Monday, November 29, 2021

[personal] My Love/Hate Relationship with Chanukah

For the past decade or so, whether Chanukah falls in early December or overlaps Christmas, I have wrestled with the meaning of the holiday. I grew up in a devoutly secular Jewish family, although my father used to tell us stories of the holidays. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that observing Jewish customs became important to me. Their father, my first husband, came from a family that celebrated Christmas as a paean to overconsumption, an amalgam of showering each other with cheap gifts and gorging on indigestible food while sniping at one another. In our own home, however, we would have a modest tree, a modest meal, and presents that had something to do with the interests of the recipients.

So where did Chanukah fit it? For one thing, when my kids came along I decided not to compete with Christmas. No big gatherings. No tinsel. No horribly unhealthy meals. And no presents. Instead, we turned off the tv, and gathered around to light the candles and stumble through reading the blessings. We’d play dreidel using Chanukah gelt (foil-wrapped chocolate coins) and take turns reading aloud from a collection of funny children’s Chanukah books. The hands-down favorite was Eric Kimmel’s Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, although his The Chanukkah Guest came a close second. One of the appeals of Herschel was the way the dialog of the goblins lent itself to silly voices as Herschel outwitted them one by one. Needless to say, the kids loved reading together and playing games as a family. Years later, they told me that they didn’t want to give the impression they didn’t like getting presents for Christmas but they liked Chanukah better.

As the kids grew up, and I divorced and later remarried, I found myself re-evaluating the holiday. I hadn’t celebrated it as a child and I no longer had children to delight. By this time, my own Jewish identity had become increasingly important to me. What did this holiday mean, beyond a way of enjoying the winter in a non-specifically-Christian way?

I started reading the story behind Chanukah, and that’s when my troubles started.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Short Book Reviews: A Transgender Heroine Defends Her Homeland

 Gifting Fire, by Alina Boyden (Ace)

I enjoyed this sequel to Alina Boyden’s wonderful debut fantasy novel, Stealing Thunder, for many reasons. With power and authenticity, the story of her heroine, Razia Khan, a transgender royal who ran away from unendurable abuse to work as a prostitute thief, find true love, rescue her feathered-dragon zahhuk, and discover her military genius, came alive. If Stealing Thunder was about discovering who you really are and being willing to fight for yourself, Gifting Fire elaborates that theme, centering on creating community and loyalty. Both stories are set in an alternate pre-Raj India, a refreshing departure from the usual Western European fantasy worlds. In our world, as in Boyden’s, transfeminine people called hijras have recognition, joining together in communities, even if as individuals they are rejected and scorned.

Razia has finally created the life she longed for, as a princess cherished by her soulmate, Prince Arjun, guardian to her sister-hijras, whom she deeply loves. But such bliss cannot endure. Her ambitious father, having maneuvered her into the governorship of an unstable province, Zindh. He now joins forces with her childhood nemesis, Prince Karim, who brutally raped her as an adolescent. In order to save her prince and his city from certain destruction, Razia agrees to marry Karim. Soon she is imprisoned in the women’s quarters at Karim’s palace, her good behavior ensured by threats against her sister-hijras whom he holds hostage. All is not lost, however, for Razia has now found a community of empowered transgender women, led by the rightful ruler of Zindh. It will take all of Razia’s military brilliance and courage to organize a successful conquest while playing the part of a submissive bride.

Boyden brings an unusual sensitivity to her portrayal of Razia, not as a stereotype or object of curiosity defined only by her gender identity, but as a person discovering her strengths in an often hostile world. Highly recommended for all fantasy readers. For anyone interested in positive portrayals of transgender characters, defined by much more than their gender, these two books are a treasure.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Memoir, Cancer, And Tent Camping: My Friend Connie

 When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, the effects ripple through the community. If we and our friend are relatively young, we may feel shock but also a sense of insulation. We have not yet begun to consider our own mortality, or the likelihood of losing our peers to accident or one disease or another. It hasn’t happened to us yet and the odds are still in our favor, particularly if we don’t smoke or drive drunk, we exercise and eat many leafy green vegetables. As the years and the decades go by, most of us will see an increase in morbidity if not mortality in our friends. They – and we – may develop osteoarthritis or Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, all those common ailments of aging.  

Some of us will get Covid-19. Some of us will get cancer.

When my best friend, Bonnie, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was the closest friend I had who had cancer. Since then, other friends have been diagnosed and some have died; Bonnie died in 2013 (peacefully, at home). One of the things Bonnie did way back when was find support groups for women with cancer. Maybe it’s a holdover from the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, but it’s practically a reflex: whatever is going on in your life, you grab a bunch of women to talk it through. Do men do this, too? If so, it’s a secret from me.

It turned out that a cluster of women who were at college with us at the same time and who still lived in the area wandered through these groups at one time or another, or were otherwise associated with this community. Some have also died, some weren't doing too well the last I heard, and some are thriving. One of those I lost was my friend, Constance Emerson Crooker.

Connie and I weren’t close in college, but it was a small school and everybody pretty much knew one another in passing. She wasn’t an avid folk dancer or a Biology major like me, but she and Bonnie stayed in touch so I’d hear about her from time to time. Connie was one of those who stepped up to the plate in Bonnie’s final weeks, and I was not only grateful for the extra and very competent pair of hands but for the chance to get to know her better.

Connie was a long-term melanoma survivor, a “late-stage cancer patient,” and made no bones about being one of the lucky ones. 

One of the things Connie did was to go tent camping across America. Another thing was to write about it and her cancer. I slowly read and savored her memoir, MelanomaMama: On Life, Death, and Tent Camping. Tent camping does not rank high on my list of favorite things to do. I didn’t grow up camping, and I’m poor at it at best. But as I wended my way through her breezy story-telling, I realized it didn’t matter whether it was tent camping or ice skating or tango dancing (which Bonnie did, clear through the week she went on hospice) or anything else that gives us intense joy.

William Blake wrote that if a fool would persist in his folly, he will become wise. I think that if we’re blessed to have enough time and reflection we can move through the shock and terror and sheer awfulness to some other place, one of “sucking the juicy joy out of life.” Which is why Connie’s tent camping spoke to me and I’m grateful she wrote her book.

When something awful happens to us or when we at last glimpse it in the rear-view mirror, many of us want to write about it. If we’re fiction writers, we use our imaginations to spin out stories in our preferred genre. A huge weight, a pressure of all the intense experience, the fear, the relief, the unhealed and oozing wounds, cries out for us to make sense of the whole thing. That’s one of the things that fiction does, and often it does it much better than straight memoir narrative. Fiction requires emotional coherence, at least genre fiction does. I make no promises about literary or experimental stuff. We think, If I could just nail this down in a story, it would make sense. I understand that longing, that temptation, and at the same time, in my own life, I’ve had the good fortune to pay attention to my gut feeling that I wasn’t ready. Maybe I’ll never be ready to “tell my story.”

But Connie was and she did, with wit and the ferocious clear-sightedness of one who knows she has been reprieved and what it has cost her. Some parts are travelog, some parts are survivalog, some are the observations of an intelligent, thoughtful person who has had a long time to decide how she wants to live each day. I couldn't read very much of it at a time; it was too “chewy,” too emotionally dense. I needed to reflect on what she shared and what it meant in my own life.

In Connie’s writing, I recognized something quite different from the impulse to tell our story to make sense out it. It was the even more powerful need to take what we have suffered and have it make a difference. Have our lives make a difference.

“Hey world,” she seems to be saying, “I was here. Me, the only Connie there is or will ever be.” 

“So now, I’m back to scans every three months. Watch and wait. Watch and wait. Wait for the pink and turquoise sneaker to drop. But I keep enjoying my miraculous recovery.

“When I say miraculous, I don’t mean a conventional miracle. … It’s miraculous that a Monarch butterfly can wing its way from Canada to one small patch of breeding ground on a Michoacan hillside. It’s miraculous that a black hole’s sucking gravity can pull everything, including light into is gaping maw. It’s miraculous that there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in our universe…

“And I’m still here, gazing with wonder at it all.”

And sharing that wonder with us. Thanks, Connie, wherever you are tent-camping now.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Very Short Book Reviews: Children of the Secret Laboratory

Refraction, by Christopher Hinz (Angry Robot)

A generation ago, a handful of babies in a secret laboratory were exposed to a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial material and then placed with normal families and observed. Aiden Manchester is one such child, now grown. He’s ignorant of his origins but beset by an uncontrollable and rather disgusting talent for manifesting piles of sticky brown goo when he sleeps. His otherwise placid life is upended by the search for the other children, as well as the scientists that experimented on them, a search that quickly twists the story into a thriller when he’s kidnapped by one of the other kids. That one is a homicidal psychopath, by the way, bent on eliminating all the others, who each have a unique gift and piece of the puzzle.

Aiden makes allies of varying degrees of ferociousness and competence along the way, although their goals are never precisely aligned with his. This is a refreshing change from the common “fellowship” quests, where everyone wants the same thing and always acts in unison. I honestly did not see where the story was headed. It’s a wild ride with a likeable hero who in the end uses his wits and insight against villainous treachery. For me that’s a sure formula for success!

Monday, November 15, 2021

Transgender and gender diverse teens: How to talk to and support them

Transgender and gender diverse youth have become more visible than ever. How does transgender history inform us about where society is at in the United States?

Jules Gill-Peterson: A lot of the rhetoric around [trans] kids frames them as totally new – most people are getting to know that there are trans youth for the first time. The visibility that we’re dealing with today is pretty unprecedented. But that doesn’t mean [transgender] people themselves haven’t existed before.

One of the challenges that anyone who’s trans faces is coming to an understanding of yourself in a culture that fundamentally doesn’t recognize that you exist. One of the most remarkable things about trans youth is that they’re able to stand up in this world that we’ve created, that gives them no reason to know who they are, and say, “Hey, actually, I know something about myself that none of the adults in my life know.”

I think history can be a really powerful grounding force to give young people a sense of lineage. It’s not like you look back in time and you see yourself reflected, by any means. But I think it can be profoundly reassuring, in a moment of not just political backlash but the general isolation that trans people face in a cis-normative society, to be able to [see] that you’re not the first person to ever go through this. [I think] that is just kind of a powerful message and one that I certainly subscribe to as an adult too, but I can imagine it’s especially important for young people.

What does “cis” mean and where does it come from?

Jules Gill-Peterson: This is actually a term from chemistry. It’s a prefix that you can put in front of words. So is the word “trans.” Trans as a prefix means across – it’s the spatial metaphor moving across something. Cis means on the same side of. At some point on the internet, people started using that word; they were looking for a word to distinguish between people who are trans and people who are not. Cisgendered came to mean that your gender identity matches what was assigned at birth. That being said, it’s not a totally kind of innocent or uncomplicated term. I’m not sure how helpful it is to think of cisgender as something that people need to own up to, for example, in a pronoun circle (when people introduce themselves by name and by the pronouns they prefer).

I think often the pressure for people to [identify] as cis doesn’t make any sense, either. It’s like, well, what makes you cisgender? Did you really go through that long process of deciding if your gender matched what’s on your birth certificate, like trans people have to deal with? I tend to use the word cis in my work to describe large historical structures that created that very obligation in the first place.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Very Short Book Reviews: Marjorie Liu's Delicious Collection

The Tangleroot Palace
, by Marjorie Liu (Tachyon)

This collection was my introduction to the work of Marjorie Liu. I found the stories oddly disquieting while I was reading them but Liu’s skill was so evident, I trusted it all to come together and I was not disappointed. I didn’t like all the stories equally, but that’s to be expected in any assortment of short fiction. These feel as if they’re paced like novels, but I think that’s because of the unusually subtle ways Liu weaves together the various fictional elements. Her work reminds me of that of the late Phyllis Eisenstein, who told emotionally complex, sophisticated stories with simple language. Here the real story lies beneath the mechanics of prose and plot, each thread of the tapestry contributing to a gorgeous and emotionally satisfying whole. And the last piece, a novella that gives its name to the collection, is just jaw-droppingly awesome.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Book Reviews: More Magical Rome

Give Way to Night
, by Cass Morris (DAW)

Rome with magic, how cool is that? In this second volume of “The Aven Cycle,” Aven (aka Rome) is beset by enemies both within and without. Iberian tribes are wielding blood magic against Avenian-held territory, and Sempronius Tarren, our hero from the first volume, has been dispatched to lift a siege. Meanwhile at home, the Discordian magicians plot the city’s ruin through the ascendency of chaos. Latona, along with Sempronius’s prickly sister, Vibia, must discover who’s behind the attacks and stop their dastardly plots.

As with the first book, this is a long, intricately detailed story involving a huge cast of characters (and the author has thoughtfully provided a list, arranged by nationality and family affiliation). The pace varies from dramatic battle scenes to quiet domestic affairs. The threads of plot, character development, relationship, magic, and culture clash are so skillfully handled that each individual scene adds another layer to the tapestry. I especially liked the way the love story between Latona and Sempronius unfolded even though they were many miles apart and each growing in their own way. The descriptions of battle tactics, especially Roman discipline against wild magic, were both vivid and insightful (yep, there’s a reason Rome conquered most of Western Europe). Characters discover clues about the plot underlying the encroaching chaos in much the same way people do in real life, slowly putting together a pattern while desperately beating back the most dangerous manifestations.

Magic in this world comes in different flavors that reflect the distinct cultures. I explored this aspect of world-building in my “Seven-Petaled Shield” trilogy where I contrasted the polytheistic, highly structured magic of my version of Rome with scripture-based, story-based magic of ancient Judea, and both with the expansive nature-based magic of my steppe horse nomads. Morris pits the magic of her version of Rome, with temples and deities, against the blood-fueled magic of the Iberian tribes, with great success.

I strongly suggest that the reader begin at the beginning of this long “cycle” (Give Way to Night is only the second installment and there’s more to come). Although Morris provides plenty of references to what has come before, there’s simply too much backstory and previous character development for most of us to jump easily into the middle. And the world and its characters are so appealing, you won’t want to miss out on how it all started!


Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Book Release Day: Among Friends (stand-alone novelette)


In pre-Civil War Delaware, farmer Thomas Covington is part of a network of Quakers who help escaping slaves headed north. When he shelters a runaway, a slave-catcher comes calling…only it’s not human. The hunter is an automaton, relentless and incapable of mercy. Dealing with the automaton will test Thomas’s Quaker belief that there is “that of God in every person,” and force him to consider whether the mechanical intelligence may be enslaved by its programming, leading to unexpected questions for the Abolitionist movement.

One of my favorite pieces of short fiction in recent years, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, reprinted in The Shadow Conspiracy III. Here I read from the beginning, to give you a taste.

If you enjoyed the story, please leave a review! Here's where you can find it.

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Monday, November 1, 2021

A Few Thoughts on Technology and Transitions

It’s always amazing and heartening how much inspiration we can draw from the next

generation, whether they are our own children or someone else’s. In my personal life, my younger daughter dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of social media, into getting my first stupidphone, and later into video chatting (during her  years of medical school on the other side of the country). Now these technologies are part of my everyday and work life. They've saved my sanity during the pandemic. 

I think it’s good to keep learning new things, to use our minds and bodies in different ways. One of the challenges of these new computer-based technologies is that they require us to use different methods of thought. The transition, for example, from keyboard-based word processing programs (like WordStar for DOS, the one I first used) to graphics-based (Windows) programs entailed a different logic and hand coordination. And both of them are a far cry from the typewriter I used to write my first published stories.

My very first stories (actually, my first umpteen attempts at novels) were written by hand in composition books or on scratch paper. I remember reading an interview with the British mystery writer Dick Francis, in which he described writing in ink in composition books (and that it had never occurred to him that a story, once written, could be revised!) so the method is definitely a time-honored one. Once I learned to type (in high school, on those really heavy manual typewriters) that became my preferred method, although when my children were small, I always carried a spiral-bound notebook on which to work on the Story of the Day in odd moments. Retyping a revision was a major chore, since I had to do it myself. I became expert in the application of white correction fluid. At least carbon copies were no longer necessary, but I had to take my finished manuscript to a copy shop because in those days no one owned a home copier.

I am of several minds about whether the ease of making changes as I go, being able to print out a manuscript at any stage, and so forth, have really changed how I write. I love the saying that the most important word processor is your brain. Perhaps I splat over the page, as it were, more spontaneously when I use a computer just because it’s so easy to tidy up my prose later. 
That can be a good thing as I follow whatever wacky idea pops into my mind. Some of them are truly best expunged but others are quite juicy. In some ways I am more focused now than in 30 or 40 years ago; I know much more about how to put a story together, even if it isn’t one I’ve outlined.

Having multiple writing media available to me is a great thing. I often go back and forth when I’m stuck, especially between dictating and typing or typing and longhand. Dictation using voice recognition software is especially great for dialog or speeches (can you see me acting out the parts of the various characters?) Just as we don’t all write in the same way, I don’t write in the same way all the time. Sometimes words flow and then I want the medium that allows me to best keep up with them. But other times I’m stuck (or sulky, or distracted, or tired) and switching can help get things rolling again.

In the end, though, the only version that matters is the one in the hands of the reader.