Review: The Bright Continent, Dayo Olopade

The universe is more diverse! If you aren’t already participating in Aarti’s wonderful September event A More Diverse Universe, you definitely should. Check out her amazing recommendations here and here and here, visit her blog to check out what other people are reading, and follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on Twitter.

My first read for this event is Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, a book I’ve long had my eye on because of its brilliantly colored, eye-catching jacket design. It’s also a terrific book, an antidote to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” Dayo Olopade has heard that single story a hundred times: the story of Africans who are passive-as-in-not-active and passive-as-in-suffering. The Bright Continent is aware of the suffering, the civil wars and the corrupt governments, but the stories it tells are of African ingenuity. Africans who are fully aware of government inefficiency and broken promises, and who work around those things. Africans who do not wait around to receive resources they don’t have yet, but who make the most of the resources they do have.

Olopade is sharply critical of top-down efforts to improve the lots of people in Africa. She argues that the models that work are those that come from Africans themselves, the people who know the country’s culture and shortcomings and have figured out how to work within them. Quite often these interactions are so informal that nobody in the West reports on them, and standard measures of economic growth and prosperity (such as GDP) miss them completely.

Many efforts by Westerners to send assistance to African countries are actually harming their economies, Olopade argues. When Tom’s sends a pair of shoes to Africa for every pair of Tom’s shoes you buy, it eliminates jobs in shoe-making that could otherwise exist in those countries. And also, people in Africa don’t necessarily want shoes the most. There are very likely other things they want much more. Or in many cases, foreign aid from developed nations comes tied to contracts with companies from the donating nations, and the money leaves the recipient nation almost as soon as it arrives.

Instead Olopade praises the solutions that take advantage of existing structures within African countries. The Tanzania company EGG-energy, for instance, wires houses for electricity and supplies rechargeable batteries to power the houses. When one battery wears out, subscribers return it and receive a new one.

The informal economy does EGG’s legwork. The company runs central charging and swapping stations but also enlists kiosk owners to stock its batteries alongside the soaps, chocolates, and mobile airtime typically for sale. When a subscriber swaps out a battery, the kiosk owner gets a cut.

 

“We’re trying to use the same distribution networks that already exist,” says [company founder Jamie] Yang, “people who go around selling produce on motorbikes, who walk eggs on bicycles or use wheelbarrows.” These extended networks enable EGG to reach ordinary people 30 or 40 kilometers outside the biggest city.

Reading this book was tremendously heartening. Because Olopade is right (and Adichie is right): The stories you hear about Africa tend to be stories of failed governments and civil wars. Those stories remain true, and we should listen for them; but they aren’t the only stories — they aren’t even the main stories — of what goes on day to day in the countries of Africa. And those day-to-day stories are worth telling.

Very much recommended!

Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine

Personal life update: I cut my hair this past summer! I cut it all off, shorter than it has ever been. My hair resembles (less now than when first cut, but still!) the hair of the girl on the cover of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. This is the first time I have ever walked into a hair salon and asked them to cut off this much hair. Usually I am begging them to cut off less. Anyway, now I have a super cute flapper haircut, and when I put on my cloche hat I look hella jaunty.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses set in the speakeasies of 1920s New York. Confined to their house by a father wanting to conceal his repeated failures to produce a male heir, the Hamilton sisters find their freedom by sneaking out in the night to go dancing. The oldest of the twelve, Jo, orchestrates these outings, ferociously strict with her sisters and always trying to find the balance between freedom and safety. Genevieve Valentine does the nearly impossible thing of making sense out of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, a story which, as Mumsy pointed out to me when recommending this book, makes not even a particle of sense. Fairy tales.

The twelve sisters are relatively distinct from each other, which is quite some trick when you have twelve of them. Of necessity, the four oldest receive the most narrative attention, Jo in particular. A lifetime of corraling sisters, protecting them from her father, and finding ways to keep them sane has left Jo with a lot of hard edges, and I love Genevieve Valentine for refusing to soften her. Some of the sisters a little lower down the chain get defined fairly briefly, but Valentine does enough work on each that you’re able to keep them straight. She’s attentive to the fact that even a group of very similar sisters would all feel different inside their own minds; and when — later in the book — they are separated into smaller groups for spoiler reasons, the actions of each set of girls makes sense with what we’ve known of them.

Oddly enough, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was the first of two books I read this summer in which women seemed unfazed by a confession of murder from their potential romantic partners. Y’all, just as a refresher, if you are on a date and the other person admits to having killed someone, even if you think your life is a book that would be labeled paranormal romance at the library, you should still probably get out of there pretty quickly. That is a safety tip from me to you.

Thanks to Clare and Anastasia for recommending this, along with, of course, my lovely Mumsy! And you should also probably read Ana’s post reviewing it, as she’s predictably eloquent about its good qualities. Plus, The Book Smugglers. Tor.com. NPR calling this “the best fairy tale retelling I’ve ever read” (aw). Oh I do enjoy seeing Genevieve Valentine get all this love.

PS: If you like Genevieve Valentine, as I do, you will be delighted to learn that she is writing an arc of Catwoman for DC Comics, which will start coming out in late October. It seems perfectly possibly that DC Comics will end up doing something terrible relating to Genevieve Valentine and/or Catwoman, because DC Comics is always being terrible and seems weirdly incapable of course-correcting to non-terribleness. But let’s hope for the best, shall we?

Review: Snow in Summer, Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen is one of those authors I feel I should love more than I do. I have enjoyed her books, some of them quite a bit, and she wrote me and my sister a terribly nice email when we were kids. But I always go into her books feeling that they will be the perfect fit for me, and then instead they are like that one dress you buy because you think it’s going to be the perfect work dress, and it looks pretty but the pockets are slightly uneven and the way the neckline is prevents you from wearing any of your regular bras with it and it rides up a little bit on your hips so you can’t really wear it on days when you have meetings.

Snow in Summer is pretty good. It’s a retelling of the Snow White story, set in mid-1900s Appalachia. Snow in Summer, called Summer, is seven years old when her mother dies. For four years her father sinks deeper into his sadness, and Summer is cared for primarily by her mother’s cousin, Nancy. Then one day, her father comes home–seemingly happy again–with a new stepmother.

The sense of dread in this book is incredible. As soon as Stepmama shows up and starts calling Summer “Snow” instead of “Summer,” you are taken over with tension. Stepmama’s malevolence toward Summer (now always called Snow) manifests in a dozen different ways, and Summer isn’t able to predict what they will be. When Stepmama tells Summer that she may attend church with Aunt Nancy until she turns fourteen, at which point she must attend Stepmama’s church instead, you aren’t exactly sure what Summer should be afraid of, but you’re terrified of whatever it is. This tension builds and builds and builds until the crucial moment, when Stepmama abandons Summer with a boy she calls Hunter.

So two-thirds of the book is this rising, rising, rising dread, and that’s very good, but the final third was a let-down. Once Summer reaches the dwarves’ house, the rest of the fairy tale plays out quickly. The ending feels too easy: I didn’t want Summer to have to be rescued by a Prince Charming we hadn’t met yet (and she isn’t), but the way Stepmama eventually meets her defeat happens so fast. I wanted the battle to be more battley. I wanted the ascending levels of danger from the fairy tale: First the ribbon, then the comb, then the apple. I am an unabashed partisan for the ascending tricolon.

Other reviews: Kirkus and Publishers Weekly were both quite positive! The Book Smugglers felt more like I did about it.

And hey, I can’t be the only one: What authors seem like they would be a perfect fit for you, but aren’t?

Review: The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings

I’d like to think I am pretty good at sorting out strategies to feel less sad on days when I am feeling sad. But sometimes my strategies bomb, and you are now reading a review of one of those times. I was feeling glum this one day, and I decided that to cheer myself up I was going to read a new book, and I picked The Descendants. Jeanne had said it was really good, and I knew vaguely from two-thirds-forgotten movie trailers that it was about a not-super-close family going on like — a road trip? Maybe? And it brings them closer together? Sounds heartwarming, I thought.

If you are not currently facepalming, it’s probably because you — like Past Jenny! — are not aware of the precipitating event that sets this whole plot in motion. Yes, it’s about a father becoming closer to his daughters. Yes, they go traveling together. But the reason this all happens is that the mother in the family (who was the one doing most of the parenting) was thrown from a boat and seriously injured, and now they are preparing to take her off life support, and the family is going on a trip to notify her ex-lover (a person of whose existence the protagonist has only just learned) of her impending death. So um. Turns out it is not the best book to read when you are already feeling sad.

That said, it’s a very good book about being sad. It’s a good book about making the best of a shitty situation. I loved the book’s refusal to veer into melodrama after setting up what on the surface seems to be a fairly melodramatic premise. Matt King is a muddle of a father, and he’s just found out that he’s been kind of a muddle of a husband as well; but he is doing his best to be a good person. And the writing was lovely and trenchant:

The tropics make it difficult to mope. I bet in big cities you can walk down the street scowling and no one will ask you what’s wrong or encourage you to smile, but everyone here has the attitude that we’re lucky to live in Hawaii; paradise reigns supreme. I think paradise can go fuck itself.

Matt King in the midst of a conversation with his teenager daughter Alex:

She’s silent, thinking it over. She stands up and holds out her hand to help me up. I realize I’m fascinated with her. She’s a person I want to know.

That bit made me get teary — again, because I was having an emotional day. But still, it was a very lovely passage. We don’t choose our parents, and most people don’t choose their children either; and I love this depiction of a father thinking that his daughter is someone he would — given the option — choose anyway.

All in all, my recommendation is do read this book. Read it on a day when you are feeling chipper as a sparrow, though, because otherwise if you are like me then you will end up dragging around the house sniffling and feeling sorry for yourself, and you won’t be able to have a glass of wine because you have a rule that you never drink when you’re sad because that’s a slippery slope for an Irish-descended girl with a family history of alcoholism, and you’ll mopily watch two episodes of Scrubs and go to bed at eight-thirty, wishing that you’d gone with your first instinct and read the new Courtney Milan book instead of this.

They also read it: Beth Fish Reads, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, and of course Necromancy Never Pays. (Yours?)

The most important link here is the last one.

A new book by an art director at Alfred Knopf explores cover art and the work done by book jackets. He has another book out at the same time about visualizing while we read, and they both look brilliant. Here he is at Slate.com talking about the former. I have the latter checked out of the library, and it is gorgeous and strange.

I want to hug MTV for creating this resource “See This, Say That.” These aren’t necessarily the exact things I’d recommend saying in these situations, but I dig that MTV is making the effort here. One of my big rants is about the insufficiency of models in popular culture for confronting prejudiced speech and behavior. (Or, like, confronting things, period?)

Two excellent recent archaeological discoveries: 1) a tomb from the era of Alexander the Great; 2) half of the Vikings whose bones we have turned out to be ladies. THIS IS SO COOL. I love it when archaeologists find things, and I am feeling particularly fond of the profession right now after reading Marilyn Johnson’s forthcoming Lives in Ruins.

If geek girls acted like geek guys (from The Mary Sue)

I have heard a lot of good buzz for Kameron Hurley’s new book The Mirror Empire. If you’re looking for something to read for A More Diverse Universe (coming up later this month!), maybe give that one a try!

If you’re not watching Face Off on Syfy, I highly highly highly recommend it. Make-up artists compete against each other to create cool things, and unlike many reality competition shows, these guys don’t fight with each other constantly. They are nice and supportive — in the August 26th episode, one competitor cut off some of her own hair and gave it to another competitor to use on their creature. Real story. Plus, they create awesome creatures. Here’s the winner from the episode where you had to mash up Wizard of Oz and Wonderland, and I think you will agree it is objectively amazing.

SO SO COOL RIGHT?

Racist shitbags attack Malorie Blackman for wanting diversity in children’s literature. Because of course they do. Malorie Blackman is predictably cool about it. Patrick Ness is furious about the whole affair.

I read this whole wonderful Buzzfeed article about the creation of Empire Records in a frenzy of glee before realizing it was written by Anne Helen Petersen. OF COURSE IT WAS. THAT LADY.

The prologue and first chapter of Blue Lily, Lily Blue have been made available on Scribd. I don’t have to tell you how many times I have read it. Why is it not October yet?

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.27a: Bonus Louisiana Trivia

In celebration of Whiskey Jenny’s visit to Louisiana, we play a game of Louisiana trivia, composed by the brilliant and beautiful Whiskey Jenny! You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Song is by Jeff MacDougall and comes from here.

The story of the time I met Neil Gaiman and he said something extremely lovely to me

I have been reading to Social Sister for more than eighteen years now — off more than on, since we went to college, just as a function of our never being in the same place for very long, but still: Eighteen years. A whole person who can vote. She got brainwashed early into thinking this was a good form of entertainment, and I enjoy it because there is nothing quite like seeing someone else experience a book you love in real time.

Anyway, we just finished reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I was reading for the first time while I was reading it to her. I’ve finally read it now!, and hence, I shall tell you about the time I met Neil Gaiman at an event pertaining to the 2013 release of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (No pictures, I’m afraid! They might have been allowed (I can’t remember, actually), but I hate pictures of myself too much to have even considered taking any.) There was a talk first, in which Neil Gaiman issued a rousing endorsement of semicolons, and then I did a thing I have never done, which was to stand in line to have a book signed.

I had brought Reflections on the Magic of Writing, a book of Diana Wynne Jones essays to which Neil Gaiman wrote a foreword. When I gave it to Neil Gaiman to sign and told him (though probably very incoherently) why I wanted him to sign it, he said, “I miss her. I wanted to give this book [The Ocean at the End of the Lane] to her when it was finished. I think it’s more like hers than others I’ve written.”

I wanted to say “Yes, it sounds like it is very her; her books are all about the way children understand things.” I said probably some very stammery incoherent version of that instead; and Neil Gaiman said, “I think it’s quite like Time of the Ghost in some ways.”

Fact about me: When someone mentions a lesser-known book of Diana Wynne Jones to me (such as Time of the Ghost), I lose all reason. Ask my friends if you don’t believe me. I did it this time too. I shrieked “I LOVE TIME OF THE GHOST I JUST READ TIME OF THE GHOST,” which is true and is what I would have said to anyone; but it was embarrassing because I wanted to be cool 100% of the time I was talking to Neil Gaiman and shrieky 0% of the time. So then I was embarrassed and I said thank you and left.

Oh well. You cannot be cool all the time, especially if you actually are not cool. I am pleased to know that Neil Gaiman thinks that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is quite like Time of the Ghost in some ways. It pleases me in the way that I am always pleased when somebody says something that displays the same affectionate and easy level of familiarity with Diana Wynne Jones’s oeuvre that 1) I have; and 2) is her due because she is an amazingly gifted writer and her books should be standard childhood books that all children read. Except it made me happier in this case than usual because it was an author I also love who was saying it.

And now I have told you about it (over a year later). And hopefully when you have read The Ocean at the End of the Lane (or before then!), you will think, “Oh, I am intrigued by the stated similarity to Time of the Ghost. I had better rush out and read Time of the Ghost, a book I now know is Neil Gaiman-endorsed.”

The end.

Slumped

What I thought was a reading slump has turned out to be a mania for rereading. I’ve reread Special Topics in Calamity Physics and am happily entrenched in HHhH. Wonderful rereading! It has been too long since I reread some of the excellent fiction on my shelves! Glorious!

Review: Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

Note: I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

In my professional career, academics have occasionally been really, really snotty to me when I didn’t deserve snottiness. This isn’t a judgment on academics. When you work with a very large number of people from any demographic group, it is statistically likely that a couple of them will be jerks. But still: I have sometimes asked an academic a simple question, and s/he has responded with — instead of an answer to my question — a paragraphs-long, sarcasm-and-righteousness-laden treatise on his/her mistreatment at the hands of academic publishers like the one I worked for, the entirety of the scholarly community in that discipline, the university departments, or some other entity I was also not in charge of. It was punching down, because I was the lowliest of worker bees (especially early on), it made my day shittier, and I very very rarely had any power to fix whatever the problem was.

In other words, a girl on my career trajectory is maybe not the target audience for Dear Committee Members.

Jason Fitger is a divorced creative writing professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. His department is facing cuts. His next novel is going nowhere. His personal life is a mess, and his favorite creative writing student has lost funding. He’s raging against the world, and the world is going to hear about it, in every recommendation letter Jay is ever asked to write.

Dear Committee Members is good satire in that it points up many of the real, true problems of academia: ballooning numbers of adjunct faculty, reduced support for liberal arts, apathetic students, incompetent department chairs, the frustrations of using buggy online databases — these are all real frustrations. Jason Fitger writes the way angry liberal arts academics write, so Julie Schumacher is super successful on that front too. Nor does his unrelenting snarkiness in letters of recommendation imply fundamental nastiness: He writes warmly of his hardworking students, and even more warmly of those of his past and present colleagues whose work  he respects.

I fear, though, that it’s a case of premise denial (a phrase I coined to describe that thing where you can’t suspend the requisite area of disbelief to enjoy a book). Like my dog Jazz when the guard dogs of Up start barking ferociously on screen, I was unable to convince my brain that this was not a real person aiming real vitriol my way. I kept having stress reactions as if it were real. I kept thinking that I wished Jay Fitger would consider before stamping and mailing these letters that they were about someone and to someone, and not always did both of those someones merit the level of inventive negativity that was going into them. And also I kept thinking I HATE YOU WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME PLEASE STOP I HATE YOU.

The book deserves more than two stars on its merits, but it and I just weren’t meant for each other.

Linda Holmes of NPR recommended Dear Committee Members. The other book she recommended that I read was Eleanor and Park. So I have learned the valuable lesson that while I may have overlapping literary tastes with Linda Holmes, they are definitely not coterminous. Good to know.

Review: Landline, Rainbow Rowell

Note: I received a copy of Landline from the publisher for review consideration.

Two days before Christmas, Georgie tells her husband Neal that she can’t go with him and their two daughters to spend Christmas with his family in Omaha. A tremendous opportunity has come up for her and her writing partner, Seth, and they have to stay in L.A. and write six episodes of their new television show. After Neal leaves, Georgie begins to fear that she’s damaged her marriage beyond repair. But at her mother’s house, she finds that if she calls using her mother’s rotary phone, she can communicate with Neal in the past. Neal before they got married. And she wonders if she’s been given a second chance to make her marriage work.

Eleanor and Park is a romance novel that punches way, way above its weight. Fangirl is an exploration of fan culture and independence that ditto although not quite as consistently or strongly. Landline doesn’t do that. Landline punches its weight. Handily. But your expectations are different for an adult novel; or rather, your expectations are different for adults. When Rowell treats Georgie’s career and marriage and feelings as important, it doesn’t feel surprising, because adult careers are important and adult relationships can (though often don’t) last a lifetime.

I think this says something interesting about memory and childhood, though. I am wont to devalue the feelings I felt very strongly as a teenager. Like, oh Past Jenny was horribly insecure about her knees and cried when she put on a dress. What a dope. Now that I no longer feel that way, it’s very easy to see that feeling and think She was being histrionic. Which I was. For sure. But I think because we all go through that genre of problem, and overwhelmingly we figure out how to manage it, we can often look at teenagers and their teenager problems and see those problems as pre-solved, and thus less important and scary than the problems we are now currently facing as adults. Real, but real with an expiration date. Real but with lots of cushions and second chances. And very often, real but predictable: You are a teenager and you do not yet know [x information or life experience], and not only do you not know it, but you do not know how thoroughly you eventually will know it.

So I think when a young adult author writes (like Rainbow Rowell does) about young adult problems in a way that is utterly sincere but not histrionic, and makes those problems seem new, and you remember that while this was happening to you, it was everything, you respond to that differently. That is a harder trick to pull off.

But Landline is charming and lovable in its own way. If I hadn’t had expectations from Eleanor and Park, I’d probably have given it an extra star. Georgie and Neal and Georgie’s sister, Heather, who follows Georgie around the house badgering her with questions about her marriage, are all wonderful characters. And the phone conversations Georgie has with Past Neal, and her memories of meeting and falling in love with Past Neal — all quite lovely. I could see why they loved each other, and I could see why they had struggled to keep their marriage a happy one.

The end of the book doesn’t resolve any of this, exactly, which I liked. I liked it that the conclusion Georgie reaches is that she has to be more deliberate about her marriage, the way she’s deliberate about her work. She can’t give it half-effort and trust that it’ll still be there waiting for her. Sometimes, even when it means letting go of work stuff, she has to give it everything she’s got. (PS I was seriously worried that Georgie was going to get trapped in too-deep snow in that scene at the end, like that story my mother tells about being a kid and getting trapped in too-deep snow and thinking, This is the stupidest thing I have ever done, and this is how I’m going to die.)

A failing for me was that Seth, Georgie’s lifelong writing partner and best friend, and a major source of stress to her marriage, doesn’t ever come into focus. We don’t see him being funny with Georgie in the way that they say they’re funny together, and I just really didn’t know what the pith of their friendship was, without that. To me, they didn’t have the same rhythm back and forth that Georgie and Neal had, when by the rules of the book they should have had that far more, since they are the writing partners and Neal is the strong silent type.

Altogether, though, it was a dear of a book. Not Eleanor and Park dear, but a lovely read and one I enjoyed immensely.

They read it too: things mean a lot. Rhapsody in Books. Capricious Reader. Chrisbookarama. Good Books and Good Wine. Open Letters Monthly. Tor.com. And here’s Janet Maslin singing Landline’s praises for the New York Times. Tell me if I missed your review, and I’ll add a link!

If you’re an audiobook guy and you’re trying to decide whether to give Landline a try, check out a clip from the audiobook on SoundCloud, from Macmillan Audio!

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