Monday, August 19, 2019

BLACK LIGHT: STORIES, raw gobbets of the debut author's psychic flesh


Vintage Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: With raw, poetic ferocity, Kimberly King Parsons exposes desire’s darkest hollows—those hidden places where most of us are afraid to look. In this debut collection of enormously perceptive and brutally unsentimental short stories, Parsons illuminates the ache of first love, the banality of self-loathing, the scourge of addiction, the myth of marriage, and the magic and inevitable disillusionment of childhood.

Taking us from hot Texas highways to cold family kitchens, from the freedom of pay-by-the-hour motels to the claustrophobia of private school dorms, these stories erupt off the page with a primal howl—sharp-voiced, acerbic, and wise.


My Review
: Don't start this read if you're not ready to go there. You know the "there" I mean, that there that Gertrude Stein railed against not being there in Oakland, California, circa 1920. Or today, for all I know or care. The there you're going with Author Parsons is the there that we try hard to deal with each in our separate ways, the there that we hate but need. You're not going alone. You might, in fact, prefer solitude on the trip, but by definition, reading is an accompanied silence. Like a playlist of stuff you can't remember liking when you were twenty but comes up when you enter the year you turned twenty into YouTube's maw.

As is my wont, I will use the time-honored and very efficient Bryce Method to view the stories as they come.

Guts is the reminiscences of a plus-size substance abuser about her handsome doctor lover (or is he, is their glancing connection, a product of her unfilled, bottomless needs?). It's sad, it's poignant, it's a window into the heart of someone who quite simply will not accept any positive event in her life—she looks for the lightning bolt in every cloud but ignores the gleaming of the silver lining. I want to box her ears for her. I recognize my fellow impostor-syndrome sufferer. She is an annoying twidgee. She needs the calm, practical doctor to open her mind, her body, and her psyche with invasive maneuvers she cannot evade. 3.5 stars

In Our Circle asks if PTSD is fixable: "When they let me out, I was just as mad as when I went in, only fatter and too lazy to exercise my wrath. Plus, I'd shaved off my eyebrows for no real reason, and what grew back was fine and blond and seemed to endear the world to me. I'd done the work and passed their tests, but my mind was still snarled." I'm guessing not. 4 stars

Glow Hunter is a coming(!)-of-age tale set in the Texas I did not want to grow up in, a part that was poor and trapped and ugly inside and out. These girls are just on the brink of making their biggest discoveries about life, these two little lives just exactly like every other little life are about to get a whole new dimension from their first psychedelic experience:
Bo is always dangling new universes, places she says are hidden in plain sight. I already feel high when she's around—giddy, tingles on my scalp. Once, I let her drag me to a trailer park psychic. A woman in a leotard told me my aura was dingy, that I could pay her extra to hose it off with her mind. I've told Bo I don't want to turn into a fractal elf or watch my hands pool into liquid rainbows. She tells me not to worry, that with mushrooms we'll be us, only better. She calls this my Summer of Yes. "Imagine everything slightly dazzling," she says, "real life with a glow."
Bo and I weren't exactly friends in school—we were polite. It was Jeff who shoved us together. Bo, this strange girl who made abysmal grades and covered her arms in highlighter filigree. She'd wait in the library while Jeff and I did homework, cutting holes in her clothes or vandalizing desks with her bizarre poems. Sometimes the two of them would take a break and go out to her car to get high. I'd study spitefully, prepare to kick Jeff's ass on whatever test. They'd come back stoned and giddy, sticky heat radiating. I'd never smelled sex before. I could have stormed off, but I didn't—I'd sit there wallowing in the hot tang of them, not used to being in such proximity to what I wanted.
Jeff kissed me once, when we were thirteen. I'd just beaten him at some video game—obliterated his high score—and I thought he was mad until he lunged, openmouthed, and hugged me with his whole body. I memorized the shape of that moment, and then I pulled away. I laughed and laughed. He showed me what I was, without meaning to. He was all fat tongue and dumb want, his dick like a dog in the room, begging for attention.
I'm working Bo with my hands. This goes on in such a way that I can leave and come back to it. I take breaks, visit my childhood bedroom in my mind, sit in a comfy chair in my dead grandmother's knocked-down house. Helping Bo is a noble and difficult task, like trying to jerk off a beam of light.
She's due for a heartbreak, our narrator; Bo couldn't be less of a lesbian if she practiced all night. But the curves of these moments will always be the forms she beats her life's shapes to mirror. Bo, Jeff...shadows whose blackness will define her light places always. 5 stars

The Animal Part talks about the awful way boys away from home make their friendships work. One night's ghost story at camp becomes a bid for freedom from the hard stuff kids must think about, like survival in the pack, like finding an identity. For such a short tale, no more than five hundred words, this brings home our essential difference from females. It doesn't surprise me that Author Parsons has sons. 3.5 stars

"What's worth happening happens in deep woods. Or so my daughter tells me." That's how Foxes starts. This is an amazing story. The story behind its creation, via Publishers Weekly, is one you should know: it's here, someone tell me if there's a paywall please.

Then go back and read "Foxes" again.

The marriage that produced the daughter was between the youthful narrator and an older fool, one with a little bit of money and a lot of crass. They're both people with whom I share nothing but the right to trial by a jury of one's peers. They come from the trailer park, and they're only out of it physically.
Whether it's nature or nurture, for people like the fool and me there is a long beat between learning something and knowing it. For us, answers come later, when we're far away from the question, if they come at all.
The narrator's drinking problem didn't stop the fool from leaving, far be it from him to stay and help or, who knows, maybe even fix the problem; and such is his self-absorption that leaving his daughter to our drunken narrator's tender mercies doesn't turn a gray hair on his scalp. The teachers and the shrinks all agree that the child's darkness is to be accepted if not encouraged, as she tries to make sense of her new world.
In the deepest, darkest woods, the knight cuts out a man's liver and tosses it to a fox. He cuts off two ears. Fox. Fox. He rips out a larnix as a snack for a wolf. Two larnixes!

"I believe it's pronounced larynx," I say gently, refilling my glass.
But in the end, what's the poor kid to do? Her daddy's somewhere else and not coming back and mama's not what you'd call all there either.
Very soon, he'll be dead in a painful, mundane way–a ruptured this, a burst that–and even more funds will arrive. How noble of him to provide such a hefty inheritance! I'm still working out that last part–right now it's more wish than plausible ending.
There's really not much sign of a life raft here; no wonder it took twelve years for the author to write it. She says, in the PW article linked above, of her process in writing "Foxes":
Finding my way into voice is always the part that takes me the longest, but usually once I’m there, the story comes in a steady reveal. “Foxes” was different–it stayed murky at every turn.
Plumbing that murk is at the heart of the stories Author Parsons looks to tell, or for sure the ones she looks to tell us here. It is a damnably tough job to reach that far inside and pull out anything that someone else wants to see. 5 stars

The Soft No does a lot to humanize Lubbock! Not. It's as bleak as any other wide-open space is, at least to those whose souls don't belong there; like Donna, the soft-no mom of the title. She's lost. She's actually home-bound by her sadness and her depression. It's not in the least bit a startling or new story. But it's very prettily told by a child just realizing that she must escape, she can not survive if she lets this "home" make her life into this miserable slog of thing that's destroyed her mother:
This dumb town is known for two things only: the Buddy Holly statue by the strip mall and the big, big sky. I hate that stupid statue—just seeing it sticks the whiniest songs in your head, makes you think of creepy, old-timey ghosts...The sky is all right, streaked pink and orange, but it's more like a lid than a promise. We're nowhere. If you wanted to leave you'd be driving forever, not toward anything, just away.
Don't kid yourself. Ten pages is enough to know how deep the water of life can recede yet leave bodies in their millions making nothing of their space in time. 5 stars

We Don't Come Natural to It is the saddest story yet: the longing of the left-out for belonging, being present in a way that matters to someone. The desperate denial of the body's needs, the equally desperate sensual overload of too much yes where it's hurtful and too much hurt where it's tender. The brisket-eating scene will break your heart. There isn't enough space in the Big City for all the nothing that the narrator, super-fat-shamer extraordinaire, needs:
Where I'm from, falling asleep is easy. You can hear your eyelashes swipe the pillow. There's so much nothing pouring in, you drift off listening to your choice.
The less there is of her self-starved body, the more she needs to have room, to carve space out of whatever is near and use the hole as proof she exists. 4 stars

The Light Will Pour In tells us a low-rent Lolita story, a happier ending with misery for all but no redemptive rescue for anyone. I can't help but feel that this narrator is the fool from "Foxes." He sounds like I imagine the fool would, he talks about settling in Matador, Texas, on the ass end of the Red River's dividing line between the Llano Estacado and the Great Plains; I'm goin' with my gut here, same guy.
Trish liked to pick at me with questions. She posed them in a kind of singsong innocence meant to cut. Like how had I lived such a long, long life without knowing the One True Way to pack a suitcase? And how much torrential rain had to fall before I'd hold up a newspaper or my jacket or something, anything, as a kind of gentlemanly shield over her? ... There is no excuse, when traveling by bus, for not knowing where the bus station is. But we'd show up somewhere in the dark and go one way for a burger and another for a place to sleep...I hated the thumpy road and the noisy brakes, the awful bodies shifting and coughing, all the unbearable people who weren't her.
Sounds like hell...but the ending is what makes it clear you're not just hearing the echoes of hell, you are spang in the middle of it. 3.5 stars

Into the Fold is an ugly, ugly story about adolescent girls at a posh boarding school. It made me very glad I'm no longer an adolescent. I was not a fan back then, now I'll cross the street to avoid adolescents. Horrible cliquish creatures without compassion or remorse.

The gist of the story is one girl's misery on the death of her favorite horse being transmuted into the hell on Earth that is being the one left out. Not just left out: being labeled as Weird. Social death; often enough actual death, this being the moment when people have adult-strength emotions without any compensatory perspective to allow reality to intervene between the pain of being Othered and realizing how little one actually cares. I really don't. 2.5 stars.

Black Light is the agony of First Love finishing before you're ready for it to. Especially bad for the burgeoning dyke in Nowhereland whose girl leaves her for Jesus. The. Absolute. Worst. And then your dirtbag older brother bugging you to share the inevitable Polaroid beaver shot with him...well, I ask you! Staying in bed for a good, long cry sounds good.
"Take it out" was what she said when I first got my hand in her. "Take it out so you can put it right back in." She was a flood, sopping. A girl like that can't last. A fleeting gleam. I don't know if there's a word for the ache of missing something when you still have it. I'd kiss her and taste my doom.
I don't have to look far to see the kind of woman she'll become—this town is bloated with them. Women who met their soul mate in youth group and got married young. Mission trips and the missionary position and grace before every meal. It's a life of pew PDA with the hubby, clapping on the downbeat, hating the sin, not the sinner. Hair spray, pot lucks, half a dozen kids. A big, fat scrapbooking habit.

Like that, but with basketball.
Her girl's a six-footer, a terrible player, but basketball led to Jesus, so it has to be excoriated. It can't be her, it surely can't be you; so basketball. And Jesus. All the things that are wrong with our fucked-up world. 4.5 stars

Fiddlebacks brings up That Memory...finding your parent(s) doing something mysterious, wrong...weird...and making talk-like sounds that don't mean a single thing to your kid-self. The peculiar noises, the off-putting sounds...and the sheer living, breathing energy of it...all put it into your memory forever. Bury it, deny it, whatever you need to do, but it's there. Set in another Panhandle/Llano Estacado town with nothing whatsoever going for it (except arachnids galore, like the venomous ones of the title), these three kids are coming of age this one dark and stormy night. Poor Mother, and by gawd poor old Stubbs! Ugly and dumb and unloved by his sweetie's spawn, he's never, ever gonna live this down. 4 stars

Starlite reveals the ugly truth about marriage: You got no idea what Kneecap, your husband, or Eyelash, your wife, get themselves up to when you're not around.
One shop sold only home theater equipment, another specialized in bespoke chinos—luxuries not meant for the guests who usually stayed here. Even the word "guests" felt wrong to Jill. Customers, maybe. Frequenters. This place was rock bottom for anybody, a good spot for bad decisions.
(The proverbial hot-sheets hotel, the no-tell motel. Wonder what Jill and Rick's gettin' theyselves up to.) Might be you're happier that way. Could also be they got no notion of what it is you're up to...the messiness of being alive, the passionlessness of the quotidian, purple cabbage Thai dishes jumble against red beards, hairy armpits, no one wins. 4.5 stars

There it is. This is what's kept Author Parsons busy the past twelve or so years. It's been a good, solid busy, as you can see. It's hard to imagine her finding the room inside herself to birth two kids! All this life, all these people, you end up feeling like your entire brain is swelling from their bad breath and farts.

I say go. You say...?

Friday, August 16, 2019

MISS BLAINE'S PREFECT AND THE GOLDEN SAMOVAR, amusing first mystery novel plus time travel


Felony & Mayhem
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Never underestimate a librarian. Comfortably padded and in her middle years, Shona McMonagle may look bookish and harmless, but her education at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls has left her with a deadly expertise in everything from martial arts to quantum physics. It has also left her with a bone-deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, that scurrilous novel that spread scandalous untruths about the finest educational institution in Edinburgh. Her skills, her deceptively mild appearance, and her passionate loyalty make Shona the perfect recruit for a new and interesting project: Time-travel to Tzarist Russia, prevent a gross miscarriage of romance, and - in any spare time - see to it that only the right people get murdered. It's a big job, but no task is too daunting for a Head Girl from Miss Blaine's.


My Review
: Shona McMonagle, whose life as a librarian is spent attempting to expunge The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from the world's...okay, from Scotland's...make that Edinburgh's shelves for its heinous, unforgivable insults to her Revered Preceptress Marcia Blaine of the (fictional, get it?) Marcia Blaine School for Girls. You will not be surprised to know that Miss Blaine, though now more than 274 years old, accepts this tribute to herself and her educational precepts, her centuries-old vow to make all her girls the crème de la crème in all their fields of endeavor, by inviting (in a more commanding than inviting way) Miss McMonagle to undertake a delicate mission for her. That mission will involve time travel to Tsarist St. Petersburg at some point between the Decembrist Revolution of 1825 and the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. (Running joke that gets forgotten a lot. You'll see.)

What can one say to a 274-year-old that hasn't been said many times? Shona accepts the brief and, hey prestwick...I mean presto!...after some thoroughly unpleasant bodily pains she awakes in a peculiarly unsurprised and complaisant version of the capital of paranoid, isolationist, status-obsessed Imperial Russia, where she is Princess Shona Fergusovna. Or so she decides, being rather forced to take a title as her own despite her egalitarian and feminist principles. She does not, however, go so far as to pooh-pooh her Russian home from home's accoutrements:
I wandered back into the brightness of the salon and saw at the far end of the room my second samovar of the evening, vaster than the first, big enough to hold boiling water for the largest tea party I could host. It was golden, the pinnacle of the craftsman's art. It had whorls, it had curlicues, it had scallops, it had convolutions, it had involutions, it had dimples, it had excrescences, it had gibbosity, it had indentations, it had crenellations—it was utterly spectacular. And most magnificent of all was the design of the spigot. It was shaped like a ferocious eagle, its wings outstretched, its beak—I was about to run my fingers down it when I backed off. Its beak was razor sharp. I couldn't help tutting. It was an accident waiting to happen. I would have to remember this was an era before health and safety, and treat the samovar with extreme caution.
Charming litany. I quite like Princess Fergusovna. I also like her complete willingness to lust ever so discreetly after handsome young buck Sasha, whose beauty she first appreciates from beneath a sofa:
The young man's voice was light and attractive, the sort that you could listen to for hours on the radio. I wondered whether he had a face for radio as well.
He most assuredly does NOT have a face for radio, in that he is the protégé (pronounced by Shona, then all those who hear her, in the manner français, this reliably sends the Russians into fits of giggles for slightly obvious reasons) of a dreadful, lustful, stout, snobbish, evil-hearted countess. Her designs on his corpus delectable are strictly dishonorable, as are those of every other woman in St. Petersburg:
"I shall be waiting for you tomorrow afternoon," {a randy old widow} was saying.
"And I shall be counting the minutes until then," Sasha replied.
He was such a sweet guy. When he married Lidia, she would have to be careful that he didn't exhaust himself doing good works, and left some time for her.
You see, Miss Blaine wants Shona to infiltrate society's upper echelons to make sure beautiful, naive heiress Lidia gets her proper mate in this life. So Miss Blaine, through means undisclosed, gives Shona a house, a serf, and a lot of money. No one in St. Petersburg questions this apparition, it seems, accepting her story of being a Scottish peeress without question. And Shona, for her part, is a late-middle-aged matronly sort with peerless language and ninja skills, preternaturally acute hearing, and not one shred of common sense. Who cares who Lidia marries, especially a twenty-first-century feminist? Why go to all this trouble for someone who simply isn't that interesting, except that there needs to be a plot? And Shona's highly lusty crush on Sasha means she sees him as the proper mate for delectable little Lidia (who couldn't possible care less about him) in spite of a zillion unsubtle clues that she's got that wrong. (When she does get the right man for Lidia all set up, it's pretty much anticlimactic.)

But the journey's the thing, not the destination, right? I found trotting alongside Shona as she falls flat on her assumptions, picks herself up and carries on assuming (despite her new-found fondness for the aperçu "Never assume, it makes an ass of (yo)u and me" about which ::facepalm::) everything is about value of face as well as face value, to be a chuckle.

Not, however, a major one. This is a first novel and it is clear that the author hasn't quite got her hands around the neck of this clue-dropping thing just yet. She's quick with the witticism, johnny-on-the-spot with the dry double entendre, a dab hand with the mildly amusing misunderstanding and/or malapropism. All are inherent in slamming a bog-standard fiftysomething Scottish lady librarian (how Shona would *hate* that description!) into a culture much more patriarchal than the present Western one, and even though she endows Shona with amazing skills though without any solid explanation for them, the joke of the fish out of water works pretty well. For a while. By the end of the 250-page book I was really, really ready for the story to be wrapped up, and the couples (plural) to embark on their Russian lives, and Shona to get the heck back home. The throwaway bit at the very end about the blue paint made me guffaw, and sent me off away from the read with a much happier frame of mind that I would have been in otherwise.

Will I read the next one, assuming there is one? Maybe. I might. I could be persuaded. I will not, however, be waiting with bated breath for it to arrive. There are other, more deft, whimsical mysteries for me to read while the wait goes on.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

THERE WERE ALSO STRANGERS, last novel by forgotten midcentury pop novelist Borden Deal

image via ABEBooks seller Bookstore-Online


Maybe you'll get lucky, who knows
Out of print, so there's no way of tellin'

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Strangers move into the dark, old house on the face of the mountain. In one sun-stained summer, they cast a mysterious aura that shrouds young Borden, stabbing his heart and mind in a Jungian psychodrama that pierces his darkest fears and our deepest emotions.

The old house seems the scene of sedate, proper living, but from it radiates a scintillating sense of good and evil. Within, an enticing but enigmatic temptress ignites the young man's rites of passage through the kaleidoscopic aspects of his own sexual/emotional nature and that of the world surrounding him—a world of pulsing realities and eerie glimmerings of the supernatural and unknown. What happens as he is pulled by powerful, opposing desires is a passionate, haunting tale that has the fiery beauty of truth. It is told by internationally acclaimed author Borden Deal, a novelist of rare power and distinction.


My Review
:Not quite a half-star above three...a bit on the mannered side for my taste.

Borden Deal was one of those "famous if you know who they are" figures that literature specializes in producing (eg, tragic suicide David Foster Wallace, career suicide JT LeRoy, a lady whose 1990s hoax of being a gay teen prostitute inspired a biopic, of all things). He was a humidly Southern kind of storyteller, making a lot of psychosexual hay while the sun of Public Disapproval still shone; his career was a lot slower, and a lot heavier on "erotica," after the Swingin' Sixties got started.

This is his last novel before hard drinkin' and smokin' killed him at 62, in 1985. It's probably good that he died before he heard what folks were saying (see 1985 review below). Teeny-weeny (and now defunct) New Horizon Press of Far Hills, New Jersey, brought it out...that should say something to you, since the 1950s and 1960s saw his books under Holt, Rinehart & Winston (The Tobacco Men, 1965) and Scribner's (Walk Through the Valley, 1956) colophons. His moment had passed; the Broadway play based on his novel The Insolent Breed and the film based on Dunbar's Cove were decades past by then. There was no way this little Gothic novel about narrator-Borden, poor sharecropper's son, coming of bisexual age in the Great Depression, would've made the grade at Doubleday!

It's not a bad book. It's got the kind of heightened language that was out of fashion in the 1980s, putting Deep Thoughts in Countrified expressions in the mouth of a 13-year-old. Much about the story would've made it a bestseller in 1965, what with narrator-Borden developing a serious crush on Charles, while all-but ignoring Frances the living breathing girl on his doorstep. The faux-country "ain't"s and so on would've gone down a treat then, as well. But in 1985 that was not the first stare of regionalism and, mid-AIDS crisis, narrator-Borden's nascent bisexuality wasn't enough to épater les bourgeois anymore. The Publishers Weekly review from 1985 is, I think, as fair an assessment of the work as any I can dream up:
Fantasists had better have a light, sure touch, an element lacking in this hard-to-credit journey back to a time when the 13-year-old narrator, Borden, was beginning to question the shibboleths that governed his life. Confronted one day while hoeing cotton by Charles, similar to himself in age and size but a world apart in sophistication, Borden abandons his work and follows where this strange boy leads. They meet thereafter at night, so that Charles can show Borden how steamy life really is (sexual orgies, marital hatred, madness) in this Southern, God-worshipping village. Eventually he is lured to the house of Charles's grandmother, who will complete Borden's awakening to his own sensibilities and to greater understanding of the world. Charles is clearly an alter ego, a personal demon, whom Borden must exorcise now that he has developed inner knowledge. In the book's most gripping scene, he rids himself of his guide and tormenter and returns cleansed to the cloyingly sweet little girl who is already acting like a wife of 20 years. In spite of its canned corn-pone language and undeveloped characters, this clearly autobiographical work will be of interest to Deal's admirers.
Copyright 1985 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The Gothic image of the house turned inwards, the dark and spooky doings inside, the mighty-are-fallen family that Charles comes from...standard. Michael McDowell does it better in his atmospheric horror novels of roughly the same vintage (eg, The Flood, Cold Moon Over Babylon). The ending, which I will not spoil, involves a purification rite that's not in the least bit overused. /irony

The novel's short and the read's quick. My county's library system lost its only copy of this marvy, but entirely on their own recognizance sourced a copy for me to read via ILL from Mississippi! Of course, I imagine a native son's books are thick on the ground there, so it's not like it was a hardship for the lenders, but still...!! I'm always amazed and delighted when people go out of their way to fulfill patrons' idle whims in reading material as part of the service, unheralded, unasked, and I'm sure largely unnoticed and unappreciated.

I noticed. I'm most appreciative. I wish the read had been more exciting.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN, how the world looks to someone who isn't like the rest of us

SAYAKA MURATA (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Grove Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers' style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society's expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko's contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Sayaka Murata brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan. With some laugh-out-loud moments prompted by the disconnect between Keiko's thoughts and those of the people around her, she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind. Convenience Store Woman is a fresh, charming portrait of an unforgettable heroine that recalls Banana Yoshimoto, Han Kang, and Amélie.


My Review
: I dunno, y'all. Miss Furukura and Shiraha aren't people I'd want to hang with. I kept reading their names as "Lieutenant Uhura" and "Sriracha," which didn't help me identify them as actual people.

Oh wait....

This is definitely a sharp, pointed tale. It takes on the internal and external expectations of women and their "proper" roles. It's a culture that is, in some disturbing ways, behind my own culture's flawed and unhelpful attitudes towards women. As this is a translation from a language with which I feel absolutely no kinship, I'll confine my observations about the writing to: this is a very quick read, possessed of enough narrative drive to make reading it with dilated eyes and a headache (as I waited to go home from an eye doctor visit) seem like a good idea. I was diverted, I cared a strangely large amount about Keiko Furukura, and while there was not one single surprise or twist in the tale, it was keenly observed and honestly told.
First we practiced the various phrases we needed to use in the store. Standing shoulder to shoulder in a line, our backs straight, we lifted the corners of our mouths to match the smiling face in the training poster and in turn called out the stock welcoming phrase: Irasshaimase! ... I was good at mimicking the trainer's examples and the model video he'd shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.
I have never been so glad in my life as when Author Murata stopped banging my eyeballs with "Irasshaimase" about halfway through the book. I am one of those subverbal-vocalizers, and that phrase got my entire limbic system into an uproar because, although I know Japanese pronunciation is dipthongless, I could *not* scan that alphabet soup to save my life, and the YouTube videos pronouncing it for me made my nose hairs hurt. I think Japanese is a hideous language. Cool words, great concepts, please don't speak it to me.

Anyway. So Lieutenant Uhura meets Sriracha and things get weird. Only they don't because, well, they're exactly alike and while that's an awful thing to say, it's just the truth. She's one step away from a serious psychiatric break when she visits her younger sister and interacts (sort of) with her infant nephew. He (Shiraha) is already broken, beaten by expectations he is incapable of meeting. Her broken self's saving grace is that she knows *she* is the problem:
"Um, you do realize you'll be fixed?"
"What?" {Shiraha} asked, as if he hadn't heard right.
"Oh, nothing. Hurry up and change so we can do the morning practice!"
A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment, so the likes of you are fixed right away I thought as I watched him taking his time getting changed. But I didn't say it out loud.
And that, in a nutshell, is why the tale kept me reading. I was fascinated against my will by the savvy that she brought to the problem of acting human when she quite simply isn't. She knows she lacks something, hasn't a clue what it is, and no one knows how to explain it to her; what she stumbles upon in the convenience store is a model she can emulate. A worker is supposed to BE the job in the convenience store and she needs someone to be. Perfection.

Poor Sriracha is an incel, as we call them these days, a loser/misfit/nobody whose essential wrongness comes from the other usual place this unsocialized-male issue comes from: He knows what being human means but he's too lazy to do it, then feels outrage and anger when he isn't given all the privileges being a human male customarily affords the Y-chromosomally endowed. Lieutenant Uhura can't grok this, since she's a hard worker and a genuinely indifferent-to-normal-humans person. She doesn't feel excluded, as he does; she realizes she is excluded and takes steps to minimize the exclusion so others will feel happier:
You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange—maybe that's what everyone means when they say they want to "cure" me.
These past two weeks I'd been asked fourteen times why I wasn't married. And twelve times why I was still working part-time. So for now I'd decide what to eliminate from my life according to what I was asked about most often I thought.
Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now.
See? Faultlessly logical. Not human, but deeply logical.

So fiction about the neurodiverse made my uncomfortable day of eye-doctoring, riding back and forth in a cramped position, and having to soak the bloodstains from my knee-rocks breaking through the skin due to sitting *ptooptoo* on sitting! for five hours, bearable. That by itself deserves praise. It's hard to know what to do about recommending such a quirky tale to others. In general, I'm against "must read" recommendations in all but a very few cases. I think this read will quite rightly polarize people's opinions, as did that "Completely Fine" thing that made me so bone-rattlingly mad that I Pearl-Ruled its condescending self. But this story, told by a person whose grasp on how to be human was tenuous and whose desire to figure it out was other-directed, is a different matter altogether. I might not love the way it ended, which I won't discuss, but I fully agree that it was an inevitable ending. I ended up glad I'd read it, and that's saying something.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

KISS KISS, a collection of Roald Dahl stories

KISS KISS: Eleven Fine New Stories

Penguin Books
Various prices; out of print in the US

The Publisher Says: In 1953 the publication of an unusual volume of stories called SOMEONE LIKE YOU was greeted by The New York Times Book Review with these words:
"At disconcertingly long intervals, the compleat short story writer comes along who knows how to blend and season four notable talents: an antic imagination, an eye for the anecdotal predicament with a twist at the end, a savage sense of humor suitable for stabbing or cutting, and an economical, precise writing style. No worshiper of Chekhov, he. You'll find him marching with solid plotters like Saki and O. Henry, Maupassant and Maugham. ... The reader looking for sweetness, light, and subtle characterization will have to try another address. Tension is his business; give him a surprise denouement, and he'll give you a story leading up to it. His name in this instance is Roald Dahl."

In KISS KISS, Roald Dahl has collected eleven new stories every bit as entertaining as the now famous "Taste," "Lamb to the Slaughter," "Skin," and the other stories that made SOMEONE LIKE YOU so memorable.

Actually, ever since his stories first appeared in the United States, people have been retelling each other, in club cars and at dinner parties, Roald Dahl's sometimes shocking and always unpredictable plots. The stories in KISS KISS are no less haunting and no less brilliantly told. We guarantee you'll be dining out on "Royal Jelly," "Parson's Pleasure," "The Landlady," "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat," and the others, for a long time to come.


My Review
: A cruel and demanding husband, or so his first wife Patricia Neal would have us know; a creepy old party, as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory amply demonstrated, with a great deal of disdain for Jewishness and gluttony and greed in general. His adult fiction is largely out of print in the US, and he was never really quite The Thing here as he was in Britain. I suppose his light sneers at us, so evident in his attitude towards the US's involvement in the Second World War, prevented his eventual literary rise from gaining the same boost as it did among the countrymen who saw, heard, absorbed his flying prowess and spying nous.

I decided to read this collection for some reason or another (maybe it was the 1960 Edgar-winning story?), I can't honestly recall why now. I know that I began to regret my decision as early as "William and Mary," the second story, wherein this is from the text of a letter written by Dahl as coming from beyond the grave of a man to his newly-widowed wife of thirty years:
"He is a magnificent neurosurgeon, one of the finest, and recently he has been kind enough to let me study the results of some of his work, especially the varying effects of prefrontal lobotomies upon different types of psychopath."
And then he goes on to give orders like "don't get a TV" and "disconnect the phone because I don't need it anymore"! How appalling. Sixty years ago, when this collection was published, that wasn't, whole and entire, a horrendous thing to say? I'd say it was, but I was a babe in arms at the time and have no direct knowledge of the way it would sound to the era's denizens. I suspect it wouldn't have raised an eyebrow on either of my parents, but they were right wingnuts and often didn't hear things that made, and make, my skin crawl.

At any rate, I deploy the Bryce Method and report my ideas, lightly smoothed out or plucked and shaved, story by story:

The Landlady is a shivery psychological horror story. It's obvious, but it's obvious dressed in its Sunday best with a lovely Easter bonnet on it. Poor Mr. Wilkins...Weaver! Heh, Weaver. Only seventeen, but I'll bet he was as unblemished as the twenty-eight-year-old Mr. Temple. I was really pleased to make the landlady's acquaintance.

This story won the 1960 Edgar Allan Poe Award for short fiction, and I certainly see why.

William and Mary is exactly like I imagine meeting Dahl would have been in life: A thoroughly awful man stomping on a wishy-washy woman; suddenly, in a bizarre twist, he's at her complete mercy; the horrors of his past are about to be visited on him. I'm NOT sorry, William; I AM surprised, Dahl, that you knew you were awful but kept on being like that. People always surprise & disappoint simultaneously.

The Way Up to Heaven is another story of refined cruelty getting its comeuppance. Not very well thought out, this collection, two of these stories back-to-back. The wife avenging herself on the horribly controlling man she's spent so many years serving is shown so carefully to be making a choice, to be thinking through the pettiness of her debasement, and deciding to stop it now, that I could not but cheer her on. Probably my second-favorite story in the collection for her hard-won celebration of her freedom.
"It was nothing much–just a tiny vellicating muscle in the corner of the left eye, like a secret wink–but the annoying thing was that it refused to disappear..."
1) vellicate. transitive verb. 1 : to twitch; to cause to twitch. Love, love, love this new-to-me word.
2) The w-bomb stinks even here.

Parson's Pleasure elevates the comeuppance of a venal little grifter to a National Tragedy.
"We're just in time!" Rummins called out. "Here he comes!"
Chilling. Proof that Dahl understood horror, had the touch of a master with it; leave before you can say too much and be invited back, as the old, old advice goes.

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat is a yucky, misogynistic piece of merde that opens with a meditation on how women own most of the wealth in the US via death and divorce; continues with a shabby little deception to hide a wife's affair; then ends with the unfaithful wife forced to lose her lusted-after mink coat to her husband's secretary/mistress. Terribly funny in 1959, I'm sure. (Not.)

Royal Jelly brings into the unsuspecting world a new & frightening reality, a "Rosemary's Queen Larva" via Mabel & Albert Taylor's happy home.

A deeply unsettling story, well told, with all the right eerie beats. Unquestionably the best story in this collection, hands down.

Georgy Porgy doesn't suffer from the disconnectedness inherent in third-person narration, that's for sure. The Vicar was traumatized by the birth & subsequent cannibalistic end of a baby rabbit when he was a child; now he narrates his middle-aged celibate's determination to avoid the snares of his lustful female parishioners. Funny how hard they work to get him to see them as desirable; Miss Roach most signally succeeds in "luring him to his doom" as it were.

We see the fallacy; the outcome is inevitable. George, you bad, bad boy.

Genesis and Catastrophe: A True Story is one story of Dahl's I've read before. UGH but not for him, just the subject matter. One family's blessing is another's horror story. You'll recognize the plot instantly from:
"He must live, Alois. He must, he must...Oh God, be merciful unto him now..."
No child was more welcome than Adolf was to Klara.

Edward the Conqueror I hate cats but I think this story's gawdawful, egregiously cruel, without any shred of the author's "waggishness" as it was intended to exemplify. I hope Louisa gets a swift, condign revenge on the jackanapes. Animal cruelty, even to an animal I do not like, is not funny or clever or remotely acceptable.

This is another refined-marital-cruelty story. I think Dahl's taste for these is telling.

Pig is the rather prosaic title of a cautionary tale meant to scare parents into allowing their progeny to live in the world instead of apart from it. What would Dahl say of today's youth? Nothing kind or supportive! Lexington's fate is the one that I strongly suspect he would wish on our technoworld's abundant crop of Candidely naïfs: Slaughtered for their meat & fat.

Champion of the World does the same as did "Pig" only this time with animals being poached instead of kids being coddled. Trying to cheat the system without understanding *why* is a damn fool's game; doing it for a scumbag too lazy or scared to do it himself? "You're a special kind of stupid, aren't you?" says the meme.
And with this mordant but unamusing tale, Dahl leaves my readerly ken for. fucking. ever. No more. No! I refuse. I liked three of the eleven stories enough to be glad that I'd read them, and recognized one story from my long-ago high-school read of it in an anthology I had to buy for school, but that's just not enough for me to want to know more about what went on in Roald Dahl's head.

Monday, August 12, 2019

MAGGIE BROWN & OTHERS: Stories from the height-of-his-powers observer of Jewishness, Peter Orner


Little, Brown
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this powerful and virtuosic collection of interlocking stories, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist takes the form to new heights.

In his orchestral and moving new book, Peter Orner, a writer who "doesn't simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls" (New York Times Book Review), chronicles people whose lives are at inflection points. In forty-four compressed gems, he grips us with a series of defining moments. Whether it's a first date that turns into a late-night road trip to a séance in an abandoned airplane hangar, or a family's memories of the painful mystery surrounding a forgotten uncle's demise, Orner reveals how our fleeting decisions between kindness and abandonment chase us across time. These stories are anchored by a poignant novella that delivers not only the joys and travails of a forty-year marriage, but an entire era in small-town New England. Bristling with the crackling energy of life itself, Maggie Brown & Others marks the most sustained achievement to date for "a master of his form" (New York Times).

My Review: This collection of short takes on life is by the brother of gay comic artist/storyteller Eric Orner (The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green and its 2006 movie), with whom he collaborated on Love and Shame and Love (2011). He's received Lannan and Guggenheim Fellowships; he's received the Rome Prize; both his résumé and his family tree glitter. Then it is no surprise that this mid-career offering, better to say gleams...with the soft, sterling glow of authentically and beautifully told fiction. I'll consider them via the Bryce Method, one story at a time, a few thoughts and a rating.

All the shining stars, all the bright stripes, all the band fanfares for Walt Kaplan is Broke: A Novella! It's a beautiful and precise tale of Jewishness on the unexpected margins of US urban blight. It is all of Walt's marriage, a union quite perfect; it is complete and entire and I wouldn't change a single word. The Chicago stuff, Lighted Windows, not so much; the thematic unity there was love, looking for love, running into it without meaning to, and that's pretty much why short stories get a bad rap from most folks because, in the end, who friggin' cares. Nothing stands out, no adultery is that interesting and no first love is at all interesting.

Renters: A Sequence was affecting as a group of minor stories, cohesive in their central theme of exploring the disaster and misery of a marriage foundering under the skyscraper-tall waves of mental illness; the issue for me, the reason it wasn't as rock-me-back beautiful as Walt Kaplan was, was that the characters were sketched in thin, spidery lines instead of bold, dark strokes.

The Cali stuff, Come Back to California, was okay, I guess; deft enough and well-observed but not excellent the way the Fall River, Mass, Jews in Castaways were. Startlingly rich and layered characterizations in quite compact stories, so compact as to be fleeting in some cases. The best single story in the book, and unsurprisingly it's a longer one, is in this section: "Bernard: A Character Study" was a peak read for me, a simple and direct evocation of a simple and direct person's time on this Earth.

The micro-ness of the fictions, however, works best in the Walt Kaplan novella. The tesserae forming its mosaic make a picture of perfect tapas, served to present a dozen views of the drosh; they each have a flavor impact outsized to their physical page presence, but contribute their unique qualities to a whole and satisfying conclusion to one's story hunger:
And think of the '60s, when the whole country got a little wilder and we joined in and did it twice a night? You remember, Sar? Now twice a night would be like rising from the dead, but history is history, and if not set down on paper it should at least be ruminated upon. Sarah and Walt Kaplan, one night, more than once, two entirely separate fornications.
Now, for a philosophical as well as a practical question: Why didn't we just push the beds together and leave them there? Ah, because that would be a lie, no? The nature of the reaching, the nature of the whispered entreaties, a thousand variations on the same invitation, is that both reaching of the hands and the question in question invariably lead to moments of complete incompleteness. Because the upshot of coupling is uncoupling. The essence of association is disassociation. Because you can fuck till you're blue, but at a certain point the inevitable nightly drawing apart happens for good, am I right or am I right? Spell it out again: the retreat once again to separate beds attains a cementation that precludes any further you wannas. After a certain point you wanna? is no longer an invitation for rumpus; it's a cry from oblivion.
It's to your taste, or it isn't; but it *is* beautiful.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER delivers appalled laughs, existential shivers, and great hopes for her next work


$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

$1.99 on Kindle now!

The Publisher Says: My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker—and more difficult to get out of the carpet—than water...

When Korede's dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what's expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This'll be the third boyfriend Ayoola's dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede's long been in love with him, and isn't prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other...

AUGUST 2019 UPDATE Oyinkan Braithwaite talks about How to Make Multiple Stabbings Funny! Interesting podcast.


My Review
It takes a lot longer to dispose of a body than to dispose of a soul, especially if you don't want to leave any evidence of foul play.

And just like *that* I'm totally hooked. Second book this month set in Lagos; and second informed by a special Nigerian magical realism. (The other is David Mogo, Godhunter. Excellent as well.) This is a light entertainment, a shiny pretty costume-jewelry of a story that sets your readerly mood in its most attractive and colorful light. It's fun. It's got the Double Indemnityesque delight of a love triangle detonated by jealousy, the In Cold Bloodness of a crime spree done for the sheer hell of it, and that utterly madcap Thelma and Louisely sanitized violence and death.

Yes, sanitized. Korede reports, doesn't narrate, the aftermath of Ayoola's kills. She keeps the details sparse enough to inform but not nauseate. Korede stands between us and Ayoola the serial killer. (Thank goodness. I don't think I could've read a whole novel from Ayoola's PoV!) So we're safe, we're not going to the places Korede has seen, we needn't do what Korede does.

Those things that she must do in the name of Family, of keeping her sister from suffering the consequences of her actions, weigh on Korede. Naturally, I hear you snort, they would on anyone! It's a lot to carry. Korede needs a confessor and, since she's a hospital nurse, she is in the path of the perfect confessor-cum-confidant: Muhtar, a comatose patient with a neglectful family. She tells him Everything: details of the killings, the things she's had to do to cover them up, the awful sick feeling of being accessory to a serial killer...she talks it out to his vacant-but-breathing ears. How good it feels! Confession truly is good for the soul.

Not so much for the body...Muhtar wakes up. He's delighted to meet the nurse whose voice, in its daily presence, gave him the will to live and return. And yes, he remembers all. He's quite sure of what he heard Korede say. And do you know, he simply doesn't care because:
"...we are hardwired to protect and remain loyal to the people we love. Besides, no one is innocent in this world. Why, go up to your maternity ward! All those smiling parents and their newborns? Murderers and victims. Every one of them. 'The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.'"

"That's quite..." I can't complete the sentence. The words trouble me.

"It's a quote by Jim Morrison. I cannot lay claim to such wisdom."
Again, Author Braithwaite sweeps me away on her word-tide. She quotes Jim Morrison and does it well. She creates a full-fledged memorable character out of a comatose guy. This is a writer with chops. (You should forgive.) She has done the best for Korede that she can in giving her a sage and caring counselor, especially as the hospital is well-stocked with people she must not and cannot trust:
She smiles, hoping to put me at ease, but the expression does not sit comfortably on her face. ... I would be more at ease if the Joker were to smile at me.
Korede is, in that moment, trying to keep her cool as the Lagos police are returning her car to her possession after running tests for Ayoola's latest victim's blood on it. Her nosy colleague, trying to get the dirt, is doomed to failure as Korede does what she's best at: Stays mum. Protects Ayoola. Pretends she is doing a good thing, being loyal to and as always protecting her younger sister. Family first!

Besides, it's what Korede doesn't do...what in the end she chooses to allow to occur to someone over whom she rhapsodizes, "Is there anything more beautiful than a man with a voice like an ocean?"...that defines her as a moral actor. I disagree with her choice, and I would've liked a chance to convince her to change her mind. With a two-by-four to the knees if necessary. But Korede, as written, really couldn't have made a different choice, so here we are.

Overall, the story's setting, cultural differences that kept me on my Google-fu, and an authorial style I found me to a shade over four stars. It wasn't hard to get there. Where I just can't get to, though, is the place where this entertainment got itself onto the Booker Prize 2019 longlist! That makes no sense to me, because there are wonderful and delicious moments in this book to savor but it does nothing that's particularly innovative. At least not in my eyes. Many will disagree, I don't doubt.

As a read, this is a superior summer entertainment. It won, deservedly, the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Mystery/Thriller in 2018. But it isn't High Art, and I don't think it set out to be. It is a first novel of great promise and I want to see Oyinkan Braithwaite's second one with great anticipatory glee.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

THE DISPATCHER, a Scalzi novella that NEEDS to be filmed ASAP


Subterranean Press
$5.99 eBook platforms, available now

This was a Kindleborrow from my friend Roni. Thanks, ol' buddy ol' pal!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone—999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don’t know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.

Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher—a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death’s crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death, and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge what they see as a wrong.

It’s a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it’s too late…before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

My Review: There is nothing quite so satisfying as an idea that exactly fits into its chosen format. Subterranean Press, genre-publishing monadnock for almost a quarter century, will make novellas available in hardcover, will collect the stories of genre-famous writers that ordinary houses wouldn't deign to notice (eg, Elizabeth Bear, whose collected short work is coming in hardcover soon), will do all this with style and elegance and attention to quality unrivaled in modern publishing. This novella is no exception. Its limited edition, illustrated by Vincent Chong, whose work you should *definitely* go look at, is sold out; its trade edition is sold out; the ebook is available, and it's got the lovely illustrations scaled for your ereader's screen.

It ain't the Real Thing, but it's darn good.

Scalzi's story here is uniquely his, the way only he could re-fashion the story of unexplained resurrection. The dead coming back...but only if they died by misadventure (a politer way of saying "got murdered")...has no obvious explanation. Scalzi doesn't supply one. Arguments about why the murdered or otherwise killed before their body's natural death are endless. And the return itself becomes bureaucratized at the behest of insurance companies and governments. Of course. This is humanity we're talking about.

But in that larger, sadder framework, Author Scalzi's made stories of what the ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances will do. Must do. Crave the miracle? It's yours...but!

Why's there always a "but"? Dunno...but the "but" here is there are loopholes and limitations like there always are in bureaucracies. Why these should apply on a quantum level will keep religions in business and still reduce the murder rate by a large fraction. If someone is determined to murder someone else, there's always a way. It's a horrible way, but it works, and if you hate someone enough to murder them, its awfulness won't bother you.

A further "but" involves the revolting kind of human being who will pay to see men slaughter each other. Anyone who's read or seen Altered Carbon will recognize the Meth's entertainment of causing, watching, lusting after sleeve-death. This resurrection, of the actual personal body of the slain (albeit a certain number of hours younger than it was at the time of death), precludes Morgan's convenient stack-death or Neo-Catholic prohibition on being spun back up. It means the resurrected knows who killed them. It means the resurrected can identify a murderer. Unsurprisingly this drops the manslaughter rate. Can't charge someone with a crime, though, since the victim isn't dead. Assault maybe...but!

Then there are people whose bodies are slowly betraying them, who need surgeries and/or treatments that might cause death. Imagine how that's going to affect the surgeons. Insurance companies meddle enough in the quest to avoid paying out on their policies. Now there are Dispatchers (why the capital D, for goodness's sake?) whose sole job it is to finish killing a dying patient so they'll wake up in a pre-trauma state of health, no worse for the surgery that killed them. This is where we meet Tony. He Dispatches an old man who didn't survive heart surgery. He faces down an angry surgeon and a hospital staff pissed at him but without recourse because the money says this is what has to happen.

And *then* it gets weird.

Tony's friend and fellow Dispatcher Jimmy is missing. There's nary a lead in this disappearance; well, there's a hint that Jimmy might've been involved in some morally dark grey/legally light grey Dispatchings. Things that Tony was also involved in once upon a time. In fact, Jimmy got his start in the grey areas with Tony. Who better to help the Chicago Police Department investigate?

Tony's recruited, much against his will, to assist the police with their inquiries. Jimmy's wife spews hate and venom all over Tony for those problems from the past, and even threatens to run him down if she can since he'll just wake up naked in his own bed. The cop looks calmly on, resumes questioning, and the thread that Jimmy's wife accidentally picks out of the cloth of her marriage is the one that ultimately leads to the solution of a terrible, vile crime, the restoration of the scales of justice, and the end of the first episode.

Say what now? You see, the eight chapters in here constitute an excellent two-hour pilot script for a TV series I'd watch the hell out of. I like Tony, his policelady partner-in-crime, and the Chicago they inhabit. It's the kind of light entertainment that leads to much deeper thought and discussion if one's so inclined. How does the quantum field know someone's murdered? How would gawd justify allowing some to die, like by stupid accidents and illness, but allow the murdered to return, to get a second chance? What kind of crap laws will make it onto the books to ensure the rich stay rich and the banksters get their vig?

Pick it up, FX! Buy it now, TBS! This could, in modestly competent hands, be a water-cooler series. The nudity precludes Fox, The CW, CBS, NBC, or ABC from taking it on, but it's basic-cable ready. It's not quite highbrow enough for Prime or Netflix, and I want nothing good to happen to Disney+ because if y'all think Amazon's evil go do some research on the Reedy Creek MUD in Orlando. Dig a little into Anas Abdin's plagiarism claims over Star Trek: Discovery. These scumbags...

Well, never mind, I'm gonna leave it here with a rousing exhortation to go get you a copy of this delightful short read. Then let's all holler until someone in LaLaLand hears and obeys the injunction to film, film, film!

Friday, August 9, 2019

LOT: Stories might as well be in post-apocalyptic Houston, but you NEED to visit now


Riverhead Books
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.8* of five


The Publisher Says: Stories of a young man finding his place among family and community in Houston, from a powerful, emerging American voice.

In the city of Houston - a sprawling, diverse microcosm of America - the son of a black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He's working at his family's restaurant, weathering his brother's blows, resenting his older sister's absence. And discovering he likes boys.

This boy and his family experience the tumult of living in the margins, the heartbreak of ghosts, and the braveries of the human heart. The stories of others living and thriving and dying across Houston's myriad neighborhoods are woven throughout to reveal a young woman's affair detonating across an apartment complex, a rag-tag baseball team, a group of young hustlers, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a local drug dealer who takes a Guatemalan teen under his wing, and a reluctant chupacabra.

Bryan Washington's brilliant, viscerally drawn world leaps off the page with energy, wit, and the infinite longing of people searching for home. With soulful insight into what makes a community, a family, and a life, Lot is about love in all its unsparing and unsteady forms.

My Review: This is not, appearances to the contratry, autobiographical. It's art, inspired by lived life, and Author Washington isn't its only model. He knew the models better than privileged and pampered Reader Person can. But there's a smoothness and facility that's the hallmark of the born writer, the one who wouldn't fit in no matter what or where or how they grew up. He didn't live in Alief, or maybe he did exist in that space but he was always apart and different and queer...but mostly he was born to be a writer. As always, I will employ the Bryce Method and go story by story with my visceral impressions only lightly toned down and/or tarted up.

Lockwood is a quick hit of what it means to be down and out, illegal, and queer. Also black and queer.
Once, I asked Roberto if he liked it in Texas. He looked at me forever. Called it another place with a name.
Could be worse, I said. You could be back home.
Home's wherever you are at the time, said Roberto.
You're just talking. That doesn't even mean anything.
It would, he said, if you knew you didn't have one.
I live in the same world as these boys and might as well be Arcturian. Yep. This one's a winner. Anything that can tell you that you don't know one single goddamned thing about the city, the state, the country that spawned you? That's a voice you need to listen to.

Alief gives the ragged and rowdy account of the end of several lives, two cheating bastards and a fool of a husband, with the full force and majesty of the Neighborhood behind it. Mistakes, obliviousness, the eternal unchanging voraciousness for Story that makes gossip so damned toxic yet irresistible, addictive. Like...well...reading, if we're all honest, dipping into the universes we weren't invited to inhabit. In this universe we're visiting, the Greek chorus of the folks living there is used to best effect as it dissects not predicts. A good choice, Author Washington.

610 North, 610 West locates us in Houston's geometry, using it as a quick way to orient us to the emotional poles of little man narrator's life. Ma isn't what Pa wants; he finds something he does want; life goes on, the myriad casualties spread in Houston's circular blast radius. Javi the vicious brother starts out ans stays shitty, abusive, homophobic; Jan the eldest sister vanishes, as so many without moorings but with ambitions do. Who's left? The gay little brother! Shocking! he murmured, clutching his pearls. Ma and her queer son. How did that ever happen.

Shepherd follows one young half-Jamaican to his summer of love, his Jamaican whore-cousin (the soursop woman!)'s summer of rest and recovery from multiple tragedies, his sister's sexed-up summer of post-college freshman-year freedom; lots of firsts, not a lot of happiness. Unlike the lower-class family's stories, the parents are window dressing. The boy doesn't become a man, but he knows he's going to and it isn't a comfortable thought. His cruelty to a kind woman is a harbinger of bad things to come, I fear.

Wayside a whole eight pages of horror. "Rick was...the most light-skinned out of all of us, and he carried himself like all of kindness in a bottle." We get down to the double horror of: Spoiler Alert!
When we made it to the body, my brother snatched my hand. He made me touch Rick's face. He told me this was what happened to fags.
And that, mijos, is the worst and nastiest thing ever felt, thought, said. Our little man narrator doesn't report this with a flinch, just a numb and vacant, deadened, dead-end voice.

Bayou brings us the chupacabra, myth made flesh, that can't or won't save two of life's losers. Boys with names like TeDarus and Mixcoatl don't even inherit the meek's mite of World. They call out for attention, demand to be seen, heard, but when they get it they don't know what to do with it. Mix, poor thing, is gay in a world that needs someone to hate for being Other so he's it. TeDarus is a space-taker. Nothing can save them from oblivion. Nothing is going to change or get better. Like the chupacabra they found, they slip away and there's no proof they were ever here.

Lot is the heart of the book, the heart of the family. Everything comes to a head, breaks, spills its rage-pus down the sides of the boil that these wretched people fester inside. Javi the hater, Jan the jilter, father, mother...all just don't want to see any of the cesspit's contents they're grinding the youngest's face into. RUN I want to scream, take money for the sex, escape however you can! And I know I'm shoutin' down the well. He's not even going to inherit the cesspit.

South Congress has poor Guatemalan illegal Raúl hooked into small-time street-drug sellin' Avery; it's a sad if common tale of someone who was never going to do more than just get by getting by in a place that hates him for being, won't forgive him for existing. Then how that, finally, in the end, blows into smithereens is a shock because I wasn't expecting Author Washington to leave Raúl with an opportunity that he's smart enough to seize but dreads succumbing to. Pungent and packed.

Navigation is such a freakin' hopeless mess of a life story getting *worse* FFS as Nameless the Narrator rejects two...two!...separate chances to get his shit in order, maybe get above water by a flippin' nostril, but NOOOOOO

Javi would be proud. /sarcasm

Peggy Park is like the Biblical begats in Chronicles, only this time it's baseball in the ghetto. Bored me. Hard to do with baseball stories, but yeah.

Fannin is the last will and testament of Jan, the jilting sister, who saw her father in a bad way one last time but did nothing. I didn't like her before, now I really despise her. The world she's made is built on, not a lie exactly, a hollow excavation of the root-ball her life sprang from. People like that? I don't envy them one single possession.

Waugh teaches us the lesson that Love's got shit to do with reality but will fuck you up worse than anything else. Poke loves Rod but betrays him by leaving him at Rod's lowest point; all to be with Emil the middle-aged refugee from a place that no longer exists (I'm guessing Lebanon based on his age and backstory). He loves Poke, but can't ever figure in to his picture Poke's love of his calling, the streets. Rod? No one sees it, no one says "oh yeah, that guy" and no one, when he goes looking, can tell Poke anything.

There's no closure to be had on betrayal.

Elgin is the beauty of failure, the glory of losing, the passionate need to fuck up again. Nicolás. The name that means People's Victory. He alone of all his people...Javi, dead in the ground; Mam booked out to Louisiana; Pa? *shrug*; Jan the arriviste, dreams drowned by Harvey...stayed in his place, stayed long after he lost the will to make a life; he won the loser's lottery by existing, just that, as his life spun out of reach. Sex with one-nighters does nothing to fill you up no matter how big a dick he has. Then what? Go to the sea, sit in the water, leave a sad and lonely and worthy man in your bed and....

What's left is existing before exiting. All there is.

Those two-tenths of a point off perfect are for the tedium of Peggy Park and the last-minute narrator naming. Best left, or used throughout, as this feels contrived to me.