Review: Troubled Blood

Reading Troubled Blood by J.K. Rowling feels a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. You remember why you loved this person so deeply for so long, but you’re more certain than ever that you were right to block them on social media.

The advance reports were correct: there is a storyline that includes damaging anti-trans stereotypes. This shows up frequently in the first part of the book and recurs a few times throughout. The transphobia is bad, but I don’t see any evidence to support the theory that Rowling launched her anti-trans comments starting in Dec 2019 specifically in order to promote this book. She has done more damage and reached more people with her anti-trans tweets and blog post than she will with this book.

If you are boycotting Rowling’s work, you’re not missing much new by skipping this one. The mystery is ultimately forgettable, though fun to read in the moment; the novel might have been improved by cutting out a few characters and maybe 150 of its 900+ pages. If you do decide to read it, there are long stretches of enjoyable content, especially when she writes complex group scenes or milestone interactions between Strike and Robin.

Those stretches are interrupted by the same issues we’ve always seen from this author. People of color are still tokenized, described only by their race while white characters, the default, are described in detail: “the black male nurse called ahead to a frail-looking old lady wearing a sheepskin hat” (p702). The anti-fat hatred is the same as ever, with gratuitous remarks on characters’ sizes. There does seem to be improvement on number of queer characters included, although that is difficult to appreciate considering the frequent mention of men dressed as women in order to commit crimes.

I found myself reading for clues, but not in the usual way of murder mysteries, trying to solve the crime. Instead, I found myself on edge, scanning for anti-trans sentiment, for stereotypes and scapegoating. I was reading for clues about Rowling’s mindset: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved and long trusted, and what has happened to her mind? Because parts of the lengthy explanation she posted to her website in June 2020 sounded to me like they issued from a mind in crisis.

If you’re looking for Harry Potter in this book, you can find it. There’s a serial killer who dismembers and hides evidence of his crimes, like Voldemort. The father of one victim studies every meaningful connection the killer had in order to uncover possible sites, like Dumbledore researching Tom Riddle’s past for Horcrux locations. In the middle of the book, Cormoran Strike experiences despair and a grueling trek, like the infamous “camping” section in the middle of Deathly Hallows: “And so began days that had the same strange, outside-time quality of their journey” (p517). There’s even a connection to the Fantastic Beasts series, when Strike uses the word “underbeings” (p851), the word that the circusmaster in Crimes of Grindelwald uses for his “freaks.”

In Troubled Blood and her other Cormoran Strike thrillers, Rowling spells out horrors that she only insinuates in her children’s books. The kind of personal trauma that she described in her June 2020 explanation, in tones of extreme distress, is a major part of Robin Ellacott’s story in this novel. She vividly conveys Robin’s memories of sexual assault and the way these mental scars make “casual physical contact with men almost unbearable” at times (p372). In one rather satisfying scene, an unpleasant character triggers Robin’s post-traumatic hypervigilance and gets what he deserves. In one of the most compelling passages of the book, Strike, in slow-motion train wreck mode, obliviously drags Robin into a flashback. Perhaps this is part of what Rowling was trying to communicate in her first-person justifications on her website; I was better able to receive the message here, through her fiction.

There were several moments when I was almost able to forget the major harm Rowling has done in the past year, and I felt something like the glow that her writing used to kindle in me, before my trust in her broke. Few writers capture as poignantly, to me, the insoluble struggle between calling and motherhood: “The problem wasn’t that Robin didn’t think she’d love her child. On the contrary, she thought it likely that she would love that child to the extent that this job, for which she had voluntarily sacrificed a marriage, her safety, her sleep and her financial security, would have to be sacrificed in return” (p253). I have missed being startled by the loveliness of some of her descriptions: “the fields gliding past, bestridden with power pylons, the flat white cloud given a glaucous glow by the dust on the glass” (pp656-7). I enjoyed the author’s conflicted attitude toward astrology in this novel; as always, she is skeptical and disdainful toward anything like fortune-telling, but that doesn’t stop her from expertly assigning birthdays and deeply researched zodiac traits to her fictional characters. I smiled fondly at this familiar trait in a dear old friend before remembering that we’re not friends the same way anymore.

It took until book 5 of this series, but thank goodness, in Troubled Blood, Robin finally separates from her conventional, stifling, small-minded husband, Matthew. I suppose what follows is a bit of a spoiler, so if you’ve read this far and still intend on reading the book, you may want to stop here.

Divorce is another topic that Rowling only insinuates in Harry Potter, but includes in her adult fiction. Through most of this volume, Matthew puts Robin through acrimonious, punishing divorce proceedings. It’s hateful. When they finally reach an agreement, Robin has parting words for him. I had no idea what she was going to say to him.

“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”

For a fraction of a second, his face worked slightly, like a small boy’s. Then he walked back to her, bent down, and before she knew what was happening, he’d hugged her quickly, then let go as though she was red hot.

“G’luck, Robs,” he said thickly, and walked away for good. (pp680-1)

It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through in the past year, this self-protective response to J.K. Rowling’s harsh, sustained, ossifying bigotry toward trans people. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, for years, when they needed her. Remembering it might be the source of strength that some of the fandom needs in order to say goodbye and walk away.

The Button Box quilt

It took me almost six months, but I finally completed the few last steps on the Button Box quilt I started in March as a fanwork for Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus (read my review here).

By March 12, I had finished piecing the top.  All I needed to do was put on a border, sandwich the quilt with a backing, quilt it, and put on a binding.  I had planned it as a lap quilt.  I said I would post a picture of the quilt here when it was finished.

On March 13, coronavirus lockdown started.  Abruptly, all works in progress halted.  When I got my wits together enough to start sewing again, it was to make masks.  For a while, in April, I was using my quilt fabric stash to make 30 masks or more per day.  By June, I had made about 2000 of them.

It’s the first week of virtual school and a modified version of life seems to have resumed.  We’ve set up a dedicated study space for the teen, the tween, and a couple of their friends.  The teen said the walls looked bare and liked the idea of warming them up with a quilt or two.  So the Button Box quilt has become a wall quilt, not a lap quilt.  Now the kids have somewhere to rest their eyes when they’re tired of squinting at their onscreen classes.  Maybe, almost six months after lockdown started, I’ve started to adjust.

HP-themed octopod fundraiser

Is it possible to continue to enjoy the Potterverse while the author continues making ever more strained statements about her anti-trans bigotry?  On the one hand, I’m finding difficulty in my current attempts to reread the series, as my trust in the author is eroded.  On the other hand, there are so many people whose memories and even identities are so entwined with Harry Potter that it is simply not possible to make a clean break and walk away.  The stance of retaining claim to one’s own memories and development, as a reader and a person, while rejecting the bigotry, is a stance worth protecting.

My high schooler and her friend, who run our Octopod business, have listed House-themed octopods as a fundraiser.  They will donate 100% of the proceeds ($10 per octopod) to the Trevor Project, one of the organizations that worked with Harry Potter fan groups such as MuggleNet and the Leaky Cauldron to develop a response to JKR’s bigoted statements.  People can choose if they’d like a bit of rainbow or trans pride ribbon to go with their octopod, or else a sticker with the graphic design by Fox Estacado.  The annual Back to Hogwarts media campaign is heating up, and these octopods want to do their part to declare that everyone is welcome to study magic.

Update: We raised $150 for the Trevor Project.

HP fans for Trans Rights: public domain graphic

After J.K. Rowling’s declarations of anti-trans bigotry, many people left Harry Potter fandom in revulsion. Others rejected the author’s bigotry but asserted their right to retain their connections to the source material and, perhaps more importantly, to their own history and relationships within the fandom.

As a gift to the HP fandom, artist Fox Estacado has created this public domain graphic. If you are a Harry Potter fan who supports trans rights, you are welcome to use it.

10 Harry Potter Quotes that Just Scream “Trans Rights”- No Matter What J.K. Rowling Says

This is a reblog of an eloquent entry by Emma Curzon.  I have thought of many of the same quotes over the past several weeks.

A Girl Called Em

The last few months haven’t been a great time to be a Harry Potter fan- particularly not if you’re also LGBTQ+, and even more particularly not if you belong to the “T” part of that equation. J.K. Rowling’s recent Twitter activity and long-winded spiel of transphobic dog-whistles and conspiracy theories (no, giving trans kids puberty blockers is not “a new kind of conversion therapy”) have- to put it mildly- made things difficult, especially for those of us who grew up with and were influenced by her work.

(For a complete analysis of why Rowling’s “essay” is transphobic, I’d strongly advise checking out the below video, made by Jamie Raines and Shaaba Lotun, for a literal full breakdown.)

As I discussed in my recent post, ‘The Harry Potter Fan’s Guide to Dealing with J.K. Rowling’s Transphobia’, your relationship with Rowling’s fictional work is- especially if you’re trans-…

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Discussing Nagini with Parinita Shetty of the Marginally Fannish Podcast

Ph.D. student Parinita Shetty is the creator of the Marginally Fannish podcast, in which she uses an international lens to examine fan podcasts as sites of public pedagogy.  For a delicious break from quarantine life, she invited me onto her show for an hour of talk about how much I love the character of Nagini in Crimes of Grindelwald, and why.  The Marginally Fannish website includes not only the episode, but a transcript as well!  Check it out.

 

 

Octopods: a rough crochet pattern

This pattern is approximate, as I usually improvise octopods. They are just blobs with eyes!

You can also check out a video of this process.

Use a J-size hook and wool or merino that can felt (not superwash), in worsted or aran weight. I’ve gotten the best machine-felting results with Malabrigo Merino Worsted or Manos del Uruguay Maxima. Cascade 220 works decently, although it sometimes needs more time in the washer for complete felting. I do not recommend Noro Kureyon.

For body of octopus:
R1: Ch2, slip stitch, forming a round.
R2: SC 6 (stitching 3 times into each stitch from the first round), slip stitch.
R3: SC 12 (stitching 2 times into each stitch from the second round), slip stitch.
R4: SC 18 (alternating between stitching once and stitching twice into each stitch), slip stitch.
R5: SC 24-ish, slip stitch.
Decrease (every other stitch) until 15 stitches remain.

For each tentacle:
Hooking two stitches at once, chain 11, then slip stitch into beginning of chain to form loop.

SC sides of loop together with 5 stitches to end of tentacle, turn and SC 4 stitches again to body of octopus.

After forming 8 tentacles:
Stuff octopus body loosely with chain stitch.

Decrease in rounds to center of the bottom of the octopod. Tie off.

To full the octopod:
Machine wash on heavy duty, using hot water and a small amount of laundry detergent, along with a pair of jeans for friction. Remove from machine and massage into shape, aggressively if need be. Let dry overnight.

When dry:
Stitch on beads for eyes. If making octopods for children under 3 years old, embroider eyes with thread.

If you like, check out Your Daily Octopod on Twitter.

Plague, But Make It Fashion

Masks are available for sale within the U.S. at PlagueButFashion on Etsy.


Once in a while, you’re unmistakably called.

I started making quilts in 1990. I even did it full-time for a while. I stopped in 2004, when my first kid was born and it felt too dangerous to quilt around little ones. It sounds funny to think of quilting as dangerous, but between the hot iron, the rotary cutter, the scissors, and the needles, it’s not at all baby-safe.

My fabric stash surpassed SABLE long ago. For those who aren’t crafters, SABLE stands for Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy. In the back of my mind, I knew I would eventually have to do something about the dormant yardage taking up space on my shelves, on my floor, and in countless bins in the garage. I put off the bother of it, but it was on my conscience.

The night that Rachel Maddow called for home sewers to compensate for the federal government’s PPE shortage with homemade masks, ideally out of quilting cotton, it all became clear.

“Mom,” my teen called out to me sharply. “Is that something we can help with?”

So that’s what my fabric stash is for. That’s why I held onto it all these years.

signs cow grape green masks

You can see the suspended moment when I switched from other crafts to making masks. The quilt I was making in tribute to Linda Sue Park’s book Prairie Lotus remains unfinished, draped carefully over a chair. I had been making octopods for an upcoming craft fair, but I stopped so abruptly that three of them are still on a counter where I left them, awaiting their turn to have eyes sewn onto their little heads. There’s no hurry making craft fair merchandise, anyway. Craft fairs are a thing of the past, at least for now.

grape banana sushi masks

The first two weeks of lockdown, I made a couple hundred masks for nurses, hospitals, and delivery workers. I discovered just how much of my stash — most of it, that is — is extremely girly. I’ve made an effort to include the few fabrics I have that look more masculine or gender neutral. I briefly felt a sort of outdated scorn at the thought of men feeling uncomfortable wearing florals, the kind of thing I would have especially thought in the 1990s. There’s no time for that kind of attitude anymore. There are lots of reasons that someone might not be all right wearing a feminine print or color. It’s ignorant of me to think it’s my place to judge that.

It’s been a bit of an adjustment to stop holding back on the favorite fabrics that I once used sparingly. What am I waiting for? What is more important than helping out health workers and people who need masks? Ursula Vernon tweeted something that encourages me daily.

 

I commissioned my sixth grader to illustrate the quote for me.

use the good art supplies by lily

Several people asked if I was making masks for sale. I loathe filling mail orders, so I kept saying no. Fifteen-year-old Geeklet, though, enjoys filling and tracking orders. Huh. We had just gone into lockdown; she had no school, could see no friends, and the two jobs she had lined up won’t exist anymore. What if she gained experience and income through an online business?

We named the shop Plague, But Make It Fashion and commissioned a graphic from Crowglass Designs. I didn’t want to give up making masks for donation, so our shop policy is that for every mask we sell, we give away one to health care workers or community groups. After much experimentation, we decided to use a pleated style that uses fabric ties rather than elastics, adapted from a Buttoncounter tutorial with an added length of floral wire across the top edge to mold to the nose area. I do like masks with elastics, but they’re uncomfortable if they’re not the right length for your face, which is hard to determine through mail order.

Look at art podcaster Grace Gordon showing our masks in action.

For the past few weeks, there’s been so much need that I’ve pretty much gone to making masks several hours a day. Writing about Snape and HP has been put on temporary hold. Potterverse has felt less and less allegorical lately, anyway. It doesn’t feel escapist to read about Diagon Alley being shuttered and deserted, people scurrying by fearfully, obituaries in the paper about people we know. I will surely get back to writing soon, but for now, it’s time to put my fabric stash to its intended use.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Bluebeard plotline of this deft and subtle book is the one that haunted me and kept me going, even though the anxiety of coronavirus social distancing interrupted my reading and spread it out over weeks.

This must have been a difficult book to write. The horror in it is buried deep and handled masterfully. There are different forms of bravery, all of them very dear. As is often the case with Erdrich, the bravest moments are shown with a sort of practical detachment that allows the characters to get on with what they have to do. The author’s personal connection to this story is the deepest of all and I applaud her for being able to stick with the story and not get overwhelmed by the enormity and the rage.

One of my favorite things about how this book wraps up: there are a couple of romances that are hinted, and would make sense, but the book ends without anything coming of them.

Incidentally, and very charmingly, there is a happy ending for a character that I didn’t realize could even have an ending. There’s an endlessly dark humor to it, but it’s charming nonetheless; by the end of this book, that kind of horror is just scenery, and we just accept it, because it has the right to exist alongside all else.

I am excited now to be able to read reviews and interviews. I held off because I didn’t want to interfere with the delicacy of the novel’s suspense.

Roots and Mirrors: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.  Published March 3, 2020.


Linda Sue Park must have read and loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as much as I did as a kid.

Reading about Hanna in Prairie Lotus hits some deep emotional beats I remember living through with Laura:  School trouble.  Recitations.  Hoop skirts going through doorways.  Oranges.  Dresses of fine lawn.  There’s a Laura-like character named Bess, the name that the real-life Almanzo Wilder called his wife.  Even the large-print font looks like the font of the Little House books.  Some of these similarities don’t refer to headline moments from the series, just details inscribed indelibly into memory after countless childhood rereads.

Linda Sue Park must have deplored the racism in the Little House books as much as I did, or more.  It’s clear what the white settlers of 1880s Dakota Territory thought of Native people.  The books’ brief references to black Americans are overshadowed by Pa’s participation in a minstrel show.  Asian Americans had no place at all in the books; Koreans had not even entered the U.S. at that time.  It would have been harder for grade-school me to relate to the books if Laura Ingalls Wilder had written her image of me into them.  I got off easy.

Unlike Hanna, when I was a kid, I did have an Asian immigrant mom around to teach me things.  But they were Korean and immigrant things, not the white-people American things that almost every other kid knew in upstate New York in the 1970s.

To know what they knew, I read.  I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder that American girls churn butter, sew buttonholes, wear calico, win spelling bees.  I still feel the romance, forty years later, when I watch sheep shearing at wool festivals.  The Little House books taught these stories in such nourishing detail, it felt like having a mother show me.  Those books made me.  I constructed myself according to their instructions, step by step.  I’ve never made cheese or shaved a shingle, but I have the stubbornly unshakeable impression that I know how.  Some of the cooking and handwork I do is a tribute to those books.  They lodged in my deep consciousness in a formative way.  It’s been over forty years and I still have whole sections nearly memorized.

The Little House books are fundamentally racist, and also, the way they are part of me is too ingrained and love-filled for me to eject.

Judging by Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park knows exactly how this feels.

The book opens with a covered wagon trip.  Hanna, age 14, is traveling with her white father.  Her Chinese mother is dead, and they had to leave most of her mother’s belongings behind, including her mirror.  They are moving east from Los Angeles Chinatown to Dakota Territory, where there are no Asian or half-Asian people.

The first people Hanna meets in Dakota Territory are a group of Ihanktonwan women and girls, black-haired like Hanna.  The most senior of the women, Wichapiwin, sees that Hanna does the cooking for herself and her father and gives her a root vegetable called timpsina, prairie turnip.  Hanna realizes later that Wichapiwin was being motherly toward her.

Hanna’s mother had taught her about roots, too:  in China, Hanna’s grandfather had been a ginseng merchant.  Before she died, she told Hanna that she was half-and-half, as well.  Her father had come to China from “a beautiful place, a secret place.  Called Korea.  Americans don’t know that place” (p51).

I read that and gasp-laughed at the warmth of Linda Sue Park’s magic.  I didn’t know she was going to put secret Koreanness in this American story that predated Korean Americans.  If you’d told me, I wouldn’t have been able to guess how such a thing could be managed.  But it’s so logical.  Of course Koreans traveled to China, even during the time Korea was rightly known as “the Hermit Kingdom,” very much a secret place.  And yes, when I was a small child, it was true enough that Americans didn’t know Korea.  When white kids tugged at the corners of their eyes to taunt me, they called me Chinese.  But now, an author has shown me how I can be in this American girl story after all.

Hanna’s relationship with her father is more tense than Laura’s with her parents.  He is imperfect, occasionally arbitrary, often moody with grief.  It’s fascinating how she negotiates with him, and brave of her.  His patriarchal power over her melds with his white privilege to create an unease that brings home the constant tension of Hanna’s place in society.

I deeply appreciate Park’s middle-grade handling of the sexual element to the harassment that Asian American women often face, especially half-Asian women.  Hanna’s mother warns her, delicately, that most white men think Chinese women are “for — for fun.”  Chilling.  Because actually, it wasn’t completely true that Americans didn’t know Korea when I was a little girl in the 1970s.  Sometimes, a few of them did.  Men, always, who had been stationed there.  Who would say hello to me in Korean, expecting some sort of reaction, and sometimes, “Are you Korean?  I thought so.  I can tell.”

Much of Hanna’s negotiation with her father is about creating and claiming spaces.  A new home.  A doorway big enough for women to walk through.  A sewing space where she can make her living and become independent.  She assumes, with a breathtaking matter-of-factness, that her race means she will never know romance.  The cover art for the book is a revelation:  Hanna showing her half-white, half-Chinese face in defiance and dignity.

It’s quite the unusual experience for me to feel such trust in a writer’s perspective, down to the most niche detail.  I love Hanna’s Sherlock Holmesian reading of her classmate Dolly’s brown poplin dress, using clues visible to her as a seamstress.  I love the catalogue of fabric types that I didn’t know as a child, but do now:  muslin, calico, poplin, challis, lawn.  I smiled to read the grades that Park wrote for Hanna because I think they might be higher than Laura’s.  I don’t have Little Town on the Prairie at hand, so I don’t remember what Laura’s were exactly, but I guess I wasn’t the only Asian American reader who was taken aback that some of them were so low…and that an author would admit it in print!  My favorite grade is Hanna’s 100 for orthography, a subject that Wilder omitted from her account in Little Town.  That 100 sparkles out at me like an Asian-girl wink from Park.

Having established her authority within the tone of the Little House books, Park deftly creates original material.  Especially memorable to me is Hanna’s “strange kind of revenge” on a racist classmate, one that hurts no one but feels uncannily powerful.  It’s a pure artist move.

Park also writes the kind of delicious passages about material details that are a classic mainstay of children’s literature, whether they’re Laura’s descriptions, Ellen Montgomery buying a writing desk in The Wide Wide World, or Harry Potter in Diagon Alley.  Hanna has inherited one treasure:  the magnificent box that Hanna’s father created to her mother’s specifications, fitted with dozens of compartments.  Hanna lovingly fills these spaces with hundreds of her mother’s buttons.

Rows by size.  Columns by color.  The square in the lower left corner contained the smallest white button.  Above it, she put the next size, also white.  Each square held a bigger button until she reached the top left, which held the largest white button.

In the next column she put cream-colored buttons.  Then beige, shades of brown, gray, black.  After that came the rainbow colors, red, orange, yellow, shades of green and blue, and finally violet.  Several more columns and rows held novelty buttons, shaped like animals or stars or cherries.

The buttons were pretty to look at and pleasantly smooth under her fingertips.  The orderliness of each button in its proper place was soothing.

This passage feels nourishing, a calm lesson in process and pleasure.  It made me want to touch humble things and small luxuries, and put them in order.  I’m making a lap quilt in tribute to Hanna’s button box.  I tested out a few pattern possibilities, including button-like circles or embroidered lotuses.  But in the end, I chose a simple pattern, just two and a half-inch squares of calico in a grid of half-inch sashing, for my American-girl quilt.  I’ll post a final picture to this blog when it’s done.

button box quilt top

Thank you, Linda Sue Park, for taking the Little House books and showing me where the roots and mirrors could be.