REVIEW: Flying Without a Net by E.M. ben Shaul

Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul (November 17, 2016); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Two Jews walk into a bar… and one of them says, “Ouch!”

I have always thought that joke was hilarious and, being too young to perform Vaudeville (I was born in 1970, so I missed the boat), I have never before had the opportunity to tell it. But right now, I’m writing a review of Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul, a novel which tells the love story of Dani (an Israeli who has grown up in a culturally-Jewish-but-secular home in the U.S.) and Avi, who is a practicing Orthodox man. They meet, find attraction, and must struggle with the conflict between their relationship and Avi’s religious devotion.

(Actually, the joke I REALLY want to tell is “Who is Anette, and why is she so important to fly with?” but see how I’ve refrained?)

Avi and Dani don’t exactly walk into a bar, but they do go for coffee at a coffee shop which, at least in New York where I’m from, is kind of like a bar in the daytime. (I used to go to actual bars in the daytime, but that was back in graduate school, and was mostly to play pool. I do not recommend it, unless you are looking to hang out with some very questionable day drinkers. Yes, jokers, I do count me-at-25 among them.) These guys live in Boston, with which I’m not very familiar (except for experiencing some homophobia, bad driving and White Frat Dudes on the Loose while on vacation there many years ago), but I’m going to assume the equivalency holds.

In many ways, the novel is a version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, recast as a coming-of-age (this can happen at any age, and for Avi, it happens rather late in life) story about a young religious man finding his world rattled when his sexuality (he’s gay) becomes more than theoretical. As with that novel, it’s epistolary: most chapters begin with a letter to God (from Avi). Avi’s trying to find his way into his newly-relevant sexuality (in the same way that Margaret is trying to find her way into her sex/gender). The story even, at one point, makes a direct shout-out to the book.

Avi’s family is large and very welcoming to Dani, and they embrace the budding relationship between the two men immediately, as does everyone in the novel. This is not a book that has dealings with the (very real) struggle against homophobia many of us face, or about the (very real) worries we queers have when coming out in our own communities and families, it’s a fantasy/love story.

While Avi is out to his family, he’s not had a relationship with a man before, and doing so constitutes another coming out, whether the character recognizes it or not… coming out isn’t a one-time deal; most of us queer folk come out over and over and over, in every new situation, every time we meet someone new, every time we figure something out about ourselves that our culture has worked very hard to prevent us from coming to know. That experience  is very particular to being queer and hard for most other folks to recognize. But this novel isn’t about that, or about homophobia, or danger of any kind; it’s about the struggle to reconcile one’s faith with one’s desires, and that struggle is pretty universal, something nearly anyone can recontextualize and understand on their own terms. And that struggle is no joke.

REVIEW: Luchador by Erin Finnegan

REVIEW: Luchador by Erin Finnegan (November 3, 2016); 244 pages. Available from Interlude press here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/printed-books/products/luchador-print-edition

When I was a kid, my dad spent much of the weekend parked in front of his TV, watching WWF pro wrestling. To this day, the sound of screaming men gives me hives. But the stories the men acted out were compelling, despite the too-long sweaty hair and weird unitards and hoarse shouting. Even I, as a kid, knew it was all show, but there was something that grabbed both me and my dad (and lots of other Americans, too).

Luchador dips into the world of showy wrestling and heightened storytelling, but it’s luchadores in Mexico, not the bastardization that is American pro wrestling. While the novel itself maintains a calm dignity in its storytelling, the stage on which the characters live their lives is bananas. Gabriel, orphaned and raised by his aunt and uncle (I can’t help thinking about Superman here) wanders into the world of professional luchadores and, with the mentorship of a handful of seasoned wrestlers, becomes one himself. The novel follows his rise to stardom as El Angel, a much-admired masked wrestler who plays a be-winged, glittery angel who’s still really tough (kind of like the Biblical archangels, who were depicted as scary-tough-dangerous). The story also traces his search for an apt love—like most of us, he has to comb through some mistakes (too immature, deeply closeted) before he finds the right fit.

The story is, on many levels, about finding this right fit, not only in terms of his suitors, but in terms of his career and his place in the world (a narrative, not uncommon for an orphan in fiction, with a great literary tradition).

Along the way, El Angel must wrestle with how he’s portrayed by the industry, since wrestlers marked as “gay” (which he is) are usually marketed as “Exóticos”, the flamboyant, referee-kissing, feather-boa-wearing stereotypes we gay folk have dealt with for a long time (sexually predatory on innocent str8 folks, showy, too femme or too butch, etc.). As with many gay folk confronted with a culture/industry’s attempts to write the terms of how we’re portrayed and understood, Gabriel/El Angel must determine how he sees himself, and how he will be understood by others.

(I want to be clear that it’s the forcing of a persona upon someone that’s the problem, not the flamboyancy of the persona. It’s just as bad when someone who wants to be feminine is discounted and not taken seriously as it is when someone who doesn’t want to be feminine is forced into it. It’s about self-determination, and all too often that’s a simple right that’s denied those of us who are gay. This novel recognizes that, and focuses on Gabriel’s desire to define himself, rather than on his desire to be defined as macho instead of fey.)

There’s plenty of wrestling action for fans (well-described, with a touch of insider-realism) and plenty of plot action outside the ring to keep anyone not-fan hooked. Luchador is a fast-paced novel that’s interested in both a good plot and well-developed, complex characters.

REVIEW: Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer

Sideshow by Amy Stilgebauer (August 25, 2016); 192 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Abby Amaro does what everyone threatens to do at some point in life: she runs away with the circus. But unlike most of us (okay, well, at least unlike me), she doesn’t have many other options. She’s stuck with Frank, an emotionally-abusive and violent jerk who proposes marriage and doesn’t take it very well when she refuses. She’s a woman, an opera singer, in the 1950s. So she must leave her family behind, and her brother helps her abscond with a travelling circus.

She falls in with the sideshow carnies, and eventually meets the strong woman Suprema, and the two strike up a tentative, quiet romance. There are, of course, hurdles: she can’t quite connect up with her family from the road until it’s too late, she’s stuck rooming with a hostile burlesque performer, and even Frank rears his ugly head at one point. Troubles notwithstanding, Abby finds her sea legs (her trailer legs, anyway) and finds new connections and a new home.

On some level, this is about being Good by the standards of the moment. Good isn’t the same as good-to-yourself: Good for women at the time is forgetting your career, marrying the appropriate person and washing his socks without complaint for the rest of your life. Abby isn’t, apparently, such a good girl. I mean, she’s good, she’s just not Marry-a-Man-Even-though-He-Cheats-and-Have-No-Life-of-Your-Own-Because-Men-Are-Hard-to-Get-and-More-Valuable-than-You Good.

The characters here are well drawn—sympathetic or hateful (or sometimes a combination of both) without being too simple. The situation is the same—the novel takes the old “running away with the circus” trope and gives it real life. There’s lots to like here—not the least of which is a compelling situation and engaging plot.

This is a seamless story: believable, well-paced and involving. It’s about Abby finding a way to be happy, to do what she loves, even if it’s singing from the bally box instead of La Scala, or falling in love with a muscled woman instead of a philandering man. It’s about being strong and creative enough to do that.

REVIEW: Certainly, Possibly You by Lissa Reed

Certainly, Possibly You by Lissa Reed (September 22, 2016); 324 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Certainly, Possibly You is the second book in Lissa Reed’s Sucre Coeur series, which revolves around the lives of the folks who work at the Sucre Coeur bakery. While Definitely, Maybe Yours focused on the get-together of bakery manager and debonair British feller Craig Oliver with photographer Alex Scheff (a friend of-friend-of- guy), Certainly tells the story of bakery assistant Sarita (who’s friends with Craig) and ballroom dancer Maritza (who’s friends with Alex).

Maritza’s on her way up the dancy-pants ladder; she and her partner Nicky have made a name for themselves on the dancy-pants circuit. Sarita is an Amy Winehouse-haired graduate student trying to get somewhere, too. Both women are working in the service industry (Sarita at the bakery, Maritza as a waitress at a meatball-and-sauce joint) in Seattle when they’re introduced to each other at Alex’s studio party. The novel begins when Sarita wakes up hung over and surprised to find Maritza wearing Sarita’s T-shirt and little else. Though they have a bit of a rocky start, they do wind up starting something real with each other and it’s lovely.

Trouble is, of course, right there waiting. While Sarita’s brother Devesh and his husband Sunil are supportive, Sarita’s sister Anjali is a homophobic jerk, and her parents announce that they’re leaving the country (but not because of Anjali—I realize how that sounded). Maritza, for her part, must struggle with her nasty (and rather homophobic) dance partner/ex-lover Nicky, who turns out to be a vain, moustache-twirling villain who tries to wreck everything that’s blooming. (Which makes me giggle, thinking of him in shiny spandex dance pants and an unbuttoned satin shirt, machinating.) There’s missed connections, attempted blackmail, chiffon and muffins, all leading up to the moment when a huge opportunity for Maritza also brings the threat of distance to the new relationship between Maritza and Sarita.

There’s lots to like here: the characters are all believable and complex, just stubborn enough to be interesting but still real. There are enough missed connections and difficult communications to lay a great backdrop of dramatic tension. There are likeable characters for whom you want to root and there’s dancing and food. And there are (at least in mention) teacup Dobermans. (Dobermen?)

The jerks here (especially Anjali) have real motivation and aren’t just cardboard cutout antagonists and senseless homphobes. The good folks aren’t be-haloed innocents, either. Everybody gets a story and a complex inner life.  There’s even a recipe for baked goods at the back of the book.

I do have one very strong criticism and word of warning to readers: my copy did not come with a cookie, and I feel that a book series which revolves around the lives of people who work in a bakery should most definitely include a cookie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading to make the world go away

Upon waking today, I read that the Resident of the United States just issued sexist dress codes for “men” and “women,” and that “women” feel pressured to wear a skirt/dress. (I assume this is meant to make pussy-grabbing easier and more convenient.)  I’m not exactly sure how he intends to determine who fits into which category and who gets the privilege of wearing pants (actually, I can’t imagine a genderqueer person being allowed to work there anyway). I actually want him to try to enforce this so that someone can sue the white house for gender discrimination.

So I’ve curled myself up with a mug of Earl Gray and Certainly, Possibly You, the second book in the Sucre Coeur series. It’s a much happier world. And all the skirts that get worn are done so with full consent.

Review to come in a couple days. Because I’m working. I swear I’m wearing a dress, even though I’m working. Just in case you felt threatened.

REVIEW: HOLD by Rachel Davidson Leigh

REVIEW: Hold by Rachel Davidson Leigh (October 20, 2016); 270 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.

As a poet-turned-fictioneer who is also crazy about crosswords and prone to avalanches of language when emotionally moved, I was drawn immediately to Hold by Rachel Davidson Leigh for its slippery, too-full, deceptively simple title. “Hold” can mean a lot of things—it’s a verb and a noun, and it can mean “grasp” or “detain,” “contain” or “remain secure.” I think, in this novel, it comes to mean all of those.

In simplest terms, this is the love story of high school kids Luke and Eddie. It’s a schoolmates-to-friends-to-boyfriends story at its heart: there are other love interests, dangers, and intervening concerns that threaten to keep them apart, but the reader knows at their first meeting that they belong together.

Luke is a high school student who has just returned to school after a long absence to mourn the death of his younger sister. When he returns, he finds high school life has moved on without him. He also finds a new kid who’s appeared during his absence, Eddie, popular guy, smiler, lacrosse player and—before long—love interest. One thinks of that phrase “to put on hold,” as in, “Luke’s life has been put on hold while he left school and mourned with his family, but now he’s back and trying to get his life un-stopped.”

It’s the not-so-simple terms that really draw on facets of “hold,” though.

For one, Luke discovers that he has the strange power to freeze time and everyone in it—a “hold,” he calls it—and this is in part the story of a teenager discovering his power and figuring out what to do with it. That motif is why, I think, superpower stories are most interesting in teens—it’s a super-magical magnification of what “normal” young folks go through. In fact, there’s lots of lore about powers (like psychokinesis… think Carrie… or werewolfiness… think Ginger Snaps) bubbling up in girls at the advent of menarche (the start of menstruation). Many cultures have histories of sending teens out into the wilderness (my mom used to threaten that, but I think she meant it differently) or staging other coming-of-age rituals (think quinceañera, confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, sweet 16 celebrations, or even the conferral of voting rights in the U.S. or alcohol-drinking privileges in much of Europe).

What I mean to say is that the moment (teenhood) is fraught, a time we both fear (think of those roving bands of “wilding” teens in the news a few years back) and desire (need I bring up Springstein’s “Glory Days”?).  Hold sets itself right down in the middle of that mess: high school kid learns to manage his newly-found superpower while resolving a bully situation (a jerk called Wes), loving his best friends Dee and Marcos despite difficulties (for two, Wes is Dee’s brother and Luke has a crush on Marcos), and struggling into first love with Eddie.

It’s also a story about gossip, and the kind of hold it can have over people (see? there’s that word again). When word spreads that Eddie has a gun (and no spoilers here, but the kid isn’t exactly Capone), things start to really spiral, from whispers and ostracism to real dangers, like cops and more guns and rooftop escapes.

So “hold” is about wanting to grasp onto people (a new love interest, a sister who’s recently died, one’s friends) and grasp onto a moment (the innocence of pre-adulthood, before the fall). It’s about wanting to remain secure at a moment when everything seems to be shifting, and when guns start rumbling around the edges of the plot. It’s about the desire for detention (for holding back) and the desire for containment (for being held), for safety and for everything to just slow down and let me catch up already.

It’s a nicely complex story that’s still easy to follow and easy to get sucked into. I tore through this one almost nonstop, because I loved the world so. I’d decide to read a bit, and when I looked up, hours had somehow passed and my dogs were doing the Pee Dance and yelping to be taken out already. It was almost as if time had stopped, and I got to keep reading while the rest of the world was on hold.

 

 

 

 

Not Dead, I Swear

I just this afternoon decided to post an update here, since it has been a while, and to my horror, I have discovered that my last post was made in October 2016.

Okay, I have excuses. Mainly that I moved from Brooklyn (my home city for more than twenty years) and my apartment there (in which my wife and I lived for 16 years) to a quieter, greener pasture (and a big house with no other tenants) about an hour and a half north of Brooklyn.

Also, I wrapped up my final semester of being a college professor, which has been my life for–also–more than twenty years. I taught my final semester this past fall. I miss it and don’t miss it at the same time. (I do miss having people listen raptly when I speak…I’m a middle-aged fat woman, so under which other circumstances is that likely to happen for me? It doesn’t help that I retired reluctantly and prematurely mostly because my extemporaneous abilities have declined significantly, due in large part to the nasty tricks of Multiple Sclerosis, which makes teaching–at least the way I’m able to do it–almost impossible. I miss my mind as much as I miss having people respect me for my mind.)

Point is, my life has changed radically–mostly for the better, though I still sometimes feel wistful for my grimy, inconvenient, congested, highly-peopled life in Brooklyn. I’m a city mouse at heart, so where I am now feels like the country (though most people would probably disagree…but my neighbor has a tractor and my other neighbor raises ducks, and as soon as there’s farm equipment or non-dog/cat animals involved, that’s the country to me). It feels far too easy a life–even getting to a grocery or hardware store in my new town requires far less planning, energy and effort than it did in Brooklyn. Which, I recognize, is a stupid sentiment–there’s no valor in hardship; anyone who’s suffered not by choice will tell you that. But I can’t help the little creep of guilt and disappointment in myself at how easy I have it now.

Anyway, as I am more wont to do out here without the constant and senseless pressures of the honking, smelly, angry city to which I’d grown accustomed, I’ve wandered from my point. My point in writing: I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of being stupidly busy with moving and then being stupidly tired from it, and have neglected what I really like to do (read and write). But I’ve got my new office mostly set up now, my books are all unpacked and in place, and I’ve figured out the proper way to make good tea with the water out here (it seems to require more tea leaves/bags than it did in Brooklyn… is this a thing with hard water?)

All this is to say that (1) I’m not dead as far as I know and (2) I will be back to posting book reviews and essays in this space right soonly. I’m happily making my way through Rachel Davidson Leigh’s novel Hold at the moment, which is a really lovely sci-fi (speculative fiction? alternate reality?) story about a guy who discovers he can freeze time, and I have a stack (okay, more of a virtual stack) of new novels waiting for me when I’ve finished that one.

Please don’t give up on me yet. I’ve got reviews and essays coming soon, I promise. It’s just that I find myself moving much slower, much closer to a reasonable speed of life, now that I don’t have the red amphetamine of NYC ramping me up into constant insomnia and fretting.

And that is a fact about which it’s clear how I should feel (relieved), but about which I’m not sure how I do feel (is it weird that I miss it a bit?). Not sleeping was bad for my already-teetering health, but made me much more productive.

We shall see, though: perhaps I am slower out here, but my thinking will be deeper and clearer. We’ll all find out soon enough.

 

REVIEW: Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee (September 8, 2016); 296 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.

I keep wanting to call this book “plucky.” I think that’s because it manages to balance itself nicely between pessimism about the future (or perhaps it’s skepticism about our vision of the future) and optimism about, well, being alive, love, goodness, all that. Optimism wins, but not without a hard fight.

Not Your Sidekick is a fun adventure set in a post WWIII future, in which a small percentage of the population is born with powers-beyond-average. Those people register with the government, and are subsequently permitted entry into the Heroes League of Heroes (and oh, goodness, but I get happy giggles at the ridiculous bureaucracy suggested by the redundancy of that name), take on a “super” alter ego and live kind of like Superman in the comics: a mundane life as an average person, and a secret life as a hero, roaming the streets, performing rescues, thwarting evil, and doing general good. The government assigns a certain percentage of these “super” people to become villains, so there’s a good-evil balance, and there’s consistent work for everyone.

Jess Tran is born into a family of supers in the area of what used to be Nevada; her parents are—by day—a mild-mannered pair of Happy Middle-Class Suburbanites with 3 kids and—by…other day—Smasher and Shockwave, a dynamic crime-fighting duo. Jess’ brother Brendan is some sort of Super Science Nerd-Genius who cavorts with beakers and safety goggles in his free time. Her sister Claudia is a new hero, recently graduated from the Meta-Human Training Program and off being super somewhere, usually with Jess’ idol, the bright-toothed and model-flashy heroine Captain Orion. Jess has not developed any noticeable super powers (which she must discover before she turns 17 or she won’t be allowed to register as a Meta-Human—and thus, a hero—with the state). She lives with the disappointment and shame of being different from her family and rather un-special, until she takes an internship with the robotics company run by one of her parents’ arch nemeses, Master Mischief. There, Jess strikes up a friendship with the object of her Big Ole Crush, Abby, who’s working as some sort of secretary; Jess also struggles to keep up her friendships with Bells, her FTM bestie, and Emma, her cis-femme friend who has a painful crush on Bells, and tries to please her boss—or, at least, his representative, a mysterious person who wears a Master Mischief super suit, but is clearly not Him.

There’s twists here I’m trying not to give away: secret identities and secret feelings, plot twists and character 180s abound, like literary bumper cars. Suffice it to say, there’s lots of action, and Jess finds herself in the position of teaming up with her crush to save people she’s spent her life distrusting, loving someone she’d never expect, seeing her family and her heroes from a different perspective, and uncovering her own power (be it super or non-).

She does all this in the absence of her parents, with her friends—and her own intuition—to guide her.  In this way, the novel strikes me as the quintessential coming-of-age story, though the details may look very different from what we, in contemporary America/Europe, expect. But the heart is the same: young woman has to figure out her abilities, has to find her purpose, discovers desire and falls in love, then begins to drop her childhood illusions and see people for who they “really” are.

The protagonist, Jess, is compellingly sympathetic for almost anyone who has been a teenager (particularly a queer one); she’s awkward, unsure, fumbling through failures and the occasional hard-won success, full of longing. But I make the novel sound more heavy than it should—it’s fun, too. It’s set in an interesting future world, part Jetsons (a smooth, silver, automated fantasy) and part Brazil (a janky, steam-punk, be-tubed future bureaucracy.) (The best example of this is Jess’ family MonRobot, an older model who (that?) is charmingly inept and clunky, who vaccuums itself in circles and gets stuck in places and, though mostly a glorified Roomba, is still a wonderfully lovable little guy.) Jess is actually a pretty happy, driven character. Her friends are awesome. Her life, even without powers or a love affair, is pretty good. There’s love and intrigue, secrets and adventure to be had.

There’s also a really lovely aspect to this book that deserves its own mention: Jess is first-generation American (her parents emigrated to the North American Collective from somewhere in the former Asia), and though the novel doesn’t ever hammer this point at the reader, one can easily read the Discovering-One’s-Super-Difference and the Growing-Up-First-Gen-and-Not-White-in-America as parallel—or at least related—story lines about defining oneself, discovering one’s power, making an identity. There’s also the quiet little factor (again, not surfaced, but present enough to color the narrative) of an ethnically-Asian girl in a largely-Caucasian culture discovering her abilities and worth, despite that dominant culture often interpreting her as lesser–it rings relevant here. Of course, there’s also the parallel with queerness: a difference that’s both relevant and irrelevant, something one discovers about oneself, something that has the potential to change the way everyone else looks at you, something that often involves a secret identity or hidden life. I think of parallels with the lives of many women, too, and how they (okay, we) had to work hard to recognize our own abilities and value and place in the world.

The ties between the “superhero” narrative and the narrative of a non-white queer girl coming of age are there, certainly, but not the point—the point is a superhero story, and one that needn’t be qualified as a superhero story about a first-gen queer Asian girl. It’s just that readers often think of that kind of story as a qualified hero story (a hero story about…), rather than just a hero story. It’s a political decision to normalize her narrative, not make it all about her differences (her ethnicity, her gender, her sexuality). It’s a political decision that strikes me as really refreshing (we need both kinds of stories–those which insist on difference and those which insist on sameness–to be told). White, straight male heroes get to have narratives that don’t center on their identities, so why shouldn’t Jess?

This book is a bit of a departure in tone and style  from Lee’s first book, Seven Tears at High Tide, which I might call a supernatural romantic fairy tale (this book is quirky and bright, where the former book is mystical and almost mournful), but readers will notice a similar optimism, faith in friendship/love, and a dip into the unreal that manages to seem plausible even as it’s far from the details of the mundanity we know.

REVIEW: Burning Tracks by Lilah Suzanne

Burning Tracks by Lilah Suzanne (August 11, 2016); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

This is the second book in the Spotlight series (the first is Broken Records), which follows the lives of a quartet of people: Nico, the stylist to the stars, his business partner-stylist Gwen, Gwen’s wife Flora, and Nico’s love Grady, who just happens to be a big country music star.

While Broken Records focused mainly on Nico and his courtship with Grady, Burning Tracks is centered around Gwen and Flora’s lives. Nico and Grady are still around, and they get important story developments, but this is not their novel. The primary story—and the reader’s heart—belongs to Flora and Gwen as they navigate their new lives in a new town, pull apart and pull together and pull other folks into their circle.

When Nico and Gwen become business partners and take their star-styling business from LA to Nashville, Gwen and Flora need to make a new life for themselves in a new place. While Nico navigates a new and coltish relationship with Grady, Gwen and Flora are doing the hard work of staying together, weathering the long haul—it’s lovely balance: both couples are unsteadily trying to figure out how to live in new conditions, both literally (Nashville) and figuratively (new stages of lives and relationships, new pressures and possibilities). While Nico and Grady are stumblingly trying to figure out how to be in love, Gwen and Flora are trying to figure out how to stay in love—I don’t mean that they’re in constant danger of falling out of love, but that they’re trying to understand how to maintain their lives, keep beauty alive for each other, simply be in love without all the bang and fuss and glory that newness brings.

There’s heartache and drinking, of course (I mean, there are country music stars in this, so it would disappoint if it didn’t happen), but there is also contentment and joy… and some kittens at one point, too. I admit I’m not a big country music aficionado, but I can’t think of a single country song about the joys of living with kittens—this novel goes well beyond the clichés, in other words, to give a real picture of real lives happening.

They’re great characters, all four of them: loving, but not saccharine; interesting, but believable; complex, but still relatable; just stupid enough to make them real (I hate the sexism of “Mary Sue” labels, but because most people understand that term, I’ll use it: there are none here).

In this second novel, the group grows a little bigger to include Clementine (another country music star/Nico client), a couple kittens, and an endearing little guy named Cayo—but I won’t talk about how he figures into the story, because I don’t want to give anything away. Instead, I’ll say that Clementine is a fun and interesting character: she’s a shining penny of a woman, with the sleek sheen that money and fame seem to give, and she comes across as a bit vain, a bit too big for her britches, and yet still very endearing and well-meaning. She’s the kind of girl who gets her hair colored and calls people “Sugar,” but she isn’t one-dimensional—she gets a moment of awkward redemption, plus she hides a kitten in her coat like a crazy lady, so I think she’s tops.

The book’s paced just right—one is pulled along without any dragging, and the prose is efficient but loving (if you can say that about prose; I mean it feels neither self-indulgent nor too airy and speedy). It’s one of those books I could have easily (had I the time and no other stupid life obligations) read in one sitting, though knowing it was waiting for me to pick it back up again each evening was a good motivation to get through the daily mire.

While Broken Records never felt unresolved to me, Burning Tracks feels like it resolves some of what got knotted up in Broken Records, and leaves off at the top of a cliff—all the characters are just starting big new life adventures (I won’t say what, and you can’t make me). It felt quite nicely resolved, but still leaves room for more to happen in a future third book. Which I’m hoping Suzanne has in the works.

Taste: can things be good if they are not popular?

I know that sounds like a tacitly stupid question. Of COURSE I can judge something to be good, I can love something, that most people don’t find good. My standards will always be different from other folks’ standards, and what I’m looking for (in a piece of music, a book, a way of entertaining myself, a friendship) will probably be different from what someone else looks for.

That’s not what I mean by asking this.

What I mean has something more to do with “good” as a supposedly value-free and universal standard.

As a humanist, as someone who considers herself an anti-snob [please hear that: not all academics value exclusivity and self-inflation… in fact, MOST of my professor-colleagues don’t (that seems to be the purview of certain anti-intellectual, racist, gold-plating, orange-skinned/toupeed presidential candidates); the one colleague who does value those things is thought, by most of the rest of us, to be rather stupid and kind of an asshole and a terrible professor using snobbish standards to cover up his personal stupidity (sort of like that presidential candidate). I balk a bit at the idea that something might be “good” simply because it adheres to a set of arbitrarily-produced aesthetic standards which don’t appeal to or give pleasure to the majority of people. What do those standards mean, then?

We all take pleasure in different things. An aesthetic standard tells us what we “should” take pleasure in, or what is a superior kind of pleasure. I’ve found myself, on too many occasions, defending something as “junky but really good”–like a certain kind of potato chip; or chocolate without fancy nuts or shenanigans or single-origin cocoa beans; or a trashy, addictive TV show. Or when I find myself singing a Ke$ha song after hearing it over a gas station PA.

I guess my question is: if it doesn’t tend to bring pleasure to most people, can we call it “good”? This, in my mind, is really different from saying “I think it’s good” or “I love it.” I mean, I absolutely adore Brussels sprouts when they are roasted with garlic and olive oil until they get kind of crispy-brown on the outside and start to taste a bit nutty… in my book, they are Superior. But I know there are lots of folks who hate them. Heck, I hated them when I was younger (this may have had something to do with my parents’ tendency to boil them until they were gray and soggy and yell at me until I ate them). And it has nothing to do with them being “good for you” (the way we ate them when I was a kid was probably not “good for” me; since all the nutrients were probably boiled out, it was probably as nutritious as eating wet toilet paper).

The problem with “good,” for me, is that it still makes reference to some universal aesthetic/moral standard, and I don’t tend to believe in those. Even the “do unto others” credo (like “first, do no harm” and my simpler college motto, “don’t hurt people”) isn’t really universal. I mean, what about tough love? What about protecting yourself from a dangerous or toxic person? As a professor, I’ve had to give a bad grade—even fail someone—because that person didn’t meet my standard, even though they met their own (or had other stuff about which they were more concerned); sometimes, as a result of a bad grade from me, a student’s GPA dropped enough that they were unable to play on a sports team, or lost the chance to do something else they wanted to do. What about, on a more mundane note, choosing one person as a bestie instead of another? Aren’t those standards in direct opposition, sometimes, to the needs of the many, or of yourself? Won’t enacting some of those standards hurt someone?

I had a student once who used to say, loudly, in response to almost anything, “Don’t judge!” That used to infuriate me: judgment is what keeps me from walking into traffic or putting my hand into fire; it’s also what keeps me from befriending people who are going to treat me badly, or paying almost $20 to watch a film that will give me no pleasure of any sort but put money in the pockets of someone whose values and behavior are deplorable to me (ahem: Mel Gibson, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).

My point is, those standards don’t always apply, and neither should aesthetic standards, right?

When I make choices as a writer, when I aim for some particular effect or choose to create in a particular way, I’m setting an aesthetic standard that applies to that piece, and I’m trying to stick with it. Then, when it’s finished, I can evaluate (1) if I managed to achieve that aesthetic standard and (2) if the standard produces something I think is good and thus (3) if the standard itself is something I think is good.

I think we each do that when we consume and evaluate something, too (a meal, a book, a piece of art). Maybe it would be helpful to think about this as we read that book or listen to that song:

1.How is this piece defining “good”? What’s it shooting for?

2.Did the piece achieve its goals?

3.Do I like the piece? Does it bring me some kind of pleasure? (Pleasure can be aesthetic, moral, intellectual; outrage can be a kind of pleasure; so can be perplexity, or feeling conflicted; pain can be pleasure, even watching something painful to the eye (too bright an image, for example, or the too-quick cuts in many films), and  anyone who likes horror films can attest that controlled terror is a kind of pleasure…)

4.Do I agree with the standard? Can the standard be applied to other things? Do I want to adopt it as my own standard?

In other words, perhaps my (and your?) engagement with art, ideas, and other kinds of production is about two things: finding pleasure of some sort AND testing out a standard of “good” in order to add to my own definition.

But back to that initial question: can we call something “good” if most people don’t like it? Can it be called “good” if only certain types of people (white people, or rich people, or Americans, or anti-gun folk) like it?

I’m still dubious about such universal standards, and I’m beginning to convince myself that not only are they improbable, they are also unhelpful. Maybe the better question to ask myself as I write is not “is it good?” but “do I like it?” That may be, for me, at least, more important.