Review: Jazz

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Title: Jazz
Author: Toni Morrison
Published: 1992
ISBN: 1400076218
Publisher: Vintage Books International
Publisher’s Blurb:  In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

“… it’s hard to match the superstitious for great expectations.”  (p9)

I enjoy music and love books, but I don’t know how to put the two of them together.  It confused me when Jack Kerouac wrote about going to the clubs and listening to bebop, then using the beats in his writing.  I really wanted to approach Jazz from this perspective but I haven’t a clue.

Morrison explains how she approached Jazz in the Foreword, “Romantic love seemed to me one of the fingerprints of the twenties, and jazz its engine. (p. xviii)”  I understood that, but translating that into my words?  An incantation I can’t follow.

Also in the Foreword she writes, “I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy, its history, its range, and its modernity.  (p. xix)”

All my life I’ve been surrounded by creative people.  And a lot of them talk about beats.  Theatre people, musicians, poets, writers.  I know the basics of music, I can find the beat, but that’s not what writers mean.

Morrison’s unidentified narrator uses phrases like, “clarinets and lovemaking,” and talks about the rhythm of the trains on their tracks, and the drums of the men who marched in silent protest to the massacre of East St. Louis in 1917.

I can imagine the drummers marching in line down the street filled with onlookers who show their anger in complete silence.  The solemn rhythm a heartbeat connecting all to bear witness to the pain and tragedy.

More, I can imagine the smoky jazz halls filled with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines while people danced to the rhythm.  I can even imagine the sounds of jazz coming from windows on a hot summer day through open windows.

But in the story of Violet and Joe Trace and his young girlfriend, Dorcas, I don’t hear it.  In this story, I feel the pain of trauma, the suffering from unfulfilled expectations and the nervous energy when Violet walks into Dorcas’ funeral and slashes the corpse’s face.

I feel the pain of those who don’t know who their parents are, or who were lied to about their parentage.  The anxiety of being squished into a few blocks by people who don’t know a thing about you and your community.

There is a rhythm to the laughter of women who gather for cards and shamelessly flirt with Joe Trace, the Cleopatra beauty products salesman who just happens to pop by.  So too is there rhythm to the teen-aged dance in someone’s apartment where liquor is surreptitiously served to boys and girls nervous about their bodies and their sexuality.  And then there’s the shock when Joe walks in and shoots Dorcas, and Dorcas telling her friends to just leave her alone.

Toni Morrison addresses big themes I could never identify with fully simply because I am white in a world that, no matter how misogynistic, will always privilege me over a woman who is not white.  Yet it is in reading Morrison both in Jazz and Beloved that i get a feeling of what it’s like to have suffered inhumanely from those who don’t see humanity, only skin color.

Maybe knowing more about the rhythms of jazz would have helped me get deeper beneath the surface.  Maybe.  What I know is the pain I felt for these characters and this sad, sad story so beautifully written.  What I know is how hard it is to look ugliness in the face and give it a name, to wrestle with demons no one can bear, and what it is to live with heartbreak and despair so many days of a life, one wonders if it’s even worth going on.

I know Toni Morrison writes so that people like me can begin to try to understand the suffering of people we would never have known otherwise.  She writes, I read, and then offer prayers of gratitude for her gorgeous words.

 

Review: The Mortal Word

The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman

Title: The Mortal Word
Author: Genevieve Cogman
Published: 2018
ISBN-13: 9780399587443
Publisher: Ace
Twitter: @GenevieveCogman
Publisher’s Blurb: When a dragon is murdered at a peace conference, time-travelling Librarian spy Irene must solve the case to keep the balance between order, chaos…and the Library.

In The Mortal Word’s 1890s Paris the Grand Guignol is in full swing.  Terror in its most “natural” state, precursor to B movies promising to be so frightening a doctor and nurse would be on standby for viewers who succumbed to their terror.

When several murders and other atrocities occur accusations fly.   Terrifying things happen that might disrupt the Paris Peace Treaty between fae and dragon, mediated by humans, who better to blame than the Blood Countess?

Elizabeth Báthory, historically known for torturing her victims and bathing in the blood of virgins,  is high chaos.  With her in the story, the poisoning, the chlorine gas bomb, the mysterious clues to L’Enfer all too easily deflect attention away from the real murderer, and the political reasoning behind it.

Of course, the Blood Countess did all those things, and more.  She terrifies others because it is in her nature.  Disrupting the peace conference is fun and games for her, not politics.  Yet, she has stirred the pot.  And in stirring the pot, becomes the favored target of the political gamesmanship of fae and dragon.

Eventually, the evidence leads to the Grand Guignol theatre, and a basement chamber suitable for use by someone who tortures and kidnaps for fun.  Staged terror and real terror in the same building, nothing could be more perfect.  Here, the reader is led to believe, is the denouement of the story.  Now, we will learn why and how the Blood Countess terrified both fae and dragon over a peace conference.

I got so carried along, i almost missed the siren call of the red herring.  As despicable and terrifying as the Blood Countess is, other evidence points other ways.  When calmer minds prevail and re-organize the evidence, the real killer comes to light.

To mystery readers, this may sound like standard fare.  Let me assure you there’s nothing standard about Cogman’s characters.  In her hands, and through Irene’s eyes, we are shown just how tricky it is to think clearly when a fae is trying to hold her in thrall.  Dragons are tricky in their own way, with their rigid hierarchy and societal rules.  And within this world, a character like the Blood Countess can thrive and both be guilty and not at the same time.

The Invisible Library series is inter-dimensional library, Librarians stealing books to keep chaos and order in balance, dragons, fae, alternate timelines, and so much more.  It’s a pleasurable read, even when the villains are as terrifying as the Blood Countess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Stealing: Life in America

Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Title: Stealing:  Life in America
Author: Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780999516416
Publisher: Adelaide Books
I received a copy of Stealing:  Life in America from Adelaide Books in return for an honest review.  Thank you!

Winter in Maine is not just a season but a location, sign-posted in layers of cold-white drifts and gritty ice. – “Winter” – p. 193

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s book of essays titled Stealing:  Life in America is more than just the relating of facts about being poor in Brooklyn, of Russian Jewish ancestry, and how those combine to give a sense of identity.

Those are the bare bone facts.  These essays, though, carry power.   Cacho-Negrete’s power comes from her honesty and her eloquence.  Her words touch exposed nerves, and reveal the wounds which come from the poverty our country refuses to acknowledge.

Her first essay, “Stealing,” begins this way, “The day I decided to steal food I instituted three simple rules: Steal only essentials, only from big chains, never brag.”

These are not the words of someone who feels entitled to what the world hasn’t given them.  These are the words of a truly desperate single mother trying to make it four months until her teaching job begins.  This stings, and it should.  This is, we are told, avoidable if we only follow the rules and do all that’s expected of us to rise in the world.

Except …. there’s always an except in these stories.  Except Cacho-Negrete did what she was supposed to do.  She worked hard, got her education, married, and had children.  The promise of education is that it will lift us out of our poverty and put us directly into the arms of the middle class where we will be cradled until we die.

Stealing:  Life in America isn’t necessarily an indictment of a part of society we’d rather not acknowledge.  It’s also not the story of “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, you can too.”  This book is an intimate look at how hard that climb is, especially if the climb starts in the Brooklyn ghetto of the 1940s and 50s.

From Brooklyn, the reader goes on a trip in search of relatives near and far.  The grandfather and aunt, also in Brooklyn, her mother refuses to talk to, giving no reason to her curious daughter.  In “Country of the Past”, in Finland, near the Russian border with her husband, she wonders about her Russian ancestors, and if crossing the border illegally will give her a connection at all.  Would she somehow feel connected to the part of her heritage which was held in contempt always?

Physical appearance plays a part in identity.  And “Hair” is about having tightly curled blonde locks in a time when having straight hair was a societal requirement in being accepted.  It’s a discussion of where all the feminine outliers go to bring their unruly hair under control, and how women will do what needs to be done to fit in better.  An experience not unlike what women continue to go through in 2019.

“Rejection” tells the experience of the person we all know and can’t understand.  The one who gets under our skin and stays there despite our best efforts.  She writes, “But I am sensitive, and always have been, to the subtle clues people put out. (p. 68)”    Me too sister.  And the ones we are most sensitive to are the people who just don’t like us for no good reason we can see.  We weren’t given a chance to piss them off, they just seem to arrive in our lives that way.  And through her neighbor’s heartache, Cacho-Negrete is kindness itself.  Only to be spurned again.  Telling us we’re overreacting in such cases doesn’t mean a thing.  We know something’s going on, even if we don’t know what.  And that’s what drives us nuts.  There is no explanation for their behavior.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays gather her readers around in a warm circle while she tells stories of doing the best we can in horrible situations in which the answer is clear, but not to those who can make a change.  She writes of meeting women fortunate enough to have never worried about how they spend their money.  And she writes of the part of her, while now financially comfortable, who can only wonder why someone needs more than one expensive hand bag or more than two designer sweaters.  Because she knows the pain of complete lack, Cacho-Negrete lives in the world of thrift stores and only buying what she absolutely needs.  It is unfathomable to her to buy more.

Her journey moves to Brooklyn to Maine, where she and her second husband live a good, comfortable life.  But because life is life, and nothing is ever always easy, her husband winds up in the hospital with an idiopathic condition.  (The irony that the word for an unknown illness has the same first letters as idiot is not lost on me.)

Here, in “Days and Days and Days Inbetween” is the story of a different kind of pain and anxiety, told with compassion.  But the longing for a diagnosis, an answer to “will he be all right” is just beneath the surface.  How can it not be?  In the end, yes he is all right.

While many of Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays resonated on a deeply emotional level with me, this did not take away from being enraptured by her story-telling ability.  Eloquent, warm, matter-of-fact, and the near perfect telling of a life of adventure.  Struggles overcome, an understanding of how far she’d moved from those fire escapes in Brooklyn, and a modest bit of triumphalism are what make Stealing:  Life in America worth reading.

Review: God’s War

God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Title: God’s War
Series: 1st of 3
Author:  Kameron Hurley
Published:  2011
ISBN-13:   9781597809504
Publisher:  Nightshade Books
Twitter: @Kameronhurley
Publisher’s Blurb:  Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war — but at what price?

God’s War is the first of three books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

I long for the day when we don’t have to think about feminist or masculine tropes, that we can write and read good stories without the heavy load of “male gaze” or “women don’t/shouldn’t do that” (same goes for men).  It seems unfair to have to point out that Kameron Hurley’s work is uniquely feminist, and that her reasons for being so amount to “enough is enough, women can too do that.”

It’s unfair because Hurley is a damned fine storyteller.  She has said repeatedly she’s written characters like Nyx based on Conan the Barbarian and Mad Max.  Her book The Geek Feminist Revolution has two essays which specifically address this.  Hurley makes it clear that if a male protagonist can do it, so can a female protagonist.

And that’s how we got Nyx, the badass who can take on Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  Nyx is a nasty piece of work, and she is everything a hero/antihero needs to be.

God does not answer the phone

If the goal of feminism is for women to be treated equally to men, then Kameron Hurley’s God’s War succeeds in many ways.  In her world, women are in charge and visible at every level of society.  As she tells the story,  “bēl damê, [is] an old Assyrian/Babylonian term for a blood avenger … ‘owner of the blood’ and ‘collector of blood debt.’”  She wanted to write about a bel dame in disgrace.  Nyx hobbles through the world taking any contract that will pay the days’ bills.

If feminism is about being seen and heard, then nearly all the women who populate Nyx’s world have succeeded.  But sexism still exists. Never mind the details, the women are the sexists in this world. They leer and catcall just like any ill-mannered male in other books.

What’s striking to me is while Hurley has turned the anti-hero trope on its head by making women the lead characters in a dismal, apocalyptic world, she does not give women a pass on bad behavior.  These women are so far from prim and proper, and polite, it’s laughable. Yet Hurley is making a point, that women can hold the plot of such a story just as well as men. Women are in every corner of society, just trying to get along to the next day.

The main thrust of the plot is an alien gene pirate has landed and threatens any potential of “balance” in this world.  It’s presumed her ancestors had a part in starting this war centuries ago for reasons no one remembers anymore. The pirate becomes a wanted woman and the queen calls on Nyx to deliver her head.

That’s what bounty hunters do, they behead and deliver it to the contract holder.  Or they kill outright. But they only get paid if they follow the contract’s instructions to the letter.

So think about this, Nyx is a woman mercenary who’s good at tracking and killing people.  She’s been kicked out of the guild of government paid assassins because even they couldn’t handle her.  She’s given up her ability to transport zygotes in her uterus because she sold it for money to get to the next stop, wherever that might be.  This is who she is, what she has become. And she has no illusions about her place in life. And the queen calls on her, not the bel dame, to find and behead an alien.

Politics being what they are, Nyx discovers hidden agendas and wanders into fights, literal and figurative, which call everything she knows about who she is and what she’s fighting for into question.  In the end, people die or are banished. Nyx argues with the Queen over ideology and realizes, just as the rest of us do, there are no happy endings. We just keep going on.

Every one of the characters in God’s War are broken.  There’s no repairing them, and most know it.  Hurley does not spare us from the atrocities of warfare, sexism, and politics.  She builds a world in which a paid assassin, part of a guild, would break under the burdens one must bear just to get through.

And although it was slow to get started, and it is bleak and horrifying, I found God’s War to be a good story.  Which is what all readers are looking for, isn’t it?  And thank you Kameron Hurley for making this the feminist apocalyptic story it is.  Women can be just as badass as men, if not more so, and deserve the chance to tell their stories.

Can I get an awoman, sister?