January YA Round-Up

Here’s what happened in January: I had to wear this neck brace that made it impossible to ever sit comfortably. In part because of this, I was very, very cranky in the month of January.1 Every time I thought about going out and doing something, I’d be like “ugh I’m too cranky for that so instead I will stay home and read and that will cheer me up.” But because it was impossible to sit comfortably, staying home and reading did not cheer me up. But because I am very stupid, I did not figure this out until I had already been through this cycle many, many times.

What I’m saying is that I read a lot of books in January. Some were YA.2 Here’s a round-up of those.

Beasts Made of Night, Tochi Onyebuchi

Beasts Made of Night

An excellent cover for an excellent book! Beasts Made of Night takes us to the city of Kos, where mages can call forth the spirits of sins from the sinners. Aki like Taj come forward to eat the sin-beasts that result, though eating sins marks their skin with tattoos and eventually drives them mad. I loved this fictional Nigerian city and the scrappy street kids that occupied it, and Onyebuchi drops plenty of hints about the magic the wider world contains. I’ll very much look forward to the sequel.

Burn Baby Burn, Meg Medina

Burn Baby Burn

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Meg Medina for untold ages, and at last I have done so! Burn Baby Burn takes place in Brooklyn in 1977, when the city is terrorized by the Son of Sam and our protagonist, Nora, is terrorized by the increasing violence and unpredictability of her older brother. Medina evokes the heat and danger of this time in New York, and I was glad to see a depiction of a type of family violence that rarely comes up in fiction.

Everless, Sara Holland


I loved the premise of Everless but thought it lost something in the execution. In Jules Ember’s world, time is literally money: Days and months and years are extracted from the poor and, by and large, given to the rich. When she goes to work at the Everless estate, Jules expects to gain some time to put away and maybe to solve the secrets her father has always kept from her. Holland maybe has a few too many balls in the air in her debut novel, such that the plot twist towards the end feels more confusing than shocking.

Wild Beauty, Anna-Marie McLemore

Wild Beauty

And Anna-Marie McLemore continues to make me revisit my dislike of magic realism. Wild Beauty is the story of the Nomeolvides women, five in each generation, who tend the grounds at La Pradera and whose love is a curse. When the Nomeolvides girls admit to each other that they have all fallen in love with the wealthy Bay Briar, they make sacrifices to La Pradera to keep it from taking her from them. The next day, a boy called Fel appears in their garden, with no memory of who he is or how he got there.

McLemore’s writing is as lush and dreamy as it was in When the Moon Was Ours, and she continues to write queer romance stories (and straight ones) that make my heart sing with their respectfulness and loveliness. She’s quickly become a must-read author for me.

Here We Are Now, Jasmine Warga

Here We Are Now

This was recommended by one of the authors in my December YA Agenda column, and I was delighted to check it out and discover this new author. Tal has long suspected that famous musician Julian Oliver is her father (the father her mother won’t talk about), but that doesn’t mean she’s prepared for him to show up at her door. She goes with him to see her grandfather in hospital before he dies, and in the process she and Julian learn about each other and themselves.

As always with secret-baby stories, Here We Are Now doesn’t quite manage to get me to buy Tal’s mother’s reasons for concealing her existence from Julian. She still just seemed like an immoral jerk. Apart from that, though, Warga gets at a lot of real truths about emotions, family, friendship, and the human experience. It was also terrific to see a protagonist who’s culturally Muslim but (mostly) doesn’t practice.

Turtles All the Way Down, John Green

Turtles All the Way Down

Actually I finished this in February, but close enough. In the five years since John Green has published a book, I had a lot of time to get annoyed with the narrative of John Green, Savior of Young Adult Fiction, but no new John Green books to read. Turns out, he’s a pretty good writer. I sort of forgot! Turtles All the Way Down features a treasure of a best friend character, plenty of snappy dialogue, a heartbreaking depiction of OCD, and an actually genuinely good and effective therapist. Good stuff!

So that’s my January in YA! Did you read any good YA this past month? Anything I shouldn’t miss?

  1. Narrator: She was still extremely cranky in the month of February.
  2. There is also this thing where if I start a YA book on a given day, I have to finish it on that day because most YA books are long enough for one day’s worth of bus rides too and from work, but not long enough for two. So when I get home and my YA book is two-thirds finished, I have to either read the whole rest of it real quick or bring two books on the bus the following day, which is inefficient.

Review: Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttelin

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.

Golden Boy

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.

  1. the American branch of the Organisation Internationale des Intersexués
  2. 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.

Review: We Are Not Such Things, Justine van der Leun

Well that was a long and frustrating book. The New York Times review of Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things promised that the book would “overturn” the traditional narrative of Amy Biehl’s death, and in the process expose the weaknesses of the famed and beloved South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In case you aren’t familiar with Amy Biehl’s story (I wasn’t), she was an activist and Fulbright scholar who was attacked and murdered in the South African township of Gugulethu in 1993, on the eve of apartheid’s demise. Four men were convicted of her murder, then later pardoned under the terms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which offered amnesty for political crimes in exchange for full public disclosure. Biehl’s parents publicly offered forgiveness to her killers and even employed two of them at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which they established in South Africa to empower township youths.

We Are Not Such Things

Van der Leun’s efforts to uncover the story of what happened on the day of Amy Biehl’s murder are tireless. She’s able to track down and speak with an impressive number of the people involved — police, suspects, witnesses — although twenty years on, they rarely have much of substance to add to official accounts. The thrust of Van der Leun’s argument seems to be that neither the South African criminal justice system in 1993 nor the political and social systems in of the present day are perfect. Which, I mean — yeah? Systems are flawed? I don’t know that I needed to spend 500 pages navigating class divisions in South Africa in order to be convinced of that.

As a travel writer, Justine van der Leun evokes the people and places of poverty-stricken South Africa incredibly well. Well, but at incredible length. We spend page after page on the family drama of one of the convicted killers, Easy Nofemela, and don’t get me wrong: He’s a wonderful character in van der Leun’s telling. It’s just not clear why, in a book ostensibly dedicated to unpicking the many threads of Amy Biehl’s 1993 murder, so many chapters are dedicated to Easy and Justine driving around shooting the shit.

Though the book is certainly overlong and could have done with being shortened by about a third, I think expectations were also a factor in my unenjoyment. Many South Africans have grown critical (or always were) of the TRC’s work, and I hoped that van der Leun would bring to light some of these criticisms and how the TRC’s failings continue to affect South African lives. That isn’t this book, and it’s not clear that van der Leun even wanted it to be.

My love for scholarship on restorative justice remains undimmed, however! While I was reading this, I also dipped in and out of Priscilla Hayner’s classic text on truth commissions, Unspeakable Truths, and it is just as excellent as I remembered. What a fascinating subject.

POLL TIME! Who here knew who Amy Biehl was when I first mentioned her name? And secondary question, this one for millennials only: Were you aware of apartheid as a kid? I totally was not, and it’s really weird to think that that was still going on when I was in grade school.

Black Widow, Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto

Or, that time I was deceived into reading more of Black Widow than I cared about (two trade paperbacks of it) because the art was so beautiful. I really cannot say enough about Phil Noto’s art. It’s dreamy and watercolory, and if I had one takeaway from this book aside from “please stop perpetuating harmful myths about domestic violence” (about which more later), it would be that I need to find every comic Phil Noto has illustrated and put it straight into my brain pan.

Black Widow

Further investigation on the Marvel website has revealed that Phil Noto draws like he’s running out of time and that therefore you can find his work both in the ongoing Black Widow comic (though I don’t advise it) and in what I am sure is the greatest comic of all time throughout all of history, POE DAMERON COMIC.

I feel like those capital letters did not adequately convey my enthusiasm to read a whole entire comic about Poe Dameron, so I will let John Boyega’s beautiful sunshine face say it for me.

Black Widow
get a room tho y’all

The only way I could be more excited for POE DAMERON COMIC would be if it were the story of his space adventures with Rey and Finn. I have been given to understand that is not the premise and I should shut up about that anyway because there will be no further space adventures of Poe and Rey and Finn until practically 2018 and what’s the use of dreaming of things you can’t have.



Black Widow follows a very expectable comic story arc, in that Natasha has mini-missions to complete every issue in service of a greater mission, which is to Atone for her Wrongs (these are not specified in the first two volumes, which is what I read). This is fine. It’s monster of the week in comics form, and the adventures are reasonably engaging — nothing to write home about, but not every comic has to be.

Regrettably, we don’t get to see Natasha being very good at her job, nor particularly proactive about how she gets shit done. Mission after mission goes south because of bad intel or poor planning on her part, and it’s framed as bad luck a la the “This looks bad” recurring joke in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye. But whereas in Hawkeye it fits into a broader character arc for Clint, it’s hard to know in Black Widow what we’re supposed to make of it. Is Natasha The Most Competent (which is how I conceive of the character) and just having a lengthy run of bad fortune? Is she Medium Competent and this is what life is like for Medium Competent Spies? It would help so much to see one mission that goes exactly as planned — cf. how Captain America: The Winter Solder opens with a successful mission that lets us see how this unit is supposed to operate, before everything goes to hell.

We also get scenes of both Daredevil (a former romantic partner) and the Punisher (er, not) explaining to Natasha why she’s doing things Wrong and how a person on the side of Righteousness would behave. In Issue 8, she runs into the Winter Soldier, who kills someone for hurting her because he looooooooves her. None of it’s egregious, but cumulatively, and in a comic with a female lead and a male creative team, it rubbed me the wrong way.

Black Widow
“I also killed all your friends, but not for that reason. Them I just killed cause they were evil.”

Then on top of that we have this small subsidiary plotline in which Natasha’s neighbor is being beaten by her husband, and Natasha’s always all “oh Ana you should leave him,” and then in Issue 3 she’s fed up with it and she threatens the husband with bodily harm if he continues his wicked ways. I get it, right, like there’s been some question in this comic (from dudes, it literally is all dudes who have been expressing this concern) about whether Natasha’s in the right place morally. Since we don’t yet have enough information to adequately evaluate that question as it relates to all her Missions, this incident with the neighbor exists to show a straightforwardly disinterested Good Deed by Natasha. A classic deployment of the Pet the Dog trope.

Black Widow
Can we not?

Except that “you should leave” with no further follow-up is a hella simplistic and unhelpful response to intimate partner abuse, and by assaulting this dude and then peacing out for two months or whatever, Natasha’s creating some A+ conditions for him to retaliate against his wife. I guess the scene works if you don’t know anything about domestic violence, but it’d be super swell if people who don’t know anything about domestic violence could take a break from writing about domestic violence. Because, breaking news alert, if you do not do your due diligence prior to writing about a complex issue, you most likely will end up reproducing harmful stereotypes.

In sum: A three-star comic docked a star for sexism. Maybe let a lady write Black Widow next time? (There already is a next time, and the creative team is all male still. #comics)

Who here has read POE DAMERON COMIC? I need reports! Is it as good as I am imagining?

The Nurses, Alexandra Robbins

In today’s review of The Nurses, by Alexander Robbins (author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities), we shall play a game of, Why Didn’t Someone Stop This White Lady?

The Nurses has a similar structure to Pledged, in which chapters following four individual nurses through their work days alternate with chapters that offer contextual information based in research and interviews. For instance, one chapter may address a specific nurse’s concern that her coworker is stealing narcotics from patients, and the next will discuss narcotics addictions in the nursing profession.

The Nurses

I love reading about jobs that are not my job, and I found Pledged horrifying and interesting when I read it a few years back, so believe me when I say that I was primed to enjoy The Nurses. It is just that all the racism made it difficult.

Let’s compare and contrast two (of the very few) racial interactions in this book, so you can be horrified along with me. That’ll be fun, right? This one’s between Juliette, a white lady here serving as the charge nurse for her unit, and her Dominican tech, Lucy.

Lucy ignored her, as if she didn’t understand; she seemed to have selective comprehension of the English language. She did this frequently to Juliette, even though techs were supposed to follow charge nurses’ instructions.

Juliette exploded, upset about Lucy’s treatment of the patient. “Oh, will someone just say it to her in a language she understands?” She regretted the words as she said them. . .

For the rest of the day, Lucy ignored Juliette even more blatantly than usual. “Where’d the patient go?” Juliette asked. “What room is that patient in?” Lucy wouldn’t look at her. If Lucy had a question, she asked another nurse, even though Juliette was charge.

The next day, when Juliette goes to tell her superior what happened, and her superior mentions that Lucy was upset by it, Juliette says “Oh, give me a break. Lucy was insubordinate before this escalated.”

Juliette bought an apology card and a box of chocolates from the gift shop. When she tried to apologize, Lucy refused to accept them.

“I don’t need a card,” Lucy said.

“I’m trying to say I’m sorry,” Juliette said, genuinely trying to make amends.

“What you did was wrong.”

“Yes, it was. I’m trying to apologize,” Juliette repeated, still conciliatory.

Lucy stood up and walked away. Juliette left the card and the chocolates on her computer.

Let’s sum up this interaction so far, shall we? A white charge nurse made a xenophobic remark to a Latina coworker under her direct supervision. She did not apologize the day of the incident, nor did she emphasize to Lucy or the staff that the remark was made in a moment of stressy anger and was not representative of her real opinion. When speaking about it to her supervisor, she downplayed her own behavior while tattling on Lucy for misbehaving. The author’s framing of the incident and its follow-up is heavily sympathetic to Juliette.

BUT WAIT. A few weeks later, Juliette’s at a continuing ed workshop and brings up this incident and its aftermath. “Lucy hasn’t spoken to me since,” she said.

“What Lucy was doing, before the incident and after you apologized, is a form of bullying that is common in nursing today,” the facilitator said. “Ignoring is a form of bullying because you’re blocking that person out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like somebody. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But you need to be cordial to and communicate with that person at work.”

Juliette felt helpless, but Priscilla[, her supervisor,] wouldn’t do anything about it. Priscilla was too afraid of confrontation to act like a manager and diffuse the situation. In Priscilla’s realm, bullies and slackers went unpunished, and staffers who did go beyond the call of duty weren’t recognized. Priscilla didn’t reprimand Juliette; in fact, she told Juliette she had been right about the patient and encouraged Juliette to be charge nurse more often.

Really. Because to me it seems like in Priscilla’s realm, open racism in a white superior not only goes unpunished, but garners an offer of career advancement. How did the editors at Workman let this get by them? That Robbins uses this story as a jumping-off point to talk about nurse-on-nurse bullying (casting Juliette as the victim) would be stunning if it weren’t so exhaustingly predictable.

And now for a counterpart to that story. If you’re interested. It’s about another nurse, Lara. Here’s some context about the racial makeup of Lara’s job at her hospital, and the position she occupies there.

Despite racial tensions, Lara, one of the few white nurses at the hospital, hadn’t landed in anyone’s crosshairs. Evidently someone had noticed that Lara seemed to get along with everyone, because in November, the ER director selected her as one of fifteen people to join a new hospital-wide committee.

Really. REALLY with this. The only possible explanation for the presence on a hospital-wide committee of one of the only white nurses at this institution is that she was just so exceptionally agreeable? Fucking really?

And then, a sample of some racial tensions:

Nurses knew when they were in Makayla’s assigned zone because they were knocked sideways by the overpowering smell of bleach. Apparently, someone had complained, because Makayla told the four other nurses, “And one of our latte nurses felt the need to write me up that I had wiped down the area to make sure it was clean.” The other nurses clucked sympathetically.

For the moment, Lara didn’t say anything because she was outnumbered. There were only three white nurses left in the ER. When the black nurses left, Lara called Makayla back. “Makayla, I have to talk to you,” Lara said, speaking slowly to think through how to avoid putting Makayla on the defensive. “I respect you as a nurse and I know that you work hard. But I have to tell you, your comment about latte coworkers is racist. It wasn’t cool and I was sitting right here. I’m surprised to hear a comment like that coming from you.”

Makayla balked. “Oh no no, oh my gosh, no. I call people my mocha sisters and my latte sisters, but it has nothing to do with color!”

Nevertheless, for the next month, Makayla went out of her way to be nice to Lara. Normally, she was the type of nurse who shopped online while other nurses ran around taking care of patients. Now she leaped up to help Lara, greeting her enthusiastically. Lara wasn’t going to waste energy resenting Makayla, so she let the incident slide.

Please note that again a woman of color is cast as lazy and unresponsive in her work, as compared to the conscientious white woman from whose point of view the story is being told. Where Juliette’s remark and its impact on the work environment, and on Lucy, were repeatedly downplayed, this second passage specifically identifies Makayla’s remark as “racist” and emphasizes Lara’s discomfort at being a racial minority among her coworkers.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Jenny, doesn’t the book elsewhere address the racial demographics of nursing and what it’s like to be a nurse of color in a heavily white-dominated field? That would help to alleviate my feeling that this author is letting racial bias color her depiction of these two incidents.” You will be shocked to hear that, no, it never does that, not even a little bit. Robbins mentions the social segregation between white and black nurses in this inner city hospital only in terms of its impact on the (white) point-of-view characters (Molly, Lara); we never hear from a single POC nurse about what it’s like to work at this hospital or how race and racism plays into the work life of a non-white nurse.

Oh, and can I interest you in a soupçon1 of rape denialism? (Skip down if that sort of thing upsets you.)

Then the [drunk teenage] girl changed her story. “Dad, I think when I was passed out, someone raped me,” the girl sniffled. . . . Everyone in the room except her parents knew the girl was lying.

Teen patients commonly said anything they could think of to avoid dealing with their parents’ reactions. Molly had treated dozens of teenage girls who made up the same story, and not one of them had been sexually assaulted. . . . Most patients didn’t realize that if police officers seriously considered somebody to be a sexual assault victim, they brought the patient to a hospital with a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) on staff, which [Molly’s hospital] did not have at present. . . . Therefore, ER nurses knew that if EMS or the police brought a patient through triage, they did not believe the individual had been sexually assaulted.

When the father went into the hallway to call the police himself, Molly turned to the girl. “If you really were raped, we will do everything we can to help you,” she said. “If it’s not true, we have a big problem. Someone will get arrested, go to jail, and possibly serve time just so you can get out of trouble for drinking. Now tell me, what’s worse: being grounded for something you did or someone going to jail for something he didn’t do?”

The girl retracts her story, and Robbins goes on to tell a hilarious story about a teenager who gets herself out of trouble by having a pretend religious awakening. Again, I cannot imagine how anyone who read this passage — particularly any women! — okayed it to go forward. It reads like something out of an exposé about the many ways our police, medical, and legal systems fail rape victims.

If I sound pissed off in this review, it’s because I’m so disappointed. At some point, a lady grows tired of discovering that books she intended to enjoy insist upon reproducing the same tired old rhetorical strategies to prop up the kyriarchy that she has seen a kajillion times before. A lady in those circumstances may be forgiven for shriek-reading passages of her book to her podcast partner whom she fortuitously happens to be visiting,2 then having a glass of wine and writing a furious post about it.

  1. if by “soupçon” you mean “great big old bucket”

Comics February Round-Up

Man. If this were any of the last three years, I would have failed at Comics February. But this year is Leap Year, and I am squeezing this post in just under the wire, because I want you to read Genius. And, I mean, I love Comics February as well. Just mainly I cannot understand why Genius hasn’t gotten more (and by “more” I mean “all the”) attention.

Genius, Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, and Afua Richardson

Shitdamn, this book was good. I’ve had a medium reading year thus far — nothing that I’ve hated (although see below re: puppy), but also nothing that I’ve wanted to shove in the hands of every single person I see. Genius is a book I want to shove at everyone.


Seventeen-year-old Destiny was born with the military and strategic mind of an Alexander the Great, a Napoleon — but she lives in an area of Los Angeles that is torn apart by unchecked drug violence and police brutality. So (as you would) she unites the gangs and secedes from the country.

If you are thinking “How did they ever get a comic book published that’s about black kids blowing up large swathes of the LAPD?”, you and I are thinking along the same lines, friends. At first I felt uncomfortable with it, but then — revolution against an oppressive power is a staple of our story-telling, and it’s hard to argue that Destiny and her compatriots don’t have a legitimate, revolution-worthy grievance, when LAPD officers (and cops all over the country) can shoot unarmed black folks with no repercussions at all for their employment status, and we’re just all supposed to write it off as the cost of doing (crime-prevention) business.

Afua Richardson’s art is beautiful, the story is ballsy as fuck, and I dearly hope that we can expect another volume of this audacious and brilliant comic (not least because I want to know what comes next for Destiny).

Honor Girl, Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl

A graphic memoir of a summer spent at camp in which Maggie Thrash developed a crush on an older camp counselor. The art was lovely, the writing and characterization were achingly true to what it’s like to be fifteen, but — have we talked about my thing about imbalance of power? I cannot deal with stories about older authority figures developing crushes on their charges. The nineteen-year-old camp counselor, Erin, doesn’t do anything technically not-okay with Maggie, but I just am not comfortable when those boundaries are being nudged. You know what I like in mentor-mentee relationships? NICE CLEAR BOUNDARIES.

(Yes, I did know some girls in high school who were sleeping with our algebra teacher. Why do you ask?)

The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf

The Arab of the Future

A comics memoir of growing up in Syria and Libya, with a father who fell under the spell of various dictators’ cults of personality. I warn you now that a puppy gets spiked with a pitchfork and has its head cut off in this comic. I noped on out of there as soon as that happened, but it was late in the book, so. There you go.

The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil, Stephen Collins

Dave lives in a place called Here, where everything is orderly. Across the sea is a place of chaos, called There. One day, the chaos of There starts to assert itself on Dave’s very own very face.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

No, I get it. It’s because you shouldn’t have too many rules. If you have too many rules your life will be boring and hemmed in, and that’s why ladies who like spreadsheets have to learn a Valuable Lesson about Lightening Up and Enjoying Spontaneity in romcoms. I UNDERSTAND THIS PARABLE.

Like, Stephen Collins’s art is beautiful, and his panel structuring is a masterclass, but I read comics for the story too. Did we really need another book in this world with the message “Lighten up, office drones!”?

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

There’s Atticus Finch, and there’s the myth of Atticus Finch. There’s what he is, and what he’s come to stand for. What he is (and I say this with great affection for To Kill a Mockingbird) is an ur-text for the white savior story: a depiction of history that lets white folks today feel good about themselves. If we’d lived back then (we think while reading), we would not have been Bob Ewell. We would be Atticus Finch. (Or the commander in Glory or Skeeter in The Help — or, or, or.)

It’s a problem for minority groups, of course. It privileges a white story over the real stories of black folks organizing and fighting and saving themselves, but let’s put that to the side for a second. Smarter people than me have gone in on the white savior trope (the straight cisgender savior trope too!), and you should read what they have to say about it.

There’s another problem here, though, because — as is so often the case — oppression is toxic to its beneficiaries too. (Though not in a, you know, getting murdered in the street kind of way.) As Alyssa Rosenberg smartly observed recently, racism exists in a lot of fiction so that white heroes can fight against it — and so white audiences can feel smugly aligned with the right side of history. It cripples our ability — which was never strong to start with — to sit with the cognitive dissonance that a racist society creates: that you can be a good person who recycles and gives to charity and signs up to be an organ donor, and still say and do racist things, because racism is the water we’re all swimming in.

Which brings me (at last!) to Go Set a Watchman. It’s not, and I should get this out of the way up front, a good book. That somebody read this draft, saw its promise, and ultimately managed to get To Kill a Mockingbird out of its author is an impressive testament to the brilliance and value of the publishing industry (not that I’m bragging). The second half is all speeches in which the characters painstakingly spell out what’s happening emotionally and how it affects their character and their actions.

Although the book isn’t good, and is cringingly bound to its time (Scout calls herself color-blind and merrily dismisses the idea that a white person would ever want to marry a black person), it does demand a level of moral complexity about the mythological Atticus Finch. It forces the reader to see that racism doesn’t have to look like Bob Ewell, who is fundamentally trash and bad and his racism is only one manifestation of his essential ugliness of spirit. Go Set a Watchman reminds us that racism often looks like Atticus Finch.

I say demands and forces, but of course it’s optional to read it that way. So many readers don’t want Atticus Finch to have racist ideas, because we got attached to him in our ninth-grade English classes. Many people have looked at this book and said, This isn’t Atticus Finch. But here’s the thing: Atticus Finch can be both. He can tell Scout not to use racial slurs, and he can defend a black man in a rape case, and at the same time he can dislike the NAACP and oppose Brown v. Board.

We want perfection from the people we admire, whether they’re civil rights activists or star football players or our parents, and we don’t want to confront the fact that human beings are not perfectible. We were imperfect when we came into this world, and as we move through it, we are shaped by a painfully imperfect society.

What we are is flawed. What we do can change. We can say a racist thing, and then we can read and listen and learn, and apologize for the error, and do better next time. Hiding from the truth of what a racist society hath wrought — even, woe! in someone like Atticus Finch! — only protects and prolongs its racism. Acknowledging it, confronting it, those things are a step towards change. If readers could take that away from Go Set a Watchman, it would be a powerful legacy for this very imperfect book.

Hiding in Plain Sight, Nuruddin Farah

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.

Poison, Sarah Pinborough

Sooooo remember when I said that I was concerned that Poison wasn’t going to work out for me? Poison…didn’t work out for me.

By rough synopsis, Poison should have worked flawlessly for me. It’s a dark retelling of the “Snow White” story (if you’re thinking, That story doesn’t need to be retold dark; it was dark when we got here, I feel you) that deals with the complicated relationship between Snow White and her stepmother and the expectations men have of women.

Except it doesn’t really deal with those things, at least not in any way that’s convincing or surprising. It looks like it’s going to, but we never really get a grip on Snow White’s stepmother’s true feelings for Snow White, or learn in any depth how she became the (evil) way that she is. Instead, Poison tells the Snow White story pretty straight. Which, if I’d wanted the story told straight, I’d just have read the story, in Grimm or Andrew Lang or whatever.

Now, I will say that I loved the ending. It’s no darker than the foregoing events of the book, but it twists the fairy tale in a way that the rest of the book fails to do. When I realized the book was over, and that was genuinely the way it was going to end, I was delighted with Pinborough’s audacity. Whether that will be enough to make me pick up more of her work — we’ll see.

I am participating in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge, and this has been my Fairy Tale book for it. Yet to come are a mythology book, after which I will have completed my Quest! Visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading.

The three main problems I had with Laura Kipnis’s essays on men

On a process level, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation is a successful essay collection. Kipnis is a fluid writer with an eye for the mot juste; she varies her sentence structures with grace; nothing she writes ever feels forced. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s because (alas) I have a lot of problems with the sentiments Kipnis expresses in her elegant prose. Here are the main three:

1) So. Much. Freud. Lady, you are aware that further work has been done in psychology since the mid-twentieth century? Kipnis’s references to Freud, Oedipal complexes, and psychosexual development are so numerous they would make an excellent drinking game condition, an idea I am sorry I have only come up with now because I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I had been a bit drunk for it.

Sometimes this leads to interesting insights — there’s a reason Freud’s giant shoulders are the ones everyone’s been standing on — but as a theoretical framework, it’s sharply limited, and you run up against the limits fairly quickly. The essay about Dale Peck and how his harsh reviews are his way of enacting the same abuse scenarios to which he was subject as a child is armchair psychology of the most simplistic variety.

2) Perhaps this is my own limitation, but Kipnis doesn’t seem to be in conversation with much of modern feminism. She does have an essay about outrage culture (framed as a cutesy confession of her own tendencies to moral relativism, gag), but it’s mostly about something else, and in a later essay she says this:

Yes, Dworkin reads like a stampeding dinosaur in our era of bouncy pro-sex post-feminism. Feminist anger isn’t exactly in fashion at the moment: these days, women just direct their anger inward, or carp at individual men, typically their hapless husbands and boyfriends.

Er. What now? There is certainly a strand of bouncy post-sex writing, but — like, Amanda Marcotte, Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, Anita Sarkeesian, Mychal Denzel Smith, Lindy West, Jamia Wilson? I’m not even trying hard to think of names of fashionable feminist writers who regularly express anger about feminist issues.

And relatedly:

3) Kipnis has an air of being above the fray when it comes to many of the issues that occupy feminist writers and thinkers. Since she’s written this book, it’s clear that she isn’t above the fray; but she gives the impression that she is far too cool for your petty problems. Her reaction to crappy behavior (whether it’s Norman Mailer being a shit or Harold Bloom hitting on students) is frequently along the lines of “How can you be mad at them when all they want is attention? I just find it rather endearing!”

Well. Neat? I guess? That you feel that way? But that sort of reaction elides and perpetuates the troublesome power dynamics at play. It tells the people who are bothered that they are wrong to be. And it tells the people doing the bothering that they are okay to continue behaving that way, as everyone will just chuckle indulgently. And that, my friends, is how we all end up jumping over missing stairs.

To return to the Harold Bloom example, Kipnis has a lengthy essay about the absurdity of sexual harassment policies at universities. Much of her alarm over these policies feels like received wisdom, given that she admits upon reading her own university’s guidelines that they are “far less prohibitive than other places I’d been hearing about” (where are these mythologically prohibitive universities?). She goes on for a while about how when she was in school everyone slept with their professors and they were totally happy about it, because actually the power was quite balanced: The students had the power of being young and beautiful and desirable, and the professors had the power of, you know, actual power over the students’ futures.

Kipnis feels that the tricky part of sexual harassment is that you don’t actually know until you have already groped the student whether that sexual advance is “unwanted” (prohibited in school guidelines). So what is a professor to do? Here’s one idea, just off the top of my head: perhaps professors could try the radical strategy of waiting until the class is over and grades are handed out, and then to hit on their students by saying “Now that class is over and grades are handed out, I wanted to tell you that I think you’re swell, and I would love to take you out for dinner sometime if you’re interested.” And if that is too much of an emotional challenge for the poor wee vulnerable bunnies in the professorial field, I submit that they perchance should find something else to do with their genitals.