On pronouns

My pronouns are he/him/his. This should not come as a surprise to anyone as I suspect my identity as a cis male is fairly obvious, at least to anyone who notices the traditionally male name affixed to the site, and certainly to anyone who has ever seen me in person. There was a time when my hair was long, curly, and glorious, and I was addressed as “ma’am” once or twice in public in my college years only to have the person hastily correct themselves upon seeing what the front of my head looks like.

To be clear, I think normalizing making your pronouns explicit even if you’re cisgendered is a good thing. At least two of my online profiles (Twitter and TikTok) contain them, and I do my best to call people what they want me to call them. There have been times where I’ve had to discreetly inquire of a third party what someone’s pronouns were, and I’ve had students recently who either wanted to be they/them or were out as trans, at least in my classroom. Those types of kids are the exact reason I do stuff like this. I feel like it’s the right thing to do.

I’m not going to review Dr. Meera Shah’s You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion, or at least not beyond this paragraph, and the reason is that you already know everything you need to know about the book from the title, including whether you want to read it. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s also not really surprising in any way.

Well, okay, the way it handles pronouns is kinda strange, and I wanted to talk about that a little bit. Now, this is a book about abortion, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the subjects of nearly every chapter are people who can get pregnant, and nearly all of those are cisgendered women. One chapter focuses on a cis man, whose name is Mateo, and that chapter focuses on the effect that abortion can have on the partners of the people who get abortions. One subject identifies as genderqueer and is they/them.

Every single chapter is titled with the name of the main subject of the chapter, with their pronouns, italicized, in a smaller font, and in parentheses, below the person’s name, along with the word “Pronouns”. So, like this:

BEATRICE

(Pronouns: She/her/hers)

Also, when other individuals are introduced throughout the text, their pronouns are also provided immediately after their name is first used– but oddly inconsistently, as it’s not used for everyone. (I swear that Dr. Shah directly addresses her rationale for this at some point in the book, but I can’t find it, and it doesn’t appear to be in the introduction, which is the most obvious place.)

At any rate, that’s what triggered the post: because for some reason this became distracting as hell over the course of the book, and I wanted to kind of talk it out and see if anybody pushed back at me. Putting your pronouns on a profile (or, as I did at a con once, on a sticker that you’re wearing) has the advantage of letting strangers know how to refer to you. Again, sometimes it’s more obvious than others– no one is going to look at me and call me “she” unless explicitly told to– but I get why it’s a thing and I participate in it.

This book does things like this:

When I spoke to Dr. Hoobity (Pronouns: she/her/hers), she told me that…

Not a direct quote, but stuff like that happens all the time– an explicit listing of the person’s personal pronouns, annoyingly including the word “pronouns,” immediately followed by a use of one of those pronouns. That risk of confusion or causing inadvertent offense just isn’t present when you’re writing about someone, because you’re going to use pronouns all the time. It’s hard to write about people without using pronouns, and in a book that is about people who can get pregnant it becomes even more ridiculous because nearly everyone identifies as she/her. Even the genderqueer person’s pronouns are explicit nearly immediately; the first use of singular they made it clear very quickly, and they talked about being genderqueer in the chapter. I was fully expecting (and would have been interested to read) a chapter at some point about a trans male’s experience with pregnancy and abortion, but it never happened. The one chapter about a person identifying as male is Mateo’s, and he’s cis, and his chapter is basically about cis men.

It didn’t ruin the book or anything like that, don’t get me wrong, but it was distracting enough that, well, I wrote the post about pronouns instead of about the actual book. Am I off-base here, or do other people feel like this would be distracting for them as well?

#REVIEW: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

I am a big fan of Rebecca Roanhorse. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, was the second-best book I read in 2018 and the follow-up to that, A Storm of Locusts, didn’t blow me away quite as much it was still on the Honorable mention list for next year.

Her novel Black Sun, which just came out last week, is the only thing so far in 2020 seriously competing with Scarlet Odyssey for my favorite book of the year. This is the first book of a new trilogy and not part of the Sixth World series, so it’s unrelated to her previous books. (She has also written a Star Wars novel and a YA book, neither of which I have read yet. I will probably get around to the YA book eventually but I have kind of soured on Star Wars novels at the moment.)

(EDIT: Since I wrote those two paragraphs, I’ve spent half an hour helping a now-college-aged former student with her stats homework, which meant I needed to quickly reteach myself the relevant material, and had a lengthy conversation with my brother regarding a wide variety of topics, none of which I really care to get into. Also, another former student died today and my head is suddenly not in this any longer. This book is good. It is second-world Mesoamerica in the same way that, say, Game of Thrones is second-world Europe, and that in and of itself is a reason to read it because there just isn’t enough of that on the shelf. And I like this more than her previous work because in general I prefer second-world fantasy to urban fantasy, even when the urban fantasy is rural fantasy, and I’m a big fan of good worldbuilding, and once again I want to know everything about this world she’s set up. But this post was going to be longer before my brain fell apart, and it is well and truly fallen right now. Go read, plz. Kthxbai.)

Read This: TERRA NULLIUS, by Claire G. Coleman

I ordered Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius damn near at random, when I realized that I’d spent all year reading books by women of color and hadn’t managed to find one from Australia yet. A quick Google search for Aboriginal authors and fifteen bucks later and this was on its way. And this book is another great example of why I do stuff like this– if I wasn’t specifically looking for a book by someone like Claire Coleman, I don’t know how this would have crossed my radar otherwise, and I’m damn glad I read it.

You may have noticed that this post isn’t called a “review,” which is usually the way I title– hashtagged, even– most of my posts about books I’ve read. I’m doing that for a reason: I went into this book about as blind as I possibly could have, and as a result certain events in the text absolutely floored me; this is one of those books where you think you’re reading one thing and then pow bang what suddenly you’re reading something completely different and you have to reevaluate everything you’ve read in light of your new knowledge. And therefore my approach to telling people about this book is as follows: most of y’all have been around for a minute, and whether you agree with me or not, if you’re a book person and you follow my blog you probably have a pretty damn good idea how well my taste aligns with yours by now.

Well … trust me on this one. I’m not telling you a damn thing other than that you will enjoy the time you spend with this book. If my word on books has been useful to you in the past, listen to me on this one. I’m not quite in “if you buy this on my say-so and don’t like the book, I’ll send you your money back” territory, but I’m closer than you might think.

#REVIEW: Each of Us a Desert, by Mark Oshiro

Mark Oshiro’s name has been coming up a lot around here recently– they read The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1 on YouTube, which was immensely fun for me to watch, and I reviewed their debut novel Anger is a Gift back in September. Reading Anger is a Gift got me to order their second novel, Each of Us a Desert, which I finished last night.

I loved Anger. Loved it. And I’m kind of fascinated by my reaction to Desert, because while I didn’t enjoy reading it to the degree that I did Anger, I think it’s objectively a better book, and it’s definitely more interesting to me as an author than Anger was, because, especially for someone who hasn’t written any fantasy novels before, Oshiro does a magnificent job of slapping the genre around, and from a craft standpoint this book is a marvel.

Each of Us a Desert is second-world fantasy set in what is basically an analogue of Mexico, and let’s get this part out of the way early: there is a lot of Spanish in this book. It’s mostly single nouns and verbs, so if you don’t speak any Spanish you can pick up a lot from context, and there aren’t a whole lot of entire sentences and phrases, but it’s going to be a much harder read for someone with no Spanish than it was for me. (I can get by, if necessary. I had a student who barely spoke any English in my class last year and most of the time I spoke to her in Spanish, with Google Translate next to me as an aid when needed.)

There is a whole conversation to be had about how using multiple real languages in fantasy literature works, by the way. I’m not going to have it in this post, but I spent a lot of time while I was reading thinking about the technical side of things; when you decide as an author to render a word in Spanish rather than in English, and how much of the editing process was dedicated to, more or less, calibrating the amount of Spanish in the book, or what it means to the characters to use Spanish instead of English. Note that, again, this is second-world fantasy, and the words “Spanish,” “English,” and “Mexico” appear nowhere in the book. There is no indication that any of the characters know they’re flipping from one language to another, which is part of what makes it interesting.

But anyway.

The main character of the book is Xochitl, a young woman who lives in a tiny village in the middle of the desert. Xochitl is a cuentista, which is basically a priestess of the sun god Solís. As a cuentista, her job is to take in the stories of the people around her and then release them back to Solís. If you’re familiar with the concept of the sin eater, this isn’t far off; there is definitely an element of absolution to Xochitl taking a story, of the emotional aspects of the tale at least, and when she releases them back to her god she no longer remembers them afterwards. Until she takes a story from a friend and realizes that her home is in danger, and that she has to choose between doing something about what she knows or doing what she is supposed to do with the story, which is the conflict that sets the book’s story going.

The entire book– the entire book– is structured as one long prayer to Solís. Which is fascinating, and the true importance of which doesn’t really become clear until the last few pages. The book’s ending is perfect, and moved the book into five-star territory for me. (Also, I normally don’t mention the acknowledgements section of books unless they mention me, which has happened once or twice, but please consider the acknowledgements required reading. Trust me.)

Also worth pointing out: the book is absolutely a fantasy, as I’ve already pointed out, and features magic and monsters and such, as you might expect, but it owes less to Tolkien than it does to Lewis Carroll. There’s a lot of wandering through the desert in this book, and the hallucinatory aspects of some of the encounters that the characters have throughout the book are fascinating– you’re often not quite sure if something is really happening or is brought on by dehydration and heat exhaustion, and I’m pretty sure the answer is “both” at least a couple of times.

This is a book you should read, but it’s especially a book you should read if you’re an author, and it’s really especially a book you should read if you work in speculative fiction. My final reaction to it is more of respect than love, I admit; I want to read Anger again because of how great a story it tells, but I want to study this book and pick apart its techniques. Either way, thumbs way up.

REVIEW: The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

Every so often, a book scratches an itch that you didn’t even know was there, and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is such a book. Those of you who have either been around for a minute or know me in the real world are aware that an earlier version of me wanted to be a college professor. I triple majored at IU, in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, which is where I hit a wall when I realized that I liked being in class a hell of a lot more than I liked independent research. But I still have a couple of bookshelves about religion, and along with that is a fair number of volumes about Jewish history.

The Weight of Ink tells two parallel stories about two women scholars, a young, unmarried Jewish woman in the mid-1600s, when women knowing how to read and write much less participate at the highest levels of scholarship was forbidden, and a modern-day scholar of seventeenth-century Judaism, suffering from Parkinson’s and nearing retirement. A cache of documents is found in a seventeenth-century home, and the owner calls his former professor in to look at them, and the book takes off from there. Ester and Helen’s stories are interwoven throughout the book, along with Helen’s assistant Aaron, a postgraduate who she more or less grabs at random because he is able to read the right languages to help her with her research.

Mix in some Shakespeare, some Spinoza, a blind rabbi, the Inquisition, Sabbatai Zevi, and a little bit of fire and plague and you’ve got yourself a hell of a book. I’m making this sound a bit more like a detective novel than I probably should; this is indisputably capital-F Fiction, and may indeed be a litratcher, as (I hope) Hilary Custance Greene described it when she recommended it to me. But … yeah, if you’re going to drag me away from nonfiction and genre fiction, writing a book about seventeenth-century Jewry, making translation a bigger part of the action than one might expect, and making the two modern-day figures scholars is a key with a very specific shape that nonetheless opens one of my locks.

Or something; that may be too overwrought of a figure of speech, I’m not sure. At any rate, while it’s a bit slow-moving, which may not be surprising to those of you who just read the description, and it’s a bit on the dense side– it took me over a week to read, which is really rare for a 560-page book– I loved this book a whole lot. Kadish writes about seventeenth-century London like she lived there, and everything about this really worked for me. I hope to hell it actually was Hilary who recommended I read it, because I can’t find the comment anywhere, but I owe her one.