Book Review: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett

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Goodreads | Amazon

Notes on Diversity:
Generally excellent diverse sci-fi book. All three major characters are people of color. All three are portrayed, in places, as queer. There are definite scenes/sections that tackle issues of disability.

But. The book, I think, really really fails with trans issues (see below).

Review:
There is Adrianne and Antoine. Or Adrian and Atoinette. Or Adrianne and Antoinette. Or Adrian and Antoine. Anyway, there are two, and they love each other, but there is a trauma, and it tears them apart. Because no matter how much you love someone, sometimes there are forces in life that can still rip you apart. Sometimes the two are lovers. Sometimes they are siblings. Sometimes one is a parent, and the other is a child. But always, always, there is a deep and abiding love, and always, always, there is a horrible loss.

This is a strange little book, and I went into it completely uninformed*. I am finding it, honestly, hard to review it.

Brissett is a writer of scope and specificity, both, which I love. The narrative spins and twists back on itself, coiling and expanding in turns. It starts in a perfectly normal setting, realist, and then adds layer upon layer of weird. The first bit of weird is that in the next scene, the characters who were heterosexual lovers are now gay men. Later, the genders change once more (now they are again a heterosexual couple) but the setting shifts–Adrianne is a sort-of vestal virgin in Roman-esque future world. There is a war. Antoine is a soldier. The narrative shifts again. Wings are involved. The narrative shifts again: an alien invasion.

Throughout, there is a core to Adrianne/Adrian’s character and to Antoine/Atoinette’s character–or, perhaps more precisely, a chain of love between them–that never shifts. It evolves, they evolve, and sometimes they revert, but that fact of their relationship never changes even as it is clear something key is disintegrating around them and breaking down.

This is a lovely book. But something happened about halfway through that made me step away from it and claim some distance.

200

sad zoidberg is sad about the spoilers below

*****SPOILERS*****

There is a third character, Hector/Helen, who features as a sometimes friend and sometimes leg of a love triangle. In one of the twists of the narrative, Adrianne winds up institutionalized. At the same mental institution is Helen, apparently institutionalized because she is a trans woman. But in the text, she is consistently referred to as Hector, and referred to using male pronouns. They become friends, and later Helen dies a heroic death to save Adrian (their gender flips again) because he is the only who accepts her for who she is (even though Adrianne/Adrian, too, has been referring to her as ‘he’ and ‘Hector’ in the unspoken elements of the text.).

This is…this is a particular issue of mine. I dislike it when trans people are thrown to the wolves to make cis people heroic and accepting. And I dislike it even more when their (our) transness is made hypervisible by breaking the consonance of how they (we) are referred to in dialogue and how they (we) are referred to in narration. Having a character call Helen by the name she prefers, but think of her as Hector, is a type of misgendering. It is a qualification and a marker of difference.

This is a minor part of the story, that is a fact. But it so disturbed and disappointed me that I had to leave the rest of the book untouched for over a week. As a trans reader, I personally felt misgendered and ignored and small just by reading this treatment of a trans character.

*****END SPOILERS*****

And that is a shame, because this book is really good. Especially the ending. I still can’t shake that piece above, but pushing past it really got to the good stuff. The book has heart, and the book has philosophy. The way the pieces of the book fit together, the fluidity of Brissett’s writing, it’s all a wonder to behold. Except for that. But that, while a small piece of the text, was a huge thing for me as a reader.

I just wish the book didn’t also make me feel like I was a set piece. So, how the hell do you rate a book where you are pretty sure you would have loved it if it hadn’t been for that one part that made you feel like you were a tool for cis people? I guess…I guess you split the difference.

3 stars

*This is, actually, my preferred way to read things. I either want no information about a book except a rec to read it, or I want to be spoiled completely. I like to either let the story unfold with no expectations, or I like to let it unfold knowing what’s going to happen and able to watch for the seams.

Book Review: THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh

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Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
The Wrath and the Dawn is a book about a woman of color by a woman of color! Yay!

The cast is predominately Middle Eastern/North African.1 Shahrzad’s handmaiden, Despina, is Greek, and I read her as white, but she was the only character I read as white.

This is arguably a woman-centric book; a lot of people seem to think so. My opinion is a minority one, so stay tuned for that and your mileage may vary.

Readers looking for queer representation will see none here, not even in passing. This is an aggressively hetero book. Readers looking for any sort of socioeconomic/class discussions will also not see any of that here. All the characters come from wealthy families tuned into the political elite of the kingdom.

And as a note of warning, I personally found the book’s treatment of mental health a disappointment. Readers with sensitivities around suicide in particular may find the book lacking.


Review:
The Wrath and the Dawn has a lot of hype around it. It’s been extremely well-received. I was excited to read it! A retelling of 1,001 Nights centering on Shahrzad? Ok, that’s potentially tricky ground to navigate, but the reception was so warm by people whose taste I respect that I went into the book with high expectations.

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Me, with high book expectations

I am sorry to say my expectations were not met.

 

This book is so nearly-universally beloved that I have the strange experience of feeling like I must have read a completely different book than everyone else. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ok. So.

The Wrath and the Dawn is about Shahrzad and Khalid. Khalid is the Caliph of Khorasan, and he is the one that is doing all the marrying/murdering of young girls. In this version of 1,001 nights, he is young and broody and handsome. Shahrzad is young and brave and murderous. When Khalid marry/murders Shahrzad’s cousin, Shahrzad volunteers to marry him. But she has a plan to bring him down.

giphy1

This set up is pretty damn great. It works for people who love the source material (me), and it works for people who don’t. But…it only works if the problematic elements of the source material are subverted.

The quick version is that I don’t believe this book works because this is less a retelling as it is a modern version of the same story, and as the story is brought forward, so are its nasty elements. Leaving aside the stylistic quibbles I had with Ahdieh’s writing, it was her narrative choices that really rubbed me raw. Ultimately, the book is not Shahrzad’s story, but Khalid’s…and it asks us to forget, or at least not to mind, that Khalid murdered all those girls so that he can be set up as a potential love interest for Shahrzad.

giphy2

hold up, book

My issues with the book go deeper than that, substantially so, but to dig into that is spoiler territory, so I’m putting that under a cut. Feel free to continue reading if you’d like and/or if you are not spoiler-averse. I also was unnerved by Ahdieh’s handling of sexual consent, issues regarding mental health, and the overall place in the narrative for men’s agency compared to women.

2 stars

Full spoiler-y analysis begins here.

Continue reading

Book Review: THE HEART GOES LAST

TheHeartGoesLast_MargaretAtwood

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
If you’re looking for a diverse read, look elsewhere.

I can’t remember a single character in the book who isn’t white. All of the characters are able-bodied. Due to economic collapse, characters in the opening struggle with poverty but it is noteworthy that they did not start out that way–this is a story about middle class people descending into squalor (how terrible!), then making horrible compromises to creep back out of the pit of violent poverty again. It is not a story about people who have always been impoverished.1

The book, I think, aims to establish an odd kind of solidarity with queer readers by way of a kind of essentially ironic heteronormativity,2 but the effect, for this queer reader at least, was disheartening. One of the main characters reflects:

Anything goes, out there in the so-called real world; though not inside Consilience, where the surface ambience is wholesomely, relentlessly hetero.

But it’s not clear why. Later on in the book, this same character leaves Consilience, due to plot contrivances, and winds up in a heard of Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, all of whom appear to be interchangeably gay. But, lo! They are not gay. They just pretend to be so, for reasons, because that isn’t problematic at all.

So, not only is there no authentic queer representation in the book, in one locale it’s explicitly mysteriously absent, and in another, queerness is co-opted and appropriated. Both instances left a very bad taste in my mouth.


Review:
I should say right at the outset that Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers. She has historically been an auto-buy for me, so when I heard she had a new novel coming out, I pre-ordered it, no questions asked.

I regret it.

The truth is that The Heart Goes Last is not very good. I would recommend fans of Atwood read this engaging interview with her about the book instead of reading the book itself–seriously, skip the book. Everything Atwood wants to say about prisons and commodification she says more succinctly and with more wit in this interview.

*Sigh.*

The plot of The Heart Goes Last is as follows: there is a terrible economic collapse in America (kind of3) which leads to a middle class White hetero couple, Stan and Charmaine, losing their jobs and living in their car. Stan and Charmaine escape their grubby car-life by signing up for a planned community called Consilience. The deal with Consilience is that residents of Consilience get a house with fluffy towels and a fridge and TVs that play Doris Day movies, but the catch is that every other month they have to serve a term as prisoners in the Positron prison. As civilians, everyone has a job and a secure living arrangement, and then as prisoners, everyone chips in to do the grunt work that keeps the community going. The rotating population also shares housing–so, when Stan and Charmaine are in Positron Prison, a different couple (their Alternates) life in their designated house.

At first things are nice. And then, everything goes to shit. What first begins as a fairly mundane extra-marital affair4 spirals out into a frankly unbelievable conspiracy involving organ harvesting, lobotomies, and sex robots. As Stan and Charmaine are drawn deeper and deeper into the seedy underbelly of Consilience/Positron, each of them becomes pawns in someone else’s game. Ultimately, Atwood raises questions of free will in a forced, haphazard way that decidedly did not work for me. Maybe it will for you.

I found the book deeply unsuccessful. On the one hand, I think Atwood tried to do too much with it; maybe the book should have only focused on lobotomizing-women-so-they-become-sex-slaves or just on the complicity-we-all-have-with-regard-to-mass-incarceration. And in either case, taking on these subjects in a book written as a tongue-in-cheek absurdist romp rubbed me the wrong way.

Here is what I mean. In an interview, Atwood says the following about setting her book mostly in a prison:

The Millions: The set up of your novel felt so real.
Margaret Atwood: It is real.
The Millions: But it’s not necessarily your reality.

That’s my issue–Atwood is a massively privileged person. She has not been to prison. She is at a remove here. Given the scope and the viciousness with which incarceration can derail a person’s life, I think it’s inappropriate to treat it lightly, especially if it is not the writer’s reality. The entire book is flippant, frankly, which is why if didn’t work for me.

Atwood is a brilliant women. I deeply respect her. But I am uninterested in reading a book about how prisons are absurd and bad written from this removed and very privileged perspective. It’s fascinating, actually, considering that one of her previous novels, Alias Grace, did interrogate crime and imprisonment from a feminist perspective quite successfully.

The Heart Goes Last took Atwood from an auto-buy author for me to someone I now side-eye. What a shame.

2 stars

1I make this distinction because, in my experience, growing up poor and becoming poor as an adult are two distinctly different experiences. When you grow up poor there are things you never learn, elements of social capital that are forever out of your grasp. When you slip down the class ladder later in life you can often still “pass” because you were enculturated with these elements of social capital from an early age. It still sucks, but it’s different, and it is one thing that makes later-in-life poverty actually easier to escape than starting there.

2I would draw a parallel here to the kinds of deeply offensive “hipster racism” or “ironic racism” that are, at bottom, just racism.

3I’m calling a Plot Hole here: it doesn’t make sense to me that large swaths of America would be in total economic collapse but Las Vegas would be just fine. And Consilience/Positron is apparently turning a tidy profit–but who is buying if the entire economy has collapsed? If most of America’s middle class wound up sleeping in cars then how are the Elvis impersonators squeaking by? The economics in the book truly did not make sense to me, and since Stan and Charmaine’s actions are driven by this apparent economic collapse, I really needed to buy into it.

4Honestly there are few plots I find more boring than middle-aged-middle-class-hetero-married-couple-falls-into-affairs-out-of-ennui-and-boredom. This plot thread when on way, way, way too long.


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Book Review: CLOUD ATLAS

CloudAtlas_DavidMitchell

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This is another book like The Windup Girl that is what I would call “surface diverse”–as in scratch the surface and all the diversity is gone. It’s wrapped up in a veneer of diversity, but it’s just a veneer. And for a reader like me who craves non-mainstream narratives (because I am marginalized along multiple axes, and I am sick of dominant narratives being shoved down my throat) these surface diverse books really stick in my craw.

There are Asian characters in Cloud Atlas1. There are Moriori characters, though none of them are ever relegated to anything but side characters who must be rescued by an empathic/enlightened white man. There is Luisa Rey, a scrappy ’70s Latina private eye. There are far-future characters who live in Hawaii, who as far as I can tell, are not coded or explicitly raced, but I read them as white.

There are queer characters. Robert Frobisher, a brilliant young composer, and Rufus Sixsmith, smitten by Forbisher. The pair of them star-crossed and epistolary, and ultimately Tragic Queers–one of them suicidal and the other forever pining the loss. I don’t know much about Mitchell, but the narrative strikes me as the straight-person-writes-the-Bury-Your-Queers situation all over again. So, you know, it’s “diverse”…but is it the kind of diversity that really gets us anywhere?


Review:
So. The book.

I was expecting to love the book. I love narrative structures; I love audacious books that play with expectations of narrative structure. I knew very little going into David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas except that it was speculative fiction and that it was played with structure. Something about nested narrators.

It does play with structure. In fact, its whole conceit rests on the structure piece–if you can’t go with that, then the book folds up like a house of cards in a slight breeze. If literally any part of the fabulous dazzling structure of the book doesn’t work for you, then the entire book doesn’t work for you, which renders the book not really a book so much as a magic trick, a gimmick.

The structure is intricate and fascinating, unfurling as it does starting in the past, creeping up to the present, then into future-dystopian Korea, and landing in far-future Hawaii before furling up again in reverse, revisiting the narrators from the previous sections in opposite order. Each of the narrators has a distinct voice and tone; some Mitchell pulls off beautifully. For me, the Adam Ewing in the first and last sections worked well, as did the Luisa Rey sections.2 I was emotionally gutpunched by the Frobisher sections, but for the wrong reasons.3

The central piece of the book–“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”–did not work for me at all. Partly this is because as someone with a ‘dumb’ accent4 I am particularly attuned to the way certain accents serve as markers of stupidity/class and how writing in dialect by people without those accents serves to communicate that, and this generally rubs me the wrong way. I literally had to grit my teeth to read this section. Partly this section did not work for me because the book should have ended here. We did not need to re-furl after “Sloosha’s Crossin'”; everything that happens after are essentially drawn-out codas, stuck after simply for structure’s sake. The actual plot, what little there is of it, truly ends in this section. All the tiny reveals stuck in the ending codas could have neatly been worked in, as foreshadowing, beforehand.

All this is to say that I do love it when authors play with structure, but only if they have a depth of story to support that structure. Only if their actually doing something with that structure. I’m not certain that the structure served anything in Mitchell’s plot here but showing off. The plot was exceedingly thin, actually, stretched across some very fancy digs. The structure wasn’t enough.

~

1The Sonmi-451 section is set in a dystopian Korean state. I don’t have a specific enough sense of Korean culture to know if Mitchell succeeded in his representation of Koreans here. I know that Mitchell lived for a time in Japan, and I wonder if he got future-Korea right, or if it’s “Korea” with all the blanks filled in with Japan. I don’t know enough about either to be able to tell.

2We can’t even really sink into the Luisa Rey sections, either, as they are revealed to possibly not to have happened. In the Cavendish sections, Luisa Rey’s sections are revealed to be a manuscript he is reading, which makes me question if she is even real. If a Latina is not real in your story, does she count to your book’s diversity?

3Because I’m queer, basically any queer narrative is going to grab me by the shirtfront and not let me go. I was more heavily invested in Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher than any other characters in the book even though as soon as they were introduced I had an inkling of where that story thread was going. I strongly, strongly dislike the Tragic Queers trope, especially if it’s written by someone who does not identify as queer themselves.

4Even after years of trying lose it in my youth to make myself acceptably smart I still have distinct traces of my East Texas twang. Not a genteel southern drawl, mind you, but that harsh, chopped Texas twang. The stuff of Dubya.

2 stars


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Book Review: THE WINDUP GIRL

TheWindupGirl_PaoloBacigalupi

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
On the surface, this book looks diverse. It’s set in Thailand, and at least two of the viewpoint characters (Lieutenant Kanya and Emiko) are not only people of color but also women. Lieutenant Kanya is also queer. I read this book because it was a high-profile well-respected award-winning diverse science fiction book. At least, this is what it purports to be.

This is actually a case of diversity-gone-wrong. Anderson Lake, a White cis-het man, is the dominant POV and the most developed character. Thailand is largely seen through his eyes, and the rest of the cast exists to add color and spice to his story. This is a case where, in spite of the fact that Anderson Lake is one of the few White characters in the story, basically all of the people of color suffer from tokenism. They are painted in broad strokes, and those broad strokes are guided, unfortunately, by stereotypes.

The Windup Girl is one long diversity fail.

Review:
The environment is in shambles. Espionage in the 23rd century, at least as embodied by Anderson Lake, takes the form of swiping the location of a Thai seedbank. Along the way, we are introduced to Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, a Japanese New Person sex slave, and Lieutenant Kanya, a policewoman embroiled in some very complicated politics.

It is a setup that makes for an interesting book. And Paolo Bacigalupi is a good writer. But the book fails, and it fails because there is actually very little that is new here. The spec fic stuff in it is just bells and whistles, but the ideas are actually just rehashes of Orientalist male fantasies that have been around for centuries.

This is not a book about biotechnology or Thailand. This is just another book about how an East Asian woman (Emiko) seems so foreign to a White man that she appears soulless, but that she hold immense and disruptive sexual appeal to him anyway. And, of course, she is bred to be submissive and obedient. Name a trope related to the fetishization about Asian women and it’s here, but it’s played completely straight.

Honestly, the only reason I gave this book two stars instead of one was Lieutenant Kanya. She appeared on the page as a queer woman of color with at least some interiority, and she was a reprieve from the unrelenting Orientalist assault that was the Anderson Lake-Emiko storyline. Like Emiko, Kanya is not free of stereotypes: she is a butch lesbian who is humorless and who ultimately ends up alone1. But, hell, at least Kanya got some interesting things do to plot-wise. At least she wasn’t, quite literally, a lab-grown sex-slave for a White man to ogle who played into harmful stereotypes rather than dismantling them.

It was strange reading this book, because it was so well-received. There are times when you read a book and it’s truly like the rest of the world is reading an altogether different book. Yes, Bacigalupi can construct a nice sentence. Yes, thinking about a world populated with dirigables and armed genetically enhanced elephants is pretty cool. But the titular character2 is a damsel in distress in the worst possible way; Emiko’s storylines start antiquated and continue to be so throughout the book. Bacigalupi has nothing fresh or new to say about her. This book is far from feminist or intersectional.

I expect more from fiction. As a reader on the margins, I demand more from fiction, especially well-regarded fiction. Well-regarded fiction should treat its vulnerable, exploited, marginalized characters with at least a modicum of respect. They should be granted a shred of agency.

2 stars

1Because Lesbians Can Never Be Happy

2That the title is the slur used against the New People really sets the tone for Emiko’s storyline in hindsight.


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Book Review: HYSTERICAL: ANNA FREUD’S STORY

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HYSTERICAL: ANNA FREUD’S STORY, by Rebecca Coffey, is an historical novel told from the perspective of Anna Freud. It is a memoir Anna writes on her deathbed, and in true Freudian fashion as Anna reflects back on her life—the choices she made, the actions which defined her, how she came to be who she was—much of her memoir centers on her childhood. And much of her childhood ruminations center on her relationship with her monstrously overshadowing father, Sigmund Freud.

In the Author’s Note of the book, Rebecca Coffey, a journalist by training, mentions that she did not set out to write a novel. When the various estates and Freudian strongholds kept Anna Freud’s personal letters and writings under lock and key, Coffey turned to fiction to fill in the blank spaces. This, I think, is an admirable approach—Anna’s is a voice that deserves to be heard. Anna was a lesbian, but her father’s work denounced her sexuality. At the same time, Anna Freud, of all of Freud’s children, was his clear intellectual heir and also his caretaker in his old age. They had a close professional and emotional relationship, but how did those theories about Anna’s “brokenness” affect her? Despite his warnings about the inherently erotic nature of the analytic relationship, Freud analyzed Anna, probably about her sexuality—what must that have done to their relationship? These are the questions Coffey sought to explore with her novel, and they are good ones. They are ripe for exploration. I was chomping at the bit to read this book.

This is a situation, ultimately, of unfulfilled promise. When Coffey allows Anna to delve into the questions above, it is only with glancing blows. The story behind the book—Coffey’s search for answers, the tired old Freudian vanguard circling the wagons and shutting her out, her turning to fiction to create answers for herself—is more intriguing than the book itself, which is a great pity.

For the book to work, Anna has to shine. As a narrator, for us as readers to carry with her, I feel the book could have gone one of two ways: she could have been blisteringly honest, terrifyingly honest about everything. There would have been anger, and evisceration, and confusion. A lot of emotion. A lot more emotion than she displays in the book as Coffey wrote it. Or, Anna could have been inherently unreliable—equivocating, hero-worshiping, lauding Sigmund in ways that betray to the reader that perhaps not all was what it seemed. Instead, we got an Anna who was removed and distant, smirking and gentle. It seemed it wasn’t her own story she was even telling.

The rhythm of the narrative was strange; so much focus on some episodes of her life and so little focus on others. This is, perhaps, an odd complaint to make here, but I would have preferred the book to be less psychoanalytically focused—I would have liked fewer exhaustive sessions of Anna detailing her weird dreams to her father and more scenes of her actively living her own life. I wanted to see and feel her actually fall in love with the women in her life and experience her grappling with what that meant—not in sessions with her father, but in her own mind and in her skin. Ultimately, given the tightness of the focus on the analysis sessions with Sigmund, and given the narrowing in on his homophobia, the book became more about Anna’s inability to save him from himself than about her thoughts or her life or her actions.

As a novel, the book suffered from a lack of characterization and flawed pacing. To succeed, Anna’s voice needed to be strong enough to carry the book, but Coffey never found it—Anna drifted into the background, and as in history, she was overshadowed once again by her larger-than-life father here. I applaud the intent of this work, but the execution left much to be desired for me.

2 stars

Book Review: HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED

Hint: try being white and wealthy, kids!

Hint: try being white and wealthy, kids!

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is another in a long line of books which tries to determine how we can better serve “underperforming” children—specifically children in poverty and children of color. Tough posits a fairly new approach to this social problem: character. He draws a distinction between cognitive skills, which are most often expressed through academic ability, and noncognitive skills like perseverance, conscientiousness, and eagerness to learn. Over the course of some 200 pages, Tough explores how and why these noncognitive skills develop from a variety of approaches—interviews with students and educators, positive psychological research, studies of rats’ mothering habits and biological stress responses.

The context of the book, though, is as important to my reading of How Children Succeed as its actual content. This is a book I see around my workplace often. It was, in fact, loaned to me by a coworker. And last year, while I was on fellowship as an Education Pioneers Analyst Fellow, some of my cohort read it in a book study. I work in the ed reform movement (something I have deeply ambivalent feelings about), and this book is fast becoming part of the ed reform lingo. It’s a natural fit. This book (and by extension its writer) comes from the same place as my TFA alum and Broad resident coworkers: this is a book written by a deeply privileged person who wants to fix education. That’s a noble goal. But the problem I see over and over in the ed reform movement is that these privileged people cannot see past their privilege, and so the ways they want to fix education continually read to me as shallow and ineffective.

Tough’s book is a great example of this tension. Tough grew up middle class, white, cisgender and male. At several points in the book, he discusses his decision to drop out of Columbia University as a tortured eighteen year old. The fateful dropout decision is not predicated on some external forces (a financial crisis or having to return home to take care of a relative in a tight spot) but on a vague notion that he wants to “try something that’s new”. Tough ends up bicycling halfway across the country, then returns to college only to drop out a second time. So, this is the author’s background. His research and reporting for the book takes him to the South Side of Chicago where he tries to understand the lives of struggling high schoolers. He seems to see these kids’ struggles mostly as a result of two things: the high levels of stress they’ve encountered in their short, violent, impoverished lives and the apparent absence of secure attachments to caregivers. Tough uses research on the HPA axis and biological effects of stress and research on attachment theory to largely explain why and how these kids haven’t yet developed the cognitive skills needed to get them to and through college. And while both of those things may play some small part in their current trajectory I believe he severely overstates the effects of both.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I am white, but I grew up poor and queer and struggling with my gender in a small, conservative town in Texas. My parents were both trapped in substance abuse. I was alternately neglected and abused by them, and as such, never developed a secure attachment to either. I also excelled in school (though I was a troublemaker). I got out—got into college, graduated, and then got a doctorate. I am what educational psychologists call “resilient”. I have what Tough calls character in spades. My sister is less resilient. The major difference between my sister and I? She is dealing with a different level of mental health issues than I am. She has a learning disability that was never diagnosed. She didn’t excel in school. In a word, she didn’t look like she could pass as middle class.

Tough makes the case that if poor kids have a positive adult role model to help them develop ‘character’ that they can ‘succeed’. He never stops to consider that what he has deemed ‘character’ is a very white middle-class idea of character. It is deeply steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, for instance, and it may be that poor kids of color are developing a different kind of character, a set of noncognitive skills acutely attuned to the context in which they live. My avoidant attachment to my parents growing up, for instance, was a totally appropriate way of managing my relationship to unstable and unreliable caregivers. The same with his unspoken assumptions about what success looks like—this is a white, middle class idea of success. When Tough abstracts character and success from the context these people live in, divorcing it so neatly from the structural and institutional oppression caused by racism and classism, he presents the answer to our ‘education system’s failures’ as very simple. While reading the book, the message I got was that all we have to do is train poor black kids to act like well-off white kids and they’ll do just fine. The fact that this strips them of their culture, that it separates them from their families, that faking-it-til-you-make-it is another kind of colorblindness is not addressed. And I can say from my personal experience that I faked-it-til-I-made-it. That’s exactly how I got to and through both college and graduate school. And now I’m upwardly mobile but I’m still a kid who grew up poor. Navigating social class has only gotten harder as I’ve moved up the social ladder. I can’t imagine what it would be to be black or Latino on top of it and to have my marginalization so clearly written on my skin.

The heart of my issue with the ed reform movement, and this is something that Tough’s book falls prey to, is that it doesn’t see the American education system for what it really is. Today, the American Dream is synonymous with educational attainment. The problem is that the American Dream was never meant to apply to most of America. We’ve constructed our education system to explicitly create class divisions along racial lines. Our education system is not failing—it’s achieving exactly what it’s built to do. There’s no reforming it. No amount of character classes in charter schools attracting smart but impoverished kids of color is going to change that. The ed reform movement is a predominantly white, middle class movement and as such it is a movement that makes certain assumptions about the fairness and good faith of the institution of education as it currently exists that are false.

I succeeded in life because I am privileged enough to blend in with the privileged ruling class. I’m white. I’m academically gifted. I was an avoidantly attached enough kid that I was fully comfortable leaving behind my broken family. I worked very hard to lose my scraggly Texan accent when I arrived at college. The noncognitive skills that got me where I am today are largely those that let me forcibly blend into an unfamiliar environment ripe with opportunity. I am a fluke. I am the exception. And it’s not my kid sister’s fault or the poor black kid on the South Side’s fault that they didn’t make it. For other people it’s not so simple as just developing a better character, and on every page I felt insulted at the implication that Tough felt he’d found the silver bullet in this. There are no silver bullets. There’s no reform. The only thing that will work is rebuilding the system from the ground up. There’s no improving an inherently racist and classist institution—there’s only replacing it.

bookreview2stars

Book Review: CONJURE WIFE

I should have known from the cover model's unnecessarily bared shoulder this would raise my feminist hackles

I should have known from the cover model’s unnecessarily bared shoulder this would raise my feminist hackles

Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife is a strange little book.It is expertly written, and it is also utterly misogynist. Conjure Wife, written in 1943, is generally well-regarded and pointed to as an early and promising example of horror and urban fantasy. Some go so far as to call it a classic. Three films have been made using it as a starting point.

But, were anyone to ask me (and obviously no one did as this book review, like all of my book reviews, is unsolicited and will likely disappear, unread, into the great, all-consuming maw of the internet), it’s got more than a few problems. It has strengths, for sure…but for me personally the flaws outweigh the strengths in the grand scheme of things. We’ll get to my analysis of it in a second. Before we can analyze anything, however, we have to know what we’re working with, yes? So, let’s plunge ahead into HUGELY SPOILER LADEN plot territory.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Conjure Wife goes a little something like this:

There’s a youngish professor of sociology named Norman Saylor currently working at a small liberal arts college somewhere. He doesn’t fit well at this college — he’s the sort of irrepressible and brilliant young scholar that is always causing trouble (like threatening to give lectures about the glories of premarital sex to the Off-Campus Mothers League or having wild parties with his actor friends from New York City) that his students love but his colleagues are less thrilled with. Somehow, in psite of this lack of fit, he is ding well for himself in the academic world. He’s got a nice comfortable life with his wife Tansy, and their little cat, Totem. He’s even up for the chairmanship of his department.

But then, for literally no reason (in fact, Leiber goes out of his way to mention that this specific act is largely out of character for Norman Saylor), good Professor Saylor goes snooping through his wife’s dressing room. In it, he finds strange little things — vials of graveyard dirt, fingernail clippings, mysterious flannel packets* — that he recognizes from his research as the odds and ends used in conjure magic. Perplexed, he confronts her about it and she tearfully confesses that yes, she has been practicing magic right under his nose all these years. He tells her to stop, she agrees, and they set about ridding their house of her protective charms. And then, the shit hits the fan. One thing after another after another goes wrong for Saylor. A deranged student tries to shoot him. An equally deranged student accuses him of coming on to her. Their beloved cat Totem is killed by a mysterious force that may or may not be a stone dragon that is sometimes perched watchfully outside his office window. He not only fails to get the chairmanship of the sociology department, but his career is jeopardized when his colleagues start taking a closer look at his behaviors.

He starts to wonder, in spite of his highly prized rationality, if maybe there was something to Tansy’s charms after all. Of course, he still thinks deep down that there isn’t, and as if she’s some sort of recovering addict, he refuses to tell her everything that’s going down for fear she’ll fall off the wagon. But it becomes clear soon enough that things are going badly, and after a raucous night of drinking and cavorting (of a chaste 1943 variety), Tansy pulls off one last piece of magic — she has him unwittingly transfer all the harmful spells targeted on him to her.

That’s when the going really gets rough. It turns out that the people behind all this are the other faculty wives, women who are jockeying for position amongst each other and using their husbands’ careers as pawn pieces. It’s not entirely clear at this point why Norman Saylor is being targeted so malevolently, but it’s clear that the other wives are behind it. They work together to make the finishing blow against the Saylors, which leads Tansy to run off in the dead of night leaving only an unfinished set of scribbled instructions for her husband. He follows a trail of broken notes and tries to perform a spell to pull her out of danger (though what the danger is, precisely, he doesn’t know), only to complete the spell one single minute too late. The husk of his wife — his wife in body only — is returned to him and tells him the faculty wives have stolen her soul.

From there, the book follows Norman Saylor as he desperately tries to learn as much about magic from the soulless (but still quite communicative) husk of his wife so he can rescue her soul and return it to her body. He finds out that the vast majority of women practice magic in secret, and that because of the secrecy most spells are worked out laboriously, in isolation, through trial-and-error. Saylor tricks an old math professor friend of his (whose wife happens to be one of the three faculty wives terrorizing him for not yet clear reasons) into working out the underlying essential elements of various magic spells that will help him get Tansy’s soul back, and does so by using magic himself to steal the soul of one of the faculty wives. He forces a trade: the faculty wife’s soul can go back to her body if she returns his wife’s soul to his wife’s body. The faculty wife concedes and all looks like it’ll turn out well after all.

But the plot thickens! Just then, the wife of the old math professor comes by the house as Tansy is explaining that the wife of the old math professor, in fact, masterminded this whole soul-switching thing. And that Norman really should shoot the wife of the old math professor because she’s definitely up to no good. But he doesn’t. Instead, he winds up playing bridge with the three evil faculty wives while the terrible spouse of the old math professor goes on about how much fun she’s about to have in Tansy Saylor’s body (specifically how much fun she’ll have with Norman Saylor in Tansy Saylor’s body) and explains that she’s brought them all there for her coup de grace: switching bodies with Tansy Saylor permanently. And then, with Norman’s help, she does it.

But wait! Remember how our Norman Saylor is clever and brilliant? Yes, he outsmarts them all. Turns out the old hag had already switched bodies with Tansy Saylor (seriously, trying to keep up with who was in who’s body and who had who’s soul was a little like watching the shell game) and that he’d realized this when what looked like his wife was trying to get him to shoot the old lady. He saw right through that and engineered the fateful bridge game himself to get his wife’s body and his wife’s soul reunited for real this time. And he did. And he and Tansy (presumably) lived happily ever after.

As you can see from the detailed plot synopsis above, tons of stuff happens. Really, it’s a very quick and satisfying read. But towards the end of it, I found myself plagued by questions. The biggest issue for me was how gender was treated throughout the book. Now, again, I recognize that this was written in 1943, but I don’t think its age excuses the outright sexism strewn throughout the book. It seemed like Leiber was, through much of the book, trying to say something about the restrictiveness of gender roles during that time period. The way he writes women as these shadowed puppeteers of men’s lives, the way they enact power by subtly manipulating men who have societally recognized power, is a clever if often-used example of the trope about how behind every powerful man, there’s a powerful woman. It didn’t even really bother me that most of these powerful women lurking in the shadows were of the Lady MacBeth type. It is, after all, a horror story. What bothered me was that the meager amounts of agency this construction of men and women’s roles give women is demolished when Norman Saylor runs in and saves the day.

Think about it: he’s hyper-masculine in his rationality. It takes him basically the entire book before he’s willing to admit that maybe magic actually works. He routinely derides women for their inherent irrationality — hell, his first big academic break was some tome about how the fairer sex is suspicious and riddled with neuroses — and ties the practice of magic to their intuitiveness and said irrationality. The underlying essentialism of this, not to mention this whole idea of men are rational/women are magical is inherently binarist, really rubbed me (a genderqueer person who’s had a shit ton of misogyny heaped on them throughout their life) the wrong way. That would be enough for me to want to throw the book out the window. Then, though, everything got upended. Turns out Norman Saylor is so damned rational that he rationally finds a way (via that aforementioned old math professor, who incidentally also a totally manfully rational man) to practice magic, and of course this masculinized, rational form of magic is much more powerful than the magic of witches who have been practicing their arts for decades. He’s more or less a prodigy. So, not only do we have a book in which a man swoops in to save the damsel in distress, but we have one in which a man co-opts the only sort of power the women around him have, perfects it, and then uses it to save the damsel. A damsel, it should be noted, he himself earlier dismissed as neurotic for protecting him with said feminine power earlier in the book. So, while this starts as an interesting look at male paranoia and male privilege, it certainly doesn’t end that way.

I also had problems with the villain. Mrs. Carr, the wife of the old math professor, is apparently a revolutionary and brilliant witch. Tansy Saylor says as much when she tells Norman that before Mrs. Carr, women had never used their magic in tandem (really? never, really?). Mrs. Carr orchestrated the first group plot, worked out magic with other women willingly and openly, and basically found a whole new way to get shit done. Now, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it? I think so. Imagine if the book had been about the women and how revolutionary it could have been if they learned how much more complex and far-reaching their spells could be in groups. Imagine, if you will, if the women’s lib movement was actually a mass movement of magic-based table turning helmed by a seemingly benign old lady. That could’ve been a hell of a book done right.

But in this book, Mrs. Carr is not exploring and amplifying the strength of her magic because she finds her lifelong role as a supportive companion to a bumbling math professor confining, or even to just better understand the nature of the magic she uses itself. No, she uses it because she’s obsessed with youth and has the hots for Norman Saylor. It seemed strange to me, when her ultimate motivations were revealed, that that’s all she wanted. A woman with that much potential, that much ambition, and all she wanted was a man who clearly couldn’t stand her and body upgrade? It just read as so reductionistic, and patronizing, that nothing else could motivate her. And that’s when the book really lost me. In the last chapter, during the climactic bridge game, I found myself wondering more about Mrs. Carr and what kind of live she must have lived that she would use such awe-inspiring power (because honestly, soul stealing is heavy duty stuff) just to get a chance to live out the rest of her years pretending to be another woman, to live with a man she know actually despises who she really is. I didn’t care much about whether things worked out for the Saylors, frankly.

In sum, this was a well-constructed book but also an incredibly anti-feminist one. I wanted to cut it some slack because of when it was written, but I can’t — I mean, Virginia Woolf had already strutted her stuff by then; it wasn’t like no one was working in critiques of gender socialization into literary works. Conjure Wife, ultimately, feels like a long-winded bit of benevolent sexism: well-meaning and unintentionally condescending, but condescending nonetheless.

bookreview2stars

*The magic used throughout clearly owes a whole lot to voodoo, but all the practitioners in the book were middle class white women. So really this book needs a much more intersectional critique highlighting the racial elements of the text as well, but I am not qualified to provide said race critique on account that (a) I am white and I’d rather center a woman of color’s voice on this, and (b) I don’t know enough about the racialized contexts of voodoo to make that critique myself.