Monday, November 30, 2020

BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, a romp of a gay-male rom-com read


Sourcebooks Casablanca NOTE: Link is to Amazon because using the Sourcebooks storefront is a horrible experience and I don't wish it on anyone
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Wanted:
One (fake) boyfriend
Practically perfect in every way

Luc O'Donnell is tangentially—and reluctantly—famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he's never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad's making a comeback, Luc's back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship...and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He's a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he's never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that's when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don't ever want to let them go.


My Review
: I'm about done with 2020 and its shuddering horrors. I opened this book to get away from nastiness and grimness. It was a pretty good decision. I slept for hours after finishing it & even dreamed of these two. The pace dragged twice, once in the Cadwallader Club, once in Milton Keynes, but what a joyous rollicking ride it was getting there then getting away.

I loved laughing so hard it hurt:
There should really be a word for the feeling you get when you do a thing you don’t particularly want to do to support somebody else but then realise they didn’t actually need you and nobody would have noticed if you’d stayed home in your pyjamas eating Nutella straight from the jar.

I loved misting up because the foolish boys couldn't find their common sense with both hands:
Yes, he {texted} finally. I’m just not used to
He left that half sentence hanging for a really long time. Then: Sorry. I pressed Send too early.
Okay, he was not getting away with that. I’d like the second half please
I didn’t mean to send the first half.
Well. You have. And as five-word phrases go I’M JUST NOT USED TO is nearly as bad as WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT
Sorry. Sorry.
I’m just not used to having something in my life that’s as important to me as my job.

and mostly I loved and treasured my time away from reality and its ugliness:
He kissed me. And it was the most Oliver kiss, his hands cupping my face gently to draw me to him, and his lips covering mine with a deliberate care that was its own kind of passion. The way you’d eat a really expensive chocolate, savouring it because you knew you might never get another. He smelled of familiarity, of homecoming, and of the night I’d spent wrapped in his arms. And he made me feel so fucking precious I wasn’t sure I could bear it.

While there was, thankfully!, no redemption for the multiple dreadful, awful people here, there was also a bit more "aren't men dumb, when they aren't awful" stuff that didn't ring true to the genre of M/M romance. Not confined to the screwed-up main characters, I mean, that's the entire joke of the book so no downs on that. The mens' fathers, for example, were insensitive boorish users. Yes, one of the mothers was truly ghastly and irredeemable too. But the arch-twit Alex, the caricature hair-trigger Welshman, the delightfully dotty old Earl, felt like there was a really short supply of nuance outside the PoV couple.

But you know what? I laughed so hard it hurt more than once, and if these absurd wankers come around again I will definitely read their further fuck-ups with great hopes and expectations. This is a solid hit. Someone give it to Henry Cavill and tell him to study up on Oliver.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

It's #Booksgiving again!

#Booksgiving, y'all, is my translation of Iceland's Jólabókaflóð (yo-la-bok-a-flot)—the annual tradition, most of a century old, of giving your gifting circle books for the long winter's nights ahead. As Iceland is a far northern country that straddles the American and Eurasian geological worlds, let's adopt this idea woth more than usual glee. A country like Iceland has a lot to teach us quarantine-weary global Southerners about how to spend a lot of time indoors whether one wants to or not.

What's so different about the idea of giving books for the holidays, I hear you ask. And rightly so, as most US, Canadian, and UK publishers rely on the gifting season for most sales...but the focus of #Booksgiving as I'm calling it isn't the buying. It's the reading. On Christmas Eve, Icelandic families exchange their gifts, and then...wait for it...settle in and read their new books! This is the beauty of the custom. "Thanks for the book, Aunt Lurlene," as it hits the shelf behind the laundry-room door. "I bet it's a corker." And fire up the PS5!

Maybe try this new idea, this read-as-a-group idea, in this straitened economic holiday season. There won't be a big gathering; there might not be much bling; but instead, a room full of people who love each other enough to stop fighting and be still in their own company...and read! If it works in snowed-in Iceland, it can work is bottled-up Keokuk, can't it? You'll never know without trying.
A formally organized holiday observance celebrating the immersive, escapist pleasures that reading offers is ideal to adopt in a crazy climate of lockdowns, easings leading to skyrocketing infections, and the general insecurity and instability of this unique year. Icelandic publishers, like publishers across the world, depend on Holiday sales to fuel their activities for the other ten and a half months of the year.

The Icelandic book industry, however, benefits from the unique, government-sanctioned and supported "Bókatíðindi" or book catalog containing listings of the titles Icelandic publishers are hoping you'll fall in love with and give as gifts. It is mailed free of charge to every household! And, in case you're thinking "well, how many publishers can there be in a country with fewer residents than the Upper West Side?" the fact is that Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country on Earth: 3.5 per 1,000 people! Add to that the fact that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime, and the effect and the appeal of this long-standing custom are made clear.

So in this Plague Year, this completely abnormal and hopefully never-to-be-repeated solitary-confinement Christmas, I'm suggesting that you add this relatively inexpensive and supremely easy gift-giving strategy to your list. It's always been easy to order someone a book online, well since 1995 and the launch of Amazon anyway; and the idea of spending a newly socially distanced Christmas Eve in your jammies with cocoa, warm socks, and a book you got (or gave yourself!) as a gift sounds pretty darned good. Let's make cranberry juice out of those cranberries that Fate lobbed at us! (Okay, the "lemonade-from-life's-lemons" metaphor doesn't translate to Yuletide very well. Don't @ me.)
So what I'm going to do, not for the first time!, is review only the books I believe will make wonderful gifts for yourself and your readerly loved ones. You can always use the search box at the top left of the screen to find "#Booksgiving" suggestions from all the years I've been yodeling this idea into the internet's vastness. This year's reviews, all of which are recommendations, will happen between now and Yule. Signing up for emails of new posts will make sure you get inspired...and will be able to follow the links to procure the books or ebooks. (As a reminder, I do not use affiliate links, and you do not see any advertising on this blog. I am unpaid except in free books...and believe me that's enough for me!)

Happy ending for 2020? We're not out of the woods yet, but try a new slant on our Western consumer-society's wretched excess-fest. One that privileges the quiet, intimate pleasure of reading with someone you care for. I guarantee it can't hurt to try.

Friday, November 6, 2020

MISS LONELYHEARTS, a biting and supremely outraged novella of alienation and the Problem of Evil

Books on Demand (non-affiliate Amazon link)
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Praised by great writers from Flannery O'Conner to Jonathan Lethem, Miss Lonelyhearts is an American classic. A newspaper reporter assigned to write the agony column in the depths of the Great Depression seeks respite from the poor souls who send in their sad letters, only to be further tormented by his viciously cynical editor, Shrike.

This single volume of Miss Lonelyhearts features its original Alvin Lustig jacket design, as well as a new introduction by Harold Bloom, who calls it "my favorite work of modern American fiction."

My Review: Totally with Harold Bloom here, this is one of the USA's cultural treasures. In just under 100pp, anomie and alienation and the Problem of Evil (solved, allegedly anyway, by theodicy, resolving the evidential problem of evil that is the essence of the story West tells here) are examined thoroughly and from several viewpoints. While telling a louche little tale of drinking, fucking, and cheating, West also manages to incorporate an acid bath of gallows humor into the proceedings:

But now let us consider the holes in our own bodies and into what these congenital wounds open. Under the skin of man is a wondrous jungle where veins like lush tropical growths hang along over-ripe organs and weed-like entrails writhe in squirming tangles of red and yellow. In this jungle, flitting from rock-gray lungs to golden intestines, from liver to lights and back to liver again, lives a bird called the soul.

His nudges and winks at the audience are almost post-modern: Shrike, who is the otherwise-unnamed Miss Lonelyhearts' editor, is named for a particularly nasty bird of prey, and the man we call "Miss Lonelyhearts" is both emasculated and depersonalized by his yclepture.

He knew now what this thing was — hysteria, a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life. And how dead the world is . . . a world of doorknobs. He wondered if hysteria were really too steep a price to pay for bringing it to life.

It's hard to imagine a more complete telling of the tale of man's bitter fate than this one. Trudge along in your path, you dumb oxen, and this is what will overtake you; lift your heads, look at the sky, and dare to yearn?

Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on eath. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will percieve the divine mystery in things. Once you percieve it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

This is what will overtake you. West knew it, felt it, and ultimately lived it by dying early as he drove drunk.

Fitting, isn't it.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

THE WORLD WELL LOST, Theodore Sturgeon's genuinely surprising story of the fate of The Loverbirds


Universe Science Fiction, June 1953
Free to read a PDF at the link above

Rating: 5* of five

The Book Report: from Wikipedia: "In the future, two members of an alien race called the Dirbanu come to Earth. They win humanity's heart by their grace and love for each other. Earth's media has dubbed them the "Loverbirds," and almost everyone on Earth is touched by the Loverbirds' tender displays of wonder and affection.

Dirbanu heretofore had almost no contact with Earth, except for one short investigative trip in which the ambassador of Dirbanu made clear that he found Earth disgusting. However, the Dirbanu government breaks the silence with Earth in order to demand the return of the Loverbirds. Allegedly, the Loverbirds are fugitive criminals and must be extradited. Earth's government, hoping to profit by cooperation with this powerful planet, dispatches spacers Rootes and Grunty to return the Loverbirds."

But Love, as we know, must never be allowed to flourish. Read it to see what happens next.

My Review: The nine-days' idyll of the Loverbirds arriving on space-faring Terra, with their mysterious origin among people who rejected all contact with Terra long, long ago, is lyrically described by Author Sturgeon. An example:
But watch loverbirds, just for a moment, and see what happens. It's the feeling you had when you were twelve, and summer-drenched, and you kissed a girl for the very first time and knew a breathlessness that you were sure could never happen again. And indeed it never could—unless you watched loverbirds. Then you are spellbound for four quiet seconds, and suddenly your very heart twists, and incredulous tears sting and stay; and the very first move you make afterward, you make on tiptoe, and your first word is a whisper.

That's pretty much a paean to the palpable aura of Love that these two beings emit? outgas? glow with? anyway, exude somehow. Terra is enraptured! There are trideo stories made, you can order a solidograph of the Loverbirds, the usual commercialization of the ineffable takes place in this way, far distant time when Terra is among the crowded, spacefaring galaxy.

Which is one way you know this is an old, old story. The Fermi Paradox, stated in 1950 at Los Alamos National Lab by Enrico Fermi as "Where is everybody?", wasn't yet scientific let alone secular orthodoxy in thinking about alien life Out There. (And yes, pedants, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said a similar thing in 1933, so don't bother to remind me.) But the exuberance of that universe-view is so appealing to me that I am always willing to grandfather it in.

So the Loverbirds, having created this rapturous current in Terran civilization, have to come to a bad end or there's no story, right? The Dirbanu catch wind of the Loverbirds' existence. And recognize them. With absolutely no pleasure at all. These two are wanted criminals! And since the Dirbanu are thought to be a powerful, if aloof, race and thus a people that Terrans would very much like to cozy up to, they agree to send the criminals back to face whatever. The crew selected for the trip are one of the most well-established crews in Terra's service. No problems being together in a small ship, no bad trips or unsuccessful missions; of course Rootes and Grunty will get the job done and return the Loverbirds to Dirbanu for punishment. (The issue of guilt is unimportant, apparently, as is the nature of the punishment; Terra needs new tech!) They're a finely tuned machine, these two, trustworthy in the extreme. Grunty's huge, Rootes is small; Grunty's quiet, Rootes is voluble. Perfect!
Rootes had filled the small cabin with earthy chatter about his conquests in port, detail by hairy detail, for two solid hours preceding their departure. ... Grunty had long ago noted that these recitations, for all their detail, carried the tones of thirst rather than of satiety.
I believe we have a source for the modern use of "thirst" in this sixty-seven-year-old story written by a man born 102 years ago! And it's not the only example in this story of Sturgeon's seemingly prescient use of "thirst" in its modern sense. Makes reading this story such a bemusing, beguiling experience.

Possibly the most poignant line in the whole story, but only after one has finished it, is Grunty's thought, "And what you could buy with a shekel's worth of tenderness, my prince!" which, despite its pithy, proverb-ly ring, appears to be used for the first (and so far only) time by Sturgeon. More quotations from Grunty's extensive reading float into his mind...and are understood by the hitherto-uncommunicative loverbirds. A telepathic race? Not unknown, but uncommon, and the Dirbanu having sent one Ambassador in all of Terran history (and he was simply appallingly bad-mannered to his hosts), a factor entirely to be chalked up to Chance. No one would know from the outside looking at them, after all, that their brains operate in this way....

Maleficent chance, to Grunty. He has A Secret, and he does not want his secret revealed.

Apparently Author Sturgeon had a low opinion of Terrans, and based on the attitudes of 1953, I can't blame him. Apparently he believed there would not be any improvement in Terran society's attitude of intolerance and loathing towards gay men. Apparently even going to the stars doesn't teach men that whoever and whatever a man may be, you're both still Human in a Universe so vast that your existence is insignificant, so lighten up on the petty details. And Rootes is exactly NOT the man to get that lesson, spending a considerable time expounding to Grunty how much he agrees with the Dirbanu's calling the Loverbirds criminals, and making sure his loathing for them is clear. Because they share Grunty's Big Secret:

They're gay.

Grunty, poor lad, is left with what I think is a super-pithy aperçu: "Why must we love where the lightning strikes, and not where we choose?"

Any answers to that question would be gratefully welcomed all over this planet.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

HOW TO MAKE A SLAVE and Other Essays, a finalist for a National Book Award

HOW TO MAKE A SLAVE and Other Essays

Mad Creek Books
$19.95 paperback or ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For the black community, Jerald Walker asserts in How to Make a Slave, “anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punchline.” It is on the knife’s edge between fury and farce that the essays in this exquisite collection balance. Whether confronting the medical profession’s racial biases, considering the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson, paying homage to his writing mentor James Alan McPherson, or attempting to break free of personal and societal stereotypes, Walker elegantly blends personal revelation and cultural critique. The result is a bracing and often humorous examination by one of America’s most acclaimed essayists of what it is to grow, parent, write, and exist as a black American male. Walker refuses to lull his readers; instead his missives urge them to do better as they consider, through his eyes, how to be a good citizen, how to be a good father, how to live, and how to love.


My Review
: The reason we read essays, as readers, is almost the opposite of why we read fiction of all stripes, not to broaden our experience of humanness but to particularize it. Dr. Walker's essays about being Black in academia, in the slums of his boyhood, of being a small-town dad of sons who are Othered by their skin color, of being his own unique self in a world that wasn't ready with a place for him to fit, are as particular as one can hope to find. And that is why they resonate so fully with my older, whiter, place-was-made-before-I-cared self. How often have I wondered what in the hell I should say when my half-Black Young Gentleman Caller makes a joke about hair (I have next to none, his is abundant, and the contrast tickles him to no end. Ha ha ha) or his (pale) skin color..."I am closer in hue to a banana than a plum," says Dr. Walker at one point...and am left shtumm because, well, no matter that he's chosen an old white man for his confidant and bedmate, I can still hear the hurt in his voice or see it in the frozen-for-a-second smile when someone's comment is a microaggression. To my delight, my silence or my simple smiling and laughing without comment have kept me from experiencing that swallowed hurt at my words.

So far.

The years Dr. Walker spent in seeking an MFA were spent being mentored by James Alan McPherson, a monadnock of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and one of the most admired and sought-after guides to the unforgiving world of seeking literary excellence. His story collection, Elbow Room, won him the first Pultizer Prize for Fiction awarded to a Black person. Who better to create another Black male artist? And so he did, in Dr. Walker, after some rough moments at the beginning of their association. He was capable of delivering great advice, and making it go down like a spoonful of sugar instead of the bitter and damned toxic draft of reality that it truly was:
"Stereotypes are valuable," he said. "But only if you use them to your advantage. They present your readers with something they'll recognize, and it pulls them into what appears to be familiar territory, a comfort zone. But once they're in, you have to move them beyond the stereotype. You have to show them what's real."

"And what's real?" I asked.

Without hesitation, he said, "You."

That one sounds so innocent...and the one-word lance through the armor and into the heart is why so many deeply talented and delightful writers don't ever quite make it, get past the early parts of a career. How cruel it is to have to commit to endless hours of honing and polishing and rending one's psychic flesh for a few grand on a good day, and free on a bad one! But success is all in practice and work, and no one in American history has known that more than our unappreciated and unsupported artists. So few make it....

But some become epoch-defining superstars. Memories of Michael Jackson, unsurprisingly, loom large in Dr. Walker's youth as it coincided with the man's inescapable pop-culture presence in the later 1970s and early 1980s. I drove around with Michael Jackson on the radio because he was what was playing, what was in demand, whose talent and sound were *exactly* what the Whitegeist wanted. He sounded, I realized from reading the essay about him, very different to a young Black boy in the Chicago ghetto. Dr. Walker and his brothers were caught up in a different stream of the times than I was, and this passage tells me what I need to know: We shared the planet, for better or worse, in ways that can't be fully reconciled but can be felt, deeply, in our love of someone who made something powerful and lasting:
While I do not know if this is true, I have a vague memory that the three of us, in 1983, watched the Motown 25 television special together, and maybe we rose at some point to to attempt Michael's moonwalk before collapsing back into our seats, succumbing to the dope coursing through our veins, much as dope would course through Michael's, nearly three decades later, and stop his heart.

Mine stopped, for a moment, when I heard the news. And in that pause before grief, I had a vision of the Walker Six, dancing and singing...and then it was gone.

How we all mourn our quiet fantasy lives being rendered impossible by death...and who hasn't dreamed of What Might Have Been?

A place where I felt Dr. Walker's essayistic honesty let me, his happy reader, down was in a passage about an older gay man who offered cold, wet Jerald a ride to where he didn't much want to walk. He was treated to a request for sex, and handled that unwelcome advance with apolmb. He wasn't pressured or forced, he just got out of the car where he was going...was seen...and was later upbraided by his brother (whose own trajectory wasn't as happy as Dr. Walker's) and required to explain himself. Dr Walker goes on to tell us of the many signs of gayness that he and the Black community just...overlooked...because:
Blacks had had their fill of emasculation over the centuries of slavery; the need to not see male homosexuality in our community was strong.

I chose a comedy slap GIF, and one with two white men as its actors, to emphasize how deeply out of my sense of the essayist's carefully acquired sense of honest and effortful inclusion this passage is. I was gobsmacked by the casual assumption in that minor sentence, not in any way led up to or made the point of the piece, that gay men are not masculine and that to be gay is to be, like the slaves of yore, less than a man.

I can only assume that the espousal of this calumny isn't so; it's really out of character from all the other work in the book; but it left a sour place in my opinion of both work and man.

But the scars of disrespect for the community I live in are as nothing to the fears Dr. Walker woke in me with his horrifying brush with medical racism as his young son is having seizures...and the ignorant idiot in his small town's hospital, without drawing blood or doing anything at all except looking at two horror-struck Black parents of a child whose world needs to be fixed, now, or they're never ever going to be happy again, and says, "It could be syphilis."

SYPHILIS. Congenital, obviously, he's a child; and a Black child, obviously from a Black parent and we all know how THEY are about sex, so hey, maybe your child has it, what do you think?

What they thought was that a trip to Boston would get them the help they needed without the side-trimmings of racist bullshit. Paroxysmal Kinesigenic Dyskinesia is the diagnosis, a "neurological disorder that can trigger petit (mal) seizures when the body is suddenly thrust into motion." Move too quickly, get thrown into a seizure. Wow, there goes that whole school athletics program, and no way will you be getting swimming lessons, son...don't jump a lot...dancing? mmm...maybe not....

But a diagnosis. And with it, a way forward, a way to be your son's dad as he needs you to be, the one he turns to to fix the things that are wrong in his world. And that is a way forward. The meditation on being a father in that kind of terror-stress, of having the responsibility to make your child whole, cannot be more universal. Cannot be more particular. Cannot be better, more bravely, more fully honestly Himself, Dr. Jerald Walker; and that's why I rate this fascinating and touching and brutally honest collection of essays as high as I do, and hope he wins a National Book Award for it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

ANCIENT OCEANS OF CENTRAL KENTUCKY, a very accomplished first novel


Two Dollar Radio
$14.00 ebook/paperback bundle at the link above!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The boys howled. In their pockets, eye droppers of gin. They skipped to their car with eyes wide open and sped into the night, down gray county roads, grieving over nothing they could name, beating the dashboard with their fists. Near dawn they broke into a cemetery and pissed on the first angel they could find.

Leah's little brother, Jacob, disappeared when the pair were younger, a tragedy that haunts her still. When a grown man arrives at the non-profit Leah directs claiming to be Jacob, she is wrenched back to her childhood, an iridescent tableau of family joy and strife, swimming at the lake, sneaking candy, late-night fears, and the stories told to quell them.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a wrecking-ball of a novel that attempts to give meaning and poetry to everything that comprises small-town life in central Kentucky. Listen: they are the ghost stories that children tell one another, the litter that skirts the gulley, the lines at department stores.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky reads as though Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson wrote a more focused Antwerp and based it in central Kentucky. A gorgeous, haunting, prismatic jewel of a book.


My Review
: Deeply surprised that this is a first novel.
Summer comes to Kentucky as a shock, as though it was impossible for the land to ever be green and full again. Magnolias with swollen white petals sway in warm breezes, record-high humid air fills lungs like warm water and the invisible mechanism that animates everything slows as summer's heavy thumb rests on its ancient belts.

It's true that Author Nahm isn't a tyro, having been published in many prestigious venues (eg, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet) prior to this novel appearing from the midwestern fastness harboring Two Dollar Radio (to whom I offer my thanks for sending me this book), a genuinely exciting press, in 2014.

I'm not sure that the plot will make any difference to you in deciding whether or not to read it. The point of the journey through a smallish Anytown, its civic and familial rituals and failures, is all in the way Author Nahm speaks to us.
The morning was warm. Each drop of light suspended in the air. Against the bricks, the ceiling was a universe of sun-bleached geometric forms and figures waiting for young imaginations to see them.
Crow Station, Kentucky: a girl at the window watching a shift in the shadows, listening to the sound of the night, the glittering dark above her bed, her father's hands having placed the sky there, cracked plaster rivers among constellations of dead boys and girls, but by morning the vault of the heavens is nothing but white ceiling, though the corners do flutter with dusty webs her parents have not noticed and her brother's bed.
The television makes only one sound, the soft hum of light.

The focus Author Nahm brings to the light, the surfaces, the ways in and out of every space and every thought of the characters is, for me, the appeal of the book. I love to see the spaces a story takes place within. I am always happy to see evocative, even emotive, language used in conveying a sense of the look, the visual impact, of a space, a person, a point of view. This book is replete with these moments and observations that he has imbued with the emotional resonance to enrich his characters' actions and reactions.

It isn't often that the physical object "book" merits discussion in my review. This object, with its deckled-edge pages that are evocative of an older time when books were delivered without bindings and with uncut signatures direct from the printer, is perfectly in tune with my sense of its story. The novel inside the book benefits from this expensive grace note. The cover, with its french flaps and its matte, uncoated stock, reinforces the days-of-yore feeling that a paperback usually struggles to convey. The beautiful halftone reproductions of ancient fossils from an 1889 monograph on the geology of Kentucky are the lift the book needed to take it into next-level aesthetic harmony between its physical and metaphysical selves.
I saw a Goodreader's addition of the book to his TBR and, oddly enough, that came after my suggestion of this novel to my Young Gentleman Caller in our Sunday-morning Zoom. (He had forgotten about the time change so it was a bit earlier than I was expecting *grumble* so he was vamping until I could open my eyes all the way by asking me what he should read eye lit on this spine in my bookcrate...and we were away.) It's another one of what he amusingly, if accurately, calls my "hardware jobs"...books I've BookDarted so thoroughly that they clank. He's going to be out here soon so I'll hand it over then, but y'all need to get you one! There's a paperback-ebook bundle for only $14! Cheap at twice the price. Honest!

Monday, November 2, 2020

THE FIGHTING BUNCH, a little-remembered story of when elections mattered so much people rebelled to *retain* their vote

THE FIGHTING BUNCH: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution

St. Martin's Press
$14.99 Kindle edition, available 3 November 2020...pre-order now!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The incredible, untold story of the WWII veterans who destroyed a corrupt political machine―the only successful armed rebellion on US soil since the War of Independence.

They fought for freedom abroad and returned to find that they had lost it at home. A corrupt political machine was in charge, kept in power by violence and stolen elections - the worst allegations of vote fraud ever brought to the attention of the Department of Justice, according to the Attorney General.

The GIs formed a nonpartisan, all-veteran ticket. On Election Day, the GIs and their supporters found themselves assaulted, intimidated, arrested, and even shot. A small band of veterans - the Fighting Bunch - armed themselves and marched on the jail to demand an honest count. The sheriff and his men refused. These men who thought they had seen the last of war returned to the battlefield, one last time.

This episode in U.S. history has never been more relevant, but has never been fully told. At the time of the rebellion, national news outlets jammed the phone lines into town, asking questions before the shooting had stopped. Journalists beat a path to Athens from across the country. Hollywood came calling, but the people of McMinn County had moved on.

After years of research, including exclusive interviews with the remaining witnesses, archival radio broadcast and interview tapes, scrapbooks, letters, and diaries, author Chris DeRose has reconstructed one of the seminal―yet untold―events in American election history.


My Review
: This book made me so sad.

There were once people who stood up to machine politics. People whose sense of honor forbade them to participate in the establishment of a single-party state.

Their grandchildren are now actively seeking to make that sense of honor, that duty to accept others' rights of access to the ballot box as a means of free speech, obsolete in the USA.

If you want to know what the Greatest Generation, in their youth and idealism, went to war for, it was NOT the enshrinement of a single point of view as the only acceptable one to express and uphold.

The three-hundred-plus pages of Author Chris DeRose's astonishingly well-researched (honestly, it feels as though this book was played out in front of him) story of one unique moment in our country's ongoing history of voter suppression did not fly by. Not because Author DeRose did not write the story well. They slogged past my tear-blurred eyes because these passionate rejecters of Conformity and Submission did not go on to spark a movement against the real perpetrators of the atrocity: The Powerful, the elite that could not care less what "party" label you mark your vote next to. After all, Boss Tweed said it best:
If your nineteenth-century history is faded to sepia tones, this will remind you of who he was and why Tammany Hall has so many lessons for the erstwhile democracy of the USA.

That rebellion lies in our future.

I hope and pray that it will come before I go for good.

AFTER THE PEOPLE LIGHTS HAVE GONE OFF, collection of horror shorts


The Dark House Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
Out of print; various prices –OR– $11.99 Kindle edition

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday. Included are two original stories, several rarities and out of print narratives, as well as a few "best of the year" inclusions. Stephen Graham Jones is a master storyteller. What does happen after the people lights have gone off? Crack the spine and find out.

With an introduction by Joe R. Lansdale.


My Review
: Sixteen novels, over two hundred stories, and a career of scaring the wits out of the susceptible-to-horror...all of these metrics modified by "and counting," as Author Stephen is not even fifty yet. There is a certain kind of story one expects from this hand, a deeply unsettling look at what it means to be Other and Othered in a world seemingly owned by the lowest, the least worthy. More often than not, white men. More often than not, they're using or abusing or oppressing an Indian (the word the author chooses most often, I suspect quite calculatedly) man and/or his family.

Well, that's not realistic at all, is it.

But what you will get here, you who venture into Author Stephen's mind palaces-cum-stories, is a very thorough grounding in the liminal spaces where consensus reality (eg, the built reality of a rest stop, the hallway of a 3-2 tract house) meets the Otherlands. The spaces between the two are always rife with, ripe and round and fertile with, the kind of stories that begin one way and subvert that in the end. Endings are, to this artist, the culmination and completion of an arc. Underpinning Author Stephen's arabesques of not-always-white reality-cum-fantastically hyperreal action are carefully drawn geometries of story, carefully obscured by inevitable-seeming developments. Story logic is a strong skill of Author Stephen's, I haven't read one piece of his work that isn't absolutely, from giddy-up to whoa, internally cohesive.

This absolutely gorgeous book deserves its very own post. I received and gave it a quick review in 2015; but that was before I was consistently using the Bryce Method of going story-by-story and before I was calling so heavily on the authors' own words to make my points about the entire collection. So now I'm dusting off my handsomely designed and beautifully illustrated paperback copy to deliver myself of these ideas and opinions.

Thirteen shows Author Stephen's deep and abiding fascination with the under-appreciated horror possibilities of small-town multiplex movie theaters. An underused venue, in my opinion, except for him; but the territory here is used to creep me out to the point that I'm actually *glad* that I can't go to movies because I'd need my Young Gentleman Caller to take me to the bathroom and wait for me. 4 stars

Brushdogs is a father's story, any dad out there knows this cold-sweat no-stomach hollow-head panic.
That had been his secret Indian Trick to hunting, back then: to not hunt. The same way you never find your wallet when you're actually looking for it.

Just keep a rifle with you.

Junior? Denny needs you! 3.5 palm-sweaty stars

Welcome to the Reptile House is *seriously* fucked up. A terrifying, violent undead being with its hand cupping the balls of a tattoo artist to compel his care and attention? And those tattoo needles? What a great idea for using them! Sure, why not. I don't need sleep. 3.5 stars

This is Love takes Jonathan and Lucas, a loving couple, where absolutely no one ever *wants* to go. Their damned dumb drama gets blown like smog out over all the strangers at the rest stop. Maybe...maybe it's just the drama-smog...please let it be the drama-smog...
Thinking the bad instead of the good, defaulting to disaster instead of joy, letting the world infect you. And you know better. That's no way to live.

It isn't the drama-smog. 4 stars

The Spindly Man is an hommage à Stephen King.
"We were just talking about how if you admit devils," Drake said, "then that means the door must be open for angels as well."

"Or more demons," the spindly man said, sitting back in his chair. "Inside every angel, there's a demon waiting to claw out, right?"

That intonation (read it aloud, you'll see what I mean) and that supernatural-meets-Wednesday feeling perfectly evoke the numinous borderlands that Author Stephen seems to live in and the rest of us are just too scared to. 4 stars

The Black Sleeve of Destiny does for thrift stores what Halloween did for Wusthof sales. Who in their right mind ever gave a second's thought to a Goodwill hoodie with mismatched arms? There's just nothing scary about that image. poor little fool...dark down under there, isn't it. 4 stars

The Spider Box made my head hurt. All things geometry adjacent do, like this damn freaky box with no lid. But this time I was so worried about spiders coming out of my cereal box, or emptying like a spill of oil...well, it doesn't much matter where they go or what they do after that, does it? I'll be in the basement behind the boiler with the gun. Don't come looking for me. 4 stars

Snow Monsters is a weird take on why wishes are incredibly dangerous. I was skeeved from the beginning. 3 stars

Doc's Story just does not come from a normal guy's imagination. Werewolf story only totally inverted. I will say this: I got rid of my ball-peen hammer. Can't abide to think of the thing's shape anymore. 4.5 stars

The Dead Are Not does nothing to make me think the universe is one inch smaller than terrifyingly huge.
He hadn't really followed anybody, he told himself.

It was wishful thinking. He had needed the universe to be large enough to accommodate the remote possibility of Marissa surviving, and so had invented alien tourists who knew, and could divulge, the secrets of the universe.

It was wishful thinking.

So he keeps saying. I'm not that sure. 3.5 stars

Xebico didn't draw me in, somehow. I couldn't find the point where I would be able to enter the story's universe, none of the ambiguities were opening at my knock. Not a bad experience, not a good one either. 3 stars

Second Chances finds horror in the astringent, sanitary world of the lab. Maddy really, really needs to be made to take a vacation for an extended time. I found this more eerie than unsettling, but was all the way in from beginning to de-cocooning. 4 stars

After the People Lights Have Gone Off is a ghost-tale novella of deep and abiding scariness. I will not tell you one thing about it because it is a glittering, sharp-faceted gem from an ancient and malign deity's statue-eye. I will not rish my immortal soul just to convince you to read it. But I will tell you it gets 5 stars and my unprecedented urging for you to get the audiobook...this story should be read aloud.

Uncle goes into the half-mad, half-gleeful widowerhood of a man you suspect was never quite all there:
Later, I settled my red pointer on the late-show host's cheek. It made me feel like a sniper.

And then I checked the living room out.

The walls were warmer behind the set, cooler by the door. The lamp that I'd had on while eating was still comparatively hot. The late show host was on fire. The window was the Arctic, the ceiling indifferent, the carpet the same.

Then the audience on television exploded with laughter.

I nodded in acknowledgement, sighted along the top of the gun down the hall, to my bedroom, but stopped at Theresa's instead.

Everywhere else in the darkness, the temperature was hovering around seventy.

There was a spot right in her doorway, though.

It registered as body heat.

Does that make your vellus hairs go into the full upright and locked position? If not, I bet you don't care about sticking your feet out from under the covers at 2 a.m. Weirdo. 4 stars

Solve for X doesn't fit. Yes, it's dark; yes, it's horror; but it's the first time I've read one of Author Stephen's stories and thought, "duuude". This is more horrible than horror. Not for me, not at all (and not only because of the equations) (though they don't help). 2.5 slightly barfed-on stars

Sunday, November 1, 2020

THE CARE MANIFESTO, a short read but an intense and inspiring one

THE CARE MANIFESTO: The Politics of Interdependence

Verso Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: We are in the midst of a global crisis of care. How do we get out of it?

The Care Manifesto puts care at the heart of the debates of our current crisis: from intimate care—childcare, healthcare, elder care—to care for the natural world. We live in a world where carelessness reigns, but it does not have to be this way.

The Care Manifesto puts forth a vision for a truly caring world. The authors want to reimagine the role of care in our everyday lives, making it the organising principle in every dimension and at every scale of life. We are all dependent on each other, and only by nurturing these interdependencies can we cultivate a world in which each and every one of us can not only live but thrive.

The Care Manifesto demands that we must put care at the heart of the state and the economy. A caring government must promote collective joy, not the satisfaction of individual desire. This means the transformation of how we organise work through co-operatives, localism and nationalisation. It proposes the expansion of our understanding of kinship for a more 'promiscuous care'. It calls for caring places through the reclamation of public space, to make a more convivial city. It sets out an agenda for the environment, most urgent of all, putting care at the centre of our relationship to the natural world.


My Review
: A pamphlet in length, a Bible in heft, and very British in tone, this is a cri de coueur and a call to arms at one and the same time. There is no one thing in the text that is or could be made into an action item, so activists take note. The purpose of this work is to examine the failures of our present end-stage capitalist system of delivering "care" to its consumers. Spoiler alert: it's a shambles, with horrific social and economic costs.

Then, after wasting exactly no words on belaboring (!) their point, the contributors outline theoretical bases for extending the concept of care, starting with feminist thinker Joan Tronto's formulation of types of care. First there is caring for, the step-one state of all care, the delivering care from one person to another. Next comes caring about, the empathetic connection that leads us to extend our hand to others, often strangers to us. And caring with, the hardest stage of care that Tronto identifies...the urge to act, to make one's ideas and suggestions work in the wider world, for example the people who join Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders.

The contributors use this ingenious and simple system of ideas about caring to offer some blissfully utopian suggestions for enabling "promiscuous care," which sounds a lot racier than it is. I hoped for something louche; I got the idea that a truly well-run planet would be promiscuously cared for, about, and with because the Collective urges on us a paradigm shift into drawing no distinctions between the needy and caring. Animals, ecosystems, all are in need of care; souls and minds and bodies, no matter whose or what's bodies and souls we're talking about, should be able to expect care. Simply for existing.

If that does not make your heart swell and your eyes leak a bit, you're dead inside.

How this should be accomplished and what enforcement regime will be in place, plan this blissfully Right can be that precise. I did not come away from this read equipped with solutions, but I darn sure came away with answers that I want to summon into existence. And that is a great place to start thinking through the "what comes next" part of the Revolution that capitalism's collapse will bring.