REVIEW: The Camino Club by Kevin Craig

The Camino Club by Kevin Craig (Duet Books, 2020), 280 pages.

This novel is utterly charming.

And in writing that sentence, I’ve now fully claimed my position as a Batty Elder. (I’ve recently turned 50, so I’m feeling sensitive, but I’ve been like this since I was about seventeen.) Excuse me while I remove my lace gloves and pour myself a cup of tea.

Despite my feelings about saying it, I’m going to say it again: this novel is charming. The story centers around the experience of six “bad kids” from Canada who, instead of being sent to juvie, are taken on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain as an alternative penance for their teenage crimes (setting a small fire, stealing a car and the like). The group is a collection of boys and girls, queer and straight, privileged and not, all of whom have back stories to which the rest of the group—and the reader—are not immediately privy.

It’s a kind of Outward Bound experience, but with a path and little towns and hostels to stay in at night, a couple adult counselors and no ropes course. The walk is hard, sometimes uphill, be-blistering and tiring. By walking together, the theory goes, the kids will find themselves and form bonds of understanding and care with each other, and hopefully they’ll stop being such bad kids.

It seems to work. I mean, I’m not sure about the last part, but the bonding and understanding and caring happens. As the kids walk, their stories begin to take shape for each other (and the reader). Guards get dropped. Characters who first seem irredeemable become something new. Friendships and loyalties form. Kids figure themselves out. A few of them even fall in love. Along the way, the group picks up a lovely old fellow called Bastien who becomes for them some combination of tour guide, sage, friend and mascot.

This is something of a group bildungsroman, since it traces a coming-of-age for the six through a literal journey.

To help the story along, one gets occasional (required) journal entries, and each chapter is narrated by one of the kids (alternating between several of the voices). This affords the opportunity for quite a few points of view, both public and private, on the same situation. It’s quite a generous story in this way.

This novel did exactly what a good YA novel should do: it traced the coming-of-age from callow youth across difficulty and into a deepened perspective of one’s world and one’s place in it.

Perhaps one of the strongest points of this novel is how authentic and distinct the voices feel, even though there are several to juggle and the speakers are young. (As an aside, this is in large part why I’m cautious about the YA I read—too often, young adult characters’ voices aren’t quite right, being written, as these novels almost always are, by an adult remembering/imagining such a point of view. Not so here—the voices feel genuine.) Traumas feel neither overblown in that teenaged Everything Is Awful way nor diminished by an ironic adult perspective. Wonderment and happiness, the same. It all feels, in a word, authentic.

I realize now that I’ve actually given two one-word sums. So let me get back to my original word: charming. The novel made me want to go to see the Camino de Santiago and all the little towns and people on the way. It all seemed so charming. The novel also made me want to hang out with Bastien, who seems unavoidably charming. Though difficulties are real here, nothing gets too hot to touch, and everything gets worked through in the end. One is left feeling delighted, feeling entranced, feeling lured in and well pleased by the experience of the story. A little sobby inside, a little in love. Charmed.

It’s a party, and you’re invited

Hey, friends, here’s the news I’ve been teasing. My third novel, Luckmonkey, will be released on March 9, and I’m throwing a party! The only day that made sense to do it was National Pi Day, because it is both nerdy and celebrated with dessert. There will be games, prizes, a chat with me and author Sim Kern, and a reading. Since we can’t do this in person (thanks, coronavirus), we’re doing it online.

All you have to do is register using this link, and I’ll send you a Zoom link and password for the party.

It’s Coming…

Do you like fun? Do you like books? Do you like not leaving your house and not wearing a mask?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then mark your calendar for the evening of 3/14 (National Pie Day), because have I got a fun book-related activity for you that doesn’t require you to wear a mask or leave your home!

What? What could it be? Nice try, but I have already turned away several reporters asking me this question. Dear The New York Times, you will have to wait like everyone else. I’ll tell you soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, save the evening of March 14 for some good times. You might even say “monkeying around.” You know, if you’re lame like me.

REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern

REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern (Steliform Press, 2020), 90 pages.

When I came to the last page of this novel, I actually shouted, “No!” (Mind you, I was reading an e-book version, so I didn’t see the end coming.) I was angry at this book for a good ten minutes. I should say it was not because it was a bad book–quite the opposite. I was angry because the book had ended and I hadn’t prepared myself to leave it yet.

Even though the central characters spend nearly the entire novel in danger—Biblical danger, with hurricane and ark-worthy flood, fire, sheltering in awful places, barbarous people all around—I found it oddly comforting and pleasant to immerse myself in it. This was probably due, in part, to a recurring dream from childhood in which I was on the run from… something… and I kept finding trap doors and further-down secret chambers into which I escaped the something coming for me. The point of the dream was not the arriving, it was the journey there, every step toward safety. Freudians, do what you will with that. I’m married to a psychotherapist, so don’t think I haven’t thought about it before.

But it was probably also due to the fact that the central import of this novel is the tightening of a community of outsiders (queers, trans folx, POC), and what it means to belong in a group. Perhaps it’s needless to say, then, that this book hit my sweet spot.

In brief: Noah Mishner is forced to take emergency shelter in the Dallas Mavericks arena after a devastating hurricane wipes out Houston where he and a small band of friends had lived together. In the shelter, danger all around, Noah quickly forms a small enclave in which he and other trans and queer people huddle together, trying to keep each other safe from the dangers of some of the (crazy, gun-carrying) homophobic, transphobic, racist, angry residents.

In the chaos, Noah begins to see visions of his great grandfather, Abe, who fled Nazi persecution during WWII. The scene unpredictably shifts on Noah—walls blossom with Nazi graffiti, the guards appear to sport SS armbands. There’s a clear parallel drawn by Noah’s visions—racist homophobes melt into Nazis and back again—but the parallel is not used as a bludgeon. The metaphor with which the novel works is more subtle than that and allows the reader to make realizations herself. It works more like a very slow flood, getting your shoes damp, making you uncomfortable, seeping in.

In writing this kind of story—huge climate disaster event, death, flight, queers in danger from racist homophobes—one runs the risk of aggrandizement, of a shrieking kind of narration, too strident, too obvious, moralistic, inflated. Depart, Depart!, however, does not ever get close to these troubles. It manages to grow, quite naturally, an understanding of certain problems (namely, climate crisis and how its potential disasters might affect our current way of life, and how the lives of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ folk, poor folk, POC, etc, might be affected especially deeply by climate change). It manages at the same time a very broad story about a community—a state, a world—and to be about one person’s life.

Here’s a more basic review: Depart, Depart! has clearly-drawn, relatable characters and an urgent situation they must all survive. The writing is clean (neither too much nor too little in the way of anything here), the plot drawn tightly across disaster and danger. It feels urgent but not rushed. I will read this again and again, if only to return to that world and those characters in it. I miss it already.

99 cents? Sweet!

It’s a SWEET deal, friends.

In anticipation of my new novel, LUCKMONKEY (coming 3/9), my first novel, SWEET, is available now as an e-book for 99 cents on a variety of major platforms (you know, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Kobo).

Now, that’s what I call a SWEET deal. (Get it? Get it?) For details, go to http://www.interludepress.com, or to the Interlude Press announcement here: Interlude Press – Get a SWEET Deal this Valentine’s week! Alone and…

O, Pittsburgh.

When I went off to college at Carnegie Mellon in 1988, right off the bat during freshman orientation, some friends and I decided to go to the O, an all-night French fry shop that was Pittsburgh’s hangout for all manner of exhausted, underground, drunken or unruly hungry people. On the cheap, you could get a large paper boat mounded with French fries (I’m talking about an 8” high tower, friends) that were not exceptionally good by any means but were, instead, exceptionally cheap, exceptionally greasy and exceptionally cold. In a city that had a sub shop which piled French fries onto your sandwich (I’m looking at you, Primanti Bros), it was the O that was known as the gross spot.

The floor was coated in grease—you had to actually duckwalk slowly to make sure you didn’t slip and fall. The lighting was sickly and fluorescent. The crowd was wild and hectic. And really drunk. To a sheltered college freshman, it felt excitingly dangerous. If it was 3 am and you wanted some greasy, post-drinking anti-hangover junk food, that was where you congregated. I—and everyone from college I’ve consulted—went once just to try it and never again. The O was an institution, sure, but so is the prison system, and I don’t see most people rushing to go there more than once.

But when I wrote my latest novel, Luckmonkey, which takes place in Pittsburgh in the early twenty-first century, the O reappeared for me as the unnamed inspiration for a horrible place called Tamale Mama’s, a sad, greasy parody of a fast food joint (featured in Chapter 3: The Effing Taco). I just knew if I wrote a story based in Pittsburgh, the O had to appear. It was such a gross, necessary part of young life at the time.

I’m making the O sound awful, I know. I can hear you asking: why would anybody in their right mind go there ever? First of all, nobody there WAS in their right mind: they were inebriated, or a teenager, or super tired from being up all night, or otherwise desperate. It was the place the unseen—those folks who didn’t show up in the shiny, glass-glittering pictures of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers and sparkling three rivers—collected themselves, and for a goodie goodie kid from the middle of the country with a strict Greek dad, this was the place that helped me realize there were other lives being lived far outside the orderly suburbs and fancy colleges. Second, see #1. Lots of kids went as tourists, to “experience the low life.” But lots of us also went because we felt a little more alive there, a little more at home (albeit nervously so) than at the library. It was right down the street from the infamous mens’ gay bar closest to our school (and, incidentally, the art museum). It was years before I came out as queer, but something in me knew a home when I found one. Anything could happen—there was often shouting, or fighting, or weeping, or barfing, or some combination thereof. Everything kind of came out into the open at the O.

Someone recently sent me the news that the O has, thanks to the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, permanently closed its grimy doors. Part of me reacted with a non-reaction. (I mean, well, duh it closed. I’m surprised the health department hadn’t shut it down years ago.) And part of me is still in mourning at the news. I mean, I haven’t been there or thought much about it since 1988, and I don’t think, given the chance, I’d ever want to go again, much less put anything from there into my MOUTH, but I still felt it as a loss. It’s a piece of ratty, greasy Pittsburgh history.

Most of Pittsburgh’s history is ratty and greasy. It was a steel town, after all. Cobbled together of immigrants from everywhere, academics and artists, high and low roiling together. It may have a lot of colleges (5 well-known colleges in one small city), but its backbone and its history are laborers and working class folks. It’s been too busy sweating and scraping by to worry about whitewashing its picket fences. It is, in many ways, for all its mid-Atlantic conservativism and small townishness, the city of my heart. It’s old houses with bright-colored ceilings and coffin niches in the narrow hall. It’s pierogis and Chinese broccoli and chewy bagels and not very good pizza. It’s mountains and rivers and hulking oak trees and cobblestone and gothic towers and crickets.

And it used to be the O. I could write here my kneejerk reaction to the O closing: it’s a symbol of the callous nature of our government’s refusal to deal with the pandemic and the devastating losses it has caused. But all this has been written before, and it breaks my heart a little too hard in this moment to write that.

Instead, I’ll say this: what’s lost is something that only makes sense if you’re untethered from obligation and restraint. This untethering is only available to the few of us—most readily (but not exclusively) at that moment in young adulthood when the world is beginning to open for us but we have not yet truly felt the weight of that openness. What’s lost with the O is a slipping feeling. I don’t mean the greasy floor. I mean what’s lost is—how do I say it right?—what’s lost is the sense that there’s somewhere the rules can fall away, somewhere that is liberated, a place that’s still dangerous and alive. A rule-bending place. The topsy-turvy world that makes the “real” world work. It was that place where everything inside will come out, wild and slippery and hectic as it is.  

REVIEW: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2019).

Years ago, I read Her Body and Other Parties. I’d come upon it entirely because of the title—I was working at the time on a dissertation about “the body” in English and French literature and film. The collection of short stories, it turns out, was far less foo-foo and pretentious than my dissertating, but entirely smarter and more meaningful to me. (I finished and still have the book; the dissertation, not so much.) Despite all that admiration, I allowed the book to languish for on my shelf (well-fanned, to be sure, but languishing still), along with most of the stuff related to my now-defunct academic career.

So when one of my favorite former students suggested I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I didn’t make the connection that it was written by the very same author whose work I had loved so well years before. Instead, I went running into it with my eyes closed and my mind (as it so often is) completely blank. I tore through it. I mean, not literally—the book is a little worse for wear, but intact—but I could not stop reading.

In the Dream House is a memoir, the story of a queer woman’s relationship with an abusive partner. As is fitting for a narrative like this, it’s fragmented, told in tiny chapters (the longest of which is probably four pages, but the most common of which barely makes a single pages). It’s gulps of language, and it makes for a rhythm I first fell in love with in poetry. There’s a finished quality to each chapter, each one rounding itself into the perfect sigh of thought; but together, the chapters refuse to make a watertight whole and instead give the impression of bursts (emotion, language, action), snapshots, gut punches. Reading Dream House was very much like being pushed into the pool before I could get my shoes off. It was a violent, nasty little prank of which the teenagers at the public pool seemed very fond. Stooping too near the pool’s edge to remove your shoes made you vulnerable. So did being slight enough to be whisked over someone’s shoulder and carried to water’s edge and tossed in. (There’s a scene like this in the film Dans ma peau that guts me every time.) Dream House felt like this to me: a shockingly immediate opening-up of the narrative.

While that might sound like a criticism, it’s definitely not. One of the things that studying poetry teaches you is the ethos that form should be part and parcel of content—that the shape the art thing takes should be part of the meaning of the art thing—and this is true for Dream House.  It is a story about the unmaking of a woman, how her partner systematically blasted her into pieces, how the imperative of silence (laid out by a disbelieving and homophobic culture) weighed like a brick to keep her in her place. It is the story of why a woman might stay in such a relationship as much as it is the story of the ways in which we often go before truly leaving.

Any review of this book which characterizes it as being a memoir of an abusive relationship runs the risk of mischaracterizing the book, and I’m hoping you’ve read this far in the review so I can explain myself. Let me, as Obama used to say, be clear: it is the story of an abusive relationship. But it’s a story told differently than it’s usually told. Most narratives of abuse focus on what happened and how it made the subject feel. That’s certainly here, but it’s not the focus. The focus seems to be more about recreating the experience of being torn apart and reassembling oneself through the very form of the story and through the telling of it. In other words, this is not a tell-all, salacious narrative of a treacherous relationship. There’s plenty of those out there. What makes this imperative to read is that it is art made from such an experience. Your writing teacher in some grade or other was probably fond of exhorting you to “show, don’t tell.” But better writing such as this doesn’t even do that—if telling is at the bottom rung and showing is one step up, this functions at a higher level. It recreates the experience (of fragmentation, of confusion, of moorless desperation) while still insisting that you understand and make sense of it. It evokes. It pulls you in and won’t let go.

No. It throws you in.

REVIEW: Killing Rage by bell hooks

Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks (Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

I have been putting off writing this review for over a month. This is not because I don’t love Killing Rage or bell hooks’ mind—it is precisely because I love the book so much and respect its author so deeply that I’ve been nervous to write a review. After all, I’m just a rinky-dink writer living a rinky-dink life. Who am I to be critical (or praising) of bell hooks, a scholar and feminist I so absolutely admire?

Thus, a warning: this is less a critical review and more a pastiche of memories and a paean.

I first came across Killing Rage back in the day (in the early 2000s, about five or six years after the book had initially come out) when in PhD school and one of my classes read and discussed a chapter. I don’t remember who the professor was, or what the class or context happened to have been, or even which particular essay we read, but I do remember that I didn’t like it. Part of the problem was that I was raised a good Greek girl who was assiduously taught to be “nice” (not to ever raise my voice, raise a fuss, make a wave) and to look with distaste upon any woman who did so. I thought I had unlearned this teaching and fiercely resisted it, but it worked through me in quiet, invisible ways. As is so often the case with such insidious teaching (and by that I mean what we learn in service of keeping other people comfortable in their privilege), it had really wormed its way into my very deepest self.

The other, perhaps larger, part of the problem was that the professor who introduced the work and led the discussion clearly didn’t like hooks. Perhaps that prof, too, had absorbed that insidious teaching, or perhaps they directly benefitted from teaching it to the rest of us. Either way, the discussion was bent forcibly toward a negative conclusion.

(An aside: graduate school, I had thought, would be a haven of brilliant, open thinking and uplifting for this queer, disabled first-gen girl, but it was anything but. One professor used to point at me any time he said the word “gay.” I watched our class of six women—each of us some mix of queer/immigrant/first gen/Black/Asian/disabled, all of us quite smart and driven—be worn down by the environment of American academia and its determination to discourage people like us. Eventually, only two of us would finish the program with health and relationship intact.)

I remember not feeling hate—but neither love—for hooks’ text under those circumstances, but I did keep the book on my bookshelf for decades anyway (and even, in subsequent years, acquired more of hooks’ catalog). Recently, in the looming shadow of racialized police brutality (including numerous execustions) directed primarily at Black folks and the call to consciousness issued by, among other entities, the Black Lives Matter movement, in my grief, fear and despair, I picked Killing Rage back up and decided to reread it.

Boy, howdy, context changes everything.

It struck me most painfully how prescient this book is. First published twenty-five years ago, it seems to be speaking directly to the current moment. Of course, it is not so much that the book is prescient as that what the book addresses has not significantly changed since then. Conditions have, perhaps, become unburied, visible to so many more people than they were in 1995—it was much easier for many people then to ignore what so urgently, directly affected others and not oneself. Or perhaps it is me that has changed, since clearly hooks perceived conditions clearly, even if I did not.

This is all to say that, reading this book of essays about race and racism in the United States now was a mix of the painful, heartbreaking, vilifying, affirming and angering. I like the double (triple?) entendre of the title: it is about a rage that makes one feel like going on a murder spree in response to racist conditions, but it is also indirectly about the rage in others that makes them act/think consciously as racists (another murderous kind of anger), and also about the culture-wide effort to suppress/kill the rage which has the potential to fuel and electrify positive political movements (think: BLM and Act Up, for two examples).

Culturally, we’re taught that rage is ugly, politically useless, a nasty emotion. Consider the difference, for instance, between how Martin Luther King, Jr (leader of passive, loving resistance) has been elevated as more important and more culture-changing than Malcolm X, whose insistence that one must fight racist violence in all its forms (both cultural and physical) with strong resistance and refusal of violent victimization has been largely demonized as “reverse-racist” (ummm… what?) and dangerous. Think about the stereotype of the Angry Black Man (and here I think of lawyer Imani Gandi of the brilliant, sharp and irreverent podcast Boom! Lawyered, whose Twitter handle is @AngryBlackLady), or about the stereotype of the Aggressive Black Woman (again, I think with gratitude of Gandi). Think about the vilification from all sides that is the reward for Black queer feminists or Black trans women.

I’ve strayed: let me wind back to hooks’ wonderful book. It’s a huge collection of bite-sized essays (more than twenty essays, each only about ten pages) about race and racism in the U.S. and the effects of Black liberation and feminism as a counterpunch. It’s scholarly in its approach (carefully reasoned, backed up with facts, tightly crafted), but written in a voice to which everyone might cotton and connect (not that dry, scholarly language of self-important blahblahblah). Some of the essays help make plain the cultural workings of racism, workings which often depend upon effecting near invisibility or easy deniability (essays like “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” “Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media” or “Marketing Blackness: Class and Commodification”); other essays propose a way out (see “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” or “Moving from Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination”).

This is a necessarily brief overview of what is by nature a complex, wide-ranging but sharply-honed collection of essays about anti-Black racism in the U.S. and how we must counter its workings. I haven’t nearly done it justice. In short, it’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting collection of essays. Not a collection, really. It’s a brilliantly clear, smart, affecting gut punch of essays at least as relevant today as when they were originally published.