Review: White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Here’s the summary of White Tears from Goodreads, because I need you to understand my reading experience:

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

White Tears

Doesn’t that summary sound like a light social satire in which a Music World Uproar causes privileged white boys to realize the folly of appropriation? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (that’s a reference to something terrifying that happens in the book). Don’t be fooled: “White Tears is a ghost story” should have gone up front, because holy shit, White Tears is a ghost story. White Tears is primarily a ghost story. When Seth and Carter send their faked song by imaginary Charlie Shaw out into the world, they set into motion a goddamn terrifying ghost story.

real footage of me on a short break from White Tears

I am trying to strike a balance in this post between telling you enough information to get you to read this book and spoiling the reading experience. This book grabbed me by the throat and shook me like a Polaroid picture. It’s Southern gothic written by a Kashmiri British guy. It catches the reader up in Seth’s need to know how his life came to be in this shambles, even when you can clearly see that he’s walking straight into his own doom. It makes privileged white kids pay the bitter, vicious price of the country’s racial sins. It’s the rare ghost story that makes you root for the ghost.

If I had one gripe, it’s that the resolution of White Tears is perhaps a smidge too tidy. What you eventually find out about the ghost and its motivations, about Carter’s family and their history in the American racial landscape, is certainly effective to the story Kunzru’s telling. But in a way, I would have found it more satisfying if the ghost’s revenge on these people had been random and unfair, if Seth and Carter just happened to be the people on whom the ghost’s eye fell. If you’ve read the book, let me know if you agree! I will take arguments to the contrary.

Anyway, whatever, White Tears is still scary af. There’s this one scene, oh my God there is this one scene where Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie are down south talking to a black guy in a pick-up truck, and it will haunt my nightmares always. You’ll know the one when you get to it. Also, the B side of the Charlie Shaw record.

Please read this booooooooooook and then come back and talk to me about it! And also, if you have read other books by Hari Kunzru, what did you think of them? I would like to know more!

Whatever Else You Do, Read This Rachel Dolezal Piece: A Links Round-Up

We made it to another Friday, friends! I hope you all have restful and pleasant weekends scheduled, with lots of yummy foods and indulgent television. But before you get to that, I implore you to give yourselves the unparalleled gift of my first link, a piece about Rachel Dolezal that crashed The Stranger‘s website and hopefully introduced many new people to the superb work of Ijeoma Iluo. So far everyone I’ve sent it to has said “Damn, DAMN” to me — not once but several times — while quoting back to me relevant sections of the article. Feel free to have that response at me on Twitter; I enjoy it.

“I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t blackness that Dolezal doesn’t understand, but whiteness”: Ijeoma Iluo interviews Rachel Dolezal.

The Guardian carried a really fascinating article about separating the artist from the art (and finding ways to acknowledge both artistic brilliance and personal turpitude).

Hysteria, Hillary Clinton, and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a sobering read.

Okay I guess I am a credulous lambkin but this Tampa Bay Times article about farmers’ market produce not really being from local farms blew my mind.

Racebending vs. whitewashing (and another reminder why I love Geeks of Color).

Emily Asher-Perrin on being the uneasy girl in horror movies who nobody believes.

I grabbed Deepak Unnikrishnan’s book on a whim at the library last Saturday, and shortly thereafter I discovered this excellent New Yorker article about him and his book about foreign workers in the UAE.

Welp this remark about what fanfic is for is searingly accurate.

I’m furious at 13 Reasons Why, and this post and this post are two (YES I’M DOING THIS) reasons why. My brother-in-law, who teaches high schoolers, reports that all his students are watching and loving it, and I want to protect all those babies from this harmful nonsense. Ugh.

“Write the things that are weird about your culture, for an audience that isn’t like you”: Six authors of color discuss what they are told when submitting speculative fiction stories to agents and publishers.

I quietly enjoy David Foster Wallace’s essays while feeling very confident that I would loathe his fiction and probably end up wanting to beat him over the head with a tennis racket, so this article on men recommending David Foster Wallace until the heat death of the sun really resonated with me. This Sarah McCarry response includes an excellent anecdote.

Why are you still reading this! Go read that Rachel Dolezal piece!

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.80: Choosing What to Read, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander

I am so sorry this podcast is late, y’all. Life got on top of me, and I realized last Sunday that I hadn’t even glanced at the rough files for podcast, let alone begun editing. BUT it is here now, and we get to have the unparalleled delight of hearing Whiskey Jenny’s response to the FIRST FANFIC SHE HAS EVER READ. We also discuss how we find the books we read, and we review Patrick O’Brian’s book Master and Commander. 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.

Here’s the time signatures for each segment, if you want to skip around!

1:19 – Literary adaptation announcement
1:56 – What we’re reading
5:36 – Serial Box Book Club
15:10 – How we find and choose what books we’re going to read
34:15 – Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
44:41 – What We’re Reading Next Time

And here are the books we discussed this ep!

Philip Marlowe!

Here’s the news about the new Philip Marlowe casting!

What We’re Reading

His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett

Serial Box Book Club

We’re reading episodes three and four of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. Thanks again to Serial Box for letting us have these episodes to review!

Where We Get Recommendations

Europa Editions
Soho Press
Balzer & Bray
Riverhead
The Great 2017 Book Preview (The Millions)
The Watch
Granta: New Irish Writers

For This Time

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
“Duende,” by astolat (the fic we read!)
“Penguins” article on Fanlore.org

For Next Time

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

Not a Dumb American: Angola Edition

Note: I received a copy of Njinga of Angola from the publisher for review consideration. This has not affected the contents of my post.

My brilliant friend Alice told me that this book existed (thanks, Alice!), and I hied me off to the publisher at once to ask for a review copy. I love African history and I love BALLER QUEENS, so you can see that this was a match made in heaven. Njinga was a seventeenth-century queen in what is now northwestern Angola. At a time when European rule was sweeping across Africa, Njinga successfully ruled the kingdoms of Matamba and Ndongo at a time when Portuguese rule was the norm; her political savvy and military success forced the European colonizers to treat with her even as they ran roughshod over numerous other sovereign nations in Africa. Njinga was also a slave trafficker (slave export was one way that she preserved her economic power) and practitioner of human sacrifice.

Njinga of Angola

Njinga of Angola is the first ever (I know!) English-language biography of this queen. Linda Heywood has done a tremendous amount of archival research to track down Njinga’s story. The sister of Ngola a Hari, a king who was very medium at getting what he wanted from the Portuguese, Njinga did not begin her political career until she was thirty-five years old. She was deputized by her brother (who had previously killed her infant son and sterilized her and her sisters to prevent them from becoming a threat to his rule) to negotiate with the Portuguese on his behalf.

but for real, Njinga was on a legit diplomatic mission to the Portuguese

After this mission, she gained sufficient popularity and power to feel comfortable murdering her jerk brother and taking over his throne. Then she married the Imbangala gentleman who had custody of her brother’s little son. At the wedding, she killed the kid and threw him in the river.

This story brings up (for me) one of the problems with Njinga’s story: Like a lot of African history, we’re depending heavily on European records to know what’s going on. Later on in life, Njinga was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with major European religious and political figures in an effort to achieve her diplomatic goals. But even then, historians have very little access to her innermost thoughts, depending instead on the image of herself she was presenting to powerful Europeans as a powerful African. So we are able to know about her only what European writers saw, or what she chose to present to European priests, kings, and governors. Anything they didn’t see, we can’t know. It makes for a slightly bloodless story, as the reader is necessarily at one or two removes from Njinga’s true motives and feelings.

With that being said, though, Heywood makes it clear how savvy Njinga became to what the Europeans expected and wanted from her, and what she could expect and request from them. Recognizing that the Europeans were using the pretext of moral virtue to steal land, and aware that her own military successes gave her a degree of bargaining power, she used the idea of cannibal savages as a tool to defend her own moral virtue and claim to the land: Whereas these groups of Africans are bad and wicked, with barbaric customs and irredeemable morals, my group of Africans is righteous and Christian.

The most tragic thing in this book (to me, a sisters-having person) is that Njinga’s two sisters were taken captive by the Portuguese, and they were spies for her. I was very struck by how brave they were and what impressive assets to Njinga as a ruler — one sister spied for her for years until she was caught and executed. The other converted (allegedly) to Christianity under Portuguese rule, and her (apparent) piety was a crucial bargaining chip when Njinga was requesting protection as a fellow Christian. Negotiations over the second sister’s release went on for years, and by the time the women were reunited, the sister — now called by her Christian name of Barbara, formerly known as Kambu — had been a prisoner of the Portuguese for over a decade.

Njinga threw herself on the ground in front of Barbara, rubbing herself in the soil as was customary when a person received a favor or when dependents paid homage to masters or superiors. Given permission to approach Barbara, Njinga kissed her sister’s hand and knelt once more, letting her face drop to the ground once again. After this ceremonial greeting, the two sisters embraced and for a long time held on to each other tenderly, not speaking a word, but kissing each other repeatedly.

Next I would like to read an article / series of articles / whole damn book about contesting memories of Njinga. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Contemporary Portuguese accounts often lean heavily on Njinga’s conversion to Christianity and how sincere it may have been, or on the notion that she was a cannibal savage who sacrificed humans in barbarian rituals (this carrying of course a very, very different moral valence than the actions of Portuguese slave traders in the same historical period). In post-independence Angola, Njinga has been revered as a symbol of resistance to colonizing powers.

Njinga of Angola is a tremendous feat of research and storytelling, a vital piece of the massively complex story of African resistance and diplomacy in the face of European colonialism. Much recommended.

Review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice

There is nothing quite as cleansing as finally reading a book that’s been on your TBR list for untold ages. Ana of Things Mean a Lot reviewed it in 2012, which is on the outer edge of how long I’ll let a book linger on my TBR spreadsheet. If I’ve let it go for five years without reading it, I have to accept that I didn’t truly want to read it in the first place.1 Alice from Of Books reminded me more recently why I wanted to read it, so thanks to both of you, lovely blogging friends!

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

As Ana and Alice both mention in their posts, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets recalls almost irresistibly I Capture the Castle, a comparison of which I had absolutely no recollection when I started reading. And perhaps it’s best that I didn’t; comparing a new book to one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction is hardly a recipe for success. Please forget I said that. Except don’t, because I want you to read this book. Except do, because I don’t want to get your expectations too high.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is about a girl called Penelope who lives in a ramshackle old manor house called Milton Magna in postwar England. She rattles around her old manor house with her younger brother Inigo, who dreams of being a pop star, and her beautiful, widowed mother, married at seventeen and widowed in the Second World War. As Penelope is waiting tidily at the train station, a total stranger swoops in and carries her off to have tea with her family, and Penelope’s life changes entirely. In a manner that is not entirely unlike, yet not so much like that it should raise your expectations in a significant way, the events of I Capture the Castle.

I can at least say that without specifically remembering the I Capture the Castle comparison,2 I was immediately charmed by The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Penelope spends a great deal of time thinking about romantic love; but the fundamental relationships in the book are between Penelope and Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Penelope and her maddening, dramatic, married-too-young mother. The book was a frothy delight from the first page, and if it’s not exactly up to the standard set by I Capture the Castle, it’s at least along the lines of a lesser Dodie Smith book or an ungrim Maggie O’Farrell novel. If that’s something you need (in this grim dystopian hellscape), go forth and read it with my blessing.

(Note that I had to bust out the old “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts” category for this book. That is an exact description of how I felt about it.)

  1. The oldest book currently on there dates to December 2013.
  2. So you should forget it too! Forget it at once!

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us, Emily Skrutskie

Huge thanks to Sarah of The Illustrated Page for putting me onto Emily Skrutskie’s indie-published The Abyss Surrounds Us. It’s about a teenage marine biologist, Cassandra, who trains genetically engineered sea monsters (called Reckoners) to accompany merchant ships around the dangerous seas of Future America and fight off pirate attacks. But during her first solo mission, her Reckoner fails, the ship is destroyed, and Cas herself is taken prisoner. The pirate captain, Santa Elena, orders Cas to train the Reckoner pup she’s somehow acquired. If she fails, she dies. If she succeeds, she risks upsetting the delicate balance (of money and power and biology, even!) of the world that’s been her whole life. Also, the pirate girl who’s been assigned to watch Cas aboard ship is pretty hot.

The Abyss Surrounds Us

Look, “sea monster trainer gets kidnapped by sexy pirate girl” is a sufficiently great elevator pitch that there was no chance of my not reading this book. I checked it out on a library day when the only books I wanted were straightforward fun, and this one absolutely delivered: Cas’s adventures on the high seas, her burgeoning relationship with Swift the pirate girl, her tentative navigation1 of the treacherous world of Santa Elena’s pirate ship, and her ongoing moral quandaries were everything you could ask for in a fantasy YA novel.

The nitty-gritty details of training a Reckoner — Bao is a turtle-type sea monster, although there are also octopus and whale types — were a particular delight. Cas has been helping to train Reckoners from her earliest childhood, but Bao is the first one she’s had to train all on her own. The book never forgets that Bao is a monster, albeit one who’s been genetically programmed to accept the training Cas is giving him. But even when he’s doing what Cas wants, there’s a perpetual risk that he’ll turn on her. The parallels to Cas’s own situation aboard the pirate ship, obeying Santa Elena’s orders while dreaming of escape, are noticeable.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a first novel, and certainly there are things about it that could have been improved: I’d have liked to know more about Cas’s world, and in particular I’d have liked to see a stronger motivation for Cas to start wondering whether the Reckoner/merchant world she comes from is all that she had believed. I also felt that Cas’s background was a little underexplored; this post on Reading (As)(I)an (Am)erica gets into the representation of POC characters in the book (the author’s white).

Despite these minor quibbles, it’s one of my most fun reading experiences this year. Fans of stories of the sea will love this one, and I’m already eager to read the second book in the duology (out this month).

  1. Metaphorical navigation — she’s not actually navigating the actual ship.

Why You Just Got Snapped at on Twitter

Good morning! Today we’re going to talk about PRIVILEGE. (I know, you’re excited.) To be more specific, we’re going to talk about why you, a person with X privilege, just got your feelings hurt online while trying to have a good-faith conversation with someone who lacks X privilege, and you want to understand why.

(Spoilers: It’s not because people who lack X privilege are “toxic.” It’s because the whole structure of privilege is.)

Online conversations about diversity can be like trying to hold a math class where some of the students are doing advanced calculus and some of the students haven’t mastered the multiplication tables yet. Even if everyone in the room badly wants to learn math (a big if, in this metaphor), a lack of acknowledgement and courtesy for the fact that people are at different learning stages can hamstring the discussion completely. Nobody studying arithmetic wants to say, “Where did you get that 64 number?” and have everyone laugh at them for not knowing that’s what eight times eight equals. Nobody who’s ready to use derivatives to calculate how rapidly the cone-shaped pool will fill up wants to sit there and review their eight-times tables. That doesn’t make either side bad. Different people are just at different stages of their math journeys.

eh, I just wanted to use this gif

What that analogy seems to suggest is that everyone should be more tolerant and compassionate of each other, from the newest Twitter egg to the, I don’t know, Diversity Pope (there is no Diversity Pope). Right? WRONG, because I cheated on the analogy. Everyone knows there are different levels of math knowledge; but privileged people oftentimes think they are at the same level of knowledge with issues facing marginalized groups as the people in those groups are at. This is where it gets messy.

Diversity conversations actually tend to work more like if the students who didn’t know their times tables kicked down the door to the classroom where the calculus students were doing their ghastly tank filling word problems and yelled “MATH IS NUMBERS! STOP DOING PICTURES AND LETTERS.” And when the calculus students said, “Google calculus and you will find that as you get farther into it, math is also sometimes pictures and letters,” the multiplication students said “We’re math students too! We know what math is and it’s not this!” And when the calculus students said, “Okay, well, we’re going to get on with our calculus class now,” the multiplication students yelled “HOW DARE YOU EXCLUDE US! MATH IS FOR EVERYONE!” and set fire to the overhead projector; and this happened every time the calculus students tried to learn and talk about calculus, whether by themselves in a private classroom or in a public forum.

And also the school administration seems unsure if there’s such a thing as calculus or not.

And also multiplication students run the whole country.

Okay. So how does this analogy apply to you, a privileged person doing their best to learn?

1. Recognize that your privilege tends to put you at a lower knowledge level than people who’ve been living this their whole lives.

If you’ve only ever been asked to learn multiplication, you aren’t evil for not knowing calculus. But it’s important to recognize that calculus learners exist and know more overall about math than you do; and it’s important not to walk into calculus classrooms expecting that you’ll be able to jump right in to the work.

Or let’s put it into real-world (but relatively un-fraught) terms. Let’s say that you, an architect, walk up to me, a publishing person, and start explaining why my organization should be using EBSCO rather than Project Muse as a library ebook aggregator. Let’s say you read some stuff about EBSCO in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week and you think you have a good case to make. Except the thing is, I do publishing full-time. Not only have I already thought about the factors you read about in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve thought about many other factors you didn’t consider, too, considerations that you didn’t even know existed. I had to! It’s my job!

You aren’t stupid for not knowing the reasons an academic publisher might prefer Project Muse to EBSCO, just like you aren’t stupid for not knowing that letters and graphs can be math as well as numbers. People learn different things at different times, and that’s okay! The problem comes when instead of recognizing that there’s a lot you don’t know, you act like the information you happen to possess is the only relevant (or even the only existing) information.

Gay people know more about being gay than straight people, just like people in publishing know more about publishing than architects. Black people know more about being black than white or Asian people, just like architects know more about architecture than chefs or magazine editors. People in a marginalized group have, in general, thought more about issues surrounding that marginalization than people who are privileged in that area — they’ve had to. So not only do they have more experience with the thing, they probably have more education in the thing. You are not the expert. They are the expert.

Cheat sheet

Here’s a good shortcut you can use when you’re speaking to someone with less privilege than you, to check if you are being a jerk and should stop. Are you arguing for or against the status quo? If it’s for, that’s a good sign to take a step back, listen to what the other person is saying, and do some googling to find out why the status quo isn’t working for people in this marginalized group.

Say I’m talking about how the American legal profession creates significant barriers against people with mental illness, and you say “Yeah but would you want a psycho handling your custody case?” The obvious subtext is “maybe the status quo is good and necessary.” But the thing about privilege is that the status quo serves it. If someone with less privilege is saying that the status quo does not serve them, you can safely assume that yes, they have already considered the possibility that the status quo is good and necessary. Of course they’ve considered it; it’s the Procrustean bed they’ve been trying to climb out of for years and years, and they’ve probably already lost some limbs to it.

Which leads me to my second point: STAKES.

2. Recognize that the stakes are different for marginalized people.

If you, a multiplication student genuinely trying to work their way up to calculus, walk up to a calculus student, peer at their textbook, and say, “What’s going on here? Math is supposed to be numbers!”, they cannot tell the difference between you, a multiplication student trying to learn, and the zillions of multiplication students who have said that same sentence to that calculus student in the past and immediately followed it up by trying to set fire to their school supplies. So if they are rude to you in response, and your feelings get hurt, it’s important to be aware that this isn’t about you. While you’re trying to do small talk, they’re trying not to get their school supplies set on fire.

Sometimes when I’m out in public by myself, I am very chilly to strange men trying to start conversations with me. A dude might think “ugh this bitch is snooty,” and in some cases, he’d be right: I am sometimes a little rude. But the thing is, lots of strange guys in the past have touched me without my permission or said nasty, threatening things to me. When I’m cold with strangers, I’m not doing it because I get a kick out of hurting people’s feelings in bars. I’m doing it to protect myself from outcomes that started with an encounter identical to this one — casual, friendly conversation — and then turned ugly.

See how the guy and I are, in a way, participating in two completely different interactions? He’s trying not to get rejected socially, and I’m trying not to get assaulted. Of course the interaction is more fraught for me than it is for the guy. Of course I’m at a higher emotional temperature: Not because the guy is inherently more rational and I’m inherently more emotional, but because the interaction has much higher stakes on my side.

“Not everything’s life or death, Jenny!”

Super true. But even when death isn’t on the line, privilege often gives you the gift of lower stakes. For instance, there was a Gizmodo article recently that made fun of pre-peeled, pre-pitted avocados. It’s a genre of article you’ve maybe seen before, where someone writes in a humorous way about a product whose existence they find ridiculous, like those Lady Bic pens. If Lady Bic pens or pre-peeled avocados disappeared from my life, it would make no difference to me at all.

But here’s something I didn’t know (until I read about it on the internet): Many products of the pre-peeled avocado type are developed for the benefit of disabled people, then marketed more broadly so the company doesn’t lose money on them. For me, an able-bodied person, and for the able-bodied author of that Gizmodo article, the stakes of saying “get rid of these ridiculous pre-peeled avocados!” are nil. For a disabled person who can’t peel an avocado on their own, the stakes could be no more avocados ever.

Even within that, there are often secret stakes hiding behind the obvious ones. In this example, no avocados would suck but it wouldn’t be a disaster. Most of the human race throughout most of human history got by just fine without avocados, right? But here’s a thread about rhetoric surrounding accessibility products. Dependence on other people for things like peeling avocados and opening jars enables and exacerbates abuse. Criticizing pre-peeled avocados for their wastefulness plays into a much broader narrative about the costs associated with disability care, which in turn has been used to justify things like forced sterilization of disabled people and gutting programs that disabled people need to survive.

So if I said “ha ha pre-peeled avocados” on Twitter and a disabled person called me an asshole and now my feelings are hurt, the above is crucial context. The interaction that I saw — a stranger called me an asshole for making a harmless joke — actually had a lot more going on within it than I realized.

“But hurt feelings are real!”

Aw, I know. It feels crappy when someone calls you an unkind name. You can talk that out with your friends when you get home this afternoon. But what you have to have to have to keep in mind is that the enemy isn’t the disabled person who snapped at you on Twitter for saying something thoughtlessly hurtful. The enemy of you both is the social system that values the able-bodied people more than disabled people while doing its best to conceal from able-bodied people that any such thing is happening. They’re doing their part to dismantle the system; if you’re not doing yours, don’t get mad at them for being pissed at you for contributing to it.

What to do with this knowledge

Now that you know these things, how should you move forward?

  1. Don’t respond right away. When someone criticizes me, my instinct is to defend myself hotly without waiting to think about whether the criticism was merited. This is a bad response in the situation we’re discussing (also: in many many many situations), because it means I’m doubling down on something I might later wish I had not doubled down on. Step away from the computer, chat with your friends about what happened, do some googling to check if there’s a context you weren’t aware of. (Often, there is! As we discovered above, there’s a lot that privileged people don’t know we don’t know.)
  2. Apologize if you decide you were wrong. A good apology goes like this: “I said something hurtful yesterday, which you rightly called me out on, and I’m sorry I said it.” If applicable: “I’m doing more reading and educating myself on these issues so that I can do better in the future.” Recognize that you are owed nothing in response to this apology. If they ignore you, do nothing. If they say “I don’t care what you’re reading, you ableist asshole,” DO NOTHING. Apologies are, again, not about you.
  3. Don’t respond if you decide you were right, or slightly wrong but mostly right, or you would have been wrong if you’d meant it the way the person took it but you didn’t so you were, actually, right. Sometimes marginalized people — just like sometimes all people — are wrong assholes. If you decide that’s the case, no further action is really required. It’s easy to curate your online life so you don’t have to interact with a person you don’t want to interact with. Unfollow them and move on. Maybe they were indeed a wrong asshole; maybe you’ll realize later they were a right asshole. Either way, you don’t need to let them know about it.

Good? Good. I’m glad we talked. Have a puppy.

BOYS SHOULD GET TO WEAR MAKEUP: A Links Round-Up

It’s Friday, friends, and I’m working all day tomorrow at a conference. Here’s hoping that you have a wonderful and restful weekend, and that if I don’t get enough sleep (I won’t) or find a reasonable place to park (I won’t), I at least manage to buy some terrific books at discount last-day-of-conference prices.

All the excuses people give for making shitty racist movies, and why none of them are that convincing. (Clap your hands if you are pleased to see Ghost in the Shell bombing.)

On feminist SF writers and the dystopian worlds they create. And it’s got a hell of a concluding paragraph.

Oliver Sacks’s partner, Bill Hayes, writes with such clear-eyed love and sweetness about Oliver Sacks. It’s not everyone who can write about the person they love as well as this.

Feminist hypocrisy is the new trend in start-up narratives.

I am perennially furious that guys are given such a narrow range of potential gender performance. Boys look great in makeup! Let boys wear makeup, society! Here is a deeply personal and lovely essay about sexuality, gender performance, and Snapchat makeup filters.

Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers (which I liked a lot), talks to The Millions about black stories and having her book adapted for film.

On the myth of the lone wolf terrorist.

This article and then this article on the accuracy of the therapist’s depiction on Big Little Lies has made me 150% more likely to actually watch this show.

Art world scandals are my favorite scandals.

Marvel’s being shitty again, but luckily Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is here to explain what’s going on. Swapna Krishna has some ideas for Marvel to bring in more female readers.

Stephanie Powell Watts on books you love that don’t love you back.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Review: X-23, Marjorie Liu

Using a Marvel Unlimited gift code from my beautiful pal Memory (thanks Memory!), I finally read Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23, just in time to know a bit about the character before watching OLD MAN LOGAN MOVIE. The run went through several artists, my favorite of which obviously was Sana Takeda, with Phil Noto as a close second.

X-23

If you’re not au courant with what was happening to the X-Men around the time this series came out (early 2010s), there’s kind of a lot to catch up on, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend this series as a starting place for the X-Men if you don’t have a baseline familiarity with the characters. However, Liu does a good job getting you up to speed, and I generally felt like I had a good grip on things: Laura, X-23, ended up on an X-men fighting force that made her feel like she’s good for nothing but murder. Wolverine got ?possessed? by a ?demon?, an issue that’s settled in the Wolverine comics but touches on these comics too (given that Laura’s a clone of Wolverine’s).

The baseline story here is that Laura’s trying to learn how to control the darkness within, and for Reasons(tm), in order to do that she has to go on a road trip with Gambit. Why Gambit? Who cares! Why road trip? Who cares! The comic gets into these reasons but I love Gambit and I love road trips so it would literally be impossible for me to care less about what pretense Marjorie Liu uses to make those two things happen. Gambit’s a character I have, ah, complicated feelings about,1 and it was nice to see him in a Wolveriney big-brother role with Laura.

My favorite of the mini-arcs, however, occurs in the third trade paperback (if you’re reading this in trade paperbacks): Laura agrees to babysit for Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s kids, and world-hopping dragon-fighting hijinx ensure because Valeria and Franklin are trouble trouble trouble.

Sana Takeda’s art is detailed and lush and adorable as it continues to be in Monstress. I’m thrilled these two creators connected while making X-23 and continued their collaboration, because I love the work that they create together.

The final issue of Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23 is….not great. If you are reading this series and you want to end on a positive note, close the book after the penultimate issue, the one that ends with Laura riding away on a motorcycle. It is for your own good and you will thank me. The final issue is this weird wordless, like, vision-quest story where Laura stays the night with the family of an American Indian family, and overnight she has this whole encounter with wolves and a shamaness in the forest. To have your only Indian characters throughout the whole series be wordless is not great, and to take a tourist spin through another culture’s religious traditions is not great, and I really wished this issue didn’t exist. As a sea of critics have said over and over again, Marvel would reeeeeally help themselves when writing about characters from marginalized groups to hire writers from those groups.

I am feeling very positively about minor X-Men characters right now, y’all! Please get at me in the comments and let me know what series runs with lesser X-Men I should be reading.

  1. On one hand: He’s a rogue! He’s our only pop culture Cajun! On the other hand: Yawn to the rogue womanizer trope, and could someone ever be bothered to actually research Cajun culture before they whatever I’m not even going to finish this question because the answer is so obvious.

Review: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect the content of my review. The book is just so honestly extraordinarily good.

Before I read Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s last book before Testosterone Rex, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it would contain, given that I already agreed with her arguments; and then when I actually did read it, it blew my mind straight out of the back of my skull and onto the wall behind me, and that was five years ago and I’ve been tucking splattery bits of brain back into my head ever since.

Testosterone Rex

Well wouldn’t you know it, here we are five years older and I made the exact same mistake when I was picking up Testosterone Rex. I thought, “I already agree with Cordelia Fine, and I’ve read a book by her about gender and science. I undoubtedly know what this book is going to be!” But then my reading experience was as follows:

YES. MY MIND WAS FRESHLY BLOWN. BLOWN ANEW.

Whereas Delusions of Gender focused on brains primarily and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female, Testosterone Rex is about evolutionary biology and development and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female. I loved this book so much I couldn’t shut up about it even to the person I bought it for for her birthday and desperately needed to conceal it from until birthday day arrived. I kept starting to tell her awesome things I learned from the book and then awkwardly pretending to lose my train of thought.

Okay, so what are some of the gendered science narrative that Cordelia Fine is countering in this book? (I hear you ask.) Pretty much everything that suggests men are this way and women are that way and it is always immutably so due to having evolved that way. Men have a greater penchant for risk! A disinterest in monogamy!

A desire to acquire showy possessions and high status in order to attract women! A lesser ability to nurture and feel empathy!

All because of evolution and testosterone!

Let’s take just one example, the claim that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. If you’d asked me ahead of reading Testosterone Rex whether this claim was true, I’d have said that yes the science showed men are bigger risk-takers but that no it wasn’t an inherent biological thing but was instead about socialization. If you’d pressed a little bit, I might have been able to come up with one of the points Fine makes, which is that surveys of risky behaviors likely tend to focus on areas that are traditionally male-dominated (due, again, to socialization) such as sports betting, fast motorcycle riding, or major financial investments.

Fine does go deep on the question of the gendered assumptions inherent in how we assess risk, pointing out complication after complication for the idea that men take risks and women tend not to. For instance, pregnancy is twenty times more likely to result in death than skydiving,1 yet women do it all the time. Or here’s another thing: Women do perceive the world as being inherently riskier than men perceive it as being, but this disparity disappears when you control for ethnicity.

Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

IT IS ALMOST AS IF SOCIETAL ROLES ARE IMPORTANT DETERMINANTS OF BEHAVIORS AND ATTITUDES.

Here’s something else I didn’t know: When you divide risks into categories by type (one study Fine cites broke it out into gambling, financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical risks), there’s no correlation between a high level of risk-taking in one domain with a high level of risk taking in the others (see also).

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the skydivers, or the traders? . . . . The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

The whole book is like that. Wherever Fine encounters a simple, intuitive-seeming precept that would seem to explain gendered difference, she massively complicates the picture. Gender won’t account for the difference, genes and hormones give an incomplete picture, and every word in the original precept was miserably inexact to begin with. Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.

One of the chapters in Testosterone Rex begins thus:

Sometimes these days I’m introduced to people as an academic who wrote a book about how the brains of men and women aren’t that different. Disappointingly, the wide range of reactions to this brief biography has yet to include You must be Cordelia Fine! Would you sign this copy of your book that I carry around with me?

That would be me. That would be my response. I would also probably burst into tears and propose marriage. Y’all, for real, buy a copy of this book. Buy a box set of this and Delusions of Gender. Buy twelve. Distribute them to your loved ones. Absolutely everyone in the world should read it. You’ll thank me later.

  1. Not anywhere in the world. Pregnancy in America.