Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris
by John Baxter

Whenever discussion turns to productive creative periods in a city's history, I think about how any city has the same potential, if artistic people make an effort. The movements might lean towards a certain discipline — a greater musical scene than a literal paint-to-canvas community — but energy begets energy. Magic can be cultivated anywhere, and it's important to record that magic as it happens.

Certain cities are lucky enough to cycle through continual periods of magic, as though the atmosphere itself inspires the inhabitants. Paris, of course, falls into this jurisdiction. Even someone with only passing cultural knowledge about the city (say, me) can recognize its importance. For a devoted Francophile like Australian ex-pat John Baxter, every street corner can hold significance.

Recognizing that Paris is a pedestrian's city, Baxter maintains that the sights, sounds and smells will fuse themselves to the walker's heart, and a leisurely pace makes the journey all the more significant. After a stint living in car-centric Los Angeles, it took some time for him to realize a walk's value. "As if living in Los Angeles was not enough to turn me against walking, I'd been raised in rural Australia where distances discourage the man on foot," he says. "Well, they discouraged me."

And yet, all it took was one November morning to convince him:

All color had drained from the park, reducing it to a photograph by Kertesz or Cartier-Bresson. Nobody occupied the chairs that morning or sailed boats on the pond. There was none of the gaiety and ease one associated with the gardens in summer. Yet I felt elated. As if, like ultraviolet light, it could not penetrate glass, the essence of Paris is lost if seen through the double glazing of a hotel room or from the top of a tour bus. You must be on foot, with chilled hands thrust into your pockets, scarf wrapped around your throat, and thoughts of a hot café crème in your imagination. It made the difference between simply being present and being there.

Though he appears enthusiastic about much of France's history, Baxter's main interest lies in the Paris occupied by Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso. When a friend needed a new approach to the Paris Literary Seminar's walking tour, she approached Baxter. After some hesitation, he agreed to participate, and his tours were a hit. The Most Beautiful Walk in the World effortlessly merges the stories of those tours with bits of additional history, as well as stories from his own life, and what the stories mean to him. He makes you want to binge out on all the books and art he mentions, followed by booking plane tickets. In short, he is a very good guide.

Still, he had trouble reconciling himself with the label "tour guide," and all the stereotypes implied with it. After being persuaded to think of it not as touristy entertainment, but rather providing people with the opportunity "to see Paris as only [a writer] knows it," he warms to the idea. Writers are not often averse to money, after all. Besides, he recognized the greater value in what a walking tour could provide:

If, as the flaneurs claimed, walking around Paris is an art, then the city itself is the surface on which they create. And since Paris is ancient, that surface is not blank. Artists paint over their old work or that of others, just as medieval scholars scraped back the surface of vellum or parchment to use it again. Such a sheet, called a palimpsest, bears faintly, however often it's reused, the words of earlier hands. And we who walk in Paris write a new history with each step. The city we leave behind will never quite be the same again.

My husband visited Paris in 2000, back when the franc exchange rate made everything feel super affordable. At least, it felt that way to a seventeen year old now allowed to spend his time roaming the Paris streets, bottle of red in one hand, cheese in the other. He has been dying to get back ever since, but now with two children and minimal disposable income, international travel is not soon in the cards. (Hell, we live just a few hours south of Canada, and the ease of crossing that border is not what it used to be.)

Still, perhaps it's for the best that we must wait. Our kids are not quite of the age to fully appreciate being in Paris. For them, we could be walking in any city on vacation. They hold up better than most kids, as multiple walking-centric vacations have indicated, but the level of atmospheric magic would likely be the same for them as it would be walking around Portland. One day, the mister will be able to share with us "his" Paris, and we can continue the journey to make it "ours."

Baxter recognizes that the best travels are ones made personal, and that homogenized itineraries leave people unsatisfied. They want to feel like they are receiving insider's knowledge, and not something the tourism bureau cooks up by committee. People want to know that you get why they arrived, and they want something that elevates their desires to an unexpected place.

When a group of Texans is unmoved by his literary and historical references, he realizes that food and drink are where their interests lie. They visit cafés and markets, trying a little bit of everything. "Plenty of time when they got home to read Flaubert or a history of the French Revolution," he says. "What they wanted now was to reach out and touch the living flesh — to devour and be devoured."

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is a great and inspiring book, and Baxter's passion is infectious. Perhaps to an already avid connoisseur of Parisian literature and history, this won't have the same appeal. However, for someone like me, it still holds plenty of interest. I'd like to read his other Paris-related books — Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas and We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light.

As far as cultivating similarly inspiring communities in our own cities, perhaps few cities will ever hold the same romance as Paris, but every place has stories. What those cities need is someone as passionate as John Baxter, willing to talk about those stories in a way that holds people's interest. It's easy to be dismissive and to focus only on a city's problems, but what we have to remember is that we need to give the right people a reason to stay. A vibrant creative class benefits everyone, but only when we're made aware that it exists.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists by Seth

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists
by Seth

Given the title of my site, no one should be surprised when I say that I adore love letters. I love it when someone is unapologetically and wholeheartedly enamored with something — or someone — and they decide to make that love known to the world. Love letters, even when intended for one recipient, are an act of commitment. They turn heart swells into tangible objects, something to hold and crease and reread and savor and generate love in return. Here I am, here is how I feel, and oh, let us talk about how there is nothing better.

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists is a love letter. Canadian artist and writer Seth creates a simple world where comics are revered and treasured, and it is as lovely as a traditional sonnet. Intended as a prequel to his book Wimbledon Green (which I have not read yet), it began as a sketchbook exercise, without much thought to publishing it. It became a single narrator essay in a nine panel grid format, and he had several starts and stops before deciding what would become the published work. He creates a fictional world so believable that I had to do a bit of Google research to see if I'd just been ignorant of Canadian comics history. The bits of reality mixed with Seth's creations feel authentic, and that's all we can really ask of a good book.

"If you should happen to be wandering along King St. in Dominion," our unnamed narrator begins:

Keep an eye open for Milverton Street and take a right on it. Walk along — just a block or two... You'll find a surprising little pocket of banquet halls and private clubs. Follow along to 169 — a tall three story structure... Somewhat past its prime. The G.N.B. Double C. The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. Erected in 1935.

We are led on a tour through the building, discussing the history of the murals on the walls, the club jackets, the members old and new, and the impressively designed Forest Room. In the Forest Room, "you'll find a wide variety of original cartoon art hanging there. A near-virtual history of Canadian cartooning."

From there, the narrator goes into the stories of several different comics, discussing the authors and their inspirations, as well as the overall time period and reception during which the pieces occurred. It's remarkably wide-ranging — from straight-up superheroes to single strip gags to cheesy family stories to more complex, introspective work — and it never feels as though we are on a pointless diversion.

In this world, comics are better preserved and archived, and more consideration is given to rewarding fine work. It is from these pages that the Doug Wright Award originated, given to honor excellence in comics written in English. Doug Wright's comic Nipper features into the GNBCC narrative, a strip originally published in the 1960s. Wright's inclusion further serves this fact/fiction blur, creating an alternate history in which some real artists (known in certain circles) are revered alongside their fictional comrades.

Seth switches up his drawing style well when showing the work of these different artists. Some of the comics have a simple, pulpy feel, whereas others have serenely beautiful ink work. One of the fictional series mentioned, Kao-Kuk — about an Eskimo astronaut — can be read on the Drawn and Quarterly website here.

It's impressive, the entire universe he has crammed into a little over 130 pages. It's hard to accurately describe the impact the text and image pairings have, other than to say that they are also filled with aching nostalgia. In the literary world, certain works have been heralded for hundreds of years, and much more effort is made to discuss their impact, compared to the treatment comics receive. Seth seems to be of the opinion that we are in danger of losing the history of cartooning, and that it's a shame that the love he feels so strongly is not more widespread. Loving something can also feel lonely, especially when that love might not be commonly understood. With this book, Seth makes it clear that, during one moment in history, at least one person felt strongly enough to pay tribute. I highly recommend this book.


Full disclosure: I won this book, along with Daniel Clowes'
The Death-Ray, as part of a giveaway on BOOOOOOOM! Cheers to them.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Haulidays Giveaway at Chronicle [In which I hope for (more) free books.]

(Plenty is also published by Chronicle Books, but it is already on my shelf.)

Over at Chronicle Books, they are hosting a giveaway, and you know how I feel about free books. PLUS, books make excellent gifts because you can never have too many.

Here, then, is the basic giveaway overview:

It's been a tough year for non-profits, libraries, reading rooms, and literacy programs. But you can make your favorite charity's holiday season bright by entering the 2nd Annual Happy Haul-idays Giveaway!

This year, we're not only giving away up to $500 worth of Chronicle books to one lucky blogger and one commenter on the winning blog post—we're also asking the winning blogger to choose one charity to receive up to $500 of books from us. It's just our way of spreading holiday cheer and sharing the gift of reading.

To keep with the literary theme, if I were to win, I would like the Great Falls (MT) Public Library to also receive $500 worth of books. They're a good library, but like any library, they are not swimming in the funds. Since I'd like to support my local book-bearing community (outside of my perpetual late fees), it would be great to help them out.

So what Chronicle books would I love to have?

1.Moleskine Classic Hardcover Ruled Extra Small in violet. Because I love tiny notebooks, and a hardcover would be great for getting tossed around inside my much-abused bag. I hope it counts as a "book."

2. Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business by Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho. The mister is a photographer/artist and I am a writer. This might come in handy.

3. Frida Kahlo: Brush of Anguish by Martha Zamora, Translated by Marilyn Sode Smith. Frida Kahlo is one of my all-time favorite artists, but I don't have any books about her yet.

4. Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog by J.H. Lee, Photographs by Gretchen LeMaistre. Because Boo really is one of the world's cutest dogs and my kids would love this book. As would I.

5. Instant Iron-Ons by Julia Rothman. All 4 of us would want to stick these decals on everything, thus making it one of the first times I have ever turned on an iron to do anything.

6. PANTONE: The 20th Century in Color by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker. To (probably mis-)quote my friend John (who designed the Electric City Creative logo for me), circa high school yearbook, "I'm going to just go over here and pet the Pantone book until you realize that pumpkin and fuchsia is never a good idea."

7.Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, Photographs by Eric Wolfinger. I have no patience for cookies or cake pops, but I am quite willing to make a loaf of bread. I've even been told I'm good at it. Let us encourage this with a book.

8. Big Vegan by Robin Asbell, Photographs by Kate Sears. I'm not vegan, but I am lactose intolerant, so I do have some interest in vegan cooking.

9. Quick and Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott, Photographs by Alison Miksch. We have one restaurant in Great Falls that serves Thai food, and while it's fine, I was spoiled by Spokane having oodles of fantastic Thai food. So perhaps I need to get better at making it myself.

10. Turquoise: A Chef's Travels in Turkey By Greg and Lucy Malouf, Photographs by Lisa Cohen and William Meppem. All right, now I'm just making myself hungry, which is apparently still possible after all the Thanksgiving leftovers I've eaten.

11. Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish, Photographs by Alan Benson. One more food book. Comida español es delicioso.

12. Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art by Lincoln Cushing. I love interesting poster art.

13. Cats Are Weird And More Observations by Jeffrey Brown. If you are friends with me on Facebook, you know my obsession with stupid/silly cat things. Instead of thinking I am lame, think of it as my way of dealing with no longer having any cats (RIP, Lucy and Hobo).

14. Stuff On My Cat Journal by Mario Garza. Another notebook! With silly cat pictures! COME ON. IT IS BRILLIANT AND YOU KNOW IT.

15. Nerve: The First Ten Years. Okay, back to things that aren't just me giggling at silly stuff. Not only would this book be interesting to read, it has interesting packaging.

16. A Dog is a Dog by Stephen Shaskan. My son would giggle for days reading this.

17. The Boy Who Loved Batman: The True Story of How a Comics-Obsessed Kid Conquered Hollywood to Bring the Dark Knight to the Silver Screen by Michael E. Uslan. All of us would get something out of this one.

18. E-mergency! by Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer - Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Both kids would love this one.

19. Kokeshi Kimonos by Annelore Parot. My daughter loves anything to do with Japan, so she'd love this.

20. San Francisco Stories: Great Writers on the City Edited by John Miller. San Francisco is one of my very favorite cities, and the mister and I had our honeymoon there nearly 10 years ago.

21. The Empanada Brotherhood by John Nichols. Hey, a novel! Yes, Chronicle publishes those too. And yes, we're back to the Spanish language and food. What can I say? I like what I like.

22. Stoner Coffee Table Book by Steve Mockus. I'm fairly certain that I will laugh at this while completely sober. The cover image alone...

If my math is right (and let's be real, it might not be), that's $499.28 worth of books. Do you like my picks? Or do you at least know people who would like these books? Comment away, my friends. If I am chosen as the winner, I will randomly pick one commenter to also receive these books. Then we can cook Thai dumplings and laugh at kitties together.

Cheers. xx

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

There is No Year by Blake Butler

There is No Year
by Blake Butler

In 2007, when Warren Ellis released his first novel, Crooked Little Vein, he talked about the strange tendency of some reviewers to mimic his writing style in their reviews. The result sounded strained, even pathetic, as though the review writers were trying to impress the cool new kid at school. But if you've read any Warren Ellis — beyond Crooked Little Vein — you know that his voice is singular. The man occupies his own warped corner of the universe, and he does not seem to care if you understand it.

Like Ellis, Blake Butler is the overlord of his own irregular literary land, and judging from some of the cover blurbs, the recipient of his own "emulations." I am not going to tell you to wear Butler "around your neck in wreaths" any more than I would construct some sort of awkward mescaline and Dr. Whiskey metaphor talking about Warren Ellis, despite my enjoyment of his "Good morning, sinners"-isms.

Most importantly, I am not going to pretend I completely understood what the fuck it was that I just read.

I am a stranger in There is No Year's neighborhood, and we barely share the same alphabet. I cannot promise a comprehensive review; I can only hope for an adequate one. Yes, this is a rather lengthy disclaimer to tell you that I am not the book's best audience, but I can tell you this — I am impressed with Blake Butler's ability to redefine what we typically consider "the novel." There is No Year is unlike anything else I have ever read.

A mother, a father and a son move into a house — a house for which the father cannot remember signing the papers, nor can he remember why this house, only the unrelenting desire to own it. They find an exact copy of their family, standing "each in a room alone unblinking." The copy family does not speak.

The father flicked the copy father on the arm there by the window in the kitchen — the window where so many coming days the father would look out onto the yard — the yard where once the copy family had surely moved and laughed and dug and thought and fought and seen the sky change color. The father watched the copy father flinch. The copy father's big ring finger had thirteen copy rings on. In the copy father's eyes the father could read his other's current scrolling copy thoughts:

This is my house.

This is our house.

This is where I am.

The mother disposes of the copy family the only way she can think to do so. From there, linear cause and effect cease to exist. The house undulates. There are rooms within rooms, holes within holes, hair and insects crammed into all crevices. The son has recovered from a mysterious illness, and the ensuing strangeness could be read as the metaphorical aftermath of that illness — Or, the house really does have them caught in an endless, haunted loop. I don't think Butler wants us to know for certain.

What Butler does appear to prefer is that we get sucked into his swirling imagery, lost in the same disconcerting way the family is. The father keeps finding the distance increasing between home and work, and work never lets him go. He is stuck doing an ill-defined job of which he cannot remember the purpose, only that he must keep at it or unknown bad things will happen. He is the wage-earner, the person in charge, the person "supposed" to do things.

Inside his car the father felt an awful feeling there was something breathing besides him. Sometimes right there on the backseat, strapped in, needing, shaped like him. He could not bring himself to peek. Through the windshield in his car out in the street among the houses in the light the father watched the car continue forward, scrolling, returning where he'd been again already — no sound — the years inside him itching, eating, and, outside, the years upon him soon to come.

The mother is perplexed by her child, periodically obsessed with mowing the lawn, prone to fits of cleaning and then fits of deterioration, and she is forever searching for a spark. Losing grip on sanity, she tries one thing after another, looking for that "thing" that makes everything better.

The mother had some idea of what she'd say when asked, if ever. Some homes had bells that shook her sternum, or would play a song she knew she knew. Some homes seemed to quiver right along, as would their home, leaning. The mother imagined herself inside each home's walls as she touched them — inside not sleeping, hearing herself at the door. At certain doors she tried the keys she'd crammed fat in her pockets, but in the locks they'd spin and spin.

The son is lost in his own world. His parents have trouble getting him to respond to their calls, and he sometimes feels as though ants are crawling inside his body. He can sit for hours watching the same spot, seeing worlds within worlds, until it all seems to vanish.

The son's flesh rolled between his small hands, doughy. He felt something spark between his teeth and there inside him. A little liquid dripped down from his ears. He heard whirring in his stomach like garage doors. The whole room seemed to squeeze. The son was tired. He was talking to himself. The room seemed to flutter in his eyelids, eyes behind them. The walls would lean or move. The carpet grew long. There was a boulder rolling above the bed. There were eyes on every surface. There was someone in the mattress.

The chapters are short, and the characters are never named. Butler plays with text alignment and line breaks, and even the page color changes on a black and white gradient. There are grainy and dark photos interspersed throughout, each their own version of nothingness and tiny points of light. The book itself, as an object, is part of the narrative, and that I really do like that. Typical page structure would not suit this story at all, and though I could not exactly tell you why one text alignment is used in a one section over another, it does contribute to the overall otherworldly tone.

There is No Year is a challenging read, to put it mildly, though its 400 pages certainly did not drag. However, readers looking for anything resembling a straightforward plot or a resolution are not likely to enjoy the book. The ending is only a designated cut-off point, the end of the exhibit. Butler's writing comes closer to performance art in some ways, the literary version of disorienting video installations, housed in dark rooms at the MOMA. It would be disingenuous of me to define this book in terms of "good" or "bad" — All I can tell you is that it's an experience.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes

The Death-Ray
by Daniel Clowes

"I don't feel sorry for myself, but sometimes I think all these tragedies couldn't just be a coincidence. Maybe it means something. Maybe I'm destined for something big."

Daniel Clowes submerges us in profound alienation and the development of one's own moral code in his newest graphic novel, The Death-Ray. It's a sad, thoughtful story that also explores desire and the fronts one puts on when out in the world. It's also a story of consequence.

Andy is a quiet (and therefore, mostly invisible) teenager in the late 70s who lives with his grandfather and spends most of his time with his friend Louie. Both of Andy's parents are dead — his mother from a blood clot, his scientist father from cancer — and besides ailing "Pappy," their housekeeper, Dinah, is the only other parental figure in his life. He likes old music, keeps his room clean, and he writes letters to his "girlfriend" back in California. He lets Louie run the show most of the time.

Louie, meanwhile, hates his drunk father for running off, hates having to live with his mom, and he hates his sister's abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend. He has an awkward Prince Valiant haircut and a scraggly 'stache, and he's equally as likely to call you a pussy as he is to shake your hand. Most of the time though, he pretends he doesn't care what people think of him. He and Andy spend a lot of time just hanging out and talking.

One day, Andy gives in and smokes one of Louie's cigarettes. He throws up, but then:

I woke up at 5am, groggy, but filled with superhuman energy. It's like I could hear the blood coursing through my arteries and everything. I actually thought for a minute that I might explode! It's like my atoms were unstable. I don't know how to explain it exactly, but I was overcome with the absolute confidence that I could do anything, that I was in every way superior.

Going through his dad's old stuff, he discovers that he was treated with an experimental hormone where super strength is activated by nicotine. Super powers, he has them.

Yes. Now what should he do with them? And what else does he need to know?

The ways Andy uses his new abilities are at first petty, then have him grappling with ethics and personal responsibility, before swinging back into jealousy and attempts at loyalty. In short, he does what many people would do — struggle.

The Death-Ray does not have a lot of pages, but the drawings have amazing complexity to them, despite their somewhat simple, nostalgic style. Going back through the book, I noticed new details that I never noticed on the first read, and the storytelling structure is excellent. We see Andy as a 2004 adult, alone and telling us of his life, and we also hear from minor characters, briefly, but directly. The way Clowes weaves together these vignettes of Andy's life is impressive and had I the convenience and the energy, I would scan some of the artwork to accompany my thoughts. The absence of images in a graphic novel review should make you all the more curious and likely to seek it out, I hope.

EDITED TO ADD: Wait, sorry. You'd think I could just CHECK THE PUBLISHER WEBSITE for preview pages or something. Here is an excerpt from the book up on Drawn and Quarterly.

I would hope that the debate over graphic novels being considered literature has largely passed — I honestly don't know, as I tend to keep out of such tiresome discussions — but if anyone truly was searching for a recent example, The Death-Ray is as literary as a text-only short story. However, Andy's story is one that is best told in illustrated form. Underneath the excellent character sketch of someone who so yearning and lonely is a lovely hat-tip to superhero comics. Clowes frames everything around the childhood escape of holing up in your room and reading about fantastic adventures, masked crusaders who make the world a bit more bearable to live in. Andy's sense of justice isn't so far-reaching, but he holds onto the idea that he will one day get his due.


Full disclosure: I won this book, along with Seth's
The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, as part of a giveaway on BOOOOOOOM!. Cheers to them.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia
by Mary Helen Stefaniak

My fifth grade teacher operated differently from the others. She was twenty-seven at the time, and not yet jaded by the decades passed like many of her co-workers. Ten and eleven-year-old kids did not have to be condescended to, and they could be trusted to handle bigger and more creative projects, all while making an effort to better understand the world around them. She wasn't strict, and the room did not dissolve into chaos. We were allowed to have our own opinions. We made our own hardcover books, we wrote poems and bound them into an edition for the school library, and for research projects, we could pick our own topics (mine included zebrafish and Australia).

One day, I was home sick, and my police officer father came home on his lunch break. He told me there had been an incident at my school. The account I have of what happened is cobbled together from what he told me, what my friends said, and the reaction of my teacher: A boy in my grade had borrowed a BB gun from his friend, and he decided to return it to his friend that day during morning recess. This was 1993 and Montana, so the pre-Columbine, hunting-culture ignorance of a child is more understandable. However, at the same time the boy decided to bring out the BB gun, my teacher happened to be looking out the window. From her vantage point, it was difficult to tell whether or not the gun was real. Not wanting to take any chances, she immediately called the police.

The school principal's reaction was to yell at my teacher for not reporting it to the office first. She ended up crying in front of our class, made to feel horrible for doing the right thing. Yes, the gun was not real. No, the kids did not have any malicious intent. But how was she to know? What might have happened in those minutes it took her to alert the office?

The boy was suspended from school for a few weeks. The principal held an assembly, which I did attend, to discuss with fourth and fifth graders why guns at school were a bad idea. It turned into our class protesting the treatment of our teacher, and also a support session for the boy's sister, who was a fourth grader at the time. It was an interesting hour — essentially we were saying to our principal, "We understand your point about weapons at school, but do not demonize the people involved."

Our teacher gave us a semi-embarrassed "Thank you" once we were back in the classroom, and we moved on with the rest of our day. Later that year, we were thrilled when she told us she would be teaching creative writing to sixth graders, so many of us would have her again in middle school. Out of everyone who taught me over the years, she remains one of my favorites.

The magic of a teacher who comes at the right time in a child's life cannot be underestimated, and Mary Helen Stefaniak's The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia takes that magic and combines it with the 1938 rural South. She weaves together the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl and the adventure from The Thousand Nights and a Night, and in a brief time, a teacher changes the town in a remarkable way.

On the surface, it sounds like a tale that's been done to death. Ah yes, the Flawed-but-Inspiring Figurehead, here to teach these naïve kids about the ways of the world. Won't you show us the error of our ways, enlightened one?

… It's not really like that. Not exactly.

Narrated from Gladys Cailiff's eleven-year-old point of view, Miss Spivey arrives in Threestep, Georgia wearing hiking boots underneath her dress. Unsatisfied with the previous curriculum in the one-room schoolhouse (high school-aged students attend elsewhere), she decides to give the children a more well-rounded, worldly education based on her knowledge acquired in private schools and travels abroad. Gladys finds her fascinating, as do many of the kids, but of course there are more conservative students who balk at her abandoning "the way things are done."

She put us to work at once making invitations for the folks at home on pieces of orange paper cut out to look like pumpkins. With varying degrees of speed and skill, we copied from the blackboard the place and time of the party (from dusk till midnight, which was thrilling right there), as well as words like candy apples and haunts (as in "House of Haunts"), which everybody but Miss Spivey pronounced "haints." She strolled back and forth amongst our desks, offering encouragement and additional suggestions for spelling and punctuation.

Most of us had already written the date on our pumpkin-shaped invitations when Mavis piped up to say, "You can't have no party on October thirty-first, Miss Spivey. It's the last Monday of the month."

Miss Spivey replied, in a particularly pleasant voice, "October thirty-first also happens to be Halloween, Mavis."

"Then I reckon you can't have no party on Halloween," Mavis said.

"Yes, you can!" Ralphord cried. He'd already drawn a pirate costume on the back of his invitation.

"Well, I sure wouldn't," Mavis said, "if I was y'all." She looked around the room significantly.

By now everybody's heart was sinking, except for Mavis's. She was thoroughly enjoying herself, I could tell. She just loved the fact that all the rest of us had been too excited, with the turban and the pumpkin-shaped invitations and all, to notice that October 31 was the last Monday of the month.

In Threestep, Georgia, the last Monday of the month was Klan night.

It would be goddamn ridiculous to have a novel set when/where this one is and not mention the presence of the Klan. Their existence is an unfortunate and undeniable truth, though in Threestep, most people treat them with weariness. No one wants to invite their anger, but at the same time, they are certainly not admired. When Gladys asks her father a question about them, she describes his reaction as "look[ing] like I was asking him something he hadn't given thought to in a long while. He also looked like he would have preferred to keep it that way."

When Miss Spivey makes it clear that she does not intend to treat local black students any differently than the white ones, despite them attending different schools, those in the know hold their breath. And with the success of the Halloween party (though changed to a different date), she has even more progressive plans for the town's spring festival. All year, they work on what will be called the Baghdad Bazaar. Everything leads up to this night and its unknown outcome.

Heavily involved, though mostly in secret, in the designs of the Baghdad Bazaar is Theo Boykin, a talented inventor who finds learning from the dated colored high school’s textbooks inferior. He, along with his brother and mother, are the Cailiff's neighbors, and Miss Spivey takes an interest in his artistic skills and college ambition. His creative and engineering abilities weave nicely into the Thousand Nights narrative, and Stefaniak makes clear that some people are born as legend.

While Georgia is an interesting book, it's not without fault. We know everything about some characters, and little about others. What happens after everything comes to a climax is neither a downhill wrap-up, nor a Thelma and Louise-style cliff jump. Without spoiling anything, we instead start on a different story timeline altogether, before we're jarringly taken back to the original. It's not that the separate timeline is bad or completely unrelated — No, it serves a purpose — but something about the way it is executed didn't sit right with me. Starting over with expository information three-quarters of the way through the book made me glaze over a little, and I wondered when we would snap back to what had just happened. I wish I could be more specific, but the last part of the book was somewhat disappointing, despite the revelations it held. I know that it is entirely unhelpful to say, "Well, I don't know what would fix it, but I wish it were fixed," however true.

Still, Georgia has plenty of merit, and I am not sorry I read it. Though tempered through the eyes of a child, it provides a worthy portrait of the pre-WWII South, mostly unburdened by cliché. A remarkable teacher is a remarkable teacher in any era, and those that are good at their jobs can change the way anyone looks at life. I just wish Miss Spivey's story had been more satisfying.


Full disclosure: W.W. Norton sent this book to me for review purposes. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Q by Evan Mandery

Q: A Novel
by Evan Mandery

Q: If you could find out how your life will look in the future, would you want to know?

Q2: If you could change that future, would you?

Q3: What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness? For your career? For the person you love?

Evan Mandery's latest offering, Q, is a rather unusual book. I hesitate to use the word "quirky," since the word implies a cuteness not present, and the questions it poses are not so odd. However, not too many literary fiction books dealing with such themes introduce the element of time travel.

Still, I am getting ahead of myself. Our unnamed protagonist is madly in love with a woman named Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, otherwise known as Q. They meet at a NYC movie theater, during the double feature of Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam. Their first conversation goes, in part, like this:

"[...]I have no pressure to speak of, and even still I cannot sleep on Sunday nights."

"Perhaps it is something universal about Mondays, because the same thing is true for me too. I have nothing to make me nervous about the week. I love my job, and furthermore, I have Mondays off."

"Maybe it is just ingrained in us when we're kids," I say.

"Or maybe there are tiny tears in the fabric of the universe that rupture on Sunday evenings and the weight of time and existence presses down on the head of every sleeping boy and girl. And then these benevolent creatures, which resemble tiny kangaroos, like the ones from that island off the coast of Australia, work diligently overnight to repair the ruptures, and in the morning, everything is okay."

"You mean like wallabies?"

"Like wallabies, only smaller and a million times better."

They fall face first into a relationship and engagement, happily living together while he writes and teaches, and while she works at the Union Square farmer's market and tends to a rather impressive urban garden. However, small things eat at the man — such as his less-than-successful novel, an alternate history in which the presidency of William Henry Harrison goes to full term (instead of the President dying from pneumonia 32 days after inauguration). Q's garden is in danger of being sold to developers under eminent domain. Also, he and Q's father do not exactly get along, even though she adores both men. Unfortunately, the two have to spend some time together while they plan the wedding.

"How is your work going?" He pauses briefly after "your" and places a subtle derisive emphasis on "work" to make it clear he does not think either my job as an assistant professor at City University or my gig writing novels satisfies the definition of the word.

I tell him anyway. "I am writing a short story for 9PM Magazine. It's sort of a sequel to my novel. It begins after William Henry Harrison leaves office. He is minister to Gran Colombia and while there joins a backgammon club where he meets Simon Bolivar. They develop a friendship and over time engage in an erudite debate about democracy and the proper use of the doubling cube."

"What's 9PM Magazine?" asks John.

"Oh, it's a mixed-media online journal."

"Sounds great," he says. "I'm sure both people who read your story will love it."


"Have you considered turning it into a movie no one will see?"

"No," I say quietly, and think to myself that John Deveril is a hateful man.

The narrator's writing sounds absolutely dreary, the stuff of theoretical history enthusiasts to ponder over drinks, and not the makings of a novel. Yes, John Deveril's comments are mean-spirited, but they're also very funny. Similar comments are comic relief in a novel that's rife with formal dialogue.

In the midst of the wedding plans, the narrator receives a note, in his own handwriting, requesting that he make a lunch reservation at a five-star restaurant. There, he meets a very familiar face who insists, "You must not marry Q."

What happens then is a series of decisions and corrections that threaten the narrator's sanity and make him question everything that he's ever done. I don't want to spoil things further except to say it's both interesting and frustrating.

Reading this book, I did not fall headlong like the narrator does with Q, or like he does in describing his latest plans for a book. The man is, of course, preoccupied with alternate histories, and he spends considerable time working on a novel in which Freud becomes a widely known biologist that makes a breakthrough regarding eel testes.

Yeah. Eel testes.

It's a bit funny, but it also made me think, "Oh good lord, would we just get to how this resolves instead of watching him flail?" Still, that need to know what happens never goes away, and for that reason, I kept going. I read it while on vacation, and for airplane/hotel reading, it's a worthy distraction. Yes, it's a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism, but part of me suspects that it's done in a farcical way. Not being able to tell was annoying, even though I wanted to keep reading. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. Was I more patient with its faults because I was on vacation?

Would I feel differently if I were able to go back and read it under different circumstances?

Oh, I see what you did there, Mandery. Everything comes back the nagging concept of Choice.

Now, would I want to know how my life turns out? In some ways, yes, it would be handy to know if certain things pan out, but I suspect I am too neurotic to really be trusted with this information. I'd dwell. I'd get all existential and moody, and the act of knowing would thereby alter my existence because I would cease my current path and divert to Crazy Town. Nobody needs me to reside in Crazy Town. Even if things theoretically turn out well, I'll still find a way to drive myself nuts, and I do fine enough there without knowing the future. Hell, I can't even tell you if I'll sleep okay tonight, and I've had a pretty good day.

If our narrator's case is any indication, we are all better off not knowing.

Edited to add: I had the feeling they might try to make a movie out of this. To be honest, it might make a better movie than book, if done right.


Full Disclosure: I received this as an uncorrected proof from Harper, in which the title was
Q: A (Timeless) Love Story. So, much like the title, elements of the story may have changed. You know, after they considered the book's FUTURE and all. *ahem* Still, I thank Harper for sending me the book, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fathermucker by Greg Olear

by Greg Olear

The moment one becomes a parent doesn't mean one's personality ceases to exist. We do not cease to be a person who wouldn't mind, from time to time, a break from parenting, to take a step back and say, "How exactly did I end up here?" Greg Olear understands this perfectly in his new novel, Fathermucker.

Living in the crunchy town of New Paltz, NY, Josh Lansky is a stay-at-home dad to 3 year old Maude and almost-5 year old Roland. He is, in short, very tired, especially now that his wife has left town on a business trip. Left in the wilds of solo parenting, there is a mouse living in his bedroom wall, he's been up since 5:03 am, and he can't remember the last time he wrote anything good. A little peace is necessary to start the day, and that peace will come from the Judgy-Mummy abhorred television. "I find myself apologizing for our decision to let our kids watch TV," he says. "If I permit such deleterious activity, you see, I must at least recognize its inherent and unequivocal evil."

The truth is, my kids could spent the next half hour watching the South Park movie, and I wouldn't mind, as long as I got to take a shower and they didn't memorize the words to "Shut Your Fucking Face, Uncle Fucker." If that makes me a shitty parent, well, alert Child Services. That's U-N-C-L-E-Fuck-You. The number's in the book.

I am with this dude. Even though I know my 4 year old son is exactly the type of kid to memorize the words to that song. Meanwhile, my 7 year old daughter would be the one judging me. She's a rule follower, for now, bless her. At least I got one. It's a wonderful day when your kids reach the age — whenever that is — when you can say, "Find something to do," and you don't have to worry about all hell breaking loose. You know, Mama's got things to do like post stupid cat pictures on Facebook. There's yogurt in the fridge. Clean up when you're done.

Speaking of Facebook, Josh uses it to keep up with the lives of his friends, and to finish the conversations started in real life during the perpetual playdate circuit. On this particular morning — for the whole of Fathermucker takes place during one very long day — he will attend a play date at Emma's mother's house. After that, he will accompany Roland on his preschool's field trip to the pumpkin patch. He will be caffeinated. He will persevere. He will conquer this damn day...

"Oh, Josh, I hate to be the one to tell you this. I think... I think she's having an affair."

The "she" being his wife, Stacy. Fellow parent Sharon, mother of Iris, drops this bombshell on Josh, just in time for Maude to have a meltdown, begging to go home. And so he gets to stew, without any further information, throughout a day that is only going to get worse.

Olear has a particular talent for capturing the scatterbrained state of parenting small children — the interrupted conversations, the strangeness of children's programming, the futility of fashion when all you're doing is wiping someone's ass. He knows it's easy to forget how to be a functioning social adult underneath all that. Playdates serve as necessary opportunities to have grownup conversation as much as they entertain the kids.

(Personally, I'm exhausted by the idea of playdates, but I'm exhausted by everything. In other news: it's a good thing my kids like each other, since their mother doesn't exactly provide a social calendar.)

In the case of the small-enough community of New Paltz, these meet-ups provide a side of gossip. Who's having an affair? (Cynthia Pardo, all over town.) Who is secretly eating McDonald's? (Josh, like, every morning.) Who puked all over the bathroom like a college kid? (Meg's husband, "the doucheface," she says.)

So yes, maybe that grownup conversation sometimes reverts to something a bit more, well, juvenile.

There are a bit too many pop culture asides peppering the story. Now, I understand that when your entertainment is derived from the quiet moments where you can steal away to the internet, or flip through gossip rags, pop culture asides are what will stick in your mind. Not to mention, a person who feels ever disconnected from the non-parenting world will cling to whatever cultural things that might show he is still paying attention. My life is not entirely pull-ups, honest. However, when we take that existence and pair it with literature, I start to wonder how well it will hold up over time. I know who the Fug Girls are and that Nick Jr. used to be called Noggin, but will the reader ten years from now know the same? Even the Spencer and Heidi jokes feel a bit old reading them in 2011 — though they were likely fresh when the book was written and presumably when this story is supposed to take place.

I know that worrying about the 2021 reader is an awfully presumptuous thing to do, but anyone who loves books, loves the business of writing them, and has read book after book that is decades (if not centuries) old... Well, of course we think about posterity. I understand why the not-quite-hip culture jokes are there, but there are too many. Josh can show me he's trying to be relevant in other ways.

Still, Josh is quite funny and he'd be the parent I'd want to hang out with, were I subject to such a social circle. I'd much rather talk about whatever silly crap is floating around online than things like attachment parenting and the latest martyr-parenting methods.

And the content can be serious as well. Josh's son, Roland, has Asperger's syndrome, and that affects everything during the day. Transitions must be forewarned, and bedtime must be a specific, orderly dance. Concessions must be made. That in itself can make a parent feel more alone, especially when it seems like "typical" kids develop in leaps and bounds.

Parents of autistic children are more likely to suffer from depression, from parental stress, from psychological stress.

Parents of autistic children are more likely to split up.

The divorce rate for those parents is eighty percent, is what I hear.

Ernest, one of Cynthia Pardo and Peter Berliner's three children, is autistic.

Stacy and I haven't had sex in … how long has it been? A while. It's been a while.

Fathermucker is a quick-but-satisfying read, and certainly one with which less-uptight parents will identify. The question of "Is Stacy having an affair?" propels us to the very end, and it goes for self-deprecation over melodramatics. Olear makes us consider the definitions of honesty and identity within our day-to-day life, and I am officially a fan.


Full disclosure: Harper sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
by Sara Marcus

Born in July 1983, I'm a little too young to be considered "Generation X" and a little bit too old to be considered a "Millennial." In high school, we first heard the term "Gen Y" kicked around, and some sources consider "Millennial" and "Generation Y" to be one and the same. Who decides these things, I don't know, but as is the case with any label, there is no catch-all application.

Such can be said about the label "Riot Grrrl," a movement that began in the early 90s within the indie scenes of Olympia, WA and Washington DC. Wholly defining riot grrrls into a couple of neat sentences cannot easily encompass both the origins and the destinations of the young women who participated. However, in Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus has crafted a rather well-rounded history that captures both the idealism and the problems of this "second wave" of feminism.

Maybe it's too easy to get complacent about women's rights — after the hard-fought battles of the 70s and the resurgence in the 90s, it might seem like a different world. To be fair, it is, a little.

The rape crisis centers and other pro-women organizations we might take for granted would not exist without those efforts, nor would the awareness we have regarding sexual harassment and terms like "glass ceiling."

And yet, still, victim-blaming occurs.
And yet, still, we read newspapers equating sexual assault with a fashion choice.
And yet, still, the internet breeds new forms of misogyny.
And yet, still, women are paid less than their male counterparts, still punished financially for having children, less likely to be taken seriously in male-dominated positions, and on and on and on and on.

There is much work to be done. Still.

However, the progress we have made owes a great deal to the Riot Grrrl movement — a movement that, at ten or so years old, I knew existed, but felt too young and too far away to take part. I saw these girls as unapologetically outspoken, girls who wore what they pleased, played in bands, made their own zines, and appeared to date people independent of gender. They looked artsy and fun, and I wished that I could some day be a part of something like that.

Lost on me, likely due to my age, were the political messages behind the movement. I didn't know, until later, how they reached out to girls who felt bombarded by sexist culture, familial abuse, and any number of horrible things. I didn't know of the true therapy Riot Grrrls experienced by coming together. Too young, living in Montana, and experiencing it only through magazines, all I saw were strong people. Examples. They would help change the world. (Pre-internet!)

However, no group is without its flaws and Girls to the Front does not shy away from discussing them. Sara Marcus was not a part of the original movement and came into it a few years in, growing up near the DC area. "Sometimes it's okay to have a little distance from the center of a cultural explosion," she says at the beginning of the book. "The impact may be reduced, but the burns less severe."

She talks about her frustration with hearing Riot Grrrl referred to as though it were a passé trend populated by girl bands who "couldn't play their instruments." How had this history been lost? What happened to the feelings she had when she first met these girls and knew she wasn't alone?

Talking to these girls, I began to understand that I didn't have to be miserable. Maybe being a teenager was always going to be a bloodbath to some extent, but it did not have to be this particular bloodbath. Its severity and the specific tone of its miseries were political, which meant they were mutable. I felt powerless not because I was weak but because I lived in a society that drained girls of that power.

However, apart from the introduction, Marcus does not veer into memoir territory. If no one had properly explored and recorded the history of Riot Grrrl, then she would do it herself. Through extensive interviews, scouring old zines and mainstream media coverage, she has woven together a complex narrative that avoids fangirl or cynicist traps.

She starts with a prologue, set at a 1992 Bikini Kill concert. They're a band who "has spent much of the past year on the road, building a fan base the way all independent bands do in the early '90s: piling into a van and crisscrossing the country every few months, counting on a cassette-only demo they sell, and on word of mouth, to feed enthusiasm."

Marcus has a particular gift for describing music to someone who has not heard the songs. I am aware of Bikini Kill as a band, would perhaps be able to recognize a song or two if it were played unattributed, but reading the music passages in this book provided a real sense of what the bands sounded like:

The laid-back bassist begins a three-note riff, over which a friend of the band, Molly, reads from a recent newspaper article attacking Bikini Kill: "What comes across onstage is man hate! A maniac rebellion against the world and themselves." Kathleen flails at the cymbals with exaggerated awkwardness, waving her arms like a three-year-old trying break something. Billy taps his foot to keep track of the beat. Erika's movement is almost here. Tobi is singing about rock heroes' approval: If Sonic Youth thinks that you're cool, does that mean everything to you? Then she raises her voice for the chorus, naming that band's iconic guitarist: Thurston Moore hearts the Who! Do you heart the Who too? As if in reply, Billy swings his guitar toward his amp to make caterwauling wolf whistles of feedback and jagged bursts of Thurston Moore-style noise.

The chaos mounts. Billy throws his guitar up high, letting it flip over itself in the air, and then catches it. Kathleen walks to the edge of the stage and leans down to the girls in the front row so Erika can hurl bloodcurdling screams into the mic. The two of them share the mic for a second, Kathleen's woah-oh-oh and Erika's virtuosic EEEEEEE!, and then Erika takes the microphone and climbs onstage. She belongs there and she knows it.

To properly summarize all the different figures that began what at first was called "Revolution Girl Style Now" calls for a review much longer than perhaps my (and your) patience allows. In short, the difference between the feminism of the 70s and the feminism of this group in the 90s was that it focused less on debating labels — "Does labeling something female unfairly change its perception?" and the like — because they were already aware of the disadvantages labels caused, and that did nothing to change the reality of being a girl in the early 90s. They wanted to start something cool and encouraging to anyone interested in equality, and not just the readers of their mothers' Ms. magazines. They wanted to create a new legend, where "[e]verything was accessible, everything was meaningful, everything was available to be discussed and assessed and incorporated into an exuberant and revolutionary worldview."

Olympia's punk scene already had some ties to the DC scene, as some of the key players in Olympia had once lived in Maryland, not to mention the northwest's K Records having close ties to Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records (MacKaye, of course, being the frontman for Minor Threat and then Fugazi). Pen pal friendships sprung up through postcards and zine exchanges, which also led to the fractured collective band known as Bratmobile and Bratmobile DC. With the encouragement from their Olympia counterparts, DC punk girls realized their scene was in need of an overhaul, a movement away from its often violent, male-dominated pits during shows.

It's important to note Riot Grrrl's parallel existence to what ended up being labeled "grunge." Though both incubated in the early 90s and overlapped to some degrees, they had wildly different goals. Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill once dated Kurt Cobain, and some of Kurt's subsequent heartbreak songs made it onto the Nirvana album receiving so many 20th Anniversary Tributes as of late.

The boys of Nirvana has their hearts set on fame and stardom, which made them unusual in Olympia, as did their polished, anthemic sound, all brawny power chords and cataclysmic drumming. Tobi was particularly critical of her friend's designs on success; she had nothing but scorn for "lame career-goal bands," which to her defeated the anticonsumerist raison d'etre of punk rock.

Whatever: Tobi and Kathleen had a band of their own to worry about. They knew from the beginning that Bikini Kill was going to be something special, not a feint at the Top Ten or at bourgeois stability. They had plotted it out carefully in strategy sessions: Their band was going to be a revolution. They would settle for nothing less.

I'm thinking different definitions of "success" might have helped end that relationship, no?

Allow me to veer back into personal territory once more: An old boyfriend and I used to have this same argument about success. He was a big fan of K Records and the Kill Rock Stars label (which is also mentioned in this book). Sure, he liked Nirvana and loved Pearl Jam, but something about the idea of wanting to be widely known didn't sit well with him. He wanted to start a movement of all-ages, indie shows that dealt with cassettes and low-budget tours. He was about rehearsing your ass off, but still getting up and playing shows while you were still learning, and about having something to say taking precedence over anything else. And to his credit, he has gone on to do just that with a label called Tummy Rock — to an acceptable-to-him scale, I don't know, since we're not in regular contact. (In this Facebook age? I know. Unheard of! But it's true.)

Meanwhile, I was (and am) all about that anthemic sound and cataclysmic drumming. In the church of rock n roll, I want both the intimate, press-against-the-stage gigs and the mega sea of people singing their goddamn hearts out while the band only has to play the chords. My big, loud desires come from a different jurisdiction. I'm arrogant enough to want Rage Against the Machine-esque revolution and recognition — Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me — and to hell with terms like "selling out."

That's not to say that I am right and he is wrong — No, we just had different, incompatible ways of looking at the world.

So, while I'm with the Riot Grrrls in wanting equal rights for women, after reading Girls to the Front, I have the suspicion I would have been frustrated by much of the inner-movement politics, had I been the right age/geographical area to take part. At a certain point, their "Revolution Girl Style Now" began to get more attention from news outlets, and their discomfort with such attention grew even more widespread when they felt the movement was being wildly misrepresented in these more mainstream places. The specifics of the misrepresentations varied, but the underlying feeling was the same: They were not being taken seriously.

And they were right — Riot Grrrl certainly was not a fashion trend or only teenage naïve idealism that should be discarded— but my reaction to misrepresentation is not to institute a communication blackout as they did. I'll ramble and yell and make my point from the rooftops, man. Tell the reporters how others have got it wrong, make them feel like they've got the scoop, and in the meantime, I'll use my own methods to keep churning out my message. Just go, go, go, and do not retreat. I understand that they were anti-capitalist and felt like they didn't need Spin to do what they did, but a Newsweek article is what brought Riot Grrrl to Sara Marcus' attention. Are they going to say that they wish she'd never read it? That her experience of discovering Riot Grrrl is somehow less authentic? Come on.

It's easy to say that when you're not in it, of course. (Though it bears mentioning that, when frustrated with any "scene" in which I might be tangentially involved, I do find my own methods of semi-respectful loud-mouthing.)

Marcus explores the different ways Riot Grrrl fractured — from social climbers, to Midwest incarnations, to women who felt like returning the violence inflicted upon them. Kathleen Hanna, though there at the start, always shied away from being called any sort of "spokesperson" for Riot Grrrl, even though the popularity of her band made it seem natural. Though she was all determination and bravery onstage and in her writing, she found the attention embarrassing. Tobi Vail wondered if, because of the out of context media attention, calling yourself a riot grrrl "even means anything at this point."

The term 'poseur' gets thrown around a lot by people still, and the '90s were no different. Watching their old friends from Nirvana blowing up to be the biggest thing in the world made them uncomfortable, and they hated to see their own work become the latest fad within "lame corporate youth identity bullshit."

That's all well and good, but one can't worry about controlling others' responses so much as one can just go own living their ideals. Maybe that's my post-90s feminist privilege talking, but reading the complaints from some of these women sometimes inspired eye-rolling, "why do you care so much?" reactions. Again, that's easy to say when I wasn't experiencing it firsthand, and the intensity of the teenage experience is so much more overwhelming than that of the late-20s perspective. For all I know, I would've had the same reaction at seventeen, eighteen. It's hard to say.

What is great about Girls to the Front is that it gets one thinking about all these things — what it means to be a woman in 2011, what has and hasn't changed, and how one views their identity independent of gender. A person cannot have a neutral reaction to this book; it causes too much self-reflection.

Yes, feminism still has its work cut out for it. There are no easy answers on how we can change systems that have long been in place, but as with any hope for change, people have to make an effort. For however long we are able, we simply have to keep trying.


For further reading wherein I get cranky about gender and publishing, see "Let's make some gender graphs, y'bastards!" Or if you are more interested in me getting cranky about the term "indie" and the term "sell out," please refer to "Indie Accuracy." SPOILER: Sometimes I am a loudmouth pain in the ass. Who knew?

Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.