Book Review: “The Once and Future Witches” by Alix Harrow

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want the words and the ways for myself. It’s 2020 so most women have the will.

This is an alternate history where witchcraft rises again after Salem. Women (and a few men) tired of the abuses of powerful men, factory foremen, abusing fathers and husbands, religious zealot, and white men in general, begin to reclaim their powers. Witchcraft envelopes the social movements of the 1890s: suffrage, workers rights, civil rights, religious freedom.

The action rises and falls more times than you think it should but the power of the story doesn’t burn out. You want to mount a broom and follow the witches wherever they go, just to see women gain the upper hand for once.

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Book Review: “Only Ever Yours” by Louise O’Neill and “The Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

I have a insatiable draw to dystopian stories. I also have an insatiable draw toward stories set at strange boarding schools with dark secrets. I reach the pinnacle of those genres when I read “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve been chasing the breathtaking high of that book ever since.

Both “The Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas and “Only Ever Yours” by Louise O’Neill took me close to the place that Ishiguro arrived at with his stunning dystopia. All three of the books deal with themes of science, survival, and progress. Each of the protagonists is a woman drafted into the role of experimental subject through no fault of her own. And without her consent.

“In Only Ever Yours”, we follow a girl in a post-climate-apolypse world, where women aren’t born; they’re designed in a lab to be perfect specimens for the pleasure of men. They are trained only to be beautiful and willing. They can’t read, they can’t do math, but they are ornamental and undemanding. They may be called upon to bear sons for the good of the world. Or they could be sent “Underground” to an undescribed fate.

On the flip side, “The Catherine House” is a set at a mysterious college where a specially selected group of student are granted the gift of knowledge and the promise of worldly success. In exchange they are cloistered for three years in the college that is studying “new materials” that could revolutionize everything. But the price of attendance is participation in the grand experiment.

In the end, neither the knowledge nor the ignorance is a saving grace for these women. Being what society wants isn’t enough to prevent society from turning on you. In each of these books, I saw a plausible outcome for what happens when your world rejects you. Both endings will keep me up at night.

#bookstagram #bookish #bookworm #bookreview 📚

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Book Review: “The House on the Cerulean Sea” by T.J. Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The House on the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune is a Valentine to everyone who has found their corner in the world and thrived once they accepted the love that there.

Linus Baker is a caseworker assigned to look into an orphanage for magical children. He leaves his dull – if somewhat cozy – routine and finds himself on an island filled lovable misfits.

From there what else can happen but a love story? Well, several concurrent love stories really. A romance, a family love story, the love of new friends, love for a place.

This book piles love upon love and any reader will close the covers of this sweet little story better for having visiting this fanciful world where magic and love come together.

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Why Voting Third Party is Electoral Masturbation

Yeah. I said what I said. Voting for the Greens or the Libertarians or writing in some high-minded alternative candidate is a worthless gesture that serves only to pleasure the person doing it.

Somewhere, a hipster dude in a jaunty hat is sputtering “But, but, but you don’t know what point I am trying to make!” Let me assure you, I do know. And your point may even be a good one. But you tactic is useless and won’t advance your point in any way.

Let’s unpack this shall we?

Some people vote for the actual so-called third parties like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party because they swear up and down that they believe in the ideals of those two organizations. I say those two organizations are not really political parties and they are not really participating in the process of government. All they do is show up every four years and demand attention by mounting a weak candidate for president. If you really want to make a third party a national force, run for mayor as a Green. Run for city council as Libertarian. Develop a state-level organization and prove you have the chops to govern.

We have only two viable parties because all the other parties are spoiled babies who won’t put in the work to compete. Build a functional movement or get out of the way.

Some people say they hate the system of nominating candidates and want to change it by writing in their preferences. Except that your ballot is basically a scan-tron form that gets run through a computer and then packed away. Your name isn’t even on it. Only you know what you did.

No election official is reading your ballot and saying “Great Scott! This person has an incredible point to make about the structure of American elections! I must take this to the others so we can revolutionize the process!”

If you want to change nominating processes you need to lobby your state board of elections and state legislature for changes to the process for getting people on the ballot. The ballot itself isn’t a substitute for doing real, effective advocacy work.

Some people just haaaaaaate both candidate so much that they can’t deal with the idea of voting for either of them.

I wish I could remember where I saw this, but a Black woman addressed this point by saying something like “When exactly do you think Black women have had the luxury of being excited about a candidate? We always just suck it up and vote for the person who will do us the least harm.”

Now, you night say that your protest vote candidate is the candidate who will do the least harm and I say YEAH, BECAUSE THEY WILL NEVER HOLD OFFICE. They will never have the opportunity to make policy. A responsible voter will narrow the choices based first on viability, then assess which is the greatest threat to civil and humans right, and then vote against that person. An irresponsible person puts their own feelings ahead of the greater good and votes for that college professor they remember loving in 1994 or some equally self-indulgent thing.

There are a lot of ways to agitate for change in America and I’m a big cheerleader for protest movements, advocacy efforts, and policy making. But voting for a non-viable candidate is none of those things and it won’t accomplish anything at all. It won’t free detainees at the border, it won’t change criminal justice policy, it won’t protect Roe v. Wade, and it won’t address corruption in the federal government.

Your protest vote is just electoral masturbation and you’re the only one who will get anything out of it.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

Memories of Debates Past

I wrote this in 2012 after the Biden/Ryan VP debate. It remains one of my favorite things that I have ever written.


Martha Raddatz: Welcome to the only vice presidential debate. This will be a discussion between two guys who will be one bullet away from the Presidency. What they say will probably never matter. In an ideal world everyone will be polite and no one will indulge in Palin-esque winking. We have a lot to cover tonight so I hope both candidates can stick to the time limits for answering questions. Agreed?

Joe Biden: Not a chance

Paul Ryan: Yeah, there’s no way.

MR: OK, then. Let’s get started. I’d like to talk about foreign policy…

JB: Booyah! Foreign policy! Bring it! I chaired the Foreign Relations committee for a long freaking time! I related to foreign countries while my “friend” here was learning about them in geography class!

PR: Did you just use air quotes when you said friend? So uncool.

JB: Whatevs. I’ve been in the situation room. I get CIA briefings. I’m a foreign policy badass. You look like a white kid with a Eurail pass and a backpack trying to score with hot Scandinavian girls.

PR: Sha. As if. Your foreign policy is a hot mess. You won’t even call people terrorists. What kind of American doesn’t accuse anyone and everyone on foreign soil of terrorism?

JB: I’m over here.

PR: I know. But the camera is over there and I need to gaze into it with a sincere look on my face.

MR: Gentlemen, let’s move along to unemployment. It’s a big problem facing our nation, you know.

JB: Is this where I talk about being from Scranton?

PR: Yeah, and I bring up Janesville.

JB: No one knows where Janesville is. Everyone knows about Scranton because I’ve been name dropping it since you were in diapers.

PR: Name dropping it hasn’t fixed its unemployment rate. Janesville has less unemployment than Scranton.

JB: Because of the shit-ton of stimulus money you begged for. You’re welcome, by the way.

PR: I’m not a hypocrite!

JB: Did I say you were?

MR: Next up, let’s talk a little about entitlement programs. Social Security and Medicare. What’s next for those programs?

PR: Slash and burn them! Private sector! Vouchers! Money money money!

JB: What the hell was that? Was that like supply-side fugue state thing? You make no sense and you’re pulling the plug on grandma only not grandma today, grandma 30 years from now.

PR: No, I’m not.

JB: You totally are.

PR: Nuh-uh. I’m doing what Reagan did.

JB: Dude. I was in the room when Reagan did his Social Security thing. Remember? Oh right. You were at recess. Or was it snack time at your elementary school?

MR: ::eye twitches:: Maybe we should talk about the wars…

JB: My son fought in the wars.

PR: ::mutters:: We know. Is he from Scranton too?

JB: Shut up or I’ll bring up my late wife and daughter who died in a car wreck.

PR: Fine. Let me tell you about my trip to Afghanistan where I met with many generals and learned many important things about military strategy. I also learned how to pronounce the names of many Afghan towns and regions. I’ll recite them all if you want.

JB: I know them already. Because of all my foreign policy experience.

PR: Well, those places are dangerous. We need more troops there!

JB: You are a fucking idiot. You want to send more Americans to be killed in a hostile environment in a country that doesn’t want us there and is actively killing our personnel? Fuck that noise. We’re out in 2014. End of story.

PR: Why do you hate the military?

JB: Why are you hell-bent on killing them off? You want to go to war in Syria and Iran and stay in Afghanistan.

PR: We believe in peace through strength.

JB: Nice talking point, bro.

PR: Thanks. Wrote it myself!

JB: Figures.

MR: Ok, we’re almost outta time. And I need a drink so let’s talk religion and abortion for a minute then hit the bar across the street.

PR: I love Jesus and hate abortion.

JB: I also love Jesus. But I love getting the women’s vote too so I’m down with legal access to abortion even though I don’t like abortion myself.

MR: And closing statements.

JB: You cannot elect this clown and his buddy Mittens. They suck. Barack and I get you. We do. Really we do. I’m from Scranton and know people just like you. So, I know what you want and I’ll make sure Barack does it. It just might take a while.

PR: Mitt and I will make you totally rich if you vote for us.

MR: Thank you and good night.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Donald Trump And The Existential Fear Of Being A Loser

There was an article in the days before the 2016 election that described Trump, sitting on his plane, watching the coverage of the race and saying only “I’m going to win.”

That phrase – I’m going to win – seemed to me like the main motivator for Trump. It was the winning that interested him. The role of president, the opportunity to serve, the responsibility to the American people, even the power were all secondary to winning. He is a trophy collector and he believed that the White House was the ultimate trophy.

Four years later, he still doesn’t care about the work or the responsibility of the job. That has been made abundantly clear by his utter failure to engage in stopping a pandemic from killing our populace. I do think Trump has developed a taste for the power of the presidency, especially the parts that translate into dollars or accolades. However, I think the winning is still the driving force for him. The need to be a winner is hardwired into his sense of self like no other impulse.

The fear of losing, of being a loser, and having to admit it is the impetus behind everything Trump is doing and saying right now. I believe when he envisions a loss on November 3, Trump doesn’t think about how it will feel to turn over the reins of the country. He won’t feel regret about things left undone. He just doesn’t want to be the loser in a contest or give up a prize he believes he deserves.

That idea of “presidency as prize” is the reason he has been so bad at the job. The substance of it never occurred to him. He is not a student of history or government and he has no innate drive to be a public servant. He wanted it like he wanted a golf trophy. A shiny object, something he could show off to others whom he wanted to impress. Unfortunately, “others” ended up meaning Putin. That’s who he wants to impress and also who he wants to emulate. An unquestioned leader who gets his way simply by virtue of holding the title

Today, four years since he got the win he wanted in 2016, Trump has come to believe that the trophy of the presidency is his by right. In some ways, I think he is genuinely surprised that someone is trying to take it from him. Democratic and meritocratic principles have never applied to him before and he is shocked that they might apply to him now. The result is that he sees the election as an attempt by Biden to steal something to which he is unquestionably entitled. He wants to keep his shiny object. He wants to say he is the reigning champion of elections.

In Trump’s mind, his efforts to suppress votes, challenge voting results, and bully officials into granting him a victory don’t equal cheating in an election. He sees it as a way to keep something that is rightfully his. He doesn’t believe he is wrong; he believes we who would vote against him are wrong for taking away his hard-won presidency. He is not stealing the election; the election, the victory, should be his by fiat. In his view, his opponents are stealing all of that from him.

Other have suggested to me he fears that he will face legal consequences if he returns to the ranks of average citizens. I’m not convinced that really haunts him. He has been running afoul of the law for his entire career and has never faced consequences. Why should be believe that he might face them now? I suspect that in his darkest moments he isn’t thinking that he will lose an election and go to jail. He is only thinking that people might call him a loser and that is more than he can bear.

This is all why he is so hellbent on winning this election. It’s not the power or the glory that motivates him. It’s not even the concern that his lawbreaking will catch up to him at long last. It’s his sense of entitlement and his desire to win things that is driving him. He will throw any elbow into any face to win this game, even going so far so throw an elbow into the face of democracy itself.

Photo by Shamia Casiano from Pexels

The Inherent Worth And Dignity Of Every Person

Susan B. Anthony went to my church.

I went to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY when I was growing up. Susan B. Anthony went there, too. Not at the same time, of course. Not even the same building, which was constructed long after her death. But the same congregation. I grew up seeing her noble profile in the portrait that hung in the church lobby.

Susan B. Anthony organized women to fight for their right to full participation in American democracy. She was beaten. She was belittled. She was jailed.

She prevailed. She didn’t live to see it but she prevailed.

I wonder if she ever thought about giving up. If she ever considered cashing in her privilege as a white northerner of some means and walking away from it all to live a life of ease. Just give up fighting for the rights that so many people didn’t seem to care about acquiring.

The thought of surrendering crossed my mind last night when I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died and the Republican-led Senate is prepared to rush a replacement into her seat on the Supreme Court. The battle is all but lost and I should just stop fighting for the rights so many people seem prepared to relinquish.

See, I’m fine. My family is fine. I’m not lacking for rights or privileges. My kids aren’t underserved. My husband is a successful white man. We have resources and options. We won’t suffer in the corporate oligarchy our country is on track to become. I could walk away from any fight I want and not lose a damn thing in the process. I don’t have to care about other people.

But here’s what Susan B. Anthony and I both learned at at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester: the first principle of our religion is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. She never forgot that and neither can I. I am called by faith to care about other people.

I don’t know what exactly to do next but I do know which two groups have blazed the trail we must follow in this next phase of the American experiment: those who fought for all kinds of civil rights and labor organizers. They were all beaten, belittled, and jailed like Susan B. Anthony was but they all prevailed eventually. Their history is our guidebook for the future.

Book Review: ‘The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes’ by Elissa R. Stone and ‘The Comeback’ by Ella Berman

For more about what I read and mini-reviews of books, follow me on Instagram at WhatRebekahReads!

I don’t think anyone can deny that there is something facsinating about looking int the lives of the rich and famous. Even the most sophisticated intellectual has seduced by tabloid headlines or documentaries about popular culture figures.

That’s why the The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Stone & The Comeback by Ella Berman, which are both about the far side of the fame machine were both so appealing. The look behind the curtain of Hollywood is irresistible and always satisfying.

That’s not to say that these are happy stories. They aren’t. Both books deal with the ascent of the most fragile of famous creatures: teen girls being packaged for mass consumption.

The Comeback is the story of a young actress named Grace who was created by Hollywood, by one powerful man in particular, then broke down at the peak of her career. The plot sounds like a long-form redemption story you would find in a magazine but it gets to so much more. It’s about the way young people are turned into products by the show business industry. How their humanity is diminished and their whole beings become the property of the people who rely on their very existence to make money. Berman gives us a character who is desperate to reclaim herself from her Hollywood juggernaut past while never being sure if she wants to exit the industry or not.

The Unraveling Of Cassidy Holmes is an inside look at the 90s phenomenon of girl groups. Told in the present after Cassidy’s death and in the past during her rise, the book tells the story of Gloss, a group that started organically enough but morphed into a pop product once the music industry got involved. It manages to be character driven while also exploring the minutia of the process of creating a pop culture phenomenon.

What Cassidy Holmes doesn’t do is convey any joy. The story of how Cassidy Holmes came to join a singing group, become a worldwide star, develop complicated relationship with her bandmates, and navigate Hollywood is strangely bereft of any sense of why she is doing it. Whereas Grace in The Comeback has the desire to be in movies and loves the creative process, Cassidy lacks that motivation. The atmospherics of the story all work but throughout it, I kept asking myself why is Cassidy even here? What did she want from this? Does she love music? Love of music usually pervades stories like this – think Almost Famous or Daisy Jones And The Six – but music is notably missing from this story. Tours, videos, costumes, and meetings take the place of actual music.

And maybe that is why these books are ultimately so very sad: they are both about the industry, not the art.

Presidential Cruelty

As I type this, the Republican Party is beginning the third night of their convention. I’m no Republican but I’m not usually averse to watching political spectacles no matter who is putting them on. Well, I wasn’t averse to it until 2016.

These days, I can’t watch Republicans speak, and I particularly can’t watch Donald Trump speak. I don’t have the emotional strength to sit and listen to the cruelty he passes out with both hands.

I’m not being a snowflake here. I don’t shy away from constructive criticism and I don’t mind honest disagreements about ideas or programs. But that’s not what the Trumpian discourse is. He’s just a mean old man surrounded by other mean people and all they do is stand around being as mean as possible. Trump is the ringmaster of a circus of cruelty and watching anything he produces is like signing myself up to be verbally abused.

No, thank you.

During the Democratic Convention last week the party was bending over backwards to show what a nice guy Joe Biden is. It was actually pretty corny the way they were portraying this grinning older man as the nicest uncle who ever pulled a quarter out from behind your ear. In a normal political cycle we all would have been rolling our cynical eyes at all of it. But in 2020? Damn, y’all. It was just such a relief to spend a few hours where everyone was working their tails off to say nice things for two hours per night.

Imagine four years of the politics of nice. Can you even?

I, like so many of you, am tired from hearing my beliefs belittled in the public square. I’m beaten down from the effort it takes to keep speaking out about what I think is right when at every turn there is a bully in a pulpit calling my entire ideology fake news. Twitter used to be fun but now it’s the place I go when I want to be called a “libtard” or worse. The chattering class is the jeering class and the jeering is mean and petty and small. It’s also exhausting, just as it’s meant to be.

And that’s why I’m not listening to the Republicans tonight. They have shown me who they are and I don’t want to spend my time on them. Trump and his flying monkey followers have been trying and trying to smash our collective emotional resistance so we will eventually just give up and let them do what they want. And maybe if we listened to them all the time we would.

But this is still America and in America, the off button on the remote still works. I would rather sit in silence than listen to the litany of presidential cruelty coming from the RNC.

Photo By Nicolas Pinault, Voice of America – Day 4 of the 2016 RNC in Photos; Full-resolution photo, Public Domain,

School In The Time of Corona

School starts in less than a week here. It’s all going to be online and there are some tech issues that are already driving parents batty and – no joke – the Board of Ed literally voted on the bell schedule this afternoon. Teachers are going into their third day of in-service planning for the year and they didn’t know the bell schedules until a text alert hit all our phones 20 minutes ago.

To say this year is going to be weird as hell does a disservice to weird shit.

Since the spring, I have been calling for punk rock parenting where we all agree to just tear down all the expectations and assumptions we made before the very act of leaving the house was a high risk plan. These are the days to let the screen time flow like milk and honey and maybe not care so much if your kids take up swearing.

Now that school starting, it’s time to get into feminist punk rock parenting. What’s that, you ask? That’s where you dismantle the old systems and build them back with an intersectional intentionality. Or, to put it in simply, fuuuuuuuck grades. And benchmarking. And test scores. And all that stuff that the system has been trying to impose on young brains for generations.

Half of education is spent checking to see if kids learned stuff and then quantifying that data to present to someone else. That someone else – a school system, a government agency, what have you – does not know your child. In fact, they can’t identify your child inside the mass of data they are wallowing in. They like aggregates and those aggregates are NOT GOOD FOR INDIVIDUALS. And in this inequitable learning environment, they’re junk data anyway. Too many variables in the delivery of curriculum. You cant aggregate that which is disparate.

So buh-bye data. Hello parent-informed individual educational goals. Figure out what you want your kids to get out of this school year and concentrate on that part of it all.

Yes, there are basic things kids are supposed to learn at a particular time and you should probably pay attention to that. I really do want my daughter to exit third grade knowing how to do multiplication. But there are other things that will be just as important, such as her emotional maturation and well-being that no benchmarking test will ever measure. I, however, in my new role as full-time-volunteer paraeducator to her can measure it and that will be my focus for the year.

Do I care what her test scores will look like? Nah.

Will a college admissions officer ever look at her 3rd grade test scores? Also, nah.

Let’s use this moment in education to change how we look at measuring what children learn. Let’s stop trying to standardize everything for these unique and special little people. Let’s make school about learning and growing instead of grading. We have the opportunity so let’s seize it.