and confusion: anger at the insult to his friends (and by now it’s no spoiler that this includes Sidney as well as his friends back in New York) and confusion over the fact that anyone would even believe such stupid things. Everything comes to a head when the trio go ice skating and the bossy but well-meaning Sandy dares Sidney into a stunt that leaves him hospitalized. Sidney’s mother fears that the latent anti-Semitic attitudes are going to start escalating and pulls him out of their school in favor of the school in the nearby Jewish neighborhood and forbids Sidney from playing with Berries. For a while the two meet in secret, but after their fathers catch them out, they’re separated for good.

Not long after, Mrs. Goodman decides she’s tired of the suburban life and the Goodmans move back to New York. Years later this is where we catch up with teenage Berries and Sidney, who is trying to get a bus out of the Port Authority. Berries goes with Sidney back to Olcott Corners and things are eventually smoothed out between the two families.

The condensed version sounds like an anvilicious after-school special because I left out all of the slice-of-life incidentals. Everything in the actual book unfolds more carefully and casually than that and is interspersed with nostalgic unsupervised kids in suburbia shenanigans, and rather clear-eyed observations and criticisms of middle class American standards and parenting.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made just by looking at the difference in covers between Berries Goodman and another one of Neville’s young adult novels, It’s Like This, Cat. There are essentially two different covers for Berries Goodman, neither of which have been updated at all.

Screen shot of a Google images search for Berries Goodman. Only two cover images dominate: one with abstract color bars and one with an illustration of a boy on a bicycle in front of a house.
Berries Goodman

Meanwhile, It’s Like This, Cat seems to have been continuously updated and repackaged for a new readership.

Screenshot of a Google images search for "It's Like This, Cat." It shows a variety of covers in different art styles, seven in all.
It’s Like This, Cat

It’s Like This, Cat was on reading lists in my school years. I saw it in the library. But the only time I’ve ever seen Berries Goodman is in my shelves at home. Of course, I haven’t read Cat so I can’t make the comparison or even begin to guess at why that one has remained so popular and Berries hasn’t. But if you happen to stumble across Berries Goodman, you should pick it up. It’s a fun read and Neville has a fantastic ear for dialogue, especially between kids.