Wanna hear a joke? I got After Disasters out from the library the week after the election. Get it. Get it. Because the election was a disaster and now we are after it.
After Disasters circles around a lot of different events, but the one at its center is the 2001 earthquake in the District of Gujarat, in India. Ted and Dev and Piotr and Andy are all involved in the earthquake disaster response, and this story follows their recovery efforts as well as how they came to be in their professions and how all their lives intertwine. It is one of those books with many moving parts that reaches its conclusion and feels — though not every loose end gets resolved — both satisfying and inevitable.
Viet Dinh employs a style of reveal of which I am particularly fond, which is to unspool gradually the emotional backgrounds of these characters in a way that casts light backward onto what we’ve seen from them already. It’s done so smoothly that even saying “reveal” is overly sensational. In practice it feels more like a gentle reminder: You knew already, didn’t you, that Ted used to work in pharmaceuticals and that this current job is a kind of atonement? Yes. The information feels so familiar that you must have known it in the first place.1
I also loved Dinh’s depiction of the practicalities of disaster relief work. I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of how he wrote about these people, but it felt at least very real, how the workers from different countries and agencies would remember each other from previous disasters, or how the practicalities of transportation would supersede nearly everything else. It was a reminder that no disaster is ever damaging enough, and no job stressful enough, that the people involved stop being human.
“This is a high-stress job, and when people work in close proximity — what do you expect? It’s emergency sex. All the aid workers sleep with one another.”
“Even Catholic Charities?”
“Especially Catholic Charities!”
I am a Catholic, and I endorse this joke.
He can’t take it, he can’t take the collapse, the damage, the dust; he wants to know that the world hasn’t forgotten him; that, in these moments after disasters, people are reaching out, so even though all the lines are still busy, all the lines are occupied, he tries, again and again and again, until — finally — he connects–
After Disasters is a lovely and sad book that gets at the meaninglessness of the disasters it depicts without ever sinking into despair. I haven’t seen much coverage of it thus far, and I’m hoping this year brings it the acclaim (I think) it deserves.
This is one of Maggie Stiefvater’s greatest gifts as a writer. ↩
In Simone Zelitch’s book Judenstaat (Tor, 2016), no Jewish state was created in territory that had once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Instead, Judenstaat was created in Saxony, bordering Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Forty years later, documentary filmmaker Judit Klemmer is creating a film about the state’s creation, while she is haunted by memories of her husband Hans, a Saxon conductor shot years ago as he conducted the National Symphony for the first time. When Judit receives a note saying simply They lied about the murder, she is plunged into a world of conflicting histories and conspiracy.
So before I dive into talking about Judenstaat, let me say up front that I do not know much of anything about Israel and Palestine. One of these days I am going to have enough time to really dig deep into what’s going on over there, and at that time I will form an opinion, and hopefully it will be a non-stupid opinion. For now, I don’t know enough about it to speak intelligently, and I therefore cannot say anything about how (or even if, frankly) Judenstaat‘s reality speaks to that of our own world.
I also do not have more than a high-schooler’s grasp on World War II history. As I was finishing this book, there was a whole uproar on Twitter over a dude who was equating USSR treatment of Jews to Nazi treatment of Jews. Soviet anti-Semitism comes up in this book, and here again, I simply don’t have the historical background knowledge to be able to say whether Zelitch does a good job of treating real-world history in this work of alternate history. So if you have views about this in relation to Judenstaat, and you feel like popping into the comments and telling me about them, I’d love you to do that.
(Because this is fundamentally who I am as a person, I went hunting for some further background information and added some books to my intimidating nonfiction TBR list. That list is very long however. My quest to know everything will last me many years.)
That very long disclaimer is to say that I can only speak to Judenstaat insofar as it is kind of a murder mystery and very much a book about what nations permit their people to remember. And on those fronts, I think that it succeeds admirably. As Judit uncovers more footage from her country’s past, she realizes more and more that the tidy version of history in which she has always believed, the narrative of her country’s creation and the values on which it claims to be founded, is flawed and incomplete. Did I find this to be terrifyingly relevant as our country awaits the presidency of a bigoted demagogue with no experience in government who got elected anyway because white America doesn’t believe in equality nearly as much as we say we do? Yes, okay? Yes, I super did.
(I am finding all my books to be terrifyingly relevant lately. Selection bias or apophenia? YOU DECIDE.)
Zelitch sensibly doesn’t subject us to too many visits from the Exposition Fairy, which was great for the murder mystery but not so good for my poor brain as I tried to figure out Judit’s country timeline and what the official history was versus what she was discovering as she made her film. If you are planning to read Judenstaat, I recommend carving out some time to sit down and really get into it. Even knowing that I’d missed some details, though, this was a really terrific read. I kept thinking of all the countries where history that doesn’t fit tidily into a linear narrative of progress towards shared national values is discarded and discredited. Like: We shouldn’t be able to talk about our country’s founding, or the liberal idea of ourselves as “a nation of immigrants,” without addressing the fact that these ideas are predicated on the violent destruction of American Indians.
Or like (if you want to look at something a bit farther away): I read Anjan Sundaram’s Bad News earlier this year, which talked about (among other things) the fact that Paul Kagame — the hero who ended the Rwandan genocide — also invaded Congo and carried out mass atrocities against Hutu refugees in that country. In Rwanda, Sundaram reports, you can never talk about that. You can talk about how Kagame saved the country. You can talk about the horrors of the genocide against the Tutsis. History that doesn’t fit into that narrative isn’t welcome.
Judenstaat teaches Judit (and reminds us) that history is never so simple. Nobody can hold power and keep their hands clean. We need to have heroes, but even more (argues the book, and I argue it, too), we need to know the truth about them. We need to speak — shout! — the truth about their failures so that we can avoid repeating them. Even saying that is probably a simplification of Zelitch’s message: She resists easy answers in this book, which offers no tidy solutions but only questions upon questions upon questions.
A note: I read the first edition of Becoming Evil, published in 2002, because that’s the edition my library had a copy of. Waller did publish a second edition in 2007, which may contain a more robust defense of evolutionary psychology and some refinements to his model.
So one of my things for the upcoming year (two years, four years) is that I want to learn more about the historical, social, and scientific contexts for some of the things I’m afraid will happen under President Trump. One thing that scares me is the heightening of racist speech against Muslims and immigrants. More and more in recent years, America has been rhetorically isolating certain groups, and this worried me badly even before a president got elected on the strength of that type of rhetoric. Laws that target Muslims have been in place since 9/11, and the election of President Trump will almost certainly lead to more open legal targeting of vulnerable groups. This is, to put it lightly, not a good path for us to walk down.
I checked out James Waller’s Becoming Evil about a week after the election, as well as an enormous book all about genocide, because I guess I am not an optimist. We all want to believe the “never again” rhetoric; we want to believe that we’re sufficiently enlightened that it couldn’t happen here, but I have read enough books about genocide and its aftermath to know that it could absolutely happen anywhere.
I KNOW THIS IS A VERY DOWNER POST. But, still important, so on we bloodily stagger. Becoming Evil posits a four-part model that explains why people do evil things.1 The first prong of the model depends on evolutionary psychology, a branch of science that makes me want to lie down on the floor for several hours because it is nigh untestable and I find that suspect.2 The idea is that we are prone to love “us” and be suspicious of “them” — which I do believe, based on the way even tiny infants respond in tests, but which I have yet to be convinced is due to How We Lived in Ancient Times. But however it may be with evolutionary psychology, the first prong of the model is, basically, suspicion of outsiders.3
The second prong of the model is personal characteristics that make a person more prone to Evil.4 Cultural belief systems that emphasize submission to authority and externalize the locus of control of one’s life tend to produce people more inclined to accede to the commission of violence like genocide. Moral disengagement also makes genocide more likely — i.e., justifying one’s behavior to oneself, giving euphemistic labels to the bad deeds one is doing, etc. And finally, of course, self-interest plays a role: Very often when genocide takes place, it’s because the perpetrator group believes they will profit by the elimination of the victim group.
Y’all, I know this is a super heavy post. Let’s all take a breather and have a look at this Pomeranian getting blow-dried.
Okay, that was a good Pomeranian, thank heavens, because this third element is the one that feels the most controllable and urgent to me. (You can see what you think.) The third prong of Waller’s model is about the immediate social contexts in which we are asked to commit acts of violence and exclusion; he calls this “a culture of cruelty” and explores some ways that we’re socialized gradually into such a culture. Reading the book as “how not to commit genocide 101,” this prong of the model was the most useful to me. Here are two hot tips I gleaned:
Do not do small, harmless-seeming compliances. Waller talks about “escalating commitments,” wherein we (humans) are more likely to commit resources to something “once [we] have been induced to go along with a small initial request.” He describes it as a “mounting momentum of compliance” — once we have done the first thing, we want to believe that we’re doing Right, so we get deeper and deeper in. Waller quotes psychologist John Darley as saying “the individual’s morality follows rather than leads.” Our brains are basically very bad at doing things we don’t agree with, so if we start regularly doing an action like saying “Heil Hitler,” our brains are like “oh yeah we must think Hitler is good, else why would we keep saying this thing?” Don’t comply with the small things, and you inoculate yourself (to a degree) against compliance with the big things.
Related: Get better at not conforming not to peer pressure. I know this is so, so difficult. We are social animals and we want to fit in with the group. But this is a reason that people go along with mass murder: They never got good at resisting peer pressure, and they feel guilty “making” their peers do this unfun dirty work of, you know, literally killing people. Get good at it now while it’s easy, and you’re less likely later to agree to violence and repression against a target group.
The last prong of the model, of course, is inflicting “social death” upon the target population; i.e., making the “them” into the themiest “them” you possibly can manage. This includes rhetorical othering (see why I’ve been saying all along not to do that!) as well as physical separation (into, for instance, camps) and super-intense victim-blaming, which arises from our passionate desire to believe that the world is just and that if we ourselves do everything right, we and our loved ones will be safe and not get genocided.
The scary thing about this book5 is how quickly countries can move from the small things — the rhetoric, the ritual displays of national loyalty — to actual straight-up genocide. A robust democracy with lots of participation by its citizens is a strong line of defense against mass ethnic violence, so it is, again, incumbent upon us to be that. Defend our institutions, and participate early and often in our democracy, any way that you can.
Sidebar, I have thought for years that it’s a bad idea to use the word “evil” to describe people who do particularly awful crimes like child abuse or murder. It’s an othering kind of word that absolves us of any commonalities we may share with the so-called evildoer, and I think that makes us less willing to believe that these crimes can happen close to us. Waller says, “Extraordinary human evil can never be simply distilled to one particular psychiatric diagnosis. To do so is to project evil exclusively onto some small segment of the population instead of acknowledging its imminent presence in each of us.” In other words, if only evil people abuse children, and our kid’s friend’s stepfather does not appear to be evil, then how can we believe our kid’s friend if she says the stepfather touched her inappropriately? He’s not evil, right? And abusers are evil? SEE HOW THIS LEADS TO BAD OUTCOMES? ↩
Man, this post is reeeeeeally how to win friends and influence people 101, n’est-ce pas? “First she said we can’t call child abusers evil, now she’s slagging off all of evolutionary psychology, wot a jerk.” I KNOW I KNOW but honestly I think I am correct on both fronts. Waller addresses some of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology but not really its untestability. Whatever, dude. You know what you did. (Maybe this is better in the second edition.) ↩
This does not reflect well on me, but I admit that I was reading this book trying to see if any of these things applied to me. I am okay on suspicion of outsiders, I think! But I do want to emphasize that this did not happen by magic: My parents taught me to be this way, and I have spent a lot of time in my adult life actively eradicating suspicion of outsiders from my brain by having as diverse a range of life experiences and reading material as possible. I recommend these strategies to everyone. They are not perfect, but they help. ↩
Again, I don’t endorse the use of the word evil. I think it’s a word that’s too unspecific to be of much use in contexts such as these, but whatever, I’m following Waller’s vocab use for the purposes of this post. ↩
I’m in a strange, post-news-outlet state where I follow individual reporters more than I follow entire news outlets. This is possibly symptomatic of my increasing distrust of institutions in the wake of the recent election? And troubles me because of the echo chamber conservative news media insist that I (but not they) are in. I am not sure what the solution is. (Weirdly, the only outlet besides NPR’s Code Switch that I specifically follow on Twitter is the National Review, for like, ideological balance.)
So Wesley Lowery has long been one of my most trusted reporters on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I was excited for his book. They Can’t Kill Us All follows the development of the movement from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, an event I was surprised to discover only occurred in 2013. It feels like we’ve been talking about black death for a million years, but as a national conversation, where white people were forced to stop ignoring racially biased policing,1 that’s somehow only been three years.
For all three of those years (coming up on four), Wesley Lowery’s been on this beat, and if you weren’t paying attention to the development of Black Lives Matter, They Can’t Kill Us All is a terrific way to catch up on what’s been happening. Lowery writes not only about the deaths that became hashtags — Michael Brown, Charles Scott, Tamir Rice — but about the rapid, meteoric growth of activism around police shootings. His reporting at the Washington Post, including his idea for the Police Shooting Database, won the Post the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
Lowery also talks about the process and ethics of reporting on traumatic death, how you walk up to grieving family members on the worst day of their lives, make them trust you, and get quotes out of them to convey to the country what has been lost.
A journalist’s portrait of the deceased is often used by the casual reader to decide if the tragic outcome that befell him or her could have happened to us, or, as is often implied to be the case in those killed by police officers, if this tragic fate was reserved for someone innately criminal who behaved in a way we never would.
Lowery isn’t trying to explain how this movement fits into America’s past or to predict what impact it will have on our future — it’s a book of journalism, not historical analysis. But Lowery’s a great reporter, honest about his errors and aware of the limitations of his form. If you’ve been following Black Lives Matter all along, there’s not a ton of new information in They Can’t Kill Us All, but it’s a terrific overview of how the movement developed.
Ugh, I don’t know how else to qualify this. Many white people continue to close their eyes to racially biased policing. Lots of people of all races have been talking about this for years, but it just hasn’t been picked up national media in the same way that it has over the last three years. Y’all, words are hard. ↩
I didn’t do this on purpose, although I would have if I’d thought of it: The book I read immediately after the election turned out to be a work of experimental fiction that explores how life and education in a dictatorship narrows the range of thoughts that it is possible to think. Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, is a spoof on the Academic Aptitude Exam, required for all college-bound Chilean students, which Zambra took in 1993, when Chile was in transition to democracy following years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
Those tests have multiple “authors,” but when we were kids we thought there was only one, a single God-dictator-author, who knew all the right answers and hid them. While I was writing the book, I thought a lot about how those exercises were, in a way, the opposite of literature. They teach you to put stories in order, for example, following some kind of fixed structure—from the abstract to the concrete, chronologically, from the general to the particular.
This all sounds very somber, and Multiple Choice is anything but. If there can be good, un-cynical parodies of dictatorships, Multiple Choice is one, and in a reading week where my brain was 90% blank terror for the future of our democracy and only about 10% available for processing words in books, it was a lighthearted read that didn’t feel like a cop-out from what’s happening in the world right now. Zambra is kidding on the round, because while dictatorships are absurd, their absurdity is a rhetorical disguise for the very real oppression they’re trying to get you to overlook.
For instance, the fourth section asks you to choose which sentences may be eliminated from a paragraph without damaging the meaning of what’s being said. Zambra launches into the story of a good man who didn’t mean any harm: Sure, the narrator acknowledges that he hated gay people and knew about the torture and disappearances, but so did everyone, didn’t they? And he was still fundamentally a good guy. Not a villain. One of the answer options lets you eliminate all the sentences that mention specific crimes, leaving only this:
(1) I was his friend, I was his pal. I knew him. And it’s not true what they say about him. Some things, sure, but not all of it. I care about what they say, it hurts. It’s as if they were talking about me.
(12) Whatever they may say of him, it’s easy enough to badmouth him now that he’s dead. But I would like you all to know that my friend isn’t all that dead, because he still has me, come what may. I’ll always defend him. Always, buddy–always.
TOO REAL, n’est-ce pas?
A government-controlled structure like the standardized test forces you to choose between a finite set of options, of which zero might make sense — but getting it right (for the government’s definition of “right”) will shape your future and the possibilities that will be open to you. I tried not to apply Multiple Choice too literally to America’s situation, even though I feel real damn dire. But one thing I took away from it, as I read headline after headline in supposedly liberal newspapers that refused to identify Steve Bannon as a white nationalist and anti-Semite, is that the words we use over the next four years are going to be everything. We can’t back away from the truth, no matter how ugly it is.
Note: I received a copy of Committed from the publisher for review consideration.
I maintain a master list of Claims that Require Heightened Scrutiny, and the number one item on my list — indeed the reason I started to maintain the list — is this: Any claim that a complicated problem has a simple solution. Nothing infuriates me more1 than people insisting that a complicated thing is actually very simple if people would just look at it in a new way. No! Systems are complicated! Even when there is a simple solution (e.g., we have a vaccine that prevents polio), the implementation of that solution remains immensely complicated, because there are a lot of other factors in play besides the obvious medical one.
So Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson’s book Committed: The Battle over Involuntary Psychiatric Care (pubbed by Johns Hopkins University Press) is balm to my soul, acknowledging as it does that the question of involuntary psychiatric care is a complicated issue to which there may possibly be no good solutions.
I come to this book with a history of being both a consumer and a provider of mental health care myself (I have depression, and I spent a number of years volunteering on a suicide hotline), and of knowing lots of people who consume and provide mental health care. People I love have been involuntarily committed, and people I love have recommended involuntary commitments, so while I am far from an expert, I am at least aware of some of the problems with both sides of this argument.
On one hand, involuntary commitment can be tremendously traumatizing. Standards of inpatient mental health care vary wildly, and underfunding of the mental health system means that many service providers are underpaid, under-trained, overworked, exhausted, and not remotely respectful or kind to people with serious mental illnesses. If you come to an emergency room with a mental health issue — often having tried to get outpatient mental health care from other resources and failed because we as a society have so massively under-prioritized those vital services — you may get an emergency room physician like this one:
If someone is suicidal, I can’t think of a time I would send them home. I’m very cautious about letting someone go home when they’ve changed their mind about being suicidal. I let the mental health professional make that decision, but when it comes down to it, if I am the physician of record, then I have to be accountable. So I give great deference to a mental health professional, but I don’t give them the complete latitude to discharge our patients. . . Once the flag is raised and I’m worried about someone, why wouldn’t we err on the side of giving them more services and not less?
What freaks me out is that he’s talking about suspending someone’s civil rights and then making them pay a really large amount of money for that suspension, and he doesn’t seem to realize that’s what he’s describing. His personal comfort with the idea that someone who has experienced suicidal ideation — regardless of the level of risk the mental health professional has assessed in their examination of the patient — is the deciding factor for whether a person is kept against their will. His comfort trumps research and experience, is what he’s saying, and unfortunately, this reflects exactly what I have heard from friends who work as mental health professionals in hospitals.
So that’s on one hand: The civil rights of mentally ill people are regularly taken away on the basis of one doctor’s opinion, which is informed more by a CYA mentality than the assessment of the in-house mental health professional. Legal procedures designed to protect patient rights are frequently perfunctory, with patients given inadequate representation and information about what’s happening to them.
On the other hand, advocates of involuntary treatment like E. Fuller Torrey argue that mentally ill patients who display anosognosia (a lack of awareness that they are ill) require medication and therapy before they can meaningfully consent or withhold consent for treatment.2 If we blanket oppose involuntary treatment, what becomes of suicidal and homicidal patients who won’t seek help for themselves? Do we permit patients who are a danger to themselves and others to leave the hospital untreated, or do we have a responsibility to help them (even if it’s against their will)?
See. It’s tricky.
Miller and Hanson explore the issue from a wide range of perspectives, speaking with experts in the field, medical professional, mental health care professionals, patients with both good and bad experiences of inpatient mental health care, and police departments that have implemented mental health training for their officers (chronically mentally ill people who don’t get treatment often get funneled into the criminal justice system, which is very ill-equipped to deal with them). They consider the various — and they truly are various, since there are no nationally accepted standards for inpatient mental health care — policies that govern the use of seclusion and restraint, forced medication, and even involuntary electroconvulsive therapy. They explore evidence into the links between gun violence, particularly mass shootings, and untreated mental illness, and whether involuntary mental health care offers a solution to those problems.
Unfortunately — for people who want things to be simple — the answer, if there is an answer, is that if we want to achieve both the goal of protecting the civil rights of mentally ill patients and the goal of minimizing the chances that such patients will harm themselves or others, we’re going to have to pay for it, with time and money. Many of the ethical and medical problems around involuntary commitment arise because these patients have no other treatment options. The emergency room, which should be the last resort, becomes the first resort, simply because community mental health care is lacking. Hanson and Miller note that in half of all US counties, there are no mental health professionals at all. And the more money we pour into involuntary commitments, the less money is available for maintenance mental health care.
At the end of the book, Hanson and Miller make a number of policy recommendations, most of which require — surprise! — investment in a mental health infrastructure. This data nerd reader would also love to see better record-keeping on involuntary commitments nationwide, as I suspect that race, class, and gender are all factors in the decision of whom to commit against their will. Committed provides an insightful, balanced look at the many complex factors that influence involuntary mental health care. If you’re remotely interested in mental health or civil liberties, I highly recommend this excellent book.
Well, probably some things do, but I can’t think of them right now. ↩
You’ll have spotted this leads to kind of a Catch-22: If they know they are sick they’ll want treatment; if they don’t want treatment, they must not know they are sick and thus should have treatment. ↩
My TBR spreadsheet entry for Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot just said TAM LIN WITH SISTERS, which, I mean, if y’all have been around for a little while, you’ll know that I am about Tam Lin retellings. In this one, sisters Imogen and Marin have won prestigious Melete residencies, which will allow them to work on their art (Imogen writes, Marin dances) with top-of-their-field mentors for a year. This is the first time the two of them have lived in the same place since Imogen fled their abusive mother’s house to attend boarding school as a teenager.
At first, Melete seems beautiful and perfect, if perhaps a bit strange in its architecture and atmosphere, but since the reader knows that All Is Not As It Appears, there’s moments when you think, Okay, okay, get going with the creepy shit already. But in general, Howard creates a wonderfully creepy atmosphere of the type that maintains plausible deniability: Artist weirdness, or magic? Deeply sinister signs that the whole shebang is controlled by semi-malevolent dark creatures, or creative people producing art that maybe makes you uncomfortable sometimes?
This makes for a slightly slow beginning, which I find is the nature of Tam Lin stories in general (why?) — lots of going back and forth between Carterhaugh and her father’s house before Janet gets to the fireworks factory — and it’s still satisfying from an emotional perspective to watch Imogen try to figure out who she is as a sister and a writer. When she begins to realize what she will have to sacrifice to save Marin, this emotional groundwork serves us in good stead. Howard made me feel all the emotions around creating art, fighting through imposter syndrome, being a sister, and being a daughter.
Here comes my one minor complaint, and it’s a spoilery one, so strap in: The concern is that Marin’s emotional fragility — born of years of emotional abuse from their mother — will make it impossible to survive her seven years in Faerie and make it out to win her prize of international renown. Imogen, therefore, has to either stop her from winning the Top Artist Prize basically, or — once Marin has won it, because of course — want Marin more than Faerie does.
This is all fine. Howard then goes for another twist of the knife, making a rule that if Imogen does stop the Faerie ritual from proceeding, all the fame and talent will come to her, instead of to Marin. Thus there’s no way for Imogen to do this thing without it appearing to be for selfish reasons; I.e., without it appearing to confirm the jealousy their mother has for years been assuring Marin that Imogen feels. After the ritual, though, Marin sees that it was all for her own good, and she and Imogen are fine.
Both of these things felt facile to me in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t. Howard grapples frequently with the scars — physical and emotional — the girls’ mother’s abuse has left on them, and it’s done with great respect and deftness. The thing about Imogen maybe getting all the glory doesn’t make plot sense and feels thrown in, plus even when Imogen makes that tough decision, there aren’t any repercussions for her relationship with Marin. Granted that I am a noted aftermath junkie, but I’d have liked to have seen some hard consequences for Imogen’s decision, and perhaps an ending where she and Marin have to rebuilt their trust.
As I said, it’s a minor complaint, and overall I thought this book was terrific, putting me in mind of Elizabeth Hand at her best and spookiest. Much recommended for the fall season!
It’s time for another romance novels round-up! I recently did an awesome interview with a grad student who’s studying romance novels and feminism, and it reminded me that while I still read romance novels, I haven’t talked about them in quite some time. But in fact, I have been reading some incredibly adorable romance novels that you should know about, so let’s get into it.
First up: Roller Girl, by Vanessa North. Tina Durham is a recently divorced former sportsing champion1 who gets a crush on her new plumber, Joe (short for Joanne). Through Joe, she gets involved in a local roller derby team, and they fall in lurv.
F/F romance novels do not get nearly the love and attention of their het and M/M counterparts, and it’s a damn shame. Roller Girl was the sweetest romance novel I’ve read in a while (except see also Looking for Group, below), and it was wonderful to see a trans protagonist who’s already gone through her transition and is trying to figure out life on the other side; who receives courtesy and not persecution by the people she’s out to; and who gets a happy ending with a super-nice romantic partner. And she gets to be awesome at roller derby at the same time!
If you have other roller derby romance novels to recommend, please do so in the comments. I have been starry-eyed over roller derby (concept of; I do not want to play it; I am weak and unsportsy) ever since the excellent Ellen Page movie Whip It.
Next up: Alexis Hall’s latest, Looking for Group. This one’s about a university student named Drew who develops a crush on a girl (he thinks) in his World of Warcraft guild. (It’s not called World of Warcraft in the book, but I am very clever and figured out that it’s basically World of Warcraft.) When Solace turns out to be a guy called Kit, Drew has to sort out his feelings about Kit, his own apparent bisexuality, and his relationship to the world of gaming.
Alexis Hall is great at making me feel feelings using only his words — the emotional truthfulness of his romance novels is always what keeps me coming back. Looking for Group was no exception. It starts with, and continues to include, some very dense passages where the characters are playing Pretend World of Warcraft — I have never played a video game a day in my life (except, like, Mario Kart or Guitar Hero very occasionally, both of which I’m terrible at), so this was a hurdle I had to clear to get to the meat of the book.
But! If you can hang in there (and consult the gaming vocab glossary at the back of the book), it’s well worth it in the end. Hall deals with Drew’s college-student-ness so incredibly well — the way each half of a friendship can perceive each other and the friendship in unrecognizably different ways; that thing where you will lounge around with a group of people for hours/days trying to figure out what the next activity of the friend group will be; the difficulty of incorporating a new partner into an established friend situation without friction. It’s a genuine dear of a book.
Okay, on to the Scots! I am sorry that I said “ugh” in the post title. I am not mad at real-life Scots. It’s Scottish romances I can’t abide, which is why it took me this long to read the newest Sarah MacLean book, even though she’s one of my fave romance writers. Reluctant Duke Warnick comes to London under duress, having discovered that in addition to all his holdings, he’s inherited a ward named Lily — who appears to have been Ruined and now requires Saving. He’s determined to get her respectably married, guess what they fall in love, not a spoiler, you already know what romance novels are.
Luckily for me,2 the Scot isn’t all that Scottish. I had to skip past some moments where his heart and dick swelled because his lass was wearing his tartan (vom), but apart from that it was mostly okay. Per usual, Sarah MacLean is funny and feminist, and it’s always fun watching her characters unravel their emotional dilemmas.
(Her sex scenes can get a teensy bit schmoopy, if that’s a thing that bothers you. I skipped some bits. Tartan, and such.)
What about you, my loves? Read any good romance novels lately? I am always open to recommendations!
Full disclosure, I do not understand what the sport is that she used to do professionally. Something with water? Huh huh watersports oh God this footnote has gone downhill very rapidly, I apologize to everyone. ↩
I have an extreme aversive reaction to even the smallest amount of Scottish accent depicted textually. ↩
Note: I received an e-ARC of The Swan Riders from the publisher via Netgalley, for review consideration.
The Scorpion Rules was one of my favorite books of 2015, so I obviously snapped up the sequel, The Swan Riders, as soon as it showed up on Netgalley. I cannot talk about this book without giving major spoilers for The Scorpion Rules, so if you haven’t read Scorpion Rules yet, dash off and do that real quick, and meet me back here afterwards. IT IS REALLY GOOD, a take on YA dystopia that zigs when you think it will zag and values a wide range of skills and values (i.e., there’s a character who perpetually rages against the machine, and there’s characters who recognize that this isn’t always the best strategy to get what you want).
Okay. Did you non-Scorpion Rules readers leave?
Good. Onward. The Swan Riders begins where The Scorpion Rules left off, with Greta trying to adjust to being an AI, and Talis — occupying the body of a Swan Rider named Rachel — intent on getting her to safety and making sure that she makes the transition safely. The whole project is hideously derailed when a faction of Canadians attack Talis, Greta, and their Swan Rider escort, Francis Xavier, and to say more would be to deprive you of the many wonderful twists and turns this book takes.
Though The Swan Riders didn’t perpetually upend my expectations the way Scorpion Rules did — largely because now I know a little better what to expect from Erin Bow — it was an absolutely wonderful follow-up. So many sequels fall victim to the idea that they have to make the foes of the second book huger and more terrifying, stacking the odds ever more heavily against the protagonist. Erin Bow dodges that bullet.
In The Swan Riders, Greta is allied with a being who is functionally all-powerful, so to give them a foe worthy of their steel would have been quite some trick. Sure, they can be attacked while they’re out in the wilds of Canada (excuse me, the Pan Polar Alliance), but you know that Talis has the power to just start blowing up everything whenever he feels like it, so it would be difficult to find an antagonist who could stand up to that. Instead, Erin Bow locates the book’s major conflict within her little group of three: Talis, Greta, and Francis Xavier. The world hands them a set of bad choices, and it’s up to them — mainly up to Greta, since Talis is all pragmatism and no heart, and Francis Xavier has sworn an oath to obey them no matter what — to figure out the best of a bad lot.
All of that’s a little vague for avoidance-of-spoilers purposes, but I will say that Erin Bow does a plot thing that’s one of my favorite types of plot things, when done well: What seems to arise from complex political motivations ends up being very simple and very personal, and it packs a hell of a punch as you head into the final third of the book, and the characters really and truly have to decide what they, and their world, are going to look like.
Or to put it another way: I cried on the bus reading this. Twice.
We don’t see much of Talis in The Scorpion Rules, and what we do see is not much to his credit. The Swan Riders gives us much much more Talis, and since he is a type of character I absolutely cherish — smart-mouthed, brilliant, and viciously pragmatic — this was a good time for me. If you are a fan of a particular type of character that is Tony Stark, I promise much enjoyment out of Talis.
“Oh,” I said. “In that case, I would like to propose that peace achieved through terror can never truly be peace. We should release all the Precepture hostages and shut down the orbital weapons platforms.”
“Okay,” said Talis. “We’re equals, but you’re a dewy-eyed moron.”
“We would not have come this far if that were even remotely true.”
“Fair point. Let me put it this way instead: no.”
Y’all, this series. I love it. Please read, then come back and scream at me about your feelings.
My Africa reading project is so fun and great that it’s confusing to me it took me three-quarters of the year to reconvene it in 2016. There is nothing not good about it, except I guess the shortage of histories of African countries written by African authors in English and available at my library. But guess what, y’all. That is exactly what I got for Ethiopia, and I couldn’t be more pumped about it. Bahru Zewde’s A History of Ethiopia, 1855-1974 gloriously fulfills all my conditions. It is also real short, which meant that I read each section with extra-heightened attention to detail cause it is hard to remember a ton of dude’s names when you know they’re only going to be around for like three more pages.
Anyway. The funnest and greatest thing about my Africa reading project is the moment when new facts learned in my African history books connect up to existing knowledge that I already have. For example, this: In the mid-1800s, Egypt began encroaching upon Ethiopian land,1 and Ethiopia appealed to the nations of Europe like “You’re Christian, we’re Christian, let’s be Christian together and not let the Muslims take over our Christian land.” This didn’t work because, spoilers for all of human history, everyone actually cared way more about money than they cared about religion.
(Egypt had the Suez Canal.)
BUT. Here’s the part where it joins up to my knowledge of history: Then there came the Mahdist Uprising, which was this whole sort of charismatic revivalist Muslim situation wherein the Sudanese rebelled against their Egyptian rulers. You know the one. Where General Gordon was the general and he called for help and no help came? And he was brutally slaughtered by the Mahdists along with all the other people besieged with him at Khartoum?
So anyway, at this point the British really needed Ethiopian support, because Ethiopia borders Sudan, and they came hat in hand to the emperor, Yohannes IV, and made a treaty with him that Ethiopia abided by and Britain did not. Hashtag colonialism.
Another place where the book nearly, but not quite, joined up with my knowledge of history was in its dealing with Eritrea. Bahru Zewde seems quite down on Eritrean independence (unless I misunderstood? also possible?), and I don’t know if that’s because Eritrean independence was a bad idea, or because at the time this book was written, Eritrea was not yet independent, and we tend to think that the existing boundaries of a country are the Correct ones. Which I am realizing right now is kind of weird. Like, we don’t want a country to split in half, but if a country has split in half in the past, we’re all like, Yeah! Eritrean independence!
I do recall, however, a protest that occurred when I was a teenager where a bunch of Eritreans wanted the US to help stop the Ethiopians from doing a thing they were currently doing that the Eritreans wished them to desist from. I had a classmate whose parents were Eritrean (that is how I came to hear of this protest), and my classmate was nice so I have always assumed that Eritrea had the right idea.
By the way, the above two paragraphs are exactly why I convened this Africa reading project. A brief googling is able to tell me that this must have been during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, but what about all the wars where I did not have classmates whose parents were from those countries? I DO NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT THOSE ONES TO GOOGLE THEM.
Somewhat to my surprise, Bahru Zewde was quite down on Very Famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Interlude: Haile Selassie is so famous that I am confident all of you have heard of him. Even if you are currently saying to yourself, “no, I definitely have not heard of him,” you are actually mistaken. You have heard of him and you just don’t know it yet. See, because before Haile Selassie took on the emperorship and the name Haile Selassie, his name was Tafari Makonnen and his title was Ras, so hence, Ras Tafari. Which is where the name Rastafarian comes from because Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie. So there you go. You have heard of him.
Anyway, Bahru Zewde is down on Very Famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and this was of interest to me because I had the distinct impression that we as a global community were quite up on Haile Selassie. But apparently (says Bahru Zewde) this was kind of Haile Selassie’s thing: He went traveling all over the world being stupendously popular with heads of state, and what happened was that he FELL FOR HIS OWN HYPE (never a good idea, ahem Joss Whedon ahem ahem) and didn’t really attend to the the fact that he wasn’t going to live forever. And that is how come (says Bahru Zewde) you ended up with power very consolidated and all the circumstances in alignment to produce the 1974 revolution.
I know. You are turning the metaphorical page breathlessly right now. What about the 1974 revolution, you are saying anxiously?
Well, the bad news is that this book ends in 1974. I learned a lot about old-time Ethiopia, but for modern Ethiopia — which it sounds like has crammed a lot of history into the last forty years — I will have to read a second Ethiopia book.
Onward! I have now done six African countries, and you may follow my progress (cause I know you are like totally enthralled with my ongoing geographical education) at the main page for my Africa reading project. Next up is Equatorial Guinea — confusingly, one of three African nations with “Guinea” in the name, but we will sort it out together, friends. Also my Equatorial Guinea book isn’t going to be so much about Equatorial Guinea but rather about the peoples and histories of the area of Africa that now includes what we call Equatorial Guinea. So. Promises to be not confusing at all.
Truth: It’s sort of relaxing to read about countries I am in no way descended from doing shitty imperialist things. ↩