The Mothers

We pray.

Not without ceasing, as Paul instructs, but often enough. On Sundays and Wednesdays, we gather in the prayer room and slip off jackets, leave shoes at the door and walk around in stocking feet, sliding a little like girls playing on waxed floors, We sit in a ring of white chairs in the center of the room and one of us reaching into the wooden box by the door stuffed with prayer request cards. Then we pray: for Earl Vernon, who wants his crackhead daughter to come home; Cindy Harris’s husband, who is leaving her because he’d caught her sending nasty photographs to her boss; Tracy Robinson, who has taken to drinking again, hard liquor at that; Saul Young, who is struggling to help his wife through the final days of her dementia. We read the request cards and we pray, for new jobs, new houses, new husband, better health, better-behaved children, more faith, more patience, less temptation.

the-mothersThe Mothers who narrate this debut novel by Brit Bennett are the church mothers at the Upper Room chapel in Oceanside, California. These mothers observe and pray and, for the purposes of the novel, act as a sort of Greek chorus as they observe the lives of three young people making the transition into adulthood.

Nadia Turner is 17, and her mother, who had Nadia at 17, has just committed suicide. Dazed and grieving, Nadia drinks and parties and eventually hooks up with Luke Sheppard. Nadia was supposed to be the first in her family to go to college, but then she becomes pregnant and fears ending up as unhappy as her mother.

Luke, 21, is the pastor’s son and a former football star. He now waits tables at a local fast food and is known to be kind of wild. As the Mothers observe, “You know what they say about pastors’ kids.”

And then there’s Aubrey Evans, also 17, and the perfect good girl type. She also has no mother, but that’s because she left, moving in with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend. Aubrey came to the Upper Room all on her own and has made herself part of the community, her purity ring signifying her commitment to staying “good.” She doesn’t tell anyone why this commitment is so important to her.

The novel follows these three young black people as they draw close to each other and drift apart and back again. The writing is wonderful, and I fell right into the novel in a way that is rare for me these days. I cared deeply for these characters, worrying over their mistakes and hoping they’d find their right paths, even when it wasn’t clear to me exactly what that path should be. I also appreciate that this is a book all about black lives without being a book all about race. We need more stories like this.

As much as I loved this book, I admit that the characters tend to be types, but they felt like real, flesh-and-blood examples of those types. The book employs a lot of common tropes, but Bennett does it so elegantly that I didn’t care. It’s a good story, well-told, even if it’s familiar.

And then there’s the ending, where Bennett subverts the Greek chorus narration just enough that I’m tempted to say it’s a twist, but that might leave you expecting too much. These women with their prayers turn out to be not just observers, but actors. It’s quite ingenious and left me even more satisfied with a book that I already thoroughly enjoyed.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 11 Comments

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

deer-hunting-with-jesusThanks to the election, a lot of liberals are taking an interest in the plight of the rural working class these days. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and White Trash by Nancy Isenberg have been the subject of many a review and think piece. I gave up on Hillbilly Elegy after a few chapters because it was more memoir than analysis, and the memoir wasn’t interesting me much. As for Isenberg’s book and similar ones, as someone who grew up in the rural white working class, I’m uncomfortable with the anthropological approach of an outsider swooping in for a brief period and claiming to have the answers. (I may still read White Trash and Strangers in Their Own Land at some point, but I’m hesitant.) I decided I’d rather go in a different direction and read some Joe Bageant, a writer much praised by Citizen Reader.

Published in 2007, this book is a collection of essays about Bageant’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, a town in the northernwestern part of Virginia. Bageant grew up there but moved away for 30 years before returning late in life. His political views are liberal, and he writes with compassion and sometimes frustration about the people he grew up with and how the Republican party has convinced them that their party has the answers, even when it doesn’t.

You might think that a book written in 2007 would be ridiculously dated by now, but, for the most part, this feels more prescient than out-of-date. For instance, there’s this from a section on the importance of education:

Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution. It is no accident that number corresponds roughly to the percentage of people with college degrees. So intelligent liberals are advised to save their depression and the good booze for later, when things get worse.

Until those with power and access decide that it’s beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots. And that means educating everybody, not just the small-town valedictorian or the science nerds who are cherry-picked out of the schools in places like Winchester or more rural areas. These people end up in New York or Houston or Boston—places where they can buy boutique coffees or go to the art cinema—holding down jobs in broadcasting or research or economics.

I’m guessing that if Bageant were still alive, he’d think this was the time we were supposed to be saving that good booze for. So there’s that. And the point about education is a good one. I was lucky enough to live in a rural county that valued education and supported a large high school with more offerings for its smartest students than you’d find in many rural areas. (When I went to college, I learned about areas where we were lacking, but we did well with what we had.) But even so, there were lots of kids who graduated with barely enough knowledge to get by. And, as far as I know, only a few of the top-performing students from my graduating class live in the area now. The brain drain is real.

What’s more, as Bageant describes and my own experience bears out, there is suspicion of higher education in some rural communities. After I went away to college, I returned to my hometown to teach high school for a couple of years. I’d lost some of my accent, and I used correct grammar when speaking (although that was always true), and some students immediately branded me an outsider not worth listening to. One student was convinced my family wasn’t from the area even though my roots there went back generations—and those roots were not from the county’s upper classes. So education can make rural areas uncomfortable places to live, which further exacerbates the brain drain problem.

Bageant also talks about how much more effective the political right has been at getting their message into rural areas. For example, people on the factory floor listen to right-wing talk radio all day long. NPR may be available, but it doesn’t hold the same appeal. There’s a chicken or egg quandary here that Bageant doesn’t get into. Personally, I think the right-wing media exacerbates tendencies that are already there, but not necessarily to toxic levels. So someone who worries a little about how immigration affects their employment gets a drumbeat of information that makes them terrified and furious about immigration.

At any rate, Bageant maintains that the left isn’t nearly as effective as it should be at getting the message out about how the rich are screwing over the poor. In the political scene, for instance, Bush had photo ops of himself clearing brush in Crawford, while John Kerry’s photos showed him wind-surfing in Martha’s Vineyard. Who seems more relatable to factory workers in Winchester?

Some of Bageant’s harshest words are directed at the corporate class, and he’s not just talking about CEOs of big companies. He also makes digs at local business people who don’t pay the small-time contractors who work for them and local governments that offer generous tax breaks to companies that don’t need them while neglecting the needs of their poorest citizens. And those citizens are taught to feel grateful for the terrible jobs and low pay that they receive.

I found most of Bageant’s ideas interesting and well worth thinking about. And he has an enjoyably informal tone. (Trae Crowder, aka the Liberal Redneck, is similar in tone but with a lot more cussing.)

The only chapter that really fell short for me was the one on guns, and I think this one suffered from 10 years of time. Bageant makes some good points about how liberals writing gun-control laws really ought to know more about guns. But he seems to be arguing against a straw gun control advocate who is anti-gun in every situation, always and forever. Such people exist, but they are not most people, or even most gun-control advocates. Most people in the U.S. are in favor of some degree of gun control, rather than outright bans. The debate among reasonable people is over how much regulation is appropriate. Unfortunately, by owning so much of Congress, the unreasonable, corporate-controlled NRA owns that debate.

I also wish Bageant had dug a little deeper into the racism around him. If he were alive today, I think he might. In 2007, racism was present, but further underground than it is now. Bageant clearly disapproves of racism, but he doesn’t look very hard at it. And at one point, when someone he’s talking to makes a racist comment about her Indian doctor, he even seem to go along with it. It turns out this particular doctor probably wasn’t doing a good job, but generalizing out to all the immigrant doctors in rural communities is unfair. That part was disappointing.

However, on other subjects, Bageant is right on. Much to my surprise, the chapter on healthcare holds up surprisingly well. He doesn’t discuss specific policies so much as he does the impossible choices poor people have to make, and those choices remain real, even if the specifics of the policies behind them have changed. And his chapter on Christian fundamentalism is especially good. It also ends with some hopeful commentary, drawn partly from the work of Fred Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy:

The very nature of liberalism, with its emphasis on diversity and individuality, makes it hard to organize. The bigger problem, though, is that liberals, like most other Americans, have lost the skill of grassroots organizing, not to mention the will. Clarkson observes, “Every good citizen should learn how to be a good activist—or a good candidate. Yes, it may mean making some choice, like less television and surfing the Internet. But that is how a constitutional democracy is organized. That’s the way it works. If we abandon the playing field to the other side, they win by default.”

These last few weeks have shown that liberals are gaining the skill and the will to organize and act. Let’s keep that up!

Posted in Nonfiction | 18 Comments

Proof

proofDick Francis has been one of my favorite mystery authors for nearly thirty years. He’s most famous for the mysteries that take place in the racing world, like Break In and Bolt or Whip Hand and Come to Grief (all of those absolutely great), but perhaps some of you don’t know that Francis wrote a lot of really terrific mysteries that are just around the edges of racing, or have really nothing to do with racing at all. These are mysteries like Reflex, about a man who is a jockey and an amateur photographer, and the mystery has to do with solving photographic puzzles. Or Straight, in which the hero is a jockey, but the mystery is really about his brother, who was a gemstone dealer. Or Decider, which has to do with architecture. Or perhaps my own favorite, because I like wine more than photography or architecture or even gems — Proof.

The hero of Proof is Tony Beach, who owns a wine shop. He, too, hovers around the edges of the racing world, because his parents and grandparents hunted and raced and rode horses in the military, but Tony is painfully aware that he has never had that kind of courage. He has other gifts: a nose and a palate and a passionate love for wine. He is providing the alcohol for a fancy event for a horse owner, when a terrible accident takes place, and his gifts — his nose, his palate, and his passion — draw him in to the investigation, both by the authorities and by a very appealing PI.

Tony is a great Dick Francis character: heroic and yet utterly human. We learn early on in the novel that he is prostrated by the loss of his young wife, and his life is grey because of it. This loss haunts the book, so that when Tony encounters some of the scariest villains in all of Dick Francis’s books (I won’t go into it, but brrrrrr), he’s afraid, but doesn’t react with the utter terror anyone sensible would have. Compounding this emotional greyness is his low-level conviction that he isn’t as brave, as virile as his father and grandfather, because he’s a wine merchant and not a soldier or a jockey. The way Francis weaves this into Tony’s character development is clever, rather than heavy-handed.

The plot is lively and interesting. As with many Francis novels, you learn a lot reading it: there’s a lot of drinking, mostly wine and scotch, and you get a lot of information about the industry along with the detecting. If you need more convincing, this is Rohan’s fifth favorite Dick Francis novel! 

With just a few exceptions, Dick Francis novels aren’t linked to one another, so it doesn’t matter where you start. Why not start here? They stand up remarkably well to re-reading, and many of them have wonderful, strong female characters (though admittedly not this one.) If you’ve read them, which is your favorite? Can you pick just one?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 5 Comments

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk

girl-who-wrote-in-silkI can’t believe how long it’s been since I was able to post — an entire month, gah. I’ve been reading, but I just have not had time to write in February! February is always dreadful. I’m hoping to catch up a bit in the next couple of days — good thing this is a short month, so that if nothing else we all don’t murder each other in our sleep.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, by Kelli Estes, is something I read for a local women’s book group I was asked to lead. It’s a dual timeline story with a sort of romance-novel vibe, and I was fairly skeptical at first, but it didn’t turn out to be quite as awful as I thought it might be. The first story takes place in the mid-19th century, and features a Chinese girl, Mei Lien, who lives in Seattle. She and her family are driven out of their home, pursuant to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act of 1882, and (thanks to events I won’t go into) Mei Lien is the only one of her family to survive. The other story is that of Inara, a modern woman who also lives in Seattle. Inara wants to stop being a businesswoman and take up running a boutique hotel on her family’s property on Orcas Island, which (naturally) is where Mei Lien fetched up after she left Seattle. Inara is doing some initial restoration of her family’s house, and finds an intricately embroidered silk sleeve under a stair. She begins some exploration of how the sleeve might have gotten there and whom it might have belonged to, and the two stories begin to converge.

Mei Lien’s story is by far the more interesting and engaging. The author clearly took the time to research Chinese-American culture and to try to understand how someone might feel about being excluded, discriminated against, and brutally separated from her family during the latter part of the 19th century. Mei Lien has her own personality, her own sense of mourning and spirituality, her own anger and sorrow, her own sense of gender norms, and her own art, which she expresses through needlework. I am not, personally, much of a romance reader (with the exception of Georgette Heyer) and so I found the romance conventions excruciatingly embarrassing, but I could tell, through the red fog of make-it-go-away, that they were normal for romances.

Inara’s story was something else again. Unfortunately, this modern-day story was far more clichéd, banal, and filled with way overdetermined coincidences. Just one (possibly the worst one — spoiler ahead): when Inara finds the sleeve under the stair, she consults Daniel, a professor of Chinese art at the University of Seattle, who happens to be of Chinese heritage himself. This professor, with whom she falls instantly in love, is, of course, one of Mei Lien’s descendants. OF COURSE. Because there’s only one Chinese person in Seattle. Jeez. Jeeeeeeeez.

I will say that one of the women at the book club read this section differently than I did. She saw the modern section as a fulfillment of the historical section: the professor and his wealthy family (Daniel’s mother is a very successful restaurateur) are examples of how the Chinese succeeded in the US despite terrible odds against them. I can see this reading, though I don’t think it’s well written at all.

I was also taken aback at the end of the book to find out that the author had changed historical events in Seattle to suit her own purposes. Apparently, many towns in the Northwest did drive the Chinese out, including US citizens, and sometimes killed them, but Seattle did not: in Seattle, the sheriff stopped that from happening and used his men to personally guard the ethnic Chinese until the riots had stopped some six months later. I was shocked that Estes portrayed Seattle as one of the places that drove the Chinese out and killed them, when actually that didn’t happen there. What do you think about that?

In any case, I had very mixed feelings about the book. The setting was lovely, and I liked Mei Lien as a character, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. Have you read this book? Do you think historical books should stick to facts?

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

the-daily-showI first got into The Daily Show sometime in 2002. I had cable TV for the first time in my life, and watching the previous night’s episode at 7 pm while eating dinner became part of my typical evening routine. Like a lot of people, I became more informed about my country and the world by watching The Daily Show, and I was entertained. Jon Stewart’s commitment to bringing absurdity and hypocrisy into the light was just what I needed during the Bush years.

In the years since, I’ve been an on-again, off-again fan. There were periods when I watched the whole show almost every night and periods when I’d just catch sketches that went viral. But my respect for the show remained even when I watched less. And as much as I appreciate John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, I’ve missed Stewart this past year. (Also, Larry Wilmore, whose show deserved a longer run than it got.)

This book wasn’t quite the same as having Stewart back behind the desk at Comedy Central, but it was fun. As the title says, it’s an oral history, so there’s not a lot of pure narrative. The correspondents, writers, producers, staff, and guests all share their own perspectives on the show, with only a few bits of explanatory text sprinkled in. It’s arranged chronologically, so it’s not too hard to follow, although I agree with Citizen Reader that a little more context might have been useful at times. It’s a big book, and I would say that it’s longer than it really needed to be, but I’m not sure what could have been cut, since every fan probably has a different favorite period.

For myself, I was most interested in stories about how the different correspondents came to be part of the show and stories of specific well-known segments (like John Oliver’s three-part gun control series). I also liked hearing about some of the ways the show’s approach to its stories evolved over the years, although as a viewer, I can’t say that I noticed some of the shifts they were talking about. Perhaps they happened too gradually to see.

The one change I did see was the effort to bring on a more diverse group of correspondents in the Stewart’s last years. That is discussed in the book, as is the conflict between Stewart and Wyatt Cenac that made the news near the end of Stewart’s tenure. In this case, as in several others, the different people involved don’t always recall or interpret events in the same way, and the oral history approach means that we just get to hear all their views without having an author weighing in.

I was left with some questions about the role of women on the show. It’s described several times in the book as a boy’s club, although there were several women who had positions of authority behind the scenes. But I can’t help but remember that the show typically only has one or two regular correspondents who are women, and almost all of those women have been white. It’s a show that could do better, and I’m glad that Samantha Bee has her own show now that’s filled with funny women. (Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show also excelled in including women.)

Overall, I enjoyed reading this. I liked hearing from these people who entertained and enlightened me over the years, and there were some great behind-the-scenes moments. I loved learning how the writers pulled together the many clips they used and how that process evolved over time. (The beginning of Tivo was a big deal.) I skimmed some sections that focused on shifts in the writing and producing staffs, but the rest held my interest. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book for the casual viewer, but as someone who’s between a casual viewer and a hard-core fan, this was a good read.

Posted in Nonfiction | 6 Comments

March: Book 3

march-book-threeThe third volume of John Lewis’s memoir in comic-book form picks up with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls. As the head of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Lewis, along with fellow SNCC members and activists from other groups, had to start thinking of a response. They turned their attention to voting rights.

The memoir, cowritten by Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell, chronicles the voter registration drives in Alabama and Mississippi, efforts to win representation at the Democratic Convention in 1964, and the Selma-Montgomery March. Like the previous volumes in the series, March, Book Three shows how the various aspects of the Civil Rights movement fit together. For me, this is one of things that makes these books such a tremendous contribution to literature on the movement. I’ve learned about various events and people over the years, but until reading these books, I didn’t have a good sense of the movement as a whole.

Many elements of the stories recounted here and in the previous books are familiar. There’s extreme violence and extreme courage. The murder of Civil Rights workers in Mississippi gets attention, as do the many arrests and beatings. And throughout, the leaders’ careful thought about the direction of the movement is clear. Lewis and the other leaders of the movement do not always agree, and the conflicts within SNCC are not ignored.

I read the first two March books last year back in 2015, not realizing how much more relevant the stories of protest would become in the following year. To be sure, the need to protest injustice never stopped, it’s just that the magnitude of present-day injustice was out of sight to many of us for a long time. Today, it’s clear that the work of Lewis and others isn’t done. Stories about the DAPL protests and proposals to lessen the consequences for people who run down protesters in the street show that non-violent protest is still often dangerous today. May we all have courage to do what is right in these painful times.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Memoir, Nonfiction | 7 Comments

Cruel, Beautiful World

cruel-beautiful-worldSo this book is an emotional journey. There was a point near the end when I thought I’d have to throw it out the window in a rage, which would have been a shame, since I was reading it on my phone on my lunch break in my sixth-floor office. Luckily, the windows of my office don’t open and I was able to read the next chapter when I got home and calm down. But let me go back and tell you what it’s about.

Set mostly in 1969, this novel by Caroline Leavitt is the story of three sisters. Lucy, the youngest, is free-spirited. Responsible and studious Charlotte is the middle sister, but she believes she’s the oldest. And that’s because Iris, many decades older, tells them she is a distant relative when they are brought to her after their parents’ death when they are 5 and 7 years old. Iris doesn’t want them to know about the family their father abandoned, and the younger and younger women he picked up over the years. Iris, in her 60s, adopts the girls and raises them as daughters.

The novel opens with the revelation that Lucy is running away with her English teacher. William is popular with the students for his unorthodox methods, but the administration is keeping a close eye on his classroom antics. However, he still manages to meet Lucy on the sly and convince her that they are in love. So on the last day of school, he takes her away to a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. He takes a job at a school where students get to choose their own curriculum, and Lucy stays home alone because William fears what will happen to him if their relationship is discovered. When she’s 18, they can go public.

This relationship is clearly and unequivocally abusive, and it only gets worse. William controls what Lucy eats, where she goes, what she wears, who she talks to. And then it gets worse again. And then more. But I’ll get back to that.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Iris are back at home in Boston grieving the loss of Lucy and not getting much help from the police at finding her. She’ll come back when she’s ready, they say. No one knew about her relationship with William, so no one thought to look for him. He’d just moved away, as people do. Charlotte goes to college at Brandeis, and Iris struggles with aging. Life goes on, but always with a shadow.

And then it gets worse.

I’m not going to reveal precisely what happens, but if you’re familiar with patterns of abuse and how things escalate, the conclusion of Lucy and Will’s relationship won’t be a surprise. It is a gut-punch, though. And the process of picking up the pieces is challenging. It’s a difficult kind of thing to recover from, and some of the particulars in this case make it horrible in a very specific way. Charlotte expresses some sentiments in this regard that I found especially raw and honest, and I appreciated seeing these them in print.

As I mentioned, however, there was a moment when this book entirely enraged me in a way that is unusual for me. This involved some epic gaslighting that I feared might end up being the author’s version of the truth. The fact that I was so furious speaks to my absorption in the book. However, the rage only lasted the afternoon because I was eventually able to get back to the book and see what Leavitt did with the revelations, and I was appeased. There was perhaps a little unnecessary tricksiness involved here, but there was also catharsis for a character who needed it.

The book ends, as books about horrors often do, with hope. Life does keep going. Plans may need to be tenuous because things happen that we can’t imagine, but we can keep going and maybe even find joy where it’s previously been denied.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Who We Be: The Colorization of America

who-we-beThis sprawling, ambitious book by Jeff Chang looks at the history of race and culture since the Civil Rights era. It’s a big topic—perhaps too big for a single book—but there’s a lot of value here.

Chang focuses primarily on race and the arts, especially the visual arts. There are chapters on ground-breaking exhibits showcasing the work of artists of color and how difficult it was for these artists to be taken seriously. If they did not adopt the values and modes of expression of white art culture, their work didn’t matter. But if they did adopt those values, would it even be their work? And would it even be accepted?

Reading these chapters, I wished I were more familiar with some of the artists and movements described, and I wished for more illustrations of some of the art itself. However, I did find some points of interest, especially when Chang describes the backlash of the artists’ work and how that criticism was used to pressure the government to defund the National Endowment of the Arts. I remember some of the examples and controversies he cites from the 80s and 90s, and it was valuable to look at them again through an older and more knowledgeable lens.

One of the things the book makes clear again and again is that art is political, and many of the disputes in our political world end up touching the art world and vice versa. Art that explores issues of identity ends up being targeted for not espousing so-called American ideals, even though “communities of color might be as invested as white liberals were in the project of making America.” And sometimes liberal allies turn toward a line of thinking all too familiar in recent months, even though this statement refers to the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988:

Plunged in despair, some liberals began to train their sights on multiculturalists, feminists, and queers, whom they said had destroyed the left with identity politics. Class, they said, was the real issue, not race or gender or sexuality. But, really, it was all of the above. Why had working-class white Americans—after half a century of strongly supporting strong government, social programs, and economic reform—turned so strongly against their own clear economic interests? What really was the matter with Kansas? It was the culture wars, stupid.

Cheng also looks at commercial art—specifically advertisements and commercials and different approaches to the question of whether it’s better to have a broad appeal or focus on a single market. He gets into the history that led up to Coke’s iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial. (It does not involve Don Draper at a commune.) And it never occurred to me that there might be a greater significance to the Budweiser Whassup? commercial until reading this.

Other types of art covered include comics and street art. The book opens with a terrific chapter on Morrie Turner, creator of the Wee Pals comic. I also enjoyed the chapter about Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the Obama “Hope” poster, although I’m puzzled about his inclusion in a book mostly about artists of color.

And that gets me to the biggest weakness in this otherwise powerful and valuable book. It sprawls a little too much, especially toward the end. As much as I appreciated the chapters on Trayvon Martin, the Occupy movement, and the Dreamers (heart-breakingly timely), they started to feel a little off-topic. They all have to do with race, but the art discussion so central to the rest of the book was largely left by the wayside. His most recent book, We Gon’ Be Alright is a collection of essays on with race, resegregation, and protest, and I wonder if these last chapters might fit better there.

Posted in Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Mister Monkey

mister-monkeyMister Monkey is a terrible musical based on an inexplicably beloved children’s book. And the production at the center of this novel by Francine Prose is particularly bad. But the cast and crew try:

They are in this together, everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off Broadway production of Mister Monkey, the umpteen-hundredth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable music based on the classic children’s novel.

Prose’s novel reads like a collection of linked stories, with each chapter following a different person, sometimes an actor in the play, sometimes a member of the audience, sometimes just someone connected to one of the people connected to the play. The thread winds through the city, returning again and again to the play.

I liked this structure. I could never tell just where it would go next, and it brought home the idea that every single person has a story invisible to everyone else. The man whose grandson spoke up loudly during a moment of quiet during the show is dealing with old age and the feeling of being left out as life rolls on. The grandson is fretting over the change in status that comes with a new school. (The grandson is said to be precocious, but he seemed excessively so to me.) His teacher is worrying over her inability to control her classroom in the way her principal and parents desire, especially when it means giving up teachable moments and ignoring student questions. And so on.

Not all of the chapters are as enjoyable as the others, but the nice thing is that if a particular character’s story bored me, another came along quickly. And often a new story would allow me to see a previous one in a new light. The book is at its weakest when the characters get philosophical and spiritual. There’s a whole section about the Monkey God that seemed over-the-top to me, but that could be my lack of familiarity with Hinduism. Then again, knowledge of Hinduism could have made it worse. The book is at its best when it uncovers characters—their hidden motivations and dreams behind the actions that don’t necessarily make sense.

This is, I believe, one of two monkey-oriented books in the Tournament of Books this year. I preferred the other one, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, but this one has its charms. It will come up against one of the three sports-related books from the play-in round. I started, but gave up on two of those three books. (Sudden Death was too all over the place to hold my interest at the time and The Throwback Special bored me.) So, at this point, I’m rooting for this one to win its round. And if Charlie Freeman defeats the The Nix (which I also haven’t read), the two monkey books will go head-to-head in round 2.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 6 Comments

Black Wave

black_waveThe first half of Black Wave by Michelle Tea is boring—very well-written, but tedious. The main character, Michelle, spends most of it drinking and doing drugs and hooking up with different women in late 90s San Francisco. She’s drifting along, sort of functional, but not doing particularly well. She’s able to get herself to her bookstore job, which she managed to snag in part because she’s published a moderately successful memoir, but she hasn’t managed to write anything else.

I think the tedium is intentional on Tea’s part, although I also think that readers who know the scene in which the book takes place will find much to enjoy in the details Tea includes. It’s good writing, and it’s often very funny. Take, for example, this description of the apartment Michelle shares with friends in a house once renowned as “a magic castle of queerness with a serious outlaw history”:

Clovis the Landlord had promised he would not raise the rent and he had no intention of selling the house. The man spent his lonely nights singing into his personal karaoke machine in the flat downstairs. The sound of him singing Sammy Davis Jr., his warbling voice floating up through the floorboards, broke everyone’s heart. Everyone in the punk house loved their landlord. It was okay that the shower, a metal closet, was rusting through the bottom, surely harboring gangrene and soaking the house in soggy rot—Clovis’s second-floor apartment was in no better shape. If he had the money he’d fix their shower, but to get the money he would have to raise their rent, and so they put a milk crate in the shower to stand above the jagged rust and wore flip-flops while they bathed, just in case.

Even though Michelle is obviously living in terrible circumstances, there’s not a real sense of danger. The whole scene is hazed over, whether with nostalgia or drugs isn’t clear. Yet, as evocative as the writing is, it’s not something I could sustain interest in for 300 pages. It’s a good thing, then, that the novel takes a turn just after 100 pages, when Michelle decides to move to Los Angeles. And what a turn it takes!

When we see Michelle in Los Angeles, we learn that a lot of what we’ve just read isn’t exactly true. The characters aren’t exactly who they seemed, and Michelle has adjusted her narrative to protect others’ privacy. But they still have demands—”If you’re going to write about me at least give me good hair,” says her girlfriend, Quinn. To which Michelle thinks, “I Won’t Write About My Life Because No One Wants To Be In My Story.”

Okay, so we’re going to have a narrative about narrative—how memoir arrives at truth and all that. And this, too, is skillfully done. There’s a hilarious bit where Michelle thinks about how to characterize herself and decides to make herself a man in her book:

Maybe Michelle could actually keep the ideas that obsessed her—injustice, struggle, gender, feminism—but put them onto a man, thereby making them universal! Women have been trying to make feminism universal forever but had anyone ever thought of this? She would be such a hero! Michelle felt all fired up but it was probably just coffee. She felt herself sag as the caffeine peaked in her bloodstream and began its retreat.

But the book isn’t done with turning itself into something different. It’s only after this new thread has been established that the black wave of the title arrives. Some sort of ecological disaster, in the form of a wave that will engulf the West Coast is coming. Not right away, but soon. And there’s no stopping it. So life changes, not entirely for the worse either. There’s chaos and crime and loss of infrastructure that we rely on. It’s mostly terrible. Some people commit suicide to escape. But there are always people who keep going, and some of them, like Michelle, are able to eke out a slightly better life for the time they have left. There’s a whole thing about strangers connecting with each other through dreams and them finding each other in life. Life is strange and almost unrecognizable and certain to end soon, but there is life while it lasts.

I don’t want to make the book’s final chapters seem trite and saccharine. It’s too weird and darkly perverse for that. Maybe I was just won over because Michelle spends her last days in a used bookstore making out with Matt Dillon. (Not my type, but still.) But I also liked the idea that life can keep pressing forward, right up until the end. Maybe it doesn’t feel like much of a life, but it is life. It is persistent.

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