What I’ve Been Reading, February 2023

Yes! I am still reading! In fact, there is a section on my homepage where you can see what I am reading right now, which I update every month or so, with little snippets of my current impressions of the books.

These three books I’m reviewing here aren’t all that I have been reading, but they’re what I felt like writing about at greater length in the past few months.

I finally finished Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, read by John Lee, which I’ve been listening to off and on since July. It’s a secondary world fantasy set in the enormous, early industrial metropolis of New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is full of all kinds of different hominids, including bug people, cactus people, hand parasite people??? The book’s main trio, at least at the beginning, is the scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, his romantic partner Lin—a bug person artist—and Yagharek. Yagharek is an exiled bird person (these different groups all have actual terms in the book, but I’m just gonna call him a bird person) who has had his wings removed, and he has come to New Crobuzon to see if Isaac can restore to him the power of flight.

The strongest point of the story is the city. It is riotous, expansive, and intensely detailed. Every neighborhood, every little enclave, is a whole world unto itself—just like a real city! There isn’t just The Bug Person Neighborhood, there are actually multiple, which fall into their own hierarchy among each other, with different cultures and different relations to the powerful of the city.

The trouble with the book, and the reason my progress with it slowed down about halfway through, is that the main antagonist basically flattens all this detail. The book switches focus from Isaac’s attempts to help Yagharek fly again, and Lin’s dealings in the sordid art world, and becomes a monster story. A big soul-sucking moth creature from a far away land is loose in the city, and everyone is powerless to stop it. I say it flattens things because this monster has essentially the same relationship with every neighborhood. The differences between the neighborhoods, their cultures, their inhabitants, what type of hominid they are, are all irrelevant. Everyone is equally powerless against this moth. Whereas before, Isaac, a standard human person, has different relationships with all the neighborhoods. Some are totally hostile to him, some he can mingle with easily. In some neighborhoods he doesn’t want to be seen publicly with Lin, in others he is open about his relationship. And likewise, every characters has a different orientation to any given neighborhood.

Like when Lin and Isaac visit a squat of bird people within the city, Isaac unwittingly makes an ass of himself, arrogant and offensive to the locals. Lin, being from an oppressed group herself, can see how abrasive Isaac is being, and tries to get him to leave before he does more damage.

The moth creature flattens this. Our heroes still have to move throughout the city as they try to fight it, and this does occasionally produce some of that sparkling detail and cultural friction which I so enjoyed in the beginning, but its more rare. Two other major characters are introduced, who are also as unique and separate from the city as the moth.

And it’s not that this monster narrative is bad, it’s just such a step down from what was developing before. I mean imagine if in A Song of Ice and Fire, after setting up all these different houses and characters, the second book immediately changed to focus on an invasion of white walkers who sweep across Westeros in indiscriminate carnage. Not bad necessarily, but it’s a waste! This moth story could’ve happened anywhere, it could’ve happened in London or Ankh-Morpork or Gotham.

Nevertheless, it’s a great book overall. Miéville employs a realism that goes beyond some dirt under the fingernails and missing teeth—it’s a realism of attitude, outlook. Most of the characters are subject to powers far beyond their control. The ones that are in power are not evil or righteous—no good kings, no kings at all actually, just an iron-fisted mayor and various apparatuses of violence under his command. Everything’s a little shitty, a little petty, a little casual. You live here. And that realism of attitude, combined with his fantastic, iridescent worldbuilding, is what has me eager to read more of Miéville, and wishing I’d started reading him sooner.

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Goblin Week 2023 and others

Another Twitter tradition I’m migrating over to this blog: I have been participating in Goblin Week for the past 4 years. It is a week where you make a goblin every day. It is at this point the only art thing I do really consistently every year (other than my new year comics.) I used to only post them on Twitter; I will now be posting them here every year. Find below as well my previous Goblin Weeks.

This year I drew bike goblins. You’re welcome.

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New Year Comic 2023

Starting in 2020, I’ve been making a one-page comic at the start of each new year. I’ve only ever posted them on Twitter, but since I’m putting more focus on this website now, you can count on seeing them here every new year. I’m also including the previous 3 comics so you can see those—they do all reference each other.

Also sorry the first one is very scratchy, they do get better.

2020

Transcript

Date: 1 January 2020
1. [Francis asleep in bed.]
2. [Francis wakes up, sitting straight up].
FRANCIS: Ah!
3. FRANCIS [Pointing]: New decade! Let’s go!
4. FRANCIS [Getting out of bed]: The 20’s! We’re gonna halt climate change!
5. FRANCIS [Putting on pants]: 10 years from now we’ll be STAGGERED by the progress made!
6. [FRANCIS, fully dressed, looks out of a window, leaning against it. We view this from outside. Clouds and other buildings reflected on the window.]
FRANCIS: A long future for a young and vigorous human race!

2021

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Public Domain Day 2023: Now With 400% More Artists!

Happy Public Domain Day! This is my sixth year of celebrating Public Domain Day by releasing one of my works to the public domain, and this year I’ve reached out to get some other people involved. So not only are works from 1927 entering the public domain (you can read more about that here), and not only is something by me entering public domain, but also works from Trevor Neil White and I. Riva are now free for anyone to read, share, copy, and modify!

The short story “Feeding Day” by Trevor Neil White is a series of intersecting vignettes set in a world where the two-party system also happens to have a digestive system.

“Barrow Sentinel” by I. Riva is a short story in the style of an oral folk tale—a warning to would-be adventurers and “heroes.”

EDIT: Two more artists have joined in! “Way Down in the Country Mud” by Rybin is a short science fantasy story about a young man trying to survive and find some meaning in a rapidly collapsing society.

And Miranda White is ceding “The Weeping Statue”, a short, weird Game Boy fable about identity, friendship, and birbs. Playable in browser, Game Boy emulator, or on a Game Boy flash cartridge. Also in the public domain, available as a separate download: original .mod chiptunes, sprite sheets, and pixel art backgrounds from the game, plus a few bonus pieces that didn’t make it in.

Lastly, my novelette “Masters of the Wine Printers Guild” is an economic fantasy about a conspiracy of apprentices who decide to defy the masters and print their own wine. To simplify things, I made a specific page for it which has downloads in a bunch of file formats, including a pre-formatted, easily printable zine! I have jokingly described this as a story about printing a zine with a bunch of your friends (except the zine is magic wine), so it only seemed fitting. You can check it all out here.

Going forward, I would love to keep having other artists join me in celebrating Public Domain Day in this way. It is abundantly clear that lawmakers are not going to make the radical changes to copyright law that we need, so I believe it falls to creators to give back to the commons proactively. Shout out to everyone who joined me this year, and if anyone would like to join me next year, or is doing something similar, please let me know! You can also find my previous posts about the public domain, and my works therein, here.

Now, for some unrelated end-of-year things.

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Making the “Cartographer” Zine, and the Possibilities of Print

A photo of the booklets. the covers are blue cardstock with white lettering. they each bear a spiral, the word "cartographer", and my initials—"FB".
In all their glory.

This post was originally just an unlisted page on my website, exclusively accessible through a QR code in the back of the print edition of “Cartographer.” But I think the ideas here may be of general interest, whether you’ve read “Cartographer” or not, so with some modifications I’m posting it to the blog!

Before I start, there are still copies of this booklet available, and they are still FREE! Email me at FrancisRBass (at) gmail (dot) com if you would like one!

Contents

The Possibilities of Print

So my first major premise is that reading on a screen sucks. It sucks because a lot of people already spend most of their day staring at a screen. It sucks because you are staring into a light source. It sucks because that light source is always refreshing, shooting 60 images at you every second. It sucks because there is other stuff on that screen that can distract you—even if you are good at focusing, notifications can still pop up depending on the device. (I do see the irony that you are reading on a screen right now—but I think these annoyances are more tolerable for short texts.)

E-readers are the exception. Although it’s still a screen, most e-readers use e-ink displays, not LCDs. The display reflects light, like paper, rather than shining it at you, and it has a much lower refresh rate—the text just sits there, stable, until you “turn” the page.

Turning pages in itself is another benefit of e-readers. There is some satisfaction gained with each page turn that is totally absent with scrolling. As I understand it, this is part of why kids’ books are printed with large text and broad margins—to provide a sense of accomplishment even when reading relatively little, relatively slowly. Each page turn is a little mile marker surpassed. Even as an adult, I find my brain switching modes depending on how much white space there is on a page. Big, chunky paragraphs: serious reading ahead. Dialogue and two-sentence paragraphs: yes lets go fast fast fast!

With all that said, there are two problems with e-readers, from a writer/publisher perspective. First, not everyone has one. I read a ton, and have done so for a while, and I only just got my first e-reader a few months ago. They can be pricy, at least compared to the free pair of eyeballs in your head.

The second major issue is that ebooks are a pain in the ass to design, and you basically can’t guarantee they will look nice across multiple devices. Ebook files are like html files, in that they are meant to display the same content across multiple different devices and apps. The content stays the same, but the style and layout might shift. E.g. Chapter 4 of a .epub may start on page 100 on a computer, page 200 on a phone, and page 150 on an e-reader. That’s pretty minor, but there are bigger issues when it comes to style. “Keep with next” doesn’t seem to work, ever. Drop Caps look dramatically different across different devices, with the one commonality that they all look equally jank (check out this article about it and scroll down to the example screenshots.) Why do websites look good and consistent across devices, and ebooks don’t? My guess is that it’s because the corporations selling the e-readers do not want cross-compatibility. Amazon even has its own file format. There is no effort at coordination, no effort to make an ebook look good if it wasn’t purchased through the given e-reader’s marketplace. I guess people think books are just text, and who cares about the container.

Well, I care about the container! Sitting on a park bench and unfurling a risograph-printed brochure to read about architecture, I can tell you from experience, it rules. The same text on a computer screen in my stupid bedroom, or on a phone screen at my stupid job—that would not rule. The text can still be very good. It can be transcendent, and someone reading it can recognize and appreciate it as such. But the actual reading experience will be worse. (For instance, I read most of Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me on the Bluefire Reader mobile app [barf] during rehearsals. Great book, awful way to read it.)

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State of the Blog 2022

Hello friends. It has been a while since I’ve done one of these, because really not much has been going on with the blog for a while. And not much will be going on with it in the future, but it will hopefully be a bit more lively with the changes I have planned. TLDR: I have practically been using the blog as a newsletter for a while now, so I am going to lean into that more, with each post compiling a few different updates and insights instead of always having a singular focus. I am committing to this as my main means of disseminating information, rather than Twitter or other corporatized internet spaces.

Starting with this post right here!

What Has Happened to the Internet

I am pretty damn young but I am old enough to remember that the internet was not always like this. Today people (self included) engage with the internet mainly through platforms, rather than bouncing around between several independent websites. Evan Dahm, a webcomicker, puts it pretty clearly here.

And this kinda sucks. It sucks for creators because they either have to conform to the tastes of the platform’s algorithm, or accept that what they create will be buried. Obviously this kind of institutional influence and compromise has been part of art production since forever, but it was not always this way on the internet.

It sucks for readers/viewers/etc. because a lot of these platforms are shitty places to be on. They exploit and encourage shallow, impulsive engagement; they cultivate a sense of always missing out, of always needing more. I have found out about a lot of cool stuff on Twitter—events, book recommendations, sometimes interesting news—but always in the midst of great quantities of dreck, much of it aggravating or depressing.

Fortunately, I have this old-school, independent form of information dissemination: the blog.

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New Publication: Cartographer

Hey, it’s a new novelette! It’s actually pretty old, but I’m finally getting around to publishing it, and you can get it now on Smashwords!

Also, if you would like a physical copy of this thing *for free,* I will be posting some details about that on Twitter shortly (edit: Here.) Or you can email me and I’ll let you know about it when I’ve got the details figured out. Essentially: I have been very intrigued by zines and cheap printing lately, and I think sometime in the future I would like to incorporate that into how I sell my stories. Having a little booklet is, I think, so much nicer than staring at a screen. Turning a page rules, and scrolling ceaselessly does not (unless you are using a physical scroll maybe.) For now, I just want to do this as a proof of concept, so I will be charging the low price of *nothing* for a physical copy of this novelette. Though if you want to show your support by also buying a digital copy, I will certainly not stop you.

Here’s the synopsis: Si Muue is lost in the colossal subterranean corpse of their god. Separated from their family, their memory deteriorating, they arrive at the home of a cartographer just in time. The cartographer, Lio P, draws them a map in exchange for a detailed account of their travels through rotting innards and cavernous bones. However, the two disagree on the shape of God: Lio P believes God resembled a godson, like him, while Si Muue believes God was not like any mortal race, but was a mixture of all of them.  

And when Si Muue ventures forth, they soon become just as lost as before, and return to the cartographer. Again they receive a new map, and again they are lost, over and again, until their memories are all a confused mix, and they can’t tell dream from reality, and it seems they will never escape this decaying underworld.

“Cartographer” is a grotesque fantasy, a story of torment, survival, and despair. Lost in bloody darkness, the only way is forward.

CW: Violence

New Publication: “The Mechanical Turk Has a Panic Attack” in Uncharted Magazine

Plates showing the mechanical turk, a machine made to look as though it is an automaton playing chess, while really a person is crouched inside it controlling everything.
Plates from Ernest Wittenberg’s 1960 article “Échec!”, about the actual mechanical turk

A bit delayed in announcing this, but I’ve got a new story up on Uncharted Magazine! It’s about a server in a high-end but not quite high-end-enough restaurant pretending to be an android. I mean, the title is the plot, essentially. It’s really good! Seriously, this is probably my favorite thing I’ve written in the past couple years, and I’m so pleased to have it published. You can read it over on Uncharted Magazine.

New Publication: “The Hilarious Inside Joke of Our Overwhelming Melancholic Nostalgia” in Solarpunk Magazine

My story “The Hilarious Inside Joke of Our Overwhelming Melancholic Nostalgia” is in the inaugural issue of Solarpunk Magazine, just published today! Solarpunk Magazine is a new magazine publishing writing and artwork that grapples with climate change and “demand[s] utopia.” The first issue is extra-large, with 6 short stories, 3 poems, and 4 nonfiction articles. It even includes an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson! You can purchase it here. EDIT: You can also read or listen to my story online here!

My story is set in a future Florida radically changed by climate change, where “Crimes Against the Future” are punished by implanting memories of the world before, the world lost to rising sea levels and changing ecologies. Kyra, whose older brother has been punished in this way so many times that the implanted memories have become permanent, wants to commit a crime so she can know what the old world was like herself.

New(ish) Publication: Classic Cage

In honor of Public Domain Day, I’m ceding my play Classic Cage to the public domain! Classic Cage was produced by Theatre Cedar Rapids as part of the 2019 Underground New Play Festival, and later published in issue 3 of some scripts. And now it’s free for all to read, modify, and perform! Nota bene, this play could very easily, minimally, be adapted to be performed over zoom, since it already takes place entirely through video calls—that’s right, I wrote a zoom play before it was cool!

Here’s the synopsis:

Tara Cage is struggling to sell her next book. Publishers on Mars want another of her cheerful, optimistic Earth travelogues, the ones that made her so popular, but things have been getting bad on Earth. Climate change and economic upheaval have made Tara a lot more cynical, and sick of selling Mars a whitewashed version of her home planet. Her sister and literary agent, Michaela Cage, tries to grease the wheels with a potential publisher by getting a realtime FTL video connection between them on Mars and Tara on Earth. Unfortunately Tara’s internet connection has been screwy, making the video chat’s predictive AI patch over moments of lag with an AI version of Tara, compiled from calls made by Tara the last time she used it—which was twenty years ago. Between the upbeat, cheerful robo-Tara, and the true, jaded, bitter Tara, the publisher is getting mixed messages—though the AI seems to be making a better impression than Tara herself.

Classic Cage is a play about public personas, optimism and pessimism, and the reconciling of youthful dreams with present realities.

Running time is approximately 40 minutes. The cast is 3F, 2M.

You can download the play in the following formats: PDFEpubMobiDocx. If you really want to pay me for it, you can set your own price for it on Smashwords.

I’ve also written a post for Public Domain Day, about the Public Domain Review, which you can read here.

Public Domain Day 2022: A Public Domain Review Review

very esoteric paintings. left: a man with a stylized sun for a head sits in a chair in the middle of a wild landscape, holding a flower. right: a serpent with an arrow tail coils around the cross of a globus cruciger. a berry plant sits atop the cross. the globus cruciger is quite large, towering over the trees around it.
Two images from Clavis Artis. As always, I’m interspersing this post with some lovely public domain images. I found these all through the Public Domain Review, which is also where I’ve found a lot of the images in previous years’ posts.

Happy Public Domain Day! As of today, works from 1926 have entered the public domain—among them the first Winnie the Pooh book, the first Hercule Poirot book, and the first novel by Ernest Hemingway! This year’s Public Domain Day is special because for the first time literally ever, sound recordings are entering the public domain. You can read more about that and what else is entering PD over on the Duke CSPD.

This year, in celebration of Public Domain Day, I’m reviewing the Public Domain Review. PDR is an online journal which publishes essays concerning art and artifacts in the public domain. They also curate collections of artwork, photographs, and books, some of which they sell prints of. At the start of 2021 they celebrated their tenth anniversary, so they’ve got an extensive backlog—294 essays and 990 collection posts, by their count. Throughout all of 2021, I read every essay they published and perused every collection they showcased, in order to write this review. So I’m going to talk about why Public Domain Review is great, and then recommend some of my favorite posts from the past year.

Firstly, Public Domain Review is great just for being what it is. The public domain is vast. It expands infinitely pastwards. This is exciting, but where do you start? Say, for example, you’re an ES-EN translator, and you want to cut your teeth on a public domain work that hasn’t been translated before. You know plenty of old Spanish books, but they’re the ones that everyone knows, they’re the ones that have already been translated. And you may be familiar with more recent untranslated works, but these are under copyright. (This is why, vast as the public domain is, it is still not vast enough—the stuff that is most recent, most relevant, most likely to be known, is the stuff that is least accessible.)

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Comics from (mostly) this year!

This year, I actually drew quite a few pages of comics, but you probably didn’t see them because I only posted them on Twitter. I may collect them into a little PDF or something once I’ve done more, but for now you can read them all here. Merry Christmas!

Note: The first two are actually from 2020. I’ve also not included the “Bread Bible” comics, because I’ll probably put those in a separate post when I’ve completed them. You can read those on Twitter here if you want to see the story so far.

Like a Pack of Dogs

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New Publication: “Extrasolar Teas Box” (and some other announcements)

Illustration by Renee Leanne, courtesy of Electric Literature.

I have a new piece of flash fiction out from Electric Literature today, “Extrasolar Teas Box”! The headline they put on it is “No One Was Exploited in the Production of this Space Tea” which I think gives you a good idea of what the story is about. The wonderful illustrations accompanying it are by Leanne Renee. Check it out here!

A few other announcements: First, a month or so ago some writer friends put out an anthology of short stories, which I wrote the foreword to. Each story starts with the same line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but they all diverge from there. You can get it for free on Smashwords!

Speaking of Smashwords, I am once again participating in their end-of-year sale, so all of my writing on Smashwords is 75% off or free from now until the end of the month!

And finally, there will be more new Francis writing very very soon, because I have a story in the inaugural issue of Solarpunk Magazine! So look forward to that next month, and if you want you can preorder the issue or subscribe to the magazine here.

Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon approaches each of his books as a way to celebrate and innovate the form, whether novel, memoir, or, in the case of this book, essay collection. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is thematically cohesive and intensely self-referential. It reckons with self-destruction, regret and revision, the worst of white folks, Mississippi, America, writing, truth, and lies. I read the 2021 revised edition, which contains seven essays from the 2013 edition and six new ones, as well as a revised author’s note. Another change is that the essays are sequenced in reverse chronological order, ending with the essay which opened the first edition.

The best way I can describe how these thirteen essays form a whole is to say that it feels like a well composed album. Themes recur and recur. Essays reference each other, and sometimes divulge the origins of each other. Specific phrases like “healthy choices,” “multiple dreamers,” and “the worst of white folks” stitch their way through the whole book. The book moves backwards in time, and meanders north from, then back around to, Mississippi.

That movement provides a structure for the book, a sweeping momentum which leaves you feeling like you’ve really gone somewhere by the end, though it is not the dominating logic of the book. That is, the essays are densely interconnected beyond just geographical or chronological ties. I think that’s what’s so album-like about it—the associative ties between essays, their dense inter- and intra-textuality, combined with the larger arc which gives the thing a simpler form you can hold in your mind. It is singular and plural, which is a hell of an accomplishment.

It’s also like an album because there’s features! Laymon’s mother, his aunt, and several friends lend their voices to a few essays; these sections are well written in their own right, and add depth and energy to the essays they appear in. And the choice to include them is thematically relevant too—in the final essay, “We Will Never Ever Know,” Laymon writes to his uncle, “We talked, but we didn’t reckon with each other.” (152) Bringing other voices into this book, voices in dialogue and disagreement with Laymon’s, is a demonstration of what that reckoning can look like.

This polyphony is most prominent in “Echo,” which features four writers in addition to Laymon: Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. Smith starts it off with a letter addressed “Peace Fam,” and then each writer responds, one after the other, like a posse cut. They each write about being black, being a man, and being both; while each essay builds on the last, and they all circle around similar themes, they somehow never repeat each other. The echo shifts pitch and volume each time.

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The Same Story Told is on sale!

A year ago today I published The Same Story Told, a post-apocalyptic pastoral fantasy novel, retold six times in a row. In celebration of it’s 1-year birthday, you can get it for just $1 from Smashwords this week! You can also read this excerpt I posted to the blog a year ago, if you want a sample of what this book is. Here’s the synopsis:

Whistlers normally draw power for their incantations from the microbial sappers that infect their own bodies, but an incantation to infect others with sappers has been discovered, and the resulting plague has devastated the world. The only immunization against this plague is to be infected by a Whistler with a little more control over the bacterial life they create. Of the survivors gathered at the Academy of Sibilant Arts, Klobs is the youngest Whistler. At 14, she’s been entrusted with infecting just four people—her older brother Binlev, her mentor Daltob, and two friends from another academy, Hakleen and Boos.

These five are sent to reclaim a farming township, but soon a hostile group of Whistlers raids their food stores. Without enough food to make it to the harvest, Klobs uses her sappers to place Daltob and Hakleen in deep sleeps. Working in year-long shifts and year-long sleeps the five can conserve food, but each member of the group experiences a unique fragment of the same struggle, deviating, merging, echoing.

The Same Story Told tells each fragment one after the other, as well as the apocryphal legend that has arisen about the “Lost Expedition,” changing format and style to portray the same post-apocalyptic pastoral fantasy six times in a row.

Review: Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong

Cover courtesy of Random House

Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong is a coming of age story narrated by Linda Hammerick, looking back on her childhood in Boiling Springs, North Carolina in the 70s and 80s. The main drama of the book is the interactions between different members of Linda’s family, and Linda’s efforts to make her way amid the secrets and dysfunctions around her. One of these secrets is Linda’s, which she only shares with her best friend: Linda has the very rare condition of lexical-gustatory synesthesia. When she hears certain words, she can taste them.

Although her synesthesia is not the whole point of the book, it is a major component, and also the origin of the title, so I’ll start with it. It’s a brilliant device, and such an obvious shortcut to evocative writing that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it used this way before. Lots of writers employ synesthesia in their prose, as a poetic device (e.g. describing a noise as sharp, describing pain as bright), but here it’s built into the character. It allows Truong to frequently assail the reader with the most immediate, vivid sense one can evoke in the written word—taste. Peach cobbler, bread and butter pickles, and sourdough bread register with a reader at an intensity which fuzzy, shrill, or sea foam green do not. At the same time, taste descriptions are normally very difficult to work into a story, because most of the time we aren’t tasting anything. So having a character who experiences vivid, hyper-specific tastes when she hears words feels like a cheat, but an effective one nonetheless. There’s such a pleasure in discovering which words pair with which flavors, in reading dialogue that is peppered with dozens of tastes.

And that is, ultimately, why the synesthesia isn’t just a gimmick, or a way to quickly pull the reader into any scene: Truong commits to it fully in multiple ways which cause complications for the book. The first, most obvious commitment is that the tastes are always rendered in the dialogue, every single time. For instance, here is her teacher calling role:

“HammerickDrPepper, Lindamint.”
“Herehardboiledegg.”
“Harrispecan, Wadeorangesherbet.”
“Herehardboiledegg.” (30)

As I said, this is like jabbing a live wire into the reader’s insular cortex (good 👍), but it effectively throttles the dialogue (bad 👎 or at least a challenge for a writer.) Truong doesn’t just turn it off when it’s inconvenient—it’s always there, just like it’s always there for Linda. And that’s the other major way Truong commits to complication—Linda’s synesthesia is frequently a hindrance to her. In school, she has trouble focusing, and eventually has to start smoking (which dampens the “incomings”) so she can improve her grades. This compelling, juicy literary device has realistic consequences for the character and how she interacts with others; who she does and doesn’t reveal it to is a major plot point.

The other thing that sells it, that makes it rich rather than cheap, is that the pairings of flavors with words are arbitrary. It would be so easy to make a kind of game of this, and communicate Linda’s feelings about certain characters or places through her synesthesia, but that’s not how it works with people who really have it. For Linda, “Dill” is faithful—it tastes like itself—but most food words are not. She enjoys it when her mom calls her selfish, because “selfish” tastes like corn on the cob. This means Linda has a very different relationship with words than everyone around her—an extreme version of the way all of us experience certain tastes, emotions, and even words, in unique, incommunicable ways. As Linda narrates, “But we all haven’t tasted the same unripe fruit. In order to feel not so alone in the world, we blur the lines of our subjective memories, and we say to one another, ‘I know exactly what you mean!'” (15)

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Review: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon is a phenomenal writer, and you can tell so the moment you begin any of his three books. I reviewed his memoir Heavy a couple years ago, and have finally read his other two books, starting with Long Division, a novel. I read the 2021 edition, which I’ll talk more about later. The book is split into two halves which read starting from either side of the book, and ending in the middle.

“Book One,” (though Laymon says you can read them in any order, I chose the obvious order) follows a black Mississippian boy named City, in the year 2013. He and his school rival, Lavander Peeler, both make a scene at the national “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, and City is sent to stay with his grandmother in the rural town of Melahatchie. There, he contends with violent racists, his grandmother’s church, the reaction to his outburst at the competition (which has gone viral in the way things really could go viral back in 2013), and the disappearance of his neighbor, a girl named Baize Shephard. Also, he’s found a strange book titled Long Division, in which he is the main character.

In “Book Two,” a black Mississippian boy named City living in Melahatchie is in love with his friend Shalaya Crump, in the year 1985. Shalaya reveals to him that she’s found a way to travel to the future (2013), and she’s worried that in the future she’s dead. She can also travel to the past, 1964, where her and City’s grandpas are about to be killed by the klan. In 1964, the two meet Evan Altshuler, who wants to help them save their grandpas and his own family. In 2013, they meet Baize Shephard.

Regardless of which half you start with, character is the first thing that jumps out, especially City, the narrator. He has a lot of opinions, a lot that he needs to let you know about Lavander Peeler, about Principle Reeves, about the “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, about Melahatchie, about Baize Shephard, and about himself. He’s self conscious in a way that stops short of providing a perfect accounting of his inner working at all times, but still goes a lot deeper than most 14-year-old protagonists do. Despite his braggadocio, City is scared and sad about a lot of things. Sometimes he admits this to himself, sometimes he admits only to the way it feels in his body.

It’s not just City though. From Lavander Peeler to Grandma, all these characters leap off the page, and then deepen, reveal richer hues within the bright colors that initially grabbed the reader’s attention. The scenes between City and Baize are dynamite, as she is just as boastful and opinionated as him—and this vibrancy, this vigor of spirit, makes the way the adults treat these young people that much more heartbreaking. The book puts a lot of focus on the cruelty inflicted on children, especially black children, through “education.” The prime example of this is the sentence competition in Book One, which kind of blew my mind and had me, for the first time, thinking about how bizarre and messed up spelling bees are. We meet 2013 City as a smart, verbally dextrous kid locked in a rivalry with the effete Lavander Peeler—and then we see that expansive, energetic persona squashed, curbed, even memified. City’s creative, imaginative, and righteously angry language is denied as not “correct, appropriate, or dynamic”—a dramatic, heightened version of the minute and myriad ways in which adults constantly rebuke children for their creativity, in which white people constantly seek the destruction or neutralization of black imagination.

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Review: Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Cover courtesy of Koyama Press

Sex Fantasy by Sophia-Foster Dimino is a collection of eight zines published between 2013 and 2017, plus two previously unpublished zines at the end. With one exception, the zines are not about sex fantasies, though they are about intimacy, relationships, and the gaps between people. The slight, but not total, mismatch between title and content is indicative of the way a lot of the book operates, in that it invites interpretation. It reaches for something, but doesn’t go all the way toward grasping it—the reader will have to do that on their own.

The book is divided into three sections of three issues each, and a fourth section of one. The first three zines are the most esoteric, consisting entirely of short declarative sentences (usually starting with “I”) paired with illustrations. Although there are a few moments of sequential art, there’s very little scene, and you could scramble the individual panels out of order and not change much. There isn’t even a consistent, recurring character that appears as the “I” or “you” in all the panels. They operate accumulatively—”I made an effort”, “I hit a wall”, “I wasn’t thinking”, “I’m useful” add up to a persona, an emotion. It’s textual-visual poetry, essentially—and like a good poem, you can slow down and appreciate each line, or panel in this case, as it’s own work of art. In fact, the format of the book encourages this, with each panel taking up an entire page, so that you’re only ever looking at two panels at once.

Although these first three zines aren’t my favorite in the collection, I think they hold some of my favorite individual panels. Some are very intricate, while others are imaginative or surprising in how they illustrate the text. “I like your socks” is printed beside a person wearing hamburger socks lightly stepping on someone’s face. “I’m a beverage vendor” appears beside a drink stand; the stand has three large jugs and three containers of ice or tapioca pearls; a bottle for tips; a vase with a flower; eight notes tacked to the stand’s single contiguous wall; a patterned canopy; empty cups held on pegs; a dangling bell; an OPEN sign; a vertical banner displaying a woman drinking from an enormous glass with a straw; and the “I”, sitting on a stool, wearing a spaghetti strap top, flip flops, a hair bow. The text is spare, but the illustrations are rich and suggestive of worlds that extend beyond their snapshot focus. They are not sex fantasies, but fantasy, or fancy, sure.

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Review: The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe

Cover courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

I’ve been on a bit of an urbanism kick recently, and of the books I’ve read this one seems like the best introduction for anyone just getting into the topic. The Next American Metropolis opens with a long essay about the failures of planning (or rather, the failures of no planning, or piecemeal planning) in America, how this has negatively impacted the American city and the American citizen, and the solution: transit-oriented development. Next comes a set of guidelines and definitions for the various components of transit-oriented development and how to plan it, from the regional scale all the way down to regulations for individual lots. The final section is a kind of portfolio of projects that Calthorpe and his firm designed, with full-page color diagrams and maps, and accompanying text explaining how these plans embody different aspects of the preceding sections. So although you can read it straight through, and it is organized for you to do that, the book also functions as a reference book, or even an art book where you can flip to any page in the latter half and find some wonderfully rendered architectural sketches or zoning plans.

As I said, the book is a great introduction to urbanism, and particularly New Urbanism—though Calthorpe doesn’t really use that phrase, instead focusing on “transit-oriented development.” The two are part and parcel. The idea is to build things to a human scale, not (just) a car scale. The idea is that single-use zoning (e.g. vast blocks of homogenous residential, downtowns composed of just office towers) are poison to the life of a city, as is any automobile-oriented development. The freedom to get anywhere in a car isn’t freedom at all, it’s dependence. It means anyone without a car in these residential suburbs is stranded. It means the people getting around in cars live their lives entirely in closed-off, private spaces—their home, their office, the supermarket, their car—and never mingle with their neighbors and fellow citizens on the streets or in public parks and plazas. It means that pedestrians are unsafe and uncomfortable, forced to walk down long blocks with a low-density of street connections, or cross enormous unshaded parking lots when shopping for necessities.

There’s a lot more to New Urbanism, but that’s the basic idea—we’ve built for the car and thus created inefficient, pollutant, and unpleasant cities; the solution is to build for pedestrians. You may be familiar with New Urbanism in some form already: if you’ve heard about neighborhoods or cities being “walkable,” well, that’s a principal of New Urbanism. This book was written in 1993, but the ideas are super relevant today because it has taken so long for cities to actually put them into practice. So if you’ve been wondering what exactly “walkable” means, or if this brief summary has piqued your interest, read this book! In the opening essay, Calthorpe provides great statistics about the growth of car-dependence, lengthening commutes, and some of the factors that drove mass suburbanization. He does just as good a job laying out the ideas and ideals of transit-oriented development, which are essentially timeless. The thing about New Urbanism is, it isn’t really new. It’s sort of how things were done in the era of streetcars, just before the mass proliferation of personal cars in America. This type of design works, and we’ve known it works for decades, and this 30-year-old book may as well have been published yesterday.

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Review: Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hi! It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, or really posted anything on this website. I’ve been reading a ton of books recently though, and writing reviews is about all I can manage to write these days, so look forward to more of these over the next few months! Should be one each week, posted every Friday, just like the old days.

Cover courtesy of The New Press

Lower Ed is a non-fiction book about the rise of a new class of for-profit colleges—distinct from the old “mom and pop” for-profits—which operate as major investment vehicles and seek to capitalize on the ever-increasing demand for credentials, and the inability of American higher education or employers to meet it. There are a couple dominant narratives around for-profit colleges, which Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines. A) They are predatory institutions which exploit disadvantaged students (part and parcel with this is a view that these students are dupes); or B) They are a savvy, private response to the failure of public institutions to train workers for our modern labor market. McMillan Cottom avoids both of these oversimplifications, instead examining the ways in which all of these institutions and economic entities—the labor market, public universities, and for-profits—are contributing to a precarity, a risk shift, which is profitable for damn near everyone involved except the students/workers.

I will move past summary eventually, I swear, but these are some complex, rich ideas, so I’ve got to explain a bit more. “Risk shift” is something McMillan Cottom talks about a lot. Over the past few decades, risk has shifted away from the government and private employers, and onto individuals. What risk? Well, say you want to be a lawyer. You are taking a risk in going to law school, investing time and money that may not be returned to you (if, for example, no one hires you.) Say you’re an employer, looking for someone to be a barista. If you hire someone with no experience, and train them, you are risking that that time and pay will not return to you (say, for example, they leave the instant they get good at baristaing.) In the past, employers were more willing to take on that risk, providing on-the-job training and investing resources in keeping their employees by providing them advancement and, potentially, further education. This is less and less the case. While a café may still take you on with no experience, more desirable jobs are likely to require experience up front. If they do take you on and spend time training you, they’ll minimize their risk by not paying you—hence that hateful practice, the unpaid internship. Our government has also, more and more, foisted risk onto individuals (perhaps in the belief that the job market is what it was in the 60s, with employers willing to share risk with their employees.) State and federal funding for higher education has not kept pace with demand, and so tuition costs have ballooned. Total student loan debt has increased by 389.5% since 2003, now over $1,500,000,000,000. $1 trillion and $500 billion, to be clear. That is risk shift.

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