Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick

30 Sep

Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick

“They were nearly ten weeks into a voyage that was supposed to have been completed during the balmy days of summer. But they had started late, and it was now November, and winter was coming on. They had long since run out of firewood, and they were reaching the slimy bottoms of their water casks. Of even greater concern, they were down to their last casks of beer. Due to the notoriously bad quality of the drinking water in seventeenth-century England, beer was considered essential to a healthy diet. And sure enough, with the rationing of their beer came the unmistakable signs of scurvy: bleeding gums, loosening teeth, and foul-smelling breath. So far only two had died…”

Despite having grown up outside of Boston, I haven’t studied the story of the Mayflower since grade school, and was at first riveted to this history by Nathaniel Philbrick, which put the names I’ve seen all around me since childhood into immediate cultural context. Massasoit was the local Indian chief who first helped the Pilgrims. I pass a park and a community college bearing his name on the way to Cape Cod. The Narragansetts, from now–Rhode Island were the nearest hostile tribe. And Plymouth, of course, was where the Mayflower first landed, except it didn’t. The Pilgrims first set down in now-Provincetown, and spent weeks blundering around Cape Cod, stealing from the local Indians and wondering what to do.

These Pilgrims were not an inspiring lot, I was surprised to learn. They were a religious community already in exile from England and living in Holland, who had no wilderness skills, little money and little business acumen. They were cheated by the men who funded the voyage, abandoned by their pastor on the eve of travel, and arrived in the new world, during an exceptionally cold November (there was a ‘little ice age’ in the 1600s), all set to starve. Also, about half the population of the Mayflower were “strangers”—non religious men, with whom the Pilgrims had to get along. Considering the early political spats, farming setbacks and sheer battle with starvation, it’s surprising anyone survived. (And in fact, they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t abandoned an early attempt at communal farming, Philbrick writes. Before owning their own land, even the founding fathers didn’t want to work….)

But the Plymouth men were princes compared to a more commercial expedition that arrived a few years later and settled at Wessagusset.

“Wessagusset was more like early Jamestown—a group of unattached men with relatively little in common. In the beginning, their energies were directed toward building a fort. But once that was completed they were unprepared to face the rigors of a hard New England winter. As in Jamestown, a state of almost unaccountable languor quickly descended on the inhabitants. Suffering from a deadly combination of malnutrition and despair….”

The colonists at Wessagusset’s bad behavior quickly soured the relationship with the local Indians, and it is here, writing about the politics between Indians and white settlers, that Philbrick’s book finds its heart. I hadn’t quite known how much history survives about specific Indian leaders, guides and dynasties, but Philbrick found a wealth of it. Mayflower also recontextualized for me the cliches about innocent and noble Indians taken advantage of by white men. In Philbrick’s book, the local Indian leaders were rivals and equals to the arriving whites. Or, in some cases, superiors, since the Indians considered themselves Kings, and no English King had set foot in the new world. The Indian cooperation or lack of it with the white settlers was mostly motivated by internal Indian politics, and had little to do with the moral and spiritual superiority now ascribed to Native Americans.

Despite the inherent interest of the subject matter, though, the book was more worthy than well-executed. As the original Mayflower and Indian players were replaced by their descendants, I started getting confused about who the characters were, and became lost in a forest of details, betrayals, and squabbles.

I stopped reading before the outbreak of war between the Indians and settlers, where the goals of both communities were betrayed, with the tragic results we live with to this day.


35. The Martian, by Andy Weir

29 Sep

The Martian, Andy Weir

Let’s preface this by saying that The Martian is an excellent thriller. The premise of the book on which the current movie starring Matt Damon is based is that a botanist/engineer gets left behind on Mars and has to survive, relying on the supplies left by the space mission, his science-nerd skills, and his aw shucks American optimism and ingenuity. Here’s how it starts:

I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

This casual, humorous voice then walks the layperson through the NASA technology left behind, and how Watney will hack it to stay alive. He needs more food, more water, a means of communication with Earth, and not to make any big mistakes that will get him killed. It’s amazing that a guy growing some potatoes and doing chemistry experiments is such a page turner, but it really is. Could this be the first space procedural? I bought this book in an airport and it was at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list, so obviously everyone who has picked it up has been glued to it, and I was too.

I also have now discovered that The Martian was originally self-published, which makes it even more likable.

However, at the same time as I read all 435 pages with great relish, the part of my brain that thinks was screaming in agony.

The character is admittedly supposed to be the kind of happy optimist who deals with stress by making jokes, but his endless “Whee! Yay! I’m alive!” delivery—or, sometimes, “I have a hell of a backache. I’m sick of this”—became simplistic and grating. Also, everything he tried mostly worked, which life mostly doesn’t, and so by the end when he drives 3,200 kilometers with only one minor accident, and then gets launched into space in a shuttle with a hole in the top…. it was all so flat it was impossible to care. Sure the adventure probably needed a person incapable of introspection to deal with the stress, but a person incapable of introspection doesn’t bring much to even the most fabulous adventure.

The worst part, though, was the portrayal of the politics back on earth, where the whole world pulled together to save one man’s life!!!! All of NASA worked around the clock, sparing no expense!!! Every space program was gutted and reorganized into a save-Watney mission! China got involved!! Six other people risked their lives! Watney explains that “they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.”

I do believe that individual human beings in crisis situations often behave heroically, and Watney’s fellow astronauts risking their lives to return for him seemed reasonable. But the American government makes decisions that result in many, many people getting killed every. single. day. for reasons of politics and expedience. Those people are usually not heroic and adorable like astronauts, but still, if you weigh all lives equally, it’s hard to enjoy Weir’s fantasy. Look at the ongoing tragedy of the Syrian refugees, or what happened to the low-income residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Where’s the basic instinct of every human being to help those people out?

Obviously people read thrillers to get away from reality, and I should too, but I can’t do it.


34. The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

22 Sep

Dead Mountaineer's Inn, Strugatsky

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is a classic detective-noir novel from the masters of Soviet sci-fi, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. It’s the first book of theirs I’ve read, and the first two thirds had the wonderful effect of transporting me to a cozy vacation setting in a remote mountain ski chalet populated by an eccentric cast of characters. Fun!

We had a rich old man named Mr. Moses with a beautiful wife who was probably not his wife, a physicist, a magician and his gender-ambiguous young relative, the scheming inn-keeper and of course the vacationing police detective, Peter Glebsky. I wanted to curl up by the fire and drink “hot port with spices” and listen to the avalanches in the surrounding mountains while various people went thump in the night, traced wet footprints down hallways, canoodled, and got stupid-drunk.

Unfortunately, I read the book in translation (a Neversink Library edition with an introduction by Jeff Vandermeer ) and thus missed probably the best running joke, which is writing a gender-ambiguous character in Russian, which is difficult to do because of the way the language genders its verbs.

The book is very funny, with a self-conscious “atmosphere of self-indulgent spookery,” that turns, in the last third into a very good genre-bending joke. (It’s not too much of a spoiler to say: Aliens!)

I found the denouement a bit frenzied, with too much detecting and too little sitting around enjoying the pleasures of the mountain location. But the upside to the book’s end was the neat way that the brothers upended the virtues of policing and values of the detective novel. Vandermeer’s introduction puts some of this in context with their fraught status with the Soviet publishing authorities. They were supposed to write a simple genre book with positive social values…. which of course these true artists and oddballs couldn’t quite do. To their great credit and to the book’s advantage.

33. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

9 Sep

Stanislas Lem Solaris

Stanislaw Lem is a cult Polish sci-fi writer from the 1960s, who has written some of the most intense and twisted books I’ve ever read about alien contact, with this one, Solaris, being the most famous and one of the best. People in America have heard of it because of the 2002 George Clooney film directed by Stephen Soderbergh. There’s also a very famous Russian adaptation from 1972 by director Andrei Tarkovsky.

The book starts, as Lem books tend to, with a guy strapping into a one-man space pod and launching himself into the cosmos. In this case he’s Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, going to a research station on the planet Solaris. Things start to go wrong immediately, even in flight, when Kelvin’s capsule goes off course and the space station doesn’t answer his emergency call. He lands, and finds the place trashed. Of the three scientists aboard, one is dead and the other two seem to have gone insane…..

The planet Solaris is covered by an enormous ocean, which Kelvin is there to study. It’s only in chapter two that we learn this:

“…it had been accepted that the ocean was an organic formation (at that time, no one had yet dared to call it living). But, while the biologists considered it as a primitive formation—a sort of gigantic entity, a fluid cell, unique and monstrous (which they called prebiological), surrounding the globe with a colloidal envelope several miles thick in places—the astronomers and physicists asserted that it must be an organic structure, extraordinarily evolved.”

And where is this delightful creature, in relationship to our protagonist, Kelvin?

“….some hundreds of meters below the metal hull of the Station, obscured at the moment by the shadows of the four-hour night.”

Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers should stop here, and go read the book, which is terrifying and spectacular.

Human scientists have been experimenting on the ocean for years, either without result, or with results they’re unable to acknowledge.  The ocean has now decided to experiment back, by providing the human occupants of the station a near-perfect reproduction of the person they most desire, basically peeling out the nastiest inner layer of the subconscious, and making it visible. The love-creatures are superhuman, made of the alien substance, and display an imperfect grasp of personality.

Lem is a hard-core gearhead, though, and he doesn’t care that much about love, desire or shame. The set-up is a device for a speculation on alien contact, on the theory that we can’t make contact because our selves, mainly our desires, will get in the way and blind us. This happens for political reasons—Kelvin discovers that evidence of previous experiments by the ocean has been dismissed—but mostly for psychological ones. There’s a thought-gulf too large to cross. Men, in their perversity and solipsism, desire alien contact, but only of the type that reflects them. The ocean, in Lem’s figuring, gives men just what they’re looking for.

It’s a brilliant, fast, creepy read….. I highly recommend it.


32. In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

30 Aug

In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

Here’s what Rob Hart from Litreactor has to say about Tom Spanbauer:

I’ve been planning to write this for months, and I’ve done everything I could to put it off. The reason for that is because I am afraid to write it. No matter what I write, I’ll never get across the thing about Tom Spanbauer’s writing that touches me so deeply.

The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.

That doesn’t cut it. It gets close, but it’s not there. The best I can do is approximate.

I think Rob does get pretty close. I’ve written about Tom before. His latest book, I Loved You More, was one of my favorites of 2014 and just won a Lambda Award for gay general fiction. In the City of Shy Hunters is his AIDS classic, about New York in the early days of the epidemic. The hero, Will, is a Spanbauer stand-in who shares many points of his biography. He’s a gay man from Idaho who has come to the city to search for a lost love, a Native American named Charlie Two Moons. Charlie is a drop-out from the writing program at Columbia, and as the novel progresses and Will doesn’t find him, we begin to fear that he won’t, and that Charlie, like nearly everyone else, is a casualty of the epidemic.

Spanbauer makes a beautiful use of refrains, like his hero having “my mother’s nerves” (she killed herself) and “language my second language” when he’s nervous. One of the best is when he takes moments with people he’s loved and lost to AIDS, and claims the moment is still ongoing.  (In the below, “the monster” is AIDS.)

The monster’s heavy footfall.

I had to sit down right there on the curb, my head between my knees, my sensible black shoes on New York City pavement.

Big sobs, snot running out my nose, my chest up and down, up and down.

Who knows how long I sat there. I’m still sitting there.

I can’t think of a more generous and ongoing way of keeping a person in our hearts. Even the dead are not alone, thanks to Spanbauer’s wonderful humanity.

The book is more than just a tragedy, though it is that. It’s also a great old-time NYC book, evoking days I caught the last edge of when I moved to the city, when the East Village was alternative and Thompson Square Park was frightening. Will works as a waiter in a midtown restaurant that he calls Cafe Cauchemar and makes me think of Cafe Un Deux Trois (who knows if that’s even still there). The extended scenes of restaurant politics and after-hours partying deserve their own book. Here’s a scene of him at an alt performance space:

I felt I belonged there in my seat. Things had meaning and purpose. Fiona and Harry were my friends and they were up there on the stage and the audience was waiting—you could feel the anticipation, the hope of theater to lay bare the human heart. And I was there, I wasn’t in Jackson Holeewood or Boise, I was avant-garde in Manhattan in a basement theater on the Lower East Side.

The New York one can write things like this about has vanished as well.

31. Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

19 Aug

Loving Day by Mat Johnson

I can claim no credit, but I was Mat Johnson’s editor in the long-ago days before he’d published his first novel, and I was recently delighted to discover that he’s become a literary fiction success-story, who is just as hilariously funny now as he was back then. Loving Day, which came out May 2015, is his fourth novel and—breaking news!—just this week it was announced that Showtime has acquired the rights to the book as a potential TV show.

Johnson is one of those writers who you can’t put down because of the dryly funny lines, which just keep coming. A lawn is “utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle.” A dilapidated house is “covered in all the paint that’s failed to chip.” Of a man wearing a dashiki, Sudanese mudcloth pants and a kente hat, he says, “It’s like Africa finally united, but just in his wardrobe.”

Loving Day is about a very light-skinned, mixed-race black man, Warren Duffy, who suffers what he calls “a disconnect in my racial projection.” He is often taken for white, but as he says, “I know I’m black. My mother was black—that counts no matter how pale and Irish my father was.” The term the novel uses for him is “sunflower”—yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. As one of Johnson’s characters explains, it’s “a slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.'”

After a failed marriage to a Welsh girl, he’s back in his hometown of Philly to deal with his late, white, father’s inheritance when the story starts. The inheritance (yes, a loaded metaphor) is a crumbling, totally ridiculous mansion that he doesn’t want. (Whiteness, that’s you.) He’s broke. He’s recently discovered he has a teenage daughter, and hijinks ensue that require him to teach at the Melangé Center, a high school to help people like Warren find balance. He calls his tribe “the human equivalent of mismatched socks. The people whose racial appearance fails to mimic the ethnicity of their inner spirit.”  The school teaches “inclusion of all perspectives of the black and white, mixed-race experience.”

Warren, with typical humorous candor,  likes it because:

“Finally. I—lighter than some white people walking around this world, always the palest of any black person, a man who can barely hold on to that mantle–am like an Asante chief in this room…. These people, they are not black like me. They are less black than me, and therefore I don’t trust them. And I love it. Embattled groups have to police membership, for their own self-protection. But with policing comes power, and all power’s usual intoxicants…. This, I realize, is a singular element of the Black Experience I’ve been previously denied. The guilty satisfaction of sitting in judgement over others for their insufficient blackness. I forgive everyone who has ever done this to me maliciously. How could anyone resist such a pleasurable self-righteous indulgence!”

But it’s not that simple. As he knows, and as his friends point out, by embracing his whiteness, he’s betraying his race. The people at Melangé are “‘trying to cut black America loose, so they can live some post-racial fantasy. That shit is dangerous. It weakens us, as a people.'”

Warren’s ultimate revelations are more about loving his new-found daughter and himself than they are choosing one group over the other or solving this race dilemma. Which, in it’s own way, is the solution.  The “Loving Day” of the title is a real holiday, June 12th, on which people celebrate the Supreme Court decision in the case Loving vs. Virginia, which in 1967 struck down all the remaining miscegenation laws in the United States. Johnson, very nicely, in the end chooses to focus on not the mixed children but on the love that created them.

It was a great book, which I really hope gets made into a TV show. And if it does, pull this character from the margins:

“It’s called home. Oh yeah, you betcha,” an ebony-skinned woman says next to me in a thick white-girl accent that sounds like it was obtained in North Dakota.

And here’s one last laugh/insight that I really appreciated:

“‘Look, my life is hard and boring too, just like everyone else’s.”






30. The Imago Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler

3 Aug

Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler

I have just completed my fourth re-reading of Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler, also known as the Imago Trilogy or the Xenogenesis Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction, an eye-popping, queasy, deeply uncomfortable imagining of the issues that would arise if the human race were sexually absorbed by aliens.

The speculative framework for the books is that after an apocalyptic human war, when everyone on earth is dying or dead, a race of deep-space-traveling aliens comes along and offers a sort-of choice: Survive, while mating with us and breeding with us to create a third race, or you all die. The choice is framed through the personal struggles of the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, a young black woman from Los Angeles who is the first kidnapped/saved human the aliens wake up from suspended animation on their space ship, and who is tasked with convincing other humans to cooperate.

The beginning is the perfect waking-up-in-a-locked-room-mystery. Lilith awakens, with no idea where she is. “The walls were light-colored—white or gray perhaps. The bed was what it had always been: a solid platform that gave slightly to the touch and seemed to grow from the floor.”

She proves to be strong-minded and adaptable:

“When her body calmed and became reconciled to reanimation, she looked around. The room seemed dimly lit, though she had never Awakened to dimness before. She corrected her thinking. The room did not only seem dim, it was dim. At an earlier Awakening she had decided that reality was whatever happened, whatever she perceived. It had occurred to her—how many times?—that she might be insane or drugged, physically ill or injured. None of that mattered. It could not matter while she was confined this way, kept helpless, alone and ignorant.”

The aliens are terrifying and repulsive to humans, but find humans erotic and compelling. They are vastly more evolved, deeply condescending, and can manipulate human bodies on a molecular level to produce pleasure. They stick their tentacles into us, drug us, and produce spectacular, instantly addictive sensations. They live in three-person, three-gender groupings, have wild sex, and hope to add human partners to make five-person households, plus children. Anyone who won’t cooperate with them, they sterilize. Eventually everyone ends up back on a repaired earth, either as a collaborator, living and breeding with the aliens, or as a resister, sterile and angry. Lilith is a collaborator, but is tortured by it. She has a family and is attached to her alien partners, at the same time as she cannot forgive them for coercing her, and cannot forgive herself for betraying humanity, which will cease to exist as a separate race after the last resister dies.

Butler is famous for being a black, female science fiction writer who came to prominence in the ’80s, and is unusual in the genre for putting “soft” “women’s” issues like reproduction, sex and love at the heart of a hard sci-fi series. She’s asking difficult theoretical questions—What kind of sacrifice is more noble? How much violation should we take for a good cause?—but always embodying them and grounding them in fully-realized characters’ lives.  It’s simply my favorite type of speculative book.

I was sad to notice on this reading, though, that as a speculative work about gender and sexuality written in the 1980s, the book has dated. Butler—in this work at least—has fairly intense gender essentialist views—men are biologically more violent and prone to wander, women are more domestic and care more about babies—and leaves same-sex pairings entirely out of her framework. In a book about extreme reproductive technologies and genetic mixing, nowhere does she question the idea that it takes a man and a woman to reproduce.

Another somewhat sad note from 2015, apparently the publisher has decided to tart up the cover to make the book look more lightweight and appealing to women, or something. Here’s the latest. I cannot imagine the author would be pleased.

Lilith's Brood New Cover



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