Archives for category: Writing

Now into the third novel of the Battle Ground series, Churcher takes a different tack on the key players of the first two books.

The story of Bex Ellman, the middle-class heroine of the first book who also leads a band of conscripts into the rebellion and into hiding, alternates with that of Ketty Smith, the lead recruit who brutalizes the conscripts with ‘iron fists and steel toe caps’.  This raises the reader’s anxiety quotient even though the two are only in the same room once in the book (not a spoiler – that’s on the opening page).

They represent two different kinds of self-discipline – Bex’s is borne of a sincere desire to help others. Ketty derisively calls her Mummy Ellman, her own mother having abandoned her to an abusive and alcoholic father. And that’s the source of Ketty’s own discipline – keeping out of her father’s way until the day she could enlist in the military and be away from him for good. The fact that Ketty finds herself dependent on Colonel Bracken, another alcoholic, to whom she’s essentially an ADC adds some extra drama to the story.

As Ketty makes it to London to learn prisoner interrogation and to try to track down Bex and those who escaped with her, Bex and her friends try to keep hidden and make their way to the Opposition in Exile in Scotland. Both are trapped in similar ways. Ketty is bound to Colonel Bracken, must keep him out of trouble, and advance her own career at the same time. It’s a weird juxtaposition and with each chapter, we find ourselves deeper in their respective plights.

Darkest Hour

At the same time, Bex finds herself, oddly, at the mercy of those trying to help her. The Opposition In Exile (OIE) are keen to use her as the Face of the Resistance – a different kind of Front Line Doll. They also want to use her as the symbol of the war they’re conducting.

While I really don’t want to like Ketty, and I find her lack of pity problematic (something her colleague Conrad also notes, even though they’re ostensibly on the same side) to say the least, played against Bex’s increasing self-pity, she starts to take on a certain honor. I really like how the two women become doppelgängers for one another. Bex lacks Ketty’s self mastery whereas Ketty lacks most aspects of human compassion – or submerges them so effectively she may not actually have any at all

No, it’s not that she lacks compassion – she channels her compassion for Jackson (the comatose colleague from Camp Bishop who was shot in the chest by Bex’s friend Dan at the crux of the previous books) into revenge – and this is why in the grand scheme she’s unsuccessful. She needs to be able to see through Bex’s eyes but she can’t because it was Bex’s crew that incapacitated her only friend. Every bit of love she can muster is for Jackson, and her tragedy is that she can’t get out of that trap.

If you enjoyed the first two, you’re in for a different kind of treat with this one. It has more of the feel of a cinematic thriller with the hero and antihero fighting their own battles as they close in on each other.

Go over to Taller Books to get all three.

Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

 

I recently grabbed an e-book of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic SF novel Childhood’s End on a whim. I remember being fascinated by the final sequence and it’s one that has stuck in my head since I was about 14.

The story holds up even if the prose doesn’t so well. The characters and their motivations are often flat. The rigid gender roles and racism are especially striking. While they may be reflective of the early 50s when it was written, they’re jarring now.

The plot is possibly well known. Aliens (‘Overlords’) come to Earth and stop humans in their tracks just as the space age begins. You won’t go into space, they’re told, but we’ll end the wars and the cycle of poverty. All of this in advance of an epochal change in humanity.

Weaving around the lives of four characters, Karellen, the Overlord supervisor; George and Jean Greggson, a couple whose children are the first exemplars of the change in question, and Jan Rodericks, a doctoral student of mixed heritage who manages to stow away on an Overlord ship to their home planet, the novel offers multiple perspectives on humanity’s last days and decades.

From the opening conflation of Earth’s first proposed journey to Mars with the arrival of the Overlords, we’re at every moment on the verge of something great that is subverted by the overarching history playing out.

As I came to the end, I was most struck by how Clarke’s story reflects how all of our predictions for business or security or war in any coming period are subverted by how reality plays out – think of our headlines about how we might support the world’s population or protect the wildlife we have left. What we thought the future would hold a decade ago or half a century ago bears no resemblance to the present we have.

Dutch edition of Childhood’s EndThe failures of the book also include an awful lot of exposition used to get across the science necessary to the plot, but these are overshadowed by the poignance that interweaves the lives of these characters. Kerallen tells us that his race has overseen the apotheosis of several other races at the behest of what he calls the Overmind, but that the Overlords will themselves never achieve the same. George experiences a double loss, that of his children to the the change that overcomes the last generation of humans and that of the possibilities with his own wife.

‘George looked down at her with sympathy, but nothing more. It was strange how much one could alter in so short a time. He was fond of her: she had borne his children and was part of his life. But of the love which a not clearly remembered person named George Greggson had once known towards a fading dream called Jean Morrel, how much remained?’

When Jan prepares to leave Earth, he sends his sister a letter in which he expresses how little holds him to the people he know, who will all be dead when he returns in 80 years. With this storyline, Clarke cleverly engineers both a witness to the Overlords position in the cosmos and a human narrator for the end of the story. If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to give anything away, and if you have read it, I urge a rereading.

The second novel in Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series is a real treat. The scenario is already familiar to readers of the first novel (also called Battle Ground), but now told from the perspective of Ketty, that book’s antagonist. The deal with Ketty in the first book is that we don’t know what makes her evil, we only have Bex’s perspective, and Bex is a relatively good teenager who looks after people. Ketty only looks out for number one. She, along with her colleague Jackson, applies ‘iron fists and steel toe caps’ to maintain her position as Lead Recruit at Camp Bishop, but we have little idea why.
False FlagI won’t be spoilery if you haven’t read Battle Ground, but, this book makes the most sense if you know the other side of the story. (Go over to Taller Books to get it.) Set in a near future England increasingly under martial law (and looking more and more like peri-Brexit Britain), young people are kidnapped into military service to be the government’s ‘front-line dolls’ in its fight against homegrown terrorists (also known as people who want to see Britain returned to democratic rule). The school friends who form the core of the first book’s story don’t take lightly to Ketty’s every-soldier-for-herself method of training and insist on helping one another.
Opening False Flag, we find ourselves looking at the arrival of Bex and her friends at Camp Bishop through Ketty’s eyes and quickly learn why she’s the one assigned to train up/torment new arrivals.
In contrast with the conscripted recruits we learn about in book one, Ketty joined up the first chance she got in order to get away from an alcoholic, abusive father. She learned her discipline the hard way, keeping out from under her father’s anger and violence. Whereas Bex had a loving but slightly difficult home life and friends to lean on for emotional support, Ketty knows that people are only stepping stones to get to the next level and depends only on herself as far as she can.
At its heart, Churcher shows us that Ketty is in many ways everything that Bex isn’t. Bex insists on caring for all those around her while Ketty seems to care only about herself.
The violence that Ketty and Jackson inflict on Bex and her friends is demonstrably sadistic, but we get more and more of the reasons why. Not that we necessarily find her any more likable, but that’s part of the fun.
While these books focus on young adults, the situations and the ways in which Churcher handles them are, by necessity, very grown up. This should appeal to all fans of dystopian fiction (or, as some folks are calling it: Current Events).
Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.

More info at Taller Books.

 

Brodsky was born on this date (May 24) in 1941. I’d only heard of his work, never read any, when one evening in 1999 or so, I heard a recording of him reading ‘A Song’ on NPR. In the twenty years since I heard that recording I can still remember its cadences. This video, with its accompanying Chopin, is close, but it’s not the same. He’d passed away two years before, but this poem enchanted me such that I went out the next day or the day after that and purchased the slim volume So Forth, published by his estate in 1996. I was reading a lot of poetry at the time.

In Moe’s books in Berkeley, someone saw me flipping through Robert Hunter’s Glass Lunch and asked if I’d read his translations of Rilke. Another poet who’s name I knew, but whose work I hadn’t read. Shortly thereafter I started consuming Rilke. The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus did my head in, as I would have put it at the time, though not in Hunter’s translations which I found online. The Norton Press dual language editions. Housman, Stein, Wilde, and Sharon Doubiago carried me through those years as well.

My memory is that I bought the Brodsky at Moe’s (RIP) as well, but the bookmark inside insists it was Booksmith on Haight Street. I can vaguely picture myself paying for it there, probably having already exhausted the two used bookstores across the street. I don’t know if Austen was still a going concern at that point. I’d worked a couple of stints there, but after Jeffrey died and Brian took it over, it didn’t last too long. That spot might already have become another shoe store by ‘99. I don’t recall the name of the other used bookshop on the street, but for all the paperbacks crammed into the place I rarely if ever found a book there I wanted to buy. And I was voracious.

I’ve not opened So Forth in several years, and find that it still has a blue plastic sticker marking A Song on page 5. The name Joseph at the top of the front cover is sun faded, but the spine is intact, and the glue binding intact. Flipping through it, though, there’s no page that isn’t a joy to read. These poems reward reading aloud. Not to say I and my poor understanding of my iPad’s voice memo function do them justice, but here’s one called Ab Ovo which I quite like…

Note: Copyright in this poem is held, I’m certain, by the estate of Mr. Brodsky. I will remove this recording upon request.

So Forth can be ordered via the links on the publisher’s web site here.

Guinevere Turner writes in the May 6, 2019 New Yorker about growing up in a commune and discusses the differences between communes and cults. ‘(Leader Mel) Lyman never ordered his followers to kill anyone the way Charles Manson did, but if Lyman had asked, I’m pretty sure that they would have complied.’ (The Others)

That said, I spent some formative years in a commune/cult and not long after my family left, the leader of this cult did ask two of his followers to attempt murder.

Lance Kenton was about 21 (and the one thing said about him in every article on this subject is that he was the son of big band leader Stan Kenton) and Joe Musico, a damaged Vietnam war veteran aged about 28, under the direction of Synanon’s leader, Charles Diederich, used the rather ingenious method of cutting the rattles off of a rattlesnake before putting the snake into the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz. They were found guilty and each served a prison sentence and probation time.

My family had all left Synanon by the close of 1977 and the snake incident didn’t occur until about a year later. (I should verify, but in my memory the Morantz attack, the People’s Temple mass suicide and the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone all ran together in the news. So perhaps by this definition, Synanon counts as a cult, or at least it did by that point. I have vague memories of an increased focus on self defense while I was still there, but that might be an amalgam of readings and memories and discussions that happened later.

From certain points of view, there might be objective assessments of the whole situation but 40 plus years later, I’m generally unwilling to dig into them. I don’t get much out of the subjective assessment either, given that it took me 25 of those 40 years to get to the other side of my own Synanon experience.

The death of Paul Morantz in 1978 would only have benefitted Chuck Diederich. Morantz had made something of a name representing individuals who had cases against Synanon and other such places based on mistreatment. And he’d won some pricey verdicts as well. It’s not as though there weren’t other lawyers going up against Synanon at the time, but Morantz had been successful and was showing no signs of stopping.

CED, according to one very biased account that insists on referring to Synanon members as ‘Synanites’ (a term we never would have used), spent a lot of time on the Wire, the closed-circuit radio network demonizing Morantz and calling on followers to do something about him.

Anyway, this brings me to the cult at the heart of the executive branch of the US government. The president’s fixer has just started a prison term for crimes that only benefitted the president. Diederich’s call for someone inside to to his dirty work sounds eerily like what we’ve heard from Trump and specifically from Cohen’s defense of his own actions. (Fall Guy – Michael Cohen’s Last Days of Freedom by Jeffrey Toobin in the same issue of the New Yorker.)

Mel Lyman’s Family organization – the cult to which Guinevere Turner belonged from birth to the age of about 12 afforded her a great deal of security and was home in a way that Synanon wasn’t really for me. Noting that I have friends who were there much longer than I was and who saw the other end of a period of distinct cruelty against those of us in the school. Their attitudes about the place are very different than mine or my parents’. For a period, the school was run by a guy who had no pedagogical background. This wasn’t uncommon – most people worked jobs inside that had no relationship to whatever training they may have brought in. Unless it was lucrative. My father was a patent lawyer and he continued doing the same work and gave most of his income back to the community. If not all. The fact that the person in charge of the school, Chris Benton, had not educational background didn’t set him apart from anyone else teaching us. His background however was as a drill sergeant. And corporal punishment wasn’t outside of his remit. (This despite the fact that Synanon had strict policies against physical violence, threatening physical violence, not to mention swearing and drug, alcohol, and tobacco use.)

I left at the age of 10 1/2 when my father and stepmother left in September of 1977 (my mother and stepfather had left in mid-‘76. The story behind all of the relationships is complex and for another blog entry), almost three years after entering. It took a long time for me to come to terms with the place. Psychoanalysis in the wake of my divorce helped, I suppose. And simply getting to middle age and that point where there’s no longer any profit to be had from carrying the baggage.

Turner made a certain kind of peace with her experiences on a return visit at the age of 18 – the casual sexism with which the men their expected to be waited on put paid to her longing to return to The Family’s way of life. She makes an interesting point about the probable profusion of cults in America:

If you haven’t heard of a cult, it’s because it didn’t go down in flames. Its members are just quietly doing what they do, which means that there are many more active cults today than we are aware of.

Manson and David Koresh’s group in the 90s (for another example) and Synanon went down in flames. Folks like Lyman’s group laid low. I’d suggest that the probability a cult will go down in flames is directly proportional to the degree it goes head to head with existing power structures. Synanon got under the skins of nearby residents no matter where it set up (for a variety of reasons – the fact that it sold itself as a drug rehab organization harking back to its roots is one) and there was a certain amount of that antagonism built into Chuck’s messiah complex.

The issue we’re running into here is that Manson, Koresh and Diederich, and let’s add Philadelphia’s MOVE commune to the list, all in their own ways got the goat of the power structures (and the media). Outright murder got Manson on the map. The others? Different in their different ways.

What do we get, though, with the Cult of Trump in which the leader is the power structure? Increasingly there seems to be no way of stopping him short of something that turns the rest of the structure against him. That has historically taken a long and very difficult time.