Booker longlist reading: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Just under the wire, I finished one of my most eagerly awaited longlist nominees. Shamsie’s novel has received rave reviews all over the place and is the bookie’s favorite to make the shortlist. It’s a topic that I’ve studied and written on and one that matters a lot to me: the way in which the post 9/11 (and in this case, 7/7) attacks have reshaped the way Muslims are perceived and treated in western Europe and North America. Shamsie’s novel is set in the UK and focuses on the particular issues there, but the larger themes apply across many settings.

Liz, Rosario, Theresa, and other Booker Longlist readers have described the plot so I won’t rehash that here (you should definitely go read their reviews and the comments to them). Shamsie models her story on the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, with a few modifications in the cast and family relationships. In her telling there are two central families, one comprising Isma, Aneeka, and Pervaiz Pasha, the children of a British-Pakistani man who died fighting with Islamist terrorists; and the other headed by Karamat Lone, rising front-bench politician and current Home Secretary whose marriage to a wealthy, successful American businesswoman has propelled his career. Karamat and Terry have two children in their 20s: Emily, an investment banker in NY, and Eamonn, a somewhat aimless but charming and handsome 24-year-old.

Isma is the older mother-substitute, who finally has the chance to pursue her own intellectual ambitions when twins Aneeka and Pervaiz reach adulthood. But her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States sets a number of actions in motion, actions that will have devastating consequences for all of them. And Karamat Lone is drawn back into the Muslim community that has both raised and rejected him, with his political ambitions tied to events he can only imperfectly control.

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Nazis heroes in romance novels

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to add to the cacophony around the RITA nomination of Kate Breslin’s inspirational historical romance, For Such A Time. This is a book set in 1944, primarily at the Theresienstadt camp, with a love story between the camp Kommandant and a Jewish young woman at its core.

I’ve written and rewritten paragraphs about the book, the controversy, etc., but I don’t think I really have much to add to that part. If you’re on Twitter, if you follow major blogs, or if you read online magazines, you’ve come across the debate. Many of the contributors to the debate have not read the book. There are all kinds of things being stated as fact, sometimes after reading the book, sometimes not. There is also a lot of “well, that’s what inspirational romance is.”

I am almost finished reading the book and will be participating in a joint discussion/review of it at Dear Author. I’ll link to that post when it is published, and for people who don’t read DA, I’ll provide a brief summary here and we can talk about it in comments if people are interested.

In the meantime, I want to talk about where this book fits in the larger historical romance (and historical fiction with romantic elements) category. This book clearly brings together a number of volatile, offensive, and arguably beyond-the-pale factors. However, when we take each of these factors in turn, it appears that they are all fairly well established in the romance genre (or at least the part of the romantic fiction genre that is reviewed and recognized by romance-centric sites and organizations).

I have no desire to defend the book, either in terms of its premise or its execution. I am interested in challenging the idea that this book is a unique specimen. To the extent it is unique, its uniqueness lies in combining elements which have gone relatively unremarked (and often praised) in other romance and romantic novels when they appear individually.

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The semester is over, spring is sliding toward summer, and I’m trying to get organized to make the best use of my non-teaching months. So far I’ve read two books this week. That’s productive, right? Meanwhile, have a hodgepodge of links.

First, Twitter had a disappointing earnings report a few days ago, which led to a number of posts on what its weaknesses are and how it could recover from them. This piece by John Hermann makes the point that since every website wants you to stay within its confines rather than surf away and spend your time elsewhere, Twitter is becoming more inward looking. It’s an understandable process for a public company but it feels antithetical to what made Twitter so appealing in the first place:

In 2013, a month before going public, Twitter starting putting images in its feeds. It added “fav” and “retweet” buttons to the main flow. The effect was Facebook-like. The feed felt more substantial, and less dependent on the things it linked to. It was no longer a scroll of jokes and comments and headlines; it was a scroll of jokes and comments and headlines and photos and videos and chunks of articles. People had a few more reasons to stay in the feed, and fewer to leave.

The path Twitter chose then is the one it still seems to be on; each change since then—most recently, Twitter added the ability to embed tweets within tweets—has emphasized Twitter’s own feed over the things it references. For years, Twitter was largely and stubbornly centered around links, contributing to the web and providing and layer through which to interpret it; now, it is withdrawing into itself.

The new media news is also full of how companies are trying to adapt to Facebook’s push to keep content siloed within Facebook, so while I’m still horrified at the idea that Facebook should buy Twitter, I can see how the financial logic makes that idea attractive.

Next, an interesting piece from the always insightful Christopher Fowler’s blog on how blog tours are appealing from an author’s perspective. Fowler is a successful, veteran mystery and horror author who has managed to stay viable in the face of massive upheavals in the publishing industry. He makes a great point about how traditional publicity has changed and how blogs can be an improvement:

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I was busy doing work stuff last week, mostly end of term conferences, student meetings, and faculty meetings. I didn’t get a chance to write a regular blog post, but I made sure to collect some links along the way.

First up, a terrific column by Caleb Crain on the debate over American PEN’s decision to honor the Charlie Hebdo staff (there is a shorter version at the LA Times as well). There has been much heated conversation on both sides, completed with high-minded and not so high-minded rhetoric. Crain cuts to what I think is a crucial point of departure for the two sides:

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were captioned in French, and they depended for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons. First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad Magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste. But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being. In America the waves that flooded us were a little different.

By this point, I’ve probably tipped my hand, and I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I don’t happen to think Charlie Hebdo is racist or bigoted, and I think that some of the American writers who have condemned it must have had the subtitles off while they were trying to make a determination that can be tricky to make even about an American message designed for American consumption. More than three million French citizens rallied in solidarity withCharlie Hebdo a few days after the January murders. Were those marchers complicit with racism or bigotry at the newspaper, or unwilling or unable to recognize them? Maybe, but I doubt it. There’s a debate worth having about whether the French policy oflaïcité is a sufficiently merciful and flexible way for a democracy to handle the separation of church and state, but I strongly doubt that there would have been such a broad outpouring of support forCharlie Hebdo in France if it had been a French analog of the Westboro Baptist Church. When it comes to telling whether a French newspaper smells sweet or sour, I think the French are likely to have the more discerning noses.

While we all recognize aspects of humor that are universal, we are often less aware of how cultural contextualized humor can be, and especially how much the boundaries of what is funny (as opposed to offensive) are set by cultural norms. I find that USians in general are less comfortable with satire than some other cultures, and many of us don’t do discomfort in humor well. Many comics will tell you that comedy has its roots in anger, but I’m not sure how many audience members fully appreciate that.

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What I’ve been teaching: Privacy

This spring I’ve been teaching a course on the politics of privacy. I first taught it as a summer school course two years ago, when I had half a dozen students and ran it as a seminar. It was a lot of fun, and I got to try out unfamiliar readings and unusual assignments. The following spring TheHusband taught it as a lecture course, and now this year it was my turn again (we plan to alternate).

It’s a pretty interdisciplinary syllabus. We start with sociological readings from the 1960s on the social construction of the self and the self in public, because you can’t understand the private sphere without thinking about the public sphere. The reading list includes everything from law articles and legal cases (including Romanceland’s own Carolyn Jewel) to economics articles to current EU, Canadian, and US statutes on privacy. And also Gawker and Reddit (yes, your tuition dollars are being spent on teachers who send their students off to read stories on Reddit. I’m sorry). We finish up by watching a couple of recent documentaries, 2014’s The Internet’s Own Boy (about Aaron Swartz) and CitizenFour (the 2015 Oscar winner about Eric Snowden, now on HBO, GO WATCH IT EVERYBODY).

I tell the students at the beginning of the class that teaching this class is in many ways a selfish act on my part. Those of you who followed my VM blog know that I’m very interested in the digital divide and uneven access to technology. My more than two decades online, especially the last decade and the explosion of social media, has made me think a lot about the intersection of technology and privacy. But as a certified member of The Olds, my take on these issues is very different from that of my students. Policies and laws are passed and implemented by people who are closer to my age than theirs, but they are the ones who have grown up in a connected world and will never have the option to leave it.

One of the truisms I see a lot in online discussions is that millenials “don’t worry about privacy.” That is not my experience at all. Some of them are blasé but many are not. Granted, I have a self-selected sample of millenials who are more likely to care about these issues. But even within this group, while attitudes vary about how much privacy they want or expect, they’re not ignorant about the benefits and drawbacks.

That said, they’re not always fully aware of how many ways privacy is not in their control, and one of the things I try to get across to them is an understanding of what kind of data are out there. They do an assignment they call “internet self-stalking,” in which they go to computers that they don’t usually use and surf via a variety of browsers to see how much information there is about them online, and where that information might have come from. Some of what they discover is expected, but other results are not. The students are often surprised by how much information is put online by other people. If they have commonplace names or share names with more famous people then they are safer, because their results will be lost among the rest. But if they have even slightly unusual names, they’ll show up.

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Thoughts on The Goblin Emperor

Last year social media was abuzz with love for Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a fantasy novel written by Sarah Monette under a new pseudonym. In fact, there was so much buzz that I doubted I would ever read it because I frequently don’t do well with non-romance novels that are beloved by my romance-reading buddies. I was tempted, despite the 18-year-old protagonist and the elves & goblins setting, because the emphasis on politics and court intrigue was right up my alley. Still, my TBR was huge, I was on a book-buying fast, and I was enjoying what I had queued up in my near reading future.

Then the Hugo nominations furor hit, and I was struck by the fact that the two non-slate novel nominees were The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Sword. I’d been underwhelmed by the first half of Ancillary Justice and put it aside but was still mulling why, and now another book I had ambivalence about was nudging me to read it. So I decided to give it a try.

I read the first chapter and found it well written but not particularly engaging. It takes a huge suspension of disbelief to accept that the ruler of a nation whose sovereigns are endangered regularly through that nation’s history would let his entire line of succession (at least the part he approved) ride with him in the same vehicle. But if he hadn’t, our hero wouldn’t have stumbled onto the Throne of Elfland (not the real name of the nation but Addison makes up lots of names and they’re even harder to spell than they are to remember). I lowered my eyebrow and decided to keep reading. And I’m glad I did. I didn’t love this book the way so many people do, but it has many features to recommend it.

I found The Goblin Emperor to be a warm, fluffy, blanket of a book. It was never particularly surprising; the good people stayed good, the villains were who you expected them to be, and the hero and his immediate circle were unfailingly decent, honorable, and admirable. Maia, the accidental emperor, was sweet and obviously sympathetic, but in some ways it was too obvious. I would have to have an even harder heart than I do not to be moved by his plight, but it felt like something I accepted as part of the story rather than something that reached out to me and gradually brought to me care deeply for his fate. His problems were external, rather than the result of the internal struggles of a complicated personality, with the exception of his reflexive self-loathing, and even that dissipated as he realized that he was not that unusual, he just had an awful, awful father who made innocent victims pay for his own poor decisions.

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