My article on boundaries during COVID-19 is in this issue of Drink Tank
Title: Cinderella Liberator
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb: Rebecca Solnit reimagines a classic fairytale with a fresh, feminist Cinderella and new plot twists that will inspire young readers to change the world.
Fairytales made no sense to me. Even as I tried to fit myself into what society believed girls should want, which included some fairytale version of finding a husband and having children, it didn’t make sense. And I didn’t understand why.
I mean, why should Cinderella want to go to the ball so much, and why would she want to marry a prince? Did that really mean happily ever after? What if she – what if I – wanted something different?
The appeal of being rescued is certainly be understandable, especially when growing up in a dysfunctional, unpredictable environment. When your whole life feels hopeless, rescue seems like the best chance. When one wants to be rescued from misery, there is no understanding about agency. So, in some ways, Cinderella’s traditional gambit of marrying the prince and leaving behind her wicked steps makes a tremendous amount of sense. If only there was another way ….
Rebecca Solnit’s Cinderella Liberator begins with the familiar story. But when the lizards become stagecoach women for Cinderella’s carriage, one sits up and takes notice. And when Cinderella asks if the lizards want to be human, the reader understands this isn’t the same Cinderella of childhood.
At its base as a political structure, feminism is about the right to make choices based upon personal agency. Women get to choose what they want to do, or should be allowed to, anyway. Solnit takes that one step further. Not only does Cinderella get to choose, but so do the animals who help her get to the ball. The entire cast gets a makeover.
This more equitable story in which Cinderella opens a cake store and become friends with the prince who wants to work on a farm is one everyone should read. Especially those with small children entering the world of make-believe and fairy tales.
Solnit’s version is more hopeful and happier, giving children (and adults) space to learn about equality and choice. It certainly gave me happiness and hope.
Title: Berkeley: The Student Revolt
Author: Hal Draper
Published: 2020 (Haymarket Books edition)
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
Brimming with lessons still relevant for today’s activists, Berkeley: The Student Revolt is a classic of on-the-ground historical reportage.
There’s something about this period of history which fascinates me deeply. I can’t go to Berkeley or San Francisco without being aware of the history I walk through. Reading Hal Draper’s Berkeley: The Student Revolt written in 1965, is on the ground “I was there” reporting.
Draper brings together all the minute by minute details to explain how the Free Speech Movement exploded on campus one day in September, 1964. Although, as most historians will tell you and Draper certainly does, things don’t happen overnight because there are mitigating factors. The history leading to the Free Speech Movement is rich and dense, filled with many factors.
Draper writes of the peaceful student protests demanding to be able to express their opinions, political or otherwise, on campus. To be able to raise money and recruit volunteers for off campus events. Many had spent the previous summer in the Deep South working for civil rights.
To have their own rights stunted in the face of an unpopular war (Vietnam) and the treatment of African-Americans caused deep anger and resentment. In the face of a dictatorial Chancellor who had been hired based on his research about labor movements which should have made him sympathetic but didn’t, student unrest grew.
Draper was there, amongst the students as a library employee, his knowledge of the inner workings makes this an excellent resource in the body of work still evolving about dissent, protests in the face of bureaucrats who use might makes right to get their rules obeyed.
Over the fifty years since, this very scenario has played out more times than I like to remember. In 2019 during a deadly global pandemic, government leaders are using the same playbook to shut down the rights of us all to be healthy and safe.
Confusing, contradictory, obfuscatory dictums fly through the media. Responses to any common sense calls for reasonable actions on the part of leaders are met with ridicule and often threatened violence.
What amazed me as I read was how very young these students were, how mature and deeply committed they were to their cause. They understood it was about something larger than themselves. Mario Savio’s thoughtful speeches give an insight I hadn’t much thought about because I have reaped the benefit of their protests.
At the same time, I was saddened to understand that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Change is always met with resistance, those in power backed by those with greater power and money will always clamp down. Their actions invariably lead to some sort of police action.
Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement opened the door for peaceful protests and thoughtful discussions about the First Amendment and its role on college campuses. A discussion which continues now, and is especially important as an ill-informed citizenry continues to misunderstand the power of the First Amendment and try to use it in support of their *-ist rhetoric.
But I have hope because things have changed, the citizenry is allowed to express themselves. Students are allowed free and open discussion of unsavory topics. And the discussion about what First Amendment rights mean continues unabated. Without the student protests and strike at Berkeley, none of this would be possible.
Title: Things That Can and Cannot be Said
Author: Arundhati Roy and John Cusack
Publisher: Haymarket Books
In this rich dialogue on surveillance, empire, and power, Roy and Cusack describe meeting NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden in Moscow.
In late 2014, Arundhati Roy, John Cusack, and Daniel Ellsberg travelled to Moscow to meet with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The result was a series of essays and dialogues in which Roy and Cusack reflect on their conversations with Snowden.
In these provocative and penetrating discussions, Roy and Cusack discuss the nature of the state, empire, and surveillance in an era of perpetual war, the meaning of flags and patriotism, the role of foundations and NGOs in limiting dissent, and the ways in which capital but not people can freely cross borders.
I’m not sure about the point of this slender book. It’s 100 pages of large font transcriptions of conversations between Cusack and Roy, recollections of an “UnSummit” facilitated by Cusack featuring Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg in Moscow.
What I’d hoped for was a deeper discussion of the effects of Ellsberg’s and Snowden’s espionage. What led them to the conclusion there was no other way than to be whistleblowers? I wanted to know more. I was hoping for something more unfiltered .
Do I know the world’s governments aren’t what they want us to think they are? Of course I do. Do I think corporate governance of charities and NGOs is a bad thing? I don’t know enough to make an informed opinion. But if what Arundhati Roy thinks is what we’re all supposed to think, we are indeed doomed.
It is the utter hopelessness of Cusack and Roy of any government, any people doing good in the world which got to me. This paranoid, pseudo-intellectual view of the world, especially from a white man of privilege, is what brings out the despair. If this is what they think is important, and it gets published, what chance do the rest of us just trying to get through our day have?
It is utterly maddening that an opportunity for two of the most famous whistleblowers to meet was so censored. For readers to not be privy to any of the conversation beyond niceties is hardly better than fanning the flames of a global game of Chicken Little.
The security concerns addressed in Things That Can and Cannot be Said are serious, but there’s no real substance in discussing them. I chose not to be scared simply because two activists who have the resources to walk freely through the streets or sit in cafes and talk tell me I should be.
My review of the gentle and sweet The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart is in this issue of The Drink Tank. There might also be some thoughts about Elizabeth I and her entry into the Tower.
Title: Small Days and Nights
Author: Tishani Doshi
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publisher’s Blurb: A captivating and clear-eyed story of two sisters caught in a moment of transformation, set against the vivid backdrop of modern India.
The protagonist, Grace Marisola, gets dropped into unforeseen circumstances. Understandably, it’s hard to know what to do when recalled from the US to oversee the cremation of her mother, and finding out the family secret is an older sister with Down’s Syndrome who has been institutionalized Grace’s entire life.
But even under those circumstances, plans arise and actions take place. The book suffers from not knowing what it wants because Grace doesn’t know what she wants. Is it divorcing the husband she left behind in the US? Remaking family connections? Taking care of her sister for the rest of her life?
Things happen to Grace, she doesn’t happen to them. There’s no core to her. Small Days and Nights suffers from a sort of malaise. There’s nothing wrong with the book, exactly. Neither is there something right.
I often overthink my reviews as I try to pin down what I want to write about. Lots of books offer plenty of opportunities to dig in and do the analysis I love. Doshi’s book wasn’t one of them.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t write about how her language often captivated me. For instance, “Mornings at the beach can arrive like a whore, in a jangly too tight dress at the end of a long and sleepless night.” Or, “The heat of summer is behind us but the days still feel bedraggled and worn.“
The beauty in that language and those images make promises the book doesn’t live up to.
“The creative life is not linear” – Austin Kleon
2019 by the numbers.
Random thoughts about the madcap year that was 2019 reading. Some events were so glorious as to be unrecognizable as anything I’d ever dreamed could happen to me. Others predictable and necessary (day job). In addition for my own blog, I now write for Hugo award-winning fanzine Drink Tank, and M. Todd Gallowglas’ Geek’s Guide to Literary Criticism.
- In Toni Morrison’s Beloved Paul D’s story about learning to read and being beaten for it just leaves a hole in my heart. He kneels on the ground with a bit in his mouth and notices the rooster named Mister doing whatever he wanted.
“I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”
- I’m not qualified to review Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. How does one speak to a tragedy caused by differences in pigmentation?
“Barack Obama [governed] a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as president.
Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom [slavery] and the great power of not being a n*****.”
- As Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution brought me to myself in 2018, so too did Feminisms and Womanisms edited by Althea Prince & Susan Silva-Wayne. The taste of seminal feminist works from Emma Goldman, Simone de Bauvoir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem made it easier to understand big parts of my life.
It is truly amazing how long we can go on accepting myths that oppose our own lives, assuming we are the odd exception.” – Gloria Steinem
The need to be noticed and liked, the need to be listened to and accepted, the need for encouragement and praise; all became sources of shameful, rather than normal, neediness in my mind. Especially the need for affection.” – Nancy Graham
Susan Sontag’s essay on women and aging made me want to throw the book across the room in a fit of rage.
The rules of this society are cruel to women.” – Susan Sontag
- Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete, sent to me for a review by Adelaide Press. Her essays are powerful as she relates the stories of a life lived right, doing everything she was supposed to do and still needing to steal food to feed her children. Her triumph over that and the particular experiences of being “other” really sang to me.
- Stopwatch Chronicles, M. Todd Gallowglas’ collection of flash fiction bowled me over. He is sharp, witty and fun. His insights are dead on and I love his wordplay. Ditto Bard’s Cloak of Tales.
- The Killing Light, the triumphal conclusion to Myke Cole’s Sacred Throne trilogy. I’ll just quote myself here, “Heloise remains the hero we need for today..”
- How Fiction Works by James Wood . I will forever be grateful for the phrase “flaneurial realism.”
- Literary Theory by Sarah Upstone – this little book packs a lot into it and is one of my go to reference books.
- The Art of Fiction and Moral Fiction by John Gardner
“… in order to achieve mastery [they] must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually.”
“… the temptation to explain should almost always be resisted.”
“Art, in sworn opposition of chaos, discovers by its process what it can say. That is art’s morality.”
“…art can at times be baffling …”
- Wizardry & Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock. Each reading enriches my understanding of the genre I live and breathe.
- Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott. Scott’s commentary helped give voice to the questions I’d been asking about what criticism is and why it has value. His outstanding thoughts on art and criticism as a conversation resonate deeply. As does his insistence criticism is a way to seek out the excellent as a foodie demands excellence from their favorite chef or restaurant.
“… our understanding of art emerges from our experience of it.”
Writing for Drink Tank led me to works I might never have read. Chris’ unbounded knowledge of books and themes kept me busy.
- Challengers of the Unknown by Ron Goulart led me to one of the cheesiest books I’ve ever read. (Drink Tank #414)
- Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, From the Earth to Around the Moon by Jules Verne, and First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells were fodder for thought about Antique Space. (Journey Planet/Drink Tank Crossover)
- Drink Tank #410 gave me a reason to join the Alexander Hamilton party.
Total Books Read: 34
Total Pages Read: 12,456
Total Books Procured: 83
Publication Dates: 19 (1953 – 2019)
Author Count: 28
Written by Women: 8 books (4 authors)
Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Stopwatch Chronicles by M. Todd Gallowglas
The Killing Light by Myke Cole
Beloved by Toni Morrison (2nd reading)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
How Fiction Works by James Wood (2nd reading)
Literary Theory by Sara Upstone
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock (2nd reading)
Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott
From the Earth to Around the Moon by Jules Verne / First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells / “Jameson’s Satellite” by Neil R. Jones in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov (Journey Planet)
Challengers of the Unknown (Drink Tank)
The Killing Light
Euridyce (City Lights Theatre)
Alexander Hamilton (Drink Tank)
Literary Theory: An Introduction
The Sprawl Trilogy
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Mortal Word
Stealing: Life in America
My review comparing Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, and the short story “The Jameson Satellite” by Neil R. Jones is in this issue of Journey Planet.
It’s 3:30ish on a Saturday afternoon. Headphones firmly in place, I’ve been listening to my Writing playlist. It’s rain and ocean and babbling brooks, mostly to block out the every day noise around me. Including the occasionally noisy visitors who speak loud raucous Spanish next door. My desk is about the way I want it, enough room to spread my journal and books out to review notes.
I should be writing. There are two deadlines this weekend and I am right up against both of them. But I’m procrastinating. Because … that’s what I do. It’s what people do, especially writers.
I could explain it away as having my weekly routine disrupted by Thanksgiving and having to work last Saturday to make up hours. Or I could say that I’m so beat when I get home from the day job that the literal weight of writing tires me out more. Or … I need to do chores, the laundry, run errands, etc.
Those excuses don’t work today. There’s no reason to leave the apartment, chores are almost done and I slept in. I even started a canonical spreadsheet for a ginormous writing project. Then I found this:
“Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
That’s from Megan McArdle’s 2014 article in The Atlantic titled, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.” Yep, there I am. Among other things, she addresses imposter syndrome. Lots of interesting and good things are on the horizon, and people I respect a great deal praise my work, but deep down I’m afraid I don’t deserve it. Compliments get lapped up greedily because they might go away and no one will call me brilliant ever again. Or they’ll find out everything I’ve done is a fluke.
So instead of writing, I’ve done the dishes and watched The Simpsons and contemplated going back to sleep because my day job kicks me in the ass some days.
Maybe, I should just start writing and see what happens.