Where Am I Now?

Cover image for Where Am I Now by Mara Wilsonby Mara Wilson

ISBN 978-0-14-312822-9

“The grown-ups around me talked about my ‘anxiety’ but they never said ‘disorder.’ Nobody seemed to want to acknowledge that there was something wrong with me. It was just my age, they said, or a stage of grief, but one that would pass. I would grow out of it.”

When I first joined Twitter back in 2009, I didn’t really know what I was doing with it. I followed a few famous people and media outlets, and mostly used it as a news feed. For three years that was about all I did, until I started blogging in 2012. Suddenly I was using Twitter on a much more regular basis, following dozens of new people every day. As I got more familiar with the platform, I started becoming more selective however, honing the type of account I followed, and unfollowing many of the accounts I’d started out with. Actors and other celebrities were among the first to go. But I held onto at least one, a former child star named Mara Wilson. She and I were about the same age, and she had starred in a lot of films from my childhood, like Mrs. Doubtfire, the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and my personal favourite, Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl novel I’d reread countless times. Of course, this might have had something to do with one interviewer describing her as “a writer who once had an acting phase.” Her Twitter feed was funny and relatable.

Nowadays, Wilson is a writer and storyteller, occasional stage performer and voice actor. Where Am I Now? is her first book, a collection of essays that span from her child actor days to the death of Robin Williams in 2014. In between, she writes about her mother’s death from cancer, her own years long struggle with depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder, and the time after her 2010 graduation from NYU when she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. From high school show choir performances to being the only storyteller in rooms full of stand-up comedians, Wilson has undoubtedly led an interesting and varied life, and she shares it here with a candid vulnerability.

For those who arrive at the collection because they remember Wilson from her child actor days, there is plenty here, including reflections on her on-set experiences, and reminiscences about her former co-stars. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of the essay she published on her blog following Robin William’s death in 2014, after she refused to appear on any news media outlets to speak about him. In it, she frankly addressed mental health, including her own struggles with anxiety and OCD. She gives equal depth to her reflections on the experience of being a child actor, such as the “Hollywood induced body dysmorphic disorder” that left her extremely insecure and critical of her personal appearance long after she had given up film acting. She was also left with a profound fear of her own sexuality, having been trained to constantly worry about what any hint of scandal might do to her squeaky clean reputation. She dubs this the “Matilda-whore complex.”

Wilson has a wandering, tangential style that skips across time and connects disparate topics and events. It is loose, while never quite losing the thread. She delves into relationships of all kinds, from the difficulty of making friends when you leave school for months at a time to film on location, to being a member of “the saddest sorority,” women who lost their mothers very young. With a sister six years younger than herself, Wilson also found herself trying to fill that unfillable gap in her sister’s life, and I particularly enjoyed the pieces that dealt with her siblings. She recounts the difficulty of dating other child stars, or for that matter, any boy, because no one wants to think about Matilda having sex. And that, for her, is the most complicated relationship of her life, with a character she loved and wanted desperately to play, but then also had to live alongside for the rest of her life. She grapples her way through this in an essay called “A Letter,” which begins “Dear Matilda,” and goes on to address the character directly.

This isn’t a salacious memoir, in that Wilson is mostly exposing herself, not others. One high school friend and a first boyfriend do not come off particularly well, but Wilson uses this mostly to reveal her own insufficiencies in these situations. The boyfriend was a fellow child actor, and the friend was caught up with her in a toxic and competitive high school show choir environment. Wilson is willing to lay her awkwardness and anxiety bare, and as someone with a strong aversion to awkwardness—I basically suffer vicarious embarrassment—some of these pieces were hard to read, but the honesty and humour kept me going. And I can’t wait to see what Wilson will write next, now that she has dealt with the most obvious material.

Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3)

Cover image for Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter by William Ritter

ISBN 978-1-61620-579-9

“Questions are to the clever mind as coal is to the stoker. I will worry more when we run out of them.”

A decade ago, Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered at 926 Augur Lane, currently the abode of one R.F. Jackaby, and his assistant, Miss Abigail Rook. Jenny still cannot remember who killed her, and efforts to help her remember only push her into ghostly echoes that degrade her soul. But she has asked Jackaby and Abigail to take up the case, even knowing that getting her answers may untether her from the mortal world, her unfinished business finally complete. However, the Seer and his assistant are soon called in on another case. Two scientists have disappeared, and the murder of Mrs. McCaffery bears an eerie resemblance to Jenny’s own death. Either a copycat has emerged, or her killer is still stalking New Fiddleham.

Three volumes into the series, the overarching plot is starting to take shape. The mysterious pale man who has been following Abigail finally steps out of the shadows, only to reveal that he is a small part of a much bigger plan. He also seems to know much more about Jackaby’s past than even his closest confidants. As they investigate Jenny’s murder, it becomes apparent that her death has some connection to the deeper mystery of New Fiddleham. While the action is less fast paced than in Jackaby or Beastly Bones, this makes room for important character development, as we finally learn how Jackaby came to be the Seer.

Ghostly Echoes also sees the introduction of Lydia Lee, who is rescued from a beating in a back alley by Jackaby and Abigail. A tall, broad shouldered woman with a low voice, she is attacked after two men who solicit her services realize that she is not quite what they expected. Interestingly, while Abigail sees what the two men saw, Jackaby, with the Sight, seems to see Lydia entirely as herself. Unfortunately, Lydia has little role to play in the story, and seems to have been introduced more as an object lesson than as a fully realized character. But of course, since this is a series, it is possible that Ritter is bringing her on-stage now because she has a bigger role to play in the fourth and final volume of the series.

Ghostly Echoes leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. The murder of Jenny Cavanaugh is solved, but in uncovering the answers, Jackaby and Abigail have meddled with dark forces that do not willingly suffer interference with their plans. The sense of resolution is incomplete, because it is evident that there is a much larger battle on the horizon.

Who Fears Death

Cover image for Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okoraforby Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7564-0669-1

“Humiliation and confusion were the staples of my childhood. Is it a wonder that anger was never far behind?”

Onyesonwu is Ewu, a child born of the violence that the Nuru have long visited upon the Okeke people they have enslaved in post-apocalyptic Sudan. Nuru and Okeke alike regard her as an abomination, but she is protected by her determined mother, and her highly respected adoptive father. Her magical talents begin to manifest early, setting her even further apart from her Okeke peers in the village of Jwahir. But things begin to change when she meets Mwita, an Ewu boy with connections to the village sorcerer, Aro, who has never agreed to take a woman as his student. Her untrained power ties her to a larger destiny, one will impact the future of Nuru and Okeke alike.

Onyesonwu is the child of rape, and this is only the first of many brutal and violent events that are recounted in great detail in the opening of pages of Who Fears Death. For anyone who might struggle with reading about rape and female genital cutting, this book and this review may not be for you. A variety of violent deaths are also graphically depicted, including more than one woman being killed by stoning, and another woman who is torn limb from limb by an angry mob. The violence is generally motivated by either the race or gender of the victim(s) and often by both. While the graphic depictions let up somewhat in the later part of the book, I honestly struggled to continue reading after making it through the first hundred pages. It took me two weeks to get through the book, though I put it down for a week in the middle.
Diverse-SFF-book-clubWho Fears Death
highlights the reinforcement of sexism and the policing of gender boundaries that can be conducted by women as much as, or in some circumstances more than, by men. Onyesonwu’s childhood friend Luyu, for example, is shamed mostly by her friends and other women for her sexual appetites, which are described as masculine. However, the men also grapple with sexism. Aro has never agreed to take a woman as a student, out of fear for the supposed destruction that can occur when a female sorceress conceives. The Seer who prophesies a Chosen One is so bewildered by the idea that his vision may have depicted a woman that he actively proclaims that the Chosen One will be a tall, Nuru man with a beard. And even Mwita, Onyesonwu’s lover, contends with jealousy because he has been unable to pass the initiation necessary to become a sorcerer himself.

Who Fears Death is set in the future, but in many respects does not feel very futuristic. The most common form of technology is the capture station, a device that can extract moisture from the air for drinking in the desolate, sandy waste that Onyesonwu and her companions must traverse. Some people have portable computer-like devices or radios in the cities, but in general, much technology has passed away from the world, lost in the mysterious apocalypse which The Great Book claims the Okeke bear responsibility for. It is this cardinal sin that is also used to justify their enslavement to the Nuru. The history is vague, lost in the mists of time, but the magic that animates Onyesonwu’s unique world is vivid and vibrant.

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Cover image for Binti Nnedi Okorafor You might also like Binti  by Nnedi Okorafor

The Fire This Time

Cover image for The Fire This Time, Edited by Jesamyn WardEdited by Jesamyn Ward

ISBN 978-1-5011-2634-5

“To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice these last four hundred years.”

Following the death of Trayvon Martin, only the latest in a long history of black deaths excused by the state, Jesamyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice. She “needed words” in the face of this tragedy, but “the ephemera of Twitter, the way the voices of the outraged public rose and sank so quickly,” left her disappointed, and looking for more. The medium’s immediacy, so powerful and important in the heat of the moment, lacked permanency. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is this collection of seventeen essays and poems by writers as various as Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, Garnette Cadogan, Daniel José Older, Edwidge Danticat, and Honorée Fannon Jeffers.

Ward divides The Fire This Time into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. But as she admits in the introduction, the pieces she received resisted the tidy structure she had envisioned. In some respects, this speaks to the complexity of the pieces, which refuse to be confined to past events or present reactions, but delve into the nuanced relationship between history and current events. Most of the pieces are essays, but each of the three sections begins with a more stylized piece or poem, such as Clint Smith’s striking “Queries of Unrest” in which he makes a metaphor of the fact that in school, he was taught never to write in the margins, even though he was marginalized.

Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle. Those events are also names. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland. The blackface of Rachel Dolezal, sent up by poet Kevin Young. Some writers name the man who murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Others choose to excise his name in favour of remembering his victims. They are immortalized here in black and white, even as Claudia Rankine reflects on how hard that must be for the mothers and families of the fallen, who see their children transformed from individuals to evidence in “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.”

In a collection of seventeen, everyone will have different pieces that speak to them most strongly. I made six pages of notes while I was reading, and in addition to Claudia Rankine’s essay, another whole page is given over to “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan. You can read it on LitHub as “Walking While Black.” An inveterate nighttime walker in his native Jamaica, he discovered on arriving in New Orleans for college that his black body, no longer unremarked among many others like it, drew unwelcome attention from police, and fear from fellow pedestrians. The magic is diminished, because walking while black in America “renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone.” I was suddenly put in mind of Charlotte Smith’s poem “On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it Was Frequented by a Lunatic,” which addresses how women are also stripped of that freedom. It is a connection Cadogan has already clearly made, not to the poem itself, but the general concept: “it is not lost on me that my woman friends are those who best understand my plight; they have developed their own vigilance in an environment where they are constantly treated as targets of sexual attention.”

Still others call out to be described. Daniel José Older writes to his new wife about her decision to come live in America with him despite current events. Edwidge Danticat addresses her daughters on the smothered hope of Barack Obama’s election to president while still holding onto hope for their future. Honorée Fannon Jeffers calls for a reconsideration of the use of Margaretta Matilda Odell as a primary source on the life of black poet Phillis Wheatley because the biographer’s claim to connections with the white Wheatley family that freed Phillis cannot verified. Jesamyn Ward’s own essay about discovering that the largest part of her genetic heritage is European. But the purpose of a review is not to summarize the book in whole, so I will leave off here.

This is the part where I admit I still haven’t read The Fire Next Time. I meant to read it after I finished Between the World and Me, but didn’t get around to it. Having just finished this one, and with Between the World and Me on the horizon again for discussion with my book club next month, I decided it was time, and placed a library hold that hasn’t come in yet. So I can’t speak to this collection in relationship to its predecessor and inspiration. But The Fire This Time stands powerfully all on its own.

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More Books on Race in America:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Men We Reaped by Jesamyn Ward

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Soulless

Cover image for Soulless by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9780316056632

“Miss Tarabotti was not one of life’s milk-water misses–in fact, quite the opposite. Many a gentleman had likened his first meeting with her to downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice–that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a distinct burning sensation.” 

At twenty-six, Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster. With a dead Italian father, and a rather plain visage, she has made her peace with that. More troublesome is her soulless state, a fact known only to London’s supernatural denizens, including vampires and werewolves. Unfortunately, no one informed the newly made vampire who attacked her at the Duchess of Snodgrove’s ball that touching a soulless would steal away his supernatural abilities. When Alexia kills her attacker, she finds herself under investigation by Lord Maccon, head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and Queen Victoria’s deputy. But the investigation soon reveals that the attack on Alexia may have been merely the tip of a much bigger mystery.

I’m picking up Gail Carriger quite backwards, having started with her young adult Finishing School series, then Prudence, and now going back to the series that made her name, The Parasol Protectorate, beginning with Soulless. And it is a decidedly more adult series. It has all the wit and humour of Finishing School, but Alexia is not precisely a proper English spinster, and when she finds herself unusually attracted to the Scottish werewolf Lord Maccon, she is more forward than might be expected. And for his part, Lord Maccon isn’t at all bothered by her age, or her Italian complexion. And he seems to regard her unusual forwardness as an asset, even if it is sometimes rather vexing.

Soulless definitely has a good amount of romance mixed in, but it is also a mystery. The vampire that attacked Alexia smells of the Westminster hive, but no one there will admit to having made him. Meanwhile, Lord Maccon’s investigation reveals that rove vampires and loner werewolves have been disappearing for some time. And the incident seems to have brought renewed and unwelcome attention to Alexia’s soulless status. She longs to help solve the mystery, but is unable to convince Lord Maccon that BUR should give her an official position. Not only is she the subject of an investigation, but it would be completely unseemly to hire an unmarried lady of genteel birth. But she makes her own efforts, turning for counsel to her vampire friend, Lord Akeldama, who was also a fan favourite in the Finishing School series, but originated here in Soulless.

As I’ve come to expect from Carriger’s work, Soulless is a witty romp through an alternate, supernatural Victorian England, with an added bit of oomph in the romance department in comparison to the young adult works that introduced me to her oeuvre.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

harry-potter-and-the-cursed-childby J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Note: This is going to be a #KeepTheSecrets review, so I am mostly going to talk about impressions and feelings in a very vague way. I’m writing this fresh off finishing the play, so these are more preliminary thoughts than you usually get from me. I won’t spoil any significant plot points, but if you want to know absolutely nothing before you read for yourself, then please skip this review!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins where Deathly Hallows concluded, and the opening scenes are rife with echoes that go back to the original series. Harry’s son Albus is headed off to Hogwarts, nervous about the expectations for him to live up to his father’s legacy. Though the wizarding world has been peaceful for nineteen years, the scars of the Battle of Hogwarts still linger. Meanwhile, Harry is struggling with his role as a father, partly because he never had one himself.

Overall, The Cursed Child strikes a decent balance between nostalgia and new material, though there are certainly plenty of fannish moments (and I’m sure the fandom will have a heyday with this). Plus, through the clever use of storytelling tools like dreams and memories, as well as established magical elements of the Potterverse, I got a few things that I never would have expected. The scenes with the younger characters are, understandably, less weighted with nostalgia and expectation. Interestingly, it makes a rather good metaphor for Albus trying to stand apart from his father’s legacy.

The Cursed Child is, of course, a script, not a novel. However, I found that I was able to sink right into it. I have a tendency to think of plays as hard reading, but the fact of the matter is that most of the plays I’ve read were about four hundred years old; it is the language, not the form that is the barrier. I actually quite enjoyed reading this in script form–the dialogue was generally good if occasionally a bit sappy–because I could really let my imagination loose on how the scenes could be staged. I’m dying to know how they pulled some of these scenes off, and I fully expect that the stage production has magnificent sound engineers and special effects! I think it is probably helpful to imagine a play in your mind, rather than trying to read this like a new Harry Potter novel.

I was definitely a little nervous about stepping back into Harry’s world in a new story–I reread the originals all the time–nervous enough that I decided to borrow The Cursed Child from the library rather than preorder it, in case the magic just wasn’t there. My reading notes will attest that I have a few criticisms–most of which are much too spoilery for me to even begin to touch upon–but I enjoyed my time back in the Potterverse. And I seriously wish I could get some tickets to this play.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Cover image for The Man Who Wasn't Thereby Anil Ananthaswamy

ISBN 978-1-101-98432-1

“But in the devastation are clues to what makes us who we are. These maladies are to the study of the self what brain lesions are to the study of the brain: They are cracks in the façade of the self that let us examine an otherwise almost impenetrable, ongoing, unceasing neural process.”

What is the self? This is an old and difficult question at the intersection of religion, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. By investigating Alzheimer’s disease, autism, body integrity identity disorder, Cotard’s syndrome, and schizophrenia in turn, Anil Ananthaswamy is able to show how the disruptions these conditions cause can illuminate the illusive concept of self, which can be so difficult to examine when it is functioning seamlessly. Through interviews with patients as well as their caregivers, Ananthaswamy offers insight into the phenomenology of these conditions, interspersed with lucid explanations of the most current scientific thinking.

The Man Who Wasn’t There explores neuroscience of the most fascinating and mind-bending sort. Ananthaswamy does begin with the most dramatic of the conditions he is exploring, Cotard’s syndrome, in which the patient believes herself to be dead. But in general this is a very sober and analytic investigation. Ananthaswamy is delving deep, and his explanations are detailed; he is willing to dig into nuance rather than oversimplifying matters. He has a tendency to interleave explanations and examples, which can make for some circular reading, since the science is often best understood once the example is in hand.

The crucial thing about this book may be that it doesn’t assume we have all the answers about what the self is and how it works. Instead, it is about questioning our assumptions. Again and again, it asks, what does this condition tell us about what we currently believe to be true? How does this affirm or challenge our current thinking or our intuitions about the self? For example, why is it that people with schizophrenia can tickle themselves? On the surface, this would seem to be an unusual but not particularly noteworthy phenomenon. But The Man Who Wasn’t There digs into such little quirks, and shows how they might connect to a larger impairment of the sense of agency, which can lead patients to feel that they are not the source of their self-generated thoughts or sensations.

One of the things I appreciated about this book was the focus on phenomenology, or the lived experience of the people who experienced the conditions Ananthaswamy is investigating. There are, of course, limits to this approach. He is necessarily speaking with people who have recovered—or never entirely lost—their ability to articulate their experiences. He also speaks with doctors, researchers, and caregivers, but does not rely on them exclusively when he can talk to the patients themselves. And in the new afterword to the paperback edition, Ananthaswamy speaks powerfully against the stigma we tend to attach to “illnesses that seem to be of the mind more than the body.” The Man Who Wasn’t There is integrative, fundamentally challenging this common sense of duality by showing how deeply the mind and body are connected.

The Last Star (The 5th Wave #3)

Cover image for The Last Star by Rick Yanceyby Rick Yancey

ISBN 978-0-599-16243-5

“No one is ever going to read this. By the time I’m gone, there won’t be anyone left who can read. So this isn’t for you, future reader who won’t exist. It’s for me.”

Humanity has been devastated by wave after wave of attacks from the Others, disembodied aliens who have come to…well no one really knows what their goals are. Why would a disembodied consciousness need a planet? But Evan Walker—part human, part alien Silencer—knows that in four days, on the spring equinox, the Silencers will be called home to the mother ship, and the next wave of destruction will begin. The remaining survivors, Cassie, Sam, Zombie, Ringer, and Megan are almost out of time.

The Last Star opens on a priest, holed up in a series of caves in Ohio with some of the remnants of humanity. He says mass for the last time, having run out of wine and bread to serve as the host. The language of a Revelations-style apocalypse is worked throughout this final installment of the series, an on-going motif that helps evoke an atmosphere of imminent doom. In The 5th Wave, bodies as battlefields and cockroaches were the choice images, while rats and the silver thread connecting people featured heavily in The Infinite Sea. Here the motif is faith in its many forms; who and what do we trust or believe in at the end of the world?

From there, Yancey divides the story into four sections, one for each of the remaining days before the next phase of attacks begins. He continues to utilize multiple perspectives, often shifting between voices at key moments, but striking a better balance than he achieved in The Infinite Sea. Cassie’s voice in The Last Star is snarkier, more on edge. Writing in her journal, she tries to use humour to diffuse the almost unbearable tension, but it only serves to highlight the desperateness of the situation. Evan has a plan to use the fact the Silencers are being called in to strike back at the Others, but Cassie worries about all the many unknowns that could derail the plan. So many of their assumptions have already been overturned, and their reunion with Ringer only serves to further emphasize that fact. Yancey’s imagination remains gritty and horrific.

The 5th Wave was probably one of my favourite reads of 2013, though it didn’t make my top five, in large part due to a gross scene in which Cassie says no and Evan proceeds anyway. As I put it at the time, “authors, having your heroine say NO and your love interest ignore her IS NEVER ROMANTIC.” In The Last Star it was Ringer’s situation that bothered me on a number of levels, the least spoilery of which was Zombie’s ongoing crusade to get her to smile for him, just once. The intention was likely to show that Zombie cared about making Ringer happy, but forcing women to smile is loaded with cultural baggage. Apparently even the end of the world doesn’t excuse women from smiling for men. In the end, I couldn’t get on board with either of the series’ romances.

Like many YA series, The Last Star features an epilogue. As usual, I kind of wished I hadn’t read it. After such a gritty series, Yancey’s efforts to evoke some sense of hope feels forced and cliché. In terms of plot, this is a fairly strong conclusion that improves upon the scatteredness of The Infinite Sea, but the series struck enough sour notes along the way to leave me with mixed feelings.