Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.32: Serial Books, a Book about a Serialized Game, and a Game about Games

Did you miss us? Our podcast hiatus went longer than we intended, due to some technical difficulties on Whiskey Jenny’s end. But at last we have struggled through those problems to bring you a new episode! In this one we talk about serial writing and why it’s so great; we review John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van; and we play a game about games, invented by Randon!

You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

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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.

What I read in 2014 (some thoughts on diverse reading)

For 2014, I set myself a goal of reading one book by a person of color out of every five books I read altogether. That number was on the low side because I’d never done this sort of experiment before, and I didn’t want to set myself up for failure. As many people (Amanda of Book Riot, recently) have noted, the book world is remarkably white, and it’s a cycle that reinforces itself. If — like many bloggers these days! — you embark on a project that necessitates your seeking out books by nonwhite authors, it can be tricky to get recommendations from the traditional newspaper and online book review sources.

Here are my stats, in the end. Note that I didn’t include romance novels, rereads, or academic nonfiction on this spreadsheet, unless I ended up blogging about them. There’s not a great reason for this, except that those categories of books feel like filling up my gas tank, rather than actually driving. The comfort books fill me up when I am low on calm, and the nonfiction when I am low on, I suppose, new facts for my facts-greedy brain. Because of the demographic makeup of the romance world, the children’s section of my childhood library, and academia, respectively, I’d have ended up with a lot more white folks on my list if I’d included those categories. So with that in mind, here’s the pie chart!

Demographics!

I used the US Census Bureau racial choices, for lack of a better option. As you can see, it worked out to about two-thirds white, one-third not white, or in other words: Better than expected! I think next year I’ll aim at 35% non-white authors, and I’m also going to try to do 40% non-American authors — which obviously will include some overlap. We’ll see how it goes.

genres

genres

Since I haven’t tracked my reading in a systematic way in years past, I can’t say for certain that reading more diversely had zero impact on my genre choices. But its impact can’t have been very big. I read roughly equivalent amounts of nonfiction and YA books, with each of those categories accounting for close to 20% of my total. I read a smallish number of mysteries, comics, and books in translation (and obviously, some books fell into more than one category). Speculative fiction and fiction not otherwise classified were the biggest chunks of the pie, about 25% each.

I probably read more nonfiction this year than in years past, but apart from that, this is the exact pie chart I’d expect from every year of reading I’ve ever had. Aarti, who is mindful of diversity in reading and an excellent source for diverse book recommendations, has said over and over again that reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits, but it will certainly not make you change your book-reading habits.

If there has been a change in my book-finding habits, it’s this: As I read through my blogroll or flip through the New York Times, there are some books that scream my name. They are spooky books, or books about the aftershocks of colonialism, or books about culpability, or books with unreliable narrators, or ideally they are all of those things at once. I will read those books regardless of the demographic into which their authors fall. And then there are some books that stick out their tongues and turn away. Those are multigenerational family sagas or stories about doomed love or the tale of an angry writer who’s not getting the sex he feels he deserves. I will ignore those ones unless someone in the blogosphere says “JENNY READ THIS,” a thing that happened this year with Maggie Stiefvater to startling effect. Where these books are concerned, nothing has changed.

In the middle category, books that neither scream for notice nor try to get away, but books that quietly say “ahem,” this is where my habits have changed, a little. Before, I wrote down all the books that said “ahem” at a certain volume. Now, books by white authors have to say it a little louder than books by authors of color. It’s a tiny corrective, particularly when you set it against the snowy whiteness of the publishing industry that produces most of these books, and of the journalism industry that brings them to our attention.

The effect of this is that when I’m not exactly sure what I’m in the mood for, I don’t have a ton of familiar-sounding books on my TBR list. You know the ones? The ones you added to your TBR list in the same way that Netflix adds things to your recommendations: You liked that so you might like this. You liked The Secret History, and this is another book about rich kids doing dramatic things at boarding schools. These are the books I’m no longer making note of, when they’re by white authors.  I’m giving their spots away to different voices. It’s salutary, I think, to defamiliarize, to remember that the world in which you feel comfortable isn’t the only version of the world on offer.Do you track the demographics of your reading? Are you setting demographic goals for 2015?

STEP OFF HARRIET VANE (a links round-up)

Hello my scrumptious delights! Did you miss my links round-up last time, when I did not do one? I did! But here I am again with a new one.

Edan Lepucki thinks about whether character likeability is beside the point, at The Millions. And I kept thinking about how nobody liked Harriet Vane when Strong Poison came out. I know about this from Dorothy Sayers’s letters. Readers wrote to her in droves begging her not to marry Peter to that dreadful woman. BACK OFF, people of the 1930s. Harriet Vane is one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

Kiese Laymon reflects on the kind of freedom his Vassar College ID gives him.

I’m slightly late in linking to this, but here is Alyssa Rosenberg on good manners as a solution for a lot of racist/sexist behavior. I couldn’t agree with this more. “Your behavior is shitty” induces nothing but defensiveness. “Your behavior does not fit with social norms” induces, in general, embarrassment and apology. Thanks, peer pressure! I knew you had to be good for something!

The smashing Liz Burns on the gender policing inherent in the pushback against “princess” toys for girls.

Tasha Robinson on strong female characters.

This made me cry. I am not sure why this, in particular; it’s not new information, and it’s the same sort of story I’ve been reading all week under the #AlivewhileBlack hashtag. But this one made me cry.

Joyous news: The wonderful Tor.com has a new column on comics and speculative fiction from the Levant. YAY. The only way this could be better would be if it were a daily column that came out with new recommendations every single day.

Further proof of Tor.com’s wonderfulness can be found in their current Heralds of Valdemar reread. The Arrows books have more policy talk than you remembered:

Kris’s description of the tax system is also useful anyone trying to understand how the Valdemaran government maintains pro-Herald cultural hegemony. Valdemar doesn’t have a state religion—in this case, tax breaks are the opiate of the masses. I have concerns about the impacts of these policies on Valdemar’s other spending priorities. It’s fortunate that defense of Valdemar’s northern border is handled by Vanyel’s ghost. He’s budget-friendly.

I’ve been saying that one of the things I admired about Mockingjay (a book I otherwise did not love) was Suzanne Collins’s depiction of the mental problems Katniss’s trauma would have created in her. Cause yup. Here’s some further discussion of that.

This has been a ghastly fortnight for news. A ghastly month. I am tired of the news. I’m ready for there to be news that focuses exclusively on puppies and how really truly swell they are. If the news doesn’t get better before the end of the year, I promise that my next links round-up will include at least one photograph of my dog wearing some sort of Christmas decoration.

Review: Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones

Note: I received this — and here comes some important information, so pay attention — NEWLY REISSUED EDITION OF DEEP SECRET from the publisher for review consideration.

I led with the most important information, but I’ll mention it again, just in case: The speculative fiction publisher Tor has put Deep Secret back in print for the first time in years! And for the first time in even longer, we have an American edition of this book that doesn’t take out all the swear words! Huzzah! If you are one of the (gloriously many!) people who has asked me what Diana Wynne Jones book you should read next, this one’s not a bad bet. Plus who knows how long it’ll stay in print this time?

Deep Secret is the Diana Wynne Jones book that is set at a con (the kind you attend when you are a geek, not the kind you pull when you are a crook). The book starts off in typical Diana Wynne Jones fashion, with unabashed weirdness and more made-up words and concepts than I would accept in the first chapter of a novel by absolutely any other author. Rupert Venables is a Magid who works in a Naywards world and now he’s traveling off to the Koryfonic Empire to adjudicate a trial — and look, when you are at this bit and feeling annoyed, just remember that your pal Jenny urged you to keep moving forward. Pretty quickly you will know what all the words mean; and more importantly, pretty quickly all the characters will be at a con at Hotel Babylon in Wantchester.

Having never (yet!) been to a con myself, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Diana Wynne Jones’s depiction of what it is like to be at one. But it sounds completely delightful. Over the course of the novel, a number of truly magical things take place at the con, including but not limited to one magic-worker defeating another; hotel corridors with more right angles than would be geometrically possible; several attempted assassinations; and the spectacularly dramatic entrance of a centaur from another world. The charm of this novel (to me–some of the characters feel differently) is how plausible it seems for the convention-goers to take all of these matters in stride.

Thurless was not placated. In the end, Rick hurried him outside and the door banged on Thurless shouting, “I don’t care! I insist on a taxi!”

 

“That was Mervin Thurless,” said the blond, glossy man gravely.

 

The audience, to my surprise, clapped and cheered. A lot of people laughed. They were like that, the people at this convention — surprisingly good-humoured and in a holiday mood: as if they had come to enjoy themselves as much as listen to writers talk about books. . . . I know what really struck me: the hall was full of people I’d like to get to know. An unusual feeling for sulky, solitary me.

Their response to seeing real magic is exactly like their response to Mervin Thurless acting like a prat in the middle of a panel: a default, good-natured acceptance of everything that comes their way. In a sense, this is the half of the book that belongs to the book’s second narrator, Maree Mallory, whom Rupert’s mentor has identified as one of five possible students for Rupert to take on. Maree is broke, miserable, and crossed in love, and it’s the convention that reminds her that there are places in this world where she belongs and is valued.

The other half of the book, set in the disastrously regimented Koryfonic Empire a few worlds away from earth, belongs to Rupert Venables. If Maree is not at her best due to misery, Rupert is not at his best due to stress. He’s simultaneously working to identify the student who’s to become the second Magid of Earth, and fighting to prevent the Koryfonic Empire from imploding in a violent mess of a succession crisis; and he’s thwarted in both of these goals at every possible turn.

All of this madness–the people at the con, the Empire’s succession crisis, Maree’s bad dreams, the hunt for a new Magic, the horrible decorations on Nick’s mother’s sweaters–comes together in a series of mad climaxes such as you get in British books that deal with the supremely British topic of Everything Going Utterly to Hell. Deep Secret is Diana Wynne Jones’s funniest book, and now that it’s back in print, there’s no reason for you not to be reading it.

My most anticipated books of 2015 (so far)

I love publisher catalogs, y’all. I can’t describe how much I love them. It’s because I judge books by their covers, and publishers’ catalogs offer me the opportunity to do that on a grand scale. So here are a few of the books from 2015 for which I am excited, in no particular order.

Flood of Fire

Flood of Fire, the last in Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful Ibis trilogy, appears in August, and then I can at last set about getting matching copies of all three. Sea of Poppies was one of my favorite books of its year, and while River of Smoke was not what I expected the second book in the trilogy to be, it was still a really excellent read. I’ve revised my expectations that the trilogy will be classically trilogyish, and I think it will maximize my enjoyment of Flood of Fire.

Re Jane

I choose to be optimistic about Re Jane, by Patricia Park, a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre that comes out in May. I’m choosing optimism because so far there are no good retellings of Jane Eyre, and that situation needs to end. Let’s see if Patricia Park can pull it off. The whole world’s counting on you, Patricia Park! No pressure!

A God in Ruins

If you liked Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life but felt it would have been improved by the addition of more Teddy, you are in glorious good luck. A God in Ruins, due out in May of next year, will be a companion story to Life after Life, starring Teddy Todd. Huzzah! As far as I can tell, nobody has said whether or not this book will take place in a world where Ursula shot Hitler (it’s not a spoiler, she does it on the first page).

Harrison Squared

As I may have mentioned one or two times, Daryl Gregory is my favorite author discovery of 2014. Harrison Squared tells the backstory of the protagonist of We Are All Completely Fine, which is to say, the story of a boy hero in a world of monsters. This one’s out in March from Tor.

Game of Queens

When I was a kid, I had this wonderful book about Esther (as in the Book of) called Behold Your Queen. I therefore offer no apologies for being childishly excited about Game of Queens, by India Edghill, a novel about Vashti and Esther that’s slated to be released in August. Do I expect it to be awesome? Like, no. Not really. I expect it to be overwrought and to use the word “sex” as a euphemism for genitals, as many overwrought stories do. But if it did happen to turn out to be good, I would be elated.

Lovelace and Babbage

By contrast, I have only the highest hopes for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a comic by Sydney Padua in which Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage fight crime together. Apparently this has been a webcomic for ages, a fact that demonstrates a parlous lack of internet awareness by me. Anyway, in April I’ll be able to read the whole thing for myself.

The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin, master worldbuilder and ferocious advocate for diversity in publishing, has a new book out in August from Orbit, called The Fifth Season. I need to do an NK Jemisin binge in early 2015. She has got several books out that I haven’t read yet, because I’ve been saving them slash I have to be really in the mood before I’ll read high fantasy. But her worldbuilding is just top-notch. Gotta get on that.

The Just City

The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton, are both coming out in 2015 (one in January, one in June), which feels like an embarrassment of riches. The premise of the world in which these two books are set is almost too bonkers to explain here, but suffice it to say that they feature Greek gods living among humans in an experimentally utopian city. Sounds great. Sounds like exactly what I never knew I was missing in my life.

I’m not mentioning the fourth Raven Cycle book because in my heart of hearts, I think it’s going to get kicked back to 2016. Likewise I am not mentioning Zachary Mason’s follow-up to the matchless The Lost Books of the Odyssey, because in my heart of hearts, I think it’s going to be 2017 at the earliest. And the people on Goodreads who put 2015 as an expected publication date for Robin McKinley’s Ebon are living on a prayer.

Review: Freedom and Necessity, Steven Brust and Emma Bull

How Freedom and Necessity was described to me by Anastasia: An epistolary novel set in Victorian times, with magic!

What I pictured: Sorcery and Cecelia

The primary topic of the first forty pages of Freedom and Necessity: Hegel, I swear to God. You know, the philosopher. And his concepts of idealism.

So, yeah. Me and Freedom and Necessity got off to a bumpy start.

Luckily, I was on the bus and had nothing else of interest for my eyes to rest on for the duration of the bus ride, which meant that perforce I read past the first 40 pages and on to the more interesting bits.

James Cobham, unloved son, much-loved cousin, and passionate idealist, has drowned. Or at least, that’s what everyone in England believes. When his older cousin Richard receives a letter from the supposedly dead James, his whole family is plunged into a world of conspiracy, terror, and possibly magic. (Though, if I can save you some anxiety, there’s not really any magic. There are just some people who believe in magic, as some people did in Victorian times. (And of course as some people still do now.))

If you can get past the Hegel, Freedom and Necessity turns out to be pretty great. Shortly after James’s initial disappearance, his cousin Susan sets out on a quest to find out all about his past. She’s in love with him (claim her family members; she denies it), and ferocious investigation into his murky past is the method she’s plumped upon of handling her feelings about his (supposed) death. Meanwhile, Richard — who is living in sin with yet another cousin, Kitty — sets out to find out what on earth James is up to and what kind of trouble he’s gotten himself into. The cousins are working at cross purposes for some time, though they fairly quickly realize that they’ll work better as a unit, and they start to share information. (Though they still hold back some information from almost every letter they send; these are people who love each other dearly and want to keep each other from worrying.)

Susan’s a terrific character. I love to see a female protagonist who’s exactly as brilliant and bloody-minded as her male counterpart. Susan’s too clever to be put off by James’s typical grim-faced-male-hero tactics of trying to keep her out of danger by being extremely mean to her. She sets out to discover how she can assist James with the murderous bastards (possibly several separate groups of murderous bastards) who want his head on a platter, and before too long, James finds himself depending on her aid. When he needs something done, he’s able to say, Susan, do this thing, and feel confident that it will be done. And the greatest thing is that this is a life Susan enjoys (probably more than James does).

In sum, be prepared to skim past some droning on about philosophical ideals to get to a cracking good story set in the mid-1800s. Don’t hold out for magic. Most of the schemes are actually about politics. But they’re still good.

They also read it: Here There Be Books; Tamaranth’s Creative Reading; let me know if I missed yours!

Review: Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Here’s a thing I cannot abide with in stories about the apocalypse: People frantically shopping for groceries. I don’t know why. I am an excellent pre-disaster grocery shopper myself. When I lived in New York, I had to stop myself from charging about the store removing imprudent disaster groceries from other people’s baskets. (Attention New Yorkers: Get flashlights, not candles. Stop buying up all the milk.) I am fine with this. But when I read about it in books, my throat closes up. This was the scariest detail to me in Life As We Knew It, and it almost made me stop reading Station Eleven.

I’m glad I persisted. Station Eleven (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) hits some of the beats you would expect for a post-apocalyptic novel, from the story of the days when everyone realized nothing was going back to normal, to the requisite doomsday cult preaching about the survivors being the blessed ones. But in the space between those things is an elegy for the impermanence of the life we know.

Kirsten Raymonde was a child actor just before the world ended, just before a deadly strain of flu claimed the lives of 99% of the human population. Now, twenty years after, she’s a member of the Traveling Symphony, which goes from settlement to settlement performing music and plays by Shakespeare to the people who survived. Station Eleven moves back and forth in time, from the present day to the time before the plague, to one year after it, five years after, fifteen years after.

Station Eleven is a complicated puzzle box of a book. Mandel reveals information in the way that I love best, where it is less like uncovering secrets and more like pointing up connections that, once spotted, feel inevitable. With all the moving parts rattling around in this book, I expect it will repay rereading, with more small details to be noticed and admired. Station Eleven is on the short list for the National Book Award, and book awards are not always the way to my heart because they tend to reward beautiful sentences rather than skillful plotting. But if I established my own book award to honor books that were skillfully plotted (because — controversial opinion but I think I am right — skillful plotting is a rarer and trickier skill than beautiful sentence-writing, and it is bewildering to me how despised it is amongst the populace), I think Station Eleven would still have a place on the short list. There are many cogs in this machine, and they click together beautifully.

(Nuh-uh, you mixed your metaphors.)

Tonally, Mandel’s triumph is to force you to unrecognize the familiar things in your life; or rather, to remind you that everything that feels permanent is fundamentally losable.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Elizabeth insisted. “Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?”

 

“Well,” Clark offered, “it was always a little fragile, wouldn’t you say?”

Mandel forces you to feel — not pampered for having had all the good fortune and luxury of life in the developed world in the twenty-first century — but lucky to have all those things. She unfamiliarizes them for the reader and then shows them to us anew. Because all the people in her book, who are us, all the ones who remember the olden days, miss things that we may not ever think to miss on our own, things like the sound of an electric guitar or the haunted sight of a lit-up pool at midnight.

Plus, I just love the writing. Some bits:

There was a time when this conversation would have reduced her to tears, but now she swivels in her chair to look out at the lake and thinks about moving trucks. She could call in sick to work, pack up her things, and be gone in a few hours. It is sometimes necessary to break everything.

 

If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it? Perhaps soon humanity would simply flicker out, but Kirsten found this thought more peaceful than sad. So many species had appeared and later vanished from this earth; what was one more? How many people were even left now?

 

If there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.

I really talked myself into Station Eleven as I was writing this post. I was originally going to have a paragraph about not connecting emotionally to the characters, which is still sort of true? But I discovered that it makes no difference to my enjoyment of the book in this case, because I had such a strong emotional connection to the world of it. Highly, highly recommended.

Cover report: I think American? What do you think? I am willing to be dissuaded. I just feel like the British cover doesn’t look like anything, and the American cover looks like it could be a traveling theater troupe or the end of the world.

American cover

American cover

British cover

British cover

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I love love love it when authors describe their complicated books in a very simple way. Helen Oyeyemi has said that White Is for Witching is about a xenophobic house. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described Americanah as a romance. And Benjamin Alire Sáenz says this about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: “Some boys just know they’re gay. . . . And I think other boys don’t know, and they start discovering that. And that’s the book.”

That’s parts of the book. There are other parts too. There are parts about what secrets do to a family, and the power of being open. Ari has a brother in prison, and his parents never talk about him anymore. There are parts about coming to view your family as specific humans, not just the family member they are in relation to you. There are parts about what it is like to feel separated by your race from people around you, but also separated from that racial identity by virtue of being different. Aristotle and Dante fret a great deal about the meaning of being Mexican, whether they can consider themselves truly Mexican when they don’t speak Spanish fluently, or they don’t hang out with other Mexicans or behave like a particular vision of what being Mexican would mean.

Aristotle — he goes by Ari — is a loner. His mother frets because he doesn’t seem to have any friends, until one day he meets a boy called Dante at the swimming pool, who offers to teach him how to swim. From there, they become the closest of friends. Dante chatters nonstop, and Ari talks some and thinks more.

“It helped,” he said. “Going to the counselor. It wasn’t so bad. It really did help.”

 

“Are you going back?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

I nodded. “Talking doesn’t help everybody.”
Dante smiled. “Not that you’d know.”

 

I smiled back. “Yeah. Not that I’d know.”

If I had a problem with the book, it was that for a book about feeling things quietly, Aristotle and Dante had a surprising number of cataclysmic events. Some of them drove narrative developments, and other ones didn’t, and although any one of them might have felt like an acceptable intrusion of, like, the Violence of the Wider World, the cumulative effect felt slightly like a cheat. When you know an author can achieve a devastating emotional effect without the benefit of one character saving another character’s life by pushing him out of the path of a moving car, it’s easy to wonder why he didn’t choose to. Jodie and Renay said some excellent and insightful things on this topic in their joint review at Lady Business, which I encourage you to check out.

They read it too: Roof Beam Reader, Book Smugglers, Jodie and Renay of Lady Business. Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim

Without You There Is No Us is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Rebecca’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

North Korea is an improbable circumstance, isn’t it? Whenever I think about North Korea, I’m surprised all over again. I’m like the grandmother in Emily Climbs who keeps insisting that a child can’t be lost in the nineteenth century. How can there be, in this day and age where everything is connected, a country that has managed to conceal so completely from its citizens the truth about what the world is like? How can there be a country where the voice of the government is the only voice? How did that happen?

Suki Kim, a Korean journalist, has spent years reporting on North Korea, and in 2011, she was able to obtain a teaching position at a missionary-funded university in North Korea. She was to teach English to the sons of the wealthiest and most upper-class people in the country. If anybody at the school or anybody in the government had googled her name, they’d have found at once that she wasn’t a missionary or a teacher or even a Christian; but nobody ever did. (Which sums up North Korea pretty nicely, doesn’t it?)

Kim’s experiences at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) aren’t surprising, and like most journalism on North Korea, her work offers only the occasional, tantalizing glimpse at a piece of the answer to the question we all want answered: Do they really believe that? Or if they don’t swallow it completely, what are the bits they’re skeptical of? Do they think to be skeptical that Korean food is beloved all over the world? And how would they ever come to such skepticism, anyway, since they have no source of outside information and no way to ever leave the country? Here’s what one of the students says about seeing Kim again after her time as a teacher is up:

They asked, yet again, “Professor, are you coming back next semester?” I told them that honestly, I really was not sure if I would be allowed back in their country, but even if I did not make it back, perhaps one day they would have access to the Internet and then we could Skype. They remained silent until one of them, who seemed deep in thought, said earnestly, “Perhaps I could become a delegate at the UN. Then I could come to New York and see you again in person!”

There are lots of moments like this, where the boys seem innocent and sweet. But Kim knows there’s another side to them. She writes about how frequently and how easily they lie, even when their lies are easy to disprove, and how they never admit being caught in a lie but just keep piling on more excuses to explain away any discrepancies in their story. This reflexive, fluid dishonesty doesn’t negate the students’ curiosity and affection for her, but it sits alongside those things; it complicates them.

Though Kim never says it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the future for these students. A very few times in the book, Kim catches sight of (what we all suppose to be) the true North Korea:

Then the bus swerved closer to the edge of the road, and I saw a few people walking alongside it. Their faces were ghastly, as if they had not been fed in years. A skeletal woman held out a pack of cigarettes as though offering it for sale to any passing bus, although there was none but ours. When we passed closer to one of the construction sites, the workers became visible, with hollowed eyes and sunken cheeks, clothing tattered, heads shaved, looking like Nazi concentration camp victims. The sight was so shocking that both Katie and I drew in sharp breaths. We could not say anything or show our feelings, since the minder sat nearby, but we exchanged glances, and Katie mouthed the exact word that struck me at that moment: “Slaves.”

I would read this, or read something about Korean gulags, and I’d think that Kim’s students, one day, would be the ones who ordered people into gulags. Or they would lose favor with the government and be in the gulags themselves. These exact same boys who went mad with excitement at the prospect of getting to see one of the Harry Potter films! Those same boys! It made for a deeply strange read, and I can only imagine how much stranger it must have been to live it.

Recommended despite some grave cognitive dissonance and concerns about the morality of writing this book. Next I would like to read Nothing to Envy, which everybody was recommending a few years ago.

Not a dumb American: American edition

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Rebecca’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

My American history memory is in a parlous state, mostly because I have never been terribly interested in it. But I am VERY VERY interested in colonial powers and the ways they do colonialism, so I was eager to pick up Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published by my much-beloved Beacon Press. It isn’t a history of the indigenous peoples of the US, but rather a history of the US happening to indigenous peoples.

I had to read this book one chapter per day, because otherwise I got too sad about it. Because basically here is the history of the US happening to indigenous people:

Stage 1: Various colonizing groups got to America and made treaties with the Indian nations they encountered. The colonizers despised the Indians and cheated them blind, but they acknowledged that the Indian groups were sovereign nations who got to America ahead of them.

(There were some massacres during this stage. Sometimes Indians massacred colonists, and sometimes colonists massacred Indians. Bad times all around.)

Stage 2: The USA got founded, and it made some treaties with Indian groups about where the United States ended and the Indian lands began. When American settlers settled on Indian land, and the Indians said, “Hey!”, the US government would most of the time just be like:

Because they would claim that the settlers were acting without the permission of the US government. But if the Indians attacked the settlers, the government would be like “Nooooo! The savages are attacking Americans!” and they would send out the army to burn down the Indian villages and redraw the treaty lines (often by getting some random Indian to sign the treaty and then be like “Okay! Now it counts for all people in your tribe!” even though the person who signed wasn’t actually authorized to speak for that tribe). And so on ad infinitum.

(There were massacres at this stage also. You should just always assume there are massacres going on. Also, the Trail of Tears.)

As I was reading about Stage 2, I was thinking, Oh yeah, this is what the Wilders were doing probably. This was the Laura Ingalls Wilders, settling on Indian land that actually really belonged to the Indians by treaty. Boy, the Ingalls family was not on the right side of history.

But man, if I thought Stage 2 was miserably depressing, I was not emotionally prepared for Stage 3. (Like, I knew it was coming, but I just really didn’t want it to.)

Stage 3: The US government got tired of paying lip service to the idea that they were ever going to honor their treaties with the Indians, I guess because redrawing the treaties all the time was creating too much paperwork for them or something. They announced that Indians weren’t sovereign nations after all, nor did Indian tribes have any legal significance as a unit. All Indians from now on would be considered as individuals (not members of a tribe) and would be wards of the state.

Yes it is. The Ingalls family was around during this bit, as well. They bridged the gap between Stage 2 and Stage 3. I’m not harping on it to make you feel guilty about liking those books; it’s just what I kept thinking about as I was reading. I got too depressed in this stage to take in some of the information coming my way. I was just thinking, Ugh, ugh, ugh, please stop it, America, you are the worst.

Stage 4: Hooray! A beacon of light at last! Y’all, I got so used to the story being about America using superior weapons and weapons to kill Indians and steal their land that I forgot anything else was ever going to happen. Stage 4 is the civil rights stage! Although Indian activist groups campaigned for a lot of things they didn’t end up getting, there were some things they did end up getting, including the occasional admission by the US government that they had been treating the Indians badly all these years.

If you are currently thinking, Jenny’s a colonialist asshole for being excited about the US government doing the absolute bare minimum of what it damn well should have been doing all along, I can’t argue with you. But y’all, Stages 2 and 3 were really rough. Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the massacre at Wounded Knee (often considered the end of Indian resistance in the United States), and really, any time you’ve got pictures of mass graves containing children, you’ll take no massacres + small shitty government concessions as a major win.

Overall: I didn’t learn a ton of information that I didn’t already know, at least in hazy outline. Dunbar-Ortiz is talking about patterns, not specifics, for much of this book, and we already know the general outlines of how European-American colonizers wiped out as many Indian tribes as they could over the course of a few centuries. However, I think it’s really important and valuable tTo see it laid out all in one place, as an integral part of the development of the country. I wrote down a ton of books from the bibliography, and I’m hoping to read more indigenous histories of America in the future.

Important takeaway: We gotta get Andrew Jackson of the $20 bill. I have been saying this for ages, but now I think so even more. It is insane and insulting that we have him on there. Let’s replace his face on the twenty with somebody whose policies didn’t kill quite so many people. I vote for Harriet Tubman. Nobody can argue with Harriet Tubman; partly because she is an awesome heroine from history, and partly because she is way tougher than you and would definitely win in a fight.

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