When the Moon Was Ours is as good an argument as you’ll possibly ever see for the value of #ownvoices in publishing. I say that because I can’t stand magic realism and I’m not that excited about straight-up romance in YA, and When the Moon Was Ours — a magic realism romance — nevertheless still made me feel so happy and grateful for its existence. It’s the story of a Latina girl called Miel and a Pakistani-American trans boy called Sam and their struggles to come to terms with their identities and their feelings about each other and the mystical forces at work in their town.
Just absolutely everything about Miel and Sam’s relationship made me happy. I love it that McLemore lets them have sex YOU KNOW AS TEENS DO SOMETIMES and they aren’t punished for it. I love it that even though they are clearly devoted to each other throughout the book, they also mess things up with each other and have to apologize and figure things out with each other afterward. I love that they’re desperately attracted to each other (yay for depicting passion in queer relationships!) and sometimes that’s good and easy, and sometimes it makes already-complicated issues more complicated.
The truth slid over her skin, that if she loved him, sometimes it would mean doing nothing. It would mean being still. It would mean saying nothing, but standing close enough so he would know she was there, that she was staying.
And I love that they get a happy ending. Queer kids deserve happy endings.
What else, let’s see. Oh, I loved it that the antagonists of the book, four nearly identical white sisters who have ruled the town all their lives and are trying to keep that situation going, are still clearly the protagonists of their own stories. I got anxious around the midpoint that the Bonner girls were being set up as Bad Femininity to contrast against Miel’s Good Femininity, which is a trope I could not be more tired of, but the climax of the book reclaims enough interiority for all the Bonners to satisfy my greedy heart.
It’s interesting — When the Moon Was Ours is not, as I’ve said, my type of book. I prefer a book that bothers less about lush prose and more about thrilling adventures and robot pals perhaps; less magic realism and more straight-ahead magic with really specific rules and nefarious power struggles perhaps. But I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to have a book like this in my hands and know that it’s available to teenagers, to let them know a little bit more about the possibilities the world offers.
Happy Wednesday! The Jennys are back to chat about what we got for Christmas, which media we didn’t get around to in 2016, and to talk about Alice Pung’s YA novel Lucy and Linh. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.
Two small mistakes to note: I said I received the Rebecca Solnit atlas of New Orleans, and in fact it was the atlas of New York, which is the one I would prefer to have. Also, Whiskey Jenny said John Legend has the line at the Laundress, but she meant to say John Mayer does.
Note: I received Death: An Oral History from the publisher for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
So my favorite thing about Death: An Oral History is the story of its genesis. Casey Jarman noticed that he hadn’t yet lost anyone he couldn’t afford to lose, and it started to cause him anxiety about death. He therefore decided to spend the next few years of his life talking, reading, and thinking extensively about death, with the ultimate goal of producing a collection of interviews with people familiar with death.
This is very very relatable to me. I have learned that when you are afraid of something, it’s either fine to live your life without that thing (like acid trips or the many species of spider that live in Australia) and then you are fine to go on avoiding it, or else it is diminishing/impossible to live your life without that thing (like taking long walks alone at night while a lady or people I love dying or getting a job in publishing and moving to New York without knowing anybody there) and then you have to make a decision about your priorities. I am terrible at not being afraid of things, but I am excellent at triaging. (I am too jittery and on edge to enjoy long walks alone at night, which defeats the purpose they would otherwise be serving. People I love are definitely going to die. I really wanted to work in publishing.)
Jarman interviews a wide range of people who spend their time thinking about death: a retired warden on death row who now opposes the death penalty, a grief counselor, a songwriter whose lyrics deal with the inevitability of death, a hospice volunteer. Each of his interviewees has considered death extensively from a certain angle, and each of them is able to say what they’ve learned about it, what they believe it means, how they believe people can approach it in a healthy way.
As oral histories go, I liked this one a lot. Inevitably, a few of the interviewees rubbed me the wrong way — I have no patience for woo-woo granola bullshit, and I had to quit reading the interview with the psychedelic scientist who’s convinced we could all have peaceful and pleasant deaths if only we dropped a lot of acid at the crucial time.1 Most of them, though, spoke with respect about the dead and the process of dying, and the book made me feel — and I hope made Casey Jarman feel, bless him — that there are people in this world who have the process of death under control and who can see the rest of us through it.
Ugh okay that’s not a fair representation of her position but “psychedelic hospice” is a thing she wants to do and I just cannot with people sometimes. ↩
I guess what I’m saying is, maybe if the Galactic Senate hadn’t defunded Planned Parenthood, the Republic wouldn’t have succumbed to an evil fascist dictatorship.
Speaking of Star Wars, I never do this, but I loved this Bodhi Rook-centric fic so much that I’m sharing it here. Even if you don’t read a lot of fanfic, read this one. It’s superb. Hat tip to Rukmini Pande for the rec.
Well, Whiskey Jenny and I are going to get into some of what we missed in 2016 in our next podcast, but luckily, there were so many books I meant to read in 2016 and didn’t read that I will NEVER RUN OUT OF ANSWERS TO THIS QUESTION. It’s Top Ten Tuesday!
10. Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood. Sarah mentioned this book earlier in the year, and it sounds top-notch, like maybe it would talk about the kind of crimes the Leverage team would be hired to do something about.
9. Burn, Baby, Burn, Meg Medina. This is a case of how many recs does it take from how many book bloggers before I remember to grab a damn book at the library? Sheesh.
8. The Fall of the House of Wilde, Emer O’Sullivan. I admit I have been delaying gratification on this one. I suspect that I will hate it. Emer O’Sullivan seems to have taken a strange dislike to Oscar Wilde, and I — as some of you may know — am mightily defensive of him. I want to save this book for a day when I can really dig into it. You know, sit on my bed in a nest of other Oscar Wilde biographies and sneer at all of Emer O’Sullivan’s conclusions.1
7. Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain. Look, if fuckboys consider a comic worth hounding an author off of Twitter for, I’m going to want to read it. Every time.
6. Umami, Laia Jufresa. Funny story, I discovered this book on NPR’s Book Concierge in December (of course), and then when I went to add it to my TBR spreadsheet, I discovered that I’d already added it when I read the publisher’s description of it much much earlier in the year. And just forgot to actually pick it up ever.
5. Baho! by Roland Rugero. This is the first Burundian novel ever to be translated into English. My library did not have it for a few months after it came out, and I gave up in despair, but then when I checked back in December, lo and behold, my library had acquired all the small press African novels I wanted all year. Hooray!
4. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson. I mean the title really speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
3. The Abyss Surrounds Us, by Emily Skrutskie. I understand there are both genetically engineered sea monsters and girls kissing each other in this book, and I am in favor of both those things. Plus, there’s a sequel on the way!
2. Democracy for Realists, by Christopher H. Achen and Larry Bartels. I mean, I advisedly didn’t read this in 2016. I was not sure that I could bear to. But it’s about how when we vote for candidates, we’re almost never really voting for their policies, but instead we are voting based on social identities. I think this thesis is super-true and I would like to hear more about it so that I can hopefully become a better, more informed, more rational voter. We’ll see.
1. And finally, the number-one book I wanted to read in 2016 but didn’t would have to be Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, by Melina Marchetta. Melina Marchetta is a longtime favorite author of YA, but her latest book is an adult mystery novel, and I was too nervous of disliking it to actually even try it. Judge me if you must.
What about you, friends? Did you read most of what you wanted to read in 2016, or are there oodles and oodles of books that escaped you?
Emer O’Sullivan is a legitimate scholar and an actual researcher in her area. I am confident that she knows one zillion percent more about Oscar Wilde than I do. ↩
The place: Nick Spencer’s Captain America comic. No, not that one. The Sam Wilson one.
The thing: I can’t even bear to summarize it because it’s so embarrassing. You will have to read this Daily Dot overview. But basically, Nick Spencer made some jokes about the rhetorical tactics of women and minorities after a bunch of women and minorities criticized his Hydra!Cap plot twist on ideological grounds.
I died of embarrassment for him, and then I came back to life to write this post about why it’s a bad look to parody the people who most recently criticized you. Now everyone can save themselves. And me. You can save me. Most importantly you can save me from having to feel THIS EMBARRASSED.
Jokes Need Specificity
We like specificity in our humor, don’t we, team? So let’s assume for the sake of argument that when people make jokes about fictionalized versions of people who’ve wronged them, they’re genuinely doing it from a place of good humor. HOWEVER, unless they’re fairly familiar with the world they’re drawing on, these jokes are going to tend to come off like late-stage Andy Rooney: Broad, insular, and not nearly as coherent a critique as the writer imagines.1
In other words, funny people tend to be particularly funny when they’re talking about worlds with which they are familiar. Tina Fey worked on NBC shows for years and then wrote a lot of running gags for 30 Rock about NBC corporate ownership and product placement. Michael Patrick King met a couple of nonwhite people one time in Brooklyn maybe and then made lots and lots of jokes that depend on broad racial stereotypes and that’s how we got 2 Broke Girls (lucky us).
Nick Spencer is here assuming that the language of social justice is inherently funny and only needs to be roughly approximated to put the audience into stitches. Instead it comes off like “a person was on Tumblr for a sec and these are the words he remembered.” Comics have a history of making hamfisted political statements that cause later generations to cringe, and this is certainly in line with that rich tradition — but that may not have been exactly what Nick Spencer was going for?
You’re Not Doing It From a Place of Good Humor and We Can All Tell and It’s So So Awkward, Please Have Mercy and Spare Us These Pretend Jokes Cause They Are Making Us Really Uncomfortable on Your Behalf
One time I went to a working lunch where my lunch companion responded to everything I said with a laugh, a few words of agreement, and then a joking reference to something horrifically personal in her own life. Like I would say (this is not a real quote, it is an example similar to things she really said. I was too embarrassed and sorry for her to ever repeat the actual words she said), “So are you a Saints fan too?” and she’d say “Ha ha ha well they’re a good team but it’s hard to be a Saints fan when your cheating scumbag of a husband wore Saints gear all the time, you know what I mean?”
Everything she said had the cadence of a joke, yet none of it was really a joke. I have never felt so embarrassed for another human being. She was clearly not fine with any of the choices she had made in her life or the relationships she’d been in, but I’d venture to say that a working lunch was not the ideal venue in which to work through all of that. Because professionalism.
The Captain America panels are similar. A compassionate friend would read them and say “Hey man, is there something you need to talk about? Regarding youths?” A compassionate editor would read them and say “Hey man, maybe set this aside for a time when you have more perspective, huh?” They would do this because writing jokes that are a thinly veiled cover for your hurt feelings is VERY EMBARRASSING FOR YOU.
It’s Contributing to Bad Discourse
All of this would be more embarrassing than damaging if it weren’t for the fact that Nick Spencer is a notable writer in a field that’s already hostile to writers, and fans, who don’t adhere to a perceived demographic standard. One of the main purposes of humor is to enforce social norms, so the depiction of social justice rhetoric as both ridiculous and dangerous urges readers not to take seriously the demands of historically marginalized groups for equality and respect.
(I probably don’t need to say that there has never been much of a danger of the comics community taking seriously the demands of historically marginalized groups.)
Gatekeepers gonna gatekeep, I guess. And it’s working: I’ve seen oodles of women and minorities say that hostility in the comics world is pushing them away from reading, writing about, and being interested in comics. It makes me sad because I want a vibrant and diverse comics world that explores new territory instead of perpetually staying in the safest possible ideological waters.
I’m making this section a short section because I have become cynical in my old age and I don’t believe people can be swayed by appeals to morality. But in case anyone is swayed by that, here’s why else privileged people shouldn’t use their writing platforms to belittle less privileged people asking for less shitty representation:
Once You Start Down the Aaron Sorkin Path, Forever Will It Dominate Your Destiny
You know who enjoys to settle scores in his art? Aaron Sorkin, y’all. Aaron Sorkin has been smug for his whole career (see for evidence, litrally any Sorkin stand-in character in litrally any show ever), but his smugness has reached chronic levels now. He used to be Prestige Guy, and now he’s Old Man Yells at Internet Guy. It’s not that there’s no audience for that but um, let’s just say that audience has an expiration date.
In the second season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey spent an entire episode making fun of people who criticized the first season for a stereotypical depiction of Kimmy’s boyfriend Dong. The episode was nigh unwatchable due to the naked anger it displayed towards Tina Fey’s critics under the faintest pretense of joke-making. When I saw it, I thought, OH NO SHE IS AARON SORKIN NOW.
You don’t, you do not want to go down this path. Aaron Sorkin used to get in slap fights with Television without Pity, and then when interacting with live human recappers didn’t pay off for him, he wrote an episode of The West Wing fictional-him (Josh Lyman) got into fights with fictional straw-man versions of the recappers, whom he characterized as fat basement dwellers one and all. Since many of the recappers at Television without Pity continued in their professional careers as pop culture critics, including Linda Holmes at NPR and Tara Ariano at Previously.tv, this humiliating moment in Aaron Sorkin’s history will never ever be forgotten. It’s going to follow him forever.
Here’s another thing Aaron Sorkin did: He had a relationship with Kristen Chenoweth that ended, as relationships do sometimes, and then he wrote an entire show in which fictional-him (Matt Albie) won argument after argument with fictional-Kristen Chenoweth (Harriet Hayes) until she was so won over by his superior intellect and moral character that they got back together. See why you don’t want to start down this path? See the monstrously mortifying ends to which it leads?
There you go. This is why not to do what Nick Spencer did. Now I feel I have done my bit for America and I can return to the former comfort of being dead from secondhand embarrassment.
Unnecessary shade on Andy Rooney, I hear you say! Look, I know, but his columns those last few years were “Old Man Yells at Cloud” to the max. ↩
Well, first up, we just do not have enough books with intersex protagonists, and as always happens when representation is lacking, that puts an impossible amount of pressure on any single book. It’s hard to criticize a book like Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, even when I think criticisms are merited, because mainstream fiction rarely, rarely features intersex protagonists (and even rarelier do you find #ownvoices intersex fiction, so if y’all know any, get at me in the comments). So let me start by saying what I did like about this book.
First of all, Tarttelin lets her protagonist, Max, feel generally okay about being intersex. He worries about sex and children and loneliness in the context of his intersexuality, but mostly, he knows who he is and feels fine about it. The uncertainty he faces about his identity generally comes from outside him — his parents, his cousin Hunter, his classmates and girlfriend Sylvie.
More broadly, Golden Boy acknowledges the insufficiency of a gender binary. Max talks with his doctor (a nice doctor, oh God it was such a relief for him to have a kind, smart, sympathetic doctor) about the science on intersexuality, what we do and don’t know, and what areas are under-researched because intersex folks often get lumped in with trans folks, to the probable benefit of neither. Tarttelin isn’t voyeuristic about Max’s condition or the various health issues he faces in the book, but she’s also not coy about them: Dr. Verma tells Max (and us) in very plain language what’s happening with his body and what it means.
SO. That was the good stuff. For more, here’s a review of Golden Boy by intersex writer and OII-USA1 executive director Hida Viloria.
Now for my gripes. The first, and biggest, is a marketing gripe. When I read about Golden Boy online, the implication of the descriptive copy was that the book was primarily about a family coping with their social circle discovering that Max is intersex. It is actually not about that at all. In fact what it’s about is Max’s rape by a family friend and the fallout and recovery from that. He gets raped in the first few chapters, and it is a several-pages-long rape scene for which I was emotionally unprepared after this several-decades-long year we’ve been having. THUS. If you are someone who does not choose to read graphic rape scenes, you may wish to give Golden Boy a miss.
(Rape culture is so weird, y’all. I started reading Golden Boy to take a break from another book I was reading in which a sexual assault had just occurred. When the rape scene in Golden Boy started, I felt really shitty and miserable about it but I kept reading because it felt like it would be rude to stop reading this Socially Important Book. Rude to whom? Rude how? I don’t even know.)
Anyway. I kept reading because I figured the worst was already behind me, which was true. Tarttelin is respectful of Max’s feelings and his recovery process,2 if a trifle didactic, and even though the resolution of this storyline is awfully tidy and suggests a level of closure that I found improbable, I didn’t have any complaints with the author’s treatment of the emotional fallout.
A few other things: Max uses the word retarded at one point. (His younger brother, Daniel, is clearly on the autism spectrum, though nobody explicitly says so, which made it even more depressing to see the word go unchallenged.) His girlfriend, Sylvie, who is portrayed in a very positive light, refers to some female athletes at her school as “like, steroid aggressive…crazy, butch try-hards.” And in a book where Max is perpetually pushing back against the idea that being intersex means he must be gay or bi, it’s uncomfortable that the only character in the book who is gay is also a rapist.
So I mean, a mixed bag. I wish we were not at a place where very few books have to carry the burden of representation for a group as widely diverse in biology and experience as the intersex community. By saying Golden Boy was not the book for me, I worry that I’m pushing readers away from one of very, very few books with a respectful depiction of an intersex protagonist. I don’t have a good solution for this, except that I hope we can continue to support a diverse book world that can lighten each book’s individual burden of representation.
the American branch of the Organisation Internationale des Intersexués↩
I’m putting this caveat in a footnote because I’m not sure whether it’s a fair reading of the book. Max worries a lot about whether he fought “hard enough” during the rape. There is a thru-line in the book that Max tends to be amicable and go along with what’s happening, partly as a result of some parental stuff that happened when he was a kid. At several points he is called a pushover and relates the concept of being a pushover to his perceived failure to fight his rapist hard enough. As far as I can recall, nobody says “there is no fighting hard enough; you said no and saying no is enough.” It’s clear that Tarttelin knows this was rape and knows it wasn’t in any way Max’s fault — but still, I felt icky that there wasn’t a counterpoint in the text to this line of Max’s thinking. ↩
Happy first Wednesday of 2017! Whiskey Jenny and I are back this week to review what we read in 2016 and think about resolutions and plans for 2017. Before you ask, yes we are reinstituting the Hatening and yes I have a genuinely excellent Hatening pick this year. I am so sure that Whiskey Jenny will hate it. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.
Happy New Year, friends! I’m back in the saddle again and hanging out over at the Oxford Words blog to propose some word-related New Year’s Resolutions. I swear to God this will be the year I figure out “plangent.”
Well, team, 2016 has been hot garbage. A few good things have happened though. One of my oldest and dearest friends, a woman who I love desperately and whose happiness gets me totally teary, got married this year. My sister and brother-in-law had a baby, so I have a new godson to buy books for. Those were excellent things.
In many other, terrifying ways, 2016 was a shitpile. I am trying not to think too much about it during this holiday season, and I hope that you have found some good distractions for yourself too. Stay safe and have wonderful holidays! I will be back in the New Year to talk about apocalypses and the books I (hopefully) got for Christmas and the book you (hopefully) received or purchased.
Oh, also! An exciting thing! I am going to try cooking a BRAND NEW THING: Brie cheese covered in apricot preserves wrapped up in puff pastry sheets. I will cook the fuck out of it and eat it on crackers and I will let you know how it turns out. Sounds good, right?
Okay! Go have your holidays! I love you all! I am sorry that 2016 was such a shitpile for all of us, and we will have to keep each other safe and brave and accountable in 2017.