Reading the End Bookcast, Ep. 91: Fictional Friendships and Laia Jufresa’s Umami

Happy very belated Wednesday, pals! After many travails and difficulties, Whiskey Jenny and I have walked ten miles in the snow uphill both ways to bring you a very overdue podcast. This time around, we’re updating you on professional boundaries in our Serial Box Book Club, chatting about fictional friendships we love, and reviewing Laia Jufresa’s wondrous and underappreciated book Umami.

Umami

You can listen using the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

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Here are the time signatures if you want to skip around!

1:03 – What We’re Reading
4:15 – Serial Box Book Club: Episodes 3 and 4 of Geek Actually
11:58 – Fictional friendships!
28:02 – Umami, Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes
38:45 – What We’re Reading for Next Time!
39:26 – HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE

Seriously, please get at us in the holiday gift guide submission form and help us help you buy gifts for your loved ones.

Get at me on Twitter, email the podcast, and friend me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Goodreads. Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

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

Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon, Katherine Locke

Does anyone else here have a habit of mentally constructing syllabuses to replace the syllabuses you had as a kid? Where you’ll be like, “Instead of A Separate Peace, I decree that all the youths will now read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” or whatever. I haven’t exactly decided what specific book on youthful summer reading lists The Girl with the Red Balloon should replace, but I’d love for it to be on those lists.

The Girl with the Red Balloon

Ellie Baum thinks her grandfather’s stories about being saved from the Holocaust by a magic red balloon are just that — stories. But when she sees a red balloon on her school trip to Berlin, she grabs at the string and is instantly transported back in time to East Berlin in 1988, with no way to get home. Though she meets a boy called Kai who helps people escape East Berlin with the help of magic red balloons, nobody in his circle seems to have any idea how Ellie got there, or how to get her back.

(To help you budget emotionally for this book, I will also mention that a minority number of chapters tell the story of Ellie’s grandfather living in a ghetto in Poland in 1941, and how he escaped to freedom. If you want more specific spoilers, get at me in the comments.)

Why I’d have loved to read this book as a kid: I didn’t know any damn thing about the Berlin Wall! This is partly my failing, because I was awful about Current Events as a tot, but I didn’t know until high school that there had been a Berlin Wall and that it had come down during my lifetime. Which is a pretty big thing not to know! And then in history classes, because the Berlin Wall was so recent, we didn’t really learn about it. Do youths learn about it now? They must, right? (But do they?)

But also: Locke is telling a story of hope and magic. The Runners who help connect escaping Berliners with magic balloons, and the Schopfers who make the balloon magic in the first place have an operation that spans the entire world. Wherever there are people who need to get out, there are balloons to help them. The Girl with the Red Balloon is in many ways a sad book, but its fundamental message is one of hope: That people want to help, and that even in the darkest of times, it is possible to help and to be helped.

This is a book about living in dark times and surviving them, drawing strength from moments of joy and from friends and from faith. If that sounds like something you need this year, I’d urge you to pick up The Girl with the Red Balloon.

Review: Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom

FINALLY. Not that anyone cares,1, but my struggles to get my hands on my library’s copy of Lower Ed have spanned almost six months. If I wanted to wait six months to read a book I put on hold at the library, I’d have stayed in New York and only had a NYPL library card because BPL actually processes holds at a reasonable speed but what I’m saying is that NYPL is terrible at processing holds. And six months was too long to wait for Lower Ed. I’d have lost interest if I hadn’t been so darn interested.

Lower Ed

Lower Ed is what Tressie McMillan Cottom helpfully defines in her epilogue as an autoethnographic study, which is to say that she herself is part of the story. Cottom worked as an admission counselor (i.e., a salesperson) for two different for-profit colleges before pursuing her PhD. While researching Lower Ed, she also went through the enrollment process for nine separate for-profit colleges, to investigate the similarities and differences in the way those colleges pursued new students. She also draws on the stories of people she personally interviewed about their for-profit higher ed experiences, some of whom she knew from real life and others of whom she met along the way. Lower Ed works to understand who attends for-profit colleges and why, in the words of the people who are making those choices.

Interspersed with those stories is a wealth of contextual information about how for-profit schools operate and what kind of benefits they offer the students they work so hard to enroll. Although there’s an argument to be made that for-profit colleges are predatory — and Cottom doesn’t shrink from making it, when called to — Lower Ed presents a measured and thoughtful view of the benefits of these institutions as well as their drawbacks. Yes, they spend more on marketing than on instruction. Yes, they target financially and socially vulnerable students and heavily pressure them to take on large amounts of loan debt in search of a future that may never materialize.

However, as Cottom points out, the more “legitimate” version of higher education — such as prestigious public and private universities — leave those very students behind. Poor students, older students, first-generation students, and others lack the experience and time to successfully navigate bureaucratic barriers to entering more traditional higher ed settings.

One of the main points that Cottom brings up over and over again is a thing I am constantly having to remind myself about: However impactful individual choices may be, they still count for very little when set against the institutional forces that guide and control so much of our lives. Cottom notes:

What is interesting to me is how much disdain is spread among students and schools and how little disdain there is for labor markets.

Cottom argues that companies invest less and less in workforce development while individuals are asked to invest more and more, spending money they don’t have in an attempt to meet an ever-shifting standard of employability.

Lower Ed is a short book that packs a big punch; it’s left me with a lot to chew on, both about higher education and about the many many FRANKLY INFINITY ways society finds to reproduce inequality. So, you know. Fun thoughts to think.

  1. Because it is very boring

Review: Hamilton’s Battalion

If you follow me on Twitter, you may already have seen me shrieking about Hamilton’s Battalion, a collection of novellas by three of my favorite romance authors. But I’d like now to review it in a more measured fashion, after some days with the text and a mature1 consideration of its merits.

Hamilton's Battalion

Ha! You thought I was going to put an all-capsy shrieky paragraph down here after the cover, didn’t you? You thought all that maTOOR business was setting up a joke, but it wasn’t. That’s just how I say mature, which shows that I am a sophisticate.

The first thing that struck me about Hamilton, the very first time I heard it on NPR First Listen,2, was its fundamental hopefulness about the American experiment. It used a story about America’s past to propose a version of America’s future that felt optimistic and worthwhile and attainable.3 Hamilton’s Battalion is a worthy successor to the musical that inspired it, espousing hope in the project of nation-building without ignoring the failures that inevitably accompany that project. It’s also a darn good on-ramp to the genre for Hamilton fans who are romance newbies.

Let’s get into the novellas!

Second Chance at Love: “Promised Land,” by Rose Lerner

Rachel fled her wifely duties years ago and now fights the British in the disguise of a man; but when her husband is captured as a spy and brought into her camp, she has to face the life she left behind.

Rose Lerner packs a ton into this short romance: Rachel and Nathan have much to blame each other for, and they spend a lot of the story properly talking about where they went wrong with each other, and why. When they eventually reunite, it’s with a new understanding and acceptance of their differences — which is what Rose Lerner excels at, and why she’s one of my faves.

“Promised Land” also talks about religion in this way that I rarely see in fiction. Rachel and Nathan are both Jewish, but Rachel has fallen away from some kinds of religious observance since she left home — by necessity and by desire. As the book goes on, she and Nathan talk about the different practices of faith, and why they matter, and what they want for themselves as Jewish Americans. I cried a lil bit. Don’t judge me.

Road Trip: “The Pursuit of…”, by Courtney Milan

This one’s about a free black soldier who stumbles upon a British officer just as the war is coming to an end. John and Henry wind up traveling together in part because Henry can’t think of anything else to do with himself — he’s deserted his post and would face only disgrace if he went back to his family.

Eh, this was my least favorite of the bunch. I loved the conversations John and Henry had about worth and freedom and espoused vs practiced American values. I just didn’t care for Henry. He’s that chatty nonsense-talking brand of Milan hero that’s never done it for me in her past books, and didn’t do it for me here. But I understand from other reviews that I am in a heavy minority. “The Pursuit of” has a road trip and much discussion of values, and if you like those things you’ll probably like it. I have failed this city.

Chaos Muppet & Order Muppet: “That Could Be Enough,” Alyssa Cole

After years as Eliza Hamilton’s servant, Mercy has seen enough of love to know that she doesn’t want anything to do with it. But she begins to reconsider when her household is visited by a confident, vivacious dressmaker determined to draw Mercy out from the limitations she’s imposed on herself.

I don’t know if unified Muppet theory is the best way to describe this story, actually! What I like about it is similar to what I like about the Jane Eyre / Rochester romance, i.e., the inherent funniness of someone friendly and verbal and external hooking onto someone who holds everything very close to their chest, and then being relentlessly nuts about them, no matter how confusing the unfriendly one finds this. That’s this novella. As a not-un-walls-having person myself, I found it really poignant to watch Mercy discover that all the acceptance she’s been too frightened to ask for was at her fingertips all along. And I loved how reluctantly drawn she is to Andromeda from the first minute they meet. It’s a lovely story with (of course!) a happy ending.

Hamilton’s Battalion is poignant and clear-sighted, but somehow joyous too; a wonderful collection of stories about the unquashed and unquashable potential of our country and its people. (And love, obviously.)

  1. Pronounced maTOOR, naturally
  2. This happened the same day we found out David Cameron fucked a pig, so a p. good day all told.
  3. I maintain that Hamilton, like many historical fictions, is about our time and not its. That doesn’t solve the problem of its ignoring the existence of indigenous peoples who were violently displaced in the name of the American experiment.

Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

Don’t you love a debut novel? Admittedly in this trashfire world I am prone to getting sentimental about things it is insane to get sentimental about, like tiny foods and sitcom episodes where people discover emotional truths about themselves; but I do feel sentimental about debut novels and the hope they represent. There’s something quite magical about an editor believing in a brand new author, and there’s something even magical-er about an author setting their first-ever book into the world like a message in a bottle, searching for their exactly-right community of readers.

Which is why I’m mightily grateful to Sarah of The Illustrated Page for putting me onto Rivers Solomon’s debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts. It’s a dystopian story about a generation ship, the Matilda, that sharply segregates its people by class. The (mostly darker-skinned) citizens of the lower decks are subject to forced labor, daily headcounts, floggings if they step out of line, and the whims of the guards who patrol their decks. In spite of this, our heroine Aster has managed to teach herself medicine and science from the gen ship’s archives and wangle a friendship with the ship’s revered priest/Surgeon, Theo. Poring through her late mother’s journals, Aster realizes that there may be a way to escape from the Matilda, but it will require all of her resources — and perhaps cost the lives of those she loves — to make it happen.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Friends, An Unkindness of Ghosts is dark. The lives of the people on the lower decks are filled with brutalities perpetrated by those in power, including the second in line for the throne of the Matilda, a cruel Lieutenant who resents Aster’s friendship with Theo. Solomon isn’t as graphic with the sexual violence as I was fearing, but violence of every kind stands as a constant threat, and regular reality, of Aster’s world. So be braced for it.

The book’s light is Aster’s survival, and her insistence on finding (or, more often, making) pockets of beauty and joy in a world that tries to deny that she’s deserving of either. She’s angry and dogged, and she most wonderfully refuses to pretend to be anyone other than who she is. She’s black and autistic and intersex, and no matter how many people tell her that one or all of those things makes her worthless, she persists in knowing her own worth, valuing her own intelligence, and chasing after the things she wants. Here’s what author Rivers Solomon says about the book and the question that stands at its center.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a brutal novel with hope at its core, and it should make you really excited for everything Rivers Solomon is going to write hereafter. It’s published by Akashic Books, an independent publisher I absolutely cherish.

Thanks to my lovely friend Alice for picking me up an ARC at BEA this year! If you want to read more by/about Rivers Solomon, you can check out their Patreon for regular content (poems, flash fiction, short essays, etc).

Review: Song of the Current, Sarah Tolcser

Either book covers have become more beautiful lately, or I have become more susceptible, but I find myself in a constant state of awe over book covers these days. Look at this one, for Sarah Tolcser’s YA novel of at-sea adventures, Song of the Current:

Song of the Current

With the moon? And the way it sparkles on the water? I’m into it.

Song of the Current is about a girl called Caro who comes from a family of wherrymen favored by the river god. At seventeen, she’s never heard the river god’s voice and fears she never will. When her father is arrested and her friends’ boats burned, she must agree to take on a dangerous smuggling job to secure her father’s freedom. Water- and land-based adventures ensue (but mostly water) (hooray).

This book is hard to talk about without spoiling at least one thing, so I’m going to spoil that thing now. It happens very early on and is quite guessable (I guessed it, QED). The crate that Caro is asked to smuggle turns out to contain a human boy. GASP. He’s snooty and bad at boats, and he wears fancy clothes, and he doesn’t want to be smuggled to the place where Caro has been ordered to smuggle him. But she has no intention of letting a snooty landlubber determine the fate of her wherry and her family. DOES a grudging respect build? You’ll have to read it to find out.

(But yes. I mean, of course. What blog do you even think you’re reading right now?)

Song of the Current is so fun, y’all. Caro is clever and resourceful, a smuggler and a talented sailor; she belongs to a number of overlapping communities, all of which are deeply important to her. Her growing relationship with Marko is important, but it’s not the only relationship that matters or changes in the book. We also get to see her coming to terms with her destiny, with her mother’s family, with her father, and none of these relationships are as simple as she wants them to be.

This is also my favorite thing, a road trip story!, which necessarily makes it a little episodic. If you are fine with this (I am), you will be delighted — not every obstacle is an antagonist, and not every antagonist fights with the same weapons. We got a chance to see each of the characters at their best, a series of competences that makes it easy to root for everyone. Song of the Current reads like a standalone but appears to be the first in a series, and I can’t wait to see more of these folks. Song of the Current is a fresh, exciting debut with all the watery adventures your heart could hope for.

Review: Playing Dead, Elizabeth Greenwood

Can a book about not really being dead count for RIP? Yes, right? I can count Playing Dead in my RIP list, right? Because when push came to shove, I discovered that I just didn’t want to read the posthumously completed The Painted Queen, or at least I do not want to read it yet. So I am subbing in Playing Dead. I think it’s fine. Death is spooky!

Playing Dead

Elizabeth Greenwood first became interested in faking her own death as she faced the inevitable facts of her six-figure student loans, on which she continues to pay mostly interest payments month after month. Five years later, Playing Dead is the fruit of her labors, after she has traveled all over the place talking to death-fakers, death-faker survivors, and death-faker finders, even going so far as to have her own death faked in the Philippines — a country famously easy to fake your own death in.

(Oh, Brits, fact-check! Elizabeth Greenwood says all British people are very aware of Canoe Man. Are you? This guy who faked his death in a canoeing incident? If you are British, is this a thing with which you are familiar? Please leave me a note in the comments. National cultural awareness is interesting to me.)

The main thing that I learned is that faking your death by drowning is the stupidest way to do it. If you fake your death by drowning you will definitely get caught. Seems easy and intuitive, right? No body is a reasonable expectation if drowning? False! Most bodies eventually wash up if drowned, and every amateur death-faker on earth thinks that fake drowning is the way to go, so you’ll make your insurance company’s investigators suspicious.

Greenwood also found that it was massively difficult to find women to discuss death-faking with — although she does have a wonderful chapter of chitchatting with a woman called Pearl who spearheads efforts to prove that Michael Jackson’s death was faked and that he’s still alive. Either more men than women fake their own deaths, or more men than women get caught. Certainly the stakes tend to be higher with women:

Men came to [death-faking expert Frank Ahern] with money problems; they had come into money or had lost it all, and his female clients had violence problems: stalkers or abusive husbands.

So it makes sense that fewer women get caught, or are willing to speak with a journalist about the experience. What a fucked-up world we live in.

See, that was quite dark, wasn’t it? This totally counts for RIP.

RIP Read: Food of the Gods, Cassandra Khaw

By coincidence (OR WAS IT?)1 I read Food of the Gods directly after The Prey of Gods, which has led me to make numerous errors about which book title has the word the in which place. But both are weird, and both left me feeling decidedly unsettled after I turned over the last page. Food of the Gods is a combination of two novellas about Rupert Wong, who works part-time for the lord of hell and part-time as a chef for a particularly powerful ghoul mob boss with a taste for flawlessly prepared human flesh. Ordinarily this is fine for Rupert (I mean. Fine-ish.), until one day a god comes to him to demand that Rupert find out who killed his, the god’s, daughter. Next thing Rupert knows, he’s tangled up in a brutal war of gods that’s way way above his pay grade.

(Pray grade? Get it? Cause gods? No?)

Food of the Gods

Do not read if you don’t have a strong stomach. I have never read a book with so many viscera, including Gabriel Squailia’s book entitled Viscera. Not only is Rupert mixing with a wide range of violent people and gods, any of whom is likely at a moment’s notice to start wreaking bloody havoc, but his job also involves a pretty high number of sloshing intestines and globby detached organs.

If you can power through that, though, Khaw is a weird and wonderful voice in dark fantasy. She writes with equal facility about the gods of China and Greece, about the chill unfriendliness of London and the hot, noisy hubbub of Kuala Lumpur. I’ve now read two of her fantasy horror stories, and am eager to read more — as well as her queer alleged-romcom-though-having-read-her-other-work-I-have-my-doubts-about-that novella published with the Book Smugglers, Bearly a Lady.

(PS if you want to support the Book Smugglers in publishing cool, strange, diverse fiction, you can toss a few dollars at their Kickstarter, which is still going on!)

Food of the Gods was an excellent start to my RIP season! What spooky books have you been reading this fall?

  1. Yes it was.

Review: The Prey of Gods, Nicky Drayden

“Whatcha reading?” said someone to me as I was waiting in line at the post office the other day. I flipped up the cover of The Prey of Gods (which is a p. cool cover, as you will see below.) “What’s it about?” they said. And I was like, “My friend, that is a GOOD FUCKIN QUESTION.”

The Prey of Gods was described to me by two separate people as being the craziest SF book they’d read in a while, and they were not mistaken. What’s it about? Gods and robots, sometimes working together, sometimes really not at all. Viruses. The power of music to bring people together. Little girls with wings and more power than they know what to do with.

Prey of Gods

The Prey of Gods has five central characters: a demigoddess called Sydney who is seeking to regain the power she’s deeply bitter over having lost; a Zulu girl, Nomvula, who is only just beginning to understand the power she holds; a Xhosa boy called Muzi whose first sexual experience is marred by a sudden discovery that he can control his boyfriend’s mind; a pop singer called Riya who is balancing her celebrity with her chronic pain; and a trans politician sorting out where she wants to channel her undeniable skill for making people follow her.

What to say about this book? It is bonkers. When I first heard about it, I googled it to determine its plot, but all the descriptions and reviews just seemed to be listing things it contained: South Africa! Dik-diks! Robots becoming sentient! At the time it was frustrating, but I understand now where those posts are coming from. The Prey of Gods is in a perpetual controlled skid from wild idea to wild idea, such that exclamatory lists of ideas do seem to give a better sense of the book than any description could. There are gods and pop songs and genetically engineered creatures yearning to live free.

As Sarah pointed out in her review, the pacing feels off at times, which may be a natural consequence of establishing four complete backstories, with enough depth that we’ll understand why, when push comes to shove, these characters make these choices. But as a trade-off, it worked pretty well for me: I felt like I knew who all these people were, what their lives had made of them, and how their newfound powers were affecting them. I’m in for the sequel, definitely, because I want to see what all of them do with their lives now that [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS].

There you go. You may still have no idea what The Prey of Gods is about (I don’t), but hopefully I have said enough words that you can make a guess as to whether or not this book is for you. As for me, I’m in the tank for whatever Nicky Drayden and her wild-idea-generator of a mind are going to do next.

Not a Dumb American: South Africa Edition

Here it is halfway through the year (well more than half but not that much more), and I have read three of my planned four histories of African nations for 2017. YAY ME. Because I happened to see it at my library, and because it was blurbed by Desmond Tutu, I picked up a copy of Leonard Thompson and Lynn Berat’s A History of South Africa.

History of South Africa

One thing that struck me about South African history is the role that economics plays in how colonialism ends up working. In the early-to-mid 1800s, England had a presence in South Africa, right? And they came into conflict with the descendants of the Dutch settlers (the Afrikaners) because they wanted to impose a system of government that gave equal rights to black and white citizens. However, while the British found it all well and good to give nominal rights to black folks at a time and in a place where their economic interests were not engaged–

Actually, before I finish that clause, a sidebar: One of the huge reasons that England was able to pride itself on its relatively humane treatment of its colonies in this era (early to mid-1800s) is that it had massive massive economic control. By the middle of the Victorian era, Britain controlled close to a majority of world trade in manufactured goods. They were in a unique economic situation that enabled them to be a little less horrible to small, economically unimportant outposts like South Africa. End sidebar.

–they massively changed their tune once it became clear that South Africa had valuable mineral resources. The Afrikaners (descendants of the Dutch colonizers) were prone to kidnapping African children as “apprentices” (but actually slaves) to work on their farm land — among other things — so it would seem as though the British government, taking over after the Boer War, would be a step up.

it is almost as if imperialism is inherently corrupting and there’s no good way to do it idk

Because the British still didn’t want to be bothered governing a colony, they largely let the Afrikaners continue to run things. Mining companies cut wages, tightened pass laws to keep black laborers from traveling freely within the country, and brought in scabs from China any time the labor force balked at the treatment they were receiving and tried to strike.

I also learned a brand new thing about the way apartheid government functioned, which I not only didn’t know before but had not even the faintest inkling had ever existed. Apparently, the apartheid government in South Africa created these places called “Homelands,” which were small rural territories to which black South Africans were given citizenship to prevent them from living in urban areas. And the government was like “See? We have granted independence to our black citizens, just like all the Europeans wanted us to!”

The actual effect of these Homelands was not to provide any measure of self-determination to the indigenous populations but the exact opposite. Unless white-run businesses wanted the cheap labor, black South Africans were not permitted to live in “white” areas and would be resettled (forcibly, if necessary) into one of the designated Homelands. This also (surprise!) had the effect of curtailing the amount of land that black folks could occupy or own. The various Homelands were separated from each other by swathes of white-controlled territory, and “citizens” couldn’t leave their designated Homelands without specific permission, which of course made it very hard for black South Africans to put together an organized resistance.

They did, though. In spite of government brutality and limited resources and the reluctance of Thatcher-led Britain and Reagan-led America to impose sanctions on the apartheid government, the country’s majority of black people continued to resist, first by the nonviolent means advocated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, then with something closer to guerrilla warfare.

One of my big takeaways was that the country was deeply lucky to have Nelson Mandela (yes yes I know this is the HOTTEST OF TAKES), who fought tirelessly for freedom under apartheid and then worked like hell to make peace a possibility in a deeply, deeply divided country. The tricky bit is that his popularity gave extraordinary power to his party, the ANC, which remains overwhelmingly dominant in South African politics. If you are a student of history you will note that dominance by a single party is not a recipe for longterm national stability. WHICH IS WHY GERRYMANDERING IS A FUCKING AWFUL IDEA, AMERICA.

Narrator: She was not calm.

This has been yr humble narrator learning more things about African countries, one by one. Some day soon I’ll know everything about everything, so stand by for that plausible, non-distant day. If you want to check out the main page for this reading project, it’s here. If you want to suggest a country for me to learn about next, hit me up in the comments!