Monday, January 23, 2017

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Saturday I went to the Women’s March in Chicago, along with, at today’s count, at least 250,000 other people.  Earlier in the week I remember thinking, “Wow, they’re expecting 20,000 people, that’s amazing."

I was pretty nervous about going to the march because I was worried about getting harassed by the police, or, worse, arrested.  I don’t like big crowds and, yeah, my preferred way to spend Saturday morning is in my jammies, with coffee, talking on the phone to my sister.  But I went ready to fight - ready to be harassed and ready to harass.  What happened instead was thousands of women and men - the elderly and babies, racially diverse people, my trans sisters and brothers - filled the streets of downtown Chicago and then proceeded to take care of each other.  I’ve never heard so many excuse mes, thank yous, look out for that pothole, careful, watch your step.  I love your hat, I love your sign, I love your energy.  

We couldn’t hear the speakers, we couldn’t see the stage. Hell, we didn’t even know where the stage was, but the thick crowd of people around us, just east of the bridge on Jackson, cheered when a cheer wave came our way, joined in whenever someone started a chant, and, my favorite, sang along with two African American women who started singing Lean On Me. As we turned around and eventually moved into the loop, we happily followed them singing and pointing out potholes.  Pockets of protesters were out all day - we saw a group of students walking down Michigan Avenue around 3pm, shouting My Body, My Choice, although what really warmed my heart was the male voices in the crowd yelling HER Body, HER Choice.

For the first time since this horrible human being was elected, I felt more hope than fear.  I saw creativity and humor and love as powerful agents of change.  I saw women taking the word he used to brag about sexual assault and turn it into a strength. We’re going to get through this, we cannot fail.  

Thank you to all the people that made the day so great.
Thank you to my friends who travelled to DC.
Thank you, Chicago bike police, for being cool.
Thank you, dudes who supporting women’s rights.  
Thank you, Chicago, for restoring my faith in humanity.

image via

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Swing Time

I saw Zadie Smith speak, shortly after White Teeth came out, in front of a relatively small crowd in San Francisco.  We were both in our twenties then, she's one year younger than me, and I was full of jealousy and awe for what she had accomplished, and how sophisticated she was, and how beautiful.  Someone asked her what she was going to work on next and she said she wanted to write a book like a musical, where people break into song, inconceivably, as people do in musicals. I wonder if Swing Time is that book, but with singing replaced by dancing.

I remain in awe, many novels later, and I love how her books have become even more thoughtful and contemplative. Swing Time moves slowly, and I read it that way, over several weeks, allowing myself to enjoy her phrases.  As in a recently article by Smith in The Guardian, What BeyoncĂ© Taught Me, it's impossible to read without stopping to look up YouTube videos of people dancing. The book is intensely beautiful, and I often stopped to think about what it would look like if I drew a sentence, or what the movie version would look like.

I suspect that the style, told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, is borrowed from some aspect of British literature, and, once again I curse my non-existent PhD in the same.  This perspective is distancing, and the reader feels closer to the narrator's best friend, Tracey, who's brilliant and talented and clever and mean.  She's Tracey's companion and dancing partner, the Ginger to Tracey's Fred Astaire, and they fall out as Tracey's star seems to rocket and she takes a more conventional turn, both of them more than a little jealous of the other's path.  The narrator works for a Madonna-like narcissistic mega-star later in life and her activities absorb the narrator's time and talents.  They make multiple trips to Africa, where the star funds a school for girls. Smith delves deeply into themes of racial identity in this area, where the black, British narrator of Jamaican descent is often considered white and American by her colleagues and friends there.

Our narrator considers herself a dancer and an actor (despite never really practicing those things beyond
her childhood) although not as good as Tracey, but she finally allows herself a little freedom near the end of the book.  At a drum circle at the school, everyone is dancing:
Eight drumming women later, even Mary-Beth had attempted a dance and it was my turn. I had a mother pulling each arm, dragging me up. Aimee had extemporized, Granger had historicized - mooonwalk, the robot, the running man - but I still had no ideas about dance, only instincts. I watched them for a minute, the two women, as they danced at me, teasing me, and I listened carefully to the multiple beats, and knew that what they were doing I, too, could do. I stood between them and matched them step for step. The kids went crazy. There were so many voices screaming at me I stopped being able to hear the drums, and the only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything. Five minutes later I was done and more tired than if I'd run six miles.
Like On Beauty, Smith ends Swing Time with deceptive simplicity, turning the final words in a book into, in fact, a world of possibilities - a beginning.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Margaret Atwood published Hag-Seed as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project along with some other writers like Jeannette Winterson who did an interpretation of The Winter's Tale and Gillian Flynn who is scheduled to do a Hamlet.  Atwood surely chose the most difficult play to reimagine - The Tempest, with it's sea disasters and magical island and all those mistaken identities.  I love a Shakespeare remix like nobody's business and, of course, Margaret Atwood is probably my favorite author, so I was pretty damn excited to see what she was going to do.

Felix is the artistic director for a Canadian theatre where he presents avant-garde productions of Shakespeare plays.  Right away he's ousted by his second in command, Tony.  Felix becomes something of a hermit and removes himself from society for a while, until he starts teaching Shakespeare to some prisoners at a local jail, under the name Mr Duke.  Sound familiar?  If it doesn't, you probably need to brush up on The Tempest.  I'm curious whether those who are not well-versed in the play would enjoy the book as much as one who isn't but my guess would be no.  Following the connections in part of the fun; wondering how she's possibly going to wrap it up, knowing the original ending, is like watching the master at work.  Anyway, it's a problem easily remedied, so, if you haven't read The Tempest before, give it a quick read before Hag-Seed and I think you'll find your experience improved.

Although Felix thinks things like "If anyone had told him then that he'd be doing Shakespeare with a pack of cons inside the slammer he'd have said they were hallucinating" he's actually a very good teacher with excellent critical thinking assignments for his players and a respectful attitude toward their strengths, with very little interest in their criminal backgrounds.

Shakespeare was famous for putting a "play within the play" and Atwood took that concept to the extreme.  At one point I think I counted five plays within the play but I did allow myself to get pretty meta - are we not all players upon the stage, etc.?  Hag-Seed is a joy to read and Atwood's joy in writing it is evident as well - she clearly knows the theatre very well.
Crises of confidence have been surmounted, grudges incurred, hurt feelings soothed. Felix has berated himself for his own lunacy in undertaking such a hopeless enterprise, then congratulated himself on his judgment. His spirits plunge, then soar, then plunge again.
  Normal life.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Trespasser, Tana French (no spoilers)

It was, of course, with unparallelled excitement that I started reading Tana French's latest mystery, The Trespasser.  I was so absorbed that, despite being on vacation in the very beautiful city of Lisbon, I was often thinking about getting back to my book.  Per French's conceit for the Dublin Murder Squad series, the main character is a secondary character from a previous book, although, in this case, someone we got to know pretty well in The Secret Place: Antoinette Conway.  She and her partner, Stephen Moran, are the newest detectives on the team and are working the worst shift, when a murder is thrown their way.  "...the real reason everyone hates night shift is that nothing good ever comes in. The high-profile murders with complex backstories and fascinating motives might happen at night, sometimes, but they don't get discovered til morning." It seems simple enough, even boring, but Conway and Moran keep pushing for answers, mostly because their colleague and their boss seem too interested in them closing the case quickly.

As the only woman and only person of color on the team, Conway is acutely aware of being treated differently by her squad.  Although they claim that they're treating her with the same teasing and pranking that any new member would receive, Conway feels attacked but doesn't directly confront the behavior. As a result, the reader is left wondering if she's merely paranoid (maybe that is how all new recruits are treated, for all I know) or if they really are ganging up on her.  She even doubts her extremely likeable partner, who is so eager to get along he mostly tells people just what they want to hear. Antoinette's voice is hard, and her attitude makes sense when explained: "I can't tell if this is batshit paranoia or the bleeding obvious slapping me in the face. Two years of watching my back, watching every step and every word, in fight mode all day every day: my instincts are fried to smoking wisps." She's desperate to avoid looking weak and letting anyone else have any power over her.  Asking for help is the hardest thing she ever does. French does an amazing job capturing the unique voices of her characters, but especially the complexity of the detectives - and they're all amazingly good at their jobs.  Despite Conway's intense distrust of nearly everyone, she puts that aside when interviewing witnesses or suspects. Like an actress, she and her colleagues use a library of well-rehearsed scripts to find the truth.

The murder victim in this case is a woman so bland and the case so seemingly-open-and-shut that Conway and Moran often wonder if they really should just close the case with the obvious perpetrator.  As a reader, you also get pulled into the idea that their theories are wildly off-target.

Without giving anything away, most of the characters of this book are trespassers in one way or another - Conway feels like an uninvited guest in her department, her estranged father has weaseled his way into her life and the suspects have inserted themselves into the life of the victim. As usual, French continues to be one of our best mystery writers and now I'll go back to watching the clock 'til her next book comes out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

You Will Know Me

Megan Abbott is steadily establishing herself as the voice of authority re: teenage girls in contemporary literature.  She burst on to my scene in 2012 with Dare Me, about a group of cheerleaders and their coach, then The Fever, about a town where the girls are overcome by these mysterious seizures.  In the early aughts, she wrote hardboiled feminist pulpy noir that looks pretty interesting (let me know if you've read them and have a suggestion on where to start!)  

You Will Know Me is about another athlete, a 15 year-old gymnast and Olympic hopeful.  Like her other recent books, it's a bit of a mystery, although these three books defy traditional sorting into genres.  It's told from the perspective of Katie, the gymnast's mother, who tries hard to rise about the other mothers' "sports mom" coterie.  "The other parents always tried to do this. To drag her into their little circle, their gym drama, their coven rubbing their hands over their water bottles, fire burn and cauldron bubble." Katie and her husband have been devoting themselves to Devon's career since she was four years old - they're in debt and they have no free time because they're always driving her to either her expensive lessons or to meets across the country.

Reading this while the Rio Olympics were happening gave me a little extra insight into one of the themes of Abbott's book - the body of the devoted gymnast.  "Less than five feet tall, a hard, smooth shell of a body. Hipless, breastless still, but the way she's transformed her body in the last two years, thighs like trunks, shoulders and biceps straining her tank-top straps, staggered Katie."  I found myself so amazed to see how unusual Olympic athletes body's look - the triangles of swimmers' torsos, the dramatic profiles of the gymnasts: flat fronts, perky tushes, those legs...!  Their bodies are like objects of consumption over the course of the Olympics, all of us staring, staggered ourselves.

Like The Fever and Dare Me, You Will Know Me is a quick read and usually devoured in a sitting or two.  Abbott's recall of the pain of teenager-ness is spot-on. Her obsessive girls are so perfectly captured it carries me right back to my own tortured teenage years with embarrassing clarity.  I'm excited to see what she'll write next!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

According to the internets, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is The Greatest Spy Novel of All Time. Having gotten a bug in my bonnet to read my first (surely not, but I think so?) spy novel, I succumbed.  If it is the greatest spy novel of all time, all other spy novels are beyond terrible.  For one thing, there's hardly any spy stuff in it.  This dude just pretends to get himself fired from his British intelligence job so the Russians will pick him up and make him an informant.

It was written in 1963 so it's obviously a little dated. John le CarrĂ©  also wrote that horrible, incomprehensible Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so I probably should have known better.  Apparently the book had some cultural impact back in the sixties re: idealism and perceived moral values of Western espionage.  I suppose people coming off the high of moral superiority post-WWII must have met with some surprise that the shady actions of our government weren't born in the purest intentions.

Do you know there are hardly any spy books by ladies?  I ordered one by Stella Remington - At Risk - haven't started yet.  If anyone has any good recommendations, please let me know!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Somehow I did not quite understand that JK Rowling did not actually write Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but merely "collaborated" with Jack Thorne.  That was disappointing, I'll admit.  Even though the new book/play is touted as "The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later" what we have is officially sanctioned fan fiction.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Plenty of literary critics love crowing about what a terrible author J.K. Rowling is - she was described as "artless" in a recent New Yorker, for example - I whole-heartedly disagree, I'm quite fond of Rowling's style and storytelling, and I'm a big fan of her work under the nom de plume Robert Gilbraith. While Thorne does an excellent job capturing the voice of beloved characters, I thought his stage direction was absurd ("And with that, time moves ever onwards - ALBUS's eyes become darker, his face grows more sallow. He's still an attractive boy, but he's trying not to admit it."), but then again, I am an utter classicist when it comes to stage direction.  His story is clumsy and way too long (for a play) and I honestly couldn't recommend reading it.  However, there were a few things I found very interesting:

Firstly, I really love that a play is doing this well - the book sold 2 million copies in 2 days, surely the first time that's ever happened for a play.  I love reading plays, but they do take some adjusting to, and I think it's great that children are embracing the medium.  Said my 10 year old friend, "At first I thought it would be really hard, but then I didn't even notice!" and then I said, "Shut your adorable face! No spoilers!"  What I found interesting as a reader was that all kinds of crazy stunts are going on on-stage - spells, people flying, multiple UNDERWATER scenes, all of which you can read on two levels:  1. I'm just reading a book and stuff happens. 2. I'm reading a play and I'm trying to imagine how this will be carried out on stage.

Secondly, plays are meant to be performed, and reading a play is always secondary to watching a play.  This play looks like it would be pretty amazing to see, assuming they pull off half the effects.  Apparently it is selling out in its current West-End production at the Palace Theatre in London, and GET THIS:  You buy a ticket for two shows - Part 1 starts at 2pm and is 2 hrs and 40 mins long.  Then you leave, then you come back for Part II, a 7:30 show, which is 2 hrs and 35 mins long!  I am agog.  I mean, that is some Philip-Glass-marathon asses-in-seats shit there and I did not know the contemporary theater-goer had it in him, much less, presumably: Children?  I'm not sure I have it in me, and I love both theatre and Harry Potter.  BTW, prices are between 30-140 pounds. That's $38-180USD.  Actually, the dollar doing very well against the pound right now thanks to Brexit and worldwide financial collapse so... book your tickets?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Girls

Emma Cline's first novel, The Girls, is the kind of book that you can't put down. It's also the kind of book, if you're me, that fills you with jealous rage that the author earned an increasingly rare 2 mil book deal with Random House at the tender age of...wait for it... 25.

The Girls swings easily between the present, where Evie is a reclusive woman who moves anonymously from place to place, serving as a caregiver when she can, and her 14 year-old self, growing up outside San Francisco.  Evie is staying at a friend's cottage when the friend's son shows up unexpectedly with his girlfriend. "She was in the cult," he says to the girl.  The younger Evie is ignored by her parents, her life an expectant kind of waiting.  "All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you - the boys had spend that time becoming themselves."  Evie meets a girl, Suzanne, whose seeming confidence attracts her, and when Suzanne's friends invite Evie to join them, she is happy to follow.

At "The Ranch", Evie meets Russell, and is drawn into the world that they have created, what seems to Evie like the pinnacle of 1960s peace and togetherness: people living free and happy. Evie wants Suzanne's approval ∴ Suzanne wants Russell's approval ∴ Evie wants Russel's approval. Evie is as unformed as a teenage girl can be, easily malleable by everyone around her.  "I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board."

Cline's book has the astounding insightfulness of Being A Girl similar to the mood and tone of The Virgin Suicides. Like Eugenides, she captures the tragedy of American girlhood and its potential dire consequences.  "The Ranch" and Russell, are, of course, Charles Manson and his decrepit squat.  After finishing The Girls, not knowing much about the Manson murders, I fell down an internet rabbit hole about the women who murdered Sharon Tate and others in 1969, and how close Cline's story is to the actual events.  Side note: one of Manson's "girls" died in prison at the age of 61, and two others, near 70, are California's oldest female inmates. I read too much about the murders, to be honest, articles for and against their parole, including a sort-of serial from John Waters, and remain unsure how I feel about the women's incarceration.

Cline draws the reader into the mystery of what Evie's role in the murders was.  While her involvement slowly unravels, the older and wiser Evie is observing again, with no small amount of dread, the feeling of the transient, drug-fueled experience of her friend's son and his girlfriend.  She sees in the girlfriend the too-willing desire to please her jackass boyfriend, how she puts off too easily her own needs and desires for whatever interests him.  Their uneasy connection, in parallel with the '69 story, seems fraught with potential violence.

I thought the book was incredibly written and it really made me think about so many things  - although, one of the things it made me question was the sensationalism of this type of crime and my own place as a consumer of its gory details.  Cline's book doesn't dwell on the details (thankfully!) but draws a clear picture of how easily young women can be manipulated - that's what's most frightening about The Girls.