They by Janet Mason – Read
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ #LitCrit ~ Read
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 – read
They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason ~ read
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.
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
- 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 focuses 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 focuses on bigotry.
- 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.
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.
I really loved this book!
Jazz by Toni Morrison ~ read
Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
ISBN 13: 9780307477477
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.
Publisher’s Blurb:The story starts from modern-day Brooklyn. sixteen-year- old John Palmieri is living an average life until one day he is hit by a bus and wakes up as Raj Scindia, a prince in India, in 1958.
Suddenly, he finds himself with riches and power beyond his wildest fantasies. Brooklyn is readily forgotten. He makes out with his hot teacher; he tells about the future; his new life becomes a constant stream of debauchery till he meets “the one”.
I received a copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review. Thank you Ricardo!
Listening to his iPod, riding fast because he’s late, John gets distracted by the girl he likes and gets in an accident with the school bus. When he comes to, he’s no longer in contemporary Brooklyn, he’s in 1958 India and is the Maharaja Kumar (son of) the Maharaja (governor).
This is the beginning of Alexanders imaginative tale of a world in which the Beatles don’t exist and John creates the Indian version to gain fame, and the attention of the girl he loves.
It’s not a deep story. Teenage boy discovers he is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and takes advantage, becoming a bit of an arrogant pig at first. This is not unexpected, after all, if you woke up in a strange time and place to discover that you could have whatever you wanted due to the social class you were born into, wouldn’t you act the same way?
John discovers that not only is he wealthy and comes from a powerful family, he’s not really expected to study in school. In fact, his doppelganger has quite the reputation, including an affair with one of his teachers.
Then he meets Ankita, and everything changes. He forms the Beetos with his friends to gain her attention and then prove himself worthy of her to her father. Using his memories of the songs he listened to on his iPod, they write songs and gain a following. They become very famous, and wealthy, but it doesn’t bring John the peaceful life with Ankita he expected.
To Beatles fans, there are many familiar moments in Bollywood Invasion. The most chilling is Alexanders’ retelling of John Lennon’s assassination. Mark Chapman isn’t the only one looking to ease his pain.
As John comes back to his own time and place, he thinks he’s just had a bad dream and hurries off to school where a new girl joins their class, and her name is distinctly familiar.
Ricardo Alexanders’ writing style is earnest. This story means a lot to him, as do the Beatles. It’s an interesting idea of setting them and their origin story in India. There are many, many details about the trajectory of the Bee-tos which come straight from Beatle history. Some of them can be quite unsavory, but none of us should flinch from them. Especially because, at its heart, Bollywood Invasion is a love story, in which Ricardo Alexanders explores what it means to want to become a better person for the one you love. It’s a detail worth exploring.
The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle ~ Read