In which I am too pensive to write a real review of Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down

I had to read How It Went Down in sections. It’s about a black teenager who is shot by a white man, and all the different characters — the witnesses, the families, friends — tell their perspectives of what happened on the day of Tariq’s death and in the aftermath of it. If any other author in the world had written this book, I wouldn’t have read it. But I trust Kekla Magoon from her wonderful, wrenching The Rock and the River, which is about teenage brothers and their participation (or lack of it) in the Black Panther Party.

I read the first third in December, and then the grand jury decision came down in Ferguson, and then the one for Eric Garner, and I didn’t want to read the fictional sad version of the real-life sad events, so I took a break. Then I picked it up and read the remaining two-thirds in one evening.

Magoon does something that I think is tremendously clever, which is that she makes her characters want the same things her readers want, i.e., Meaning. Everyone in this book wants to know why Tariq died, and the answer can’t be — because it would be unbearable — that there was no reason.

The day after I finished How It Went Down, I learned that a college friend of mine died last year. We were flatmates the year I lived in England. We didn’t stay in touch after I left. I hadn’t even known he was ill. When I thought of him, I imagined he was still playing drums and making dead-baby jokes, like he did when we were twenty and stupid. Forever probably, I thought. Except I was wrong about that. He was having cancer (and presumably also playing drums and making dead-baby jokes), and in October, he died, and I didn’t know.

These are some things about him: He made jokes always, at everyone’s expense, but if one of them hurt your feelings, he was swiftly and utterly sorry and would buy you a box of biscuits next time he went to Tesco, to make up for it. When I was too tipsy to do my own head counts, he was the one I asked “Where’s Ed?” and “Where’s Flick?” and he always knew where they were, which I realize now was because he was keeping track of everyone. He played drums and bought rounds of drinks when it wasn’t his turn to buy them. He made sad stories impossibly funny. It is pointless and unfair for him to be dead.

When I heard this news, I thought: Spooky. I had just finished reading that book about death and what it means. I had just been talking to Alice about how nobody in my life had died for a while. That same day.

You will most likely notice that neither of those two things is, in fact, spooky. They would barely be spooky even if you accepted their implicit premise that my college friend was a supporting character in my life, rather than the lead character in his own. But this is how people behave, when something inexplicable has happened. We cluster together everything that has happened surrounding the inexplicable thing, and we try to find the magical ways that it actually isn’t inexplicable at all. Actually it makes a weird sort of sense. Actually it makes so much sense that you should have known it was coming, because the universe was telegraphing it to you all along, if you had just bothered to listen.

Death isn’t actually like that. Stories are like that. If a character mentions a knife in a red leather sheath, you expect that knife to come around again and be significant. Every part of the story is important. Every part of the story has Meaning. The characters in How It Went Down expect that they will, at some point, find the answers that will explain Tariq’s death; we readers know that they are missing crucial puzzle pieces. But Magoon doesn’t end her book with any grand revelations or moral lessons. There is no final missing piece that can explain everything to the characters, or to the reader. Tariq’s death doesn’t matter differently if he was in a story of racism or a story of gang violence or a story of stupid misunderstandings. The fundamental thing is the tragedy that a person is gone who was loved. Sometimes that’s all there is.

We’re just here for the husbands: A links round-up

I like to read articles about the moral problem with football. But this one from Bill Morris at The Millions rubbed me the wrong way. He says a number of things that are super true and are real problems with football that need to be fixed; but he starts out with a thing about Penn State that seems to imply that football fans are uniquely terrible about accepting that prominent people in their field are capable of wrongdoing. Which, like, no. That is everywhere. People do not handle cognitive dissonance well. Moreover, the passage about Southern girls is the most minimizing, insulting bullshit. I’m so very fucking delighted that you enjoyed our blonde hair and taut bodies, Bill Morris, as that really is all there is to us Southern girls. I’m confident that black Southern football fans were thrilled to be judged “every bit as luscious” as their white counterparts in husband-hunting.

This is your annual reminder that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the best. You may forget about this important issue from time to time, but I will always be here to remind you.

Ship Your Enemies Glitter. There’s really nothing further that needs to be said about this.

Alexandra Petri has some theories about Mike Huckabee’s sudden obsession with Beyonce.

It all started one afternoon in 2008. “Mike, c’mon,” Rick Santorum yelled, disgruntled, after flawlessly executing the entire choreography for “Single Ladies” while Huckabee struggled and flailed behind him. “It’s step step kick seven eight, stepping left on first and four, and you need to keep your head down. Look, Newt has it.”

 

“I have it,” Newt Gingrich added. “It’s simple, yet elegant. Like a moon base.”

Social justice-themed speculative fiction: A list from the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog.

An art and feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon created Wikipedia pages for dozens of female artists not previously included in the online encyclopedia. Hooray!

Here is a baby turtle eating a strawberry. Thanks, Mother Jones.

Has it been a while since you took in some of Anne Helen Peterson’s wonderfully cogent and feminist pop culture criticism? It has for me! Here she is on the trouble with “It Girls.”

Book Riot’s FAQs about reading diversely have been terrific so far, and I’m excited for future installments. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2.

Happy Martin Luther King Day

This is your annual (I should make it annual for real!) reminder that some states commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday and Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the same day. And some states used to do this but then split it into two holidays because it was weird to commemorate a civil rights leader and a Confederate general on the same day. Arguably it is just weird to celebrate a Confederate general but I guess this is why I do not hold public office.

Anyway, this year I’m celebrating the fact that although the states north and east of mine do this, my state does not. Hooray! Which frees me from having to complain to my senators (they are tired of me anyway) and lets me spend this day pointing and laughing at states I already dislike for football reasons (and, like, narcissism of small differences reasons, but let’s not worry too much about that).

 

I hope you are enjoying your day off if you get today off! I will be visiting a friend of mine, playing with a baby, and hopefully eating some strawberry cream cheese king cake. MARDI GRAS.

Review: Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

This has been the persistent pattern of how modern society has dealt with old age. The systems we’ve devised were almost always designed to solve some other problem. As one scholar put it, describing the history of nursing homes from the perspective of the elderly “is like describing the opening of the American West from the perspective of the mules; they were certainly there, and epochal events were certainly critical to the mules, but hardly anyone was paying very much attention to them at the time.”

The excerpt I read from Being Mortal in the New Yorker dealt with the astonishing rarity and efficacy of conversations about end-of-life care, about which more in a minute. But the book ranges far more widely than just the choices you make when there are no choices left. Gawande explores the history of elder care in America, from home care to nursing homes to assisted living. As the quotation above indicates, much of this history is about adapting to impossible circumstances in ways that were never intended to become permanent, but then they did anyway.

As is typical from what I’ve read of Gawande, he doesn’t place blame anywhere in particular. He himself has been on several sides of this issue: As the son of an aging father, he experienced for himself the difficulty of initiating a conversation about the circumstances under which his father wanted to be kept alive or not kept alive. And as a doctor, he has found himself confronted with patients and families who sacrifice realism for hope, always chasing after the next treatment, no matter how dangerous, because of the slim chance of a cure.

One solution to this is for families to have serious conversations with their aging loved ones about what they want. Gawande tells the story of Susan Block, whose father says that he is willing to stay alive as long as he’s able to sit in his chair and watch football on TV. Gawande’s own father wants more, including some level of self-sufficiency over his bodily functions and the strength to see and visit with his friends and relations.

More broadly, Gawande recommends that aging (or fatally ill) patients receive access to specialists in elder care, who can discuss their wishes with them in a specific and caring way. Though it’s a higher upfront cost, access to such specialists cuts way back on emergency room visits and medical expenses, and patients who receive it live 25% longer than the control group.

The main argument here is that the American separation from death and severe illness has left us in a place where we’re unwilling to have the hard conversations about mortality. And according to Gawande, the emotional and financial costs of our reluctance are substantial.

Recommended! But, extremely sad. Gawande is perfectly right that I do not want to think about these matters in relation to my own very beloved family members.

Review: Beautiful Darkness, Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët

Beautiful Darkness (Drawn and Quarterly) opens as a girl called Aurora has tea with a boy she has a crush on. (They met at the ball the other night.) Then — in seconds — they find themselves struggling to survive in the woods. They are all very wee, and the woods are normal-sized. They also appear to have emerged from the decomposing corpse of a little girl. Possibly — the book isn’t explicit about this — all of the tiny people are aspects of the dead girl’s personality, now set free to roam freely and tinily around the woods.

If that synopsis seems unwarrantedly weird, don’t blame me. Apply to Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët. Beautiful Darkness as a title possesses the same search-engine-optimized simplistic accuracy as Snakes on a Plane. This is a book that is beautiful, and a book that is dark.

Teamwork! Later on this same page, someone slurps maggots out of the corpse’s ears.

The drawings have the beautiful, sunlit look of a fairy tale, but the things that are going on are just about as gruesome as you can imagine. In one scene, a tiny person climbs into a bird nest and opens its mouth wide to be fed, only to have its throat and torso perforated by the sharp beak of the mother bird as she attempts to feed it. That is not the most alarming thing that happens in this book.

I think I would have loved this book better if it had confined itself to being thematically dark. The thematic stuff was excellent. Though Aurora starts out wanting nothing more than to keep everyone together, we quickly see that many of the tiny people are completely without conscience, pulling legs off beetles or leaving each other to die with no qualms at all. By the time she begins to feel disillusioned with her comrades, the reader has been shuddering at them for ages. And the book’s ending is excellent. Exactly the kind of inevitable doominess that I adore!

But see also above re: as gruesome as you can imagine. I don’t do well with grossness, and there is a lot of grossness. Some of it relates to the main few characters, and some of it doesn’t; it feels slapped in at random, as the writer and artists thought of yucky things that might befall tiny people, or that tiny conscienceless people might inflict on each other and their surroundings. And plus, you know. Maggots. My tolerance is low.

They read it too: Book Lust, As Usual I Need More Bookshelves. Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Every new year I intend to read more science fiction, and every year I don’t do it. (This year though! This year could be the year!) The type of science fiction that gets me every time is the near-future type: With these differences from our current situation, and advancing just a few years into the future, what adaptations would we have made? With these crucial additions or subtractions, what would being human look like?

Lock In is a book like this, though it’s also a murder mystery. Agent Chris Shane, FBI, is the scion of a wealthy activist family and a survivor of a flu that left a small percentage of its victims (including Chris) “locked in” to their bodies — fully aware of their surroundings, but unable to move or communicate. This is called Haden’s syndrome, and elaborate robotic bodies, controlled by the minds of the Haden’s sufferers, have been developed to permit the locked-in population to live something like a regular life.

Scalzi obviously has so many ideas about what this world (ours, but with robots) is like. He touches on issues of disability, identity politics, government funding, bodily integrity, and a ton of other things, some of which necessarily get short shrift. But you get the idea that you could pull pretty hard on any of the many threads without making the story unravel. If the characters aren’t particularly well-developed, the ideas are more than enough to carry the story along.

The author’s also doing something rather cool with the identity of the protagonist, which I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an author try before. The book doesn’t draw attention to it, which saves it from gimmickry, and it’s clear from the reviews that many readers made it through the whole book without noticing that they lack certain information about Chris Shane. If it hadn’t been mentioned to me before I started reading, I can’t swear that I’d have noticed myself. It won’t make the difference to whether you love the book or hate it. It is just interesting.

Either way — notice or don’t notice — Lock In remains a tightly plotted mystery with only one really serious coincidence and lots of very cool ideas about the world of Twenty Minutes into the Future. And it made me want to hunt down Redshirts.

Other readers, did you notice the thing? Did it make you feel weirdly fond of John Scalzi, or did you think it was a weird and pointless exercise like the time that guy wrote that whole book without the letter E? Or both?

Clearing out my rounded-up links

Okay, these are a bit old by now. Too bad for you! I haven’t done a links round-up in a while and that is why.

Kate Elliott discusses female friendships on television at The Book Smugglers, and recommends some forthcoming fantasy books, thus lengthening my TBR list for 2015 even further. Seriously, my 2015 list is out of control. I need help.

An article on Pamela Colman Smith, the wonderful artist of the classic Tarot deck. Hers is the only Tarot deck I will condescend to use. Others are beautiful, but Pamela Colman Smith’s has all the symbolism.

Rembert Browne of Grantland and Joel Anderson of BuzzFeed had an excellent conversation in December about the movie Selma and its parallels with protests of today. They have a ton of great things to say about oppression and how it reverberates into today, and in particular about the behavior a historically oppressive group should display to the historically oppressed.

The digital revolution is going to make film preservation a bitch to keep up. New York reports.

Elizabeth Minkel has become one of my favorite writers about fan culture, and here she is at The New Statesman being brilliant about writers and fanfic.

Obviously there are problems here, but this animation of a dad and his five-year-old discussing the Leia slave costume in Star Wars is nevertheless SO CUTE. (I am less sad that she wants to keep wearing this outfit than I am that she plans to be rescued.)

An article about the financial problems of open access journals. Cause really. I work in publishing. It costs money to create these things, and it is uncool to make submitting scholars pay for it. (Or in other words, I don’t know what the answer is.)

Laurie Penny on nerd entitlement.

Here is Nicole Kidman telling Jimmy Fallon a version of a story that he absolutely did not expect. It’s the best.

This is going to have a very niche appeal, but you guys: The Bachelor is back, and I don’t know if I’ve told you, but I am addicted to recaps of The Bachelor. This year (maybe all years! have I been missing out on this all along??), the incomparable Lily Sparks is recapping. I anticipate a glorious season.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.33: Fictional Workplaces, Mandel’s The Singer’s Gun and a Transportation Game

The podcast says Happy New Year!! Whiskey Jenny and I are back once again to talk about fictional workplaces (we have a small taxonomy of how to do these) and a book from Emily St. John Mandel’s backlist. We also play a game with Randon that deals with modes of transportation.

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.

Review: Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera

In my post last year about reading diversely, I forgot to mention another side effect of more diverse reading: gaining new areas of interest. Sri Lanka came onto my radar when I read the beautiful-covered On Sal Mal Lane last year, but it also left me uncertain about the particulars of the country’s civil wars. The difficulty is that when there are no hooks in your brain for new information to grab onto, you’re less willing to take in that information in the first place; and once you have taken it in, you’re less likely to retain it.

(This is Science.)

After On Sal Mal Lane, I had some vagueish, unanswered questions about the Sri Lankan civil war, which made me more inclined to pick up another book dealing with the same topics (such as Island of a Thousand Mirrors), which in its turn clarified some of my questions (Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian; yes, but Dutch more than Portuguese; you really can’t; an independent state encompassing various coastal provinces; that they would ally with Tamils from India and take over all the Sinhalese stuff), which in turn has made me interested in reading further books set in Sri Lanka in the future. The more you do know about a topic (unless it sucks, like economics), the more you want to know. And that is a good thing about reading diversely.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors tells the stories of two Sri Lankan girls growing up as the war between Sinhalese and Tamil reaches its crisis point. Yasodhara falls a little in love with her Tamil upstairs neighbor, though such a relationship could never really be; and Saraswathi watches her brothers, one after the other, be taken off to train as Tamil Tigers.

More broadly, the arc of the story was predictable. Yasodhara lives a safer life, because she is Sinhala, and because her family can afford to leave for America. Saraswathi has no means of escaping her life of danger and death, and she becomes (in a not-particularly-inventive narrative transformation) the sort of soldier her family has learned to fear. You can probably make a fair guess at what happens from there.

But even with that drawback, Island of a Thousand Mirrors was a very good read in many ways. Munaweera’s writing is lovely, and she has a knack — which feels not quite yet fully developed and promises gains in her future career — for the striking juxtaposition.

They set fires on front lawns, threw in furniture and children over the wailing of mothers. They committed the usual atrocities in the usual ways, but here was something unexpected and incongruous. In their earth-encrusted, callous fingers, they clutched clean white papers, neatly corner-stapled. Census accounts, voting registrations, pages detailing who lived where and most important, who was Tamil, Burgher, Muslim, or Sinhala. And in these lists was revealed precision and orchestration in the midst of smoky, charred-flesh-smelling  chaos.

I have had enough now for a while of painful fiction about civil wars. (My tolerance is low.) If anyone can recommend a good history of Sri Lanka, whether of the civil wars in the late twentieth century or a broader, all-encompassing history that gets to the colonialism stuff a bit more, please recommend in the comments. I want a proper history, though, not something along the narrative nonfiction lines. I want some intense endnoting or I cannot be satisfied.

What really woke up Snow White (hint: it was not a kiss)

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

The venerable Jack Zipes, one of the shiniest scholars in fairy tale studies, has brought us a lovely treat, which is a new translation of the first edition of the Grimm Fairy Tales, decorated with wonderfully creepy illustrations by Andrea Dezsö. This edition includes stories that were later excised for reasons of provenance (Bluebeard was too French to keep in subsequent editions), incompleteness, repetitiveness, or family-unfriendly values. The Grimms make the following case for the inclusion of the sex-and-devils stories:

Objections have been raised . . . because this or that might be embarrassing and would be unsuitable for children or offensive (when the tales might touch on certain situations and relations — even the mentioning of the bad things that the devil does) and that parents might not want to put the book into the hands of children. That concern might be legitimate in certain cases, and then one can easily make selections. . . . Whoever is afraid to put plants outside because they might be too delicate and could be harmed and would rather water them inside cannot demand to put an end to the rain and the dew. Everything that is natural can also become beneficial.

An excellent argument, I think, against cases of parents trying to have books removed from school libraries on the basis that their child isn’t old enough for them. And in fact, there isn’t much here that I would hesitate to give a kid. Where there are implications of sexy times (for instance, in the Rapunzel story, when she asks the witch why her clothes have gotten so tight, and the witch deduces that she’s been visited by a man), they’re fairly mild and easily ignored by a child whose main focus is on finding out what happens next.

This early edition of the stories offers plenty of familiarity — a girl can get tired of reading about the endless successes of third sons and daughters (who seem to win everything whether they’re nice or nasty to animals, old men, and children) — and plenty of small weirdnesses that got edited out of future editions. For instance, girls in these stories are always reassuring their menfolk by settling them down to be loused. Gross, Germany. And of course, the weirdness that remained in future editions was still present early on, as in this story about a dog and a sausage:

Not far from their home, the sausage had encountered a dog. Now this dog had considered the sausage free game and had grabbed him and swallowed him down. The little bird arrived and accused the dog of highway robbery, but it was of no use, for the dog maintained he had found forged letters on the sausage, and therefore, the sausage had had to pay for this with his life.

Yes, yep, seems reasonable. This tracks with what I know of eighteenth-century German legal proceedings.

This edition of the stories has never been published in English before, which explains why I, who consider myself reasonably well-versed in fairy tales, have never before encountered the ORIGINAL AND AWESOME manner in which original Snow White was eventually awakened from her apple-induced slumber. Let me tell you how it went down. Here is Snow White in the forest, fast asleep in her glass coffin. The prince comes along, falls in love with her beautiful corpse, and is evidently so mopey about it that the dwarves feel sorry for him and let him take her and the coffin away, back to his palace. Once he has her there, he becomes increasingly attached to his dead coffin maiden, to the point that he gets sad if he’s not in the same room as her, and he can’t even eat dinner unless he’s standing right next to her. What this says about the mental state of the heir to the kingdom, the story does not speculate.

Hang on, I can’t do justice to what happens next. I’m just going to quote it for you.

However, the servants, who had to carry the coffin from place to place in the castle all the time, became angry about this, and at one time a servant opened the coffin, lifted Little Snow White into the air, and said: “Why must we be plagued with so much work all because of a dead maiden?” On saying this he shoved Little Snow White’s back with his hand, and out popped the nasty piece of apple that had been stuck in Little Snow White’s throat, and she was once again alive.

Stupid kiss version of the story: Done. Previously acceptable version where the apple falls out when they stumble over a tree root as they’re carrying the coffin away: Done. This version forever.

Andrea Dezsö’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the complete and unapologetic strangeness of these stories. Dezsö isn’t fussed about including images of the most famous stories, so while you do get some pictures of the stories you remember from Andrew Lang, there are also beautifully creepy pictures to go along with the stories of soldiers murdering unicorns for fun and profit.

Gross.

It’s an excellent little book. If not a replacement for whatever illustrated fairy tale collection you had as a child, it’s certainly a valuable addition to the library of a fairy-tale-loving child or adult.

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