september 12

I’m back with another newsletter! I know I missed last week—I had to get back into the writing grove as that has been difficult for me lately, but clearly from the state of this week’s newsletter, I managed to pull that off pretty well! One exciting thing that did happen in the last week was my BIRTHDAY! I turned 28, I had an incredible day full of deep generosity on the part of basically everyone around me, and I felt very loved and cared for, which was really nice! I’m now sort of back in the regular swing of things, at least a little bit—hanging out, trying to find a job, crocheting more, watching a Star Wars movie every weekend.

I‘m still tired (I’m tired as I write this!) but the last week has buoyed me somewhat, and I feel like I’m trying to make my way through all the difficult things. I’m still trying to get a job, and that process is still humiliating and degrading, but I’m also trying to keep going and reading and writing! And I’m doing those things! And the weather is changing slowly slowly slowly so I’m not dying of heat and sweat every day—I love summer but by the end of August I’m VERY ready for fall, and it’s here and I’m having a great time wearing socks in the house and being able to keep lights on without sweating.

But I’ve been fairly prolific this week trying to catch up on reviews, so we should probably move to

Books I Wrote About This Week

Sorrowland, by Rivers Solomon

I had a harder time with this book than I thought I would. I’ve loved much of what I’ve read by Solomon, but I think this for me was a toe dip into a genre I have… some mixed feelings about? Or not mixed feelings about, but maybe not enough experience with to feel comfortable in it. Namely, this book theoretically takes place in what is currently (and is in the book) the settler state of the United States, but with a kind of fantastical/sci-fi twist take that draws racist histories into the present. And I guess like. Yes, it’s definitely an interesting exploration of that history and a drawing forward of it, but there’s something about… it has already happened, is in lots of ways ongoing, and what does putting a fantastical element to it do for us? Or: does it obscure more than it reveals?

Of course it’s a fine line—if this was just like Regular Speculative Fiction, it would be like “okay we get it you’re invoking Tuskegee without talking about it” and that’s an issue too, right—it’s something that specfic has a pretty wide history of doing, and doing very poorly, and so in some ways I wonder if this book is at least partially a response to that trend. But again, on the other hand, I wonder what the fantastical elements obscure from the actual ongoing nature of these issues. In a country where incarcerated people who are overwhelmingly Black are being given medication for horses without their knowledge, present tense, what raising the specter of fantastical experimentation doing for us?

And that’s not to say I don’t like the book or that I wouldn’t recommend it—I think there’s a LOT in here that’s great, I love the ways that Vern learns to trust and lean on others, I love the early vibes (I described the early chapters to a friend as The Road but more grounded,) I loved a lot of it. But at the conclusion, I was left with this lingering question about what work the book does in terms of turning people towards an actual present. And maybe that’s not fair to the book—I don’t think it necessarily is meant to contribute much in terms of larger awareness of the present. But it was a question I was left with by the end, and something I’ll probably keep chewing on for a while.

The Gay Agenda: A Modern Queer History & Handbook, by Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham

Folks I’m tired!!! I’m tired of queer history that is centered around a fight for “rights” that culminates in marriage being the best right to fight for. I said while I read this that I wanted to write the Against Equality trilogy for young people, and I’m very, very ready to do that actually, so someone give me a contract to do it. But it’s rough to see a literal hierarchy of types of relationships recognized by the government in a book, and have marriage be the top one and not have the why of that be questioned. Which isn’t to say that I like necessarily oppose marriage though I do think we should ask why our relationships are policed so heavily like this and what we have to lose by engaging in a marriage.

And I get it! I get it, we want kids to feel good, and a nice progressive history about inclusion into the US settler state is useful for doing that. But I think about the ways that we erase some histories by doing this, histories that include coalitional work and greater gains being made through a rejection of this specific end goal. I wonder what it would take to help people imagine a future without marriage, and without other structures in place that are harmful to us. And yes, I know this is like This History Book Doesn’t Do My Version of History and It was Never Meant To, Boo Hoo, but I do genuinely think that the historical imagination is important—to imagine life not as yknow this progressive arc that will end in us getting everything that those in power have already have, because all of that stuff that people in power already have is based on exploitation, and I want us to have a world where we don’t HAVE exploitation. And I think that means thinking about how we structure our relationships, how we see our history. And yes, I’ve said this on this newsletter what feels like 800,000 times, because it’s one of my core values, and I would love for youth to have access to history that lets them do that! But I guess I just have to write my own damn book, alas.

Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Remember when I read Mysterious Skin and it triggered me but I could tell I should have stopped reading and didn’t? This book was a good exercise in recognizing when I should stop reading and put a book away for the day. It wasn’t especially triggering for me personally in terms of content, but there was definitely a lot of tension which raised my heart rate, and wow turns out that’s a trigger for me. I didn’t do any of my usual trauma responses, in no small part because I could recognize what was happening and put the book aside for the time being. So let’s raise a glass to recognizing your symptoms in your own body, and attending to them!

But man it’s been a while since I read a book this tense. In subject matter it might read as slightly familiar to Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, in that it touches on jurisdictional issues that are common in Indian Country thanks to the federal government (though of course it’s an issue of sovereignty too, and states shouldn’t have the right to prosecute crimes committed in Indian Country because the relationship is with the federal government, but frankly Native people should deal with issues on their land and especially on reservations, so you know, issues are complicated.) This I think is written in a way that is radically different from what I remember about The Round House and as I alluded to above, it’s SO tense, from minute one. It usually takes me a while to get into a book, because you usually need a little warm up period even in great books, but this one grabs you and does NOT let go in a way most books I read do not, for better or for worse (like I said, sometimes a little too intense for my fragile constitution!)

So if you liked The Round House, I think you’ll like this a lot, and even if you didn’t like it you might like this (though this has a lot of on page violence in it, just as a head’s up!) I really enjoyed it, it’s a FAST, HARD read.

Persephone Station, by Stina Leicht

This book was billed first as a space opera (okay, fun, we love that vibe) and then as a “feminist sci-fi” and like sorry that this is going to be all I talk about but what exactly about this book makes it feminist? I mean that genuinely; I’m fascinated when, why, and how we label things as “feminist,” and what various people mean by it. Feminism means many things to many people, and I’m always suspicious of what makes something feminist especially if we aren’t defining our terms or describing how our actions are carried out in a “feminist” fashion. To me, feminism is a way of consciously centering gender (as opposed to like many works that unconsciously center gender because all they talk about is masculinity but they don’t know that’s what they’re talking about) as a lens through which to examine the world or yknow other topics. And yes, that’s very like historical-anthropological way of looking at feminism, but my conceptions of feminism were/are deeply shaped by the Gens manifesto for studying capitalism, which was written by anthropologists, so that’s where I’m starting.

This book, by turns, instead seems to identify “feminist” as “populated with women and non-binary people”—it’s been a hot second since I finished the book, but I remember there being two named male characters that we see, and they don’t talk to each other so I guess it fails the reverse Bechdel test. And that’s fun I guess except I don’t think representation is necessarily “feminist”—you can have a woman on the page and have her say like very sexist, anti-feminist things (not that this book does that, but just as an example.) And yknow there are women of many different races, which is always like a weird thing to describe in sci-fi, but again, representationally it’s fine for the most part (there’s apparently been some beef from some non-binary folks about assuming you can tell a person’s pronouns by looking at them in this book, which the author has apologized for, but like whatever, again that’s the representational trap lol.)

My larger point being that this book doesn’t do anything with gender—doesn’t use it to reveal anything larger, doesn’t describe how it makes this world work or any of the larger points of the book. Which, granted, I think is also partially a problem of the book not super knowing what its points are—colonialism bad? Don’t exploit indigenous people? Women and non-binary people can. Be mercenaries? It doesn’t spend a lot of time on these things, so it’s not clear how that might be helped by a feminist lens or focus to this book. And maybe I’m being unfair! Maybe the label of “feminist” was slapped on after the fact by a publisher, and is in no way connected to the book itself, which frankly is ALSO interesting as we look at “feminism” being literally a marketing tool rather than a lens or set of guiding principles. But once I saw the word attached to the book in any way, I couldn’t let it go, so here we are again, waist-deep in my weird intellectual attachment to feminism with no clear path forward for books like this!

Why You Should Be a Socialist, by Nathan J. Robinson

“wow ai you really need to read a primer on being a socialist?” I mean not really though I find Robinson drawing together anarchism and socialism here in a fascinating way, as a person who describes myself as an anarchist due to lack of imagination (I’ve never experienced a government that cares for its people so I don’t know that it’s possible to make, whereas I’ve seen mutual aid work over and over again!) but Open to Socialism. But it’s always interesting to try to see what tactics we use to convince others.

Ultimately this was… okay. Could be very useful but I think there’s something to Robinson’s tone that I find grating personally, and we speak in the same registers, as we are both white graduate students (though he is at Harvard and when enrolled I was at an R1 institution and the gaps between those kinds of spaces is fairly larger actually.) Which isn’t to say it couldn’t be useful! But it is a like very specific way of speaking that I don’t know would work with everyone. I think this book’s audience is much more specific than perhaps the book itself might suggest, and I don’t think I was really it in many ways (don’t need to be convinced, do not think socialism is bad, and frankly support worker co-ops always!) (That last part was um a perhaps rude jab at Robinson, who while I was reading this had a meltdown about the structure of the magazine he runs.) I think this is a very specific entry point for very specific people, and I think weighing WHO would be convinced by it is a larger challenge for those of us who might recommend it.

In some ways, in thinking about entry points, I’m reminded of what Dean Spade wrote about in Mutual Aid—that you’re able to reach more people by helping them, which leads to interpersonal connection and can allow you to speak of a leftist politics with maybe more of a personal attachment—it helps, I think, to see and speak to socialists, as much or maybe more than it is to read things by them, though obviously there is value in reading. But I think with this book in particular, which is about I would say the ethical core of socialism more than it is about anything else, has its very specific uses, which I think can also be seen just by looking at what socialists broadly do as much as what Robinson writes. It just left me with a lot of questions about reaching people, I think, and that’s something I’ll continue to think about as we face the failures of late capital and neoliberalism.

In the Company of Men, by Véronique Tadjo, trans. John Cullen

A book about a pandemic in an epidemic—I’ve done it a couple of times, though not intentionally (and, of course, there’s the Thing where we’ve just gone back to Regular Life to many degrees, despite the pandemic absolutely not being over.) And this is about a different illness altogether—one more wildly contagious than even the variants of our current virus, with deeply debilitating impacts, and the healthcare systems in place were even less equipped than those where I live, in the US, though there are similar features—a virus is a virus, to some extent, healthcare workers have been pushed to their limit for far longer than the current pandemic (though of course the current conditions create breaking points more frequently.) Tent hospitals in parking lots happened here too, just as they did in the places of the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016. And there are people who step up in these situations.

And all of this is not to flatten the specifics of that epidemic; it matters that that epidemic happened where it did, and under the post-colonial conditions it did. It matters that what killed thousands there was a punchline here. But I think what stuck with me from this book the most is (idk this is maybe a spoiler so skip I guess if you don’t want a POV chapter spoiled for you!) the chapter from the perspective of the Ebola virus itself, where it reminds us that viruses are neutral; they have no ill will towards humanity in particular, just their own specific purposes. Given the ways that we frame so much public health discussion around vaccination as a narrative around “invaders” or viruses as “bad guys” who sneak into our bodies (yknow all the more interesting a narrative to get on stolen land) I was struck by that reminder—that our attempts to create narrative around viruses fail to face the actual reality. Viruses are not, to my knowledge, “sentient” in the way we might consider even like some nonhuman animals to be sentient—I don’t know that viruses experience pain or really perceive things. They replicate because that is the extent of their being, from my understanding. Yet “fork hands” always has a creepy voice; Thrax from Osmosis Jones is certainly Like That. Our meaning making fails us with viruses, because the alternative I guess is just to face the chaotic meaninglessness of our lives? Who knows. But it left me a lot to chew on!

The Reading Situation

  • 100 books: at the time of this writing, I have finished 88 out of 100 books, or maybe only 87 out of 100 books, it’s hard to keep track because one count is off but I’m never sure. But that is pretty solid progress, all things considered!

  • Author identity challenge: Still sitting at a neat 13/18, or 72% of prompts complete! We’re now getting into the area where I go “hm we’re really winding the year down and I certainly have aways to go,” but we’ll see what happens! Maybe I’ll start Planning my reading more and uh read fewer white men oops.

  • Currently reading: Just started (as in mere minutes before this writing!) Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton (who… is my new favorite author… more on that later,) slowly moving through Women’s Liberation! and Burn It Down (I realized this week that between those two books I’m reading like 1000 pages of feminist writing and like… that’s so many pages…) in the midst of Ideology: An Introduction, and just barely started Venice Beach!

HMU

And that’s it for this week! Thanks so much for reading, and for your patience as I try to catch up on all these books that piled up while I was in a writing slump. If you want to see me babbling about Terry Eagleton/trying to start Beef where I say that he is the better English Terry over Terry Pratchett, you can follow me on twitter @fadesintointent; if you want to see me post not much of anything at all, you can follow me on instagram @sonofahurricane. I hope your week goes well, and wish all the educators in my life (and there are many!) a safe start to the school year (or, yknow, as safe as possible under the pandemic-in-late-capital circumstances we can have.) Take care of yourselves, and each other! <3