Really a Lot of Handsome Men: A Links Round-Up

If you are an enjoyer of handsome men, this is the links round-up for you! To be quite honest, the world has been mighty daunting these past two weeks, and I haven’t wanted to include a lot of things in my links round-up that would bum you out more. I tried to mostly have fun stuff in here instead. Not sure if this is going to be the new path forward for these links round-ups? I don’t know. Do y’all have a preference? Incisive commentary, or fluffy cheering-up items? A blend?

Angelica Jade Bastién wrote that piece for Vulture a while back about James Marsden’s handsomeness, and here she’s got another one about Jude Law’s handsomeness. This type of piece can always happen, please and thank you.

Here’s Rawaha Haile on hiking the Appalachian trail with black authors for company.

Idris Elba gets dating advice from children. You’re welcome.

The complexity of being a New England Patriots fan and why it’s not fun anymore. This is actually super relatable to me, even though I hate the Patriots with the fire of a thousand suns.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in to the Oregonian to protest the comparison of “alternative facts” to the work of science fiction writers.

I have a lot, A LOT, of questions about what goes on at a miniaturist convention. A LOT, and also, I kind of want to go to a miniaturist convention and then write a murder mystery set at a miniaturist convention. Don’t you?

On revisiting James Baldwin, and struggling to find hope.

I honestly am so joyful when GQ releases longform celebrity profiles. Even when they’re positive, like this one, they are also SO BRUTAL. Here’s a brutal, funny, affectionate profile of Tom Hiddleston.

Here is a happy song for babies. It is also a happy song for adults like me. I bought it on Amazon and have listened to it on repeat, um, kind of a lot. You can listen for free here!

Enjoy your weekends!

Review: The Caretaker, A. X. Ahmad

Mm, at last, a thriller set in Martha’s Vineyard that takes into account the bloody conflict between India and Pakistan (and sometimes China) over who rightly owns Kashmir. I read about author A. X. Ahmad in NPR’s 2015 Book Concierge, and yes, I am embarrassed that it took me over a year to finally read The Caretaker. But such is the life of a reader.

The Caretaker

I was kind of joking before — I have not been specifically yearning for a mystery novel set in Martha’s Vineyard that also incorporates the Kashmir conflict. But it’s kind of great that one exists. A. X. Ahmad has written two books about ex-Indian army captain Ranjit Singh and the mysteries in which he finds himself enmeshed, and this is the first. When Ranjit takes a job as a caretaker for the rising star politician Senator Neals, who recently negotiated the return of a hostage from North Korea, he anticipates a quiet winter for himself and his family as the Martha’s Vineyard vacationers clear out for the season. Instead he ends up embroiled in international intrigue and deception, his family slated for deportation as he scrambles to figure out what is happening in time to restore their life of normalcy.

I don’t read many mysteries and am therefore not particularly qualified to speak to whether one is good, but The Caretaker was an immensely satisfying read for me. Ranjit takes the job as caretaking with the intent of using the extra cash to buy a nice winter coat for his beloved daughter Shanti. When the situation spins wildly out of control, he remains competent and careful, working through the information he possesses to try and get the situation back under control. It’s a fun and exciting story with characters I enjoyed, and I’d definitely read a second one.

In not-so-great elements, here is where I have to cop to being extremely my father’s daughter. One time I was talking to my dad about some romcom he’d checked out from the library, and I asked him how he liked it. “I didn’t like it at all,” he said, the most indignant that a human man has ever been. “The guy and girl are cheating on their boyfriend and girlfriend! This was supposed to be a comedy!”

LOOK. I would JUST HAVE PREFERRED IT if Ranjit hadn’t cheated on his wife. I just would have felt happier about him as a protagonist is all, if he hadn’t slept with the Senator’s wife — not once! SEVERAL TIMES, a bunch of them while his wife and daughter were meantime in a detention cell.

Apart from that, an excellent read. I understand that Ranjit and his wife are separated at the start of the second book in this series, The Last Taxi Ride, so if Ranjit sleeps with any ladies in that one, I won’t have to be so fussed about it.

Friends, am I being unreasonable? Is it fine for people in books to cheat on their spouses and I should just suck it up and accept it as part of the literary landscape? Also, does it seem to you that dude detectives in ongoing mystery serieses are particularly prone to cheating on their spouses?

Murder Bunheads, the YA Series

Mmmm, this was the YA duology I badly needed, you guys. Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton saw into my soul and recognized that I have had a slightly grim reading year this far and that I needed a ballet boarding school book, the soapier the better. Tiny Pretty Things and its sequel Shiny Broken Pieces were there in the clinch.

Tiny Pretty Things

What a perfect book (and sequel) for my mood. Tiny Pretty Things follows three narrators at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, the blonde legacy ballerina whose bullying hounded another girl out of school the year before; June, who struggles with an eating disorder and always finds herself in second place; and Gigi, a rising star in the conservatory with an eye on Bette’s boyfriend. The book acknowledges that the ballet school is very white, but our narrators are more diverse: June is Korean, and Gigi is black. In a world of not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies, there are catastrophically not nearly enough books about cutthroat ballet academies with protagonists of color.

As you’ll have gleaned from the previous paragraph, while these books are a lot of fun if Murder Bunheads are your thing (they are absolutely my thing, I would read a thousand books about Murder Bunheads), they do deal with some difficult topics you may not be in the mood for. June has an eating disorder, Bette pops pills, there’s racism in the ballet (shocking, I know), and there’s an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the second book as well as a severe allergic reaction leading to hospitalization. Plus, I mean, obviously bullying. THE MOST bullying.

“HOW ARE THESE BOOKS FUN THEN JENNY?” you may be screaming, and look, I don’t have a good answer. I like reading about Murder Bunheads, and I have done since I was a wee tot and I picked up Battle of the Bunheads at a book sale in Maine. These books are fun because the characters keep thinking of absolutely awful things to do to each other. Nobody is above it. Everyone is terrible. I would hate it if they were in any other setting, but since they’re in a ballet school I ate it up with a spoon.

Review: After Disasters, Viet Dinh

Wanna hear a joke? I got After Disasters out from the library the week after the election. Get it. Get it. Because the election was a disaster and now we are after it.

After Disasters circles around a lot of different events, but the one at its center is the 2001 earthquake in the District of Gujarat, in India. Ted and Dev and Piotr and Andy are all involved in the earthquake disaster response, and this story follows their recovery efforts as well as how they came to be in their professions and how all their lives intertwine. It is one of those books with many moving parts that reaches its conclusion and feels — though not every loose end gets resolved — both satisfying and inevitable.

After Disasters

Viet Dinh employs a style of reveal of which I am particularly fond, which is to unspool gradually the emotional backgrounds of these characters in a way that casts light backward onto what we’ve seen from them already. It’s done so smoothly that even saying “reveal” is overly sensational. In practice it feels more like a gentle reminder: You knew already, didn’t you, that Ted used to work in pharmaceuticals and that this current job is a kind of atonement? Yes. The information feels so familiar that you must have known it in the first place.1

I also loved Dinh’s depiction of the practicalities of disaster relief work. I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of how he wrote about these people, but it felt at least very real, how the workers from different countries and agencies would remember each other from previous disasters, or how the practicalities of transportation would supersede nearly everything else. It was a reminder that no disaster is ever damaging enough, and no job stressful enough, that the people involved stop being human.

“This is a high-stress job, and when people work in close proximity — what do you expect? It’s emergency sex. All the aid workers sleep with one another.”

“Even Catholic Charities?”

Especially Catholic Charities!”

I am a Catholic, and I endorse this joke.

He can’t take it, he can’t take the collapse, the damage, the dust; he wants to know that the world hasn’t forgotten him; that, in these moments after disasters, people are reaching out, so even though all the lines are still busy, all the lines are occupied, he tries, again and again and again, until — finally — he connects–

After Disasters is a lovely and sad book that gets at the meaninglessness of the disasters it depicts without ever sinking into despair. I haven’t seen much coverage of it thus far, and I’m hoping this year brings it the acclaim (I think) it deserves.

  1. This is one of Maggie Stiefvater’s greatest gifts as a writer.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.75: Spring Book Preview and the Second Annual Hatening

Happy Wednesday! We’ve got a very giggly episode for you today, in which the Jennys supply a sea-or-space update, run down the books we’re excited about for spring, and launch the Second Annual Hatening. There is also some genuinely gold listener mail. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

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What We’re Reading

The Boy is Back, Meg Cabot
Monstress, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Winter 2016 Books

Angel Catbird, Margaret Atwood and Johnny Christmas
Cul-de-Sac, Robert Repino
Everfair, Nisi Shawl
Float, Anne Carson
They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery
Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Spring 2017 Preview

Dreadnought, April Daniels
Black Hammer, Jeff Lemire (bonus selection!)
Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke
Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti
The Ship Beyond Time, Heidi Heilig
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, Benjamin Alire Saenz
Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
Void Star, Zachary Mason
You’re Welcome, Universe, Whitney Gardner

The Second Annual Hatening, Part One

The Easter Parade, Richard Yates

Get at me on Twitter, email the podcast, and friend me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Goodreads. Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

What to Do and Who to Be

The second week of January, I read Mychal Denzel Smith’s memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time, a collection of essays about America’s past and present and future. Both were published before the 2016 presidential election, and both speak with sorrow and hope about our country’s history and its potential. Smith ends his book like this:

I hope my answers create a world where the Trayvons in waiting can see their own humanity. I hope I’ve fought hard enough to live long enough to see what questions they ask. I hope their answers are better than mine.

Post-election, it’s hard to read words of hope that were written before the election happened. It’s hard not to feel that the election of Trump is the death of all hope that we can work together to make a country that cares about all its citizens, or even cares just about all its children. It’s hard to look at my godson and feel like we’re leaving him anything worth having.

I woke up at four in the morning on 9 November 2016 and checked the news; and then I lay back down on the bed and whispered, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do? God, what are we going to do?” I checked in with my people all day, online and on my phone and in person, and it seemed like everyone I loved was asking the same question, not rhetorically, but genuinely: What are we going to do? Someone please stand up and tell us what to do.

People have stood up. Journalists, writers, private citizens have stood up and created resources and supported each other and given their time and expertise and wisdom and kindness. It isn’t the same as what we really wanted, which was for Dumbledore or Barack Obama to swoop in with a cape and save the day. Every day I wake up and think, This won’t be enough. We won’t be saved this way, with phone calls and petitions. The forces that are steering our country now are big and we are small and I can’t control it and we’re going to lose.

Here’s what I’m trying to remember. I can’t decide, and you can’t, what the country is going to be. It’s beyond our scope of control. I can only decide what I’m going to be. What’s in our heart matters to the exact extent that we use it to create action in the real world. If we love a group of people while enacting policies that lead to their deaths, then our love is worthless. If I inwardly oppose Donald Trump’s efforts to turn America into a banana republic, but I fail to translate that opposition into words and deeds, then my ideology doesn’t mean anything.

The world feels daunting, now. I can’t see what the future will look like from here, so I am trying to hang on to what I can see. I can see the kind of person I want to be (in my parents, in my sisters, in the writers and thinkers who have stood up since the election). I can make the choices that kind of person would make.

This is the end of Daniel Jose Older’s essay “This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution,” in The Fire This Time:

You chose hope, and the night is quiet and I write while you sleep — and this moment with all its weight and responsibility, this turning point in the world and our lives, is ours, and these words are for you.

Breathing into a Paper Bag: A Links Round-Up

Welp, this has been a flatly terrifying week. Everyone take good care of yourself this weekend. Eat some yummy foods. Hug some puppies. We’ll be here for you on Monday. My links are mostly unscary ones because I care about you and I’m guessing your Twitter feed has been scary enough lately.

Writers always wrote for money, so why do we suddenly have this idea that good writing springs purely from love?

Also, why writers are so reluctant to talk about their pay in specific terms. This article is a review of the edited collection Scratch, and the one above is an excerpt from it. Media saturation! (But also I just find this really interesting.)

That new DOJ report on patterns of abuse in the Chicago Police Department is pretty scary and upsetting. (So it’s okay to skip this link if you are scary-and-upsetting-ed out for the week.) They do bad things to children. Why again do people oppose increased transparency/accountability in police departments?

Daniel Handler on creating the new Series of Unfortunate Events Netflix show. I have some issues with the show but love how diverse the casting is! Even in crowd scenes! It is like the showrunners wanted to reflect the real world or something!

Here’s a super nifty and adorable animated representation of the Joseph Campbell model of the Hero’s Journey. It’s useful because we are all becoming heroes in this new administration! Being a hero sucks most of the time, but we can do it.

My sister sent me this v. interesting article on Afghan women’s poetry. It is fascinating but sad, so be aware before you click that sadness will ensue.

Why the band The Slants might depend on the same laws and court decisions that protect the Washington football team (or they may not) (it’s complicated).

Swapna Krishna on punching Nazis and Nick Spencer ferociously criticizing same.

My friend Alice made me cry by talking about keeping our voices lifted even when it seems like we’re not having any effect on those in power.

The myth of the peaceful women’s march (or, why it’s wrong to feel morally superior about no arrests this weekend).

That’s all for now! Have as good a weekend as you can, and I’ll see you back here on Monday to keep talking about books and protesting this presidency.

Review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Two biracial girls grow up in the same bit of northwest London, attending dance classes together. Tracey has real talent, and our unnamed narrator does not, and Swing Time is about the unexpected paths their lives take as they grow into adulthood.

Swing Time

Content warning, there is very little dance school in this book. The narrator pretty quickly stops taking dance, so if you were going into Swing Time singing a little song to yourself like “dance school dance school dance school dance school,” you might end up disappointed. That’s not what I was doing or anything. It’s just something I thought of. That a person might do. Who liked reading about dance schools.

Halfway through Swing Time, I told Alice and Whiskey Jenny that I was considering giving it up. Two-thirds of the way through Swing Time, I was back in, while accepting quietly to myself that as a general rule, Zadie Smith’s fiction — like Michael Chabon’s — simply is not for me.

I loved Swing Time best when it got out of northwest London, which makes me suspect that I am completely missing the point of Zadie Smith, famed chronicler of life in northwest London, and that you shouldn’t listen to my opinion about this book or any Zadie-Smith related topics.1 Once the narrator and Aimee begin traveling to Africa to set up an Oprah-like school for girls there, I was 1000% more engaged in the story. I had occasional issues with the way the narrator presents her own life vs. life in Gambia,2 in particular:

Food preparation was not for me, nor was washing, or fetching water or pulling up onions or even feeding the goats and chickens. I was, in the strictest sense of the term, good-for-nothing. Even babies were handed to me ironically, and people laughed when they saw me holding one. Yes, great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.

Maybe this was intended to showcase the narrator’s naivety about developing countries? It doesn’t feel that way — in general she’s portrayed as being awkward and unsociable to the Gambian folks she encounters, but not un-self-aware — but maybe I am misreading. If I am not misreading, then I have sneers to give to this quite patronizing idea that one way of living — close to the land, near large groups of family, butchering one’s own meat, struggling to get by — is more “real” somehow than another way of living. All ways of living are real, and I’m sure y’all understand why the particular idea that closeness to the Land and the Family is more real/authentic than, for instance, city living makes me a little twitchy just at this present historical moment.

HOWEVER. Apart from that one bit, I really enjoyed everything where the narrator is in Africa watching Aimee try to Do Good, an enthusiasm that everyone in Aimee’s entourage knows will not last. While Smith isn’t necessarily saying something I don’t know about charity work in developing nations, she’s writing about something I rarely see depicted in fiction with the specificity it receives here, namely the disconnect between intention and reality in international charitable giving.

Okay okay okay, I know that my interests are not everyone’s. But that is a topic of interest to me, and one that rarely arises in fiction by Western writers.

By contrast, I could not possibly have cared less about the relationship between the narrator and Tracey that forms the backbone of this book. I have two hypotheses as to why that could be. It could be that Zadie Smith never sells me on the friendship. You don’t see a single thing about the narrator that Tracey likes, or a single thing about Tracey that the narrator likes. I had no idea why these two people spent time together and continued to be in each other’s lives.

My second hypothesis is that I am finished, or close to finished, with stories about wild girls and the unwild girls who have complicated relationships with them. I possibly have read enough of those books, and I possibly am finished with them. I’m not sure. I’ll do further research on this matter and let you know the outcome.

Meanwhile, what are some dance school books you can recommend me? I love books set in dance schools and there are never enough of them.

  1. Except that her essays are really good and she has the face of an angel. Those opinions remain solid.
  2. Ready for a lengthy footnote? Here’s what happened. Zadie Smith never says “Gambia” but I figured it out anyway. The narrator says what countries are nearby — Benin, Togo, Senegal — and what groups dominated the country, and I narrowed it down in my head to Ghana or Gambia. And then she said something about the President for Life, and that was enough information to tell me Gambia. It was incredibly justifying of all the reading about Africa I have done / want to continue doing. Also please read this Alexis Okeowo sum-up of what’s going on with the president in Gambia (someone else got elected, but the sitting president won’t leave).

Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Well, not review exactly. There’s not much more to review in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, given how personal it is, and how tremendously of its time. But it was the first book I read in 2017 (by design), and there are elements of it that I’d like to talk about as we all stagger back to work and try and get moving again after the holidays.

The Fire Next Time

One thing that strikes me about James Baldwin is how little ideological slack he’s willing to cut anyone. (That is a compliment.) He’s clearly worked hard to fight free of easy answers, and it seems clear that he wants the same independence of thought for everyone, and believes that not only can we all be independent and critical thinkers, we absolutely must, or we’re wasting our time.

People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.

Or to put it another way, he strikes me as someone who cannot help seeing (also: looking for) the messy, complicated truth, even when he knows it would be easier, and the path of his life would be smoother, if he could unsee it. It seems to apply to everything he looks at: He sees his young nephew, his namesake, and wishes an easier life for him, but he can’t look away from the hardships he knows his nephew will face as a black kid, and then man, in America. On the other side, he shares dinner with a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammed, and he can’t quite sink into that vision of the world either.

At times The Fire Next Time is very grim. At other times it’s astonishingly hopeful. But it reminded me — and I hope I can take this with me into 2017 — that while uncertainty makes us all look around for leaders who will tell us what to do, the most important thing is to trust my own mind and remember my own accountability. Baldwin says:

One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

I have my own little nephew now coming after me, which made reading Baldwin’s letter to his nephew a particular and strange experience. My nephew will have different fights than Baldwin’s did, and right now, after this election, it’s hard for me to imagine what those fights will be. I hope he will be safe; I hope he will be brave. I hope we can both live lives that will make the world better for the ones who come after us.

Review: When the Moon Was Ours, Anna-Marie McLemore

When the Moon Was Ours is as good an argument as you’ll possibly ever see for the value of #ownvoices in publishing. I say that because I can’t stand magic realism and I’m not that excited about straight-up romance in YA, and When the Moon Was Ours — a magic realism romance — nevertheless still made me feel so happy and grateful for its existence. It’s the story of a Latina girl called Miel and a Pakistani-American trans boy called Sam and their struggles to come to terms with their identities and their feelings about each other and the mystical forces at work in their town.

When the Moon Was Ours

Just absolutely everything about Miel and Sam’s relationship made me happy. I love it that McLemore lets them have sex YOU KNOW AS TEENS DO SOMETIMES and they aren’t punished for it. I love it that even though they are clearly devoted to each other throughout the book, they also mess things up with each other and have to apologize and figure things out with each other afterward. I love that they’re desperately attracted to each other (yay for depicting passion in queer relationships!) and sometimes that’s good and easy, and sometimes it makes already-complicated issues more complicated.

The truth slid over her skin, that if she loved him, sometimes it would mean doing nothing. It would mean being still. It would mean saying nothing, but standing close enough so he would know she was there, that she was staying.

And I love that they get a happy ending. Queer kids deserve happy endings.

What else, let’s see. Oh, I loved it that the antagonists of the book, four nearly identical white sisters who have ruled the town all their lives and are trying to keep that situation going, are still clearly the protagonists of their own stories. I got anxious around the midpoint that the Bonner girls were being set up as Bad Femininity to contrast against Miel’s Good Femininity, which is a trope I could not be more tired of, but the climax of the book reclaims enough interiority for all the Bonners to satisfy my greedy heart.

It’s interesting — When the Moon Was Ours is not, as I’ve said, my type of book. I prefer a book that bothers less about lush prose and more about thrilling adventures and robot pals perhaps; less magic realism and more straight-ahead magic with really specific rules and nefarious power struggles perhaps. But I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to have a book like this in my hands and know that it’s available to teenagers, to let them know a little bit more about the possibilities the world offers.