Review: Multiple Choice, Alejandro Zambra

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.

Multiple Choice

In an interview with The New Yorker, Zambra says this:

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.

Review: Committed, Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson

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.

CommittedI 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.

  1. Well, probably some things do, but I can’t think of them right now.
  2. 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.

Review: Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

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.

Roses and Rot

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!

Roller Derby, World of Warcraft, and (ugh) Scots

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.

Roller Girl

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.

Looking for Group

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.

A Scot in the Dark

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!

  1. 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.
  2. I have an extreme aversive reaction to even the smallest amount of Scottish accent depicted textually.

Review: The Swan Riders, Erin Bow

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).

The Swan Riders

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.

“We’re equals.”

“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.

Not a Dumb American: Ethiopia Edition

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.

I know. Stunning news.

(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.

SAID NOBODY IN ENGLAND
SAID NOBODY IN ENGLAND I GUESS

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.

  1. Truth: It’s sort of relaxing to read about countries I am in no way descended from doing shitty imperialist things.

Review: Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones

In my cynical old age, I’ve become leery of books about supernatural critters like vampires and werewolves. I don’t want to blame Stephenie Meyer, but she did kick off this whole, like, vampires-and-werewolves renascence1 that seemed like a good thing at the time but then reached a point where there was too much of it.

Problem is, this too-much-of-a-good-thing thing didn’t erase my fondness for new interesting takes on supernatural critters; it just made me skeptical that there was anything new under the sun. So when Tor.com promised me that Mongrels was a take on werewolves I hadn’t seen before, I was intrigued. Add to that my desire to like Blackfeet horror author Stephen Graham Jones, whose short stories have been JUST TOO HORRIFYING for me, and it was a marriage made in book heaven.

Mongrels

If your question is “how much cannibalism though?” the answer is “honestly? still less than in at least half the Stephen Graham Jones short stories I’ve read.” So, I mean, you know if that’s a thing you can handle or not.

Our hero is an orphan boy being raised by his aunt Libby and uncle Darren. They are both werewolves, and the boy just wants to be — if he hasn’t turned by his late teens, he never will. As the family wanders across the American South getting whatever jobs will keep the lights on and sending the boy to school for brief stints when it’s possible, he learns more and more about the life of a werewolf and — most often — all the ways a werewolf can be caught and/or killed.

If like me you are the kind of reader who enjoys some social commentary in your werewolf literature, Mongrels is the book for you. Though the rootlessness and ruthlessness of the ways Darren and Libby and their nephew survive arise from their werewolf heritage, there’s a lot in this story that just reads poverty. Food insecurity follows them across the South, although they are werewolves and can, given the right circumstances, hunt their own. The boy is given different identities in every state (and indeed, he lacks a name, leaving his true identity shrouded in uncertainty), in and out of school  depending on what the laws of the state will permit.

Mongrels is in some respects a picaresque, which is not my favorite type of book and kept this from being a forever-favorite. But it’s a take on werewolves that feels fresh and does not shy away from the utter creepiness of the transformation process. Despite the episodic nature of the storytelling, there’s plenty of emotional through-lines for you to sink your teeth into, plus an ending that yr extremely picky correspondent found satisfying.

QUESTION TIME: Would you rather starve than resort to cannibalism? Does your answer change if you are a wolf at the time? Also, are you tired of werewolves and other supernatural critters or do you rejoice in those stories endlessly?

  1. Sometimes I enjoy the British way of spelling “renaissance.” I hope you still love me even when I’m pretentious.

Review: Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden

Okay, I know we have The Ringer now, and The Ringer has brought us Actual National Treasure Sam Donsky. Is it wrong that I still miss Grantland, though? They had an incredible stable of writers with a particular gift for writing about important things through the lens of seemingly unimportant things. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me (affiliate link: Book Depository), from Grantland alum and UpRoxx writer Steven Hyden, reminded me of what was so special about Grantland’s glory days.

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

And yes, okay, the subtitle is a little grandiose. The meaning of life isn’t on offer here, but Hyden gets into a lot of questions about identity and the ways that we define ourselves by defining against something, or someone, else. Hyden admits that he likes the work of the Beatles as much as he likes the work of the Rolling Stones, but that he defines himself as a Stones person rather than a Beatles person because a Stones person is more in line with his understanding of his own personality.

While it would be easy to differentiate each side of a rivalry in a simplistic way — cool versus not cool — Hyden is self-consciously suspicious of easy answers. Here he is on the trendy, near-universal dislike of Crash among all the people I have ever followed on Twitter:

Hating Crash has become what I like to call a Default Smart Opinion. A Default Smart Opinion is an opinion that’s generally considered to be inarguable because it’s repeated ad nauseam by seemingly intelligent individuals. . . . The usual formula for a regular smart opinion — research plus careful consideration plus nuanced analysis — doesn’t apply. You needn’t actually listen to a Nickelback album or watch The Big Bang Theory or study Kim Kardashian’s collected philosophical scrolls. You merely have to recite recycled bits of conventional wisdom.

As a Despiser of Popular Things Cause They’re Popular manqué (I was saved from this fate by the indisputable greatness of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), I sometimes have to remind myself of the danger of Default Smart Opinions. They’re a fun and easy way to differentiate yourself from an imagined mass of dumb people, but they only work until you encounter someone who likes that thing and actually have to contend with the complex ways real human persons interact with their faves. In other words, they work best when you are only talking to people exactly like you, and that’s a risky type of opinion to espouse.

If Hyden doesn’t quite manage to get at the meaning of life, he does do an incredible job of writing about music in a way that’s accessible to those of us who are music-stupid.1 Talking to music people can be the explainiest motherfucking thing in this life, but with Hyden, you just feel like he truly wants to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. I wrote down approximately a kajillion albums to check out after reading this book, and I felt stupid exactly 0 times.2

I’d also like to say that it is unendingly lovely to hear people say any iteration of this, a sentiment I could not agree with more even though I had a near-picture-perfect happy childhood and parents who loved me and an unflinching expectation of stability and support.

Nor am I minimizing the hell that it is being a teenager. I have no sentimentality for childhood. I hated being a kid — all I wanted was to be older, and when I was older, I found that I was right all along about adulthood being way better.

plus:

I think we can all agree that Prince is one of the five coolest people on the planet. (The others are LeBron James, Beyonce, Bill Clinton, and Jennifer Lawrence. If you don’t like this list, I’m sorry, but these are the people that everybody else on earth signed off on.)

LeBron James? That’s who you choose from the world of sports? I’m generally on board with this list, but, LeBron James?

  1. That is me. I do not know music stuff. Please do not laugh and make jokes at me about this, I am legit really embarrassed by it.
  2. Like, except for the perpetual low-level shame I feel about my utter music ignorance. That’s always there. But that’s self-generated, and Hyden contributed to it not at all in this book.

Review: Even in Paradise, Elizabeth Nunez

Okay, Elizabeth Nunez got me good about two-thirds of the way through her latest book, Even in Paradise (affiliate links: Book Depository, Amazon).

As a writer from my homeland put it in her fictionalized version of a romance between Miranda and an educated Caliban: Pass [the Miranda test] and I believe you. Fail it and all you say about the races being equal, that character, not color, is what matters, becomes theoretical.

I was like, Oo, a romance between Miranda and an educated Caliban? SOUNDS GREAT, and I googled it thinking probably Cesaire, and while Cesaire did in fact write a play that retells The Tempest, the narrator of Even in Paradise was in fact referring to Nunez’s own 2006 novel, Prospero’s Daughter.

You got me, Elizabeth Nunez. You got me good.

Even in Paradise

If Elizabeth Nunez wanted to make it her thing to retell all the Shakespeare plays with Caribbean settings, I’d be here for it. Even in Paradise is a retelling of King Lear: Wealthy white Peter Ducksworth has moved from Trinidad to Barbados — the cynical say to find white husbands for his three daughters — and now, a few years later, he has decided to divide his properties among his daughters now, to avoid future strife. Strife ensues anyway.

So, as I confessed to Whiskey Jenny on our most recent podcast, I’ve never read or seen King Lear. What I know of King Lear has come to me through cultural osmosis, and as such I can’t speak much to the manner in which Nunez adapts it. I assume the Cordelia character was a drip on purpose? As a nod to the original?

In fact Even in Paradise reminded me of nothing so much as The Great Gatsby. Like Nick Carraway, our narrator Emile is drawn into the lives of the careless rich by his friendship with a man making an unwise romantic decision — in this case, Emile’s friend Albert has contracted a hasty engagement with Glynis Duckworth.1 Also like Gatbsy, it’s the story of people who cannot un-entwine love from money in their own minds, let alone in their lives and actions; and, of course, it ends in tragedy.

(Less tragedy than King Lear, however! I understand Lear has some eye stuff?)

Though Even in Paradise isn’t, on the surface, the type of book I would expect to enjoy (I read it because some blogger sometime years ago spoke well of Elizabeth Nunez and her name stuck in my head), I ended up thinking it was terrific. The inheritance plotline focuses on land owned by the Duckworths and the plans of the two older sisters to develop it into a profitable hotel that will exclude local people from making use of it, as they have for years. Nunez never permits her readers to shut their eyes to the specters of slavery and oppression that haunt Trinidad’s and Barbados’s history and continue to inform the lives and motives of these characters. She’s thoughtful about race and prejudice and history in a way that I absolutely love, and I will definitely be checking out her Tempest adaptation later this year.

Lebanese Diaspora Watch: So you know how a while ago, I instituted the Lebanese Diaspora Watch? Because I read about Lebanese citizens in Liberia and Brazil in rapid succession and was totally baffled? NOT A FLUKE. Here we find a Lebanese diaspora in Trinidad too!

Georges Glazal, Albert’s father, belonged to a long line of Syrian Lebanese families who were among the last immigrants to Trinidad during the colonial era. Syrians, we called them, whether they were from Syria or Lebanon, Lebanon having been part of Syria when the first immigrants arrived on the island. Almost all of them were Orthodox Maronite Christians fleeing persecution from the ever-widening spread of Islam across the Middle East. In Trinidad the Maronite Syrian-Lebanese immigrants joined the Catholic Church.

See, now this answers my first question of why this specific Lebanese population left Lebanon/Syria. I had to do some googling to discover why Trinidad in particular, and the internet suggests it was Trinidad because wicked ticketing agents sold these immigrants tickets to America but then instead sent them to the Caribbean. And the immigrants would be like, Well, shit. Here we are, I guess. I admit that once I found this explanation, I stopped fact-checking. That is the explanation that I want to be true. Substantial Lebanese-American diaspora in Trinidad solely because of trickery. What a weird world we have.

Is anyone an Elizabeth Nunez fan? If you inherited land from a family member, what would you use it for? (Don’t say hotel. That sounds horrible. That sounds like so much trouble.) (No, say hotel if hotel is what you’d do with it.)

  1. Ha ha Glynis Duckworth. What a terrible name.

My Holiday in North Korea, Wendy E. Simmons

Every time I read anything about North Korea, I spend the next two weeks collaring everyone who comes near me and screaming my new North Korea information into their faces. I have still not recovered from the image Barbara Demick left me with in Nothing to Envy of dozens and dozens of North Koreans squatting at the sides of all the roads, waiting and waiting for something that was never going to come. So it was with photographer Wendy Simmons’s My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.

My Holiday in North Korea

The full post here could just be moments in this book wherein Simmons’s guides are telling her obvious lies, and you as the reader are open-mouthedly trying to figure out whether it is okay to laugh at a story so fundamentally sinister. Because no matter what laughably obvious lie Simmons is receiving from her guides, the truth that they’re trying to conceal isn’t funny at all. The truth is always repression and loss, a country full of people forced to work and regularly denied their basic human rights by an uncontrolled dictator.

Simmons does an amazing job of conveying how quickly your sense of reality is destabilized in North Korea. Even when she knows that her handlers are lying to her, it’s not always clear which parts are lies, or what, specifically, is motivating the lies, or what, specifically, they’re trying to keep hidden from her. And the handlers (slash, entire country) seem to go to such insane lengths to keep her from seeing anything true that she starts to question whether her own perception of what reality could possibly be was wrong all along.

Frex: A time slot opens up on Simmons’s very busy tour schedule. Her handler offers her many options for how to fill that hour, and Simmons chooses football match. By tremendous good fortune, her handlers tell her, a football match will be happening at the exact time slot she now has available. They go watch the match, along with a handful of other apparent North Korean football enthusiasts. Halfway through, several hundred additional supporters file in, lined up in an orderly manner, and sit to watch the second half of the game.

So was this a real, previously scheduled, Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. football match? And had I just been super lucky to have a Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. slot on my schedule that needed filling? Possibly, given the damned good luck (knock wood) and propensity for remarkable coincidences I tend to have.

Or had a country just pulled together an entire football match (minus a few thousand fans) in less than twelve hours solely for my benefit? It was a thought too absurd, too egomaniacal, too lunatic, and too paranoid, to even consider. . . . right?

Wrong! (Probably?)

Thanks to MW Gerard for the recommendation! What a goddamn bonkers book and country.