Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

New to the Stacks: Shadow Ops, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Other Goodness

They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason

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
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Darkness Visible by William Styron
Annotated Alice in Wonderland
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

New to the Stacks: Hello 2019

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
How literature saved my life by David Shields
Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete ~ read
Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell
spook country by William Gibson
Boom! Voices of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw
Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole ~ read
The Wrong End of Time by John Brunner – DNF
Invaders from Earth by Robert Silverberg
Music of the Common Tongue by Christopher Small
Self-Consciousness by John Updike

How literature saved my life by David Shields
Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell
Self-Consciousness by John Updike
Music of the Common Tongue by Christopher Small
Invaders from Earth by Robert Silverberg
The Wrong End of Time by John Brunner
Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole
Boom! Voices of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw
spook country by William Gibson

Review: 2018 Reading

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Calculating Stars signature
Binti by Nnedi Okarafor
River Queens by Alexander Watson
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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.

2018 Books by the Numbers:

  • 68 read
  • 20,382 pages
  • 26 unique publication years
  • 40 unique author names
    • 19 female authors
    • 23 male authors
    • 26 new to me authors
  • 98 books new to the stacks
    • 48 new to the stacks read
    • 7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled

Favorite Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills.  My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
The Armored Saint by Cole, Myke
The Queen of Crows by Cole, Myke
Heloise is the hero we need now.  Tight, intricate, suspenseful story about a young woman leading the uprising against the religious order in charge.  Book 3, The Killing Light, comes out in 2019.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Egan, Jennifer
Freakin’ brilliant.  We spent a month on it, I read it three times.  Don’t let the non-linear style throw you off. Egan tells a hell of a story.
American Gods by Gaiman, Neil
What happens when Old Gods realize they’re being squeezed out by the New Gods?  Just as fantastic on the second read.
My Journey in Creative Reading by Gallowglas, M. Todd
Don’t know how to review this book since he’s also my mentor.  Every bit is so good and resonated so deeply I knew I had the right guy.
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hurley, Kameron
My love letter to Kameron who speaks the truth about being a woman so hard.  I continue to learn a lot from her about feminism and writing. GFR has earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.
The Calculating Stars by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Fated Sky by Kowal, Mary Robinette
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.
Beloved by Morrison, Toni
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.”
Binti by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti:  The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet.  My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
River Queens by Watson, Alexander
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.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
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.

New to the Stacks: Goons and Projections

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders

A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan ~ read
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders ~ read

 

Review: A Love Letter to Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Title:  The Geek Feminist Revolution
AuthorKameron Hurley
Published: 2016
ISBN-13: 9780765386243
PublisherTor
Twitter: @KameronHurley
Publisher’s Blurb  Outspoken and provocative, double Hugo Award-winning essayist Kameron Hurley writes with passion and conviction on feminism, geek culture, the rise of women in science fiction and fantasy, and the diversification of publishing.

The first panel I attended at WorldCon 2018 was M. Todd Gallowglas’ Lit Crit for Geeks.  I was enthralled. One of the writers he mentioned was you, as doing some great work in feminism.  I dutifully wrote your name down in my journal.

Since then, I’ve lost my job and spend my days reading and writing and thinking.  I hash things out a lot in my brain, the one that never shuts up. And then I write stuff for my mentor to read.

One evening after dinner, a friend took me book shopping.  Kepler’s is this fabulous indie bookstore whose customers banded together to keep it from closing its doors.  There were two names on my list that I knew would go home with me that night, yours and N. K. Jemisin. And since I didn’t know where to start with you, I picked up The Geek Feminist Revolution.

Always a voracious reader, I am inhaling them now.  This is my job while I figure out about the day job, I read and write about what I’m reading.  Not only does it give me direction for a life which could easily be adrift and and feeding my food addiction, it makes me stronger in so many ways.

Never really shy about self-reflection, I now have the time and space to really look at some of the things coming up right now.  And sometimes, it is some scary, sad shit.

“But because my body was coded female, I was never ever assumed to have the kind of knowledge or credibility that a man would have.” (p. 37)

I read the first 38 pages of your book and sobbed.  I felt so completely bereft that I had to set it aside for a week or so.  Because those pages were my story. The story of being a woman and the rampant sexism which had become so normalized I didn’t see it anymore.  I read your story and began to understand that not only was I not alone in this mess, but that there were ways I could raise my voice.

But first I had to reconcile some stuff within myself.  Because the stuff that was coming up was more than just re-evaluating my entire life in terms of how I’d been treated because I was female, it was looking at some pretty horrifying events and having the light bulb go off.  Which led to, “Well shit, no wonder. I never had a chance.”

And without going into too much detail here, there were new realizations about my parents.  Then there was looking at my most recent job and realizing that it had been a put-up job from the day I walked in as a temp until the day I walked out as a no longer employed here type.  Things started slamming into place. And it was scary.

I’ve been following you on Twitter and reposting some of your articles on Facebook, because you speak to me in a way that no woman ever has before.  And that’s valuable to me. I’ve learned a lot from you.

Taking a deep breath, I picked The Geek Feminist Revolution up again, and only put it down when other, more pressing matters demanded my attention.  It made me wish I knew you well enough to take you to dinner and ask you to just tell me stories about your life.  To talk about process, and yeah it sucks to have to have a day job for the insurance, and holy shit I hadn’t realized how bad the sexism is.

There are hard truths in your book.

At my last job there was a week when I had to actually go to my manager and explain to him what being a part of the team and having a voice meant.  The group admin wouldn’t put me on the meeting agenda because I didn’t have Director in my title. She would only do it if my male manager said it was okay.  I was pissed. So pissed I was vibrating. And that I had to explain it several times in very small words just made it worse.

Reading your book gives me such hope.  For the first time in my life, at a time when people are looking forward to retirement, I realize I still have time to make change in my world. I have time to rearrange everything I thought I knew about myself and create a different life for myself.  The life I want is one which tempers my very emotional responses and allows me to reasonably explain to someone why they’re not allowed to take my voice away.

I get to figure this out, and you have motivated me to keep doing that.  To read, and write, for the sheer joy of it. To understand I need a day job for the health insurance benefits, and to pay my bills.  And that all of it’s okay and necessary to survive. My writing can be my night job. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice anymore.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell my middle-school self to keep writing, because writing would keep her happy and sane.  I would insist she not give it up and not worry about what it looked like or sounded like. I would tell her no matter what, do not quit writing, even if it’s just a sentence about how particularly shitty the bullies were that day.  “Keep writing, always,” I would whisper in her ear.

I had so much to heal from, so much to learn, it’s hard to regret it took me this long to realize what I had been keeping from myself.  Reading books like yours help so much, and I don’t know how to tell you what an impact you’ve had.

I close this with an open invitation, if our paths cross at any time, dinner is my treat.  It’s the least I can do, aside from buying your other books and joining your Patreon once I’m gainfully employed again.

Did I say “thank you?”

Review: River Queens

River Queens by Alexander Watson

Title:  River Queens
AuthorAlexander Watson
Published:  2018
ISBN 13:  978-1939710-857
Publisher:  Orangefrazer Press
Twitter:  @riverqueenbook

Publisher’s Blurb:  River Queens is at once a romance of men and the river, a fantasy come to life, an unparalleled adventure story, one of the best travel journals around—and a glad picture for our turbulent times.

I received a copy of this book from the author for an honest review.  Thank you Alexander Watson!

Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant and the story of River Queens is so compelling I’m having a hard time finding my objectivity.  I want to write a fair review without seeming to shill for him.  But damn this book was good.  It’s one of the better ones I’ve read over the summer.

The book releases mid-October, they haven’t even gotten this one out yet and I’m already asking what he’s working on next.  That’s how much I want him to succeed and keep writing great books so I can keep reading them.

Ahem ….

When I was in 6th grade, my family lived in Hannibal, MO.  The three things which stand out in my mind all these decades later are the mannequin of Becky Thatcher with ankle long blonde braids, the address at which we lived, and the Mississip’.

We were a nomadic family and so were only in Hannibal for one school year.  But the impression that big brown river made on me stays, and makes me homesick for a place I’ve overly romanticized in my childhood memories.

Which is to say, I can relate in some small way to the call of the river.  And that is what Alexander and Dale,  their spotted dog Doris Faye, and a left for dead 1955  forty-five foot Chris-Craft Corsair answer.

It starts in Texas where Alexander finds the wooden yacht, and ends with a refurbished beauty which they sail to Betty Jane’s home berth in Cleveland.

I was smitten pretty early on.  A gay couple is gonna fix up their boat and sail it into unknown territory.  In the South.  They are going to sail right into the belly of unallayed bigotry, and count on the kindness of strangers to help them along the way.

I knew it was going to be good when Watson relates the story of finding The King & I (later renamed Betty Jane).  The man who handles the transaction for the boat tells them, “They think wood boats just sink or break apart … for no reason.  That’s bull.  They fail ’cause somebody quit lovin’ ’em.”

This is a hard life they’re putting themselves into, and it becomes apparent they have enough love for all concerned.  Alexander and Dale go into this knowing it’s going to be one of the hardest things they’ve ever done, and they do it anyway.  And they keep doing it, even when it gets harder than anyone could have expected.

Watson does not sugar coat anything.  Nor does he dwell on the difficulties.  He writes about it all.  And there are some heartbreaking moments in this book.

Awkward’s in there too.  One that had I been within earshot, I’m not sure I could have looked either of them in the eye afterwards.  Watson doesn’t flinch in the telling.  Their loud argument has a good reason to be in the story, it’s not there as some sort of nod to, “See?  We’re just like straight couples, we argue too.”  Nothing in this book is done to make anyone feel Alexander and Dale are other than what they are.

And they are two men who love each other fiercely and work together to rebuild this boat and fulfill their dream.  The people they meet along the way, for the most part, are polite and helpful.  River folk in the South are friendly and say, “See ya down the river.”

Even when they question what two ho-mo-sex-u-als are doing in their river.  And there are several encounters that make me wince for the state of grace which cannot allow people to just be people.

Gods and goddesses what adventures these two have.  It makes me want to pay for adult beverages while they regale me with tales and tell me how they got through heartbreaking death, horrifying weather, and the sweltering humidity of life on a boat on a river.

There’s not a whole lot wrong with the way this book is written.  It’s elegant in a way that so few books these days are.  It’s evident Watson worked hard, and lovingly, on River Queens, but it doesn’t read like hard work at all.  It reads smoothly, like a lazy day on the river when all is right with the world.

I am grateful Alexander Watson reached out to me and asked I read his book.  And I look forward to reading more of his writing as it becomes available.  The country could use a few more gentlemanly intrepid travelers.

New to the Stacks: Hugo Winner

The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin – Read (No review)
  • Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks – DNF
  • In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
  • The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley – Read
  • The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
    1. The Fifth Season – Read
    2. The Obelisk Gate ~ read
    3. The Stone Sky