Monday, January 28, 2013

Rye by Sam Rosenthal

Sometimes, I receive email pitches for books that are a bit outside my regular scope, but I say, What the hell, send me a copy. Sometimes, these are self-published books. I'm not overly snobby about the self-publishing route, as some of the better books I've read were brought into the world this way. However, sometimes, I know these books would not have fared well in an attempt at going the more "traditional" route because they're just not ready. The books may have a decent premise, but they needed several more rounds of editing. Rye by Sam Rosenthal is one of those novels.

The story concerns a video artist named Matt who begins a relationship with a genderqueer, biologically female person named Rye. He wants to finish his documentary about what it means to be genderqueer, and he is also a father who shares custody of his nine-year-old son with his ex-wife. Eventually, he also begins a relationship with someone named Rain. I can't really go on about many plot details because apart from the sex punctuated by unrealistic dialogue, there's not much to speak of. Also, this is one of those rare instances where I did not finish the book.

I've reviewed erotica before, and when it's done well, it's fantastic. All the good and steamy bits of sex, front and center? When I'm in the mood to read that, sign me up. Thing is, I don't want to be distracted by the writing. Because I certainly try to be fair with my reviews, rather than pretend like I never opened the book in the first place, I'd rather talk about why I had some concerns. It doesn't do writers any good to only hear, "You're great!" from your friends.

What piqued my interest in Rye was the idea of genderqueer, polyamorous characters being the central focus of an erotic novel. Because of the erotica review copies I've received before, I know that those sorts of characters are often in short supply. Certainly, people who identify this way exist in reality, and it's only right that they be represented in fiction. But people don't talk like this:

"[...] I didn't want to split and have Mischa's childhood turn out like mine, a kid of divorced parents. I wanted to give him a family, something my pop never did for me. But I'm not like Pop, I'm there for Mischa."
"It must have been hard losing what you wanted, and then having to stay connected with your ex. I dated this one woman, the last really serious relationship before you. It fell apart like yours did. I wasn't going to keep changing to please her.
He stops and sighs. I put my arm in his and pull him along.
"It would be excruciating if I had to see her all the time. Hey! Me and my ex. Boring!"
He grins a fiendish smile. "I'm thinking of something a lot hotter."
I paw at his body.
"Your hands make me feel safe," he says. "I trust you. It's hot subverting my feminist politics for you. [...]"

What? "It's hot subverting my feminist politics for you?" This is not Hey Girl, It's Rachel Maddow. And the "It must have been hard losing what you wanted," sounds straight out of therapy and not from a conversation between two people at the beginning of a relationship. Also, the whole conversation is just a device to give background information, and it doesn't work, the way it's written.

I never quite understood what was at stake at all, a third of the way into the book. Apart from some minor waffling where Matt sleeps with a guy and wonders what it all means -- he literally says What does it mean? What does it matter? Why do we need to label things? -- and some wondering about whether it's too heteronormative to want a family, I have no idea. He has a family, him and his son. His relationships seem to mainly be vehicles for more What does it mean? talking at each other. I guess I just don't understand this crisis of personal preference when one is so busy going on about just how unconventional they are by preferring androgyny and by attending an event called SexxCamp. The atypical characters that first had me interested were actually not all the interesting. I can dig androgyny, I can dig not feeling the need to label, but I need more than that.

Rye is not believable as a story based in reality, nor is it believable as fantasy. If it were just there for the fucking like other erotica, fine. Some of the sex in this was quite good, yes, but there's far too much hand-wringing to make it a fantasy. I'm not in the habit of fretting that much in my fantasies; are you? And because the dialogue doesn't feel true to life, because I don't know why we're here as readers, and because nothing made me want to stay and see where the story headed nonetheless, I put down the book. I have 90 unread review copies sitting here. Despite any reader's guilt I have, I also have to know when to cut my losses.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kansas City Noir edited by Steve Paul

Kansas City Noir
edited by Steve Paul

For a few years now, I've meant to read one of the books from Akashic's city-based Noir series. And for no good reason, I didn't get around to one until Kansas City Noir, edited by Steve Paul. I don't believe I've ever been to Kansas City — if I have, it was a mere drive-through during one of the cross-country trips we took when I was a kid. Because of that, I wonder if I would have connected to the stories more so if I was already familiar with the locale. Yes, I know of its barbeque, booze, and blues heritage, but apart from that, I don't know the significance of locations like The Paseo or Milton's Tap Room. Saying all this up front, I only mean that your results may vary, and that I'd have to read other cities' collections to know if my disconnect is identification-based or writing-based.

As it stands, Kansas City Noir is a decent collection of dark short stories. There's a lot of unrepentant murderin', which I find interesting, as well as some of more unusual plot points that I enjoyed.

One of my favorite stories was Mitch Brian's "Last Night at The Rialto," about a single screen theater's projectionist closing up on the last night of business.

"Closing night after the last show, I want you to pull all the prints into your truck and bring 'em over to my place," he told Rance. He'd just dropped the bomb on Rance that he was selling the place and he said it almost like an afterthought. He'd given no warning. Hadn't even hinted he was looking for a buyer. After all, Rance was just the projectionist. Marty probably figured he'd find another job easily enough. Or maybe just do something else. Everything was going digital anyway. Projectionists, he'd joked, were a dying breed. It may have been funny to Marty, but not to Rance. It was the truth. Rance was dying. He'd kept that from Marty. […] Marty didn't know Rance had nothing to lose. Marty didn't know how dangerous Rance was about to become. These prints were not going to Rance's truck.

I liked the shadowy, solitary planning of it all. If the boss has taken away the last thing he has left, then the boss will surely not profit from it.

Another highlight was "The Softest Crime" by Matthew Eck, a tale about the children of two serial killers who meet at a conference for people affected by violent crimes. They develop a hit-and-miss relationship mainly about sleeping with each other, but the man develops stronger feelings for her.

"I always liked you," I said.

"You liked the idea of me. You liked that there was someone just as fucked up as you."

"That's not true," I said.

"Don't be angry." She covered my eyes with her hand again and kissed me. She sighed against my lips.

"What if it was love?" I asked.

"You're not in love with me," she said. "You're just in love with the idea of me."

I rolled away from her but she climbed on top of me. She kissed me and her hair made a tent around our faces.

There's no murder, no mystery — just two sad, lonely people who came together one last time in the middle of winter.

I also liked "The Pendergast Musket" by Phong Nguyen, "Lightbulb" by Nancy Pickard, and the delightfully weird "Thelma and Laverne" by John Lutz. "Yesterdays" by Andrés Rodríguez was also good.

Some of the stories, like Nadia Pflaum's "Charlie Price's Last Summer," were fine enough, but the endings felt too inevitable. Sometimes seeing where the story is headed can be entertaining, and other times, I think, Oh, just get on with it already.

I guess I expected to like this book more than I did. There was not nearly enough Wow for me. Half the time, I finished the stories with a bit of a shrug. Great, you murdered your husband. Congratulations, I guess. Oh, and you'd like to be murdered? Okay, well, I'm sure someone will help you out with that, then. Moving on.

Like I said, the book has definite highlights, but not enough of them. Perhaps I'd feel more fondly towards some of the so-so stories if I had a nostalgic connection to their setting. I don't know, but I'm still curious about several other Noir collections. And if Akashic ever wants to do a minimally-cowboy Montana-themed book for the series, well, my email is right here on the sidebar.

Full Disclosure: Akashic Books sent me this. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review now also appears on Persephone Magazine.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Internal News: 1-23-13

Lots of catching up to do, as I've not rounded up my writing in a little while. First off, my review of Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott was published in the latest issue of Gently Read LiteratureIt's a subscription-based PDF publication, so it's not free to read at the moment. I won't be rude and immediately post the review here myself, but after a little more time has elapsed, perhaps you'll see it. Here's a snippet:

At its core, Motherlunge is a novel of longing. Kirstin Scott has written characters who so profoundly feel an absence in their lives, yet despite this yearning, they have difficulty with moving forward. Filled with fierce, difficult love, the story still does not let itself become bogged down with excessive melancholy, and it is an immensely satisfying read.

In more localized news, if you are in the Great Falls, Montana-area (or need a reason to be), Tyson Habein (the mister) and musician Joe Ryan are throwing a party. Well, an arts and culture showcase, to be more exact: Magnificent Seven. And because, more officially, the event is sponsored by Electric City Creative, that means I'm somewhat involved too. Our little hibernating magazine venture is more of an arts promotion venture at the moment, and that's ok too. Anyway, there will be food, booze and coffee; artwork sold; and music by the people listed on the event page. All of them are.... wait for it... magnificent.

Over at P-Mag, here's what I've written lately:

-whew- That was a lot.

Only two new Notes From Elsewhere over at Word Riot since we last rounded them up:

  • 12-28-12: A few Best Of lists, therapy llamas, and late-blooming authors.
  • 1-11-13: J. Robert Lennon's bathroom reading material, new work by Nick Antosca, and Neruda Cats.

Finally, my review of Stasiland by Anna Funder now has a bit of perspective from a former East German, my friend Karo, appearing at the end. Do take a look.

Also, I've heard some cases of blogger eating comments here. Do let me know via email if you've tried to comment and it's not showing up. I don't have comment moderation turned on for any recent posts, so they're supposed to turn up right away.

Until next time.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stasiland by Anna Funder

Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall
by Anna Funder

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was only six years old. I remember very little about it happening — bits of news stories, our teacher mentioning it in class — and the next year, I knew a girl who had a piece of the Wall because her father had been stationed in Germany with the Air Force. In history classes over the years, we only ever made it as far as Watergate, so I didn't know a great deal about the rise and fall of Communist Germany going into Stasiland. What made me pick up the book was my friend, Karo.

Not to speak on her behalf, but Karo is a longtime friend of mine who was seven and living in East Germany when the Wall came down. She doesn't recall a lot about those days, and understandably, it's a difficult subject for her family members. Because I find that existence an interesting thing about her — being the age that I am and having always lived in America, one doesn't usually have too many German friends — I wanted to better understand it. Anna Funder's Stasiland makes for a good introduction.

The book is not exactly a history book, as it is just as much about Funder's process of interviewing people, and her living in Germany for a time. Though she grew up in Australia, she wanted to learn German because she found it to be a beautiful and strange language — "I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together." In 1994, while visiting the Stasi museum in Leipzig (a building which used to be the Ministry of State Security), Funder speaks with the museum director, Frau Hollitzer.

Later, Frau Hollitzer told me about Miriam, a young woman whose husband had died in a Stasi remand cell nearby. It was rumoured the Stasi orchestrated the funeral, to the point of substituting an empty coffin for a full one, and cremating the body to destroy any evidence of the cause of death. I imagined paid-off pallbearers pretending to struggle under the weight of an empty coffin, or perhaps genuinely struggling beneath a coffin filled with eighty kilos of old newspapers and stones. I imagined not knowing whether your husband hanged himself, or whether someone you now pass on the street killed him. I thought I would like to speak to Miriam, before my imaginings set like false memories.

I went home to Australia, but now I am back in Berlin. I could not get Miriam's story, the strange secondhand tale of a woman I had never met, out of my head. I found a part-time job in television and set about looking for some of the stories from this land gone wrong.

While she begins her research by interviewng people who suffered at the hands (silent or otherwise) of the Stasi, it occurs to her to ask questions of former Stasi officers themselves. She contacts them through, of all things, a newspaper ad. The results are mixed, as far as the intentions of these former officers go, but all of them leave her feeling unsettled. The men are all eager to show off the various ways they were "right" in doing whatever they did.

"What is it you do now, Herr Bock?"

"I am a business adviser."

I don't say anything.

"You look surprised," he says. "You are wondering what I could possibly know about business."

"Yes, I am."

"I work for West German firms who come here to buy up East German assets. I mediate between them and the East Germans, because the westerners don't speak their language. The easterners are wary because of their fancy clothes, their Mercedes Benzes, and so on."

Terrific. Here he is once more getting the trust of his people and selling them cheap. Stasi men are by and large less affected by the unemployment that has consumed East Germany since the Wall came down. Many of them have found work in insurance, telemarketing and real estate. None of these businesses existed in the GDR. But the Stasi were, in effect, trained for them, schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their own self interest.

Stasi who tried to leave the service received no special treatment, sometimes even after Germany began the reunification process. Several chapters are dedicated to Herr Koch, a man whose father also worked for the Stasi. It is a lengthy, complex, and at times absurd story — funny in that way that distance and time allow. There's too much to properly summarize here, but it's definitely one of the most interesting portions of the book.

Also complex, yet even more heartbreaking, is the story of Frau Paul, separated by the wall from her infant son, Torsten. Because of medical problems immediately after his birth, Torsten was sent to West Berlin, where the hospital there could better treat him. She and her husband were denied passage to see him, and when they planned to sneak across the border, they were imprisoned.

"This is where I was brought," she said [of Hohenschönhausen]. "I had no idea where I was. For all I knew, I could have been taken from Rostock to any place in the GDR. I certainly didn't know I was right in the heart of Berlin." The paddy wagon and the truck bay were designed so that the prisoners could be let out one at a time, and never see each other, or day light, or a street, or the entrance to the building.
It is not the first time Frau Paul has been back, but I don't imagine this is easy for her. I know there are places that I don't visit, some even that I prefer not to drive past, where bad things have happened. But here she is in the place that broke her, and she is telling me about it.

Frau Paul and her husband are not reunited with their son until he is nearly five years old.

The urge to forget, to not "drive past" the reminders of the GDR remains an understandable yet frustrating fact of life in the area. This is very, very recent history, yet little of the physical wall remains, and the blank spots are barely noted as having once been anything but what they presently are. At the time Funder was gathering information for Stasiland, less than a decade had passed, and the book was originally released in 2002. (Why it took until 2011 to be released in the US, I don't know.)

Some, like Frau Paul are involved in museum-like preservation projects of certain buildings, so that it is not as easy to forget what happened. With the people who were directly involved, Funder notes how many "different kinds of conscience there are." While some want to erase the memories, others swing the opposite direction and fervently obsess over the details. What went wrong when?

Funder does not claim to offer a full history or even necessarily a balanced one, apart from interviewing people who came from different sides. The subtitle of Stasiland — "Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall" — is an important distinction. These are individual stories. To encompass everyone, I imagine, would be impossible.

The book is also a bit like memoir in that Funder is a character in her own work. Her experience as an outsider trying to understand is the reader's way in as well. I won't pretend to know the accuracy in her observations, nor can I personally attest to the stories she hears. When dealing with a period of time where information was a commodity, one does have to wonder, especially with the Stasi men, what (if any) underlying motivations are at play. I don't know. I can only take them at their word.

I do think, however, that Stasiland is a valuable documentation of East Germany and its lasting effects. We, as humans, are often not very good at learning from our own history, but I'm not one of those who thinks it's hopeless to try. The more opportunity we have to learn from, and therefore not repeat, the more deplorable things we have done, the better. Though Stasiland's purpose is not a grand manifesto, it is an introduction. It is there to bear witness. By bearing witness, we begin.

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

ETA: Karo herself tried to comment on this post, but Blogger kept eating the comment, so I'll just add her thoughts myself here:

"Wonderful review, I really have to read that book now. I had no idea Funder was Australian... I does make a lot of sense to see the whole thing through the eyes of many different people. Things changed so unbelievably fast - one day people were protesting, the next they were on their way to the West for the first time, and a few months later we were all West Germans. It must have been incredibly scary for most people to have their country erased from history at such a speed, no matter how horrible a system it was. It does feel like all that remains are stories. Literature took its time, but I would say it plays a major, if not the biggest, part in coming to terms with GDR history now. There's so much catching up to do for me, and how strange that it will be mainly through literature, while my own family was a part of it all. Lots of food for thought. I'll keep you posted x"

Monday, January 14, 2013

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die by Willie Nelson

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From The Road
by Willie Nelson (forward by Kinky Friedman, illustrations by Micah Nelson)

When I was younger, the first books in a store that I would peruse were in the music section, mostly the biographies. During the vacations that my family would take, my dad and I would seek out whatever bookstores were in the area. This was in the 90s, so we probably had more options to choose from then, even if we were in a Florida suburb. The best selection of music books that I can remember from those trips were in the Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado. I would pretty much camp out in that corner of the store while my dad looked at books on An-/Arctic exploration or lighthouses or bear attacks — bear attacks being a surprisingly prolific nature-writing sub-genre.

Though my music bios no longer make up the bulk of my reading, I am still very much interested in them, especially if it's about an artist I've always meant to study more. Musicians, I find fascinating because, while I've played cello and viola, the process of writing a song is still somewhat foreign to me.

When Willie Nelson's newest book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die became available, I was reminded of the conversation I had with a musician friend about the song "Crazy." He'd covered it during one of his gigs, and when I told him, "Well done on the Patsy tune," he pretended to be offended and said, "You mean Willie Nelson." Somehow, I'd never known that he'd written it. Willie Nelson is definitely someone I've always meant to know more about, especially since he's been so influential for, well, decades. Several of his records sit in my inherited collection, and now I'm more motivated to play them.

Part travelogue, part family tribute, and with bits of collected lyrics and observations, Roll Me Up is written by Nelson and several close friends and relatives. There are old photos and it's made very clear that it was Nelson's wife, Annie, who helped collect everything for the book. In that way, it's like a hardback scrapbook, which I think would feel lacking with most other musicians (or other types of performers, for that matter), but Nelson and company make it interesting. He's a funny guy, a relatively calm person, and very much committed to the people and causes in his life. He is fond of smoking, as we know, playing poker at his Hawaii home, and telling stupid jokes. I love stupid jokes when they acknowledge how silly/bad they are. Bad jokes that think they're clever are just... bad. But this made me laugh:

Thought for the Day: Sometimes I think, Well … then again I don't know, but when you get right down to it, there it is.

I'm not familiar with Nelson's other books, but he has, I think, five others. This one includes a little bit of his personal history, including his childhood. He and his sister, Bobbie, were raised in Abbott, Texas, by their grandparents, William Alfred and Nancy Nelson, after their parents split. He and "Sister Bobbie" have always played music together, and she continues to be in his band. Many of his band members have been there for decades, and several of his children are musicians or artists on their own. I like that everyone is extraordinarily proud of each other's accomplishments. It's really not a book about hardship, but a celebration.

Annie Nelson: We all love, laugh, cry, and are moved by the common language of music together. I am so grateful that I chose the husband I did, so that our children would be children of the world and contributors to the common good.

It is amazing to see those little kids who grew up on the road, now all playing music together. A couple of months ago, John Carter Cash, June and Johnny Cash's son and part of the "HighwayKid Posse," produced a Johnny Cash birthday concert. The whole show was so emotional for me. Many of the musicians on stage were also musicians on some of the Highwaymen tours. When they started playing the song "The Highwayman," that was it; I lost it! Onstage were Willie, Kris, Shooter Jennings (standing up for his father), and Jamey Johnson. When Willie and Kris stated into their parts of the song, it was as if twenty-five years simply melted away. It was a moment that took me back, and I could see the four of them singing together and cracking each other up.

When the kids were little, they would be on the side of the stage, always dancing and singing along with their dads. […] The times they do change, but the road maybe does go on forever, and the party just may never end!

For me, the most interesting parts are the excerpted song lyrics. His writing style is almost conversational, but with an incredible amount of insight to both love and loss.

The music stopped the crowd is thinning now
One phase of night has reached an ending now
But nothing, nothing lasts forever
Except forever
And you my love
And so will you my love, my love
  • from "And So Will You My Love"

Frequently, Nelson reminds us, "there is only now," and while the past is certainly worth reflecting upon, it should serve to better ourselves in the now.

I don't know that I would recommend Roll Me Up to readers who don't already have at least a small interest in Willie Nelson. There's not exactly an overarching story where one could become interested in him in the same way one could become interested in a novel's character that they didn't previously know. However, if the interest is there, however minutely, it's a quick and entertaining read. Music bio enthusiasts will likely get a kick out of it, and I'm so very glad that I read it.

Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012 Book Review Roundup / Year in Reading

I know that we're a bit far into January for a 2012 Roundup, but oh well. You still like pie graphs, right? Of course. For 2011, I did a similar roundup breaking down the gender of each author read and how I obtained the books. I also mentioned my favorite books of that year. For 2012, I was more timely in that respect. You can see my favorites read here and here.

Now, let's get to it. Here's the overall gender breakdown of Books Read 2012:

Compared to the year before, I had a much more even split between male and female authors, and I do admit to being more conscious of my reading choices, gender-wise. The "Both" category refers to books or journals with multiple contributors.

When it comes to how I acquired my books, here's how it shakes out:

As expected, since I started reviewing books, review copies make up the largest percentage. However, I requested fewer books (instead of having publishers/authors/etc. seek me out) in 2012 than in year's past, and I bought a lot of books this year too. I may still have stacks of review copies sitting here that I plan on reading eventually, but that doesn't stop me from becoming smitten with a book and needing right now.

When it comes to gender and method acquired, here are the figures:

I do like that the reviews copies have more equitable numbers with the different gender categories. As far as the higher amount of male authors in the purchased/library category goes, several of these were picks for the book club I am in, and that's just how it happened to shake out. In 2012, we read:

  • Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  • Little Children by Tom Perrotta
  • The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

When it comes to how many books I bought or already owned versus library books, here are the numbers:

Two of those library books were for book club, but the others were me being unable to resist the siren call of the "new books" shelf while my kids were getting their own pile of things to read.

If you are interested in the full list of what books I read and where they came from, I've made a handy PDF for your perusal. It's color-coded like the graphs. You'll note that a few of the review copies haven't yet been reviewed -- I'm working on it. I'd intended to get all caught up by the end of the year, but business mixed with brain fog slowed me down. They're coming, I promise.

As far as reading goals for 2013 go, I hope to read more books, continue to give every one I start a fair shake, continue to be more or less equitable when it comes to gender, and to be more diverse when it comes to race. I didn't keep track of those figures this year, but even just a glance at what I read shows that I could do better with my not-white authors. We all could, I imagine. If you'd like to follow along with my progress, here's the link to my Goodreads page.

If you've got any particular reading goals, do let me know in the comments.