REVIEW: In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack

In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack (May 19, 2016)l; 336 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I’m going to come out of the closet here as someone who loves grammar. (Sorry to disappoint, but I long ago came out of the sexuality closet.) I’m coming out as a grammar nerd (okay, a queer grammar nerd) to say how much I love the title of this book.  First, the double meaning of “tense”—this refers both to a time-bound verb form (is it past? Is it now?) and to the feeling of tightness (in the situation/plot, in the emotional line, in the urgency of the characters’ needs, all of that). Second, that multiple meaning of “present”: when we refer to the “present tense,” we generally refer to verbs capturing the now, the immediate action; when we say “presently,” however, we mean “soon” (not “now,” as many people assume).  Both those words are full of multiple meanings and the insecurity of meaning itself.

In other words, this title perfectly captures the quite successful intellectual juggling act of the novel—it tosses all those balls in the air and manages to keep them flying, and beautifully-so.

Miles Lawson is caught between: either he can time-travel, or he’s mentally ill; he unpredictably shuttles between his struggle in the current moment (in which he’s committed to a shady mental health facility) and the past (in which he and his then-love Adam struggle); he is still in love with Adam while being married to Ana; he both loves his wife and doesn’t trust her.  There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away—suffice it to say, Miles Lawson is fraught.

When I read this novel, at several points, I actually said out loud, “yeah, but what’s real?” I think that’s very much the point, for me—the reader is strung as precariously as is Miles himself (and as, probably, all the characters are). There are no truly evil characters here (not even the seemingly-evil Dr. Brannigan—it’s possible to understand him as a moustache-twirler, but also possible to humanize your view of him in this novel, see him as a character with dire motivations, too).

What I loved here was having to relinquish myself entirely to the novel, not to be sure at any moment in the plot, never to fully understand what the novel “was” until it was over. Giving over control of oneself, especially one’s mind, like that is rather scary, even in this small way.

Oh, hey, look at that! Did you catch it? The novel doesn’t just tell the story of Miles’ difficulty, nor vividly show me that circumstance; it puts the reader herself into a similar difficulty, lets her really feel it. Neither showing, nor telling, but being is its mode.

It strikes me now, as I write, that this novel is about—in so many ways—empathy (I distinguish this deliberately from sympathy, a form of pity). To fully empathize, I have to feel the feelings of and understand the experience of both myself and another person at once (to sympathize, I need never truly feel the other person’s world, and need never truly relinquish my own ideas).

But all this intellectualizing is how I, generally, enjoy books.  I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of chamomile (see? I’m being empathetic). For those of you impatient with such a view, I can also say: In the Present Tense is a hand-wringing, exciting novel you’ll love to read for both the thrill and the romance it offers.

 

 

 

 

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Review of SWEET

So, writer Rachel Davidson Leigh has published a really lovely review of SWEET on their website, and I’m spreading the word like a proud…something proud.

Go check out the review and browse that excellent website! (RDL was first published in SUMMER LOVE, an anthology of LGBTQ short stories from Interlude Press last year, and has a novel coming out soon.)

RDL’s review of SWEET

Review: HELLO CRUEL WORLD by Kate Boernstein

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bernstein.  From Seven Stories Press (July 2006), available here.

I bought this book for my wife as a gift, but read it before she got her hands on it. It’s a vital book, especially at this moment, when news of “bathroom bills” and the resulting legalized harassment and abuse of trans folk who dare to… exist… in public seems to be mounting by the day.

This book is going to save lives. Maybe it will prevent some suicides from happening–one hopes–but even if that’s not the case, it’s going to change the lives of those who read it for the better by helping readers wade through the mire of things-we-know about gender. It’s going to make us all rethink, or think better… and by that, love each other better.

Boernstein writes in a clear, relatable way, about gender. I’ve been teaching versions of “gender studies” at the college level for decades now, and I’m going to sit with this book over the summer to relearn how to talk about this stuff. Boernstein makes it very clear that you can talk about very complex ideas in understandable ways without dumbing down.

Another lesson I’ll take: I cried, like, really a lot reading this. I also snickered, and downright laughed; sometimes I did all three at once. All of this is good stuff, productive for thinking; in other words, the tone of this book isn’t just an extension of Boernstein’s writer persona in the world, and isn’t just about “relating” to teens–it’s a carefully-chosen stance with respect to the material and the thinking. “Real” thought (the kind academia finds valuable) isn’t necessarily best when it’s detached, stoic, and without investment. “Real” thought belongs to all of us who are invested. This book proves that.

 

Review: LOVE STARVED by Kate Fierro

Love Starved by Kate Fierro (April 21, 2015); 304 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here .

I’m coming a little late to the reviewing party, since this book came out almost exactly a year ago, but perhaps it’s good timing, to be writing about this story when the initial flurry of reviews has quieted a bit.

It’s hard to say to which main character in this book the title refers—they both seem a bit “love starved.” Micah is a busy, successful writer and “information security” guy who’s alone because he’s sworn himself into it after a too-long bad relationship and subsequent breakup with a Class A controlling jerk.  He’s given the card of an escort called Angel, whose performance involves romance and attentiveness and things that feel like real dates (and, oh, by the way, really expert sex); in loneliness, Micah calls Angel. The two have some “dates,” or “encounters,” or whatever scare-quoted euphemisms might convey that they go out and they stay in and do kissing things together during which Micah’s head almost twists itself off from how lovely it is to be treated with such kind and caring attention.

But Angel keeps mysteriously cancelling on him, or running out at the smallest chirp of a text message, and everything festers awful when Angel can’t keep up the glossy veneer anymore and his body—quite literally—breaks down in front of Micah.

Angel needs rescuing, and Micah wants to rescue. But things can’t rest easy like that—the days of princesses in towers are over (if they ever were even under), and chivalry didn’t die so much as it got rejected for being rather imbalanced, power-wise. The story would be pretty damn disappointing if Micah were welcomed to swoop in, fix everything, and carry Angel off on his shoulder.

Instead, what happens is a more careful attempt at recognizing someone’s humanity, a negotiation in which both players have a say: not a rescue, but an offered hand-up and the choice to take it or not.  And afterward, there’s a rather messy mess to sort through. This is the loveliness of this story: it seems fully conscious of the path we expect it to take (because all love stories take that path, depending on a rescue and chivalry and the rejection of one form of prostitution for what usually resembles another… and if you can stand the gagging and irritation, you can re-watch Pretty Woman for evidence) and does not take that path.

I’m trying not to say too much about the plot here—except that it’s compelling, a path down which one races to discover what’s at its end.  The reader wants to do this, in part, because, in the best of ways, the story doesn’t fulfill expectations—it takes on the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, but doesn’t become its servant. What I really want to talk about is how this all ends up, but I’m in a quandary, because doing so requires either that I give away the plot or do some fancy footwork to avoid that and still say what I mean to say.

I’m going to try the footwork, though I’m a pretty terrible dancer and I walk with a cane. Let’s watch me try:

The final chapter of this novel jumps ahead a bit in time, after the plot seems to have resolved itself, and lands in a pretty clichéd place. But then I kept reading, and it turned out not to be the place I thought it was, and I was so relieved, and so happy that it wasn’t that clichéd place the plot hadn’t seemed to earn yet.

(Phoo, getting winded from all this tap-dancing… I’m going to have to sit in a moment.)

What I’m trying to say: there is what seems to be a deliberate disobedience of formula at the end of the story that I just adored. This, from a story that had all the elements to make a Pretty (Wo)Man cliché but chooses, instead, to work at realness (see what I’m getting at here? It’s like the plot itself: fantasy escort dates that become, with effort, real love).  The fantasy of love, as Micah learns, as we learn reading along, is way less satisfying than the flawed, sticky, banged-up and difficult real deal.

The fantasy is tempting, for sure (in this case, it’s promised through a flashy special-effects business card that changes to be what you want as you look at it and comes with a gentlemanly, attractive package wearing a sport coat and carrying roses).  But this story takes, at each turn, the harder path, the more genuine one—it takes off the sport coat, puts down the flowers, and revels in the imperfection of its characters. And that, to bastardize Frost, has made all the difference.

(OK. Now I’m going to fold up my walking cane and take a rest here for a spell, maybe watch some YouTube videos of good dancers.)