Switch is innovative, perplexing, and heartbreaking. In other words, it’s exactly what we have come to expect from the one-of-a-kind mind and talent that is A.S. King. Even among her unique oeuvre, though, this novel stands out as experimental, which might explain some of the rather tepid reviews it has received thus far. It’s hard to prepare readers for a truly surrealist experience, and perhaps that’s especially true for young readers who might be experiencing surrealist literature for the first time. So, how does one prepare to read a book like this?
Well, the best way I can describe Switch is to say that it’s a visual depiction of what happens at the crossroads of trauma, grief, and recovery. Imagine every scenario, every emotion, that manifests from trauma: Isolation, doubt, self-loathing, fear, suspicion. Next, imagine the cause of all this is your own family, the very people (or person) you’re trapped with. And these people are also the ones you must rely on. Got it so far? Now: make that story visible. Literally, tell this story, in words, in such a way as to make the readers see and experience the unraveling of that trauma, that grief, right there on the page in front of them, not necessarily in the prose, but in the construction and deconstruction of that prose. Memories are metaphors. People are tools personified. Can you imagine? I doubt it. And there’s the genius of A.S. King. There’s the brilliance of Switch.
The story itself is told from the perspective of teenager Truda Becker, whose parents are going through a kind of separation, whose older brother is being blackmailed by their sibling over something that sort of did but sort of didn’t happen, and whose sister is a manipulative narcissist hellbent on turning the family members against one another. Truda’s father, in a noble but misguided attempt to heal his family, creates something that changes the world. As a result, many young people are discovering they have certain special abilities, and one of those young people might be Truda herself. What does all this mean? How can the world outside seem totally normal, everyone going about their business as usual, when one’s own home is descending rapidly and maddeningly into a labyrinth of secrets, lies, and makeshift security blankets? And how does one find the courage to right the world again if it means sacrificing her own special abilities in the process?
Why does time stop, how do we get it moving again, and is it worth it to try?
This is an uncomfortable read, and intentionally so. Not only are the themes unsettling, but so too are certain actions and events that are alluded to with greater or lesser detail at different points in the narrative. So, it’s going to be tough to finish reading this story, close the cover, and walk away feeling what we might normally expect to feel after reading a young adult novel: Joy? Elation? Comfort? Well, no, not really, but there’s hope for those things. There’s hope, indeed, in the fact that, despite the visceral, almost painterly displays of trauma the protagonist Truda Becker experiences and depicts, she remains open to love in the end. She remains open to forgiveness—forgiveness, that is, for those who deserve it (including herself); but she also learns how to draw a firm line between herself and those who would harm her, and this is something she, even as the youngest, manages to teach the rest of her family, too.
Grab your crowbar. Flip the switch.
“To understand anything is to understand energy” (24).
“Carrie has been on antidepressants for six months. She has gained eighteen pounds. The people who point out this weight gain to her far outnumber the people who ask how she’s feeling today, or if she feels like dying anymore” (59).
“I think the universe is rewarding me for dismantling Fear” (134).
“This is the solution to fourteen generations of bullshit that we don’t have to pass down to our kids. That’s our job. Generation fifteen. We’ll be the generation who heals” (164).
“Time stopped because it was sick of us being assholes to each other. So the only way to start it again is to stop being assholes to each other” (221).
The weather here in America’s hottest region has been strange this weekend, to say the least. It’s tens of degrees cooler than normal and we’re even getting snow in the mountains! Snow in late-May! It’s quite an event, let me tell you, and I’ve been trying to enjoy every second of it. Soon enough (like, just a few days from now!) we’ll be nearing 100-degree highs. I thought I’d take a little break from enjoying the outdoors, though, to share some reading & writing updates, as well as some “laudable linkage.”
Recent Reading Updates
This month, I’m focusing on Asian American & Pacific Islander writers, in honor of AAPI Heritage month here in the United States. So far, I’ve read four texts:
Currently, I’m reading Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima. It’s funny, about half-way into the book, I felt the urge to learn a little bit about the author. His style intrigued me, as did the story, so I wanted to know who this guy was. While doing some light research, I realized I own two more books by this same author! I’m not sure how I missed that, but I guess it’s a sign that, really, I have too many books! (Is that a thing?)
Recent Writing Updates
Something exciting that’s happened since things have begun to reopen is that I found a new morning writing spot. I don’t want to name names because I’m not particularly interested in giving free advertising, but I will say that it’s a rather large chain which currently has an awesome marketing ploy to get people in the doors. It worked for me! I’ve been a little distracted there, to be honest, because the place gets very busy. That said, it’s so good to be getting back into a routine. For some reason, I’m the kind of person who cannot write well at home. I do all my editing and revising at home, but as far as the original invention and writing/drafting phases? I just can’t do it!
I’ve also just found out that Broad River Review will be publishing one of my poems in their 2021 issue releasing late-Fall. This poem is part of a collection I’ve been working on; it’s very dear to my heart right now, so I’m absolutely overjoyed that Broad River Review liked it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.
Items Worth Sharing
Hello, everyone, and Happy May Day!
I had an incredibly active reading month in April, so I’m going to post the list of titles that I read (by genre) below, with very, very brief comments on each. I read a total of 16 titles, so there’s just no way I can give any kind of detailed reviews this time around. My focus was on poetry because April was poetry month, but my two favorite reads of the month—and indeed of this year so far—are listed last, under the “Novels” section. P.S. May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month so my focus for the next four weeks will be on AAPI texts (see image at the end of this post.)
And a quick note on writing progress: I’ve submitted two chapbook manuscripts for poetry and have written some new poems, as well as worked on revisions of a half dozen. I’ve got ideas for another half-dozen poems jotted down in note form & hope to work on those this month. I’m also working on a new(ish) novel. Poetry has been my focus, though, and I’ve been reading a lot about it from a craft perspective. It’s also the current strand of coursework that I’m pursuing at UC Berkeley right now (I’m in the creative writing program and will be completing work in fiction and poetry, but right now I’m tuned into the poetry track.)
What I Read in April:
So, I had a wonderful time with poetry this month and will continue it (to a lesser extent, probably) next month. My two starred readings of the month, though, are At Swim, Two Boys and Hamnet, both of which are also two of my favorite books of the year. We’ll see how they hold up to the next 8 months of reading!
Oh, right! Here’s what I’ll be reading in May for AAPI Heritage Month:
The Classics Club Spin is back for the 26th time. Despite my near-constant failure with this challenge (I think I’ve “won” once or twice?), I’m going to try again. I’ve been on a reading hot streak and have been gravitating back towards literary works, lately, so maybe now is the time. Or maybe not.
I’ve linked to the Spin page here, but simply put, I list here 20 books from my Classics Club list (see the full list below) that I’m willing to read depending on where the “Spin” randomizer falls. The magic number will be revealed this Sunday, April 18th. I’ll then know which book I’m supposed to read by May 31st. Okay? Okay!
I am hoping for one particular number/book to “spin” my way this time, but we shall see. Wish me luck!
Progress: 17 of 50 Completed (34% done)
March Reading Review
Before I get into reading stuff, some updates on the writing life. First, have I shared here that I’m the new Columnist for LGBTQ+ Literature & Craft at DIY MFA? I can’t recall; but my first article went live in early-February and my next one goes up in late-April. I’ll add that one to my publications page as soon as it’s ready. Additionally, I’ve made some progress with submissions of my first novel (YA LGBTQ) and continue writing, revising, and submitting poetry. I’ve got a second novel (adult/literary fiction) in progress. Very early stages.
Now, to the reading! In March, the longest of the year so far (and one which should’ve yielded some free time, considering I’m currently on Spring Break), I’ve managed to read just a bit less than I did in January and February. Oh well! This month was filled with extreme joy from positive news and extreme despondency from some terrible news. So it goes.
Despite life’s raging waters, I did read 9 books this month and they were, for the most part, excellent. (Technically I’m at 8.5, since I’m currently more than half way through reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I also read half of Buddhist Scriptures in February, and half this month, so let’s call that an even draw?) Here’s the scoop!
Buddhist Scriptures, edited by Donald S. Lopez: Of all my themed texts this year, I think I was most excited for this one because I sort of identify as a secular (and western) Buddhist. I have to admit, though, that most of this went way over my head, and that I was shocked (oh my naivete!) by the amount of, well, religion in Buddhism. So many of these stories are loaded with mythology, supernatural accounts, etc. It’s clear to me, now, why religious Buddhist practitioners are often so exasperated by western secular Buddhists like me. We’ve taken some of the core philosophy and discarded all of the religion, which is maybe 90% of the culture? Anyhow, it was a challenge to get through this one. Buddhism is such an ancient and complex religion, with numerous sects, each of which has its own history. It felt a lot like reading the origins of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and their separations from “Point X,” except with less prior knowledge. That said, I enjoyed the many perspectives, the very helpful introductions to each section, and the text’s introduction itself, as well as the lists for further reading. I don’t think Buddhism can truly be read from any single “scripture” the way some other major religions can be, which makes this particular edition simply a starting point.
The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich: I’ve read one or two (or three) Adrienne Rich poems in my day but never an entire collection. I’m glad to have rectified that at last! My goodness, this book of poems dated 1974-1977 is fantastic. A powerful examination of what it is to be woman, queer, and both at the same time, at a particular flashpoint in American history. I enjoyed, especially, the common themes that held these poems together. Rich leans toward numerated verse poems in this collection, which aren’t typically my favorite (I get a little anxious over long poems), but honestly this is a fantastic work. Some of my favorites are “Hunger,” “Cartographies of Silence,” and “A Woman Dead in her Forties.”
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut: Ah, my return to Vonnegut, at long last. I’m nearly done reading his complete works, and then I’ll start over again in chronological order, probably, although I do still have his book of collected letters to read. This is definitely one of Vonnegut’s best and most personal (though they’re all good and they’re all personal.) It’s one of the most interesting explorations on the nature of good and evil, and the nature of people’s engagement with that very question as it pertains to individuals, be it ones they know or ones they don’t. It also reads as incredibly relevant right now in this age of cancel culture and instant judgement. This one also begins with my favorite Vonnegut line: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Later by Stephen King: The latest from Stephen King, a writer I read often, is definitely not my favorite. This one is published by Hard Case Crimes, the same group that published King’s Joyland, which I loved. I think I was a little irritated with the narrator who continued to promise the reader that “this is a horror story,” when it reads absolutely unlike horror until the final pages. To that point, it’s a decently interesting coming-of-age story about a young boy/teen/man who has special abilities which are eventually exploited by someone he should have been able to trust. It just felt a bit easy, to me. I will say, however, that the “horror” promised is somewhat surprising and more in the vein of human horror than the kind of supernatural type we might be used to from Stephen King. Maybe that’s not surprising, though, since the hart of any King novel is always, “my, what do we do to one another?”
The Dharma of Poetry by John Brehm: This was delightful! Brehm offers an interesting perspective on the purpose of poetry, alongside excellent and illuminating explications of some brilliant poems. I found the book intellectually stimulating and emotionally refreshing.
Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara: Conversations about Frank O’Hara have been all over the place, recently. I think his birthday was just a few days ago (March 27), so maybe that’s why? I don’t know. I enjoyed this little collection, but only a couple of poems really caught my attention. These are “Ave Maria” and “Cornkind.” Otherwise, some surprising and powerful lines here and there, definitely, and an irreverent attitude plus engaging way of looking at absolute ordinary living. Overall, though, I wouldn’t place this particular collection among the very favorites I’ve read in the last couple years.
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin: I don’t know that James Baldwin can do any wrong in my eyes. This is his first novel, and its hopeful tone makes that clearer than anything else. It is brilliant in its construction and its subtlety. Baldwin has a terrible ability to say exactly what he wants to say without overstating it, which is especially fruitful, I think, when considering that much of what he’s writing about is race and (homo)sexuality. The world now is absolute crap at dealing with these concepts, so imagine writing about them in the 1950s! Baldwin says of this one that it is “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything.” I get what he means. It’s autobiographical and universal, too. I’m not sure it has much of a competitor in his oeuvre outside of Giovanni’s Room.
Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey: Published in England in 1994. Where has this play been all life!? I’m a little embarrassed to have just read it for the first time. A hopeful account of young gay love when most accounts were muted, if not downright horror-filled, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Funny, honest, tender, beautiful. I’m delighted to see there’s a film adaptation available to stream. I’m strongly considering adding this one to a future class’ required reading.
This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garrett: This one would 5 stars for the illustrations alone. I was set to give it a 3 but the last section was great and, for me, what I’d have liked most of the book to be. A good 2/3 of it, though, was a bit too jargon-heavy, cerebral, and detached. Very self-referential and not enough tacit guidance or modeling for its titular promise. Until the end chapter, that is. The author himself admits that it’s his singular philosophy, and a meta investigation of it, so fair’s fair, I guess. But most people either won’t get beyond the philosophy or beyond the “bias/politics.” (And that’s coming from someone who agrees with the writer’s politics almost completely.) Did this book make me kinder? No. And yes.
April’s World Religion Theme: The Holy Vedas
This month’s theme is The Holy Vedas. I’m reading the Penguin illustrated edition by Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar. The book is 448 pages long, including introductory materials, so that comes out to about 15 pages per day. I think that should be more than doable considering the reading per page is usually not extensive (broken as it is into verses of large text size.) The book is also broken into 6 major sections, so I’ll try to aim for one or two of those a week.
I’m excited to engage with this one, as I’ve got absolutely no background in or prior knowledge about Hinduism, unlike the Tao Te Ching & Buddhism (January and February/March). Once again, though, I’m not reading the text from a religious or spiritual context, but simply as a curious reader who wants to know more about the major religions of the world. If you’d like to join me on that adventure, I’d be happy to have you!
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