Fiction: “The Spymistress” by Jennifer Chiaverini

spymistressThis was a book I picked up on a whim. My typical plan of attack when perusing the shelves of the library is to wander down each row, head tilted so I can attempt to read the spines of the books, and I stop at books whose titles intrigue me, and then if the dust jacket sounds interesting enough, I add it to my pile. I stop looking when my neck starts to hurt or I have six books in my arms, whichever comes first.

Obviously, the title of this book – The Spymistress – is what drew me to pick it off the shelf. Who was this Spymistress? Was she like, the head of a ring of intrigue? What was she spying on? And how?

It turns out, this work of fiction was based on fact: the Spymistress was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew, a resident of Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. I’ve had a non-fiction book about Ms. Van Lew languishing on my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads since … apparently March 2014 (Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy). So The Spymistress is kind of fictionalized non-fiction? Maybe?

The book begins just before Virginia joins the Confederacy. Lizzie lives with her mother in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Lizzie is mostly a spinster: she was engaged to someone, who sadly died unexpectedly. She has never sought to marry after his death. Her brother, John, manages the family hardware store in town. John and his wife, Mary, live with Lizzie and her mother for about half of the book. Mary is a Confederate sympathizer, which irks Lizzie.

Things obviously get more strained between Lizzie and Mary when war officially breaks out. Mary arranges to have uniform sew-ins (or whatever – sewing circles, I guess, where ladies sew uniforms for their mens at war) at the house, and Lizzie nearly bites her tongue clean off, trying to keep quiet about her political beliefs.

Lizzie is able, however, to make more of a difference when the Confederates turn one of the old warehouses in Richmond into a jail for captured Union soldiers. Lizzie learns of the terrible, inhumane conditions and marches herself over to the general’s office or wherever and offers her services as a nurse. To the Union soldiers.

And doesn’t that get a lot of looks. “Why do you want to help them, milady?” And then she quotes some line from the Bible reminding the Confederate that Jesus says compassion and nursing is due all poor suffering creatures, and Union boys are definitely suffering creatures. So she’s able to get passes to visit the men in the jail.

In so doing, she works with one of the captured Union captains (or whatever) and manages to smuggle notes in and out of the prison in books and pie pans. She then is able to send those messages to a contact in Pennsylvania.

I wouldn’t say she was a spymistress; that implies she had an entire ring of spies working under her. She had a former slave who was freed and agrees to work as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s house in order to pass information back to Lizzie, but it’s not like she was running MI-5 or anything. I do want to read the non-fictionalized account of her life and see if some things were glossed over in order to focus more on the family drama between Lizzie and Mary.

(Mary takes to drinking alcohol and laudanum and is almost divorced by John when he comes home one night to learn that she has left their daughters at home, alone, while she went to a hotel and gallivanted with some Confederate soldiers. She’s not a great person. She’d totally call the cops on a girl operating a lemonade stand without the proper permits.)

After the war ends, Lizzie is appointed Postmaster of Richmond by Ulysses S. Grant, in honor of the work she did during the war. She was (I believe – it’s been a while since I finished the book) the first female Postmaster? Maybe?

Overall, I thought the story was interesting. It’s rare to read a Civil War story from the perspective of a Unionist trying to live her life and truth while implanted in the middle of the Confederacy – and yes, I can imagine that tension is akin to a liberal living in the middle of Oklahoma City, but here’s the thing with this book: whatever tension there is, it’s resolved almost immediately.

There are moments where you think Lizzie’s going to get caught, but she’s able to talk herself out of it super-quickly, and then the plot moves forward. At one point, Lizzie learns that Mary has ratted out Lizzie’s Unionist leanings to the adjutant general, but the whole thing is resolved within 5 pages of text when Lizzie’s best friend, Eliza Carrington, goes to testify on Lizzie’s behalf to the adjutant general, who happens to be a distant cousin of Eliza. Familial ties override Mary’s nastiness, and the plot moves on.

Even when John is drafted into the Confederate Army, the tension is resolved in five pages. At first, he’s able to receive a deferment. When deferments expire, he reports, but then he’s able to be smuggled up to Philadelphia. He’s safe, and so there’s no more worrying about his well-being and the story continues.

I did like Lizzie. She’s, as they say up here in Maine, wicked smaht.

“You mean Lieutenant Todd, Ma’am?” The soldier frowned at her quizzically. “Is he expecting you?”

She took her watch from her pocket, glanced at the time, and feigned surprise. “My goodness, no. It’s not yet half past one.” Taken separately, both statements were true. [p. 61]

Maaaan, do I love people avoiding lies by being very careful with their words. And you have to be super careful about that with certain people. Certain people who may be signing executive orders, for instance.


“Why leave home and come so far?” [asked Lizzie]

The young fellow exchanged a look of surprise with his partner before answering, “Why, we come to protect Virginia, Ma’am.”

“Why?” Lizzie was genuinely curious. “Protect Virginia from what?”

“From them Yankees, Ma’am,” the other soldier replied. Freckled and dark-haired, he seemed little older than the young volunteer drummer boys, and for a moment Lizzie wondered if he had wandered into the wrong part of the camp.

“Mr. Lincoln said he’s coming down to take all our Negroes and set them free,” the first soldier explained, tucking the book beneath his arm. “If they dare to do so, we’ll be here to protect you women.”

“If this should come to pass, we’ll be grateful for your protection, of course.” Lizzie ignored her mother’s warning look, the subtle shake of her head. “But why do you believe it will?”

They regarded her with twin expressions of bewilderment. “Because the papers said so, Ma’am,” said the freckled solider. [p. 51]

Because the papers said so. In other words, propaganda.

If you like stories of the Civil War, smart ladies, and rebellion, you might like this book. I felt the tension wasn’t quite enough to pull me throughout the story, and this book covers the entirety of the war – it moves quickly, and I don’t think enough time was given on certain events. However, I can’t point them out right now, because I read this book eight months ago.

Give it a shot and I’ll let y’all know when I read Southern Lady, Yankee Spy.

Grade for The Spymistress: 2 stars







Fiction: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

orient expressI get my love of mystery novels from both of my parents. Dad still has in his bookcase the full anthology of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and quite a few Hercule Poirot mysteries. I had borrowed one book that had Murder on the NileAnd Then There Were None, and at least two other classic Poirot mysteries back in eighth grade, and I distinctly remember finishing And Then There Were None during that year’s educational assessment test (I finished early), and then when that was done I started reading The Pelican Brief.

Dad would also watch PBS’s Mystery! – the old version, with the introduction animated by Edward Gorey, and he loved the Poirot films where David Suchet played the Belgian detective. If you think I have OPINIONS on stuff (like Hannibal, or all of my many ~FEELINGS about James Bond), lemme tell ya – they stem directly from the many OPINIONS my dad has about Hercule Poirot. The ability to have OPINIONS is genetic, is what I’m saying.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of my father’s favorite movies in the history of everything. And not the one that came out last year with Kenneth Branagh – the one from 1974 with Albert Finney and practically every other big star at the time. We rented it years ago, and —

I was going to say, if Mom and Dad could ever figure out their DVD player, I’d buy it on DVD for a Father’s Day present, but then I remembered that they do have a TV-DVD combo in their camper trailer, and he may get some use out of it that way – but then I learned that it’s currently available streaming on Prime, so I need to remember to tell Dad that the next time I see him.

Anyway. For all of Dad’s love of Poirot, he didn’t have a copy of Murder on the Orient Express for me to borrow to read. And, in a complete non-surprise, neither did the Yarmouth Public Library?


So Mom was awesome and got it for me from the Brunswick Public Library, and then my sister bought a copy for Dad for Christmas, so everyone’s happy.

The story of the Murder of the Orient Express, briefly: Poirot is leaving Istanbul after finishing an investigation, and he’s called back to London to investigate something else. He runs into an old friend who’s a director of the railway and manages to upgrade himself to a first-class compartment. At dinner, Mr. Ratchett, an American traveler, approaches Poirot and asks Poirot to protect him, as he believes his life is in danger. Poirot doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett at all, and refuses to take the case.

That night, the train stops because an avalanche ahead has blocked the tracks. Also, Mr. Ratchett is found murdered in his locked room, with 13 stab wounds.

I’m not going to give y’all the solution – that’s what the book (or movies) are for. What I liked about Poirot is that he did all of his investigating by talking to people and making intuitive leaps. Sure, he investigated the crime scene and Mr. Ratchett’s body, so he has plenty of forensic knowledge, but the majority of the book read like a play – dialogue going back and forth, with Poirot asking questions and being able to squeeze answers from reluctant participants with nary an arm-twist.

If you’re unfamiliar with the locked-room mystery, you should definitely start with this one. It’s excellent.

Having said all that, the Kenneth Branagh version of the movie – if you decide to watch the movie before reading the book, and that’s totally fine, guys – but it doesn’t quite follow the plot. Yes, the solution is the same as in the novel, but Branagh (god love him) wants to add a bit more theatrics and effects to the plot. I mean, the bulk of the novel is Poirot sitting down, talking to suspects, and then discussing what was just talked about with his railway director friend. If it were a play, it could be staged very minimally, because there’s not a lot of action. So Branagh makes a suspect run away into the snow-covered mountains of Croatia and almost fall off a bridge, and there is at least one gunfight.

I had asked my dad last fall if he wanted to see Murder on the Orient Express. And Dad’s response was basically a big ol’ HELL NO.

Here’s a paraphrase of my Dad, after watching the trailer for the Branagh version (and yes, it’s spoken in the same tone of voice Alaina uses when telling people that The Revenant was a terrible, terrible film):

“There’s only ONE Hercule Poirot, and he was played by ALBERT FINNEY. Suchet was fine – but FINNEY WAS THE BEST. And look at those mustaches on Branagh – THOSE AREN’T WHAT THEY LOOKED LIKE. And Poirot doesn’t run, WHAT IS HE DOING?” *sigh* “No, Alaina, I DON’T want to see that movie.”

Cut to: Me, in the movie theater, muttering under my breath, “He was right, Dad would hate this. I can hear Dad now, saying ‘That’s not how it happened,’ just like when he and I saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He’d be so disappointed.”

But when you take away the extraneous, Hollywood shit that Branagh threw in, the movie was still very good. I mean, film-wise, Branagh can do very little wrong in my eyes. (I’m resolved to no longer be mad at the fact that he cheated on EMMA FUCKING THOMPSON, QUEEN OF EVERYTHING.) The cinematography of the film was gorgeous, and I thought Branagh did a good job with the character of Poirot, mustaches be-damned.

Anyways. I liked Murder on the Orient Express, both the novel and the Branagh film. (It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the Finney portrayal that I’m not going to pass judgment on it, but based on Dad’s opinion, that’s also very very good.) If you like mysteries and haven’t read this one yet, you totally should.

Better double-check that your library has it first.

Grade for Murder on the Orient Express: 4 stars

Non-Fiction: “Incendiary” by Michael Cannell

IncendiaryHere it is, friends: the beginning of the end (of 2017). I have six books (including this one) to get through and then I’ve got the 2017 recap to get done. If I can keep my head down and power through, I’ll be able to post the recap before September, and therefore be better than I was last year.

The last six books of 2017 were also all library books. This title was on the “new and notable non-fiction” shelf, and I’ll be very honest: when I read the subtitle (“The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber, and The Invention of Criminal Profiling”), I picked up the book and checked to see if there were any references to Hannibal Lecter or Thomas Harris in the index.

Reader, there were.

The plot – such as it is, for a non-fiction book – covers the story of the Mad Bomber in New York City. Beginning in 1940 and continuing over the course of 16 years, the Bomber planted pipe bombs all over the city, mostly focusing in movie theaters, train and bus stations, and Radio City Music Hall. The police force struggled to determine the culprit – not only were forensics still fairly primitive compared to today, but the Bomber was extremely careful with his fingerprints. The Bomber would either write letters to the newspaper or the police station, I can’t remember which, but the police were aware that the bombs were placed in retaliation against Con Edison, a huge electricity public utility in New York State.

Around 1956, New York Police Capt. Howard Finney decided to visit a psychiatrist, Dr. James A. Brussel, who was the deputy commissioner of the New York State Dept. of Mental Hygiene. On a whim, Capt. Finney asked Dr. Brussel to try and give a psychoanalysis of the Mad Bomber.

This had never been done before. Psychiatrists would only analyze people in their presence. So, based on what evidence Capt. Finney could give Dr. Brussel, the doctor created the first criminal profile.

In addition to the anger the Bomber felt toward Con Edison, Dr. Brussel gave the following additional insight:

Male, as historically most bombers were male. Well proportioned and of average build, based on studies of hospitalized mental patients. Forty to fifty years old, as paranoia develops slowly. Precise, neat and tidy, based on his letters and the workmanship of his bombs. An exemplary employee, on time and well-behaved. A Slav, because bombs were favored in Middle Europe. A Catholic, because most Slavs were Catholic. Courteous but not friendly.

Has a good education but probably not college. Foreign-born or living in a community of the foreign-born – the formal tone and old-fashioned phrasing of the letters sounded to Brussel as if they had been written or thought out in a foreign language and then translated into English. Based on the rounded letter “w’s” of the handwriting, believed to represent breasts, and the slashing and stuffing of theater seats, Brussel thought something about sex was troubling the bomber, possible an oedipus complex – loving his mother and hating his father and other authority figures.

A loner, no friends, little interest in women, possibly a virgin. Unmarried, perhaps living with an older female relative. Probably lives in Connecticut, as Connecticut has high concentrations of Slavs, and many of the bomber’s letters were posted in Westchester County, midway between Connecticut and New York City.  [Wikipedia page (]

And as Capt. Finney was leaving with the profile, Dr. Brussel added this:

In the parting moment Dr. Brussel closed his eyes. An image of the bomber came to him with cinematic clarity. He wore outdated clothes since his contempt for others would prevent him from holding steady jobs. His attire was old-fashioned, but clean and meticulous. It would be prim, perhaps with an enveloping, protective aspect.

“Captain, one more thing. When you catch him,” Dr. Brussel said, “and I have no doubt you will, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.”

Dr. Brussel added, “And it will be buttoned.”  [p. 107-108]

From there, Capt. Finney went to Seymour Berkson, the publisher of the New York Journal-American, and published a letter to the Mad Bomber, asking him to give himself up.

To The Mad Bomber
(Prepared in Co-operation with the Police Dept.)

Give yourself up.

For your own welfare and for that of the community, the time has come for you to reveal your identity.

The N.Y. Journal-American guarantees that you will be protected from any illegal action and that you will get a fair trial.

This newspaper is also willing to help you in two other ways.

It will publish all the essential parts of your story as you may choose to make it public.

It will give you the full chance to air whatever grievances you may have as the motive of your acts.

We urge you to accept this offer now not only for your own sake but for the sake of the community.

Time is running out on your prospects of remaining unapprehended.

You can telephone the City Editor of this newspaper at Cortland 7-1212, or you can go to any police station or even the policeman on the street and tell him who you are.

In all cases you will be given the benefits of our American system of justice.

Give yourself up now.  [p. 127]

The Mad Bomber began a correspondence with the Journal-American, and that led to confirming some of Dr. Brussels’ theories about the Bomber.

Eventually, a secretary at Con Edison found a worker’s comp document dating back to 1931, wherein an employee had been injured at work and found to have a permanent disability, and therefore fired. She found similar phrases used in the Mad Bomber’s letters and responses published in the Journal-American, and notified the police. The lead paid off: the culprit was George Metesky.

(Fun fact!: Con Edison also potentially delayed the investigation by claiming that all worker’s comp records dated prior to 1940 had been destroyed, when actually, they hadn’t. Capitalism!)

Metesky was arrested and indicted on 47 charges, including attempted murder and damaging a building by explosion. And yes, when he was arrested, he was wearing a buttoned double-breasted suit. Metesky was interviewed by numerous psychiatrists, and a judge determined him to be a paranoid schizophrenic; Metesky was declared legally insane and incompetent to stand trial. He was committed to Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

He was eventually released when the Supreme Court found that one cannot commit someone to a hospital unless a jury finds that person dangerous. Since Metesky was committed without a jury trial – and by that time, he’d served two-thirds of a maximum 25-year sentence – he was released. He died in 1993, at the age of 90.

So now that I’ve got that out of the way, here’s the part of the book that talked about Hannibal:

Today profiling plays a prominent role in the pursuit of all serial offenders. It has also become a preoccupation of popular culture. In the late 1970s a quiet, bearded former Associated Press editor named Thomas Harris audited classes and met with FBI agents at Quantico, Virginia, where he learned about the agency’s semisecret efforts to profile killers and sex offenders. “What I try to do with a case is to take in all the evidence I have to work with … and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender,” said John Douglas, one of the profilers Harris consulted over the years. “I try to think as he does. Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure …. If there’s a psychic component to this, I won’t run from it.”

Harris applied what he had learned at Quantico to his writings. His bestselling 1981 novel, Red Dragon, and its sequel Silence of the Lambs[*], introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist and homicidal cannibal, and Will Graham, the profiler who tracked him. Like Dr. Brussel, Graham succeeded because he could get inside the mind of a madman and follow his logic.

“It’s the way you think,” Graham’s FBI supervisor[**] tells him in Red Dragon.

“I think there’s a lot of bullshit about the way I think,” Graham replies.

“You made some jumps you never explained.”

Harris almost single-handedly created a profiling genre that stormed the bestseller lists and commands prime-time programming. [p. 244-245]

[*] It’s The Silence of the Lambs, dammit!

[**] Will’s “FBI supervisor” is JACK CRAWFORD, MUTHAFUCKA!

jack flips the bitch.gif

I liked the book. I thought Mr. Cannell did a good job with going between viewpoints: that of the NYPD, Mr. Metesky, and Dr. Brussells. He explained a lot of the forensics without being overly technical, which I appreciated. The plot – such as it is – moved along. If you’re interested in this type of topic, I’d recommend it. The Hannibal stuff was just a bonus.


Grade for Incendiary: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “A Dangerous Love” by Sabrina Jeffries

dangerous lovePicture it: Halloween 2017. I had just gotten back from a whirlwind weekend trip to Montreal with an old friend and was pretty exhausted. My friend and her friend left for California on the last Sunday in October, and I didn’t have to go back to work until November. So after sleeping pretty much all day Monday, I felt like I had to accomplish something, and I wasn’t in the middle of binging anything on TV, and I didn’t have any Halloween plans. So I decided to sit on my ass the entire day on Tuesday, with the goal of reading an entire book in a single day.

Aside from a few Sidney Sheldon thrillers I read in high school, I’ve never been able to do that. I get distracted, or, lately, I fall asleep. But if I pick the right book – which would be around 300 pages with a good-sized print and an interesting plot – and if I pace myself, I could probably do it. I mean, books are, on average, 200 to 300 pages long. I tend to read (depending on print size) a page a minute. So even if I’m reading something that’s 360 pages long, theoretically, I should be able to finish a book in six hours – and that’s without stopping for food, bathroom breaks, or the inevitable naptime.

And to give myself a handicap, I picked a “silly little romance novel,” because c’mon, if I’m going to be in my jam-jams all day (“pajamas”), I’m not going to be reading anything heavier plot-wise than that.

I perused my romance bookcase and took out A Dangerous Love. This is the first book in Ms. Jeffries’ Swanlea Spinsters series, and I had previously read After the Abduction, the third book, so now I could have the added bonus of getting caught up in a series! And y’all know how I am with a series.

The good news is that I was able to read the book in a single day.

archer wooooo

The bad news is that I just grabbed the book off of my “to review” shelf and realized a) I did not dogear any pages, so there weren’t any quotes that really struck me, and b) I do not remember anything about the plot.

lana hooray

Here’s what the back of the book says:

The ailing Earl of Swanlea is determined to see his daughters provided for before he dies …

But Lady Rosalind, the earl’s headstrong middle child, wants no part of her father’s scheme to marry her off to Griff Knighton. She is, in fact, far more intrigued by the unwanted visitor’s man of affairs – a devilish rogue, more arrogantly self-assured than the average valet, who has an air of danger about him that is tempting Rosalind to venture onto forbidden ground.

It is Griff himself, however, who has enflamed her desires – having mischievously swapped places with his own manservant to avoid unwanted romantic entanglements. And though he never dreamed he could want any woman so passionately, how can he reveal the truth to the proud, exquisite Rosalind without destroying their blossoming –

— and that’s where the back of the book is cut off by a sticker that I cannot remove. Blossoming love, maybe? Who knows. It’s a mystery.

From what I can remember (and read off of other Goodreads reviews, and by skimming the first couple of chapters), Griff is made to believe he’s a bastard. Like, an actual, born-out-of-wedlock bastard, not just an asshole. In spite of his bastard state, he has managed to build a massive trading firm from the ground up, and it rivals the East India Company. (Sure; sure.) The Earl of Swanlea is a distant cousin of Griff (so marrying one of the Earl’s daughters wouldn’t be completely icky – thanks, Regency England!), and Griff isn’t interested in marriage – but he is interested in searching the Swanlea estate to try and find proof of his legitimacy, which will then allow him to join a trade delegation to China.

So his brilliant idea is to bring his business partner Daniel along, and while Daniel-slash-Griff is “wooing” Swanlea’s daughter, Daniel-slash-Griff’s valet “Griff” can search the estate for Griff’s parents’ marriage certificate, which will prove he was legitimate.

Meanwhile, Rosalind is dead set against marrying out of her impending poverty. Her elder sister, Helena, is also not interested in marriage. But their youngest sister, Juliet, is ready to be married and thus set the plan in motion.

Mentioned quite frequently on Goodreads is the boorish qualities of Griff. I believe them, because I have no memory of the plot. However, I just skimmed the rest of the book – speed-reading for the win! – and while Griff isn’t a bastard, he is most definitely a dick.

He cajoles Rosalind into making out with him and then going to third base. She drops her resistance, but in the light of #MeToo, this whole scenario is very icky. Meanwhile, Rosalind is extremely stubborn when it comes to believing people – her father, Griff after he tells the truth – but on the other hand it’s very understandable, seeing as how practically every man in this novel is lying to her.

That’s what I’ve got for this one. I’m very proud that I was able to read an entire book in a single day, but I wish the book was more memorable so I could talk about it more.

Oh well.

Grade for A Dangerous Love: 1 star

Non-Fiction: “A Colony In A Nation” by Chris Hayes

colony nationI’m gonna warn all y’all right up front: this is political. If you don’t want to read about politics, Black Lives Matter, police-as-military force, and other horrible horrible things in our society, wait until my next review – it’ll be a silly little romance novel, with no politics or angst whatsoever.

Now that that’s outta the way…

Chris Hayes is a MSNBC host, the lead-in to Rachel Maddow’s show. I don’t watch MSNBC. In fact, the only time I watched MSNBC in the past umpty-million years was when Maddow claimed she had Drumpf’s tax return. (Spoiler alert!: she didn’t. She had two pieces of paper that showed a small portion of his tax return but didn’t really have any detail. Wake me up when you find the kompromat, Rach.) But I saw Chris Hayes when he was on my news broadcast, The Daily Show, talking to Trevor Noah about this book.

Here’s where I’d link to the interview clip, but the Comedy Central website wants me to log in with my cable provider account and password?! Fuck offffffff, Comedy Central!

ANYWAY. I liked his interview, and I remembered that I liked the interview and the premise of the book when I saw it on the “New and Notable” shelf at the library.

The book is less than 200 pages long, and it’s very well-written. So well-written, I ended up quoting a shit-ton of the book. Soooo, if you don’t feel like either watching an interview (if you can find it on the interwebs) or finding the book yourself, good news! This is practically a Cliffs Notes version.

(Here’s where I normally apologize to the kids who are googling the book title and “cliffs notes” and tell them they’re going to be very disappointed in this, try again, but honestly? This might get your essay done. Please send $35 in a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Alaina c/o That’s What She Read for all your essay-writing needs.)

A Colony In A Nation proposes that there are two justice systems in the United States: one for the wealthy and the white, and a second one for the poor and the black. The book is broken out into five or six parts, each a thesis on its own.

The first section sets up the premise with a real-world experience. Mr. Hayes tells us about the time he accidentally smuggled some pot into the 2000 Republican National Convention.

[…] the police officer who’d found the drugs put my bag on a table and looked at me, as if to say Go ahead and take it.

I figured as soon as I reached out and acknowledged the bag was mine, they’d slap the cuffs on. But when I went to grab the bag … nothing happened. I picked it up.

Kate [his girlfriend], her dad, and I walked into the convention center together. Her father said, amusedly, “You probably shouldn’t do that tomorrow.” [p. 18]

Compare that story to that of Dayvon Love of Baltimore, a high school debater who narrowly escaped being thrown in jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time:

“I was seventeen years old, it was the day of a debate tournament. I’d won first place, and that night I was catching a bus to go to New York to see a friend.” On his way to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning, Love and his father were pulled over by police. “They say I match the description of someone who stole a woman’s purse.”

The police began to search the car. More cruisers pulled up with their lights flashing. They took Love out of the car and had him stand in the middle of the street. At one point, one shined his police light right into the teenager’s face. “And you heard them ask the woman, you know, ‘Is this him?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know.’ And so luckily I had the presence of mind to think, ‘We had just stopped at the ATM to get the money I needed for my ticket.’ So I explained to them, I said I had just got the money that I needed to pay for my ticket.” Love happened to have the receipt from the ATM; the time stamp corroborated his story. “And luckily they let me get away, but that easily could have went in an entirely different way.”

By “entirely different way,” Love meant being swept into the vortex of a penal system that captures more than half the black men his age in his neighborhood. By “entirely different way,” he meant an adulthood marked by prison, probation, and dismal job prospects rather than debate coaching and activism. If he hadn’t been so quick on his feet, if the woman hadn’t been unsure the police had the right person, everything might have been different. [p. 20-21]

Here’s the premise of the entire book, in four block paragraphs:

There are fundamentally two ways you can experience the police in America: as the people you call when there’s a problem, the nice man in uniform who pats a toddler’s head and has an easy smile for the old lady as she buys her coffee. For others, the police are the people who are called on them. They are the ominous knock on the door, the sudden flashlight in the face, the barked orders. Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment or a plummeting feeling of terror. [p. 16]

This book makes a simple argument: that American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. Policing is a uniquely important and uniquely dangerous function of the state. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes use the police in horrifying ways; we call them “police states” for a reason. But the terrifying truth is that we as a people have created the Colony through democratic means. We have voted to subdue our fellow citizens; we have rushed to the polls to elect people promising to bar others from enjoying the fruits of liberty. A majority of Americans have put a minority under lock and key. [p. 32]

If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal. [p. 37]

In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty. Police officers tasked with keeping these two realms separate intuitively grasp of the contours of this divide: as one Baltimore police sergeant instructed his officers, “Do not treat criminals like citizens.” [p. 38]

Part II brings the discussion to a natural starting point: Ferguson, Missouri, and Michael Brown. He cites a handful of actual Ferguson ordinances related to policing, including this one:

[…] None of this would have happened if she’d just listened.

Section 29-16(1) of the municipal code of the city of Ferguson, Missouri, codifies this principle. It is a crime to “[f]ail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties.” As the Department of Justice would later show, the police much abuse this statute. Ferguson cops routinely issue orders that have no legal basis and then arrest citizens who refuse those orders for “failure to comply.” It’s a neat little circular bit of authoritarian reasoning. [p. 46-47]

But the bigger point Mr. Hayes makes in this section is that this need for obedience to the police state is anathema to our history. As a colony, America proudly resisted being told what to do by Britain.

But as a principle of self-governance, particularly of American self-governance, “do what the cops say” is a pretty strange unofficial motto. This great land of ours, this exceptional beacon of liberty, was founded by men who, to borrow a phrase, refused to comply. Who not only resisted lawful orders but rebelled against the government that issued them. Colonists chased the king’s officers through the streets, caught them, beat them, tarred and feathered them, and wheeled them through town for all to mock and shame. As distant as it may seem now, that’s our national heritage when it comes to “lawful orders.” [p. 49]

Back in the day (i.e., America’s days as a colony), power was held by the pirates and the smugglers who snuck product to the colonists under the nose of Britain’s port authority.

During the pre-Revolutionary era, smugglers created economic activity that caused huge knock-off effects: a cascade of subsidiary industries and cash flow that kept a whole lot of people in the colonies (not to mention lots of business back in merry old England) in the money. The same goes for dealers in, say, Westside Baltimore or the South Side of Chicago or the South Bronx, or northern Maine or eastern Kentucky or South Central Los Angeles. Sure, the drug trade is illegal, reckless, and destructive, but it encourages commerce in places where the legitimate economy produces few jobs. While dealers and “the street” are viewed skeptically, often angrily, they also command status. Dealers, like smugglers, become institutions – the way, say, New Englanders viewed John Hancock in the years leading to the revolution. [p. 53]

(John Hancock was a smuggler prior to signing the Declaration of Independence with the largest pen.)

But that talk about the drug trade in northern Maine – seriously. The second district of Maine is still horribly economically depressed, and so many people are turning to the drug trade. And as much as Governor LePage would want us to believe that the majority of drug dealers in Maine are not white (“guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty … half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave”) – from other states (“black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn”) – i.e., The Colonies — the majority of arrests have been white, native Mainers – The Nation.

*checks watch* 29 more weeks until the next Inauguration Day for Maine. *taps watch, wills it to tick faster goddammit*

Something else Ferguson had going for the it, regarding its racial inequality towards justice: the fact that the City of Ferguson was more concerned about raising revenue by municipal violations than focusing on actual public safety needs. Y’know: quotas.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. [p. 62, quoting directly from the DOJ’s report on the patterns and practices of the Ferguson, MO police department]

I grew up in a relatively sleepy suburban, college town. As of the 2010 census, Maine was 94% white. Brunswick – my hometown – may have been slightly less white when I was in school, but only because the Brunswick Naval Air Base was still active at that time. I grew up in a middle-class family: we struggled at times, but we had a house, two cars, food on the table, and cable TV.

But the Brunswick cops – I don’t know what it was, but Brunswick cops (with a few exceptions) were the worst.

The first time I got pulled over, I was 19 years old. I had just bought my first car – Max, a cherry red 1994 Plymouth Acclaim – and I was driving down Maine Street, heading for Topsham. A car tried to cut me off coming out of a side street, and in my attempt to avoid being hit, I drove through a crosswalk where a pedestrian had just entered my lane. A cop was in the other lane. He pulled a U-ey and followed me, siren blaring. When I pulled over and rolled my window down, I was shaking – from almost being hit, and not knowing for sure why I was in trouble.

The cop – Ray-Bans down, practically chewing on a toothpick and waving his Maglite in my eyes in broad fucking daylight – intimidated the fuck out of me. Gave me a ticket, and because I’d only had my full license less than two years, told me my license would be suspended.

I had just gotten a job in the next town over. There was no way for me to walk to work, so not being able to drive for the entire summer would have ruined me. So I went to court to contest, and in order to get out of the suspension, had to go to the same “defensive driving” course that people with DUIs have to take to get the points taken off my record.

For failure to yield to a pedestrian. All so the cop with the fucking Napoleonic complex (I distinctly remember towering over him when he showed up to court) could fulfill his quota.


*sigh* If you want to hear more about municipal violations and how they can escalate into some high grade, life-ruining bullshit, check out my Pretend Second British Boyfriend John Oliver from three years ago.

For subjects of authoritarian rule, humiliation is the permanent state of existence. “There is the man at the top,” Frantz Fanon wrote of his native Martinique, “and there are his courtiers, the indifferent (who are waiting), and the humiliated.” That’s it. In a colonial system, you can have power and be close to those with power, or you can be humiliated.

Cops – Brunswick cops in particular (and I know I’m probably gonna get some flak for this, but Sharon*, your husband wasn’t a Brunswick cop back in 2002, I’m not counting him) – wield what power they’re given in order to humiliate the governed.

*name changed to protect the innocent

And to bring it all back to Mr. Hayes’s thesis:

But Ferguson’s practices were hiding in plain sight for all to see for years. And in fact, when I talked to people in Ferguson, they didn’t think there was much that special about it. Go to any of the surrounding little municipalities around Ferguson in St. Louis County: Jennings, Florissant, Kinloch. A Washington Post investigation of the municipal court system in the surrounding towns found identical violations across the board.

This is what “the law” looks like in the Colony, where real democratic accountability is lacking, when the consent of the governed is absent or forsaken or betrayed, and when the purpose of policing and courts isn’t the maintenance of safety and provision of justice but rather some other aim. In north St. Louis County that aim is to produce revenue, the same aim of the British Empire’s customs regime in the American colonies. [p. 75]

And here’s what happens when the authoritarian “status quo” gets challenged: the police fight back against the uprising Colonists:

In response to the outrage that poured forth on that summer afternoon, the police of Ferguson and St. Louis County mobilized as if for war: flak jackets, masks, helmets, camouflage, assault weapons, and armored vehicles. Men pointed their long guns at civilians who assembled for peaceful protest. Cops arrested and detained journalists who were charging their phones in a McDonald’s. They fired tear gas canisters indiscriminately. Bands of armed cops in full combat gear chased unarmed, peaceful protesters through the streets with guns raised. [p. 67]

Part III begins with a reminder of the Tamir Rice tragedy – where a twelve-year-old boy was killed by police officers who were dispatched to a public park where report of a black male pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing at people was made, and then killing that twelve-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun. This leads Mr. Hayes to discuss, in part, the notion that the Nation clings to its weaponry in order to maintain order in the Colony.

Today Americans still rely on the gun, the power to kill or injure, to preserve the social order in the most fraught and dire moments. Police know their weapon is by their side if the situation they encounter spins too far out of control and they find themselves threatened. [p. 88]

But he also makes a good, if often-missed point: too often people call the police to handle situations that really shouldn’t be their purview. And, additionally, police officers are not given the appropriate training to be truly effective in those situations.

For instance: you’re a police officer, fresh out of the academy. Let’s say you’re between the ages of 25 and 30. You get a call to a residence because the resident of the house – who is suffering from severe developmental disorders – has found a weapon and is threatening another resident. What’s your training? What should you do as a policeman? The resident hasn’t done anything illegal, but you were called to respond, and you can’t just leave.

We ask police to be social workers, addiction counselors, mental health workers, and community mediators. We wouldn’t hand a social worker a gun and have them go out into the streets to apprehend criminals, but we do the opposite every day. [p. 95-96]

And then, there’s the topic of White Fear. Ah, that fear of the unknown and distrust of people that don’t look like us; the fear that causes people to lock their car doors when they drive through a city, or causes those same people to call the cops when they see a black man in their neighborhood. Or causes a white lady to call the cops on two Native American teens who were merely taking a college tour.

Despite the fact that nonwhite people are disproportionately the victims of crime, the criminal justice system as a whole is disproportionately built on the emotional foundation of white fear. But then, that isn’t surprising. American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate. [p. 109]

Also in Part IV, Mr. Hayes discusses in depth the racial bias of the justice system, especially when it comes to the War on Drugs. And here is where I am going to go all capslocky, and I want y’all to know, I DO NOT APOLOGIZE.

So, here’s the thing: in 2016, the State of Maine legalized recreational marijuana by referendum. It allows possession and personal cultivation of the plant – with limits – and sets up regulation for the sale of marijuana to recreational users. Now, here’s the downside: the way the referendum was written, and the way it was put into the law books, practically all the nitty-gritty stuff about licensing, and background checks, and all that shit that we need to ensure it stays legal? I think if the law writers were allowed to enter the *shrug emoticon* for all that stuff, they could have. Everything – and I mean everything – is pretty much TBD.

Enter the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee in the Maine Legislature. For almost 18 months, these seventeen elected officials did a lot of hard work – going to Colorado and Washington, learning how other states worked within the lines to ensure there were safeguards in place to allow medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana to coexist. They labored over just the right type of taxation scheme to ensure that the State benefits from this. (And in the middle of this, Jeff Beauregard Sessions threw a monkey wrench into the whole affair because he thinks it smells bad, but also, he’s racist, and yes, I’m getting to that).

Flash forward to two weeks ago, when the final version of the bill the MLI Committee wrote – which is 80 pages long, containing numerous regulations for cultivators, products manufacturers, retailers, and testing facilities, and licensing, and reports and studies and DUDES, lemme tell ya, I have read that bill backwards and frontwards about sixty times until Sunday, how did this pot virgin become an expert on pot?! – came up in the House for voting.

And at least three Republican representatives stood up and said that they can’t vote on it, because legalizing marijuana is a bad thing to do, and if we (the people) can legalize marijuana by referendum vote, *gasp* what’s next? Voting to legalize heroin?

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And then they threw out the fact that marijuana is a Schedule One narcotic on the Controlled Substances Act.

Which caused me to run away from my computer (where I was watching the livestream at work) and into the stairwell and post to Facebook the following:

nixon was racist


The number of people [over the decades of the DEA] in state and federal prisons serving drug sentences increased nearly 1,270 percent, from 24,000 inmates in 1980 to 304,500 in 2014. Years later Nixon aide John Ehrlichman seemed to offer up a smoking gun when he told a reporter:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. [p. 111]


But what happened over the years? Even though studies have shown that black people and white people use marijuana at the same rates, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and/or use over white people.


[NOTE FROM THE PAST: And now the Maine Legislature is all fucked up, and I’m waiting for veto day to see if the marijuana bill even gets un-vetoed [[because LePage is going to veto it, like an asshole]], and if I have to listen to another twelve months of my friend whose name I am not going to post on the internet for privacy reasons bitching about the fact that he can’t go into a store and buy pot I will LOSE MY MIND.]

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[Note From the Future: holy shit, the pot bill survived the veto.]

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[oh shit, now what do I do?]

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Getting back to White Fear: it’s also known as “unconscious bias” which, thanks to Starbucks, hopefully a lot more people will realize this is an endemic problem in society? [In a way, it’s a good thing it’s taken me forever to get caught up on my blog reviews – look at all the real-world examples I’m able to throw in now!] But what do we do with White Fear – and is there a way to train it out of us?

[…] Imagine that this particular officer, not through conscious racism but through deep unconscious bias, finds himself only in fear of black citizens. […] He is not faking his fear; he is not being disingenuous. But something is deeply amiss.

What is the moral status of that fear? What is its legal status? In the case of a police officer, the practical effect of our collective conception of fear is its transcendent ability to exculpate. If a cop shoots someone because he is angry, he is a murderer. But if he shoots a suspect because he is afraid, he is innocent. Can the law second-guess that subconscious impulse, which the shooter cannot control any more than he can keep his leg from kicking out when a doctor strikes a hammer against his knee? [p. 117]

I mean, probably not. This is America. [Mom, you’re not gonna want to watch that link, okay? Seriously, I mean it, don’t click it.]

Over the decades, communities have tried to make themselves safer and better protected from drugs and crime. Whites and minorities alike have petitioned to have better policing, better programs and more resources to keep people from getting involved with crime.

How’d that go over?

Because control over the machinery of the state in almost all places remained in the hands of an overwhelmingly white elite, a perverse form of “half-a-loaf” legislative compromise emerged during this period. Yes, black citizens, leaders, clergy, activists, and politicians in predominantly black neighborhoods recognized a crisis, and yes, they were demanding solutions. But the solutions they were demanding were full spectrum – more police and more jobs – while the solutions they got were entirely punitive.

In the fight over the 1994 crime bill, the NAACP excoriated the initial draft for its lack of investment in urban communities. The Congressional Black Caucus proposed its own alternative, with $5 billion more in funding for drug treatment and early intervention programs. But Republicans demagogued on the small amount of social spending in the Senate Democrats’ version of the bill, railing against midnight basketball programs as a government subsidy for hooligans. The bill then lost an additional $2.5 billion in social spending, but left in place billions for prisons and a long list of punitive measures.

This process was repeated in statehouses and city halls across the country: black people asked for social investment and got SWAT teams, asked for full employment and got gang units, asked for protection and got “stop and frisk.” White fear absorbed and appropriated black fear. Thanks to what scholars call “selective hearing,” black fear, combined with white political power, produced a state committed to managing and punishing black and brown subjects rather than empowering and protecting them. [p. 124-125]

Real-world example: the marijuana legalization bill I was talking about? If we wanted to truly make it egalitarian, there should have been a provision to expunge the records of all possession and use crimes for those who have been convicted of them, now that possession is partly legal. “Oh, you got busted in 2012 for holding two ounces of pot? Well, now you can hold two and a half ounces of pot legally, bye-bye criminal record!”


The best the bill does is allow those applying for marijuana establishment licenses to still be considered if the individual does have a conviction “for an offense that consisted of conduct that is authorized under chapter 3 [possession and use].”

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So let’s say you were convicted of possession of marijuana, but don’t want to get into the marijuana biz. That conviction is going to remain on your record, and you will continue to be required to disclose that conviction on employment applications. So essentially, if you have a conviction and you have to get a new job, the only job where that marijuana conviction will not count against you is one in the marijuana industry. How is that fair!? Thanks, half-loaf legislature!

Here’s another example of how tone-deaf people in power are:

[Chris Hayes] asked [the mayor of Ferguson, MO] what he thought was the big takeaway from the death of Michael Brown and the protests for racial justice that had brought hundreds of reporters from around the world to his city.

The mayor didn’t hesitate. “We have to find a way to stabilize housing. There is, all across north St. Louis County, a problem with housing where people only live for a few years. They switch school districts, you know, every year. They move houses every year, every six months. They never really set down roots. We have to find a way to do that.”

I was a bit incredulous: “So you think that is sort of the – that is your takeaway from this?”

“Yeah, the takeaway is we have to find a way to stabilize them here in the community and make them part of it.”

Ah yes, stabilize housing – that phrase was familiar to me, like concerns about vagrants and seediness and orderliness. Stability is one of the things that, in the minds of those within the Nation, define it, compared to the transience of the Colony. I’m sure the mayor really was concerned with making sure his constituents had a stake in the city and felt part of it for the long term. But the subtext was present, too: that it was the denizens of the Colony who were causing problems, and things would be fine if Ferguson could get rid of this disorderly class of squatters who had infiltrated their town. [p. 150]

The above is a good example of “broken windows” policing: broken windows or squalor in a community is apparently an indicator of crime going on in the area. This leads to “community policing,” where the police force in the area are more present so as to build up the safety of the community. However:

The problem with “community policing,” then and now, is that so often the cops being called to enforce community norms are not part of the community. [p. 157]

In a perfect world, the police officers who police your community would be made up of people in your community. But how many times do you see primarily-white officers and policemen responsible for policing primarily-minority areas? Those officers are not part of the community they are policing.

The final part of the book (yes, I’ve finally reached the end) discusses the punitive nature of America’s justice system.

America is a wrathful land. Americans like to humiliate wrongdoers. We like to heap marks of shame upon them, to watch them groan and write beneath their sins, as far back as the scarlet letter and the stocks. We like, in short, to punish. It makes us feel good. By every conceivable metric – prosecutions, duration of sentences, conditions of imprisonment – the United States is by far the most punitive rich democracy. No one else really comes close. [p. 181]

Mr. Hayes goes further, discussing a study made by law professor James Whitman:

In 2003 law professor James Whitman laid out an argument for why the U.S. criminal justice system compares so poorly to those of continental Europe – France and Germany specifically.  […] He comes to a surprising and compelling conclusion: that it is the strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.

In the German and French systems, he explains, punishment long existed along two separate tracks: degradation and humiliation for low-status prisoners and relative comfort and hospitality for high-status ones. The United States, on the other hand. maintained a more egalitarian ethos of punishment (for white people, anyway). Since the American Revolution, we viewed punishment as a great equalizer; no special kinds of punishment was reserved for lords and for peasants. Thus the system of punishment that developed found equality in a race to the bottom: everyone got punished harshly as an expression of a core belief that no man stands above another. [p. 183]

There’s a lot in this short book. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ve taken up enough of your time, and I’m also probably not the person to say it. Here’s what I can say: the book opened my eyes on a lot of things that I was probably blind to, and it certainly doesn’t help that I live in the whitest state in the country (aside from possibly Vermont; I can’t remember which one of us is on top right now). But I promise to do my best to use my white privilege to effect better change, and I encourage anyone who wants to make this country better to read this book.

Grade for A Colony In A Nation: 5 stars

Fiction: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderAbout a year ago, Starz premiered American Gods, which was showrun by Bryan Fuller — the same Bryan Fuller who was responsible for a little show called Hannibal. And because I would follow Bryan Fuller to the ends of the earth, I added Starz to my Amazon Prime so I could watch the show.

I don’t know what happened, because I could not get into the show. But it had everything – Bryan Fuller! Ian McShane, formerly Al Swearengen on DeadwoodGillian fucking Anderson! Whatever the reason, it must be the same reason why I can’t get through the book. And I’ve tried to read that THREE TIMES.

When I can finally get through that book I’m sure I’ll rant more about American Gods. Meanwhile, Starz is also the home of Outlander, and I didn’t let my Starz subscription go to waste – over the summer, I rewatched the first season and half of the second season, and also read the first book, Outlander.

I’m not going to get into too much of the plot (she says, hopeful), because I can tell you that the first season does an excellent job of following the book. There are a couple of deviations made for artistic license, but overall I thought the series did a great job telling the story. So if you don’t want to read an 850-page book, you can just watch about 16 hours of television instead.

Outlander is a novel of many genres: it’s got time-travel (sci-fi); it’s got romance; it’s got history; it’s got actual science. It begins in post-WWII Scotland, with Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, enjoying a second honeymoon. Frank is researching his ancestry, and is very interested to learn more about Black Jack Randall, a captain with the English Dragoons. Claire is broadening her nursing education through botany, learning about flowers and plants that have healing capabilities.

One day, Claire goes to visit Craigh na dun – a stone circle similar to Stonehenge, but smaller in scale – and has a weird experience: she hears one of the stones screaming. Her vision begins to blur, she feels faint, and when she wakes up, she is no longer in 1945, but 1742.

Of course, it takes Claire a while to figure that out. Or, rather, it takes her a while to believe it. She is nearly captured by Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall himself, but is rescued of a sort by Jamie Fraser and his clan. And so begins what can only be described as a very well-written soap opera.

(Trust me – I loved it.)

Claire tries to avoid arousing suspicion – which is hard to do, considering her English accent. Using her knowledge of modern medicine combined with her botany learnings, she becomes the new “nurse” (I can’t remember what they actually called her and no, I’m not going to look it up) for the castle. Then Jamie’s cousin, Dougal (Dougal might be Jamie’s uncle, I DON’T CARE) wants to bring Claire along when they collect the rents, which suits Claire fine – she just wants to escape back to Craigh na Dun and try to get back to Frank.

IT’S SO SOAPY, you guys! Because Claire gets captured by Black Jack Randall again! And the only way to save her is to become part of the clan, so she has to marry Jamie Fraser! And that’s hard for Claire, because she still loves her husband Frank! But obviously no one knows about Frank, so bigamy it is! And then she falls in love with Jamie anyway! And there’s —

Okay, but for real, no exclamation points, CONTENT WARNING, there is also rape. Claire is violated by an English Dragoon – who gets killed immediately by Jamie -, but there are further rape threats to her and also to Jamie (by Black Jack Randall). It’s … it’s not pretty, at times.

And sure, it’s supposed to be “a description of the times”, and sure, the 1700s were not great for women and women’s rights, and the book does show … or attempt to show the struggle that Claire has as a “modern” woman, trying to fit in during this backwards time period. For instance, after Claire is rescued from Black Jack Randall the first time, though Jamie is relieved to learn she’s okay, he does feel the need to punish her, corporally:

“I’ve said I’m sorry!” I  burst out. “And I am. I’ll never do such a thing again!”

“Well, that’s the point,” he said slowly. “Ye might. And it’s because ye dinna take things as serious as they are. Ye come from a place where things are easier, I think. […] I know ye would never endanger me or anyone else on purpose. But ye might easily do so without meanin’ it, like ye did today, because ye do not really believe me yet when I tel ye that some things are dangerous. You’re accustomed to thin for yourself, and I know,” he glanced sideways at me, “that you’re not accustomed to lettin’ a man tell ye what to do. But you must learn to do so, for all our sakes.” [p. 391]

And beat her ass he does. Yay feminism! :/

As much as I liked it – and the TV series – there are some problematic themes. Caveat lector.

I like Claire. She’s smart, yet not a Strong Female Character™ – she has flaws, and moments of panic. She does her best to adapt to her new world, and eventually comes to accept the fact that she’s probably not going to be able to return to her normal time. At the end of the book, she and Jamie are sailing off to France, escaping the Dragoons, and trying to figure out how to change history so the Scottish clans aren’t eradicated in the Battle of Culloden.

Eventually – maybe after I get caught up with Better Call Saul – I’ll power through the next couple of seasons of Outlander on my Starz subscription. And I have the next book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber, waiting for me to pick up as well. We’ll see how it goes.

Grade for Outlander: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

GunslingerEven though I’ve lived in Maine my entire life (save for freshman year at Franklin Pierce College), I’ve never been able to get into Stephen King novels. Love him as a person and as a representative of Maine — and one of my best friends had dinner at his house when he [the friend] was going to school at U-Maine! — but other than Hannibal, I’ve never been a huge fan of horror.

Up until this past year, the only Stephen King novel I’d ever read was The Dead Zone, and the only reason I ever read that was because Sean Patrick Flanery was starring in the USA series based on the book, and I loved Sean Patrick Flanery – he was my favorite Boondock Saint.

So anyway. I’m not jazzed about Stephen King. But then, The Dark Tower movie was announced, starring my second-favorite Next James Bond (after Gillian Anderson or Janelle Monáe), Idris Elba. And I like Idris Elba. And I got more interested in the movie than I normally would have been, because My Dear Friend Sarah was interested in the movie.

But, I didn’t want to go into something blind – especially where Stephen King is concerned. So I put a question out into the universe (y’know – Twitter) and asked whether I should read The Dark Tower.

My Dear Friend Sarah said (essentially), “Yes, you should absolutely read the series, but let me warn you, you’re going to get to a point where you throw one of the books across the room. Don’t let it stop you, pick up the book, toss a shot back, and keep going.”

So with that recommendation – and I’m not being facetious, Sarah tells it like it is, and I appreciate that; if someone knows you well enough that they know you’re going to get frustrated with something, give that person a heads-up! — I requested the first book in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, from the Yarmouth Public Library.

Hoo, boy. Okay. So. *sigh* … how the fuck do I talk about this?

I have no idea what happened in that book.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the below five paragraphs, because seriously, I remember there’s a massacre at a town, and a lot of desert walking, a young paranoid kid named Jake, maybe a spider? and a scene in a mountain that reminds me of the mine car sequence from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but at the end of it Short Round dies.

There’s a Gunslinger. His name is Roland. And he’s searching for a Man in Black. He’s walking through a desert, and stops at this tiny rundown farm, and while he’s there for the night, he tells the farmer about the massacre he caused at the last town at the edge of the desert. The next day he continues on his journey.

Roland rolls into a way station, and meets a young boy named Jake. Jake’s about ten, and he tells Roland how he got there, and apparently he was hit by a car in Manhattan but then ended up at the way station, and it sounds like our universe is parallel to Roland’s, but also maybe it’s limbo or something? Then they defeat a demon in the basement and then Jake goes with Roland on his journey.

They get out of the desert and there’s this succubus in a forest, and Roland saves Jake from it and then Roland sleeps with the succubus so he can figure out what’s going on with his quest. There’s also a pretty substantial flashback to Roland’s childhood, which is not pretty or pleasant.

Then Roland and Jake run into the Man in Black, who says he’s only going to meet one of them on the other side of the mountain. Roland and Jake cross through the mountain, using a handcar. They run into some zombies or something, and then when they get to an abyss where only one of them can cross, Roland sacrifices Jake so he can continue on his journey alone.

He does meet up with the Man in Black on the other side of the mountain, as foretold. The Man in Black tries to convince Roland to give up his quest – which essentially was a revenge killing of the Man in Black – and the Man in Black also tries to tell Roland that Roland’s true enemy is the person controlling the Dark Tower, which they can see on the horizon. The Man in Black deals tarot cards and then there’s a sequence where they go whizzing past different planets, and then Roland falls asleep and when he wakes up the Man in Black has turned into a skeleton, so Roland keeps walking.

The only quote I captured from the book itself (and not from Stephen King’s afterword) is this:

“You asleep?” the gunslinger asked.


“Did you understand what I told you?”

“Understand it?” The boy asked, with cautious scorn. “Understand it? Are you kidding?” [p. 174]

You and me both, boy.

So, even while I was reading it, I was checking out Wikipedia. And the Wikipedia page for the book has this as its second sentence:

The Gunslinger was first published in 1982 as a fix-up novel, joining five short stories that had been published between 1978 and 1981. King substantially revised the novel in 2003, and this version is in print today.

And I went, “wait a minute …”

The version I read – the one I got from the library – was published in 1988; an illustrated version of the original 1982 publication.

This entire time – I was reading the wrong version.



Now, there were a couple of cool things I could take from Stephen King’s afterword, which continues to prove that I like him as a person, but not as a teller of stories.

He said this about the process of getting The Gunslinger to completion:

[…] this segment, “The Gunslinger and the Dark Tower,” was written over a period of twelve years. It is by far the longest I’ve taken with any work … and it might be more honest to put it another way: it is the longest that any of my unfinished works has remained alive and viable in my own mind, and if a book is not alive in the writer’s mind, it is as dead as year-old horseshit even if words continue to march across the page. [p. 219]

Damn straight, Stephen.

And this argument brought me right back to … oh god, what was it freshman year, Advanced Reading 101? What the hell was that stupid fucking “English” course we all had to take with Ms. Ring, where we only read two books, one of which was Into the Wild, which I already hated, and she made us use the entire writing process toolbox every time we had to write something? Anyway, this statement gave me flashbacks:

Somewhere inside I know all of these things, and there is no need of an argument, or a synopsis, or an outline (outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses). When it’s time, those things — and their relevance to the gunslinger’s quest — will roll out as naturally as tears or laughter. [p. 224]

SERIOUSLY. Look, I have this “novel” I’ve been “writing” for almost seven years now, and my worry is that it’s just a series of conversations between people and there’s no plot. But since I’m not sure how the story ends (I’ve got options), I’m not about to start outlining the fucking thing. I’ll get there eventually.

And probably, eventually, I’ll try to find the “correct”, revised version of The Gunslinger. Sarah told me it’s worth it, and I’ll give it a shot, but let me be very clear: it’s going to take me a while to work up the will to try again. Because this book was the biggest disappointment of 2017 — at least, in the book-reading department.

Grade for The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger1 star (only for Stephen King’s afterword)