“Attention” appears in Cat on a Leash Review!

I’m sick this week and still recovering from midterms, so I’m way behind on my reading and blogging! In lieu of a Monday Reads review, I’m posting this in hopes you’ll check out a short story of mine that appeared in Cat on a Leash Review this week: “Attention.”

I’m so proud of this story and thrilled it found a home at Cat on a Leash. “Attention” delves deep into the themes that keep me up (and writing) at night: queerness, silence, sexuality, violence. You should take your time and explore the rest of Cat on a Leash, too–I’m honored to be in such great company!

Finally, check back next Monday for my review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi–I’m in awe at Gyasi’s talent and I can’t wait to put my thoughts into words when I’m feeling better.

MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent: A musical short story collection

MASSEDUCTION cover

Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

label: Loma Vista Recordings

release date: October 13, 2017

This is not a music blog since I am not cool enough to have a music blog I lack the vocabulary to write coherently about music: I still don’t get the difference between a chorus and a bridge, and I’m fuzzy on what distinguishes a guitar from bass.

That’s why I’m delighted when I can describe an album I love in words instead of vague handwaving, and MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent is that kind of album.

St. Vincent’s previous work has often been described as “literate,” which strikes me as a code word for an artist who’s too smart and uncompromising to be appreciated by the teeming masses. As an ardent defender of the teeming masses, however, I’d much rather describe her as “literary”: someone who turns each song into an opportunity to tell a story and play with language.

Interestingly enough, St. Vincent–whose real name is Annie Clark–did a song for the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack back in 2009, which must have been my first introduction to her music, though the track doesn’t stand out in my memory. For all people love to hate on Twilight, I always appreciated the forum it provided for the freaks and fangirls of the world (myself included) to talk about power, kink, and beautiful people.

So, it seems fitting that MASSEDUCTION is similarly freaky, kinky, and beautiful, and thankfully, Annie Clark is a lot better at words than Stephenie Meyer.

MASSEDUCTION rockets from a breathy song about a drunk-dial (“Hang On Me”) to manic odes–or laments–to fame like “Los Ageless.” A throbbing sadness creeps in at the midpoint–“Happy Birthday, Johnny” recounts the pain of a friend’s addiction–that is jolted but never fully banished by erotic, frantic romps like “Savior” and “Young Lover.” The closing track, “Smoking Section,” captures the experience of mental illness as perfectly as I’ve ever heard, especially as Clark repeats depression’s favorite taunt over and over: “let it happen, let it happen.”

Clark’s narrative control is striking. Each song is a self-contained capsule of emotion–most often, manic anxiety or dreamy melancholy–while still forwarding an overarching story. A lot has been made of the fact that Clark wrote this album on the heels of her break-up with supermodel Cara Delevingne, and pangs of lost love are definitely present here alongside the glitz and terror of superstardom. But to reduce this album to autobiography or tell-all would be a mistake.

The story collection is a fraught format. No matter how good your stories are on their own, juxtaposing them threatens to expose your weak points, your repetitions, your idiosyncrasies, your weird and boring obsessions. Clark sidesteps these pitfalls admirably by excelling at several things: one, by choosing interesting obsessions–fame, sex, and love are rabbit holes we’re eager to fall down–and two, by maintaining a tone that is both edgy and vulnerable.

It takes a certain amount of guts to pose for your album cover in a leopard-print onesie, and it takes even more to shriek “I can’t turn off what turns me on” (“MASSEDUCTION”) for an audience of millions. Most of us have felt it; Clark is brave enough to say it. It also takes a certain self-awareness to conclude your album by singing “it’s not the end” over and over through a lump in your throat (“Smoking Section”), and it’s exactly what Clark does.

MASSEDUCTION taunted me with an honesty truer than truth. I don’t care whether the events Clark describes really happened or not; I do care that this web of music and stories have captured me for weeks.  If we were ever to see a St. Vincent-penned book, I’d be first in line to buy it. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening.

I first heard this album on Spotify and was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HOUSE OF NAMES by Colm Tóibín

Monday Reviews

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Scribner Book Company (imprint of Simon & Schuster)

publication date: May 9, 2017

A disclosure is in order: I didn’t finish this book and don’t plan to. As much as I’d have liked to write a regular Monday Reads review, I can’t do that on only 1/3 of a book, and I’m going to have to give you my bitter and half-baked observations instead. Consider yourself forewarned.

As my not finishing it implies, I really, really did not like this book.

Did. Not. Like.

Since House of Names is a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon (causing her mother Clytemnestra to exact terrible revenge), I knew that horror and dread would be on the menu, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal extreme to which Tóibín steers this already brutal story. He pulls no punches from the original myth and seemingly adds punches of his own. And while I don’t mind books that are difficult to read, there’s a difference between difficult and tortuous. Every moment I spent with these astonishingly cruel characters was torture.

Compounding my discomfort with the material was Tóibín’s prose, the bluntness of which displaced me even further from characters I already despised. Perhaps this prose style would work better in a more familiar (read: modern) context, but because House of Names is set in Ancient Greece–a setting as alien to me as Middle Earth–all the words left unsaid obscured Tóibín’s meaning instead of clarifying it.

The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is full of interesting questions, the most pressing of which is What motivates a father to kill his own daughter? I imagine that there are a lot of equally interesting answers to be found, from feminist critiques to breathtaking thrillers, but all Tóibín seemed to bring to the table was, well, because humans are terrible and stupid! And that’s not good enough.

So, as much as I wanted to marvel at the ruthless beauty of paragraphs like this (told from the perspective of the furious and grieving Clytemnestra), I was left feeling poisoned by them instead:

I was ready as [Agamemnon] was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

Because House of Names contains nothing but horrible people doing horrible things, there isn’t a scrap of hope or interest to hold onto, just suffering that goes on and on and on with no promise of catharsis.

And there are better uses of my time.

No rating / did not finish.

My copy of House of Names came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Listening to music while reading: Can you? Should you?

listening-to-music-in-a-bed-picjumbo-com
image source: picjumbo.com

I’m a wannabe multitasker. I know I shouldn’t, and I’ve made great strides in breaking the habit over the years, since I know I feel way more effective when I’m doing only one thing at a time. But some things are harder to do one at a time than others, and reading is one of them.

Maybe it’s that reading is a quiet task in a loud and busy world, or maybe it’s that I’m so used to using music to tune out my surroundings while writing that I’ve tricked my brain into thinking reading is the same way. It’s not, though. Good music can get me in the headspace to write a difficult essay or short story, but it definitely interrupts the things I love most about reading: its solitude, its focus, its ability to transport me far away from my real life.

And yet, time and time again, I catch myself picking out a Spotify playlist when I sit down to read, which I usually have to turn it off after a few minutes. Sometimes I’ll get so absorbed in picking out music that I end up giving up on reading!

It’s true that some music is so near and dear to me that I don’t find it distracting: I’m particularly fond of Dessa‘s Castor the Twin and Cécile McLorin Salvant‘s Womanchild when I need to put something on to distract me from my downstairs neighbor’s crying baby or noisy road construction. But a peaceful afternoon of reading is definitely not a great time to enjoy a brand-new artist or album, and that’s usually what I catch myself trying to do.

So I’d like to throw this out there to other bookworms. When you carve out reading time, does music help or hinder your mood and ability to focus? If it does, what do you listen to? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Review: ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

Monday Reviews

All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan (translated by Jessica Cohen)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Random House

publication date: April 25, 2017

9780375508295There is a difference between stories that end unhappily and stories for which there can be no happy ending. All the Rivers falls in the latter category. It is the story of an Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian man she falls in love with, Hilmi, while both are living in New York City in 2002. If that seems like a simple setup, it’s because it is; charged politics do the heavy lifting here, and Liat and Hilmi aren’t so much characters as sketches.

At first, this grates. I’m not fond of mouthpiece books, and from the beginning this book has all the tell-tale signs. But there’s a subtler undercurrent here too, a promise of the thing that made me pick up the book in the first place: a love story that is at once tender and sweet, visceral and scathing.

Liat narrates, and narrate is the appropriate word here, since we don’t get much of a sense of Liat other than that she’s Israeli, and that she’s telling the story. Ostensibly she’s working in New York as a Hebrew/English translator; I’m not totally sure, since the details are breezed over and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is lust, and love, and being Middle Eastern in New York City in 2002.

All the Rivers is at its best when it is describing sensation. Rabinyan (with the aid of translator Jessica Cohen) seems to have infinite new combinations of words to describe homesickness, good food, and erotic encounters; she adds less fresh fuel to political conversations, which is perhaps the point: the conflict between Israel and Palestine drags on and on without changes or answers. It’s not that I didn’t care about those politics; I did while I was reading, and still do. It’s that every moment between Liat and Hilmi was so searing that  arguments over borders and binational identity–and there are many of these, between Liat and Hilmi, and between Liat and other characters as well–seemed ponderous in comparison.

I’m not sure if All the Rivers left me feeling particularly enlightened, although that’s the book’s marketing angle in the United States. It did leave me deeply sad in a way I can’t fully explain. This book ends (almost) how you’d expect, but Liat’s narrative folds in on itself so often that I found myself second-guessing my conclusions, my dread and disappointment so intense that I felt shaky after turning the last page.

It’s funny how much we love stories about people in love who aren’t supposed to be in love, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic. It’s also funny how being in love can make reading about love so painful that it’s almost unbearable. I can confidently say that my own partner is nothing like Hilmi, and I am fairly certain I’m nothing like Liat, but I found myself casting my real-life relationship into the mold of this fictional one over and over. Every bitter fight between Liat and Hilmi was a fight I’ve experienced, or fear I will experience. And every threat of loss, of an ending for this couple, felt like it was threatening me, my own ability to love and be loved. It hurt in the way that I go to literature to be hurt: a hurt that expands, purges, and understands.

Rabinyan has accomplished something that, to me, is more complex and powerful than All the Rivers’s Very Important Book marketing can get at. Love is messy, love stories are messy, and attempting to impose politics upon lovers is impossible; it’s not surprising that Rabinyan doesn’t fully succeed. But in a way, that failure is its own success. I set this book down wishing that its unhappiness sprang only from the careless way people sometimes love each other, and not from a terrible political mess bigger than all of us: these characters, this author, and myself as a reader.

“How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point,” Liat laments. She is describing how the prosperity of Israel looks to Palestinians on the other side of the fence, but I felt something else. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful, indeed, to love without restriction or complication. Someday we should all be so lucky. 4/5 stars.

 My copy of All the Rivers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Books can change the world: 3 places you can donate books and money to help people in prison

Because everyone deserves access to the power of books.

Online book culture is full of memes, selfies, and funny stories celebrating our shared love of reading; we all know how wonderful it feels when we read a good book and when we recommend a good book to others. That’s why when I give to charity, I often try and support book-related organizations. Reading changes lives, but it’s a need that’s often neglected when we think about charitable giving.

Charitable giving also seems to miss the importance of supporting people in prisons. Prison is an incredibly isolating and alienating experience, and however you feel about the criminal justice system, I hope we can agree that people in prison deserve the amazing, transformative power of books just as much as we do on the outside. (I also hope you think critically about what it means when a society locks millions of people in a box for years at a time, especially for nonviolent crimes, but that’s a post for another day.)

So, inspired by Twitter user @prisonculture‘s birthday wish–book donations to Liberation Library, which provides books to youth in prison–I thought I’d put together a list of organizations I really love that are doing this work.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve chosen to highlight three organizations (including Liberation Library) that work to put books in the hands of people in prison around the United States. These are all places I’ve either donated to already or plan to support in the future.

1. Liberation Library

  • Website: www.liberationlib.com
  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Target population: Youth in prison
  • Mission statement: “Liberation Library provides books to youth in prison to encourage imagination, self-determination and connection to the outside worlds of their choosing. We believe access to books is a right, not a privilege. We believe books and relationships empower young people to change the criminal justice system.” –from their About page.
  • How it works: Twice a month, Liberation Library packs packages with books, notes, and even birthday cards for youth in prison. Your donations go primarily towards purchasing books and postage.
  • Ways to help:
    • Purchase books through their Amazon wishlist,
    • Donate money,
    • Volunteer to help pack books at their Chicago location.

2. Minnesota Women’s Prison Book Project

  • Website: www.wpbp.org
  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Target population: Women and transgender people in prison
  • Mission statement: “Since 1994, the Women’s Prison Book Project (WPBP) has provided women and transgender persons in prison with free reading materials covering a wide range of topics from law and education (dictionaries, GED, etc.) to fiction, politics, history, and women’s health. We are an all-volunteer, grassroots organization. We seek to build connections with those behind the walls, and to educate those of us on the outside about the realities of prison and the justice system.” –from their About page.
  • How it works: The Minnesota Women’s Prison Book Project fields requests from prisoners in several prisons around the country and matches books from their “library” to send back. They also have a Midwest Trans Prisoner Penpal Project.
  • Ways to help:
    • Purchase frequently-requested books from their wishlist (via Boneshaker Books, a local indie bookstore),
    • Donate money,
    • Donate your used softcover books, especially dictionaries (guidelines here),
    • Volunteer to help pack books every Sunday afternoon at Boneshaker Books.

3. Prison Book Program

  • Website: www.prisonbookprogram.org
  • Location: Quincy, MA
  • Target population: General (anyone in prison can request books)
  • Mission statement: “Prison Book Program mails books to people in prison to support their educational, vocational and personal development and to help them avoid returning to prison after their release. We also aim to provide a quality volunteer experience that introduces citizens to issues surrounding the American prison system and the role of education in reforming it.” –from their Mission & Values page.
  • How it works: Prison Book Program is similar to the previous two organizations on this list, but they’re a larger and more general organization. People on the outside request books for loved ones on the inside by mail and books are then mailed directly to the prison.
  • Ways to help:

All of these organizations encourage you to get involved locally and often have lists of “sister” organizations. BookRiot also has an excellent list of prison book organizations.

What are your favorite book-related charities? Please share in the comments, and let’s share the love of books as far and wide as we can this year.

Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

Monday Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

publication date: January 3, 2017

For me, the line between navel-gazing and specificity is drawn (perhaps counterintuitively) between the stories people tell about Ideas, and the stories people tell about People. Fridlund’s debut does not seem overly concerned with nature, or faith, or morality, though it touches on all three; instead, it is wholly preoccupied with its first-person narrator, Linda, and is the better for it. Linda’s story is as hyperreal as a museum, as if each word is cataloged, preserved, and polished, and it’s not a museum of winter, or summer, or Christian Science, or even the history of wolves. It’s something altogether more private and chilling, as functional and sharp as her Swiss Army Knife.

The capital-P People at the center of this novel–Linda especially–are not good, and often not even likable. They are, however, almost hypnotically sympathetic, and it makes the chronicle of the ways in which adults enact terrible harm on children all the more startling.

9780802125873Linda is a quiet, oddball teenager, the kind who could be called queer in the original sense of the word (and maybe the current one, too). She lives in the ruins of a commune with checked-out parents whom she’s not even sure are her parents; her high school history teacher is busted for child pornography and maybe for raping her classmate; a new family that seems mysteriously, intoxicatingly normal moves in across the lake. Linda starts babysitting the young son, Paul, for the young mother, Patra, and for awhile finds herself falling in a kind of love with both. But when it all goes bad, it goes bad fast, pushing Linda further down a path of obsession and isolation.

It’s a setup that seems either like a gritty YA novel or a gritty literary bildungsroman a la Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, but Fridlund skillfully threads the needle with the best of both genres. While the story is not self-consciously told out-of-sequence, it’s not as simple as point A to point B, and we check in frequently with an adult Linda, as if she were telling us her story over coffee or a beer. It keeps the story moving, and keeps it from feeling too awful to be real (something I occasionally felt about White Oleander). It never fully feels like fiction, so we are never fully immunized against its quiet horror.

At first I thought that Fridlund had an axe to grind: against the harshness of the Minnesota northwoods, maybe, or checked-out hippie parents, or pervert teachers, especially after a first chapter about all these things that was as blistering as I’ve ever read. I also thought Fridlund was setting me up for an explosion. What I got was a feeling more akin to locking myself out of my apartment: slow-motion anger and bitterness followed by exhaustion and resolve.

If that makes the book sound unpleasant, let me reframe: for a book that has received as much Important Book buzz as History of Wolves, I was expecting explicit, self-conscious traumas, but Fridlund has accomplished something much more devastating: an expansion of the kind of crazy story you see a few column inches of in a local paper. A teacher busted for child pornography, a former cult that’s rumored to burn children for fun, a completely avoidable family tragedy; I imagine Linda wouldn’t have been interviewed for any of these stories, but she’s been touched–and destroyed–by all of them. You start wondering what sorts of Lindas are behind every headline.

Like Linda, I was raised in the Minnesota northwoods. I spent more time outside than in, more time reading than talking, more time disdaining my peers than trying to understand them. For awhile, I also hopped from odd job to odd job. It’s not hard for me to imagine taking this kind of babysitting gig, and it’s not hard for me to imagine testifying about a family tragedy in court, since I’ve done it. It is hard to imagine a book that could cut me closer to the bone than this one. There is a sense of inevitability, of no escape.

It haunted me because I did escape this sort of life. I’m sure it will find a way to haunt you. History of Wolves is calamitous, and it is not to be missed. 5/5 stars.

My copy of History of Wolves came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.