Saturday, September 30, 2023

THE AGE OF SKIN: Essays by the late thinker/cultural critic Dubravka Ugrešić

(tr. Ellen Elias-Bursać.)
Open Letter Books
$16.96 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: These essays are written on the skin of the times. Dubravka Ugrešić, winner of the Neustadt International Prize and one of Europe’s most influential writers, with biting humor and a multitude of cultural references—from La La Land and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to tattoos and body modification, World Cup chants, and the preservation of Lenin’s corpse—takes on the dreams, hopes, and fears of modern life. The collapse of Yugoslavia, and the author’s subsequent exile from Croatia, leads to reflections on nationalism and the intertwining of crime and politics. Ugrešić writes at eye level, from a human perspective, in portraits of people from the former Eastern Bloc, who work as cleaners in the Netherlands or start underground shops with products from their country of origin.

A rare and welcome combination of irony, compassion, and a sharp polemic gaze characterizes these beautiful and highly relevant essays.


My Review
: There is a timelessness to the literary form we call the screed. These extended snorts of derision, grumbles of dissatisfaction, howls of anguish, form in their bulk a screed against Ugrešić's many crotchets with the modern capitalist, hyperconsumptive, obsessional "culture" that's permeated our planet and bids fair to destroy its capacity to support us.
Technology has empowered him, our former statistic, to finally take center stage. Did not he, this worm in human form, also come into the world to leave his mark?! And sure enough, the little guys have raced to leave their mark, developing in the process voracious appetites: some of them strip naked and bare their posterior, others their genitalia, some sing, others write, some dance, others paint, while some are multiplexes and do all of this at once. The little guy has finally conquered the media.

The technology to have what Andy Warhol famously predicted would be our universally available "world-famous for fifteen minutes" cultural due is in place; is being used; and exacerbates the overuse of resources by the stupid on their individual search of their fifteen-minute slice:
Where did I go wrong, a friend of mine asked, an astrophysicist. He was left jobless, and scrolled through his computer to find something, anything, to make ends meet. There before him on the computer screen loomed Kim Kardashian’s large, oiled butt.{...} Kim Kardashian’s butt came jumping off every website, the world over, wherever he clicked. My friend realized this butt was the final greeting from a civilization breathing its last, and he relaxed. The Kardashian meteorite came slowly closer, in another second it would crash into Earth and shatter into a million bits. Where have I gone wrong, asked the astrophysicist with the last vestiges of his brain.

Flaunt what you like, show what you've got, no one's paying attention because everyone's looking for their reflection in your shiny, oiled-up abs, ass, tits.
{A}ll the world looks like a beach party, bare-naked bodies chanting Gorky’s man, how proud it sounds, that everything is cool, couldn’t be cooler, the party will last till the liberated bodies are stilled by that inevitable shovelful of dirt.

Even after they pat you in the face with a spade, your selfies and your butt will be proof for so long as the bits and bytes have juice to keep them available to whoever cares to look that You Were Here, that once upon a time Granny had a slammin' beach bod, that Papaw was well-hung, that Mom and Dad liked anal, too.
Everyone is preoccupied with their own life, their own little existence. And as long as people stare obsessively at their reflection on the smooth screen, there will be no room for the lives of others, there is simply no room.

No room, no room...never enough room for all the nothing-much that people want to insulate themselves against oblivion with, the immense pile of stuff we're pretty much padded from the grim reality that all that stuff came from someone's labor, made from resources they can't access, and all you're doing with it is plonking it into a (rented) storage unit until you die and whoever has to clean up after you throws it out, sells it, donates it to the needy.
And when the victims are many, there’s no place for them in human hearts of average emotional capacity. It bears remembering that in this society of ours, rooted in an overweening happiness, empathy has been jettisoned.

"The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me," says the original christian according to Matthew...and haven't his co-religionists just taken that right to heart, as written though not as it was intended. In a world padded by stuff the blows of misfortune and reversal aren't as sharp, are thye, so stuff is doing its job...dulling you to the reality that all the noise, all the "I AM, I AM, I AM" we shout onto the smooth screens reflecting the vacant spots that are the Others, is an appalling, desperate din of misery and not a joyful noise unto the lord.
Stupidity has become, over time, far too burdensome for me. I am finding it difficult to breathe under its weight and cannot shake free of it. I tried for a while with laughter, and, to be sure, that helped. But now stupidity has barged in, made itself at home, and soaked up all the oxygen. A quarter century ago, stupidity grabbed the microphone, gleeful with self-confidence, and hogged center stage. There is no hope that it will be relinquishing its position any time soon.

Bitter, disillusioned old curmudgeon that I am, Dubravka Ugrešić speaks for me more eloquently than I can mange to do for myself. Her death in March, 2023, was a huge loss of honesty, clarity, and grouchy, disappointed screed-making. I know I feel it as a loss. If you read these trenchant essays I expect you might, as well.

Friday, September 29, 2023

SEASONS OF PURGATORY, English-language debut story collection from exiled Iranian author

(tr. Sara Khalili)
Bellevue Literary Press
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Long-listed for the 2022 National Book Award for Literature in Translation!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The first English-language story collection from “one of Iran’s most important living fiction writers” (Guardian)

In Seasons of Purgatory, the fantastical and the visceral merge in tales of tender desire and collective violence, the boredom and brutality of war, and the clash of modern urban life and rural traditions. Mandanipour, banned from publication in his native Iran, vividly renders the individual consciousness in extremis from a variety of perspectives: young and old, man and woman, conscript and prisoner. While delivering a ferocious social critique, these stories are steeped in the poetry and stark beauty of an ancient land and culture.

Shahriar Mandanipour is an award-winning, exiled Iranian author and journalist who served in the Iran-Iraq war. His fiction has been published throughout the world, including two acclaimed novels published in English. He lives in California.


My Review
: Men, men, men...all men, all the time. Even when a female person appears, she isn't really given anything to do except respond to the men around her. There's a lot of that down to the war background that the stories share; a lot of serious issues in war just don't make room for women. The war happens to all the characters, in all the time-frames and settings the different stories take place in. Nothing about these particular men says they are, or feel, in control of too much in their different worlds.

The disorientation of the world as it is run by totalitarians is evident in the slightly seasick sensation of being tossed from time-frame to time-frame between and within stories. Occasionally we are placed in medias res within a thought or a sentence. It does what it's intended to do and leaves the reader unsure, not in control, just as the characters are not. The author is not yclept with "award-winning" for playing it safe, after all. He doesn't spoon-feed one's imagination but requires us to attend to the words and images we're presented in order to derive our full measure of aesthetic pleasure from them.

Unexpectedly, I herewith revive the Bryce Method of offering a story-by-story opinion of each piece.

Shadows of the Cave revels in the aging man's pleasure of Being Right About Things. Mr. Farvaneh has a window in his apartment overlooking the smelly, gross zoo and its caged beasts:
"If you realize that people are mocking you, and you behave in such a way that they remain ignorant of your realization, and especially if you repeat the cause of their mockery, it is, in fact, you who has mocked them and who has the upper hand. These {zoo} animals use the same intelligent ploy; with only a few exceptions, in their cage they behave as they would in the jungle. At times their indifference to humans is truly insulting. Don't you understand?" No! Many didn't grasp this fine point, or they didn't want to.

As old men will, Mr. Farvaneh keeps trying to elucidate his vision of the present and its awful stench, its degeneracy from The Noble Past, reads his history books, and occasionally shouts at people to leave him alone. He is, in other words, me. I approve this ironical quirked eyebrow of an extended metaphor. 4 stars

Mummy and Honey tells a Faulknerian tale of the Wages of Greed, Pride, and Sin...and spends a lot of time talking about a viper and a bitter orange tree, which clearly have a cultural resonance that is lost on me. I wouldn't expect a Farsi speaker to get, for example, a central image of a magnolia tree in a Southern Gothic story, and that's what this felt like to me. Still and all, an enjoyable tale if just a bit too long. 4 stars

Shatter the Stone Tooth First, read this:
Then he wrote a lot about the mud huts that are connected to one another by underground tunnels, and of villagers with trachoma, and of "gusts of dust that get into your throat and make you retch," and he wrote, "Would you believe that dust can rot?" I can't believe he wrote this letter. His earlier letters were not like this; they were real letters. Even his handwriting used to enchant me. His letters were filled with words that men in love string together an that every woman loves to read or hear, even though just after they are read or heard they seem banal.
A woman mourns the death, of sorts, of the young man who left her for the regime's benefit; he goes to a remote place to be of service to people who didn't ask for help, so they won't become a fifth column for the regime's enemies. It's a soul-killing job he's doing, to give your life up to live for others who don't want you or care about you. The narrator's only role is to witness for us the death of hope. Bleak, bleak, bleak but piercingly honest. 4 stars

Seasons of Purgatory gives us, from the start, the kind of body-horror story that wars toss into civilian worlds like grenades; but in addition the story offers an especially bleak look at how power works down among the powerless. It is perfectly told, and is my second-favorite story in the collection. 5 stars

If She Has No Coffin indulges a child's belief in and discovery of Goodness via her father's acceptance of her imaginary friend. Her imaginary friend is wicked, honest, and unruly...all the things she isn't allowed to be. Bleak wartime fiction illuminated by paternal love, probably misplaced. A little gem of the price that dishonesty, even for the most kindly of motives, exacts from the liar. Very interesting, given the place the author's exiled from, that the trip to the graveyard to "bury" the "dead" imaginary friend, is interrupted by bombs falling at random, as they do. 4 stars

King of the Graveyard grieves the denied rituals of grief that enable the grief-stricken in their necessary release of hope. The old couple whose son is buried in cold earth but unmarked for and unknown to them bicker and argue and blame but never dare to speak the truth. Their son died for nothing, and they're left with the amputated stumps of life and love and the future. And there is no place to put that grief, that pain, that rage at the waste and futility of war over trifles. My favorite story. 5 stars

The Color of Midday Fire goes into a father's grief as his beloved daughter is eaten by a leopard, upon which creature he vows to revenge himself. Only, as the opportunity arises, the reality of revenge as the most futile act of destruction there is, comes down on him. A lesson for more men to learn in this world. 3.5 stars

Seven Captains is another damn sausage-fest...yes, there's a woman in it; she attempts to make a choice for herself and, in accordance with the culture, pays the ultimate price. This male-sexual-possession "honor" stuff gets old for me. The real emotional heart of the story to me was one man's sccumbaggy betrayal of another over a woman. 3 stars because it's beautifully written but I don't enjoy the story

If You Didn't Kill the Cuckoo Bird reveals a very personal sense of hurt in the author from his condition of living in exile. The sheer misery of the prison that totalitarians make of our own minds is appalling, enduring, and intentional. Has anyone escaped? Is there a second man inside the man? What, inside the tight confines of a cell, is real? Even bodies are fungible. 4 stars

Thursday, September 28, 2023

THE HOUSE OF THE COPTIC WOMAN, the wages of sin never seem to be paid by the sinners & NAILS AND EYES, eerie, unsettling, but unsatisfying

(tr. Peter Daniel)
Hoopoe Books
$18.95 trade paper, available 15 October 2023

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Tightly plotted and taboo-breaking, this explosive story takes readers to the roots of religious strife where the smallest of sparks can start a bonfire

Nader, an idealistic public prosecutor at the outset of his career, leaves Cairo to start a new posting in rural upper Egypt. On his first night, a mysterious woman named Huda shows up at his lodgings. She is on the run from an abusive husband and, harboring a dark secret, seeks a new start in this small village and escape her harrowing past.

Nothing is to be easy for Huda or Nader, and the dramatic circumstances of their first meeting signal the disquiet to come. It is not long before tensions between Copts and Muslims, already on a knife-edge, spiral into a spate of unexplained killings and arson attacks. The locals blame the trouble on the supernatural, and Nader is thrown into a quagmire of sectarian conflict and superstition that no amount of formal training could have prepared him for. His investigations are thwarted at every turn, by uncooperative witnesses and an obstructive police force. As Nader and Huda each pursue happiness and justice, their parallel journeys struggle against the forces of ignorance, poverty, hatred, and greed.

With its echoes of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor, this is a powerful and personal tale of conflict, crime, and upheaval in rural Egypt.


My Review
: There were several problems for me in this read. The biggest one was the sense that I was just...missing something, there were puns, wordplay, ironical quirkings of the eyebrow that I wasn't privy to but could still feel taking place.

I hate that.

The plot...runaway abused woman takes refuge with idealistic legal-eagle just having his wings clipped by the Reality of Power...isn't any great shakes but is certainly capable of carrying much more weight than it's asked to here. Nothing that happens is a surprise, no one here becomes more than a supporting character in a story that has a diffuse, generalized main character called "Life."

I rated it more highly than my pleasure in reading it would've led me to do because I really had no idea the sectarian hatreds so common in a world hag-ridden by religion were so very sharp in Egypt. Why the woman must always be punished in these kinds of stories for having the audacity to want something for herself is another source of dissatisfaction for me. I think readers interested in social-issue fiction will get more from the read than mystery/crime readers will.


(tr. Kendall Heitzmann)
Pushkin Press Japanese Novellas Series
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Tense, subtly disturbing Japanese literary horror perfect for fans of The Memory Police, Tender is the Flesh, Fever Dream, and The Vegetarian.

Paired with two stories of creeping tension and unsettled minds, the unnerving title novella Nails and Eyes introduces a unique new voice in Japanese literature.

With masterful narrative control, Nails and Eyes—appearing in English for the first time—builds to a conclusion of uncanny power.

A young girl addresses her stepmother, who has moved in shortly after her mother’s death in unusual circumstances. The girl shows strangely detailed knowledge of the older woman’s life, and as her stepmother settles into the house, the girl’s obsession sharpens to an ever finer point.


My Review
: A mini-collection of Japanese shorter fiction. We start with a promising novella, a very eerie, atmospheric study in female-centered horror. The narrator is a girl-child, one recalling with eerie clarity things that happened when she was three years old. A woman now lives in her mother's place, after mother dies in peculiar and suspicious circumstances. The story's narrated in the ever-chest-pokey second person to "you," who is the replacement her father brings into their lives for dead, blogger-mom mother. The problem is that "you" has terrible vision, is a terrible judge of character in trusting the father and the daughter, and never quite coheres as more than a collection of those kinds of heavy-handed symbolic traits. What really threw me out of the narrative flow was the fact that I'm somehow supposed to believe this is a child's memories. I'm just too literal-minded for that to work. Three-year-olds are still pretty iffy with object permanence and a robust theory of mind hasn't had a chance to develop. Therefore, this is not realistic. I know it's not supposed to be. But I need its hows and whys not to be unexplained if it's going to require me to suspend my disbelief from a noose twelve feet up.

What Shoko Forgets isn't very interesting as horror, being a ghastly case of elder abuse and failing memory covering up the perpetrator; far too close to my own life's circumstances for me to think anything except "WHERE IS THE CASE MANAGER?!"

Lastly there was Minute Fears which, sad to say, was an unmemorable story of a little boy's deeply off-kilter perception of and obsession with the kami-spirit of a park, told by his bemused mother; the abrupt, somewhat silly ending just reinforced how underdeveloped the whole felt to me, as well as so short I got very little impression of its players.

I liked the unsettling mismatch of the tone to the subjects. I strongly suspect, and even hope, that others with less onerously literal minds will try this very, very short (took me two hours from start to finish) Spooky-Season selection for their Oktoberreads.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

THE BOOK OF PARADISE, translation from Yiddish highlighting global rise in anti-Semitism this Translation Month

(tr. Robert Adler Peckerar)
Pushkin Press Classics
$17.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The raucously witty Yiddish classic about a Jewish Paradise afflicted by very human temptations and pains—a delightful new translation perfect for fans of Michael Chabon

Witty, playful and slyly profound, this story of a young angel expelled from Paradise is the only novel by one of the great Yiddish writers, which was written just before the outbreak of World War II.

As a result of a crafty trick, the expelled angel retains the memory of his previous life when he’s born as a Yiddish-fluent baby mortal on Earth. The humans around him plead for details of that other realm, but the Paradise of his mischievous stories is far from their ideal—a world of drunken angels, lewd patriarchs and the very same divisions and temptations that shape the human world.

Published here in a lively new translation by Robert Adler Peckerar, The Book of Paradise is a comic masterpiece from poet-satirist Itzik Manger that irreverently blurs the boundaries between ancient and modern and sacred and profane, where the shtetl is heaven, and heaven is the shtetl.


My Review
: A wild, funny, irreverent take on how power looks to the powerless, how memories of Home persist in the exile, how impossible it is to fit into pre-existing systems when you're not One Of Us. Manger's entire life, a Jew in the nexus of a Jew-hating country be it the Habsburg Empire, Romania, Ukraine, or Poland. Escaping certain death in France, another deeply anti-Semitic place, by running to the United States in 1939 before coming to rest in newly-founded Israel, where he died in 1969, a man without a homeland or a language to speak in. Yiddish culture, alive and vibrant in ancient Imperial Austrian lands, in independent Poland, Romania, Soviet Ukraine and their cousins in the wide-open United States, vanished entirely after the Holocaust. One of many, many crimes against humanity that occurred during that brutal time, it's one that most of us just don't even slightly realize took place. We don't, most of us, remember hearing elders speak Yiddish, don't recall the culture's last lingering gasps of the 1930s being part of even our parents' knowledge base. It was embarrassing, it was Foreign, it was lower-class. It was also the home of millions and millions of people whose passports, like Manger's, could be yanked by the issuing country because they simply didn't like the person holding it for being Other.

Does all this ring any bells yet?

Samuel Abba, as our kicked-out angel's human form is called, recalls his time in Paradise to the delight of his human mother, the fearful shushing of his human father, and the stern corrective admonitions of the Elders of their community to change his tune. Paradise can't be like that! Power dynamics are *good*for*us*! (The question of who exactly "us" consists of is answered thus.) Abusive parents, cheating lovers, Authority out of touch with lived reality, these are Earthly problems...these can't be your memories.

The standard invalidation of a thousand Nos, in other words, used to teach all of us to stay in our appointed places. Not "this isn't true" but "this can't be true," an entirely different assertion of the consensus world-view that QUILTBAG people know so very well. The translator's HUGE challenges in making the ideas of the storytelling format, harkening as it does back to the school of creating midrashim, as well as the very specific cultural usages like Abba's Paradise-bound friend "Little Pisser"'s name...literal translation of "pisher" but lacking the affectionate, dismissive, gentle put-down of the Yiddish term for a more biological and rude one...highlighted for me the sad, irreplaceable loss of the globe-spanning Yiddish culture. It's one thing to revive individual artists' work; the gestalt is still gone. Another black mark on the souls of the multinational fascist bastards whose tiny little hearts had no room for Others.

If you have even a particle of resistance to the recrudescing idea of All Must Be One, I can't encourage you strongly enough to read this story by a man who lost every single thing he'd grown up with, every sound out of his mother's mouth, the mouth itself, the music the poetry the food the films...all of it slaughtered and burned and vanished to serve the "ideal" of "One Fatherland"...and look around you at what's happening in our world today.


Tuesday, September 26, 2023

THE WORDS THAT REMAIN, and mold and carve and stain

(tr. Bruna Dantas Lobato)
New Vessel Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* SIX of five for 2023! Far and away the best of my 2023 reads. Gorgeously translated, beautifully wrought, so piercinlgly sad and not the least bit maudlin with it. Superb.

WINNER of the 2023 National Book Award in Translated Literature

The Publisher Says: A letter has beckoned to Raimundo since he received it decades ago from his youthful passion, handsome Cícero. But having grown up in an impoverished area of Brazil where the demands of manual labor thwarted his becoming literate, Raimundo has long been unable to read.

As young men, he and Cícero fell in love, only to have Raimundo's father brutally beat his son when he discovered their affair. Even after Raimundo succeeds in making a life for himself in the big city, he continues to be haunted by this secret missive full of longing from the distant past.

Now, as an elderly man, he at last acquires a true education and the ability to access the letter. Exploring Brazil's little-known hinterland as well its urban haunts, this is a sweeping novel of repression, violence, and shame, along with their flip side: survival, endurance, and the ultimate triumph of an unforgettable figure on society's margins. The Words That Remain explores the universal power of the written word and language, and how they affect all our relationships.


My Review
: When I was very young, all of thirteen, I fell in love with a football player. To my amazement, he gave every sign of returning my interest. It was all kind-of innocent, not like a giant orgiastic sexual discovery. And how beautiful I felt when he'd just...look at me. That had never happened to me before.

I did what a kid does...I wrote him notes. He wrote me notes. I kept one.

My appalling, homophobic, faux-religious mother discovered that note where I'd hidden it inside my favorite nautilus-shaped tchotchke box.

I had, not long before this, put a stop to her physical abuse of me by belting her in the belly. She retaliated by using this lovey-dovey note to cause all sorts of ugly trouble. The echoes of that awful passage in my life will likely never die down, since they haven't in the ensuing fifty years. This novel, then, was quite clearly aimed right at me, targeted on my sensitive spot for the cost of queer first love, the power of words written by someone you love to become talismans that organize your life. I organized mine by never, ever again letting anyone who could harm me have information about the man I was in love this day it's a struggle for me even to speak of my Young Gentleman Caller to an individual person, even one who doesn't and won't ever know him. Luckily (or unluckily) his own family's awful behavior towards him has left him with a similar issue and we exist in a bubble of our own.

Like Raimundo's abandonment of a home that didn't want him, I left Texas for New York; like him, I made a life for myself, one where (like him) I never had the full decoding ring to really thrive in. Like Raimundo, I never knew the end of that first-love story. Like Raimundo, my Cícero disappeared along with my ability to believe people were good.

So when I read this under-150-page blaring klaxon, my Issues were summoned from their therapy-induced comas to bring me nightmares. To evoke my life-long sadness of not ever allowing myself a Home. Because then, if I did, some vengeful demoness would come, screeching bible verses and shouting about how god hates Sin but will welcome you "home" if you'e just willing to be fake, and miserable, and change into who and what you aren't.

That therapy worked because the Issues were clubbed into unconsciousness. They gave me the clear awareness, though, that Art was happening here, that honest truth was being told to me in beautiful sentences, that one old man's early pain is a lot like another's...that Fiction is doing her blessèd work of bringing the people who read it into a closer communion than any church could ever pretend to offer.

National Translation Month is a cornucopia of excellent work, any amount of which might give you the limpidly clear and bracingly cool sense of being seen, heard, and understood. If you buy one book from the thousands that arrive on our Anglophone shelves from all points, let 2023's be this one.

Monday, September 25, 2023

BAYARD RUSTIN: A Legacy of Protest and Politics surveys a life lived in resistance, & LOST PROPHET: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, biography of his gayness

BAYARD RUSTIN: A Legacy of Protest and Politics
NYU Press
$27.95 harcover, available tomorrow

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Celebrates the life and legacy of Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

While we can all recall images of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a massive crowd at Lincoln Memorial, few of us remember the man who organized this watershed nonviolent protest in eight short weeks: Bayard Rustin.

This was far from Rustin’s first foray into the fight for civil rights. As a world-traveling pacifist, he brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the forefront of US civil rights demonstrations, helped build the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led the fight for economic justice, and played a deeply influential role in the life of Dr. King by helping to mold him into an international symbol of nonviolent resistance. Rustin’s legacy touches many areas of contemporary life—from civil resistance to violent uprisings, democracy to socialism, and criminal justice reform to war resistance.

Despite these achievements, Rustin was often relegated to the background. He was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. With expansive, searching, and sometimes critical essays from a range of esteemed writers—including Rustin’s own partner, Walter Naegle—this volume draws a full picture of Bayard a gay, pacifist, socialist political radical who changed the course of US history and set a precedent for future civil rights activism, from LGBTQ+ Pride to Black Lives Matter.


My Review
: Too long ignored for being queer and open about it, the life of a Quaker resistor of Wrong and Wickedness was a complicated one. I wish this collection of essays had been edited to reduce the repetition of basic information about him, but appreciate that it was done at all.

I imagine the experience of being friends with Bayard Rustin was pretty fraught...his stadards were very high and his judgments usually spot-on, which combination is uncomfortable for himself and others. This reality played itself out in his double invisibility in gay-rights circles: Blackness and religious belief. He felt he wasn't needed or wanted in that world so, until he fell in love with Walter Naegle at 65, he focused on Black liberation and didn't involve himself in gay rights. The sad part to me is that the man was ahead of his time in his politics, his morals, and his social beliefs, and still deeply internalized both homophobia and misogyny.

If you're utterly unfamiliar with Rustin, this collection of essays will fill you in. Read the way any collection should be, piece by piece over time, the cumulative effect is to bring an unjustly underknown man's contributions to the best things that happened in the era of Civil Rights expansion to light. He is, be aware, not critically examined in these essays. Part three of the collection, "What Rustin Means to Me," is probably my favorite to read because the legacy of this upright, intelligent, unsparing actor on the public stage is dealt with by those whom he has inspired. I suppose anyone who stood up for an unpopular belief because it was right to do so can't hope for a better legacy.


LOST PROPHET: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

The Free Press
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Bayard Rustin is one of the most important figures in the history of the American civil rights movement. Before Martin Luther King, before Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin was working to bring the cause to the forefront of America's consciousness. A teacher to King, an international apostle of peace, and the organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington, he brought Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence to America and helped launch the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Rustin has been largely erased by history, in part because he was an African American homosexual. Acclaimed historian John D'Emilio tells the full and remarkable story of Rustin's intertwined lives: his pioneering and public person and his oblique and stigmatized private self.

It was in the tumultuous 1930s that Bayard Rustin came of age, getting his first lessons in politics through the Communist Party and the unrest of the Great Depression. A Quaker and a radical pacifist, he went to prison for refusing to serve in World War II, only to suffer a sexual scandal. His mentor, the great pacifist A. J. Muste, wrote to him, "You were capable of making the 'mistake' of thinking that you could be the leader in a the same time that you were a weakling in an extreme degree and engaged in practices for which there was no justification."

Freed from prison after the war, Rustin threw himself into the early campaigns of the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements until an arrest for sodomy nearly destroyed his career. Many close colleagues and friends abandoned him. For years after, Rustin assumed a less public role even though his influence was everywhere. Rustin mentored a young and inexperienced Martin Luther King in the use of nonviolence. He planned strategy for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference until Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to spread a rumor that King and Rustin were lovers. Not until Rustin's crowning achievement as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington would he finally emerge from the shadows that homophobia cast over his career. Rustin remained until his death in 1987 committed to the causes of world peace, racial equality, and economic justice.

Based on more than a decade of archival research and interviews with dozens of surviving friends and colleagues of Rustin's, Lost Prophet is a triumph. Rustin emerges as a hero of the black freedom struggle and a singularly important figure in the lost gay history of the mid-twentieth century. John D'Emilio's compelling narrative rescues a forgotten figure and brings alive a time of great hope and great tragedy in the not-so-distant past.


My Review
: So, after deciding that I wanted a biography of the complex gay man Bayard Rustin while reading essays about him, I found this hefty tome. I love library lending because I couldn't justify spending full price on a book I expected to admire not like when my $12 investment represents 5% of my total monthly spending power.

I'm going to buy it for myself now because I want to support this historian whose stylish writing and tireless researching of a crucial figure in gay and Black history has enriched my life.

Rustin's Quaker upbringing strongly influenced his social-justice compass and his anti-violence stance. He refused to serve any military or enabling function in World War II, serving instead jail time for following his conscience. He was consistently anti-war and anti-colonialist in his world view, modeling his resistance to them on Mohandas K. Gandhi's successful anti-British actions in India. Rustin, and mentor A. Philip Randolph, founder and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, planned a mass march on Washington in 1941 for the same goals that the 1963 event had (Jobs and Justice) but called it off because President Roosevelt asked them to. The brink of war was used as an excuse to delay urgent public always...but both men were active in making sure the March on Washington took place, at last, in 1963. We remember it mostly for assassinated leader Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s rousing and glorious "I Have A Dream" speech. If, like most, you've only ever seen the highlight reel version, go treat yourself to the entire seventeen and a half minutes at the link. But Randolph, responding to ongoing scurrilous efforts to paint MLK and Rustin as sexual lovers not friends, really shone in his ringing defense of Rustin's involvement as the leader and backstage manager of this titanic event that kickstarted so many changes in US society: "Bayard Rustin IS the March on Washington." He faced down, on behalf of his gay friend and fellow life-long resistor of social and political injustice, the President of the USA, J. Edgar Hoover ofthe FBI...arguably the more powerful of the two men...and Adam Clayton Powell, Harlem's immensely influential Congressman, who coveted Rustin's control and directive roles.

The over five hundred pages of this story aren't a chore to read. The reason is that Author D'Emilio made the effort to make it a story. Many, if not most, biographers are excellent researchers and fans of their subjects; fewer wre storytellers with an eye for the illustrative anecdote. My best example is the moment when, during a public meeting after the Montgomery, Ala., church bombing killed four little girls, Rustin took those loudly calling for a violent response to task by accusing them of proposing to accomplish nothing.

That is some kind of drama, folks, and it perfectly encapsulates a lifetime of Rustin's moral and political learning.
What leads me to talk about this lost prophet, buried in homophobic judgment, in connection with the essays just published about him, is the fact that Rustin had so much internal-to-the-struggle opposition to cope with that his never hidden, never centered homosexuality was never the focus of his resistance to power's abuses. Bear in mind that a known, avowed homosexual Black man was principally responsible for the community activism model and playbooks that succeeded in achieving the end of the legal fig-leaf of Jim Crow laws in the US. Could he have done the same had he set his sights on axhieving the same for queer folk, when the DSM-II of NINETEEN SIXTY-EIGHT still defined homosexuality as a mental illness, and the Feds led by Hoover had barely stopped the Lavender Scare? During the latter events, do not ignore, Rustin was a victim and STILL LED THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON!

Sorry. The awfulness of his treatment during his life by his fellow Quakers and Christians, and after his death by literally everyone simply forgetting he existed, lead me to the shouting.

The man himself noted that liberals couldn't hate Blacks and Latinos anymore, but they sure could—and did—hate fags. Realist that he was, he spent his life of organizing, resisting, and inspiring in the fields where he could do the most good. Admirably clear-sighted and honestly, to me at least, movingly generous of spirit of him not to insist on perfection but work for better. Events have proven his approach was effective for QUILTBAG folk as much as for ethnic minorities.

I salute author D'Emilio for putting in the hard labor and the gigantic energy to create this readable, enjoyable story of an important and ignored man, his life and his loves and his legacy. A perfect accompaniment to Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

September 2023'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 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.

Think about using it yourselves!


IRONHEAD, or Once A Young Lady by JEAN-CLAUDE van RIJCKEGHEM (tr. Kristen Gehrman)

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Eighteen-year-old Constance is not interested in marriage or in being a "young lady." But for a young woman coming of age in the early 1800s, that's just about all that's available to her. When her parents arrange her a marriage with a man more than twice her age, she's powerless to resist. Stance couldn't possibly find her newfound husband less appealing, but what can she do?

Here's what:

Four months into the marriage, she can slip out of their bed in the middle of the night, and she can put on his clothes. She can look in the mirror and like what she sees. She can sneak out of the house before dawn and visit the baker's scrawny son, who has just been drafted into the army, and offer to take his place. Vive l'Empereur!

Hot on Stance's tail all the while is her younger brother Pieter, determined to bring Stance back home to Ghent where she belongs. (The battlefield is no place for a young lady, after all.)

Ironhead, or, Once A Young Lady is the riotous and powerful story of a fierce renegade, and the silly men who try to bring her down.


My Review
: I can only say that Stance makes a perfectly good male character...selfish, unthinking, insensitive to the feelings of others...and a generally unpleasant person to read about for those reasons.

I suspect this is not the author's intent. I can't prove that. I was reading along and suddenly had the thought that I wasn't clear why Stance was female to begin with. Does this selfish, thoughtless teenager who's only focused on how to get what she wants actually need to be female? The message that sounds like it sends to me is "only boys get to do, say, think, and act exactly as they please." I don't like that message.

The translation read very well, in that I was never bored...just squicked out...and I particularly enjoyed the oddly specific details of how that era's firearms worked. Not a book I'd give to my granddaugher but fine for adults.

Levine Querido publishes it in the US for $8.99 Kindle edition, available now. (non-affiliate Amazon link as the publisher's webwite has no search function)


The Easy Life in Kamusari (Forest, #1) by Shion Miura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From Shion Miura, the award-winning author of The Great Passage, comes a rapturous novel where the contemporary and the traditional meet amid the splendor of Japan’s mountain way of life.

Yuki Hirano is just out of high school when his parents enroll him, against his will, in a forestry training program in the remote mountain village of Kamusari. No phone, no internet, no shopping. Just a small, inviting community where the most common expression is “take it easy.”

At first, Yuki is exhausted, fumbles with the tools, asks silly questions, and feels like an outcast. Kamusari is the last place a city boy from Yokohama wants to spend a year of his life. But as resistant as he might be, the scent of the cedars and the staggering beauty of the region have a pull.

Yuki learns to fell trees and plant saplings. He begins to embrace local festivals, he’s mesmerized by legends of the mountain, and he might be falling in love. In learning to respect the forest on Mt. Kamusari for its majestic qualities and its inexplicable secrets, Yuki starts to appreciate Kamusari’s harmony with nature and its ancient traditions.

In this warm and lively coming-of-age story, Miura transports us from the trappings of city life to the trials, mysteries, and delights of a mythical mountain forest.


My Review
: Perfectly adequate.

Teen boy is more-or-less shoved out the door of his house as he reaches productive working age. Choosing, in its loosest possible sense, a life as a forester, he learns the utterly weird and slightly icky traditions of the forest culture. This makes him the perfect PoV character for me because I was curious about that part of the story.

The problem for me is in the original, not the translation. Yuki's a generic kid, one asked quite roughly to make his own way in the world. He's not developed that much, nor do I get the feeling this was unintentional. This is a story about 1) making your way and finding your place, b) a fascinating corner of Japanese reality I doubt many Japanese people know about let alone us in the US, iii) what the harsh, unforgiving reality of life can do FOR you as well as TO you.

All of these are worthy aims. They aren't especially interesting to me personally. They most likely would find their most receptive audience among my grandchildren.

The book's available from Amazon (who published it via their AmazonCrossing imprint) for $4.99 on Kindle, free via Kindle Unlimited if you pay for that service, or $8.95 in trade paper. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


The Revolving Boy by Gertrude Friedberg

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Man had always sought a meaning beyond Earth. Lonely, even with the company of his fellow Man, he had sought another spark of life, somewhere out there. But by the end of the century, the gates of exploration had shut. The Earth was constricted by a radioactive belt of Man's own making.

Yet scientists still searched the skies through radio probes for a signal, a hope that intelligent life beyond our galaxy might exist. But the Universe yielded no emissions.

And unless a strange young boy was allowed to develop and understand his baffling "wild talent," a talent frightening but with no apparent purpose, they might never find an answer.


My Review
: Set in the unimaginably different, advanced, supercool world of 2002, this YA novel pretty much did nothing for me. Awkward and stilted, bizarrely pessimistic yet so deeply sure of Humanity's ability to do better and better, the tone was problem one. Problem two was the person saves us from ourselves!...that I find so deeply troubling and destructive in superhero stuff. Religion and its "saviors" ring the same alarm bells in my head.

I gave it an extra half-star because the thing trapping us on the planet was of our own making, and while it's not radiation, we are in fact about to suffer that fate.

It's out of print, and largely forgotten, but used copies can be had for ten bucks or so (like these listed on Amazon). (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Moonshine: A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor by Jaime Joyce

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Nothing but clear, 100-proof American history.

Hooch. White lightning. White whiskey. Mountain dew. Moonshine goes by many names. So what is it, really?

Technically speaking, "moonshine" refers to untaxed liquor made in an unlicensed still. In the United States, it’s typically corn that’s used to make the clear, unaged beverage, and it’s the mountain people of the American South who are most closely associated with the image of making and selling backwoods booze at night—by the light of the moon—to avoid detection by law enforcement.

In this book, writer Jaime Joyce explores America’s centuries-old relationship with moonshine. From the country’s early adoption of Scottish and Irish home-distilling techniques and traditions to the Whiskey Rebellion of the late 1700s to a comparison of the moonshine industry pre- and post-Prohibition and a look at modern-day craft distilling, Joyce examines the historical context that gave rise to moonshining in America and explores its continued appeal.

Even more fascinating than the popularity of the liquor itself is moonshine’s widespread effect on U.S. pop moonshine runners were NASCAR’s first marquee drivers; white whiskey was the unspoken star of countless Hollywood film and television productions; and numerous songs inspired by making shine have come from such musicians as Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Metallica, Ween, and others. While we can’t condone making your own illegal liquor, reading Moonshine will give you a new perspective on the profound implications that underground moonshine making has had on life in America.


My Review
: Two hundred-ish pages of text is barely an overview of a subject this and why the US has always loved them some illegal I went in to the read knowing I wasn't going to get everything there is to know, and was fine with that. In point of fact, I gave the book a lower rating than I might otherwise have done for the tediously drawn-out NASCAR stuff.

Briefly and concisely, Author Joyce wends ahead of us through a thicket of propaganda, misinformation, snobbishly dismissive social condemnation of the use of intoxicants, and clueless judgments to show the true impact of moonshine on the US cultural landscape. “Heritage is what moonshine is all about. Moonshine is tradition. It’s family. It’s folk art, and people are invested in keeping the art alive.” The damn-near innumerable craft breweries and microdistilleries littering the US are the tax-payin' health-and-safety obeyin' great-grandchildren of the moonshiners.

For her clarity and absence of condescension I think she deserves awards. A bookish landscape littered by J.D. Vances (Hillbilly Elegy) and Nancy Isenbergs (White Trash) that broadcast judgments from title to content, this is very refreshing. I will say, though, that my interest in NASCAR...the truest, most direct descendant of the moonshiners' need for speed...gave out long before the chapter was over. The Whiskey Rebellion, OTOH, has been the subject of book after book, including a novel by the fine writer David Liss, so its chapter being short failed to rouse my ire despite the fascinating subject.

There are lots of photos to illustrate key concepts and put faces with names. The Kindle edition displayed them well enough on my tablet, but the hardcover's the same $25.00 that the Kindle file is (non-affiliate Amazon link). Why not treat yourself to the tree-book? Treat yourself, however, you should.


The Tesla Gate (The Tesla Gate #1) by John D. Mimms

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A cosmic storm reunites a father with his lost son—but another kind of disturbance awaits them—in this science fiction novel with “a real emotional core” (Publishers Weekly ).

Thomas Pendleton loves his wife, Ann, and six-year-old son, Seth, more than anything, but his job often makes him an absent husband and father. One day, after Thomas leaves on a business trip, his wife and son are killed in a car accident. Thomas shuts himself off from the world and is at home grieving when a cosmic storm enters Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists are baffled by its composition and origins, but not nearly as much as they are by the storm’s side Anyone who has died and chosen not to cross over is suddenly visible and can interact with the living.

Ann does not return, but Seth does, and Thomas sees it as a miraculous second chance to spend time with his son and keep the promises he had previously broken. They set out on a trip to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, but little do they know that they are traveling headlong into a social and political maelstrom that will test Thomas in ways he could never imagine. Along the way, they come face to face with armed kidnappers who want Seth for his supernatural abilities, meet up with a medium, the ghost of a slave boy, and encounter none other than Abraham Lincoln.

Citing an overpopulation problem caused by the “Impalpables,” the government begins to take drastic measures. Military scientists have a device called the Tesla Gate that is said to return “Impals” to where they were before the storm. Many have nicknamed the controversial machine “the shredder” because no one really knows if it will do what it is reputed to, or if it will instead shred the Impals—effectively destroying the soul. Thomas is determined to do everything possible to save Seth, or at the very least, ensure that Seth doesn’t have to endure his sentence alone...


My Review
: A first novel, with all that implies; you're getting the tremolo stop on the organ pulled open throughout, and quite a few plangent violin solos, and a sturdy staff of oboe riffs to give it extra emotional resonance. The author apparently stopped reading SF in the 1950s when psychic phenomena were cool instead of cause for muffled giggles.

The father/son stuff was like listening to Harry Nilsson's famous song just that little bit too often, so it desensitizes the recipient to the message. Author Mimms is a paranormal researcher and thus thinks there's an afterlife into which we merge, or upload, or ascend, or something. As I don't think that's a realistic explanation for ghosts to exist it wasn't like I was all on board for the reveals. When the Impalpables show up I just put the book down and forgot about it for most of a decade. Having now finished it, I think the sentimental story of a dad getting a second chance to love his son out loud appealed to me more than it did then.

It's $7.99 on Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link), but honestly I don't think it's going to light most SF readers up in the 21st century...maybe more for the religious folks? There's no explicit religiosity but it's pretty culturally christian.


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.



The Ibiza Crone Club by Josephine O'Brien

The Publisher Says: In the wonderful White Isle of Ibiza, magic begins when three women meet in the emergency room of a hospital and realise that more than their medical issues need help.

Tanit, the goddess of women, fertility, and water is on hand to help.

Pot, Prosecco, pals, and the paranormal, what more does a woman need?

Occasionally bawdy, often hilarious but always touching and heartfelt, a truly feel-good read.

"A book with real emotional heart and a fab sense of place."


My Review
: I gave up at the end of chapter twenty, when the Scoobygroup of older women toast their decision to become the Crone Goddesses in order to have for themselves exciting and interesting lives by topping up their glasses of wine.

Getting drunk together now that you're free of the Awful Men who've been So Nasty and Ruined Your Lives could, by now, be the subtitle of all the mediocre uninteresting "women's fiction" in the world. I'm not the target audience so the appeal is lost on me, and the writing isn't deft or original enough (really, at all) to draw me along in spite of my utter lack of interest in this kind of story.



Talk to Me by T. Coraghessan Boyle

The Publisher Says: From bestselling and award-winning author T.C. Boyle, a lively, thought-provoking novel that asks us what it would be like if we could really talk to the animals

When animal behaviorist Guy Schermerhorn demonstrates on a TV game show that he has taught Sam, his juvenile chimp, to speak in sign language, Aimee Villard, an undergraduate at Guy's university, is so taken with the performance that she applies to become his assistant. A romantic and intellectual attachment soon morphs into an interspecies love triangle that pushes hard at the boundaries of consciousness and the question of what we know and how we know it.

What if it were possible to speak to the members of another species—to converse with them, not just give commands or coach them but to really have an exchange of ideas and a meeting of minds? Did apes have God? Did they have souls? Did they know about death and redemption? About prayer? The economy, rockets, space? Did they miss the jungle? Did they even know what the jungle was? Did they dream? Make wishes? Hope for the future?

These are some the questions T.C. Boyle asks in his wide-ranging and hilarious new novel Talk to Me, exploring what it means to be human, to communicate with another, and to truly know another person—or animal…


My Review
: Gertrude Trevelyan's 1920s novel Appius and Virginia in the late-twentieth century. She was, in her turn, riffing on Frankenstein, and honestly just about everything that riffs on the myth of Frankenstein these days sets off resistance responses in me. We're busily destroying the planet with the hubris Mary Shelley warned us about two hundred years ago, and if you're following in those footsteps, you'd best have something more urgent to say than this oft-told take on miscommunication and the essence of personhood being universal.

I gave up during the trip by car as the academic ponders his male privilege without in any way seeing it, while driving down from renamed Santa Barbara to meet a woman Tonight Show producer who's described as wearing enough mascara to paint a mural, his girl assistant goes off with Sam the chimp and "cleans him up"...sexism AAAND misogyny...and then, for more cluelessly inept egocentrism we go with him into an extended riff on how J. Fred Muggs stole Dave Garroway's fame which sent him spiraling into depression. Afraid, obvs, it's going to happen to him...well, let's just say that I understand this isn't being played as a good person's musings but I just don't find it compelling when I'm aware, from long use, how this is going to play out as a plot. The execution is as always Boyle's selling point, and I wasn't sold.

YMMV, of course, but for me this isn't a hit.



Search: How the Data Explosion Makes Us Smarter by Stefan Weitz

The Publisher Says: Search is as old as language. We’ve always needed to find something in the jumble of human creation. The first web was nothing more than passing verbal histories down the generations so others could find and remember how not to get eaten; the first search used the power of written language to build simple indexes in printed books, leading to the Dewey Decimal system and reverse indices in more modern times.

Then digital happened. Besides having profound societal impacts, it also made the act of searching almost impossibly complex for both engines and searchers. Information isn’t just words; it is pictures, videos, thoughts tagged with geocode data, routes, physical world data, and, increasingly, the machines themselves reporting their condition and listening to others’.

Search: How the Data Explosion Makes Us Smarter, the first in the Greenhouse Collection, holds up a mirror to our time to see if search can keep up. Author Stefan Weitz explores the idea of access to help readers understand how we are inventing new ways to search and access data through devices in more places and with more capabilities. We are at the cusp of imbuing our generation with superpowers, but only if we fundamentally rethink what search is, how people can use it, and what we should demand of it.


My Review
: Ten years ago, I'd've lapped this up; now, using Pandora and Watson as examples of cutting-edge machine learning would require a history lesson for most under 40. I sort of get the idea the author would agree with this statement because he predicts glorious glowing things will come from AI as search technology improves and algorithms get sharper and sharper in their focus. Absent a decade's awareness-building curve, there's just no way to put the book on an equal footing with later projects. I came to the conclusion that, honestly, my eyeblinks would be better spent elsewhere. This book was an overview of search engines' capabilities and the possible future use of them.

That future came and went.

You should know that the author headed Bing, Microsoft's response to Google. He is, based on internal evidence and a quick peek at his biography, a True Believer in Markets and Tech being forces for good. Since I believe neither of those things, take stock of my PoV on the book with that information in mind. Also I myownself found his narrative voice wee bit on the bro-dawg side. Bibliomotion wants $19.99 for a Kindle edition. (non-affiliate Amazon link)



The Undying (The Undying: #1) by Ethan Reid


In this riveting apocalyptic thriller for fans of The Passage and The Walking Dead, a mysterious event plunges Paris into darkness and a young American must lead her friends to safety—and escape the ravenous “undying” who now roam the crumbling city.

Jeanie and Ben arrive in Paris just in time for a festive New Year’s Eve celebration with local friends. They eat and drink and carry on until suddenly, at midnight, all the lights go out. Everywhere they look, buildings and streets are dark, as though the legendary Parisian revelry has somehow short circuited the entire city.

By the next morning, all hell has broken loose. Fireballs rain down from the sky, the temperatures are rising, and people run screaming through the streets. Whatever has happened in Paris—rumors are of a comet striking the earth—Jeanie and Ben have no way of knowing how far it has spread, or how much worse it will get. As they attempt to flee the burning Latin Quarter—a harrowing journey that takes them across the city, descending deep into the catacombs, and eventually to a makeshift barracks at the Louvre Museum—Jeanie knows the worst is yet to come. So far, only she has witnessed pale, vampiric survivors who seem to exert a powerful hold on her whenever she catches them in her sights.

These cunning, ravenous beings will come to be known as les moribund—the undying—and their numbers increase by the hour. When fate places a newborn boy in her care, Jeanie will stop at nothing to keep the infant safe and get out of Paris—even if it means facing off against the moribund and leaving Ben—and any hope of rescue—behind.


My Review
: Jeanie and Ben are TSTL. Zou Zou and Günter are ciphers. Paris itself is more a real character than the people are. This is bog-standard vampire-plague stuff and that isn't my jam. I have other uses for my eyeblinks than another iteration of this's a lot like The Passage, only better written, and that isn't for me.

YMMV, as always. For $4.99 on Kindle, vampire-plague fans will have a treat. (non-affiliate Amazon link)



Between Two Thorns (The Split Worlds #1) by Emma Newman

The Publisher Says: Beautiful and nuanced as it is dangerous, the manners of Regency and Victorian England blend into a scintillating fusion of urban fantasy and court intrigue.

Between Mundanus, the world of humans, and Exilium, the world of the Fae, lies the Nether, a mirror-world where the social structure of 19th-century England is preserved by Fae-touched families who remain loyal to their ageless masters. Born into this world is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, who escapes it all to live a normal life in Mundanus, free from her parents and the strictures of Fae-touched society. But now she’s being dragged back to face an arranged marriage, along with all the high society trappings it entails.

Crossing paths with Cathy is Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds treaty with a dislocated soul who polices the boundaries between the worlds, keeping innocents safe from the Fae. After a spree of kidnappings and the murder of his fellow Arbiters, Max is forced to enlist Cathy’s help in unravelling a high-profile disappearance within the Nether. Getting involved in the machinations of the Fae, however, may prove fatal to all involved.


My Review
: Mundanus? Exilium? Really. That's some on-the-nose stuff. Still, not for nothing did I get to 72%. The writing clearly didn't offend me...the plot was a little eye-rolly, with Cathy being very much a modern, sweary woman in pseudo-eighteenth-century times...snappish, ready to lash out at everyone including her future husband whom she very much does not want to marry despite falling in love with him...who just for added eye-rollyness makes an effort to understand her which she repays with unkindness and every attempt to drive him away.

The last straw for me was a major infodump about how the world we're in works to a mundane. Honestly, I shit you not. At SEVENTY-TWO PERCENT into the book. Had it happened at twenty-two or even forty-two percent I'd be a lot less annoyed.

Still and all, this sort of urban fantasy has squads and fleets of admirers. At $7.99 on Kindle you fans will really jam on this tale.


Saturday, September 23, 2023

RECITAL OF THE DARK VERSES, translation of Mexican poet's bizarre, fact-based religious heist novel

(tr. Heather Cleary)
Deep Vellum
$17.95 trade paper ,available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A masterful undertaking of historical literature, following 16th century religious fervor in a picaresque novel about Saint John of the Cross.

In August 1592, a bailiff and his two assistants arrive at the monastery of Úbeda, with the secret task of transferring the body of Saint John of the Cross, the great Carmelite poet and mystic who had died the previous year, to his final abode in Segovia. When they exhume him, they find a body incorrupted and as fresh as when he died.

Thus commences a series of adventures and misfortunes, with characters that seem to be drawn from mythology. The story written by Luis Felipe Fabre masterfully intertwines with the verses of the friar, as if in them he had prophesied the delirium that would surround his own posthumous transfer. Fabre's text is a highly entertaining novel, full of a sense of humor that manages to honor the mystical poetry of the Carmelite while inviting the reader to reflect on issues such as the sacred and the profane, the body and the soul, and spiritual (and carnal) ecstasy.


My Review
: This is another novel inspred by actual events. Unlike Amy Chua's fictionalized take on a horrible man's murder, this is so wildly OTT from its start to its finish that I was never sure if I should be laughing as hard as I was AT the inept thieves and their looney beliefs, not gently with their haplessness...or just shaking my damn head at how religion screws people up and over seven ways from Sunday. There's nothing to it, I thought. Pick it up and the snark will flow like spice from Arrakis.

I think there might really be a God, because that was so very not what happened.

This is a piercingly beautiful translation of what I'm sure is a glorious read in its native Spanish. The author's very clearly a poet...who else would've chosen St. John of the Cross, that queer-coding mystic (itself Catholic code for "weirdo we can't afford to ignore") poet, and his deeply hilarious and utterly inappropriate post-mortem heist-cum-road-trip from his monastery to Segovia, there to be enshrined until finally officially made a saint? The best part is that this is fictionalized, not fictional. This weirdness really happened! History is so very much more peculiar than fantasy. Humanity, in all its unpreditability, can't be bettered by one human's imagination. Just the bare facts of the saint's life...impoverished yet noble childhood, imprisonment and torture for being Too Much for his monastic brethren, summons by St. Teresa of Ávila (herself a mystically horny writer) to join her in founding the Discalced Carmelites.

The book is structured around verses of the saint's poetry. It is part and parcel of the reading experience. I, famously allergic to poetry, would rush right out to buy a copy of the translator's edition of St. John of the Cross's works. The reason is simple: This is, for all its mannered construction and sonorous linguistic register, the horniest stuff I've ever read that wasn't ab initio meant to be one-handed reading. Reading the quoted passages to my Young Gentleman Caller, I realized how very badly I miss having him in the same place as me. If you get my drift.

The thing that most surprised me about this read is its playfulness. Not one page doesn't contain something to raise a smile or a happy reflection. This is not something I ever expect from a story about a religious figure, though that was short-sighted of me...the mystics were by definition not religious figures but spiritual seekers co-opted by religion. The three stooges who are sent to convey the body of St. John of the Cross to Segovia are not religious figures but servants of power tasked with a temptingly valuable object's care. That the object is a body really isn't that important to them, as it wouldn't be in that time and place. Holy relics were objects to be traded, stolen, acquired, and coveted, not a person's Earthly remains. Holy people were of a different substance than mere mortals and were thus not treated in death as were us dirtballs.

This is completely part of the story. I am not religious (let go of your pearls, Mary, it's not the first time you've heard that) but am very much of the mindset that, once one's done with the meat of the body, it ought to go back to the earth that formed it. Every so often, as the posthumous indignities were wrought on John of the Cross's person, I found myself surprised into awareness that this was a person's flesh. The casual presumption that the problem with the things happening to the flesh were centered around others's claims to ownership of it, not the horror of doing these dreadful things to a person (even though a dead one) jolted me.

The prose in this translation is, to my soul's ear, exactly right in its register of formal, mildly archaic, still fluidly readable English. Different enough to give the effect of listening to someone with a beautiful voice speaking to you in foreigner's English...a thing I myownself enjoy...but not to everyone's taste, I know. Be aware of this fact before buying...the Kindle edition, available the tenth of October, allows one to try a sample before buying and the sensitive-to-Otherness would do well to try before committing to ownership. Alternatively, an excerpt appeared on the LitHub website.

One aspect of the English read that I found extra-pleasurable was the mental image of reading a translation of a story about a Translation was quite piquant. It's one of the more rareified pleasures of reading translations, but a deep one. In general, the Anglophone world sees little appeal in reading translated literature. This really is never more sad to me than when discovering an imagination as agile and as horny as Author Fabre's is. This story, fact-based as it is, should be on everyone's radar. The pleasures of being in the deeply, delightedly earthy and Earthly company of the three men who Translate the holy remains (though not wholly, pun intended) as they discover themselves and their Otherness in his company are readily available to you thanks to Translator Cleary and Deep Vellum.

No less a luminary than Valeria Luiselli (Lost Children Archive, The Story of My Teeth) thinks this book should make waves among Anglophone readers. Happen I agree. It certainly should, and let it start with you.

Friday, September 22, 2023

THE GOLDEN GATE is about how not-golden the reality of 1944 California was


Minotaur Books
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Amy Chua's debut novel, The Golden Gate, is a sweeping, evocative, and compelling historical thriller that paints a vibrant portrait of a California buffeted by the turbulent crosswinds of a world at war and a society about to undergo massive change.

In Berkeley, California, in 1944, Homicide Detective Al Sullivan has just left the swanky Claremont Hotel after a drink in the bar when a presidential candidate is assassinated in one of the rooms upstairs. A rich industrialist with enemies among the anarchist factions on the far left, Walter Wilkinson could have been targeted by any number of groups. But strangely, Sullivan’s investigation brings up the specter of another tragedy at the Claremont, ten years the death of seven-year-old Iris Stafford, a member of the Bainbridge family, one of the wealthiest in all of San Francisco. Some say she haunts the Claremont still.

The many threads of the case keep leading Sullivan back to the three remaining Bainbridge heiresses, now Iris’s sister, Isabella, and her cousins Cassie and Nicole. Determined not to let anything distract him from the truth―not the powerful influence of Bainbridges’ grandmother, or the political aspirations of Berkeley’s district attorney, or the interest of China's First Lady Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in his findings―Sullivan follows his investigation to its devastating conclusion.

Chua’s page-turning debut brings to life a historical era rife with turbulent social forces and groundbreaking forensic advances, when race and class defined the very essence of power, sex, and justice, and introduces a fascinating character in Detective Sullivan, a mixed race former Army officer who is still reckoning with his own history.


My Review
: Let's deal with the baggage first: Yale Law professor; defender of indefensible scum Brett Kavanaugh; author of polarizing memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011, and Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, an ambitious, polarizing take on why cultural identity must be considered in all political calculus, in 2018. She challenges her readers in her non-fiction, and not all y'all like that.

Ready to set all that baggage down now? Okay, let's go.

California has a long history of racist nastiness. There are strands of that history in this historical mystery. The author's own racialized identity gives her, IMnever-remotelyHO, the insight and standing to imagine the life of a half-Latino, half-Irish (believe it or not, Irishness was in that time also a looked-down-on ethnic identity) talented observer with a strong thirst for Justice to be Done no matter how that end ends up looking. Unusually for a guy from his not-WASP background, Al Sullivan (took mom's name to avoid the most easily deployed prejudice) got into and graduated from UC-Berkeley, which is how he came to the attention of the factual-but-used-fictionally police chief and "father of modern policing" August Vollmer, thus in a position to investigate this high-profile case.

Now that the detective's in front of your mental eyes, let's talk about the mystery. A polarizing politico is murdered at Berkeley's fancy hotel, the Claremont. Super-easy to come up with suspects since he was not nice to much of anyone, as well as rumored to have been intimately involved with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, then resident in Berkeley. Virulently anti-Japanese and fully on board with Executive Order 9066, to boot. There are links in all of these strands to people present in the Claremont that night, giving them motives for killing the scumbag (another mystery wherein the police just shoulda shrugged when he was found shot and said "whatcha gonna duuu" TBH). What Al discovers as he searches for the real answers is that even people officially on his side, like the DA, are ready to bury truth for expediency, and shed-loads of people whose own paths have twists and turns they want to keep hidden are also on every side. In the end, there are a lot of names and identities to keep track of, and the pace is slightly slackened by the multiplicity of strands interweaving to make a net that can only catch a certain party. These are issues common to new-to-police-procedural writers. They aren't fatal flaws, either. The author's note at the end of the book leaves little doubt about her abilities as a researcher and as a fiction writer. She details the sources and inspirations for the fictionalized people, explains her choices well, and makes a darn good case that this crime could have been solved in just this way in reality.

What kept me reading was the sense that the real world of 1944. with all its bloody horrors, its dirty deals done to serve a "greater good," its regular people struggling with their life-stuff and with the sheer, pervasive nightmare of prejudice unmuted, was just like this.

That is one of the highest compliments I can pay a writer: I believe you.