Human beings took our animal need for palatable food … and turned it into chocolate souffles with salted caramel cream. We took our ability to co-operate as a social species … and turned it into craft circles and bowling leagues and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took our capacity to make and use tools … and turned it into the Apollo moon landing. We took our uniquely precise ability to communicate through language … and turned it into King Lear.
None of these things are necessary for survival and reproduction. That is exactly what makes them so splendid. When we take our basic evolutionary wiring and transform it into something far beyond any prosaic matters of survival and reproduction … that’s when humanity is at its best. That’s when we show ourselves to be capable of creating meaning and joy, for ourselves and for one another. That’s when we’re most uniquely human.
And the same is true for sex. Human beings have a deep, hard-wired urge to replicate our DNA, instilled in us by millions of years of evolution. And we’ve turned it into an intense and delightful form of communication, intimacy, creativity, community, personal expression, transcendence, joy, pleasure, and love. Regardless of whether any DNA gets replicated in the process.
Why should we see this as sinful? What makes this any different from chocolate souffles and King Lear?
The Women Who Mapped the Universe And Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect
In 1881, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, had a problem: the volume of data coming into his observatory was exceeding his staff’s ability to analyze it. He also had doubts about his staff’s competence–especially that of his assistant, who Pickering dubbed inefficient at cataloging. So he did what any scientist of the latter 19th century would have done: he fired his male assistant and replaced him with his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming proved so adept at computing and copying that she would work at Harvard for 34 years–eventually managing a large staff of assistants.
So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering’s Harem.
I realize I’ve been away from the old Tumbls for a bit, but never fear, I’m still reading. And the next book (series) I want to talk about I didn’t actually read, but listened to. Back when I was a youth librarian I started listening to audio books on CD (though I had a tape deck, if the occasion called for it!) to fill the long hour of driving each day. Towards the end of my year there (right before I took off for a year to lands unknown), I got started on the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy.
There was about a year and a half gap in between Shiver (#1) and the second two books: Linger and Forever. In terms of remembering every single detail, that didn’t work out wonderfully well, but certainly each book is written with its own distinct plot progression, so even if you hadn’t read the first, you’d be able to get through the second two without too much confusion and Stiefvater does a good job of reiterating the relevant details through dialog and character explication.
There’s a lot of thinking and feeling in these books. Which I didn’t consider a bad thing because these books are about teenagers and thinking and feeling is kind of a big deal when you’re that age. It also wasn’t a big deal because, once again, each book has plot and action, and a large amount of character arc for each POV character. Even the non-POV characters, some of them, show a fair amount of movement from beginning to end.
I will admit that at times the books seemed a bit slow going, because of the thinking and feeling. It didn’t overly detract from my reading (listening) of the books though. Whether Stiefvater meant to or not, the fact that everything seemed to come to a standstill while a character went into detail about something actually created even greater urgency when events were afoot. And it also seemed this type of pacing was a great metaphor for the teenage condition–endlessly waiting to grow up and simultaneously rushing toward adulthood at breakneck speed.
The story itself would probably be lumped in with urban fantasy or paranormal romance–because of the wolves–if people had to pick a more specific genre than simply fantasy or SFF. I think, though, that giving the typical werewolf story a medical twist separates it from other paranormal fantasy, even so far as taking it out of the romance category. There are romantic relationships in the series, but there are in almost any book, of any genre. This trilogy is really a “secret lives of teenagers” subgenre, if anything. Like great YA, it treats teenagers as full people, while still allowing them to be teenagers.
Everyone knows that teens have lives that they are developing apart from their parents, things they think or feel or do that their parents may never find out about. Some parents stick their heads in the sand, some become control freaks, and others go the best-friend route. But no matter what, no matter the approach, parents realize–or are forced to realize–that they can’t control everything anymore, and that there are certain things their kids don’t want to–or can’t–talk about. The Wolves of Mercy Falls is all of those situations poured together, but in this case it’s something they actually can’t talk about with their parents. And for some it causes almost irreparable damage to relationships.
I think at the end of the trilogy some might see the eventual resolution as an easy way out. A minor adult character steps in to alleviate the greatest plot strain. But I would argue that the real plot conflicts and resolutions have already been played out in the personal interactions. The final plot sequence dealing with the wolves is a secondary story, a point where all the characters finally come together, having dealt with their own conflicts.
The only real objections I have are with the cast of characters itself. The characters could have been a bit more diverse ethnically/racially.
Overall I’d recommend this trilogy to people who like character-driven stories, fantasy, paranormal/urban fantasy, music lovers, book lovers, and yes, even romance. Steifvater has a lot of respect for both her characters and her readers, as I know from having read other novels by her.
Check it out!
Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.
Exactly what I needed. I’m bringing along a story about a black woman from the US transported to Crusades-era Syria, and kept getting hung up on how other people would react to her skin color, and whether it was likely there’d be others of African descent in the city and blah blah blah. This was the kick in the pants I needed to get that, hey, this is a story about time travel and whatnot, and the point is what my character does, thinks, and feels, not how others react to her.
Last year Cat Winters wrote a novel called In the Shadow of Blackbirds that won or was nominated for a host of awards and recognitions. While I didn’t read that one, I would like to believe that The Cure for Dreaming will stand next to her last book in the awards category. I tweeted a few days ago that The Cure for Dreaming was the most positive I’d felt about a book all year. At the time I hadn’t yet finished reading it. Now I have. And I still feel that way.
My feelings are from the ideas, primarily, with which Winters imbues her story of Olivia Mead, burgeoning suffragette and daughter of a tyrannical Portland dentist, but also from the way Winters gets those ideas across–the imagery, the characters’ struggles. The narrative, clean and well-plotted, is nevertheless a pretty straightforward story, not requiring the reader to jump through any hoops or suspend–to any large degree–their sense of disbelief. That might sound odd, considering the story revolves around a cultural infatuation with hypnosis at the turn of the 20th century, a time which we moderns like to think of as being superstitious, barely civilized in many ways (after all, it was pre universal suffrage).
But this is where Winters’ deftness of prose becomes apparent, as she has so well placed the story–honestly, she’s really done her research here–and displays an understanding of the era about which she writes, that the reader is simply swept into the story, an avatar of that world. Plot holes, every time I thought I’d encountered one, were carefully placed to advance the story, like knitters’ needles put down by one person, only to be picked up by another, seamlessly revealing important details of one character or creating motives for another. Winters’ writing is clear and matter-of-fact, at times incredibly vivid, whether she’s writing about dentistry, or hypnosis, or cycling, so that there is no room for questioning the truth of the narrative.
But she does ask the reader to question. She’s the kind of YA writer that, were I still a YA librarian, I would heartily recommend to any of my patrons. Without giving too much away, I would like to say that, though the subject of the book is women’s suffrage and the coming of age of a young woman, the theme underlying it all is empathy. And that is a topic in which a lot of people could use a lesson. Through the experiences of Olivia, the reader is led to think about the actions of various characters–characters who, sadly, could so easily step off the pages and into our world, today, and fit right in–and what those actions really entail for the people around them.
I’ll be honest: though I enjoyed it, I didn’t really get into the story until Olivia’s dream, a visceral description of her father’s dental work. Dentistry itself was a bit of a “new idea” in that era, and its juxtaposition with suffrage and hypnosis created a storm of ideas that I just couldn’t get out of my head. Any of those subplots alone could have stood strongly enough for the novel, but together they build a novel that is difficult to forget.
But before I wax too poetic and start revealing things I shouldn’t, I’ll finish with one final thought: the novel is a love story as well, but with a very refreshing ending.
What they say to kids who want pets: Are you sure you’re not just saying you want one because all your friends have one? Remember, it’s not going to be small and cute forever, it will grow up eventually! It’s a living being that will depend entirely on you for the rest of its life. Are you really sure you’re ready for this?
What they say to adults who DON’T want kids: Oh, you’ll want one sooner or later. Everybody does, after all. Besides, babies are soooo cute, aren’t they? You’d better hurry up before you get too old!