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?”




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.

Bad sex and brilliant titles: A links round-up

What time is it? It’s time for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Awards! Huzzah! The only sad thing is that apparently Patrick Ness (in an uncharacteristically curmudgeonly turn) opposes the Bad Sex Awards. He thinks they’ll have a chilling effect on people writing sex scenes. Maybe they will have a chilling effect on people writing bad sex scenes.

If you enjoyed the Sims Friends from my last links round-up, you’ll love this article about a woman determined to seduce the Sims Grim Reaper, a goal she pursued by repeatedly murdering her Sims in order to get the Grim Reaper to come over and be flirted with.

An interesting letter at Dear Author about criticisms of problematic behavior and the elision of specifics that results from slapping a label of racist/sexist/ableist on it really fast.

Tasha Robinson sparkles on the subject of The Incredibles (my favorite of the Pixar films) and the many good things about its portrayal of marriage and family.

Five writers talk about the process of coming up with titles, at The Millions. This seems as good a time as any to remind all of you that Tennessee Williams is the king of titles and everybody should be acknowledging that more.

In slightly weird news I don’t know what to do with, Netflix is creating a show version of A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’d love this to be awesome, but my heart doesn’t truly believe that it will be. Also, they should write a new ending for it. The real ending was dumb.

Perhaps we have discovered at last a mechanical reason why humans need sleep? Though take this with a grain of salt, as journalists are notoriously awful at interpreting scientific studies and explaining what they mean.

Gender imbalance in the New York Times crossword puzzle: Will Shortz does not care about it.

This review of Texts from Jane Eyre was exactly what I needed this week. My perpetual frustration with being a lady in a shitty misogynist system has been closer than usual to boiling point.

Slate has produced a useful chart of the cost-benefit ratio of various types of purebred dogs, compared to how popular they are. Short answer is that you’re right to spend money on poodles, but insane to get bulldogs. It also recommends that people buy more Bedlington terriers, a dog that looks like a sweet little lamb.

See? Awwwwww.

The below picture, taken at a 1992 Klan Rally, didn’t happen in the past two weeks. This week is just when I saw it. It causes me to feel more feelings than I’m capable of processing verbally, so I’ll just leave it here for you to look at.


Here it is the middle of November, and I have to accept that I am never going to get full posts written on some of these books before the end of the year. So I am doing a small batch edition. First up, Max Brooks and Canaan White’s comic The Harlem Hellfighters, which I received from the publisher for review consideration, and am (eek!) reviewing rather belatedly. The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black infantry regiment in World War I; they never lost a man through capture or gave up a foot of ground to the enemy. Rather touchingly, Max Brooks learned about this unit when he was eleven and has always wanted more people to know about their heroism in the First World War.

Harlem Hellfighters

Canaan White’s black-and-white line drawings are lovely, and you can’t help but be moved by the story. Throughout their training, the Hellfighters are subject to vicious prejudice from their fellow American soldiers on account of their skin color. They’re considered second-class citizens in the very country they’re fighting to defend, and every battle they fight is proof of their worth as men and as soldiers. I teared up a few times when Brooks quotes praise they received for their extraordinary bravery. However, Brooks doesn’t bring a lot of new stuff to this story. The characters aren’t very well-delineated; where the book succeeds, it’s because the history itself is an incredible story.

As travel writers go, I am fond of Guy Delisle, who writes cartoon memoirs of his time in various far-away nations. (His wife works for MSF, so the family travels.) Jerusalem, like all of Delisle’s books, focuses on the lived experiences of living in conflict-torn areas: the laws, yes, but most often the way people live within those laws, the workarounds they find, the small annoyances, the insane contradictions that arise from lawmakers failing to think their policies all the way through.

Honestly I will probably never travel to Israel (I have other places to go that do not cause me that same level of ideological and emotional stress), so I like to hear from Delisle what it’s like to be there. Do I depend on him for sophisticated political analysis? Nope, but the man writes  a reliably enjoyable travelogue.

Officially, I’m off Crazy Family Memoirs, but I checked the end of Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man and was pleased to discover that his mother and grandmother are already dead. So the only person’s feelings to get hurt by this book would be Skyhorse’s biological father, with whom he reconnected a few years before the book was published. And that guy barely features. And he maybe should have his feelings a little bit hurt, because it’s not cool to ditch your kid even if the kid’s crazy mother is forcing your hand.

Take This Man is about Skyhorse’s string of fathers. The biological son of a Mexican, Skyhorse’s mother claimed that both she and he were Indians, and that he was the son of an Indian, Paul Skyhorse Johnson, in prison for resisting the government in some unspecified way. Over the course of his childhood, this was one of the least crazy lies she told him. Her perpetual hunt for a man to take care of her presented little Brando with stepfather after stepfather–each of whom his mother demanded he refer to as his father. Once one of the stepfathers took off, Brando’s mother insisted that that person had never been his father in the first place.

I think I’ve said before in this space that it feels weird to review family memoirs. I give your f*cked-up childhood three stars! Not enough knife fights to merit four! So I’ll just leave it by saying that I’d have enjoyed this book more if it had more jokes. Not because screwed-up childhoods have to be funny, but just because without jokes I get real sad about them.

Last but not least, I finally read my first! Ever! Frances Hardinge book! Long long long ago, the wonderful Ana sent me A Face Like Glass, and because it was slightly slow to start, I panicked and hid it under the couch to prevent myself from discovering that I didn’t like Frances Hardinge after all. Silly Jenny, I should never have worried that Ana would steer me wrong. Though the first third of A Face Like Glass contained more studied whimsy than I prefer, the second two-thirds more than made up for it. The premise is too insane for me to go into much detail about, so you will just have to believe me when I say that it’s worth sticking with. There is a final act that brings together everything that has happened up to that point in a wonderfully crazy and brilliant and intricate climax. With a message about social justice! (that is not too messagey)

Thanks, Ana! I am sorry it took me so long to read this! It . . . was under my couch for much of the year. Next up, Cuckoo Song!

Review: Lives in Ruins, Marilyn Johnson

Note: I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher, via Edelweiss, for publicity purposes.

Remember before when I said that academics had sometimes made my life difficult in the past? And that it prevented me from enjoying Dear Committtee Members, or even giving it its due? Well, the group of academics who never made my life difficult was archaeologists, and the opposite force was at work while I read Lives in Ruins, the newest book by the author who immersed us in the world of librarians in This Book Is Overdue! and obituarists in The Dead Beat. Archaeology, as I frequently tell people, boasts as a rule the sweetest, most helpful, least egotistical scholars of any discipline I’ve ever encountered.

While admitting that I bring a bias to the reading of a book about archaeologists, I believe that Lives in Ruins makes a marvelous case for why we should all love archaeologists and bring them cookies. It’s because they started digging up artifacts when they were six years old. It’s because they fight like demons to be given the opportunity to perform an obvious public good, the preservation of humanity’s history. It’s because they work for pennies; it’s because they don’t resent but kind of love Indiana Jones; it’s because they organize protests and petitions to save pieces of land that don’t and never will belong to them.

If the foregoing paragraph sounds slightly hagiographic, it’s because Marilyn Johnson’s book takes an idealistic and affectionate view of the profession she studies. In part she’s making a virtue of necessity: presumably, the archaeologists who are nice would be inclined to permit her to meet them and tag along on their excavations and ask them a million questions, and the archaeologists who are mean would be inclined to ignore her emails and get on with taking credit for their interns’ work and writing scathing articles about those idiots who ever believed in Homo heidelbergensis.* But if you’re hoping for some critique of the job and its practitioners (criticism of colonialism and its early and continuing influence on the practice of cultural resource management, for instance), look elsewhere: Johnson’s criticisms of her subjects are few, and gentle. Her admiration for them shines through.

Fine by me! I already liked archaeologists anyway, and confirmation bias means I’m more likely to believe what Marilyn Johnson says than some writer who thinks archaeologists are jerks. And Johnson has a good helping of praise to heap on the folks she spends time with:

What was archaeology to him? It was the opposite of killing things. It was trying to will life back into stuff that had been forgotten and buried for thousands or millions of years. It was not about shards and pieces of bone or treasure; it was about kneeling down in the elements, paying very close attention and trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched the spot there.

Readers on the prowl for information about the day-to-day lives of the archaeologists you picture when someone says “archaeologists” — the ones who go out on digs that require them to spend weeks in the desert scraping dirt out of two-foot-wide square holes —  will be delighted with this book. (I thought I was in this category.) Readers who never knew there were so many different ways of being an archaeologist — those struggling to get funding to conduct digs on underwater sites that are rich sources of knowledge but are not sexy to the viewing audience; those who work with the military to protect important sites during conflicts around the world; those who contract with governments and corporations to check if it is okay to build on some tract of land or if actually that tract of land maybe used to be a War of 1812 graveyard — will be delighted with it too. (I was actually in this category.) Recommended!

And okay, okay! Since you asked! I will just tell you quickly about the archaeologists who partner with the military. In Johnson’s telling (but see above re: her not being very critical of her subjects), archaeologists went to the military and offered to tell them where not to bomb in order to avoid destroying crucial historical sites, and the military said, “THANK GOD YOU ARE HERE! Everyone gets so mad at us when we accidentally bomb crucial historical sites, but we do not really know what they look like!” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship in which the archaeologists say “Here are 232 places not to bomb in Libya,” and the military says, “Thank you; we will avoid those places,” and then they do.

(If you think it would be better for them not to bomb any places, I am with you. But that is not within the power of archaeologists to control; or me, either, except by voting and writing stern letters to my representatives.)

*Ha! See? I know stuff! Homo heidelbergensis was an ancestor of ours that I learned about in my anthropology class in college, and now they are saying there is NO SUCH THING. Oh well! I wasn’t that attached anyway! Whereas I’ll be well sad if Neandertals prove to be untrue. (They won’t.) (They are pretty well-established by the fossil record, or such is my understanding.) Homo heidelbergensis and St. Christopher and narwhals are all, like, out at a bar commiserating about how they never actually existed.

Review: Pointe, Brandy Colbert

When I was in middle school, there was this author called Lurlene McDaniel who wrote all these books about children my age with dreadful diseases who fought courageously against them and then died. I didn’t read any of them (because ugh), but I’ve always had her pegged as the Nicholas Sparks of the YA world.

(Oh, God, has Nicholas Sparks written any YA novels yet? Let’s stop that from happening at any cost. I don’t care about the books themselves, but I don’t want to read the sanctimonious interviews Nicholas Sparks would certainly give about how his books are different from all the other existing YA books and why it’s important for young people to have books like his. God how I hate Nicholas Sparks. Now that we’ve all forgotten about Kathleen Hale and John Grisham, I believe the time is right for Nicholas Sparks to say something unforgivable and us all to get really mad at him.)

So a lot of girls who weren’t crazy about reading in general would read these Lurlene McDaniel books, and my friends and I felt very superior to them because we were reading more awesome and intellectually demanding stuff like Ender’s Game. This is the same way I felt about all the other seventh-grade girls having a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Leonardo diCaprio because they looked like unthreatening middle school girls, while I had a crush on Carl Anderson from Jesus Christ Superstar because he was so painfully, ferociously beautiful it scrunched my heart up into a feelingslustfeelings ball.

I feel like I don’t fully understand how a single human man can possess this much handsomeness at one time.

ANYWAY, the point of all of this is to say that I disliked, as a teen, Lurlene McDaniel’s oeuvre, and by extension I disliked any books about Teens Just Like You who were experiencing dramatic tragedies and difficult times. Although I am no longer a teen, my aversion to that type of book persists. This is why I did not care for The Fault in Our Stars as much as everyone else did. The more tightly focused a book is on teens coming to terms with a thing, the more side-eye I will give it, even when it’s really good, like Speak, a book I always rep really hard for but have never (and I realize now probably will never) reread. And it’s not because it’s too sad and I can’t bear it. It’s because I do not want to.

When I say, then, that Brandy Colbert’s Pointe was too problem-novel-y for me, this is what I mean. It reminded me of books I hate, while not containing enough of elements I love. The story is that this girl Theo, who is a dancer, had a friend disappear four years ago, around the same time her (older) boyfriend also abandoned her. Now Donovan has returned, and Theo has to come to grips with the fact that the man she was in love with at thirteen is the same person who kidnapped Donovan. She hits all the exact beats you would expect in this process before gradually realizing that she was victimized at thirteen but is now strong and tough and can move ahead with her life.

Meanwhile, the aspects of the book that drew me to it — the ballet stuff; the black protagonist living in a mostly-white area of Chicago — were generally underdeveloped. I’d have loved to have seen more of what it means to Theo and her parents for her to be in such a minority at school. I’d have loved to see more of the logistics of Theo’s struggles to go professional with her dance; apart from the requisite eating disorder and some worries about the effect of her past on her Reputation to dance companies, there’s not a ton of this. Whereas there’s a ton of Theo being like, Although I was only thirteen and he turned out to have been thirty, and although he always made me keep it a secret, the sex between us was completely consensual!, before she realizes that No! It was real rape! Colbert lays that stuff on with a trowel; and like I’ve said, that’s not my favorite thing.

Welp, this hasn’t been super positive, so let’s close on a high note with another GIF of my first love, Carl Anderson. What an attractive man he is.

He’s so tormented! And handsome!

Not a dumb American: Truth commissions edition

Unspeakable Truths 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). Kim’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

Some time ago I got the idea in my head that I wanted to learn more about a fuzzy thing I could not quite define that was related to shifting from a terrible, warry society to a less-terrible not-war society. As with so many things, it was tricky to find books about this when I didn’t even know the name of what it was exactly. For your reference, the thing I wanted to look for was transitional justice, and all the resources on transitional justice said that if I wanted to learn in particular about truth commissions such as the famous one in South Africa, Priscilla Hayner was my gal.

Hayner’s Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity is the gold standard for an overview on truth commissions, and the book was put into a second edition in 2010. That is the edition you should probably get, if you’re interested! My library only had the 2001 edition, as did PaperbackSwap, so that was the one I read. I would be most interested to get hold of the updated one and discover new findings in the world of truth commissions, since I know there have been many more in the past decade and a bit.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned:

Apparently when the UN came to get rid of the militia government in Haiti and reinstall their president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US military forces swept into the government office and took away a whole bunch of Haitian government records. And then we refused to give them back.

Yes! And Haiti kept asking for the records because, you know, they’re theirs, and the US eventually said Haiti could have the records back, but only if they didn’t mind if we first blocked out parts of them we didn’t want Haiti to know about. (Haiti said no so we just kept them.) What? What? Is this situation ongoing? (I will never know because I don’t have access to the updated edition of this book, and the internet has been of no use to me in this regard.) If (as I suspect) it is ongoing, I’d like to remind the US government of that time Putin came by and stole Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring and we all thought Man, Putin is just the worst, and then when he invaded Ukraine we were like, Yep, that’s about what we’d expect from a dude who would steal a dude’s Super Bowl ring. And that was only a Super Bowl ring, not irreplaceable government records.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Hayner’s book was the one about naming names. Truth commissions throughout the world have had very different goals, some of them more focused on reintegrating society, others on punishing perpetrators of terrible crimes. But regardless of the main aim, a major decision that truth commissions must make is whether to say exactly who is responsible for specific crimes committed against specific people. And it is so tricky! Your first instinct is to say, yes, we want to name names, so that those terrible people cannot continue to hold positions of power because, you know:


Except that it turns out to be much more complicated than that even if you accept the premise that some people are Evil independent of their situation (which I do not). Although it is pretty easy to identify the foot soldiers and rally enough proof from eyewitnesses to feel confident enough to say, this person took this priest up in a helicopter and dropped him into the ocean, it is much trickier to get positive evidence about who gave the commands that made that happen. So then you end up with the foot soldiers getting all the blame, and the commanders none, which is not a) fair or b) beneficial to national reconciliation. But if you name names of the higher-ups without sufficient evidence, it will kind of be your fault if a not-guilty or not-very-guilty person gets dragged out of his home by vigilantes and shot in front of his family. Or if you name names and include witness testimony as to that person’s guilt, maybe the person the witnesses named will hire his thugs to go drag your witnesses out of their houses and shoot them in front of their families.

So, okay, you don’t name names after all. All the victims’ advocacy groups are furious with you for your pusillanimity, and NGOs publish statements condemning your truth commission for caring more about protecting the rights of perpetrators than upholding the truths of victims. Nobody is dead because of you, but all the work you’ve done is now suspect. If you wanted everybody not to hate you, you maybe should have found a different job.

Hayner also includes a chapter of two case studies — Cambodia and Mozambique — of countries who have not instituted and do not want any kind of truth commission. They want to stop talking about it and move on. Cambodia held a tribunal, eventually, to try a few of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for the Cambodian genocide. And here’s what Hayner says about Mozambique, a country whose civil war was funded heavily by the apartheid government in South Africa, who believed an unstable Mozambique was in their interests:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers. When the peace agreement was signed in Rome, “word came from the top, and the war just stopped. Not another shot was fired,” described one observer. The war just “went out,” like a fire goes out, said another. From that day on, the former warring enemies have lived in peace virtually without incident.

That’s no longer fully true, incidentally, but the image of a foreign-funded war going out like a fire when it’s no longer in the interest of foreign powers to have a war in that country is going to stick with me.

If you are remotely interested in international law, human rights, or government transitions in unstable countries, I can’t recommend Unspeakable Truths enough. Every resource I’ve found on transitional justice sings its praises to the skies (so you don’t have to trust me), and I’ll be shoving this at various people in my life over the next few weeks.

(Psst, Eva! Read this! I think you would find it really interesting!)

Review: Byrd, Kim Church

When I read non-speculative fiction, I like for there to be a Premise; for the book to be what they call high-concept. Like a girl was raised side by side with an ape, and here is what her life is like as an adult. Or a man’s personality completely changes following a traumatic brain injury. Or a British soldier assumes a secret identity to find his friend’s murderers. For me to pick up a book with a premise as quiet as Byrd‘s–a woman in her early thirties falls pregnant and gives the baby up for adoption–someone usually has to have raved about it to me. In this case, it was the marvelous Priscilla of The Evening Reader. Here’s what she said:

Even now if I think about certain scenes in the novel, it brings tears to my eyes. And the beauty of it is that nothing in this novel is overworked or melodramatic. It’s the hush, the lonely hopefulness, the complexity of love and disappointment that drive the narratives of everyday life that really shine here.

So when the author’s publicist contacted me to offer me a review copy, I was delighted and said yes at once. Addie meets Roland when they’re just kids, and they have that kind of relationship that if Addie was one of your friends, you’d urge her to lay off spending time with that guy and find someone who’s worthwhile. (Addie’s friends do just this, in fact.) Roland tells her that she’s the only one who really understands him; she sits on an amp and listens to him play music. Many years later, discontented with her life, Addie goes to stay with him in Los Angeles, where he’s doing drugs and trying to make it as a musician. She gets pregnant; her attempt at an abortion doesn’t work; and in absolute secret, she has the baby and gives it up for adoption.

Byrd is about coming to terms with what you have to give. When Addie falls pregnant, she knows from the first that she doesn’t have motherhood to give, and Roland doesn’t have fatherhood either; and neither of them can give the permanent tangling together of their lives that mutual parenting would require. Perhaps they want to be able to give some of these things, but they just don’t have them (then).

Kim Church, the author, doesn’t make value judgments about the things her characters are doing. She’s just telling a story, and her writing has a wonderful, spare specificity that I loved. She resists almost completely the urge to throw characters into conflict with each other. Instead she just gives us their actions, at different points in their lives, and the reader is left to decide whether they could have been better and done more. It’s a generous way of writing, to be calm about the worst of her characters and calm about their best.

He pulls her closer and presses her head into his shoulder. Her face soaks his shirt. He doesn’t care. He isn’t thinking about himself, not yet. It’s too soon; he doesn’t need to think that far ahead. “It’s okay,” he says, keeping his voice deep and even. “Just tell me what you want me to do. Tell me, and I’ll do it.” He has no idea what this means, for himself or for her, but he likes the sound of it. Solid, convincing, strong. Stronger than he has ever been.

It’s my opinion that most people, most of the time, are trying to be good, though they do not always succeed, and the world does not always cooperate. Byrd reflects that idea. The most clearly selfish and unkind decision Addie makes in the book allows a great deal of good to spring up in Roland’s life, and her most good decision brings him disaster. That she never finds out about any of it was possibly my favorite aspect of the book, and the thing that rang the most true.

Family drama sorts of fiction are not generally my thing, but I’m glad Priscilla recommended Byrd. It’s a beautifully quiet book with the kind of ending I like the best.

Links for Halloween haters

Confession: Apart from the RIP Challenge, there’s nothing about Halloween that I enjoy. I don’t eat candy anymore, and having to put together a costume stresses me out horribly. So none of these links have anything to do with Halloween! Down with Halloween!

Oh, except for this one: Lory of Emerald City Book Review is kicking off an awesome new blogging event, Witch Week! This year, we’re celebrating the inventor of Witch Week (the week between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day) with a week-long appreciation of Diana Wynne Jones. Lory will be hosting guest posts from me and a number of awesome fellow bloggers, and we’ll be doing a readalong of Witch Week as well. Don’t forget to join in! It’s going to be awesome!

Slate has a new podcast called Working that’s about people’s jobs and how they do their jobs. I have no proof of this, but I theorize that Slate invented this podcast just to make me happy, since this is exactly in line with my interests. Thanks, Slate! You’re a doll!

Pixar’s rules for storytelling remain excellent.

This article about the American diner made me terribly homesick for my favorite New York diner, Tom’s. Next time I go to New York I shall eat at Tom’s twice.

“I’m pregnant so why can’t I tell you?”: A piece about the silence around miscarriages.

Alyssa Rosenberg wrote an excellent article about how Gone Girl and 50 Shades of Grey are both basically stories about women who make their lovers change completely while they do not change at all. Reading this I thought: “Wait, they stop having kinky sex in the second and third 50 Shades books? Then what are people reading for?” If you know the answer to that question, please tell me in the comments. It’s definitely not the scintillating dialogue; I have read excerpts.

Speaking of fan fiction, here’s Elizabeth Minkel — a writer I’m swiftly growing fond of, over at the New Statesmantsking over Benedict Cumberbatch’s snotty remarks about Watson/Sherlock slashfic. I tsk over that too, Elizabeth Minkel!

Vulture, as usual, is doing the important investigative work of our time: If you recreated the cast of Friends in The Sims and then took away their bathroom, who would be the first to pee on the floor? In gifs. I sent this to some of my friends along with some nostalgic comments on the fun of murdering Sims, and they clearly thought that I was a psychopath. Please back me up: Half of the fun of the Sims is killing off your Sims in inventive ways. Right?

A marker of mourning: On the occasion of an exhibit at the Met, the New Republic makes the case that we should bring back mourning attire. I am so on board with this (like, as an optional but accepted and widely known thing).

In praise of the feminism of Veronica Mars.

A snotty review of Chuck Palahniuk’s newest book, Beautiful You. I don’t think anyone should dedicate themselves full-time to writing negative reviews or anything, but the occasional nasty review can make a girl’s heart sing.

Interesting: Liberal cities tend to have more intense income inequality.

The whole mess with Jian Gomeshi is ongoing. I found this post particularly enlightening, because my own experience of creepers is that oftentimes everyone knows. Not necessarily that they’re a rapist or an abuser, but everyone knows that they push boundaries and make people uncomfortable. When I was in high school, I don’t think I had even finished the orientation events before I knew exactly who the creepy art and math teachers were that I should not be alone with. Word spreads.

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