My Word for 2020

Once there was a way.

Just the other day, I was thinking back to 2018 and a new kind of resolution I had decided to try. It was something called, “My Word for 2018.” At the time, I thought it was a new trend, as I had seen it going around on a few blogs/Twitter profiles. Upon deeper reflection, I realized this is probably something people have been doing for generations, but the internet has a way of making things new again. In any case, when thinking about my 2018 word, “SEE,” I struggled to think of my 2019 word. I went back to blog posts and old journal entries, and realized that I never came up with one last year.

If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night. -Attavagga: The Self (157)

I tend to work in cycles like this. Some cycles are long, like annual ones, and others seem to be a little shorter. There are times when I’m completely in control, positive and energetic, and then there are times when everything seems to go wrong and, much as I care to act/react differently, I can’t bring myself to do so. In looking back on those old posts, one thing I noticed was that, at the end of 2017, I wrote an annual reflection and commented on what a difficult year it had been. I could be writing that exact same post right now. Literally, to the word. That year, I wrote, “This past year has been a real struggle, psychologically, emotionally, and financially.” Those are the exact thoughts that brought me back to my journals and to the idea of selecting a word for 2020.

Something important, then, might be this: I ended 2017 by reflecting on that challenging year and tried to write something positive about the year ahead. Then, I began 2018 by choosing a word, SEE, to focus on (no pun intended.) And, you know what? 2018 was an a very good year, all things considered. But, when the year came to an end, I did not reflect. When 2019 began, I did not think ahead. I wonder if I only make time to self-reflect when things are going poorly, and perhaps that is part of what creates such imbalance in my life. If I cannot pause just as well during good times to acknowledge what is good, to think about why things are going well, and to remind myself of those feelings–to keep at them–then how quickly and easily might they slip away?

One should first establish oneself in what is proper; then only should one instruct others. Thus the wise man will not be reproached. -Attavagga: The Self (158)

So, I will try again. I admit first of all that I’m trying, just as in 2017, when things have not been very good. This year has been a very difficult one for many reasons, including a physical injury in January that seemed to set the tone for everything else to come, then struggles with mental health that I have been battling all year. I don’t want to end the year with those thoughts, though. Instead, I’ll think about the good:

As an educator: I’m more than half-way into my tenure term as a college faculty member and will be planning and submitting my tenure application late next year. I’ve built a good rapport with my students and colleagues at the college and have participated in a number of things, events and programs and developments, that I believe are important and helpful to the college and its community. I designed my own course, which has run successfully three times already, and I am currently designing a second one.

As a writer: In February, I published my first book (academic non-fiction) and this year I wrote and revised my first novel, which is now being beta read and queried to publishers. Recently, I compiled and edited a collection of essays that I’m working on assembling into my next book, a collection on LGBT issues in literature, and I hope to publish it early in 2020. I successfully “won” both Camp NaNoWriMo in June and NaNoWriMo in November. I submitted a short work that I care about deeply to multiple journals and, though I did not get an acceptance at any of them, I’m very glad that I wrote the piece and that I’ve been putting it out there, regardless of the outcome.

In service: I’ve made strides in public service, one of my goals for last year. Most of my activities have been in service to the college and local community, such as assisting at the county public library during LGBT family day. I was also asked to serve as a national juror for the Scholastic Writing Awards this year, a task which is rather monumental but has already been so rewarding. I’ll be finishing my services as a juror in the next couple of weeks and hope to attend the ceremony this spring, to see these young writers be recognized for their talents and hard work.

As a person: Something I’ve been trying very hard to do is break the chains of social media. It’s difficult now that I live so far away from everyone I care about, except my husband. The majority of my family and friends are 2,000 miles away now, with some a little closer (300 miles.) So, giving up something like Facebook, which is what my entire generation “grew up” on and has made ubiquitous in our lives, from sharing photos and personal updates, to invitations for important events, is easier said than done. I’ve deleted my account a number of times, and tried the same with Twitter, etc., but I kept going back. I have managed to stay mostly off of it (Facebook) for one month, now, and I’m going to consider this progress that I can build on. I fear social media has done more harm than good, particularly in the way we communicate with one another but also in the way it has decimated individuals’ capacities for critical thought, patience, and development of common sense. It is, in my opinion, stifling our growth and simultaneously cultivating our basest instincts. I’ve decided to keep in touch in more old fashioned ways, like text messaging (can you believe that’s “old school”?), sending physical cards and letters, and making phone calls. I created a spreadsheet with important people and their important information, things I want to remember, like birthdays, which for the last 15 years I’ve relied on Facebook to tell me. No more.

In addition, I’ve tried to keep up with some of my other personal goals, like developing my philosophical self. I almost wrote spiritual self, there, but I’m not really that kind of person, even though I do think I’ve been settling into Buddhism this year. A secular Buddhism, if that’s possible. (Well, of course it is.) I thought for some time that Stoicism was my route, and I still respond to much of its teachings and will continue to rely on it, but it wasn’t exactly right. Buddhism has been making much more sense to me. In a way, it brings me back to a kind of humanism that I pursued for nearly a decade.

Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial. -Attavagga: The Self (163)

One thing I’ve failed at has been maintaining my physical health. 2018 was a “Red Letter Year” in that regard. I absolutely nailed my physical health and was making incredible progress toward the kind of strength and balance I had been seeking. I think part of the success was found in the new environment–my first full year living in a new state, one where it’s possible to be outdoors nearly every day, and certainly a great deal more than I was able to when I lived in the Midwest! But when I came home from a Christmas visit last winter and injured myself just a few weeks later–an injury that took months to heal–I somehow lost all that drive and ambition, and of course physical and mental/emotional health are intimately related. I let that setback and major disappointment infect the way I thought and felt about everything else, the way I responded to every other event, and it drove the choices I made all year. The summer of 2019 brought another major setback, this one financial, so that just as I was beginning to heal physically, I was hit mentally/emotionally with another whammy. And, I believe, because I had allowed myself to sink into such a pit in the first place, the second punch landed much harder than it might have otherwise.

By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another. -Attavagga: The Self (165)

My Word for 2020: HEAL. Taking everything into consideration, then, including when, where, and why I feel I have been struggling with when, where, and why I have succeeded, I’m making my focus for 2020 healing. I know I have a tough year of recovery ahead, which will be even more challenging as I prepare for my tenure application. But while I spent 2019 feeling slighted, disappointed, and ultimately angry with myself for not being perfect all the time, I want to look at 2020 as a year of renewal. A re-commitment to myself on every level: physical, intellectual, and emotional. I’ve subscribed to a few magazines that I hope will offer me interesting news of the world, in arts, science, and philosophy. I plan to set aside time each week to read these and to engage with the world, in lieu of being on social media. I plan to continue to learn more about Buddhism and to do more writing, much more writing, than I did even in 2019. I plan to give an enthusiastic “YES” to doing things that are important to me, to taking those opportunities, and give thoughtful “NOs” to those things that demand too much of my time or attention and for which I’m not as suited as someone else might be. I will make myself a priority, again, and that means forgiving myself for a bad year of bad choices.

Job number one, now, is to look at healing as a gift to myself, not a punishment for what I didn’t do right when I could have.

I will begin with what makes me: writing, reading, and music.

Happy New Year.


Red, White and Royal Blue

Gay sex!

Have I got your attention? Good! That’s about how I felt when I started reading Casey McQuiston’s Red, White Royal Blue. A little shocked, a little surprised, a little bit, “Oh, what’s this, now?” You see, I didn’t do much background research, over even a casual web browse, about this book before I started reading it. I had seen it spoken about so glowingly on Twitter and by book blogger friends, and the reviews were generally so overwhelmingly good, that I followed my instinct and bought it, assuming I would enjoy it. The thing is, I thought this was a young adult novel and realized only during the first (of many) sex scenes that (cough) much to my chagrin, this one is rather adult. I suppose it would be classified as an adult romance novel?

I’m not sure how I missed that this one was an adult novel rather than a YA, except to say that the cover is a bit deceptive and that a number of people who I saw rating/reviewing/talking about this one are typically YA readers. I also ordered the book online, so I didn’t have the benefit of searching the stacks at my local bookstore for it, which probably would have quickly corrected my incorrect assumptions. Well, what do I say now?

The book is good. The book is also one of a genre that I very rarely read, so I’m a bit at a loss as to what to say about it. Is it a good romance novel? I don’t know – I’ve not much to compare it to. It certainly was a good story, though, and if you happen to enjoy (same-sex) love scenes, then you’re two for two so far in the “meeting or exceeding expectations” category, I think. Anyway, to the story:

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the 21-year-old son of President Claremont, the first female president of the United States. He’s also half-Mexican American, and his family is from Texas. Hello, political drama! In the midst of his mother’s re-election campaign, Alex begins to discover two things: first, that his long-time feelings for a particular member of the English royal family are more than he realized; and second, that he has a particular calling, one that might take more patience than his temperament would typically allow. Just as Alex takes important steps to grow into manhood and to develop his first honest, loving relationship with another person, scandal breaks. Can Alex be the partner his boyfriend needs him to be? Can he handle the scrutiny of the world gazing intently at his every move? Can he bear the thought of being the reason why his mother might lose re-election? Thankfully, he’s getting a whole lot of hot, steamy sex to keep him calm and motivated while the world seems to tumble down around him.

It’s not too long into the novel that you realize the book is based heavily on the 2016 elections right here in the United States, but thank heavens it takes a positive and hopeful tone, despite incorporating a number of current, relevant, and recognizable socio-cultural and political themes, including characters that are, well, awful. Casey McQuiston writes in the afterward that she began the book before the 2016 election and had to stop after the results. It makes perfect sense that one kind of alternate parallel universe was the original impetus for this one, but thank goodness McQuiston returned to the story after putting it down when the election went so wildly wrong. This is indeed a book that many will find comfort in for a lot of reasons, both because it looks hopefully and lovingly toward the future, and because it is a sweet, passionate romance story fleshed out with characters to root for, believable situations to get caught up in, and a resolution that is perfectly satisfying.

There were a few plot points that I struggled with, but I did enjoy this one. As I said, it’s not my usual kind of read, and it’s not necessarily a genre that I would go back to soon or regularly, but now I do understand how and why adult romance has become so popular. Red, White & Royal Blue is a wonderful escape buttressed by important cultural issues and thoughtful historical and political factoids that are integrated so well, one doesn’t realize they are being educated and entertained at the same time. And that is my kind of story.

Spreading Christmas Cheer

Happy Holidays!

Misonne, “Waterloo Place,” 1899

According to Christmas canon, AKA the 2003 film ELF, “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.” Since I’m obviously not going to do that, I thought I would try something else instead. It helps me to stop once in a while, especially these days, to remember all the good things that happen all the time but might not get much attention. It’s a mad, mad world; we’re constantly bombarded by the bad things, the dangerous things, the sad things, and the truly deplorable things. Today, on Christmas, I’d like to focus on the warm things, the loving things, the friendship things, and the things that make getting up every day and trying again worth it.  

So, I’m sharing three of my favorite reads from 2019, in hopes that someone else out there might also read and enjoy one or more of them, too. After that, I’ve shared a little bit about three “feel good” stories from this year. Please feel free to leave a comment with any story or message of peace, love, or joy that you think would be valuable for someone else to see/read this holiday season.

Three Books I Loved This Year

  1. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Yesterday, I received my signed copy of this novel, the first from poet Ocean Vuong, with an inscription that included an excerpt from one of my favorite passages in the book, and perhaps one of my favorite passages in any piece of literature. It goes, “To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” It’s such a short statement, but doesn’t it pack a punch? How much information, how much forced reflection, is jammed into that little passage? I read the book back in June and still that passage sticks with me and reminds me to think back to my 2018 word of the year, and try to see people a little bit better. To be more patient, more compassionate, and less self-absorbed. In my review, I wrote, “For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.” This still holds true. This is a book I’ll carry with me into the new year. I think it will continue to inform the way I think about myself and my memory, the way I think about others and, hopefully, how I tread them, and the way I think about, and go about the business of, being a writer. 
  2. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian. This young adult novel was far more than I expected. Unfortunately, I read it at a time when I was not writing many reviews, so I didn’t get much more down than first reactions. I say unfortunately because this is a book that deserved better attention from me and that certainly deserves the public’s attention. I wish I would have shared more about it at the time, so that some of you, particularly those who love Young Adult literature or who love LGBTQ literature/history, could learn a bit about it. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story manages to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna. 
  3. Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson. Since I have an adult novel and a young adult novel, I also want to be sure to share some non-fiction. Brave Face is Hutchinson’s personal and powerful memoir. I have to admit to being equal parts disturbed and jealous, because this book is in so many ways the book I would like to write or have written. We share so many experiences and opinions, which is perhaps not that strange considering we are near the same age and had a similar upbringing. There are some very specific experiences in his life that I, too, experienced in an almost startlingly similar way. It was strange to feel so connected to another person’s life story, especially considering how painful much of that journey was for him. It tapped into a part of me that I keep very much to myself, and it was cathartic in a way. Brave Face is an important piece in the LGBTQ+ literary puzzle, and especially as non-fiction targeting young adult audiences, which is not a substantial genre right now.

Honorable Mentions: DIG by A.S. King (young adult); THE SIZE OF THE TRUTH by Andrew Smith (middle grade), and BURNT OFFERINGS by Timothy Liu (poetry.) 

Three Stories I Loved This Year

  1. An entire town in Turkey learned sign language so they could communicate with one of their deaf neighbors. This is a story from 2014, but I only heard about it a few months ago, and I have to admit to being brought to tears by it. Imagine struggling every day to communicate with the people around you, to feel like an outsider in your own town, and then walking outside one day and being greeted in your own language by all of your neighbors, wherever you went. This is the kind of world I still believe is possible, so thank you to the people of Turkey for reminding us of the better path. 
  2. Millennials are constantly getting a bad rap. As one myself (just barely), and as someone who has taught Millennials for many years, I’ve always wondered about this. These young people are kinder, more generous, more thoughtful, and more inspired than I ever felt I was, or my friends were, at that age (though we were good people, too.) So, why the constant ribbing? Maybe older generations always do this, but a group of Millennials in Germany proved just how wonderful these young people can be when they surprised a homeless man with an impromptu musical performance. They borrowed his bucket, turning it into a drum, and collected money from passersby as they performed. Afterward? They gave all the money to that homeless man and went on their merry ways.
  3. Tinney Davidson, an 88-year-old woman living in British Columbia, Canada with her husband, was known to her neighbors as the woman who waved to the schoolchildren every morning for 12 years. Even after her husband passed away, she went to the window every morning to wave at the children and wish them a good day. When the neighborhood found out that she would be moving away and into an assisted living facility, hundreds of children from the local schools showed up to her house carrying flowers and signs that said things like, “We Love U Mrs. Davidson” and “Thanks 4 Being Awesome!” They gathered on her lawn and blew her one big collective kiss goodbye.  Who says small acts of kindness go unremembered? And who says children don’t appreciate kindness when they experience it? 

Thank you as always, for reading. I still cannot believe this little blog has nearly 11,000 subscribers, and I will forever feel grateful and humbled by your presence here. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Fabulous Festivus, Happy Kwanzaa, or, simply, peace, love, and good health to you as we end another year and prepare to begin a new one.

With love and kindness

To a God Unknown

“I am the rain.”

This is going to sound selfish, but the thing I love most about reading John Steinbeck, whether I’m reading him at his “best” or his “worst,” is that I always find reassurance that my love for Steinbeck, my relationship with him as a writer and a thinker, is a strong, good thing. It is something that must be.

To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s more difficult novels and certainly not my favorite. And, while it’s not very long (about 180 standard pages), it took me quite a while to get through it and not, this time, because of work or other obligations that always distract and tire me. No, this one is just a little more challenging in what it asks of the reader, in the way that it challenges the reader to think and to feel. Imagine the raw, dental root nerve of Ernest Hemingway’s deepest emotion made explicit through the voice of, say, a late Mark Twain, at his most jaded. That juxtaposition of raw feeling with total world-weariness permeates every word on every page of this Steinbeck novel, in the way that his more popular works, like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, suggest more subtly and with some courageous hope.

The story tells of Joseph Wayne, a young farmer raised a protestant Christian in New England, who has a strong desire to move west and be with the land, to claim land of his own even though he is due to inherit his dying father’s prosperous farm on the east coast. As events unfold, Joseph’s connection to the land, his yearning for it, becomes more central to the plot and to his life, until he has thrown off Christianity entirely and has adopted a more pagan belief system. Ultimately, Joseph’s success is no match for his devout Christian brother’s fears and prejudices; when his brother sabotages the idol that Joseph has instilled with their father’s memory and spirit, the family’s blessed and prosperous days come to an abrupt end. Ironically, Joseph’s story echoes the Christ story in many ways, including in the importance of the trinity and in sacrifice, but whether that ultimate sacrifice is for the land or the people is much less clear than the biblical version’s.

Steinbeck wrote that it took him five difficult years to develop this novel, and that it was perhaps the most challenging story he ever had to write. Considering the audience of the time, it is no stretch to imagine that he was deeply troubled by how a book like this, one that at the very least offers alternatives to Christianity and, perhaps, might suggest that other belief systems are better, would be received. Part of its genius, though, is in its tragic ending. Like the great epics of classical Greece, a reader might take the finale of To a God Unknown in a number of different ways. There are three that come to mind, for me, each of which suggests an entirely different way of believing and of being in the world.

While this tale might not be as deeply human or affecting as Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, or even The Pearl, it nevertheless does what Steinbeck’s works always seem to do: challenge the status quo. Encourage the reader to question what she knows. Desperately plea with us to be a little bit better than we were when we picked the book up and began to read it, better to ourselves, better to the land, and better to each other.

Notable Quotes

“It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing back toward stillness.”

“The first grave. Now we’re getting someplace. Houses and children and graves, that’s home, Tom. Those are the things that hold a man down.”

“I do not know whether there are men born outside humanity, or whether some men are so human as to make others seem unreal. Perhaps a godling lives on earth now and then. Joseph has strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild and fierce and sharp as the lightning.”

“Everything seems to work with a recurring rhythm except life. There is only one birth and only one death. Nothing else is like that.”

The Final Checkpoint! #TBR2019RBR

And so it ends.

As we head into the final few days of 2019, I wanted to post briefly about the challenge and people’s progress, including my own. First, I’m sad to say that I will not be bringing the challenge back for 2020. I know a lot of people were hoping it would be back again for Year 9, but I’ve decided I’m just not too interested in hosting it anymore, and my attentions here on the blog and elsewhere have turned to other matters.

I’m currently editing my second academic text (a collection of essays of literary criticism to be published early in 2020) and sending out queries for my first novel (which has been completed and revised. If you know any agents looking for LGBTQ Own Voices YA, let me know or send them my way!) So, I wish I could keep this up again another year, but it’s time to say goodbye, or at least goodbye for now.

As to my challenge progress this year, it looks like I’m only going to get through 7 of the 12 books I need in order to “Win.” That’s still a win for me, though, as it’s 7 books that had been sitting on my shelves for ages that I’ve finally read!  I enjoyed most of them, too.

Here are the 7 that I’ve finished:

Of this list, I would have to say that my favorites were The House of the Vampire, Timequake, and Gemini. (Gemini was pretty stunning. More people should read it, seriously.)

We do have some folks who have commented on the master post indicating that they are finished – outstanding! After the year ends, I will be going back to The Mister Linky to randomly select a winner from all the participant posts this year. Remember, all your linked reviews for completed books from your original TBR Pile list (which I have saved), plus ONE final wrap-up post, will earn you entries into the final giveaway, provided you have linked them all to our Mister Linky by January 14th. I will be selecting the winner on January 15th. To put it simply:

  • How to be entered to win: Link up reviews for any/all completed book on your original list before January 14th.
  • How to get a bonus entry: Link up a challenge wrap-up post before January 14th.
  • How to get a second bonus entry: If you COMPLETED your challenge (at least 12 out of 14 books read and reviewed), leave a comment on this post by December 31 saying so; I will check your links and/or your wrap-up post, if you provide one, and add your name to the “Current Completers” list below.
  • One winner will be selected randomly on January 15th and be notified via blog/email.
  • Only those who originally registered for this challenge last year and have been participating are eligible to be entered. (I have all original lists saved.)

Current Completers:

If you’re out there and you’ve finished your challenge, be sure to leave a comment letting us know! If you didn’t finish – what kind of progress did you make?  1 of 12?  6 of 12? Even reading one book is a step in the right direction, so if you gave it a shot – good for you!

Which books from your list did you love? Which ones did you hate? Which reading challenges are you looking forward to in 2020?

Young Adult Potpourri

A Mixed-Bag

During the academic term, I typically find myself reading a lot of young adult fiction. Young adult fiction, while often tackling very serious real-world issues, also tends to be highly readable for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is its reading level. These novels are often well-paced, logically divided, and supported by compelling storytelling. All of this works favorably, for me, because it allows me to keep reading even when I’m mired in heavy teaching workloads, committee work, service, and my own research/writing. That said, lately, I’ve found myself being less interested in many of the young adult works I’ve been reading. I’m not sure if this is because I’ve read too much of it and so I feel bored or over-saturated by formulas, or if its because I’m not in the right place to be reading and relaxing at all, so I become less able to concentrate, whatever the story or its potential. Today, I would like to share some thoughts on four young adult/middle grade novels that I did enjoy on some level.

EXILE FROM EDEN by Andrew Smith

Exile from Eden is the sequel to Andrew Smith’s wildly popular, Grasshopper Jungle. It takes place nearly two decades after the events of the original novel, returning us to Iowa and the Sczerba family. In this installment, however, it is the children, now teenagers, of the original cast who are the protagonists. For years, the unstoppable grasshoppers have wreaked havoc on the United States, and possibly beyond. The world has essentially come to a post-apocalyptic standstill, where almost all technology, communication, and modern amenities have been ended. There is no government, no society, and in fact almost no human beings. This is the world young Arek, and stowaway Mel, enter when the leave their hole at long last, in order to search for Areak’s fathers.

What Andrew Smith continues to do so well in this novel is to describe children in the most unlikely and yet all-too-familiar of circumstances. While the environment and the events of Exile from Eden are mostly unimaginable, his characters’ responses to them, their search for family, identity, and self-worth in the face of the most severe obstacles and challenges, internal and external, are wholly relate-able. Breakfast, the wild boy who is born into the post-apocalyptic world, is an interesting contrast to the “civilized” people who existed before the cataclysm, and it is no surprise that Smith seems to be suggesting that we could, all of us, do with a return to human nature and our basic instincts, primarily the principle: to live and let live. To defy judgement. To be true to yourself. While I enjoyed Grasshopper Jungle quite a bit more than its sequel, fans of the original novel are likely to enjoy this one too.

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell

Wayward Son is the sequel to Rainbow Rowell’s delightful Harry Potter-inspired novel, Carry On. (If you’re sensing a theme in these titles, good on you!) I was a huge fan of the original work, in how it reveled in Harry Potter fandom and yet was something entirely original, too. In Carry On, Rowell reimagines the cast as somehow more jaded, more human, and of course adds some interesting and desperately needed realistic characterization, such as openly queer characters and romances. Wayward Son picks up not long after where Carry On ends. While one could call the finale to Carry On happy, or at least successful, Wayward Son makes clear that every choice has its consequences, and the tone throughout this second installment is much bleaker.

Simon Snow, Baz, Penny,  and Agatha are back again in Wayward Son. The Chosen One has fallen quite significantly, and now lives as a deformed humanoid, without power. His boyfriend, Baz, is at a complete loss as to how to help Simon heal and find himself again. Enter Penny, who comes up with a brilliant idea for an American roadtrip, where they will visit her boyfriend Micah (that doesn’t go according to plan) and their good friend Agatha (oops, this is sticky, too!) Along the way, they encounter a number of mythological creatures, some good and some bad, endanger themselves and others, and begin to repair, or sometimes end, relationships that have long needed attention. In the end, the power trio, with a surprising new companion, manage to save the day. Simon Snow, with a long road ahead of him, begins his steps toward healing. Wayward Son isn’t as enjoyable as Carry On, for me, but perhaps it is a logical next chapter in the lives of Simon and Baz.

THE TYRANT’S TOMB by Rick Riordan

The Tyrant’s Tomb is the 4th installment of the 5-book series, The Trials of Apollo, and it is one of the strongest in the series. In this installment, Apollo (or Lester Papadopoulos in his human form) and Meg, his master and sidekick, head to Camp Jupiter in the San Francisco area, having helped save southern California from being completely scorched by a triumvirate of vengeful, power-hunger former Roman Caesars, including Caligula, Nero, and Commodus. This time around, Nero and Python are on the sidelines, and Caligula and Commodus come to take over Camp Jupiter, with the help of an evil king, Tarquin. As in previous installments, there are mysterious prophecies, talking arrows, loads of sarcasm, old friends and new, and not a little bit of romance. Most importantly, we continue to see Apollo-as-Lester come to terms with what it really means to be human and to experience shame, even guilt, at the way he once acted as a God.

Part of why I love the Rick Riordan books, particularly those post-Percy Jackson, is because of what they do for diverse representation. Riordan seems to have made it his mission to fairly and empathetically include as many different times of people as he can, in completely natural ways. Many of his books have included gay and lesbian characters, characters of color, and differently abled characters, and yet this diversity never reads as tokenism; instead, these individuals are included seamlessly as part of the cast, and their development is typically treated in holistic and believable ways. Apollo, for example, is historically “bisexual” (in today’s terminology), so his romantic interests in men and women are often included, but Riordan also introduces the sexuality, or lack thereof, of different characters in ways consistent with the plot. One character in this installment, for example, is ultimately revealed as what we might call asexual or aromantic, but rather than simply stating these terms and getting into some bizarre description, this aspect of her personality is described through plot events and ultimately by a decision she makes at the end of the story. Riordan’s sensitive, warm embracing of the great variety of humanity and human experiences makes this book, which is already entertaining, fast-paced, action-filled, and hilarious, important and meaningful on another level.

ZIGGY, STARDUST & ME by James Brandon

I finished reading Ziggy, Stardust & Me way back in August, but it has taken me until now, four months later, to decide to try and write something substantial about it. My reluctance has been due to the fact that this is one of the best books I read all year, perhaps one of the best in a very long time. I feel reluctant saying that because I know such a statement might suggest that I speak objectively for any reader, but I want to provide a caveat that I felt this book very personally, and I cannot say for sure how everyone will react to this one. Only two other books, Shaun David Hutchinson’s BRAVE FACE and Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera’s WHAT IF IT’S US have affected me in a similar way, and I know that my thoughts on those two, while generally agreed with, were also very personal and perhaps didn’t carry over to every reader. That said, I do think it goes without saying that, as a topical, current young adult novel with important things to say about family, racism, indigenous peoples, and abuse, not to mention sexuality and coming-of-age, Ziggy, Stardust & Me is a stellar achievement.

The story takes place in 1973. At its heart is sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins, a gay high schooler who is struggling with his identity, not just because coming out is difficult for everyone, but because he lives in a time and place when homosexuality was still considered deviant, a mental illness. Jonathan is subjected to dangerous psychological treatments, now debunked, and the disapproval of his single, alcoholic father. While dealing with these serious issues, he meets a young man, Web, a member of the Lakota tribe. Suddenly, Jonathan is swept up in romantic feelings he had been desperately trying to stifle or change, and he must also learn what it is like for a native person to live in a white America that remains terribly prejudiced and violent. Despite their differences–race, economics, religion, family, etc.–Jonathan and Dakota connect on a deeply personal, almost spiritual level. Their relationship begins to bring out the best in each of them, and as they cling to each other, they begin to heal and to understand the two separate worlds from which they both come. Ziggy, Stardust & Me is a beautiful told, wonderfully researched, deeply sensitive treatment of young adulthood, race  and class, sexuality, and interracial romance.

Find Me by Andre Aciman

“Time is always the price we pay for the unlived life.”

Andre Aciman’s Find Me (2019), the highly anticipated sequel to Call Me By Your Name, has much in common with its predecessor, with some significant differences. Its structure and themes are similar, though much time has passed between the first novel, which revolves entirely around Elio and Oliver, and this one, which begins with Elio’s father, Samuel. One of the most obvious similarities is in the book’s structure.

Like Call Me By Your Name, the sequel is divided into four parts, two of which are longer and two of which are very brief. Instead of each section focusing on a different stage of development in a single romance, though, these four parts deal with different characters and their diverse relationships. The first section, “Tempo,” is also the longest. It is told entirely from the perspective of Samuel, Elio’s father, who meets a beautiful, interesting younger woman on a train. The two strike up an unlikely romance filled with passion and devoted entirely to the philosophy of carpe diem. The second section, “Cadenza,” changes to Elio’s perspective. It is the second longest part of the novel and begins by merging Samuel and Elio’s plot-lines. Elio meets Miranda and sees in his father what his father once saw in Elio himself, the great love and friendship that Samuel told the boy, in Call Me By Your Name, he was so lucky to have found. We learn what has happened to Elio’s mother, though more will be revealed in the end section as well. Also in the second section, Elio meets an older man and begins a relationship with him; it is surprising to both of them, and somehow they also both know, and accept, that the relationship will be entirely real but very brief. Judaism rises as a major connecting theme again, as it was in the first novel.

In part three, “Capriccio,” the reader is taken to America and granted, for the first time in either of the two novels, Oliver’s perspective. We learn what has become of him and his family, what kind of person he is, and how dearly he misses Elio. He is equal parts regret and longing, regret for not having had the courage to stay with Elio originally, and longing to return to their place in Italy and create the life that he is sure was meant to be theirs. This is perhaps the most haunting of the three parts, and the one which most directly recalls the events of Call Me By Your Name, though from a different perspective. It also incorporates references to some of the “afterward” events that take place in part four of the original novel, weaving them into Oliver’s present. The passage of time is significant and heavily pondered.

Lastly, in “Da Capo,” the fourth and final section, Elio and Oliver meet again at last. They had seen each other only once before, about fifteen years after the events of that fateful 1980s summer in Italy. That meeting is recounted in the end of Call Me By Your Name. But after the passage of another half-decade, Oliver at last returns to Italy to find Elio; or, as Oliver so desperately calls out at the end of “Capriccio,” to allow Elio to find him. This section is just 10-pages long, but it deftly reminds the reader what Elio and Oliver’s relationship was like originally and convinces us that the two were indeed longing for each other, waiting for each other, all along. There’s more than a bit of irony in this ending, considering how adamant Elio is about not believing in the concept of soulmates.

Besides the structure of the narrative, Find Me also shares similar themes to the original. Predetermination, soulmates, and Judaism, as mentioned, but also the devotion to erotic realism. To call this work erotic is to invoke the original meaning of the word, which is a realistic, almost naturalistic portrayal of a love without limits. It does not mean that this book is “erotica” by contemporary standards, meaning essentially pornographic; instead, Aciman is still interested in recounting the ways that true lovers do love all of their partner, in every way, shape, and form. The breaking down of barriers to decorum, for example, or privacy. The explicit desire for another’s scent or touch, manifested in the most human and mundane ways, or the near-lustful devotion to a partner’s most basic needs. Part of what makes Call Me By Your Name so interesting is that love-in-naturalism, and it is rewarding to see that Aciman has not abandoned the concept, here, despite the fact that none of the new relationships, neither Samuel’s nor Elio’s, is quite as interesting as Elio and Oliver’s was (possibly in part due to the fact that they each receive one chapter in a four-section book, rather than the entire book.)

Ultimately, Find Me will likely be a rewarding read for those who were fans of the original because it reintroduces us to familiar characters, fills in some of the gaps both between parts three and four of the original, but also afterward, and because it shares many of the same important themes, such as erotic love, outsider/community (Judaism), music and art, etc. On its own, it is not quite as compelling or moving as the original, nor does it strike as deeply. Many may wish it had been more about Elio and Oliver, but in a way, the point of Elio and Oliver’s story was in the universal, and in this sense, Find Me achieves the same goal. Love is love, and we only get one chance at life, so seize the day.

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