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Wednesday Reading: A Meme

What I've Just Finished Reading

"I have to admit you were completely justified in your protest. You are an adult, and by your very nature I was quite wrong to treat you as if you were Watson. I apologise."
-- Sherlock Holmes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice

I finally managed to hack my way through The Beekeeper's Apprentice after three failed attempts. What kept tripping me up in the beginning was 1) the narrative voice, which is mostly unconvincing, and 2) the narrator's patronizing treatment of Watson. The Beekeeper's Apprentice is Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, in which a precocious teenager named Mary Russell becomes the titular apprentice in 1915 and helps Holmes solve a bunch of cases that turn out to be part of a complicated game of Deadly Bee Chess. I wanted to love it, but I couldn't. In the end, I didn't hate it, either, though it goes on being unfair to Watson throughout.

I'm not completely sure why the narrative voice didn't work. I think it's a combination of lack of introspection and a feeling that Russell isn't organic to her circumstances, if that make sense. I never quite believe her either as an intelligent teenager or as an old woman looking back on herself as a teenager, and she never feels much like the early 20th century feminist scholar-hoyden she claims to be – more like a bright, well-loved, not overly thoughtful Starfleet cadet enjoying a customizable holo-novel. The supplimentary educational material in the back says that The Beekeeper's Apprentice "paints a historically accurate picture of what it is like to live as a woman in mysogynistic times," but misogyny never seems to affect Russell except in the most superficial and temporary ways, and never internally -- maybe that's part of why she feels pasted in from the future.

Once I got past the dense thicket of exposition at the beginning, the story got much more enjoyable -- mostly because there was a lot more action and dialogue and the voice has less weight to pull. There is a good/fun villain monologue, though I am a little disappointed in some aspects of the Big Bad Reveal, and lots of running around in (slightly racist?) costumes and visiting Mycroft and hiding out at home and abroad. I was warned that there would be a romance between Holmes and Russell at some point, but this never really turns up in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and it's all for the best. The author, Laurie R. King, seems like a nice person who really likes Sherlock Holmes and had a lot of fun writing this book, and there's a lot to like about the "apprentice" idea and its execution, but even after I got through the difficult beginning, this one never completely clicked for me.

What I'm Reading Now

The decline of traditional sources of normative behavior-- such as the church, the school, and the home-- create an ethical vacuum. In the wake of their demise, therapy has taken on the job of redefining what we as a society mean when we talk about such fundamental social values as self-interest versus the interests of others. . . Therapy is the application of behavioral technology towrd the objective of creating a New Man who will become the dominant resident of the New American Landscape.

A pretty terrible book called Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape by John Miller! Egotopia came out in 1997 and it's about how shopping malls are the worst, chain restaurants are killing the American soul, the author is sick of all these loud stupid-joke-making daytrippers on his hiking trails, and everything was somehow better at an ill-defined point in the past. It's one of those cultural critiques where all the examples are non-specific and no evidence is ever provided for sweeping claims about What We Used to Be Like and How We Live Now -- it reminded me a little of Fahrenheit 451, actually. The author constantly uses "we" to mean "you suckers" and hates approximately 99% of all fun. [Spouse] bought it at the used bookstore and we started reading it out loud to one another while driving between Thanksgiving weekend destinations. It's full of paragraphs like this one (on the unbearable emptiness of national parks tourism in the US):

The typical park visitor makes no special preparations for his or her visit and studies no literature about the park. The typical visitor expects his or her experience to be no different (except not as satisfying) than watching on television a nature program, in which the animals are guaranteed to appear. Such expectations are what distinguish today's park visitors from their historic predecessors. (p.59-60)

. . . and completely empty of footnotes, endnotes, in-text citations, or even casual hints as to where the author's information on "the typical park visitor" and "their historic predecessors" is coming from, or how far back in time he thinks you have to go in order to find a majority of park visitors enjoying the parks correctly, without symptoms of The New American Malaise (symptoms include: having kids, driving a large car, taking pictures of scenery, eating at chain restaurants without sorrow or reluctance, enjoying anything designated as soul-crushing by John Miller). There are no quotes from actual park visitors or statistics or anything, just petulant speculation about the insufficiency of strangers' inner lives. The chapter on therapy quoted above is the same way -- no writing from the field of psychotherapy, no interviews or magazine articles, not even an anecdote about how his friend went to a therapist one time and it was super lame.

So far the whole book is like that and shows no signs of ever becoming anything else. Unfortunately, the author is an adult in his fifties, not a thirteen-year-old who has just read Catcher in the Rye, but I like to think that change can happen at any age and that he got better sometime around 2000.

I also have this giant book called The Annotated Chronicles, which is three dragon-themed novels in one from the Dragonlance people. My sister-in-law bought it for me last year as a fantasy recommendation. It's fast reading, but so far not very engaging. The novels are based on a game and it shows; the worldbuilding is stiff-joined and constrained by invisible gameplay requirements. It's also sprinkled with a lot of random background rape, for some reason. I'm only a couple of chapters in, so I'm waiting to see whether I start to like the characters or not. The book is so large that I can't read it in bed; I have to prop it up on my desk, on the arm of a chair, or on the floor. I don't know if I'll make it through the whole thing.

What I Plan to Read Next

I'm hoping to start re-reading some books I liked when I was younger in addition to the re-reads of things I hated. Jane Eyre was one of my first favorite books, so I got it from the library, but haven't started it yet. The library did not have Ramona the Pest, so I may order it. I also have What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! and A Murder is Announced, new (to me) books featuring Miss Jane Marple, and I'm still immersed in canon review for Yuletide, but that should go without saying until Yuletide is over.

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