The rules are inconsistent and contradictory. This is by design. Following the rules does not make it more likely that your life will be easy or consistent. (Likelihood decreases the farther away your are on various spectra from being a mediocre white male.)

Talking with my mother last night, we got on the topic of Novak Djokovic, stuck in a quarantine hotel in Australia because, per the indistinct chatter of social media, he refused to get vaccinated. The bigger picture, which best beloved mentioned over supper, is that Djokovic refuses on grounds that he’s already recovered from COVID and that he was granted a medical exemption. The Australian government, feeling that the exemption was a technical foul, has detained the player.

Part of the issue with the complexity of the rules is that it makes for stories like this one that distract us from the real news going on. As Frank Zappa once put it, Politics is the entertainment division of the Military Industrial Complex. The news (and social media, for that matter) is another arm of that entertainment industry. These stories keep our eyes off the matter of the defense budget (for example). We just came to the end of the longest war in US history and the defense budget still increased. No extra money for teachers and social housing and food banks, but Lockheed Martin and GE still get there share. We saw it happen in 1990 as well. Peace dividend? Please.

Of course in 1989, we went to Panama and in 1991 to Iraq. There’s always a war to wage.

There are other sets of inconsistent rules from top to bottom. Try being Black in America and your chances of ending up like Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor are rather higher than if you’re any brand of white. Try being trans and Black. That’s the next case of the rules, isn’t it now? The one in which the rules we know are written to be explicitly against certain classes of people. Try being female in a frum (pious) Jewish community who has an idea of not being confined to those roles. Or queer in the same situation, for that matter.

Tom Robinson and crew preaching on the subject.

Following the rules to the letter doesn’t guarantee your life safety. This is where If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to hide goes head to head with Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. And Authority wins over Compassion every time. Every single time.

In the volume When I Grow Up, Ken Krimstein illustrates six stories written by Jewish teenagers in the period just before World War Two. (The tale behind this collection is fascinating in and of itself. Krimstein tells it in this episode of podcast The Shmooze.) In one of the stories, a girl tells of her father and all the worlds he opened up for her, and concludes it with how the elders shouted her down for daring to recite Kaddish for her father at his funeral. The rules for women in that place and time were different than in the conservative Los Angeles synagogue I was raised in. And such rules are probably why there are non-Orthodox denominations at all. Following them didn’t make you any more free, give you any greater intrinsic value. History is littered with those who claim there is more than one avenue to the divine.

And this brings us back around to the rules in today’s America. The vote is supposed to provide greater representation in the various legislatures. But the votes, for example, of a few thousand West Virginians steam roll those of millions of voters in other states, and provides akn object lesson in ‘why we can’t have nice things,’ as if we needed another. And this is before we talk about gerrymandering, the BS in Georgia and several other things. The right to vote, if you can exercise it within the increasingly arcane rules of the American franchise, doesn’t get you a voice.

Despite a well-publicized COVID-related ban on New Year’s Eve fireworks in the Netherlands, there were dozens of displays visible from my house alone (and injuries and deaths justifying the ban). I don’t think Leiden is an outlier, either. Throughout the day there were booms audible from carbide cannons and other noisemakers that had me and the Mrs. on edge. Note that having lived in the Netherlands for almost 15 years, this was the first year we spent NYE at home. Usually we spend it with college friends somewhere in the UK with lots of hiking. (Last year, we spent most of December near the in-laws and planned to be home before Brexit went into effect, but a testing snafu kept us two extra days and we returned on the second.)

With regards to the crazy noise making in the face of the aforementioned ban, I think there’s a connection between how we’re treated as children and how we take responsibility as adults. Parents often say, ‘if you do what you’re told, you can have this thing or that that you want.’ (There’s a different discussion that covers how and how well parents deliver on what they promise.) As adults we often treat ourselves with a similar responsibility/reward system. Freud has a few things to say about this, but I’m writing on the assumption that you often manage to get through unpleasant tasks by identifying a reward, even if it’s just ‘I can have a drink when I make it through the week.’

Societies both function and fail to function on the same principle. The current plague is a good example: If we (governments with the help of people following guidelines) keep the hospitalization numbers down, then we can reopen fun things like movie theatres and pubs. But populations act increasingly like children long denied the promised reward for good behavior. We’re aggrieved by a situation in which no amount of individual adherence prevents the punishment of further lockdowns. We take the opportunities to let off steam or break various rules because we deserve a treat, even if it means further spread of the virus (at a societal level) and further restrictions (at a personal level). Instant gratification seems to take over.

There’s a related issue where we’re told to take personal responsibility for our contributions to environmental degradation. Recently I saw the number floated that 71% of greenhouse emissions are created by corporate activity. While I’m not finding a source for this number in the moment, it’s not the first time I’ve seen similar figures reported. What this means is that even if every person made every possible change to reduce their carbon footprint, we’d still be up to our necks in the results of corporate behavior. Yes, I know this isn’t precisely true – that much personal change would redound on how corporations make their profits. It’s also highly unlikely. Most individuals, even collectively, can do bupkes to influence this issue. 

No matter what we do to change our own habits, we’ll still be inundated by the news that the polar bears are still going extinct and temperatures are still going to rise and the weather is still going to mess us up.

And this being the case, we’re still going to do all the wasteful things, or engage in behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and to the community, and do so in the name somehow deserving either a treat or a lapse in responsibility for those around us. I’m not sure how expressing this makes a difference. We’ve never been good at engaging in short term inconvenience to achieve the benefit of long-term personal, much less societal, good.

Last year I signed up for Audible for the sole purpose of listening to the new audio version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. And I enjoyed it greatly, even though it comprised only a small portion of the 75-issue comic that ran between 1989 and 1996. I think there must have been a selection process to determine whether there was sufficient interest to cover the whole thing. The first release included Morpheus’ first trip into hell, the brutal Collectors episode, Calliope, Facade, The Dream of a Thousand Cats, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But wait! What about Orpheus, Augustus, and The World’s End? Well, fast forward to a few months ago when Audible released Sandman Act II.

Ah, there we find some more of my beloved favourite stories. It seems like they’re working around to doing the whole thing. Eventually. In Act II, we meet Orpheus (in the French Revolution-set Thermidor – Where do you hide a severed head?) and having met his mother in Act I.

In general, they’re doing a good job of telling the essential stories – there are so many characters and there’s so much rich storytelling in Gaiman’s original material (not to mention in Gaiman’s own source material, which includes Shakespeare, Greek mythology, science, fiction, and the mythologies that make up a lot of history) that planning this out required a lot of choices regarding order and the transition from illustrated storytelling to audio. When the original run of Gaiman’s Sandman concluded in 1996, it was obvious that its conclusions had been in mind from very nearly the beginning (this remains a spoiler-free zone, note). Almost everyone we meet has a role.

My main issue, has to do with that very transition. When you read a graphic novel, there’s no reason to describe all the characters – we can see them. What we get in the audio drama is a lot more exposition than perhaps the story needs. We know what Dream and Death, Desire and Despair look like from their first descriptions. There’s no need, usually, to repeat. And it’s okay for the listener to fill things in that are left out of the text. These stories are especially strong and, mellifluous as Gaiman’s voice is, this kind of exposition could have been trimmed in favour of more showing. (I’ll note that being familiar with the source material, I can picture a lot of the story based in the original illustrations. I do wonder what listeners coming to this without the prior experience think.)

Having finished the last couple chapters (The Hunt, Soft Places, The Parliament of Rooks, and Ramadan), I’m overall very pleased with the production values, the acting, and the script. My gripes regarding exposition are minor. I think a lot depends on the story. I didn’t feel the descriptions were problematic or overtaking the stories as the audiobook progressed.

It’s interesting how the people working on this have balanced the overarching story with pieces that are one-offs in context. The framing of Three Septembers, for example, provide some background on the conflict between Dream and Desire. The last four stories are all self-contained, but provide more context about who Dream is. Weirdly, Act II’s centerpiece, A Game of You, only has a couple of scenes with Dream at the very end. And it can be hard to see how it fits into the greater narrative. (In this moment it comes to me that it bears a structural affinity to The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Sherlock Holmes only shows up at the very end.)

In considering the stories not yet shared in audiobook form, I wonder if a forthcoming Act III or Act IV will cover The World’s End which had some insanely good artwork and at least two wordless two-page spreads that will be hard to describe. As the series progressed, the art got more and more interesting (and even the earliest issues weren’t slouching in this department). This might also be why the audio exposition is so detailed sometimes.

In any event, I definitely recommend it, whether you’ve read the graphic novels or not.

It’s been another interesting year, bookwise. More audio books, for some reason. I subscribed to Audible last year for the sole purpose of hearing the audio drama of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (Act 2 of which I’m enjoying as I write). More such stuff made itself known, and this year, best beloved turned me on to Heisenbook, a podcast with books of many different kinds.

I’ve been interested in reading the Narnia books, but wasn’t sure I had the patience. Was happy to find them on Heisenbook, but even with that availability (and Patrick Stewart narrating), I haven’t managed The Last Battle. I’ve been thinking a blog entry on the series might be in order, but I’m not sure I have anything new to say on the matter.

Audio (narrators in parentheses)
John Scalzi – Lock In (Wil Wheaton)
C.S. Lewis – The Magician’s Nephew (Kenneth Branagh)
C.S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Michael York)
C.S. Lewis – The Horse and His Boy (Alex Jennings)
C.S. Lewis – Prince Caspian (Lynn Redgrave)
C.S. Lewis – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Derek Jacobi)
C.S. Lewis – The Silver Chair (Jeremy Northam)
BRIAN BLESSED – ABSOLUTE PANDEMONIUM (BRIAN BLESSED) (If you’re familiar with Mr. Blessed, you’ll understand why that’s in caps. If you’re not familiar, this might be a good start, but so is Flash Gordon.)
Frank Herbert – Dune (Multiple actors. Nicely done, but couldn’t get into Dune Messiah, which is a mess. I’ve read the original six books enough times that I can skip it.)
Rob Halford – Confess (Rob Halford, lead singer of the mighty Judas Priest narrating his own memoir. Fascinating story.)
Neil Gaiman – The Sandman – Act II (Radio dramatization – many actors, Gaiman himself does the narration)

Books
SF – Ben Bova – End of Exile (I’d read the other two books of the Exiles trilogy before January 1. Did not hold up from my reading as a teenager, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with racism and sexism.)
Fantasy – Seanan McGuire – Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)
SF – Mary Robinson Koval – Articulated Restraint (Lady Astronaut adjacent novella)
Dystopian YA – Rachel Churcher – Finding Fire (short stories that wrap up the excellent Battle Ground series. (She’s a dear friend and I’ve been a beta reader since she wrote the first book. I hope my input added to its excellence, but I do have a bias.)
SF – Cat Valente – Space Opera (Eurovision meets Battle Royale in space. If that combo appeals to you, get it now. You’ll get it.)
Short stories / Humour – Damon Runyon – Furthermore
Fantasy – Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)
Historical fiction / Detective (Unknown author) – Everything Is In Order (read this to assist the editor who wanted some sensitivity feedback. Nazi Germany set hard-boiled detective novel. I enjoyed it and hope it gets published one of these days.)
Fantasy – Neon Yang – Descent of Monsters (Tensorate series #3)
Drama – Oscar Wilde – The Importance of Being Earnest
SF – Octavia Butler – The Wild Seed (Patternmaster series #1)
Fantasy – Neon Yang – Ascent to Godhead (Tensorate series #4) (This quartet requires more concentration than I gave it and a reread is definitely in order.)
SF – Becky Chambers – The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers series #4) This is the one with the galaxy’s very best discussion of cheese. Great book, too.
YA Fantasy – Norton Juster – The Phantom Tollbooth (I reread this every few years, and Juster’s passing was the nudge to pull it down again.)
SF – Octavia Butler – Mind of My Mind (Patternmaster series #2)
SF – Nino Cipri – Finna (LitenVerse #1)
SF – Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire (OMG, I love this book and will reread it soon in advance of reading the sequel.)
YA Fantasy – L. Frank Baum – The Wizard of Oz (Not sure what the impetus was – something about wanting to see how color was used in the original text. Enjoyable, but I couldn’t get into the next one in the series)
SF – Nino Cipri – Defekt (LitenVerse #2)
SF – Charlie Jane Anders – Victories Greater Than Death (Gorgeous story of adolescence, found family, and fantastic space aliens and a sequel is coming soon.
Literary Fiction – Isaac Bashevis Singer – Enemies: A Love Story (I read this for a book club. Enjoyed it, but it’s really weird.)
Fantasy – Nghi Vo – Empress of Salt and Fortune (Singing Hills cycle #1)
Fantasy – Nghi Vo – When Tiger Came Down The Mountain (Singing Hills cycle #2 – Goodreads suggests two more are coming!)
Fantasy – Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children #5)
Fantasy – Katherine Campbell – Love, Treachery, and Other Terrors (debut fantasy with faeries, contested thrones, sibling relations – good stuff)
Fantasy – Storm Constantine – Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (a reread from many years back about which I had a thing or two to say)
Short Humour – Damon Runyon – Take It Easy (more short stories)
Fantasy – Seanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children #6)
Fantasy – Emily Tesh – Silver in the Wood
Fantasy – Emily Tesh – The Drowned Country
Fantasy – Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer (really good)
Fantasy – Terry Pratchett – Small Gods (reread)
Travel – Vita Sackville-West – Passenger to Teheran (I knew that Vita had been a prolific writer, and this memoir of a 1926 journey to visit her husband in the diplomatic was 99p, so I grabbed it. At one point she talks of stopping in Baghdad to visit Gertrude Bell. I had no idea who Bell was, but that’s started me down another rabbit hole.)
Fiction – Leonard Woolf – Stories of the East
Fantasy / Detective – Cassandra Khan – Hammers On Bone
Detective – Ann Cleeves – Telling Tales (cool female detective a friend introduced me to – another rabbit hole as there are eight other Vera Stanhope novels and about 30 other books Cleeves has written.)
Travel? – Gertrude Bell – The Arab War (Why not jump in the deep end – these are secret dispatches sent to British Intelligence from the Middle East during World War 1. Fascinating stuff.)
Poetry – Federico Garcia Lorca – Gypsy Ballads (We visited Granada on our vacation and was keen to visit a place or two associated with his life and to read some of his poetry. His reputation is well earned.)
Fantasy – Ursula K. Le Guin – Always Coming Home (When I was in college, a roommate who’d grown up in Washington state waxed eloquent about this book and told me about the cassette made of music described in it that was sold with the first printing. A year or two ago, that music was released on Bandcamp. I wanted to read the book before listening to the music, but I found the book such hard going, that I haven’t listened yet. Beautiful, but as half anthropological treatise and half disconnected stories (or tangentially connected stories), it wasn’t the easy thing I’d been hoping for.
Essays – William Gibson – Distrust That Particular Flavor (Collected essays and other short pieces. Fascinating dip into his brain. Different than his fiction, but not by that much.)
SF – Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon (African futurism with aliens and Nigerian politics and quite different from the Binti stories (my only other dive into Dr. Okorafor’s work – looking forward to more.)
Steampunk – P. Djèlí Clark – A Dead Djinn in Cairo and 41. M. P. Djeli Clark – The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (Steampunk Cairo with supernatural creatures and crazy science – definitely looking forward to reading more of Clark’s work.
YA – Lauren Shippen – The Infinite Noise (Really lovely queer high school romance with touch of the supernatural for added interest.)
Fantasy – Jordan Ifueko – Redemptor (sequel to Raybearer. Very good stuff.)
Poetry – Avrom Sutzkever – The Full Pomegranate (dual language Yiddish/English anthology of Sutzkever’s poetry)
Fiction – Clayton Barbeau – Dante and Gentucca (Clayton’s son Mark is an old friend of mine who once managed a band called M-1 Alternative. M-1’s third album was called The Little Threshing Floor. A couple of years ago I was in Tuscany and reading The Commedia when I came across the titular phrase. In that moment I also recalled that there was a quote in Italian on the CD booklet from same. So I pinged Mark and asked him what he recalled. One thing he recalled is that his father had written a novel about Dante and sent me this small-press published section. I started reading it at the time and picked it up again this week.)
Poetic Fiction / Travelogue – Federico Garcia Lorca – Sketches of Spain (lovely volume that does what it says on the tin. Lorca traveled through his native country and provides beautiful looks at the churches and neighbourhoods, embracing the beauty and the ugliness where he finds them, sometimes in the same place. My favourite section is the one on Granada’s Albaicin sector which I visited recently. It’s rather gentrified from the time of Lorca’s writing when it was poor, mostly Moorish, and freckled with brothels.
Fantasy – Nnedi Okorafor – Binti (reread – Dr Okorafor tweeted adamantly that the Binti stories were not YA, so I had a conversation with a friend who writes YA about the definition, and I’m pretty sure the first Binti story, at least, fits pretty squarely into YA. This doesn’t lessen a magnificent story’s brilliance. I’m not sure why the author is so firm on it not being.)
Almanac – Sandi Toksvig – Toksvig’s Almanac (Written during the first phase of the pandemic, I received it off my wish list last year for Xmas. It’s been loo reading ever since. Fantastic looks at famous, should-have-been-famous, and infamous women through the ages. Recommended.)
Fantasy / Pulp – Kameron Hurley – Apocalypse Nyx (Not sure how I came to this one – Hurley has written several books about bounty hunter Nyx and her interestingly integrated team of misfits on a planet torn by war and This collection, I think, serves as some of the back stories to those novels. These stories are very much in the pulp tradition (Lester Dent would recognize the debt owed to Doc Savage’s team), but with a lot more alcohol, drugs, sex, and nihilism. Recommended.
Short Stories – Salomea Perl – The Canvas and Other Stories (Dual language Yiddish/English – These recently translated stories of life in the Polish shtetl at the turn of the last century are as incisive and beautiful as the stories in Dubliners. ‘Potki With the Eyebrows’, the last story, gave me the epiphanic shivers.)
Fantasy – Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home (reread)
Science – Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time (I picked up this copy a few years ago after seeing The Theory of Everything. It’s been loo reading all year, and I finally plowed through the last couple of chapters in a rush.)


In progress:

Gertrude Bell – The Desert and the Sown (Travels in Palestine and Syria)
Jonas Jonasson – The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (reread as I picked up a couple of Jonasson’s other books whilst on holiday.)
Katherine Campbell – The Canadian Nights (an amusing take on The Arabian Nights)

I read Raybearer, the first book of this duology over the summer and immediately preordered the sequel which arrived a few weeks later on my e-reader. In the afterward Ifueko notes that she spent twelve years creating the first book and nine months, as the pandemic was beginning, on the second. It came in such a rush that she says that she didn’t recall writing swaths of it. With a score of great characters ready to take on the task described at the end of Raybearer, she knew where it was going, I think.

There’s a lot to be said for this work and its intricate world. The blends of magic and mythology and world building are effective (and mind bending, sometimes). There’s a lot in the first book that grounds you in the world. Pretty early on she explains all the kingdoms that make up the empire and the very interesting ways in which power is passed between generations. We then meet the Abiko, demons who, under treaty, take hundreds of children each year into the underworld as the price of not overrunning the empire. The trick is that some early emperor agreed that only children of one kingdom, Songland, would receive the mark indicating they were to go into the breach between the worlds.

I don’t want to give away any of the key plot points. Our narrator, Tarisai, is set up by her mother in the first book to join the prince’s council to undermine the empire. She’s able to subvert her mother’s will but finds that she’s the only one who wants to change the way the redemptors are chosen (from only one kingdom), and later who wants to change the way the empire as a whole is run. No one else seems to find the traditions of court life so repugnant that they’d even examine how to change them.

Ifueko makes Tarisai’s struggles and emotions real, and we feel a three-dimensional character experiencing them. And she’s created a hero who looks like the people fighting today’s battles against establishment oppression. The fantasy world’s elites bear strong resemblances to those of our world.

If there’s a downside in the story, and I’m not sure this isn’t just the nature of such heroes – the ones who take on the big tasks that no one else can do (or, in the words of Norton Juster, will do), she doesn’t tell anyone of the one thing that’s driving her to distraction. The nature of the council she sits on is that the members have psychic bonds with one another, if they open themselves to the connection. So Tarisai’s reticence to share her experience moves the plot along, but it turns the conflict into Tarisai versus herself, rather than against external forces.

This is a trope of this kind of fiction, I think. In a world where the hero’s bond is a major plot point, and her establishment of a greater number of such connections is one of the drivers of the second book, her refusal to engage feels false. Not false, but an easy way out of creating a way through in which the character relies on the thing that the story hangs from as a whole. On the other hand, she’s the one with the insurmountable goal that almost no one else will take on.

On their own merits, Raybearer and Redemptor succeed admirably. My quibble doesn’t obviate my joy in Tarisai’s various successes, and in the beauty and terror of the worlds Ifueko has opened.

Learn more here: https://www.jordanifueko.com/books (and dig how gorgeous those covers are!)