Tuesday, October 23, 2018

NOMADLAND: Don't sit down yet, old folks, the table's got no place for you


W.W. Norton
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From the beet fields of North Dakota to the wilderness campgrounds of California to an Amazon warehouse in Texas, people who once might have kicked back to enjoy their sunset years are hard at work. Underwater on mortgages or finding that Social Security comes up short, they're hitting the road in astonishing numbers, forming a new community of nomads: RV and van-dwelling migrant laborers, or "workampers." Building on her groundbreaking Harper's cover story, "The End of Retirement," which brought attention to these formerly settled members of the middle class, Jessica Bruder follows one such RVer, Linda, between physically taxing seasonal jobs and reunions of her new van-dweller family, or "vanily." Bruder tells a compelling, eye-opening tale of both the economy's dark underbelly and the extraordinary resilience, creativity, and hope of these hardworking, quintessential Americans—many of them single women—who have traded rootedness for the dream of a better life.

My Review: I'm not sure how this happened: A talented writer with a well-regarded agent sells a book to an established and deeply experienced editor at a very good publishing house; the net result is a series of magazine articles, good ones mind you, strung into chapters with some basic tarting-up transitions stuffed in the cracks.

The subject is the source of my upthrusting the earned three-star rating. I'm amazed and appalled that "the world is such a cruel place for the US middle class" needs shouting about. Yet it does. I read Methland not so long ago; its tale of towns being eaten alive by the desperate need to Make It even if it means going against the law of the land like Lori Arnold (sister of Tom Arnold, ex-husband of loudmouth Roseanne the Racist) did seems almost quaint. Making It isn't a viable option for the unemployed older worker. Keeping up a house has been replaced in the older homeowner's worrywarting with plain old keeping the house they scrimped and saved to buy. Pensions are no more; 401(k) plans are flattened; Social Security is under attack from greedyass politicos and banksters. What in the hell does someone who can't make her (most likely medical) bills going to do?

That medical-bill thing is an underplayed thread constant throughout the narrative Author Bruder spins. Person after person, story after story, has its starting point with the medical issues that beset all of us and are particularly prevalent among us oldsters. Author Bruder never fails to elucidate the nature of the medical issues. She's letting you know without doing the teller and the told the insulting condescension of saying outright, "this is due to the insane US medical system, and yes these are people with genuine conditions and diseases who need treatment not shirkers." The mostly older workampers (a word coined by the owners of Workamper dot com in 1987 for the growing legions of mobile, seasonal workers) do jobs that stress their already taxed and aging bodies; then they go "home" to a space most of y'all would sneer at. But it's their own. And so they remain houseless but not homeless.

The people houseless after the 2008 implosion are, in significant numbers, taking to the road. They've traded real estate for wheel estate. They have no choice. It's a simple truth that women are the major sufferers, since they've historically earned less than men and now, in older years, are in line to receive lower Social Security payouts. And the hiring bias for permanent, professional jobs (that we're told doesn't exist) discriminates against women and then, insult to injury, against older workers. Takin' it to the streets has changed meaning in the forty-plus years since the Doobie Brothers sang it. (That was only partially ironic.)

The unbearable whiteness of the mobile homeless is another sad commentary on how the inequality of the US system plays out. People of Color don't follow the nomadic way. Why? When one is at risk of DEATH in a goddamned traffic stop why do you even ask the fucking question?! So the meager assistance and illusory control offered to whites as they take to the road is denied to darker-skinned citizens.

I'm seriously irked by the disjointed nature of the book. Many things are excellent. Author Bruder is a quality storyteller. I'm a smidge uncomfortable about the smacks-of-disaster-tourism nature of a three-year research project into a subject that has no real relevance to the life of a Boerum Hill-dwelling Columbia University professor. I'm willing to skip past that for the light her work shines on those of us thrown away by our sacred US system...absent timely and generous help from friends, this story could be my very own...but then I smack into the disorganization problem.

I don't doubt that there is an organizing principle at work here. The author's a journalist. The editor's an experienced pro. But I can't follow it in any kind of satisfying, narrative-building way. My failing? Permaybehaps...but from the first chapter I got the idea that a narrative would unfold that included two people as my focus. That didn't happen because one person, Linda, whose story really is the backbone of the tale, disappears and reappears at different times doing different things at various stages of her life, while Silvianne vanishes for the length of a Bible before sprouting back into view near the end, and what I assumed was a close friendship kinda wasn't but there's another closer friend who doesn't appear that much in Linda's narrative. I'm left wondering if the reason might not be that LaVonne (the aforementioned friend) called out Author Bruder's motives early on (which we're not told early on, another chronological lapse).

Whatever my quibbles about structure, the information in the piece is grounded in solid reporting. You'll have to look at the endnotes to know this. There are a few footnotes, but these are parenthetical asides. The absence of inline citations is, in my view, not a good decision. Howsomever I can at least see the point of it: Inline citations in a popular social history will scare off the punters, and the slenderness of the proffered analysis of a section of the homelessness epidemic will cause derisory snortings and contemptuous pooh-poohings from Academia.

I hope this book achieves a wide readership among those most in need of its blend of qualities: The comfortable and clueless six-figurers who infest our gentrifying coastal cities. It can happen to you, kids, and it becomes a very great deal more likely to the less likely you are to vote in November 2018.

Friday, August 17, 2018

TEMPER, sophomore effort from Nicky Drayden, builds success on talent topped by native brilliance


Harper Voyager
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Two brothers.
Seven vices.
One demonic possession.
Can this relationship survive?

Auben Mutze has more vices than he can deal with—six to be exact—each branded down his arm for all the world to see. They mark him as a lesser twin in society, as inferior, but there’s no way he’ll let that define him. Intelligent and outgoing, Auben’s spirited antics make him popular among the other students at his underprivileged high school. So what if he’s envious of his twin Kasim, whose single vice brand is a ticket to a better life, one that likely won’t involve Auben.

The twins’ strained relationship threatens to snap when Auben starts hearing voices that speak to his dangerous side—encouraging him to perform evil deeds that go beyond innocent mischief. Lechery, deceit, and vanity run rampant. And then there are the inexplicable blood cravings. . . .

On the southern tip of an African continent that could have been, demons get up to no good during the time of year when temperatures dip and temptations rise. Auben needs to rid himself of these maddening voices before they cause him to lose track of time. To lose his mind. And to lose his . . .



My Review
: Okay, let's get this out of the way up front. Yes, I knew the author in Austin; we met during NaNoWriMo, we were in a writer's group together, we hung out despite the fact that she's young enough to be my *much* younger sister (and that's quite far enough, thank you). I still have fun chatting with her. She is a delightful person.

And if she'd written a mediocre book, that's all I'd be saying.

But since she didn't write me a gushing acknowledgment in this book *chinwobble* I can actually review it without squicking myself out.

I'm an old white man with a white Gandalf-y beard. Young persons of color snicker at me as I stump along the boardwalk behind my house attired in what can charitably be described as old-guy clothes, floppy hat preventing my unmelaninated skin from turning lobsterish. It isn't visible that I have a radicalized leftist's heart and soul. That's what I wonder about, really, how to make it plain that I'd FAR rather see one of those young people in Congress, City Hall, the Chancellorship of the university system than yet another old guy who looks like me. It's time we move on to the dustheap of history. Go and get it, y'all, it's time to burn the damn thing down and get busy rebuilding it!

So, put together Nicky's age and state of melanination and her well-honed talent-sword and her absence of desire to tell more white patriarchal stories as a woman and person of color, and you'd think from looking at me that I'd be hollering at her to get off my literary lawn.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I *battened* on this meditation on the nature of good and evil, the inextricability of love and hate, the dangers of ideological purity, the dark heart and bright sheen of understanding. Nicky's done a lot of thinking over the years...go to Amazon and get some of her short stories if you want evidence...and it's been deep thought indeed. A theme that she demands her readers think about is fairness. Every word the woman writes is about fairness, almost always in its absence instead of presence. Her mind grapples with the notion of fairness being achievable. It seems to me that she comes down on the side of "not so much" since all of her stories have, well, ambiguous endings. No one ever gets off scot-free and no one ever suffers endlessly. But no one ever faces ennui, either.

So my take on the story here is that, in true Nicky fashion, she's going to take the reader where they need to go and tell them what the characters need the reader to know: It wasn't easy, this life I am leading, it's not a lot easier now than it started off being, but you know what? I'm still here, I'm stronger than I was before I broke this time, and I can't imagine I'd ever want to stop being the me that I've learned how to be. Piss on ya if you don't like it, or me, or the me I'm still learning to be.

Doesn't that sound ever so coming-of-age-ish? Like it's a teenager's dream read? Like hell it is. I attempted suicide for the first time in my life when I was 54. The world broke me. I spent months in a locked ward getting medicated for depression I'd never known I had. After all, when there's no memory of being happy, that's just the world, right? And I share that fault of vision with Auben, and with Kasim, the main characters in this story. They make different choices than I made but they choose between the same things: Accepting the way the world views you and sinking into its molten vats of hate and fear, or finding the updraft from the heat and following it to a less destructive place.

"My people, we have work to do."

So let's get our hands dirty and make the good better and the bad good again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A POSITION IN PARIS, romantic historical novel with gay leads


Kindle edition
$2.99, available for pre-order, release date 20 August 2018

Rating: 4* of five

The (Self-)Publisher Says: Paris, 1919. World War One is over, and wounded hero James Clarynton is struggling to face life without one leg, one eye, and the devilish good looks he had before the conflict. Now he must pay for affection, and it leaves him bitter. He’s filling the time by writing a book—but it’s the young man who comes to type it who really intrigues him.

Edmund Vaughan can’t turn down the chance to be secretary to the wealthy James Clarynton. He’s been out of work since the armistice, and his mother and brother depend on him. But he has secrets to hide, and the last thing he wants is an employer who keeps asking questions.

As they work together, their respect for each other grows, along with something deeper. But tragedy threatens, and shadows from the past confront them at every turn. They must open their hearts and trust each other if they are to break down the barriers that separate them.


My Review
: It distresses me a bit that this is marketed as a gay romance. The genre's stalwart legions of readers are going to come away disappointed because this is an historical novel, not a romance. The men at the center of the tale fall in love and overcome absurdly bad communication exacerbated by pride and fear. That's not enough to be called a "gay romance" in today's marketplace. There's zero on-page sex. None. Zip zero rien nada. So buyer beware.

What you will receive for your dollars is a well-written and historically accurate vision of post-World-War-One Paris. What you will experience, via the journal entries of the two men whose love story this is, is a wonderful and tender story of falling in love and finding your soul mate. In a time when that was both forbidden and fraught with peril, that is a whole lot to find.

The French have always had a more-or-less indifferent response to gay male love. Tuts and frowns and lack of inclusion are a far cry from the English-influenced countries' thundering condemnatory revilement, torture, and murder. These English folk, arrived in an oasis of rational thought, bloom as far as they'll allow themselves to bloom. James, our war hero, is wealthy and has inherited still more of the world's goods with the death of his gay great-uncle. An apartment, a carriage, a lifestyle of enviable luxury; younger and poorer Edmund has less, needs more, and hides a genuinely tragic stain on his family's character from his war-hero employer.

Needless to say, the entire fakakta mess could be solved if the men would ask direct questions and answer them truthfully, but then again that's the entire problem in the human world. Politics is the art of obfuscating the essential simplicity of human troubles so a few can steal money and value from a lot. But I digress.

James's personality, unsurprisingly, is dominant and take-charge. Edmund is more retiring yet more stubborn and prideful than James is accustomed to dealing with as an aristocrat and an officer. Edmund's idiotic pride presents an enormous obstacle to James, smitten and eager to help his beloved. Quite unsurprisingly, James isn't particularly aware of his overbearing and domineering personality's effect on lower-class, shy Edmund. While it is true that Edmund's idiot pride is the major stumbling block to their communication, James's lack of experience with equality in his relationships needs addressing as well.

These problems being universal among human beings, they're deeply relatable to relationship fiction readers. I fear that placing two men at the center of a relationship fiction, the author won't find those readers; I've already mentioned the issue with the romance readers' expectations. So the resolution to the tale, one that involves an astonishing and moving act of bravery on James's part, is perfectly designed to appeal to an audience I fear will not notice the book.

There is so much to love in the story of two proud, scared, stubborn hearts coming to love each other, to care for and about each other, to form a solid and (one expects) enduring partnership, that I wish I could open your eyes to the reality of the tale's market position. Don't go in expecting A Romance. Go in expecting Romantic Relationship Fiction a la Georgette Heyer or Margery Sharp. Your expectations will be met.

Friday, August 10, 2018

THE DEEP SEA DIVER'S SYNDROME, first Serge Brussolo novel translated into English...at last!

tr. Edward Gauvin
Melville House
$11.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: They call them “mediums”—professional dreamers who “dive” into the dream world to retrieve items that are converted into valuable artworks in the waking world. What’s more, the more dangerous the dream, the more valuable that artwork becomes.

In David Sarella’s dreams, he’s a professional jewel thief. With the help of his beautiful accomplice, Nadia, he breaks into jewelry stores and museums, lifts diamond necklaces and priceless art, and escapes into the night on a motorcycle—often, with the police shooting at them.

But the pressure is always on David to dream up more audaciously dangerous heists. And meanwhile, the dives are taking their toll, both physically and mentally. David is beyond the point at which this “syndrome” forces most mediums to retire or face insanity or even death . . . and yet he can’t imagine full-time life in the waking world, a world with no Nadia . . .

And so he decides to go down one more time—on the deepest dream-dive he’s ever attempted—to settle his doubts and pull off one last spectacular job . . .


My Review
: Author Serge Brussolo has finally appeared in English! His series of novels about David Sarella is extensive, and this is not the first of that series, but it's a very deep (haw) and involving tale. First things first: This is a charming urban fantasy. To market it as science fiction is to court disappointed readers. A man who deep-dives into his own brain to produce Art is not a usual SFnal conceit. The action, such as it is, isn't SFnal. It's a beautifully made interior novel set in a fantastical urban world, so buy it with that in mind.

I strongly urge you to buy it, mind, especially if you like Ursula K. LeGuin's work. It's the same sort of appreciate-on-several-levels story. In the mood for escapism? Focus on David's journeys into his head, and the way he searches for meaning when he's forced to remain in "reality." Want a brainy story about the nature of reality, its discontents and escapes? Focus on the relationships David has with every living woman he's around. Brussolo layers his myth-making like fine mille-feuille pastry dough, creating the crispest and richest napoleons you'll eat this year.

In the end, my problem with this book came down to something I suspect is in the original French but that I wish the translator had used his artistic license to change: No one simply says anything, they murmur or grate or coo. Fine, fine, I get that sometimes a word like that can act as a spicy overnote. But too many times and it becomes the only thing one experiences, the fine and full flavors under the spice get obscured and that really is a shame. Author Brussolo has collected fine ingredients and made them into a full-bodied potage; a quarter cup of Tabasco reduces his ideas to mere chunks of heavier stuff in a mouth-burning stew.

There are dozens more Brussolo titles untranslated in multiple genres. It is a shame you're not already gobbling them down. Show the publisher that there are buyers with sophisticated tastes that need sophisticated tales to sate them. Resist the widespread US-market apathy for words written by those not from our culture! Treat yourself to your first Brussolo, then you'll need more and soon.

Monday, August 6, 2018

METHLAND: The Death and Life of American Small Town, votes have consequences and not all good!

METHLAND: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Bloomsbury USA
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The dramatic story of the methamphetamine epidemic as it sweeps the American heartland a timely, moving, very human account of one community s attempt to battle its way to a brighter future.

Crystal methamphetamine is widely considered to be the most dangerous drug in the world, and nowhere is that more true than in the small towns of the American heartland. Methland tells the story of Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,159), which, like thousands of other small towns across the country, has been left in the dust by the consolidation of the agricultural industry, a depressed local economy, and an out-migration of people. As if this weren t enough to deal with, an incredibly cheap, longlasting, and highly addictive drug has rolled into town.

Over a period of four years, journalist Nick Reding brings us into the heart of Oelwein through a cast of intimately drawn characters, including: Clay Hallburg, the town doctor, who fights meth even as he struggles with his own alcoholism; Nathan Lein, the town prosecutor, whose caseload is filled almost exclusively with meth-related crime; and Jeff Rohrick, a meth addict, still trying to kick the habit after twenty years. Tracing the connections between the lives touched by the drug and the global forces that set the stage for the epidemic, Methland offers a vital and unique perspective on a pressing contemporary tragedy.

My Review: The major take-away of this book, for me at least, was to explain something I've been at a complete loss to comprehend: The virulent, violent hatred of Immigrants by the Trumpanzees. Racism makes no sense to me...I hate a person, not A People...but its prevalence in what I don't accept as the Heartland, more flyover country, attests to its power. But why?

It's not their skin color, or their accent, those are things that familiarity will wear down to nubs in a remarkably short time. Say a generation. My father still made fun of Italians and Poles; I can't pick an Italian-American or Polish-American out of a lineup.

It's not that they're taking our jobs. That's misdirected class warfare, and can almost always be redirected against the vile perpetrators of the crime of job theft after a few months of patient and factual discussion.

It's the lawlessness of the Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations and their enforcers. All Mexican. All brown skinned and all Spanish speaking. The roundups and the crimes and the staggering cost of the drugs' prevalence in an area of little to no economic opportunity, coupled with the lack of other, countervailing examples of good, law-abiding, tax-paying people of the same ethnicity and skin color and language family, make the only experiences the Trumpanzees have negative to cataclysmically horrible ones.

During Prohibition, the wine-drinking Italians became bootleggers as the idiotic and useless Volstead Act drove demand for the high of alcohol underground. Others were in the game as well, of course, but the Italians used their cultural priority of family-before-others to create and run a lucrative industry supplying Americans with their hooch. Bathtub gin blinded people. Straight-up wood alcohol killed people, despite being cut with water and flavored with gawd-knows-what. People still got high because the Depression was on and the world was horrible and this guinea down the road could hook you up with some oblivion for a dime.

A few minor modifications to that and you have the Irish moonshiners of the 19th century, the Black crack dealers of the mid-20th century, or the Mexican meth dealers of the 21st.

Does a pattern become apparent here? People want, maybe even need, to get high. There's always a way, and there's always a law against it. Which makes satisfying the need profitable, which attracts the disenfranchised (often immigrants), which leads to stigmatization then outright calumniation and scapegoating.

Methland lays the case against stigmatizing the fulfillers of the need and directs our attention to the creators of the need. It's done without hysteria or shrillness, no finger-pointing orgy of shame. It's a rational, reasoned discussion of the costs and the causes of a scourge that won't stop scourging our backs until we look up and see it clear and plain:

Corporate capitalism.

Monday, April 2, 2018

THE BODY ON THE BARSTOOL, a charming cozy murder mystery

(Top Shelf Mysteries #1)
Kindle edition
$3.99 available now

Rating: Solid 4 stars of five

The (Self-)Publisher Says: New Yorker Erica "Ricki" Fontaine's ne'er-do-well uncle has dropped dead and left her a dive bar in a small Ohio River town. With a lousy apartment, less-than-promising job prospects, and even worse romantic ones, the inheritance comes at just the right time. Ricki packs up her cat and heads for the Buckeye State.

Now she's trying to change the Top Shelf from a bar known for its Friday night fights into the kind of drinking establishment where you can bring your granny. But finding her ex-husband dead on a barstool at opening time one morning just might put a kink in those plans.


My Review
: I knew this series was for me when I read that the author lived with three or four dogs. I feel a little betrayed that the c-a-t in these books is presented in a favorable light, but one can't have everything. I'm not quite sure why that should be, but there it is.

When Ricki returns to (fictional) Waterton, Ohio, after a stint there as a child in the middle 1990s, she does so as a woman of property, a caryatid of the community, her late uncle's heiress and new owner of a dive bar called The Top Shelf. It's run-down, it's crappy, the police know it by heart, but it's all hers. She's thrilled because her life in New York City was stale as hell. Her college romance drifted into marriage that, sadly, proved not to be right for either of them...her ex-husband Michael remarried after the divorce, tastelessly quickly, to his secretary the Hot Scot. Andy the Hot Scot. So yeah, not really right for the first spouse.

After landing up in Waterton, Michael and Ricki stayed friends and even continued to talk. So it was a huge surprise to Ricki when Michael shows up unannounced at the Top Shelf. Especially since he's dead. Inside her closed and locked bar. With one of her food service steak knives in his side.

Don't you hate when that happens?

Lolli Powell's rollicking ride to resolving this mystery, and the even deeper and scarier mystery at the heart of the murder, is full of surprises and chuckles and relatable moments, just like you want a cozy to be:
I enjoy a good horse race from time to time, but team sports make me yawn. Probably has something to do with the fact that I'm about as coordinated as a legless pig and was psychologically traumatized by always being picked last for teams in gym class.
Also present are the requisite cast of oddballs and eccentrics one requires to be cozy and the employed good-looking heterosexual single men (ha! as if) in this one-stoplight town required for it to be chick lit.

There are a few inevitable holes in the quilt. The characters are numerous so some have little screen time. The red herrings piled up a bit high, though the fishy smell was never quite overwhelming. There's a timely Act of God that did cause my eyes to roll just a widge. The aforementioned Limb of Satan is not dead by the end of the book or there'd be fractionally more stars here. But none of these minor infelicities are remotely big enough to be deal-breakers.

We know the tropes are present. This is good. We know the murder has layers, we know the herrings are red and copious, we know the setting is exotic. (Ohio? There are people there?) We know, in short, all the elements of a satisfying read are present. And having just read the book, I vouch for the satisfactions of the read. I appreciate the chance to look at the world from a front porch once in a while. That's the secret of cozies, they afford a sense of community and connection not always readily available in the real world. Mysteries in general offer a reinforcement of the frequently absent sense that Justice will prevail.

Doesn't sound like your cuppa? Pass on. The world will keep spinning. But I say take a side trip and visit the Top Shelf for a refreshing Jim Beam and soda.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

DARK ECOLOGY presents a philosophical basis for understanding the Anthropocene Epoch

DARK ECOLOGY: For a Logic of Future Coexistence

Columbia University Press
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Timothy Morton argues that ecological awareness in the present Anthropocene era takes the form of a strange loop or M?bius strip, twisted to have only one side. Deckard travels this oedipal path in Blade Runner (1982) when he learns that he might be the enemy he has been ordered to pursue. Ecological awareness takes this shape because ecological phenomena have a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are.

The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic. His work is a skilled fusion of humanities and scientific scholarship, incorporating the theories and findings of philosophy, anthropology, literature, ecology, biology, and physics. Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.


My Review: I can honestly say that Author Morton was writing directly to my most dearly held concerns. The Anthropocene, the current post-Holocene epoch of geological time, is a given in the author's thinking; if you're not in sync with 21st-century thinking and deny that climate change is not only happening but is largely if not entirely of human genesis, this book will not do one single thing for you. That is, it will make you screechingly furious, but it won't change your mind.

For the rest of us, the book's foundations in logic has lacunae. I'd expected to see the role of Big Science play a major part here; also Toxic Technology; instead Author Morton focuses on the philosophical and cultural roots of the Anthropocene. It's less about What Happened than it is about Why Things Are. We go down a bunch of rabbit holes to explore the nature of the Anthropocene's genesis, we spend a lot of time (in the footnotes) digging for truffles in the dirt of our Collective Unconscious, and in the end come to the surface of our minds with some useful new concepts. "Agrilogistics" and "ecognosis" are worthy neologisms for deep and tangled concepts. A simple explanation of them is that the reductive power of modern STEM-based environmental discussion ignores a huge reservoir of knowledge that comes from our shared, lived experience; this isn't in any way a comprehensive explanation so my suggestion is to read the 192 pages of the book slowly and carefully.

It repaid me enormously to do so and it could do that for you as well.