Monday, April 10, 2017

Turn the guns around!

I just read a really really good book but I'm going to do it a disservice. I'm going to post some comments about it that aren't as fully thought through or comprehensive as they should be, some notes that don't rise to the level of a full-fledged review. Not because it doesn't deserve better--it does--but because of time constraints. Better to say something quickly, I decided, then nothing at all for who knows how long. So to my comrade John Catalinotto, author of the terrific new book Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions, my apologies for the short shrift. To the rest of you, here's an even shorter version of my brief comments to follow: 

Read this book.
Why? For simple reasons.

First, it tells a story that very few people know. Second, this story is beyond relevant for anyone who is or wants to be engaged in the current wave of people's struggle--the resistance movement as it's now being called. There are rich lessons to be found in these pages. Third, because it will boost your morale--and who doesn't need that at this juncture?

Turn the Guns Around is mostly a history of  GI resistance during the U.S. war against Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. Its focus is the work of the American Servicemen's Union and the ASU's newspaper The Bond. Catalinotto was deeply involved in both the organizing and the newspapering, so this is a tale from the inside, with an insider's feel for the nuance and complexity but also an analyst's perspective on the big picture. The book delivers both ways. There are page-turning day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour depictions of key cases when active-duty soldiers and sailors defied the brass, refusing orders, refusing to deploy, refusing to fight. Interspersed throughout are what felt to me like the pumping heart of the book: dozens of letters from GIs published in the Bond. It all feels fresh, immediate, as if it happened yesterday instead of 50 years ago. 

Alongside the ASU's overall story, there are several chapters that shift and broaden the focus. These chapters are about the Paris Commune; the Bolshevik Revolution; and the revolution in Portugal with its connection to the national liberation of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. In each case, Catalinotto shows how the the role of soldiers and sailors was a pivot point, how the moment they threw in their lot with the revolutionary forces of the workers, peasants and oppressed was central.

Which shows what he's really up to with this book. This is not just a fascinating story of brave, heroic people, although it is certainly that. This is a political orientation. And a reminder. Overwhelming as the enemy's forces can seem with all their state power and military might, our side--the side of the workers and oppressed, whose ranks include all those hundreds of thousands of enlisted personnel--is capable of overthrowing them. We've done it before. We'll do it again.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

What I know about Naples

Last autumn I read five novels set in or around Naples, Italy, or with characters from the Naples region who move to cities northward in the period of the 1960s and 70s. After reading these five novels, here's what I now know about Naples: a little bit more than what I knew before. Before, I knew very little indeed other than that Naples is a city near Mount Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In fact, I admit that my ignorance about Italy overall, especially its modern history, was vast.

I now know at least a little about Naples in the post-World-War-II period, about the class struggle, about the fascists and the mafia, about the student movement, about women's roles. I now know that Naples was and remains Italy's poorest city, that Naples is a downtrodden place of oppression and exploitation and misery. I've learned that this city and its people, even though they're in Europe, are generally considered part of the Global South.

I'm still a Naples ignoramus, but maybe a teensy bit less so, having read the four novels of the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante, and another book not long after. I liked the Ferrante novels. I loved the other book, got much more out of it, and in my opinion it is much more important.

As to Ferrante novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. I'd resisted the endless waves of huzzahs, the stream of recommendations from friends, everyone asking if I'd read them. For some reason I thought I'd tried the first one and not liked it. Finally I thought what the hell, let me see what all the fuss is about, let me give it another chance, and I began the first novel. It turned out that I had not ever started it--guess I mixed it up with some other book--and I did like it and kept reading. Liked it enough that I went right on to the next one, and then the next and the last. Not one after the other. I read some other books in between. I wasn't so consumed with the story of Lenu and Lila that I had to plunge through the whole thing one two three four. But I was interested enough, and liked the books enough, to keep coming back until ultimately I finished the series.

I liked these novels. I did not love them, not even close.

The depiction of women's roles and of the changing society in the decades as they pass are most compelling. The portrayal of the two women's friendship pulled me along. The writing is not, as many have noted, anything dazzling, but it works. Overall, then, I enjoyed the read, well enough to keep going, and that is saying something as these days I never push myself through a book if I'm not liking it. So yeah, I liked Ferrante's books. Why didn't I love them? Well, one thing of note is that from my vantage point now, three months on, I remember very little of the story beyond its broad framework. I never find myself thinking about the characters and their lives. No scenes pop up in my mind. Looking back, I realize that the books didn't make me feel very much. I never shed a tear. And now, three months on, thinking about them evokes no emotion.

I was not, in other words, consumed. I was not swept up. I was not moved. I was not changed. There's just something about these books that falls short. If pressed, I'd say it's that they are ultimately a petit-bourgeois project. Sure, Ferrante shows the existence of classes, she includes material about the effects of poverty and exploitation, but there's an as-if quality, a distance, to it all. You can say these are class-conscious books--and for readers used to the way U.S. literature is dominated by an upper- and middle-class sensibility, there is I suppose something refreshing in this, in the mere recognition and depiction of working-class lives--but they are nevertheless imbued with bourgeois consciousness. Perhaps that's why I did not come away from these novels deeply affected by the visceral narrative of female friendship that all the critical acclaim proclaims them to be.

On the other hand. Speaking of Naples and environs. Moved, thrilled, swept away, envigorated, revived--and yes, thinking about the book still calls up these feelings three months later--this is how I felt about a magnificent book only recently available in English translation many years after its original Italian publication, and even this English version only available at some effort on order from Australia. The book is Vogliamo Tutto-The Novel of Italy's Hot Autumn by Nanni Balestrini.
The title translates as "We Want It All" or "We Want Everything" and it comes from a workers' chant during the great strike against Fiat in Torino in 1969. The novel pulls you deep into that struggle, but not before acquainting you with the conditions that drove so many young workers out of Naples to the north to seek factory work. The desperation, the hunger, the nothing that they had (and in Naples still have). The reader feels it, and is pulled along, fast and angry, into the maelstrom that surges into the streets.

That visceral gut slap missing in Ferrante's work? Well, hot damn, here it is in Balestrini's. Now here's a funny thing. Both Balestrini's and much of Ferrante's books are set in the period of the 60s and 70s, when all hell was breaking loose in Italy, both student and worker struggle. Ferrante doesn't ignore it, it's there in a way, but it's not integral, it isn't fundamental to the characters or story. With Balestrini, however, the struggle is the story. Is it any wonder Vogliamo Tutto is the book that speaks to me?

Especially in these hard times. In the U.S. today we face what can seem a deeply daunting challenge, to build the resistance movement, to organize and fight back and smash the racist, anti-worker, pro-war regime now in power. This is a book to read to revive your spirits and rev your energy back up for this vital fight.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My (two!) years' best

Read Red was on hiatus in 2015 so this time around I'm listing the best books I read over the last two years, 2015 and 2016. As always, this is based on what I read, not what was published in these years, and in fact some of what I read is quite old. It's fiction only, as my non-fiction reading was too sparse but also too complicated to rate. Here are my two years' best:
Adult Onset, Ann-Marie MacDonald
American Rust, Philipp Meyer
The Blue Between Sky and Water, Susan Abulhawa
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter*, Kia Corthron
Counternarratives, John Keene
Driving the King, Ravi Howard
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest J. Gaines
The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney
Hiroshima, John Hersey
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
How To Be Both, Ali Smith
The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt
The Jaguar's Children, John Vaillant
Juliet Takes a Breath, Gabby Rivera
Long Division, Kiese Laymon
The Maintenance of Headway, Magnus Mills
Miss Fuller, April Bernard
The Mothers, Brit Bennett
The Once and Future King, T.H. White
The Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson
Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrrera
Song of the Shank, Jeffrey Renard Allen
The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder
Tumbledown, Robert Boswell
The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
Under the Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta
The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota

*Best of the best! A brilliant novel that should be read widely.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Only twice in my life I couldn't read

Or not read seriously, anyway. I never can't read, but twice I've found myself unable to read seriously, read as I usually do, with close concentration. Unable, therefore, to read anything literary, anything that requires anything of the reader. The first time this happened to me was when my mother died many years ago. For some weeks I found myself flipping through the likes of People magazine, watching movies, watching TV, but I could not settle down and really read. Not until the first flush of shock and pain began to ebb. Not until my mind started to clear, my consciousness started to emerge from the weird fog grief had created.

The second time was last month. After that unbelievable thing happened. After that horrible monster ascended. For two or three weeks after election day, I could not get back to my long hifalutin to-read list. I watched TV. I watched several movies. I ate, oy vey. When I did pick up a book it was a goofy celebrity memoir.

Now, I'm not among those who think doomsday is upon us. This development is bad, very bad indeed. It has unleashed the worst forces of racism, misogyny, anti-lgbt bigotry, and anti-Semitism, and there's no doubt we're in store for some very hard times. I don't however feel hopeless. In fact I'm full of hope that, faced with this unprecedented assault on the workers and oppressed, our side will rise up and fight back, and that this fight will be of a scope and power unseen ever before in this country's history. So I'm not sunk in a stew of depression and fear as some people are.

Still, I'm freaked out, sure, and scared, who wouldn't be, and was more so in those early days, and so I could not read anything of any quality. Like so many others, I kept waking up and remembering what had happened and wondering if it was all a bad dream but then realizing it wasn't, which was its own sort of weird grief fog my mind had created that blocked me from reading.

So. I'm not going to make it to 80 books this year, as I'd been on track to at the start of November. I am finally back to reading good books, in fact now I've kind of vaulted to the other extreme and wish to escape from it all by doing nothing but reading fine literature everywhere all the time, but still I'll only end up at 75 or so I think. We'll see. I will come back to Read Red before the end of 2016 to list the best books I read during this year from hell. Meanwhile, let's all hold strong. There's no force on earth more formidable than the working class and oppressed people, angry and mobilized.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bus driver fiction

When I was a city bus driver in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, the bosses used to harp on one rule in particular. They even made it into a singsong-y little slogan they'd sling at us time after time. "A late bus is annoying," it went, "but an early bus is worse than no bus at all."

For some reason, this refrain has stayed with me. At odd moments now and again over the years, it's suddenly echoed in my head. As have other memories of my four years driving bus, from the relentless push to meet time points to the endless battle against bus bunching, to how bus drivers regard stopping for passengers as the annoying necessity that endlessly messes with the schedule--to the ubiquitous driver fantasy of quitting the job by driving the bus into the management offices.

So imagine my delight upon opening The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills to behold this first sentence: "'There's no excuse for being early,' said Breslin."

It only got better from there. Page after page, passage after passage, OMG moment after OMG moment--here is that elusive long-sought tome: a masterwork of bus driver fiction. From the dispatch-dictated illogical turnarounds to the deadpan hilarity of break-room dialogue, Mills here captures it all. The bus driving life, in all its quotidian nuttiness.

Sure, I have squealed with delight reading other books. And yes I'm sure, you don't have to have been a bus driver to appreciate this book. But oh my heavens it sure ratchets up the wow factor several notches when you can identify with each scene, appreciate each wisecrack, cringe at each management inanity. This verisimilitude coupled with Mills' customary mastery of working-class comedy of the absurd brings this baby home. A romp! From start to finish.

As I had also found The Restraint of Beasts, an earlier novel of his I read some years back. I remember howling aloud as I read that one. Don't know why I more or less forgot about Mills in the interim, or why I suddenly remembered him and thought to seek out more of his books, but yippee that I did. I now have at least two more to catch up on. Mills ain't perfect--I'm hoping I'll find something besides only male characters in his other books--but he's damned good.

He also, by the way, is that rarest and realest of deals: not merely a working-class writer, but a writer who remains a worker. A bus driver! His books get rave reviews, and have been nominated for awards, and who knows whether he could afford to quit driving bus and teach as so many other writers do to make a living. Whether he could or not, he doesn't. He works. And okay, yes of course teaching is working, but teaching writing to MFA students is a rarefied experience and to spend your days at that instead of at hourly wage work like driving bus or entering data or changing bedsheets or mining or cashiering or nail polishing or nannying or steel milling does remove you from the realm of real workers' lives which is to say real life. I've spent yo these many years bitterly resenting how I have to work full time at a full-time hourly wage job, and I'll resent and complain until the day I finally figure out a way to retire, but if you were to argue that living this life of the full-time wage worker has been vital to my writerly consciousness I guess I might concede the point. In Mills' case we have his job to thank for the brilliance of this book, I have no doubt.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Lionel Shriver is the Donald Trump of literature

It's three weeks later, and I haven't had time to write a full-throated denunciation of author Lionel Shriver and her deeply reactionary September 8 speech at a Brisbane, Australia, writers' festival, but tardy as this is and brief though it's got to be, I've decided to post a note now, just for the record.

For the record, then: Lionel Shriver is the Donald Trump of literature. Ignorant, shallow, insecure, defensive, and offensive. Deeply, viciously offensive. A know-nothing candidate of racist reaction--a candidate for the crown of world champion of know-nothing, backward white writers like herself who are threatened by the rising tide of writers of color, queer writers, writers whose experience, perspective, literary concerns are different than hers, writers who are opening up the world of fiction to new narratives, fresh and exciting and oh so badly needed narratives telling truths that will soon overtake the tired, timeworn fiction constructed of the lies of the imperialist overlords.

Shriver's target in her Brisbane speech was that ever-reliable nemesis of defenders of the old guard: political correctness. In this case, politically correct fiction or a consciously politically correct approach to literature. Just in case her words didn't do the trick, she wore a sombrero to provide a visual cue, an ever so simple, direct and expressive Fuck You to Latinos in particular and progressive, conscious anti-racist writers and readers in general.

Ah yes. Political correctness. The bane of the politically incorrect--the racist, the anti-LGBTQ, the sexist, the pro-imperialist anti-liberation crowd--who for nigh on 40 years now have been whining about how their worldwide reign is dwindling to its inevitable end. I wrote about this phenomenon five years ago on Read Red, that post occasioned by events at an AWP conference and the thrillingly brilliant response by the thrillingly brilliant Claudia Rankine. Short version: politically correct writing, or for that matter a p.c. approach to anything, means sensitivity to and awareness of oppression and commitment to actions and language that do not perpetuate oppression. By definition, then, to be opposed to political correctness is to be affirmatively, aggressively, proudly racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ. It is to align with the forces of oppression, reaction, the colonizers, the killers, the invaders, occupiers, destroyers, the thieves and exploiters.

This, then, is Lionel Shriver. Partisan of the ruling class and its system. Enemy of the working class and oppressed. You've made your point. We see you. You're on the wrong side. Good on yuh, as the Australians would say. Stay there behind Trump's great wall desperately defending your doomed allies. You and your cohort will soon be a bad memory. Shriver's cohort, by the way, includes the celebrated writers' organization PEN, which I've written about several times, including here and here and here. A pro-U.S.-imperialist literary-world equivalent of Human Rights Watch led by a veteran of the State Department whose specialty has long been fronting for invasion and occupation, PEN rarely misses an opportunity to side with the free expression of racist reaction, as in fact it did once again this week. Ah, ye stalwart defenders of the status quo. We'll not miss you after the revolution.

In the meantime, here is the most excellent retort to Shriver from Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the courageous writer who stood up and walked out as the sombrero-topped reactionary delivered her screed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The invention of Nikola Tesla

Years after its publication, I finally got around to reading The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, and now I'd like to take a time machine back to 2009 and tell myself, jeez, what are you waiting for, read this book! Because this is a beautiful novel. Wondrous good. Poignant and powerful and purely original. This is a novel about love and grief, loneliness and longing, and even, no kidding, bonus points here, about capitalism and how it wrecks everything, blocks human possibility. Above all, it seems to me, this is a stunningly wrought consideration of creativity.

Skimming reader reviews on Amazon left me shaking my head at what seems to me to be a sad misread of Hunt's novel and thinking, as a novelist myself, about how you just never know what book a reader is going to fashion in her/his own mind and how it might be not at all the novel you thought you wrote. OK, I say this with the perhaps unsupportable belief that I, unlike those many Amazon readers, understand Hunt's intent. Who knows, but it seems to me that what she's up to with this novel is something much more delicate and profound than what many of those readers seem to have gleaned. What they, many anyway, assert is that Invention is a work of magical realism. Surreal, some label it. And other variations on this theme.

But, unless I've lost my readerly mind, The Invention of Everything Else is neither a surreal nor a magical-realist fiction. Rather, it is a deep dive into the creative consciousness. It is a study of the imagination--imagination as a powerful creative force that drives both the main and several of the minor characters and that leaves them ultimately adrift in a society that squelches imagination at every turn or, as in Tesla's case, appropriates it for corporate profit.

I loved how, especially in the early sections of the book, we experience Tesla's creative consciousness in all its expansiveness. There's a sense of wonder here that we are more used to associating with artists rather than scientists; Hunt had me reeling and gasping at the playful leaps of imagination she conjures in Tesla's mind. It's a daring and, it seems to me, mostly successful effort, which made me regard Tesla as a sort of artist himself, a being of the ether rather than a mere materialist.

But while we see him here as a person of soaring ideas, possessor of a mind that broke free of earthly bounds, he was of course, as every true scientist must be, a materialist through and through, and Hunt depicts this beautifully too. There are many places where she has him spin grand and ever grander ideas for inventions, and he is at pains to point out how every one, no matter how grandiose or implausible, is rooted in reality, in atoms and molecules, energy, electricity. I love this. Because science--a materialist perspective on the world--is or ought to be a soaring, limitless endeavor. A great scientist, a truly great one with an unbound mind, is a kind of artist, and must be a dreamer. As Hunt shows here so well.

At a few points in the book, Hunt's Tesla makes a nice little jab against religion, with a nifty little point that resonates. He takes to task those who would reduce all the myriad wonders of the natural world to a single simple magical all-powerful being in control of everything. How unimaginative, Tesla remarks. And how unexciting, when the universe offers up its endlessly complex mysteries for human examination, the thrilling project of a lifetime, his lifetime, endless lifetimes if they were available. So much to learn. So much to investigate. So much to think up. To create. So much room for improvement. Ever expanding vistas.

This is the Tesla Hunt offers up, hero perhaps, martyr, victim, human being with an unbound mind and a broken heart from almost the start. I'm so taken with him, with her version of him, that while I'm interested enough in learning more to think about reading a biography now, on the other hand I'm touched enough by this book, content enough, at the end, to live with this Tesla, fictional though he is, as the definitive version. There's literary magic here, and I think it's where I'll let him dwell.

I haven't mentioned the other main character, Louisa, whose life intersects Tesla's in his last days, but with her too Hunt has crafted a fine character. I found her a lovely creation, and her story an effective counterpoint to Tesla's highlighting the same themes of imagination, love, loss, grief, hope. The ache of life. All in all, as affecting and satisfying a novel as I've read in quite a while.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Juliet Takes a Breath

Gabby Rivera makes it look easy.

Which is the hardest thing a writer can do.

With her debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath, Rivera sucks the reader in on the first page and there's no escape until the final sentence from a headlong plunge into the life, loves, longings, the rages, thrills, confusions, epiphanies, the utterly original and thoroughly convincing consciousness of first-person protagonist Juliet Milagros Palante. This is one winning sweetheart of a character--but real, honest, multi-faceted, beautifully crafted, not saccharine or fake.This novel is one humdinger of a contribution to queer literature. And this is one fine writer, Gabby Rivera, whose narrative skill and literary art announce her as a bright new star on the LGBT lit scene.
If Juliet Takes a Breath is not a finalist for next year's Lambda Literary Award I'll be shocked. And mad!

I used the word humdinger a few sentences back. Which marks me as old. Which I am. I'm of the generation that came of age and came out of the closet in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion. Much has changed since then, including the language of our movement, of our communities, and one of the things I love about Rivera's novel is how it's a headlong plunge into all that. It takes up hot topics. It takes on tough questions about words and their import, community and its challenges, division and unity. Racism. Solidarity. It does all this without sacrificing story. Contrary to the reactionary rules promulgated by the literary establishment in this country, you can indeed portray characters grappling with these vital issues, you can indeed write dialogue that directly engages with these issues, this is indeed what real people are doing in their real lives and a really good writer can convey this all organically within the flow of the characters' story and plot development. That is exactly what Rivera has done, for which I admire her a great deal. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention: this book is damned funny too! The depictions of the Portland scene are scathing and hilarious.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Fun Home on Broadway

Yesterday, one week before the Broadway run closes for good, and thanks to the sweet generosity of a dear friend, I saw the musical Fun Home at Circle in the Square. It. Blew. Me. Away. By which I mean, to be more specific, it left me a sodden soggy wrung-out distraught overwrought wreck. How great is that? This is what art ought to do. Shake us. Make us think.

I'd of course read Alison Bechdel's acclaimed book Fun Home soon after it was published in 2007. Strangely, though I liked it I didn't love it. It's strange because I never did manage to put my finger on what I didn't-love about it when just about the whole world was loving on it so hard, and when I've always loved, adored, her long-running series Dykes to Watch Out For, read and loved every installment, every collection, since DTWOF first started running in the 1980s. I still can't account for why I was relatively unmoved by Fun Home the book; I'd even say I've felt vaguely ashamed of myself for what must be a readerly failure on my part.
Well, never mind all that. I was swept away by Fun Home the innovative, exquisite, gut-wrenching masterpiece of musical theater. It is at once a very fine piece of political art--deeply relevant social commentary of the sort you rarely see in the theater anymore, certainly not on Broadway where the big-money profit-takers' lock on things is now pretty much complete--and a powerhouse of a tragic, gut-wrenching personal story. All presented by a brilliantly talented cast performing a stunningly written book and score by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.

Tesori was also the composer for another breathtakingly creative, howlingly painful, and cracklingly political Broadway musical, Caroline, or Change, which had a criminally short run on Broadway in 2004. I lucked into free tickets for this show and can never forget its devastating impact, or that of its unbelievable powerhouse of a star, Tonya Pinkins. As it did for Caroline whose book and lyrics were by Tony Kushner, Tesori's music for Fun Home meshes soaringly with the sometimes startling, sometimes funny, sometimes sardonic, mostly searing, profoundly affecting lyrics. You know I'm a words gal, but even more than that I'm a sucker for words when they're sung straight into my heart. Caroline, or Change's did that, shatteringly. Now Fun Home's have too.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A stunning new review of Vera's Will

File this one under shameless self-promotion, but sometimes a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.

One and a half years after publication, long after I stopped expecting any new reviews of my 2015 novel Vera's Will, there is one. And it's a beauty.

Writing for The Lesbrary, a wonderful lesbian book review site from which, honestly, I'd long since given up on hoping for a review, a North Carolina librarian named Tierney offers a deeply thoughtful and gratifyingly positive take on the book. I'm so grateful, not only that Tierney liked the book--though of course that too--but also that she really got it. Really appreciated it for exactly what I'd wish it to be appreciated for. Her one criticism is on target, too, I've got to say.

I'll just tease here with a few choice phrases from the review: "heart-wrenching and heartwarming"..."an entrancing read"..."beautifully bittersweet, both melancholy and heartening"..."filled a void in queer fiction..."

Now please go read the full review! Thank you, Tierney, thank you Lesbrary!