One Last Stop, Silver in the Wood, and The Will to Change
a casual and normal reading update that is not weirdly intense and definitely doesn't analyze an episode of Friends
If you're reading this, you might know me from BookTok. You might also know that I'm taking a break from BookTok. I'm enjoying that break immensely, and I'm starting to think I might never come back. The problem, of course, is that I really like to talk about books. So I thought I'd try writing a super casual roundup of what I've been reading lately, which ballooned into something not very casual at all. Whoops!
Anyway, here are the books I've read so far in April.
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One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
August is a Brooklyn transplant trying to cultivate both her own identity and some distance from her mother, who's been preoccupied with solving the case of her missing brother (August’s uncle and namesake) for decades. But August gets sucked back into sleuthing when what begins as a crush becomes a mystery for August and her newly-adopted Scooby Gang to unravel. Who is the hot butch on the Q, and why has she been stuck on the train for 45 years?
Maybe it's already obvious, but the big problem with One Last Stop is the same thing that endears me to it. It's doing way, way too much. It's a romance that's also about friendship and also about solving a mystery and also about solving another mystery inside of that mystery. There's also, inexplicably, a save-the-local-diner-with-a-drag-brunch-fundraiser subplot. And I can forgive it for all that. I’ll probably always be charmed by McQuiston's very particular blend of humor and earnestness, and that bursting-at-the-seams quality is one of the ways it shows up.
But! But. if you're gonna do too much in your contemporary romance, you probably shouldn't literally trap your love interest on a train, severely restricting the ways they can interact with the story. For the most part, we know exactly when and where and under what circumstances August and Jane are going to share scenes. So half the book is spent on the subway, and the other half is spent twiddling our thumbs. And that’s unfortunate, because it's those in-between bits that would really shine if this were regular ol’ contemporary fiction. But it’s not!
There's another problem, too, and it's endemic to queer contemporary romance. One Last Stop is a already overstuffed at 418 pages, and way too much of that time is spent holding our hands through every twist and turn, explaining every detail so that we can't possibly miss the point or have a different interpretation.
The thing about good stories is that they trust their readers to come to their own conclusions sometimes. Good stories understand that sometimes, inevitably, those conclusions will be wrong, but they also understand that the risk is worth it. By the end of One Last Stop, however, every plot thread is exhaustively tied up, every interpersonal relationship is crisply defined, and every supernatural detail is tediously explained to such an extent that the magic is quite literally lost.
Maybe this sort of obsessive moral and thematic tidiness is the unavoidable future of contemporary romance, a genre that increasingly treats happily-ever-afters and open ends as if they're mutually exclusive. If so, I'll miss the mess.
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
I'm glad I didn't study English in college in the wistful way that one learns to love all of life’s weird and winding paths. One consequence of my lack of formal education, though, is my own self-consciousness about discussing the specifics of craft. I'm great with themes and patterns and all that soft stuff, but I'm not as good at looking at a well-written story and explaining what precisely makes it tick. Still, for Silver in the Wood I will try, because I love how Emily Tesh has written it.
Tobias Finch has lived in the wood for a very long time, and he's been alone for almost as long as that. Alone, that is, until the charming and indelibly curious new owner of Greenhollow Hall stumbles out of the rain and into his cabin, determined to dig up secrets Tobias would rather keep buried.
Silver in the Wood is lush without being self-indulgent, mysterious without being indecipherable. It's a lovely, graceful read—the kind where words flow effortlessly into each other and before you know it, you've reached the end.
I'm most impressed by Tesh's subtle, elegant character work. She walks a delicate line, pitting the ways people perceive each other against their actual actions. We see Silver exclusively through Tobias's perspective, learning about him as Tobias does. Resultingly, Silver is naive until he's sharp, spoiled until he's brave, petulant until he's calculating, and all of these contradictions miraculously coalesnce into a character that feels all the more real for them. There's a delightful slipperiness to Tesh's characters—just when you think you've got them pegged, they do something that surprises you, only to realize, in hindsight, that it doesn't surprise you at all.
Tesh's approach to magic is similar. Her magic is nature and her nature is magic, exploring the limits and responsibilities of ownership and stewardship and the difference between the two, if such a thing exists. We never quite learn, precisely, how the wood's magic works except that it does, intrinsically—bound together by a logic that seems just beyond our mortal grasp.
I'm in the middle of Silver in the Wood's sequel, Drowned Country, as I write this. I'm certainly enjoying the experience, but like a lot of reviews will tell you, it's doesn't quite recapture the magic of the first book. It's less of an atmospheric fever dream and more of a paranormal caper. Still worth the read, but far more conventional than its predecessor, which is something truly special.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
I want to make two observations:
1. When faced with politically-charged content, we, ✨as a society✨, tend to project previous iterations of similar arguments on to what we’re currently experiencing. Sometimes that's a useful mental shortcut, and sometimes it prevents us from seeing the fuller picture. (In other words, even the best of us can fall victim to straw men.)
2. One of the ways that bigotry gets its claws in is by convincing oppressors that they are the ones who are truly being oppressed.
Housekeeping out of the way, here's the Blobby and Friends web comic that sparked a round of Twitter Discourse™️ last Sunday:
A lot of folks on Twitter looked at this comic and saw a defensive man trying once again to insist that it's men, actually, who are oppressed by women. I don't think that's an entirely unreasonable interpretation. But I happened to be reading bell hooks's The Will to Change at the time this discourse hit the fan, so when I looked at that comic, I saw something different.
In The Will to Change, hooks discusses how patriarchy hurts men by molding them into the very tools that further perpetuate it. She argues that we stamp out the feminine-coded feelings of boys in childhood, instilling in them the idea that boys should be stoic protectors, and that anger and the violence it creates are the only acceptable emotions for a real man to display (and to be strategically employed by the state). The problem is that men are full and complete human beings with the same depth and range of feeling as women and non-men. So men, even though they benefit from patriarchy, are left profoundly isolated by it, often unable to express the full range of their emotions even to themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, these rigid rules of masculinity are something that men primarily police amongst themselves, compelled by their fear of being associated with femininity. But women and non-men are complicit in this system too.
From Chapter 9, “Healing Male Spirit”:
“Often men, to speak the pain, first turn to the women in their lives and are refused a hearing. In many ways women have bought into the patriarchal masculine mystique. Asked to witness a male expressing feelings, to listen to those feelings and respond, they may simply turn away. There was a time when I would often ask the man in my life to tell me his feelings. And yet when he began to speak, I would either interrupt or silence him by crying, sending him the message that his feelings were too heavy for anyone to bear, so it was best if he kept them to himself. As the Sylvia cartoon I have previously mentioned reminds us, women are fearful of hearing men voice feelings. I did not want to hear the pain of my male partner because hearing it required that I surrender my investment in the patriarchal ideal of the male as protector of the wounded. If he was wounded, then how could he protect me?”
In a 2000 episode of Friends (“The One with the Ring,” for those playing along at home), Rachel has just started dating Paul. Rachel is attracted to Paul, but she doesn't like that he's emotionally closed off. She wants him to open up, because she understands that vulnerability is key to intimacy. Paul, trying to make an effort, shares an innocuous story from his childhood. And then the floodgates open.
And those floodgates opening, well, that's the joke. This isn't what Rachel signed up for. The joke operates on the patriarchal assumption that men shouldn’t rely on women in the same way that women should rely on men. It's clear to the audience and to Rachel that this intense display of emotion is emasculating to Paul, even if he doesn't realize it. It’s obvious to Rachel and to the audience that the only possible courses of action are either 1) Paul relearn to keep his feelings to himself, or 2) they end their nascent relationship.
Here's the top comment on that YouTube video:
This, I think, is what that web comic was trying to get at.
bell hooks is one of those figures who's been granted posthumous cultural sainthood. Her arguments are often treated as fact simply because she's the one who made them. This kind of valorization ultimately destabilitizes those very arguments, though, because it leaves room for her flaws to be weaponized in attempts to delegitimize them. That was the most frustrating part of the web comic discourse. When people brought up The Will to Change, those most dedicated to the least generous interpretation of the comic attempted to discredit hooks altogether. And who does that serve?
bell hooks had some bad takes. Just Google what she said about the Central Park 5 or watch the video of her opining on the struggles of landlordism. Limiting my criticisms to The Will to Change, though: hooks's attitudes toward porn and video games are predictably retrograde. She doesn't go far enough to imagine what post-patriarchal masculinity might look like, or how such a thing might enable men to take ownership of the fear they often inspire in non-men. And there's absolutely no acknowledgement—not a single word—of the existence of transness, without which any discussion of masculinity is incomplete. This absence takes on a deliberate edge when considering hooks's persistent reliance on bioessentialist language (e.g., "male" instead of "man" and "female" instead of “woman”)—a needlessly restrictive choice, even for 2003.
bell hooks was an imperfect woman who wrote an imperfect book, and its imperfections are made clearer with the hindsight of 20 years. Still, I think you should read it.
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ugh mel you're incredible and also so much of this is massively massively relatable-- the self-consciousness on talking about craft (retweet! i am but an enthusiastic and occasionally eloquent reader! i have no laurels to rest on), the endearing too-muchness of mcquiston's writing (I think about this often!), the reading of hooks, who I admire a lot! (have you read judith butler's essay Gender is Burning, which does a lovely little critique of hooks' terfy critique of Paris is Burning?).
Re: mcquiston specifically- something I'm mulling over is the degree to which confining Jane in the subway feels like an authorial choice not-divorced from mcquiston's whiteness. I liked the book a lot and its hopeful spirit, but it struck me that jane's removal from the narrative in such a way feels so... similar to the other stereotypes and archetypes of asian women and non-men in media. sought after, appealing, but passive (not submissive! would not mistake jane for being submissive!) in stories that are ostensibly about them but probably more about how white people desire them.
anyways, I, too, love mess. thanks for sharing your thoughts <3
Love this! I migrated over from your TikTok and really enjoyed getting a reading update in this form. Also this is super random, but if you haven’t watched the Magic Mike trilogy recently, I’d recommend watching it in the context of The Will to Change. My sister brought up that book when we went to see the third one for Valentines Day and I can’t stop thinking about it. I really think those movies are saying a lot of cool shit about masculinity and vulnerability and community and labor. And they’re just really fun to watch. Anyway, thanks for writing this!