8 Rapid Reviews

I’ve been reading voraciously this summer but have definitely not been keeping up with reviews! I think that’s in large part due to the fact that I was teaching three classes and involved with two (now three – ha!) important and in-depth professional projects this summer. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get any significant thoughts down on much of this summer’s reading, because I’ve been reading so many really incredible things. That said, I do want to at least share what I’ve read, with a brief note or two about each work. I’ll include my Goodreads rating, too, for whatever that’s worth. 

Fire to Fire by Mark Doty: This 2008 collection (I thought it was more recent but am now realizing I’ve literally had this sitting on my shelves for twelve years!) is actually a kind of “greatest hits” plus ample selection of, at the time, new works. It gathers together the “best of” Doty’s previous seven poetry collections and adds his more recent uncollected pieces. What it proves is that Doty is one of America’s greatest contemporary poets and certainly a standout for gay poetry. I responded most to his poems about loss and about the painful but necessary act of moving forward. 5 out of 5. 

You Get So Alone At Times that It Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski: Another poetry collection from another American master. It was interesting to read this immediately after the Doty collection. I was both surprised by its sensitivity and simultaneously reminded of Bukowski’s grit and candor, for which he was much admired. I had not read much Bukowski, besides a few random poems found online and his novel, Ham on Rye. Bukowski was more a poet than anything, though, so it was great to finally sit down with one of his intentional collections and to experience a span of his work in action. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, probably because I found it more intimate and sensitive than I imagined it would be. 4 out of 5. 

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: Why didn’t I like this one? Honestly, this was such a weird experience. It read to me like a lampoon, but I’m not sure that was the intention. Maybe it’s because I recently read The Princess Bride and found it so hilarious, such an effective parody, that returning to the original genre of a type of Chivalric Romance just seemed, well, a bit absurd and unnecessary. I might also have found it a bit too glib for the serious kind of reading I had been doing this summer, otherwise, mostly relating to the Black Lives Matter movement and diversifying my reading, as well as a focus on poetry which, even when it’s fun, is serious work. Anyhow, it wasn’t all bad, of course; it’s a classic for a reason. I particularly appreciated how much depth some of the women characters received and there were some plot twists that I did not see coming. I don’t think I’d read this one again, though. Should I give Dumas another try? Count of Monte Cristo, maybe? On the plus side, this is another book completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge. 3 out of 5. 

No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners by Noah Rasheta: Noah Rasheta is the host of Secular Buddhism, an interesting podcast that explores a different element of Buddhism or Buddhist living (or everyday living through a Buddhist lens). In this book, he lays out the fundamental principles of Buddhism and attaches each to contemporary, real life scenarios to help new practitioners understand the many ways that a Buddhist life manifests. I appreciated how clear and organized, and brief, this book is, as it meets its promise of being “for beginners.” It’s an excellent starting point that provides a road-map for how to proceed with more in-depth study of the various concepts and principles, and it offers a helpful bibliography at the end, too. I also very much appreciate Buddhist instruction from people who are living a contemporary American life, as that is a lifestyle that seems, generally speaking, antithetical. 4 out of 5. 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: This is another I read for BLM and it was also on my list for Back to the Classics & the Classics Club. What a beautiful, sad, powerful first novel from another American master. I’ve been thinking about the three Morrison novels I’ve read–Beloved, Sula, and now The Bluest Eye–and trying to articulate what it is about Morrison that makes her work so impressive and so dangerous. In researching this one a little bit, I learned that Morrison was disappointed in herself for writing it the way she did. She admitted, later, that she had hedged a bit for white audiences, refusing to say exactly as much as she had intended, and in the way she intended to say it. I found this surprising because it’s such an interesting book, and damn good, and its intention seems clear enough to me. But then I do look ahead to Sula, and ahead again to Beloved, and I begin to see what she means. Over the course of her life and career, Morrison really cast off any regard for unintended audiences and focused specifically on the stories she needed to tell and the audiences she wanted to reach. Her masterpieces are then crafted out of the combination of supreme talent but also a sharp awareness of her particular rhetorical situation. The Bluest Eye hints at these, but doesn’t perhaps achieve the way Beloved does. Nevertheless, I’ve read that, for some readers, Bluest Eye changed them. Changed the way they saw the world. And I can absolutely appreciate why this would be so. 4 out of 5. 

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta: Wow, this was not what I expected! In the first place, it is a novel in verse. I also thought, for some reason, it was about the transgender experience, perhaps because I had read Felix Ever After not long before. The book’s description, though, says it best when it states, “Sometimes, we need to take charge, to stand up wearing pink feathers – to show ourselves to the world in bold colour.” That’s exactly what the story is about. The protagonist’s story unfolds in poetry. He deals with an absent father and with “non-boyish” desires. He likes pretty things and pretty colors, and he’s not sure why, as a young boy, he’s told that he can’t want the pink flamingo because it’s for girls. He’s not sure why he has to hide the barbie doll that he so cherishes, or pass it on to his sister. This one was really lovely and an excellent, positive addition to my BLM reading for the summer. It supplemented, and provided a needed break from, the non-fiction anti-racism reading. 4 out of 5. 

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.Somewhere amidst all the very heavy reading I was doing this summer, I apparently needed a break. That break was found in Jen Wang’s delightful graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. The story is about a young man, a prince, who sometimes likes to dress in women’s clothes. He hears of a brilliant young dressmaker and hires her to be his own personal designer. The story is charming, delightful really, and fresh in the way it bends gender roles separate from sexuality. The art, too, is simply wonderful. The story has its ups and downs, of course, and nothing goes entirely smoothly, not even for a prince, but the ending is a dessert worth waiting for. What a gem this one is! 4 out of 5. 

The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. Another excellent poetry collection by a gay black poet. This one speaks directly to the current movement and to the violence that has been perpetrated against black bodies for so long, too long. Reed uses a full arsenal in his exploration and call to arms, from mythology to modern cinema, from pop culture to classical poetic forms. At its heart, this is a critique of exploitation, an expose, and while it often looks outward at the populations of marginalized people, it is also personal, intimate, and revolutionary. Reed’s style of free verse is deeply informed by structure, which is exactly something I’ve been trying to explain to my students for years. His poems are always in conversation with other poems, other poets. This will become a model of how it is done. 4 out of 5. 

Thank you for reading Rapid Reviews, Part 1, which contains my brief thoughts on eight summer reads; Part 2 will come soon and will include brief thoughts on another eight reads from this summer. (And I’m also reading three more books right now, so those will come, well, someday!)

900 Miles by E.J. Runyon

I was first introduced to E.J. Runyon as a writer via her 2012 short story collection, Claiming One. I was a big fan, then, and I remain a big fan today, having just completed my first read of her new novel, 900 Miles

One of the things that first impressed me about Runyon’s writing style is her ability to capture voice. It is impossible for me to enjoy a story that cannot manage to get its characters’ perspectives right. I found Runyon’s adroitness at this especially apparent in Claiming One because each story’s distinct narrator had a clear and unique voice. I think this is one of the most challenging things for writers to do and is much of the reason why short story writers, in particular, often succeed or fail as storytellers. When we read ten or twelve or however many stories in a single collection, often binging a few in a sitting, it becomes very clear which writers can create disparate narrative voices and which ones simply rely too heavily on their own. Runyon has the knack. 

I was immediately drawn into the story 900 Miles tells because of the perspective of its narrator, Christina. It is remarkable to see such growth in an individual character, one whose presence remains the majority of the story itself from start to finish, develop in such a short period of time. I’ve read some trilogies that don’t quite manage this, and yet what Runyon does for Christina is not only believable, it is a privilege to witness. In the span of a couple-hundred pages, Christina’s life changes. The event that causes it is momentous, but the way she reacts to it, with caution and care, allows her to experience the kinds of living opportunities she had to that point forfeited due to poverty and self-consciousness. I’ll admit that I was worried about the striking nature of Christina’s change in fortune, and about how early it comes in the narrative, but that’s just a lesson: trust the author, especially one as precise as Runyon! 

Another element I found interesting about this short but thoughtful novel is its design. The chapters are separated into mini-portions, somewhat like vignettes. This took me back to my first experience reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals. Part of why I loved that short book so much is because it unfolded in moments, in flares of color and passion. Christina’s story, too, in 900 Miles, is both slow and fast. Everything changes in an instant, and yet Christina doesn’t allow that instant to change or define her. Instead, she embarks upon an arduous journey of self-discovery. As she gets in touch with her feelings, her desires, her limitations, she relays those to the readers in bursts of awareness. These vignettes propel the story forward but they also help us experience Christina’s moments of movement, to literally notice the changes as they happen, one at a time and then, holistically. 

There is as much about 900 Miles that is sad as there is about it that is happy. And yet, that’s life, isn’t it? Our journey, be it 9 miles or 900, often unfolds behind us. We recognize it only in memory, in retrospect. The beauty of a book like this is that it reminds the reader how special it can be to slow down just a little bit and breathe our moments as they come. 

Note: I received an electronic copy of this title from the publisher, Inspired-Quill; however, I still can’t manage to get through a damn ebook. So, I bought a print copy myself. No regrets. 

Thoughts: The Tradition

My “no pride without Black lives” month of reading continues with Jericho Brown’s incredible poetry collection, The Tradition

I have been following Jericho Brown on Twitter for some time, now, and I have read various of his poems in other places, but this is the first time I’ve picked up one of his complete volumes. Somehow, I ended up with a signed copy, which was wholly accidental but perhaps one of the greatest surprise gifts.

I was floored from the very first poem, “Ganymede,” where he writes, “Grief sounds as good as the gallop / Of an animal born to carry those / Who patrol our inherited / Kingdom.” The poem looks at myth “this way,” luxuriously and deceptively, to remind us of how we’ve convinced ourselves to see the rape of a people, their enslavement, from a slanted perspective. We need to be careful not to memorialize it in our memories the way we have so many other truths-turned-legends, lest we turn the ultimate pain into a fantasy. 

The collection contains three parts. Running through all three is a series of poems all of which are titled “Duplex.” Each one grows considerably sharper and more poignant, more pressing, as the collection roars forward to its conclusion. Somehow, Brown creates beauty where none should exist. His poems make explicit the horror we have grown accustomed to in our daily lives, but they do so in the way “Ganymede” promises from the outset. When he asks us, who doesn’t want to be loved by God, we see the answer in the very craft of the poetry. Everyone, everyone. And what have we sacrificed for it? 

“I begin with love, / hoping to end there” Brown writes in one of his “Duplex” poems, and I have to cheer him for succeeding. This collection and every poem in it, whether it is tackling issues of rape or terror, mass shootings, workplace struggles, or the intimacies of the bedroom, is filled with love. Crafted with love. Expressing love in every word and line, in every syllable and caesura. I’ve been reading poetry more regularly this year, but I haven’t been as moved by a complete collection since Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. In both cases, we have a queer poet of color singing the rhythm of his life. I find that Jericho Brown’s rhythm, like Vuong’s, both harmonizes with and dances away from the lyric of the great American life; a life that both men, perhaps, have felt has never fully included them in its promise or its machinations.

These are poets of power and critique, of eros and of deep pain. And the songs they sing, though remarkably individual, will resonate deep in the soul of the collective American psyche. Jericho Brown is one whose voice I hope to become more and more familiar with; his is a song that, once heard, cannot be forgotten. 

Thoughts: Felix Ever After

I have said many times that the best kind of book, even those within a genre we often dismissively label “pleasure reading,” is the book that teaches while it entertains. Perhaps not surprisingly, Young Adult novels tend to fall into this category. They make for lovely and usually simple reading, perfect for stressful times when we need escapist leisure (hmm… why is that so appealing right now?). Yet, they are also often quite instructive; at least, the really good ones are. Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After is a good one. 

The protagonist and narrator, Felix Love, has never been in love. And, as he states at the beginning of his story, he is quite aware of the irony, thank you very much. He has an adoring best friend, though, and a father who, despite awkward and annoying mistakes, tries his best to accept Felix for the young man he is. Unfortunately, Felix also has some baggage. A mother who disappeared when he was young. An ex-girlfriend who is, let’s be real, a pretty lousy person. And an arch-rival who is not only gorgeous, but also rich, and brilliantly talented in the same field as Felix; and let’s not forget, he’s also vying for the same scholarship and single space at the same university. Oh, the humanity! 

So, yes, there’s drama in the land of Felix. There’s also love when it is least expected. Who knew that a boy so desperate for love could find it in the two unlikeliest of places?

The balance of these tensions throughout is handled well, though if I’m being honest, I’m getting farther and farther away from being the “target audience” for young adult fiction. My patience for the drama and the perhaps inevitable character failings in young casts is wearing thin. I’m also always put off by characters that speak about things that seem, to me, well beyond their years. I understand the argument that this is often intended to give young readers a pathway toward learning, toward expanding their own knowledge, awareness, consciousnesses, and heck, even vocabularies. I think that’s an admirable goal, but I also think it can cause characters to seem unrealistic at times. All that being said, my two minor irritants (an ignoble narrator and a sometimes too-erudite group of kids) aren’t nearly problematic enough to take away from the goodness this story has to offer. It is well-paced, complex, sometimes dangerous, and often surprising. And best of all? It is edifying even for those of us who think, fallaciously, that we’re “beyond” its audience. 

Here’s an example of what I mean. Have you heard of the term demiboy? Maybe you have. I haven’t! Or, I hadn’t until I read this book. Now, here I am, neck-deep in LGBT Studies and queer theory, in queer pedagogy, and intersectional feminism. And here am I, learning something new about my own field of study from a young adult novel. I love that feeling. I love that reading young adult fiction keeps me in touch with what is current in the world today. There is always and will always be a place in my heart and on my shelves for great YA novels if for no other reason than this. It is instructive and it keeps me grounded. 

Felix’s story, the story of a young queer (trans) black man, is a particularly important and powerful one right now. It is a story that needed telling. Kacen Callender’s book, and voice, has entered the conversation in exactly the right moment. How very lucky we are to have it and how happy I was to read it.   

Thoughts: Citizen, An American Lyric

The first half (give or take) of Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, actually felt to me like a collection of short, flash fiction. It wasn’t until about that midpoint when the full force of Rankine’s work hit me and I suddenly understood what she had been doing. And it was powerful.

This collection hits particularly hard socially, right now, given all that’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it hits hard personally, too, because for weeks on end I’ve been unable to get Trayvon Martin out of my mind. I know we have lost a lot of young black men and women, and a lot of transgender black women. No, we haven’t lost them. They’ve been taken from us. And each and every one deserves justice. But it has been young Trayvon that I think about every day. The tribute Rankine pays him in this collection, the tribute she pays to so many, is hard to describe. It is a visceral experience even more than an emotional one, though of course the two go together. And Rankine’s genius is in the slow building momentum of her work, the kind that meets us where we are at the beginning and builds with us as we take in more, as we press forward despite the discomfort, as we too rage and cry, distraught, in the end. And she ends where perhaps a professor must: with a lesson. 

I think what I found most moving and profound about this work is the way Rankine weaves together the most mundane, seemingly innocuous acts of “everyday” racism with the more noteworthy ones. In the very beginning, for example, she includes alongside one of her poems a simple picture, as if taken glibly from someone’s cell phone camera. The photo shows a beautiful day in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. Near-center in the frame is typical street sign, bright green, at the crossroads of a neighborhood intersection. The sign reads, “Jim Crow Rd.” This is how Rankine works. She finds the most subtle, insidious reminders, the kinds we, most of us, might pass by day in and day out without much thought, and she drags our focus onto it, damning us and damning it together. And we deserve it because we’ve allowed so much to go unnoticed, unattended, uncorrected. 

Later, Rankine explores the more popular arenas, such as the spectacle of sports. Her love for tennis comes through in the way she writes about it, with such passion and such knowledge. But in her love she is forced to expose the deep faults and fatal flaws of a blatantly racist pastime. She takes us into the experiences of the Williams sisters, the mockery, the abuse, the psychological damage they faced for simply existing on the court and for being good. For being better than they should have been in a place where they shouldn’t have been. 

She connects these racist news events and these racist monuments and these racist pastimes with the personal moments of her life. The days at the office, the outings with her friends and colleagues, where even the pleasantries are miscast. She ponders freedom and language, memory and faith, life and death, with such careful precision that one feels the sting of the arrowhead’s penetration before we have even noticed Rankine drawing her bow. It is a difficult read because it is so effective, but it is an important read for the same reason. Rankine exposes us to ourselves.

“Words work as release,” she writes. “Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out — / To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting–” (69). Rankine’s cry is somehow beautiful in its heartbreak and its rage.

What is ours? 

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