Friday, July 12, 2024

Leo Vardiashvili's HARD BY A GREAT FOREST (Narr by Luke Thompson)

Combining elements of a classic fairy tale and a desperate defense strategy the author assures us has been an unfortunate necessity for his people for as long as their land has been settled, Leo Vardiashvili's first novel, Hard By a Great Forest is a devastating read, but one that is more than worth the emotional pain it induces.

The great forest of the title is both metaphorical -- the forest in which a witch awaits Hansel and Gretel and also in which Baba Yaga dwells in her famous chicken-legged hut -- and the all too real region of Ossetia. If you're like me, you'd only ever heard of Ossetia in 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war over it, resulting in the creation of a partially recognized (by only five countries as of this writing) nation-state in an area that most everybody else still considers to be part of the nation of Georgia.

That war and an earlier civil war fought in Georgia not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 form the very intensely still-felt background informing everything the novel's characters do and feel in every moment, even before our protagonist arrives in Tblisi in search of missing family members. 

Saba Sulidze-Donauri (and really, I urge you to listen to this novel in audio book form if you can; the proper nouns are amazing. Luke Thompson is English but he must have had help from the author or someone) is the last member of his little family to return to Georgia, from which he, his father Irakli (see?) and his older brother Sando fled during the civil war in the 1990s. The mother of the family, Eka, was supposed to come with them, even though she had divorced Irakli some time ago, but was forced to stay behind. Saba and Sandro were just old enough to know something had gone wrong but not what, and spent the rest of their childhoods in their eventual new home of London asking Irakli (they almost never call him "Dad" or "Father"; Eka, too is only ever Eka) where Eka was and when would she be joining them.

Irakli, meanwhile, worked ridiculously long and hard hours at jobs in their new city, leaving his sons to all but raise themselves, trying to earn the money to get Eka out of Georgia but his plans for achieving this never succeed, usually through trusting the wrong people to help him make it happen; Eka has died without ever seeing any of them again long before the events of the novel begin.

As things get started, we learn that Irakli has, after a lifetime of trying and failing to make the trip, finally traveled to Georgia  -- and has disappeared. As, it seems, has Sandro, who followed Irakli sometime later, trying to pick up the trail, only to himself fall out of contact with Saba, who feels he has no choice but to follow his family into his homeland, confronting the mysteries of his family members' fates and a lot of painful memories. 

The Tblisi to which Saba returns is the evolving tourist destination of 2015, experiencing some unique growing pains in the aftermath of a famous flood that, among other things, destroyed the city's zoo and let loose a host of exotic animals, mostly to grim fates, but occasionally also to amusing and heartwarming scenes, like when a hippopotamus named Begi, whose dilemma is depicted in the novel, caused a traffic jam and was helped to safety by a group of caring citizens. A Bengal tiger named Artyom has another cameo in a tense and retroactively kind of funny scene in the old botanical gardens when Saba finds himself pursuing a clue there.

The humor in that scary scene is communicated to us by a taxi driver of sorts named Noldar, who spotted Saba looking bewildered in Tblisi's airport, chivvied him into hiring his cab (an old Volga that becomes itself almost a character) and then, for good measure, talks Saba into staying in his very informally rented out spare bedroom. Noldar and his wife, Keti, adopt Saba almost immediately, but it's not all smiles; they are refugees from Ossetia, who were separated from their little daughter when their home came under attack. Noldar holds out hope that the girl is still alive; Keti maintains otherwise, and has forced Noldar to buy a cemetery plot and erect a gravestone so they have something to visit on the anniversaries of their loss. The broken state of their family is still palpable as they team up to help Saba try to repair what's left of his.

Noldar is a gruff old bear of a man, loud, hard drinking and -- vitally necessary in a novel this tragic -- funny. His version of Saba's encounter with Artyom delights many, including the reader, who witnessed it happening a bit differently than how Noldar loves to tell it.

Saba gets answers, visits old haunts, is haunted by a host of ghosts from his past, is hunted by a sinister detective who seems weirdly fixated on Saba's "case" and is possibly even more interested in finding Irakli than Saba is, encounters other vaguely menacing figures hostile to his mission, and has some touching -- and gut-wrenching -- reunions. It's all told with skill, immediacy and emotional honesty; in other words, keep some tissues handy if books ever make you cry.

You may also find that you really want to visit Tblisi, which sounds like a fascinating city. Just, if you go, know that tragedy is everywhere and memories close to the surface, so be kind. 

Of course that's true everywhere, though, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Adrian Tchaikovsky's ALIEN CLAY

"Everything that our biological sciences say can't be here on Kiln, his archaeology says is here. Or was."
I'm passing familiar with gulag narratives, having read my share of Solzhenitzin, Dostoevsky et al; enough, at any rate, to be pretty sure nobody really needed to tell the Czars to hold my beer: they were plenty bad as already recorded, thanks.

But nobody told that to Adrian Tchaikovsky, apparently.

The basic idea of Tchaikovsky's latest, Alien Clay, is, what if gulags but we also demanded that the inmates perform original almost-scientific research on a bizarre alien biome full of life forms that are not only hostile to humans but also just incomprehensibly strange, ridiculous kluges of forms so complexly interdependent/mutually exploitative/indistinguishable that they call the very Idea of speciation and taxonomy into question. 

Also that "almost-scientific" is important; the Mandate, aka the human space empire from which our prisoner/researchers have been dispatched, is a totalitarian state run by powers who have a skewed, religiously-tinged idea of what science is even for, which is finding and promulgating only that evidence which supports the Mandate's pre-ordained conclusions about how the universe works and about humanity's place as the pinnacle and point of all creation.

Oh, and there's xeno-archaelogical evidence, in the form of strange gigantic structures that reminded the first visitors to this nightmare planet of kilns, hence the name bestowed, unofficially of course, on the planet: Kiln. This Must Be Investigated by (pseudo) Science, or at least appear to have been investigated even though the conclusions about what these ruins are, what kind of beings built them, what they mean for humanity, are pre-determined.

So our exiled convict-scientists' primary job is to present the Mandate with evidence supporting the conclusion that somehow Kiln once supported some kind of humanoid life that built the weird structures. They have to demonstrate how these humanoids evolved and how they're basically humans because nobody else could make structures like these kilns. And woe betide anybody who even sort of suggests otherwise -- never mind that there's no sign of anything remotely human-like ever having lived on Kiln -- let alone discloses that life on Kiln operates on principles that are pretty far from the good old descent-with-modification we know from terrestrial evolution.

So I guess the elevator pitch for this book must be something like: Jeff Vandermeer meets Alastair Reynolds meets China Mieville. With maybe a little bit of Greg "Blood Music" Bear thrown in toward the end.

That China Mieville bit is not a third wheel, by the way: most of the convicts laboring on Kiln have been banished for revolutionary activity, actively organizing against the Mandate, not just occasionally publishing slightly subversive ideas. And they've brought a wealth of that kind of political experience with them to Kiln; much of Alien Clay's first third or so concerns covert activity on the part of our narrator and his fellow political prisoners against the evil and manipulative Commandant of the teeming hellhole where they're expected to spend the rest of their lives. Entertainingly, we are never privy to any of their actual planning or preparation; we see them doing seemingly inexplicable, covert actions and only understand why when actual revolution breaks out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A revolution story on a weird prison world would be plenty interesting on its own, but what really makes Alien Clay so special, such an exceptional read, is the speculative biology of Kiln, which our narrator describes visually as "a forest of body horror just quietly going about its business." Everything our convicts encounter on this planet is a macro version of the true nature of our own bodies that we try so hard not to think about; truly, we are weird teeming assemblages of diverse other creatures, right down to our cells. The mitochondria that power those cells were originally independent single-cell organisms, just captured and harnessed ages ago by slightly bigger single-cell organisms. Our guts are host to vast colonies of microbes that help us digest our food; our skin is home to a myriad of mites that eat our dead cells, etc. 

On Kiln, in Kiln, that is all scaled way up. As our narrator observes on the dissecting table even before actually getting to explore any of the planet's lushly weird surface, what his masters keep trying to describe as species are anything but:

Not "species" -- the specific combination of symbionts that make up this particular visual signature, which all exist independently elsewhere with other partners, as though the entire biosphere is one big polyamorous love-in. If it'd been them coming to us they'd have been appalled at how repressed, one-note and boring all us Earth types are.
And of course it all turns out to be way weirder than that.

Tchaikovsky keeps all of these plots and revelations in exquisite balance while also providing the kind of intense character drama that a good gulag story requires. Many of the inmates were colleagues of various kinds back in the Mandate proper, who were expertly manipulated by the regime into distrusting each other long before they got shipped out in one-way deathtraps to work themselves into early -- I would normally say graves but since Earth and Kiln biology are wildly incompatible, human corpses would not decompose properly if buried on Kiln, so I'll say an early recycling, with all the nastiness that implies. There are some staff here -- supervising scientists who are not convicts but, being willing to serve out large chunks of their careers on this hellworld, they're not the best and brightest the Academy has to offer; security guards to keep the convicts in line, usually violently; and, of course, a Commandant who rules over all with all the brutal and manipulative flair that the Mandate has made into its one true science, but who also fancies himself an actual scientist, just like his slaves. And there are some in-between figures to keep everybody, including the reader, guessing.

I've read a lot of really great books this year, despite not having written posts about very many of them, but of them all I think Alien Clay is a candidate for my favorite, both among those published this year and among those older ones I have read this year. I snoozed on Tchaikovsky for a long time, but I shall do so no longer!

Addendum one day later: D'oh, I just realized that Alien Clay is pretty much a prequel to the Southern Reach trilogy!

Monday, March 4, 2024

Tloto Tsamaase's WOMB CITY

The reader is a full quarter of the way through Womb City before anything, in this case a chapter heading, actually mentions misogyny, but make no mistake. Womb City is a novel more deeply concerned with misogyny and misogynoir than anything else I've read and bitches, don't even mention The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's feminist nightmare dystopia persecutes its female characters with 19th century technology at best. Womb City incorporates the cyberpunk tech of Richard K. Morgan's Takashi Kovacs novels into its workings to create a surveillance state like no other, and sends us exploring it through the eyes of one of its most deeply fucked-over victims for a few eventful months in her privileged but precarious life and it goes HARD.

Nelah Bogosi-Ntsu might seem, at first glance, to have it all: part of the "body hopping" upper crust of a high tech future Botswana in which consciousness is stored on silicon and can be swapped among bodies to escape disease, experience life in a body of another sex, immigrate to another country, or just enjoy exceptional longevity, but this luxury comes at a whole terrifying range of high costs. Bodies are both disposable and precious in Nelah's world, and the technology's incorporation into the criminal justice system alone is utterly terrifying: you can be forcibly extracted from your body as punishment for even little misdemeanors. If that happens, your consciousness gets stored in a mind prison where, in most cases, it will be continuously tortured until its time is served and a body becomes available again; meanwhile, your new body has been microchipped with a dizzying array of surveillance technology so that everything the new occupant does, says, or has the barest potential to do or say in the next year, can be replayed like a movie for a supervisory board of forensic specialists to whom records are submitted for judgement.
Nelah is a 430-year old in a 29-year-old criminal's body, but since part of the embodiment process that put them there erases one's memory, and because records of a body's prior occupants' deeds are essentially sealed, Nelah has no idea why one arm is a fancy prosthetic and other parts are weirdly scarred -- or why the body's rich and important original family, with whom they're sort of expected to re-integrate by social custom, is so much weirder around them than they've been led to expect.

This all sounds like spoilers, but I'm merely describing the milieu in which the novel's intricate potboiler of a plot takes place -- Tsamaase owes a lot more to the aforementioned Richard K. Morgan and a host of other sci-fi thriller writers than she does to Margaret Atwood.

Also unlike Atwood, Tsamaase is deeply, deeply intersectional, and this novel is more concerned with class and privilege and how the ultimate surveillance state -- I mean, move over, Big Brother -- affects every life; when our hero and her motley and complicated web of connections transform from a comfortable but confined citizens to rebels, they're acting not merely on behalf of women of reproductive age but everybody. And there's more.

The Botswana of Womb City is inextricable from the Botswana of the distant past, its cultural heritage and especially its particular mythology, its creation fables, its spiritual life, its haunting shared memory -- all things about which I have been ignorant. Reading Womb City has been a hell of a way to learn about it!

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Oyinkan Braithwaite's MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER (Narr Adepero Oduye)

I've always hated the saying that two people "fight like sisters," though at times I've also been grateful to hear it, once I realized that the kind of guy (it's always a cishet dude) who uses it is one I needn't associate with beyond what's necessary for politeness. Kind of like the guy who spends the whole first date bitching about his ex. There are red flags and then there are gigantic swaths of fabric the color of arterial blood and still wet enough to drip and fully, it sure smells like iron in here all is a sudden...

My Sister, the Serial Killer is first and foremost a novel about sisterhood, about a relatively plain but infinitely capable, patient and compassionate older sister, Korede, and a gorgeous, glamorous and slightly spoiled younger one, Ayoola. Korede works as a nurse in a hospital where she is highly respected, if not exactly universally liked, and is up for a promotion there; Ayoola gets jetted off to places like Dubai for weekend shopping sprees and night life on the arms of rich and shady businessmen. 

Guess which one their mom likes best. 

And which one a handsome doctor who has had Korede friend-zoned for years falls head-over-heels for after meeting her just once.

By the time Dr. Handsome meets Ayoola, though, we have learned that Korede's bombshell sister has an annoying habit of killing her boyfriends "accidentally" and "in self-defense" -- and of relying on her calm and competent, medically trained sibling to help her do away with the evidence and clean everything up.

Now Korede must watch as her crush falls in love with her sister, and seems handpicked by fate to be Ayoola's fifth victim (though at the time they meet, Number Three has only just been pulled out of the trunk of Korede's car and dumped into the lake). 

That all could feel very plot-by-numbers, especially given the short length of the novel (just above four hours in Adupero Odunye's note perfect narration); it could have resulted in a very formulaic novel. Debut novelist Oyinkan Braithwaite, though, saves her book from this fate by giving her point of view character an emotional candor that lets us really feel her conflicts as she goes about her complicated days at work and at home, and by giving us some very unusual and touching plot devices that carry her further into her dilemmas, like a lovely sub-plot concerning Korede's relationship with a coma patient at her hospital. Which sub-plot manages, deftly, to have a significant impact on the main plot. Braithwaite knows what she's doing.

We get to see Korede taking on the unaccustomed mantle of officially acknowledged leadership (having been an obvious but unrewarded leader for years beforehand) at the hospital, struggle with her feelings for Dr. Handsome and her fears for him, and deal with both her deep concern for and growing resentment of Ayoola*, often in the same taut and affecting scene, making My Sister, the Serial Killer a perfect little jewel of a novel that rewards your tiny investment of time in reading it far out of proportion to its brevity. I look forward to more of Braithwaite's work. And I guess I have to tweak my search parameters a bit in future, too.  I obviously don't read enough thrillers, you guys. 

*Beautifully complicated by the fact that part of her objection to the relationship between Dr. Handsome and her sister is that he doesn't love Ayoola for any of the reasons Korede thinks make Ayoola worthy of being loved; at one point when Korede asks him point blank why he loves Ayoola, all he can tell her is that Ayoola is "beautiful and perfect," meaning he doesn't know Ayoola at all. Meanwhile, Korede is listing off all of Ayoola's best qualities, which only Korede knows, in her head. That's a very good sister!

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Ned Beauman's VENOMOUS LUMPSUCKER (Narr by John Hastings)

I didn't know how much I'd been wanting Ned Beauman to write some actual speculative fiction, preferably also with reduced Nazi content) until Ned Beauman wrote some actual speculative fiction that still made me laugh, bitterly. 

Venomous Lumpsucker is even more of a departure from what I've become accustomed to in Beauman's work than the above suggests. Instead of a history-less historical fiction, it is every bit as science fictional as, say, The Mountain in the Sea or War with the Newts. Instead of romantic and sexual obsessions, we have characters seeking redemption and atonement, both for their own sakes and for humanity's. Instead of biting satire, we have envenomed biting satire.

The title fish is an imaginary species of cleaner fish (like pilot fish or wrasse),* that, yes, injects venom in its bite, but more importantly, in its cooperative behavior the lone scientist studying them compares to that of Asian gangsters, it shows signs of significant intelligence. Maybe even greater than dolphin-level. Maybe as great as ours allegedly is. Or as great as that of certain Newts or Octopuses.

It is, of course, on the edge of human-caused extinction in the near-future world of this novel. And if its would-be saviors are anything to go on, it's going to go right over that edge really, really soon. 

Karin Ressaint and her accidental partner in species preservation, Mark Halyard, both work in the Byzantine new extinction industry, a complex and insincere global system that makes the fossil fuel industry's token efforts to combat climate change look, well, no, those still look horribly feeble and hollow but, well, actually, it's hard to say which is worse. Suffice it to say that Karin's job is evaluating the intelligence levels of endangered species who will be made extinct by any proposed economic activity in order to determine how much money the proposing enterprise will have to fork over for killing off the species. Intelligent species cost more. There is a whole system of Extinction Credits involved in this that I'm not going to mess with explaining here, but that's basically it. Our future global society, in Beauman's savagely jaundiced view, will have corporations, and thus everybody else, fully accepting species extinction as just another cost of doing business, while nobody even pretends to consider not doing the things that will cause extinctions -- and also a whole gross derivatives market built on top of the credit system. In which executives with inside knowledge occasionally dabble, because of course they do. 

Such a one is Mark Halyard, who works for the gigantic sea-bottom mining company whose next project will most likely wipe out the venomous lumpsucker. But since he and his colleagues game the system better than anybody, they're even less worried about things than usual, because they're on the verge of yet another successful attempt at changing the legal definition of "extinction" into something with bigger loopholes to buzz on through; namely that even if the last actual living member of a species dies off, that species won't technically be extinct as long as its genome, tissue samples, brain wave patterns, etc, have all been preserved well enough for them to be brought back to life, Jurassic Park style, in some theoretical future when we'll somehow have magically fixed up the damage we did that killed them off in the first place. Because of course we're totally going to do that someday, guys. It'll be great. Just wait. 

At first these two characters would seem to be at odds with one another, but as the plot ramps up and horrible unforeseen happenstances just happen to happen, they find they kind of have a common goal: to minimize the damage done by poorly controlled autonomous mining equipment and Halyard's ill-timed foray into playing the Extinction Credit Market. Oh, and an apocalyptic hack, but we'll get to that.

Along the way they visit corporate-run wildlife preserves (so underfunded but under so much pressure to succeed at any cost that the manager of the one our duo visits has secretly agreed to allow toxic waste to be dumped, in leaky drums, right in the middle of the Pristine Preserve), climate refugee camps (in which a gross new zoonotic disease has emerged that does disgusting cosmetic damage to cattle and the human serfs who herd them -- refugees are cheaper even than robots for some kinds of labor) and a libertarian sea-stead community that might as well be Rapture from Bioshock right before everybody gave it up for lost -- and that's just all in the book's first half. Because they're on the trail of a mystery as well as desperately trying to find other populations of venomous lumpsuckers; they're also on the trail of who or whatever hacked and destroyed the entire system that preserved all of those DNA sequences and tissue samples and recordings of mating calls and habitat data in one swift attack right before Ressaint and Halyard met up.

And every stop shows us more and more examples of cynical depravity on both petty and grandiose scales. I especially howled at a character met in Not-Rapture, a Professional Conservationist who funds his noble and legit operations by taking samples of actually endangered species and, with the help of a Mad Scientist, tweaks the DNA just a little bit, then returns the "evidence" of a "whole new species" to the wild to be discovered by habitat monitoring robots, thus earning tradable Extinction Credits when the government "saves" the nonexistent pseudo-species.

I mean, this is still a Ned Beauman novel.

Once again, the novel has multiple endings, and none of them are exactly satisfying, but I think in this case the unsatisfying endings have a definite point: tidy endings are products of art rather than reality; in the real world, we're all just muddling through and doing what we can at least half-assedly convince others is our "best"; nobody is really in charge; there isn't a plan; problems are never solved but only kicked, can-like, down the road. Anybody who tells you differently probably just embezzled a bunch of money from their employer and wants your help in laundering the loot.

Fucking Ned Beauman.

*Of course I only added that parenthetical note because I think "wrasse" is a cool word that's fun to say or otherwise use. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

NO DUCKS GIVEN: Day Three: 2 January, 2024

the fact that we're broke because I had cancer, the fact that that broke us, it broke us, the fact that I shouldn't say that because here we are, still kicking... the fact that Phoebe helped us out and we'll never be able to pay her back...

I'm not even a hundred pages into Ducks, Newburyport but I can already see that we're going to at least touch on everything that could make a person fret circa 2018 before I'm through the thousand or so yet to come, like an Infinite Jest for grown-ups. Without any embarrassing attempts at AAVE, I'm guessing/hoping.

I went through a year of cancer treatments *at a remove* a decade or so ago, when my dad was diagnosed -- very early by a family doctor who was a little boy when my dad was in his prime, who noticed that my dad's voice had profoundly changed during that doctor's years of medical school and army service -- with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But he was already on Medicare and so the financial hit was negligible, and the diagnosis was early enough that all he ever needed was a tonsillectomy and a few rounds of monoclonal antibodies and he was still cancer-free when he died last month of Alzheimer's and an opportunistic infection. But if it had hit him in his prime, when that family physician was still a kid and those drugs weren't around and Dad would have had to go the chemo route, it absolutely would have broken us. Our narrator caught a bullet that we dodged. But as she says, they're still kicking; whatever Leo does for a living earns enough to keep them in their house and feeding four children while she does unpaid labor at home and apparently supplements their income by selling homemade pies? Which, how much money can she actually make that way?

By the way, I'm sick of typing "unnamed narrator." Since she seems to have sisters named Abby and Phoebe, I've decided to start calling her Gabby, because her internal monologue is very gabby indeed and it matches nicely with the "bee" phoneme at the end of the others' names. And it was my very own personal nickname as a little girl who made frequent appearances in my mother's newspaper column that she wrote until my sister and I were old enough that we might have friends who could read it and mine it for things to tease us about. She gave us each code names to further shield us a bit: Gabby and Gus. Though everybody knew and none of our school mates were ever imaginative enough to seek ammunition in the newspaper.

Am I trying to hard to identify with this character?

Anyway, it's really mother and daughter relationships that loom large in the chunk I read today. Gabby, we learn, is still dealing with the somewhat recent loss of her own mother, whom she calls Mommy in her head (and yes, this makes my own eyes leak because it's only two weeks tomorrow since I lost my Daddy and yes, I still called him Daddy to his face even as I gave him his last kiss goodbye when he was just starting to turn cold), and her daughter Stacy* is a teenager so disapproving of everything that Gabby does as to make Gabby sort of low key afraid of all teenaged girls. 

We already know that Stacy is quite outraged by what she has recently learned about the history of slavery in the U.S. and successfully has applied abolitionist reasoning to argue her way -- and by extension, her siblings' way -- out of having a share in household chores. I wonder how much longer it's going to be before Gabby is being blamed for Trump (still president at the time of this novel), climate change, wage stagnation, health care costs, maybe even for getting cancer. Angry teenagers paint with very broad brushes.

Another motif that keeps coming up is famous old shipwrecks, first the Titanic and now the SS La Bourgogne of 1898, which hit another ship rather than an iceberg and which is infamous for the poor ratio of crew to passenger survival rate because "the crew kicked and stabbed the passengers so they could get on the lifeboats" and so only one woman was saved and 300 drowned. In Gabby's opinion, the Bourgogne was a worse disaster than the Titanic and I think she has persuaded me. But so, why does Gabby know so much about shipwrecks? It's that what she reads about in her vanishingly small spare time? Did she write papers about them in college? Was she in the Navy before she became a mother, full-time or otherwise? I still have so many questions.

But there are still no ducks, still no Newburyport.

*Whom I'm now more certain is Gabby's daughter from her first marriage, because Gabby recalls buying Stacy a miniature piano at a junk shop the day after Leo proposed to Gabby. And this probably just adds to Stacy's hostility, if she, for instance, resents having a stepdad? Or any of the many other things that children of divorce have feelings about? Unless maybe her bio-dad died and Gabby was a widow before marrying Leo? Like I've said, so many questions!

Monday, January 1, 2024

NO DUCKS GIVEN: Day Two: 1 January, 2024

Last night on Mastodon, where I happily landed not long after Lonny Emeralds turned Twitter into Xitter, I saw a venn diagram that could maybe serve as a back cover for Lucy Ellman's massive torrent-of-consciousness novel,  Ducks, Newburyport.

Ducks, Newburyport, of course, pre-dates COVID-19 and so neither Ellman nor her unnamed narrator knows what an "anti-masker" might be apart from someone who, say, really hates Halloween, but the toddler and mountain lion overlapping just cried out to me to be included in these early days of exploring this literary chonk. 

Our narrator, parent to four children, has certainly had experience with toddlers (and may still be having same; it sounds like at least youngest son Jake is in that age range,  though hey, I dragged a blankie around long into my elementary school years. What babyish habits might the baby of a family not have, really?), and the prologue-cat could well be a mountain lion of she doesn't indeed turn out to be the house cat with big dreams I initially imagined.

But... do we know for certain that toddlers don't also want to kill you? I mean, based on the novel so far, the kids are certainly wearing our narrator down to a nub and not giving her much help in keeping the household going. Her oldest, Stacy, who I'm now guessing is a teenager rather than grown and out of the house, seems to have won the chores/allowance dispute for all time by calling it "slavery" when kids are asked to pick up after themselves or each other, to say nothing of emptying the dishwasher, and so our narrator is trying to do it all. Not sustainable, ma'am. Your toddler alone will kill you (says I with no kids but with a chronic illness that makes me think that maybe I can relate...)!

What's kind of freaking me out so far in this book is how closely the narrator's thought processes and mine seem to match, as her mind wanders to the same homonyms and related yet-unrelated ideas and words. I like to think of myself as a unique individual, but am I, when some fictional character in a big fat novel, a suburban mother of four children (in contrast to my childless spinsterhood) also thinks of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Shirley and Anne Elliott all at once while also considering why she hates words like "extrude." Which means that some novelist put those thoughts together and extruded these thoughts that I've felt were mine alone into a book a few years ago. On the one hand, this is comforting: I'm not alone, our shared culture and educational system have had similar results and given us things in common; on the other, well, of I'm not a unique and beautiful snowflake, then what's the point of me?

There's a podcast to which I'm an occasional and irregular listener, Gen X: This is Why, the idea of which is to explain the weird beliefs and tendencies and habits and hang-ups of people my age through the lens of the pop culture we consumed as kids. Its primary focus is on individual episodes of the TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls/Rose Wilder's libertarian pioneer fantasies, Little House on the Prairie. It's a charming show hosted by a pair of sisters who tease out loads of weird misapprehensions people our age may well have originally derived from that show in the 70s when it was on prime time. I think they're definitely onto something; famously we of the tiny forgotten demographic between the Baby Boomers and most of their children weren't only shaped by being barely supervised latchkey kids fending for themselves after school but by the books and TV shows that were aimed at us. So it actually makes perfect sense that this still-unnamed suburban housewife narrator has thought patterns and cultural touchstones so very like my own, even though I never actually read any Lucy Maud Montgomery.*

I'm beginning to suspect the our narrator, like author Ellman herself, is maybe a bit older than I, or was raised by stricter and more traditional parents than mine were; she refers, for instance, to Charles Ingalls as having an Amish-like beard, which generally means a beard without a mustache, a look far too goofy to have ever suited Mr. Michael Landon )who embodied the character as an absurdly handsome 70s sex symbol with a truly luscious head of hair, but was always clean-shaven, even in black and white as Little Joe, and never mind how he always had a sharp razor and soap and time to preen every day even in a long hard winter of near-starvation). Her Charles Ingalls is a purely literary Charles Ingalls, whereas mine is decidedly a televisual one. Michael Landon intruded on my imagination before Charles Ingalls ever got a chance, because the TV show was inescapable for a school-aged child before I was sophisticated enough to appreciate the books, by which time the last thing I wanted was to read about pioneer kids, who didn't feel different or exotic enough for a girl seeking escapism from 1970s Wyoming, where at least one classmate still pooped in an outhouse when he was at home (and was a Nellie Olson-caliber bully but also knew how to use his fists. Ask how I know) and another had to wear a baseball helmet until first grade because he'd been kicked in the head by a horse as a toddler.

Then, too, there is the fact that her homemaker idol is Irma S. "Joy of Cooking" Rombauer, whose tendency to put mayonnaise on or in everything and love of putting everything else in aspic it seems that our narrator is only now starting to question as a journeywoman adult where I was, if anything, taught to mock the Rombauers by a range of gloriously untidy and slapdash female authority figures who were happy to watch Julia Child on TV but treated her as a fantastic and unrealistic character as weird and exotic and weirdly powerful as, say, Ozma of Oz, whom our narrator has yet to mention as she has also skated around Nancy Drew. I think our paths are about to diverge, as indeed her obvious possession of a candy apple red KitchenAid stand mixer that she claims has paid for itself indicates. And I mean, after all, her author is a graduate of Evanston Township High School, and I know several other such types and, well, none of them have ever had to subsist on a diet of instant ramen and eggs unless they'd blown their stipends on beer for the week, if you know what I mean.

*Our tiny school library didn't have any, nor did our even tinier public library, and by the time the TV show with Megan Follows turned up, I was only interested in science fiction and fantasy and heartily sick of Nancy Drew, which our library had the complete series of and was my rock bottom choice to read that I nonetheless had to read a lot because there wasn't much else. It was the 1970s in Wyoming.