The Magicians 1.2, “The Source of Magic”

Welcome to another Magicians recap! The second episode, “The Source of Magic,” aired as part of Monday’s premiere.

Quentin is waking up from another faint. So far that’s three times in two episodes that he’s conveniently fallen unconscious under stress. He’s sitting on the floor of the lecture hall, and a Brakebills professor is interviewing him about his encounter with The Beast. The room is a mess, and we see some short flashbacks of Quentin, Penny, Kady, and Alice fighting The Beast.

In New York, Julia has followed the yuppie magician, who’s name is Pete, from the bar into an abandoned meat packing plant. He introduces her to Marina, a scruffy-looking magical hopeful, and leads them both down a hallway.

Marina calls herself and Julia “hedgewitches.” In both ancient and modern Paganism, a hedgewitch is kind of like a shaman. Think of the village wise woman, the midwife, healer and/or herbalist, and you’ll have the idea. The “hedge” in question isn’t a nature thing (although they do rely heavily on natural magic) but the symbolic barrier between worlds that hedgewitches are able to cross.

In The Magicians universe, though, a hedgewitch is any individual who has no formal magical training. On Wikipedia it’s capitalized as “Hedge Witches,” which is implied to be the name of the underground magic group Julia is trying to join. This seems like the show’s version of Free Trader Beowulf, which is the online community Julia joins in The Magician King. Watching Julia solve puzzles on her computer wouldn’t be very compelling television, so I think this was a good adaptation choice. I still hate Pete, though.

Back at Brakebills we see some more flashbacks to the fight with The Beast. While everyone is paralyzed, Dean Fogg does some telepathic communication with Quentin. Q makes Fogg’s pocket watch disappear and reappear in his own hand, which breaks the paralysis. Kady threw some battle magic at it, Alice magic’d it back into the mirror, and Penny broke the mirror so it couldn’t come back. The pocket watch dissolved.

Pearl Sunderland, the professor who was questioning Quentin, tells all the students that the wards protecting campus are linked to people (in the book every member of the faculty is responsible for a different part of the protections, assuming the same here). She says that they don’t know anything about The Beast except that it comes from another world, it’s dangerous, and it’s gone back now. Any student found to be responsible for compromising the wards will be expelled

Outside the building, Quentin and Alice freak out a little, because they’re totally responsible. Margo and Eliot waltz up. Margo sounds fake-concerned and Eliot sounds kind of turned on. “Jesus, you didn’t tell me you were dangerous,” he drawls at Quentin.

At the meatpacking plant, Pete locks Julia and Marina in the freezer. Told you he was a jerk. It’s a test, and Julia decides she’s getting out because she’s “sick of flunking tests right now.” While she and Marina look for a way out, they find a corpse in a body bag.

Yay look it’s the Physical Kids’ cottage! I’ve been so excited for this. It seems like there are a lot of people there, but maybe some of them are guests. We don’t really know anything about class size except that the third year class originally had 20 students. That might not be normal. The different disciplines are kind of like majors or concentrations at a normal school, or houses at Hogwarts, and in the book the Physical discipline is the smallest one. It’s implied that a talent for physical magic (telekinesis, transformation, flying, etc) is very rare, but also that “physical” can be a catch-all designation for people who haven’t quite figured out their discipline yet. It’s like Hufflepuff with more drinking.

Outside, Quentin spills his guts about the summoning and his depression to Eliot. Eliot responds by revealing that he accidentally killed someone with his magic when he was fourteen. This might be my favorite scene in the show so far. I love Eliot, but his backstory is the books is pretty much that he grew up gay, closeted, and miserable in a conservative small town in the Midwest. Not saying that’s not a thing that happens, but it’s a story we’ve heard before. This is different! It’s implied that the boy Eliot killed was beating him up because he was gay, but this adds a new layer to the character. Eliot also drops a line about how magic doesn’t come from talent, but from pain, so the most damaged people are also the most powerful magicians. Foreshadowing?

Margo is upstairs in her room, trying to get Alice drunk so they can have a heart-to-heart. Alice opens up a little bit, but she doesn’t mention her dead brother Charlie. She does admit that she wasn’t invited to Brakebills, she broke in using her parents’ alumni keys and a little magical hacking to get past the fingerprint wards. Margo’s impressed and trying to play nice but she seems like she’s fishing for gossip. Eventually Alice runs off, leaving Margo with a mostly-full bottle of wine. Bummer.

Outside the meat locker, Pete is apparently getting bored so he magically reanimates the dead body. It starts chasing Julia. She manages to get it impaled on a piece of metal sticking out from some shelves. The corpse comes alive again and starts talking in Pete’s voice, telling Julia and Marina to keep looking. They find a heat spell in the now-vacated body bad, so if they can get that to work they won’t freeze to death before they find a way out.

Quentin’s in the dining hall, reading a Fillory book. Alice shows up and they have mutual guilt at summoning The Beast. He explains his dreams and tells Alice he thinks The Beast came from Fillory. When Alice is skeptical, Q shows her a documentary on Fillory. Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, makes a cameo appearance as Dev Fleischman, a talking head in the documentary, which is hilarious. Anyways, it turns out that the Chatwin siblings were the real-life neighbors of Christopher Plover, who wrote the Fillory books. After the books were published, both Jane and Martin Chatwin disappeared and were never found. Quentin is geeking out about the possibility that Fillory is real, but Alice tells him they need to worry about not getting expelled first.

In Pearl Sunderland’s office, a folder flips open and a light winks on what we assume is a locator spell. She’s still investigating The Beast, and it looks like she found something.

Outside the dorms, Penny has packed his bags and is leaving Brakebills. Kady wants to know why. Penny tells her that for years he’s been hearing a voice that just identifies itself as “a magician.” That’s the voice that told him to go help with the summoning, and now he feels both guilty and betrayed by his imaginary friend. Kady tells him if he’s going to leave anyway, he should come do something stupid and fun with her first.

In the meat locker. Marina is acting kind of bitchy, but instead of taking the bait Julia just talks about how much she loves magic. They need animal fat to make the heat spell work. There’s no meat left in the meat locker, so they’re going to have to cut what they need off the dead guy.

Kady’s stupid fun turns out to be stealing magical objects and books from a hidden drawer in the Phsical Kids’ cottage. Penny takes a crystal, which Kady says is called an Emerson’s Alloy Repellant. They run into Quentin and Alice. Before the four of them can get their stories straight, Sunderland walks up with the book that they used in the summoning spell.

Sunderland’s office. The quartet is being questioned separately. Alice, Quentin, and Kady are all bad liars. Penny goes last and apparently tells Sunderland only Quentin was involved.

Quentin is on his way to turn in his books when he runs into Eliot. Quentin explains that he’s being expelled and his memory of magic will be erased. Eliot is very concerned, but not very comforting.

Quentin calls Julia and records a sad message asking her to find him and tell him about magic after his mind is wiped. This is cut with scenes of Julia cutting pieces off the dead corpse and casting the heat spell with Marina. That involves mixing the dead-guy fat with sand and rubbing it on their skin, so they’re moisturized and exfoliated as well as protected from frostbite. Quentin and Julia’s positions are switched again; just as he’s hit a low point, she’s succeeding.

Brakebills. Quentin confronts Penny. First they hit each other, then Quentin tries to imitate Kady’s battle spell from before. Not only is that against the rules at Brakebills, it goes horribly wrong since Penny is still carrying the Emerson’s Alloy crystal, which causes the spell to rebound on Quentin. He gets thrown and breaks his arm. Sunderland shows up and sends them both to the infirmary.

Julia and Marina break out of the meat locker, apparently more through lock-picking skills than magical ones. Pete is still a dick, but it turns out Marina’s wide-eyed newbie act was part of the test. She’s actually the leader and most powerful of the Hedge Witches, and she has a ton of star tattoos to prove it. Julia starts to get annoyed at all the lies they’ve been telling her, but Marina dangles the promise of more magic and a connection to Brakebills. Julia decides to hang.

Brakebills infirmary. Quentin’s arm is being healed magically and it sounds crunchy. Penny is there too and they talk about his protection crystal and also how much they hate each other.

Nighttime. Pete and Marina are sitting in a car waiting for someone and oh shoot, IT’S KADY. She’s their gal on the inside at Brakebills, and she was stealing for them. They’re upset she doesn’t have the crystal, and they give her a list of more things to get. Kady is obviously not an equal or even very willing partner in their schemes. I wonder what they have on her.

Quentin and Penny’s dorm room. Penny is asleep. Quentin steals the Emerson’s Alloy from him, hoping that it will cause the mind erasing spell to rebound off him.

Daytime, Sunderland’s office. Quentin walks in and finds Eliza the paramedic is there, rooting around in the desk. She’s going to wipe his memory. There’s a tense moment, but then she laughs and tells him he’s not special. They talk about Fillory and his dreams. She tells him that she won’t erase his memory and he’ll be on probation instead of expelled. She also tells him not to get back on the garden path. We’re getting a little heavy-handed with that phrase.

In New York, Marina walks though a storefront. Julia is in back with some other Hedge Witches, getting her first star tattoo. She’s passed the first test and is now a Level One witch in their rankings.

Brakebills Infirmary. Eliza is visiting Dean Fogg, who is not dead but has no eyes or usable hands right now. They argue about who’s at fault for the attack and who has to deal with it. Honestly I’d be fine if we didn’t have any more cryptic conversations with these two. It’s undercutting the “destiny doesn’t exist” theme a little, since they’re talking like Quentin is destined for something.

Quentin, with a new lease on life and magic, goes back to the Physical Kids’ cottage. Eliot and Margo are outside playing with fire and getting day drunk. Quentin smiles. He’s home.

Have a good weekend everyone, see you on Monday for the first non-Magicians related post in forever!

The Magicians 1.1, “Unauthorized Magic”

This post contains spoilers for the The Magicians, season 1, episode 1. It also contains discussion of depression and self-harm and a mention of sexual assault.

Monday night was the premiere of The Magicians on SyFy, and it was awesome! I stayed up past my bedtime and ate themed snacks. One of the things I love about these books is the way Lev Grossman lovingly describes food and wine throughout. I had some bacon, mango, dark chocolate, and prosecco in a wine glass in homage to that scene in The Magician’s Land that emotionally compromised me. It’s champagne in the book but I don’t like champagne as much.

Pre-show
Pre-show

Moving on! This post is long, because it’s a long episode and lots of stuff happens in it. I’m hoping in future weeks I’ll be able to keep these around 1500 words, but for today bear with me. We’ve got lots of characters to meet.

During show
During show

We open on a gray, wintery New York City day. A man in an overcoat walks out of a magical door in the side of a building. He sits on a bench and reads a newspaper. He’s approached by a British woman. She gives him a large dead moth. They have a pretty standard, vague prologue talk, lots of destiny, chosen one, etc. She slips a pocket watch into his pocket and asks about “our boy.”

Cut to Quentin, our floppy-haired hero, who is doing coin tricks in a psychiatric hospital. He’s in his last semester at Columbia and hopefully headed to Yale for grad school in the fall. Despite his Ivy League success, he struggles with depression. Quentin checked himself into the hospital, but checks himself back out after just a few days. He is on some kind of non-specified medication, which will be important again later.

Later on Quentin is at a party at what turns out to be his own apartment. He seems fairly miserable, so I’m guessing it wasn’t his idea to throw this shindig (Unimportant to the plot, but when we see him talking about “the Danish version” of a TV show to some party guests, it’s obviously a shout-out to The Bridge and I’m so happy).

Following the time honored tradition of socially anxious nerds everywhere; Quentin retreats to his room to read a book. It’s The World in the Walls, the first book in the Fillory and Further series. Fillory is The Magicians’ stand-in for Narnia, and fantasy books in general. We get a brief summary—in WWII-era England, the Chatwin siblings, Martin, Rupert, and Jane, walk through a grandfather clock and appear in the magical land of Fillory. This is grade-A escapism for someone like Quentin, who’s dissatisfied with his own lack of adventure and purpose.

This is where we meet Julia, Quentin’s best friend. Throughout the first quarter of the episode she badgers him about how he needs to grow up and stop moping all the time. It’s obvious that she cares about him, but her just snap out of it attitude about his depression is really gross.

I really like the dynamic between Quentin and Julia a lot so far. I’m guessing he was in love with her when they were younger, but she made it clear that she wasn’t going to date him. Instead of getting angry, Quentin decided that he still really wanted to be her friend and they fixed things. Julia is smarter, more social, and generally better adjusted than Quentin, and she can sometimes hold those things over him. I get the sense that it’s her behavior, plus the looming graduation stress, that’s causing the cracks in their relationship, rather than Quentin pining for her 24-7.

The next day, Quentin has an alumni interview that’s part of the Yale admissions process. Julia comes along for moral support. But when they get to the interview location, they find the elderly Yale alumn dead in a chair. They’re both shaken up, and paramedics get called. One paramedic looks suspiciously like the British woman from the first scene, but this means nothing to Quentin because he wasn’t there. He walks away with an envelope that contains a manuscript for an unpublished Fillory book. He’s pretty excited about that, but Julia crushes his glee with another lecture. They party amicably enough, but Quentin’s still upset.

A page of the Fillory manuscript flies out of Quentin’s hand. He follows it into some bushes, and when he comes out the other side he’s on a beautiful college campus in the middle of summer. This is Brakebills, a secret university in upstate New York. Due to magical reasons exists about six months ahead of the city.

Quentin finds a Brakebills student lounging outside doing his best Oscar Wilde. This is Eliot, and he takes Quentin to a big intimidating room to take an admissions exam. He gets stuck in his sweater and glances nervously at the intimidating hipster dude sitting next to him. Julia’s there too, but they don’t notice each other at first. Nobody questions the fact that they’ve been selected to apply for a magical university. They just open up their blue booklets and take the test like the giant nerds they all are.

After the test, the applicants are sent to individual interview rooms. Quentin is in front of a panel, including the man from the prologue scene, who turns out to be the dean. First Quentin does some card tricks, but after the dean yells at him a little, he does some REAL MAGIC and makes the world’s most amazing card-castle. Shocked by his own abilities, he passes out and dreams that he’s in Fillory. There’s a tree with a clock in it and some big colorful moths. Jane Chatwin shows up to be creepy and nasal. She warns him about “The Beast” and tells him not to stay on the “garden path.” Quentin has no idea what she’s talking about.

In contrast, we see Julia being told that she didn’t pass the exam, but it’s okay because her memory will be erased and she can just go back to her ordinary life. Obviously Julia’s not okay with that. When the memory-wiping guy has his back turned, she makes a big cut on her forearm. Self-harm is so antithetical to her vision of herself that she knows just looking at the scar will alert her that something unusual happened.

Quentin wakes up in a dorm room next to the Fillory manuscript and some cards with the Brakebills crest (the bee and key!) on them. Julia wakes up in her apartment, next to James. The scar is still on her arm. She grabs her laptop and starts searching.

Quentin meets with the dean. The dean tells him that magic is real, and he’s been accepted to the three-year graduate program at Brakebills. The Yale interview was a setup, designed to get him to stumble into the entrance exam. Quentin is super excited that magic is real and that he gets to be a magician, but the dean wants him to hand over his medication first. Quentin complies with barely a second thought, which I think is going to have some bad repercussions later. I actually hope it does, because one of my favorite themes in the books is that achieving one goal doesn’t mean you’re happy for the rest of your life. Depression is complicated, and getting into your top school or landing your dream job doesn’t make it go away.

When Quentin returns to the dorms, he meets him roommate, Penny, the angry-looking hipster who he sat next to in the exam. Quentin freaks out a little because he can’t find the Fillory manuscript. Penny makes fun of Quentin’s “nerd boy dragon porn,” which is a little laughable coming from someone who also goes to magic school. I mean, it doesn’t sound like anyone got to Brakebills by being the quarterback of the cool kids’ team.

Eliot bursts in with his best friend Margo (Book fans: Margo used to be Janet, but they’ve changed it to avoid confusion with the other brunette with a J-name). They take Quentin on a tour of the campus. complete with people doing cool magic on the quad. There’s some ominous stuff about the third year class—out of an original twenty students, only four are still alive, and no one quite knows what happened- but Eliot and Margo don’t seem concerned. Magic is dangerous, but they’re young and cute and here to party. Margo mentions “the garden path” in an offhand way, Quentin is freaked out, Margo and Eliot skip off to go get high.

Sometime later, Quentin’s first lecture. The hot professor calls Alice up to the front of the room to do some magic. Alice is clearly nervous and has giant glasses. A girl with a side braid and piercings says something snarky about Alice, Penny defends her. Alice waves her hands around a big glass marble and turns it into a glass horse that prances around. Quentin is smitten, or maybe jealous of her skills. Then Snarky Girl makes bedroom eyes at Penny, he says something crude, but she’s into it. Cut to them in the dorm room, having sex and floating. Why are they floating? Are they doing it on purpose? Does that just happen sometimes? Penny didn’t have a girlfriend in the book, and I hope they’re not going to kill this girl off just so he can have angst.

IMDB told me that Snarky Girl’s name is Kady Orloff-Diaz. There is an Amanda Orloff is a character in the book, but there doesn’t appear to be any similarity. Kady may be a stand-in for Josh, another main book character who hasn’t made an appearance yet.

Somewhere outside on campus. Penny and Kady stroll by Quentin, Eliot, and Margo hanging out. Margo spots Alice, and she tells Quentin that Alice’s whole family is magical. She’s a Brakebills legacy. Margo says some passive-aggressive mean girl stuff to her, Alice runs away.

Brakebills dining hall, which looks like a very cool coffee shop. Quentin approaches Alice out in the dining hall to apologize, and they both unload some of their issues on each other. Quentin’s parents are pretty absent from his life and implied to be divorced, Alice’s parents are both magical but they also basically ignore her. Bonding! The camera lingers on a circular sigil in a book Alice is studying.

Cell phones don’t work at Brakebills, so Quentin uses a payphone to call New York. He’s talking to James, Julia’s boyfriend, who is concerned that Julia has become closed off and depressed. Julia is in the other room of her messy apartment, searching online for magical spells. Her hair is in a “no time to shower” braid. She hasn’t forgotten about Brakebills or magic, but James doesn’t know any of this. Quentin agrees to come to Julia’s birthday party. Eliot and Margo invite themselves.

James is throwing the party at a trendy bar. Julia is listless and totally not into it, to the point where James has to open all her presents. She goes to the bar for a scotch and brushes off a yuppie-looking dude who tries to hit on her. Quentin follows her to the ally behind the bar where Julia smokes and demands that Q helps her get back to Brakebills. She shows him her scar and makes some magical sparks with her hands to prove that she belongs there.

It’s a total role reversal. For the first time in the friendship Quentin’s got something Julia can’t have, and he gets to act concerned about her health. He’s gatekeeping pretty hard here, but he has a point- Brakebills isn’t going to take her. Eventually Quentin gives up and leaves with Eliot and Margo, who are happy-drunk and a lot more fun than Julia right now.

Julia’s alone in the bar’s bathroom. Her shirt tears itself off of her, lifts her off the ground, slams her against a radiator, and ties her there. The yuppie guy from the bar comes in and starts stroking her face. “How does it feel to know I can do whatever I want to you?” he asks. Ewww. Julia breaks free and shoots some lighting at him. She calls him a rapist and he acts offended, like that wasn’t exactly what he wanted her to think. He tells her it was a test, she passed, so she follows him in the hopes that he’ll show her how to do magic.

One of the taglines in the advertising for this series is “Magic is a drug,” and I’m wondering how tightly they’re going to stick with that metaphor. Obiviously we’re meant to view Julia as an addict. She’s making poor decisions, following sketchy guys around trying to get a fix. There’s also Quentin, who’s doing magic at Brakebills, but without the junky attributes. Are some drugs are better than others? Are drugs okay as long as you do them at college?

Quentin falls asleep in the Brakebills library and dreams about Fillory again. Jane Chatwin tells him he needs to leave the garden path and learn to fight. He burns his hand on a stone engraved with the same sigil Alice was studying. When he wakes up, the burn marks are still there.

Quentin finds Alice outside the library and asks for her help. It turns out the sigil is part of a spell for summoning the dead. She sends him off to steal a book from the dean’s personal collection. They don’t show him actually doing this, but I imagine Quentin is hilariously terrible at being stealthy, so I hope they filmed that scene and it shows up online sometime.

Meanwhile, Penny and Kady are in the dorm for magical flashcards and chill. Penny gets very agitated and Kady asks him what’s wrong. He confesses to hearing voices that tell him to do things, she’s accepting and follows him to go check out what the voices are saying. I know it’s magic school but I’m not so sure about Kady’s instincts here.

Quentin and Alice are an empty classroom setting up their supplies, which include a full-length mirror. Alice reveals that she’s trying to summon her brother Charlie, who died at Brakebills. Quentin wants to stop, Alice tells him to “nut up,” but they have to stop anyways because the spell requires four people. Then Penny and Kady show up, since that’s what Penny’s voices were telling them. They do the spell but nothing happens, so they clean up and leave. After they’re gone, the mirror fogs over and an invisible finger draws a smiley face on it. Spooky.

New York City. The yuppie magician leads Julia to a seedy looking building. They go through a chain link fence while he lists some cryptic rules and calls her “babe” a lot. They go up to the backdoor and yuppie guy gets them in by showing a star-shaped tattoo on his wrist. All very suspicious, but Julia is still desperate, so in they go.

Brakebills, in the same classroom where the summoning spell happened. The professor who tried to wipe Julia’s memory is lecturing. Alice is taking notes. Quentin is playing with a coin and watching Alice. Kady and Penny are making flirty eyes at each other. Then the clock stops at twelve, and everyone in the room freezes. Elsewhere on campus the clocks are also stopped, and the dean starts running.

Everyone in the classroom is frozen, but their eyes are moving and they’re still aware. Something that looks like a man wearing a suit steps out of the mirror, but we don’t get a good look at him at first. There’s a could of moths around him that obscured his face. This is The Beast. The Beast approaches the front of the room and does a spell that kills the professor. The dean comes in and throws some magic at The Beast that knocks it over for a minute, but it gets back up and maims the dean’s hands (which are really important to pretty much all spell casting) and tears out his eyes. By now, we can see that The Beast’s face is obscured by a cloud of insects. It arranges the dean’s eyeballs on a table and draws a smile below them in blood. Quentin’s coin drops, and The Beast comes over and  greets him by name.

And that’s the episode! Did you like it? I liked it. Did I miss anything in the recap? What do you want me to write about? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you on Friday for episode two, “The Source of Magic.”

Blondified

Tonight is the premiere of SyFy’s new series, The Magicians, based on the trilogy by Lev Grossman. I’ve written about the series here before. The show is about Quentin Coldwater, a student at Brakebills University, a school for magic. It also follows Quentin’s best friend Julia, who wasn’t accepted to Brakebills and is trying to learn magic on her own.

The first two episodes, “Unauthorized Magic” and “The Source of Magic” will air back-to-back tonight. But in what I assume is an attempt to appeal to people who hate waiting, SyFy has made the first episode available online.

Reader, I watched it. And it was very, very good. I’m going to watch it again tonight, with themed snacks. Don’t worry, no spoilers today. My recap of “Unathorized Magic” will be posted on Wednesday, and a recap of “The Source of Magic” will be up on Friday.

Anyways. The friend who told me I should read The Magicians in 2011 or so messaged me a week ago. He was in distress after watching the first episode. And I quote, “Andrea, they blondified Alice.”

Alice is a major character in The Magicians. She’s a classmate and friend of Quentin’s, and she’s talented, bookish, and sensitive. Olivia Taylor Dudley, who is indeed a blonde, plays her on the show. My friend thought book!Alice was a brunette, hence his distress.

Olivia Taylor Dudley as Alice

The thing is, Alice is described as blond is her first appearance in the books. I sent my friend a screenshot of the passage. But I also confessed that in spite of obvious textual evidence, I pictured Alice with dark hair, too.

The plot thickens
The plot thickens

Then he unearthed this post from Grossman’s blog, “What Alice Looks Like,” which included a link to fanart of a sable-haired girl in a school uniform. In the comment section, someone brings up the passage above, and the author calls it “a fateful editing error, corrected in later printings.” The truth then, from the source: book!Alice is a brunette.

How did we know? Both of us read the book before new editions corrected the error. How did our mental image wind up so close to the author’s mental image, despite a direct contradiction? I have two guesses. One might count as kind of a spoiler for the show, so I’ll hang onto it for now. The other is that the Brainy Brunette trope is so ingrained from other media, we just assume it applies automatically.

For instance
For instance…

This got me thinking about other times when I’ve been SO SURE of a character’s look when there’s no support for what I think. There’s even been contradictory evidence. Since I’m already on the subject of hair, I’ve always thought of Lucivar from The Black Jewels series as blond. He’s half-Hayllian, half-Eyrien, two races that are described as having black hair, without exception. I don’t know where that headcanon came from, but I can’t shake it.

What a character looks like can be an emotional subject, especially when it’s about charged topics like race. Just look at the tension surrounding the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a black woman, as the adult Hermione Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When people looked to author J.K. Rowling for a response, she pointed out that Hermione’s skin color isn’t specified in the books. The reasons why readers default to white when a character’s race isn’t explicitly mentioned are covered nicely in this blog post by N.K. Jemisin, if you’re interested. Personally I am all for black Hermione, and if anyone wants to fly me to London and buy me tickets to The Cursed Child I will accept happily.

Who else has weird hang-ups about how certain characters look? What are yours? I’m very curious about this. Are you upset that Alice is blond on The Magicians? Are you upset that Eliot isn’t blond? Tell me in the comments.

The Water is Wide

One of my friends recommended Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide to me shortly before I moved to North Carolina. It’s Conroy’s memoir of a year spent teaching in the South, and since I’m a teacher who has recently moved to the South (albeit temporarily and with little intention of teaching) it seemed like the perfect time and place to read it.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Water is Wide, read by Dan John Miller (It’s still on sale for $3.99 at Audible, even if you aren’t a member, which is a wicked good deal if you’re interested). It’s a great performance. Miller manages to capture both versions of Conroy: the young, idealistic teacher, and the slightly older, painfully wiser writer. He portrays the other characters with subtlety and warmth, employing different dialects and inflections without verging into parody territory.

It’s been very pleasant, for the past week, to wake up in the morning and let Mr. Miller read to me while I drink my coffee and eat my oatmeal. Still listening, I would head outside to go for a run. There’s one big difference living here has brought about; there’s no way I’d be running outdoors if I was in the Northeast.

Anyways. Pat Conroy reads his own introduction, where mentions that he deeply regrets naming his book The Water is Wide, since people mishear or misremember it so frequently- the water is wine, the water is wet, etc. But I think it’s an apt title, because the water in question—the river that runs between mainland South Carolina and Yamacraw Island—represents a broad gap, in the physical and spiritual sense. In the book, one of Conroy’s coworkers refers to the island as being “overseas” without a hint of irony. With no bridges to connect it to the mainland and no profitable homegrown industries to bring money or people to the island, Yamacraw in the late 1960s seemed like an entirely different country.

I should probably pause here and mention that Yamacraw Island isn’t on any maps. Conroy worked on Daufuskie Island, which he then fictionalized as Yamacraw. This may have been to protect the people of the island from outside scrutiny, but I suspect it’s also a way for Conroy to protect himself from accusations of embellishment. This book confesses and sometimes rambles like a memoir, but it has a certain economy of events and characters that make it seem more like a novel. Sometimes it gets shelved as fiction, sometimes as nonfiction. Whether not I count it towards my goal of reading 5 nonfiction books in 2016 will depend on how desperate I feel in December.

Daufuskie Island today-- eight square miles, four golf courses.
Daufuskie Island today– eight square miles, four golf courses.

Here are the facts that we know, then: Pat Conroy spent a good portion of his childhood and adolescence in South Carolina. Upon graduating from college, he taught at an integrated high school for some time before accepting a job at an all-black elementary school on a small island along the coast. He spent the next year commuting by boat and struggling to teach students who had been all but forgotten by the larger educational system.

Conroy was responsible for teaching eighteen kids between the ages of ten and thirteen. Most of them were reading far below grade level or were completely illiterate. Some could barely count. Their knowledge of the world outside the island was shockingly limited. The administration provided little beyond a set of textbooks the kids didn’t know how to read.

If this were a novel, it could have ended with young Pat Conroy as the hero who saved his students from their own poverty and obscurity, along with all the white savior garbage that storyline implies (be warned: both of those links go to TVTropes.org, and I won’t be held responsible for any time you lose looking at them). But The Water is Wide refreshingly avoids most of that. Conroy is honest about his successes and failures, and about his own naiveté. He owns up to having been a card-carrying racist in his teens and chronicles his transformation to a white guilt-ridden, idealistic bleeding heart in his twenties. It’s the story of a white boy growing up in the 1960s as much as it’s a story about a school.

The Water is Wide contains a lot of stories. It’s the story of the islanders, who lost their main source of income when pollution made the waters unfit for shrimping. It’s the story of Southern schools at a time when racism was being forced underground by integration. There are plenty of pleasant, likeable white people in this book whose actions reveal their racial prejudices, demonstrating that you don’t need to wear a sheet to be a bigot.

The thing that I enjoyed the most, and that I think will stick with me, is the relationship between Conroy and his students. The personality of the class, and of some of the more memorable individuals, really shines through. He was ahead of his time in a lot of ways, from his refusal to use corporal punishment to his attempts to differentiate learning. It sounds like his classroom was a lot of fun, if sometimes noisy and chaotic. In the audio introduction Conroy mentions that he’s kept in touch with most of the students from that year, which is the most convincing proof that he had an impact on their lives.

Conroy seemed convinced that in 1972 the old generation of Southern racists was dying off, and that a more caring, more inclusive future was just around the corner. There are still problems in so many poor schools, and so many districts that are divided along racial lines. I like that The Water is Wide doesn’t pretend to offer a solution, just a small part of the larger story, and maybe a little bit of hope.

 

 

Worldbuilding in The Dreamblood

This post contains some very minor spoiler for The Killing Moon. Like if you squint.

For the past year, I’ve been calling The Killing Moon as my least favorite book by N.K. Jemisin. That’s kind of like talking about the least delicious flavor of ice cream, which is to say, it still ranks pretty high in my estimation of books in general. Because I’d been kind of disappointed by The Killing Moon, I didn’t expect to love its sequel, The Shadowed Sun (together known as The Dreamblood). I have a tendency to like the beginnings of things the most, the first book in the series, the first season of the show, the band’s first album. But when I got The Shadowed Sun out of the library and couldn’t put it down for days. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a turn-around from one book to the next.

I could write about how much I loved The Shadowed Sun. It takes one of my favorite tropes—a woman who dresses/lives as a man in order to pursue a male profession—and takes it in an entirely new direction. I’ve also never done such a 180 in my feelings for a romantic pairing. What started as “please don’t kiss each other PLEASE STOP” turned into “I just want them to be married already” by the end.

Yeah, I could write that post. But it would probably be lots of gushing and would alienate any of my readers who hadn’t also read and adored the book. Instead, let’s talk about fantasy world building (specifically N.K. Jemisin’s) and subverting expectations (specifically mine).

Since I got so into The Shadowed Sun, I decided to try The Killing Moon again. Sometimes a book just hits you in the wrong place. I genuinely enjoyed it, maybe even loved it, the second time around. That got me thinking about the choices authors make that draw readers in or throw them out of a story. It’s different for everyone, and every book, but here’s what happened with me and The Killing Moon:

Like so many fantasy authors, Jemisin has created a world with Gujaareh and its neighbors. There’s religion, government, social classes, strained international relations and looming war, all common elements in epic fantasy. What she doesn’t do is anchor any of this in a real world society. At least, not in the way that we’re used to.

If you read fantasy, you know what I’m talking about. Lots of authors, when creating their own worlds, base them heavily on a real historical time or place. Tortall is Tudor England. Westeros is England during the War of the Roses. Terre D’Ange is Renaissance France. Ancelstierre is WWI-era England, even though it borders on The Old Kingdom, which is more Medieval Scotland.

It’s not a bad thing that writers like to steal their settings from world history. It’s kind of comforting to me, as a reader, to open a book and think I’ve been here before. It’s also made me a little complacent.

Gujaareh is, according to Jemisin, somewhat based on Ancient Egypt. But the resemblance is more in spirit than in substance, and it doesn’t look anything like most of the pop-culture versions of Egypt that have entered our collective consciousness. There are no pyramids in the distance, and the gods aren’t stand-ins for Isis or Ra. Even the astronomy is different—there are two moons in the sky. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Cairo anymore.

Jemisin doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the workings of her new society, though. The Killing Moon gives us magic and death and a mysterious threat all in the first few pages, and it rarely slows down from there on out. I had a hard time picturing the setting and the characters vividly at first, and not because there was a lack of description. I had to examine my expectations, built up from years of reading other books and just living in the world I live in. As with a real city, it took me a few trips to Gujaareh before I stopped feeling like a clueless tourist.

Here’s a good example: in Gujaareh, social standing is determined by a complex interplay of circumstances. People are born into social castes—nobles, military, merchants, farmers, artisans, and servants. The city is a trade center and fairly racially diverse, but the upper classes tend to have darker skin. One of the viewpoint characters, Ehiru, is a member of the priesthood and therefore casteless, but his dark coloring is a hint towards his origins. Another viewpoint character, Sunandi, was born into poverty but adopted by a rich man. Given that, I pictured Sunandi as light-skinned for the first part of the book. Then I realized Sunandi is pretty explicitly described as being dark. She isn’t actually from Gujaareh; she’s from its sometime-conqueror Kisua. Kisua is further off the beaten paths of trade, so its citizens are more racially homogeneous.

Jemisin avoided the easy shorthand of race as a universal class indicator, instead electing to create something more interesting. Nothing is simple or absolute. There is no race or enemy city full of villains. Like I said above, the viewpoint characters come from both sides of the war. The heroes make questionable choices and deal with the consequences. Both books in the series stand alone— no cliffhangers, here—but they also don’t make any sweeping pronouncements about who was right or wrong. This kind of real-world ambiguity works well against the complexity of the setting.

So once again, a second reading provides me with new perspectives. In the future, I’m sure I’ll keep visiting fantasy worlds based on some historical part of Europe or other. But I’m grateful to the Dreamblood series for broadening my horizons and taking me somewhere completely new.

Fairy Tales

Good morning! I hope you’re having a nice long weekend. It’s not an official day off at our house, but I’m still in bed an hour after my alarm went off so I guess I’m taking it easy. In the spirit of relaxing, let’s talk about something fun: fairy tales.

I’ve mentioned my love of fairy tales, especially the ones collected by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I’m always up for a good fractured fairy tale, so I thought I’d put together my top-five retellings. Of course I failed to stick to five, so there are some of my other favorites sprinkled through here, too. Toss on your Original Broadway Cast Recording of Into the Woods and enjoy. 

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

The Grimms were curating stories that spoke to 19th century German ideals, and a silent, obedient woman is definitely that. The story also has Chinese roots from a time and place where young brides were pretty much slaves to their in-laws. That sheds some light on the evil stepmother and the obsession with tiny feet, for sure. But still, I always found it frustrating to watch/read Disney and other versions where Cinderella takes all that abuse and never stands up to her bitchy stepsisters. Gail Carson Levine solves that problem by making her protagonist’s obedience a matter of magical compulsion instead. Ella is cursed to obey all direct commands, and watching her rage and rail against the curse in an attempt to break it is so satisfying. I also love that this subverts the “love at first sight” story we’ve come to expect and gives Prince Charming a personality, for a change.

Honorable Mention: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, which takes the story to Holland and populates it with tulip merchants and Dutch painters.

Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli is a prolific writer of YA fiction, and a lot of her novels tell familiar stories from a new perspective, or in a new setting. In addition to fairy tales, she’s mined Greek mythology, art history, and the New Testament for ideas. Beast is the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” from the first-person perspective of the cursed prince himself. Napoli’s Beast originated in Persia and was transformed into a lion because of his failure to adhere to Islamic law. The story follows him on a journey from Persia to France, struggling to survive as an animal while holding onto his humanity.

Honorable Mention: Beauty, by Robin McKinley. It’s back to a pretty bland pseudo-European setting for this one, but I like that it features a Beauty with more agency who’s used to fending for herself.

The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier

“The Six Swans” is one of my very favorite fairy tales. It’s akin to Rumplestiltskin, with a heroine who has to complete a seemingly impossible task, but this princess gets no supernatural help. It has some macabre elements that appeal to me, the murderous stepmother and devious mother-in-law, the princess’s hands getting torn to shreds by all those nettles, the bittersweet ending. Marillier’s novel Daughter of the Forest makes things even more harrowing for Sorcha, the daughter of a Celtic lord. With the other two books in the series, Marillier imagines what happens beyond the ending of the original fairy tale, and she weaves the legend into a larger tapestry of pagan myth and Irish history.

Honorable Mention: Mallory Ortberg at The Toast wrote this feminist retelling, which maintains the tone of the original but addresses the problems of equating silence with virtue (see what I said above about the Grimms and quiet women) and changes the queen from a villain to an ally.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Snow White and Rose Red is another story that has always captured my imagination. I wondered if this was the same Snow White as the one who ate the apple, and it never sat well with me that one sister gets to marry the prince and the other one has to settle for his brother. In Tender Morsels teenaged Liga is a victim of horrific and repeated sexual abuse, which is described in detail near the beginning of the book—consider yourself warned. Eventually, Liga retreats to a parallel universe where she can raise her daughters in safety. The three live peacefully there until the real world starts to intrude, mostly in the form of a man who looks like a bear. The story was partially inspired by European Wild Man traditions, which are fascinating and totally worth reading up on.

Honorable Mention: No other retellings come close to Tender Morsels, in my opinion, but Fables, discussed below, has my favorite versions of Snow White and Rose Red. They experience lots of grown-up sibling rivalry and occasional husband stealing, very much in the spirit of the original.

Fables, written by Bill Willingham, illustrated by various artists

This comic series, which ended last year, takes a cast of fictional characters from throughout history and transplants them to modern-day New York. I have to admit, there were things about the series that I didn’t love initially. The whole first volume is a detective story, wherein Sheriff Bigby Wolf investigates a murder. At first it seems like a standard mystery that’s just nodding to various fairy tales, but what Willingham is really doing is introducing us to the fables and laying the groundwork for more complex arcs to come. I love the way this series imagines possible connections between stories from different eras and cultures, sometimes silly, sometimes serious. There are also literary characters like Ozma and Mowgli alongside the more archetypal, folkloric ones, an acknowledgement of the way all stories grow and evolve.

That’s all I have, for now. What’s your favorite fairy tale or fairy tale retelling? Let me know in the comments, and have a great week!

Left unsaid

Well, this has been a week.

By last Sunday night I had three posts all queued up and ready to go. The one I’d planned for today was fun to write and I’m proud of the way it turned out, but today it doesn’t seem right. I’ll save it for next week, when I’m feeling more frivolous again.

I woke up Monday morning to the news that David Bowie had died. I don’t count myself a hardcore Bowie fan—I have a few songs on my phone, and I dip my toes into Labyrinth fandom now and again—but he means a lot to people who mean a lot to me. There was shock and sadness throughout my social media all day. There were also some lovely tributes.

Then yesterday morning when I was out walking, a friend informed me via text that Alan Rickman had died. This is a friend who, over the years, has had countless conversations with me about Snape and the Harry Potter series, and who finds the perfect Rickman-as-Snape gif for every occasion. She gets me.

I got more texts as the day went on, most to the tune of “ARE YOU OKAY?” Apparently I’m the first person they thought of when they heard the news, which isn’t surprising if you know me. I love Harry Potter, and Severus Snape, played by Alan Rickman in the films, is one of my favorite characters (My other favorite is Hermione, because duh).

I had an “I Heart Snape” bumper sticker on my car for a while. Last year, a coworker got real with me about it. “Are you a Snape fan, or an Alan Rickman fan?” she asked. I confessed that I’d been a Snape fan first, but that had led to being a Rickman fan. I feel like this is true for a lot of Potter fans. Alan Rickman was our Snape for eight movies. J.K. Rowling created this character, but Rickman brought him to life.

Back to Thursday. I came inside and went to my computer. Again, there were people grieving a passing and celebrating a life. Some of my favorite posts were the ones composed by people who had the chance to work with Rickman— Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Emma Thompson, J.K. Rowling. I read them all. I had a flashback to another morning, when I was sitting at another desk, finding out that Terry Pratchett was no longer with us. That led to an older memory, of sitting in an airport and hearing on the news that Kurt Vonnegut would not be down to the breakfast of champions.

Fan’s emotions over death are complicated. If this person passed after an illness, as Bowie and Rickman did, we’re sorry for their suffering. We grieve for the families and friends they left behind. But there’s also that personal gut punch of knowing that whatever they did that we loved to watch or read or listen to, they won’t be doing any more of it. Their work will still be there, as Lin-Manuel Miranda reminded us. But we won’t get another chance to let them know how much it mattered.

lin-manuel alan rickman
Good advice.

This a sentiment that I’ve seen a lot of this week—I’m sorry I never told this person how much they meant to me. “[Alan Rickman] didn’t know me, and he already knew he was beloved,” Jenny Lawson wrote. “But I’m sad that now I’ll never have that chance.” In this piece about David Bowie, s.e. smith remembers other lost friends and encourages us to appreciate everyone we love while they’re still with us.

I like s.e.’s approach a lot. If there is a person who does a thing that you like to watch or read or listen to, tell them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a huge movie star or a fanfic author with two kudos on AO3. Send the fanmail, leave the review, go to the signing, tag them in your post. Almost five years ago, I left a comment for Tamora Pierce about how much one of her characters had inspired me. She responded that she was honored to have touched someone so deeply. Tammy’s a best-selling author with scads of fans, who I’m sure say things like this to her all the time. But it meant something to me to tell her, to know that she knows.

Death comes for everyone, as Sir Terry often reminded us, but maybe this is how we make it bearable. Tell people that you love them, soon and often. Text them when you are thinking about them, even if that text is just “hey I heard Alan Rickman died, are you okay?” Call them, even if you have nothing to say. Ask how their day was and listen. Show them, in whatever way you can, how much they have helped you. Then if one of those people is gone, unexpectedly, you won’t have to grieve over things unsaid.

Here’s to a good weekend, and a better week ahead. Go hug someone you love.

 

 

Book Review: Kindred

I’ve been meaning to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred for a long time. This book and Butler’s name come up a lot if you read science fiction or fantasy. She was a pioneer within the genre. Starting in the 1970s, she wrote stories with black female protagonists, a character type she saw was lacking in the genre. Kindred, published in 1979, is her best-known and best-selling novel.

When I posted about my resolution to read more diverse authors in 2016, a friend commented and asked if I’d read Butler’s other work. I said no, I hadn’t, but this was definitely the year. I’d gotten the ebook version of Kindred a few weeks before, and I started it that same day.

As soon as I read the first line, I was a little bit obsessed. And what a first line it is: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.” There was no way I could put this book down until I figured out what that was all about.

Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a woman living in California in 1976 who is mysteriously transported to a plantation in early 19th century Maryland. She realizes fairly quickly that she’s been sent back in time to protect her accident prone ancestor, Rufus Weylin, and that if she fails to keep him alive long enough to father children, she herself may never be born.

It’s a take on the classic sci-fi trope of the Grandfather Paradox—if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, your parent will never be born, then you will never be born, but if you don’t exist you can’t go back and kill your grandfather. Since Dana’s focused on keeping Rufus alive, the paradox doesn’t result, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t complicated.

Rufus is the white son of a slave owner in the antebellum South. In order to keep him (and by extension herself) safe, Dana has to blend into her surroundings. That means pretending to be a slave, a brutal existence that she feels totally unprepared for. Then there’s Alice, the young black girl who will be the mother of Rufus’s child, if he lives long enough. Dana has few illusions about how mixed-race children of the time were usually conceived, and she fears that she’s continuously rescuing a future rapist.

Butler sets down rules about time travel and sticks to them, but she doesn’t provide a lot of explanations. One of the afterwords in the edition I read mentions that this isn’t H.G. Wells, and there are no shiny time machines. We never find out how Dana is transported, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. This is a story about time travel, but it’s also about family, and justice, and the meaning- of home.

Kindred has cast of well-drawn characters from both time periods. As much as she abhors slavery, Dana sees that the Weylin family is a product of their times, and even develops a fondness for Rufus. She is shocked by some seemingly contented slaves, but later realizes that their outward behavior hides a different story. Some of the other black characters resent Dana for her education and her closeness to the Weylins, and she experiences cruelty from them (although it pales in comparison to what she suffers at the hands of whites).

One of my favorite things about this book was the relationship between Dana and her husband, Kevin. Butler reveals their courtship and marriage through flashbacks. Kevin is white, and both he and Dana encounter people in the 1970s who look down on their inter-racial marriage. These scenes keep the book from being a simplistic “the present is better than the past” morality tale; life is not free of prejudice for Dana and Kevin even in their own time. Still, they love and support each other through everything, and they make it clear that they’re willing to sacrifice everything for one another.

Dana and Kevin have no children, but there are a lot of motifs about parenthood and parent-child relationships running through the book. There’s a particular focus on the black women who give birth while in slavery. Sometimes the child had been fathered by the white plantation owner. If the child survived infancy (not a given, in that time period) they lived under the constant threat of being sold away from their mothers. It made me think about a presentation I went to in college that mentioned Kindred, an honors project about representations of black motherhood in fiction. The presenter pointed out that when modern feminists talk about reproductive rights, we’re often talking about the right to not have a child, the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. Black women in slavery, by contrast, wanted the right choose the father of their child, and the right to raise their own children. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Octavia Butler, writing this novel during the height of second-wave feminism, included these themes deliberately.

Dana, as a visitor from another time, is used to having more of a say in her own fate. She’s determined to make her own choices, even when none of the possible outcomes seem positive. Her journey and the decisions she makes are the basis for a powerful story that resonates throughout history.

I absolutely loved this novel, but I’m not I’ll be in a hurry to reread it. Just like confronting our own history, this book is neither easy nor comforting. That makes it all the more important.

 

 

Book Review: Impossible Things

Connie Willis is a giant in the science fiction world. Her work was first published in 1978, and since then she’s won just about every award you can win for writing sci-fi. She’s won so many awards that she gets asked to hand them out, now, as host or presenter. On her Wikipedia page there’s a line from Gary K. Wolfe about how “having [Willis] as your MC is like getting Billy Crystal back as host of the Oscars.” That’s how the community seems to regard her—not only an enormously talented and prolific writer, but someone who is great fun to be around.

Impossible Things is a collection of short stories and novellas, all originally published between 1986 and 1992. I was born in 1988, so for me, Impossible Things was a window into a different era of genre fiction.

I admit, I’m predisposed to like any book with John Jude Palencar cover art.

Willis writes a short introduction to each story. In one, she gripes about the people who have complained that she doesn’t write about “Women’s Issues” when she would rather write about “Human Issues.” It sounded like the people who say they’re humanists, not feminists. She also warns against the dangers of political correctness. In my experience, people who complain about “PC culture” are often just annoyed at having to examine their own behavior, frustrated that they have to consider other people and their feelings. Neil Gaiman puts it well here.

I wanted so much not just to like this book, but to like Connie Willis. Could I still like her, when her politics seemed so different from mine? Were former generations of science fiction writers really as reactionary as some of the current generation likes to believe?

Turns out the answers were yes and no, respectively. A closer read, of both those introductions and the stories themselves, revealed something different from my first impression.

When Willis says she wants to write about human issues, she’s not looking down on women’s issues so much as refusing to be forced into a category. Same old story, when a woman writes, her work is women’s fiction, when a man writes, it’s for everyone. I think Impossible Things has a pretty broad appeal, and it’s populated with a range of women and girls. They are housewives, mothers, scientists, judges, teachers, students, air raid wardens and cutthroat aspiring starlets. There is no unified picture of femininity, nor should there be. When Willis decides to silence her detractors by writing about a Woman’s Issue, she does so in comedic style with “Even The Queen.” It’s based on a science fiction what-if that has since come true, and its vision of the future wasn’t too far off.

“Ado,” the first of the anti-PC stories, is about a school where they teachers can’t teach Shakespeare—can’t teach much of anything, actually—for fear of offending their students. It’s still relevant today, perhaps more than ever. But be careful about the message you draw from “Ado.” Willis isn’t going after political correctness so much as she’s going after censorship. As a feminist, the ending of The Taming of the Shrew makes me rage, but I won’t tell anyone not to read or perform it. Acknowledging that a work is problematic, and allowing our view of that work to evolve, isn’t the same thing as trying to erase it from the canon.

“In the Late Cretaceous,” the other cautionary tale, is about a university paleontology department trying to make the subject more relevant to modern students, and the professors start to wonder if their livelihood is going the way of the dinosaurs. As a teacher, and the daughter of teachers, I’ve seen the harmful effects of educational bureaucracy. As a music teacher, I was often asked to support the idea that music education helps students perform better in other subjects. Not only has a lot of that research been disproven, I think music is worth studying for its own sake. Paleontology, too.

Then there’s this blog post explaining why Willis turned down an offer to present an award at the 2015 Hugo Awards. The Hugo is one of genre fiction’s highest honors, and Willis has received it multiple times. But in 2015, the ballot was hijacked by some people who felt that the awards had become—you guessed it—too politically correct. I won’t recap the whole debacle here, but suffice to say these were some white men who saw the inclusion of more women and people of color on the ballot was a threat to the future of science fiction.

Willis, to her enormous credit, wanted nothing to do with these guys. She graciously declined the offer to present an award, although she did speak at the ceremony. Her speech, reprinted here, contains some digs about “problems with the ballot.”

PC then-and-now aside, there are great stories in this book, and you don’t need to be a science fiction fan to appreciate them. There’s “Jack,” which is a reimagining of a classic horror story that you may recognize. “Time Out,” which is a different kind of time-travel love story that doesn’t end quite the way you’d think. “The Last of the Winnebagos” is a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic view of the near future, while by contrast “Spice Pogrom” is a romantic comedy wrapped in a story of first contact. I think “At the Rialto” actually taught me something about quantum physics, while also being a love letter to old Hollywood. Willis has a way of starting with something familiar and telescoping out to the fantastic that pulls the reader in, until everything seems possible.

What I’m trying to say is, you could read these stories for escapism, without thinking too much about how the world has changed in the last twenty years. You might just want to skip those introductions, though. And don’t even get me started on the forward.

2016 Resolutions, Part 3: Nonfiction

Looking back, maybe I should have started my series with this post. The subject matter isn’t as emotionally fraught as the other two. I could have eased you all into it. Then again, I am always the best at tackling the tough stuff first thing, while I’m still feeling fresh. Ask my college friends, who watched me go to class all day on Monday, then practice, then come back to the dorm to claw my way through a chapter outline or whatever was on the syllabus next. By late Friday morning, they would routinely find me in the basement of the music building, clutching a bagel and moaning about how much I wanted a nap. So, if you’ve had a stressful first week of work in 2016, sit back and enjoy a fluffy Friday post about my last resolution.

I finished 70 new books in 2015. The biggest, most undeniable, un-ignorable number in my reading tally was 69 (go ahead and chuckle at that if you’re fourteen at heart, like I am). That’s the number of works of fiction that I read this year. Even I can do this math; that means I only read one nonfiction book.

That book was Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over The World (link) by Anne Jamison. Here is a screenshot of the not-particularly-articulate review I wrote of the book on Goodreads:

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.33.19 PM

Note the starting and ending date on this one, it took me over three months to finish. Granted, it’s a book of essays, not one cohesive page-turning story, but still. Obviously I wasn’t terribly excited to pick it up. The five status updates are also telling, I usually only update my progress on a book if I’m bored with it.

The sentiments in the review really do hold true. There were parts of this book that really interested me. And yet.

I can count on my fingers the nonfiction books I remember reading for pleasure in the last decade. If there are more, they were so dull that I completely blocked them out. My justification of this, for many years, was that I had to read a lot of nonfiction type things for school, so there was no point in eating up my spare time with books of the same type I was already reading for class.

Well, I am no longer in school, so that excuse is thinner than discount leggings. I still like knowing things about the world, but I’ve become way too complacent in my ability to learn them through other means. Mostly the Internet. Recently I came across this interview  with Arissa Oh, the author of To Save The Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. I devoured the interview, but I really didn’t give a second thought to reading the book. Could I have learned more if I read it? Absolutely. But it wasn’t in my hand, and to get it there immediately would cost fifteen dollars. Whereas I could just keep surfing for free.

As wary as I am of nonfiction books, it concerns me that my ability to read them has atrophied. I don’t want to be the type of person who can’t focus on a topic for more than a few thousand words. I want to learn how to engage with information again the way that I did in high school and college, and maybe even enjoy it more without the pressure of a grade hanging over my head.

So, resolution time: in 2016, I’m going to finish five nonfiction books. I’m starting small– set low goals, feel good about yourself.

My task now is to find nonfiction that I’m interested in reading. Here, in no particular order, are some other topics that I am a nerd for and/or would like to know more about:

1) Teaching. I have a teaching degree, I have been a teacher, these stories are fun for me. I downloaded The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy this week, which gets bonus points for being a memoir about a teacher in North Carolina.

2) Music. Mostly classical and jazz, but there are some other individuals or styles I’d like to know more about. I’m not sure I’m down for any 900-page biographies of Sousa, but the topic is so incredibly wide I’m sure I’ll find something before the year is over.

3) Folklore and fairy tales. One of the most enjoyable nonfiction books I read for school was The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of Grimms’ Fairy Tales by G. Ronald Murphy. I love learning about the stories that people tell and why they endure.

4) Travel/Other cultures. I really like reading books about places I’ve been to, or want to go to. I spent four months studying abroad in Florence, so I could pursue that. This summer I was in Istanbul for two days, and I’d really like to do some more reading about the history of that city in particular.

That’s a start. I could definitely enjoy other topics, if they’re handled well enough. The last nonfiction book I really enjoyed was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is part science, part American history.

Do you only like books if they’re about things that really happened, or are you a nonfiction slacker like me? Can you recommend any favorite nonfiction reads? Tell me in the comments.