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All posts for the month January, 2014

Tilting at Windmills: Why It’s Not My Job to Educate You

Published January 29, 2014 by Shannon

Inspired by a question over at an open thread at Ana Mardoll’s:

Someone wanted to know if there was an article about why it’s not anyone’s job to educate people. This is something I’ve long thought, so here’s my crack at it.

Let’s be clear. I think educating people is important. I even enjoy doing it sometimes. One of the reasons I decided to start writing more about disability issues on my blog is that my vocal readership is largely sighted, and willing to learn, and I think the lessons that stick with us the most are the ones that draw on our innate empathy. I want to convey my experiences in hopes of starting conversations about them. The fact that I might choose to often, however, doesn’t mean I always choose to do so, nor should it be expected of me. Here is why, in neatly digestable, bite-sized bullet points. I could write whole posts about each of these topics, but I’ll try and be brief.

  1. My experience is not universal. I’m a white, cisgendered woman with a disability. I have privileges that my friends who are POC and trans* do not. I also handle being a woman and a person with a disability in ways that work well for me, but might not work well for others. Let me give you some examples. I use a white cane. I’ve never worked a guide dog, and the chances are good that I never will. I prefer for people to say that I am “blind” rather than “visually disabled”. I read romance novels, and don’t see that as an entrensically unfeminist thing to do, even though I do acknowledge that romance novels perpetuate problematic tropes. All of these choices are personal ones, and if you think that people don’t argue vociferously about each of these topics, then I invite you to leave this blog and go hang out on the Internet for a while longer. I’ll wait.
  2. I don’t always have the time. At my job, we often get tour groups visiting the library, which are invariably fascinated by all the cool technology I use. I love that my boss always asks if I have the time to show off the tools I use, because sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have another project going, or I’m on the phone talking to a patron, or I’m about to go on lunch. I should be allowed to do all these things. When I have the time to have an in-depth conversation and answer people’s questions, I’m more than happy to, but my life does not revolve around curious people. This is doubly true for the Internet, where so many other sources of information are available to you.
  3. I don’t always have the energy. I love this post about the spoon theory. For me, not having enough spoons has nothing to do with chronic illness. I lose spoons when I find I’m being dismissed or not listened to, or when accessibility barriers make it harder to do what I want to. Sometimes, I just don’t want to bang my head against certain walls anymore. To name and shame: I’ve given up on Netgalley as a source of books for review despite the fact that lots of book bloggers rely on them, because every website upgrade has meant loss of accessibility features, and their devs don’t seem particularly inclined to do anything to rectify the situation. I have talked to them. I have tweeted with them. For literally years. Nothing has changed. It’s not my job to continue to run around in these circles. I get nothing out of the experience but a headache, so eventually I just quit trying. It’s not just Netgalley either. This happens a lot. Every time it does, it’s disheartening, and my desire to help fix things is diminished just that little bit further. So if you’re being a troll and demanding that I explain how my disability works (or how you think it should work) and I don’t engage, it’s probably because you’re not the first to ask and I don’t have the spoons.
  4. There are other things I would like to do. I do have other interests besides blogging about disability issues. I like to read. I have friends I want to hang out with. I role play. I should be allowed to focus on all those other things, because that makes me a well-rounded and happier person. I would give you the same courtesy, so I expect it in return.
  5. We should all endeavor to educate ourselves. Recently, a dear friend came out to me as trans*. I was not the best ally for her in this process, I’m sure, but I knew that I wanted to understand her experiences. I asked her lots of questions, but in the end I also googled, and I found books. I am by no means an expert on trans* issues and never will be, but having read other people’s accounts, particularly Julia Serrano’s excellent Whipping Girl, helped me understand her a little better. One of the ways in which educating myself proved helpful was that I didn’t ask my friend about the potential future status of her penis. It was something I had wondered about, but both Serano’s book as well as the outrage over a recent interview Katie Couric did with some trans women that really brought it home to me that not only don’t I need to know this very private information about my friend, but that it is not owed me in the slightest. After all, the chances that I will ever need to know this information are infinitesimally small. By finding other ways of being told that particular line of questioning was not OK to pursue, I avoided at least one awkward conversation.

In conclusion: Most of the time I don’t mind sharing my experiences with people and offering what knowledge and insights I have to give. However, it is not anyone’s right to expect to be educated, especially not by random people you meet on the Internet. Always feel free to ask me questions, but do understand if I choose not to answer or want to engage with you about other things.

Blog maintenance

Published January 25, 2014 by Shannon

This is just a test to see if the plugin configuration I just did for my blog actually worked.

I’ve always been a little frightened of Facebook, and of putting my blog content up there, but then I am very bad at convincing people in real life to read my blog. Or, if I do convince them, they don’t tell me. They simply lurk, absorbing my words of wisdom like the sponges of knowledge they are.

So now I’m just making that easier. Maybe. Assuming I did this correctly.

Back to your regularly scheduled book chatter sometime soon!

Yes, I do judge you by your book choices

Published January 24, 2014 by Shannon

Hapax suggested that people might occasionally like to read “Shit I do at the library” posts. (My words, not hers.) I didn’t have a topic for her until today.

I’m very good at not telling my patrons what I think of their choice of reading material. After all, if they knew what I read, they would judge me equally as harshly as I judge them. They would probably have cause, because I unironically love, for example, a series of books in which the male characters have ejaculate that tastes like Nutela. So every time someone requests to read the bile churned out by Bill O’Reilly, or says without irony, “Why can’t you send me more books by good writers, like James Patterson?” I am able to suppress my snorts of derision by reminding myself that as long as I love books featuring snard, I have no room to talk at all.

Today, though, I very nearly said something.

The patron in question is an older gentleman. In cadence and tone, his voice is creepily similar to my dad’s. This is why I have a soft spot for him even though I think he’s wrong about everything when it comes to literature. His tastes are very particular, but he’s pretty adamant that he won’t read female authors, even if, in my opinion, there are several he’d enjoy if he didn’t know their gender from the outset. (He also thinks James Patterson is a good writer, which doesn’t help his case.)

Anyway, after giving me a list of the books he wanted us to mail out, he asked if we had a copy of Mandingo. Which would have been fine except he went on to say, “I read that book when I could see. It wasn’t like Roots, which was horrible.”

Let’s put this in context. Here’s a description of Mandingo from Wikipedia:

Mandingo is a novel by Kyle Onstott, published in 1957. The book is set in the 1830s in the antebellum South primarily around Falconhurst, a fictional plantation in Alabama owned by the planter Warren Maxwell. The narrative centers on Maxwell, his son Hammond, and the Mandingo (or Mandinka) slave Ganymede, or Mede. It is a tale of cruelty toward the blacks of that time, detailing vicious fights, poisoning, and violent death.

And here’s the description of Roots from the same source.

Brought up on the stories of his elderly female relatives—including his Grandmother Cynthia, whose father was emancipated from slavery in 1865—Alex Haley claimed to have traced his family history back to “the African,” Kunta Kinte, captured by members of a contentious tribe and sold to slave traders in 1767. In the novel, each of Kunta’s enslaved descendants passed down an oral history of Kunta’s experiences as a free man in Gambia, along with the African words he taught them. Haley researched African village customs, slave-trading and the history of African Americans in America—including a visit to the griot (oral historian) of his ancestor’s African village. He created a colorful history of his family from the mid-eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, which led him back to his heartland of Africa.

Mandingo was turned into a movie, which, according to the late Roger Ebert lingered in loving detail over the fact that the titular character is blackmailed by his white mistress into having sex with her. Of course, she gets pregnant, and the baby turns out to be black.

I have not read the book myself, but I find I have no desire to do so. “An unflinching portrayal of slavery” sounds very nice indeed, but the book’s author was white. (Had he not been, his Wikipedia page would have made mention of his ethnicity, because that’s how these things work.) My guess is that Mandingo’s unflinching portrayal of slavery is kind of like the unflinching portrayal of medieval sexism found in A Game of Thrones. (By which I mean, the kind of unflinching portrayal that is not afraid to show us the privileged exploiting the marginalized. In loving, rapturous detail without giving those marginalized people their own voices.

Roots, on the other hand, is actually written by an African American. I’m sure it’s not without its problems as well, but the important thing is that it’s the author telling his own story and that of his family. I’m sure it’s an unflinching portrayal of slavery as well, but it’s the kind of story I want to see told and think should be read. The fact that my patron would rather read the “unflinching portrayal of slavery” written by some white dude rather than an equally unflinching look at similar events from an African-American perspective says a lot about him as a person, and none of it is flattering.

Mandingo is available for download through Nls. We’re going to make a copy for my patron, because as disgusted as I am that he wants to read this, censorship of things I don’t like is not how this library gig works.

I know this guy is not only unashamedly sexist, but he’s a bigot as well. I still will send him his books, but that soft spot I had for him because he reminds me of my dad is gone. He killed it.

ETA: I left a tag unclosed. Fixed it!

Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Published January 22, 2014 by Shannon

Plain Kate

A debut novel that’s as sharp as a knife’s point.

Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden charms are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade” — a dangerous nickname in a town where witches are hunted and burned in the square.

There is a lot to love about Plain Kate , the YA debut by author Erin Bow. The author’s background as a poet shines through in the story she weaves of a young girl who is persecuted for a witch but who grows in strength of character throughout her adventures. The writing is lush and dreamlike, and it was a pleasure to listen to it read aloud. There’s a fairy tale quality to the tale, with its talk of selling shadows and magic cats, and I think that’s perfect for Bow’s style of writing.

The characters were a mixed bag. I never connected to Kate. She spends so much of the novel never quite catching a break, and while I certainly don’t think every female character needs to kick ass and take names, there was something extremely reactive about Kate’s narrative. Things happen to her; until the very end, she does not make things happen.

That said, I appreciated what Bow did with her supporting cast. None of them are purely good or purely evil. The antagonist was one of the most compelling villains I’ve read about in a long time, because his motivation rang true and I found his story touchingly tragic. And, of course, I can’t write about the secondary characters without writing about Kate’s companion, Taggle, a cat who is granted the ability to speak. He is absolutely perfect in his felinity, and he provided some much needed heart for the book. There is also a lovely friendship between two girls, which still feels like a rare and precious thing that I can’t get enough of. The friendship is nicely not complicated by any sort of romantic interest, and I adored the fact that it was so important to Kate’s development.

Plain Kate is a surprisingly dark middle grade novel. It is beautifully written, and I’d recommend it for someone who wants to linger over particular turns of phrase. I wish I had connected to it better, but I would try Bow again.

Final Grade: C.

[ETA: Hit send too soon.

On representation

Published January 21, 2014 by Shannon

My friend Lauren, who is awesome and savvy and who I secretly want to be besties with, tweeted today about how she thought it was awesome that they cast an actual trans* kid playing a trans character on The Fosters. I don’t watch the show, because I live under a rock where they don’t have cable service and I’m too cheap to afford Netflix, but after reading about this, I’m now determined to watch that show. Because it’s about time. In the year of our gourd 2014, we should be seeing the real faces of diverse casts playing diverse roles. It’s sad that we don’t, and that I am inclined to congratulate a show for doing something TV always should be doing means our media is in a sad state of affairs indeed.

That got me thinking about disability on TV. I can’t quote hard statistics, but I can think of maybe two disabled actors working today, and then my data may be wrong because I live under a rock. But I do have a story.

Picture it: Ciscily, 1912.

Or, rather, Kansas City, 2007. I was broke and unemployed, there not being a vast quantity of jobs out there for blind college dropouts, when a friend informed me that a local children’s theater was going to be putting on a play based on H. G. Wells’s short story The Country of the Blind. The play was going to tour the state, performing at schools, with workshops in which people would visit classrooms and educate children about blindness. They needed cast members. They dangled the carrot of paid employment before me, so I went for it.

In case you didn’t go click on the Project Gutenberg text file I linked to, the story involves a one-eyed man entering a country entirely made up of blind people. In the play, he’s all, “Hey, I can see. I will totes pwn these people.” Only to learn that the blind people actually were pretty self-sufficient without his help.

So, given that the story under discussion was about blind people, how many of the main cast (the ones with speaking parts and everything) actually were blind?

None.
What they did was to have a group of sighted cast members playing all the parts, and a couple of legitimately blind people standing around as extras. They trotted the two of us out when they wanted to talk about how they were doing all this education and outreach. Occasionally, I went to one of the classroom talks we did and answered questions about my blindness from ten-year-olds, which was actually a lot of fun. But I didn’t get paid nearly what my sighted cast members did, despite the fact that I worked as hard as they did. I was trotted out for photo shoots, and they did their best to make me feel valued. But I wasn’t. I was a publicity stunt, and I knew it, and I did it because I didn’t think the odds were good that I would ever do theater again.

I knew what I was getting into. I also don’t resent the fact that I wasn’t a named character, because I am not an actor. (It is really hard to simulate facial expressions without those visual cues, especially when the scene you’re acting out is one you’ve rehearsed 987 bazillion times.) There were lots of things I did resent about the play, (but a lack of appreciation for my commensurate lack of talent wasn’t one of them.

But it’s still galling. I know what they would have said,if pressed to talk about why they didn’t hire blind actors. There were none to be found. Certainly not in Kansas City.

And yet.

When I was in high school, I was pretty much gently but firmly pushed out of theater. I enjoyed it, but my love for being in school plays couldn’t withstand the fact that I was hardly ever cast. I sometimes wonder, if I had been, if someone had looked at me and thought, “Sure, we could make this work” rather than, “I cannot handle a blind person on stage. This won’t work. Better keep her in the background,” if I could have learned something.

All that to say: a trans* actor playing a trans* character is wonderful and the least of what we should expect, but we need to push for more. Where are the disabled actors? Granted, representation of disability in movies and TV is still shitty, but at least we should be given a chance to represent ourselves. Maybe I wouldn’t have made a very good actor, but I’m sure there is some blind person who can fake all the facial expressions–or at least be taught to do so–better than I. We need those actors. We need for people to see us as we really are, not as some able-bodied/cisgendered/straight/whatever have you directors and actors’ visions of how we ought to be.

State of the Shannon: the MLK edition

Published January 20, 2014 by Shannon

Happy Monday!

I’ve been enjoying a four-day weekend which has alternated between lots of social time and lots of hanging out by myself and chilling time. Pretty much a perfect little vacation. Today I also got to meet Leah. We had lunch, did some shopping, and talked books and romancelandia. (I’m also pretty sure I talked too much, but that is a thing that I do.) Either way, it was fun.

This weekend also brings a new episode of the Book Hoarders podcast. Listen for our collective thoughts on Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

In other news relating to books I don’t want to review, I read Ender’s Game yesterday. I can’t review it fairly because while I read the chapters, I was also reading the deconstruction of it on Something Short and Snappy. Given that I cannot separate Orson Scott Card from the fact that he’s a loud and proud homophobe, I was relieved I didn’t need to pay for my copy of the book directly. My takeaway was that the book was fairly entertaining, but that the plot doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny.

My other big reading project is a 127-hour collection of all of Andrew Lang’s fairy books. My plan is to read each of the twelve books this year, and hopefully discover new fairy tales.

Thus far, it’s been an exercise in WTFery. Take, for example, this gem. It took me 45 minutes to listen to that story on audio, and then it ended up being a giant Shaggy dog story. For added fun, there’s some blatant sexism and ableism. I’m sure Disney will get right on making it into a movie.

I’ll keep you up to date with my progress. I may never want to read another fairy tale or fairy tale retelling again, but… this book is 127 hours long. Clearly it is a challenge to be overcome!

Hope you are all having a good week. And in comments you should tell me about your favorite fairy tales.

Question of the day

Published January 17, 2014 by Shannon

I don’t read books with disabled protagonists because I can usually count on authors to get disability terribly, terribly wrong. At best, the results are silly and nonsensical. At worst, they are demeaning and othering. But I sometimes treasure a misplaced sense of optimism.

Have any of you read good books with disabled protagonists? Leave them in the comments.

The only example that came to mind for me of a disabled protagonist who gets to be awesome without having to make excuses is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. He has some fairly serious disabilities, and they aren’t just shrugged off when the author needs for him to be a bad-ass. And yet, all the girls want him. (All the girls, in this case, are phenomenal characters in their own right. My love for Elli and Taura is almost as great as my love for Miles. Also I really must read the books where Miles’s future wife shows up. I hear they’re some of the best, but high expectations, I has them. *End tangent*.)

The only other character who comes to mind who is awesome and also disabled is Cormoran Strike from The Cuckoo’s Calling. I don’t recall his disabilities being written off or downplayed when J. K. Rowling needed them to be, and come to that, his milkshake clearly brought at least one supermodel to the yard.

I literally cannot think of other characters, though, especially in romances. Instead, I can think of millions of characters in romances who were such bad stereotypes of disabled people, and more are written every day. I get the power and allure of the rescue fantasy, which is what disabled characters generally express in romance, whether they’re male or female. I even enjoy a good rescue fantasy story now and then–problematic though the trope is, it’s one of my favorites. I just hate the thought that anon-disabled person can only be interested in being with someone like me because they are pure of heart and just love taking care of people, or the thought that if a disabled person is having a bad day and occasionally expressing some discomfort and anger about how ableist the world is, a little hot smexing will fix that right up. Because, seriously, a world of fuck that noise.

But there have to be good representations of disabled people out there, right? I really hope so, because two characters out of millions that have been written are shitty numbers indeed.

Review: Tonight, My Love by Tracy Somers

Published January 13, 2014 by Shannon

Tonight, My Love

Woo. A YA and an erotica review going up on the same day. I hope there is some young person lurking among my readership who can be corrupted by all of these shenanigans.

“Tonight, my love, the choice is yours,” Andrew Campbell tells Isabelle as they ride through the streets of Whitechapel to select a prostitute to join them in bed. Her choice: Franny, a pretty young girl hesitant to go with the genteel couple with Jack the Ripper on the loose.

Yet the lure of money and food is too strong for Franny. Before long, she is in their bed…with Andrew and Isabelle fulfilling their promise to take Franny to the height of sexual ecstasy.

But once their pleasure is complete, Andrew and Isabelle have another surprise in store for her…

I ran across Tonight, My Love on Bookshare a while back. I thought the premise sounded intriguing, but that was three years ago, when I was completely averse to the idea of short stories sold as ebooks. However, this afternoon, I ran across Jill Sorenson’s review on Loving Venus, Loving Mars. and was like, “Oh yeah, this one. Rescue fantasy plus M/F/F action equals something I would adore and probably give me all the feels at the end.” It was still on Bookshare, so I read it, and now I will probably spend more time writing a blog post about the book than I did reading it.
The Good: It’s reasonably well-written erotica. It also takes about 15 minutes to read. This isn’t one of those stories you read when you are looking for well-drawn characters and deep thinking. For what it does, its performance was satisfactory.

The Bad: I did not call this erotic romance. For some reason, I assumed that because this was a Harlequin Spice title, it would have an “optimistic and emotionally satisfying ending”. Um. No. I know it’s not fair to judge an author for not writing the book I wanted her to write, but I hated the twist ending, because it was dumb. That’s why I’m taking the time to write about it here. In fact, I will spoilt for you so you can decide for yourself if you want to invest in this sort of thing for your PWP needs. If you want to avoid spoilers, you might want to stop now.

OK so it turns out the couple are married demons who lure prostitutes in and kill them Jack the Ripper style. There are hints of this early on, and I came to expect a paranormal element. Our prostitute du jour is not exempted from this fate. However, the marketing led me to believe that the ending wouldn’t involve her being dismembered.

Really, the paranormal element seemed to be there for shock value and I wish the author hadn’t gone there at all.

Final Assessment: I’ll probably skip the last few pages and pretend they never happened, if I ever decide to reread. This one was riding steady at a B until that ending, which was a D, so we’ll split the difference and call it a C.

Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Published January 12, 2014 by Shannon

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

In celebration of the holidays, the fine folks at Forever Young Adult decided that a great pick for their December book club would be Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. I was torn about the choice, because on the one hand, I really enjoyed Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook, but on the other hand, this one seemed like it might feature a protagonist I couldn’t like.

Here’s the synopsis:

In addition to the P-38, there are four gifts, one for each of my friends. I want to say good-bye to them properly. I want to give them each something to remember me by. To let them know I really cared about them and I’m sorry I couldn’t be more than I was—that I couldn’t stick around—and that what’s going to happen today isn’t their fault.

Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart-obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school’s class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.

In this riveting book, acclaimed author Matthew Quick unflinchingly examines the impossible choices that must be made—and the light in us all that never goes out.

I experimented a bit by writing notes to myself about the book during the first third. Unfortunately, they don’t apply very well across the board, because after that first third, I developed a strong book trance and had to see it through to the bitter end.

Quick explores empathy in fascinating and realistic ways. Leonard grows into a more compassionate person in the span of several hours. He comes to understand where other people are coming from, and while this doesn’t make him perfect, it certainly makes him more mature. Quick never doles out the after-school special morals and platitudes. He simply lets Leonard wrestle with some large questions and try to find answers the best he can, which is what we all do.

This was another example of a YA novel that benefited from not having a romance arc. Leonard treats the girl he has a crush on terribly because he relates to her the way Humphrey Bogart related to the women in his movies. He idealizes Lauren in a way that does not acknowledge her and what she needs from life, and the text presents his doing so as a bad thing! I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, especially considering this is a book written by a man. Leonard comes to realize that he has hurt Lauren rather badly, and is not attracted to who she really is, but to his ideas of her. Even though we get nothing from Lauren’s POV, the text deals with her challenges growing up as an Evangelical Christian with grace and compassion. I’m left hoping they will both grow apart into different sorts of thoughtful people.

Another thing that I loved was the ending. It’s ambiguous, and not all of the problems are resolved, but it still left me with a sense of hope for Leonard. The ending also acknowledges that, yes, some people will always be shitty and self-obsessed. (Leonard’s mother is so the worst in this regard.) I thought that helped make the “It gets better” message all the more poignant and realistic.

I listened to this via commercial audiobook. I don’t know how they churn out these young men with great voices for audiobooks, but Noah Galvin did an amazing job with the narration. I even found his female voices eerily convincing, which almost never happens, and, as with the best audiobook narrators, his performance added to and underscored the text.

I do wish it hadn’t taken me over a third of the book to connect with Leonard. He starts out the book somewhat insufferable, with poor little rich boy problems. The book is only 6 hours long, though, so if you can get past that first third, the story Quick tells is thoughtful and moving. I recommend this one and am glad I decided to read it after all.

Final Grade: B.