The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us HumanThe Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I've never read Ramachandran in long form before, and I don't think I ever will again. This stuff is right up my tree – popular neurology – but . . . no. I started having a sinking feeling at "Over the years I have worked with hundreds of patients afflicted, though some feel they are blessed, with a great diversity of unusual and curious neurological disorders." Oh really said my eyebrows, because that could either be a careless turn of phrase, or a blunt dismissal of the social model of disability and the understanding of disability as anything other than a curse. I forged on with an open mind.

Spoilers: it was the second one.

A few of the lowlights: a lot of clinically accurate yet deeply disturbing discussion of autism in which Ramachandran all but questions the place of autistic people in the human race; repeated descriptions of how brave it is for patients to try to remain happy despite their afflictions (I mean, can you imagine actually being happy with a disability!); an endorsement of Cure Autism Now, which I will put in the correct disability politics context by explaining that my hiss and recoil was exactly the same you'd make if you were a lifelong liberal who discovered the person advising you on political facts was an ardent Tea Partier.

So yeah. Really wish I hadn't given him any money.

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Silence (The Queen of the Dead, #1)Silence by Michelle Sagara

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Teenage girl discovers she can see the dead, stuff happens. I liked the way this book walked with grief. Our narrator lost people, naturally, but it wasn't about that in some dramatic, weeping way. And it wasn't about pain. It was about grief, which is an exponentially more complicated beast.

Still, this lost me. Partly it was YA nonsense – leaden bickering, stupid POV tricks, that sort of thing.

I also had this whole train of thought about the autistic best friend, and how I would reserve judgment* on the way he is immune to certain kinds of magic, but how there is something labored about the presentation of disability in this book, like he never gets to be a person, he is always, always, always an autism-delivery-mechanism and we've got to stop to narrate about autism for a while, but, I just don't have it in me tonight, sorry.

* Were I to continue the series, which eh, unlikely.

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Clear WaterClear Water by Amy Lane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Basically I climbed into a psychological hole towards the end of this week and pulled this book in on top of me. For those purposes, it was great. Twenty three year old party boy with ADHD is trying to get his life together when everything goes to hell in one night, and he basically falls into the lap of a biologist studying toxic effects on frogs. There's this half-hearted afterplot about the pollution and an ex and blah blah blah, but honestly 75% of this book is just taking two guys and sticking them in a small space and watching them be ridiculously happy to have found each other, and then watching all their problems get solved. So, you know, aces for my purposes this week.

The thing about Amy Lane, though, is she's so damn committed to her kinks. She takes that whole 'older put together guy' and 'younger flighty struggling guy' thing, and then she brings all the kitten and bunny descriptions for the younger guy, with extra 'fragile' and 'slender' in case you missed the memo on the dynamic here. Which is all well and good for her, and probably for a lot of readers, but personally I like this trope in subversion, not straight-faced. So to speak.

Oh, but I do have to talk about the audiobook. And by "audiobook," let's be clear. I mean podfic. In a good way! This is the sort of production with a fair amount of unfiltered sound in the background, and a narrator who clearly has a lot of feels about this story, and who persistently says "kway" for quay. Basically it made me grin and want to pat them all and call them darlings. And I'm not talking about the characters.

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The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I'm going to one-sentence this book, and you guys are going to make The Face, which I also made, for the record, and then we're going to talk about the ways it's great.

This is a book about Hazel, who Is sixteen and terminally ill, and the boy she meets at support group.

*Pause for The Face*

So it's a book about being young and being sick. And also being in love, but honestly that part was by far the least interesting to me, so we're basically skipping it. Because for me, this was a book about being young and being sick, and it was great. Around the time three disabled characters shared a scene together with no able-bodied characters present, and they sat around and discussed their love lives? Yeah. I was like holy shit, right, because I have read a lot of books, okay, and a lot of books about disabled people, and I have never seen such a thing. Ever.

I'm actually selling this book short by talking about it like that. This book gets at the experience of chronic pain in such casual, tangential, brilliant ways. And it gets the ebb and flow of illness, the way you just have to ride with it. And it is a bold-faced, no fucking around, passionate argument to the world that people with disabilities and people who are dying are still human beings. Which is absolutely something that we need to argue about, because for almost everyone I have ever met, illness or disability puts you in a box marked other in ways conscious but mostly subliminal. This book gets most of those ways – the infantilization, the way people eulogize before and after death, so much of it. And to see a book – and a very popular book – arguing the other way to teenagers, of all people, with conviction and clarity (and a startling lack of treakly bullshit) was pretty amazing for me.

I was far less impressed with this book as a story. One of the other things it's doing is cutting at this notion of disability and illness as metaphor. I don't know how many times I have shouted at a book or the TV about this. Disability isn't a metaphor for moral decay, or the dangers of industrialized society, or, I don't know, the fatal flaw of the human race. And it's not a learning experience, and it's not a gateway to wisdom. It's just disability. It's a thing that happens. It's chance. And as one character puts it in this book, "it's bullshit." I'd modify that to chance bullshit, but yeah, pretty much.

So the book is arguing about how disability isn't a narrative device. It spends a lot of time making fun of 'cancer books' where illness is the gateway to one heartwarming epiphany after another. But then this book turns around and delivers a plot designed to lead the protagonist through a series of epiphanies concerning what she wants out of the rest of her life, how she can make peace with her [parents and the hurt she will leave behind, etc. And it just . . . I didn't need that. And I didn't want it. This book could have been a series of days, it could still even have been a love story, and as long as it kept on about being young and being sick, I would have thought it was great. Everything else felt contrived to me, and particularly in light of the explicit arguments of the book.

Also, is John Green physically capable of writing a book in which no one ever takes a transformative road trip? Because honestly….

So yeah. Basically it's great on the page-by-page level. And I am so so glad this book was written and that it's doing so well. (Though the day a disabled author gets to write a book about disabled characters to international acclaim will be the day I'm truly impressed). And yes, it will make a lot of you cry. And I really did love it, even though his characters are beginning to sound pathologically witty to me after only two books. But I actually would have enjoyed this book more if it had less 'book' in it.

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The Eagle Of The NinthThe Eagle Of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before I picked this book up, I had gathered two points from, respectively, the title and the edges of assorted flailings by my friends: (1) that it was about baseball or something, and (2) that it was about a couple of boys who love each other very, very, very much and who have talks about their innermost feelings and so on.

Turns out, not about baseball! Actually about Romans, which makes a certain amount of sense, since a book about Romans is one of the few things with a decent chance of being more homoerotic than a book about baseball.

Anyway. A lovely, deliberately young sort of adventure about Marcus the newly disabled former centurion and Esca his British tribesman slave and a quest for the lost standard of a lost legion. The whole thing feels like – well, here, have a sentence. “He had seen these rolling woods in their winter bareness dapple like a partridge’s breast, he had seen the first outbreaking of the blackthorn foam, and now the full green flame of spring was running through the forest and the wild cherry trees stood like lit candles along the woodland ways.” The whole thing feels like that: brightly colored, bold strokes, lovely from the right distance. Oh, and the phrase “innermost feelings” actually gets used, not even kidding.

But what I actually liked best about this book was how it played its cards like a straight-talking story of nationalism and loyalty. But how actually all the gears underneath were working for something else. About being who you are wherever the world washes you up, whether that be a Roman deprived of his military life by injury, or tribesman stolen away to slavery and despair and then to something better, or roman soldier left alone in the wilds of tribal Alba with no way home. About choosing your place by the people around you, and living in it. It won't hold up to too close a scrutiny, but I think it wasn't meant to.

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VisibilityVisibility by Boris Starling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Police procedural turned spy thriller in the 1952 Great London Fog. This made the rounds of my disabled friends with general approbation for the blind police diver turned love interest for the protagonist. She is, indeed, lively and independent and smart and fierce, and she is allowed to have a sex life without being killed off! And her regular putdowns of the protagonist’s standard-issue ablism are pretty great.

I wish I could have liked this more, but despite her, I found this intensely tedious. I generally have that reaction to spy nonsense, and I also found this thematic London fog/blindness/visibility/seeing with your eyes versus seeing with your mind thing kind of obvious and tiresome. This also took a few . . . odd psychological turns, and when it was all said and done, I just . . . didn’t get it. Not even enough to know whether someone who digs spy nonsense would dig this.

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Making Promises (Promises, #2)Making Promises by Amy Lane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazingly treacley small town gay romance – he’s a cop, he’s a dancer (not like that). Hit some buttons of mine, missed others, details uninteresting to anyone who isn’t me.

But this book did make me think about the value of romance as a genre. This is a story about two people coming together while one loses his adored mother to slow, wasting disease. And it’s about their friends’s struggle to keep a business alive, and a soldier come home but not the same, and making the best of the baby you didn’t want to have. It’s about *gestures* all the shit that just happens. And because this is a romance, it doesn’t have to mean anything, and we don’t have to, like, have a drum circle about the unbearable lightness of human existence or whatever. It just is. The shit that happens. The way people die and how money is short and sometimes there’s no condom, but you do your best anyway, and at least the company is good. “contemporary fiction” or whatever we’re calling it these days can never reach me like that, because it’s usually trying too damn hard to have a big fucking epiphany. This book was mostly trying to get a couple of guys laid, and somehow it managed to get so much vital stuff of life into every frame.

So okay. I’ll chalk one up for romance. Sometimes, it’s just about the shit that happens to you. And as a person to whom shit happens on a startlingly frequent basis, I appreciate that we don’t have to talk about what it all means.

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Silver on the Tree (The Dark Is Rising, #5)Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And now we have to talk about The Thing. Spoilers abound, for once, because I’ve really just gotta get my teeth straight into this.

Before that, though, the rest of the book. It’s . . . honestly, I’m not crazy about it. I remember that this was never one I reread much as a child. Well, that’s not true – I reread the first third all the time, but I’d stop whenever the magic started coming thick and heavy. There is something so wrenching about Will and his brother by the river, about Stephen caring enough to ask, and his blunted adult incomprehension of Will’s answers, the depth of Will’s loss in that moment. Contrast that to the back half of the book, which is having a quite high-level discussion of the production of art, and it just . . . it’s not like it isn’t a good discussion. Cooper is and was a hell of an artist herself, obviously. I’m just not engaging on that level, after the book opens so viscerally.

All right, enough stalling. The Thing.

As a child, the end of this book was arbitrary and cruel because it directly opposed my main interest in fantasy. Nothing unusual about what I was after – I wanted to read about kids having access to a world bigger than the regimented, difficult, pedestrian one I lived in. I wanted to read about kids being able to open a door into power and wonder. And the end of this book slammed the door in all our faces.

This time, of course, I knew what was coming, and as an adult I can follow the argument Cooper has been having about it all along. Mostly in Greenwitch, much to my adult surprise. And it’s . . . look, it’s not like I agree with her. I don’t, to put it bluntly.

But I do get it now, and I think it’s actually some really difficult territory she’s on. Losing the memory of what has happened isn’t a way to strip everyone of the power they’ve accessed; it’s the only way to open the door to a new power and responsibility. That’s what Merriman says, anyway: “For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children,nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping. And you may not lie idly by expecting the second coming of anyone now because the world is yours, and it is up to you.

It makes me think of my favorite monument, which is in fact a “countermonument.” It’s a monument against violence and fascism, a pillar designed, over time, to sink into the ground and disappear. Eventually, the monument space will be empty because, as the monument itself reads, “in the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”

I love it. It’s a symbol of how collective recovery is a process. We have to remember, but the obtrusion of the memory into the world changes over time – the emotional shadow it casts (literal shadow in this case), its usefulness for the business of living.

Not a perfect analog for the end of this book by a long shot, but thinking about the monument helped me to . . . grow a general respect for the decisions Cooper made. She wrote about the passing of an age, about the ascension of man. No longer caught between the temptations of the dark and the outsider rebuttals of the Light. So yes, casting the Dark out of the world means that the Light, too, must go, and I can see the . . . esthetic sense in which she concluded as a matter of course that they must forget. No one is coming to save us, as Merriman says, and the kinds of power she was writing about – the alien magic of the Light and the complicated ownership man has over the world – could not . . . exist in the same space.

It still deeply offends me on a personal level, on behalf of the Drews. They earned those memories with a lot of courage and striving. Living through it changed them, and to have it all so casually erased is still outrageous to me, a kind of assault. But on the broader thematic level . . . yeah, all right. I get it. I don’t like it. But I get it.

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Nowhere RanchNowhere Ranch by Heidi Cullinan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Snagged because it won a whole bunch of awards last year, and I'm in that mood. Having read it, I'm kind of going "…oh," because apparently a lot of people loved this, I didn't, and that's always a frustrating datapoint when you're dipping a toe into a genre.

I don't actually want to talk about this book qua book much, except to say that a lot of you probably will really like it (ranching, horses, families-of-choice, kinky sex including ponyplay), and also for the subset of you who want to know these things, the narrator has a learning disability and separately is somewhere on the autistic spectrum (or has sensory integration issues at the very least, but whatever, armchair fictional diagnosing) and it is handled unusually deftly.

What I do want to talk about is how it drives me bugfuck when gay romance has a Very Special Episode about homophobia. Homophobia is bad guys, did you know that? Homophobia in these books being almost entirely of the gaybashing, family-destroying, cartoonishly evil sort, and not the creeping, stereotyping, othering, unconscious sort that has a lot more to do with the real lived experiences of most queer people right now. Not like violence isn't a big concern, just. That is a very narrow idea of what homophobia actually is.

And these books. So many of them have to have a big dramatic scene where someone gives a homophobic person the big crushing speech of righteousness. (Very often, this is delivered by a straight person, by the way, as it is in this book). And it pisses me off.

These books are by and large written by straight women who have varying experiences or connection to queer people or any queer community. And there is something so pointless and cheap and manipulative about these ra-ra feel-good anti-homophobia moments. Like 'we're cool! We know homophobia is bad!' While these books so often participate in the more subtle forms of homophobia by writing about queer people as fundamentally different from straight people, or by importing creeping sexist ideas about what it means when someone gets penetrated, or by treating women in general really horribly, or by -- I could go on. At great length.

It's the ripped-from-the-headlines idea of what homophobia is, without any grasp of the whole iceberg under the water. The reason I'm not out at work has nothing to do with being afraid I'll be gaybashed, or even that I won't be promoted, let me just put that out there. It's that I'd rather not be the queer person first and the human being second, thanks not so fucking much. And watching mostly straight people appropriate the awful things that can be done to queer people in order to say "that's bad, everybody!" and feel smug is not my idea of a good time.

Whatever. This book didn't even do most of that (though some of it, it totally did) and if these books never addressed homophobia at all, I'd also be pissed off about that. Just. Arrrrrrgh, in general and specific.

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Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and BirthPast Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and Birth by Anne Finger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely memoir of Finger's pregnancy interspersed with recollections of coming into her political identity as a disabled person. How her political activism worked with and against her personal activism of being a disabled woman having a child.

This book was hugely helpful to me in processing things it has nothing to do with. This book was about Finger's planned home birth, and how it went so terrifyingly wrong, and her son's first six months, and the way she had to reconcile her political beliefs with how she viscerally responded to the possibility that her child would be disabled. And I read it, and I thought about the conversation where my sister was talking in a restrained, wistful way about how she still wasn't pregnant, and how even if she could be, there was a pretty big question about whether she could ever safely carry to term. And without thinking even for a second, without stopping at all, I blurted, "I'll carry for you." And I have wondered in some astonishment ever since, through everything (carrying someone else's baby is not as easy as they made it look on Friends, shockingly), why I said it. Not regretting, just -- why? I'm a self-centered career woman with a hugely draining and important job, and I didn't know it back when we first talked, but I was about to go through a couple years of unrelated low-grade personal hell. Dedicating my body and my time and my hopes and my care for months and months to make another person's dream happen is not something I should have volunteered for like that, in that instant of course way. But there it was.

And this book really helped me figure it out. I won't go into the whole damn thing because really, this box is not that big. And also, this book deserves better than my tangent, because it is rich and interesting and very cool in its own right. It's a little sad how much it isn't dated -- there's a weird bit where Finger comments on how new ultrasonography is as a technology, and is it really safe to use on pregnant women? But then nearly every other political moment in the book was painfully real and true. Like when she stood up at an abortion rights meeting and said, "yes, I am with you, I support this cause, but don't you think the way this movement talks about how important it is to abort fetuses with disabilities is really problematic?" And the viciousness and hostility she was met with….yeah. There's nothing dated about that.

Anyway. I highly recommend to many of the mothers of my acquaintance who have thought about their ownership of their bodies in relation to motherhood, or who have considered motherhood to be a political act for whatever reason, or who have looked at their baby and thought, what if you are disabled?

Random pull quotes that helped me in my thinking:

"But I think too that we do our best work politically when we do the work that really tears at us."

"People who aren't disabled never seem less than human to me. But they sometimes seem to be missing a dimension, glib and easy, skimmers over the surface of life, not quite as real."

When I was pregnant I used to get so sick of people saying, "you won't care if it's a boy or a girl, as long as it's healthy." So sick of the assumption that health was all that mattered. But I sometimes used to say, "I don't care if it's healthy or not as long as it's a girl." It's not a joke I would make again.

Health, physical well-being does matter. It's my own internalized oppression that makes me fear having a disabled child, but it's not just that. It's the knowledge that being non-disabled is easier than being disabled. … But to admit that disability and illness are hard doesn't mean that they are wholly negative experiences, meaningless.

I had a child because I wanted something perfect to come out of me. I got just the opposite of what I thought I wanted. I don't believe in God or any version of God, any hand of fate or karma that was out to teach me a lesson. But my child's potential disability did teach me that I don't own my child, he's not an extension of me, not there to reflect me, not there to heal my past.

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The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Epic fantasy of the gritty new millennium anti-hero type. Pretty underwhelming after all the rave reviews. Look, I liked the prisoner-of-war turned state torturer as much as the next girl (that's quite a lot, actually), but if I hadn't already read Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, I'd be making some uncertainly dubious faces about his portrayal and treatment of female characters right about now. And all that interesting, complicated work he did with the torturer's disability and rage and trauma and general twisted awesomeness? Yeah, I give that a lot less weight in a book that also includes some seventh-grade humor on the 'it's funny when people with speech problems talk' level. No seriously. Apparently, when people who have had their tongues severely damaged or removed say things, particularly menacing things, it's hilarious! One wonders what comedy gold Abercrombie would attempt with a dwarf trying to reach something on a top shelf, or a paraplegiac crawling up a flight of stairs. I snapped 'oh, fuck you' at that point, and the whole thing felt pretty sour after, knowing that sort of thing could be in the offing again at any moment. And confusing, because he is so obviously better than something like that.

I'm invested enough in the torturer to keep going. (Wow. Never said that before). But this was not at all the awesome groundbreaking fantasy I was led to expect.

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The Grey King (The Dark Is Rising, #4)The Grey King by Susan Cooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The really upsetting one. I'd been calling it that in my head all along, but I didn't realize I didn't actually remember why. It turns out this upset me so much as a child that I literally blanked out the relevant details; I remembered about two pages before it happened, in the same horrible swooping lurch that Will experiences as he realizes something bad is about to happen. Animal harm, man, that shit fucks you up. /profound.

Anyway. I found this intensely interesting. It follows on very well from Greenwitch, like the next sentence in an argument. Which is how a series ought to work, in an ideal world.

My understanding of this book is filtered through two contrasting scenes. One is Will and Bran questing for the harp, coming before the three hooded powers and answering the riddles set them. There's something so constrained about that scene, so bloodless and controlled with the representatives of the polls of magic fulfilling their assigned roles. As a child, I found it hugely confusing that Merriman is one of the hooded figures; he's on their side, so why does he make them go through the song and dance? Because he has to, because the scripted magic prophecy says he must, and he is an Old One, so he does. (BTW, if anyone would care to educate me on what significance the three riddles have, I'd love to hear it. Their content, I mean -- they have always been entirely puzzling to me, and I did not stop to Google this time like I meant to).

Contrast that with the other scene of riddles asked and answered: Bran screaming at his father in the hut on the hillside, demanding to know who he is and where he came from. The complete opposite of bloodless and constrained. This book is like that -- the magic has that stilted, staged feel of predestiny, while the parallel human story is messy and wildly alive. The Grey King might roll out his menacing fog, and I'll grant you he's creepy. But the most profound, awful evil in this book for my money is purely human. And for all Will is the questing hero, the greatest kindness and bravery aren't his. They're John Rowlands's, and Bran's, and most profoundly, Bran's father's.

It all really works. See John Rowlands talking to Will about the coldness of the Light. This book really digs into what we've only seen in glimpses before about how the Light is fighting for mankind while being profoundly outside it. Try and picture Will screaming at anybody, demanding the secrets of his history. Doesn't work, does it?

Humanity has a range, a resonance in the book that the people of power just don't. Will's most profound moments for me come early, when he is still amnesiac and in a fundamental way, not himself, just a boy. Will gets his memory back and instantly steps out of the center of the emotional arc, which belongs almost entirely to Bran and his connections.

Which is another thing -- why the hell is Bran albino? I've always wondered, and I figured an answer would come to me on this reread, but nope. There's the obvious -- Cooper is using physical disability as a marker of strangeness. Bran's appearance works that way in the narrative -- it's code for a different level of strangeness, of out-of-placeness. But is that all? It's implied very very fleetingly in the next book that Herne the Hunter is actually an incarnation of Arthur, and that's where Bran gets his looks -- really not sure what to make of that.

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Mexican Heat (Crimes & Cocktails, #1)Mexican Heat by Laura Baumbach

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

We interrupt this flow of childhood nostalgia rereads to bring you some gay porn -- excuse me, "manlove."

This is the one about the two undercover LEO's in a mob war and one of them calls the other -- I swear to God, I am not kidding about this -- gatito and there's lots of sexual dominance and tragedy and eventually some really dubious disability content. There is an exponentially higher component of batshittery than I usually expect out of Josh Lanyon, but you know, for that long stretch from 2 to 5 a.m. when there's just absolutely no way I'm getting to sleep, I was really down with that. In the light of day . . . yikes.

The thing with the limes and the net bags? That wasn't sexy, not even at 4:30 in the morning.

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Raising Stony MayhallRaising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bravo. This is the zombie book I didn't know I wanted. It's a grim, slyly funny, philosophical story about a zombie baby found beside the road in alternate history 1968 Iowa, and the women who risk their lives to raise him (raising, get it? No really, I swear, it's actually very cleverly funny). This is a book that draws its political horror in broad dashes, but does its interpersonal work in tight, minute, precise gestures. It's thinking about zombie fiction, but not in that irritating way where it's all did you know none of this makes any scientific sense? But instead in that zombies are a way to think about embodiment, and the persistence and unholy power of consciousness. You can read it as kind of about disability if you want to, but I think that's a little too narrow a lens. Really it's about the mystery of being alive in inexplicable flesh. And that's pretty universal.

It made me laugh a lot, and facepalm, and then, eventually, want to hold someone's hand for a while. There are so many perfect small touches, like how zombies are asexual (but in our protagonist's case, not a-romantic), and how everyone knew the world was going to end, the only question was when. But the big picture emotional push of the book was so good, I really don't need to pick it apart.

And now I really want to know what this Daryl Gregory fellow is going to come out with next.

Highly recommended.

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Mind Games (The Disillusionists Trilogy, #1)Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a 'don't think about it too hard' book. It's urban fantasy with this comic book aesthetic -- the made-up American place is called Midcity, the people with powers are all drawn with this superpowers vibe instead of a magic vibe, if you know what I mean. Oh, and the plot is about a gang of people with mental illnesses who have the power to channel their symptoms into criminals that the law can't touch.

It's pretty good, actually; it's quick, smarter than it should be, and occasionally very funny. And it has that x-factor. Something a little more than 'things I like' and closer to 'things I like that are shaped like something a lot of you guys will also like.'

Except. You cannot think about it too hard. This book is premised on the notion that people are like computers, and you can "reboot" a bad one by giving him a few high dose infusions of psychological disabilities. …Yeah. Because that's how criminality works. And don't even get me started on the -- ug. Disability turned up to eleven reforming people. Gag me. It's a fragment of a bigger poisonous idea about how disability=suffering=better people; it is simplistic and pervasive and it has hurt countless people very badly. This book isn't about that, per se, but you can see the path from there to here.

Like I said: do not think about it. You really can't. Just read it and nod and go "yeah, okay."

So really like a comic book, then.

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The Baby Challenge: A Handbook on Pregnancy for Women With a Physical DisabilityThe Baby Challenge: A Handbook on Pregnancy for Women With a Physical Disability by Mukti Jain Campion

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Points for existing, I guess? This is, as far as I can tell, the first book of its kind, and I haven't yet found another that purports to talk candidly and positively about pregnancy and delivery from a general disability perspective, and then specifically for a whole stack of physical disabilities (I read the blindness and epilepsy chapters).

Unfortunately, all the information on medical practices and services is specific to the NHS in the late 80's. And the particular disability chapters supply the sort of rudimentary information I fervently hope any woman with a disability already knows about her diagnosis and her body.

And, I just, look, I realize there are lots of people out there who consciously or unconsciously believe it is harmful for a child to have a disabled parent. Not, like, genetically, but like having a disabled person as a role model and a teacher and a guardian is psychologically harmful.* But do we have to indulge these assholes? Can't we just carry on under the assumption that they're full of crap and hope they'll catch up, instead of actually engaging with this shit and giving them these anecdotes about how "no really, we're a perfectly healthy family, my children loved me anyway?"" Sometimes ablism is so fucking stupid, it should not be given the dignity of acknowledgement, you know?

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Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern ArtProvenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh yeah, the White Collar writers totally read this and went “yeah, let’s do that! Only sexier and without the mental illness.”

It’s a compelling story of con artistry and, glancingly, of the art world where “real” doesn’t mean nearly as much as everyone says it does. But mostly I was too distracted by the style. This is what happens when a particular breed of reporters write nonfiction, every single time, I swear. They are so focused on hiding the ball, on digesting all of their research into appropriately textured lumps for mass consumption, that they end up producing something that reads more like a novel. I don’t know where they got a single bit of this information. Not specifically, I mean – I have a vague idea who they interviewed and what they read, but they really don’t want me to know where they got what, or how reliable any given piece of information was, or really that any interviewing or information-gathering happened at all. They want me to swallow this down whole with no analysis from me, thank you very much.

I might appreciate that on a Monday morning in the WSJ, but I really don’t in my nonfiction books.

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Bleeding Violet Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to wait a while to review this, because otherwise I would have snarled my way through a glowing review powered on my sheer fucking outrage over the crap people say about this book. Did you guys know that sixteen-year-old girls who are confident and sexually active are sluts? Oh, and people with mental illness should not be the protagonists of young adult fiction because it’s “upsetting”? That’s right, being exposed to people with disabilities is really unpleasant, and it shouldn’t happen to unsuspecting normals, particularly those delicate young impressionable ones!

…Hang on, where have I heard this before? It’s on the tip of my tongue… Oh! Right! I remember now!


So, um, the actual book. Okay. Some of you who consider yourselves outsiders looking into the fantasy genre will really dig this one. It’s this twisty, hallucinatory fantasy-horror about a teenaged girl with Bipolar Disorder moving to a town full of doors, and all the things that come through those doors. It’s about how her bendy, elastic mind clicks right into this place, and how all the splashy horror set pieces have that psychologically dense feeling you get from good horror, where the creepy floaty tentacle monster is an outgrowth of the emotional arc as much as the plot arc. Hmm. I think I could compress all of that into the word “visceral,” and mean the same thing. This book felt like an ocean surface to me, with that intense awareness of sharks moving invisibly underneath.

Anyway, it’s cool, and weird, and disturbing, and hypnotic. And it’s about a sexually active bi-racial teenaged girl with a mental illness and it’s not stupid about any of that. But I think my mind is too orderly, my desire for internal fantasy rules too strong, because I didn’t love it. So I’m not raving about it, even though I was tempted to as a generalized fuck you to a few people out there.

But some of you guys? You will totally dig this.

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Probability Moon (Probability, Book 1)Probability Moon by Nancy Kress

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s weird, considering how much scifi I read, that I don’t actually like aliens much. We get into someone’s made-up extra-terrestrial culture, I glaze over. And alien point-of-view chapters, oh man. Pretty close to a death knell. A lot of people use the same stupid author tricks on aliens that they do on minorities – ‘here are my aliens! They are all monolithically the same!’ ‘Here are my aliens! Their function is to make you review this book and say how it made you think deeply about humanity!’ ‘Here are my aliens! They’re here because I think stuntwriting is just so fucking cool and I want to spend three hundred pages referring to everything in the neutral gender! Suck it!’ “Here are my aliens! They turn me on!’

These aliens, though, these aliens were pretty cool. She pulls off the ‘there is only one major difference between this race and humanity’ thing, and it actually works. The difference is that this is a neurobiological monoculture. There is a biological mechanism preventing intergroup discord because it requires concurrent understanding of what is ‘true.’ So they can’t war with each other, oh, and they also slaughter their analogs for the mentally disabled, those who don’t have the accordance mechanism and who can’t participate in shared society.

It should be didactic and heavy-handed, but it really isn’t. There’s no glory here, or vilification. Just a culture, and how it works. This is one of those books about an anthropological expedition with, oops, military motives, and that sort of thing usually bores me, but this one had something extra to it. It’s thinking about normative understandings, and how they work, and what happens when someone’s mind goes howling off at a perpendicular. And I’m not 100% sure I’m cool with a particular plot point involving a mentally ill character, but it’s been a few weeks and I’m still thinking about it, so that’s something right there.

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One Was a Soldier (Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #7)One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m going to do this series a disservice and just babble on here at the current stopping point, instead of talking about each book individually. Even though the individual books are trying a lot of different and interesting things with structure, usually successfully.

I read these in one sustained gulp through a work slump and summer insomnia. And I kept thinking confusedly “but I don’t like this sort of thing!” as I lunged desperately for the next book.

“This sort of thing” being improbable series mystery with manufactured tension of the criminal and sexual sort and no soul. And I’m right, I don’t like that sort of thing.

This is something else entirely. It’s contemporary fiction about two people who discover, beneath their age difference and the part where she’s a priest and he’s an atheist and their differing politics, that they are . . . you know. The big cheese. “The other half of me.” Except he’s married. And how they deal with that, while trying so hard to be ethical because that’s who they are, not just because they’re supposed to behave a certain way. And how they try to hold on to the amazing thing they’ve found. And how they fail. And how they deal.

And spreading out from them, it’s about their entire town – her church and his police force – about a dozen marriages, and griefs, and mistakes, and how everyone is connected to everyone else, and just . . . stuff.

She has a tendency to lean towards “issue” books. This most recent book is about returning Iraq veterans, and there’s a bit of ‘and your issue is drug addiction, and your issue is anger management, and your issue is your newly acquired disability.’ Except it’s also a book about help. About someone who has to this point been defined by what she most often says, “how can I help?” And how hard it is for her to be able to say, “now I need.” Simple stuff, prettily but simply written, and yet. Apparently I like this sort of thing.

Oh, and there’s a murder mystery in each one but you know. Whatever.

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April 2014

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