May 2016 Round-Up

So May was a damn, damn good reading month for me – 39 books in 31 days. How did I not learn about audiobooks before this month? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Did you know that you could read while you combed your hair or buttered your bagel? Because you can and it’s magical. What did I even do prior to audiobooks – just sit in silence while I brushed my teeth and drove to work? What a plebeian.

Anyway, this month was overall  a good month – I think most of the books I read were a three-star or higher. But boy, did one anticipated read come up and bite me in the ass hard.

5654c4968d9b1-imageBest of May: Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

I’m still not over this book, so forgive me if I come off a bit twitterpated here. So I love hard science fiction – like please, tell me your course trajectory in detail and explain to me how you’re going to use Jupiter’s gravity to increase your acceleration. The one issue with hard science fiction is that it has a lot of straight white dudes doing the scienceing, but that’s not the case in Saturn Run. Not only are almost all of the main cast women, but they’re women of color and non-heterosexual women. The captain of the ship is a lesbian woman of color who just happens to be considered the best captain the United States has to offer. The lead engineer is a plain, overweight woman who consistently quips that she would murder any man stupid enough to try and belittle her. There is no storyline of these women overcoming adversity to reach these positions, there are no scenes where they struggle with male crew members questioning their competence – they are just the best at what they do and everyone respects them accordingly. Holy. Shit. HOLY SHIT. These are the kinds of characters I want to see in science fiction. It also doesn’t hurt that Sandford and Ctein write a compelling plot with spot-on pacing that allows these women to show just what they can do either. While the ending was a bit mellow for my tastes and I’m surprised that there’s no apparent sequel given that it leaves a few loose ends, Saturn Run is worth it alone to watch these two stomp on the backs of men.

Worst of MayDark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilmandarkorbit

Similarly, I am still not over this book, but for far different reasons. I had heard such good things about Dark Orbit from people whose opinion I respected, but there was hardly anything salvageable here. While I appreciate the initial premise and the story clipped along at a good pace, it all began to dissolve after the first few chapters. So first of all, this is not a science fiction novel. Nothing about this was scientifically feasible at all, even what Gilman was trying to bill as scientific – the amount of processing power it would take to reconstruct a person atom by atom like her interstellar travel system does is unimaginable and she doesn’t even try to explain it. To compensate for this, she dives into the metaphysical by having characters meditate and use the power of the mind to travel
between the stars. No. Stop it. Even if we concede that her science works because whatever-the-fuck, the crux of the book’s tension – the machine that enables said travel breaking down – is just completely unbelievable. I’m sorry, but if you’re traveling almost 60 light years, you’re not leaving without duplicate parts. We don’t even go to our own fucking moon without parts in triplicate. We keep a spare fucking tire in our cars, for the love of God. And you’re trying to tell me the world’s best and brightest forgot to pack a spare for the most crucial part of their transportation system? No.

It also has some implications regarding women and mental illness the churn my stomach. Gilman plops in a needless comment on the threatened rape of one main character and then states that the other main character finds the constant aggression between her and the head of security sexual appealing. She’s both using sexual violence as a cheap source of character development and implying that sexual violence is arousing, which is disgusting. With the mental illness, it’s implied that one of the main character’s is having her destiny and psychic powers denied to her by doctors who are prescribing her anti-psychotic drugs. She is taken off them, realizes her potential, and saves the day. Excuse me, but… what? Did you just imply that it’s a good idea to mistrust doctors and stop taking the incredibly important drugs that stabilizes your mental health? Because it’s not like people stopping their potentially life-saving medication is a problem in the real world or anything.

So done with this book.

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Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

tumblr_inline_o56gpn3sfs1s0669x_1280I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a primarily plot-driven reader.I like when there are interstellar wars, mysteries that span across galaxies, and conspiracies that condemn entire planets. I like when things go fast, go far, and/or explode. I like action. So with Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, I was hesitant, which is much more a literary think-piece than a swashbuckling escapade through the solar system. While it certainly doesn’t have the strong plot that I prefer in my novels, it was surprisingly enjoyable – it explored a world that could very well be ours, touching on technologies that don’t lie far from where we are today and gently teasing out the implications of these advances with brilliant characters and imagery.

In Station, a rush to leave earth has left a quarter of a million people clustered around the base of the world’s space station. In this milieu of both human and extraterrestrial diversity, the lines between reality and digitality blur – virtual entities exist outside the realm of physicality, half-human, half-virtual children are raised among Central Station’s families, humans and robotic beings fall in love, and the elderly are incapacitated by mind-plagues.

These characters and their experiences are what bring life to Station. Nobody here is trying to save the world. Nobody here is the chosen one or the messiah or a hero. These are ordinary people trying to live from day to day within a community that is utterly alien even as it lies on Earth’s surface. The experiences they deal with on a daily basis from attending religious services with robotnick rabbis to working within a virtual world are so foreign while also being so knowable – many of what Tidhar explores such as robotic soldiers, enhanced integration into a new digital reality, and the merger of flesh and machine are simply extensions of technologies we already possess. It shows the adaptability and strength of humans as they adjust to these new advances, but also the difficulties this progress creates – physically, emotionally, morally, and above all personally. Central Station is uncanny in its ability to feel both like home and like a country as yet unexplored by humanity.

Tidhar also does a fantastic job of bringing Central Station and the surrounding city to life. The individuals who narrate help to give shape to the setting in their own right, but Tidhar goes beyond that to make the station its own character. The station itself is cool and almost sterile in its modernity, contrasting with the sense of grit and noise felt as Tidhar describes the living situation of many of the city’s inhabitants. It’s a richly woven world that it stimulates the sense. Readers can almost smell the sweat and oil of a robotnick and hear the forever arriving and departing crowds – even the heat of Central Station makes it feel like your skin is flushed. It’s rare to be immersed so deeply in another world and I reveled in my brief stay there.

My only complaint is that the lack of an easily discernible plot did make the reading experience slower and some portions tended to crawl. While I completely understand Tidhar’s pacing decision based on what the novel was aiming to accomplish, it was still a bit difficult for someone like me who is an impatient reader and used to tearing through novels to get through. If someone pick ups Station, my recommendation is to go in knowing to take it slow – that’s the only way to appreciate it and I think my initial rush made me miss some important elements.

While I don’t plan on swearing off my swashbuckling any time soon, Central Station was a brilliant exposure not only to something new personally, but to something that’s rare in the genre generally. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys literary science fiction, especially authors like Hannu Rajaniemi. I give it four out of five space slug parasites.

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The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese read like Sherlock Holmes and Philip K. Dick got hitched and Ernest Cline gave the best man’s speech. Taking the traditional detective narrative of Sherlock Holmes and coupling it with the grittiness of Dick’s science fiction noir, Kroese manages to inject it with the light humor found in books like Ready Player One or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A book with so many strong influences could easily have been overwhelmed by them, but Kroese was able to take these elements, harness them in a unique way, and make a undeniably entertaining book.

Set in a crumbling Los Angeles in 2039, Sheep follows Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler as they pursue two cases involving a genetically-altered sheep and the world’s most famous television star, Priya Mistry. As the investigations continue, the duo begins to realize that these two seemingly unrelated cases are intertwined and the conspiracy that connects them indicts some of the city’s most powerful residents.

The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has ever read Sherlock Holmes or watched the TV adaptation – a genius, but socially inept detective (or phenomenological investigator, as Keane prefers to be called) is aided in his investigations by his grounded, unassuming, and often frazzled aide. For something that could have ended up feeling tired and formulaic, though, Sheep manages to take this classic foundation and make it fresh. He brings Sherlock Holmes into the present by centering the novel around bioengineering, cloning, and other sciences that became popular at the turn of the century and utilizing the grittiness of noir scifi popularized by authors such as Philip K. Dick to revitalize and reimagine classic detective fiction. His characters also have their own unique personalities and quirks even as they nod to the famous detective and Watson, making for a well-crafted tribute rather than a clumsy imitation.

Also, if a reader prides themselves on being able to figure out the case before the final reveal, they will be quickly humbled by Sheep. Kroese makes good use of the science fiction element of this book here, using the ethically murky science of dodgy corporations to set up multiple possible outcomes and veil the mystery’s real answer until the last second. The narrative will lead readers down one path, only to quickly take an unexpected turn and leave the reader as frustratingly and intoxicatingly lost as they were in the first chapter.

And while the book’s writing isn’t transcendent, the tone was fitting for the given scenario. The more serious tone of most noir or police procedurals would have felt out of place here because the situations are so often bizarre and ridiculous, so it was smart of Kroese to take a more humorous route and make his writing tongue-in-cheek. Comedical science fiction is a vastly underexploited sub-genre, which makes Sheep stand out among other upcoming releases.

With Sherlock notorious for its long stretches between seasons and greats like Dick and Douglas Adams no longer producing work, The Big Sheep is the perfect remedy – a quick, fun fix for the eccentric investigator fans crave coupled with an appreciated nod to the works it roots itself in. A solid four out of five genetically-modified sheep.

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We Have Lift Off: Mercury 13 Launches Women Astronauts Into History

PicsArt_01-30-01.54.08Following Rocket Girl as the second book in my women in science bender, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Woman and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann may be the new love of my nonfiction collection – just thinking of those skillfully woven citations and footnotes has my heart a’twitter. Ackmann manages to do what so many nonfiction books fail to – present a work that has both a strong research base and a strong narrative. Paired with her ability to deliver information objectively while still communicating the emotional impact of it, Ackmann may be one of the best nonfiction authors I’ve read in recent memory and she does justice to a story that has spent too long untold.

Recounting the story of thirteen women who aspired to join their male counterparts in the race to the stars, Mercury 13 uses pilot and initial testing candidate Jerrie Cobb’s experience as a lens to both explore the broader societal implications of sexism in the space race and the personal stories of the women who experienced it firsthand.

As someone who has spent countless tear-filled hours in the library writing research papers, it was so satisfying to see how much time and effort Ackmann devoted to her own investigation. The book is absolutely saturated with information; often a chronic complaint from a citation and footnote fetishist like myself, Ackmann makes sure that her facts are clearly stated, correctly cited, and easily located in the end notes. But for how data-heavy this book is, it never feels dry or dull. Until you’ve tried to convince someone that the function of the compression system in the legs of an astronaut’s G-suit is interesting, you don’t understand how difficult a task making information exciting is, but Ackmann accomplishes it effortlessly.

Usually when a book is so well-researched, though, the story suffers – the author is so burnt from the actual research that they give one big “fuck it,” slap their data onto the pages into a rough approximation of order, and send it to their publisher in a self-loathing- and caffeine-fueled rage. So imagine my surprise when I was reading Mercury 13 as much for the story as for the information. With such a large history to tackle, choosing Jerrie Cobb to be the focal point of the book was a smart decision. She gives readers an anchor to ground the information they are receiving in and serves as human context for the massive amount of data Ackmann crams into this slim volume. While numbers themselves are often looked at with indifference, the excitement, anger, and pain they cause Cobb and her fellow female test subjects makes them palatable and adds substance to Ackmann’s account, even making me tear up near the end of the book.

For how emotional the personal accounts were, though, Ackmann never let her own emotion or opinion shine through. When discussing a prominent NASA director who called the female astronaut candidates “110 pounds of recreational equipment” for the male astronauts to use sexually, she was able to keep her professional objectivity while my blood pressure skyrocketed so fast that my vision blurred. In true scientific form, Ackmann allowed the information to speak for itself, which made a bigger impact than her own words ever could.

After closing the book, I want to beat down the door of every school room filled with young girls and throw it at them like it’s goddamn candy at a Fourth of July parade. I want to take every person who has ever told a girl that women don’t make good scientists or innovators and forcefully jam this book into their colon. I want to scream incoherently into the wind as the pages of this book rain down on me from the heavens. God bless Ackmann for her account of the Mercury 13, which finally tells the story of women who were kicking ass in a time when they weren’t even allowed to fly a plane without heels.

March 2016 Round-Up

VonG: Ah it’s that time of year. Spring has sprung and the insects have revived themselves out of whatever pocket dimension of hell they hide in during the winter, to crawl and fly their way into my face at all possible times.

I managed to read 20 books in March (one not pictured because it didn’t have a cover on the e-book I downloaded) and I attribute this enormous bought of reading to my strict avoidance of the sun, now that the great weather of fog and rain has deserted me.

March 2016 was a reading month of robots, murderous fairies, coconut cake, kilts, and disappointing alien romances.

I have to give a shout out to my problematic fav of the month (and probably year), the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning for being my dream kind of urban fantasy with lore that is perfect parts disturbing, richly imaginative, and can’t-put-it-down frustrating. That five day wait to get the final book from the library nearly left me a husk (haha get it? book reference). But it is so, so problematic…

Best of March: Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

The fairies (or fae, which is a way more hip term) had a good month in books between the Fever series and this gem. I am not familiar with Maas’ Throne of Glass series, so this was an introduction to the author and wow, what an introduction. This is the YA Fantasy that you dream of stumbling upon–complex, well-written characters, a plot with intrigue, an freshly imaginative world, a slip of dark themes, and…a lack of dopey teenage love triangles… This is one of the best YA Fantasy books I’ve read, end stop. You’ll find me, come May 3rd, with my face in the sequel. This kind of enthusiasm for books in a series is unusual for me but I am ready to leap back into the world that Maas has crafted.

Worst of March: Beyond the Highland Mist by Karen Marie Moning

After finishing the Fever series, I decided to check out Moning’s other works, including the romance novels she used to write taking place in Scotland: the Early Years (note that this is a sub-genre of romance novels I don’t have any prior experience in. I sort of knew it was a thing?). Putting this as the worst for the month is done with a tender, understanding touch and lack of burning rage because this book happens to be Moning’s first and what makes it bad is not the plot, characters, or actual writing style, but the problems that tend to be inherent with first novels–in this case, the especially poor pacing that is far too rushed in sections to the point of causing confusion and detracting from the progression of the characters’ motivations and character development. But credit to Moning, ya got better girl.

Maggie: In honor of Women’s History Month, I went full-on lady love in March – every book I read was by a female author, many of them authors of color as well.  I was a bit nervous initially because so much of what I read – science fiction – is authored by white men and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find anything quite my speed. Lo and behold, it turns out that March was my best reading month by far with only one book scoring below a three in my rating system. There were so many five star books that I’m actually going to have trouble choosing a favorite.

Best of March: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Though it was like pulling teeth trying to decide on a favorite, I finally chose Kolbert’s book about mass extinction because I not only think it’s an important and relevant issue, but because I also think this is going to remain a trend in the fiction I read as well. Climate fiction (cli-fi) is just coming into its own as a genre, but we’ve already seen some powerhouses tackling it – Maragret Atwood in her MaddAddam trilogy, Cixin Liu who won the Hugo award for his novel The Three-Body Problem, and other greats in the speculative literature field. I think works such as Sixth Extinction are important to have as a foundation when you start to venture into this genre, which is really addressing one of the most believable near-future issues humanity is going to face in the next century. Kolbert does such a good job of weaving her argument into a narrative, providing huge amounts of information without her writing feeling like a data dump. It takes a skillful writer to make nonfiction accessible and I’m impressed with her work here.

Worst of March: Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata

Even though it was the worst book I read in March, Kolata’s investigation of the virulent influenza that spread at the tail-end of War World I wasn’t horrible – it was just unpolished and not really what I’ve come to expect from nonfiction. She seemed to have a rather small amount of evidence to support a book well over 300 pages, the notes in the back taking up just twenty or so of the books entirety. She also filled the book with irrelevant detail.  I’m not sure if it was her attempt to humanize the story or just an attempt to beef up the page count, but there’s no reason I need to know the childhood stories of the scientists searching for the virus. Tell me where they went to school, tell me what relevant experience they have, and be done with it because in no way does know that one of them enjoyed baseball as a child enhance either the narrative or information for me. Since I was already a bit wary of her credentials and information to begin with, this filler just made me even more cautious of the text. While it read well for the most part and had a strong narrative quality that I appreciate in popular science writing, I just didn’t trust the information she was giving me and that’s a death sentence for a non-fiction book.

If I Read About Octavia Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin One More Time…

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I will roll my eyes right out of my head. I know that’s extreme, especially coming during Women’s History Month where we are celebrating female accomplishment, but I’m done. I’m over it. I quit. And with good reason.

Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote for decades and their speculative fiction is brilliant, loved by both critics and readers. They bring the complex issues of race, gender, and sexuality into their novels, a needed reprieve in a literary corner dominated by white men. But we all know them. If you consider yourself a fan of science fiction or fantasy and haven’t heard of Kindred or The Dispossessed, I’m sorry – I can’t help you.

When most people speak or write about these two authors, though, it feels like a token nod – an obligation to ward off criticism of an all-male or white-washed list rather than a true passion for their work. Because oh, boy – two whole women? One of them black? Just let me check those two boxes on my inclusivity list real quick before I pat myself on the back. On the majority of “best of” or “must-read” lists, these two stand as the only women. On almost every list, Butler stands as the lone person of color. This is unacceptable.

Butler and Le Guin more than deserve to be included in these discussions and I don’t mean to diminish their importance, but throwing them into a list of recommendations and making no effort to include other minority writers is  lazy at best and deliberately discriminatory at worst. It requires no thought and does a discredit to other female and non-white writers, especially ones who are still living and working – Butler passed away in 2006 and Le Guin hasn’t produced a novel in almost a decade. While we should never forget either of these women and their contributions to the genre, it’s time to allow them to pass on the torch to other writers rather than recycling these two as our bastions of diversity.

If you’re looking for some classic science fiction, include Samuel Delany who is still an active author and also wrote Dhalgren – one of the most complex and literary science fiction novels ever produced. If you’re looking for something more modern, try Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor who released her latest novel less than a year ago. If you’re looking for a great series, try N.K. Jemisin‘s Inheritance trilogy. Hell, branch out into translation with Cuban authors Agustín de Rojas and Yoss or Chinese authors Cixin Liu and Ken Liu. But in the name of all things just and holy – don’t recommend one more Butler or Le Guin book to me. Do your research, get creative, and give me some goddamn effort.

An Ode to Shitty Teenage Love Triangles

I find it upsetting that you think the only thing of consequence
Is that the main female character serve as a conquest
By which the male characters can show they’ve developed, grown,
And also get a little of that girl’s sweet poon.

I find it disconcerting that the only apparent purpose of this woman
Is to look pretty, serve as the object of desire for these two men,
Who use her as a trophy in their testosterone-infused pissing match
Where the lucky winner gets to stick his dick in her snatch.

I find it distressing that you think  this woman should stay silent
Find no problem with this situation – stay wide-eyed, docile, and pliant.
No personality, no ambition, no goals,
Just a convenient vessel for a couple of holes.

I find it alarming that you despise the boy who is kind,
Who doesn’t bully, push, or pry, and appreciates her for her mind
As the wrong choice – the weakling, the wimp, the loser.
Just because he doesn’t want to pump and dump her.

I find it terrifying that you idolize the boy who is bitter,
Who is damaged, unstable, and takes it out on her,
As the right choice – the stud, the champ, the winner.
Just because he’s willing to get down and fuck her.

I find it revolting that the book’s author
Would jot this down and think it proper
Not only to write about an underaged girl’s puss getting used,
Of underaged boys manipulating her for the sake of their cocks and being excused,
But to romanticize neglect, violence, and abuse.

Don’t they have any shame or self-respect?
Oh, wait – they’re too busy raking in our money, no time to reflect.

I find it heartbreaking that young adults
Would look at these taunts, curses, and insults
And instead of being appalled, they daydream about being in his arms,
So that when their real partners begin to scream, strike, and take things too far
They won’t speak up because they think that’s just how things are.

Don’t they understand that they’re more than a focus for male desire?
Oh wait – there’s no other female characters, no role models to which they can aspire.

I find it disgusting that grown adults
Would take an interest in these juvenile ruts.
Would look at these broken, damaged couples and sigh,
Jealous of the girl with an abuser between her thighs,
And praying that maybe one day they will find these kinds of guys.

Don’t they have mature, secure relationships themselves?
Oh, wait – they have these books on their shelves.

So don’t tell me that you’re just a story, a fantasy, for fun,
Because you’re doing some real shit, some awful shit that I ain’t got no time for, hun.

Black Literature Matters

Reflecting on my rather poor performance when it came to reading authors who weren’t straight white men in January, I decided to dedicate February to reading more black authors in honor of Black History Month. As I was browsing offerings online and from my local library, I tried to think of famous black authors – maybe ones I had read in the past – and was shocked to realize I hardly knew any. The only name that came to mind was Toni Morrison, but trying to think of more black authors and black classics just resulted in a blank.

I must have read some literature by black authors in high school, though, right? Some that address black history, culture, or politics? At least one or two. But the two texts I remember reading that were concerned with the black experience were The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – written by a white man and a white woman respectively. Even in college, the only black literature I remember coming across was maybe a short story or two and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In a total of 17 years of education, I had one memorable black voice in my past. One. The more I thought, the more I realized just how much my education had failed both black literature and myself.

This month, I finally indulged in works like Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Fledgling by Octavia Butler. They gave me an understanding of slavery, racism, and prejudice that my faux-black literary experience or history classes never did. 12 Years illustrated to me the horrors of slavery the sanitized and clinical passages I read in textbooks glanced over, trying to hurry readers along to cover up that ugly part of American history. Souls showed how the disadvantage of black Americans continued long after slavery ended, looking into how that hate and violence affected the spirit of newly free blacks three decades after emancipation. Beloved and Fledgling made the history of Northup and Du Bois personal, taking it to a level that made me uncomfortable, but rightfully and necessarily so.

Even as an educated adult who is aware of events like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and current racial prejudice, I’d never examined them on an emotional level prior to this month. I’d read about them historically, analyzed them as fact, and thought my work was done. It wasn’t until this month that I was able to feel that history, to understand it beyond fact and begin to reflect on what it must have been like, what it must still be like to be black in America. As a white woman, I will never be able to truly empathize with the black experience, but at least now I have an understanding, a place at which I can begin to sympathize with both past and current struggle when I listen to black stories.

These works were brilliant, beautifully and emotionally written pieces of literature.. These authors speak of their experiences with eloquence and make them accessible, allowing an outsider to explore their stories while still maintaining them as their own. As 

However, we live in a country that silences these voices. A country filled with racial hate and violence where black men and women are killed, dehumanized, and disenfranchised. Where something as seemingly obvious as “Black Lives Matter” has to be campaigned for and is actively fought against by not a few radicals, but by many. Where these issues are put onto the shoulders of blacks – still struggling with the aftereffects of centuries of slavery – who are told fixing them is their responsibility even as they continue to be driven further into poverty and deprived of the resources they need to feed, shelter, and educate themselves, much less excel politically, economically, or socially. Most white Americans watch these injustices at best with casual disinterest and at worst with gleeful malice. They don’t see it as involving them, as being part of their experience – issues like gang violence or police brutality are just too foreign to a middle-class white person, so they marginalize these stories to keep themselves from feeling uncomfortable or guilty.

I think this failure to listen to black stories and foster empathy is where my education failed me, where education everywhere continues to fail its students. Literature has the ability to take these situations, these injustices, and these sufferings and make them tangible, real. A 30-second clip of a black man being shot by a police officer on the news is easy to disregard, to forget about in the course of a day – he becomes a footnote, a statistic. A novel that shows us that same black man’s past, shows us his thoughts and feelings, and shows us the multifaceted political, economic, and social reasons why he ended up in front of the officer’s gun that day is not so easy to ignore or brush off. It gets into our minds, our emotions and sits there, not letting us turn away from the ugliness that we as a country need to face but refuse to.

As Du Bois says, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” This sentence was written in 1903, but is still true over a hundred years later where the divide between white and black is still as apparent as ever. To ignore the incredible power of literature to create empathy, to give someone the ability to look at another person and say, “I want to understand,” is negligent, almost criminally so – it perpetuates a culture that continues to ignore and minimize the victimization of black Americans. No child should make it through 17 years of schooling only having heard one black voice when the power to make these individuals into adults with a nuanced and sympathetic view of race, racism, and prejudice is so easily attainable – simply opening a book.

February 2016 Round-Up

VonG: 

Best of February: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I didn’t want to be this person. For some reason, I lump the people who go around saying Walt Whitman is one of their favorite poets with the kind of people who wear nice hats, smoke pipes, and have patches on the elbows of their jackets. Professor types who aren’t actually professors and who berate you for liking your low brow literature because, ugh, who will truly be as great as the authors of the past? Also you’re in your twenties, stop smoking a pipe ffs. Who do you think you are?! But after 600 pages of poetry, some of which made me drool as I disassociated to avoid more poems about boats, I ended this volume with a deep passion and respect for Whitman. It was one of those books you have to call ‘transformative’ about your life even if you shudder a little and you have to resist rolling your eyes back into your head. (Nothing kills a book recommendation like the promise that it will CHANGEYOURLIFE, because let’s face it, we’re all in different points of life and books affect us differently). But I have to say it (shudder), Leaves of Grass changed my life.

Worst Weirdest of February: Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay

Out of the 12 books I read this month, shockingly none were that awful. I mean, I can’t say they were all GOOD, but none of them induced me far enough into a rage to make a blog post about them, which is surprising. A lot of the YA fic I read this month could only be called mediocre. They weren’t down-right offensive when they strayed into moments I disapproved of and there weren’t even that many moments.For that reason, I’m addressing the weirdest book I read this month instead. I’m one of those people who loves Shakespeare, so whenever there’s a YA book involving Shakespeare, I get a little titillated. This one time I read a book where a girl goes back in time to seduce the playwright, as if someone had flipped through my wishes and penned a book just for me (this is real. Incredible). Juliet Immortal is a story involving Shakespeare that is perplexing from start to finish. First of all, why even involve the name and the play Romeo and Juliet? I’m not sure this story, which held onto the association with about as much conviction as a distracted toddler, even needed to be related to Shakespeare. It probably would have been just of fine of a story if it was completely unrelated. Second of all, What the Darn Diggly??? This book is wild, and I’m still unsure if it is in a good way. I love Stacey Jay’s other work but ??? I don’t even know what else to say.

Maggie:

Best of February: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

After crunching some numbers and realizing I hadn’t read a single POC author in January, I vowed to read at least 50% black authors in February in honor of Black  History Month. – The Souls of  Black Folk, Beloved, and works by Octavia Butler. While I may not have enjoyed reading Souls the most – it was published in 1903 and reads like it was published in 1903 – I think it was the most important book I read. It gave me a historical understanding that made the emotional aspects Morrison and Butler brought to their works even more poignant, making their themes of race and racism sink in in a way they couldn’t have if I wasn’t aware of the political, social, and cultural history they were steeped in. Also, on a more day-to-day level, Souls gave me awesome ammo whenever I have the misfortune of conversing with a racist who rightfully deserve to get shot down.

Worst of February: Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

It’s almost too painful to talk about this book so soon after reading it, but I’ll try. Have you ever been kicked in the teeth by your best friend? Or kidney punched by your grandmother? Did they then take all your valuables and spit on your dog? That’s kind of how reading Mostly Harmless felt. I have never been more disappointed and dissatisfied with a series arc, especially the ending. Adams took everything that was good in his first two or three books and tore it apart in the finally two, laughing knowingly while he did. The Hitchhiker’s series was only supposed to be a trilogy originally, so I have a theory that Adams was forced by an editor or by the need for some quick cash to write the other two. He must of resented it because he became almost actively hostile to the reader, acknowledging the degrading quality of his stories in little quips throughout the last two books. It was maddening as a reader to watch what started so strongly crash and burn. I don’t think I’ll ever quite trust a series again. Thanks, Douglas Adams.

What The Fuck Wednesday – 02/24/16

Have you ever reached a point in a book where the author clearly just said “fuck it” and called it a day? Ever read something so brilliant or absurd that your brain does a double-take? We’ve dedicated Wednesday to capturing these moments when you just have to ask yourself, “What the fuck?”

VonG:

One of my goals for this year was to read a non-fiction book every month. I wasn’t too excited about this goal, it was more of one of those goals directed towards making me more of a well-rounded reader (and hopefully person). But that didn’t mean I was going to enjoy it.

My selection for February is Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which has turned out to be one of the most hysterically true stories I have ever learned in my life.

When we think of spies, we think of the sexy image that James Bond represents: confidence, expensive cars, action sequences of drawn out chases, secret messages, and, of course, the Bond Girl–espionage at its finest

It turns out the reality of the spy life, at least during World War II, had almost all of those things except the sexy part. Instead everyone is a goddamn mess (which I have sympathy for, because this would be me if I was a spy.)

The entire Double Cross operation is one big WTF moment as in, how the hell did they ever pull anything off?

The spies, at the very least, had some of the appearance of the James Bond lifestyle, especially agent “Scoot,” also known as “Tricycle” also known as Serbian playboy Dusko Popov.

“Dusko and Johnny were friends. Their friendship was founded on a shared appreciation of money, cars, parties, and women, in no particular order and preferably all at the same time.”

Sure, Dusko sounds like James Bond material. But this is a man who will later write a letter to British intelligence demanding that they buy him….chocolate. Because we all know that having your chocolate funded by a top secret spy agency is how espionage works.

“My heart is in a very bad condition. My doctor who is my biggest friend says it is too much alcohol, tobacco and sin. The only remedy which I found efficient until now was milk and chocolates. Please send $100 worth of any kind of chocolate you can think of. I don’t mind what they are. I am taking them as medicine.”

You and me both, Popov.

What about “high” speed chases? The double cross spies had those as well, but they looked a little more like this:

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You can’t make this stuff up. Even if you made this stuff up, people would say you weren’t being realistic. This is beautiful.

And thanks to one spy’s obsession with her dog (girl I feel you), you get gems like this:

“Britain was preparing for battle on an epic scale, and MI5 was seriously considering whether to deploy a navy submarine to fetch a small dog, illegally, in order to placate a volatile double agent.”

Freaking INCREDIBLE.

And the Bond girl? Popov spent a lot of time sleeping around and sending pictures of his girlfriends to MI5 (I’m sure they really cared), but shout out to Double Cross agent Bronx, who was both a lady Bond and slept with women and men. I’m going to say it, she had Bond Boys.

Also shout out to the records about the Double Cross agents, who referred to Bronx’s “Lesbian tendencies” with a capital L. The only other thing to be reliably given a capital letter in attention were, of course, the all important double agent Pigeons. (Like actual bird pigeons. There were pigeons in the Double Cross department who were going to infiltrate the German pigeon houses. Send help.)

Maggie:

So I stopped at a department store on my way home from work to pick up some paper plates and beef jerky – I lead a sophisticated life – and just happened to sneak a glance at the bargain book box only to spot this little gem:

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Excuse me, but what godforsaken planet do I live on in which a publisher allowed the men of Duck Dynasty to write a book about their beards?

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Apparently one with a beard, if you manage to make it about half way through this book.

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I just can’t stop imagining the creative team for this book and how painful it must have been to sell their souls to pay off their MFA debt. The writer sobbing bitterly into his frappuccino as he types out rhyming beard couplets. The graphic designer looking through pages and pages of old men’s beards to photoshop onto children, sunflowers, and ducks – wondering where he went wrong in life, what he did to deserve this. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but Jesus…

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Sweet, sweet Jesus.