Let’s begin by double-checking that everybody knows about the MOVE bombing in the 1980s. Because I didn’t know about it until Code Switch mentioned it a while ago, and then right after that, in yet-further proof of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I encountered it in Asali Solomon’s debut novel Disgruntled.
Basically there was this militant group called MOVE that lived in a Philadelphia apartment and their kids ran around naked and they composted their own stuff, which drew roaches. Also various members were under indictment for various things. So the Philly cops came to their house, and the members of MOVE and the cops exchanged fire, and then the cops bombed the building, killing a handful of people (including several children) and igniting a fire that destroyed over 60 nearby houses. This was in 1985. Now you know.
Oh, something else, too: Disgruntled isn’t the negative of gruntled, so you can stop making that joke. It actually means something closer to thoroughly gruntled. The prefix “dis” can mean that sometimes, as in disseminate.
Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon (now that we’ve gotten that important background information taken care of), is about a girl called Kenya growing up in 1980s Philadephia. (Ah, yes, the connection becomes clear.) It’s a classic coming-of-age story, the best kind, where the central character is perpetually finding herself in new variations of her former situation (different parental figures, different schools, etc.) and having to reassess what she has formerly understood about the world.
Solomon is particularly gifted at growing up Kenya’s voice in a way that feels organic and realistic. When she’s a little girl, she thinks like a little girl. As a teenager, she thinks like a teenager — more grown up than before, more discerning about where she places her trust, but also prone to throwing the kind of teenager temper tantrums where she screams cruel things at the adults around her, with little thought (until afterward) for the collateral damage.
Thanks much to the lovely Shannon of River City Reading for recommending this book, and a stern scowl at my library for shelving it in a totally non-intuitive display location so I had to look for it on three separate library trips before I found it.
(It wasn’t that non-intuitive.)
(Not perfect, but I could probably have found it on the first trip if I’d been persistent.)
Friends: Are there important historical moments you didn’t learn about until way later than you think is reasonable? (Oh, Jonestown! That’s another one! Never heard of Jonestown until I was in college & my college boyfriend mentioned it!)
Note: I received a copy of Binny in Secret from the publisher for review consideration.
Oh frabjous day when Hilary McKay has a new book! Hilary McKay — in case you have not heard me sing her praises in the past — is a British children’s writer who should be much more famous than she is. She writes the kind of old-fashioned children-doing-adventures books you loved as a kid, like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet or, more recently, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books; but with more carefully-drawn family dynamics than the former and more humor than the latter.
Binny in Secret, the follow-up to Binny for Short, sees twelve-year-old Binny once again displaced from house and home. She and her mother, her teenage sister Clem, and her wriggly, personable little brother James, are forced out of their home by a massive storm. The new home is far from everything familiar, and Binny inadvertently becomes the enemy of the landlady’s daughter, and what is more, there are Creatures.
Where the Cassons are completely tangled up in each other, each Cornwallis is more of a discrete unit. Binny is especially solitary: Separated from her ?best?friend Gareth, and unexpectedly the enemy of one of the most popular girls in her new school, she spends a lot of her time alone. This limits what Hilary McKay is best with, family relations.
LUCKILY: To fill the tragic lack of family relations in Binny’s storyline, alternating chapters include the story of the family who lived in Binny’s house in the 1910s, three cousins and the museum of natural history they’re constructing. These chapters are a madly poignant counterpoint to the humor of Binny’s hunt for [redacted because it’s an incredibly charming spoiler].
Seriously: Hilary McKay. Look into it. She does not get the love she deserves and would that I could singlehandedly correct this problem. Let’s make Hilary McKay as famous as she deserves to be, people! Together we can!
Happy (belated) Father’s Day to the fathers among you! This week, we welcome special guest star Ashley (we are so sorry about the crackly mic) to talk about fictional fathers, The Fair Fight (about lady boxers in the 1800s), play a game, and answer some listener mail. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.
Here’s Ashley’s movie column on Fiction Advocate, if you’re interested (and you should be)!
I’ll have the podcast up later today, but I wanted to first mention that the wonderful site Lady Business is running a Women in Authority week (or as I described it to myself in order to make my choice of topic plausible, Ladies in Business), and they asked me for a guest post! Behold a quick post about one of my favorite books ever, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Having read histories of Namibia and the DRC, I got nervous that I was being a size queen about this Africa reading project, and I decided that to avoid incurring such a criticism, I would next learn about a very tiny country. So I selected Lesotho, an eensy wee little country surrounded on all sides by South Africa, and I read Elizabeth Eldredge’s 2007 book Power in Colonial Africa: Conflict and Discourse in Lesotho, 1870–1960.
I have anticipated your next question: Why is that country inside of another country? The answer (not contained in my book, which only deals with Lesotho history in the colonial years — but I learned it from the internet) is that there was an incredibly clever and gifted nineteenth-century leader called Moshoeshoe who made an independent nation out of a large group of Sotho speakers. When his nation was threatened by Boer settlers, he petitioned the British government to become a British protectorate, considering the British to be the lesser of two evils. The British granted this petition, and so the BaSotho chiefs were able to continue ruling the little country.
As soon as I learned about this I was like, “Damn, it was a mistake not to pick a book about Moshoeshoe, cause he sounds like a baller.” But by that time I was already committed to this one, I’d added it my currently-reading list on Goodreads and everything, and plus, in the introduction, Elizabeth Eldredge said the words “medicine murder.”
Then she was all “lol but let’s worry about that nine chapters from now.” And I respect the structure of an academic monograph too much to skip ahead, plus I enjoy delaying gratification, so I just had to wait and be patient, but I’m not going to do that to y’all. MEDICINE MURDER. We’re doing it NOW.
So these were murders committed mostly by rival factions of the chief class seeking to gain power during the regency of ‘Mantsebo, whose claim to the throne was contested by her deceased husband’s brother. The murderers would take someone from the village, drug him, and cut pieces off him until he died. Like the nose piece. And the scalp piece. (It sounds horribly gruesome.)
Then they would burn the cut-off pieces of flesh and with the blood and it they’d make a paste, which they would then put in a medicine horn, and the paste was supposed to make you powerful and help you achieve the goals you wanted. And to make it extra creepy, the chiefs would enlist other villagers to help carry the victim from one place to the other, and then they’d be like “You are an accomplice to this now, and if you talk, you and your family will get the same thing.”
Oh, this was in the 1940s by the way. Like, it was not that long ago. This happened in living memory. Queen Elizabeth met ‘Mantsebo.
Your average MoSotho on the street was super freaked out by this, because the medicine murders as currently constituted were a new and disturbing twist on an old tradition of using the flesh of enemies killed in battle to make medicines that would give strength to your own warriors. In the 1940s wave of murders, the chiefs were committing them not against vanquished foes, but against their own people.
The British tried and hanged ‘Mantsebo’s brother-in-law and his accomplice, but did very little to curb ‘Mantsebo herself, even though they were preeeetty sure she was also involved in the murders. This is from a letter from the British High Commissioner Evelyn Baring to his wife:
It was clear that the chiefs were organising these crimes and that the old girl is deeply involved. So I put on my smart blue uniform and went down to the first day of the Basutoland national council’s session and I made them a terrific speech praising the work of the chiefs in every other respect but speaking frankly on ritual murder. Later I gave a further long lecture to the old girl and about fifteen of the leading chiefs.
Sounds like you really rose to the occasion. SO GLAD YOU WERE THERE TO HELP. (Evelyn is a girl’s name.)
Okay. Now that I have told you the most disturbing Lesotho story I learned, I’m going to switch gears and say that while Eldredge’s book isn’t a comprehensive history of the nation, what there was of it made me really, really admire Lesotho. They were this tiny little protectorate with a few guns and some land, trying to maintain their independence with the Boers coming at them from one side and the British Crown/Cape Colony from the other, and given the truly shitty hand of cards they were holding, they managed to preserve an impressive degree of autonomy.
Like, here is an example (I know this post is getting long, but I’m just really into Lesotho right now cause this book was so goooood). In the late 1800s, when Lesotho was still being run by the Cape Colony, the colonial administrators were having problems with rebellions by indigenous groups in various areas in southern Africa, so they passed a thing called the Peace Preservation Act, whereby the British could demand that any tribal group surrender their guns if the British suspected them of intending to rebel.
Sirs. Sirs. Nobody who is thinking of rebelling is going to surrender their guns, because that would be really stupid. One. Two, people who were not thinking of rebelling are going to start thinking about rebelling once you start stealing expensive property that also allows them to defend their families against the Boers. Three, even if some people do turn in their guns, everyone who likes you and might defend you in a conflict then has no guns. But everyone who hates you still does. Do you see? Do you see the corner you have painted yourself into?
Anyway, in addition to this ridiculous law, the Cape Colony also was telling the BaSotho about this nifty plan they had to sell a whole bunch of the BaSotho’s land to white farmers. Just cause. And the BaSotho stayed astoundingly chill and handled the situation with aplomb. The Paramount Chief, Letsie, gave the appearance of complying with the Cape Colony’s order, while secretly supporting factions of BaSotho people (including his own brother and son) who refused the dictates of the law. He would like, agree to surrender his guns, and then his brother would steal the guns as they were on their way to the British, and Letsie would be like:
Or like, the Cape Colony people would say “Now, Letsie, you must go up to the hill fortress and get your brother and sons to surrender! Go with all your men!” So Letsie would take his men and go marching up to the hill fortress place, and then he would send letters back telling the Cape Colony all how his military maneuvers weren’t working, and he was in fear for his life from these vigorous young soldiers, and he was just such an old weary man, and couldn’t he please come back home. And the British would write letters to each other talking about how weak a chief Letsie was, and secretly Letsie and his brother and sons were apparently just all:
Everything did not go swimmingly, exactly, but the BaSotho came out of it with their guns and their land intact, and they also were able to successfully petition to become a colony of the British Crown directly, which meant they didn’t have to work with those dopey idiots at the Cape Colony anymore.
Oo. Did you see that? Did you see that slam on colonial South Africa? What did colonial South Africa ever do to me? This is like that time I insulted Ghana for no reason. I don’t even know anything about colonial South Africa. Like maybe they were ordinarily awesome at administration and this was a total outlier situation for them.
Anyway, Power in Colonial Africa was an excellent piece of history, and I’m in on Lesotho. Scholarly reviews suggest that Eldredge’s theoretical framework might be flawed (don’t care) but her research is really solid (yay). She has a new book out with University of Rochester Press about oral traditions of the kingdoms of Southeast Africa, which looks amazing and landmarky.
At the suggestion of etudesque, I have made a dedicated page for my Africa reading project. If interested, you may follow my progress there. As ever, feel free to make recommendations of what I should read next!
For real, though, authors: Don’t respond to negative reviews of your book. It’s entertaining for me but very very embarrassing for you. Think of Anne Rice.
There was this whole thing where the Mary Sue posted an idiotic article about romance novels, and all the romance authors got cross and it was magical. Subsequently.
Billy Crudup is starring in a forthcoming movie about the Stanford Prison Experiment. I am fascinated by that experiment, but not sure I can tolerate watching it unfold on screen, despite my well-documented love for Billy Crudup(‘s work). Anyway, The New Yorker talks about what the Stanford experiment really means.
In response to those folks who think Tim Hunt has been feminist witchhunted.
Interesting: An analysis of what sales numbers mean for indie comics (which includes all of Image’s titles) (wonderful Image!).
I don’t have a link for this, but just wanted to add at the end here that I am so saddened and angry about the murders in Charleston this week. I’d like to think that this tragedy would lead to real conversations across partisan lines about the social patterns of racism in America that this event fits into. But I know that won’t happen. I just wish that it could. I wish that in moments of tragedy, it were possible to set aside the urge to dog-whistle the shittiest constituencies, and instead talk seriously about the complex issues in play here and how we can make them better.
And since I don’t want to end on a really sad note, even though this has been a really sad week, here is a puppy in a boot. It will not fix America’s problems around racism and sexism and violence, but hopefully it will make you smile.
Note: I received a copy of The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies from the publisher, Soft Skull Press, for review consideration.
Martin Millar writes books like classic British sitcoms, where there is a central organizing event (or several) around which the action is oriented, and the characters all have their separate and incompatible visions for what is to happen at this event, and everything goes magnificently to hell, and then in the end it all turns out okay, or doesn’t. Whether or not this works for you as a structure will most likely be the determining factor in whether you enjoy any Martin Millar book, ever — including his most recent novel, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies.
The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is set in ancient Athens, about midway through the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens and Sparta are holding a peace conference, and the city is preparing for the Dionysian festival at which new plays will be presented to the city. Demigods and immortals descend on the city to watch these events unfold (or sabotage them). Aristophanes struggles to get his pro-peace play Peace sorted out, and common-born Luxos does his best to jump-start his career as a poet.
Describing a Martin Millar novel — and this is a very good one — is tricky because all of the adjectives that come to mind come loaded with unwanted connotations. I always say sweet, or charming, and The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is both sweet and charming, but that undersells its cleverness. Clever implies that there isn’t any heart, and there is because it is impossible not to fall for the sincerity of Millar’s characters (and the super simplicity of their motivations). Sincere misses how funny it is.
I’ll go with funny in the end, and also self-aware: Millar clearly recognizes a level of absurdity in writing a comic novel set in ancient Greece, and his book lets the audience in on the joke without getting too winky. The story has simple stakes, but Millar knows that the historical background was far from simple, and this also shows.
Martin Millar is one of my favorite authors in the sense that you know what one of his books is going to be, and it always is most satisfyingly that. The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is as solid an introduction to his particular brand of madcap scheme-making story as any he’s written in the past.
Really important question tho: Do you like Athens or Sparta better? (The correct answer is “Athens, but”.)
By a stroke of good fortune, I happened to read Joanna Russ’s feminist classic How to Suppress Women’s Writing just prior to reading Anne Jamison’s Fic (Smart Pop Books), which made for an interesting pairing. On one hand, Russ’s book feels depressingly current: You need only spend a few minutes on Twitter to witness all of the tactics for suppressing women’s writing that Russ details. But on the other hand, even with all of these tactics being leveled at the (mostly female) writers of fanfiction (especially the “poor author too pathetic and forlorn to get a man” trope), here we are talking about it in a sustained and serious way. Progress!
Fic is not — as I was imagining when I picked it up — an academic text. As Jamison explains in this excellent interview at Critical Margins, she wanted to reflect the complicated relationship to authordom that you find in the world of fanfic, rather than producing a more traditional monograph. Accordingly, she includes interviews and short essays from writers of fanfiction, offering their views on fanfic communities, diversity (lack of), the ethics of monetizing, etc.
This is all very good, and I appreciate the inclusion of these voices on a theoretical level (some of them had really interesting things to say, and some not so much, sorry Amber Benson), and I wouldn’t have minded if Anne Jamison’s chapters had been twice as long in each case and if there had been twice as many as them. An academic who teaches classes in fanfiction and a writer of fic herself, Jamison’s writing style is friendly and approachable and also nicely authoritative. Like where it is extremely readable, and you also feel you are in good hands.
Because Jamison’s particular area of study is Twilight fanfiction, this book leans heavily on the Twilight end of things. Her most in-depth case studies of modern fanfic area centered in the Twilight fandom, and she has a whole section about E. L. James and the fandom’s conflicted relationship to fanfic-for-profit. If that sounds like a complaint it’s only a complaint in the sense that this book was fascinating, and I wanted it to go on being fascinating for maybe infinity chapters while offering a basis for comparative studies of different fandoms and norms and community standards.
My main criticism of the book, in brief, is that there isn’t more of it. If there were infinite books dealing with the workings of all the different online communities, I would curl up in my reading nook with all of them stacked around me and never come out again. And I certainly look forward to any scholarship Anne Jamison plans to produce on this topic in the future.
Assist me please: In the comments, if you have favorite works of fanfiction, kindly recommend them to me. I never know where to start with fanfic — there’s so much of it — so would appreciate some guidance.
Sometimes when you impulse-pick up the newest book by a famous author you have never tried before, it turns out to be a mistake because their latest book is not their best book, but you don’t know that, so what you think is, I don’t like this author. When maybe what you’ve just done is write off J. R. R. Tolkien because you didn’t like The Silmarillion.
I wasn’t, in short, wild about Hiding in Plain Sight. It’s about a woman named Bella who suddenly becomes guardian to her niece and nephew after their father, her beloved older brother Aar, is killed in a terrorist attack. She is fine with taking on this responsibility. The nephew and niece are also fine with it. For a while it seems like their irritating and irresponsible mother Valerie will not be fine with it, but in the end — spoiler alert — it turns out she is fine with it.
I have said this more snidely than the book deserves, as there’s something really nice about reading a book where everyone is trying their best. But when everyone is trying their best, you do also run the risk of being a bit boring, because conflict is the engine that drives a story. Hiding in Plain Sight can be a bit boring.
Oh, and here is why I am also an awful person for not liking this book: While Nuruddin Farah was in the process of writing it, his own sister was killed in a suicide bombing. This is the kind of life-reflecting-art that Diana Wynne Jones always talked about, magnified to the most hideous degree.
Assistance please! I feel very guilty for not liking Nuruddin Farah’s book more, and I would like you to tell me which book of his is the best book. I think this is like when my friend tried to read Shame without having read anything else by Salman Rushdie. Just a bad idea.