Mount Pleasant, Patrice Nganang

Mount Pleasant was translated from French by Amy Baram Reid, but don’t let that put you off. If you are a fan of Salman Rushdie and the way he writes about Indian myth and history, Patrice Nganang’s novel of colonial Cameroon is going to be right up your alley.

Mount Pleasant

There are stories that must be told just for the story itself, just for the story. This was one of them.

A historian called Bertha comes to Cameroon to speak to a 90-year-old woman, Sara, who was given to the sultan Njoya when she was only a small child, to be part of his harem. Rescued (sort of) by a woman called Bertha, Sara takes on the name of Bertha’s dead son Nebu. Mount Pleasant tells the story of the first Nebu and a little of the story of the second one, plus stories about sultan Njoya and paramount chief Charles Atangana and their families and Sara’s family and the fate of Art under the colonizers.

It’s a mad and speedy whirlwind of stories (and stories about stories), and even though my ignorance of Cameroonian history probably kept me from picking up on important elements of the book, it was still an absolutely fantastic read.

Gif rating:

Mount Pleasant

2016 has been a wonderful year for African fiction, no? Is it just me? Am I just paying more attention to African literature these days? Or did all the campaigns to need more diverse books pay dividends at last?

The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge

When Faith’s family moves suddenly to an out-of-the-way island to conduct an archaeological dig, they do so under threat of suspicion and fear, though fear of what Faith isn’t told. (She’s only fourteen, and nice young ladies in the year 1868 don’t ask questions.) But Faith herself hopes that this will be her opportunity to show her father, a prominent archaeologist, that she can be a scholarly companion to him, that she is worth taking seriously. Once they reach the island, though, it becomes clear that her worth remains what it has always been: She’s as valuable as the trouble she can save her family by behaving decorously and taking care of her little brother, Howard.

When tragedy strikes her family, Faith has to make use of all her cunning and bravery to delve into her father’s secrets — including the mysterious Lie Tree.

The Lie Tree

The Lie Tree is, with all the good and less good this implies, a very very Frances Hardinge sort of book. By which I mean that it’s slow to crank its story into gear, and you sit through quite a bit of table-setting before Hardinge lets you taste the meal; but when it does get going, you’re certain of a satisfactory conclusion. More Hardingely still, you can be sure that nobody in the book will be just one thing. If a character is kindly or catty or condescending early on, you are nearly guaranteed to see another side of them before the book is over.

Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies.

I am mightily preoccupied with the not-one-thing-ness of people. It’s easy to take the quick and dirty route of learning a little about someone and allowing our biases to fill in the rest, even — maybe especially — when we are ourselves trying to fight free of other people’s restrictive narratives of what we are supposed to be like. The half-truths we tell ourselves about other people because it’s convenient aren’t the type of lies Faith thinks to feed to the Lie Tree, but the tree thrives on those untruths as well. While Faith badly wants to be seen for who she is, not just who she pretends to be, the conventions and norms of her time frequently blind her to the fact that the people around her are often as constricted as she is (and more).

Excellent stuff, all in all. Frances Hardinge knows how to get me with her Themes and Feelings and Ladies Who Seem One Way But Actually Have Hidden Depths Like All People Do. I’ll just leave you with this, my of-course favorite moment of the book:

“This is a battlefield, Faith! Women find themselves on battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.”

 

The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah

Remember before, when I was reading Anthony Schneider’s Repercussions and talking all about how I wished I read more books about good people who are trying their best? Guess what happened! I read The Book of Memory, which is about an albino woman in Zimbabwe who’s in jail for murdering the white man to whom her parents sold her when she was nine years old. Guess what it is about! Contrary to expectation, it’s totally about good people trying their best!

The Book of Memory

I know, I know, I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking: But, murder? But, selling a child to an adult man? I perfectly understand your concerns. Nevertheless, and trust me, The Book of Memory is all about good people trying their best. I was interested in this premise before I began reading, but the book surprised and moved me with where it took the story of Memory’s past and present. This is a story about things not being what they look like, and that is a type of story I absolutely cherish.

To begin with, of course, there’s Memory herself. As an albino child in her home township of Mufakose, she is accustomed to drawing the confused (at best) and hostile (at worst) glances of those who see her. She’s a freak, an oddity, an exception in her own family, perhaps a witch or evildoer, simply because of the color (lack of color) of her skin and hair. Under Lloyd’s care, she’s seen as a servant, a ward, a charity case. At the same time, although Memory herself is rarely seen for who she really is, it doesn’t make her any better at seeing the world around her clearly. Like the judges on her case, like the people of her township, like us as readers even, Memory’s vision is clouded by what she expects the world to look like.

The Book of Memory is Petina Gappah’s first novel, and it bears some of the marks of a first novel. Certain plot threads are underdeveloped, such as Memory’s doomed relationship with an artist called Zenzo, and it’s possible too much is made early on of the murdery-mystery bits of the book, considering that Lloyd’s death isn’t really the point of the book. But Gappah’s writing is wry and readable, and I fell in love with even the most minor of her characters.

Some bits I liked:

His career has risen with our country’s collapse. . . . His painting speaks truths that the government wants to hide, it is said. He is the artist exiled from his homeland because his work shows a reality before which the government flinches. None of it is true, but who cares for truth when there is a troubled homeland and tortured artists to flee from it?

It will not be possible for me to escape the past. But if I go back there, it will only be to find ways to make rich my present. To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.

Sad and Angry Week: A Links Round-Up

I don’t know what to say about the hate crime against queer people of color in Orlando this past weekend. I won’t say the killer’s name because we know that intense coverage of these guys inspires copycats do to the same. Instead I want to link to NPR’s article about the people who were murdered. Here also is a round-up from NPR’s Code Switch of responses from queer Latinx folks.

The element of the fantastical in The Boxcar Children is their coherence to a Protestant work ethic.

I am THE MOST susceptible to this kind of sadness. Just read enough of this article to accept the word “cluey” into our vocabulary (i.e., the story about the board game Clue), AND THEN STOP, because it is genuinely unbearable to read the rest of these stories, and that’s not hyperbole, I really mean it, for God’s sake don’t be like me and read the whole cluey-ass thing.

“Two powerful men being friends is an inevitability. Two powerful women being friends is a conspiracy”: On how the concept of cliques is used to express suspicion of close female friendship.

Plagiarism in the age of self-publishing.

Thoughts on diversity and publishing from Nikesh Shukla, including some glorious side-eye for stories about middle-aged white male writers having affairs with their lovely young female students.

“The shift in language that trades the word ‘integration’ for ‘diversity’ is critical. Here in [New York City], as in many, diversity functions as a boutique offering for the children of the privileged but does little to ensure quality education for poor black and Latino children.” Nikole Hannah-Jones on the decision to send her daughter to public school in New York City.

Interrogation techniques that aren’t torture.

Down with periods! Up with line breaks!

LIFE INTERVENES: A Podcast Hiatus

Happy Wednesday, friends! Or more likely, sad Wednesday, because I have to report that there will be no podcast today. Whiskey Jenny and I had an amazing one planned, where we talked about Captain America: Civil War with a fabulous guest star — but life intervened. We are still hoping to talk about Captain America and review Simon van Booy’s Father’s Day and many other awesome things, but it will just have to wait until life is happening slightly less aggressively. Look for us in August!

(Everything’s fine! Just a busier summer than either of us anticipated!)

LaRose, Louise Erdrich

Try not to collapse from shock, but here is one more person assuring you that Louise Erdrich’s latest book, LaRose, is really quite good. It begins with a tragedy: Landreaux Iron goes hunting a deer and shoots a child instead, the five-year-old son of his best friend Peter Ravich. As the Ravich family begins to crumble, Landreaux and his wife decide to give their own five-year-old boy, LaRose, to the Raviches in restitution. The story unspools from there, telling the story of LaRose’s Ojibwe family and the many LaRoses who have come before him, as well as the stories of two families in the present day and how they learn to navigate their impossible situation.

LaRose

LaRose is a book with a lot of moving parts, and not everything occupies a proportionate amount of space to how interesting it is. For instance, I could happily have removed Father Travis from the book altogether, even though it would have meant missing out on this pure treasure of a moment:

I suppose you’re Father Travis, said the new priest. A frowning flush mottled his cheeks.

I suppose I am, said Father Travis.

I am Father Dick Bohner.

Oh no, thought Father Travis.

But then, Erdrich is so wonderfully specific and insightful with all of her characters that it would probably be a mistake to eighty-six any of these just because they aren’t specific to me. Predictably, I fell in love with LaRose’s Ravich mother and sister, whose rage and sadness are neither punished by the story nor swept under the rug for convenience. I kept dreading what would happen to Maggie, LaRose’s new sister, because girls like her (in fiction and not uncommonly in life also) tend to face bitter and disproportionate consequences for their unruliness.

Maggie taught him how to hide fear, fake pain, how to punch with a knuckle jutting. How to go for the eyes. How to hook your fingers in a person’s nose from behind and threaten to rip the nose off your face. He hadn’t done these things yet, and neither had Maggie, but she was always looking for a chance.

Wonderfully, though, Erdrich is writing about consequence less and forgiveness more, a story where nobody is just one thing (husband, drug addict, boarding school survivor, father, Indian, killer) and the result of a kind act can be a hundred times worse than the result of a brutal one. But the arc of her moral universe bends towards forgiveness and peace, which is a lovely thing to encounter in a prestigey book.

If you’re a Louise Erdrich fan, would you care to recommend some more of her books to me? What’s the best place for me to go from here?

Diverse Books Tag

The marvelous Sharlene at Olduvai Reads tagged me for the Diverse Books Tag.

The Diverse Books Tag is a bit like a scavenger hunt. I will task you to find a book that fits a specific criteria and you will have to show us a book you have read or want to read.

If you can’t think of a book that fits the specific category, then I encourage you to go look for oneA quick Google search will provide you with many books that will fit the bill. (Also, Goodreads lists are your friends.) Find one you are genuinely interested in reading and move on to the next category.

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

I choose my favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, White is for Witching. It’s about a pair of twins who live in a haunted and xenophobic house. The girl twin, Miranda, goes off to Cambridge and gets involved with a black girl. The house is not happy about it.

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead features a Canadian Muslim detective trying to solve a mystery relating to a possible Bosnian war criminal. This was obviously right up my alley, as I read very widely about genocides in history and their aftermaths. I enjoyed the mystery a lot and was excited to find that it’s the first in a series about this detective, Esa Khattak, and his right-hand woman, Rachel Getty.

Find a book set in Latin America.

A Latin America-set book on my TBR list that I can’t wait to read when it comes out next month is Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, which is about three Jamaican women who fight against the installation of a new hotel in their community. It got a ton of buzz at BEA, and my pal Shaina raved about it, so I’m in!

Find a book about a person with a disability.

Do mental disorders count? If yes I am choosing Nathan Filer’s wonderful The Shock of the Fall, which made me cry many times like a tiny, tiny child. The depiction of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia is so beautifully done, without ever being patronizing or overly sentimental. I am tearing up now thinking of one moment in particular. Sniffle, sniffle.

Find a science fiction or fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

Don’t mind if I doooooo. A recent read that I enjoyed a lot, but didn’t get around to reviewing, was Nnedi Okorafor’s book Lagoon, in which a race of aliens makes their first contact in Lagos, Nigeria. All of the various protagonists trying to make sense of this bewildering new state of affairs are black Nigerians, and it’s a weird and spooky and excellent piece of scifi.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

Jenny cracks her knuckles and does some jumping jacks in preparation, then remembers she should be reasonable about this and not get all crazy with it. Suffice it to say, I love reading books set in or about countries in Africa, and it is hard for me to pick just one.

I’m going to choose a book from a smaller press, Imran Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System. This book (which I’m still waiting for my library to order for me!) is a novel about the changes in South African society over the last forty years. I have been given to understand that it deals with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I am extra interested in.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

Your recs for this category would be appreciated, as I didn’t have a ton of choices lined up. I’m choosing Ambelin Kwaymullina’s very enjoyable The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, a YA dystopian novel with (I’m delighted to report) a sequel to be published in America this year.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.)

I really like Ru Freeman’s book On Sal Mal Lane, which I read a few years back. Set on a road in Sri Lanka at the outset of the Sri Lankan Civil War, it depicts a group of families (some Tamil, some Sinhalese, and some Burgher) dealing with the changing political and racial dynamics of their country. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite authors, Rumer Godden, and was just altogether great.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

Everyone was crazy about Fran Ross’s Oreo last year, when the 1974 satirical novel was reprinted. It’s a comic novel about a mixed-race woman in Philadelphia and New York, and although it has been described as picaresque and that is not really my jam,1, I am excited for Oreo to become the exception to my picaresque hate.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

For this one, I’m choosing Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl. Protagonist Amanda has just started at a new school and is falling in love with a boy named Grant; she badly wants to come out to him as trans, but fears how he will take it. I hear amazing things about this book and this author and can’t wait to try it!

  1. although I love the word! Picaresque! I wish it meant something awesomer.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

Or, that time I read a book about male violence right after a rapist in Stanford got a six-month jail sentence because a longer sentence would negatively impact his life and prospects.

I felt intense frustration with The Association of Small Bombs, for reasons that are probably more to do with reading it in proximity to other infuriating things than the book’s actual merits. So let me say up front that I read this book when I was already angry, and that I had the specific expectation that it would be about the aftermath of violence for the people affected by that violence. 70% of it was about that, and even the 30% that was about the people doing the violence avoided so many of the tropes of terrorism stories that it feels particularly churlish of me to attack this book for this thing, when there are so many other books and movies and TV shows that are doing the same thing much less thoughtfully.

However, I make a concerted effort to avoid those media, and I didn’t know to avoid this book.

Association of Small Bombs

To say that The Association of Small Bombs attempts to understand male violence is probably to do it a significant injustice; or at least, to dispute that this is a worthwhile project is to do the book an injustice. Mahajan himself lived near to the site of a “small” bombing that killed thirteen people in Delhi when he was a child, and he wanted to understand what these bombings are in the lives of those affected by them, and what they are intended to be by those who create them. It’s not unfair, is it, to want to understand that? Mahajan doesn’t default to easy answers, religious fundamentalism and terrorist violence as a response to poverty or humiliation or Western powers doing this or that.

Except I am always asked, I am asked again and again and fucking again, I am incentivized by the threat of violence to put myself in the minds of people who choose to do that violence, and to feel empathy for them. I say “people” because it sounds less inflammatory, but of course what I mean is men: men who do the violence, men who want to help me understand the minds of men who do this violence. The secret is always that men do violence because the alternative is that they do nothing and feel helpless, and they can’t live with that feeling of helplessness.

Thank you, but I don’t need lessons in what it feels like to feel helpless in the face of forces that are stronger than me and that care about my feelings and experiences not at all. My life is that lesson. Brock Turner is that lesson. I find your conclusion inadequate. The helpless anger that women live with every day because that’s the price of admission for us to live in this world, and what else? Because if there’s nothing else — if it’s just another man who decided to hurt people because he couldn’t figure out what to do with his feelings — then don’t come asking me to understand his motives for doing violence. I understood already and I decided it wasn’t enough.

The Association of Small Bombs
my advice

In goddamn fucking particular, I am fed up with being asked to imaginatively identify with the men who commit violence while the barest of lip service is paid to the interiority of the women in their orbit. You know how sometimes there are tropes that have lasted so long and been so damaging that you kinda have to retire them for a while? Like how we just need to place a ten-year moratorium on killing TV lesbians? I’d like a break from the glass-shattering fury that consumes my heart every time I read any iteration of the worst story in the whole world, i.e., Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.

Mahajan isn’t telling a straight-ahead version of this story, and the man who sets the (spoilers) second bomb of the book does it for a constellation of reasons, some petty and some idealistic. But this is the one that Mahajan chooses to highlight in the moment of the explosion:

A few seconds later, the bomb opened with a seismic roar. Hundreds of people lay on the ground. From the shop came only silence. Ayub — thrown to the ground, rolling, sliding — thought: Tara will hear me now.

As a lady reading that story for the fuckteenth time, the corollary to it remains crystal goddamn clear: If you had but fucked this person, think of how many lives could have been saved. We are not saying it was your responsibility, it’s just that this devastating violence could have been avoided if, for a few minutes, an insignificant amount of time in the grand scheme of things, you’d agreed to take one for the team and fuck this guy.

And it doesn’t matter that the author doesn’t believe this corollary and would never endorse it, just like it doesn’t matter that the showrunners of a dozen-plus shows this year don’t believe lesbians deserve death rather than happy endings. If you choose a story that has been used, and continues to be used, to hurt us — the story that when men are denied access to sex, they have nowhere to turn but violence — don’t act shocked and affronted when we grow tired of it, this story that reduces us to outlets for male feelings. We are not just our bodies; there are minds inside us too. Shit like this hurts to read:

Was [9/11] really economic? . . . He was convinced this could not be the case. . . . Killing others and then yourself is the most visceral experience possible. Atta must have felt himself full of sexual hate for the people piled high in the towers, bodies in a vertical morgue. He saw the opening between the two towers as a vagina into which to shove the hard-nosed dick of the plane. Sitting at the controls, his curly hair tight on his skull, eyes rubbery, underslept, blackly circled, he must have seen someone appear at the window and look at him — a woman, maybe, a blond American woman. At that moment he got an erection. At that moment he slammed into her alarmed face.

An economic motive is insufficient, but a sexual one would explain everything? Why? Can I see your receipts on that? Or if you don’t have receipts, then please fucking stop with this. Stop asking me to live inside the heads of men who think this way about my body. Stop reproducing this narrative that positions sex and violence along the same axis, as if it’s inevitable to think this way.

Library Checkout: May 2016

Every month, Shannon of River City Reading hosts a public shaming group enjoyment of books we have out from the library in reasonable amounts. As usual, I have been doing a preposterous amount of library reading, because I go to the library every two weeks without fail, and it is my most favorite ritual in all the world. Here’s how it all went down in the month of May!

Library Checkout

Library Books Read

Guapa, Saleem Haddad
The Hero’s Walk, Anita Rau Badami
The Drowning Eyes, Emily Browning
The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent, Michael F. Robinson
Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia
The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig
Everything Good Will Come, Sefi Atta
The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan
Repercussions, Anthony Schneider

Returned Unread

Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master, Paddy Hayes
and some other stuff, I honestly check out a preposterous number of books each time, how can I remember

Presently Checked Out

Nobody asked this question, but I’m telling you the answer anyway, because I deserve to be shamed.

don't have a problem

This is not all of the books I have checked out from the library right now. I have more than this that didn’t get into this picture. I KNOW I AM SO WEAK.

How was your month in library?

Internet Messes You Might Have Missed: A Links Round-Up

Happy Friday, team! The best news from this week is that the NPR Code Switch podcast has finally dropped. You can read an interview with pilot hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji about their Process here.

Why your brain is not a computer, and calling it one is messing up brain science.

Women in sci-fi are reaching new heights (including some discussion of the Hugos and that whole mess).

Including a mango (or not) in a novel about Pakistan.

In defense of YA love triangles, which represent possible identity choices for the (mostly) heroines. Plus some bonus nose-wrinkling at the near-exclusive heteronormativity of the way these love triangles tend to play out.

People think you’ve stolen their lives for your writing even if you actually haven’t. (I secretly think that the moral of this is steal whatever you want and screw ’em, cause they’re going to be mad at you no matter what you do.) My favorite part of this is what she says about other writers stealing from her life and getting her utterly wrong. FASCINATING.

In case you missed that mess of an essay at the Antioch Review, here’s an excellent response to it over at The Millions.

Oh, and in case you messed that mess of a CAPTAIN AMERICA BEING A NAZI (I ranted about it on Twitter), Jess Plummer over at Panels has some thoughts on it for you, as does teaberryblue on Tumblr.

Plus, some sighing as regards complaints of fan entitlement, from Bibliodaze and Megan Purdy. And a particularly superb piece from the always-superb J. A. Micheline addressing the question of who benefits from this kind of rhetoric (spoiler alert: it’s the dominant power structure!).

“I think ‘Frog and Toad’ was really the beginning of him coming out.” Queering the narrative of Frog and Toad. You’re welcome.