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 GodsĀ 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!

Review: Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

WHAT. A GREAT. BOOK.

WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I confess that I delayed reading Ninefox Gambit, recent well-deserved winner of the Locus Award for First Novel, given that all the reviews I read of it said that it was SF as hell and explained absolutely nothing. And look: That was correct information. Several people explained to me in advance the whole deal with calendrical rot and what it all meant, and even so, I was at sea for the first AT LEAST forty pages, like to the point that I did not feel confident I had grasped the meaning of any of the events that had unfolded up to that point.

Ninefox Gambit

“Wow you are doing a great job selling this book Jenny” I KNOW I KNOW but let me get to the point.

Well, no, okay, I’ll summarize it first. I’m not going to worry too much about the technical aspects, since you won’t understand them anyway until you’re halfway through the sequel. Bear with me. A very orderly Order Muppet indeed, Cheris, has been tapped to deal with a group of rebels (heretics) who are adhering to a different belief system (calendar) that threatens the stability of the government (hexarchate). But she can’t do it alone. Too Orderly. To help her out, they are depositing the world’s most ever chaotic Chaos Muppet, Jedao, into her brain. Once upon a time he was the Ender Wiggin of the hexarchate, winning vicious battles against impossible odds, right up until the day he slaughtered millions of people — enemies and allies alike — and then turned his gun on his own staff. Does he have a hidden agenda? Read it and find out!

Okay, now I will get to the point. If you have interest at all in watching brilliant people be mercilessly competent while simultaneously battling their inner demons, Ninefox Gambit is your book. (Black Sails may also be your show but that’s going to be a longer, separate conversation.) The trick for Jedao is attaining a victory without any use of the hexarchate’s best magic tricks, against an enemy with unbreachable defenses. The trick for Cheris is not to be (ideologically) seduced by Jedao, who has nothing but his words and his brains for weapons but who tends to triumph against insane odds every time he gets the chance. And the trick for the hexarchate, of course, is to avoid another mass slaughter by a general they chose to put in the field.

I loved this book, y’all. I do not tend to enjoy SF (or fantasy, actually) where there is lots of new terminology to remember, but I fell into Ninefox Gambit like a ton of bricks. I had a severe and annoying case of mentionitis. I drove the far, far drive to a separate, far-away library branch because I couldn’t wait for the library holds system to acquire the sequel, The Raven Stratagem. This is going to be one of my best books of 2017, and I want you to love it as much as I do.

Here is what I can do for you. If you wish to read Ninefox Gambit but aren’t 100% sure you can roll with the very ess-eff-y SF-ness of it, I give you permission to tweet at me (@readingtheend) or email me (readingtheend AT gmail DOT com) with any questions you may have at any stage, and I promise I will answer them, to the level of detail that you require.

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

WHAT A DELIGHT. If you’re one of those people who laments the decline of the rom-com as a movie genre, and you remotely enjoy YA, I must insist that you read When Dimple Met Rishi. I yearn and yearn for it to be made into a teen movie. Whatever happened to teen movies? Where are the Can’t Hardly Waits of the new generation?

When Dimple Met Rishi

So the deal is that Dimple, a budding coder, gets permission from her parents to attend Insomnia Con, at which the winning app design will receive support and backing from legendary computer person Jenny Lindt. BUT THERE’S A CATCH. Unbeknownst to Dimple, her parents have set her up to meet with Rishi Patel, the son of their friends and a (hypothetically) perfect candidate to become Dimple’s husband someday. Are they paired up to be partners in app design? YOU KNOW IT, PAL.

Where to begin with things I loved about this book. Like, number one, I love a romantic comedy, and When Dimple Met Rishi is a perfect romantic comedy, from the disastrous first meeting to the wonderful side characters with their worthwhile subplots to the mushy, swoony declarations of love at the end. I truly do miss the era of fun, sweet, soft-hearted rom-com films, and When Dimple Met Rishi filled that hole in my heart.

Number two, I adore and cherish Dimple for her strengths — her brilliance, her drive and ambition, her love for her parents even when they’re driving her batty — as well as for her weaknesses. She acts quickly and on instinct in ways that can make her a little mean and dismissive, which resonated with me as a somewhat mean and dismissive person. I loved her for always coming back to her mistakes and trying to find ways to make them right, and I loved that she let herself see Rishi for who he was, rather than just what he stood for (the Ideal Indian Husband).

Number three and oh so much of this, I love that Menon let Rishi do emotions. This is a boy who wants to grow up to be a father and husband, and it is vanishingly rare to encounter such a boy in fiction (even though I have encountered several of them in real life). He’s gentle but not weak, and he stands up for Dimple from the first moment they meet, and it’s the damn best.

Is there Bollywood dancing? Yes there is Bollywood dancing. Are there rude rich kids who get put in their place? Abso-damn-lutely. When Dimple Met Rishi. Do yourself a favor and read it ASAP.

Thanks to Janani, among others, for raving about this book so hard that I had to read it. ETA: Aarti is my review twin today! Check out her review also!

Everything I Learned from the Best American Science and Nature Writing This Year

Ha, ha, just kidding. How could I possibly enumerate every single thing that I learned from this year’s edition of the Best American Science and Nature Writing? Impossible! I have already forgotten most of it! My brain is a leaky sieve and I am lucky even to remember my blog password in order to log in and write this post!

Best American Science and Nature Writing

I read this as part of the #24in48 Readathon, which was great except that right as I got to the end and I was all like “nailed it, book finished, no more science to be learned here,” and then they had an appendix with a list of like twenty more science articles to look up and read. I haven’t done it yet BUT I WILL. My thirst for science information is vast and all-consuming.

Or, okay, my thirst for science information is quenched by periodically reading a bunch of pop science journal articles, but like, better than nothing, right? And there’s no need for judgment anyway! Don’t you want to hear what all I learned? With links?

From Rose Eveleth’s “Why Are Sports Bras So Terrible,” I learned that there are many many obstacles in the way of us getting awesome sports bras, and one of them is that companies don’t want to sell sports bras in which women don’t look adorable BECAUSE APPARENTLY WE HAVE TO JUST LOOK CUTE ALL THE TIME GODDAMMIT.

I did not exactly learn about AA’s evidence problem by reading Gabrielle Glaser’s “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” but it reminded me how frustrating I find it that as a society we’re weirdly unwilling to consider alternative treatments for addiction than this one that’s ineffective for the majority of people who use it because it’s basically church.

By contrast, I had no idea that bed rest for pregnant ladies wasn’t backed by science. Apparently it’s NOT. Or so says “The Bed-Rest Hoax,” by Alexandra Kleeman. Gasp.

From Charles Mann’s “Solar, Eclipsed,” I learned a bit more about national efforts in India to figure out how to get electricity to the many rural areas that don’t reliably have it. The Modi government was for a time the darling of the renewable energy crowd for its apparent commitment to solar energy (although NOT the darling of the religious liberty crowd, given Modi’s Hindu nationalism, I understand? idk correct me if I’m wrong), but has since shifted more to the use of coal energy (eek).

For some reason I thought the only nail salon scoop we had recently was about the terrible pay in nail salons in New York. But no, Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” has made me feel that regardless of pay conditions at any given nail salon, it’s still p. unethical to go there. Because the nail salon workers apparently all have horrific health problems as a result of the terrible nail chemicals. This is exactly why I stopped eating microwave popcorn, guys.

Rinku Patel’s “Bugged” taught me something I am now furious I haven’t seen in science fiction stories: Astronauts have immune system problems when they get back from space! Space is too sterile! Astronauts get home from space and their systems are all screwed up and their immune systems go haywire and produce wacko allergies out of nowhere. Get on this, SF.

In bleak and terrifying news, Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One” told me that the Pacific Northwest is going to absolutely have a massive earthquake and it’s going to be devastating and we’re not prepared. It was scary af. Also, I learned that the length of time an earthquake lasts is a reasonable proxy for how severe an earthquake it is. Y’all California people probably all knew that already but I am an earthquake noob. I only know hurricanes.

Anyway, thanks, science. I am sad about some things and excited about other things. I guess that is the fate of deeply engaged science learners like myself.

Speculative Tales from the Caribbean

Happy Wednesday! We had to push the podcast back due to me not getting it edited in time, so I instead bring you the glad tidings of Akashic Books, by way of Karen Lord’s collection New Worlds Old Ways.

New Worlds Old Ways

Have you heard about Akashic Books? They are great. They are an independent publishing company that seeks out and publishes work by “authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.” As you might suspect based on that description, they are based in Brooklyn.

but seriously, Akashic Books is awesome
heehee that was a good burn on Brooklyn

Anyway, one of the many ways in which Akashic Books is great is that it has an imprint called Peekash Press that’s dedicated to the literature of the Caribbean. And one of Peekash Press’s books is New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, edited by Karen Lord. This is great because SFF was my first love and remains my true love, and I am always thrilled to expand my knowledge of SFF authors who aren’t white or American. You can zip through New Worlds Old Ways in a few hours (it’s short!), but you’ll come away with many new authors whose work you can investigate thereafter.

A few highlights:

“A New Life in a New Time,” by Portia Subran, is about a slightly hapless office worker called Bernard who works in cryonics; the story speaks to both office politics and the human desire for immortality, so naturally I was all about it.

“Daddy,” by Damion Wilson, starts like this: “It was the day I buried my sister that I discovered my father could teleport.” So. I mean.”

“Cascadura,” by H. K. Williams, is about the longest-lived woman in the entire world. She has seen the end of the world as we now know it and survived into a new world. I find immortality exhausting to contemplate, and “Cascadura” really did it for me. (Cf “A New Life in a New Time.)

Check out this collection and then dive into Akashic’s whole catalog. They’re great; you won’t be sorry.

Review: Beyond Trans, Heath Fogg Davis

So it used to be that I cared what words people used to describe their gender. Not a lot, but some. Enough to roll my eyes about this or that gender description that I suspected the youths had gotten from spending too much time on Tumblr. At some point, though, I stopped caring, and I have to tell you that it is a much, much better way of life. Society wants you to care a lot about gender, and my path as I have gotten older and older is to care about gender closer and closer to zero. Are women supposed to this? Are men supposed to that?

SANSA STARK

Heath Fogg Davis’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? is a refreshing reminder that many of the areas in which we think we care about gender could do with some reexamination. He’s not actually arguing that gender never matters, although as I get older and older I more and more think that it maybe does not. Does gender matter isn’t a rhetorical question for Davis; the book explores whether and how gender matters on personal identification documents, in various sports settings, bathrooms, sex-segregated schools, etc.

A government agency such as the CDC has legitimate public health reasons for collecting and maintaining sex-specific data. However, the agency should define its use of those terms and clearly articulate the “substantial” connection between its use of sex classification and its institutional objectives. Instead of using “female” or “male” as a proxy for particular body parts, the agency may find that the more targeted language of “people with uteruses” or “people with prostate glands” is more statistically inclusive.

That is just a really good idea? Because of trans and intersex people (intersex people are as common as redheads, a statistic I read recently in Hida Viloria’s Born Both and now can’t stop repeating to people), many of the common gender definitions turn out to be inadequate. Differentiating between sex classifications that depend on hormone differences, present or absent body parts, and present or absent chromosomes enables us to have clearer conversations about what criteria are being applied and why. As Davis points out, the alternative is that we depend on the discretion of individuals like TSA agents, bouncers, or bus drivers to determine whether a person’s gender/sex matches what’s on their documents. Which is unfair to the people whose gender is being policed, and also unfair to the people being asked to police gender without any clear definitions or guides on how to do it.

At a minimum, I would like to see individual schools clearly and publicly explain whether and how sex classification is related to their organizational aims.

This is basically what Davis is asking for: Not that organizations unilaterally eliminate gender as an identifier, but rather that they take a step back and ask themselves why they need to know and what goals will be accomplished by asking this question.

I don’t always agree with Davis’s arguments — at one point he makes the case for increased use of biometrics, which seems dicey as hell from a privacy standpoint — but Beyond Trans is an excellent book that asks its readers to stop taking gender for granted and instead to think critically about what gender differentiation is accomplishing in all the spheres where we think it’s important. Is it actually important? Davis asks, or is it just a habit? And if it’s the latter, why do we need to keep caring about it?

Thanks to the lovely Monika for reviewing this book recently and reminding me of how much I wanted to read it too!

Review: Take Us to Your Chief, Drew Hayden Taylor

Between Neil Gaiman and Nalo Hopkinson and now Drew Hayden Taylor, I may need to reconsider my stated position that I am not a fan of short story collections. The emended version of this position — triggered by my reading of Drew Hayden Taylor’s collection Take Us to Your Chief — is that I am not a fan of short story collections unless they are SFF.

Take Us to Your Chief

Take Us to Your Chief is a wonderfully charming, clever, melancholy collection of what Taylor describes as Native sci-fi. The author is an Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations, and indigenous traditions and ways of living and thinking inform every one of these stories. In one, dream-catchers turn ominous; in another, a newly born artificial intelligence tries to find a place for its soul within native beliefs.

I was aware of Taylor as a playwright — I keep trying to convince my library to order alterNatives but so far no dice — and, more recently, as a humorist, but this is my first introduction to his SFF. As he notes in the afterword, this book exists because he didn’t have enough money to pay potential contributors to a Canadian Native sci-fi anthology; so it may also have been his first introduction to his SFF. At times there’s a little clumsiness with conveying complicated premises, but his writing is very assured overall. He weaves Native influences into familiar types of stories (first contact, government’s-gonna-get-you, etc.) in a way that makes them seem utterly fresh.

I also love the idea of a Native SFF anthology. Does that exist? Can someone point me to it? Failing that, I’d love to be pointed towards more First Nations / Indigenous / Indian authors of speculative fiction. Any recommendations?