… and by “read”, I mostly mean “listened”. (But also read.)
But first: new additions to Mt. TBR!
(All of the old Over the Edge books are digital rewards from the Kickstarter.)
Carnby Kim, Bastard
This is a Korean webtoon (basically the Korean version of a webcomic, but much better formatted than the usual four-panel Western style) that I originally found out about via this review of Sweet Home, another comic by the same creators.
That review compares Bastard to the Japanese manga Monster, which will probably tell you everything about whether you want to read this or not. Ironically for a comic about serial killers and emotional abuse, I found Bastard a bit… light on? I guess. Most of the initial tension in the first few chapters comes with wondering what, exactly, is going on with the protagonist. When that’s revealed, the plot simplifies and turns almost slice-of-life-esque. Just with, y’know. Murder.
That being said, I did enjoy Bastard and I ripped through it in a day or so. The fact that it looks fantastic—artist Hwang Youngchan absolutely (a har) kills it with creepy facial expressions, and I loved the muted, grainy color palette—certainly didn’t hurt.
April Daniels, Dreadnought
[content warning that this review deals with transphobia and transmisogyny, sexism and misogyny, and briefly touches on some potentially-not-great-handling of intersex conditions]
This is Daniels’s trans superhero debut from a few years back, following Ordinary High School Teen (and closeted trans girl) Danny after she obtains the powers of Superman-expy, the titular Dreadnought. Said powers transform the wielder’s body into an “ideal self” which, in Danny’s case, turns her into… Well. What the narrative explicitly describes as looking like an airbrushed lingerie model.
It’s… A Thing, to read this book as a cis woman. Daniels has explicitly stated she wrote Danny’s experiences based on her own, so there’s no small amount of ownvoices-versus-outsider-critique going on here, but… um, well. I’m just gonna say it:
This book is… it’s kinda… sexist? Like, a lot. It’s a lot sexist.
It’s also super gender essentialist for a narrative that superficially condemns exactly that. Assuming the mantle of Dreadnought, for example, transforms Danny’s body, physically, into that of an intersex individual with both a Y-chromosome and androgen insensitivity syndrome. Which is something the narrative tells us in a scene where Danny is being medically examined, and has a violent freak-out after being informed by the (sympathetic) doctor that she has no uterus and won’t be able to have children. Danny’s lament is the idea that this makes her not a “real woman” which…
Okay. I get what Daniels is going for in this scene from the sense of, “trans girl given seemingly biological female body by Magic™ suddenly being told all her dreams haven’t come true” except, like… First of all, intersex conditions are a Real Thing that Real People have, and using that framing in this particular way in this particular circumstance feels, um… I didn’t love it.1 And second of all, defining womanhood in general as the ability to bear children is kinda, y’know. Super-duper sexist.
It isn’t just this scene; there are multiple instances throughout the book of, for example, Danny feeling emotional highs and lows and attributing this to “estrogen” which, okay. Like, attributing emotional irrationality to women because of “out-of-control hormones” is kinda Textbook Sexism 101, and to see it reproduced uncritically in this context, in a book for teens, is… yikes. Daniels is not trying to portray this negatively—Danny loves her new and expanded emotional life—but to portray it in this way at all would seem to be either erasing or trivializing the entire long, awful history of how this trope and its descendants have been used to oppress women, femmes, and AFAB individuals of all sexes and genders since, like, forever.
The other thing is that the emotional intensification described, which I assume Daniels is taking from her own experiences, is commonly reported in the trans community. Work by Zinnia Jones is probably the most well-known in this space, except her findings aren’t (as far as I’m aware) limited to trans women, thus can’t be linked solely to estrogen. Instead, she attributes the emotional re-connection experienced post or during transition to the alleviation of depressive symptoms (specifically, depersonalization and derealization) associated with gender dysphoria. Or even just the simple relief of being able to realize one’s authentic inner self (given that dysphoria and/or depression are common, but by no means universal, experiences for trans individuals).
So to say this is a complex topic is putting it mildly, but maybe that’s kinda the point; it is a complex topic but the way Daniels handles it in Dreadnought is… not. Danny’s immediate assumptions that her newfound emotionality is because Estrogen is Magic!—while understandable given that Danny is, y’know, a kid who grew up in a less-than-progressive household—are never questioned by the narrative, nor are alternate explanations provided, nor is the deeply sexist nature of the assumption in-and-of itself ever highlighted. In fact, sexism in general is only ever glossed over—Danny’s response to finding out her “ideal” body is based on her uncritical acceptance of the sexist images of womanhood portrayed in advertising is treated with a kind of sorry-not-sorry “tee hee hee”—which is especially glaring given the amount of time the novel spends portraying transphobia. Transphobia in general, and transmisogyny specifically, are I think intrinsically linked to certain manifestations of sexist thought, specifically biological gender essentialism, and trying to decouple them is what gives Dreadnought, and especially its sequel, a weird and awkward handling of both.
There’s certainly an argument here along the lines of, “It’s just a fun book for teens! Not an academic treatise!” which, fine. Except the book itself raises these issues. Relentlessly; transphobia and transmisogyny aren’t just side-issues here, they are the core conflict of the story.2 I don’t even want to say the narrative “handles” either issue so much as it simply portrays them. Transmisogynistic3 talking points are aggressively repeated by multiple characters but never unpacked in any way and, if anything—by using the power of Plot Magic to turn Danny into an intersex individual who, had she been (apologies) born that way, would almost certainly have been AFAB—the narrative serves to reinforce the sorts of bullshit gender essentialist arguments that form the foundation of transphobia in general. And, let’s be clear, the book is under no obligation to singlehandedly dismantle transphobia but, by the same token, the fact that it does present it in the relentless and central way it does means its hard to conceptualize this book as just a “fun superhero book featuring a trans protagonist.”
In other words, tl;dr intersectionality is hard and #ownvoices is by no means a panacea. Which is a shame, because the “fun superhero” parts of Dreadnought are, indeed, fun. But it’s hard to recommend this book on that alone, given the handling of everything else…
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs
Graeber’s novel expands on his essay, mostly with the incorporation of a whole host of fist-hand testimony from people who wrote to him about their own bullshit jobs in the wake of his essay. This is both the book’s strength and its weakness; because while it certainly confirms that, yeah, apparently a lot of people are dissatisfied with their jobs, the self-selected nature of the data (mostly from, it seems, quite low-ranking individuals in large organizations) does occasionally rear the question that, well… maybe, at least in some cases, it is the employee, not the job per se (see also my comments on the original article).
That being said, I still think Graeber’s central premise—that late-stage capitalism has discovered pointless white collar busywork is a great way of keeping the masses politically disengaged—is valid, and I’m also a supporter of (the left-wing version of) UBI, which he tentatively suggests as a policy remediation. So… there’s that.
Overall, Bullshit Jobs was a fun and engaging listen, and definitely recommended to anyone who’s ever felt… guiltily unfulfilled by their middle-class, white-collar drudgework.
Naomi Novik, Uprooted
A weird read for me. I liked the handling of almost every component piece (high magic high fantasy! cool spells! evil body horror woods!) but the whole just… didn’t grab me. Also, maybe I’m just disappointed that the love interest is only called “The Dragon” and is not, in fact, a literal dragon. Drat.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
So after finishing Bullshit Jobs, I decided to finally go listen to an audiobook4 of Karl Marx’s seminal 1885 work, Das Kapital. Except, go figure, the audiobooks for these are like $100 a pop and there are three of them, which is probably in-and-of-itself like Peak Capitalism and also a bit much even for may relatively flexible book budget. Anyway, point being, The Origins of Totalitarianism is what I settled on instead.5
So this is Arendt’s 1951 investigation into, specifically, the mid-20th century totalitarian ideologies of Nazism (in Germany) and Communism (in Russia), tracking their origins through the 18th and 19th centuries up until the Second World War. It is… an extremely dense read, and an even denser listen—the ancient recording, read in a kind of 1950s BBC radio announce accent, didn’t help—and I’d say I absorbed maybe a third of it. It’s worth noting that Arendt’s analysis is very specifically on totalitarianism—as distinct from fascism or communism in general—as any ideology that claims at its core a kind of all-encompassing, highly expansionist worldview, rather than just a state that is particularly repressive.
The first third of Arendt’s analysis is devoted to antisemitism (Arendt was herself Jewish) and as someone who is not Jewish it… is interesting reading. In particular, Arendt talks quite extensively about the historic underpinnings of the whole “Jews run the banks and the media” conspiracy theories which, as it turns out… actually do have roots in fact; prior to the invention of modern banking, Jewish financiers apparently really were involved in bankrolling a lot of European monarchies, for example. It’s not surprising to learn, after reading this chapter, that Arendt’s association with her own Jewishness could be… fraught, and sometimes it feels like the ways she writes about “the Jews” as a kind of single entity is uncomfortably close to the very same antisemitic language she’s trying to discredit.
The second portion of the book, dedicated to colonialism and imperialism, is similarly fraught in the sense that it’s definitely written from a pre-post-colonialist and pre-critical theory standpoint. So even in contexts where Arendt is superficially decrying racism (specifically the kind of “scientific racism” espoused by the Nazis) she still uses extremely exotifying and othering language to describe, say, African peoples. Which makes for some serious “… yikes” moments when consuming this book in 2018.6
None of that, however, is to devalue the overall contribution of the work in general, or to wholesale discard the theories it puts forward, particularly in the last third where it actually gets into the nitty gritty mechanics of how totalitarian regimes work.
And, let’s be real: like everyone else who’s picked this book up in the last two years, I’m pretty obviously interested in it because of Trump. So… good news! If anything The Origins of Totalitarianism have reassured me that, actually… there’s nothing particularly totalitarian about Trump. Authoritarian and fascist, sure. Totalitarian? Nah; he has neither the vision, the audacity, the charisma, nor the ideological drive to pull that off. Except…
There is a lot in the last third of this book that feels… uncomfortably familiar. Just not in the context of Trump, specifically, or even America, specifically. It feels uncomfortably familiar in the context of what We, The Internet joking-but-not-really refer to as “late-stage capitalism”, and it’s no coincidence that the book I started immediately after this one was Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. So… like.
I’ll let you know how that goes.
- Also, as a small spoiler for the sequel, apparently this turns into a Plot Point involving the Obligatory TERFy Villain that… gets… kinda worse?↩
- There probably is a side-issue here about “do members of Marginalized Group X really want to read endless narratives about how their lives suck?” Obviously I’m not qualified to talk about in the context of transness (although it is… A Thing that Dreadnought seems to be more the sort of book cis people describe as being “important” moreso than trans people describe as adoring). On the other hand, I am qualified to talk about it in the contexts of books that portray either, a) rampant sexism/misogyny, and/or b) rampant homophobia/Bury-Your-Gays style angst, in which case I can categorically say those both hit my three-strikes-and-its-out DNF rule. Which is to say, alternate-universe-trans!Alis would almost certainly not have finished this book…↩
- In a related issue, apparently trans men don’t exist at all in the world of Dreadnought…↩
- You can tell I’m in post-manuscript-submission phase, since it’s Audiobook Season.↩
- I love, and I mean love, “boring talking heads” audiobooks. Fiction audio doesn’t work for me. But being lectured at about dull academic polsci treatises? Do want!↩
- Also see the part where Arendt decries all ideologies, or what she refers to as “isms”, as being totalitarian in nature. That would include, for example, feminism or antiracism in the way they’re currently understood. Given that I think Arendt herself could use a good strong does of, at minimum, antiracism, obviously I’m… less than convinced by this conclusion.↩