audiobooks · mini-review · Overdue Reads · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

13646449._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In this work of grave beauty and searing power – one of the most widely praised pieces of investigative reporting to appear in recent years – we follow twenty-six men who in May 2001 attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadly region known as the Devil’s Highway, a desert so harsh and desolate that even the Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it, a place that for hundreds of years has stolen men’s souls and swallowed their blood. Only twelve men made it out.

I’ve had a copy of The Devil’s Highway for years, ever since I heard Luis Alberto Urrea speak at his award reception for the Paul Engle Prize at the Iowa City Book Festival in 2014. I slipped out at the end of his speech to buy a copy and have him sign it. But I just never got around to reading it. But I was recently goaded to re-evaluate my reading about border stories, border policy, and Latinx/non-white Hispanic authors because American Dirt was selected for all sorts of stuff this spring, including the Barnes and Noble Book Club (I’ll get into this in a later post since I can’t get out of reading that book, which rankles because I had decided that I didn’t want to read it but I can’t just fob the group off on someone else so will have to suck it up, grrr). When I checked to see what audiobooks were currently available in the ICPL Libby/Overdrive service, I got incredibly lucky to see that The Devil’s Highway was available to download immediately.

The Devil’s Highway is a poetic recounting of the tragedy that occurred in 2001 when 26 men attempted to cross into the United States via the Devil’s Highway near Yuma, Arizona – only 12 survived. This a book that falls very much in the vein of In Cold Blood in the ways that Urrea sets a scene and keeps the narrative thread of the book moving (particularly in the last sections) but unlike Capote deals very much in facts and only reconstructs what he was unable to verify such as “Mike F.” (the Border Patrol officer who found the walkers who was unable to be interviewed at the time) and some of the thoughts and actions of the walkers who died in the Devil’s Highway. This is a very haunting and heartbreaking tale. There are no easy answers and no easy solutions.

In addition, Urrea narrates this audiobook. It is such a treat. He is an excellent storyteller and speaker. I highly recommend the audiobook if that’s available to you.

Dear FTC: I have a signed paperback copy and borrowed the audiobook from the library’s Libby/Overdrive service.

Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Set in the eighteenth century London underworld, this bawdy, genre-bending novel reimagines the life of thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard to tell a profound story about gender, love, and liberation.

Recently jilted and increasingly unhinged, Dr. Voth throws himself into his work, obsessively researching the life of Jack Sheppard, a legendary eighteenth century thief. No one knows Jack’s true story—his confessions have never been found. That is, until Dr. Voth discovers a mysterious stack of papers titled Confessions of the Fox.

Dated 1724, the manuscript tells the story of an orphan named P. Sold into servitude at twelve, P struggles for years with her desire to live as “Jack.” When P falls dizzyingly in love with Bess, a sex worker looking for freedom of her own, P begins to imagine a different life. Bess brings P into the London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with London’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of an oncoming plague abound. At last, P becomes Jack Sheppard, one of the most notorious—and most wanted—thieves in history.

Back in the present, Dr. Voth works feverishly day and night to authenticate the manuscript. But he’s not the only one who wants Jack’s story—and some people will do whatever it takes to get it. As both Jack and Voth are drawn into corruption and conspiracy, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them both.

An imaginative retelling of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Confessions of the Fox blends high-spirited adventure, subversive history, and provocative wit to animate forgotten histories and the extraordinary characters hidden within.

Confessions of the Fox snagged my attention in catalogs last year and I started trying to read it as a digital galley. However, the structure of Confessions of the Fox is such that it makes digital reading very hard – there are MANY footnotes – so I waited to pick up a hardcover to try and read it. And then I realized that it required some involved reading time given the nature of how the story is told. So I started this book several times before I finally parked my butt on the couch during 24 in 48 and read the entire thing in one sitting.

This. Book. Is. Wild. 

The book opens with Dr. Voth, ostensibly telling the reader that the manuscript we are about to read was discovered as the university he works for emptied the stacks to make way for fancy administrative offices and that it is a ground-breaking work. The manuscript is purported to be the memoirs of one Jack Sheppard, a legendary outlaw in eighteenth-century London who serves as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera and Mack the Knife. As “Jack” tells his story, the details of his life twist away from known sources. In this source Jack is a transman and his girlfriend Bess refers to herself as “lascar,” making her a woman of South Asian descent. As the narrative shifts and twists it seems to grow beyond the page…but is it real? Is Jack a narrator we can trust? Or Bess?

In between Jack’s story we get two sets of footnotes: 1) the annotations made by Dr. Voth noting deviations in the text from known facts about Jack Sheppard and explanations of seventeenth-century slang and 2) Dr. Voth begins to narrate the absurd twists his life takes after his discovery of the manuscript. As a transman, Dr. Voth is deeply invested in a manuscript that, if authenticated, would bring a significant contribution to trans and queer literature and history. And it is this emotional connection to the manuscript that opens Dr. Voth to manipulation by less-than-savory sources. It creates a second narrative within a frame around the Jack Sheppard narrative.

Jordy Rosenberg has given us a novel that is at once a purported eighteenth-century memoir and a narrative that morphs into a rallying cry against the commoditization of bodies, of prison abolition, of anti-colonialism, of anti-racism, of trans self-determination. Surrounding this is a framing narrative in footnotes of the professor annotating this tale and his fight against a university increasingly beholden to shady corporate and pharmaceutical interests, veering from Sterne-ean to Vonnegut-like levels of absurdity. Confessions of the Fox is a very complex book but well-worth the read.

I will give a trigger warning for this book. There are several instances where cis characters express an intrusive (and in one instance, gross) interest in a transman’s genitalia. There is also a scene of a surgery that is very appropriate to the historical setting in its details. Given that Rosenberg is a professor of queer and gender theory as well as eighteenth-century literature, I think the subject matter and situations in this book were handled very well. 

Dear FTC: I started reading a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but wound up having to buy a copy because of the formatting.

mini-review · stuff I read

Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison

41735103Summary from Goodreads:
Novelist and writing teacher Jane Alison illuminates the many shapes other than the usual wavelike “narrative arc” that can move fiction forward. The stories she loves most follow other organic patterns found in nature―spirals, meanders, and explosions, among others. Alison’s manifesto for new modes of narrative will appeal to serious readers and writers alike.

As Jane Alison writes in the introduction to her insightful and appealing book about the craft of writing: “For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel―one we’re actually told to follow―and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides. . . . But: something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?”

W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants was the first novel to show Alison how forward momentum can be created by way of pattern, rather than the traditional arc―or, in nature, wave. Other writers of nonlinear prose considered in her “museum of specimens” include Nicholson Baker, Anne Carson, Marguerite Duras, Jamaica Kincaid, Clarice Lispector, Gabriel García Márquez, Susan Minot, David Mitchell, Caryl Phillips, and Mary Robison.

Meander, Spiral, Explode is a singular and brilliant elucidation of literary strategies that also brings high spirits and wit to its original conclusions. It is a liberating manifesto that says, Let’s leave the outdated modes behind and, in thinking of new modes, bring feeling back to experimentation. It will appeal to serious readers and writers alike.

Meander, Spiral, Explode is a thoughtful, unique literature studies book about different types of narrative patterns (waves, cells, fractals, meanders, spirals, explosions, etc) rather than the standard arc or linear plot. This was a really fun way to challenge how we look at these non-linear plots although a number of the examples she cites were pieces I had not read. Alison also had an emphasis on shorter works (short stories, novellas, short novels) with the longest book cited (Cloud Atlas) being used only once as an example of tsunami.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Ultimate Pi Day Party by Jackie Lau (Baldwin Village #1)

43699955._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
If there’s one thing that might get my dad, a retired math teacher, to visit Toronto and have a real conversation with me for the first time in seventeen years, it’s a big nerdy Pi Day party. And hopefully this party—and seeing the tech company I built from nothing—will finally be enough to impress him and make him forgive me for everything I did when I was a teenager.

But it’s got to be a really great party.

That’s where Sarah Winters comes in. She owns Happy As Pie, a sweet and savory pie shop, and wants to get into catering. She makes an amazing lamb-rosemary pie, cherry pie, lemon-lime tart…you get the idea. She’ll provide the food and help me plan the party, nothing more. No matter how much time we spend together, I’m not going to fall in love with her.

At least, that’s what I tell myself…

The Ultimate Pi Day Party is a contemporary indie romance that I picked up on Pi Day (of course). This is a delightfully fun (and hungry-making) contemporary between an app developer CEO and a pie shop owner/caterer in Toronto. All props to Jackie Lau for having a hero who has zero qualms about being a good caregiver when his love interest has menstrual cramps from hell. Also, so much yummy-sounding pie.

(But it’s written in alternating 1st person present tense POV and gah, why? It drives me so crazy. Lucky for this book its cuteness overcame the structure.)

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Signs of Attraction by Laura Brown

28117939Summary from Goodreads:
Do you know what hearing loss sounds like? I do.
All my life I’ve tried to be like you. I’ve failed.
So I keep it hidden.
But on the day my world crashed down around me, Reed was there.
He showed me just how loud and vibrant silence can be, even when I struggled to understand.
He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever known. His soulful eyes and strong hands pulled me in before I knew what was happening.
And as I saw those hands sign, felt them sparking on me, I knew: imperfect could be perfect.
Reed makes me feel things I’ve never felt. It’s exciting…and terrifying.
Because he sees me like no one else has, and I’m afraid of what he’ll find if he looks too closely.
The only thing that scares me more than being with him? Letting him go.

I read Laura Brown’s Friend (With Benefits) Zone and liked it so I decided to seek out the first book in the series (series? I can’t find an official name but Reed and Carli make a very brief appearance at Dev’s mom’s school in F(WB)Z). I’m really torn about Signs of Attraction. On the one hand, this is an excellent #ownvoices romance between a Deaf man and a Hard of Hearing woman who each have a lot of emotional baggage they have to deal with to get to a happy ending. Reed has some guilt about his father’s death and Carli has been raised in an abusive household. On the other, there are a few plot tropes (mostly) unrelated to the above representation – an evil old girlfriend with a very complicated level of shittiness (some of which has to do with the Deaf/HoH community), perhaps not the best ways of describing race, and at least one instance where I was surprised the police were not called – that I did not like. Also, it’s written in alternating first-person POV, which grated on me. I keep trying with that narrative style and I very rarely feel like it has been done well; a close-third POV would be clearer. But overall it was a good romance with good on-page representation, in my opinion.

A brief CW for discussion of suicide and depiction of physical and verbal abuse on the page.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook.

Read My Own Damn Books · Readathon · stuff I read

Meaty by Samantha Irby

35952943Summary from Goodreads:
The widely beloved, uproarious, first essay collection and the basis for the upcoming FX Studios series from smart, edgy, hilarious, and unabashedly raunchy Samantha Irby.

Samantha Irby exploded onto the printed page with this debut collection of essays about trying to laugh her way through failed relationships, taco feasts, bouts with Crohn’s disease, and more. Every essay is crafted with the same scathing wit and poignant candor thousands of loyal readers have come to expect from visiting her notoriously hilarious blog.

Read for 24in48 Readathon!

I do love me a Samantha Irby essay collection (see: We Are Never Meeting in Real Life). She is so funny and dry. After the success of WANMiRL Vintage reissued her first collection, Meaty (originally pubbed by Curbside Splendor). This collection is so well-balanced, with laugh-out-loud lines about hanging out with moms, a spec she wrote for a TV show, and crusty garbage that guys pull out to get in your pants, but then she’ll hit you with a gorgeous piece like “My Mother, My Daughter” about taking care of her mom when she was really sick. Definitely pick this up before you check out Sam’s upcoming writing for TV!

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book when it came out last year.

Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

33503495Summary from Goodreads:
From acclaimed author Ursula K. Le Guin, and with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler, a collection of thoughts—always adroit, often acerbic—on aging, belief, the state of literature, and the state of the nation.

Ursula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s blog, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her wonder at it.

On the absurdity of denying your age, she says, If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub. On cultural perceptions of fantasy: The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of? On her new cat: He still won’t sit on a lap…I don’t know if he ever will. He just doesn’t accept the lap hypothesis. On breakfast: Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime. And on all that is unknown, all that we discover as we muddle through life: How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.

I didn’t read Le Guin’s blog when she was actually writing it, so it was with a bit of chagrin that I picked up this volume of posts collected from her site. This is a really good selection of posts ranging from the life of a writer, aging, a little lit theory, and a number of posts about her cat, Pard (as befits the writer of Catwings).

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book a while back.

stuff I read

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

13623785Summary from Goodreads:
The American South in the twenty-first century. A plantation owned for generations by a rich family. So much history. And a dead body.

Just after dawn, Caren walks the grounds of Belle Vie, the historic plantation house in Louisiana that she has managed for four years. Today she sees nothing unusual, apart from some ground that has been dug up by the fence bordering the sugar cane fields. Assuming an animal has been out after dark, she asks the gardener to tidy it up. Not long afterwards, he calls her to say it’s something else. Something terrible. A dead body. At a distance, she missed her. The girl, the dirt and the blood. Now she has police on site, an investigation in progress, and a member of staff no one can track down. And Caren keeps uncovering things she will wish she didn’t know. As she’s drawn into the dead girl’s story, she makes shattering discoveries about the future of Belle Vie, the secrets of its past, and sees, more clearly than ever, that Belle Vie, its beauty, is not to be trusted.

A magnificent, sweeping story of the south, The Cutting Season brings history face-to-face with modern America, where Obama is president, but some things will never change. Attica Locke once again provides an unblinking commentary on politics, race, the law, family and love, all within a thriller every bit as gripping and tragic as her first novel, Black Water Rising.

The Cutting Season is a very slow burn mystery, with so much backstory and character history and racial history and politics and economics packed into it. While Locke ties up the central plot of the story and the murderer is caught, many more questions are less-satisfactorily solved. Particularly that of the Louisiana plantation itself and it’s role in the 21st century as an event hall that offers a highly dramatized play about the history of the area to the tourists.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book at a library sale.