mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.

stuff I read

Out Loud by Mark Morris, with Wesley Stace

44140366Summary from Goodreads:
From the most brilliant and audacious choreographer of our time, the exuberant tale of a young dancer’s rise to the pinnacle of the performing arts world, and the triumphs and perils of creating work on his own terms–and staying true to himself

Before Mark Morris became “the most successful and influential choreographer alive” (The New York Times), he was a six year-old in Seattle cramming his feet into Tupperware glasses so that he could practice walking on pointe. Often the only boy in the dance studio, he was called a sissy, a term he wore like a badge of honor. He was unlike anyone else, deeply gifted and spirited.

Moving to New York at nineteen, he arrived to one of the great booms of dance in America. Audiences in 1976 had the luxury of Merce Cunningham’s finest experiments with time and space, of Twyla Tharp’s virtuosity, and Lucinda Childs’s genius. Morris was flat broke but found a group of likeminded artists that danced together, travelled together, slept together. No one wanted to break the spell or miss a thing, because “if you missed anything, you missed everything.” This collective, led by Morris’s fiercely original vision, became the famed Mark Morris Dance Group.

Suddenly, Morris was making a fast ascent. Celebrated by The New Yorker’s critic as one of the great young talents, an androgynous beauty in the vein of Michelangelo’s David, he and his company had arrived. Collaborations with the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Yo-Yo Ma, Lou Harrison, and Howard Hodgkin followed. And so did controversy: from the circus of his tenure at La Monnaie in Belgium to his work on the biggest flop in Broadway history. But through the Reagan-Bush era, the worst of the AIDS epidemic, through rehearsal squabbles and backstage intrigues, Morris emerged as one of the great visionaries of modern dance, a force of nature with a dedication to beauty and a love of the body, an artist as joyful as he is provocative.

Out Loud is the bighearted and outspoken story of a man as formidable on the page as he is on the boards. With unusual candor and disarming wit, Morris’s memoir captures the life of a performer who broke the mold, a brilliant maverick who found his home in the collective and liberating world of music and dance.

Mark Morris is one of the most inventive and prolific modern dance choreographers. I don’t always like his work but it is always interesting to watch (he has incredible relationships with the music he uses). So I was quite happy to read Morris’s new memoir, Out Loud. He spares no one, including himself in his recollections. Being a kid who liked to dance, growing up in the sixties in Seattle as a gay kid, he did get bullied but he kept on dancing and learning. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from this book: that an artist should always keep learning and keep incorporating new things into their art.

I particularly enjoy Morris’s acerbic tone – he likes what he likes, he has opinions about art and the art form, and he doesn’t care if you like him or not for these opinions (he says he’s somewhat less antagonistic in these opinions these days but I would say the jury is out, haha). I also liked how honest he was in this memoir regarding the ups and downs of a career in the performing arts – read this for both the history of MMDG as a modern dance company and also for the work it takes to start and maintain a dance company.

Out Loud is out (haha) on October 22.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, and Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong

44600621Summary from Goodreads:
Ali Wong’s heartfelt and hilarious letters to her daughters (the two she put to work while they were still in utero), covering everything they need to know in life, like the unpleasant details of dating, how to be a working mom in a male-dominated profession, and how she trapped their dad.

In her hit Netflix comedy special Baby Cobra, an eight-month pregnant Ali Wong resonated so heavily that she became a popular Halloween costume. Wong told the world her remarkably unfiltered thoughts on marriage, sex, Asian culture, working women, and why you never see new mom comics on stage but you sure see plenty of new dads.

The sharp insights and humor are even more personal in this completely original collection. She shares the wisdom she’s learned from a life in comedy and reveals stories from her life off stage, including the brutal singles life in New York (i.e. the inevitable confrontation with erectile dysfunction), reconnecting with her roots (and drinking snake blood) in Vietnam, tales of being a wild child growing up in San Francisco, and parenting war stories. Though addressed to her daughters, Ali Wong’s letters are absurdly funny, surprisingly moving, and enlightening (and disgusting) for all.

I did snort-laugh many times while reading. If you like Ali Wong’s stand-up, Dear Girls continues a lot of jokes and themes from her specials. She does a lot of raunch humor about body fluids and sex but also about the grossness of pregnancy and motherhood that kind of gets swept under the rug. The format of letters to her daughters is a little odd since they’re quite small now but it does make some of the pieces endearing. The letters about visiting Vietnam and learning more about her Chinese (father) and Vietnamese (mother) heritage were lovely.

I didn’t quite get the necessity of the Afterword from her husband; it was nice, but tonally weird. There is also a joke that occurs late in one of the last chapters which perpetuates the stereotype of multiple personality disorder and violence which is very 😬😬😬.

Dear Girls is out October 15.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

43682552Summary from Goodreads:
From award-winning poet Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir written at the crossroads of sex, race, and power.

“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’ ”

Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

I have followed Saeed Jones on social media and read his articles for a long time so I was so excited when his memoir was announced. And then How We Fight For Our Lives got picked as a Barnes and Noble Fall 2019 Discover title.

Wow. Simply, wow. Not a word wasted, not a word out of place. How We Fight For Our Lives is a beautiful, spare, rich memoir about being black and gay and how little space is given to those men as they grow from childhood to adulthood, especially when they grow up in a very conservative town. Internalized self-loathing is so common among these pages that I can’t even imagine the work Saeed must have done to be able to bare those emotions for the reader. The book is also a love letter to his late mother, those last few chapters cut me to the quick. A must-read, one of the best books of 2019.

How We Fight For Our Lives is out today.

Dear FTC: I read an advance copy of this book provided to my store for the Discover program.

stuff I read

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns edited by Dohra Ahmad, Edwidge Danticat (Foreword)

9780143133384_fbc9eSummary from Goodreads:
The first global anthology of migration literature featuring works by Mohsin Hamid, Zadie Smith, Marjane Satrapi, Salman Rushdie, and Warsan Shire, with a foreword by Edwidge Danticat, author of Everything Inside

Every year, three to four million people move to a new country. From war refugees to corporate expats, migrants constantly reshape their places of origin and arrival. This selection of works collected together for the first time brings together the most compelling literary depictions of migration.

Organized in four parts (Departures, Arrivals, Generations, and Returns), The Penguin Book of Migration Literature conveys the intricacy of worldwide migration patterns, the diversity of immigrant experiences, and the commonalities among many of those diverse experiences. Ranging widely across the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries, across every continent of the earth, and across multiple literary genres, the anthology gives readers an understanding of our rapidly changing world, through the eyes of those at the center of that change. With thirty carefully selected poems, short stories, and excerpts spanning three hundred years and twenty-five countries, the collection brings together luminaries, emerging writers, and others who have earned a wide following in their home countries but have been less recognized in the Anglophone world. Editor of the volume Dohra Ahmad provides a contextual introduction, notes, and suggestions for further exploration.

Penguin Classics has been knocking it out of the park these last few years with their anthologies and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature is no exception. It is a wonderfully solid and wide-ranging anthology of fiction, poetry, memoir, and personal essay on the subject of migration, whether voluntary or involuntary. The pieces are diverse geographically and chronologically (earliest works are from eighteenth-century writers and enslaved persons Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley and the more recent are migrations from the Middle East and mid-2000s green card worries). My only complaint is that for excerpts of longer pieces (like from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth) there isn’t much context to orient the reader. The “Additional Reading/Watching” section at the back of the book is excellent.

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature is out now!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz

41707938Summary from Goodreads:
In the wake of the 2016 election, Lyz Lenz watched as her country and her marriage were torn apart by the competing forces of faith and politics. A mother of two, a Christian, and a lifelong resident of middle America, Lenz was bewildered by the pain and loss around her–the empty churches and the broken hearts. What was happening to faith in the heartland?

From drugstores in Sydney, Iowa, to skeet shooting in rural Illinois, to the mega churches of Minneapolis, Lenz set out to discover the changing forces of faith and tradition in God’s country. Part journalism, part memoir, God Land is a journey into the heart of a deeply divided America. Lenz visits places of worship across the heartland and speaks to the everyday people who often struggle to keep their churches afloat and to cope in a land of instability. Through a thoughtful interrogation of the effects of faith and religion on our lives, our relationships, and our country, God Land investigates whether our divides can ever be bridged and if America can ever come together.

I picked up God Land because I was interested in Lenz’s reporting/research on religion and faith in the Midwest (I am 100% a city kid from Cedar Rapids, IA, where she now lives). And she does a great job in tying to get inside that mythos of “midwesterners are the salt of the earth and the ‘real’ backbone of the US” and the cognitive dissonance of faith and politics. She also ties much of it to her search for a faith community that did not make her feel small or unwelcome. I think she also did a fantastic job of presenting all her subjects fairly and with depth and avoided othering or making any of them the boogeyman which is hard when being “politically neutral” is impossible. (I had a chuckle in the chapter where she attends the ELCA pastor conference and I was like “those are my people! *High five*” I am a very lapsed Lutheran 😂)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy because I was definitely not fancy enough to get a review copy.

stuff I read

Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land by Julia Blackburn, Enrique Brinkmann (Illustrations)

42922291Summary from Goodreads:
From the award-winning author of the memoir The Three of Us, a lyrical exploration–part travelogue and part history–of Doggerland, the area beneath the North Sea which, until 6,000 years ago, was home to a rich ecosystem and human settlement.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Julia Blackburn became fascinated with Doggerland, the stretch of land that once connected Great Britain to Europe but is now subsumed by the North Sea. She was driven to explore the lives of the people who lived there–studying its fossil record, as well as human artifacts that have been discovered near the area. Now, she brings her reader along on her journey across Great Britain and parts of Continental Europe, introducing us to the paleontologists, archaeologists, fishermen, and fellow Doggerland enthusiasts she meets along the way. As Doggerland begins to come into focus, what emerges is a profound meditation on time, a sense of infinity as going backwards, and an intimation of the immensity of everything that has already passed through its time on earth and disappeared.

Time Song by Julia Blackburn was a middling read, for me. It’s a book that tries to do many things – an anthropological exploration and history of Doggerland, a memoir of the author’s fascination with artifacts and anthropology of older human culture, and a collection of poems (Time Songs) inspired by paleontologic and anthropologic scientific works – and doesn’t quite grasp any of them. The memoir jumped around making it hard to follow. Blackburn digresses a lot. She meanders down historical paths with other random amateur and professional anthropologists and their collections of artifacts which introduced a lot of “characters” who never appear again. The interruptions of the poems felt unnecessary. The drawn maps weren’t easy to read or orient (for reference Doggerland was a stretch of land between The Netherlands and the coast of Great Britain that was exposed during the Ice Age). Blackburn’s sentence-level writing is beautiful, though.

Time Song is out on Tuesday, August 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández

43192004Summary from Goodreads:
Weaving together narrative essay and bilingual poetry, Claudia D. Hernández’s lyrical debut follows her tumultuous adolescence and fraught homecomings as she crisscrosses the American continent.

Seven-year-old Claudia wakes up one day to find her mother gone, having left for the United States to flee domestic abuse and pursue economic prosperity. Claudia and her two older sisters are taken in by their great aunt and their grandmother, their father no longer in the picture. Three years later, her mother returns for her daughters, and the family begins the month-long journey to El Norte. But in Los Angeles, Claudia has trouble assimilating: she doesn’t speak English, and her Spanish sticks out as “weird” in their primarily Mexican neighborhood. When her family returns to Guatemala years later, she is startled to find she no longer belongs there either.

A harrowing story told with the candid innocence of childhood, Hernández’s memoir depicts a complex self-portrait of the struggle and resilience inherent to immigration today.

Knitting the Fog is a moving memoir told through essays and poems about the author’s childhood in Guatemala and migrating to the US at the age of 10. It’s a very slice-of-life book, full of the details that a child remembers about playing with neighbors, the oddities of the neighborhood, and being raised by strong women. However, I found the balance of poetry-to-prose memoir made it tricky to read. In my opinion, the prose essays were the stronger of the two styles and could have been enlarged.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.