Friday, July 3, 2020

Review: 'Becoming Duchess Goldblatt'

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt
By Anonymous
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As the cruel people who hate for its own sake take up so much attention, it is a balm to see evidence that not everyone is like that, and that kind-hearted people are still here.

The woman behind the online persona of Duchess Goldblatt is such a kind-hearted person. In her new memoir, Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, the anonymous author recounts when her marriage fell apart, her world did as well. Although it was hard for her to not give up, she looked outward instead of inward, adopted a friend's drag queen name came up while talking with another friend about the possibility of lurking on social media, and ended up creating something of value to many people.

That she didn't do it on purpose makes the evolution of what has happened all the better.

Duchess Goldblatt is a famous and esteemed writer in her early 80s. Born in Texas, she now lives in Crooked Path, which is somewhere in New York state. Her portrait so closely resembles that of a painting from 1633, Portrait of an Elderly Lady by Frans Hals, that they might as well be the same. Her renowned work includes An Axe to Grind, Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies: A Love Story and Not If I Kill You First, showing there is spice as well as sugar in the persona.

That Duchess is a persona and not the author is a point that Anonymous makes explicit throughout the memoir, albeit an epiphany in the narrative. The fiction of the life of Duchess, her holidays, the ups and down of Crooked Path, the occasional visits to her daughter, Hacienda, who is in a comfortable Mexican prison for life for reasons not fully spelled out -- it could all be extracted from the Duchess Goldblatt Twitter feed and turned into a fictional narrative. Indeed, it could be quite the epic saga.

But that's not the complete Duchess Goldblatt story. The tweets are part whimsy, part surreal, part wisdom, and the ones quoted in the book fit well with what is happening in the author's ongoing journey. And then there are the admissions, to wit:

People often ask me how a fictional being made of spun sugar and justice can overcome life-threatening paper cuts. Simple: It's magic.

It's the wit and the kindness that have drawn people to the Duchess, as when she tells someone:

The world is broken, but you are not broken. Things may not be okay, but you're okay, and you will be. I promise.

As people began to follow the Twitter feed, they began chatting with each other as well, forming a community. They have sent things to the person behind Duchess as well as to Duchess herself, calling her Your Grace even though she is not a member of typical nobility. Some of her admirers send gifts; the author asks real-life friends to receive the goodies for a few months at a time. Best of all, the community shows the best in others. Like some of her famous friends, especially Lyle Lovett, Benjamin Dreyer and Celeste Ng. 

The memoir ends with the author in a much better place than when she created Duchess, ready and willing to go on in the real world and the virtual one. It's a tale well told.

©2020 Lynne Perednia

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Review: 'Riot Baby'

Riot Baby
By Tochi Onyebuchi
Speculative Fiction

A short novel that builds its emotional force like a wave that swirls and soars and crashes, Riot Baby tells the story of a brother and sister in black America.

Tochi Onyebuchi's first novel for adults centers on Kev, born during the Rodney King riots, and his older sister, Ella. She has a Thing, a gift, a curse that puts the novel in the fantasy genre. But the Thing is used as a way to show the scope of how black people have been humiliated, hurt and killed in the last 30 years. 

As a child, Ella could see the future of the people she encounters. In time, she is able to astral project. She grows powerful enough that she can take her brother on journeys. When Kev goes to prison, it's a way for them to remain connected. When Kev is put in solitary, Ella can be there and she can take his spirit out of his cell.

His time there is brutal, and that it doesn't rob Kev of his soul is testimony how perhaps we are not all monsters inside, even though the system is in place to try to do that, one way or another:

The places that made money off you by charging you for tickets and scheduling court dates when they knew you couldn’t make it, then fining you for those missed dates if they don’t jail you first, then they say they’ll graciously set you up with a payment plan, then you get a day or two late one month and they put out a warrant, then when they do get you in jail, you gotta post $2,000 bond or some shit like that that they know you can’t pay, and that’s how it starts. While in jail, you miss your job interview, and when you finally get your day in court, they say you gotta change out of your jumpsuit, but you gotta put on the same funky clothes you spent however long getting arrested in and you gotta stand in that courtroom smelling like rotten poom-poom, handcuffed, and you gotta do all you can to even feel like a person still. If you got family, maybe your mama can borrow against her life insurance policy to post your bond.

It's a system meant to keep black people down.

Maybe they kill you in here. But maybe you make it out. Not out from behind bars, but out of wherever it is they try to put you when they put you behind bars.

Toward the end of the book, as Kev's life changes, this is made even more explicit. His life, Onyebuchi shows, does not belong to him regardless of his legal status. It's too real, too true to be dismissed as speculative fiction. 

Ella is angry because of her Thing, because of her mother's lifelong hurt, because of her brother's imprisonment. But she also is on a quest to see as much of the world and the way people are as possible. The sections in which she passes unseen through throngs of people is both a use of the gift that her author bestowed on her, and commentary on how black people are seen unless they are wanted for something.

"What might the opposite of injustice look like?"

Onyebuchi whirls up an epiphany of what might be at the end. There is the searing desire for a new beginning, and it is as painful as the scenes of new life that are depicted earlier in the story.

Onyebuchi has written several YA novels, and brings so many parts of his wide educational background to inform this novel. This is a man who has earned an undergrad degree from Yale, an MFA in screenwriting, a master's in economic law and a law degree from Columbia Law School. He is a strong advocate for others, being part of the reason social media discussed #PublishingPaidMe to reveal racial disparities in the book world.

Also, through June 24, there is a social media campaign to purchase at least two books by black authors. Whether you love to read literary fiction, YA fantasy, romance, mysteries or nonfiction, there are multitudes of volumes from which to choose.

Some of my favorites include Homegoing, The Turner House, The Water Dancer, everything by Colson Whitehead and Deacon King Kong.

Copyright Lynne Perednia 2020

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Review: 'Deacon King Kong'

Deacon King Kong
By James McBride
Literary Fiction
Riverhead Books

The best kind of novel set in the past that shines a light on the era in which it is set also illuminates aspects of today.

That's the kind of novel Deacon King Kong by James McBride is.

The stage is set with the elderly deacon of Five Hands Church in a 1969 New York City housing project walking up to the local young drug dealer and shooting an old gun at him. The deacon, known around the neighborhood as Sportcoat, is usually drunk, has survived numerous physical accidents and is mourning the death of his wife two years ago. He also was baseball coach to the young drug dealer, Deems, when he was a kid.

But if it looks like this is going to be a hardened, dire novel, McBride soon sets the reader right. Sportcoat misses, hitting Deems's ear, and the youngster chokes on the sandwich he has been eating. Sportcoat jumps on top of Deems, who is on all fours, and attempts the Heimlich maneuver. It does not look like an act of mercy to the gossiping neighborhood.

Many of the characters are looking for something. Sportcoat is always on the look-out for more of the homemade hootch, known as King Kong. He's also trying to find the Christmas fund box that his late wife hid somewhere, because the rest of the congregation would like their money. Deems is looking to expand his business. His supplier is looking to do the same. His supplier's hit man, Earl, is looking to rid the neighborhood of some other characters.

Next to the projects is an old boxcar that is the office of the last of the Italian, um, businessmen in the neighborhood. Tommy Elefante, known as The Elephant, is the only son of a made man who spent years in prison. The Elephant does small-scale jobs but stays away from drugs, which are taking over the mob's business model. An elderly Irish mobster visits one day with an odd story of something that he and the Elephant's father hid decades ago, and which will make their fortunes. Potts Mullan is an old-time square cop with only months to go before retirement, so he's looking to stay out of trouble.

Some of the characters don't know it, but they also are looking to fall in love. And those stories are among the sweetest tales that McBride has to tell.

McBride's story gains depth when the characters level with each other about the travails of living while black, whether it's a hardscrabble life they left behind in the South or the unkind streets of New York. Because the reader has come to know and care about these characters, when they turn serious their words carry all the more weight. And so do the author's words:

Sister Gee looked at the people staring at her ... She'd known most of them her whole life. They stared at her with that look that projects look: the sadness, the suspicion, the weariness, the knowledge that came from living a special misery in a world of misery. Four of their members were down ... And there would be more. The drugs, big drugs, heroin, were here. Nothing could stop it. ... Life in the Cause would lurch forward as it always did. You worked, slaved, fought off rats, the mice, the roaches, the ants, the Housing Authority, the cops, the muggers, and now the drug dealers. You lived a life of disappointment and suffering, of too-hot summers and too-cold winters, surviving in apartments with crummy stoves that didn't work and windows that didn't open and toilets that didn't flush and lead paint that flecked off the walls and poisoned your children, living in awful, dreary apartments built to house Italians who came to America to work the docks, which had emptied of boats, ships, tankers, dreams, money and opportunity the moment the colored and the Latinos arrived. And still New York blamed you for all its problems. ... 

But then, she thought, every once in a while there's a glimmer of hope.

That McBride makes that glimmer of hope work in such a city, in such a time, brings a little glimmer to the current darkness as well. This is a novel to enjoy and treasure.

Copyright Lynne Perednia 2020

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Review: Rules for Visiting

Rules for Visiting
By Jessica F. Kane
Literary fiction
May 2019
Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-0525559221

Once again, the truth that a book finds you just when you need it was shown to me when I read Jessica F. Kane's Rules for Visiting. A story of friendship, family and reaching out, plus tree lore, what a lovely gift.

May is a 40-year-old who has been content in her job, working on a grounds crew at a university. Not being married and living in her childhood home, while her father lives in a self-contained apartment downstairs, has been the way she gets through her days.

Midway through my fortieth year, I reached a point where the balance of the past and all it contained seemed to outweigh the future, my mind so full of things said and not said, done and undone, I no longer understood how to move forward.

It is not an accident that she works with plants. The putting down of roots is central to this novel, and to this character.

But when I moved back to Anneville, something changed. Suddenly I wanted a whole garden. Years later it was pointed out to me that guardian and garden share a root meaning “safety, enclosure.”

There is something about gardening that May doesn't yet know that she knows. But she realizes it later on:

Why do I like gardening? Because I worry I’ve inherited a certain hopelessness, a potentially fatal lack of interest, that I’m diseased with reserve. Making a garden runs counter to all that. You can’t garden without thinking about the future.

An unexpected award of a month off at work, as a reward, at first throws May. But as someone who loves to investigate the roots of words as much as she understands and cares the roots of plants, May decides to do the unexpected. She will spend time with her far-flung friends, if they will have her. 

Before the odyssey begins, Kane is an assured enough storyteller that we have a few short, yet meandering-seeming, chapters on May's life. As with all assured storytellers, there are good reasons for letting us know what we do. This format also serves the purpose of easing into Kane's calm narrative style. There is the sense throughout the book that our comfort matters.

This is an interesting contrast to the way May feels. She isn't quite prickly, but she has spent so much time by herself that she doesn't want to impose on others. She is not sure how people act around each other. How did the neighbors make friends so easily? How do people get along with each other?

Love stands apart; love lets you come to it. This isn’t wrong, exactly, but I wanted to learn how to stand closer.

This is what leads to her decision to travel to see her friends. After all:

Consider the word visit. It’s from the Old French visiter, which meant “to inspect, examine, or afflict.” You can visit a neighbor or a friend, but so can plagues and pestilence.

What a wonderful idea to explore in these days of staying apart so that we can support a common goal.

The first friend May visits is a super-busy mother who lives on social media and assuredly an acolyte of Martha Stewart and Joanna Gaines. She is stressed and the visit is slightly strained. She remains good-hearted, but there is not the connection that May seeks.

The next friend is even more distant, and the visit is rather short.

The third friend has a lot of adjustments to her own life going on, but it's obvious she and May want to remain friends even if they don't have the luxury of friendship without time constraints. That was something May sought in deciding to make her pilgrimage, thinking of the visits to country estates that Jane Austen characters make, the friends who stay for a fortnight. Indeed, the hashtag #fortnightfriend arises out of a local story about May's reward that embarasses her, and which she does not fall into taking up.

The fourth friend, living in London, brings it all together. This portion of the book was balm and came at a time when May is coming to better understand the wonderful value in visiting old friends, but also how soothing it can be to know that you care about those around you, and that they care for you.

It's not just people that are around us. Kane also writes with great admiration for the trees:

It seems the trees’ plight is to be always underappreciated by humans while working the hardest of any plant on earth for them. We cut them down, we poison them, we introduce disease and destructive pests. But we also plant them when someone is born, we plant them when someone dies. We want them to measure and commemorate our lives, even as the way we live hurts them.

©2020 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted by permission

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Review: 'The Night Watchman'

The Night Watchman
By Louise Erdrich
Literary Fiction
March 2020
ISBN: 978-0062671189

Capturing in words someone important to us, memorializing acts, thoughts and feelings, keeping alive that which inspires us about the past and the present -- all of these ideas are essential parts of why people tell stories. Louise Erdrich demonstrates all of these in her new novel, The Night Watchman. It is both a testament to her grandfather, who inspired the night watchman in the story, and a clear call that what her grandfather fought for is something that needs to be fought for today.

Aunishenaubay Patrick Gorneau, Erdrich's grandfather and chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee during the 1950s, is the inspiration for Thomas Wazhushk. He, too, is a tribal chairman and he, too, works as a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant that has created work for many tribal members. It is a factory where jewel bearings are created for watches, and required close eye work and delicate hands.

In between making his rounds, Thomas writes letters and deconstructs the meaning of a congressional bill to terminate his tribe. It will mean everyone will be removed from their homes, the U.S. government will reclaim the land, there will be no tribal services. The tribe will cease to exist, even though the people will be cast adrift.

In between episodes that recount the battle to take on the federal government, the daily lives of several of Thomas's relatives are chronicled. Whether it's Patrice, formerly known as Pixie, searching in the big city for her lost sister, or the white math teacher and boxing coach who clearly adores her, whether it's Thomas's elderly father Bibbon remembering stories from his youth or Wood Mountain training as a boxer and coming into his own as a man, these stories have depth, breadth and a lot of heart.

Even the characters who have made errors or suffered tragedies are good to know and to have a chance to care about. Thomas's childhood friend, Roderick, who has become a ghost, still has discoveries to make. Patrice's co-workers Valentine and Doris make discoveries about themselves while wondering about how well to get to know boys. In an expansion of why a Mormon senator pushed for tribal termination, two young Mormon missionaries have a lot to learn about what they have been taught, including how they were taught to think of Indians and their religion. The senator in the novel, Arthur V. Watkins, is real and his legacy includes both terminating tribes and standing up to Joseph McCarthy.

Any of these stories could have become a full-length novel by themselves. That they are woven together to tell why the termination battle was, and is, so important makes this book even more heartfelt. Or, as Thomas thinks to himself while spending time with his aged father:

It seemed to Thomas, as they sat in the sinking radiancer, shucking bits of shell from the meats, dropping the nuts into a dishpan, that he should hold on this.

Sharing the little that people have with each other, letting go of grudges, marveling at visitations of owls and other creatures, the joy of observing a leaf or creek or sleeping bear in varying seasons -- these are the heart of The Night Watchman. And sharing these stories shows why the fight against the termination of one's tribe is a fight to retain one's deepest sense of self. It is a fight against those who invaded and took the land, who would force Indians to assimilate and forget everything about themselves. It is a fight against breaking agreements, treaties, that were signed to last "as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow".

It is a fight that continues to this day. Just last month, the Trump administration rescinded the tribal status of the Mashpee Wampanoag people. The tribe planned to build a casino on its reservation land that would compete with casinos with ties to Trump, who famously has fought against tribal casinos since the 1990s.

The layers to the title of the novel show how carefully Erdrich built her book. Thomas watches over his people even as he watches over the factory, which helps manufacture watches and gives his people jobs that they don't have to go to the big city to do. They can stay at home, where their ancestors can watch over them, and where they can watch over the land. Or, as Wood Mountain describes it:

"I feel they're with me, those way-back people. I never talk about it. But they're all around us. I could never leave this place."

Thomas is named Wazhushkag, the muskrat. As Erdrich notes:

Although the wazhushkag were numerous and ordinary, they were also crucial. In the beginning, after the great flood, it was a muskrat who had managed to remake the earth. In that way, as it turned out, Thomas was perfectly named.

The Night Watchman also represents how wise it can be to listen to that inner voice. In an afterward, Erdrich confesses that she couldn't get rolling on any new writing projects and feared she would never write again. "Hours later I was jolted awake by some mysterious flow of information: go back to the beginning." And so she read her grandfather's letters and so we all have this beautiful novel that pays tribute to him, to the way he and his people lived every day and to the way they rose to the occasion when life came at them full speed.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Review: 'Conversations with Mark Frost'

Conversations with Mark Frost: Twin Peaks, Hill Street Blues, and the Education of a Writer
By David Bushman
March 2020
Fayetteville Mafia Press
ISBN: 978-1949024104

Compassion for human frailties, wisdom to respect souls curious about how the universe works in ways great and small, and a talent for creating narrative that brings clarity to visions are among the things that Mark Frost can do, and do well. In wide-ranging interviews conducted by David Bushman, Frost talks about ideas, visions and getting the work done in the book Conversations with Mark Frost.

Frost is the co-creator, with David Lynch, of Twin Peaks. And his contribution to that landmark series is an important part of this book. But Frost has been involved with other projects, and is currently working on his writing. Those also are covered in this comprehensive compilation of several interviews.

The book is arranged chronologically, starting with Frost's childhood as the son of a theater artistic director and actor -- Warren Frost, who played Dr. Hayward on Twin Peaks. In many ways, Frost's life is tied to television. He was born in New York City while his father was working on the Philco Playhouse. As a child, he appeared on an early episode of Art Linklatter's show interviewing kids. Frost's reaction to the business of being coached and knowing the difference between fake and real, even then, is something seen throughout his career.

Readers mainly interested in the television aspect of Mark Frost's career will be delighted with the conversations about two of the seminal shows he worked on, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Hill Street Blues. Of his time working on the lightning crew and other production tasks for Fred Rogers, Frost notes:

Fred was a singular man. He’s the kind of figure or role model we need to look to at times like this — somebody with profound decency, honesty and strength of character, his kindness to people. 

While working on the PBS show, Frost met Charles Haid and Steven Bochco, who became important in the next phase of his career. In addition to talking about the studio writing process, Frost describes some of the characters he wrote about most and the development of deepening characterization while writing within the strictures of a network television show. This section provides a good deconstruction of what we watch, and an introduction as to how Frost could work within those confines while laying down a narrative to David Lynch's visions in Twin Peaks.

At Hill Street, Frost wrote often for some of the most memorable characters -- Hill and Renko, Sgt. Esterhaus and his roll call speeches, Lt. Henry Goldblume, and Howard Hunter.

But he didn't stay. Around this time, Frost attended a Hollywood party with big names (one of his roommates was Adam Arkin, son of Alan Arkin). A British film director spoke with him at the party about how they had all sold themselves, and their prices were known to those running the studios. It was an avenue Frost did not want to go down.

As Frost finished his television writing apprenticeship, he realized that one of the strongest aspects to his storytelling is that nothing is as it seems. So, the fit with Lynch to realize the vision that became Twin Peaks makes creative sense.

This part of the book in one in which Frost's talent for collaboration shines. As what basically amounted to being the showrunner, the first and final run-throughs of each week's script went through him, including rewrites he did but did not receive credit for. As he says, in the business, it's the person who writes the first draft who gets the credit. Frost also makes sure the work done by producer and writer Harley Peyton is noted. And, under his showrunning, the various directors who worked on the first two seasons also were able to bring their strengths to the work. That doesn't always happen in episodic television, which can rely on a certain style of storytelling for a series.

In addiiton to his ability to retrofit Lynchian visions into an overall mythology and story arc, Frost notes the influence that Jung has had on his work:

Jung was willing to throw away categorizations and open himself up to the powerful experience of “I have no control about where this is going so I’m going to let it lead me to what I want to know” — not through prescribed procedure, but through open-ended exploration.

That Frost is able to write this way proved beneficial myriad times during the collaboration with Lynch, as he discusses here:

[Bushman:] He was making his contributions on set as he was directing?
[Frost:] He would do that, absolutely. Like the white horse that appeared. That’s a good example of an image Lynch came up with. He didn’t know what it meant, but it was powerful. Then it fell to me to ask, “How do we incorporate this—in a larger, Jungian sense—into what it means in the narrative without becoming too literal?” I wanted things to have a grounding in logic that made sense, even if it’s dream logic. When I talk about finding connective tissue within the mythology, that’s what I’m referring to.

The section of the book in which Frost discusses Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey and Agent Cooper is very well done, and bringing up the concept of the law of unintended consequences shows the complexity of the storytelling within the world of Twin Peaks.

The book also covers the books Frost has written, plus projects that didn't succeed as well as they might have, and some that didn't get off the ground. Those stories are as compelling as the ones about the famous projects, and their inclusion makes this book even more worthwhile. Bushman does a terrific job of providing background and context for this as well as every other chapter in the book.

Conversations with Mark Frost covers a wide range of ideas and experience regarding writing in television, movies, the theater, fiction and nonfiction. The conversations themselves show a generous spirit who can create independently or in collaboration.

The book also includes detailed conversations about Frost's philosophy, including his research into the 19th century religion Theosophy, and the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Although much of Frost's work centers on the idea that not everything is what is seems, it also is grounded in one of his final statements in this book:

Believe in the good.

©2020 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Friday, March 20, 2020

Review: 'Dig' by A.S. King

By A.S. King
YA Contemporary Fiction
March 2019
Dutton Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-1101994917

Family secrets and the sins of the preceding generation, unrolled as lives unravel, are the basis of Dig by A.S. King. The novel focuses on the youngest generation to face the repercussions of hatred, both bigotry and self-loathing. It is a fascinating, layered, enthralling tale.

The narrative rotates among a group of teens who turn out to be cousins. One boy finds that carrying a snow shovel everywhere gives him a sense of comfort. One girl, called Can I Help You, makes a killing selling drugs through a fast-food drive-through window. Another girl is a self-named Freak who flickers in and out of places. Loretta trains fleas. Malcolm's father is dying of cancer, and they both have found a measure of solace on the beaches of Jamaica.

But the story opens with Marla and Gottfried, a couple who have been married forever. She's amping up the pressure to get the annual family Easter dinner just right, including hiding plastic eggs for grown grandchildren. He's alternating between bemused irritation at her ritual search for perfection, and sorrow for a destroyed nest of robin's eggs.

They are the grandparents of the teens, and those baby birds who never came to be turn out to be a strong metaphor for the spirits of Marla and Gottfried's progeny.

These are the damaged children of damaged parents who were damaged by their own parents. The sins of the father, or in this case, the grandparents, are shown by the way they have affected the children.

One thing that appears in the stories of most characters is the potato. It is a source of both strength and sorrow to every character. It also serves a purpose not only in the actual circumstances of the characters, but in the characterization of the family:

A potato plant. Leaves up top, potatoes down below. All those stems and roots joining the two -- like veins and arteries. His father always said that families were the same. Everything was connected, everything worked in synchronicity.

Gottfried got to see the sun and he got to flower. His kids were harvested from shallow soil. His grandkids, accidental plants for the most part, would eventually mature and one day they, too, would rise from the dirt, their brittle roots still connected.

For King to be able to wrangle such a large cast, with the characters remaining clear, and to bring that cast together, is a grand achievement. How the darkness has entwined each character, and what the future holds for them, are as worthy of praise as any novel written for adults. It's easy to see why Dig was honored as the Printz winner for YA fiction by the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services Association this year.

The idea of family and how it shapes and supports individuals is portrayed strongly. The sin that stains every family member is stated plainly, but how and why it gained such a stronghold is the novel's biggest weakness. That this sin would stain a family, affecting generations, is uncontested, however.

For the younger members of the family to reach understandings about the important, not just of the sin, but how the stain affects them and whether it should overwhelm them, is conveyed very well. So is a tragedy hanging over the youngest generation:

Taking things for granted is the privilege of existence. The living don't even think about it, same as boys aren't scared to go missing at the mall. Sam as her white cousins can drive over the speed limit across state lines to New Jersey.

©2020 All Rights Reserved Reviews and posted with permission