According to Goodreads, I read 127 books in 2018. Most of those were full-length fiction. A handful were comic books. A few more were short stories. Slow year for non-fiction, since I had ovarian cancer and wasn’t feeling up to thinking hard most of the year. I’m free and clear now, so look out 2019!
This is mostly for my own purposes, but in case anyone is interested, here are my favorites of 2018. YMMV.
FictionBest Short Fiction: “The Word of Flesh and Soul,” Ruthanna Emrys.
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42785575-the-word-of-flesh-and-soul Read On
And the girl in the corner said boy I want to warn you It’ll turn into a ballroom blitz. – The Sweet, “The Ballroom Blitz“
This story‘s harder than “Burning Girls” also by Veronica Schanoes. Harder in that its words are sharper, uglier, darker, but also because it’s more honest, which makes it harder to process. “Burning Girls” is a fantasy, a reminder that “Jews were here” in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and in the history of the New York City. It reimagines Rumpelstiltskin as one of the lilim (demonic children of Lilith). It takes a familiar story and makes it Jewish.
“Ballroom Blitz,” on the other hand, is not a Jewish story on its face. According to the author, however, the protagonists Jake (Auslander) and Isabel (Goldman) are both Jewish; there were, she observes, “plenty of Jews on the punk scene.” Like “Burning Girls,” “Ballroom Blitz” reimagines a classic fairy tale: “Twelve Dancing Princesses.” It doesn’t recast the story into a Jewish milieu, or make it a feminist tale, but instead visits the world of another misunderstood group: non-neurotypical people, the clinically depressed and suicidal.
Schanoes explains that this story arose out of her own struggles with depression. This is the honesty/truth that makes the story harder to read. There’s no real joy in the story, even with the nearest-to-happy ending I can imagine for the characters. The humor is dark. The moral that depression does not ‘go away’ is bleak but somehow not hopeless. After all, Jake does figure out what he needs to do, and he does go to get Isabel, and he does commit to caring for her.
The reversal — that she saved him first — saves it from being another annoying story of a damsel distressed. But at the same time, Isabel comes across as lacking agency. She complains that Jake never asked about her, but she also never told him. She used him and the mindless music, dance, drugs and sex he offered to self-medicate. She treated her symptoms and not her disease. Sure, Jake’s the one who needed to learn the lesson. Note, it isn’t entirely clear to me what lesson he was supposed to learn, since ‘don’t beat the shit out of vulnerable people’ would seem self-evident. Possibly, ‘help the vulnerable rather than harming them’? Yet, even if it is Jake who needs the lesson, and Jake is full up with rage and the pointlessness of his existence, once she’s saved him, Isabel ends up in a similar state, voluntarily trapped, and not interested in healing herself without Jake. So even if it’s not an archetypical damsel in distress, it still reinforces the “I need a man” trope that the author herself seems to hate.
On the other hand, the story does replicate the depressive cycle and shows how mentally ill people can find meaning in helping each other, find strength in caring for each other. This, it seems to me, is a fairly Jewish message about the responsibility of a community to care for its poorest and weakest.
I don’t mean to be setting up a row of straw men, as though Schanoes has claimed this story to be feminist, Jewish, etc. I’m not making an argument at all, really. Just looking at fiction by Jewish authors and fairy tale adaptation, examining them for their own sake and also to see whether they resonate with me/I recognize them. So, what I like about this story is that these characters are Jewish, but that’s not apparent in the story. They’re Jewish, but that isn’t material to the story, and so it settles into the background, unknown and unnoticed unless you dig deeper. “Ballroom Blitz” is a story about Jewish people qua people rather than qua Jews or Jewish, which is of value too.
Undeniably, the prose is the best part of this story. I feel it, every filthy beat of the music, every scrape of knuckles against concrete walls. What I take away from the story is that ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘adapted from’ might be a good choice in dealing with fairy tales, and that vivid characterization can overcome a limiting premise. Even if “Ballroom Blitz” isn’t the most empowering story about mental illness, it is a recognizably true story and one worth reading.
She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire… She’s living in a world and it’s on fire – Alicia Keys, “Girl on Fire“
“This is no place for a girl on fire.” – Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
Veronica Schanoes‘s “Burning Girls“, available for free on Tor.com, isn’t the story I expected it to be. I should have picked up on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire reference earlier than I did. I was more interested in the other reference, the lilim and the significance of names, and I was thoroughly curious about Schanoes’s reference materials. I need to get my hands on them, stat. In spite of the cityscape cover, for some reason I was expecting something more in the vein of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
All that said about what I expected and what I didn’t, it was actually a much better story than I expected it to be. In places it reminded me more of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate in the way that the traditions and magic wove in, but it’s definitely more dark fantasy/fairy tale than magical realism. At the same time, it felt like a true tale, like something that walks hand in hand with Chagall’s experiences in Vitebsk and Fiddler on the Roof. Schanoes has clearly and thoroughly steeped herself in the Jewish classics and the fairy tales, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her oeuvre.
What led me to the story and what I’m puzzling at is still a variant on what makes fiction Jewish. There’s no question in my mind that “Burning Girls” is Jewish fiction, but it’s also, like The Hunger Games and “Girl on Fire,” feminist storytelling that speaks to the strength and power of women together. It’s a layered commentary on burning witches, burning Jews, burning girls — the ones who have too much ambition to be content with the role society would prescribe for them. It treads similar territory as many of my most beloved female characters, including the one I’m playing in a Space 1889 game. It’s a great read and I expect that any of my friends who read it will enjoy it.
The thing I can’t quite let go of is how bright it burns. There’s not a bushel in sight. And for all that the Bible would teach not to hide your light under a bushel, every Jew who has heard of the Holocaust, and every passing minority in a repressive regime, knows that burning bright is an invitation to hate, crime, burning.
As someone trying to write a similar story, a Jewish twist on another fairy tale, I keep twisting over this literal girl on fire. Do I want to burn bright, demand attention, say fuck the mainstream and hope Jewish futurism or Jewpunk or Jewish fantasy generates the kind of interest that Afrofuturism has? Can it, even, since for most non-Jews, being Jewish is about religion and it’s as uncomfortable for non-Jews to read Jewish religious fiction as it is for me to read apocalyptic Christian fiction? Or is there a way to write cultural Jewishness into fiction in a way that doesn’t immediately quash the interest of non-specialist readers?
It’s totally ridiculous and premature, I realize, for me to be worrying over something like this. Even knowing the book has a publishing home at Falstaff when I get off my ass and get it written, it’s kind of arrogant to think it’s going to matter or find readership. I “should” just write the book and let the chips fall where they may.
Then again, the question matters to me. Like “Shtetl Days,” it’s really a question of identity and identification, and maybe identifying, too. Write what you know means write from your authentic self, write from who you are. So maybe the question I’m asking over and over is “what kind of Jew am I?”
Lately, I’ve been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be… – One Republic, Counting Stars
Counting stars. Lucky ones, that we’re not living in The Reich as imagined by Harry Turtledove in “Shtetl Days.” But also gold ones, on the coats of men like Turtledove’s Veit Harlan, or worn by Billy Joel in memory of pogroms past and a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville that never should have been.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Judenstern (Jew’s star), and how a symbol of religious and cultural identity got turned into a badge of shame. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about who did that and why, and the way the Trump administration makes scarlet letters and gold stars and pink triangles things of the present instead of things that never should’ve been — at least not the way they are. Identity and identification aren’t the same thing, but suddenly they seem to be, at least in the sense that without documentation — of citizenship, for example — an immigrant doesn’t exist, or becomes illegal. Or in the sense that dark skin is used identify a young man as Other, a monster, and in the eyes some with authority, that is his whole identity as well.
I’m not asking a question here, or trying to answer one, about the violence of forced identification. Just thinking about the ways that identity is identified, imposed, granted, constructed, excavated…performed. Turtledove’s “Shtetl Days” adds another layer to that thinking, especially about performativity, the luxury of choice, hiding one’s light or Self under the performance of some other identity, and where the line between doing a thing and becoming that thing sits. The story raises profound issues of privilege, identity creation, performance of identity, doing what one has to do, and what it means to be a Jew.
The actual question I’ve been asking is how do I write Jewish stories? Are my words, like Andrew Strucker’s soda is mutant, Jewish because I’m a Jew? On some level, yes, I imagine so. But Turtledove writes of people living as Jews who are not Jews, because they eat treyf on purpose and call themselves Aryans. At least, not Jewish in the eyes of the SS. On one hand, the story hits home like a sledgehammer to the ribs (or a rock in Veit’s case), nothing subtle about it. But on the other, it’s about a lot of things like performativity, identity versus identification, creating ones’ gods and enemies, doing versus being in a way that somehow feels sly, subtle, not even a glancing blow. It’s a Tetris piece in my puzzle of how to talk about important things in fiction, and how to talk about being Jewish without a Judenstern, a Holocaust, and pogroms.
No answers, only questions, like the debatable and ambiguous Jew that I am.
Maureen Ash, The Alehouse Murders (Templar Knight)
Maureen Ash, The Death of a Squire (Templar Knight)
Maureen Ash, A Plague of Poison (Templar Knight)
Kameron Hurley, We Have Always Fought
Catherynne M. Valente, Silently and Very Fast
Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel (yearly re-read)
Peter Robinson, Cold is the Grave (DCI Banks)
Peter Robinson, Aftermath (DCI Banks)
Peter Robinson, Close to Home (DCI Banks)
The DCI Banks mysteries are clever, credible, and solid without being earth-shattering. They always start slow, but I end up reading all night. I like Banks, but he could stand to go a novel or two without noticing a nipple.
The Lost Books of the Bible was just a refresher for me on some of the excluded books I’d forgotten. I’m reading Jubilees now. Mostly to familiarize myself with Jewish Biblical literature for Medieval rabbis and the like. Talmud’s coming up, but that’s a hell of a read.
Silently and Very Fast is intensely clever, the folklore of artificial intelligence. The fairy tale syncretism is brilliant and beautiful. In places, it’s very affecting, but for the most part, it’s more interested in being clever than in really touching me. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll read it again and again, because it does what it does very well, and I’m more than a little envious of her ability to create new fairy tales.
We Have Always Fought is a fascinating book of essays by a self-aware, self-conscious thoughtful writer of diverse characters and strong, interesting women. There’s a lot to think about here, and I’d definitely recommend it. My favorite piece, I think, is on “Persistence”. Her idea that success isn’t determined by milestones and achievements, but rather in continuing to do, in the process of writing, in the act of picking yourself one more time than you fall may well prove to be revolutionary for me. Just like Pollocking.
Writing the Breakout Novel never fails to be provocative and instructive. I read it every year, or every time I start a new writing project, in part to remind myself that I actually want to push myself to write something bigger and better than my last book, and in part for the actual instruction. Usually I balk at the chapter on subplots, because my brain just hasn’t been able to encompass it. This year, it blew my thinking out of the water for my medieval Jewish female Robin Hood story, providing me with a way of making the story more than I thought it was. I’d discovered Nicholaa de la Haye previously, and wanted to include her but didn’t quite know how. Then along came Maas with subplots that comment on the main theme, et voila. I needed to know whatever I could of Lady Nicholaa and her castle.
Which was how I ended up reading Maureen Ash’s Templar Knight mysteries, in which Lady Nicholaa figures prominently. Not only is her research on medieval Lincoln fascinating, but the mysteries themselves are quite good. They’re not exciting, especially, and plagued by a prolonged decision-making process on the part of the primary character, but they’re solid, worth reading, and a good example of developing a mystery from the context, rather than applying an idea to a setting. I’m sure I’ll be returning to the series, but in the meantime, they’ve given me a lot of food for thought.