Rejection and Relationships

I wrote the following as an email to one of my closest friends who has been going through a break-up, and on reflection, I’d like to share it with you, my dear readers in the blogosphere, as well. I decided to retain most of the email in its original form, though I changed my friend’s name to Sophie, the protagonist of my first novel and my third and current novel. I did edit some of the letter for privacy as well.

This letter is for you who might have experienced rejection from family, friends, or a romantic partner. It is for you who feel alone or who might not feel as though you experience all the types of relationships you yearn for in life.

Dearest Sophie,

I have spent a lifetime trying to find substitute family-figures. I am so grateful for Andrew, for he was the first person to unconditionally love me and has been there for me for the long haul, but I feel sad when I see others with a close loving family and friends. We’ve moved around every few years, so it’s been hard to make lasting friends and to have a real community. I remember in a previous email I mentioned it gets me down a lot. And then you email me and fill my world with light and love! I’m introverted, so I typically only have one good friend with whom I hang out a lot at a time. And I’m intense with my friendships as well, which might turn people off.

In this new year, I’m coming to some revelations about people and relationships which I’d like to share with you. Although I understand your situation is more severe than mine, as yours was a romantic attachment and my relationship issues are with family/friends, I think these thoughts might help.

1. In Buddhism they say that everything changes (see recent blog entry on change). We can look with loving eyes at the relationships of the past, but realize we and the other people have moved on and evolved and no longer belong in each other’s lives. It’s okay to be sad (I think of the memories in the movie Inside Out turning from joy to sadness) and nostalgic, but we must live in the present and put the past behind us. These people are part of who we are but also a part of our past, they don’t belong in our present except in how they changed and touched us.

2. We must accept rejection, no matter how much it hurts, and treasure those who truly appreciate and accept us for ourselves in all our messy imperfections and flaws. We only really need one or two people in our lives who accept us to feel we share meaningful human connections. Not everyone gets the ideal family, romantic attachments, and friendships maybe in a lifetime, but if you can have one or two people from one or two of these groups, that’s enough. We need to focus on the people we do have in our lives and not the people we don’t have. The ones who reject us might have poor judgement and don’t deserve our love (platonic, familial, or romantic). We can be sad but need to accept the truth that there will always be people we like more than they like us. But there are some people who reciprocate our affection (like you!), and we should concentrate on connecting with these people. Some people don’t have any meaningful relationships, and we need to be grateful for what we have and focus on our gratitude rather than focusing on what we don’t have.

3. I think forgiveness comes in somewhere. We need to forgive ourselves for desiring the company of those who reject us, and we need to forgive the other people for rejecting us.

4. It’s good to exercise or do something to distract oneself from being lonely sometimes. And to get an Alicia Keys Girl on Fire attitude. The best way to fight feeling badly, the best revenge, is success (I learned this from the Hugh Grant movie, Music & Lyrics). In becoming who we are meant to become. In doing great things.

5. And finally, in seeing the sadness wrought by rejection (which I’ve had from family and friends), we learn to appreciate the people who unconditionally love us (people like you and Andrew and some others for me). Maybe we need the sadness to appreciate the joy? Like we need night time to appreciate the day? And even in night there is a sky full of stars…I don’t know what this means, but maybe it’s my way of saying there is a silver lining.

Much love and light and gratitude to have you in my life,

Becca

Be bold. Be fearless.

I don’t think we ever really need an excuse to reflect or turn our lamp inward to assess and to consider. Yet as the days are spent as much in shadow as in sun, and we mark the completion of the elliptical path of the earth, we can generally find such a reason to ponder our personal journeys as well. A year ago I committed to a new year’s resolution essentially not to make any specific goals for the year, not to try to confine my aspirations to a specific elusive routine, plan, or agenda.

And, indeed, I succeeded.

At times I might have temporarily relapsed and tried to write an algorithm for living my life, but I always surrendered these prescriptions in favour of living more organically, naturally, and less punitively. I finally accept that my spirit and moods don’t thrive caged by routine. It’s not to say I didn’t make general goals for the year which I compiled in a list and dutifully checked off to help steer my course, but they were more stones I placed on which I skipped across the stream, rather than some overarching plan. For example, I intended to write at least one blog and one Wellesley Underground interview a month, to read books on a list I made, to write my second novel and to submit my first, to earn pay for writing, and to do more music, all of which I completed. I also aimed to prioritize with the thought that should I perish in six months time, I would die without embracing regrets. I mentioned this philosophy to a friend recently who reminded me of it at a later meeting. I conveyed to her that my intent is to live such that when I die I’ll die with a true acceptance of my life and without wishing I had lived differently.

Be bold. Be fearless. My voice teacher advised me of these principles to live, or perhaps sing, by in a recent lesson. I think most of her instructions are geared more towards my approach to singing, but I find them even more relevant to moving through life.

Be bold. Be fearless. Should we die sooner rather than later, what would our legacy be? Is it what we would hope for it to be? What would our epitaph be? What truly matters to us? Would it be that we were beloved by a partner, family, and/or friends or would we want to be defined by some specific achievement? What do we value? What are our priorities? Do we try year after year to achieve the same aim (perhaps some number on a scale, either figuratively or literally)? How do we remove ourselves from possible recursive loops in which we might find ourselves? Or worse yet, an infinite (to) do-loop (sorry, I’ve spent most of my life computer programming)?

Maybe figuring out what we don’t want is easier than figuring out what we do want. I don’t want to be static. I don’t want to self-sabotage. A former voice teacher once told me she learned at a workshop that when we choose to spend our time one way, we choose not to pursue some alternate activity. This makes the question of self-sabotage difficult, because we might think we are acting to fulfill one dream, and yet this expenditure of time and energy might deprive us of satisfying another. I also think we make many choices in our life based on psychological blocks and saboteurs who reside in our heads. I know this is the root of my obstacles in music as well as elsewhere.

Be bold. Be fearless. I guess directing my life with these words as my guide is my new year’s resolution this year. Whatever your resolutions are, or if you choose not to make any, I wish you a bold, fearless, lovely journey.

Happy New Year!

Change

I am listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 performance of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. I grew up with Glenn (yes, we’re on a first name basis); the first recording given to me at the age of three or four was a recording of him playing piano, mostly Bach if I recall, and intended for young children. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t occupy a part of my life, when I hadn’t known of The Goldberg Variations. As it turns out, about eleven years ago I decided I liked the 1981 version best and usually listened to that rendition. I gave my PhD co-supervisor a boxed set of The Goldberg Variations when I graduated, since I listened to it almost daily during my graduate school years. But over the last few weeks I’ve turned to 1955. This might seem an insignificant change in my listening habits, but a change it is indeed.

Change. How comfortable are you with change? Do you follow a routine? Is it helpful? Is it comfortable? Or does it hold you back?

I’m not sure how comfortable we are with change. I’ve lived in seven cities in my life, some of them multiple times, not including the ones I lived in for a month to ten weeks, also some for multiple times. People say a constant in life is change. We grow older and have birthdays. We evolve. Many of the people in our lives change, especially for those of us who have lived peripatetic lifestyles. But then, would we want to stay stagnant? What if we ate the same meal every day for dinner? Wouldn’t the repetition become tiresome and loathsome? What if we listened to the same music and never added to our repertoire, or if we watched the same film every day?

I think we hold ourselves and others to an expectation that we will remain the same, but there is so much possibility for beauty if we embrace transitions in ourselves and in our lives. We can write our own new stories and learn. Isn’t acquiring and assimilating new information part of the process of building our selves? And should we hold on too dearly to the past, to our past selves, and even to our past dreams if we have adapted ourselves to new versions of ourselves with eyes for different possibilities?

I just finished watching the movie Her about a man, Theo, who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. It’s fascinating to see both Theo and Samantha develop and evolve, but I especially find Samantha’s development intriguing. She transcends her original purpose and discovers new colours in the palette of life. She possesses maturity and emotional curiosity, and her transition is a hyper-intelligent multidimensional coming-of-age story. I admire her independent thinking and lack of resistance to change. In fact, rather than loathe change and moving from her comfort zone, she enthusiastically experiments in a wide range of prospects for herself, intoxicated by the variegated experiences open to her.

I have to admit I’m becoming less resistant to the idea of change than I used to be. My New Year’s resolutions used to be lists of a daily routine I would prescribe to myself in the hopes of attaining a better life. They always soon failed, as most people’s New Year’s resolutions seem to do. But why would I want my life to be confined to predictability? Isn’t novelty what teases our senses? I used to nurse nostalgia for the past, especially the friends who have passed out of my life and have become lost. That too has ceased. Change is often the harbinger of discomfort and tragedy. And uncertainty and instability. This is true. But it is also the herald of possibilities and growing into new identities, carving out new niches in the landscape of experiences. Opening our awareness to new dimensions in life.

Some romances are lifelong attachments. As my husband and I grow, we adapt to each other and develop in compatible ways. And maybe I’m listening to a different recording of Glenn’s. I find the 1955 version of The Goldberg Variations to be stimulating, novel, and welcome. But Glenn is still with me on this journey.

I Choose

I choose to part my lips
to open the hollow between my jaws
and let the air fly through my mouth
caressing my vocal folds
– organs of freedom
that allow my voice
to erupt in the primal scream
that is my singular Howl

I choose to sing my stories
both those that weep
and those that ascend the mountain
of my aspirations
harmonizing both
those that cross the bridge of sighs
but also those on paths alit
by the very secret stars I conceived

I choose to sway my body
and dance to the hymns
of my freedoms
of my dreams
of my rights
of my duties to my self
not of the preachings
of those who know me not

I choose to embrace my power —
that in my mind
and in my body
to craft my life
into a work of art
both original, yet flawed
in its humanity
steering to my destined point

I choose to accept my Self
as I am
a unit complete as myself
in all my choices
that colour this journey
paved in hues of every kind
mapping out a life
for my future & for my dreams

I choose to live by my principles
and those that govern me
that give me
my voice
my body
my power
&
my choice

Thanks to the Winnipeg Women’s Health Clinic. I became a professional writer with this piece because of you this year.

Backstage Tour at the Manitoba Opera

When I found out I was moving to Winnipeg, my piano teacher in Montreal told me the city was known for the arts. Although I’m used to a peripatetic lifestyle and was excited by the move, it was news to me, since all I knew about Winnipeg was that 1) it was cold, 2) it was home to a world-renowned ballet company, and 3) there weren’t any current nearby cosmologists or string theorists (until Andrew and I came here).

I’ve discovered that with proper clothing even on the coldest days, the weather in Winnipeg really is tolerable, and I walk or bus everywhere, so I’m out a lot even on the most frigid days. In fact, anyone who knows me has heard the story far too many times how the coldest period of my life was living in an unheated, LA apartment as a UCLA graduate student where the windows didn’t close as the weather plummeted to freezing; my only consolation as I shivered in my winter coat in bed at night was reading the biography of a freezing Marie Curie in Paris.

However, the reputation that preceded Winnipeg as an arts city, I’m discovering, is not unfounded. Where else have I been able to find high caliber music teachers, tickets to the symphony, opera, ballet, or plays (in venues small enough that even in the worst seats you don’t need your binoculars) that are accessible and affordable? And where else can you spend a Sunday afternoon free at the concert hall for a backstage tour of the opera?

I didn’t know what to expect. Since the tour started every twenty minutes, I thought it would be a twenty minute lecture on the stage. However, the tour was comprehensive, starting in the orchestra pit where we were privy to view not only the concert hall from below but also the celesta (a keyboard instrument) used in the Manitoba Opera’s last production Of Mice and Men, composed by American composer, Carlisle Floyd, and based on the John Steinbeck novel. I believe it was the executive board member, Robert Vineberg, who explained the relationship of the conductor to the music (where the conductor studies each note weeks before rehearsals and how the orchestra is blind to the performance on stage, only the conductor can see the singers).

At this point in the tour, we were conscious of the obvious talent behind the production, the musicians and singers on stage. It was only later in the tour where the full magnitude of how many talents behind the scenes are required for a three-day-run of an opera. For example, we see the orchestra members, but how often do we think of the simplest of matters in a production, such as the procurement of the copies of the orchestral scores?

The second stop was in a rehearsal room with the CEO and Director of the Opera, Larry Desrochers whose photo I pass often at the University Winnipeg where he won a Distinguished Alumni Award.  The first point of note was how humble and passionate all of the speakers at the backstage tour were. How Desrochers expressed his wish to make opera accessible to everyone (and so he encouraged people to phone legislators to provide the necessary funding). He demonstrated how a score is marked, one page of music, the other with blocking that would match the spike marks (tape on the floor designating the performers’ marks, which seems similar to film). His gracious talk to us on the tour emphasized how little the ticket sales cover expense of an opera and how critical opera accessibility is to the vitality of a community.

Third was the make-up artist. Again, I was impressed by his passion for stage make-up and happy with his response to my question about how he maintains sanitary conditions with make-up (alcohol sprays on the make-up, disposable applicators, brush cleanings between applications to different performers). Next was hair, where we were treated to the behind the scenes work of the hair dresser and wig maker. From the wardrobe manager, we learned that, like the rented sets, the costumes are rented, though the performers could use their own shoes. I also found this interesting since I would fathom using unknown shoes could make it difficult to perform optimally. Would it?

We also saw the director of production, Sheldon Johnson, who emphasized that even a relatively small production, such as Of Mice and Men, which features a cast of eight principals and twelve chorus members, requires sixty orchestra members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and 107 people backstage not including ushers, the box office, the bartenders, etc. The first thing he said is that productions require 1) lots of people and 2) lots of stuff. He mentioned how the scores must be rented, customs attended to, props, tape (for the marks), piano movers for rehearsals, piano tuners, rehearsal props, sets etc. all must be organized. There are 150 lamps alone above the stage which each must be focused for this production. I must admit, I became lost when he started talking about the machinery (chain motors?) needed to keep the 2600 pounds of bunk beds above the stage (in the fly) or the barn set.

The next stop was with the Stage Manager, Robert Pel, who came to Winnipeg specifically for five weeks to work on this production. One aspect of his job was to plot out (in twelve hours over two days) the 120 looks needed for this production with the lighting designer and director. He arrived one week before the artists, there were two weeks of rehearsals, one week when the set had arrived during which it was unpacked and set up by Monday night, Tuesday the orchestra and singers rehearsed, Wednesday costume, make-up, hair were done with a rehearsal accompanied by the piano (no orchestra), Thursday a final dress rehearsal with orchestra and an audience of students, Friday off, and performance on Saturday. From his location in the wings, the stage manager watches monitors of the performance, which are also available to the performing artists to watch, whom he calls to the wings 5 minutes before their entrance. They prepare two minutes before they go onstage from the wings. It is also the stage manager who takes care of the extensive safety precautions needed when props include firearms (hearing protection for the actors, permits, making sure it is clean and without bullets, overseeing that two people watch the firearm at all times before it goes on stage, etc).

The final treat of the tour that we attended (we opted to skip the last stop, which was the lighting booth in the back of the theatre) was conducted by Lara Ciekiewicz, whom I have enjoyed watching from the audience as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and in Turandot. As with all the other talent who spoke on the backstage tour, Ciekiewicz was humble and modest, though possessed a confidence which I admire. She even demonstrated for us by singing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen. She truly embodied an artist, as all the backstage talent did as well, communicating that the stage is her office, that she envisions the 2200 member audience (who bring their own stories to the theatre) as surrounding a campfire on the stage where the artists connect to each other and the audience in the conveyance of a story. She discussed how important it is for her to warm up her body as well as her voice before performing, that an opera is, in a way, akin to a vocal marathon. And, as she relayed to us, she feels as though the performing artists are the tip of the iceberg of backstage talent that supports the performance. She discussed Mozart’s emotional as well as musical intelligence, which is evidenced by anyone who has ever played one of his sonatas on the piano, sung one of his art songs or arias, or read his letters.

I enjoyed listening to Ciekiewicz’s enjoyment of singing in choirs, loved her statement of “phlegm begone” (as my throat is often phlegmy when I sing), and her discussion of the flawed perception a singer has of her own voice as she sings. I have hence recently learned to rely on the feeling of my body (or my teacher) and to not worry about the sound, and, as Lara so eloquently said, it’s not about you. It’s about the text and the music.

And with that, I thank the Manitoba Opera for all you give to our community and look forward to the season in Winnipeg!

Review and Scientific Discussion of Theatre by the River’s Production of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Do you engage with him in banter or do you discuss the weather? Do you talk or do you listen? Do you invite him to stay the night or ask him to leave? Do you take care of her or betray her? Do you ask her to spend the rest of her life with you or not? Do you take that last chance to connect or do you let him go? Do you brave an illness or do you choose death?

And is there another you in another universe of the multiverse landscape confronted with the same questions but making different choices? Are there an infinite number of universes containing an infinite number of copies of you living out different variations of your life? This is the premise of Nick Payne’s stimulating play, Constellations, performing this week at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film by Theatre by the River featuring Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts. Together with Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar and Andrew Frey, I have the great honor to participate in the Talk Back sessions after two of the performances to share my thoughts about the play’s scientific content.

The play consists of a series of scenes each of which represents a different interaction of the protagonists, Marianne and Roland, in various contrasting scenarios that could be playing out in different universes of the multiverse. The notion of a multiverse is based on a theory that there is a landscape which contains an infinite number of universes. The scenes alternate between witty and poignant, frivolous and weighted. Both the scientific allusions as well as the ethical decisions the characters encounter are relevant and provocative. The actors, Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts, authentically vary their portrayals to accommodate the ever shifting ambiance from scene to scene, from lighthearted to grave, from awkward to intimate, from warm to aloof, from casual to intense. Although the play follows only two individuals through the possible situations they could share, the pair draws you into their stories which we can relate to with the different relationships in our lives and the different roles we play with the people who populate our life. Using a clever device of parallel universes, the play paints a mosaic of nuanced experiences we all share on our own life adventures.

What is the scientific idea behind the multiverse, and could we ever experimentally detect it? A popular theory within the framework of string theory (the mathematically self-consistent theory that unifies all four forces by postulating the most elementary constituents are one-dimensional strings, as opposed to point particles) is the landscape. The landscape gives a physical framework in which the anthropic principle could be valid. This provides a possible solution for why there is a small non-vanishing cosmological constant (the parameter in the universe responsible for the universe’s observed accelerated expansion, a sort of negative pressure). The anthropic principle considers why the state of the universe is such that life can exist. The landscape argument suggests that there is a landscape of universes within a multiverse, and since we observe life in our universe, we happen to occupy one of the domains which supports life. However, there could be other universes with different flavors of string theory (with different degrees of symmetries) and hence physical laws which don’t support life. You can imagine these universes as expanding bubbles within the multiverse.

Is there a way we could detect whether we live in a multiverse? Stephen Feeney, Matt Johnson, Daniel Mortlock, and Hiranya Peiris asked just that in 2010 (see their initial papers on the arXiv, arXiv:1012.1995 and their longer paper, arXiv:1012.3667). The cosmic microwave background (CMB) (in one scene this is the subject that the character Marianne studies) is the relic radiation from the Big Bang. At the origin of the universe, space was small and radiation was very hot. As space expands, the Big Bang’s relic photons’ wavelengths stretch out, decreasing their energy. Today the CMB has stretched to millimeter wavelength and a temperature of 2.73 above absolute zero. The universe is bathed in this radiation; it is everywhere and can even interfere as noise to electronic signals (remember the static on old TVs? Some of that was due to the CMB). Feeney et al postulated that when the bubbles containing eternally inflating universes collide, they will produce edges or discontinuities in the temperature maps of the CMB. At the Perimeter Institute, I was talking to Matt Johnson and mentioned I had used the Canny algorithm as an edge detection algorithm for my research with identifying cosmic string signals in the CMB. My application of the Canny algorithm was simpler, since I could assume a flat two-dimensional sky, and his team adapted a more sophisticated Canny algorithm for their models as part of their search for the edges produced by colliding universe bubbles in the CMB. Although they have not detected evidence of bubble collisions yet, their approach could provide a promising means of searching for evidence of the multiverse in CMB data.

Another scientific concept in the play is that of the many worlds interpretation in quantum mechanics. This can be illustrated by the Schroedinger cat thought experiment. Traditionally, we think of the wavefunction (the function which describes the state) of the cat as being a superposition of the two states, alive and dead, at the same time. If you peek in the box, the act of observing the cat collapses the wavefunction to a single state, that of the cat either being alive or dead. In the many worlds interpretation, after you observe the cat, there is part of your wavefunction where you observe the cat to be alive and part of your wavefunction where you see her to be dead. So in the many worlds version, the observer’s wavefunction splits as well and becomes entangled with the cat’s. Marianne deftly integrates these quantum ideas into her dialogue, relating her experience through the lens of physics which shapes her thoughts.

The character of Marianne in Constellations is a young engaging woman, who happens to be a theoretical cosmologist. She deconstructs the stereotype of scientists being either older men or dowdy women. We need more fictional portrayals of hip women in STEM to provide role models! Women like Marianne who are young, brilliant, and sophisticated, much like the real-life London-based cosmologist, Hiranya Peiris. Cosmology is sexy, and it’s refreshing to see a fictional woman physicist who not only advances science but also defies the preconceived notions society has defined for women in science. Women in science can have lives outside their work and can be intriguing and vivacious.

The idea of the multiverse builds the structure for the play, Constellations, but its underpinnings are grounded in philosophy and are far from alienating. Instead of feeling removed from these characters and their journey, we are left feeling connected to them and their stories while recognizing the common elements that weave through our own narratives. In a sense, the play provides a microcosm through which we can examine our own encounters with other people and our own evolving selves. As Roland states in the play, honey bees enjoy a fleeting existence. And during their ephemeral lives, they live with intention and purpose, either to mate with the queen bee or to work. Compared to the time scale of the universe, our lives are on the scale of nanoseconds. But we are here. And we do have the purpose to explore. The universe. Art. Philosophy. Ourselves and our connections with others. And love.

Review of Susan Elia MacNeal’s forthcoming The Queen’s Accomplice

London is in a blackout, which means the Blackout Beast comes out to play, or rather to kill, in Susan Elia MacNeal’s sixth novel in the Maggie Hope mystery series, The Queen’s Accomplice. If Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, the fifth novel in the series, is infectious, then The Queen’s Accomplice is addictive.

As in the prior books, the aptly described environment and characters shape a multidimensional World War II stage, this time in London. The realistic details and apropos literary, art, mythological, dance, and musical references contour the setting. The allusions befit the educated clan that populates the Maggie Hope novels. The well-researched world that MacNeal paints with words is believable, even to the hand a wedding ring would occupy depending on the European country in question. As with the others in the series, The Queen’s Accomplice is a quick, compelling read with MacNeal’s dashing style and story-telling prowess at its apex. The novel successfully weaves and balances a pace of intertwining subplots while advancing the central plot leading you seamlessly, as a partner at a dance party, to the threshold of the upcoming seventh novel.

The theme of friendship threads The Queen’s Accomplice as it did in the previous novels. And Maggie’s friends who accompany her in her adventures are the kinds of people you’d like to have as your friends. Except for the ones who want her dead, of course. Her friends demonstrate the kind of unconditional ties and love everyone craves, especially, in her case, when biological family might be the enemy. They find her when she’s lost, rebuild and renovate her home, and shelter her when she needs safety. We can only hope we all would be so fortunate to forge such steadfast relationships, many of which are the paradigm of platonic love and family in the truest sense of the word. The Queen’s Accomplice showcases and develops the strengths and personalities of Maggie’s friends, drawing you into her circle and allowing you to appreciate the good that might balance out the evil that dominates the World War II era.

The Queen’s Accomplice highlights a number of issues relevant to our contemporary world under the broad category of “good versus evil.” The most obvious of these is the one of gender inequality, especially regarding unequal pay and misogyny. MacNeal illustrates gender discrimination by characters’ derogatory and judgmental opinions of women’s ideas, characters, and personalities. In the book, MacNeal features the lose-lose situation women often find themselves in where the same strength that would be valued in a man might undermine a woman’s reputation. Additionally, women’s appearances are overvalued, whether the woman be attractive or not, whereas a man’s appearance is generally considered irrelevant and diminished in importance compared to his abilities or, perhaps, even just his gender. Another presented idea is the danger of first impressions based on someone’s appearance, which is good for all of us to keep in mind.

In The Queen’s Accomplice, MacNeal explores many evils, one of which is the ingrained misogyny that leads certain people to wage wars against women, against working women specifically in the novel. One critique might be that the men in The Queen’s Accomplice might be too black and white, obviously discriminating, and prevalent, possibly painting too many men simplistically as being villains. However, the lack of subtlety and sexist ubiquitousness does lead the reader astray in trying to identify the Blackout Beast, keeping the reader guessing. Additionally, the degree of gender discrimination that faces Maggie Hope might very well be more accurate than we’d like to admit in her line of work or during that era at large. However, despite the war of the genders that Maggie encounters, she never concedes but recognizes steadfastly, as others in the book say, that “women are our secret weapon” in the greater war facing Britain and the world.

The book focuses on good versus evil, also highlighting the good in people like Maggie Hope and some of her compatriots. Her courage as a secret agent will inspire you to be your bravest self. The choices that the characters must make will precipitate you to question if you would suffer and perish for your ideals, should you be in the same position as they are. When the time comes, will you sacrifice yourself for others? Although we might feel safe from war, as MacNeal writes, the “war never, ever begins or ends.” The war didn’t begin with the Nazis, though they presented a patent evil, nor has it died with their demise.

Maggie Hope is fearless and brilliant yet humble, courageous yet human. In the case of capturing the Blackout Beast, her need for mathematical precision might have slowed her down, since her calculations were redundant compared to circumstantial evidence, and her need for certainty and proofs might well have been to her detriment, rather than a strength. Yet she stayed in character, and her logical brain and resistance against seismic emotions are what ultimately keeps her alive in each book, even when things get a little psychedelic.

“It isn’t fair,” some of the characters shout from the book, each with a different agenda and perspective. No, life isn’t fair. But with Maggie Hope as your friend, life is a little more enjoyable.  And exciting.