Fiction: “The Heiress Effect” by Courtney Milan

heiress effectSpoiler Alert!: I only read romance novels this past winter. No, I’m not kidding. (And yes, I am including A Murder in Time in that description.) So if romance novels aren’t your jam, tune in sometime near December when I finally get around to reviewing the books I read in March.

Come on. You know I’m right.

So The Heiress Effect is the second book in Courtney Milan’s “Brothers Sinister” series, following The Duchess War. The “brother” in this story is Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke who was raised by his mother and her husband (not his real father) in humble circumstances. He has used his circumstances to be a member of the House of Lords (I think – it may be the House of Commons, but I’m also not going to search through the book to find out which one it is. Not just because I’m incredibly lazy, but mostly because I read this on my Kindle app) and now Oliver wants to pass a voting reform bill (or something – it’s a MacGuffin, y’all, it doesn’t matter) and his mentor, the Marquess of Bradenton, is determined to undermine him at every turn.

Enter Jane Fairfield.

Jane is the titular Heiress, sitting on a fortune of over 100,000 pounds. Her uncle is pushing her to marry because that’s not a thing that has ever changed in over four hundred years of human civilization. Jane doesn’t really want to marry – or, at least, not until her younger sister, Emily, reaches her majority.

See, Emily has epilepsy. Except in the context of the story – and again, I can’t remember what year this is supposed to take place – there hasn’t been a medication program discovered for epilepsy, so Emily and Jane’s uncle keeps bringing all these quack doctors to the house, hoping to cure Emily so she also can be marketable as a future wife.

“So let me understand. You are proposing to deliver as many electric shocks as you like to my sister, for an indeterminate amount of time, on a theory for which you have no evidence other than a wild guess.”

“That hardly seems fair!” he squawked. “I haven’t even had a chance –”

“Oh, no,” Emily said, speaking up at last. “He’s demonstrated that he can cause a convulsion in me with his current. I told him that it wasn’t the same kind of fit that I have. It doesn’t feel the same at all. But it is, after all, only my body. What do I know?”

Jane couldn’t speak for the black rage that filled her. She’d wanted to protect Emily. Why did her uncle have to bring in these fools?

“Exactly,” the charlatan said. “I am the expert on galvanics. What would she know?” [Chapter 6, p. 65]

Ha ha ha nothing has changed when it comes to women’s health care and also women’s autonomy over their own bodies!

If Jane gets married, she’ll go to live with her husband, leaving Emily at the mercy of her uncle and his quacks. But if she can remain single until Emily reaches her majority, then she can accept responsibility for her sister, and they can move into a house together, where Jane can take care of Emily. So how does Jane keep from being proposed to?

She becomes the worst type of person.

the wooooorst.gif

Okay, not quite Mona-Lisa Saperstein, but only because that level of vapidity hadn’t been invented yet.

She purchases the worst dresses – at one point, she’s wearing a dress with bananas garishly printed on it. She insults everyone, but in the nicest way possible with a smile plastered on her face. She’s loud, she laughs annoyingly, and everyone hates her.

It’s just the way she likes it. Because if everyone hates her, then no one will propose, and her plan will work exactly as she hoped.

Here’s an example of how Jane plays dumb in talking to men who hate her, and it’s brilliant:

Young virgins simply did not engage in frank conversations about the government’s policy of locking up prostitutes. The disgruntled mutters about Miss Fairfield would turn into outrage.

“It’s simple,” Jane insisted. “I know just how to do it. Instead of just locking up the women who are suspected of being ill, we should lock up all the women. That way, the ones who are well can never get sick.”

At the foot of the table, Whitting scratched his head. “But … how would men use their services?”

“What do men have to do with it?” Jane asked.

“Um.” Lord James looked down. “I take your point, Bradenton. This is … perhaps not the best conversation to be having at the moment.”

“After all,” Jane continued, “if men were capable of infecting women, our government in its infinite wisdom would never choose to lock up only the women. That would be pointless, since without any constraint on men, the spread of contagion would never stop. It would also be unjust to confine women for the sin of being infected by men.” She smiled triumphantly. “And since our very good Marquess of Bradenton supports the Act, that could never be the case. He would never sign on to such manifest injustice.”

There was a longer pause at that. [Chapter 13, p. 141]

“What do men have to do with prostitution?” she asks. Dear god, I love this person so much.

Jane frequents a lot of the same parties that Oliver and Bradenton attend. And Bradenton haaaaaaaaates Jane. And so, he makes Oliver an offer: if Oliver can remove Jane from their social circle, then Bradenton will vote for Oliver’s voter reform act. Oliver, desperate for votes for his bill, agrees – but he’s not too happy about it.

However, the closer he gets to Jane, the more Oliver realizes that she’s pretending. And the more he sees her pretending, the more he likes her.

MEANWHILE, there’s a whole subplot about Emily! She sneaks out of her uncle’s house for a walk, and one day, she meets a law student named Anjan Bhattacharya. She realized she needed to take a break from her walk because she could feel one of her fits coming on, so she goes into a pub near Cambridge (the whole series takes place in Cambridge/Oxford instead of London) to hide and work through the fit and sits next to the law student from India. Anjan is the only Indian attending in his class, and has become the Token Diverse “Friend” of all the other white boys in his class.

Anjan was Batty because Bhattacharya had too many syllables. He’d told one man his first name; the fellow had blinked, and then had immediately dubbed him John. That’s who they thought he was: John Batty. These well-meaning English boys had taken his name as easily, and with as much jovial friendship, as their fathers had taken his country. [Chapter 16, p. 160]

But Emily wants to know his real name, and about his family, and about him. It’s not just because she’s starved for company – she takes a liking to Anjan. And he does to her as well.

And Emily had called him Bhattacharya. He’d fallen a little bit in love with her the moment she’d said his name as if it had value. [Chapter 16, p. 160]

They keep meeting on her afternoon walks, until her uncle realizes she’s been sneaking out. Then he practically locks her up in his house and forces Jane into a proposal.

There’s ALSO a subplot involving Oliver’s younger sister Free (possibly short for something, but again, not looking it up). Free wants to be the first woman to attend Cambridge (or maybe Oxford), and it’s for her that he’s promoting his voting reform act. There’s also his aunt, Aunt Freddy, an agoraphobic woman who lives by herself and desperately wants to see the world, and let me tell you, the resolution of that subplot and how it tied back to Jane and Emily was NOT something I saw coming and it was BEAUTIFUL AND WONDERFUL AND YES, I CRIED ON THE ELLIPTICAL.

But Free is awesome. She would fit right in on today’s Women’s Marches around the world.

“I worry about you,” he finally said to Free. “I’m afraid that you’re going to break your heart, going up against the world.”

“No.” The wind caught her hair and sent it swirling behind her. “I’m going to break the world.” [Chapter 8, p. 99]

And when Oliver learns that she is attending a women’s rally and he races to her because he fears for her safety:

Free refused to be ruffled. “You appear to believe it’s acceptable to risk that danger to come and, uh … rescue me.” She rolled her eyes. “I believe it’s acceptable to risk that danger to come and say that women deserve the vote. Why is your risk gallant and mine foolish?” [Chapter 17, p. 168]

I mean, she makes an excellent point, dude.

Oliver is, overall, a weak person. He capitulates to Bradenton for a good portion of the book, and in spite of what he wants. Even when he and Jane finally sleep together, he can’t even admit to himself that Jane is exactly what he wants:

He didn’t think she would expect anything of him. And he’d been careful. Yet part of him – some horrible, treacherous part – wished that he had taken less care. That he’d done everything he could to get her with child. That he’d have her forced upon him so that he could take the thing he wanted so badly without having to decide to do it. [Chapter 23, p. 208]

Take the thing(*) he wanted so badly without having to decide to do it. That’s what Oliver wants – to not have to decide, and yet get what he wants. (* I know in my heart of hearts that he/Ms. Milan didn’t mean to refer to Jane, a woman and a real, whole person, as a “thing”.) That’s what trips Oliver up – the deciding of things.

In the end, Oliver does decide – he asks Jane to be with him exactly as she is, to continue to talk too much, and speak her mind, and be her loud, flamboyant, amazing self. And she agrees – not as a prize, or as a gift, but as a woman, with her own agency.

And Anjon asks the uncle for Emily’s hand in marriage! And the uncle’s reaction is just about as horrible as you might expect, despite it not being violent or even that awful:

Mr. Fairfield didn’t say anything for a long while. His lips moved, as if he was arguing with himself … but at least he appeared to be arguing back. Finally, he straightened. “You’re Indian,” he finally said. “Doesn’t that mean that you have … special healing abilities? I think I remember hearing about them. Special …” He made a gesture. “Things. With stuff.”

[…] “Yes,” [Anjon] finally said. “I do things with stuff. How ever did you know?” [Chapter 27, p. 239]

Casual Racism! A Thing Then; A Thing Now!

But I’m going to leave you with the sentence that made me stop my elliptical because I was too busy crying to continue:

“The name,” [Emily] said primly, “is Bhattacharya. And since it’s going to be mine, you had best learn to pronounce it properly.” [Chapter 25, p. 230]


Grade for The Heiress Effect: 5 stars


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].”

colbert clap.gif

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: “The Duchess War” by Courtney Milan

duchess warTHIS IS THE LAST BOOK FROM 2016





So I have a habit of bringing a book with me to the gym. I trick myself into multitasking: I sit my ass on the recumbent bike, set it for Ramps, Level 7, 30 minutes, and sit back and read my book. And in the middle of December, I was in-between books: I had just finished Publish & Perish, and I was reading A Rake’s Vow at home (because, terrible train rides aside, I still feel uncomfortable reading romance novels in public), and I was also re-reading Moonraker, but I was reading it to take notes for my pipe dream James Bond thesis, and I can’t ride a recumbent bike and take notes at the same time.

But I didn’t want to just … stare at the digital readout on the bike, either. So I searched through my Kindle app to find something to keep my eyes occupied for the rest of my workout that day, until I could go home and find something else to bring with me to the gym.

I don’t generally use my Kindle app to read books. I’m a Luddite; I like having the heft of a book as I read. Also, my phone is three years old (I am the Oldest Millennial Alive, as I refuse to replace technology until it truly stops working. See also: my seven-year-old iPod, my eight-year-old car), and using the Kindle app — frankly, use of any app — drains the battery something fierce. So it’s rare that I fire up the Kindle.

And this title was on there. I probably got it in a free download, and probably also from some publicity on  And I downloaded it, and never gave it a second thought until I was stuck on the recumbent bike, bookless.

Reader, I’m so glad I had it.

This is a great story! The characters are great! And fully realized! And there’s banter! And some modern sensibilities even though the book takes place in the 19th century! And it’s kind of hot, too!

The main character is Wilhelmina Pursling – nicknamed Minnie. She is a quiet wallflower type – keen to fade into the background of every social interaction. She lives with her two aunts, whose names escape me, but they help to shield her from society. At a gathering, Minnie meets Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont, and they have an interesting conversation but then they separate, never to see each other again.

Or so they think. Because there’s this dude who thinks Minnie is inciting the workers in their town to unionize, and he thinks she’s distributing fliers and using her Good Works visits to stir up feelings. But when one of the fliers shows up with her words written on it – words she said to the Duke of Clermont – she knows who’s responsible. So she goes to him to form an alliance – and to make sure she stays a wallflower.

Why doesn’t Minnie want people to know who she is? She’s got a secret – when she was a child, her father taught her chess, and she became a bit of a phenom. However, since it was unbecoming for young ladies to play chess, and to have those chess games be bet upon, her dad dressed her up as a boy. Her dad was then accused of cheating or rigging games, and she’s exposed as a girl and the crowd turns into a mob and she ends up getting stoned. At the age of 11.

Meanwhile, Robert is trying to make amends for his father’s lack of moral compass. His father was terrible to the workers of the area, and a bit of a date-rapist as well. Robert befriends his half-brother and tries to fit into their family, but because Robert looks exactly like his father – even when he was a young lad – his half-brother’s mother can’t stand to go near him. So he makes a family of his own through his friends at Eton, and grows up determined to use his title to make things better for the working class.

To be honest, I feel like I’m doing y’all a disservice – I read this book nine months ago, and I can’t remember much of the intricacies of the plot. I saved some quotes, because I do want to talk about a couple of things, but if you’re looking for more of a “what happened” kind of thing … I really won’t be able to help you.

So, let’s talk about the things I want to talk about, and if you want a more professional review, I’d recommend checking out the review of The Duchess War by Carrie S, over on Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

Let’s talk about: how modern this is?

Let me be clear: the book takes place in the early 1800s. In terms of setting, no, it’s not “modern”. But in terms of language, and sensibility, it’s very modern.

There’s this dialogue, from Minnie and Robert’s second meeting, wherein Robert’s attempt at an alliance is in an effort to gain Minnie the attention of suitors on the marriage market:

“What would you say when it was just men about? When they were asking you what the devil you saw in that mousy Miss Pursling? I daresay you’d never tell them that you were entranced by the curl of my hair […] men don’t talk that way amongst themselves.”

He gave her a shake of his head and a grin. “Come, Miss Pursling,” he said. “Men wouldn’t ask any such thing. They’d already know what caught my eye.” He leaned forward and whispered in conspiratorial fashion. “It’s your tits.”  [Ch. 3, p. 33]

TITS. In a historical romance novel! And the word is said by a duke, not a prostitute or some other lower-class individual!


If another man had said that her tits were magnificent, it might have been in a leering, lustful way – one that would have made her skin crawl. But the Duke of Clermont was smiling and cheerful, and he’d thrown it out there as if it were merely one more fact to be recounted. The weather is lovely. The streets are paved with cobblestone. Your tits are magnificent. [Ch. 3, p. 33]

Also-also? Minnie and Robert? Both virgins. Who masturbateBoth of them. Yes, even Minnie.

I’ve read many a historical romance where the hero has “taken himself in hand”, so to speak, but never the lady. Even the widowed ones abstain from any … hmm … what’s a good old-timey epithet for that? Oooh! I got it! “Riffling the reticule!”

[okay. I just spent WAAAAY too much time looking for a .gif of someone begging for a joke to land, but apparently the idea of someone telling a joke, and holding out their arms going, “huh? huh??” as if asking “did the joke land?” is not translatable into a .gif search, so … moving on.]

SPEAKING OF PUNS and just generally being awful, there was also this exchange between Minnie and Robert, while they’re putting fliers up around town, using glue:

“Well,” he said, just behind her, his voice low and amused. “You know what they say. ‘Paste not, want not.’”

She blinked. “Puns,” she said, without turning around, “are the lowest form of humor.”  [Ch. 12, p. 109]

“Shall we proceed to the next corner? Miss Peters and Miss Charingford are already outpacing us.” His eyes slid to hers. “Outpasting us,” he corrected. [Ch. 12, p. 109]

“Yes,” she said. “I read everything you wrote. And I’m furious with you.”

“Now, now,” he admonished, “don’t be pasty.”  [Ch. 12, p. 109]

Basically, Robert is the mid-19th century version of the Pun Husky.

Look y’all, seriously – if you like romance that’s got some amazing sexual tension between the lead characters, a sweet romance, and an epilogue that will make you cry in the middle of your workout, I cannot recommend this book enough. I apologize for not being a good enough reviewer, but — I’ll try and get better.

Grade for The Duchess War: 5 stars

Essays: “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” by David Rakoff

don't get too comfortableI’ve previously reviewed David Rakoff’s first collection of essays, Fraud. I’ve read Don’t Get Too Comfortable before as well, prior to the inception of That’s What She Read. I can’t remember what prompted me to pick this collection off of my bookshelf (mainly because I read this book back in August and I’m really ashamed, y’all, but then I remember that I don’t have deadlines for this because it’s my own thing, available on the interwebs for free, so suck it, Shame), but I’m happy my impulse paid off.

Like FraudDon’t Get Too Comfortable is a collection of humorous essays that have been published previously elsewhere, namely GQ and Harper’s Bazaar. The subtitle gives the reader a hint of the subject matter: “The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems.” I was wondering if this book was the origin of the phrase “first world problems,” but according to Wikipedia, it’s … not. So. Oh well.

The topics of Mr. Rakoff’s essays range from the day he took his citizenship test – Mr. Rakoff was a Canadian who earned dual citizenship after 9/11 – to his love of crafting, and a treatise on Log Cabin Republicans, a class of politico that I think may have become extinct? Do we even have those anymore?

He’s not lying when he subtitled his book to refer to First World Problems. Everything in this book is a First World Problem. As poignant as he is about gaining his dual residency, Mr. Rakoff came to New York on a work visa and lived as such for twenty-two years. He was of Canadian origin. There was no “extreme vetting” for his class, because he was white.

His job writing essays for highbrow magazines sent him on numerous … adventures, I guess, is the word? He wrote a piece as an observer on a Latin America Playboy television program. He wrote an essay about his experience on one of the last flights of the Concorde, and the class of people who were able to ride on the Concorde. There’s an excursion he goes on with a Wildman of Central Park, who teaches his students how to scavenge the foliage for edible plant life. These are not exposés on the horrors imposed on humanity by other humans.

(This all sounds very cynical. I think the tone I’m using to review this book is much different from the tone I would have used in August, right after I finished reading it. Back in August, I probably would have said that his saga on becoming an American citizen was quaint and inspired – now, all I can see is that he was the “right” kind of immigrant, and even though he outright admits that his story is not one of struggle, it feels disingenuous to me to even talk about a white Canadian’s immigration experience, however humorously the subject is presented.)

(I had just written this long parenthetical about how, for my birthday, I would like a time machine to go back four months so I can fucking fix something, but then I remembered that time machines only move an individual back in time, not the entire world, and I can’t exactly bring the entire population of the United States back with me so they can tell their friends about ~the future~ to help ensure a different outcome, plus what happens when we run into our past selves? Anyway, my brain hurt from the paradox so I’m going to shut up now.)

One of the essays I’d like to mention is his take on the quest for perfection in everything, entitled “What Is The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”


one hand clapping


(Oh god, I have two digressions now. Okay. #1: “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first aired twenty years ago on March 10. Fuck offffff. That’s — I am not that old. [[if you’re curious as to how that tidbit came out of apparently nowhere, I must remind you that in “The Dark Age,” Willow gets mad at Xander and Cordelia for fighting and she has this great rant that ends with “if you two aren’t with me a hundred and ten percent, then get the hell out of my library!” So — good quote.]]

Secondly: the “one hand clapping” .gif up there is one of my favorite visual jokes of all time, and that led my brain to want to mention my first favorite hand-related joke, which is, of course, this old chestnut from The Great Muppet Caper:

Kermit: Now, if we want to get Miss Piggy out of jail, we’re going to have to catch those thieves red-handed. Yes, Beauregard?
Beauregard: What color are their hands now?

AND THEN I remembered that, two Trivia Nights ago, Friend Brad was telling me a story about a shoplifter or … y’know, I can’t honestly remember what the premise was, but anyway, he said something about “catching them red-handed.” And like Pavlov’s Dog, I proudly and immediately shouted, “WHAT COLOR WERE THEIR HANDS THEN?!” I mean, I have never been lucky enough to use this punchline in everyday conversation, so the entire experience was awesome.

But Friend Brad either decided to ignore my outburst — which, in his defense, would be a valid defense strategy; I am a pretty weird person, and ignoring my weird outbursts is probably a good mechanism to have — or, he didn’t think the joke was funny enough to warrant a response, which would be wrong. This is a great joke.

And then I started to wonder if he’d ever even seen The Great Muppet Caper, and I’m sorry, if he’s going to razz me about fucking Shawshank every time he sees me but hasn’t seen The Great Muppet Caper? Fuck offffff.)

Where was I? Oh right – “What’s The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

As I said, this essay is about the cult of seeking perfection. Y’know, the people who spend ungodly amounts of money on items that are supposed to be pure, or authentic, or … or whatever. I don’t know. I don’t understand that concept. I am widely known as The Oldest Millennial Alive, because I have a Samsung Galaxy 4 (it still works! I am not the President of the United States, so I don’t require more security!) and a 4th generation iPod Nano, purchased in 2009, which still works, and why would I replace something that isn’t broken? So the idea of spending more in order to demonstrate greatness is just lost on me.

Surely when we’ve reached the point where we’re fetishizing sodium chloride and water, and subjecting both to the kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for selecting an oncologist, it’s time to admit that the relentless questing for that next undetectable gradation of perfection has stopped being about the thing itself and crossed over into a realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless. [p. 24]

One essay that spoke to me was “Martha, My Dear,” wherein Mr. Rakoff discusses his deep love for crafting, amidst the tale of his visit to the craft supply closet at Martha Stewart Living. I also enjoy crafting: from crocheting scarves and stuffed animals (and lately, a whole mess of baby blankets and other stuff for expecting friends and acquaintances), to cross-stitching profanity-laden quotes from Deadwood and then turning those quotes into a pillow —

Cocksucker pillow

— and now my latest project: making maternity shirts for a friend of mine because, dear everyone: GEEKS GET PREGNANT TOO, and geeks who enjoy wearing geeky t-shirts want to continue to wear geeky t-shirts while pregnant, but does every goddamned shirt have to point out that the wearer is pregnant?!

Here’s a smattering. I am so incensed on her behalf, I’m actually considering teaching myself to use a sewing machine and not just adjusting previously-made geek shirts. (Another thing I should do: figure out how long and involved the process is to register a trade name before someone else steals my/our idea…)

I make stuff because I can’t not make stuff. [p. 120]


The last essay I want to mention, I’m going to get to in a kind of roundabout way. I was first introduced to Mr. Rakoff with his appearance on The Daily Show back in … holy shit, 2006. Oh my god. Jon Stewart interviewed him at the release of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and after watching it, I knew I had to read this book as soon as possible.

(I encourage everyone to take six minutes out of their day to watch the video at the above link, if only to see how young Jon Stewart was back then. Oh, Jon. My Forever-Pretend-Boyfriend. Have I told you lately how much I miss you, Jon? Please come back I miss you.)

Anyways. I bought the book, read it, devoured it, and loved it. And then — okay, I can’t remember if I was lending it to Uncle Jean (who I used to work with), or if I had just — no, I couldn’t have been leaving it in Brad’s mailbox, because this was while Brad was still manager, so I would have just left it on his desk … I must have lent the book to someone else prior to then lending it and Fraud to Brad, but the point of this part of the story is, I distinctly remember talking to Uncle Jean about the book, and about this one essay, entitled “Beat Me, Daddy”, which is the essay Mr. Rakoff refers to in his interview with Jon Stewart.

“Beat Me, Daddy”, for those who have elected to not watch the video, is an essay about the Log Cabin Republicans of yore – gay Republicans who just wanted lower taxes, but the Grand Ol’ Party wasn’t really welcoming or accepting back then? Wow, those were the days!

Mr. Rakoff speaks with Patrick Guerriero, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, who tells Mr. Rakoff,

“I have a lot of strikes against me […] I’m a Catholic from the archdiocese of Boston, from a Democratic family, and I’m a Red Sox fan. I’ve chosen to stay in institutions I care about.” [p. 157-158]

But as Mr. Rakoff points out,

It’s all well and good to stay in the institutions you care about, but wouldn’t it be nice to feel that the institution, in turn, cared about you, or at least wasn’t hell-bent on your eradication or, failing that, the legislating away of your rights? [p. 158]


Now, here’s the selling point on this essay: this is the part of the story Mr. Rakoff spoke of during his Daily Show interview, and it’s also the section I distinctly remember reading aloud, in its entirety (which I will quote below) to Uncle Jean, in Footwear backstock, within hearing distance of customers.

Man, that was a different time. Now you can’t even talk to your fellow sales reps on the sales floor.

ANYWAY. Mr. Rakoff also spoke with Robert Knight, “director of the conservative advocacy group the Culture and Family Institute” [p. 162]. Mr. Knight is firmly against the Log Cabin Republicans:

“The Log Cabin agenda to promote homosexuality is utterly at odds with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage party.” [p. 163]

Now, it is not my job to disagree with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage, homophobic, Puritan party that disapproves of sexual misconduct and poor technological security, while also promoting itself as a protector of children and the innocent, and above all, highlights honesty and respect for women as two of the most important poles within its “big tent.” Additionally, I am well aware that Democrats have proven themselves to be dangerous hypocrites along some of these same lines.

[[Excuse me while I go take the longest, cleansing-est shower of my life. Yick.]]

It is my job, however, to recount exactly what Mr. Knight said about anal sex, AIDS, and vaginas. Please remember: I read the following paragraphs ALOUD within hearing distance of ACTUAL CUSTOMERS at a very large retail store, and I was NOT FIRED.  \o/

“Sodomy is their rallying cry,” [Knight] says.

Well, it sure is someone’s rallying cry. A lot of our hour-long conversation is taken up with talking about anal sex. I have never spoken so much about anal sex in my life.

[…] But if Knight displays an obsession with the mechanics of sodomy — simultaneously mesmerized and sickened by the tumescent, pistoning images of it that must loop through his head on a near-constant basis — he is notably impervious to an image he conjures when I submit as how HIV is transmissible through normative, upstanding, God-sanctioned heterosexual congress as well.

“Not as easily,” he says. “The vagina is designed to accommodate a penis. It can take a lot of punishment.” [p. 164]

An old white dude explained that straight dudes don’t get AIDS because the vagina can take a lot of punishment. That happened. IN PRINT.

To Mr. Knight, I say:



colbert mic drop

But seriously, read the book if you get a chance – it’s a great collection of essays.

Grade for Don’t Get Too Comfortable: 5 stars

Fiction: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

pride & prejudice

So I have no idea what this review is going to look like. Dear High School Students Who Are Beginning to Write Their Essay on Pride and Prejudice Approximately Twelve Hours Before The Essay Is Due Who Happened to Find My Blog Via Google: I fucking feel for you. However, I must advise you: I’m writing this review four fucking months after I read it, and to make matters fucking worse, I’m smack-fucking-dab in the middle of my upty-ninth attempt to finish Deadwood, and Al Swearengen is not only at the top of his game, but also impacting my fucking words.

If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t already know the plot of Pride and Prejudice, raise your fucking hand.

Goddammit, E.B.

[[sidenote: I spend at least five minutes of every Deadwood episode cursing out E.B. Farnham and his goddamned jackassery.]]

Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s classic tale of classist marital strife. Mrs. Bennet wants to see her five daughters get married off, because their estate is entailed to a male cousin. Basically, when Mr. Bennet kicks the fucking bucket, the females of his family will be cast out upon their shapely rears without so much as a farthing to their fucking name.

Jane, the eldest Bennet, falls in love with Charles Bingley, new owner of Netherfield Hall. He falls in love with her likewise; but his love is curtailed by the misguided advice of his trusted friend, Mr. Darcy. Darcy doesn’t think that Jane truly loves Bingley, because she doesn’t swan about like any other fucking —

[[here’s where my writing exercise comes to blows with my actual feelings, re: Pride and Prejudice: my attempt to write in Al Swearengen’s voice wants to say “fucking whore” here, but my normal sensibilities wouldn’t allow that.]]

[[to be honest, I also don’t want anyone to think that I hate the book because of all the swearing – far from it. I love this book – having come to love it after a few years of detesting it, and then also being fairly meh about it. But Al Swearengen would be the first to fucking tell you that copious amounts of fucking profanity does not mean that the cocksucker using those terms hates the thing of which he’s fucking speaking.

so please note: I really do love Pride and Prejudice. But I also love exercising my creative writing skills, and “Al Swearengen reviewing Pride and Prejudice” is an excellent exercise, second only to “Addison De Witt reviews Hamilton“.]]

So Mr. Darcy not only turns Bingley away from Jane, but he dares insult Jane’s younger sister, Elizabeth, behind her fucking back. He almost goes out of his way to be fucking miserable to Elizabeth, and when Darcy and Bingley return to London, Elizabeth is glad to have seen the back of him.

Elizabeth goes to visit her friend, Charlotte, who married the male cousin who has the entail to the Bennet estate (it should be noted that the male cousin, Mr. Collins, a right fucking hooplehead if ever there was one, attempted to marry both Jane and Elizabeth first; when Elizabeth rightly turned his proposal down, he  moved on down the fucking lane to Charlotte). The hoopleheads live on the property of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who happens to be Mr. Darcy’s aunt. When Darcy also visits the estate, he gets Elizabeth alone at the parsonage and fucking proposes, completely blindsiding her. She rejects him, and he goes on his fucking way, the way a man should, because no means fucking ‘no.’

Later, Lydia runs off with Wickham, a right fucking cocksucker who shares a history with Darcy. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth (until nearly the end of the book), Darcy works behind the scenes to get Wickham to marry Lydia so that she is not “ruined,” but Lydia’s such a spoiled little brat that she would have deserved a good ruining. Anyway, Elizabeth finds out about Darcy’s involvement with the whole fucking situation, and when she thanks him for his efforts, he tells her he did it all for her.

[[Okay, I’ve finished watching this episode of Deadwood, so my exercise is over. I actually do want to point out a couple of things, and I need my Alaina-voice to do so.]]

First of all, let’s talk about Mr. Darcy and how he is yet another fictional character who has ruined me for all non-fictional men. Sure, he starts off as an asshole, but through his conversations with Mr. Bingley’s sisters we the reader find out that his dickishness is brought on by an attempt to hide his feelings. And, to his point, Mrs. Bennet is an awful, embarrassing character; an opinion of Mrs. Bennet could indeed set someone off from one of her daughters.

And so Darcy wrestles with his feelings – he doesn’t understand why Elizabeth enchants him so, and he struggles to subdue how he feels because a) marrying into the Bennet family would be a step down from what he has, and b) who wants to marry into a family with such a shrewish mother-in-law? and c) I don’t think he knows what love was up until Elizabeth, so maybe he doesn’t know what he’s feeling.

His wrestling with himself, to Elizabeth, comes across as being an asshole. So when he visits her in the parsonage, and he starts pacing back and forth, she has no fucking idea that this is what he’s going to say:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” [p. 213]

It’s not until the last four words of that paragraph that Elizabeth even knows how he’s feeling. For all she knows, up until “admire,” he could be gearing himself up to say “loath and detest you and your family.” She doesn’t know!

And people will say that Darcy is not romantic; that being so mean to Elizabeth and then coming into her guest room and basically saying, “I love you, and even though I hadn’t given you any inclination to that up until now, we should marry because I say so” isn’t romantic. But when you look at the literary definition of romantic, to mean “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” [Thanks, Merriam Webster!], then Mr. Darcy is the exact definition of romantic.

And speaking from the perspective of someone who never has any idea if someone is flirting with me (see this review for an entirely real conversation between myself and my Dear Friend Kerri; it’s below the quote from When Harry Met Sally…), this is what I expect to happen in my life. I’ll be dealing with someone – a stranger; the Aaron Burr to my Alexander Hamilton (“we keep meeting…”); and I don’t love him. He’s kind of a dick. But he’s the one to break the ice and tell me that he loves me, because I have not experienced what romantic love looks like outside of novels.

Want more proof that Mr. Darcy is romantic and, also, imaginary? When Elizabeth declines his proposal, he accepts it. He does write her a letter in an effort to explain his point of view in the whole Wickham mess; and at the beginning of the letter he tells her that he’s not writing her in an attempt to change her mind; he’s writing to give her the full view of the story. Do you hear that, Tinder Guys I’ve Heard So Much About But Never Interacted With Because Yick? No means no means no.

Mr. Collins, the Original Hooplehead, does not understand the basic concept of consent, as evidenced here:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on this subject I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one.” [p. 124]

It also doesn’t hurt my esteem of Pride and Prejudice that one of my favorite books and movies is based on it, to the point of a) naming its male romantic lead Mark Darcy, and, in an inspired twist, b) hiring Colin Firth to play Mark Darcy in the film, after playing the formative Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice; this would be Bridget Jones’s Diary.

I could go on about how Elizabeth is also one of the first feminist characters in literature – or, at least, more feminist than what we’ve seen for a couple of centuries; I’d wager that Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing was a feminist, but when centuries pass and we’re left with Emily from The Mysteries of Udolpho for a while, Elizabeth’s determination to marry for love seems downright earth-shattering – but I’m not going to. For two reasons: 1) I need to go the fuck to bed, and 2) I also won’t write the goddamned essay for the high schoolers; they should look shit up on Wikipedia, like I couldn’t, because it didn’t exist back then.

Also, if you haven’t watched Deadwood, you should get the fuck on that.

[[sorry i said ‘fuck’ so much.]]

Grade for Pride and Prejudice: 5 stars



Non-Fiction: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Snickel and dimedo back in September – remember September, you guys? Back when the sun wasn’t going down at 3:30, and it was still sixty degrees out on the regular – I realized Banned Book Week was coming up. And originally, I was going to reread Lolita. I mean, I hadn’t read that in a very long time, and if there was any book banned, it was definitely that one.

Well, I have been doing a lot of reading on my lunch breaks at work, and one of the guys always asks me what I’m reading, and for the first time, i realized I would feel slightly uncomfortable if I said that I was reading Lolita. I mean, it’s a book, and Humbert Humbert I am not. But for a guy who had never heard Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” (which, I believe, is in and of itself slightly ironic), I was afraid I would have to spend part of the lunch period explaining what Lolita is about, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in a government setting. It felt icky to me.

So I’ll read Lolita at home, someday. But in the meantime, another book that I had spied on one of the many ALA Banned Book lists (and also one I owned but had never read) was Nickel & Dimed. This book had been recommended to me years ago by my former roommate Amelia, who minored in Economics. (Wait, or was it a double-major with Poli Sci? I can’t remember anymore…) I managed to find a copy at Bull Moose a few months ago for a whopping $3.97 (you guys, if you’re in the area of a Bull Moose that sells books, GO TO THERE, THEY’RE AWESOME), and when I saw it on the Banned Books List, I was very, very confused.

I mean, look – I get why some books are on that list. Now, I’m not agreeing that the book should be banned, or any book for that matter — except Fifty Shades of Gray, because reasons. But I can see, in most cases, the small-mindedness which would cause a book to be challenged. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance – sure, the use of the ‘n’-word is prevalent, and no parent should want their child to throw that word around as casually as Huck does, but when reading Huckleberry Finn one should also recognize the historical context – that word was common parlance during that time and location, and used very frequently and casually.  Mark Twain wrote of his time and culture, and someone should (hopefully) realize when reading it today that that type of language and those attitudes towards other human beings should be an historical artifact. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

When I read Brave New World last year, one of the reasons the book was on the Banned Book List was because of the promiscuity it championed. Parents didn’t want Little Johnny or Sally to read that book and think it was (*gasp!*) okay to have sex outside of marriage!  Or for fun, even! Oh, the horror!

And even I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – that’s non-fiction, and that is on the List because of the horrific actions suffered by Maya Angelou. But that type of history shouldn’t be swept under the rug -it’s important for teenagers to read these books, because it gives them a wider, braver understanding of the world and the people in it.

But … why was Nickel & Dimed on that list? It’s a non-fiction account of an investigative journalist who goes undercover as a minimum-wage worker, and attempts to make a living on said minimum wage. In what way would that harm the sensibilities of teenagers attempting to learn about the world?

As I read it, I began to understand why some individuals would want to see the book removed from curricula: it promotes that those who work for minimum wage have human emotions and human needs, and that trickle-down capitalism does not work.

Oh, the horror.

Ms. Ehrenreich – whom I should refer to as Dr. Ehrenreich, as she does hold a Ph.D. – began this journey in the late 1990s, before the first minimum wage hike:

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” [p. 1]

And that’s what she did. She gave herself $1,000 to begin her journey, so she could afford rent and other sundries before her first paycheck (admittedly, a fund most individuals do not have the luxury to afford), moved out of her house in Key West, and tried to get a job as a hotel’s housekeeper. The first obstacle she ran into was that at every hotel she attempted to get a job, they recommended she waitress instead. Ms. Ehrenreich presumed that it was because of her skin color – as she was not Latino, she was perceived as being higher-class than someone who would be a housekeeper; hence, the waitress positions.

She managed to find an apartment and also managed to survive waiting tables for fifty hours a week, something she hadn’t had to do since college. After her time in Key West, she moved up to Maine and joined a maid’s service. The rent in Maine was too much for an apartment (which, tell me about it), so for her tenure here, she had to rent a hotel room by the week in Old Orchard Beach. Thank goodness it was the off-season for her.

Her last stint was in Minneapolis, which was supposed to be having a booming economy. Jobs were plentiful, it was true, but there was a severe housing shortage. While in Minneapolis, she worked at Wal-Mart and nearly caused a union uprising.

I’m going to get more in depth, but basically, she discovered the injustices and struggles every minimum-wage (or below-wage) worker experiences. The lack of respect from management, the constant distrust, the monitoring of your every move … but also the sense of family and, in some cases, survivor-hood that develops between yourself and your coworkers. If there is anyone who has struggled to make ends meet, you should read this book. But actually, now that I think about it, the people who should read this book are those who have never had to struggle; never felt the pain in your stomach when you realize you need to save your last ten dollars until payday for gas, which means you’re not buying any groceries until payday; those who have never had to wonder if this check they’re writing is going to bounce; never had to suffer indignities bestowed upon yourself simply because you are working a lower-paid job than someone else. Those are the individuals who should read this book, and it should be required reading for those in Congress.  Although, with the exception of Elizabeth Warren, I wonder if some of them can read.

(Also: remember, this book was written prior to the year 2000. None of the individuals Ms. Ehrenreich came into contact with had student loans, because they didn’t go to college. So as you read this book now, realize that many of these situations haven’t changed, but more individuals are feeling these struggles to live as well as having to pay off enormous mountains of debt. Just … muse on that.)


Some sobering statistics:

With the prevailing wages running at $6-$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 – the year I started this project – it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. [p. 2-3]

Remember, this was written in 2000. You know what hasn’t happened in that time? The minimum wage hasn’t risen to $8.89, that’s for sure.

During her waitress stint, Ms. Ehrenreich was astonished to learn that she didn’t get a real break during her shift, and something she said about smoking, of all things, really made sense:

I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. [p. 31]

Trust me, when you work in retail,  you cherish every freaking second you get to yourself. I’ll admit – there were a couple of times I wished I smoked so I could get out of the building for five minutes. Stupid freaking healthy workplace environment.

So the next place she takes herself to is Maine:

I chose Maine for its whiteness. [p. 52]

I cannot tell you how loudly I laughed at that. Because it is true – demographically speaking, according to the 2010 Census, the population of Maine stood at 1,274,923. Of those, 1,236,014 identified as Caucasian. That is 96.9%. Now, granted, the Census doesn’t literally count everyone, I’m sure, and that doesn’t take into account human error or human lying, but that is still a sobering statistic.

One of the first places she applies at when she lands in Maine is a Wal-Mart, where she is subjected to one of the most horrific things a job-seeker encounters: the personality survey. If you have never had to fill one of those out, then congratulations – you’ve never tried to work in a customer service environment with a tradition of severe management psychosis. The personality survey is an attempt to weed out the “good” candidates from the “bad” candidates, by asking a series of probing, contradictory questions about productivity, work ethic, and morality:

What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of heirarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. […] The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is this: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self. [p. 59]

I could get into a rant about the above paragraph, and how it is so completely, 100% true, and how retail managers try to give you this phony spiel about how your personal life is important to you and therefore it’s important to us too, but not on weekends, or holidays, or after 6 p.m., or when there’s a floor set coming up, and while you may have some personal stuff going on in your life and it’s very important, could you please leave it at the door when you come in for your shift, and it’s too bad that your grandmother passed away but you only get three days off for bereavement and the funeral’s on the fourth day so we’ll need you back in for your 2-10 shift, and more horrible, atrocious things, but basically yes, once you fill out that personality survey, they own you.

Ms. Ehrenreich gets the job with The Maids, and while the cleaning practices will shock you so much that I wonder if that’s the real reason this book was on the Banned Books List – wealthy housewives were horrified to learn that their cleaning service was merely moving dirty water around and not actually cleaning anything – I’m not going to get into them. I will post this quote, because it speaks to the feminist inside of me:

I learn that Mrs. W [the homeowner] is an alumna of an important women’s college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby’s bowel movements. I find special charts for this latter purpose, with spaces for time of day, most recent fluid intake, consistency, and color. […] Maybe there’s been some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all. Maybe this is why our office manager, Tammy, who was once a maid herself, wears inch-long fake nails and tarty little outfits – to show she’s advanced to the breeder caste and can’t be sent out to clean anymore. [p. 82]

How many times have we heard mothers vilified in the same sentence as Welfare, food stamps, and low-income earners? There have been conversations today that those on food stamps or other government programs shouldn’t be raising families. SO RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE TO LET THEM GET OFF WELFARE.

Ms. Ehrenreich works at The Maids Monday through Friday; to make ends meet, she also works at a retirement facility, serving meals to their patients. About three weeks into her monthly stint at both jobs, she wonders

If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? [p. 106]

Jeepers, I sure did dogear a shit-ton of pages. I’d apologize, but I feel it’s important to discuss this stuff.

So Ms. Ehrenreich leaves Maine and heads to Minneapolis, where she does in fact end up at a Wal-Mart. In her interview, she learns about Wal-Mart culture:

[The interviewer] personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third. [p. 125]

Oh, my god.

Much of her time in Minneapolis is dealing with the severe housing shortage – she housesits for a while, then ends up having to stay in a Motel 6. I think she manages to get an efficiency apartment in the last week of her experiment, but she is constantly juggling the distance from where she could find an apartment to the suburban Wal-Mart, the cost of gas, and other amenities. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between housing, transportation, and job location.

This next bit sums up the retail life something fierce. I apologize in advance for the lengthy quotation, but guys, this is important. It all starts when one of Ms. Ehrenreich’s coworkers gets sent to another department where she doesn’t know the product as well:

It’s the difference between working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and repeat the process. “I just don’t like wasting their money,” Melissa says when she’s allowed back. “I mean they’re paying me and I just wasn’t accomplishing anything over there.” To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted labor? [p. 180]

And before I get into the other half of this piece: I had a friend who used to work one day up in the Women’s department. Now, his home base was primarily Footwear, and the rest of the time Men’s Apparel, but that one day a week he had to work in Women’s for one of the brands we were pushing at the time. And he said multiple times that he didn’t feel that … how did he phrase it? It was something along the lines of, “I’ll do it, because you tell me to and it’s my job, but I’m not as effective upstairs [in Women’s] as I am downstairs.” And his argument was not the same argument as Melissa’s above. He was gladly taking his paycheck, regardless of where he was working; he did not begrudge a cent given to him, and rightly so. He saw it from the customer’s point of view, where he was, admittedly, correct: women shop differently from men, he’s not as familiar with the women’s product as the men’s, so therefore, his skills weren’t utilized to the maximum potential. But his argument about working in a different department did not stem from the idea that he was wasting the company’s money.

So in the middle of this labor discussion, this happens:

[Melissa] suddenly dives behind the rack that separates the place we’re standing. […] Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I follow right behind. “Howard,” she whispers. “Didn’t you see him come by? We’re not allowed to talk to each other, you know.” [p. 180]


Now, Wal-Mart — much like Mother Russia — does not like when you talk behind her back. Especially when that most dreaded word floats up in conversation – union. And this is how Ms. Ehrenreich commented on that situation:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace — and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well — you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship. [p. 210]

And in those various dictatorships, after taking those various personality surveys, what did she learn about the relationship between management and employees?

While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or in recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. […] Left to themselves, [the employees] devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.  [p. 212]


I promise this is my last quote from Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. I’m sure you’re wondering what else I could possibly have not included, as this is most likely one of the longest reviews I’ve ever done. But guys, if you don’t work retail – or have ever worked any low-wage job – you don’t get it. There is a corps of people I have worked with who have shared these exact same experiences – it doesn’t matter if your dress code is “blue shirt and khakis” or “green shirt and khakis,” or even “fashion-forward and fully made-up”: there will always be a severe disconnect between what is promised from management to employee (“we recognize you value your personal life, so we give you a work-life balance!”) and what is actually delivered (“look, all the other managers have families with little kids, so even though you requested it off as your number one choice, we’re going to need you to work Christmas night.” “…. So, I have to work because my womb has never been occupied?!”)

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life. [p. 187]

So please – unban this book. Read it. Devour it. Hell, Christmas is tomorrow and Bull Moose is still open; buy a copy for someone. Buy it for your manager! It will be hilarious!

But most importantly, send a copy to your Congressman/woman – especially if they keep voting to keep the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.

Grade for Nickel and Dimed: 5 stars

Fiction: “The Gun Seller” by Hugh Laurie

Gun SellerThe Gun Seller was one of the first novels I ever reviewed for this blog, way back when in the winter of – holy shit, 2009?! I’ve been doing this for five years? No one told me I’ve been doing this for five years.

This is the part where I’d normally say something like “I’ve done a lot of growing up since this site’s inception,” or, “Looking back, I was quite the neophyte at this whole reviewing thing,” but let’s be real: in many cases, I am still the same person I was five years ago. I still routinely have to bribe myself with ice cream as a reward for cleaning the bathroom, I still have problems waking up in the morning, and I still have not learned a damned thing when it comes to being a reviewer of books. I still enter into every single one of these reviews the same way Indiana Jones follows the Ark of the Covenant into Cairo: I’m basically making this up as I go.

Back in 2009, when I read this book for the first time, I loved it. And then I spent nearly the entirety of that first review talking about how much I loved Hugh Laurie and used only a single paragraph (or maybe two, tops) to discuss the plot of the book. Then I lent my copy of the book to my at-the-time supervisor, as she also loved to read. And I never saw it again. (Thank god I never lent her my copy of Gilligan’s Wake; I would have cried.)

Flash-forward to earlier this year, when I found a copy at Bull Moose, my local store of awesome (primarily a music store, some branches now sell books). The only thing that would have been even more amazing than finding copy would have been if I had found my original copy, but sadly, it was not meant to be. (But imagine the movie that would be – a book who missed its owner so much it managed to find its way back to her … through her local bookstore.) But regardless, a copy of The Gun Seller had found its way back into my personal library.

I finally cracked it open about a month ago – because yes, I am again a month and three reviews behind. HAVE I MENTIONED I HAVE HAD NO GROWTH IN FIVE YEARS. This will be my attempt to do the book justice, as well as an introduction to this book for those of you who weren’t around this here site five years ago.

The narrator is Thomas Lang, an ex-British-military type, who has now joined the ranks of freelancedom. We meet Lang in the middle of a mission, ostensibly – he is trying to extricate himself from the hold of a particularly burly assassin. He manages to break free and prevent a murder from happening, but the next day gets called into the Ministry of Defense. See, there was a report that Lang was actually the assassin, hired to off one Alexander Woolf, an American tycoon.

Lang remembers being approached by a shadowy type in Amsterdam, who asked him to assassinate Woolf for a large sum of money. Lang also remembers turning the offer down flat. For our narrator is one who operates solely on the side of ‘good,’ and won’t take wetworks jobs, no matter how well in cigarettes and Scotch the job will keep him. Lang eventually figures out someone framed him – approached him in Amsterdam to make it look like he took the job, then when Lang tried to stop the attack on the very individual he was supposed to assassinate, it looked even worse. What really throws the whole situation into overdrive is that, at first sight, Lang fell in love with Woolf’s daughter, Sarah.

Lang tries to figure out who framed him and why, and stumbles into a plot that reaches as far across the Atlantic as New York City, and as far south as Casablanca. The framing of Lang, the assassination attempt on Woolf – they’ve all been put in place in a grandiose endeavor to sell a new weapon: the frontrunner of today’s drone.

(Keep in mind, this book was written in the late 1990s.)

He tries to get himself out of this plot, but instead, is forced to join a terrorist group in an effort to “save Sarah.”  (Spoiler alert: Sarah doesn’t really need saving. But when you cross James Bond with Philip Marlowe, you have to know the first femme you meet is going to end up on the fatale side of things.)

Here’s what I love about this book: Hugh Laurie has an amazing way with words. Amazing. I know in my first review of this book, I wrote about how I just wanted to be friends with Hugh Laurie, because he seemed like a really cool dude – someone you could hang in the pub and have a pint with. But now I want to be friends with Hugh Laurie because he is an amazing writer.

While I love that Hugh Laurie is currently touring the world with his Copper Bottom Band, I kind of want him to write a sequel to The Gun Seller. Because my earlier, five-years-ago point still stands: while I feel I learned a lot more about Thomas Lang this time around, and truly appreciated his ability to mask his innermost thoughts under an impressive veil of sarcasm, I really want to spend more time with him as a character; hang around in a pub and have a pint with Lang, not just Laurie.

Here are some examples of Thomas Lang’s personality:

But I’ve always prided myself on the froidness of my sang … [p. 44]

Another Diplomat was parked behind us, with whatever the collective noun for Carls is inside it. A neck of Carls, maybe. [p. 156]

(Lang is always figuring out creative ways to describe people. See my previous review and how he names one of his bodyguards (a.k.a., one of the Carls) Sunglasses and the other No Sunglasses.)

“Who pulls the trigger?”

Solomon had to wait for an answer.

In fact he had to wait for every answer, because I was on a skating-rink, skating, and he wasn’t. It took me roughly thirty seconds to complete a circuit and drop off a reply, so I had lots of scope to be irritating. Not that I need lots of scope, you understand. Give me just an eency-weency bit of scope, and I’ll madden you to death. [p. 228]

There’s a really interesting section around page 150 or so, where the Americans are working damned hard to convince Lang to join up with their team, and it speaks about democracy and what it is and what it’s really made up of, and I’d quote the whole thing here but it would be a lot of extra typing, and I feel I did that already last week at my real job where I transcribed a bunch of invoices into an Excel spreadsheet because, as far as I know, there’s no way to email a .pdf of an image to oneself and then parse the information into Excel without actually retyping it all.  (If there is, please, for the love of god, don’t tell me – I really don’t want to know at this point.) Basically you should read the book and enjoy that section, but I’ll give you at least one paragraph (I should clarify, this is from the perspective of the American character):

“The people don’t read books. The people don’t care a piece of blue shit about philosophy. All the people care about, all they want from their government, is a wage that keeps getting higher and higher. Year in, year out, they want that wage going up. It ever stops, they get themselves a new government. That’s what the people want. It’s all they’ve ever wanted. That, my friend, is democracy.” [p. 162]

Before I really get into Hugh Laurie and his Way With Words, let’s play the All About Alaina game for a second:

“Anything wrong with ringing my headmaster?” I said. “Or an ex-girlfriend?” I mean, that all seemed too dull, I supposed.

Woolf shook his head.

“Not at all,” he said. “I did all of that.”

That was a shock. A real shock. I still get hot flushes about having cheated in Chemistry O-Level and scoring an A when experienced teachers had anticipated an F. I know one day it’s going to come out. I just know it. [p. 83]

Seriously, I never cheated on an exam, but for some reason I have the guiltiest personality. For instance, I was at work and a coworker was looking for me while I was refilling my glass of water, and when my cubicle-mate told me, my first instinct was to say, “What did I do?” I can’t imagine the guilt Lang feels about a cheated exam.

Here’s one of the techniques one of the Americans uses in trying to convince Lang to help them sell their drone copter:

“If you are making a new mousetrap, then, as you say, you advertise it as a new mousetrap. If, on the other hand,” he held out his other hand, to show me what another hand looked like, “you are trying to sell a snake trap, then your first task is to demonstrate why snakes are bad things. Why they need to be trapped. Do you follow me? Then, much, much later, you come along with your product.” [p. 171]


Finally, if you need some more proof that Hugh Laurie is a master wordsmith, I’d like to share the following three quotes:

There’s an undeniable pleasure in stepping into an open-top sports car driven by a beautiful woman. It feels like you’re climbing into a metaphor. [p. 133]

Okay, that one was just funny.

It was dark outside, cold and dark, and it was trying to rain in a feeble, oh-I-can’t-really-be-bothered-with-this sort of a way. [p. 217]

Admit it; you know exactly how it’s raining in that moment.

And finally:

People talk about nightfall, or night falling, or dusk falling, and it’s never seemed right to me. Perhaps they once meant befalling. As in night befalls. As in night happens. Perhaps they, whoever they were, thought of a falling sun. That might be it, except that that ought to give us dayfall. Day fell on Rupert the Bear. And we know, if we’ve ever read a book that day doesn’t fall or rise. It breaks. In books, day breaks, and night falls.

In life, night rises from the ground. The day hangs on for as long as it can, bright and eager, absolutely and positively the last guest to leave the party, while the ground darkens, oozing night around your ankles, swallowing for ever that dropped contact lens, making you miss that low catch in the gully on the last ball of the last over. [p. 279]

Grade for The Gun Seller: 5 stars