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!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Sport of Kings

Randall Jarrell famously defined a novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." We are squarely in Jarrell territory with this one, The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan.

Through much of this novel I was in thrall--to the story, the writing, the ambition--I was impressed, I was thrilled. And then by the end, not so much. I just glanced at Amazon and Goodreads and see that the average rating is, respectively, 3.6 and 3.7. Count me among the masses, I guess, because ultimately, although I'd started out thinking this was going to earn the big five-oh along with a gushing rave, I'd say that the Amazonians and Goodreaders have it just about right. Ultimately, this is a good but not a great book, and I'll try to grapple here with why.

There is much to admire. There is gorgeous writing. There are some well drawn characters. Mostly, and it's why this is a notable book even if not a great one, there is broad scope that takes in big questions and takes on the most crucial, the central, the basic defining issue of U.S. society and U.S. history: racism. This is a narrative that contains multitudes, from the evolution of millions of earthly species to the particular individual tales of a number of particular individuals, from enslaved Africans creating the riches of 19th to 21st century Kentucky to the self-proclaimed genteel bluebloods living off those riches, from the great Secretariat to a series of his descendants, from babies to children to preachers to receptionists to prisoners to trainers and grooms and jockeys, from lynchings to beatings to trotting to planting to drowning. To the landed gentry, always back to the strutting entitled wealthy white landed gentry of bluegrass country, around whom the story revolves.

So what's not to love? Some of it is quibbles. That gorgeous writing does spiral off in places toward the realm of overblown overdone verbiage. In fact the author herself, in a bizarre aside that I wish Morgan's editor had been able to talk her out of including and that in fact has the feel of a response to an editor's efforts to talk her down from some of the lengthy loopy flights of language, has the omniscient anonymous (or maybe not) narrator suddenly break the fourth wall briefly to speak directly to the reader and defend against the charge that it's all "too purple, too florid." Whoa! Way to break the spell, not to mention protest too much. But okay I was down for the most part with the many long, language-rich passages, most of them evocations of the natural world or natural history. Mostly, they're beautiful, and mostly they work--they draw the reader in, are in some places pure poetry, breathtaking. Not everywhere though. A quibble.

Sadly, some of the Jarrellian "something wrong" rises above the quibble level. SPOILER ALERT from here on.

As I read, especially as I passed the halfway mark, and definitively once I'd finished, I felt troubled by the unevenness of character development. Surprisingly, although perhaps it's unfair to be surprised, by my read the female characters get short shrift. The deepest, richest most multidimensional characters are male. Most of the novel's women are, well, sketchier, thinner, less full. Several have sort of walk-on parts, play a plot-related role, and walk off. Mothers, mostly, the first of whom, Henry's, is pretty much a cipher; the next, Henrietta's, gets a bit more fleshed out but is quickly disposed of; the third, Allmon's, is more fully treated yet still, somehow, it seems to me, is on the page primarily to fulfill her plot function. Maryleen, the onetime cook, is dispensed with early on, only to re-emerge at the end as a sort of deus ex machina and then disappear again. Is she meant to be the writer of these pages? I hope not, because I don't think she'd treat some of the characters the way the actual writer does.

Then there's the main female character, Henrietta. Troublingly, she seems to me to be not fully realized either, not in the way her father Henry or her lover Allmon are. There's something hollow to her, something not quite filled in. Now it may be that this is purposeful. That Morgan writes Henrietta in this way to convey how damaged she is by one of the central horrors of the story, the fact that her father rapes her for many years, probably from early adolescence on until her death in her late twenties. I use the word rape because that of course is what it is when a father has sexual relations with his child, regardless of how the father sees it and also regardless of how the child sees it, must see it, forces herself to see it, doesn't allow herself to see it or think of it in order to survive. But I don't believe the word rape is ever used in the novel; actually, the deed is never shown, nor even directly referred to, nor ever acknowledged directly in word or thought by either the victim, Henrietta, or the perpetrator, her father Henry. Which I'll address more in a minute. Here, though, the point is that it's not clear to me how I was supposed to read Henrietta the character on the page. If she is meant to be the walking wounded, which she absolutely is, if she is drawn as finding a way to function via dissociation, via separating herself from the central trauma of her life, via acting out in various potentially dangerous ways, that, I guess, is accomplished. And if so, okay, that explains the as-if, not-quite aspect of the character's portrayal. I don't know, though, if this explanation can be stretched all the way to explain the decision she makes when she realizes she's pregnant. As shown in a brief scene by the side of a road that as far as I can tell takes place over ten or fifteen minutes at the most, Henrietta sort of skims her mind over the situation and opts stunningly quickly to go ahead and have the baby. This did not ring true to me. She's been fucking her father as well as a man she's fallen in true deep love with, she has no way of knowing who has impregnated her, and she doesn't even take any real time to consider having an abortion, let alone decide to have one. I don't know, maybe I'm not being fair, maybe I'm lumping this in with every TV show that never allows any woman to have an abortion, that always has everyone who gets pregnant go ahead and have the baby, which is not how it works in real life nor should it, in real life women often decide, as is their right, to have abortions--maybe this doesn't fit with those TV offenses, because maybe her carrying out the pregnancy is a function of her damage, of her not-all-thereness. I don't know. It bothered me. But okay.

What bothered me worse was Henrietta dying in childbirth. It disappointed me deeply. There were so many other ways the story could have gone. Instead, by my read, it felt as if here went yet another, the main, female character being shuttled off the scene so the story could get back to its focus on the men.

I've gone on too long and will have to abbreviate the rest. Also, I didn't intend to go so negative on this novel as it does have a lot to recommend it. It's one I could see arguing about, could see another reader countering all my criticisms and that would be cool. But. A couple more things.

I was also deeply disappointed that the character Henry never, to put it simplistically, gets his comeuppance. Maybe I'm wrong, but by my read, despite his vile racism and despite his vile sexual predation against his own daughter, on balance he remains a sympathetic character. We are with him in his head a great deal, and especially as the novel takes its final turns toward the end, there are indications that he is growing, changing, opening, regretting. There are intimations of, lord help us, redemption. Well that's the author's prerogative. It too rings false, at least for me.

Then there's the end--the sacrifice? the narrative tying-up device? the gunshot suicide? the drowning?--of Allmon. I had my doubts, my unease, about the portrayal of this character throughout. There are places in his story, there are scenes, for example in prison, that strike me as, sorry, stereotypical, even though I understand that is the furthest thing from the author's good intentions. His life, his thoughts, his feelings feel authentic sometimes but not all the time. I just don't think the attempt to create this character has quite been pulled off. But okay, close enough. Until. Except. Really? The Tragic Mulatto? He really has to go down in flames? Crazed and destroyed by the racist system, the white power structure, the rich white man who--note well--does not die, is spared, will raise Allmon's and Henrietta's child as his own, none the poorer after the insurance settlement, much the wiser, kinder, mellower white man. Sigh. I don't know. It doesn't sit right. Is this really the only imaginable outcome to this story? Couldn't Allmon have been granted some agency? If not a happy ending (although why not, after all his suffering?), then some more complex conclusion, some road forward? Something more than destruction?

In this Commonweal interview The Sport of Kings author C.E. Morgan is asked about the fraught issue of white writers writing Black characters, the interviewer quoting "some hard questions" raised by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda in their book The Racial Imaginary. I find Morgan's response unfortunate, to say the least. She goes off against, yep, "an embrace of political correctness with its required silences," and it gets worse from there, including the nonsensical assertion that "the far political right and the far political left aren't located on a spectrum but on a circle, where they inevitably meet in their extremity." So oy, there's that.

I can't help but contrast this book and its reception to the magnificent novel that drove me to revive this blog earlier this year: The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron. Kings was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, one of the big boys in the publishing world, a division of MacMillan, owned by the German conglomerate Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, with all the promotional money available that implies. FSG brought out Kings with much fanfare earlier this year, and it got the full treatment: many reviews, feature articles, author interviews. Corthron's novel was published by Seven Stories Press, an independent. It was reviewed, and there was some press, but it was not given the Big Book treatment the way Morgan's was. Does a white writer writing about race get more props than a Black writer writing about race, does the white writer's book get more attention, is it seen as a more important contribution, even when the Black writer's book is superior? Welcome to the USA.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Fifth Season is a great book!

In the early years of this blog I may have written once or twice about my frustrating relationship with science fiction. Or speculative fiction as it's often now called. Or fantasy, its, what, sibling? Whatever you call it, for most of my reading life I've wished to love books of this genre. And my wish has gone almost entirely unfulfilled. Time after time, I've turned to a new novel, a new writer, having heard that this is the one. The one with actual original ideas. The one with genuinely creative concepts. The truly new story. The beautifully written, literary, gripping thought provoker. The politically progressive, socially relevant, maybe even radical one that contributes something to the literature of struggle. Only to be, time after time, disappointed. Stale reworkings of tired old tropes. Uninteresting non-ideas. Pedestrian language. Now I know it's wrong to dismiss an entire genre simply because my own experiences have been lacking. No doubt I've simply not found the right writers. And so, revolutionary optimist that I endlessly urge myself to be, I keep trying. Again I read a review or hear a recommendation. Again I'm told that no, really, this one is different. This one will blow you away. Again I steel myself, prepared for the inevitable letdown.

No letdown, not this time. All praise to N.K. Jemisin! I've just read her novel The Fifth Season and I'm  squirming and squealing with delight. I've found it--a great sci fi book. I've found her--a brilliant sci fi author. All hail! And let the breathless countdown to the August 16 publication date of sequel The Obelisk Gate, second in the trilogy begun with The Fifth Season, begin. In fact I've just pre-ordered it, something I don't believe I've ever before done.
What is it that has me so over the moon after reading The Fifth Season? Well, everything whose lack has bummed me out so many other times. The world Jemison has built with this story is unlike any I've encountered in all my 56 years of reading. She's had a new idea! She's imagined a truly different world! Yet at the same time she's fashioned a story, built upon the foundation of her original idea and utterly true to her new world, that resonates powerfully with the realities of our own real, deeply damaged world. On top of all that this novel is powerfully free of the constricting archaic constructs of race, sex, and gender from which very few writers successfully liberate their fiction. Or even try.

At the same time, precisely by breaking free of heterosexist and racist norms in the pages of this brilliant story, Jemisin makes us think about the real world, the racist sexist anti-LGBT society in which we live. She makes us think about bigotry, about inequality, and also, in this story of literally earth-shaking cataclysms that drive epoch after epoch of the creation and destruction of civilizations, about the current international crisis of mass migration caused by war, occupation, poverty, imperialism. About what community is, what humanity is. About unity and divisiveness and about what can be accomplished with joint effort. There are echos of it all in this novel. And on top of that, there is, in an unbearable plot development at the end, an homage of sorts to Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved. A sad, bitter necessary nod to the only kinds of choices oppression offers.

Jemisin is a very fine artist. The Fifth Season is packed with delicacy, lyricism, passion. The characters are multidimensional. The story drives forward relentlessly. It involves you utterly. It challenges and stirs you. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


As a little known writer of an obscure novel published by a small press, it's always a delightful surprise when somebody wants to hear anything from me. So I'm still a little shocked to say that I'll get a chance to say a few words about books, writing, and my take on it all at two separate important literary events on the weekend of August 6-7.

First, I'll be in D.C. for the annual OutWrite LGBT Book Festival. It's a weekend-long extravaganza of books, writers, readings, talks, panels, that is as far as I know the most inclusive, interesting, multifaceted gathering of LGBTQ writers and readers that ever takes place in this country. I'll be reading from my novel Vera's Will, and also taking part in panels on historical fiction and literary activism, all on Saturday August 6.

I'll rush back home to Queens, NY, on the train that same night, because the next day I get to be a part of the first Queens Book Festival. This is truly exciting--both the daylong event, and the fact that I get to be part of the inaugural edition of what promises to be an excellent annual literary gathering. The New York City borough of Queens, my home for 22 years now, is the most multinational locale on earth, and naturally as home to people from all over the globe it's also the site of a burgeoning literary and arts scene that gives voice especially to working-class and oppressed poets, writers and artists who have for so long been shut out from access to the bourgeois-corporate literary-artistic marketplace (for want of a better word, well actually it's a perfect word). I'll be part of a 4 p.m. panel on LGBTQ Representation in the Literary World. But I plan to be at the festival most of the day, because there's a stunning lineup of writers whose voices I want to hear.

To tell the truth I'm more than a little stunned at the cohort alongside whom I'll be presenting at the panels and readings I'm taking part in at both the D.C. OutWrite conference and the Queens Book Festival. These are names I've known, artists I've admired, for a long time. It'll be an honor to share some time, some space, some thoughts with them. A surprising honor.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The despicable Gay Talese will make lots of money from his forthcoming book

The book, officially out in July, is titled The Voyeur's Motel. I recently read the lengthy excerpt from The Voyeur's Motel that was published in the April 11 issue of the New Yorker. After taking the requisite while to recover from my rage and disgust, I decided to comment here.

The overall takeaway from this article: the celebrated writer Gay Talese is despicable.

Yes of course his subject, the retired Colorado motel owner who spent decades hidden above his motel guests' rooms spying on them, most especially watching their sexual activities, is a disgusting creep of the highest order, a deeply committed misogynist guilty of criminal violation of, apparently, hundreds if not thousands of people. His crimes even extend beyond his decades of peeping tom-ism, for he also witnessed a murderous assault and left the assaulted woman, who was alive and might have been saved had he done anything, to die.

Remarkably, that's almost all anyone is writing about in the many articles and commentaries that have run since Talese's New Yorker piece was published. They're talking about the Colorado violator (he prefers what he apparently believes to be the more elegant term voyeur so I won't use it), about his pathology, his delusions, and, to some extent but not nearly as much or as outragedly as they ought, about his crimes.

They're talking very little about Talese and his crimes. For me, this is the news about the New Yorker piece. There's lots to be said, but it boils down to four things:
  1. Talese joined the motel owner up in his secret aerie above the motel and watched two people have sex. Talese did it. He committed the crime, even if not thousands of times (at least he only reports this one time.) Repeat: Talese climbed up there and watched through the screened peephole at least once.
  2. Talese knew for many years that the motel owner was doing it. He never tried to stop him, and he never reported the crime this pig was committing.
  3. Talese also knew, based on the motel owner's own written report, about his having witnessed the assault and left the woman to die. He did nothing about this either, neither trying to urge the guy to report what had happened, nor reporting it himself.
  4. Throughout this long piece, and assuming it's representative throughout the whole book, Talese's tone is basically sympathetic toward the criminal motel owner who violated the right to privacy of so  many people. He wonders about why the guy is the way he is, he points out the guy's inconsistencies in reporting, his grandiosity and narcissism, but he evinces no horror, no revulsion. He becomes for all intents and purposes the guy's friend. By my read, Talese is troubled so little by the guy's actions as to amount to not at all. Nor, and of course this is the point,is he troubled in the least by his own, Talese's, complicity. And he is complicit, through and through, for years and years. Every few pages he throws in a phrase or a sentence to the effect of, hmm, I stayed awake worrying about whether I was doing the right thing, but it's so obviously pro forma as to be laughable. Talese has no compunction about any of it. The grand old man of "the new journalism" will no doubt have a grand old time on the book tour.
What we have here is a fine example of bourgeois morals. Most of the commentary about Talese's article consists of musing about journalistic ethics, and while some mildly question whether he didn't go too far in pursuit of a damned good story, most are barely bothered. Talese is after all famous. He's published lots of books and made lots of money. The New Yorker is a fine magazine and would never publish something tainted or questionable. The story is shocking--shocking, I tell you!--but the storyteller is more or less above rebuke. He, the publisher Grove Press, and the criminal motelier who sold his many pages of records of his crimes for I'm guessing a tidy sum, will all make big bucks on what is probably going to be a bestseller. The movie rights have already been sold, to Dreamworks, for six figures.

And that--its profitability--is what makes this book unimpeachable. In the publishing marketplace it's gold. Profit is the highest standard of morality in this stinking capitalist sinkhole of a country.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Jaguar's Children

I just read an extrarodinarily good book, and I had to head right over here to Read Red to offer a heads-up: read it!

The book is The Jaguar's Children, a novel by John Vaillant. It gripped me from the first sentence, and as is so rarely the case (you'd be amazed how many books I start and stop, deeply disappointed, initial pages' promise betrayed soon enough), it never let go. So yes, this is a page turner, a very fine one, and purely in terms of its writerly quality it deserves praise. But it is much more than a well-written, well crafted story.

It is in a sense a horror story, the most horrifying kind, rooted in reality. Most important, and the reason my reaction lands here on Read Red rather than meriting just a five-star rating in my Goodreads account, The Jaguar's Children is a political novel that takes on a very important issue, or really two important issues.
  •  The plight of undocumented Central American migrants trying to reach the United States
  • The conditions at home that drive them to the desperate decision to migrate
With the first, Vaillant makes a needed contribution. At this moment in the U.S. presidential election campaign season, the leading Republican has made anti-immigrant demagoguery, specifically anti-Mexican racist demagoguery, the centerpiece of his candidacy. The leading Democrat mouths soothing platitudes but her record as secretary of state bulges with crimes including support of the right-wing coup in Honduras and subsequent death-squad reign of terror, invasion and virtual destruction of Libya, endless drone-bomb murders in Pakistan and the region, and of course working hand in hand with the chief executive deporter-in-chief in vicious, cruel, racist mass deportations of adults and children to Central America in unprecedented numbers.

The way Vaillant depicts the situation is simple and devastating. He takes us inside a truck, a sealed water tanker, that has driven across the border from Mexico into the U.S. The truck blows a tire in the Arizona desert. The truck's driver and the coyote who has charged exorbitant fees to the dozens of people hidden and sealed in the empty water tank abandon the vehicle along with the human beings trapped within. We are inside with them via the voice of one of them: Hector, who uses his friend Cesar's phone to dial the only U.S. number on the phone and leaves a series of voicemail messages to seek help, to narrate the experience in the truck as hour by hour hope trickles away, and to tell how he and Cesar came to be there.

It's this last, the back story, that provides the novel's political heft. In fact it's a beautiful example of the way fiction can, by telling one or two characters' individual tales, explicate and illuminate large, broad swaths of history, of political developments, of the class struggle, of the national question, of imperialism. Vaillant does so here, with great skill and sensitivity, and with full depth of feeling, full dimension allotted to the characters. The reader learns much about Mexico over the last century and more, and about what has happened to the lives of the Indigenous peoples in that country. Finally, and this for me is the key to how beautifully this novel accomplishes what I always yearn for a novel to do, the story comes full circle as the flashbacks build to a climax and we learn why Cesar had to flee. The villains: NAFTA, U.S.-based agribusiness, and their Mexican comprador-bourgeois accomplices. There's a lot packed in here, and, miraculously, it works.

If you google the phrase "Mexican immigrants die in truck" you'll come up with roughly 16 million results. The heart breaks. As it will reading this book. Which is good, for the world's workers--especially the tens of millions on the move, forced to migrate by U.S.-imperialist bombs and invasions and wars and occupations, U.S.-imperialist trade and agricultural wars, and the worldwide U.S. and other imperialist exploitation of resources and labor--need and deserve the fellow feeling of those of us who live in the U.S. and other imperialist centers. But it's nowhere near good enough if you close a book like this, your heart broken, and that's that. The ultimate worth of this kind of novel is measured by the action it arouses. In this case, it's a call to stand in solidarity with migrant workers, to fight the fascist Trump movement, to act against the deportations.

How? It's a no-brainer. May Day is coming up, and May Day 2016 is the tenth anniversary of the great national uprising that was May Day 2006, a.k.a. A Day Without Immigrants, when much of this country was virtually shut down by an immigrant workers' general strike. Here's the poster for this year's action in New York City. New Yorkers, I'll see you there. Everyone else, check out your city's event.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Have they run out of insensitive racist idiocy yet? Well no

I'm a few days late noting this because I was out of town--in San Antonio, doing a novel reading--but now that I've seen it I have to take it up. You see, Calvin Trillin, longtime New Yorker food writer as well as novelist and doggerelist, wrote a poem. Of sorts. A two-stanza verse that he obviously thought was all in darned good fun, with which misjudgment the magazine's editors apparently concurred, for they published it in the April 4 issue.

The title: "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" The conceit, such as it is: a U.S. gourmand ruminates about Chinese food. The result, in the words of Paula Young Lee writing in Salon: "a racist nursery rhyme." 

I can do nothing better than point you to Lee's piece for a fine takedown of Trillin and his casually white-North-American-bourgie-foodie-centric "humor." And to suggest that you also follow some of her links, as I did, to a number of terrific takedowns of Trillin and his ilk, including these two brilliant ones:

You can also check out "The World Is Our Oyster Sauce--A Twitter Poem Inspired by Calvin Trillin."

And finally, this from the Asian American Writers' Workshop: "We're in the Room, Calvin Trillin."

Saturday, April 9, 2016

PEN's latest odious offense

I'm no fan of PEN America, an organization of the U.S. corporate publishing establishment that purports to champion literary liberty but actually operates for the most part as a  bourgeois-liberal mouthpiece of U.S. imperialism. Wielding its heartiest denunciations against socialist countries. Aligning itself with vile racist anti-Muslim journalism. Generally letting U.S. and allied political imprisonment off the hook. I've written about this several times in earlier years on this blog. Most recently here, and here, in 2013, when misogynist extraordinaire Philip Roth was awarded for his aid to counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia.

So count me as unsurprised, though nonetheless appalled, at PEN's latest offense. The organization lists the Embassy of Israel as one of the "champions"--a level of sponsorship, no doubt financial--of the upcoming 2016 incarnation of its annual World Voices Festival. The apartheid state's embassy appears on the festival program a second time as "sponsor" of one of the author panels.

This outrage--featuring as a sponsor, which is in effect a promotion or advertisement, the U.S. representative of a government whose hallmarks are racism, torture, political imprisonment, denial of all basic human rights to the indigenous Palestinian nation, an apartheid settler state, a government that is in its very essense everything this fake-pro-freedom organization claims to oppose--has been noted. A few days ago a letter headlined "Don't Partner with the Israeli Government: Israeli Government Is No 'Champion' of Freedom of Expression" was sent to the PEN American Center. The letter calls on PEN to "reject support from the Embassy of Israel," and goes on to list some of the Zionist state's offenses.
 Join Alice Walker and Sign This Letter
Besides Alice Walker, long a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle, signers include acclaimed Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa, Junot Diaz, Angela Davis, Max Blumenthal, Hari Kunzru, Sarah Schulman, China Mieville, Kamila Shamsie, Randa Jarrar, Richard Ford, Marilyn Hacker and many other writers and poets. More names are being added daily. I signed. Writers: add your name as well. Here's the letter, with info about signing on.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Harper Lee's first/last novel

I just read Go Set a Watchman, the lost/found first/last best/worst novel by Harper Lee, who died last month at 89. I hadn't partaken in the national fever to read it when it was published in July 2015, but last week I came across it in the library and decided to borrow it. Now that I've finished it, I have no huge deep meaningful pronouncements to make...but I guess that's sort of the point, sort of why I bother commenting here at all.

The novel's back story, as I recall from all the publication-date publicity, is that it was actually Lee's first. That when she submitted it, her editor said Watchman's most resonant passages were the flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood as Scout, and suggested she write a new book telling the Scout story. She took the advice. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize and many more awards down through the years during which she never wrote (or at least never published) another book, and finally, the year before her death, agreed to let her first work be published. Watchman received mixed reviews. Some found it lacking the artistic finesse of Mockingbird and wished it had been left in a drawer. Others admired Watchman's head-on tackling of the burning issues of 1950s small-town Alabama, that is, the Klan, White Citizens' Councils, the civil-rights struggle. Many were shocked at what had become of their beloved Gregory-Peck-inflected Atticus Finch, here aligning directly with the forces of racist reaction.

Me, I think Go Set a Watchman is purely of a piece with To Kill a Mockingbird. Well written, with a smooth conversational flow, it is a work of utter liberalism. By which I mean this: both are novels focused on the issue of racism yet in which the only Black characters are barely present and definitely not fully dimensional people, novels in which everything is seen through the filter of a white Southern sensibility with same as our hero/protagonist. Novels in which moderation is presented as the finest, best position as opposed to the extremism of both sides--and yes, in Watchman, the virtuous Atticus's view, for one, is that the NAACP is way too radical, equated with, for example, the KKK. Oy vey.

Indeed, in Watchman, Lee has Atticus say truly reprehensible things--bizarre things, really, like his rather benign and wholly inaccurate characterization of the history of the Klan--and she has his daughter, an adult Jean Louise who now lives in New York and is on her annual visit home, grope her way through an agonized disillusionment with him. If Lee had taken this further, if the book had followed through with real, honest grappling with the vital questions, if Jean Louise had actually made the break she threatens, and above all if there were any Black characters directly engaging, it would have accomplished something beyond liberalism. As it is, there are indeed some passages where Jean Louise argues--with her friend, father and uncle--and denounces them, and is horrified with which side they appear to be on. But then. It's all laid to rest in a rather hasty, clunkily constructed, condescending (and violent--her wonderful uncle has to slap her hard, nearly knocking her out, to bring her round to reason, and well he's just torn up about it but it had to be done!) denouement in which she (and the reader) is made to see that all this hullaballoo, all her ranting and raving, was a sort of immature extremism through which she had to wade as a necessary coming of age in order to step ashore on the other side, the other side being a quintessentially liberal coming to terms with the realities of home, the prime reality being the need for a slow sober approach to social change.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Catching up on some good books

In the long lag during which this blog lay dormant, I did of course read lots of books. Some of which I would have written about here had I been writing about books here. I didn't because I wasn't...but I do want to at least list a few of the books I read recently and do recommend. Check them out:

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
Driving the King by Ravi Howard
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Andria Nacina Cole's terrific story is a Ploughshares Solo and you should read it

Two weeks ago, Andria Nacina Cole's story "Men Be Either Or, But Never Enough" was published as a Ploughshares Solo by Ploughshares literary magazine. I read it the day it came out, as soon as I got home from work that evening, and it affected me the way truly fine literature tends to: I couldn't function for the rest of the night, just sat with the thoughts and feelings it provoked. I urge you to head to Amazon or Ploughshares and cough up the measly $1.99 to buy this story. I guarantee it'll leave you wanting to read more of this writer's work, as indeed I'm eager for her to get a book deal and publish the collection I know will blow us all away. Maybe there's a novel in the works too? Hey a girl can dream.

So here's the thing about "Men be either or." There's good writing and there's great writing. Good writing is a pleasure, great writing is precious. There are stories that make you think, something I value highly. And there are stories that make you feel, also a fine accomplishment. What we have here is that rarest combination: great writing in the service of a story that makes you both think and feel. This is true art. The craft that makes the art -- the way Ms. Cole wields words, and the careful plotting with which she lays out the story so that it unfurls, unfolds upon itself, opening up layer by layer, guiding the reader deeper into the heart of it, the pain of it -- well, the craft is breathtaking. I also have to say that IMO it takes a special writerly skill to present a child's POV in a way that somehow manages an authentic voice yet still stays in the realm of adult writing.

Cole has a masterly hand with language, and not only in fiction. When you have some time, because, as with her fiction, her poetry demands intellectual and emotional attention so don't read it unless you can spend some time with it, you should also read her poem published in The Feminist Wire in 2013 "How To Forgive Abortion When You Are the Aborter." I must confess I'd put off reading this because, well, the title had me worried I wouldn't like it, my kneejerk reaction to the title being hey there's nothing to forgive. I should have had more faith in this sister who I well know is a fierce proponent of all things woman. And indeed this poem says it all, fiercely.

I am personally indebted to Andria Nacina Cole going back almost 10 years now. In the summer of 2006 she organized a women writers' conference in D.C. Called Flanked--the idea being that women would be at each others' sides, have each others' backs--it was an amazing experience. Not only was it all women, it was majority women of color, and the conference's whole orientation was toward supporting and empowering writers who would rarely find such support from the literary establishment. It was a privilege to take part in Flanked and I'm so glad my application was accepted. Now here's the crazy thing about it: Flanked was funded by Andria Nacina Cole, who'd won a Maryland state writing prize and used the prize money not for herself but to put on a conference to build up other women writers. Who ever heard of such a thing? At Flanked I met the very fine young writer Gimbiya Kettering, who's now been published in lots of tony literary journals and has a couple of novels in the works; Gimbiya and I became good friends and have kept up with each other's lives literary (reading and critiquing each other's work, writing each other recommendation letters and so on) and otherwise since then. So I got a smart, sharp, supportive friend out of Cole's selfless gift of Flanked. And in the years since Flanked I've gotten a chance to sort of get to know, well not really, not in person, but a little at least, virtually, online, at least, or at least to follow, admiringly from afar, Andria herself. Who always has something interesting to say, and whose writing I always look forward to.

This is a writer to watch. I have no doubt we'll see more great things from her.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A reason to revive Read Red: Kia Corthron's magnificent novel

It's been just about a year since my novel Vera's Will was published by Hamilton Stone Editions. An interesting experience it's been, this business of a first novel put out by a small press, and I'll probably report on that some time soon. Much more important things are afoot, however. The Black Lives Matter movement has swept the country, energizing a new generation of young activists in the struggle against the epidemic of police killings of African Americans, with Black women and queer people prominent in the leadership. In counterpoint there are the presidential primary campaigns: the leading Republican candidate, a pus-oozing boil on the slimy rotting skin of capitalism, makes an outright fascist appeal to racist whites, while the leading Democrat reacts to a social-democratic challenge from her party's left flank by furiously trying to refashion herself as some kind of progressive despite her long history of, um, not-progressiveness.

But hey. None of that is why I've been moved to revive my blog Read Red. This is:

Earlier this month I finished reading Kia Corthron's magnificent first novel The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, and I haven't stopped thinking about it yet. I've been dying to talk to someone about it but no one I know has read it yet--it did after all just come out--so I'm going to talk about it a little bit here. On Read Red. Which I herewith declare reborn.

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is, as any great work of art must be, several things at once. It is a book of amazing craft and innovative technique. The whole first third or so, all of which is written from the POV of four different children, is dazzling. The kind of writing that makes other writers shake our heads in wonder and wonder gee how in the world did she do that. But it's not the off-putting, fancy-but-unreadable kind of dazzling that in some quarters passes for laudable language manipulation, the kind of trickery for its own sake that accomplishes nothing except displaying the writer's self-regard. No. This is the pull-you-deep-inside-the-characters'-minds-and-spirits kind of literary magic that so many try but so few can pull off. I don't know how many times in the weeks since I finished the book I've heard little Elliot's full-of-wonder voice in my head saying 'I love Mom! I love pork and beans!' Which might sound like a minor silly example but is not, because these early passages that so thoroughly bring Elliot the young child to life have everything to do with how the reader is engaged with his story as it develops in his adulthood.

Well not everything. For the adult Elliot's story, who he becomes and what he does, speaks to another facet of what this book accomplishes. This is political art of the highest order. As we meet the four main characters--Elliot and his brother Dwight who are Black children growing up in Maryland, and white brothers B.J. and Randall in Alabama--it is 1941. Jim Crow is in full force. The U.S. is about to enter World War II. And we know that these two sets of brothers will come of age at the time of the start of the civil rights movement, and into full adulthood in the 1960s. What we don't know yet as the novel begins, what I didn't dare hope even as I was falling in love with it as literature, is that the story will open and deepen and tackle the big stuff. It does. And so as we read on, always engaged in a specific story about specific characters, we also engage with the history of the U.S.  in the 20th and 21st centuries. Racism and racist violence. Divisions and solidarity. War. Class. Poverty. LGBTQ oppression. Disability and disabled oppression. Palestine! And more.

Anyone who's ever read any of my posts on this blog during the years I kept it up--or anyone who now reads its title--or anyone who scrolls through and reads some of the archive as I now invite new visitors to do--will know from even my too-brief words here about this book that it meets every criterion for what I consider great literature. It is political art. On the side of the workers and oppressed. Full of passion, wit, charm and heart, this fine novel makes the case, and by doing so flies in the face of the U.S. literary establishment's anti-political-art rules, for what people's fiction can truly be.

I mentioned heart. Some paragraphs back I wrote that this book is several things at once, and of course I've failed to delineate what all those things are yet written too much already, so you'll just have to discover them all for yourself when you read The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. But I do want to touch in closing on one facet that absolutely blew me away: the amazing, searing big-heartedness of this beautiful beautiful book. In the closing pages Corthron draws all the threads of the story together satisfyingly and effectively, with grace and skill--but more than that, with an unsentimental depth of emotion that shocked me into the kind of sobbing that makes it hard to read. I won't say anything specific that would be a spoiler, but I found myself feeling deep compassion for not only the characters I'd grown to love, the characters I could in one way or another identify or empathize with, but also for a character for whom I would never have thought I would or could or would ever want to weep. That Corthron made me cry for this character speaks, I think, not only to her deeply generous humanity, to her powerful insight into human beings, but, most important for a red reader, it speaks to her broad vision of the purpose of literature. She's making a case for change. For the possibility of change, and the necessity of change. For social change that can and does happen, brought about by people joining together and fighting for it, no matter how hard the sacrifice needed. For the future. And literature's place in forging it.

Hope, then. This is the abiding emotion you're left with when you close this book. You're left thinking about how hard it all is, but also how much better it's become, how far we have to go but also how fully capable we are of moving forward. What a gift.