A gothic tale of kidnapping, murder, cannibalism, and mayhem in the insect kingdom, Ten Little Ladybugs, written by Melanie Gerth and illustrated by L...moreA gothic tale of kidnapping, murder, cannibalism, and mayhem in the insect kingdom, Ten Little Ladybugs, written by Melanie Gerth and illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, presents a troubling view of the devastating havoc that eschatological idolatry and ideology wreak on America’s children. That such potentially scarring material is promoted as a “children’s book” is even more troubling.
The cover is gaily festooned with the pastoral scene from a bourgeois garden, the smiles on the faces of the predatory insects arrayed around the ladybugs designed to mislead even the most cynical reader. The ladybugs themselves are given special treatment, being plastic appliques which can be touched by the unwitting child-victim. This pre-literate tactile contact enhances the bond between the reader and the helpless meals-ready-to-eat. As the pages are turned, and the ladybugs are devoured one by one, the appliques disappear one at a time as well, leaving only holes in the book (and in the soul and heart of the toddler holding it).
Once the reader is lured to begin the book, there is no respite. It begins with an almost Tarantinoesque shock of bloody violence:
Ten little ladybugs, sitting on a vine. Along came a butterfly, then there were….
and when the reader turns the page, of course, they will find the word “nine,” and the first of the harmless ladybugs has been consumed by the innocently smiling butterfly. The phrasing of the poem, an homage to Agatha Christie’s classic suspense thriller Ten Little Indians, is both calculated and cruel. As in that grim, humourless work, there is no detective come to save the day here; no Pea-weevil Poirot to stop the slaughter and accuse the guilty. All there is here is death, senseless and brutal.
Nine little ladybugs, skipping on a gate Along came a caterpiller, then there were eight.
The innocence of the ladybugs is maintained throughout the narrative. It is more than mere unwariness — even as they move towards their stomach-acid drenched doom, the author relentlessly describes them as “skipping,” “dancing,” trying to force the reader into accepting the (nonsensical) idea that the ladybugs have accepted, even welcomed joyously, being rent asunder in this fashion. The analogy to Leni Riefenstahl’s Tag der Freiheit, which likewise disguised the horrors of the Nazi regime by focusing on the smiling, fresh faces of German soldiers, could not be more clear. Of course the caterpilllar is healthy and strong — he is nourished by the flesh of those he oppresses.
I will not excerpt the entire book here — enough harm has been done by Gerth and Huliska-Beith, and I do not want to continue the madness — but their message is corrupt and corrupting: “No one is innocent.” A bee, a turtle, a duck, even animals that are not insectivorous take part in the macabre ladybug buffet.
I was ready to write this off as merely another piece of “shock” fiction, when I reached the chilling conclusion that demonstrated the devious (and subtle) ideology behind the tract:
One little ladybug, sitting all alone Along came a breeze, and then she was…home.
The symbology here is powerful and insidious. By employing the very elements themseves to deliver the coup de grace, Gerth disclaims responsibility and absolves the guilty of their crimes. “That’s the way the world really works,” she seems to be saying. “Get used to it, kids. Eat or be eaten.” Such a message, while dispiriting, might be acceptable in a book targeted at an older audience (Orwell’s “a boot stomping on a human face…forever” comes to mind), since it could be viewed as a cautionary tale. Here, targeted at toddlers, it is merely mean-spirited.
In the final page, depicting all the ladybugs “safe and sound” in the afterlife, happily cavorting with their various tormentors, you can hear the authors’ cruel, mocking laughter echoing through the page. It chilled me to the very bone.
Ten Little Ladybugs is readily available to children at your local bookstore, and also at amazon.com.
Next week: The feast of Atreus and Miss Spider’s Tea Party.
While full of insight and springing from a clever idea, Lavinia trips over its own feet about halfway through and never quite recovers. LeGuin, it see...moreWhile full of insight and springing from a clever idea, Lavinia trips over its own feet about halfway through and never quite recovers. LeGuin, it seems to me, couldn't decide whether she wanted to write a meditation on the relationship between author and character, or a straightforward piece of historical fiction. The result was that she wrote neither.(less)
Criticizing Terry Pratchett's novels -- particularly his Discworld novels -- is akin to sneering aloud at a performance of the Metropolitan Opera: eve...moreCriticizing Terry Pratchett's novels -- particularly his Discworld novels -- is akin to sneering aloud at a performance of the Metropolitan Opera: even if you're right, people will still be angry with you.
Though written with the same care as his other works (as A.S. Byatt observes, "He writes beautiful sentences.") I found the Fifth Elephant required far too much familiarity on the part of its readers. It was meant to be funny, but I can't imagine anyone who hasn't read many of the other Discworld novels finding it so. As such, it left me feeling a bit flat.
The other week I made a mistake and read some things on the Internet. In particular, I was sucked in to following a contretemps (read: “flamewar”) wit...moreThe other week I made a mistake and read some things on the Internet. In particular, I was sucked in to following a contretemps (read: “flamewar”) with the nickname of “Racefail 2.0″. The premise of the flamewar is that a writer, Patricia Wrede, wrote a book called The Thirteenth Child which was an exemplar of racist writing. The book takes place in a 19th century-America (”Columbia”) where magic is real, where megafauna roam the plains, and where the First Peoples never crossed the land bridge from Asia. The claim of racism, specifically, is that Wrede’s writing is an eliminationist fantasy which has erased the First Peoples from the face of the planet.
Something bothered me about this argument, but I wasn’t really following it very closely, and I hadn’t read the book, so I tossed off some sarcastic one-liners on Twitter about it (something along the lines of “When you’ve written as many books as Lois McMaster Bujold, you get to complain about this.” Bujold had gotten involved in the discussion, and was tarred and feathered by some of the participants along with Wrede). My friends Nat and Laura rightly called me on this as wrong-headed, as appeal to authority doesn’t settle the issue. I resolved to not comment on the issue again until I’d read the book.
I’ve read the book now. And now I know what was bothering me about the discussion: it was led, as near as I can tell, by people who were offended by the premise of The Thirteenth Child, rather than by the book. But premises aren’t books.
I have a sense, but no actual proof, that this willingness to confuse a premise with a book is more common among genre fans. Certainly I have trouble imagining a serious literary critic pillorying (or, for that matter, lauding!) a book without at least trying to read it: that would be a career-ending move. But looking at what I take to be the genesis of the flamewar I see a disturbing pattern: those (in this thread, who I noticed) who scream loudest and most stridently that Wrede is “erasing native Americans” also say things like “I haven’t read the book, nor will I”. One is free to experience a work or not at one’s pleasure, of course. I myself won’t watch any of Lars von Trier’s films, without even bothering to find out what the premise is. But that very decision makes (or should make) my opinions on his films of limited value.
With regards to The Thirteenth Child I have read the book, and throughout it I see Wrede dealing fairly sensitively, and subtly, with a variety of racial and gender issues. No, the Native Americans and First Peoples are not present, but Wrede drops a number of hints as to where their culture is. Her protagonist, a young girl named Eff, is fairly deeply buried inside a culture that is itself patriarchal and racist, and so does not call out injustice in her own voice stridently, but Wrede still manages to get the point across that this is a racist and sexist society. That, to me, tells me that this issue was on her mind, and she was trying to deal with it as much as her plot and character decisions would allow.
Judging a book by its summary is a dangerous business. It’s perfectly accurate, from a plot perspective, to describe Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow as a reverie, written by a Christian, in which Auschwitz is presented as a facility for resurrecting Jews. Likewise, Johnathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones could be described as an apologia for every Nazi indicted at Nuremberg. Both of these descriptions fail to accurately capture what you experience when you actually read the books, instead of the blurbs on the back of the covers.
I am not implying here that all of Wrede’s critics are book-burning zealots; there’s a lot to criticize in The Thirteenth Child. Many of the characters are flat and somewhat interchangable, the protagonist isn’t as well-developed as she should be, and there’s too much telling and not enough showing. There are also some reviews by people who actually read the book who view the racial issues as more problematic than I do. My central — and perhaps only — point here is that describing a book as racist without having read it is, in my mind, a problematic act in and of itself.(less)
There is Genre, and there is Literature, and there are times when the former aspires to be the latter.
Sometimes -- rarely -- it works. When it doesn't...moreThere is Genre, and there is Literature, and there are times when the former aspires to be the latter.
Sometimes -- rarely -- it works. When it doesn't, it just comes off as pretentious. This is where I end up when I read Susanna Clarke's books. Compare and contrast to Neil Gaiman, who at his best - American Gods and Anansi Boys - writes Literature that is just dressing up as Genre as a sort of drag burlesque.
Don't get me wrong. Clarke is a great storyteller, and I enjoy her stories. Her _writing_, however, sort of drives me up a wall. Worth reading as a story, but keep the author's limitations in mind when setting your expectations.(less)
I generally approach Banks' Culture novels like one approaches a poisonous snake: they are beautiful and elegant but potentially painful. "Matter", su...moreI generally approach Banks' Culture novels like one approaches a poisonous snake: they are beautiful and elegant but potentially painful. "Matter", surprisingly, was somehow softer and, dare I say it, humanist. This is something of an improvement, I think. (less)
Bourdain has built a career on irreverent and edgy food writing. Medium Raw is a somewhat uncomfortable pastiche of essays that follow this pattern, b...moreBourdain has built a career on irreverent and edgy food writing. Medium Raw is a somewhat uncomfortable pastiche of essays that follow this pattern, but is larded liberally with self-doubt or, being more generous, self-examination.
The essay format is both the saving grace and an irritant. On the one hand, it means the book's high points - the scathing critique of Alice Water's "What, Me Worry?" approach to feeding the world, and an elegant and eloquent paean to (and eulogy for) the American hamburger, are worth the price of admission.
Other essays are less interesting. In particular, towards the end of the book Bourdain begins obsessively cataloguing and following up other chefs, restaurant owners, and reviewers that he has clashed with in the past. He discusses their reactions to his work, and how he feels about them today. I would normally describe this sort of thing as "inside baseball" but it manages to be even more boring than baseball, which when you stop to think about it is sort of a stunning achievement. Compounding this, the essays repeat themselves in several places, thus driving home the impression that they were written at separate times rather than as a cohesive whole (the "I even slept with a vegetarian" joke would have been funnier if he had only used it once).
Other parts of the book discuss Bourdain's long journey from heroin addict to straitlaced father. I enjoyed his writing here, but those reading solely for the food porn may find it somewhat besides the point. It seems to me that that journey is worth a book in and of itself, and he may have sold himself short by handing it out piecemeal as a part of this book. (less)
I Shall Wear Midnight is Terry Pratchett's final book in the Tiffany Aching series. While clever, thoughtful, and well-constructed, it suffers from th...moreI Shall Wear Midnight is Terry Pratchett's final book in the Tiffany Aching series. While clever, thoughtful, and well-constructed, it suffers from the same problem Pratchett has had in his other recent books: he has fallen too much in love with his characters to truly hurt them. Compared to the latent menace that suffused, for example, The Wee Free Men, we never feel here that Tiffany is at any risk that she can't overcome through prodigious application of witch-bourne moxie. This is a drawback. A number of the other Discworld characters appear, briefly in the book; even antihero-turned-completely-boring Sam Vimes (am I the only person who is tired of him yet?) makes an appearance.
I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I realize this is a book for young adults, and so it isn't appropriate to expect the literary equivalent of Werner Herzog. But compared to 2008's superb Nation, also a book for young adults, which was infused with a sense of legitimate dread and danger from the first page, this novel feels more like a cop-out. Where Nation was a gallop on a wild horse, I Shall Wear Midnight was more like a well-constructed carousel: attractive, even pleasant, but not thrilling.
I enjoyed I Shall Wear Midnight. I would even recommend it. But that missing fifth star is for what might have been, and isn't. (less)
John Hale's "Lords of the Sea" is an in-depth history of the Athenian thalassocracy from before the Peloponnesian Wars, up until Cleitus, one of the M...moreJohn Hale's "Lords of the Sea" is an in-depth history of the Athenian thalassocracy from before the Peloponnesian Wars, up until Cleitus, one of the Macedonian successors to Alexander the Great, forced Athens to accept the yoke. It is a fascinating read.
Hale brings a very specific perspective to this topic: as a crew rower, he is perhaps more interested in the naval side of Athens than of any other aspect. Hale makes a compelling case that Athenian democracy itself had both its roots and its flowering in naval power. Athens, like the other Greek poleis of their day, only allowed citizens to serve in the military. The trireme, Athens' war vessel with 3 rows of oars on each side, needed 170 men to power it. With hundreds of triremes - each one able to ram and cripple enemy ships - Athens needed thousands of citizens actively involved in the war effort, citizens who needed to provide neither arms, nor armor, nor anything beyond a strong back and the will to fight. This need, Hale argues, made democracy rather more likely to flourish in Athens than in land-based poleis, whose military might resided in the hoplite phalanx. Hoplites, needing to supply their own arms and armor, were by definition men of property; not so the humble sailor.
Hale backs up his argument with evidence that the Athenians themselves saw life through the lens of naval warfare. Citing works by Euripidese... My favorite little etymological guilty pleasure would have to be Hale's offhand observations on sexual terminology:
"A woman's vagina could be described as a kolpos or gulf, like the Carinthian and Saronic gulfs, where a happy seafarer could lose himself. As for the penis, a modest man could claim to have a kontos or boat pole, an average man a kope or oar between his legs, and a braggart a pedalion or steering oar. Inevitably too, the erection poking against an Athenian's tunic was referred to as his "ram." Sexual intercourse was likened to ramming encounters between triremes, but the men did not always take the active role. The popular Athenian sexual position in which the woman sat astride her partner gave her a chance to play the nautria or female rower, and row the man as if he were a boat. A man who mounted another man might claim to be boarding him, u sing the nautical term for a marine boarding a trireme. Sexual bouts with multiple partners were sometimes dubbed naumachiai or naval battles."
Hopefully Hale will forgive me choosing perhaps the only sexually explicit passage in his 500 page book as an excerpt. But I am now waiting eagerly for life to give me a chance to deploy the word naumachiai in this context. May I live long enough.
The modern image of golden age Athens is wrapped up in images of philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, in deep conversation about life and government. But Hale points out that these men were, largely, reactionaries. A chapter-long discourse on Plato's fable of Atlantis shows how it was a crypto-mythological critique of Athens' addiction to sea power, which is a perspective I was, before this book, simply unaware of. The thought of people ignoring that critique in favor of searching for the "real" Atlantis would, one suspects, make Plato weep.
I was led to Lords of the Sea by my explorations of Thucydides. I was searching for something that put the Peloponnesian War in a larger context. The fear when you pick up a book such as this is that it will prove to be nothing more than a palimpsest, a summary of things that other, better writers have created. What Hale has actually accomplished is a synthesis, drawing from ancient sources but also contributing his own insights. I was considerably enriched by Lords of the Sea, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in the history of Hellenic warfare.
The Defense of Duffer's Drift is a fascinating little book that anyone can read in a short afternoon. Written by Capt. Ernest Dunlop Swinton around th...moreThe Defense of Duffer's Drift is a fascinating little book that anyone can read in a short afternoon. Written by Capt. Ernest Dunlop Swinton around the dawn of the 20th century, it is a meditation on small unit tactics, based on experience gained in the Boer War.
The most fascinating thing about the book is its insouciant tone. The protagonist, Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, has a dream in which he is given command of 50 men and told to defend the ford to a river. Arriving with his men, he sets up a perimeter, is generally irresponsible, and the unit is subsequently attacked by the enemy with disastrous results.
The next night, Lieutenant BF has the same dream — only this time, he remembers what he did wrong the last time, and so corrects those mistakes. Again, his unit is attacked and is lost, although slightly less ignominiously than before. This Groundhog Day scenario plays itself out six times. Each time it is replayed, BF learns something new, and helpfully summarizes it for the reader, ("Do not, if avoidable, be in tents when bullets are ripping through them; at such times a hole in the ground is worth many tents.")
Dunlop obviously intended the book for a military audience; it reads as though he wrote it for his friends. The prose is conversational, easygoing, and unpretentious. Whether the tactical lessons in the book are still valuable and operative I am not qualified to judge. But as a method of getting into the mindset of a turn-of-the-century British infantry officer, it's quite effective.
The book is available for free as an eBook from Project Gutenberg here.(less)
"With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" is E.B. Sledge's autobiography of his role in two unspeakably bloody battles in the Pacific theater of Wo...more"With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" is E.B. Sledge's autobiography of his role in two unspeakably bloody battles in the Pacific theater of World War II. At Peleliu alone the Marines suffered losses in excess of 10%; the Japanese on the island 11,000 strong, were annihilated to nearly a man.
Many, if not most, of the most storied books about war come from one of two perspectives: from that of the officers who lead it, or from historians writing after the fact. With the Old Breed is written from the point of view of an enlisted infantryman. This fact suffuses the entire book with a particular bitterness that, once read, is instantly recognizable. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the memoirs of Robert Graves, written thirty years earlier, have the same anger. There is patriotism here, and a sense that Sledge is fighting in a good cause, but it is coupled with an anger against his own officers, and indeed against the whole bloody fact of war, that defies any simplistic catcall of "my country right or wrong." That Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory and not an author known for wanton log-rolling has spoken of With the Old Breed as "one of the best memoirs to emerge from any war" is surely an indicator of this.
Sledge's description of the enlisted man's relationship with the officer class runs through the narrative like a thread. It's not that there are no good officers - Sledge tells the story of many officers, some excellent, some terrible - but he recognizes that the fundamental job of an officer is, when necessary, to get his men killed.
"Yeah, some goddamn glory-happy officer wants another medal, I guess, and the guys get shot up for it. The officer gets the medal and goes back to the States, and he's a big hero. Hero, my ass; gettin' troops slaughtered aint' being no hero," said a veteran bitterly."
Sledge recognizes that this isn't as simple as an infantryman might make it -- "Actually, in combat our officers caught just as much hell as the enlisted men. They also were burdened with responsibility." But the tension between officers and enlisted men always lies behind every event retold in the book. This becomes particularly evident in Okinawa, at which point many of the enlisted men are veterans, and many of the officers are green. At the height of the Okinawa campaign, this is shown in brilliant relief in a fabulously tense moment when a veteran corporal on Sledge's mortar team, staffed by veterans of Peleliu, disobeys a direct order to hold fire (telling his lieutenant to go to hell in the process).
The writing in With the Old Breed is not, as they say, Great Writing; that is one way in which it differs from the elegance and eloquence of Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. it is simple writing, with little to recommend it stylistically. But that's not really the point of the book. Its status as a detailed firsthand account of the brutality and viciousness of the war in the pacific is enough to guarantee it a place on the bookshelves of great books about World War II.
Brutality is a theme Sledge treats with repeatedly, and explicitly. The brutalism is not just that which is inflicted on them by the enemy (and Sledge does not play down the visceral and racial aspects of this), but is a process that leads both ally and enemy alike down into a race to the bottom. "My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced. From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances.") It is this moral decay that informs Sledge's bitterness about what the war did to him and his fellow soldiers.
The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief.
I noticed gold teeth glistening brightly between the lips of several of the dead Japanese lying around us. Harvesting gold teeth was one facet of stripping enemy dead that I hadn't practiced so far. But stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of shining crowns, I took out my kabar [knife] and bent over to make the extractions.
A hand grasped me by the shoulder, and I straightened up to see who it was. "What are you gonna do, Sledgehammer?" asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me."
"Just thought I'd collect some gold teeth," I replied.
"Don't do it."
"Why not, Doc?"
"You don't want to do that sort of thing. What would your folks think if they knew?"
"Well, my dad's a doctor, and I bet he'd think it was kinda interesting." I replied, bending down to resume my task.
"No! The germs, Sledgehammer! You might get germs from them."
I stopped and looked inquiringly at Doc and said, "Germs? Gosh, I never thought of that." ... Reflecting on the episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn't really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn't been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh."
The book is a bracing tonic to a civilian political culture whose contemporary knowledge of patriotism and warfare is limited to saccharine flag-waving of the most infantile sort. Sledge volunteered for the Marines when he could have sought a college deferment. He believed in what he was doing, and went to the fight willingly. But he never ignores what the war cost him, and his comrades, in human terms. Beyond the loss of life and limb, the war took away people's souls, and Sledge writes on that loss on almost every page.
With the Old Breed is not the book to read if you want an overview of the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. But it is unparalleled as a personal testimony of the filth, misery, and utter wretchedness of war. It is hard to read. And that might be the most important reason to read it.(less)
Paul Greenberg charts the exploitation and decline of four fish - wild salmon, European sea bass, cod, and bluefin tuna - in this thoroughly depressin...morePaul Greenberg charts the exploitation and decline of four fish - wild salmon, European sea bass, cod, and bluefin tuna - in this thoroughly depressing work. Much of the book is spent channelling representatives from various commercial fishing operations, or alternatively from environmental groups. Some attention is paid to the question "so, if we shouldn't eat these fish, what should we eat?". (Spoiler: Greenberg says barramundi, tilapia, and "kona kampachi", a trade name for almaco jack)
The book comes alive only when Greenberg stops quoting and instead talks about his own ambiguous relationship to these fish as an amateur fisherman. Beyond those parts, I'd have much preferred to have read a distillation of his thesis as an article in the New Yorker. But, and I say this without intending to be cruel, that would require a writer who has more eloquence than Greenberg.
My recommendation: unless you are obsessed with the topic, skip this one.(less)