Monday, February 28, 2022

NO STUDY WITHOUT STRUGGLE, a different lens on an ongoing, increasingly urgent social issue


NO STUDY WITHOUT STRUGGLE: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education
LEIGH PATEL

Beacon Press
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Examines how student protest against structural inequalities on campus pushes academic institutions to reckon with their legacy built on slavery and stolen Indigenous lands

Using campus social justice movements as an entry point, Leigh Patel shows how the struggles in higher education often directly challenged the tension between narratives of education as a pathway to improvement and the structural reality of settler colonialism that creates and protects wealth for a select few.

Through original research and interviews with activists and organizers from Black Lives Matter, The Black Panther party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Combahee River Collective, and the Young Lords, Patel argues that the struggle on campuses reflect a starting point for higher education to confront settler strategies. She reveals how blurring the histories of slavery and Indigenous removal only traps us in history and perpetuates race, class, and gender inequalities.

By acknowledging and challenging settler colonialism, Patel outlines the importance of understanding the relationship between the struggle and study and how this understanding is vital for societal improvement.

I RECEIVED THIS DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Universities are under siege from as many angles as there are. Activists have campaigned, more or less successfully, for disinvestment from socially irresponsible industries. They've made the possession of a racially insensitive mascot a lightning rod for criticism. These news stories are commonplace enough to be readily Google-able, and to have a selection of attitudes and viewpoints from which to choose.

I'd also recommend taking a few minutes to read Author Patel's Q&A on The Beacon Broadside's website for a trenchant, quotable précis of her thoughts on this difficult to dismiss subject. It is a clear statement of her purposes in writing this book.

What makes this a worthwhile read is that it requires the reader to re-evaluate every university activity. There comes first identifying then admitting prospects "worthy" of the opportunity, with the "right kind" of work ethic both within their schools and outside them. Next the institution busies itself with identifying, designing, and inculcating the capitalist dogmas that will serve the needs of the ownership class. And finally, the cruelest step: indenturing students with mountains of debt to that ownership class for the privilege of enjoying the experience, which serves to prevent the offensive-to-them class and ethnic mixing. The fear being that, unburdened by economic chains, their students will inevitably rise above their starting points and cause their owners' control to be diluted. Reading Author Patel's work will, I'm sure, give the students and their parents the perspective to see through a definitively different lens. What makes that a good idea is that many will experience a sudden and usually pretty painful awakening. Those who are screaming about "critical race theory" are calling this propaganda spreading, brainwashing, or just plain indoctrination. As always, examine the accuser's accusations for cues as to the real source of their rage: the examination Author Patel demands we her readers undertake will cause some number of us to reject our present indoctrination as the unfair, exclusionary artifact of an exploitive ownership class's control paradigm.

Since I've already had a pitcher of that Kool-Aid, this wasn't fresh stuff for me.

What I needed to learn about was Author Patel's encouragement of the University's students to interrogate everything they are being offered through the awareness of settler colonialism's existence, reach, and signals of control. Her book is a call to arm yourself, youthful learners, with skepticism and information, not simply and passively accept the way things are without understandig how they got that way and who wants them to stay that way.

What lowers my rating to four of five stars is my sense that the message, while complete and well-thought-through, isn't presented in such a way as to lead to action. In the world of young persons it's my experience that theory is best left to emerge from actions at the maxiumum possible number of times. I'd've been much more stirred and delighted had I seen some non-theoretical analysis..."when one sees this, then that is the likeliest cause; now, do this or that to draw attention to it with the aim of changing it." After all, Author Patel spoke to many whose lives of resistance and struggle included forging action agendas. Why not bring this facet, underpinning the work as it does, to the fore?

But never mind all that Monday-morning quarterbacking. The book that is here, that is available from the estimable Beacon Press, will offer you much. If your child is leaving for college soon, I want to push you towards the read with some extra fervor. If your child is in school now, please send them one. There is no bad or wrong time to give someone not yet ossified into a brittle psychic shape the chisels and files and rasps to add refinement and enhancement to their awareness.

SUNDIAL, an oddly innocuous title for an anything-but-innocuous read


SUNDIAL
CATRIONA WARD

Tor Nightfire Books
$26.99 hardcover, available tomorrow (pre-orders today, of course!)

Rating: I settled on four; YMMV

READ HER INTERVIEW IN The Guardian!

The Publisher Says: You can't escape what's in your blood...

All Rob wanted was a normal life. She almost got it, too: a husband, two kids, a nice house in the suburbs. But Rob fears for her oldest daughter, Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her too much of the family she left behind.

She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.

Callie is worried about her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely, and speaks of past secrets. And Callie fears that only one of them will leave Sundial alive…

The mother and daughter embark on a dark, desert journey to the past in the hopes of redeeming their future.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Y'all remember how I said I wasn't a member of the Cult of the Mother? Rob, the mother at the center of the pitch-black exploration of the Dark Heart of Motherhood, isn't a big fan of it either. And she, stupid asshole that she is, had a second baby with a man she dislikes despite the fact she doesn't like the one she already has.

So why the ever-lovin' hell did I keep reading the book? And what's that star rating up there all about? I can (sort of) explain....

I hate fewer tropes more than the Noble Woman Who Keeps Her Family Together™. This is that story. And I hate that about it. I'm not interested in reading about the vileness of animal experimentation. This is that story, too. I really, really do not like to read Exceptional Child narratives. I don't really need to say it again, do I? But once you open this story up, you're In It For The Duration. Believe me when I tell you, you're not going to come out the other side the same as you went in. Rob is really a bad, bad mother in that she became one at all, ever, after what her childhood was like. It's inevitable that very bad things would follow this woman around like roast-beef-and-brussels-sprouts farts. And yet her narrative voice never does the inexcusable and becomes whiny. She gets closest to it when she discovers that her best friend isn't. But even then, very early on, her tone is "goddammit! not a-fucking-gain!" instead of "how could this happen to meeeeee?" which last is the norm for most women's fiction/domestic thrillers I've perused.

It's what occurs to bring the matter to her attention that needs to be praised: Her youngest child contracts chicken pox. There is only one plausible way that could have occurred. And that, as the saying goes, is that. What matters as we go forward is what Rob is going to do about the stuff she learns: fix it. Every weird, unbelievably wacked out thing Rob does throughout this weird, wacked out story is aimed at fixing the problems she's got in her face right this minute. And it takes her less time to figure out what she has to do to have the best chance to fix it than you'd think, looking at the page count.

Not a one for deep self-reflection, our Rob. Had she been so equipped, there would've been no marriage and no children in her life. And believe you me, there should NOT HAVE BEEN.

So why were there a marriage and children in her life? Because...there are debts that one repays whether in this or another life, there are things that are absolutely yours and yours alone to atone for and to offer up to the evil life-force that this world was created to sustain. And that is where Rob and Callie are as this story begins its uphill climb against the gravity of reality.

When you start out a read as addictively written as this one is, you accept that there are things you won't like as much as others in it. Because something is marketed as horror, you know you're going to have to accept a certain level of gore, for example. The question is will you be too squicked to take the gore as it's intended, or will it just lie there on the book's floor waiting for the cleaning crew to make it all go away? This book seriously skated on the edge of calling the crime-scene cleaners as we got more and more into the scenes in the desert. I wasn't at all sure continuing was a good idea at multiple junctures.

I persevered, and despite the feeling that there could've been less of some gory moments, the fact is that the gore here is handled with deft assurance, and is applied to the plot with a care that one senses even as it deepens about one's ankles. The moments when the plot takes the path of least resistance, ie "it's the man's fault," there is in fact something more to it than that. There is a dark, echoing justice in the world the book creates, a seriously ugly but still urgent weighing of karmic scales that must happen to give this ending, any ending really, a hope of satisfying the reader.

The latent genetic flaw, or the generational trauma inheritance, or the epigenetic expression of ancestral agonies that come to the fore in the read are utterly predictable from the moment we meet Rob. But there's the small matter of how Author Catriona Ward writes to explain why one is compelled to keep reading on. It is this fact that caused me to power through very, very, very upsetting events that would normally have caused me to shut the book for good.

I don't think too terribly many of my regular readers are in it for horror reads. If that's you, skip this review. But horror people should, if they have not already, make this author welcome on their shelves. She's a good sentence-by-sentence writer, and while I'm not the most familiar with horror plotting, this story's absence of supernatural falderol accentuates the truth that I appreciate horror stories making plain: Humanity is made up of vile, irredeemable scum who, even when they say they're doing something for "the greater good" or whatever, are actually just looking for ways to excuse their inner cruel bastard coming out.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

February 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews


Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to say...now I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more that often simply isn't there. Although as you'll see, I'm not strict about the only-three-sentences rule.

Think about using it yourselves!

JANUARY 2022's BURGOINES live here.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Mother Nile by Warren Adler

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A dazzling triumph from the bestselling author of The War of the Roses—a sweeping and ambitious novel spanning across two eras and the city at the center of it all.

Mother Nile is the story of Si, the American-born son of an Irish father and Egyptian mother, who goes on a journey through the winding streets of the City of the Dead to solve a half-century-old mystery. When his mother makes an urgent plea on her deathbed, Si knows that he must make the journey to Egypt to find out the truth about his long-lost half-sister, conceived during his mother's affair with King Farouk. Hunted by those who would do anything to keep the past in the past, Si finds help from a young woman who captures his heart. He leaves the City of the Dead a changed man. This work of historical fiction takes readers on an adventure brimming with suspense, intrigue, and romance.

Warning: This book is meant for readers who are 18+ due to mature content.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I strongly caution you to heed the "mature content" warning above. Themes in this book regarding women's bodily autonomy are not handled with 21st-century cultural norms in mind. Given how bad things still are, transpose them back seventy-plus years, put them in a milieu where a woman was literal chattel, and you should get with the program.

The prose is lush, the topic of Egypt's beauty is evoked in all of one's senses, and there will never be a day when a quest narrative...Isis? Osiris? the bells ringing yet?...doesn't have its own, usually compelling, appeal. There is nothing in here to cause readers of the Fifty Shades narratives to blanch, nor are the gender politics noticeably more offensive than Twilight contains. It is an historical novel, it deals with sexual mores that have changed, and the author is nearing one hundred years old...the topic of Othering would be a tough one to explain, and based on this book, if that's a concern for you this is not your best book choice.

Forewarned? Very well. For the Wilbur Smith reader who wants something extra, here's you a book.

Now available in print or Kindle edition here. (Non-affiliate Amazon link)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


An Editor's Burial: Journals and Journalism from the New Yorker and Other Magazines by David Brendel (Editor)

Adapted (loosely!) into Wes Anderson's Academy-snubbed The French Dispatch Of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (which avclub.com & I thought was the bee's knees anyway)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A glimpse of post-war France through the eyes and words of 14 (mostly) expatriate journalists including Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, A.J. Liebling, S.N. Behrman, Luc Sante, Joseph Mitchell, and Lillian Ross; plus, portraits of their editors William Shawn and New Yorker founder Harold Ross. Together: they invented modern magazine journalism. Includes an introductory interview by Susan Morrison with {filmmaker Wes} Anderson about transforming fact into a fiction and the creation of his homage to these exceptional reporters.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I wanted to wait until I saw the Academy's treatment of the film before I opened my yap. I thought the film, which is more an "inspired by" than an "adapted from" this anthology of very good essays, was a solid four-of-five, just like the anthology was; for the same reasons, even.

Collecting essays written by wildly different people at very different inflection points in History leads, if one mistakenly attempts to read the result as an aesthetic whole, to a sense of being lost. I made that mistake. The essays are, as expected, superb. The issue was "what's Mavis Gallant doing in the same place as Luc Sante?!" It's like walking in on your grandma getting head from your high-school cheer captain.

In the main, then, it's expectations that will float or sink your enjoyment-boat. If you approach this as a very, very thick issue of The New Yorker and pace yourself, the reads are separately marvelous. If one looks at the performances, the costumes, the aesthetic of Anderson's film in discrete parts, they are each excellent. But in neither case do they make a whole.

Now available in print or Kindle editions here. (Non-affiliate Amazon link)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Trans-Siberian Express by Warren Adler

Rating: 3-ish stars of five

The Publisher Says: American cancer specialist, Dr. Alex Cousins is on a covert mission to the USSR. He is tasked with prolonging the life of Soviet Politburo Chief, Viktor Moiseyevich Dimitrov, who is suffering from advanced stage leukemia. But the tenuous confidence between the unlikely colleagues is shattered one night as Alex accidentally discovers Dimitrov’s diabolical plans for a nuclear strike on China. Alex soon finds himself dispatched, homeward bound, on a six thousand mile journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Express; long enough, Alex realizes, to silence him from alerting the U.S. of the imminent destruction.

Reluctant, at first, to embark upon the journey, Alex is beckoned into the Siberian expanse by memories of his grandfather, Aleksandr Kuznetzov, who wove tales of magic and mystery into this seemingly desolate place. As the train lumbers east across snow-cloaked mountains, glimmering past a forest glow, watchful eyes rest on the American doctor. Surrounding him are people beaten and broken by life, each drawn to this emperor of trains in search of a brighter future. But most curious is Anna Petrovna Valentinova, the hauntingly beautiful history professor and Alex’s alluring travelling companion. As Anna captivates Alex with illusions of her homeland, a passionate romance transcending political barriers unfolds under KGB surveillance.

A train attendant yearns for love, a deformed man seeks revenge on an old enemy, and a persecuted Jewish couple runs to a new home as the Trans-Siberian Express roars onward through a cavern of hopes and memories, coloring its tracks with tales of love, loss and nuclear intrigue from one end of Russia to the other.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Cold-War thriller made in the mold Jeffrey Archer or Ken Follett. You know what you're getting plot-wise from the synopsis. What you might not expect, le Carré fans, is the lyricism of the detail lavished on the countryside the train passes through.

What does not get lyrically panegyrized is the the "character" (term of art only) of Dr. Alex Cousins, the US oncologist sent quietly to save an important voice of reason in the Politburo. He is a camera, à la Isherwood ("I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking"), and still Anna Valentinova (his Soviet handler) has this wildly sexual relationship with him as they chug across the immensity of the Soviet Union on the titular train. Frankly I wondered why she bothered.

But it was the 1970s, she was probably told to by her Intelligence-service bosses, and according to the text Cousins was a stud in bed. (Told you it was the 1970s. First pubbed in 1977.) Which at least explains why she did it again, though she did monopolize the conversation from then on, thank the goddesses.

There was a lot of description that, while it was happening, gave me the wistfuls. The reason you're not seeing it here is...I don't remember where it was. This was a DRC and the damned thing lost my highlights when I opened the file on a different device! Gone from BOTH devices.

Anyway, it's a period piece, if you like Cold-War thrillers that move at train speeds instead of cruise missile velocities, this one will suit you. I regret nothing about having made the read.

The issue is I remember the same: Nothing. Available from Amazon on your Kindle for $4.99 at this non-affiliate link.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Anonymous Sex by Hillary Jordan & Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A bold and playful collection of erotic stories written by some of the world’s finest writers. The twist? Each story is “anonymous,” allowing for tales as subtle or explicit, strange or familiar, tender or fierce as each writer wishes—leaving readers to guess who wrote what.

Welcome to the ultimate literary parlor game—a collection of unattributed erotic stories written by a stellar list of authors, including winners of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Awards, PEN Awards, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Edgar Awards, and more. Anthology editors Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan present an elegant, international collection of erotica, that explores the diverse spectrum of desire. There are stories of sexual obsession and sexual love, of domination and submission. There’s revenge sex, unrequited sex, funny sex, tortured sex, fairy tale sex, and even sex in the afterlife.

This seductive anthology is true to its name: while the authors are listed in alphabetical order at the beginning of the book, none of the stories are attributed, providing readers with a glimpse into the landscape of sexuality as explored by twenty-seven of today’s best-known authors.

NB I left off the list of contributors. It's long, I'm lazy. Sue me.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU (SORT OF).

My Review
: Point one: I'm queer as the proverbial three-dollar bill. Point two: I'm old. Sex, while it still entertains and even once in a while delights me (given that the party of the second part is far away ATM that's not the most common occurrence), I'm not as, um, invested in the subject as I once was. Point three: I've internalized a lot more of the 21st century's norms and mores than I thought I had, as I discovered reading this.

A woman whose fantasy life is spent imagining her "ethnic" next-door neighbor, for example, made me a little...uneasy...because that just feels weird these #MeToo days. However, that self-same story contains some lines that made me snort my ramen:
...maybe I won't even ask them to talk about Things Fall Apart, which tends to startle and tongue-tie my almost-entirely-white-and-well-off wards. Not that I don't share their good fortune, though I, bookish girl from a big Irish Italian Catholic family, married into this seaside haven of college professors & financiers, skim-milk Unitarians who wouldn't know original sin from artisanal gin.

There is a startling absence of men as actors. Not just gay ones, men as the point of the story. That got it a half-point, though we can't remotely consider this a Bechdel-test win! Heterosexuality is common, goodness knows, but it's common as pig tracks here in this collection.

There are twenty-seven stories in this collection. I can actually remember reading three of them:
One Day in the Life of Josephine Bellanotte Munro does what I hope all women do: tosses itself off in any handy corner while seriously violating her Proper Matron Status by fetishizing the "ethnic" neighbor, wondering how the hell to convince her still-eager husband to go the fuck away with that thing, and scare her teenage daughter into a week's celibacy by threatening to expose her sex life to her dad.

Ick. Just...ick.

What the Hands Remember poignantly meditates on that one paralyzingly terrifying, utterly ensorcelling, always humiliating First: a boy's first sex with a living, breathing partner. In this case, as the man remembering it has lost all other memories, all other connections to life. This is the moment he relives.

Josephine will, somehow, somewhere, still feel you, will be back there with you...and that is the real Kiss of Death. A horndog you surely were, but in the end we are our final and authentic selves. SO: Vale, sir.

Vis-à-Vis 1953 suspends two bored, unhappy people in the gladsome cage of shared need and always sought, never satiated desire.

On a train from L. A. to Wichita, Kansas.

Ends, beginnings, they're the exciting bit. Middles can wear on you; there's no middle here.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (tr. Moshe Gilula)

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: NATURE IS CALLING—but they shouldn't have answered.

Travel journalist and mountaineer Nick Grevers awakes from a coma to find that his climbing buddy, Augustin, is missing and presumed dead. Nick’s own injuries are as extensive as they are horrifying. His face wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, Nick claims amnesia—but he remembers everything.

He remembers how he and Augustin were mysteriously drawn to the Maudit, a remote and scarcely documented peak in the Swiss Alps.

He remembers how the slopes of Maudit were eerily quiet, and how, when they entered its valley, they got the ominous sense that they were not alone.

He remembers: something was waiting for them...

But it isn’t just the memory of the accident that haunts Nick. Something has awakened inside of him, something that endangers the lives of everyone around him…

It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s another to lose your soul.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I can't quite believe this is a translation. Its prose rings like a crystal wineglass.
Every year, climbers—sometimes entire teams—disappear into deep glacial voids and die in their frozen darkness. If the mountain is merciful, the drop is deep enough to smash them into silence in one go. Most victims, however, are trapped between blue, narrowing walls of ice, and as their body warmth melts the ice, they sink slowly deeper and deeper, until they die very consciously of asphyxiation.

I can't quite believe I have a son named Sam (he's so much like me it's scary) who lives in a novel. By a Dutch guy. Whom I've never met.
There are November mornings when the cold is clear, crackling, and crisp, but this cold was sticky, syrupy, clung to you. Like it was begging you for help. You, the first organism to have crossed its path, and would you please take it with you and protect it from what's about to happen, because that was much, much worse than the cold itself.

Jesus. The Morose hadn't even got started yet and my metaphors were already going haywire.

I can't quite write a real review yet...still stunned, too scared to go back and figure out why...but it's a week ago the book came out and honestly I'm still shook that all y'all ain't got it on your nightstands yet.
You’ve often asked me why I climb mountains. You’ve also often asked me (I wouldn’t say begged, though it’s not far off the mark) to stop. Our worst argument was about this, and it was the only time I was really afraid that I would lose you. I’ve never been able to fully explain it to you. I wonder if it’s at all possible to fully explain to someone who isn’t a climber. There’s an apparently unbridgeable gap between the thought that I risk my life doing something as trifling as climbing a cold lump of rock and ice…and the notion of traveling through a floating landscape, progressing with utmost concentration while having absolute control of the essential balance that keeps me alive and that, therefore, lets me live. Conquering that gap is possibly the most difficult climb in the life of any alpinist who is in a relationship.

What is wrong with people?! Go get this terrifying, propulsive, exquisitely personal and depressingly universal horror-adjacent thriller. Go on! March, young scalawag. You can get any edition at Amazon (non-affiliate link).

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Lamb to the Slaughter by Joanna Chambers

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Unapologetic rake, Lucien St. Villiers, meets his match in young ingenue, Marcus Lamb

Lucien St. Villiers is a cynical rake with a taste for the young and innocent.

When he encounters the beautiful and inexperienced Marcus Lamb, he is determined to teach the young man every wicked pleasure in his repertoire. But will Lucien simply discard Marcus afterwards, or is he finally—shockingly—about to have the tables turned on him, once and for all?

My Review: Joanna Chambers: noun (improper) 1) wicked, wicked writer without a shred of decency or a scintilla of self-restraint.

2) being best be busying herself with certain other novel-length projects before returning to this one. "Lamb to the Slaughter" begins with a *shudder* w-bomb and ends long, long, long before it should.

In any case, a wicked temptress who decides to turn the tables on a rake and roué responsible for the debauchment of numerous young, virginal men (lucky boys!) and then shut off the story-spigot just as things are getting to the most interesting part...the morning after's fun, but the Wednesday after that is much, much more interesting...deserves public pillorying and contumely-heaping. You cannot buy this, this Torquemadan torture, but must sign up for her mailing list.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Carmilla: The cult classic that inspired Dracula by Sheridan Le Fanu

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Carmilla is the original vampire story, steeped in the sexual tension between two young women and gothic romance.

A deluxe gift edition of the cult classic that predated and greatly influenced Dracula and much vampire literature that followed, including Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles.


In an isolated castle deep in the Austrian forest, teenaged Laura leads a solitary life with only her father, attendant and tutor for company. Until one moonlit night, a horse-drawn carriage crashes into view, carrying an unexpected guest—the beautiful Carmilla.

So begins a feverish friendship between Laura and her entrancing new companion, one defined by mysterious happenings and infused with an implicit but undeniable eroticism. As Carmilla becomes increasingly strange and volatile, prone to eerie nocturnal wanderings, Laura finds herself tormented by nightmares and growing weaker by the day...

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: You know the story already, even if you've never read it. You've seen a Dracula movie. Same stuff, different dresses. It's pretty, um, humid, and the device of anagramming "Carmilla" is lame as all hell, but frankly if you expect modern writing from someone working in the 1870s you're ill-advised to pick it up in the first place. It's an acquired taste. Let the language and the attitudes...considered old-fashioned when the tale came out...subsume your 21st-century-ness and take a mental vacation.

Lesbian Dracula story with built-in plausible deniability. LeFanu insisted his vampyre couldn't be lesbian because she was dead therefore by definition incapable of sexual activity. Great dodge, Sheridan! I can just see the tut-tutting moralists trying to figure out a response to this. Like people complaining about nudity in Maus, it's a smoke-screen for imposing *their* view of what's "nice" on others.

Don't like something? Move along! No one's making you focus on it. And your kids seeing it? Lock 'em up if you want to prevent the world from having its way with them. *SPOILER ALERT* It does not work. Stop trying, rely on your parenting to warp them into the shape you want. And leave normal people alone.

The deluxe (and is it ever!) hardcover for your Goth belovèd is available from the publisher.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


New Animal by Ella Baxter

PEARL RULED @ 53%

The Publisher Says: New Animal is a poignant, darkly comedic look at human connection from a biting and original new voice in Ella Baxter.

Amelia Aurelia is approaching thirty and her closest relationships ― other than her mother ― are through her dating apps. She works at the family mortuary business as a cosmetic mortician with her eccentric step-father and older brother, whose throuple’s current preoccupation is with what type of snake to adopt. When Amelia’s affectionate mother passes away without warning, she is left without anchor. Fleeing the funeral, she seeks solace with her birth-father in Tasmania and stumbles into the local BDSM community, where her riotous attempts to belong are met with confusion, shock, and empathy.

Hilarious and heartfelt, New Animal reveals hard-won truths as Amelia struggles to find her place in the world without her mother, with the help of her two well-intentioned fathers and adventures at the kink club.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Absolutely not.

She's just told you her mother's funeral is today, Leo, and this is the first time you've met her. She's clearly fragile. Your job as a dom is to understand that consent in that frame of mind IS NOT CONSENT and you are now abusing a psychologically vulnerable person. The tremedous, exciting promise of the first half went out the window and I am so very out of here.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


The Archive of the Forgotten (Hell's Library #2) by A.J. Hackwith PEARL RULED at ~20%

The Publisher Says: In the second installment of this richly imagined fantasy adventure series, a new threat from within the Library could destroy those who depend upon it the most.

The Library of the Unwritten in Hell was saved from total devastation, but hundreds of potential books were destroyed. Former librarian Claire and Brevity the muse feel the loss of those stories, and are trying to adjust to their new roles within the Arcane Wing and Library, respectively. But when the remains of those books begin to leak a strange ink, Claire realizes that the Library has kept secrets from Hell—and from its own librarians.

Claire and Brevity are immediately at odds in their approach to the ink, and the potential power that it represents has not gone unnoticed. When a representative from the Muses Corps arrives at the Library to advise Brevity, the angel Rami and the erstwhile Hero hunt for answers in other realms. The true nature of the ink could fundamentally alter the afterlife for good or ill, but it entirely depends on who is left to hold the pen.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF MY LOCAL LIBRARY. USE YOUR LIBRARIES, FOLKS!

My Review
: I think there should be some sort of penalty for a writer who can do this:
“They burn them first, the stories. Humans always come for the stories first. It’s their warm-up, before they start burning other humans. It’s their first form of control, to burn the libraries, to burn the books, to burn the archives of a culture. Humans are the stories they tell. If you want to destroy your enemy, destroy their stories. Even if the people survive, it will be as if they never existed at all.”

...not getting all the institutional support and community funding necessary to find a mentor to teach them to find a plot and work it into prose that pithy and aperçu-able.

I am beyond bitter that this societal failure has deprived me of what was all set to be a superlative read in a practically infinitely expandable I.P. I went through the quotes attributed to this title and wept in frustration that I simply could not invest in the actual story deeply enough to cause me to stay up past my bedtime devouring it.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Hide Bound : Les's Bar #2 by Jodi Payne & B.A. Tortuga

The Publisher Says: Peter Marshall has had enough of working for Parks and Rec when he comes across an opening for a real carpentry job and decides to give it a go. Building things is his passion, so even though the shop seems a little out there, and the owner seems pretty grumpy, Peter decides to go for it.

Brandon McPhail wishes he didn’t have to hire a new carpenter, but his current one is going out on maternity leave. He’s especially wary of this kid who can’t possibly be old enough to spell BDSM, let alone know what the lifestyle means. But Peter impresses Brandon with both his talent and his tenacity, so Brandon hires him on, reminding himself that he’s in a wheelchair due to his MS, he had a terrible experience in his last relationship, and despite how clueless Peter is about the lifestyle, he’s not interested in taking on another sub.

The chemistry between them is undeniable, though, and it’s not long before they’re exploring what they can learn from each other. Peter is a natural at fulfilling Brandon’s needs, and Brandon thinks he’s teaching Peter everything he’s eager to learn, but when danger threatens, they have to help their friends through it while trying to navigate their new relationship. Can they forge bonds strong enough to bind them together for life?

Note to readers: Each book in this series is a true standalone, so don't be confused when you discover that Hide Bound takes place before Just Dex in the "timeline". That was deliberate, and you don't need to have read one to read the other.

My Review: Two w-bombs in five pages. I'm out.

Gag!

Friday, February 25, 2022

THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND, decades lost in drawers because white people


THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND
RICHARD WRIGHT

Library of America
$19.95 all editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A major literary event: an explosive, previously unpublished novel from the 1940s by the legendary author of Native Son and Black Boy.
Fred Daniels, a black man, is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn't commit. After signing a confession, he escapes—or is permitted to escape—from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers below the streets of Chicago.

This is the simple, horrible premise of Richard Wright's scorching novel, The Man Who Lived Underground, a masterpiece written in the same period as his landmark books Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) that he was unable to publish in his lifetime. Only small parts of it have appeared in print, and in a significantly redacted form it would eventually be included in the short story collection Eight Men (1961). Now, for the first time, by special arrangement with the author’s estate, the full text of the work that meant more to Wright than any other (“I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration”) is published in the form that he intended, complete with his companion essay, “Memories of My Grandmother.” Malcolm Wright, the author’s grandson, contributes an afterword.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Richard Wright was one of the twentieth century's crop of Great American Storytellers, a writer whose entire life of creation was a gift to a country that did not deserve his passionate voice calling into the face of its indifference that we can be better, do better, and must in order to survive.

People my age were required to read Native Son in high school English, and I am so very glad we were. I wouldn't have picked up the book any other way. It needed to be shoved on me. And wonder of wonders, the Austin (Texas) Independent School District of the early 1970s did. It was a tough thing to let myself believe, that people simply but sincerely hated for no better reason than someone was a different skin color than they were. I assumed all those yahoos were just performing their snotty, hateful idiocy like they did their fake homophobia; it seemed to me that racism against Black and Hispanic students was the same. Anything to look cool, after all, and these were teenagers whose ideas of Cool were neither self-reflective nor rebellious enough to have progressed from the 1950s their own parents were stuck in.

Then we read the equally astounding true-crime (I call racism a crime and am not likely to stop doing so) Black Like Me, an account of a white man passing as Black in the Jim Crow South. It too was gut-wrenching, but was different in kind than the novel Native Son. A factual report...well, I am quite sure that my own racism got hard, hard knocks that year. (I am fully aware that I'm complicit in racist society, that in no way am I "not a racist" just because I support Black political candidates and so on.) It's a pity we couldn't have read this jaw-dropping, intense, visceral evocation of the Other as refiner and perfecter of his Othering. It is the apotheosis of Otherness and Othering that this intense story tells its readers.

Anyone who's paid me any attention knows that I can be run off from continuing a read by child abuse, by use of the n-word, by cruelty to animals...the list goes on...and not a few unfriendlies are smirking in anticipation of taxing me with this book's abusive, rage-filled, n-word-bombing ethos...how can I give this five stars and still abandon ship with content warnings in other, arguably less offensive cases? Because Richard Wright never does a single thing to make the awfulness of PoV character Fred Daniels's world sensational. The author isn't kidding around, bedizening a story with nastiness to provoke a response. He is telling a story about how Othering a man will, over time, after many small and large blows and much deliberate infliction of every kind of pain, turn him in to the thing that he was not, did not want to be, and could not bear to know that he now was.

It worked, in its honesty and its clarity of purpose. I left the sewer Fred lived in without regret, without revulsion, and with the most horrified, profound acceptance of Fred as he was abused and neglected into being. Acceptance of his re-creation, transformation.

In the inexcusably hate-filled twenty-first century, we are fighting the battle that Fred lost all over again. There are wins...the conviction of Ahmaud Arbery's murderers...there are defeats, the gerrymandering cases standing out to me as disasters to Black people...but the trend is towards, as it ever was, the endless and pointless perpetuation of hate based on stupidity among the haters and truculence among the hated.

Books like this are strong medicine against both ends of the spectrum. Fred, a victim, sees what the System does to people, and ultimately still surrenders to it. Not to fight against the dehumanizing and brutalizing actions and inactions of the system that allows Fred to exist in the literal sewers is to acquiesce in the process of creating more Freds...and that is a moral wrong and a societal tragedy. Author Wright doesn't allow his readers the luxury of redemption. This book remained unpublished for seventy years because it is the most hopeless document of degradation's triumph I've ever read. White people of the 1940s would've been offended by the clear-eyed assertion of police violence as it happened...nowadays that illusion is gone...but they wouldn't have wanted to read about a good man surrendering his humanity regardless of that knee-jerk response. The accusing fingers pointing back at them as they called out Author Wright for his bleak treatment of Fred (theirs was the system he succumbed to, after all) were simply too on-the-nose.

There is an extended essay included with the novel entitled “Memories of My Grandmother” that enables our appalled eyes to see where so much of the story we've just read originated. The fact that Christian religion played such a big role in Wright's formation into a man capable of the kind of wordsmithing he does isn't a big surprise. I'm very grateful that the author's daughter required the essay to be published within the book containing the novel...it's a long piece and, even if you're on the fence about reading the novel, I hope you'll consider procuring it to read the essay alone. It is a marvelous explication of how each generation forms the next, for good and ill.

What Author Wright isn't, in the writing of this story, is subtle. The metaphors defining it simply aren't debatable: Whites own the sunshine and consign the Blacks to the literal sewers to eke out whatever existences they can. A Black man who's innocent of any crime is shoved into the sewer with the rest of the leavings because he's never had a place in the sunshine that was truly his. As he copes increasingly poorly with the sewers, he's not allowed to leave them; he's run away from the white police, deprived them of their fun of torturing and eventually killing him, so they say "stay there and die."

The author doesn't, then, offer Redemption to either side. It's a very uncharitable and un-Christian thing to withhold. But he's got a reason, does Author Wright: "Chickens come home to roost, don’t they?" his daughter quotes him as saying.

They very much do. The perch they roost on is, in this rare and exquisitely painful read, your complicit soul.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

THE TALENTED RIBKINS, Hubbard's debut novel & THE RIB KING, its prequel...very interesting!


THE RIB KING
LADEE HUBBARD

Amistad (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five...truly on sentimental grounds

A BOOKRIOT BEST BOOK OF 2021!

The Publisher Says: Upstairs, Downstairs meets Parasite: The acclaimed author of The Talented Ribkins deconstructs painful African American stereotypes and offers a fresh and searing critique on race, class, privilege, ambition, exploitation, and the seeds of rage in America in this intricately woven and masterfully executed historical novel, set in the early twentieth century that centers around the black servants of a down-on-its heels upper-class white family.

For fifteen years August Sitwell has worked for the Barclays, a well-to-do white family who plucked him from an orphan asylum and gave him a job. The groundskeeper is part of the household’s all-black staff, along with “Miss Mamie,” the talented cook, pretty new maid Jennie Williams, and three young kitchen apprentices—the latest orphan boys Mr. Barclay has taken in to "civilize" boys like August.

But the Barclays' fortunes have fallen, and their money is almost gone. When a prospective business associate proposes selling Miss Mamie’s delicious rib sauce to local markets under the brand name “The Rib King”—using a caricature of a wildly grinning August wearing a jewel-encrusted crown on the label—Mr. Barclay, desperate for cash, agrees. Yet neither Miss Mamie nor August will see a dime. Humiliated, August grows increasingly distraught, his anger building to a rage that explodes in shocking tragedy.

Elegantly written and exhaustively researched, The Rib King is an unsparing examination of America’s fascination with black iconography and exploitation that redefines African American stereotypes in literature. In this powerful, disturbing, and timely novel, Ladee Hubbard reveals who people actually are, and most importantly, who and what they are not.

I RECEIVED THIS AS A YULE GIFT FROM MY DELIGHTFUL YOUNG GENTLEMAN CALLER. YOU'RE TOO KIND, ROB.

My Review
: A book of two halves...Mr. Sitwell, the risen-through-the-ranks butler of the Barclay family, has a fascinating tale to tell about how he becomes The Rib King™ and, in an access of passionate rage, pivots from a man who knows his worth, and protects it at all costs, into a, well, talented person set on revenge for some nasty wrongs. I myownself was quite invested in this story and would give it four stars were it the only one here.

Part two follows Jennie, who was another servant in the Barclay household, as she does what needs doing in New Orleans. She has a daughter and she is the only one who can look out for the young lady's future. This would seem to be well-trodden territory. It is. I don't want you to think there was nothing to say for it, and there are definitely reasons to follow Jennie and her child. But the process was three-star territory for sure.

What made me think and fuss about how to fix this reading experience in my memory is the fact that I read The Talented Ribkins (see below) before I read this book. It led me down the garden path a bit. I was expecting to get more of the reasons and the wherefores of the earlier book's characters. It didn't really fulfill that desire in me.

But the prose flowed over my eyes, the stories felt very *real* in their outlines and very relatable to the world we saw in The Talented Ribkins; so surely four stars, after all? And that, plus the verve of Mr. Sitwell's half of the story, gave me the nudge to go from the more-grounded-in-the-object three-and-a-half up to four stars.

I got four stars'-worth of pleasure from Ladee Hubbard's unique and entertaining characters. I expect most who read my reviews will, too. I do caution y'all to get and read The Talented Ribkins first. They make a better whole-story experience that way, and they're each well worth your eyeblinks.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


THE TALENTED RIBKINS
LADEE HUBBARD

Melville House
$13.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five...but barely...when it should've been five

WINNER OF THE 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Novel

The Publisher Says: At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains.

What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are a bit, well, odd. Okay, very odd. For example, Johnny's father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he's been there or not.

In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he's stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother's daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.

Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.

A big-hearted novel about a family with special gifts who sometimes stumble in their efforts to succeed in life, The Talented Ribkins draws on such novels as Toni Morrison’s Sula and Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist to weave themes of race, class, and politics into a wonderfully accomplished and engaging novel.

THIS WAS A YULE GIFT TO ME FROM MY DELIGHTFUL YOUNG GENTLEMAN CALLER. YOU ROCK, ROB!

My Review
: First, read this:
“Johnny Ribkins, there was a time when you could've been anything you wanted to be, a doctor, lawyer or an Indian chief...instead all you are is a damn shame.”
–and–
"It’s not your job to try and compensate other people’s lack of vision. You’ve got enough to do just trying to be true to your own."

I'm not sure what you like in terms of first novels. I hope you're willing to run around on your usual genres with a superhero-adjacent tale of the, um, strange descendents of the yahoo who lost the rights to The Rib King™—the miracle delicious barbecue sauce of all time. Johnny Ribkins is the dishonest remaining scion of the line that's made its business to get in on that amazing concoction, rightfully theirs.

But Johnny and his line were, if not superpowered, at the least gifted in some peculiar ways other mortals aren't. He, for example, can map places. And they don't have to be real yet. His maps enable him to, when his time aiding "the Justice Committee" during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle (and sinful wicked shame on our country for allowing it to be dismantled while we watch), use his unique talent to hide in undiscoverable places the money he just knows he will need in the future. (Don't expect to go too deep into how and why that should be...it's not a huge piece of this book.)

Now that he's got the need for his funds, he and his teenaged niece (with a really, really cool "talent" that utterly eludes me, personally) travel from pillar to post together literally digging the future out of the muck and dirt of the past, while he shares with his brother's daughter all the stuff he wishes he'd said, the people he knew and their effects on him and the world, with the family's latest and last survivor.

So, that four star rating up there? That's all about the Ribkins not really getting into it, about the told-not-lived nature of a reflection and road novel. It isn't bad, it's got lovely sentences that say a lot about what it means to be Othered among others, and how very sad it is to leave so few things other people care about behind for them to enjoy.

But as a first novel being the same as a first at-bat, it swings for the fences and gets an RBI though not a home run. That's still a hell of an achievement.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

CAROLINA BUILT, fictionalized story of a superbly determined woman's battles


CAROLINA BUILT
KIANNA ALEXANDER

Gallery Books
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: This “exuberant celebration of Black women’s joy as well as their achievements” (Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author) novelizes the life of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary in a previously untold story of passion, perseverance, and building a legacy after emancipation in North Carolina.

Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams.

As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention away, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to pursue her real estate aspirations. She finds herself immersed in deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, and being a dutiful daughter and granddaughter. Still, she manages to teach herself to be a businesswoman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up.

“Filled with passion and perseverance, Josephine Leary is frankly a woman that everyone should know” (Sadeqa Johnson, author of Yellow Wife) and her story speaks to the part of us that dares to dream bigger, tear down whatever stands in our way, and build something better for the loved ones we leave behind.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: It's always been hard to be a woman. In the US, it's always been hard to be Black. Now put the two disadvantages together...that's what Josephine Leary is up against. She's equal to any task, though; the novel begins in 1870, during the last days of Reconstruction. Having lived her childhood as a slave, Josephine knows that every single act she takes in this life has to have as its aim the increase of freedom and the assurance of security for herself, her husband, and their two daughters, as each addition to her life is made.

Her slaveowner was also her father, and that piece of "good luck" played out in her favor. She was able to buy the barbershop she and her husband ran together from him. And from there forward, it was all Mrs. Leary and all the way up Sweety, her husband, backed her.

Until her success threatened his Manhood.

It's a testament to the author's ability to pace a story that I didn't just quietly close the book and ignore it at that point. I know it happened; I am told it still happens. But it makes for dull reading, the expected flaw in the expected place. But to her credit, Author Alexander dwells on it not...it's not like it's played down but it's not protracted either.

What made me so dad-blamed mad that I screamed at my Kindle (for which I apologize to my roommate, he was sleeping and was utterly terrified as I shouted "NO SHE DID NOT!!" into the dark) came close to the end of the book when there's a fire that deprives Mrs. Leary of her (uninsured, of course, she was a Black woman, who'd write that policy in the 1890s?!) hard-earned gains! But...and this is where I almost cheered but was too shy to wake the grouch up again...she still owned the land. And she chose to rebuild, to build back better.

Unlike certain scumbag politicians with "R"s after their names.

Well, that all sounds very five-starry, doesn't it? But there's a four up there...and I feel generous giving it. The fact is that this is a very dialogue-heavy novel and there's not much vigor in the dialogue. It's not awful but it doesn't lend itself to quoting the quotable quotes. There's not any.
"The only thing that truly frightens me is the idea that I might not take full advantage of the gift of freedom. I refuse to let that happen."

And that is as snappy as it gets. I'm in total agreement with the sentiment. I just wish it had more oomph behind it.

But in the end, this is an historical novel and it's a lot better served by thinking of it as a novelized biography. Josephine Leary very much deserves to be remembered for her indomitable will, her savvy, and her sheer cussèd determination to overcome every obstacle the world shoves in front of her. Reading the story is a good, and a worthy, way to honor the memory of such a remarkable person.

THE SELFLESS ACT OF BREATHING, a deeply felt meditative look at the cost of modern life


THE SELFLESS ACT OF BREATHING
J.J. BOLA

Atria Books
$27.00 hardcover, available now

A FILM IS IN THE WORKS! "I thank my readers and I look forward to reaching a new audience, via a new medium, and helping us all — which is the reason I wrote this novel — to remember that no matter how we feel, we are not alone,” says Author Bola.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Transcendent Kingdom meets A Man Called Ove in this heartwarming novel about a Congolese-British Londoner who decides to go on one last adventure in the United States, determined to end his life once his savings run out.

As a charismatic teacher living in London, Michael Kabongo strives to alleviate the injustices he sees around him: for the students who long for better lives, in memory of his father’s tragic death, and to end the violent marginalization of Black men around the world.

But after a devastating loss, he decides to embark on an adventure in the land of the free—the United States of America. From Dallas to San Francisco, Michael parties with new friends, engages in fleeting romances, splurges on thrilling escapades, all with the intention of ending his life once all his savings run out.

As he makes surprising new connections and faces old prejudices in odd but exciting new settings, Michael alone must decide if his life is worth living after all...

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I tried to commit suicide in 2014. It was a very low point in my life. It was fortunate that my life didn't end because of the disordered thinking...a woman named Julie made a fortuitous call as I was beginning the process and sent the police to intervene...so I am here to write this review. This is also why I wanted to review this book, given the narrator's plan to end his life when his savings were blown. (Side note: Howinahell did he get so far on a lousy $9000?!)

It's not clear to me why the topic of suicide isn't a trigger for reupping the suicidal ideation machine in me. I can read about the deeply depressed and the suicidal in novels and feel so much compassion, so much sympathy...but no desire to emulate them, only to reach out to them and say "this is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." I've gone through a lot of introspective stuff (CBT works!) and think of the idea of death as, well, honestly it's undisturbing to me. Neither attractive nor repulsive, just a fact. And the manner of Michael, our PoV character, making his decision to go blow his money then die rang memory bells. "This final act, then nothingness" probably sounds better to the truly suicidally depressed than more emotionally overwrought ideation does.

Michael addresses us in the parts of the book set in London. He's fully present, he's struggling to do his teaching job well, and he's floundering in grief deeper than even he can tell...grief too deep to be solely about a recent loss. Michael's decision to leave for the US with that paltry $9000 and live until it runs out (he'd be in Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey, not San Francisco!) is narrated in third person, a choice I took to be representative of his dissociation from the life he was abandoning and refusal to invest in the life he was going to exist through in the US. It wasn't a choice I felt did the story any great service. I think it probably just confused most readers. And I'm not all the way sure I am correct in my analysis, there are other possibilities but I can't make one up that makes the least bit of sense to me except the dissociation one.

What elevates this debut novel above the pack it comes out with is the lovely poetical aphoristic phrase making:
We fight to be seen, for the world to know that we are here, only for us to be forgotten, to be invisible once again.

–and–

Have you ever loved, knowing it would end, but giving your whole heart regardless?

–and–

The thing about losing love is makes you feel like you can never love again, like you are not worthy.

–and–

Loneliness is being there for everyone, everyone, in the hope that someone will be there for you. But no one ever is. You are the sun, lighting the world of another, while setting yourself on fire.

–and–

And above all, it is love, that spark of bright light, that dazzling flame, ephemeral or eternal, may it find us, may it be us, the will that carries us forward, the bond that brings us back, from beyond this lonely feeling to healing; the selfless act of breathing.

The author might be making his fiction debut (correction this is the author's second novel, after 2017's No Place to Call Home) but he's an established poet (Elevate and Daughter of the Sun among others) and it's ever so clear that his phrases will sound gorgeous when spoken aloud. That is also, to be frank, the issue that led to me docking a star off the story's subjective rating: It's performative, it's got an eye on its look in the mirror of your regard. It is, in other words, like poetry is to me: phonied up, heightened, exaggerated to make some point that I think you, O Writer, should trust me to get all on my own. If, that is, you've done your part of the job....

What I hope you'll do is sample the book. Put a bit on your Kindle and see if the way the author slings the lingo hits your sweet spot. If so, there's nothing to prevent you from enjoying the book in its entirety. The first chapters are a good index for the voice the entire book has. While I'm here today because suicide didn't turn out to be the best option for me, this is not an apologia for the act or I'd tell you to avoid it. What leads a person to consider suicide: depression, a sense of alienation from the world around them, a loneliness that pervades this world of exclusion and judgment...all this is the subject of Author Bola's work.
This sadness, how it falls upon you, like mist or fog, not there, then sudden and all at once; a greyness, enveloping you, submerged under water. This sadness in your bones, each step heavier than the last raises questions: how much longer is this journey? How much longer can I walk?

This is an elegant distillation of the greyness of depression and the desperation of feeling it's endless because you've got no perspective where this isn't what you see...all of that is very, very real and very salutary for all of those whose world doesn't have it anywhere (all five of you) to get into your brains. It could make your empathy bumps bigger, spread your hugging arms wider, and tune up your "there, there, my friend" to a fresher pitch.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

AN AFRO-INDIGENOUS HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, colloquial, conversational, controversial


AN AFRO-INDIGENOUS HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
KYLE T. MAYS

Beacon Press
$27.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The first intersectional history of the Black and Native American struggle for freedom in our country that also reframes our understanding of who was Indigenous in early America

Beginning with pre-Revolutionary America and moving into the movement for Black lives and contemporary Indigenous activism, Afro-Indigenous historian Kyle T. Mays argues that the foundations of the US are rooted in antiblackness and settler colonialism, and that these parallel oppressions continue into the present. He explores how Black and Indigenous peoples have always resisted and struggled for freedom, sometimes together, and sometimes apart. Whether to end African enslavement and Indigenous removal or eradicate capitalism and colonialism, Mays show how the fervor of Black and Indigenous peoples calls for justice have consistently sought to uproot white supremacy.

Mays uses a wide-array of historical activists and pop culture icons, “sacred” texts, and foundational texts like the Declaration of Independence and Democracy in America. He covers the civil rights movement and freedom struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, and explores current debates around the use of Native American imagery and the cultural appropriation of Black culture. Mays compels us to rethink both our history as well as contemporary debates and to imagine the powerful possibilities of Afro-Indigenous solidarity.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: What a great idea for Beacon Press to do this series, ReVisioning History. Selecting creators for the almost infinite numbers of topics available to expand our existing explanations of US History must be a nightmare. Author Mays is a scholar of Popular Culture (Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America, SUNY Press 2018), African American culture, Indigenous culture...among other things...working out of UCLA. In this book, he makes very plain the roots of racism in capitalist profit-seeking, and highlights the Indigenous dispossessions as another facet of capitalist settler colonialism's project to entrench white supremacy.

So is this something to give your sugar dumplin' for a romantic read-along? Probably not. Is it something to give your sugar dumplin'? Yes. We're well past the stage of needing any help "feeling comfortable" my fellow white folk. The need now is for us to get with the program of what needs to come next. The subject this book has in its sights is how we got where we are, what where we are means, and how to move forward in a positive and inclusive direction.

In the time of #BlackLivesMatter, I'm not sure I see a way forward that isn't plagued by violence. I'm not at all eager to find out I'm correct, of course. What I suggest to all reading this is, go get the book and see what got us here before opining upon the ways we should or should not proceed. Believe me when I tell you that the way you think we got here is, in fact, not that whole story and to effectively influence the course of future events you'd best be fully au fait with the full spectrum of facts.

The toughest part of the read for me was the simultaneous sense that the author's boiling mad and icy furious, and reaches for the facetious blade in those circumstances. While it's not unjustified, the overall more controlled, academic prose suddenly breaking out in snark is jarring (eg, an early use of the pejorative "hotepness" made me wonder where this was going to recrudesce).
Guns aren't the only weapon of choice for police officers. We must ask this question: Where do police officers learn the techniques that lead to the violent brutalization and death of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx peoples? The martial arts community. When we see a police officer mounting a Black person and controlling their wrists and legs, holding them in a chokehold, putting their knee on someone's neck, you know where they learned that from? A martial artist. They learn chokeholds from Brazilian jujitsu experts. ... In this regard, we also have to hold the martial arts community accountable. ... I've been to at least a few gyms in my life and always see someone who has all the signs of a white supremacist. Don't train them. I understand you have bills to pay and deserve to be paid for your labor, but you are actively teaching people who commit violence against Black and Indigenous people. If you want to help someone, actively recruit and train the people who are suffering from police violence in order that they can defend themselves.

The end does not support the beginning. "I understand you have bills to pay" is pretty snotty...if I, over-sixty white guy, said it to the author, he'd be incandescent with rage...and there's absolutely no recognition that the end of the clause does not contain any sort of mechanism for the beginning to be dealt with.

Anyway, while there's a lot to address in the world, there's also a lot to address in this book. It makes for a good read because perspective changes are urgently needed all around, and there's no bad place to start working toward a new, more flexible way of framing your personal conversation with it.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

HOWARD ZINN'S SOUTHERN DIARY: Sit-Ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women's Student Activism...what it says outside you get inside


HOWARD ZINN'S SOUTHERN DIARY: Sit-Ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women's Student Activism
HOWARD ZINN, ROBERT COHEN
(editor)
Foreword by Alice Walker
University of Georgia Press
$24.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: How young black women fought paternalism on campus and Jim Crow downtown, and how Howard Zinn was fired for supporting them

In the 1960s, students of Spelman College, a black liberal arts college for women, were drawn into historic civil rights protests occurring across Atlanta, leading to the arrest of some for participating in sit-ins in the local community. A young Howard Zinn (future author of the worldwide best seller A People’s History of the United States) was a professor of history at Spelman during this era and served as an adviser to the Atlanta sit-in movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Zinn mentored many of Spelman’s students fighting for civil rights at the time, including Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.

As a key facilitator of the Spelman student movement, Zinn supported students who challenged and criticized the campus’s paternalistic social restrictions, even when this led to conflicts with the Spelman administration. Zinn’s involvement with the Atlanta student movement and his closeness to Spelman’s leading student and faculty activists gave him an insider’s view of that movement and of the political and intellectual world of Spelman, Atlanta University, and the SNCC.

Robert Cohen presents a thorough historical overview as well as an entrée to Zinn’s diary. One of the most extensive records of the political climate on a historically black college in 1960s America, Zinn’s diary offers an in-depth view. It is a fascinating historical document of the free speech, academic freedom, and student rights battles that rocked Spelman and led to Zinn’s dismissal from the college in 1963 for supporting the student movement.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: There is no quisling like a race quisling. Spelman College, an institution of higher education for wealthy Black families, operated "in loco parentis" and, in typical midcentury overreach, became the controlling patriarch of its woman students' every single act. They were aiming for a complete absence of any breath of scandal. A Spelman alumna was Caesar's wife, blameless in all ways, and President Albert Manley (don't think that name didn't suit him to a "T") was going to make sure the women at 1960s Spelman were perfectly prepared to be housewives and helpmeets for Black executives, free of radical notions about race equality and gender parity.

Along comes new History professor Howard Zinn, radical New York Jew....

What makes this a good read is what makes any personal story a good read. The diary of a very interesting person, a person who's entire being is dedicated to breaking bad stuff and gluing it back together into better shapes, is going to be of interest to at least a few of us. When that person is someone whose way with words is demonstrably snappy, merging erudition with sarcasm and bypassing facetiousness to jab sharp elbows of truth-telling into the soft midriffs of the Status Quovians, chances are you're in for a good read.

Robert Cohen had access to Zinn's diaries before others in order to annotate and analyze the source material aided by a grant from New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The purpose of the grant was to support research that could illuminate previously unknown connections and bring to light buried facts in Cohen's area of scholarship, social movements in higher education. This project combines the diaries of a major cultural figure with interviews of some women whose lives he touched (eg, Alice Walker) and the profound changes he catalyzed in some of them. It is hard to overstate Zinn's personal charisma. It is hard to overestimate the role contact with such a live wire has on a person beginning to form an identity. And Zinn's desire to assist the USA in birthing a fairer, more inclusive culture in all ways should've found friends in Spelman's hierarchy.

It very much did not.

Zinn was harassed and abused by senior colleagues, going so far as Spelman President Manley threatening him with an entirely fabricated sex scandal, for having the audacity to try to prepare his charges for the world of equal rights that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was advocating across the street at Morehouse College. Ultimately, Zinn was forced to leave Spelman after seven years without tenure and was handed over to Boston University for a twenty-four year career of pushing aside the nostrums and asininities of US "education" in the History and Social Studies fields.

What makes this book fun to read is Editor Cohen's trenchant annotations and explications of the diary herein. The thing about a diary is that it's not usually meant for other eyes...but there's a hint that Zinn was slyly glancing over his shoulder at us from beyond the grave. What I enjoyed most were the moments that Cohen asks Zinn's former students about events in the diary. The putative subject of Zinn's "sexual harassment" was floored that this had ever been mooted! Manley, the President, was so desperate to protect what he saw as Spelman's selling point to wealthy parents...the oppressive in-loco-parentis system, the focus on high-brow, low-conflict education...that he would stoop to telling a lie that (had Zinn not caved and left the school) would've destroyed both lives.

This is not an unusual thing for a boss to have done, or even to do still. But the proof that it was being fired UP is what wonderful and important stuff happened at Boston University afterwards.

The problem with reading a book like this is the inevitable overage. Overexplaining. Overreaching to grasp a conclusion. Overdoing the support of a point of view. In the case of this book's subject, this book's timing, these were inevitable and expected. I was left wishing for less not more. But I appreciated the Catch-22 the simple existence of this book represents. Scholars need more, more proof more sources more citations, in order to survive as scholars. You can bet you'll see this book cited a great deal. The primary sources it relies on are brand new to scholarship. The interviews Editor Cohen conducted will, within a depressingly short time, be impossible to repeat due to aging and mortality. Luckily for the reader, this is not a painful overabundance of blah, bland, beige verbiage. I would caution not-scholarly readers to use the Oystercatcher Method: Fly in, skim catch crunch, swallow and move on; then wade through, dig, scuff up lower levels of tasty morsel, repeat later.

I won't give it five stars simply because there's so much information that requires additional effort to contextualize, but I will give it four-and-a-quarter because it's lively, trenchant, and conversational when it matters most to be those things for the story being told.