Harold whispered through gritted teeth, “Go back to your desk! Go! Now!” His eyes moved quickly as though watching for danger, face screwed up in fear.
Uh oh. It happened again. Scurrying back to my desk, I put my hands on the computer keyboard and listened. Who was it this time?
Somewhere on my aisle, a phone rang. Heads popped out and made shushing motions. One of the rules was, don’t make noise, she might hear you. And if she heard you … better to not even consider that.
My hands fell into my lap. I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to hold my breath. “Not me, not me, not me,” my mind chittered nervously.
Memories of the last time popped to the surface. I’d barely escaped, tried to cry quietly in the bathroom, great heaving sobs escaping. It was horrible, and every day I dreaded a repeat.
I sniffed. Cigarette smoke? I didn’t know she … oh, that’s not good and it’s not cigarette smoke. Crouching down, I wrapped my arms around my head. I knew everyone else was doing the same thing. Something loud was coming …
My neighbor let out a little squeak. I crawled across the aisle into her cube and we wrapped our arms around each other, trembling in fear. “No, no, no, nonononono …” Opal whispered.
Leaning closer to her, I whispered in her ear, “Whose turn was it this morning?”
A tear rolled down her cheek, “Mine. I got in late, she was here before me …” Her face fell. We were all terrified.
The last person got fired on the spot. The floor around them scorched from the flames coming out of the monster’s nostrils.
As the roar died down, quiet clinking came from the break room. Glass on porcelain. A spoon stirring in liquid. The smell of coffee rose over the smell of sulphur. Who was stupid enough to be in the break room right now?
Then, porcelain on floor tiles. The metal of the spoon moving the liquid. Opal and I put our heads down, our fearful tears mingling as we held our breath.
Quiet. Slurping. Really loud slurping. The sound of heels moving across the floor. The swish of clothing. A collective sigh as we all went back to work.
Title: They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders
Author: Janet Mason
Publisher: Adelaide Books
Publisher’s Blurb: In this novel we met Tamar from the Hebrew Bible. Tamar lives as a hermit in the desert, is content with her life and is happily barren. She is attached to her pet camel. Her aversion to goat sacrifices becomes so strong that it prompts her to become a vegetarian. Tamar has a twin sister Tabitha who becomes pregnant after seducing a young muscular shepherd. Tamar plots with Tabitha to trick Judah (a patriarch from the Bible) into believing that the baby is his so that she can have status in society rather than being burnt at the stake. Tabitha gives birth to twins. Tamar becomes attached to the children (born intersex), who call her auntie, and follows their line of intersex twins.
They has a promising premise, a long line of intersex twins come from the fictional twin sister of biblical Tamar. Tweaking Judeo- Christian mores is one of my favorite topics, and the thought of secret genders in the Bible pleased me.
Janet Mason has a unique spin on many of the familiar Old and New Testament stories. While fictional Tabitha is the one who has children with Judah by deceiving him, her twin sister Tamar is the character with the most interesting discussions about the “old tales.”
My favorite is Tamar telling her sister’s twins about Adam and Eve and the Snake in the Garden of Eden. She asks questions I’ve always had. Why spend centuries blaming Eve when Adam was the one who could have, but didn’t, say, “No.” Which is the root of a lot of the sexist and misogynistic bullshit we experience today.
Then there’s the interesting, if difficult to take serious, story about Tamar reincarnating in Mary’s belly as Jesus’ twin, both of whom are born intersex. And both whom have different fathers.
Structurally They has problems. There’s a lot of telling, not showing. The showdown between Tabitha and Judah is told to a gathering of women instead of shown. The same goes for Joseph leaving the house every time David arrives to visit Mary. Her trying to explain why the twins have different fathers and how she’s not going marry either of them would have been so much more interesting.
Another problem is chapters which end abruptly, the next picking up years later with little or no connective tissues.
For instance, Tamar and Judith gossip about the news from Egypt where Joseph (Judah’s brother) has saved Pharaoh from starvation with his dream interpretations. The baby they made and Judith gave birth to cries …. end of chapter. The next chapter is set 20 years in the future and Tamar is dying. No explanation for what’s happened in that time or how Tamar is dying.
The very last chapter uses the preferred pronouns for intersex people, ze, hir, zir. At no time before in this book, have these been used. The change is jolting and disruptive, drawing attention away from the journey Yeshua and his family take away from Jerusalem.
I wanted to love Tree, I really did. There are many interesting twists and stories that give a different interpretation to the stories I grew up on. Some parts of Tree nearly glow. But the parts that don’t glow bring the entirety to a medium well done novel.
As far as I can tell, this was Mason’s first published book (she has since published another, which I have not read). It is my hope that with practice and dedication her writing will become more consistent and structurally sound. There’s a lot of good ideas in They, but the execution just isn’t strong enough to bear the weight.
They by Janet Mason – Read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ #LitCrit Darkness Visible by William Styron The Annotated Alice – annotated by Martin Gardner Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole – Read We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Author: Toni Morrison
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.
For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year. 2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief. Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.
One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished. I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.
Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy. Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned. Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.
When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine. This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?” His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”
And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018 happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved. Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good. Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.
It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills. My review focuses on the use of Scripture as justification.
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all. Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected. Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic. Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio. His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works. My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.
Title: Book Uncle and Me
Author: Uma Krishnaswami
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library on the street corner. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.
A book whose protagonist is a little girl who reads all the time? Found on the shelves in a gift shop at the Asian Art Museum, how could I pass this up?
Book Uncle and Me is a delightful kids’ book about Yasmin who borrows a book from Book Uncle every day on her way to school. But then, the mayor wants to close the free library because Book Uncle doesn’t have a permit.
Through Yasmin we meet her community. Parents, friends, neighbors, classmates and teachers. All of them are concerned about Book Uncle’s street library getting closed down. As Yasmin talks to them, she hatches a plan to keep the library open.
It’s election time in the city and, as it turns out, the owner of the hotel on the corner where Book Uncle hands out books is hosting a wedding and wants to clean up the corner before the new in-laws arrive from out of town. Who owns the hotel? Hah! That would be telling, and spoiling.
Yasmin starts a letter writing campaign which gets the attention of the media and the mayoral candidates. The entire city is in a tizzy over Book Uncle and his books. Why would anyone want to take books from children?
Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Julianna Swaney, give readers a great lesson in civics and activism, as Yasmin and her friends learn how to make change in their community.
Krishnaswami has a delightful way with words, and Swaney’s illustrations make Yasmin and her friends, especially Book Uncle, come to life. Even better than that, they share their love of books, encouraging kids to read and get involved with things they’re passionate about.
Book Uncle gets to keep his free library on the corner, and the owner of the hotel gets a lesson in transparency.
Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad Author: Jennifer Egan
Twitter: @Egangoonsquad Published: 2011 ISBN 13: 9780307477477 Publisher: Anchor Publisher’s Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read. A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe. Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar. Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.” But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.
The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting. The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes. Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich. No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone. Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The big theme is Time. It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book. “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage. Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well. It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.
Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience. There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident. I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.
Music, and the music business is another major theme. Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”
Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos. A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now. A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.
Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes. Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama. But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.
The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City
Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days. Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.
Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie. In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women. These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it. Nor should it ever be thought normal.
Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.” His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault. Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”
The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating. Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work. (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)
Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work. Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.