Monday, August 24, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008)

I read most of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008) in a place I've never read a book before -- as Kindle book on my tablet in a series of airports and Airbnb apartments on our trip to Belgium last month.

I read this book as part of my Debbie Downer (only sad books) book club, and we selected it right around the time of the Baltimore uprising surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray, when we were all feeling pretty sad and overwhelmed by the spiral of police violence against African Americans (which has, you know, not really gotten much better in the past four months). At the time, Coates newest book, Between the World and Me, hadn't come out yet, and in retrospect it would (probably) have been a better choice for this book club. Not that sad things don't happen in The Beautiful Struggle, because they do, but I think the ultimate mood of the book celebrates Coates' family and childhood and its positive effect on his profession and worldview.

Coates was raised in Baltimore by his father, a former Black Panther turned librarian at Howard University who also ran his own press promoting classic African and African-American writings, and his mother, a teacher. His father had seven kids with four women, including one other boy with Coates' mother. The other half-siblings would sometimes live with Coates and his mom and dad, and sometimes live with their mothers. One older half-brother in particular, nicknamed Big Bill, was particularly close to Coates and becomes one of the fulcrums of this memoir. Their upbringing was strict, grounded in literature, history, a deep awareness of the continued effect of slavery on the lives of African-Americans, and the importance of their African heritage.

For much of his childhood, Coates lived in a rough area of Baltimore, right at the height of the crack epidemic. He understood that the streets were hard and demanded him to be hard too, although he didn't find that easy, being kind of a goofy, intellectual kid. His brother, Big Bill, on the other hand, took more naturally to that toughness, which moved him quickly out of the intellectual and Black Consciousness world of his father (and to a certain extent, Coates) and into a more common world of guns, drugs, and fights.

Both Bill and Ta-Nehisi eventually reach the age of 18, the age at which their father has told them they are on their own. And they are. Both get a full ride to Howard University (Bill because their father worked there, Ta-Nehisi [after their father left Howard to become a full-time publisher] because of the tenacity of his mother. The book ends as Ta-Nehisi begins his adult life, going on to become an established journalist, extremely excellent Twitterer, and the author of (so far) two very popular monographs.

This is a hard book to write about as a 38-year-old middle class white woman from Nebraska. I'm such a fan of Coates and so interested in reading about his experiences, but I feel like to reflect on them or even pick out anecdotes to describe the memoir is somewhere between pointless and clueless. Reading this book in Belgium made me feel even more complicated about the memoir, like I was at a three time remove from the action instead of just the two times that I usually am. Following Coates on Twitter makes the book even harder to respond to without cringing a little. What on earth would he tweet about this review?

I did like this book -- Coates has a lyrical writing style that really fits the coming of age narrative, and his adult-tinged observations on the actions of his parents and their friends strike just the right balance without being too knowing. The book is a great supplement (or antidote?) to the Baltimore of The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Street.  I feel like I'm starting to babble, and that's probably a good time to wrap things up. The bottom line is that this really is an interesting book and a very literary and enjoyable memoir. You just might not know what to say when someone asks you about it.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story by Daniel Clowes (2011)

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story by Daniel Clowes (2011) was originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine and then reworked for publication in 2011. It tells the story of our isolated and neurotic leads, Marshall and Natalie, who are set up on a blind date by mutual friends. Both of them are coming out of rough break ups of long term relationships, the back story of which is revealed through the course of the book. Marshall is our narrator and his frequent interior monologues bump on top of Natalie's dialogue in a perfect Peep Show-esque neurotic dude manner. His anger and Natalie's odd fragility set the stage for some awkward and sometimes humorous (in a very dark way) action that leads to a rather satisfying conclusion.

If you like Clowes (and what asshole doesn't?) this will not disappoint. The characterization and drawing are excellent, and he really takes advantage of the unusual horizontal shape of the page. As is often the case with Clowes, the characters are a perfect combination of the uncomfortably familiar (I'm just like that!) and the weirdly exotic (no one is really like that!) that leaves you feeling both squirmy and relieved. And, as is often the case with Clowes, I loved every frame.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962)

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming (1962) is the ninth novel in his James Bond series and by far the least beloved.

Unusually, the book is narrated in the first person by a female character, Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman recently back in the Americas after an eventful five years "coming out" in London. She is taking some time to relax and rediscover herself by riding a motor scooter down the east cost from Montreal to Florida. Along the way she stumbles into a job working for a couple of weeks at an isolated motor lodge in the Adirondacks. The couple who act as the caretakers decide to take off on the last day of the season and leave Vivienne to close up the lodge and wait for the owner to come lock everything up the next day.

Viv is actually pretty excited about getting some alone time and spends the first third of the book sipping on some scotch and remembering her sexual and romantic past in London (which is given in great detail, to benefit the reader). After losing her virginity to a boyfriend who dumped her as soon as she put out, Viv finds herself romantically involved with her German colleague at a newspaper. At least she though it was romantic. When she finds out she's accidentally become pregnant, he very efficiently gives her money and instructions to go to Switzerland for an abortion, and then fires her from the newspaper. No wonder she needed a vacation.

Back at the travel lodge, two muscley dudes knock on the door and say they were sent by the owner to inventory the property. Viv doesn't like the look of them, but they have enough details that she lets them in. Unfortunately, they are as untrustworthy as they look and almost immediately start harassing and threatening her and then beat her up when she tries to fight back. Things escalate gruesomely, but just when they are about to follow through on their repeated threats to rape her, who should knock on the door but James Bond!

Bond just happened to be driving through the isolated Adirondacks when he got a flat tire right in front of the motor lodge. The heavies force Viv to act natural, but she is able to convey to the wary Bond that she is in trouble. He pretends to buy the inventory story and he and Viv talk quietly while she makes him some eggs and bacon. He gives a really weird run down of his most recent adventure fighting Russian spies in Toronto and he is ALSO now just taking a break by driving down the east coast. After everyone goes to bed, the bad guys try to kill Bond and Viv (and think they have succeeded) and then burn down the motor lodge for the insurance money. Gun play, fire, and lots of action ensue. Then Vivienne and James Bond sleep together in a part of the motor lodge that is not on fire and, as she describes the love making and her reactions to it, she gives us the regrettable line: "All women love semi-rape." That should be qualified that they love semi-rape when it is James Bond doing it, apparently. Viv has completely fallen for Bond but knows that he is the kind of man that can't be tied down so is not surprised when he is gone by the time she wakes up. He has also called the police and smoothed everything over using his government connections, even swinging it so that Viv gets a reward from the insurance company for discovering the plot.

When it was published, the book was immediately panned and Fleming tried to stop its distribution in London. He also refused to give film rights to anything but the title, so the movie of this name with Roger Moore has absolutely nothing to do with the book. Some reviews I've read online really bash this book for the sexism and the "semi-rape" line and, while that obviously isn't great, this was 1962 and the book was written for (male) fans of spy novels, not 21st century women. I actually thought having the first person narrative from a woman was pretty edgy and interesting for the genre, although it obviously didn't work out for Fleming, and the sexism and rape stuff isn't anything more intense than you'd find in a Jacqueline Susann novel. Like her or not, Vivienne is a relatively well-rounded character -- if anyone in the book seems one dimensional and tacked on, it's James Bond, who comes in deus ex machina-style, squeezes in his spy story as an awkward aside, and then shoots some people, has sex, and leaves. I wouldn't recommend this one for everybody, but if you like some highly dated pulpy reading, you could probably do worse.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

STAPLE roundup: Everything else

In addition to the Jack: Adventures in Texas' Big Bend comics by Chris Ruggia and some truly fun movie monster and cats in movies prints I bought for framing and gifts, these three comics are the rest of my haul from the 2015 STAPLE! expo in Austin earlier this year.

The first is a tiny little comic called Kitten Apocalypse by Meg Has Issues. Obviously I could not resist buying this one from Meg when it caught my eye as I trudged through the gauntlet of tables, and it completely lives up to its title.What happens when the adorable kittens rise up and start attacking us all? It is just as cute and disgusting as you might imagine.

The second was a free giveaway, the first volume of the Kickstarter-funded Holli Hoxxx triology, put out by local press Bogus Publishing. These guys had a very outgoing table style and it was easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. While I didn't buy anything at their table, my cousin did, and we both got a copy of this free, full-color, nicely printed comic. I didn't have high hopes for anything too amazing, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this post-apocalyptic, kick-ass girl hero story. If I see the other volumes of the trilogy around, I'll definitely pick them up. Nice drawing style, good storytelling, and sexy but not sexist heroine. Nice job, dudes!

Finally, we come to the most polished of this last batch, When We Were Kids by Andy Warner. This is a really well done collection of three coming-of-age vignettes. Warner has a really engaging drawing style and a nice sense of pacing and storytelling. Coming-of-age stories are one of my favorite genres, and this one did not disappoint. Warner was also really interesting to talk to, and I hope I run into his table again in the future to buy some more of his work.

Yay comics!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Helsinki Noir, edited by James Thompson (2014)

As a big crime fiction / noir-y stuff fan, I'm pretty excited about the extensive regionally-based "Noir" series, part of which is the book Helsinki Noir, edited by James Thompson (2014), which I recently finished. Each book consists of a series of short stories that take place in (and are usually by authors from) a specific region. In this case, the Helsinki area in Finland. (As an aside, I recently bought a copy of Lone Star Noir and I'm really excited about some Texas-based crime stories. More on that later.)

I don't know much about Finland except for what I've seen through the movies of Aki Kaurismaki which bring to mind lots of drinking, cold ice and snow, general depression, and a seriously dark sense of humor. The stories in the book pretty much all back that up, although some of them travel to a ritzy side of Helsinki that Kaurismaki doesn't really use in his films.

To be honest, some of these stories were a little rough even for me -- particularly the ones that included some sexual violence. Although there was generally some kind of revenge / divine retribution, being in a narrative with a really horrible character can get a little old. The best stories were those that relied on a solidly written detective character (particularly Leena Lehtolainen's "Kiss of Santa" and Jarkko Sipila's "Silent Night." [Also, Finnish names are really weird, guys.] A few of the stories were originally written in English, but most were translated from Finnish for this book. The editor notes in his preface that Finnish authors don't usually see a lot of crossover appeal because there is something unusual about Finland that just doesn't translate to other cultures. I could definitely see a little bit of that here, but that oddness and untranslatability often added to the creepy noir feeling of the stories. 

[Note: I received a review copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers group.]

Friday, July 03, 2015

Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams (2009)

I won this copy of Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams (2009) in a raffle about a year ago and, even though it didn't seem like the kind of book I'd really like at all, I read it because I am a ridiculous woman.

Cam O'Mara is 14 and lives with his family on a ranch in Nevada. His whole life he has admired / been jealous of his older brother Ben who carried on the family tradition of championship bull riding. Cam has decided he does not ride bulls, even if he is an O'Mara. He skateboards instead.

Then Ben joins the marines, along with several other recent high school graduates from their small town. This only makes everyone more proud of Ben, including Cam. But after coming home for leave and heading back to Iraq, Ben's convoy hits an IED and he loses his arm and sustains a traumatic brain injury. He comes home after a long time in various hospitals, but he is depressed and angry, and not the same golden big brother that Cam knew before.

As he is dealing with his brother's injuries and his parents' grief and stress, Cam starts hanging out at the bull pens with some of Ben's friends. He ultimately finds himself goaded onto a bull and discovers that he has the O'Mara talent for bull riding. Eventually he comes up with the idea that he should ride Ugly, a famously rough bull that is touring the riding circuit with a promise of a $15,000 for any rider that can stay on him for more than 8 seconds. If he can conquer the bull, Cam reasons, Ben can work through his physical therapy and find a way to use his talents that doesn't involve bull riding or being a Marine. Plus the $15,000 will help his parents out with all their mounting expenses.

So, yeah: this is a young adult novel, for boys, with a patriotic / military theme, and bull riding. None of which am I super into. And yet, this book was really good! Williams has a good sense of character and dialogue, and the story as it is told from Cam's perspective is both interesting and moving. The patriotic stuff is definitely there, but focused on supporting the troops (both overseas and veterans at home) and not necessarily supporting the war. In fact, Williams leaves room for a lot of questioning there. And the bull riding stuff is exciting! I think this would be a great book for a teenager dealing with a family member who was injured during military service, but it was also a pretty great read for a non bull-riding 38 year old woman. I love it when my expectations are all turned around!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository by Christina Zamon (2012)

A little light professional reading sometimes sneaks into my pile, and that was exactly the case with The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository by Christina Zamon (2012). Archivists refer to themselves as "Lone Arrangers" if they, like me, are a one-person outfit. Aren't archivists hilarious?

In this book, Zamon seeks to give an overview of all the different aspects of running an archive (setting up policies, collecting material, providing access, controlling the environment, processing and describing collections, doing outreach, and more), but with an eye towards adapting the usual archival best practices to the reality of a one-person shop with a small budget.

This book came out of Zamon's leadership with the Society of American Archivists Lone Arrangers Roundtable, and she was able to bring in case studies from many of the roundtable members to add different perspectives to her text. Her experience as a lone arranger makes her well qualified to write an overview book like this one, and it was so refreshing to read some professional literature that spoke to the realities of a small repository like mine (yes, I know archival theory and best practices and ideal procedures, but those seldom work when you don't have enough time or money to implement them). While some of the chapters were shorter than I would have liked, I think the length and pacing was just right for this kind of overview. I'd love to see some more in-depth pieces on different aspects of archival enterprise from a lone arranger perspective sometime. Maybe we can get a sequel!