The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Below, Mr. AMB discusses Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, “a welcome addition to the sci-fi canon,” thereby preventing my blog from suffering the full effect of my current reading slump (which persists despite how good this novel sounds!).


Via Mr. AMB (thank you!):

Chambers ThumbnailI was looking for a sci-fi book to read and saw that an io9 had a review titled, “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet Is This Year’s Most Delightful Space Opera.” The recommendation in the title was good enough for me to download the book.

Set in the distant future, the novel follows the diverse crew (comprised of several humans and a variety of extraterrestrial species) of a ship that builds wormholes. Of course, if there isn’t already a wormhole somewhere, then it takes a while to get there in the first place (that’s “the long way”), and the new wormhole they’re building is next to a planet controlled by a rather belligerent species that has been tied up in warfare for as long as anyone can remember (that’s the “small, angry planet”).

Going off the title alone, I was expecting a swashbuckling tale with aliens and warp travel and all that fun stuff, and it delivered. What I did not expect, however, was a poignant allegory about the meaning of love. Not just romantic attachment, although that is in the book as well, but the love between family members, between friends, between those with shared principles or interests, and the strain put on those bonds by distance, culture, and fate.

Writing a space opera is always tricky, given the need to build whole civilizations and cultures and their histories without letting the action drag. The characters do indeed travel, ahem, a long way to a small, angry planet, but the book is less about that voyage than about discrete issues among the ensemble cast. The plot and pacing bear far more resemblance to a television series than to most science fiction books. With this structure, the world-building fits in neatly with the character drama occurring at that point in the story.

Notably, the book had a similar publication trajectory to The Martian.* After getting consistently rejected by traditional publishers, Becky Chambers set up a Kickstarter campaign (which drew $2,810 from 53 backers) and self-published the book. The book was then short-listed by the Kitschie awards, becoming the first self-published book with that distinction. Lo and behold, traditional publishing came running her way, and now the book is published by an imprint of HarperCollins.

All in all, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is a welcome addition to the sci-fi canon, and another reminder that traditional publishing isn’t particularly good at identifying up-and-coming authors with ideas for good new books.

*For my review of The Martian, see The Martian” Brushes His Teeth and Shaves Every Morning (And So Should You).

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Do You Write Under A Pen Name? (& Other Fun Facts)


As law students filled the room, the moderator of the event whispered to me, “Are there any fun facts I can include about you in the introduction before you speak?”

“Huh?” I replied. Fun facts? Lawyers aren’t fun.

“Isn’t there something interesting about you that I can tell the group?”

“Like what?”

“Like whether you write under a pen name.”

“No,” I replied, forcing her to stick with my stodgy professional bio. I do write under a pen name, but it’s not like I was under oath or anything. If my answer to her question had been “yes,” I wouldn’t have any need to write this blog and my books under a pseudonym.

The audience that day was a group of future legal advocates, individuals who might’ve been interested in Amelia Elkins Elkins, in which a modern version of Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot navigates the American courts after her mother’s untimely death. However, selling a handful of books isn’t a good enough reason to expose my literary side to my future professional peers.

As I discussed briefly in Anonymity Doesn’t Only Protect the Trolls (It Protects Nice People Too), I choose to remain semi-anonymous, whether on the cover of my books or in comments on blogs and reviewing sites, because I want to keep a line between the different facets of my life (personal vs. professional, online vs. real life). I explore legal issues on this blog, like copyright infringement, that are quite different from the civil rights work I do in my real life. I wouldn’t want potential clients who contact my office to be confused about my practice areas. Plus, I like my privacy.

Still, there must’ve been something I could’ve said to the moderator. In Last Week Tonight’s recent show on Prisoner Re-entry, John Oliver said to a courageous guest who feared being seen as nothing more than a former inmate: “Everyone has at least three other things about them that are interesting.” Indeed.

So, what are mine (apart from my double-life)?

  1. My twins were born more than three months early, but today, you’d never be able to tell; :-)
  2. I was voted “Most Opinionated” by my high school class (a dubious honor, but sadly, a well-deserved one);
  3. In September, I planted 1,200 spring bulbs in the hopes that they’ll bloom in time for my birthday (making me look forward to getting another year older!).*

Your turn: What would you have told the moderator to include in your introduction? If you write under a pen name, would you have disclosed it?

*Extra fun fact: If you couldn’t already tell from #3, I’m nuts!

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Internet Booksellers: How Do You Know If Material is “Harmful to Minors”?

Enter_A Rudimentary Haiku_by AMB

Last week, a group of booksellers and others who publish materials on the Internet asked a federal court in Louisiana to halt a criminal law that requires folks in that state to verify the ages of visitors to their websites before permitting access to digital images, photographs, or videos that are “harmful to minors” — or else pay a fine of up to $10,000.

The plaintiffs argue that this newly enacted law violates the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. In their 37-page complaint (PDF), they explain that the law is unduly burdensome because compliance with the Act requires booksellers to either:

(a) review each such Book, and place an Age Attestation Button in front of each cover which might be deemed material harmful to minors, (b) [] place an Age Attestation Button in front of their entire website, or (c) [] restrict website displays and sales to a small enough inventory of Books so that the bookseller could review all images of each cover.

That doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

I’m kidding, of course. It sounds dreadful. As the plaintiffs explain:

The first is an overwhelming burden (and, indeed, is impossible for bookstores which use a third party provider, and therefore do not themselves maintain or control the selection of Books or the pages containing the images of the book covers). The second unconstitutionally deprives all minors of access to all Books and other material on the websites–even material suitable for young children. And the third approach would require Louisiana booksellers to engage in massive self-censorship.

Quite frankly, it’s laughable that the Louisiana legislature, which passed this law with an overwhelming majority, and Governor Bobby Jindal, who signed it on June 23, 2015, seem to think that their state can regulate the ubiquitous Internet in any meaningful way.

The law applies only to those who distribute materials for commercial gain on the Internet from Louisiana, as though this limited measure will somehow “protect” minors in their state from seeing so-called “harmful” material, the vast majority of which is produced elsewhere in the United States and the world.

For example, minors from that state can easily drop by my small piece of the World Wide Web — emphasis on the World Wide — and see anything I’ve decided to publish from my residence in Pennsylvania.

Surely, though, nothing at the Misfortune of Knowing, a book blog, could possibly be “harmful to minors,” right?

Who knows. I am, afterall, an “authority” on “sloth sex,” thanks to my post about a children’s book with this cover art (which I don’t find as controversial as others do):

“Controversial” Image from the cover of Adam Rex’s PSSST!, a children’s book.

The definition of “material harmful to minors” (and yet not obscene) is one of the biggest problems with this law.

The Louisiana law requires age verification when, in addition to meeting other factors, an average adult applying “contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable for minors” would find the material offensive. But what community are we talking about? The most conservative parish or the most liberal one?

I’ve discussed this problem before, back when a group of researchers decried the use of words like “boobies” and “crap” in adolescent literature–words that do not offend the standards in my household or my community.

I am sensitive to concerns about “age appropriateness,” a topic I have discussed in Julie of the Wolves: An E-Book My Children Will Not Read Until They’re Older, a post some parents might not want their children to read because it reproduces the controversial passage from the book.

In my opinion, the burden is on the parents to police their own children, preventing them from reading a controversial (but not obscene) passage on my blog if it offends the standard of their household. While I think my then-six-year-old twins were too young to read that passage (because they wouldn’t understand it), I don’t think an older minor is too young to read it.

A passage like that on a commercial, Louisiana-based website wouldn’t necessarily qualify as one of the types of materials regulated by the law — which is limited to digital images, photographs, or videos — but who knows: it’s only words, but a JPEG! (See here). If the law did apply to JPEGs like that, even 17-year-olds would be prevented from reading it unless they lied about their age (which, of course, never happens, right? ;-) ).*

To the extent the law “protects” any minors (those who don’t lie about their age and don’t visit websites that originate outside of Louisiana), is this framework the least speech-restrictive way of doing it?

No. As the Plaintiffs allege in the Complaint:

Many computers—straight out of the box—include a ‘parental controls’ feature in their operating system. Almost all browsers also have parental control options. If a computer does not already have such a feature, it is easy to download one, for free, from many online services. These features enable parents to block access to sexually explicit materials on the Web…

These features aren’t foolproof, but neither is this vague and burdensome law. Hopefully, this law will suffer the same fate in the courts as have over a dozen other similar “statutes forbidding Internet communications deemed harmful to minors.” See American Booksellers Foundation v. Sullivan, 799 F. Supp. 2d 1078, 1080 Fn 15 (D. Alaska 2011)(striking down a similar law, and listing cases in other states).

Generally speaking, it’s better to let parents raise their own kids than to have the legislature, governor, or anyone else do it for them.


*At least the law does not hold Internet publishers liable when a minor falsely attests that s/he is over 18.

**The national American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Louisiana, and Dentons represent the plaintiffs, who are: (1) Garden District Book Shop; (2) Octavia Books; (3) Future Crawfish Paper, publisher of Antigravity Magazine; (4) American Booksellers Association; and (5) Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

***I first learned about this lawsuit from The Guardian.

Posted in Book Banning/Censorship, Books, Law | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Fate of an American “Treasure House”

LynneW_Misfortune of Knowing
“The days of America’s privately-owned treasure houses are over. They are gone with the wind as inevitably as the great southern plantations of before the Civil War.”

P. A. B. Widener II wrote these words in his autobiography, Without Drums, published in 1940.* In 1942, the large private art collection once housed at Lynnewood Hall, his family’s 110-room residence in suburban Philadelphia, went on public display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1944, the Wideners sold Lynnewood Hall and auctioned off the rest of the estate.

Today, the 115-year-old mansion still stands on about 34 acres of property, but it’s little more than a ruin in need of a $50 million renovation. It was last sold in 1996 to a church, which has been looking for a new owner in recent years.

The original owner of the property, P. A. B. Widener I, died exactly 100 years ago today, November 6th.

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Widener was a “capitalist and philanthropist, art collector and lover of children” who died at Lynnewood Hall at the age of 80, having been in poor health exacerbated by the loss of his son and grandson in the Titanic a few years prior. The obituary describes Widener’s vast art collection, stating: “Apart from the art galleries, Mr. Widener’s marble mansion at Elkins Park is full of art treasures. The ceiling of the library is a painting by Tiepolo, from an Italian palace.”

His Lynnewood Hall — and its slow decline — was one of the inspirations for the unimaginatively named Woodlynne Hall, the home of the wealthy Elkins family in Amelia Elkins Elkins (my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion).**

In Amelia Elkins Elkins, the owners of Woodlynne Hall — much like the owners of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion — face financial trouble after the loss of the prudent matriarch. With the silly patriarch in charge, the Elkins family home has fallen into disrepair:

Walter Refused To Fix The Rusted-Open Gate

Amelia Elkins, a modern Anne Elliot, hopes to save her family’s home from the fate of the real-life “Treasure House” on which it is partially based.


*Quoted in Esmée Quodbach, “The Last of the American Versailles”: The Widener Collection at Lynnewood Hall, 29 Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 42 (2002).

**The Wideners were affiliated with a real-life Elkins family. They lived across the street from Lynnewood Hall.

***The top picture, taken last week, is Lynnewood Hall.

****To follow-up on my last Amelia post, the ginkgo leaves in my backyard have finally turned yellow!


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Mr. AMB on Gone With the Wind (& Looking for the Past in the Future)

Gone with the Wind CoverWhen AMB recommends I read something, it’s the next book on my Kindle. But Gone With The Wind? Really?

The glamorizing of antebellum slavery and the appalling descriptions of the effects of African American enfranchisement are, to say the least, off-putting.

However, the political controversy surrounding the book wasn’t what made me reluctant to read it. To me, saying that there are “books people shouldn’t read” is almost as bad as banning books. The question should never be whether people shouldn’t read a book at all, but rather what context is necessary to properly understand the book. Anyone who reads Gone With The Wind as history, instead of as fiction, is a fool.

Rather, my concern was: do I really want to read a thousand-page romance?

It’s hard for me to imagine anything less interesting than the emotional convulsions of a 16-year-old girl trying to attract the attention of all of the boys at an antebellum ball. Yet, even in the earliest pages of the book, I couldn’t put it down. The prose is so rich, and the descriptions of Scarlett’s thoughts so vivid and compelling, that the reader is immediately drawn into the world. Having just finished the novel, I wish there were another thousand pages to read.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.” Maybe he could have filled that void with Gone With The Wind, a novel that takes the typical “serious” subjects of philosophical novels and dashes them against the rocks of reality. Scarlett is confused by high art, dismissive of any religious sentiment, and contemptuous of the “Cause” that guides her Southern contemporaries throughout the novel. That is understandable: none of those ephemeral concepts did her a lick of good in the fires of Atlanta or the desolation of Tara. She was saved, and saved those around her, through willpower alone.

As I read Gone With The Wind, I kept thinking of psychologist Irvin Yalom’s observation, “The neurotic obliterates the present by trying to find the past in the future.” (Link.) All of the main characters are, in one way or another, stuck in a past that is – you’ll have to excuse this phrase – gone with the wind. Indeed, the whole of Southern society is stuck in the dream of rebuilding for themselves a world that will not and can not exist again.

Scarlett, however, has taken a truly Stoic view of the situation, putting aside nagging thoughts about the past and its principles with the mantra, “I will think about this later”– except, importantly, when it comes to Ashley Wilkes, into whom Scarlett has unwittingly channeled the entirety of her unreasonable nostalgia. Even Rhett Butler, described by Scarlett as “strong and unscrupulous, passionate and earthy,” is at core driven by a sentimentality so deep he does not even realize its effects.

As psychologist Donald Winnicott observed, “the absence of psychoneurotic illness may be health, but it is not life,” (link) and it is in that “illness” that Gone With The Wind comes alive.


For AMB’s take on Gone with the Wind, see: (1) Should We Change How We Talk & Write About the Civil War?; (2) How Young is Too Young to Read Gone with the Wind?

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Happy Halloween (From Frog & Cobra)!


The night before the Character Parade, the school’s sanitized celebration of Halloween, a very sad little tree frog struggled to finish her homework. Apparently, doing homework in costume doesn’t make the experience more fun for my second grader.

At least she and her sister were all smiles the next morning at the school’s parade. At this event, the children dress up as storybook characters in lieu of the more traditional ghouls, goblins, and ghosts. As I discussed in “Banning” Halloween:

While Halloween staples exist between the covers of countless children’s books, it seems like the whole point of the school’s decision to hold a low-key “character parade” is to move away from content that might offend some members of our community who view the tradition as an endorsement of paganism.

For my bibliophile kids, the character parade is just as fun as a typical Halloween parade. Here they are this year:

Frog and Cobra
The books were Adventures with Frog and Toad (which bothered S. because, in her words, “I’m a different species of frog!”) and A Crazy Day with Cobras.

Happy Halloween!

*Thanks to my lovely sister for picking out these costumes with the girls!

Posted in Books, Children's Books | Tagged , | 16 Comments

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” -Anne Shirley

Looking Autumn in the eye

Like Anne Shirley, I’m glad there are Octobers. As L. M. Montgomery describes in Anne of Green Gables, this is the time of year — in certain parts of the northern hemisphere — when birches turn “as golden as sunshine,” maples are “royal crimson,” and cherry trees become “dark red and bronzy green.” It’s beautiful.

Where I live, some trees and shrubs are at their height of color, while others are just starting to change:

Misfortune of knowing blog_CallicarpaMisfortune of knowing blog mapleMisfortune of knowing Blog Gingko

The fan-shaped leaves of the gingkoes in my backyard are now streaked with gold. Soon, they will carpet the lawn the way they do at Woodlynne, the fictional estate in Amelia Elkins Elkins (a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion):

AEE Chapt Two

What’s October like for you?


*These pictures were taken on October 27th in suburban Philadelphia (where Amelia Elkins Elkins takes place).

PS. Did you notice that the tree at the top of this post is staring at you? I didn’t see its “eye” until I posted the picture! (Click on the image to make it bigger).

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