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Feb. 16th, 2017

reading tiger

I'm still reading books!

I think I forgot to mention that I read Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts a couple weeks ago, because a) I seem to really like Maggie Nelson these days and b) it is relevant to that thing I've been working on for a while. I liked it a lot. The Red Parts, for those who don't know, is a memoir of Maggie Nelson's experiences while attending the cold case trial of the murderer of her aunt, whom she never met but wrote an earlier book of poetry about. Her aunt Jane was assumed for a long time to be the victim of a mildly notorious serial killer in Michigan, but the cold case investigation pointed to a different suspect, who was in the end convicted. The book is an excellent meditation on issues of justice and crime and memory, and in it I discovered that Nelson is something of an anti-death-penalty activist, at least in that she's stood in vigils at executions.

I just finished Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, which was a lot of fun. The premise here is that Western esoteric magick is the real stuff and occult knowledge is held by rival lodges filled with old, privileged white men who periodically attempt to take over the world for real, when they're not fighting each other that is. Thanks to a black maid pregnant with her boss's child, who slipped off the estate just before a major magical accident obliterated a bunch of practitioners, a black family in Chicago gets enmeshed in these machinations. They get to come out on top. I like Ruff's sense of humor, and I think he struck the correct balance between terror and humor here, and also with the way that not all the horror comes from occult machinations but from merely living in 1950s America while black. That fact is critical to the ending, too, and part of what made it so satisfying.

Not sure what's next.

Feb. 8th, 2017

reading tiger

catching up with reading

I finished The Vegetarian and then forgot to post about it. I liked it. I did wonder briefly in the middle whether it would be getting so much attention if it was set in the West, i.e. if it wasn't so easy to project Otherness onto the characters, to ascribe some of their behaviors and concerns to another culture. Or if it would then be perceived as too over-the-top, a burlesque grotesquerie, instead of a prizewinning literary novel. But I liked it because of its feminist existentialism.

Now I am reading Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country.

Jan. 20th, 2017

reading tiger

Reading

It's been a bit.

I recently tore through Lizard Radio, a science fiction YA featuring a gender-nonbinary protagonist in a sketchily-defined dystopian future. The worldbuilding specifics may be sketchy but the immediate setting -- an agricultural summer camp for teens -- is thoroughly imagined, and the characters are, too. I have a small issue with the death of one character (let's say it too closely echoes the death of Rue in Hunger Games), but other than that, I'd recommend it for its gender stuff, its interesting setting, and its thematic wrestling with individuality vs. community and such. This won the 2105 Tiptree, btw.

Now I am reading The Vegetarian. More on that soon, but so far thumbs up.

Dec. 31st, 2016

reading tiger

My Favorite Books of 2016

2016 has made me even more superstitious than usual, so I waited until there was basically no chance of my finishing another book this year before compiling my "best books of the year" list. Interestingly, apparently I did not do a list of favorite books I read for 2015. Looking back, this appears to be because I was kind of overwhelmed by local and national events: the San Bernardino shooting, Justin Chin's death, the "controversy" over my music column on "Norwegian Wood." So if 2016 was legendarily bad, it's partly because it got a head start in late 2015.

In no particular order, then, a baker's dozen:

* Bluets by Maggie Nelson. A book-length meditation on the color blue. At the bookstore, we file this in "poetry" (same as we do with "Tender Points," below, but not what we do with "Argonauts"), but other people call it a "lyric essay"; it's actually loosely modeled after Wittgenstein -- the numbered paragraphs are called "propositions" and the philosopher himself makes a guest appearance, as do Goethe and, more briefly, Novalis, which made me feel like I was revisiting a certain class I took in college, actually (I remember it as "European Romanticism" but I also remember Poe on the syllabus, so...?), along with a lot of other philosophers and artists and such -- Joseph Cornell, Joni Mitchell, etc.. Also bowerbirds and cornflowers, the bluets of the title (spoiler!). It's not at all dry and detached analysis, it's deeply engaged, autobiographical meditation informed by many sources, and I loved it.

* The Dead Ladies Project by Jessica Crispin. A nonfiction travel narrative, sort of. The author suffers a breakdown in the first chapter and decides to ditch it all and travel around Europe visiting the cities that were important to various literary figures she's interested in, most but not all of whom are women. Some of the destinations (Berlin) are well-worn travel-narrative-wise, and some (Trieste) are not. The final chapter on genderbendy surrealist lesbian photographer Claude Cahun is stunning.

* Bullies by Alex Abramovich. Nonfiction memoir with local interest. It starts by Abramovich discovering that his childhood bully is now the head of the East Bay Rats motorcycle club, and conceives of a GQ magazine assignment to go meet up with the guy as an adult and see what transpires. What transpires is this: he discovered that the childhood relationship in question may have been more reciprocal than he remembers. The author moves from NYC to Oakland and hangs out a lot at the Rats' clubhouse in West Oakland and their home bar near the shores of Lake Merritt. He does a lot of observation and a lot of thinking, and writes it all down. Meanwhile, Oakland embarks on the beginning of the rapid spurt of gentrification that we are still living through now. The result is an utterly absorbing snapshot of a time and place that was slipping away fast but has still left its traces on this place I live.

* Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney. Fictional, set in 1980s Berlin and narrated by a gay black expat from Chicago, who flees to Europe, takes a position in the firm of a hot modern architect, and moves in with his cousin, once a promising young concert pianist and now married to a German tycoon. He ping-pongs back to Chicago, then to Berlin again, and all the while Pinckney dryly takes on radical chic, architectural theory, the flavors of racism both foreign and domestic. And his narrator is a fuck-up, falling out of sobriety as the novel progresses, so he's not spared either. This book is in part a response to Isherwood, but only in part. It also speaks to brilliant underachievers, which is probably a part of why I liked it so much. But what you need to know is that it's exquisitely written and worth checking out based on its style alone.

* H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. One of those rare books that deserved its runaway bestseller status. It's a memoir of Macdonald's attempts to train a goshawk in the wake of her father's unexpected death. It's full of details on the history of hawking, the biology of hawks, and somewhere in the middle it turns into an extended meditation on E.B. White and his own, failed attempt to train a goshawk, which he meticulously chronicled as well. White had no clue why he was such a fuckup in this particular endeavor, but Macdonald has more than a few clues.

* Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. This is a pillow book (modeled after The Pillow Book) about early motherhood. In little fragments of text, never more than a page or three long, it makes art out of a time when many women find it hard to write anything at all, in a form that turns out to be perfectly suited for it, something that seems slight and trifling and is not, not one bit.

* We Gon' Be Alright by Jeff Chang. Chang is suffering from a little bit of bad timing. His last book, Who We Be, a discussion about, more or less, the optics of diversity, came out right as Black Lives Matter ramped up. We Gon' Be Alright is sort of a postscript to that book, talking about how those optics contrast with the actual lived experience of retrenched segregation. And it had the bad luck to come out just before Trump was elected, which calls the title into sharp question. (Less so if you watch it with Kendrick Lamar's video for the song of the same name in the front of your mind.) Read it anyway, because the first essay, on who "diversity" is really for, is essential, and the last, on "Asian-American" as an identity category and how Chang has personally wrestled with it as a concept, is too.

And now, a Mark Binelli interlude:

Mark Binelli has written three books: Detroit City Is The Place To Be, a nonfiction book about his hometown, and two novels, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits. I read all three this year and I loved them all. Detroit City is something everyone should read, and folks who grew up within 100 miles of Detroit should read twice. Sacco and Vanzetti is a highly inventive novel in which S&V are a silent-film comedy duo; the novel is told mostly via film reviews, transcripts, and personal journals. Mostly. Screamin' Jay Hawkins takes the joke of the title -- Hawkins had exactly one hit, the lurid "I Put a Spell on You" -- and turns it inside out. Binelli is doing really interesting stuff, ambitious stuff, and I feel like I'm the only one who has noticed. But I'm glad I did.

And now, a middle-grade interlude:

I read a chapter or so of a "long read" book to the kids every night. We've done everything from The Hobbit and A Christmas Carol to Charlotte's Web, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, whatever the kids think is interesting. We tried out a bunch of middle-grade books this year along with everything else, and threeof them were as good as anything I've read this year: The One and Only Ivan, The Real Meaning of Smekday and The Wild Robot. The first is about a silverback gorilla stuck in a rundown "circus" at a rundown mall somewhere in the United States, and his friendship with a young elephant, whom he has promised to get to a real zoo, where she can grow up in the company of other elephants. It's told in small fragmenty chapters from Ivan's point of view. Ivan succeeds in his task and thus gets reunited with other gorillas, too, so technically this has a happy (or at least bittersweet) ending, but it was such a supremely sad book. And it didn't stoop to cheap villainy, either. You have compassion for the circus owner even as you know what he's doing is not only wrong but harmful. This book one several awards and deservedly so.

Smekday is the book that the movie "Home" is based on, and fuck that (apparently well-regarded) movie because you'll see how much it's just the same old Extruded Movie Product once you read this. Smekday is fucking brilliant. It has a biracial protagonist! And the anti-Magical Indian supporting character! And a really interesting alien. And a road trip. And action! Comics! Humor that's actually funny! Satire that adults can appreciate too! Commentary on colonialism and white anxiety thereof, written at a level that middle-grade kids can get, yet not heavy-handed or simplistic! Yeah.

The Wild Robot is a quieter book. In it, a robot washes up on the shore of a deserted island, gets activated by accident, and has to figure out what her purpose is, with the help of the local wildlife. HER purpose. HER. OK, so she becomes a mother and that's a concession to gender roles, but she's an adoptive mother (of a gosling whose family she accidentally killed while climbing a cliff) and I'm going to let that go. This one does *not* have a happy ending. Nor does it have an unhappy ending. It has an ambiguous ending. It totally trusts its middle-grade readers to be able to handle an open, unresolved ending. Also, in terms of science-fictiony worldbuildingish storytelling, I haven't read anything recently as thoroughly thought-out as this book.

And finally, three Honorable Mentions:

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. On another social media platform this year, Nick suggested we mark all books by people the list-maker knows personally with an asterisk. So, here's one of two total for this year's list: (*) An existential whodunit set at a Lovecraft-themed con and narrated, in part, by the dissolving mind of the victim from his slab in the morgue.

Black Hole by Bucky Sinister. This is the second (*); before he moved to L.A., Sinister lived around the corner from me for several years, among other things. I miss running into him as he walked home from the bus stop. (Speaking of Justin Chin, Sinister also delivered a devastating poem at his memorial early this year, and I encourage people to hunt it down.) This is a "drug novel" with messed-up time, another murder mystery of a sort, and lots of really funny and on-point satire of the gentrification of the Mission District.

Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz. A short poetic narrative about living with fibromyalgia in specific and chronic pain in general. HM'd only because I really wanted more, and I am aware why that's a problematic ask in this context.

Dec. 30th, 2016

reading tiger

(no subject)

IHNJH,IJLTS "the extraordinary formation of her upper palate, shaped like a Gothic arch, not the Romanesque arch of the normal mouth."

Dec. 25th, 2016

reading tiger

another short note on reading

Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso looks like a very interesting book (about a real-life murder in the late 1800s in Philadelphia, of a mixed-race man by a black woman), but I am having a hell of a time getting past the title. It's a dismembered torso. It isn't disembodied, it is the exact opposite. It is nothing but a body.
reading tiger

(no subject)

"At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my cv it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel "in progress" rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, why blue? People as me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don't get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don't get to choose."

from Bluets.

Maggie Nelson, where have you been all my life? I loved Argonauts so much but it seemed so singular. Little did I know.

Dec. 19th, 2016

reading tiger

Whatcha Reading?

Black Hole by Bucky Sinister is a pretty fast, easy, satisfying read, considering it's a member of the question-reality drug narrative genre. In fact, I think it may be my favorite of that genre. Maybe because I recognize the milieu it's set in -- the last 25 years of the San Francisco Mission district. I mean, I don't just recognize it, I feel a deep "you know me, I know you" feeling about it.

Because, see, I find most time-is-funky reality-is-questionable drug novels really fucking dull. Repetitive, episodic, and boring as dirt. Maybe b/c I'm not a user and never have been, I don't know. All I know is that I bounced out of Laurie Weeks' Zippermouth, which was hugely anticipated and fairly well acclaimed (it won a Lammy). I read a Scanner Darkly but at this moment I can barely remember anything that happened in it. I could go on, but you get the picture. I have given it the old college try, is what I'm trying to convey here.

But I liked this one. "Chuck" does not have a heart of gold and he makes many really bad choices. Not minor bad choices, but morally reprehensible bad choices. So it's not because I liked or identified with the main character. And it's not because it has much of a plot, to be honest, at least not a traditional one. But it still manages to have enough forward momentum, enough "I want to figure out what happens"-ness to keep you reading. I think that's really what tends to bog me down in most books of this type -- the repetitiveness. The details of the weird shit vary, but the pattern is the same, and do I really have to read a whole book of this stuff? Black Hole manages to slip that trap, thank goodness.

(OK, maybe another reason I dislike this genre is because the protagonists, whether or not they are likable, are usually profoundly narcissistic. I know that's an overused word right now, but bear with me. If you don't really know if another character is real or a hallucination, for example, it's hard to work up a lot of empathy for their ultimate fate, you know? In this, I think Black Hole managed to convey a separation between Chuck's druggie self-centeredness and the author's POV, which is both more generous toward the bit players in this narrative.)

Another reason I might dig this one more than I dig other novels of this type is because the satire is dialed up a notch and also sharper than average. I mean, Chuck's day job is cleaning the tanks of the mini-whales that techbros buy as status pets. The owner has gotten rich off his biotech innovation, but he's scamming his clients with glitchy DNA. This is all background, though, because Chuck, he just scrubs and procures drugs for his boss. Another way of saying what I'm saying might be to point out that Bucky is a stand-up comic these days as much as he is a writer, and dark humor abounds.

BTW, if you can't tell from my use of the familiar, I am friends with Bucky Sinister. He used to be my neighbor, in fact, before he skipped town and moved to L.A. a few months back. But as I've mentioned before, if I didn't like the book I just wouldn't mention it at all. (Sometimes I don't mention books written by my friends even when I *do* like them.) But Black Hole, I think, is unjustly overlooked, and worth circling back to if you missed it the first time.

Dec. 1st, 2016

reading tiger

Now Wholly Irregular, But Still Reading

Holy shit is Alison Kinney's Hood good and I'm still in the first chapter. It's a short book in the "Object Lessons" series, and just the stuff she has to say about the history of hoods in art -- who wears them and who doesn't, when that changes (when did the Grim Reaper go from being a bare skeleton to a hooded and robed one?), and why, and how that very much links to the present -- will blow your mind. I can't wait to read the rest of it.

Nov. 16th, 2016

reading tiger

Reading Wednesday, Darkness Falls Edition

A lot has happened in the world since I last joined you. I am going to mostly ignore that for the moment.

I finished Where Dead Voices Gather and as I believe I mentioned earlier, I am glad I stuck with it, even if I wanted to slap Nick Tosches once or twice, including near the end again. But it was worthwhile reading for both the erstwhile subject and to see how Tosches handled being very present in the narrative and honest about his obsession (if, perhaps, not ultimately as reflective as I'd like).

Now I am reading Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz, a "literary nonfiction" book-length musing on fibromyalgia, gendered illnesses, trauma, chronic pain, and, you know, stuff. Amy is local, her book is tremendous so far. And seems an appropriate read right now, what can I say.

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