My byline in The Drink Tank #408 – the John Scalzi issue. What it’s like to form an opinion and then meet the author.
My byline in The Drink Tank #408 – the John Scalzi issue. What it’s like to form an opinion and then meet the author.
Title: Stealing: Life in America
Author: Michelle Cacho-Negrete
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.
Title: God’s War
Series: 1st of 3
Author: Kameron Hurley
Publisher: Nightshade Books
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?
How Fiction Works by James Wood (Reread)
Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete – read 11 Jan 19
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin ~ read
Title: Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film
Editor: Lou Anders
Publisher: Monkeybrain Books
Publisher’s Blurb: From Lord of the Rings—called the greatest novel of the 20th Century—to The Matrix—one of the highest grossing films of all time … science fiction and fantasy have proved to be one of cinema and literature’s most enduring and popular genres. PROJECTIONS examines the history and the people, the science and the society, the lives, times and themes, the cultural impact and the critical response of the dynamic genre that is speculative fiction, as seen through the eyes of some of today’s most recognized writers.
There are many thoughtful essays in Projections from great authors including Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and Mike Resnick. These are authors who love SF/F with the care of a tender lover and who are not unafraid to point out the flaws. They, like so many I have encountered, want better for, and from, genre fiction.
Here’s a look at some of what caught my attention:
John Clute‘s “In Defense of Science Fiction,” still stands well as a demand for better, less bloated, less predictable, SF/F writing. This is a discussion I’ve had a few times with other readers. M. Todd Gallowglas has a wonderful essay called “Why Isn’t Fantasy More Fantastical?” in his book My Journey in Creative Reading. Michael Moorcock, in his famous essay “Epic Pooh,” also writes about demanding better from our genre.
Basically, without getting too much into the weeds about this, for far too long fans have been bullied by others who think of SF/F as an outlying type of literature. In a small-town high school, I was bullied for a lot of reasons, but reading something no one else had heard of was right up there near the top of the list.
Many have had the experience of being shamed by educators for reading SF/F, or even writing it. So as a community, we clung to what we knew and what was available. Which perpetuated this unfortunate Catch-22 of publishers publishing only what’s selling and fans buying it because that’s what’s available.
Clute’s essay is powerful because he delves into many of the reasons genre isn’t better. Some of which have to do with publishers and reviewers and categorizing, and other things which have led us to believe we belong in the far corner of reading and writing in all flavors.
I am here to tell you we do NOT belong in that corner. We belong wherever the hell we want, but we need better writing, better storytelling.
“… we’re going to need all the help we can get to see our way through. We cannot exclude any visions – any way to look at the world – that we humans have invented for ourselves. We are going to need all the ways to look.”
This is the way Clute ends his essay, and he’s right, no one can afford to exclude any vision which will help us survive the madness that is the world as we know it.
David Brin’s essay, “Achilles, Superman, and Darth Vader,” is a beautiful look at how movies have become more about the fancy effects than about story-telling. And he lays this directly at George Lucas‘ and Joseph Campbell‘s doors.
What Joseph Campbell did was point out all the positive themes and rhythms used in every ancient hero tale. George Lucas took all these predictable traits and turned them into Star Wars. Unfortunately, what both Campbell and Lucas did was make good and bad clear cut. By not considering the flawed and dark parts of any protagonist (and opposite for the antagonist), Brin maintains that what we cheer for in these triumphal stories is uniformity.
Know what? He’s right. Further, he’s right in pointing out that elitism gets a pass. Luke Skywalker starts as a humble small-town boy on an out of the way planet, and works himself into the ruling elite (both Jedi and royalty). Anything he does which could have negative consequences gets a pass, because he’s now a part of the elite ruling class, who are the same and believe they know what’s best/right for the rest of the galaxy. No one in the Star Wars universe is allowed to question the status quo.
Star Wars isn’t the only franchise he takes aim at. Star Trek gets a critical look, as do many of the other tropes in SF/F.
This is not to say that neither Brin nor I recognize the importance of these franchises in getting SF/F accepted by a broader audience and to take a crack at elevating story-telling. But I believe that we can both love something and be critical of it without diminishing the thing we love. Critical thinking enhances the way we read, and look, at SF/F, and gives us the tools to demand better from the creators.
My favorite essay in Projections is “The Matrix Trilogy” by Adam Roberts in which he applies multiple literature criticism lens to all three Matrix movies. It’s a thought provoking read. And while I loved the movies, especially the first one, there’s not a lot I disagree with in Roberts’ essay.
For instance, one of the themes he writes about is how limiting some of those interpretations could be. One of particular interest makes the trilogy into a Christian allegory. “Emphasising [sic] perceived mythic underpinnings in fact takes us away from the specificity of the films themselves.”
And so it goes for other schools of thought and criticism, all of which can be a valid critical view of the movies. But because I like poking holes in religious tropes as applied to non-religious movies and literature, this is what resonated the most with me, “…what if the messiah comes and nothing changes as a result? [sic] If the messiah comes more than once, why only twice?”
::shocked gasp:: I can hear Christians all across the world clutching their pearls and crying “blasphemy!” Roberts has a point, and his explanation for this particular line of thought is one I hadn’t pursued before. Even if you completely disagree with his interpretation, at least admit that’s a thought-provoking theme to explore.
And to all those determined to seek deeper meaning in The Matrix Trilogy, Roberts ends his essay by saying this, “The point is not to see beneath the surface.”
In the interest of brevity (because, trust me I could go on and on), here are a few quotes I liked:
“This is True” by Tim Lebbon
“[the dark will tell someone not to get out of bed but they will have to for some reason] … then a hand will close around their ankle, tug, and they will be dragged beneath the bed to a grisly doom.
“This will happen. I firmly believe it.
“I believe it because the human imagination is a powerful, potent force.”
“Something About Harry” by Mark Finn
In which Finn explains how ludicrous the book selling business is in terms of profit.
“The book industry is the most inept, retarded, backwater, ill-conceived industry in the world.”
“Scientists in SF Films” by Robert A. Metzger
In which Metzger examines the portrayal of science and scientists in film, which always makes them out to be the reason things go wrong in the movies.
“Science is a soul-sucking mistress.”
“The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction” by Jonathan Lethem
Beating my favorite drum about demanding better from the genre.
“Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they’re all ugly in the same way, so you can’t distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for twelve-year-olds.”
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
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
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:
Generenauts by Michael R. Underwood #litcrit