The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Racism is bad for everyone. This seems like the sort of anodyne statement most people you’d be at all willing to talk to would agree with. And McGhee–an American Black political strategist–wants to be clear that she doesn’t want to re-center discussion yet again on White America–that problems that affect people of color are worth handling in and of themselves.

Buuuuut. This book seems to come from her frustration with a zero-sum game mindset. (I agree with her, the zero-sum game mindset is pretty terrible.) And the more research she did, the more she had gigantic stacks of facts, figures, and personal stories that indicated that–really, truly, here’s the math–racism makes the entire system worse for white people as well as for people of color. Is that the only reason, or even the main reason, to oppose racism? Hell no, and McGhee would be the first to tell us it isn’t. But there’s a big difference between “I know this is great for you, but it’s bad for other people so you shouldn’t support it” and “This is terrible for everybody,” and it’s worth recognizing that difference.

Which McGhee does, in detail. Even if you think that you’re a reasonably historically and politically educated person who is committed to anti-racism, some of the stats here may well surprise you. When I was first reading this book, I kept thinking, this is good, but will anyone who actually needs convincing pick it up? But I think the main part of the point for a book like this one is to make racists say, “Well, crap! I am screwing up my life by being racist! I should stop that!” but rather to strengthen the arguments of people who already have the general concept but can benefit from the details. I learned things here, and I’m glad I did. I think you will too.

Books read, late January

Tola Rotimi Abraham, Black Sunday. This is a beautifully written Nigerian family novel, tracing the lives of a group of siblings from earliest childhood well into their adult years. The things that happen to the family in question spiral significantly downward to the end, so it is not a pick-me-up sort of cheerful book, but it’s extremely good at what it’s doing.

Michael J. DeLuca, Cecile Cristofari, Leah Bobet, et al, eds., Reckoning Issue 5. Kindle. I enjoy every year’s issue of this speculative/environmental journal, but each one in a slightly different way, I think possibly because of the rotating cast of guest editors. The poetry selections were particularly strong this time around, with stand-out poems from Julia da Silva, Catherine Rockwood, and Jennifer Mace.

Melissa Faliveno, Tomboyland. A collection of essays that…hmm, I need a new term. Because I do not identify with Melissa Faliveno here, I neighbor with her. I see her in these essays, she is someone who is unlike me in a lot of ways but whose perspective I find familiar in the sense of, oh yes, here is someone unlike me who is very like a lot of people I like to be around. I wouldn’t say that it’s because these essays are necessarily warm and friendly! There’s a lot of dark content here (well handled). But for me, her musings about gender and sexuality and pain and Wisconsin are a very congenial kind of completely-not-me. If that makes sense. (Those of you who have experience with sexual harassment in the SF field…Melissa Faliveno is from Wisconsin, and there’s a thing in here…well. Be braced for some very specific familiarity that is not named, and yet: if you know, you know. I was startled to come upon that here, and would like others in my position to be more braced for it. In a good way, definitely still worth reading! But. Oof, solidarity, Faliveno.)

Kendra Fortmeyer, Hole in the Middle. I find that there’s a sweet spot in somewhat-surreal speculative fiction, between explaining too little to be coherent and explaining too much to make sense. While the emotional core of this book rings true, the handling of the speculative elements was overexplained for my tastes–the technobabble really, really did not work scientifically, and it would have been fine if Fortmeyer had just let the speculative elements be symbolic instead. Ah well.

Isabel Ibanez, Written in Starlight. A follow-up to Woven in Moonlight, exploring more of that world and those characters. The ending was the strongest part, in my opinion–I really would like to spend more time in this world, but the middle suffered a bit from not being as strongly conceived as the first volume.

Robert P. Jones, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Jones is himself a Southern white Christian, so on the one hand, do not let his be the only voice you encounter on this topic, and on the other hand, he knows whereof he speaks and is attempting to grapple very honestly with cultural elements he encountered, took for granted, and in some cases participated in. He also runs a religion-focused polling institute and does a lot of stats on this issue, so if you want hard numbers for some of the things you might suspect on this topic, Jones is there with the data.

R. A. Lafferty, The Best of R. A. Lafferty. Discussed elsewhere.

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Parker is extremely thoughtful, and encourages her readers to be extremely thoughtful, about the purpose and structure of various parties, meetings, and get-togethers. I feel that a lot of people who run conventions and gaming groups could benefit from reading this book. She is relying on good faith participation from both planners and guests, and in some ways I think that’s a missed opportunity for one of the most important topics, which is how to deal with people who are not acting in good faith in a social and/or professional gathering. But this is valuable for what is discussed, more than it’s frustrating for what isn’t.

Neil Price, ed., The Archaeology of Shamanism. I would love to read a magisterial work by Neil Price with this title, but this is instead a collection of papers edited by Neil Price. Still interesting, world-spanning and considered about shamanism in various places, but be aware going in that it will not be the kind of large work Price has done on shamanism in the Norden in the Viking Age. Maybe someday.

Eva Saulitis, Into the Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas. This has a satisfying amount of orcas per unit memoir. I wanted to read about orcas for my grandfather’s birthday, and this was an interesting contemporary book about studying orcas and all the feelings that come with dealing with their current habitat situation.

V. E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. A really interesting take on the deal-with-the-devil story, with a particularly satisfying ending. The parts that are and are not spelled out early on, that unfold to the reader’s eye…well, it’s a fun balance, I can see why this is popular enough to be hard to get.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies. Discussed elsewhere.

Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy. Short, snappy story about an American spy in Africa grappling with the interpersonal and international system that brought her to this point. Definitely interested in whatever Wilkinson does next.

G. Willow Wilson et al, Ms. Marvel: Teenage Wasteland and Ms. Marvel: Time and Again. Apparently the end of G. Willow Wilson’s run on Ms. Marvel, and I had good fun with it–it had a lot of the elements that I have enjoyed about the previous volumes, with enough new elements to keep things fresh.

Terri Windling, The Wood Wife. Discussed elsewhere.

F. C. Yee, The Rise of Kyoshi. Usually when an author whose work I have enjoyed gets a gig writing media tie-ins, I’m happy for them and sad for me (money! exposure!…time away from projects I will be more interested in!). But in this case the story of Avatar Kyoshi seemed far enough removed from the main arc of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: Legend of Korra that I thought it would be worth a try. I was right: the temporal distance gave Yee the room to do very different things with the world and characters without contradicting the show’s canon. This was delightful, and I will be happy to read the sequel. (…and also will still hope for more of Yee’s own original work soon.)

R.A. Lafferty, The Best of R.A. Lafferty

Review copy provided by the publisher. Edited by Jonathan Strahan, with so many other contributors beyond Lafferty himself.

I think it’s a cop-out sometimes to say, “Oh, humor is so subjective,” instead of, “This story wherein the protag blows up a young woman for not wanting to date him: I did not find it funny. And then the bit where he builds a robot for beating teenagers into submission to adult dress codes and mores: I did not find that part of this story funny either.” I mean, sure, humor is subjective, but also “Eurema’s Dam” is one of the most mean-spirited pieces of un-funniness I have ever read. And I read a lot of Silver Age purportedly-funny SF, so I have a big data set to draw on.

A “best of” label can be problematic in a case like this, because you end up staring at the stories with sexually precocious seven-year-olds and constant anger at women who inexplicably do not want to sleep with particular men and going, “Well, huh, this is the best? Okay then.”

The structure of this volume is one that seems to assume that anyone who might ever want to read R.A. Lafferty has already read R.A. Lafferty and this volume is just a convenient place to have a lot of their favorites in one place. I say this because not only is there a collection introduction, but there is also an introduction to each story (by divers hands), and sometimes there is another note at the end as well. The latter structure is far less problematic, but at least half of the people writing introductions have written the sort of introduction that tells you exactly what will happen in the story you’re about to read. In most cases they don’t do it any better than R. A. Lafferty, in a few cases they do, and neither is particularly successful. I found myself grateful for the other half of the introduction writers, who talked about their own reactions more and plot summaries less.

And particularly for Kelly Robson, who actually grappled with the story in front of her, writing, “I try to forgive Lafferty the use of troubling racial epithets (should I?) even though they throw me out of the story (in 1978, no, there was no excuse), because he touches my world to his.” Robson is not trying to pretend that enjoying a story means condoning its faults–or even leaving the reader wondering whether she has noticed them, which is worse. Given the opportunity to look into how actual Romany people or various indigenous groups portrayed in these stories might regard them, the editor…didn’t. Opportunity missed.

Did I find any good in this collection, then? Well, some. The phrase “tall tale” kept coming up as a description of Lafferty’s default mode of storytelling, and it’s not a mode you find much in other places. I expect that most people would enjoy this volume more if they took it in little bites than if they read it all at once, and that’s in part because of the prevalence of that particular mode, which is better suited for shorter bursts. I think Lafferty’s strength is in surreal ideas that bend the world a little for the reader, and many of us can use periodic doses of that.

Terri Windling, The Wood Wife

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Terri Windling has crucially shaped the speculative genre over my reading lifetime, editing some of my favorite books and collections. The Wood Wife is her only novel-length adult work to date, and here it is back in a new Tor Essentials edition.

The Wood Wife is full of artists interacting with other artists and their work. It’s also steeped deeply in the desert, saguaros and scrubby trees as seen for the first time by those of us from wetter lands. With the shapeshifters that fill this story, the two intertwine, coyote girls dancing to local music. While there are various romances and families, the central relationship of the book is between two poets who are long-distance friends, who discuss their own and other people’s work in letters but have not, as of the beginning of the book, met in person. And then one of them dies and leaves the other his house, and the tale–from our perspective–is set in motion.

The old letters interspersed with the main narrative address themselves from a fictional poet to real ones, and to artists, agents, gallery owners, editors. Working in the arts is central to this book not just in characterization but in plot. I sometimes get tired of characters who work in the arts in urban fantasy, but 1) only when it’s done without thinking about what that means to them, which in this case it’s not and 2) this is one of the early examples, this is what sparked imitators. It holds up quite well from the perspective of a few decades of the field growing from its roots.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies

Review copy provided by the publisher.

There is a tendency among speculative writers and readers to use “literary fiction” to mean mimetic fiction, to mean “anything that isn’t us or maybe, maybe romance or mystery.” But Noopiming genuinely is a literary work, experimental and varied in its form, swerving from prose frament to poetry as the work requires. It’s very short–I’d estimate about novella length–but so intense that it’s still messing with my head a day later.

Noopiming is about a being called Mashkawaji, who is frozen in ice and experiencing the modern world through a host of other characters, human/tree/caribou/goose. The humanity of some of the characters is fluid, blending into other species and entities, ways of thought and modes of being. This is not genre fantasy but rather a piece about an interconnected multispecies community in Toronto and environs, figuring out ways to be all right, to heal and connect and learn.

It is honestly not like anything else I’ve read, and you know I read a lot. Fascinating, brief, vivid.

Books read, early January

Claire Eliza Bartlett, The Good Girls. Impeccably characterized YA thriller. CW for in-depth, thoughtful discussions of suicide, sexual assault, eating disorders, and more–this is a no-holds-barred journey, everything impeccably well done but may be difficult for some readers.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Oooof, the subtitle is the Content Warning here. This is unleavened terrible, and it is somewhat specialized terrible: Belew doesn’t do a lot with the links to past and current versions of these movements, she is very focused on the era immediately following the Vietnam War up through the early 2000s. Really interesting background on that era and the stories it tells itself, but probably not a good thing if you’re only up for reading one book on this topic.

Susan Berfield, The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism. Berfield makes a compelling case that both Roosevelt and Morgan felt that they should be the hand on the wheel of American capitalism, and that this brought them into considerable conflict. There are many moments where I feel like she wished she was writing biographies of someone else–several Progressive Era figures take her fancy–but there’s plenty out there about the two titular figures, so I didn’t really mind the sidetracks.

Tim Clarkson, Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians and Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. The first of these books was a disappointment. It was focused on Aethelflaed’s time, not her person, not even to the extent that we can know about her personally; Clarkson did not seem to notice that the female half of Early England might exist or be important. It was a very standard southern-England focused history from that period, which is a fine enough thing but not at all what I was looking for. The northerly-focused volume was much better, because I didn’t expect that he would have much to say about anyone but ruling-class men, so I knew going in that I’d get that and get what I could out of it. He’s the author of several more books about this area and period that I may well read, but lordy am I glad that there are other authors who know that farmers and women exist.

Elwin Cotman, Dance on Saturday. What an amazing collection. Weird and lovely and it unfolds in some deeply strange ways, sometimes right up front and sometimes slow burn. “Seven Watsons” was just astonishing. So glad to have read this, looking for his prior work soonest.

Rene Depestre, Hadriana In All My Dreams. This is billed as a classic of Haitian literature, and they got Edwidge Danticat to do the intro to it, in which she refrained from detailing every aspect of the plot, thank you, Edwidge, you are a true hero who understands why people read novels. As for this novel itself, it’s lyrically written and is an interesting demonstration of what actual Haitian people do with zombies thematically as opposed to what (mostly) white people have done with them since. (0% shambling hordes, 100% slavery-related zombies, thematically.) However, be warned: this is a book that has a sex butterfly in it quite a lot. Wow does this butterfly screw a lot of ladies. If you are just not going to be able to even, in the face of a giant sex butterfly, this is not the book for you. Hoo. It’s like the Canlit bear thing but they don’t have bears in Haiti, so I guess you make do.

Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California. Four different sections focus on four different families of tree and their role in the state of California and its self-image and external image and economy and like that. There’s some interesting stuff in here, but the closing line makes me think that Farmer thinks he did a lot better with his case for the native California scrublands than he actually bothered to do.

Rachel Ferguson, The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Kindle. I have been trying to figure out how to talk about this book, because I love it so much, and yet it has one of the best-constructed plot twists I have ever read in my life, and I really want everybody else who reads it to have the chance at the experience of “oh yeah, I see what she’s doing here…OH WOW I DID NOT SEE WHAT SHE WAS DOING HERE” that I had reading it. It starts out both criticizing and accepting its place in the genre of “funny, well-written books about wacky families of sisters” and…expands from there quite a lot. There are things about it that are astonishingly sweet and some that are astonishingly weird, and…wow, yeah. It is from the early 1930s, and there is at least one place where the ambient anti-Semitism of the period shows up in passing in the text, but in general it is not going to smack you with a lot of racist idioms while it’s rattling along doing its thing.

Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread — And Why They Stop. This book came out in 2020, late enough in 2020 to be able to talk about some COVID things and dodge some assumptions that COVID might have invalidated, although Kucharski quite rightly did not refocus the entire book to be about COVID. This book covers social and economic ideas of contagion as well as biological ones. Not more cheerful than you’d expect from the title, but not as bad as it could have been.

Matthew Loux, The Time Museum Vol. 2. A teen adventure comic through space and time. Wacky time loop hijinks, teen relationship hijinks…the jinks in this are extremely high, is what I’m saying. I’m…not that thrilled with the use of Richard Nixon, did not find it particularly thoughtful even in this context. Ah well.

Honor Moore, ed., Poems from the Women’s Movement. This is 1-3 poems by tons of different women, very much political/movement poems for the most part. Some of them are amazing, a lot of them are more the kind of writing that you get when people are new to a space and trying to feel out what can be done in it–expansion work rather than refinement work, which is interesting if you’re studying that but not a good representation of the best work women can do on political topics. Historically very interesting, though.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I’ve Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You. Full of dinosaurs. Full to the brim with puns and dinosaurs. A lot of series work makes me say, “don’t start here,” but go ahead and start here, you’ll pick up everything you need to know about Squirrel Girl and friends. And dinosaurs.

Arden Powell, The Faerie Hounds of York. Really does what it says on the tin. Between the type of magical setting and the type of love story, it sort of sits on a shelf with Emily Tesh’s work–I prefer Emily’s, but this is a fun read too.

Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. This is so great. Lots of stuff about the traditions of shamanism in this place and time, some of the best understanding and integration of Saami material into a book that is primarily but not solely about the adjacent Norse culture. Lots of research notes in here, yum.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. I think a lot of Americans should read this book. A lot of us (including me) were explicitly taught in school that outside the South, segregation in cities was a de facto segregation, not a de jure segregation–enforced by bigoted private individuals and custom rather than by the law of the land. Rothstein lays out chapter and verse of how that is very, very much not the case, and how federal government institutions worsened segregation conditions with explicit policy and in some cases created segregation in formerly integrated neighborhoods. I would love a follow-up volume called The FHA: Holy Crap How Did They Get So Completely Terrible, but this is still really valuable stuff. Especially since it’s the sort of stuff that ordinary citizens can easily live through in their own lifetimes and not know is going on, even as it directly affects them.

Stephen Spotswood, Fortune Favors the Dead. This extremely charming mystery is set in the ’40s and has a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin feel. The elder of the detective pair has relapsing-remitting MS, and the younger used to be a circus hand. They are fun and entertaining, and I want a whole bunch more of their adventures as soon as that can reasonably be arranged.

Lilah Sturges and Polterink, Lumberjanes: True Colors. I have now read enough Lumberjanes to have clear favorites in art style, and Polterink is right up there at the top. This is a beautiful volume with the classic Lumberjanes themes of being yourself with friends who appreciate just that.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 38. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing anything I’m in, and I have a story in this. But I did indeed read it!

Nghi Vo, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. The second novella in its series, storytelling from multiple cultural points of view, one of which is a tiger shapeshifter. So much fun, I want more of this, yay. I particularly liked the mammoth companion.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and Anne-Marie Rogers, Lumberjanes: Mind Over Mettle. Not as pretty or as focused as the previous Lumberjanes of this fortnight, but still good fun when we need just that.

Yi Lei, My Mind Will Grow Like a Tree. Poems from a Chinese woman poet in the 1980s and on. Fascinating to see some of the commonalities, having read a bunch of American women’s poetry of that era, and some of the differences. I’m a little perplexed by the translator wanting things to seem “familiar” to American readers, and I was left wondering which things and what they originally said. But if I was bilingual, this beautiful volume had all the original texts, so I could look and see.

Books read, late December

Chaz Brenchley, Mary Ellen–Craterean! Chapters 5 and 6. Kindle. The Martian boarding school adventure rattles breathlessly on.

Sarwat Chadda, City of the Plague God. Discussed elsewhere.

Roland Enos, The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization. Enos is coming at this from a biomechanical perspective, which is really interesting. He goes into the physical and chemical details of wood’s reactions to various inputs, and also into how humans biomechanically interact with some of them, and there are all sorts of technologies along the way, literally all sorts. He is very much a wood booster, but it’s okay, so am I.

Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms: The World in the Whale. Whales and their ecosystems. Do you like whales? Of course you do, and so do I, and so does Rebecca Giggs. Not everyone she writes about does, be forewarned, but it’s still a lovely book.

A. Kendra Greene, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, and Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. In addition to thoughts about whales, penises, and other Icelandic museum specifics, this very short volume is thoughtful about museums and collections and how and why we do them.

Barbara Hambly, House of the Patriarch. The latest Benjamin January novel takes our hero to the religious revival movements of western New York in the years before the Civil War. The constant awareness of Ben’s peril makes all of these pretty tense, but it’s short and not more tense than you’d expect for that setting. I feel like Hambly choosing to range within the setting available to her is a good thing, overall, even though there’s a lot more she could still do with New Orleans; I feel like it’s part of her trying not to get into too much of a rut with these but to deliberately explore different aspects of the theme and setting.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman, The Thread That Binds the Bones. Reread. This is very much id fiction. “We have to get married right away upon meeting each other! Never mind why! Also we are both amazingly magically gifted and I can instantly sift through your family and sort good from bad and neutralize your bad relatives!” I mean. If you want that, it is very that. Wish fulfillment and all. And sometimes people very much do want that. I didn’t remember quite how much it was that, though.

Kathleen Jamie, The Overhaul. These are beautiful local nature poems and personal poems, and I just love her. More please. (Her “local” is Scotland.)

Helen Jukes, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings. This title sounds like it goes with a very metaphorical, lyrical short story collection full of little lapidary stories that make you gasp. In fact it is about bees. It is a memoir of this author’s beekeeping. And it is very straightforward, it is not particularly lyrical. But if you’d like a person who finds solidity in her life through bees, this is that book.

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Darkest Road. Reread. The last of the Fionavar Tapestry, and I 100% do not recommend reading it without the first two, although I know someone who tried going without the first one. It is high-contrast and mythic and thoroughly itself.

Madeleine L’Engle, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. Reread. Oh, this was terrible. Oh my God it was so terrible. She keeps telling stories of her father and her husband being just terrible and she does not seem to know that they’re terrible. And then she gets to the point where she’s trying to justify her Southern plantation-owning ancestors as somehow seeing their slaves as doing honorable work because they referred to them as servants. Aaaaagh. Like, the story about how her alcoholic father was rude to waiters and this was a sign that he was awesome and her mother just didn’t understand was bad enough, but then when she got into slavery and the parts that she is literally not the person able to forgive these people…aaaaaagh. Oh Madeleine no.

C.S. Malerich, The Factory Witches of Lowell. A lovely novella that is about what the title tells you: labor movement plus witchcraft in the mills, hurrah, this was so much fun, I want more like this.

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children. This is a sequel, and frankly I think you will do much better if you read Bodies of Light first; it actually gives weight to some of the consequences that are playing out in this book. I feel like this is one of the most elliptical books I’ve ever read. So many important, crucial things happen off the page, between scenes, and must be inferred. I also frankly found only one of the two viewpoint characters, Allie, to be interesting. I wanted to care about the lighthouse builder visiting Japan, but I really didn’t. Ah well. Still a topic and type of book I don’t see enough of.

Carla Nappi, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China. An interesting short book that deals with how we know things and how various cultures have approached that and how a shift in it works.