We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read: 20 February, 2018

At 48 pages, this is a very short book – really more of an essay. Because of the vast discrepancy between the size of the topic and the size of the book, this is obviously going to be a very superficial treatment. Even so, the essay is very conversational, and skips from topic to topic without much focus. Ultimately, it doesn’t really answer the title question, so much as simply mull over ways in which sexism have affected the author.

To the extent that Adichie makes statements of position, I often found myself disagreeing with her. Mostly, it has to do with the gender binary, which she clearly accepts even as she doesn’t think it should should be prescriptive.

I did enjoy the particular African perspective of the book – when I read about feminism, it’s almost always from a North American context. In particular, there are a few parts in the book where she talks specifically about African (and Nigerian) culture.

Apart from the cultural perspective, Adichie doesn’t bring much new to the table. This is a casual, personal book, without much history or facts. But it is worth reading, given the short length.

    Vorkosigan Saga #12: Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

    Read: 18 February, 2018

    I was very clever and read the “Borders of Infinity” novella before coming back to this book. While the book Borders of Infinity comes next in the chronological order, the novella (which can be found in the book) comes just before Brothers in Arms. While it isn’t absolutely necessary to read them in that order, much of Brothers in Arms is dealing with the aftermath of the story in “Borders of Infinity”, so I do think it’s best to read them in order. What I did was read all the novellas in Borders of Infinity, then come back and read Brothers in Arms, then read the framing device in Borders of Infinity.

    It’s probably no surprise that I really loved this one. So far, the Vorkosigan has been a whole lot more hit than miss. I love the dissection of identity and personhood, and I love the exploration of how wartime actions and choices can keep coming back to haunt whole lineages.

    We haven’t heard much about Earth so far in the series, so it was interesting to see how Bujold sees the future right here at home.

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      Vorkosigan Saga #13: Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

      Read: 18 February, 2018

      I recommend reading the third novella, “Borders of Infinity”, before reading Brothers in Arms, as the events in the novella come up quite a bit in that book.

      There isn’t too much to the framing device – Miles is back on Barrayar, getting interviewed by security chief Simon Illyan about some recent missions (and the expenses they accrued). As far as I can recall, there’s nothing that gives away key plot points of Brothers in Arms (spoiler: Miles survives), so this book could be read first, even though it comes next chronologically.

      It was nice to see Cordelia again, however briefly. Since Barrayar, she’s often been a presence, though usually only off-screen. That said, I can understand Bujold’s choice. Both Cordelia and Aral are rather larger-than-life characters in Miles’s mind, so it makes sense to keep them hidden from the reader to preserve Miles’s perspective.

      The Mountains of Mourning

      I reviewed this in more detail in Dreaweaver’s Dilemma. It’s still a heart-wrenching novella, in addition to being a really good exploration of Miles in his home environment. It does a lot to show us the tension between the old ways and the new world that Aral (and, to a lesser extent, Miles) is trying to create.

      Labyrinth

      Despite the questionable romance between a 20-some year old and a sheltered sixteen year old (somewhat mitigated along other power axes), I really dug this story. I loved the exploration of humanity that Bujold did so well in Ethan of Athos, and the way it kept coming up to hammer at Miles, smoothing out his prejudices. I enjoyed seeing more of Bel Thorne, particularly the exploration of its gender fluidity. It reminded me of the romance in LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, where a gender fluid individual shifts presentation to accommodate the preferences of a heterosexual.

      I also liked the theme of accessibility. It’s always around when Miles is present, of course, due to his brittle bones, but here we also see someone who requires a mobility aid. It’s just not something that many authors think to include in their stories – even in science fiction, where technology could remove so many barriers to public participation for people with disabilities or physical differences.

      Mostly, though, I loved getting to see a quaddie again. I’ve been dying to find out how they’ve been getting on ever since Falling Free, and here we see one – two hundred years later, a product of an ongoing colony. I wish we could have spent more time with her, but it was lovely to get that much.

      The Borders of Infinity

      I just didn’t click with this one so much. Some of it is just the setting, which I don’t think would have ever worked for me. I didn’t like it in Riddick, I don’t like it here. But, also, because there’s a sort-of-twist ending, Bujold chose to hide a lot of Miles’s thinking from the reader. The joy of reading the Vorkosigan stories is in getting to see all the strategies and counter strategies that Miles comes up with – and if we don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, it just isn’t nearly as fun.

      This wasn’t a bad story, by any means, but I do think it’s the weakest of the Vorkosigan stories that I’ve read so far.

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        Star Wars The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

        Read: 18 February, 2018

        After watching The Last Jedi, I wanted to know more about Rose Tico. She’s an intriguing character who doesn’t get much exploration in the movie, but just enough to hint at a lot more depth.

        Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much exploration here, either. The story is about Rose and her sister, Paige, trying to help a local rebellion on the planet Aterra Bravo. Set before the outbreak of war with the First Order, Rose and Paige have to operate in secrecy while the rebellion gathers evidence against the First Order.

        So far so good. Except that the narrative is fairly superficial, and we don’t get a whole lot of character exposition or development. There’s a bit there about Rose’s relationship with Paige, and what development there is is about her learning to function independently of her sister (giving the last few chapters quite a bit of pathos, considering what happens in the first few minutes of The Last Jedi).

        There’s certainly enough plot to fill a full length novel, but the author opts for repetition of the superficial, rather than depth. So over and over again, we hear about how Aterra Bravo reminds Rose of her homeworld, and over and over we hear about the difficulty of navigating the heavy bombers through the Aterran asteroid field. It’s so repetitive that even my six year old was getting annoyed! This book does not trust its readers at all.

        Which is such a shame, because Rose is an interesting character, and because the plot is interesting on its own.

        This isn’t a terrible book, but it is a disappointing one. The author seems to have confused writing for a younger audience with writing for a lazy, uninterested, and unengaged audience. She sacrificed depth for the assumption that her audience wouldn’t remember details from one chapter to the next.

          Tensorate #1: The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

          Read: 13 February, 2018

          I loved this story for all the things it does differently – for its setting, for its take on gender, for its take on homosexual relationships, etc.I just wish that the author had taken more time with it all.

          This is a short enough story as it is, made even shorter as we are whisked along on a whirlwind tour of the first 35 years of Akeha and Mokoya’s lives. The scenes we are privy to are important, but so much of the character development happens off-screen.

          This is a fantastic start, but the series needs a lot more exploration. I hope that there’ll be more details filled in by the sequels, because this story has a lot of potential.

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            The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

            Read: 4 February, 2018

            I happened on this book while searching for north African recipe books, and I’m still debating whether that’s a search algorithm win or a search algorithm fail. In any case, I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read it, and promptly put it on hold at my library.

            The book is a collection of memoir essays. They are a bit disconnected (although all come back, in some way, to themes of social justice), but I didn’t mind this time. It felt natural, like a conversation with a good friend that goes all over the place.

            I really enjoyed the way Bell breaks down concepts – even when I still understood what he was getting at, I enjoyed the journey of the explanation. I never felt talked down to or excluded, even when he was explaining 101 concepts, even when he was clearly addressing readers who’ve shared his perspective and experiences.

            This isn’t as hard-hitting as, for example, Between the World and Me or The New Jim Crow, while still expressing many of the same ideas. This would be a perfect starter book for that white friend who kinda gets it but doesn’t get it get it, but who wouldn’t want “all the negativity” of Michelle Alexander.

              Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

              Read: 28 January, 2018

              After a smash hit like The Fault In Our Stars, I can imagine how much pressure Green felt to follow it up without disappointing fans. Especially given how much more in the public eye he is than most authors. So it’s no wonder that, after publishing a book ever 1-2 years, we suddenly got a five year gap.

              My favourite Green book is Looking for Alaska, because of the way he captured the effects of [redacted] on others – in particular, the mystery and the never knowing. But, at the same time, it was the beginning of the John Green Formula: awkward buy meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, comes to amazed realisation that she is actually a full person, he is irrevocably changed. Which is exactly the sort of realisation that 99.5% of teenage boys need to have.

              Then we had The Fault In Our Stars, which broke with tradition because, for the first time, Green wasn’t writing about himself. For that book, he put on the skin of Esther Earl – a teen fan who died of cancer. Not to psychoanalyse the author, but it was the first time he moved from realising that women are people, to actually taking on their thoughts and perspectives. It was an interesting transition, quite apart from all the other stuff that TFIOS was about.

              Then there’s this book, which is still from the perspective of a woman, but is also much more personal. I don’t experience anxiety the way the main character does, but Green managed to capture something in her spiralling thought patterns. Enough so that, just reading the narrative, my own stomach (never the smartest part of my body) started reacting as if her thoughts were my thoughts. Which made this a bit of a difficult – not to mention physically painful – read.

              I liked the way Green avoids easy resolutions – which is something he’s always done well. I also liked the centring of friendship, and the ultimate lesson of the story. I liked the authenticity of the way the man character felt.

              If you don’t like YA or you don’t like Green, you probably won’t like this. But, personally, I might be changing my favourite Green novel.

                Sky Burial by Xinran

                Read: 25 January, 2018

                A fascinating story about a Chinese woman who heads into the Tibetan wilderness to find her lost husband.

                While the book claims to be a true story (told by the main character to the author in the course of two days), this reads like fiction. True or not, or mix of both, I’m not sure it matters. It’s still a beautiful story, regardless.

                The books main strength is in the way it conveys a sense of place – not just of the Tibetan plateau (though these were certainly the best bits), but also of the Chinese towns. With surprising economy of description, the author had me feeling transported.

                There seem to be some political undertones, or at least a message. But while it does fudge over a lot of the truly horrific political events, I don’t think it’s nearly as pro-Chinese as some reviewers seem to have read it. There’s a sense of intrusion in the military presence in Tibet. And, while Shu Wen definitely seems to buy the party line at first about bringing civilisation to a backward land, she seems to learn a great respect for the traditional ways. So while there is, of course, some politics in a book about the ongoing Chinese/Tibetan conflict, I didn’t get the sense that the author was taking a strong side either way. As with most things, it’s complicated. And the picture we’re given in Sky Burial is nothing if not complicated.

                I really enjoyed the friendship between Shu Wen and Zhuoma, brought together by their shared goal of finding their men. And the writing style was both poetic and vivid.

                This is a very quick read, but a beautiful one.

                  Vorkosigan Saga #9: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

                  Read: 22 January, 2018

                  Like Falling Free, this book is set within the Vorkosigan universe, but isn’t about either Miles or his mother, Cordelia.

                  I really enjoyed this one. Feminist science fiction tends break with genre conventions in interesting ways, but Ethan of Athos managed even to break with those breaks – first by centring the story on a man, then by using one patriarchal society as the backdrop for exploring an entirely different patriarchy. And, while there are only two important female characters in the book (a minority by a fairly wide margin), and while those women break rather significantly from what North American culture would see as “women’s” roles, the book manages to have a lot to say about how women (and women’s labour) get valued.

                  One of the most ding-ding moments in the book is when Ethan is talking about the tremendous labour cost of raising an army, and is surprised to find out that – in the outside universe – all that labour is simply unaccounted for. It belongs primarily to women, and is therefore not “productive” labour. On his own world, where there are no women and therefore where parenting is handled exclusively by men, that labour is recognised as such. This fit in beautifully with what feminist economists like Nancy Folbre argue.

                  I loved Bujold’s vision of human adaptability. While North American culture still disproportionately offloads the labour of parenting onto women, and while so many will straight-facedly argue that it is simply a matter of biology, Bujold presents us with an all-male society where men – absent any other choices – simply step up and become parents. Some, like the main character, Ethan, go well beyond that to be downright nurturing. From the very beginning, Ethan is preoccupied with babies. His whole career is devoted to their creation, his long term goal throughout the novel is to have children of his own, and it is the threat to babies that incites his actions again and again.

                  The same is the case for Bujold’s concept of sexuality. Absent choices, many people will content themselves with homosexuality regardless of what they would choose if choices were available – as we see in gender-segregated environments like prisons and the military. History has many examples of societies with different conceptions of sexuality – Ancient Greece being the most well-known example. And, of course, Bujold allows for those individuals whose sexuality is less flexible, which on Athos would mean the celibate orders. It’s a vision of sexual fluidity that doesn’t get mentioned much in a culture where homosexuality is always on the defensive.

                  I’ve been hoping for a glimpse of the Quaddies ever since Falling Free. Now, I guess I’ll be hoping to see what the future holds for Athos.

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                    Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam [Neither Eve Nor Adam] by Amélie Nothomb

                    Read: 18 January, 2018

                    I really enjoyed the author’s Stupeur et tremblement, which is set in the same time period of her life. While that explores her time working in Japan, this book is about her time off, when she is dating a Japanese man named Rinri.

                    Typical for the author, the book is quite funny and insightful. It was especially amusing to read about a woman’s adventures trying to relearn her childhood language (in this case Japanese) while I, myself, was doing the same (in this case French).

                    And language plays a huge part in the story. Several pivotal plot moments involve linguistic misunderstandings between Amélie and Rinri, and a lot of the humour has to do with bilingual puns (not to mention the cultural differences).

                    As with all of Nothomb’s books that I’ve read so far, I really enjoyed this!