Not a dumb American: Congo edition

Onward with my Africa reading project! David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett and published by Ecco, has received widespread critical acclaim, and very very well deserved too. If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state, may I recommend pointing them towards Reybrouck? Congo reads nearly like a novel, and Reybrouck heavily privileges African voices in telling the story of the country’s modern history. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the Democratic Republic of Congo:

I know, I know. It’s very confusing that there are two countries right next to each other, and one of them is called Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other one is called Republic of the Congo. Which one used to be Zaire? (The DRC.) What does “Brazzaville” even refer to? (The capital of Republic of the Congo. I’ll learn more about it soon.) I know. It’s confusing.

What I learned about the DRC from my book: Some new stuff about Rwanda and the genocide there and how Congo was involved in all that. When the colonial powers were dishing out Germany’s holdings after World War I, they gave Rwanda to Belgium to govern — probably because Belgium was doing such a bang-up job in the neighboring Congo.

Kidding. That’s not why. They weren’t; see below.

Belgium heightened ethnic tensions for most of its time governing Rwanda (they were all about concentrating power in the hands of the Tutsis, because they thought Tutsis were less black than Hutus); the independent Congo was a major player in the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; and although Rwanda arguably put Laurent Kabila in power in the First Congo War, they did not remain such cozy close allies once Kabila was actually running the country.

Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwandans as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt.

Wonder if that remains true still now. I am very interested in the stereotypes various countries have about each other.

Definitely true: The Belgian colonial administration was super racist.

The Congolese middle class that emerged in the mid-1900s wanted to have the same rights as the European population in the Congo, including jolly luxuries such as not being at risk of being flogged with a piece of hippopotamus hide if you got convicted of certain crimes. So the Belgian government introduced a thing called the carte d’immatriculation, which was supposedly to extend the same legal rights to Congolese card-holders that Europeans living in the Congo already held by default.

Extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean.

About two hundred people received these cards. The population of Congo at that time was around fourteen million. Great work, colonialism.

But the most important thing I learned, by far, is this: PAY YOUR ARMY. Never don’t pay your army. The Congolese government did not make the army a financial priority in the early years of independence, and the results were Not. Good. First, the army mutinied. Then, the Belgians freaked about Congolese army guys maybe raping their ladies, so they all left. Belgian civil servants. Belgian transportation workers. Belgian export company owners. Everyone.

(Not everyone. But sort of.)

To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately, it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959. Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roes within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability.


David van Reybrouck’s marvelous book has spoiled me utterly for the future of my reading project. Does anyone have a particularly excellent history of an African nation to recommend? I can see an argument for doing Rwanda next, while this Congolese context is fresh in my mind. On the other hand, it might be neat to move on to some totally different African nation about which I know nothing. Like Mali. I know literally zero facts about Mali.

P.S. Sorry this post wasn’t funnier. Just, Congo has a sad and difficult history, and the country is in a bad way today. Corruption is everywhere, sexual violence ditto, and although Congo is the most resource-rich country in the world, its people are among the very poorest. It’s hard to make jokes about the history that led to these crappy, crappy outcomes.

Not a dumb American: Truth commissions edition

Unspeakable Truths is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Kim’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

Some time ago I got the idea in my head that I wanted to learn more about a fuzzy thing I could not quite define that was related to shifting from a terrible, warry society to a less-terrible not-war society. As with so many things, it was tricky to find books about this when I didn’t even know the name of what it was exactly. For your reference, the thing I wanted to look for was transitional justice, and all the resources on transitional justice said that if I wanted to learn in particular about truth commissions such as the famous one in South Africa, Priscilla Hayner was my gal.

Hayner’s Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity is the gold standard for an overview on truth commissions, and the book was put into a second edition in 2010. That is the edition you should probably get, if you’re interested! My library only had the 2001 edition, as did PaperbackSwap, so that was the one I read. I would be most interested to get hold of the updated one and discover new findings in the world of truth commissions, since I know there have been many more in the past decade and a bit.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned:

Apparently when the UN came to get rid of the militia government in Haiti and reinstall their president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US military forces swept into the government office and took away a whole bunch of Haitian government records. And then we refused to give them back.

Yes! And Haiti kept asking for the records because, you know, they’re theirs, and the US eventually said Haiti could have the records back, but only if they didn’t mind if we first blocked out parts of them we didn’t want Haiti to know about. (Haiti said no so we just kept them.) What? What? Is this situation ongoing? (I will never know because I don’t have access to the updated edition of this book, and the internet has been of no use to me in this regard.) If (as I suspect) it is ongoing, I’d like to remind the US government of that time Putin came by and stole Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring and we all thought Man, Putin is just the worst, and then when he invaded Ukraine we were like, Yep, that’s about what we’d expect from a dude who would steal a dude’s Super Bowl ring. And that was only a Super Bowl ring, not irreplaceable government records.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Hayner’s book was the one about naming names. Truth commissions throughout the world have had very different goals, some of them more focused on reintegrating society, others on punishing perpetrators of terrible crimes. But regardless of the main aim, a major decision that truth commissions must make is whether to say exactly who is responsible for specific crimes committed against specific people. And it is so tricky! Your first instinct is to say, yes, we want to name names, so that those terrible people cannot continue to hold positions of power because, you know:


Except that it turns out to be much more complicated than that even if you accept the premise that some people are Evil independent of their situation (which I do not). Although it is pretty easy to identify the foot soldiers and rally enough proof from eyewitnesses to feel confident enough to say, this person took this priest up in a helicopter and dropped him into the ocean, it is much trickier to get positive evidence about who gave the commands that made that happen. So then you end up with the foot soldiers getting all the blame, and the commanders none, which is not a) fair or b) beneficial to national reconciliation. But if you name names of the higher-ups without sufficient evidence, it will kind of be your fault if a not-guilty or not-very-guilty person gets dragged out of his home by vigilantes and shot in front of his family. Or if you name names and include witness testimony as to that person’s guilt, maybe the person the witnesses named will hire his thugs to go drag your witnesses out of their houses and shoot them in front of their families.

So, okay, you don’t name names after all. All the victims’ advocacy groups are furious with you for your pusillanimity, and NGOs publish statements condemning your truth commission for caring more about protecting the rights of perpetrators than upholding the truths of victims. Nobody is dead because of you, but all the work you’ve done is now suspect. If you wanted everybody not to hate you, you maybe should have found a different job.

Hayner also includes a chapter of two case studies — Cambodia and Mozambique — of countries who have not instituted and do not want any kind of truth commission. They want to stop talking about it and move on. Cambodia held a tribunal, eventually, to try a few of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for the Cambodian genocide. And here’s what Hayner says about Mozambique, a country whose civil war was funded heavily by the apartheid government in South Africa, who believed an unstable Mozambique was in their interests:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers. When the peace agreement was signed in Rome, “word came from the top, and the war just stopped. Not another shot was fired,” described one observer. The war just “went out,” like a fire goes out, said another. From that day on, the former warring enemies have lived in peace virtually without incident.

That’s no longer fully true, incidentally, but the image of a foreign-funded war going out like a fire when it’s no longer in the interest of foreign powers to have a war in that country is going to stick with me.

If you are remotely interested in international law, human rights, or government transitions in unstable countries, I can’t recommend Unspeakable Truths enough. Every resource I’ve found on transitional justice sings its praises to the skies (so you don’t have to trust me), and I’ll be shoving this at various people in my life over the next few weeks.

(Psst, Eva! Read this! I think you would find it really interesting!)

Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Maggie Stiefvater

Note: I received an electronic copy of Blue Lily Lily Blue from the publisher for review consideration.

Second note: Of necessity, I’ll be talking about some of the events of the first two books in this series. If you haven’t read those yet, the short version of this review is that Blue Lily Lily Blue is an excellent third installment in an excellent series. But you probably shouldn’t read on unless you want to be spoiled for the first two. Spoilers for Blue Lily Lily Blue occur only in the bottom, bullet-pointed section, and I’ve marked it that way.

ETA third note: Alice has rightly pointed out that if you haven’t read the first two books in this series, this review makes no damn sense. So you should probably skip it. And go read The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves. That is probably a better use of your time. My reviews of those two books are here and here.

Maura Sargent has been missing for over a month, and Blue and her raven boys are spelunking in Cabeswater, hunting for Glendower and Maura both. The man who hired someone to retrieve the Greywaren has come to town to do the job himself, and he’s brought backup. Blue does not pay reliable enough attention to whether Gansey is or is not wearing a rain-spattered Aglionby sweater at any given moment, and the answer to everyone’s questions seems to be in a mountain cave, which sings into Adam’s deaf ear and whose owner insists that it’s cursed.

Two processes are befalling the characters in the Raven Cycle. First, they are growing from variously broken teenagers into the working-order versions of themselves they have the capacity to become. Second, they are developing into powerfully magical people you don’t want to fuck with. Stiefvater knits these two things so tightly together that they become component parts of one and the same process: As Blue settles more comfortably into the feeling of belonging to her group, she’s also evolving a better and better sense of the value of her particular gifts and the ways she can usefully deploy them. [Adam example redacted for spoiler reasons]

They’re also discovering what readers knew all along: that they’re stronger together than apart. You see this particularly with Adam and Ronan, the two who have tapped into the fierce, unpredictable power of Cabeswater, and who can do some truly remarkable things when they’re working together. There’s a nice symmetry between Kavinsky’s shitty, amoral tutelage of Ronan in The Dream Thieves and Ronan’s clear-eyed confidence in Adam throughout Blue Lily Lily Blue. Both boys are pushing someone else to be more than what they’re currently being; but where Kavinsky was telling Ronan, Be more like me, Ronan’s telling Adam, Be more like you. It is super lovely.

Blue and Gansey are still in the throes of Doomed Love. Maggie Stiefvater does her best to get to me by having Gansey give Blue his coat and then teach her how to drive stick shift, and look, I am not made of stone, standard transmission cars are amazing and nothing says love like making sure the other person is warm enough, but still, so far I like Blue and Gansey separately more than I like them together. Or rather, I like them together fine when they are joking about faxes from hell, and less when they start getting all Doomed about their Love. It’s not them; it’s the Doomedness of their Love.

In terms of plot advancement, quite a lot of important events occur, and some mysteries are solved while many more are raised (including a pretty big one about Gansey’s past). Whether you came for the characters or the search for a Welsh king, there are so many reasons to leave this book feeling satisfied. Stiefvater’s writing is as lovely as ever, with her weird and perfect metaphors, and it has been an extremely long time since I loved any fictional characters the way I love these ones.

Miscellaneous, spoilery observations (this section will include both plotty and emotional spoilers. Big ones. Look away.)

  • Adam and Ronan should always team up to do magic and iniquity together. It is the best.
  • Actually, the real, legitimate best is when Gansey says “Wake up.” I got chills.
  • Why is everyone in the visions switching places? I don’t like that! At least when it was clearly Gansey who was supposed to die, I knew where to focus my worry. Now it just seems like anyone could choose to sacrifice themselves to save anyone else. Adam sees a version of his Gansey-dying vision where it’s Ronan dying instead; the vision Blue and Gansey share in the vision tree swaps two lines of dialogue when it happens in real life.
  • The reveal about Matthew is the Maggie Stiefvaterest reveal ever. She has this brilliant gift for making you not notice that she’s told you a secret several times in a whisper before she tells it out loud. It even feels crazy to call it a spoiler. Of course Ronan dreamed Matthew. It’s been obvious all along, but I just didn’t notice. (Cf. Noah being dead.) (You guys, that is rough for Declan. I feel bad for Declan.)
  • My head knew that there was no chance at all that Ronan and Gansey weren’t going to show up to Adam’s court date, but my heart could not bear the suspense. Maybe it is too Hollywood and too facile a resolution of what Adam has been trying to learn about himself all along, but it’s such a good moment that I don’t care. “Behind him was Ronan Lynch, his damn tie knotted right for once and his shirt tucked in.”
  • “Why me?” “I hear if you want magic done, you ask a magician.”
  • The cliffhanger ending everyone was going on and on about: Piffle. That is not a cliffhanger. They spent the whole book saying Whatever we do we must not wake up that one sleeper, oh man, that would be a terrible catastrophe if that one sleeper got woken up. If you didn’t know that someone was going to wake the sleeper, you must have never read a book before. A cliffhanger is like when the protagonist has just defeated his human foe and then he turns around and there’s a whole alien army bearing down on them all. It is not a cliffhanger if it surprises you zero.

Review: We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory

Note: I received a digital galley of We Are All Completely Fine from the publisher for review consideration.

DARYL GREGORY AUTHOR DISCOVERY YEAR CONTINUES. Not only has Daryl Gregory produced another fine piece of science fiction — this one a novella — but I have at last discovered why I love his books so much. It’s cause his wife is a psychologist! (He thanks her in the acknowledgements.) No wonder Gregory wrote about crazy people so brilliantly in Afterparty. No wonder he is always writing about confronting impossible, insane situations with the only available tools (science, therapy) and knowing all along that those tools are nowhere near adequate to the task. What do I love even more than creepy, inventive science fiction? Creepy, inventive science fiction informed by a background in psychology!

Ahem. Sorry. I’ll try to control myself.

The therapy group is composed of sole survivors: the only ones to survive horrific, supernatural incidents. At first only Stan will speak openly about his story, about the cannibals (demon cannibals?) who tied him and his comrades up for weeks and ate them, bit by bit, limb by limb. And the group knows a little — or thinks it does — about Harrison, who was, long ago, the model for a series of books about a teenaged monster-killing hero. Martin refuses to take off his glasses. Greta never lets anyone catch a glimpse of her skin, and Barbara will only say that she was attacked twenty years ago. The group leader, Dr. Jan Sayer, doesn’t push them for more. She’ll let the stories come in their own time.

Your question at this point may be, Do we find out gradually what happened to each member of the group, and is it inventively horrible in each case, and do they ultimately team up to do a mission together to fight against the darkness in their own small way? And the answer is, yes. That is exactly how it goes down. It’s THE BEST. If this were the pilot episode of a show on Syfy, I would set up a petition for six seasons and a movie.

The characters’ backstories are revealed in fits and starts, sometimes in great detail and sometimes in very little. Like the characters themselves, we aren’t privy to knowing why these things happened to them; only that they happened, and now they are part of that character’s emotional landscape, and must be dealt with. Without some of the details I wanted (who were the Weavers before the demon hybrid thing showed up? How did Barbara come within the orbit of the Scrimshander, and how did she get away?), I kept thinking how much I’d enjoy reading a full book about any of these characters in their lives before they join the group (or, in Martin’s case, after).

Some quick vague spoilers in this section only: I love that we find out at the end that Dr. Sayer has a story of her own to tell. Her own fight not to be defined by her damage turns out to include helping other people to heal from theirs. That is a true thing from real life. Sometimes people respond to the unimaginable pain they have experienced with this exact kind of generosity and grace, and it is remarkable and moving to me.

My only tiny gripe is that the chapters begin with a “we” section, where the group is speaking collectively about itself. This didn’t really work for me. Gregory doesn’t manage to make that “we” feel like an integrated part of the rest of the book, which is all narrated in third person, often from Harrison’s point of view and with detours into Barbara’s and Martin’s.

But really, that’s a small gripe for a novella I overwhelmingly loved. I was heartbroken when it ended, especially as it means that there will be no more new Daryl Gregory for me for a while. Up until now I have had a new Daryl Gregory thing every two months or so. I should have held off on reading one of his books, and saved it for a rainy day. I will just have to do some rereading.

Other Daryl Gregory books I have been excited about this year: Pandemonium, [Devil’s Alphabet was just okay], Raising Stony Mayhall, and Afterparty. I am a scary Daryl Gregory evangelist. (PS Ana please read Afterparty, cause I think you will love it.)

You can read an excerpt from We Are All Completely Fine over on, to get the flavor of it. Then if you are interested, Publishers Weekly has good things to say about it, as does Locus. See? Everyone agrees with me. Let me know if you reviewed it too, and I’ll add a link to this post.

Review: The Dream Thieves, Maggie Stiefvater

Note: There will be some spoilers for The Raven Boys in this post, but I will try to steer clear of spoiling The Dream Thieves.

After finishing The Raven Boys, I wanted to go out to the bookstore and buy The Dream Thieves in hardback. But since I almost never buy new hardbacks, and some people didn’t like The Dream Thieves as much, I instead put a sensible hold on the ebook copy at my library. The hold came in (blessedly promptly), and I read twenty pages of it, then the end, and then I went to Barnes & Noble and bought it in hardback. So, ten million stars.

Ronan, the mean one of the raven boys, confesses to his friends at the end of The Raven Boys that he took his pet raven, Chainsaw, out of his dreams. The Dream Thieves is about what else Ronan can learn to take from his dreams. A year and a half ago, Ronan found his father’s body; afterward he and his two brothers were given a few million dollars apiece and a command never to return to their home, where their mother has lived in perfect silence since their father’s death. Now a hit man has come to town to find whatever is making dreams survive, and the ley lines in Henrietta have been fluctuating madly since Adam’s sacrifice in Cabeswater.

[redacted: extremely long treatise on Niall Lynch and his bullshit]

Ronan ends The Dream Thieves with his emotions in slightly better order than he begins, but the opposite thing happens to poor old doomed Gansey. We are starting to see messier sides of him. There’s something tremendously unsympathetic about him picking a fight with Adam at the rich-people party they attend together and then doing this business:

Gansey glanced over his shoulder, furtive. His mouth made the shh shape, but not the sound.


“Oh, what?” Adam demanded. “You’re afraid someone will hear? They’ll know everything isn’t perfect in the land of Dick Gansey? A dose of reality could only help these people!”

That last bit is a very teenager thing for Adam to say, I will grant you. However, this is not a nice move on Gansey’s part! Enormous parties where people’s futures are being decided are not good places to initiate serious conversations about emotionally fraught issues! Especially if you are comparatively more at home at rich-people parties than your interlocutor. And also, once you have initiated the emotional conversation, you can’t then shush the other person. It is too late! If you didn’t want to have the conversation, don’t start the conversation. Good heavens.

[redacted: extremely long treatise on Gansey’s character]

[redacted: even longer treatise on that thing in books and movies where one person is like “I don’t want to have this conversation right now,” and it’s totally fair because the place where they are right now is not at all the venue for that conversation, but then the other person is like, “No, we’re talking about it! We’re talking about it now!”, and then they have a big fight, and how that is, like, not at all a constructive way of managing tense issues in a relationship, but everyone thinks it’s okay to do that in real life because they’ve seen it on TV so many times]

In case it’s not clear by this time, I’ll just state for the record that I loved this book as much as I loved the previous one. (Maybe more? Can’t decide.) It’s a huge cliche to say that the characters feel like real people to me, but they do — I keep wanting to gossip about them although they are not real. The redacted treatises were no joke. I had A LOT of things to say. Good to know it’s not just me though:

from Maggie Stiefvater's Tumblr
from Maggie Stiefvater’s Tumblr (click to embiggen)

In closing, that sexy dream Ronan had about Adam undoubtedly launched 1000 slashfics, and that is one of the things about the internet that makes me feel enormously fond of it.

Gin Jenny Becomes a Cog in the Maggie Stiefvater Propaganda Machine (a review of The Raven Boys)

One time a while ago, Anastasia tweeted at me “OMG THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA IS SO GOOD SEND HELP” (The Queen of Attolia is indeed so good you will definitely need help to be sent). While I was reading The Raven Boys, I wanted to take that whole tweet, substitute The Raven Boys for the title, and tweet it approximately every twenty pages. After a rocky start in which I engaged in some cranky grumbling about all the times Ana and Memory and Anastasia and Jill had been simultaneously wrong about a book (NB this has never happened), around page 60 I fell crazy in love with The Raven Boys and could not figure out an appropriate outlet to express the strength of my feelings. That situation is ongoing.

It’s this part, when Gansey, a rich-kid protagonist searching for a Welsh mythological hero, is a prat to Blue, the only non-psychic daughter in a family of psychics, that got me. (He’s just offered to pay her manager back if she takes time out from waitressing to come talk to them, and she’s gotten mad about it. As you would.)

To his credit, the Aglionby boy didn’t speak right away. Instead, he thought for a moment and then he said, without heat, “You said you were working for a living. I thought it’d be rude to not take that into account. I’m sorry you’re insulted. I see where you’re coming from, but I feel it’s a little unfair that you’re not doing the same for me.”

“I feel you’re being condescending,” Blue said.

In the background, she caught a glimpse of Soldier Boy [Ronan] making a plane of his hand. It was crashing and weaving toward the table surface while Smudgy Boy [Noah] gulped laughter down. The elegant boy [Adam] held his palm over his face in exaggerated horror, fingers spread just enough that she could see his wince. . . . Neeve had to be wrong. She’d never fall in love with one of them.

Then Gansey, having attained the peak of unpleasantness of which Gansey is capable, goes away to think about what he has done and try to be better in the future. What can I say, y’all? I am a sucker for characters being successfully schooled on how to be a better person. And also for characters who really want to be a better person.

So the story is this: Blue has been told her whole life that if she kisses her true love, he will die. And this year, she knows from her psychic mother and aunt, the boy who calls himself Gansey is going to die. As much as Blue knows that she should stay away from Gansey and his three prep-school friends, she finds herself drawn into their quest to track down and awaken the sleeping Welsh hero Owen Glendower. But the five of them aren’t the only ones who are looking.

Basically, this story is a conglomeration of things that I hate. When I described it to my sister with the crazed eyes of an evangelist, she said, “Wait, why did you even read this book?” I hate Welsh mythology. I hate doomed prophecy romances, or indeed any doomy prophecies whatsoever. And I hate rich privileged kids who spend their days basking in their privilege and taking helicopters to remote locations. Absolutely nothing about this book appealed to me, yet here I am with the evangelist crazy eyes, trying to formulate words to describe its wonderfulness.

“How do you feel about helicopters?”

There was a long pause. “How do you mean? Ethically?”

“As a mode of transportation.”

“Faster than camels, but less sustainable.”

The heart of it is the characters, Blue and Gansey, and Gansey’s friends: Noah, painfully shy and introverted; Ronan, perpetually angry since the brutal murder of his father a year ago; and Adam, poor and ferociously proud and trying to get away from his abusive father. Put any two of those characters together (well, maybe not Noah so much, but any of the others), and the scene absolutely sings. Particularly if one of them is Gansey, whose friends love him in approximately equal measure to how much they resent him. These are friendships complicated by class, by money, by accents and damage and helicopters, and when these friends have an argument, you are simultaneously on everyone’s side at the same time. It is the BEST.

I accept that by writing this post, I have contributed to raising your expectations about The Raven Boys to levels that may not be reasonable, like that time Aarti finally read the Chaos Walking books but by then we had all raved about them way too much for her to enjoy them. (Still super sorry about that, Aarti!) I’m sorry if because of me you read The Raven Boys and don’t like it. I accept responsibility for that if it happens. But you should still read The Raven Boys, because I bet you will like it a lot.

More than anything, the journal wanted. It wanted more than it could hold, more than words could describe, more than diagrams could illustrate. Longing burst from the pages, in every frantic line and every hectic sketch and every dark-printed definition. There was something pained and melancholy about it.

Coming soon: I rave about The Dream Thieves and bewail the long days that stand between me and Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and the even longer days that stand between me and the fourth-and-final book.

The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara

OH MY GOD Y’ALL, THIS BOOK. Don’t let me get your expectations up so high that you can’t enjoy it but like, OH MY GOD THIS BOOK, there are not an adequate number of words in my brain box to describe my feelings about this book right here. The People in the Trees is startling. Not startling in a plot way, but startling in the way that was like I had never read a book before and was reading my very first one right now.

The People in the Trees admittedly hits a lot of sweet spots for me: a well-imagined fictional world (the science and the places in this book are all imaginary); an audacious premise (a Micronesian tribe seems to have attained something like immortality, though at a terrible cost) treated with utmost seriousness; an unreliable narrator (Norton Perina, the scientist who discovered and published on this immortality phenomenon, is writing his memoirs); an abundance of footnotes (by a staunch admirer of Perina, also an unreliable narrator, who is editing the memoirs); and a grand profusion of ethical questions.

Perina, who is loosely based on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, is writing his memoirs from a jail cell, where he is serving a two year sentence on charges of sexually assaulting one of his adopted Micronesian children. Before his disgrace, he was one of the most renowned and respected scientists in America for his discovery of Selene syndrome: a condition, apparently occasioned by the consumption of a particular kind of meat indigenous to the Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, in which human lifespans are extended to as much as six times their natural length, while mental capacity becomes more and more diminished.

It’s quickly, though not crudely, obvious that Perina is a nasty piece of work, a man who simply doesn’t bother himself much about anyone around him. He’s not trying to justify himself because he’s loftily serene in his righteousness. He speaks of having regrets, yet says that he wouldn’t — couldn’t — have done anything differently. The discovery of Selene syndrome, as you might expect, has massive environmental and social consequences for Ivu’ivu, as hordes of Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies (and eventually missionaries) descend on the island. In his later years, Perina begins to bring home abandoned Ivu’ivuan children, hordes of them, a total of 43 — including Victor, whose accusations of sexual assault lead to Perina’s eventual fall from grace.

What can I say about The People in the Trees? It is a book with presence. From the first few pages it forces you to sit up and take notice. I think the last time I read a debut novel with this level of assurance and originality was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Nabokov, both to Lolita and to Pale Fire, and as high as compliment as that is to The People in the Trees, it’s a not-inconsiderable compliment to Nabokov as well.

This book right here, you guys, it rocked me like a southbound train. Three days after reading it, I still haven’t been able to read anything new. I just want to sit with The People in the Trees and think about it and reread parts of it and talk about it to everyone. (Seriously. Ask my friends-and-relations. I have not been able to shut up about this book.)

Okay! In descending order of how certain I feel that y’all will love it: Eva, Vasilly, Proper Jenny and Teresa, Aarti, and Ana, you should read this book please. It’s all about like colonization and guilt and appropriation and ethics and science! Read it, read it! (Jill, I just am not sure. I can see you loving this, but I can also see you really, really, super hating it. Use your judgment, I guess?)

American (hard)cover
American (hard)cover
British cover
British cover
American paperback
American paperback

Cover report: Between the US and UK paperback covers, I’d easily choose the US one. But the UK only published the book in paperback. Between the UK paperback cover and the US hardback cover, I’d choose the UK, I guess? Because turtle? I’m calling it for America because of the three available covers, I like the American paperback by far the best.

Review: James Tiptree Jr, by Julie Phillips

I have discovered that what I like in a biography is lots and lots and lots of quotations. When I was reading Julie Phillips’s excellent biography of Alice Sheldon, I kept reading bits of it out loud to Mumsy, and Mumsy said, “This is an autobiography?” It’s not, but Julie Phillips has brilliantly pulled together a multiplicity of letters, journals, and papers to create a wonderfully vivid picture of Sheldon’s life.

To step back slightly: James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, a woman who wrote fantastically creepy sci-fi stories about sex and death and gender and danger for ten years before being unveiled as a lady. Her parents took her to the unplumbed (ish) (at the time) (by white people) depths of Africa when she was small, which ill prepared her for the regular life of an American woman. She was unhappy with the restrictive models of gender and sexuality available to her, and she struggled to find a career that suited her independence, intelligence, and perfectionism, as well as her constricted, conflicted ideas of what women could do and be.

The main thing with someone as clever and prolific in her letters as Alice Sheldon seems to have been is to get out of her way. Phillips quotes liberally from her sources, while restraining the all-too-common biographer’s tendency to analyze cause and effect ad nauseum. The book is all the better for it. Here’s Sheldon’s synopsis for a book she’s considering writing during World War II:

The gal has a Horrid Secret. Wish I knew what it was. As I see it, the guy, a stuffy bachelor, falls for her in a condescending way; the gal turns out to have a no good spouse, and was about to commit suicide when run into. (They find a loaded revolver in her pocket.) … So the husband turns up, and is repulsive, and the good guy is stuffy, and the gal shillies a bit and then repudiates both of them and goes out to Do Good By Herself–all in the middle of World War No 2.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the conflict between Sheldon’s obvious aesthetic preference for iconoclasm and her desire to be liked. Not only is she ambivalent about most of the choices available to her, but she also has a hard time committing fully to any of the choices she does make. She marries suddenly after having met her husband once, at a dinner–evidently more because marriage is the next recognized life step than because of any true connection she had with the man. Throughout her life, she struggles to find a role for herself on the edge of what is acceptable. Before her career as a writer begins, the closest she came was getting a degree in behavioral psychology when she was in her forties.

It’s remarkable how important Sheldon’s writing career is, given that it only occupies ten years out of her seventy-one. It’s important because we want to read her stories (they’re awfully good), but for Phillips’s purposes (and more relevant to the book), it’s important to Alice Sheldon. The years when she’s living that double life — the good girl married matron who keeps chickens, and the popular science fiction writer who corresponds profanely about men and stories with a myriad of writers and fans — are plainly the years that are most fulfilling to her. Her joy in the freedom her alter ego gives her shines through the letters she writes in that period, like this one to Ursula LeGuin:

Dear Starbear,


Your letter of 8 1 73 just arrived and only by the grace of fate and some minor automotive problems have you been spared from receiving an incoherent telegram proposing immediate elopement to Madagascar.


You are beautiful.


But after sobering up I came to the sad conclusion that there could be certain problems for example with your spouse and children, and it might be that they do not sell Geritol in Madagascar, or oil for my wheelchair, and so on. And that perhaps even if these obstacles could be overcome, I could probably expect at best to receive a ticket saying No. 142, kindly wait turn … But the vision of us strolling forever beneath the giant blossoming urp trees, while ring-tailed lemurs weave around us in orchestration of our discourse of agreement … will remain with me.


By which I mean, dear Lady, that every word of your letter fell into my ears with the silvery plonk of total understanding.

Even if you aren’t a reader of biographies in general (I’m not), I recommend James Tiptree Jr. It will, I expect, accomplish the goal of making you want to read Tiptree’s stories. I am reading a book of them now, and they are awfully good. More later, maybe, but in case I don’t get around to a review of her stories, I recommend “The Screwfly Solution” as a good place to start.

Review: Saga, vols. 1 and 2, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Upon finishing the second volume of Brian K. Vaughn’s most recent series, Saga, I have decided to be excited about Vaughn. This could have happened sooner, except unfortunately Runaways was my introduction to him, and it is not great around race and it put me off him. But having read Y: The Last Man and Saga, I think that Vaughn’s writing is great, and I like that he creates comics with end-dates in mind, so I’ve decided to hop (at last!) on board the Brian K. Vaughn train.

My favorite thing about Saga is the relative tininess of its stakes by contrast with the hugeness of its scope. The story is about a world called Landfall that has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for as long as anybody can remember. Though the two planets are no longer directly at war with each other, they have spread their conflict across all the known planets, forcing the entire universe to take sides. Marko and Alana fought on opposite sides of this battle in their lives, before falling in love and getting married. When their baby is born, interested parties on both sides of the interplanetary conflict hire mercenaries to track them down (and presumably kill them).

Typically, I’d be out as soon as I heard “interplanetary conflict”, but the thing Vaughn has done here that I love is to make the comic all about finding a home. Alana and Marko and baby Hazel are searching for an Ithaca that may not even exist: a quiet place in the universe where Hazel can grow up untouched by the war that has torn apart so many lives.

In particular, I would love to call out the fact that Hazel is not (and please Brian Vaughn let’s keep it that way) any kind of Chosen One. Her birth hasn’t been foretold, she doesn’t have magical powers, and apart from being the product of two races that don’t tend to intermingle, there appears to be nothing special about her at all. I strongly strongly hope that persists. It’s one of the things that keeps the stakes of this story feeling urgent but small, as opposed to urgent and global.

Vaughn is also managing the trick of making Marko and Alana’s opponents interesting(ish) in their own right. The Will and his Lying Cat (a large cat that knows and says so if you lie in front of it) are among the bounty hunters who have been hired to track and kill Marko and Alana. So far so dull, but then he gets a subsidiary motivation that has the potential to be interesting, and for his mission, he teams up with Marko’s former fiancee and a little psychic girl he rescued from slavery, and they… Well, I do not know what their deal is going to be just yet. But I do know that I am a sucker for a team of unlikely allies.

Fiona Staples’s art is fantastic — detailed and weird without feeling overcrowded. She also hand-letters the narration of the story by Hazel (speaking from some undetermined point in the future), which is very very cool. I can’t say enough about her. Below is an example of just one of the many awesome things that Fiona Staples does.

I love knowing that Vaughn has an endgame in mind for this comic, and I can’t wait to see what it shakes out to be. Check it out!

Position statement: Hawkeye should have won at least one of the Eisners that Saga won this past year. Hawkeye is easily as good as Saga but probably better. My growing affection for Saga has in no way swayed me on this point.

Review: The Charioteer, Mary Renault (plus, a giveaway)

Since nobody loves this book (and when I say “nobody loves this book” I want you to understand that I really mean “Mumsy does not love this book and it breaks my heart”), I have decided to try once again to explain what I love so much about it.

The Charioteer deals with a conflict of values, my favorite kind of conflict to read about. The three main characters, Laurie and Ralph and Andrew, are gay men living in British army hospitals in the 1940s: Laurie and Ralph because injuries prevent them returning to battle, and Andrew as an orderly because he’s a conscientious objector. (Well, Laurie and Ralph are gay. Andrew exists in a state of presexual innocence, which is less annoying than that phrasing makes it seem.) So all through the book runs the tension between the moral necessity of integrity — these are all three men of integrity — and the social necessity of self-concealment that devolves upon a gay man in 1940s Britain. Here is Laurie sounding out Andrew (who fails to be sounded):

“If I only had my gramophone here, we could have had some Mozart, some time… I’ve got quite a bit of Tchaikovsky, ballet music mostly. It’s all right when you feel like it, or don’t you think so?  I read somewhere once, Tchaikovsky was queer.”


He seemed to wait hours for the upturned face to change; but the pause was  in his own imagination, as he realized when Andrew said with mild interest, “Was he? I hadn’t heard. He was never actually shut up, surely?”


“No, it never came out. Though I believe–” He saw his mistake, and with a painful jolt caught himself up just in time. “Not mad, you know. Just queer.” He waited again.


“You mean a bit…Oh, yes, I see.” Andrew wrung out the cloth in the bucket. “I find all Russians slightly mysterious, don’t you? Perhaps if one met more of them.” Laurie said yes, that was the trouble, probably.

One of Renault’s very best writerly tricks is her ability to show two people who are participating in a mutual conversation but not in the same conversation, and she has it on full display in The Charioteer. With everyone but Ralph (and, on most topics, Andrew), Laurie is on guard. There’s an incredible tension to the recognition that any casual line of talk — about nurses, night passes, pacifists, school, the crossing at Dunkirk — can turn on a dime and take him back into dangerous territory. Laurie’s attentiveness to this, and his competence and resourcefulness at reframing dangerous conversations are compelling in the same way as Tatiana Maslany wriggling out of one impossible situation after another on Orphan Black.

A side effect of these eyeline-mismatch conversations is that Renault produces elegant descriptions of the small and large shifts in persona any kind of human interaction can dictate. Laurie is devoted to his mother but still aware of her tendency to “retreat into optimism leaving him to face reality alone”; and he presents the gentlest version of his life for her perusal. He’s likewise very fond of his John-Bull stereotype hospital friend, Reg, who satisfies Laurie’s need for “simple, platitudinous sympathy” but also seems at all times on the edge of discovering that Laurie’s gay. Here he is expressing his unhappiness over Laurie’s close friendship with Andrew, a conscientious objector:

“No one here can’t say you ever done any highbrow act. But what I mean, these lads come along, college boys like yourself, reading literary books and that. Well, stands to reason, ordinary, you have to keep a lot of your thoughts to yourself. I watched you when you didn’t know it, time and again.”


Laurie came crimson out of the locker, where he longed to remain. “Christ, Reg, the bull you talk.” They sat, not looking at each other. Laurie knew his protest had been too weak; it should have been something more like “What would I want with that bunch of sissies?” Why, he wondered, was it the people one held in the most innocent affection who so often demanded from one the most atrocious treachery?

(Here again, by the way, these two men are not in the same conversation. Laurie spends this scene trying frantically to figure out whether Reg is objecting to Andrew on gendered or on ideological grounds, and Reg spends it determined to make his (ideological, if you’re curious) point, and feeling that Laurie is refusing to take a tactful hint.)

Renault does the incredibly difficult thing in The Charioteer of writing about three main characters who are all strongly moral, variously flawed, and flawlessly differentiated from each other. And not boring. It’s not just one character who’s moral and not boring — which is already a challenge for many authors — it’s three. Admittedly you get Ralph and Andrew through the eyes of Laurie, who’s sort of in love with them both, but it’s still clear from what Laurie learns of them that they are unyielding on points of morality, without reference to personal cost. Laurie himself, if you can frame his reluctance to be forthright with Andrew as Renault’s version of Dan Savage’s campsite rule, takes on a significant burden of pain to ensure that his presence in Andrew’s life does no harm to Andrew.

Lest I be accused of panegryic-peddling, I will say this: Although Mary Renault wrote in fetters when she wrote of her own time and at liberty when of Gods & Greece, The Charioteer is the least fettered of her modern novels; by which I mean that she speaks fairly openly about homosexuality and what it means to society and to individuals. She is not always at her awesomest on this subject. Renault slapped a frame of classical antiquity on homosexuality; and she could be monumentally unkind about people who framed it otherwise. The effeminate gay characters in The Charioteer are bitchy nightmares, and Ralph and Laurie despise them so casually it’s clear the reader is meant to do the same. It’s not great, even if you understand the reasons behind it.

I shall make one more point and then retire from the field. Even granting that Mary Renault lived in South Africa and couldn’t get into trouble, it is awesome to me that she wrote all these books that assumed the perfect reasonableness of the existence of queer people in Britain. Promises of Love, a book in which the protagonist develops a relationship with a man who has previously been in a relationship with her brother, was published in 1939. The Charioteer says outright that Laurie and Ralph have sex, and it was published the year after Alan Turing got convicted of indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. Just, way to go, Mary Renault, writing about characters who are (apart from, you know, fearing societal rejection) perfectly cheerful and un-angsty about being gay. Way to not be Radclyffe Hall.

AND NOW. Due to my unceasing search for the One Best Copy of The Charioteer, I have a (used, but in good condition) spare copy of it, and I would like to give it away. If you are interested, please leave a comment below with an email address where I can contact you. I will draw names out of a hat if more than one person asks for it. You can comment any time this week (from now until next Monday night), and I will draw names on the morning of 8 October.

Edit to add: Please go read the lovely Charlotte’s review of The King Must Die, it’s excellent.