Racism, Pakistan, & Jane Austen: Nonfiction Reading Round-Up

Although my reading project for not being a dumb American is only about Africa, I do read other nonfiction books that I don’t tell you about. Ordinarily I let it slide past without comment, but as I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately (a mood came upon me!), I thought I’d share some of my findings.

Finding the First: Pakistan is an acronym.

“But Jenny why didn’t you know that already? Everyone knows that!” you may say. To which I have no response but embarrassment. I also only recently learned that scuba is an acronym. It was a weird acronym-y week, that week.

Because yes! As originally proposed, Pakistan was to stand for the proposed territories it would contain: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and BaluchisTAN. (I know; the last bit’s lame.) Then somebody noticed that if you tossed an I in the middle of that, it would mean Land of the Pure in Urdu, so they ran with it.

Midnight's Furies

Everything else I learned from Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition was horribly depressing. For our purposes here, I’ll just say that although this sounds like bullshit colonialism, legitimately it seems to be true that rushing to independence before the structures to support independence are in place is an awful, awful idea. Cf. Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is my working hypothesis and I will keep you posted on how it stands up to further scrutiny going forward.

Finding the Second: We should bring back mourning attire.

Not, I mean, like not fully. John Mullan’s excellent What Matters in Jane Austen takes up twenty rather unexpected questions about how Jane Austen signals information in her books and what that means, and one of them is “Who dies in the course of her novels?” Very few people, is the answer, but another part of the answer is that while not many deaths occur in the course of her novels, the presence of death and mourning attire is omnipresent.

The relief of [recovery from illness] is something that we can hardly feel any more. it gives us some idea of how our usually comfortable distinction between trivial and serious ailments was much less secure.

I don’t think people should wear only black for a year after their loved one dies. But if maybe we could have something, some outward sign that you could choose to wear if you wanted to that would say I am not okay, handle with care. I know the answer is that we should treat everyone as if their spouse just died, but, you know what? I am not a saint and I cannot be nice to everyone 100% of the time, and neither can you, so let’s talk real with each other about it.

What Matters in Jane Austen

Finding the Third: I need to read a nonfiction book about what it’s like to be a Mormon missionary. Someone like Marilyn Johnson or Alexandra Robbins should hop on that, because I think it would be amazing.

Edited by Stephanie Wu, The Roommates collects stories of awful roommates, which is as fun as you’d imagine. But also, it’s clear that Stephanie Wu just asked all her friends to ask all their friends if they had any good roommate stories. The diversity is . . . not so much. My favorite story was about the narrator’s Mormon mission year, and it made me want a book about Mormon missionaries and their lives. Let’s make it happen.

Finding the Fourth: Literally everyone in all of American history (except Ida B. Wells) was terrible. Ida B. Wells is maybe the only human in the history of this nation who wasn’t hot garbage.

Jabari Asim’s book The N Word has the subtitle Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, which sounds like it’s a more sociological take on the word. That would have been fascinating, but Asim does something that’s (maybe?) even more fascinating, which is to contextualize the n-word historically. He goes through the ways it was deployed in science, arts, and culture from before the Civil War up to the present day.

The N Word

It’s a really good book, and Asim is a thoughtful critic of culture and history. If you can tolerate a full-length book of everyone being terrible, this is a good one to go with.

Correct assessment.

This has been some of the nonfiction I’ve been plowing through recently. I will return you to your regularly scheduled fiction programming hereafter.

Elysium, Jennifer Marie Brissett

What a strange, ambitious book Elysium is. Per usual, specfic is where writers are doing interesting things with gender, and it’s no surprise that Elysium ended up on the honor list for last year’s James Tiptree Jr. Award, which exists specifically to honor specfic writers who do interesting things with gender.

The main characters are always Adrian(ne) and Antoine(tte), with some additional side characters, most notably Helen/Hector. Their identities are constantly shifting, so that in one moment, Adrianne is watching Antoine fall out of love with her, and in the next moment — via a shift in a computer code — Adrian is caring for Antoine, his dying lover. The constant is the loss: Adrian(ne) is perpetually trying to hold onto Antoine(tte), and always losing him/her.

If Elysium sounds confusing, well, it is a bit, particularly at the start. But Bissett has a knack for the image cluster and the callback. One storyline recalls another, even though one may take place in a Roman-inflected Handmaid’s Tale-ish gender dystopia, and the next in a prison camp where the invading aliens keep their humans. Elysium travels a long and circuitous road between a recognizable Earth and a future in which the humans have been utterly conquered (or have they?), and it’s to Bissett’s credit that she makes it feel cohesive.


In one of the storylines, Adrian has been committed to a madhouse, and fellow inmate Hector is trans. It’s problematic. Adrian, who retains some batsqueak memories of versions of his life where Hector is Helen, refers to Hector as “Helen,” for which Hector is monumentally grateful. Ultimately, Hector stays behind to hold off the zombie alien creature things (presumably to the death), in order to give Adrian and his brother Antoine time to escape. The reason why (Hector says) is “because [Adrian] saw the real me.”


Brissett wrote a post called “In defense of Hector/Helen”, which you may read for further context. It didn’t address my particular concerns. To say Hector/Helen isn’t all trans people is disingenuous: When the only trans person in the book dies a heroic sacrificial death to save two cis characters, it plays into the “danger of a single story” that Brissett mentions.

Cis women do not write a trans character in a vacuum. There is context. There are harmful traditions. Be better.

Book Punks loved the book more than I did, while having some of the same concerns about this Hector plotline; likewise Ana of the Book Smugglers.

Mocking Jonathan Franzen: A links round-up

In a review of a novel by Mussolini, Dorothy Parker wrote:

If only I had a private income, I would drop everything right now, and devote the scant remainder of my days to teasing the Dictator of All Italy…Indeed, my dream-life is largely made up of scenes in which I say to him, “Oh, Il Duce yourself, you big stiff,” and thus leave him crushed to a pulp.

And this is just how I feel about Jonathan Franzen. Not because he is a fascist or in any way a danger to America. Just because I find him extremely annoying, and I find internet jokes at his expense extremely delightful. All of which to say: ‘Tis evidently the season once again to be making fun of Franzen.

A call for messy comic book heroines.

I still like listening to stuff on vinyl, but otherwise, this point about the internet improving our lives is well taken.

Y’all this may make me a curmudgeon but I don’t want a brain-net. I like the internet where it is, exterior to my brain. Please and thank you.

Linda Holmes of NPR tackles the problems with portraying Black Widow in a superhero landscape woefully short on women.

HOORAY Eddie Redmayne is confirmed going to be in the JK Rowling movie about magical beasts.

After the most recent icky rape scene in Game of Thrones the Show, The Mary Sue has made an editorial decision to stop promoting or talking about the show.

On titles that are lists of three things. It notes that they sound better if the third thing is longer, and that, friends, is why some genius came up with the name “ascending tricolon,” a phrase I tried not to overuse on my Latin AP exam many years ago.

This woman was, as a toddler, a participant in primate research. She remembers almost nothing about it.

Lessons learned from Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets

Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets is a hugely enjoyable read, particularly if you are (as I am) already roughly conversant with the early kings and queens of England. Since I have a vague outline in my head of the course of early British history, this book might as well have been Gossip about the Plantagenets. My main takeaways were on a theme, that theme being People from History Who Were Way Worse Than You Thought.

First up: Thomas Becket. I know you learned in school that Thomas Becket was a martyr to his faith, and “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” etc. That is true as far as it goes, but what I learned last year in rough outline and then again from The Plantagenets in some detail is that the principle in question was neither especially religious nor especially defensible on moral grounds. Henry II wanted to change a policy whereby rapists and murderers who were also members of the clergy faced trial by the church rather than the state. Becket refused to entertain this idea, and he kept right on doing church trials where the clergy people got off with light penalties or none at all. Henry II did not care for this, and neither do we modern folks.

Down with theocracy!

Also, Becket sounds very annoying. Every time he got mad at Henry and his political allies, he would order them to be excommunicated, and he did this so often that the Pope had to say, “No, don’t worry about it, y’all are still in the Church.” I’m not saying Becket deserved to die, but at a certain point it’s like, bro,  you know what century you live in. You can’t print up business cards that say Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and Full-Time King Disobeyer and remain sanguine about your life expectancy.

NEXT AND BEST: King John. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, But Jenny, I already know that King John was garbage. If he hadn’t been so garbage, we wouldn’t have the Magna Carta. Dude, I know. I also thought I knew what a garbage king he was. But I did not appreciate the full extent of his awfulness. I sort of thought it had been exaggerated by history. I was super wrong.

I made this gif! Yay me!
Accurate historical representation.

For one thing, he levied so many taxes on his subjects that there was a coin shortage. Just think about that for a moment. He had so many coins living in his royal coffers that there weren’t enough coins for other English people to use for purchasing goods and services. This was not ultimately beneficial to the Plantagenet leadership, as his son Henry III basically spent it all on making fancy churches fancier, leaving the kingdom in enormous debt to Italian bankers.

This one time, he imprisoned the other potential heir to the throne of England, his teenage nephew Arthur (fine), and he kept the kid in fairly dire conditions (not fine). Once when he got drunk, he ordered one of his vassals to go to Arthur’s cell and blind and castrate him, which luckily the guy chickened out of doing. But later that year, Arthur disappeared from his prison and was never seen again. It is believed that John got drunk, killed Arthur, and threw his body in the river. It is sort of hard to believe that he would do such an insane and unbeneficial thing, but on the other hand, he was all the time doing insane things that didn’t make any sense.

Maybe take a break from killing people for a little while, John old pal.

Case in point: One year, John decided that one of his barons, William de Briouze, who had been a strong ally to him all along, was probably actually plotting to destroy him. (This was not the case.) He started demanding that de Briouze pay huge sums of money to the Crown and send hostages to John’s court to ensure his good behavior. When de Briouze did not immediately comply, John sent mercenary armies to capture his castles, and then billed de Briouze for the cost of the mercenary soldiers. Like, he wanted de Briouze to pay wages to the guys who had just stolen his property.

After some ultimately unsuccessful fleeing by de Briouze and his family to Ireland, John captured his wife and son and imprisoned them in very yucky conditions in one of his castles, where they died within the year. One report says that they died of starvation, and that deBriouze’s son’s body had tooth marks on it because his mother went insane from hunger and tried to eat him.

Whether or not that particular gruesome story is true, we can all certainly agree that John I is sure to be known as John the Worst. And too bad, I think! John is an excellent king name, and thanks to rotten John Lackland (that’s a mean nickname people gave him when he was young, though not the meanest nickname he ever received; see tags), we’ll never have another King John of England.

This post could be twelve paragraphs longer, but I’ll let you digest all of this, and we’ll see about coming back to the Plantagenets in a later post. Maybe in that post I will make the disclaimer that Dan Jones has not got nearly enough footnotes and sometimes he says things as if they are fact when actually they are under some dispute by historians; but that his writing is extremely engaging and I am learning many excellent stories about the early kings of England.

The Villette Readalong is here at last!

I had a bumpy start with Villette, insofar as I instantly loathed everybody. I’m not trying to get on Lucy Snowe’s case, but her youth seems to have prepared her exceptionally well for becoming the kind of mean governess who hits you with a ruler for saying you think Richard the Lionheart was bad at governing a nation. She is so judgey right off the top. Here are Lucy Snowe’s assessment of all the characters in the first three chapters, in GIF format.


Polly’s father:


The effect of this is to make me dislike all those characters (well done Lucy Snowe), but also to sort of hate Lucy because if she can’t abide any single person in her life, maybe the problem is her. Plus, she says this when Polly cries (bear in mind, Polly is six):

I had some thoughts of consoling her, and of improving the occasion by inculcating some of those maxims of philosophy whereof I had ever a tolerable stock ready for application.

She sounds like Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, and that’s not a good look for anybody. Luckily she then heads off to live with somebody she does like, an old invalid lady who hires her as a companion. The old lady one day decides that she’s going to Do Right by Lucy Snowe and organize her will in such a manner that Lucy Snowe will be Taken Care Of.

Except! This is not the end of a Horatio Alger story; it is the start of a Charlotte Bronte story. Nobody has governessed even a little bit so far, so you know Lucy Snowe’s not going to get off that easy. The very night Mrs. Marchmont decides she’s going to help Lucy out, she dies.

Ain’t that a kick in the head.

If it were me, I’d be bitter about this situation, but Lucy Snowe takes it in stride, which makes me like her more. She doesn’t waste any time on recrimination and anxiety. She puts on her big-girl panties and goes off to London to try her fortunes there. Good for you, Lucy Snowe! London is the best! I hope everything goes awesome for you in London just like it did for this dude:

Head over to Reading Rambo where this readalong is being hosted and discover what the other folks have to say about it!

Reading the End [Pod]cast, Ep.20: A Review of Captain America: Shield of Dreams

Here is an experiment me and Randon did! Testing out some new equipment, we here have a podcast review of Captain America 2. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly to take with you on the go.

Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, leave us a review! We appreciate it very very much).

Episode 20a

Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Song is by Jeff MacDougall and comes from here.


Wilkie in Winter!: Epoch the First

WILKIE IN WINTER I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. A hundred thank-yous to the wonderful Estella Society for hosting this event. Today we shall discuss the First Epoch of The Woman in White, or as I like to call it, the much-more-successful-first-act-than-the-first-act-of-The-Moonstone. (It’s a long nickname, yes, but it makes some good points.)

Of Wilkie Collins’s two most famous works, The Moonstone has a stronger finale, and The Woman in White a much much much stronger set-up. Where The Moonstone spends a lot of time on place-setting, The Woman in White has a short set-up where we meet Our Hero, Walter Hartright, and his friends and relations; and then, straight away, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery: He meets a woman in white, who won’t tell her name or her circumstances, but who is in some sort of atmospheric trouble and desperately needs his help to get to London.

just like this, except the woman has fair hair, and the enormous blue hand is the totality of strictures imposed on Victorian women

When Walter gets to his job in Cumberland, he is shocked to find that one of his pupils, Laura Fairlie (a woman of extraordinary beauty and sweetness, obv), is nearly identical to the mysterious, desperate woman he helped out in London. The memory of the woman in white gives him chills. Her similarity to Laura gives him chills. Hanging out in graveyards gives him chills but he elects to do it anyway. Like, kind of a lot, considering he’s a drawing master.

It’s hella atmospheric

Nobody cares about Laura Fairlie anyway because MARIAN! Marian is Walter’s other pupil, and she is — let’s face it — the point of this book. Marian Halcombe is Laura’s half sister. Where Laura is beautiful, sweet-natured, and dumb, Marian is outspoken and brilliant and ugly. Laura is too fearful and timid to even be told that there is a crazy lady walking around wearing her face and talking smack about her affianced husband — oh yeah, I was too bored with Laura to mention that the reason Walter’s love for her is doomed is that she’s engaged to this minor noble, Sir Percival Glyde, and she can’t get out of it because ?her father set it up? I don’t even know, and she’s too sweet-natured to change her mind. Oh, and she’s an heiress, also. Whatever.

So, MARIAN. While Laura is painting second-rate pictures or whatever she does to pass the time, Marian is using her wits to figure out whether Sir Percival Glyde is, in fact, a villain. (She thinks yes.) She and Walter try to get Anne Catherick to explain her horror of Sir Percival Glyde; but it’s tricky to get any sense out of her because she’s crazy. After Walter leaves (because of doomed love), Marian enlists the family lawyer to help her out. They do this by basically going to Sir Percival Glyde and saying, “Are you evil?”

Marian’s philosophy (for now)

Sir Percival Glyde gives a totally Snape-in-the-first-chapter-of-Half-Blood-Prince answer to this. Marian has reservations still, but the family lawyer buys it completely. Then he discovers that the proposed marriage settlement for Laura is insanely profitable to Sir Percival Glyde and would give Sir Percival Glyde a twenty thousand dollar incentive to murder Laura, basically.

Here’s where the book really picks up, suspense-wise. The strength of The Woman in White is how vividly it portrays the choicelessness of the women. Though Laura is wealthy and Marian clever, they still depend enormously on the goodwill and integrity of the men in their lives. All of Marian’s considerable intelligence cannot save Laura from the marriage; in fact, she depends on the goodwill of Sir Percival Glyde to remain in Laura’s life after her marriage. Whatever Wilkie Collins’s views were on women, he makes crazy suspense out of female inequality in his era.

I’m excited for the second epoch! The first epoch is scene-setting — which is great — but the second epoch is where it’s really at. Marian gets to do stuff, and Count Fosco shows up, and those are both good things.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.8: Fantastic Beasts Movie, Food in Books, and The Virgins

This week we’re here to talk about some amazing Harry Potter news, depictions of food in books, and Pamela Erens’s new novel The Virgins (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), and play a game of guessing where movies came from. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly to take with you on the go.

Episode 8

Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We will appreciate it very very much).

If you want to skip around, here are the contents of the podcast:

Starting at 1:04: We talk about the thrilling news that J. K. Rowling, the woman who gave us our entire childhoods, will be producing a brand new movie set in the Harry Potter world, based on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. An announcement for the project can be found here, and further information compiled by nerds about what we can expect from this movie can be found here.

3:36: I come out against Benedict Cumberbatch as Newt Scamander. Whiskey Jenny is strongly in favor of him. You may give your opinion on this in the comments.

9:00: Please note that the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie is making more money any more. It is the 12th highest-grossing film of all time.

Starting at 12:05: What makes food in books memorable? Whiskey Jenny has a bunch of good examples, and I invented a taxonomy. (When I revealed that there was a taxonomy, Whiskey Jenny said, “Good Lord. Gracious.” That is a fair response, I think.)

21:16: Here is the blog with the Game of Thrones recipes, in case your heart hankers after that.

Starting at 24:02: We review The Virgins, a book about teenagers in boarding school falling love and navigating the loss of their virginity etc.

25:16: Readers, you do not need to find out for yourself who is right. Whiskey Jenny is right. I am wrong. She is smarter than me.

Starting at 40:48: WE PLAY A GAME. It’s this game here if you want to play it for yourself.

Starting at 50:41: Recommendations! Next podcast is the second comics podcast, and we’ll be reading some Guardians of the Galaxy (a series on which I have yet to be sold). The next podcast after that will be a spooky Halloween podcast, on which we will review Donna Tartt’s new book The Goldfinch.

52:34: Closing remarks and outro

Photo credit: andreybl / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Song is by Jeff MacDougall and comes from here.
The above links to books we’ve discussed are affiliate links. If you click on them and then buy a book from that website, I get a very small amount of money. This in no way influences my reviews.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.6: Defying Genre; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; and J. J. Abrams’s Book Trailer

We have returned once again to talk about more books! This week, we have a discussion about genre and how to make it better (spoiler alert: WHOLE TABLES OF BOARDING SCHOOL BOOKS), review Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), and answer a listener question about book trailers. Except we say “reader question” in the podcast. We have no idea why we keep saying that. We know you are listeners. We know that.

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

Episode 7

Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We will appreciate it very very much).

If you want to skip around, here are the contents of the podcast:

Starting at 1:17 – We talk about genre distinctions, which we feel should be more specific in order to make us happy, although we do recognize that if there was a Boarding School Books section at the bookstore, Gin Jenny would never read anything else. Please tell us what your super-specific Netflix genres are! Edited to add: I found this interesting article about how Netflix collects data about what you watch and uses it to recommend more things.

4:46: It IS Bookish.com, and their recommendation feature is here. It has been refined since I last used it — now you can provide them with up to four books that you already like, and they’ll give you ever-carefuler recommendations. Of course it isn’t perfect. I asked it what books I would like if I liked Kage Baker’s Company series, and it thought I might enjoy a book about developing agility and quickness. But I asked what else I would like if I liked The Sparrow and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and it recommended me Octavia Butler and Sheri Tepper. So that seems pretty good.

Starting at 15:07: We review We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I really liked this one, and I recommend it highly.

34:04: I have an amazingly difficult time saying the word expedition and the name James Tiptree Jr. Not sure what’s up here. Usually my articulation is excellent.

Starting at 36:48 – We answer a listener question about book trailers. Mia asked us (thanks, Mia!) whether we had seen the new JJ Abrams trailer, and what we thought about that marketing strategy plus what we thought about book trailers generally. Here’s the one-minute Abrams teaser, plus a second trailer.

Starting at 43:33 – Whiskey Jenny recommends our book for next time! It’s The Virgins, by Pamela Erens, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

45:03 – Closing remarks and outro.

Photo credit: andreybl / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Song is by Jeff MacDougall and comes from here.