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Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.

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a review of Dormia, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski. Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Preamble: the usual Spoiler Alert. I don’t reveal how the story ends here, but you won’t have a hard time guessing if you read the following review.

Young Alfonso has a problem: when he sleeps, his sleeping self does amazing things that he’d never be able to do when awake. At the story’s beginning, for instance, he wakes up to discover that he has climbed a very tall tree, with no memory of how or why he got there.

Sleepwalking is quite real, of course. I can attest to that: though not a sleepwalker myself, for a short time a friend of mine stayed in my family’s house when we were both teenagers. My friend woke up one morning to discover that, in his sleep, he’d climbed through a window, out onto the roof—three stories above ground. Needless to say, he no longer slept in the top floor of our house after that!

This story employs sleepwalking and a similar condition, waking sleep or “hypnogogia,” to full effect. Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski flip them from “disorders” into superpowers in their long (500+ pages) middle grade story about a boy who discovers that he is the Great Sleeper, and it is his destiny to return to a land called Dormia, set somewhere in the Ural Mountains, where he is to return a magical plant called the Dormian Bloom. Here, he learns, his ancestors have lived in secret for hundreds of years, struggling to survive against attacks by a hostile tribe, the Dragoonyans, and where only the Bloom, once planted in the ground, can protect the survivors. His uncle Hill whisks him off on a journey from Minnesota to some imaginary places, accompanied by quirky characters, until they finally arrive in the Urals. From there, the battle against the dreaded Dragoonyans takes shape.

I was definitely intrigued by the story’s premise. To their credit, the authors use super sleepwalking as both a way to build up excitement and a way to inject humor into the story. That’s because Alfonso isn’t the only one with sleeping powers—it turns out that the entire population of Somnos, Dormia’s last remaining city, also routinely falls asleep to perform certain tasks; for example, the sled driver who transports Alfonso around does so while snoring. The authors don’t overuse this technique, either, and they have great comic timing with some of the secondary characters.

That said, the novel wasn’t without some…issues. At times it strained my credulity, as its setting is both within the real world (the Bering Sea; the Urals) and in imaginary places along the way reachable only by boat. There were times when I simply couldn’t connect the dots on any kind of map in my mind. This wasn’t a terrible problem, just a distraction.

Some characters didn’t seem too well thought out. I’m thinking of a girl named Resuza, not a Dormian but a resident of a nearby remote city, who accompanies Alfonso for a while before disappearing with a mathematical clue. The narrator says that she’s dead, though I figured she’d turn up later, and sure enough she did—as a traitor. And then she claims she really wasn’t a traitor, and Alfonso believes her because…maybe he has a crush on her? It’s unclear.

Resuza’s puzzling behavior is connected to the unbelievable—and complicated—way that Alfonso discovers the secret way into Dormia. It has to do with a giant raven’s nest, and a huge root with a square hole in it (square root, get it?), and a watch with lines engraved on it that represent topographical lines on a map, and a metal egg that has to be turned in such a way that only someone like Alfonso with special hypnogogic powers can figure out how to line up that triggers the secret Dormian gate to open. What the giant raven had to do with any of this is never explained, but we do get to see Alfonso attacked and wounded by the monster—and then, in the ensuing action the wound disappears as though it never happened. It would make sense as a hallucination, but not as part of a plotline.

Finally, Alfonso makes it into Somnos just in time for it to be invaded. The authors chose to hop around different battle scenes rather than just sticking with Alfonso, and I found them to be unnecessarily long and confusing. The narrative tone throughout the entire novel is one that would appeal to readers who like tough guys, and Alfonso’s uncle Hill embodies that spirit as he wades into the fray with his .45 pistol and ancient aviator jacket. The tone is old-fashioned, but with a more modern narrative style. As an adult I found it tiresome at times, but I can imagine a 12-year-old really enjoying it.

The battles drag on (I’ve never liked long battle scenes, even in Harry Potter), some of it happening inside the huge, old, dying tree the Bloom will replace. Carnage ensues. Characters get killed, both “bad guys” and sympathetic “good guys.” The authors present cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and I kept thinking all was lost, until…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out, won’t you?

In sum: I give this one thumb up. After all, any story meant for preadolescents that lasts over 500 pages, and which I actually finish, has something going for it.

Postscript: I read this unaware that Dormia has two sequels to it now, though it hardly surprises me. I’m not inclined to read sequels, but make exceptions for stories that are…exceptional. Like the sequels to The Magic Compass, for instance. Speaking of which, look for my review of Philip Pullman’s first installment in his new Book of Dust series, La Belle Sauvage. Coming soon!

As a Baby Boomer coming of age in the 70s, I held Kurt Vonnegut dear to my heart. Here was a sci fi writer who bravely broke out of the genre with his lauded novel Slaughterhouse Five, yet also lent his considerable wit and knack for pithy prose to some of the most entertaining sci fi novels I’ve ever read. I held him in such esteem that I created an imaginary baseball team whose player names were all taken from Vonnegut novels.

One Vonnegut concept that particularly intrigued me was Ice-9, an apocalyptic substance that brings about (spoiler alert!) the end of the world in his classic novel Cat’s Cradle. Turns out that Kurt got the idea for Ice-9 at least partly from his brother Bernard, a scientist who worked for General Electric back in the 50s when the company sponsored research into cloud seeding to make rain. Kurt also worked for GE as a writer, and it was this confluence of science, growing political repression, and Kurt’s own wacked-out mind that gave us the writer who penned The Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, and other tales in addition to the ones already mentioned above.

The Brothers Vonnegut, by Ginger Strand (Farrar, Strauss & Gireaux, 2015), gives us a double-barreled biography of the brothers, following both Bernard’s research at GE as well as Kurt’s struggles as a writer before finally breaking into print. She also describes the intersection of weather science and military aspirations to use weather as a weapon as war, at a time when our nation had only recently entered the nuclear age and its attendant Cold War. It was paradoxically a time of great, foolish faith in Scientific Progress, and destructive paranoia as artists, political figures, and company workers alike were blacklisted by anti-communist fanatics.

The cloud seeders fit both of these paradigms. The popular press, egged on in no small part by writers such as Vonnegut, proclaimed a new era in weather control—no more droughts or catastrophic floods, and even dangerous hurricanes would soon be able to be deflected into a harmless course. Ironically, they lauded the possibility of melting the earth’s icecaps as a way to increase global warming, thus improving agricultural production! (Hopefully, these propagandists aren’t still alive and working for Big Oil.) Strand captures all these events and personalities with style and verve; you don’t have to be a Vonnegut fan to enjoy reading it.

Just as I finished this book, I stumbled on a few articles on a new scientific breakthrough that seemed to come out of a Vonnegut novel itself: the first creations of something called a Time Crystal. This is a crystal that not only oscillates in space, it oscillates in time as well, going through a series of reconfigurations that repeat themselves. No, you can’t put one on a pendant and wear it while balancing your aura—the one I read about consisted of a small number of ytterbium ions, all with “entangled electron spins.” Which means we’re entering the weird world of Quantum physics here. Still, you gotta admit: “Time Crystal” has that swag about it, and who’s to say the Enterprise won’t have them embedded in dilithium in the future? I bet if Vonnegut were alive to today, he might well find a way to put a Time Crystal into a hilarious novel about the end of the world.

When I was back in high school, I had a personal motto: Weirdness is next Godliness. To me, experiencing the strangeness of the universe is what made life worth living. Well, at least in retrospect—who hasn’t had a frightening or disturbing experience whose value proved to be in the telling and not in the actual experience? While thrilling weirdness can be found in one’s back yard, the usual way one comes across it is by the ancient art of travel.

Atlas Obscura (Foer, Thuras, and Morton; Workman Publishing, 2016) is a guide to places offbeat, disturbing, even a bit dangerous, but intriguing and hopefully educational, especially for housebound (or cafébound) westerners chained to their lattés, laptops, and cell phones. It is not meant to be used as a travel guide—nothing about hotels, food, etc.—but as an adjunct to a travel guide—or, if you’re like me, jolly good entertainment. Reading it from front to back is pointless. Just pick up this tome, crack it open to any page, and read about, say, falconry in Abu Dhabi or a sacred crocodile pond in Ghana. If you’re not interested in what you see, keep flipping—I guarantee you’ll come across something that will pique your curiosity within seconds. (Neil Gaiman has not one but two cover quotes on it, so they also do a good job hyping it.)

This not a deeply moving book, but it’s also not a series of too-cute tourist come-ons, nor is it for “green” tourists especially. Some of the places are easy to reach, while others are nearly impossible. Some of the places house gruesome artifacts not recommended for the faint of heart. No doubt you will find many places that evoke the response, “No way in a thousand years I’d go there,” but you’ll still eagerly read the accompanying description and stare at the accompanying illustration or photograph.

Is it a contemporary update of Ripley’s Believe or Not? Yes, but these are all places one can actually travel to, not just fascinating facts or quirky people. I found myself rediscovering my ancient yearning to go to Iceland, for example, even if it is too cold and windy for my taste. Or, I can just imagine going there. The book helps with that.

Atlas Obscura is more than a book—it’s a website as well, http://www.atlasobscura.com. The site is well worth exploring. Like with Word-a-Day, you can sign up for a daily emails for a newsletter, travel ideas, foodie tips, and the like. I’m not sure I want even more stuff coming into my inbox, but it sounds like it might be fun. The website has all the travel-related stuff and more—a recent article, for example, examined all the ways that prehistoric animals have been incorrectly drawn by artists. Perfect bathroom reading material, except I don’t make a habit of sitting on the can with my laptop.

Although, that would be kind of weird.


Anyone who’s ever been in a fiction critique group will probably run into questions. Some are just garden variety questions, but others poke and prod at the very center of your story—questions that make you want to scream at the idiots asking them because isn’t the answer, you know, obvious? Well no it’s not, and usually for good reasons.

No matter how irritating these questions may be, they usually will reveal themselves to be valuable to the writer. Garden variety types can often be resolved by a few tweaks here and there in the plot, or a bit of dialogue to reveal something the reader can use to realize some aspect of a character’s motives, for example. The other kind, the kind that gnaw at you, are more problematic. It could mean rewriting an entire chapter or more, throwing out thousands of words, some well-crafted and stylish. It could mean that you really don’t understand your main character, after all, so you spend hours contemplating motives and backstories that you thought were set in stone. Or it could mean that your story is actually working rather well.

How’s that?

I’ve noticed that one can divide readers into two basic camps. One camp likes everything tidy, plots to follow definable arcs, characters with relatable motives, an ending that lets the reader let out a sigh because everything has been satisfactorily completed with nothing left unresolved. For these readers plot twists are fine, but only if they make sense; quirky moods are fine, but only if they are integrated into plot and character. The idea of reading a murder mystery that goes unsolved at the end is abhorrent to them.

The other camp—and I’m guessing fewer readers are in this one—aren’t so picky. They don’t mind if a character goes missing with no explanation, or that the main character’s motives aren’t fully revealed. Sometimes a particularly poetic passage triggers something in their emotions that overrides the rest of the story’s flaws. Sometimes an unanswered question is what they find most interesting about the story in the first place.

Consider The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s famously creepy horror movie about birds that attack people for no apparent reason. What starts as a few isolated attacks escalates into larger, more furious ones, not just scaring people but threatening their lives. No explanation is ever given for this behavior, and the key question—Why are the birds doing this?—hangs over the story like a storm cloud.

For some moviegoers, the fact that the question never gets answered is a major disappointment. They might enjoy the buildup, the ratcheting up of suspense, but when the end doesn’t give them that definable “Aha!” moment, they grumble “I don’t get it,” and dismiss the story as incomplete. For other moviegoers, however, the unanswered question is the central element around which everything in the story revolves. They love the fact that it’s up to the viewers to supply their own ideas as to why the birds attack, and it’s fine if one admits that not even having an answer of one’s own makes the story more appealing.

So if the people reading your novel draft act puzzled and don’t understand why or how certain things occur in your story, take heart. It could be that you need to make your characters more believable and your plot better paced. Or it could be that you’ve stumbled onto something that will make your readers eager to read on and try to figure out what it all means.

Imagine, if you will, having an immortal lover who stays alive by vampirically possessing people and by so doing kills his current body, a game of infinite musical bodies. This lover wants to dominate you and use you to breed others like you, forcing you to mate with others as well as himself. You yourself are also immortal, but do it by constantly repairing your own body, a power that also allows you to shape-shift into any creature you choose. Your lover originally bought you as a slave and brought you to the New World, and though he opposes slavery for ordinary people he strives to make you and others like you a slave to his own wishes. What would you do?

This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Seed, the first novel in Olivia Butler’s Patternist saga. As an African American woman, she explored the social and political consequences of slavery—but from an imaginative perspective that melds dark folklore with the biological and psychological sciences. These are not the stereotypical vampire/werewolf stories that are making the rounds these days, but gritty stories of pain, betrayal, love, and hatred, that grow organically out of the fantastical elements she invented.

[slight spoiler ahead]

One sign of a powerful writer is the ability to take a monster and let the reader not only understand how that monster came to be, but to feel empathy for him. So it is with Doro, her perpetually killing male antagonist, who demands obedience and elicits fear from his subjects. Anwanyu, the story’s protagonist, simultaneously resists and relents, loves and hates, this monster. Her greatest power, though, is not biological regeneration so much as it is empathy, and when Doro finally comes to understand this, it is her greatest gift to him. I have not read any of the other books in the series, so I don’t know how long this gift lasts, or how Butler prolonged this epic entanglement over the centuries. But I suspect that both characters will undergo more change, as they illustrate an ironic truth about reality: A conscious identity can only be maintained over time by changing it.

Another element in this story that intrigued me is that both eternal characters not only change identities and bodies, they at times change their genders and sexual orientation. Thus Doro at times possesses a woman, and to accommodate him Anwanyu temporarily changes her body into that of a man so that they could mate. Doro takes this sexual flexibility even farther, though, by breeding couples who are biologically related in order to enhance the psychic powers of their offspring—a kind of incestuous exercise in eugenics. It reminds me of the ancient Greek myths, in which gods have sex with sister goddesses to procreate other gods and goddesses. Yet it also echoes the practices of slave owners, who treated slaves as reproducing chattel in their efforts to breed more slaves with qualities they deemed desireable.

Anwanyu sees all this—she’s old and wise, yet also young and beautiful—yet she loves having children, and mates with others other than Doro, with his blessing—and sometimes at his direction. While she resists breeding with her direct offspring, she comes to realize that, over the years, she has mated with her own progeny removed by many generations. Can you imagine if you had a lover and discovered that lover was one of your ancestors from long ago?

In sum, you can read this novel for many reasons. You may like its wildly imaginative fantasy premise. You may appreciate reading fiction about American slavery from a unique perspective. Or you may connect with complex characters that bend archetypes and force you to see them from different emotional perspectives. However you approach it, I recommend this story heartily, and only wish that Octavia Butler were still alive to talk about it. When she died in 2006, a marvelously talented writer left this world.

Growing up as an army brat in Germany, I had no TV to watch, so I came to rely heavily on comic books for entertainment. First Superman, then Batman and Robin, filled my reading hours and fired my imagination. As I grew older I gravitated more to books, and by the time Marvel Comics hit the scene I considered myself too mature for comic books. Although I had to admit, the graphics were cool. First Conan the Barbarian, then Thor, then The Silver Surfer, and finally Doctor Strange. All featured mind-bending graphics that broke out of the boxy style employed by DC Comics that made Superman in particular look old-fashioned. These were the 60s, baby, and Marvel played to the psychedelic audience.

Doctor Strange wasn’t the main star in the growing Marvel pantheon. Maybe he was too far out and not muscled up enough, or he was too intellectual. Who knows? But he was…strange. And for a teenager whose personal motto at the time was “Wierdliness is next to Godliness,” this character spoke to me. The whole world felt strange to me at times, and I in it, so yeah I liked Doctor Strange! Plus of all the Marvel comics, his stories had the trippiest, mythiest, wildest, most psychedelic arenas for a superhero to play in. I didn’t need drugs—all I had to do to immerse myself in that far-out land was to look at the pictures as Strange dealt with cosmic characters and mindscapes.

When Marvel started churning out all their action blockbusters, I basically yawned. Okay, except for Spiderman. But the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, even Thor…no thanks. Too many heroes, too many explosions, too many fistfights. My taste in movies had also changed. I still caught some interesting sci fi flicks now and then, but I preferred more literary tales, or fantasy with folk elements. Marvel felt more like a factory, and when that happens I tend to shy away.

But when they did Doctor Strange, something inside me felt that old urge, the urge to explore the wild places in the psyche, that sense of wonder and power I’d had as a teenager. Especially when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’d loved in The Imitation Game, had the lead role. So I decided to plunk down my eleven bucks and watch it.

[Spoilers ahead. If you want to call them spoilers…]

I can tell you the exact moment in the movie when I said “Yes! I’m in!” to myself and did a little fist pump. It was when Strange had just gotten into his sports car, left the city, and with a smile on his face cranked up his engine—just as—oh, yeah!—Pink Floyd’s song Interstellar Overdrive poured out of the speakers. Just sayin’, I was an early Pink Floyd adopter; after one listen to their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), from which this song was taken, I clutched them to my breast as brothers in weirdness. So when this song came on in the movie I felt an instant bond with Strange, and I knew I was going to like the ride.

(Yes, I know this was right before Strange foolishly ran his car off the road into a horrific accident that ruined his hands. But still. I knew this was just the setup for when he was going to transform his egocentric persona into something much more metaphysical and out there, just like old times.)

So, weirdness followed. And fabulous special effects. And Cumberbatch doing a great job showing the transformation of Strange into a sorcerer battling black magic. And yet he needed more than just a bunch of villains intent on destroying the Earth; he needed someone to push against him and guide him in his transformation. That person, The Ancient One, was a man in the comic books, but here a woman, played by Tilda Swinton. And this was an inspired choice indeed. Swinton’s character is part pixie, part sorcerer, clever and empathic—yet also mysterious, with hints of darkness. And a kickass magic martial artist, adept at using those sparkly spell things as defensive weapons as well as transport devices. Best of all, she looks great doing it—really, Strange never quite looks comfortable in combat, but The Ancient One glories in it. Strange has a girlfriend in his quotidian life as a surgeon, but his soul mate is truly The Ancient One.

So, the movie ended. With more movies to follow in the pipeline, of course. Don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing them, though; with a few exceptions, sequels aren’t my thing. And really, though this flick is entertaining and stimulating, it’s still just an action flick that employs the usual compendium of action flick tropes. But any movie with an ancient Pink Floyd song to kick me into overdrive has value that can’t be measured by tropes alone.