July 6, 2022

June Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading in June:

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović: February, the hearing daughter of Deaf parents, is the head of a residential school where Deaf students learn and socialize in American Sign Language. Charlie is entering the high school at a major disadvantage: she was never allowed to learn ASL because she has a cochlear implant, but since the implant works poorly for her, she hasn't mastered spoken language either. February hopes to ease Charlie's transition to the school by putting her under the guidance of Austin, a student from a family with five generations of deafness. But the opening chapter reveals that by the second semester, Charlie and Austin have run away with another student, which is only the latest crisis February must cope with.

This fantastic novel features a great cast of characters and a gripping, layered plot. Everyone in the story is facing multiple challenges that fuel the tension, some related to deafness and some about family and growing up. Along the way, Nović explores numerous aspects of Deaf culture and politics, presenting different views among the characters with compassion for all sides. An innovative text layout differentiates the use of signed and spoken language, and the story is punctuated by brief, illustrated lessons in ASL and Deaf history. While I did learn a lot from this novel, what impressed me is what a good story it tells.

PANPOCALYPSE by Carley Moore is a mix of journal entries charting the pandemic lockdown and fiction about traveling through portals to other worlds, all from a disabled queer perspective. Orpheus is single and starved for company and touch after New York City shuts down. She buys a bicycle so she can spend some of her lonely days riding around the city, though cycling is sometimes difficult because of a disability that causes pain and poor balance. While Orpheus tries stop pining for her ex-girlfriend, Eurydice, she pursues admission to the mysterious club Le Monocle, which promises a safe place for queer touch. Eventually she finds her way to the club and meets someone who takes her on a farther, stranger journey.

I enjoyed this unusual book and the whole range of content it contains. Sometimes the recounting of the early pandemic captured experiences familiar to me, other times it provided a look inside a very different life, and I appreciated getting to read both. The author/character (the line is deliberately blurred) writes with insight about a variety of injustices she encounters personally or sees occurring in the wider world. When the story moves into the speculative realm, it's a fun interlude, but just as thoughtfully done.

THE COWARD by Jarred McGinnis: Jarred wakes up in the hospital after an accident and learns he'll never walk again, and a woman is dead. He's angry, guilt-ridden, and unprepared to face the future in a wheelchair. Upon discharge from the hospital, he's forced to call his father, who he hasn't spoken to in ten years. Jack takes in Jarred, his wheelchair, and his enormous medical debt, and father and son uneasily try to rebuild a relationship. As Jarred adjusts to navigating the inaccessible world in the present, the story of the two men's difficult and often violent past unspools.

The strong, well-written narrative voice and complex characterizations are this novel's strengths. Jarred is a funny, angry narrator. Much of what he rails against is justified, but he's also deeply committed to being an asshole and not allowing himself happiness, and the author mines both the humor and tragedy in this. The book's major flaw for me was that not enough happens in the plot, or at least the things that happen started feeling repetitive after a while. I grew fond of the characters and hoped for things to turn out well for them, but I would have preferred a shorter version of this book.

WOMAN OF LIGHT by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Luz, her brother Diego, and their aunt have made a life together in 1933 Denver -- a difficult, hardworking life, but one with many happy times. Life gets even harder after Diego angers a group of white men who brutally beat him, resulting in Diego leaving town. Luz and her aunt barely scrape by for a while, until Luz gets a job working for a local lawyer, where she learns about more cases of brutal injustice. She also finds a love interest, or maybe two. Luz periodically uses her gift for seeing visions to glimpse scenes from her family's past, going back generations.

The way this novel opens, with a list of family members by generation and a prologue set in 1868, led me to expect more of the story would span the generations, but it's mostly focused on a year or two in Luz's life. Unfortunately, I was never fully drawn into her story, and I found many situations lacking in nuance and bogged down by excessive descriptive details. There was a lot interesting in the family history, and I kept wishing to see more of the previous generations than the limited chapters provided. I preferred the tighter, more compelling short stories in the author's strong collection, SABRINA & CORINA.

THE MEN by Sandra Newman: One day, all the men in the world disappear. (More accurately, it's every person with a Y chromosome.) Jane is camping in the mountains with her husband and young son when this happens, so it takes her some time to learn that they are part of a mass vanishing rather than lost in the woods. She's reeling with grief when she reconnects with Evangelyne, an old but estranged friend who is becoming a charismatic leader in this new world. Meanwhile, video clips posted online seem to show men walking in eerie unison across strange landscapes, and nobody can agree who's behind the videos or what they mean.

I found the various pieces of this novel absorbing, but those pieces don't hold together well. The strongest part of the story is the opening chapters, when Jane and several other characters experience the mysterious loss of loved ones and struggle to understand what's happening. Early on, the book has some good exploration of immediate effects from half the population disappearing. After that, a surprisingly small amount of the book is devoted to these repercussions. There's a lot about the videos known as The Men, and the people who become obsessed with watching and analyzing them. And there's too much about the previous intense friendship between Jane and Evangelyne, and the separate traumatic experiences that shaped their lives before they met. The chapters about the past felt like they belonged in another book, because the events didn't especially influence the two women's response to the disappearance.

The gender apocalypse in this story is specified as connected to the Y chromosome, and so there are occasional references to trans women being among the disappeared, trans men remaining, and nonbinary people in both groups. I read this as acknowledging gender diversity without focusing on it, though I can't speak to whether the author had another intention. My interpretation is despite the fact that the first mention of a trans person is a (very brief) scene of assault, which made me wary as I read the rest. Mostly the story doesn't seem particularly concerned with the chromosome thing, or with any characters beyond the main set, which doesn't include any trans people. I wouldn't cite any of this as grounds to avoid the book, but I've already explained other reasons it may not be worth your time. (I do wholeheartedly recommend Katherine Packert Burke's essay about how this and similar novels mostly don't know what to do with trans people, and I'm featuring it below.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Katherine Packert Burke looks at the ways recent gender apocalypse novels treat trans people: "References to these trans women, or to the trans men who survive, are fleeting and uncomplicated. But these are books about gender. They're trying to reckon with something toxic in the structure of society. Why wouldn't trans people be a part of that? What fears are they reckoning with that don't include trans people?"


Anonymous said...

I thought while reading about "The Men" that its premise sounded awfully close to the older "Y: The Last Man" graphic novel (recently televised). I did not realize we'd hit the point where "gender apocolypse" is a sub-genre. :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

I hadn't heard the term "gender apocalypse" until recently, either, and also hadn't realized there was more to the genre than Y: The Last Man. Maybe there have been enough entries that we can be done with this subgenre now!

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