Thursday, June 29, 2017

June Reading Wrapup

There are times when the books I read fall into themes, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.  From December 21-March 20, I undertook my self-imposed "Winter of Women" project.  Other times, I base my reading on monthly observances, like Black History Month in February or Poetry Month in April.  Other times, themes emerge much more organically and spontaneously.

Such was the case in June.  Maybe I'm dealing with feelings about the state of my country & the world right now.  Maybe it's a desire to keep myself informed.  Maybe I need, on some level, to know that I'm not the only one who is shocked, angry, and grieving.  Maybe just enough time passed that I now have the headspace to begin delving into these topics in earnest.  Whatever the reasons, you can see from the books I've read that this could be called "Social Justice June".  All of the books deal with pertinent issues: Racism, sexism, treatment of immigrants, war crimes, US/Mexico relations, environment, corruption, protest, feminism, and civil rights.  Even Samantha Irby's essay collection, which is heavily steeped in hilarity, dealt with serious topics.  It was a heavy but helpful month -

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (fiction)

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (fiction)

Cold Pastoral by Rebecca Dunham (poetry)

A Fugitive in Walden Woods by Norman Lock (fiction)

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (essays)

My Antonia by Willa Cather (fiction)

Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina De Robertis (essays)

What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (essays)

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by Susan Bordo [non-fiction (audiobook)]

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (fiction.....or is it?!)

Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now edited by Amit Majmudar (poetry)

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi (non-fiction)

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera (fiction)

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein (non-fiction)

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lord [non-fiction (audiobook)]

It'll be interesting to see what forms, if any, my July reading takes.  Will there be a dominant theme?  I guess we'll have to find out by the end of next month.  What books did you read in June, and were there any interesting patterns or themes?

Librorum annis,

Monday, June 26, 2017

Can It Happen Here?

While Sinclair Lewis may have been writing his 1935 novel with Louisiana governor Huey Long in mind, It Can't Happen Here has had its second coming in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election.  Through the depictions of a fascist's rise to power, and the drastic changes he forces into the country, the author provides a cautionary tale for just how fragile democracy is, especially in the hands of an apathetic citizenry.

In mid 1930's, small-town Vermont, Doremus Jessup works as a journalist and the publisher of a local newspaper.  He lives what might be called an idealized American life at that time with his wife, adult children, and his dog.  His housekeeper makes a delicious coconut cake for Sunday supper.  He's friendly with his neighbors, but sometimes has to endure dinner parties with men who love to hear their own voice and have little common sense.  He's not of strong political persuasion, although he has a general dislike for Communists and a preference for pacifism.

He begins to hear rumblings of a senator, Berzelius ("Buzz") Windrip, who is making a bid for the presidency, against Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He speaks of giving the poor and suffering a lump sum amount of money, to ease their suffering.  Of increasing patriotism across the country.  Of a return to traditional values.  He holds rallies, and whips the audiences into a fervent uproar with his grand promises and flowing words, but an hour afterward they can't seem to recall anything that he actually said.  He supports the increased presence and recruitment of ROTC-type activities, and gives that group the name Minutemen ("MM").

Doremus and his neighbors don't actually believe that Buzz means what he says.  They expect that it's all a bluster, that will blow over after the election has happened.  They seriously doubt that he would ever be elected President.  However, Doremus encounters more and more people who seem to think that some of his plans sound pretty good - especially that lump sum of money.  This creates a divide in the small town, and has ramifications that last long into the future.

Buzz is elected President, and swiftly enacts a wide-sweeping program of change, with the help of his now-radicalized and mobilized MMs.  He strips the legislative and judicial branches of their power, places the Congressmen and Supreme Court justices under house arrest (later having those who refuse to support him assassinated).  He dissolves all political parties, save for his American Corporate State and Patriotic Party (Corpos).  He sets up work camps and concentration camps for dissidents, enemies of the state, and those who the Corpos dislike for any reason or no reason at all.  He strips non-white people of their citizenship and has them forcibly relocated.  He openly discriminates against Jews and any group of people who he sees as elitist and therefore against the State.  He redraws the US map, taking away statehood and organizing territories into collective Districts.  Although there are still courts and judges to decide prisoners' fates, the rule of law and due process are effectively suspended.

His agents and henchmen, throughout all of this, are the MMs.  Although some people call them "Mickey Mouse" or "Minnie's", they show to be callous and cruel in their work.  After his election, Buzz declares martial law.  There are protests against the action of Buzz's regime, but the MMs violently suppress them.  Many of those who sign up for the MMs, especially in the wake of the election, were the poor and uneducated men, looking to get even with the upper-class people who they felt owed them.  One such person was a man named Shad Ledue, a hired hand who did odd jobs for Doremus and his family.  Shad is so clouded by his sense of entitlement and his underlying hatred due to his poverty that he is especially cruel and unrelenting in his treatment of those who had previously hired him.  He also exploits his power to his own financial gain, strong-arming businessmen to make deals with him which he takes advantage of but never fulfills.

Doremus' newspaper is of interest to the Corpos because of it's usefulness in spreading their propaganda.  The only way that the MMs allow Doremus to continue running his operation is if it's done in the service of training one of their men to eventually take it over.  Slowly and deliberately, signs of the repressiveness of Buzz's presidency become glaringly clear.  There are raids on houses to remove any "seditious" material, unapproved books are burned, and people are disappeared.  This creates a fear of going anywhere, of living, because nobody knows for sure who might be a disguised MM or sympathizer who would report you for talk or conduct against the State.

However, there are activists (called "New Underground", as an homage to the Underground Railroad of the American Civil War) who are working to spread anti-Corpo messages through pamphlets and newsletters.  They also help refugees make passage into Canada, which is not impacted by the Corpos.  Doremus joins them, and as reports of torture and gross violence at the hands of the MM's and of the Corpo leadership, the New Underground makes covert use of Doremus' printing equipment to disseminate the information.  They are successful for awhile, but are eventually discovered and Shad cannot hide his joy at being able to send Doremus, along with some of the other New Underground members, to a concentration camp.  Incidentally, the prison camp is called Trianon, which is the name of the treaty that ended WW1.  Horrific acts of war taking place under the name of peace.

While prisoners are being tortured, starved, and dehumanized by the guards at Trianon, there are drastic changes taking place at the highest levels of Corpo leadership.  Buzz is lamenting the loneliness and distrust that surrounds an oligarchic leader, still deep in his belief that he is doing what's right for America.  Some of his closest political allies worried that Buzz may be coming for them, have fled to Canada. Sensing a vulnerability, his pleasure-loving, power-hungry Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, overthrows Buzz as leader and sends him into exile in France.  Sarason, quite a Caligula-like figure, indulges in lavish parties, enjoys unmatched luxury, and sets up his homosexual lovers in high positions of power.  During one of Sarason's orgies, he is interrupted by General Dewey Haik and his most-loyal MMs, and they systematically execute everyone there.  Haik then declares himself the new president.  Haik is described as a repressively conservative Puritan, who implements a program of forced Christian conservatism.  Any kind of frivolity is punishable.

While the book ends of a slight upturn of hope, Dewey Haik is still in power with his repressive, fundamentalist, bible-based regime.  What struck me most about the ending of It Can't Happen Here is how much it seemed to function as a precursor for Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.  In that story, the United States was overthrown by a Christian fundamentalist group called Sons of Jacob, which instituted a rigid caste society based on its biblical interpretations.  Haik, and those loyal to him, could have easily given themselves that very name and implemented those social programs.  In both It Can't Happen Here and The Handmaid's Tale, Canada is seen as a kind of Promised Land that the disillusioned and persecuted characters strive to reach.  It really feels as though Sinclair's book might actually be Part 1 of the story, and Atwood's book could be Part 2.  I may re-read The Handmaid's Tale soon, just to see if there are more connections between the two novels.

In our current political climate, It Can't Happen Here is shockingly telling and completely relevant.  It demonstrates that, under the right circumstances and with the right people, democracy can easily tumble.  Through this exploration of the rise of dictatorship and its effects on the American public, the author is warning us.  Don't fall under the spell of politicians' promises that are too good to be true.  Don't be apathetic about wild accusations and bluster.  Be wary of increases in domestic police/military presence.  Think critically and challenge your leaders.  These are messages that we need to remember and take to heart.  Read It Can't Happen Here because it can happen here.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The "Summer Reading" Tag

Yesterday was the first day of Summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and so I thought it was the perfect time to think about my Summer reading.  Last year, Booktuber Amy Jane Smith created the "Summer Reading" tag video, to encourage thinking about the books that you read during the summer.  As I work a year-round job, I don't have that much extra time to read than I do at any other time of the year.  However, with occasional holidays and long weekends, as well as the change in mood that comes from moving into warmer months, I definitely approach reading differently now than at any other time of the year.  With that, let's dive into the questions...

What three books do you want to read this summer?

These are high up on my TBR, so I hope to finish them before autumn sets in.

1. The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami - exploring the secret lives of items for sale at a thrift shop, as well as the people who work there
2. Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera - a fable about the place of art and integrity in a world fueled by greed and power
3. Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi - The story of four young Mauritanians struggling with the violence of everyday life

Which character most embodies the traits of summer?

For me, summer is evocative of freedom and possibility.  One character that embodies these traits is Benji in Sag Harbor, written by Colson Whitehead.

What books do you most associate with the physicality of summer?

Set on a New England island, Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements is pure summer: A posh family's home, the private beach clubs, illicit longing, and a beached whale.  Also, and perhaps an obvious choice, is The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.  But, I feel that the books that absolutely embody the heat and restlessness of summertime are the four books in Elena Ferrante's "Neapolitan Quartet".  I read these books in quick succession last summer, and it was the best way and time I could have consumed them.  You can feel the humidity in the air, the heightened passion, and the frenzy that comes from high temperatures.

What kind of books do you like to read on holiday?  Any books that hold memories of certain places?

Many people choose "beach reads" for the summer holidays...books that are plot-heavy, concern themselves with romance and lighter topics.  I've read a few of these, and I have to admit that I'm not a fan.  Any time of year, including on holiday, I prefer my books to have character-driven plots with serious themes and unhappy endings.  The year that it came out, I read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life during a vacation and loved it - that should tell you everything you need to know.

If you could go on holiday with any author, who would you go with and where?  What would you want to know?

DAVID SEDARIS!!!!!  I'd fly to England and we'd pick up trash along the roadsides and he'd show me around the villages.  Afterward, we'd have coffee and chat about the hilarious mundanety of life.

What's your book of the year so far?

I've read a lot of great books this year, so I couldn't possibly narrow it down to just one.  I'll give you my Favorite Five (thus far) in no particular order:
1. White Teeth by Zadie Smith - review here
2. Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez - a short story collection exploring  socioeconomic issues, sexism, corruption, relationships, religion and the supernatural in Buenos Aires
3. The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple - brief review here
4. A Fragile Freedom by Erica Armstrong Dunbar - review here
5. Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper - review here

How did you spend your summer holidays as a child?

When I was younger, my family would take the occasional long weekend trips to Washington DC, Niagara Falls, and nearby historical sites.  We didn't have a lot of money to spare on vacations, so it was rare that we went anywhere far away.  Otherwise, I spent most summers at my grandmother's house, reading and playing video games.  She and I would take weekly trips to the library, and I was signed up for summer reading programs.  Reading has been a big part of my life as long as I can remember.

What are your plans this summer?

Next week, I'll be heading down to Washington DC for a long weekend with friends - a trip that will start off on a bookish event. Yuri Herrera is stopping at Politics & Prose bookstore as part of his Kingdom Cons book tour!  Other than that, it's shaping up to be a fairly uneventful and low-key summer.

What do you have going on this summer?  If you're interested in doing the Summer Reading Tag, consider yourself tagged!

Librorum annis,

Monday, June 19, 2017

An Evening with Patricia Lockwood

Two weeks ago, my local bookstore hosted the poet and writer Patricia Lockwood on her tour, promoting her memoir PriestDaddy.  It was such a delight!  The author started by reading a section from the beginning of her book, then fielded questions from the audience.  There was such a great turnout, and the dialogue was so meaningful and illustrative.  Patricia is so hilarious and sardonic - at times I was laughing so hard that I was crying, and other times I was trying to write down what she was saying.  This was especially true when the questions turned to her poetic process.  She  also mentioned how much she hopes more of the 1990's culture will make a comeback.  In particular, she expressed a deep desire that the Christian band DC Talk rise again.

While I really enjoyed PriestDaddy (you can read my review here), I am a much bigger fan of Trisha's poetry.  The way that she plays with and manipulates imagery, language, and current events is brilliant and hilarious.  I brought a copy of her most-recent poetry collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, to be signed.  One thing she does, that I've never had happen at any other author event I've attended, is that she volunteered to draw animals as well as sign her name.  One of the landmark poems in this collection is about Bambi as a sex object, so I just had to ask for a baby deer drawing...she didn't disappoint!

If you have the opportunity to meet Patricia Lockwood, I'd highly recommend it.  She'll make you laugh until you cry, wow you with her 90's references, and leave you wanting more.  Thanks to Midtown Scholar Bookstore for hosting!

Librorum annis,

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Signs Preceding the End of the World is the tale of Makina, a young woman who must travel across a border to find her long-lost brother and deliver him a message.  In order to accomplish this task, she is forced to rely on local crime lords, men who know the people who can smuggle her into the country and back out again.  It's all very secretive - Makina doesn't know anything about those individuals on whom she's relying, and she's never completely sure that something won't go wrong and her whole mission will be compromised.  It's her harrowing story, told in Yuri Herrera's thoughtful and expertly chosen prose (thoughtfully translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman) and engaging characters that makes this brief story so compelling.

Makina works as a telephone switchboard operator, and acknowledges that she is very good at her job.  There aren't any cellular towers built near her area, so people still rely on an operator to connect them.  She will keep confidences, which makes her popular with those in organized crime, but she's not afraid to offer her opinion when necessary.  There's a hilarious scene where two lovers are quarreling across the phone lines to each other, and Makina inserts herself into the conversation as a kind of translator.  She interprets what one lover is saying and responds back to the other in such a way that she eventually helps them to reconcile.  It's that unique blend of secrecy and self-assuredness that serves her well on her journey. 

While the countries from which Makina is leaving and entering are never mentioned by name, it's easy to recognize them as Mexico and the United States, respectively.  The fact that the author himself is Mexican, and is now living/working in the US, only seems to further support this idea.  The physical border to be crossed is described as a fast-moving river, which could easily be the Rio Grande, followed by difficult desert terrain.  There are police, border-residing vigilantes, and others who try to prevent Makina from reaching her brother.  These same groups frequently make news headlines for their inhumane and illegal treatment of individuals the encounter around the border area.  Through his descriptions of these people - those "defending" the border and those trying to cross it, the author explores the tenseness of immigration relations between the US and Mexico.

The reader is also treated to the view of America from a first-time visitor's perspective.  She notices the unnatural bounty of supermarkets, the ever-present signs prohibiting almost all behavior, and the sadness that she identifies as coming from the too-strong relationship to technology at the sake of human contact.  There is a particularly beautiful piece of imagery used when Makina is walking around the restaurants in the city, experiencing the culture through its smells since she could not afford to dine.  It's during this scene that she notices just how many Mexicans work in these restaurants, and makes the aside that "All cooking is Mexican cooking", which in some ways is a very true statement.  With the current political climate that seems to favor mass arrest and deportation, it's worth thinking about how these actions will trickle down to all aspects of American life, including food.

There is so much richness of language, of exploration into the immigrant experience, and the lengths to which some people will go to obtain a piece of the American Dream.  Signs Preceding the End of the World is a masterwork, and at only 107 pages, you'll fly through it and then wonder how the author could pack so much into such a short work.  His precision in language, even when in translation, is breathtaking and so vibrant that you can really picture the worlds in which the story takes place.  I highly recommend this book, for its insightful portrayal of US/Mexico immigration and the harrowing story of a young woman on a mission.

Librorum annis,

Monday, June 12, 2017

The TBR Tag

The idea of a mountainous To Be Read (TBR) Pile is nothing new to those readers among us who keep a lot of books around us.  Unless you are a power reader, prefer a small library, or are someone who reads books as soon as they're obtained, it's likely that at least a few books on your shelves (whether owned or borrowed) are unread.  It's with this thought in mind that I decided to approach the TBR Tag.  Co-originated by book bloggers "Diana Square" and A Perfection Called Books, it consists of 12 questions whose answers come from among the TBR books.

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

In my head?  I don't shelve unread books separately, nor do I keep a list of them anywhere.  On my LibraryThing account (a book cataloging tool that I HIGHLY recommend), if I've read a book it gets a star and a review.  So, if a book doesn't have either of those things in its listing, then I could assume that it's on my TBR.  I can look at my books and immediately tell whether or not I've read it, and that works pretty well for me.

What is a book on your TBR pile with a beautiful cover?

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee.  It has a closeup graphic of a Pachinko machine, in these beautiful pastel shades.  From afar, it almost looks like intricate fabric.  So beautiful!

Is your TBR mostly physical books, digital books, or audiobooks?

Well, that depends on your definition of TBR.  To me, it explicitly includes books that I have purchased/downloaded in the public domain and have not read yet.  Therefore, library books or other borrowed materials do not count.  As I get 100% of my audiobooks on CD from my local libraries library or streaming via Hoopla, there are none on my TBR.

According to LibraryThing, out of the 1047 digital and physical books I've cataloged, a whopping 579 remain unread.  That's 55%.  Looking specifically at e-books, 205 out of the 435 books are unread.  Bringing this back to the total on my TBR, 35% of my unread books are digital, and 65% are physical.  So that's that, then.  More than half of my TBR is made up of physical books.

What book have you recently add to your TBR?

That would be Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, which I won via an Instagram contest from the publisher, Europa Editions.

How do you determine which book from your TBR pile to read next?

This usually depends on what I have just finished reading.  Sometimes I'm inspired to read a series of books if I've just finished the first one.  Other times, I might have read a deeply depressing book and seek something less substantial - or vice versa.  Sometimes, inspiration comes not from other books but from current events, remembrances, or other milestone moments.  And, on more than one occasion, I've simply looked at my shelves, picked a book that I know I haven't read before, and read it.

Is there a book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

I have a small collection of signed books, which I never plan to read, for fear of ripping the covers, damaging the spines, or getting them dirty.  I will, however, read digital versions.  One such book is Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.

What book has been on your TBR pile the longest?

I purchased Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys when I was a freshman in college.  The college bookstore had a fantastic end-of-the-semester sales, and I could usually find a few interesting books for cheap, including this one.  I hadn't read its companion Jane Eyre until just this year, but had heard so many good things about the story that I figured I should pick it up.  I've been graduated and gone from college almost 15 years, so that tells you something about how long this book has been with me.

What book on your TBR are you most dying to read?

Sometime this month I'm planning to dive into Yuri Herrera's translated works Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, not only because I've heard rave reviews of them but because he's doing a signing at a nearby bookstore at the end of the month.  He'll be promoting his new book, Kingdom Con, and I will be adding it to my TBR that day!

What is an unpublished book on your TBR that you're really excited to read?

I have an ARC of Autopsy of a Father by Pascale Kramer, the story of a French woman who tries to decipher the enigma that is her late father.  The book will be published on July 11th (USA) by Bellevue Literary Press.

What book on your TBR has everyone else read except you?

Without a doubt, this is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  In fact, I've never read any of her work.  It comes so highly recommended and raved about that I feel like the last person to read it.

What TBR book has been recommended by lots of people?

Easily, this is Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.  It's such a modern classic, and she's such a fascinating writer, that I can't believe I haven't read it myself yet.

How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

I don't use Goodreads to keep track of unread books, so this answer would be zero.

Although this tag began way back in 2014, if you want to explore your own TBR - consider yourself tagged.  Enjoy!

Librorum annis,

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Fugitive in Walden Woods

The latest installment in the author's American Novels Series, A Fugitive in Walden Woods looks at Henry David Thoreau's time at Walden Pond from a novel lens.  Norman Lock introduces the reader to a character named Samuel Long, an escaped slave from a plantation in Virginia, who has been given refuge in a shack in the woods nearby to Thoreau's cabin.  It is from Long's point of view that we experience New England as it was in the mid-nineteenth century.

Arriving in Concord, MA through the network of the Underground Railroad, Samuel is welcomed into the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife, and later introduced to his contemporaries.  These are essentially a who's who of the Transcendentalism Club - Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many others.  Samuel spends some time with each of them, and comments on his impressions of them as individuals and abolitionists.  He also encounters tradespeople, such as the ice harvesters who undertake the dangerous task of collecting the frozen layer of Walden Pond for its eventual use as ice cubes.  All the while, he and Thoreau talk about themes that would later make their way into his book Walden - neighbors, house construction, visitors, wildlife, the pond itself.  As Thoreau is philosophizing, he uses Samuel as a kind of sounding board, and gradually Samuel gains the confidence to talk to this man, even challenging his points when the fugitive slave experience differs from that of his companion.  Thoreau's meandering philosophy is in contrast to his lived experience of bondage and unimaginable suffering.  This is a constant and recurring theme, and something that Samuel struggles with when interacting with just about every white person he meets.  He recognizes and acknowledges their socioeconomic privilege and freedom of movement in comparison to his fragile status and complete and utter dependency. 

As Samuel gets acquainted with Thoreau, so does the reader.  He describes him as a dreamer, someone who bristles against social convention and expectation.  He desires to understand the meaning of life, and partakes in experiments to understand what "living" means.  Some of the events and dialogue are factually based, and others are fiction invented by the author but ringing as true.  This is also the case with the other Transcendentalists.  The audience learns of these men and women through Samuel's eyes, with his preconceptions and assumptions as well as his great capacity for learning and understanding.  One thing that this book does brilliantly is portray these individuals as interesting and flawed individuals, from the perspective of one who has never encountered men like them before.

When Samuel accompanies Nathaniel Hawthorne to Boston via train, he meets with William Lloyd Garrison.  A prominent abolitionist, he is the publisher of an anti-slavery magazine "The Liberator".  At his office, Samuel tells his story of escaping from the plantation where he had toiled, how he severed his own hand to be able to flee his manacle, the circumstances under which he joined the Underground Railroad, and was eventually delivered to the Emerson home.  His story is published, and leads to some interesting consequences. 

Prior to this meeting, Samuel struggled with whether or not to participate in the abolition movement, and what role he might play.  Would he be paraded around as an oddity - the negro who is an accomplished orator?  He would rather live a quiet life, a decision that puts him in conflict with another escaped slave who was determined to return to the South and take up violent action against the institution of slavery.  He eventually decides to participate in some consciousness-raising meetings and talk about his experiences.  It's important to note that he decides never to show the audiences his welt-covered back, believing that people are willing to engage with slavery as an intellectual concept, but not as a concrete reality.

Norman Lock's A Fugitive in Walden Woods is a beautifully written, with heartbreaking tenderness and brutal savagery.  You are well and truly transported to the Walden Pond with Thoreau, to Concord with Emerson, and Boston with Hawthorne.  The author speaks to the differences between philosophy and lived experience, the horrors of slavery, and their long-lasting effects on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Not a re-telling of Walden, but more of an engagement with it, this period in history is given a new perspective that speaks as clearly to that time as it does to ours.

Librorum annis,

Monday, June 5, 2017

May Reading Wrap-Up

May started out slowly, but turned out to be quite a satisfying reading month. There was diversity in the genres, subjects, and formats of the books that I read...from poetry to a hilarious memoir, to some hard-hitting non-fiction.  I thoroughly enjoyed each and every book, and hope that you might be inclined to pick up one of these for yourself. 

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, by Patricia Lockwood
A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, by Erica Armstong Dunbar
Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, by Kate Moore
Priestdaddy: A Memoir, by Patricia Lockwood

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
The Joy of Leaving Your S*it All Over the Place by Jennifer McCartney
Notes on the Assemblage by Juan Felipe Herrera
Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (e-audiobook)

Spring and All by William Carlos Williams
Othello by William Shakespeare
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Envelope Poems by Emily Dickinson
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Here's a genre rundown....

Fiction - 2
Poetry/Drama - 5
Non-Fiction - 4
Young Adult - 2
Memoir/Essay - 2

What did you read this month, and what are you looking forward to reading in June?

Librorum annis,

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Being the New Boy

New Boy is the fifth installment in the "Hogarth Shakespeare Series", where famous authors offer retellings or re-imaginings of Shakespeare's most well-known works.  I've read each of them and, for me, the magic combination is when the author makes her/his work a good story first, and draws in sneaky Shakespeare bits second.  The book should be able to stand on its own, without the reader having to have read the original play beforehand to make sense of it.  Tracy Chevalier's contribution New Boy is a solidly enjoyable read that is enhanced with some familiarity with the source material.  Through the author's choice of time, characterization, plotting, and language that the world of Shakespeare is opened up to a wider and more modern audience.

Based on the play Othello the Moor of Venice, Chevalier's story takes place over one day in a sixth grade American elementary school class.  You might think that it's a stretch to recast the characters as children, but in fact it's a stroke of genius.  The relationships are dripping with drama and intrigue, and the action so heightened and desperate that it actually is quite a perfect fit.  At that age, around 12 years old, adolescence is budding, and kids are discovering the opposite sex as potentially desirable.  Relationships form and dissolve within a very condensed timeframe, a truth that also lends itself nicely to the world of New Boy.

The story is set in the 1970's in a suburb of Washington, DC.  I've spent quite a bit of time there, and it's a truth that the cities around the capital are primarily white, while the inner-city area of DC is much more diverse.  This was much more so the case in New Boy.  The unnamed school in the unnamed DC suburb is entirely white.  White students are taught by white teachers, and the school is overseen by white administrators.  It is the introduction of a wealthy African family, and specifically their black son, that throws the embedded, systematic, and outward racism of the community into sharp focus. 

There are no Moor's in New Boy.  Instead of Othello, there is Osei Kokote.  Born in Ghana to a diplomat father and well-to-do mother, he has lived in many cities around the world before the DC suburbs.  In every location, he has faced overt and direct discrimination due to the color of his skin.  Doormen refused to acknowledge him, teachers assumed he was cheating on assignments when he got good grades, fellow students left bananas on his desks.  From living in many places, he is seasoned at being The New Boy in school and all the pitfalls that come along with it.  On his first day at the suburban school he is paired with Dee (Desdemona), a popular girl who comes from a very strict and conservative family.  The two of them strike up a fast friendship and, by lunchtime, are a couple.  Witnessing this is school bully Ian (Iago), who sees the new boy as a threat to the power he holds over the rest of the school.  He decides to enlist his reluctant girlfriend Mimi (Emilia) to discover something he can use to his advantage.  Other characters include the golden boy Casper (Cassio), his on-again/off-again girlfriend Blanca (Bianca), and Ian's sidekick Rod (Roderigo).  If you're familiar with the characters in Othello, you'll already know how these students interact and form their power struggles and relationships.  If not, you'll pick up on the subtle and dynamic goings on easily. 

As was mentioned already, the entire contents of the story extend over a single day.  The book is broken into 5 parts: Before School, Morning Recess, Lunch, Afternoon Recess, and After School.  Although some classroom action is described, the majority of the plot happens in the playground.  It really is a microcosm for the world at large - power plays, romantic relationships built and broken, reputations built and destroyed, games of kickball to assert dominance, rope jumping and gossiping, and so much more.  The schoolyard is where Ian lurks, sets up his dominoes, then sits back and watches them fall.  It's where the pivotal scenes between Osei and Dee take place, and it's where the climax of the day's activities finally finds denouement.  Hearts are broken, pains are dealt, and people's true colors are revealed. 

The language of New Boy is such that it really could be consumed in a single sitting.  Perhaps because the protagonists are 12 year old children, only on the cusp of adolescence, the phrasing and detail is kept at a young adult level.  While this might be less appealing for readers of adult literature, for a student who might be overwhelmed by the ancient-feeling language of Shakespeare, this novel may be a way in to the story and its study.  And just because the dialogue is simplistic doesn't mean that the story itself doesn't hold some complexities. 

New Boy is truly a story on many levels, and for many different readers.  It is a young adult novel about a day in the life of a new elementary school student.  It's a discussion of the casual and overt racism that is so endemic in our culture.  It's a retelling of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays - Othello.  For any and all of these reasons, I would highly recommend giving this latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series a try.

Librorum annis,