Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times
bitchmedia

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

publication date: 1992
pages: 247
ISBN: 0-575-05315-1

As someone who has not watched a lot of soccer (or “football”) and has never watched British football and, in fact, cannot even name a single current football player, I don’t know if I’m the best person to review this book. Fever Pitch was Nick Hornby’s first published book, and it followed his obsession with Arsenal, a British football team, from the late 1960s to the date of the book’s publication, 1992.

There was so much about this book I didn’t understand. The British idioms alone had me frequently checking Google. I’m still not quite sure what a “scouser” is. Additionally, there were elementary football references that I didn’t appreciate. Hornby often mentioned “Hillsborough,” a 1989 disaster wherein an overcrowded football stadium resulted in a crushing mob and the death of 96 people. I kept expecting Hornby to explain the situation but he never really did, presumably because he expected his reader to know what Hillsborough was. I eventually looked it up on Wikipedia after the fifth mention. Finally, there were dozens and dozens of obscure football tidbits that I didn’t even bother to research. Here’s a sample sentence:

I experienced the big things – the pain of loss (Wembley ’68 and ’72), joy (the Double year), thwarted ambition (the European Cup quarter-final against Ajax), love (Charlie George) and ennui (most Saturdays, really) – only at Highbury.

However, there was much about the book I did understand. Hornby was a funny, engaging writer who attempted to impart something about humanity but realized that football could only take him so far. In Hornby’s words, “in some ways, football isn’t a very good metaphor for life at all.” As Hornby reflected on his own life, he was able to discover insights about the modern experience:

The white south of England middle-class Englishman and woman is the most rootless creature on Earth; we would rather belong to any other community in the world. Yorkshiremen, Lancastrians, Scots, the Irish, blacks, the rich, the poor, even Americans and Australians have something they can sit in pubs and bars and weep about, songs to sing, things they can grab for and squeeze hard when they feel like it, but we have nothing, or at least nothing we want. Hence the phenomenon of mock-belonging, whereby pasts and backgrounds are manufactured and massaged in order to provide some kind of acceptable cultural identity.

Hornby also discussed his own conflicted relationship with the object of his obsession and his own past in funny and relatable passages.

One of the most interesting portions of the book was its discussion of the more sordid aspects of football. For example, he discussed some of the apparent racism found in football, such as the first time he went to a game and fans threw bananas on the field:

Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight, orang-utans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of all this.

Hornby admittedly had an intense love-hate relationship with football and his frank but decidedly subjective views were interesting.

This book started Hornby’s writing career and was very well-received. I imagine that any Arsenal fan would enjoy it. And maybe anyone who is a fan of anything would enjoy it, too. For all I know, any British person would find it clever and relatable. However, I can only really recommend this to someone who loves sports. And maybe only someone who loves soccer. And maybe only specifically British soccer.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

guthikonda
Dappered
The Sports Book Review

Can’t and Won’t

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

publication date: 2014
pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0374118587

If I were to write this review in the style of Lydia Davis’s new book Can’t and Won’t, it would look something like this:

A Review of a Book That I Read

I sit here at my laptop; the cheap laptop that I purchased some years ago while I was drunk in an electronics store with my boyfriend who I had been with for many months after we drank several higher-priced beers, and I thoughtfully write this review. My fingers and thumbs tap the hard black keyboard, which has white writing on it – the writing is in the shape of the letters or symbols that appear on screen as I hit the keys.

My mind ponders this book, which is a collection of stories and observations. I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt because I always give books the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. However, I can’t do that with this book because as I read it, as my eyes moved from left to right over the off-white pages in the act of reading, my brain was screaming at me to stop reading, to stop my eyes’ movement, to sleep, to dream, to never wake again; or at the very least to read something else.

I reflect on what others would optimistically call the content of Can’t and Won’t. The author, who I don’t know but I’m sure is personally known by a great number of people, seemed to think of this book as a repository for any wisp of an idea that flew through her mind, much as a good book would be a repository for fully-developed good ideas that the author culled and deliberately chose. Much of this book doubles as a dream journal, with Davis soberly relaying the plots of her dreams, including the two dreams where she went to the bank, which was different but she knew it was a bank, you know how it is in dreams; the dream where she walked through a hallway with a white dog; and the dream where she had a bodyguard.

Perhaps the most maddening portion of this very maddening book, was when Davis spent 15 pages, which was one of the longest passages, and when I say that I don’t mean a hallway but rather an assemblage of words in a book, stating her observations about some cows, in a way that I can only describe as Randy Newmanesque:

They are motionless until they move again, one foot and then another – fore, hind, fore, hind – and stop in another place, motionless again. . . .

They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or: 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

Today, they are all three lying down. . . .

At dusk, when our light is on indoors, they can’t be seen, though they are there in the field across the road. If we turn off the light and look out into the dusk, gradually they can be seen again.

Like 17 vacuum cleaners sitting on a showroom floor after the 18th vacuum cleaner has just been purchased, this book sucked.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Boston Globe

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

publication date: 2013
pages: 243
ISBN: 978-0-307-95723-8

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of short stories published by Karen Russell, the author of Swamplandia! In this collection, Russell explores the strength of humanity and her vivid imagination by presenting eight stories from diverse points-of-view.

Russell clearly spent time researching, honing, and crafting her stories. They are peppered with minor facts, such as massage techniques, silkworm biology, and Antarctic geography. Additionally, the often-fantastical settings of the stories are richly and vividly conveyed. After I put the book down, the thing my mind would turn to most in reflection was the settings of the stories. Perhaps the most indelible such setting was found in “Reeling for the Empire,” a story of Japanese young women tricked into producing silk by being turned into silkworms themselves. The setting was a factory cave and in one sentence Russell tells you almost everything you need to know:

One of the consequences of our captivity here in Nowhere Mill, and of the darkness that pools on the factory floor, and of the polar fur that covers our faces, blanking us all into sisters, is that anybody can be anyone she likes in the past.

However, Russell’s intense research and near-universal success at invoking atmosphere was not always enough to create a successful story. In fact, the breadth of the varying narrators and characters’ knowledge about obscure topics sometimes made a story forced or inorganic, as if Russell spent more time researching her subject matter than thinking about her characters or plots. Additionally, many of the stories were just fun ideas she probably should have left as ideas. For instance, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” was a list of rules for those who want to travel to Antarctica to watch Team Whale beat Team Krill in the Food Chain Games. Kind of an amusing idea but am I really going to enjoy reading ten pages about that?

Russell’s dialogue was also inconsistent. There was a great scene in “The New Veterans” where two adult sisters fight about the responsibilities they shared during their mother’s illness and death. The sisters are petty, ordinary, and a little mean and the dialogue conveys a sense that they’ve had this argument before. But, notwithstanding that excellent bit, much of Russell’s dialogue is contrived.

Some of the stories I would read as quickly as I could just so they would be finished, but others would contain these nuggets of literary gold that I would write down, ponder, and summon to my mind much later. For example, this line from “Reeling for the Empire,”

Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.

Or this one from “The Seagull Army descends on Strong Beach, 1979:”

That summer Nal was fourteen and looking for excuses to have extreme feelings about himself.

The stories are not all great, but the good ones are just good enough to be worth reading the whole book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the collection:

npr
New York Times
A.V. Club

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

publication date: 2010
pages: 623 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-679-44432-9

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson documented the Great Migration, or the movement of black Americans from the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. This movement, though relatively unknown, was profound. For example, according to Wilkerson,

In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.

To support her book, Wilkerson used surveys and studies, both old and new; census data; and in-depth interviews with three subjects who made the journey from the South to the North themselves. Wilkerson presented her book as a story about the three subjects, but within a broader framework of movement and change.

This book was packed with wonderful information. Wilkerson was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the material. The book’s discussion was comprehensive. Wilkerson examined everything from white flight and the courting of black labor by northern industry to race riots and being black in Las Vegas. She explored several topics I’d never thought of, such as the shift in attitude of white Southerners after the Civil War and during Jim Crow:

The planter class, which had entrusted its wives and daughters to male slaves when the masters went off to fight the Civil War, was now in near hysterics over the slightest interaction between white women and black men.

Although Wilkerson was good at presenting research and data, she also excelled at more personal storytelling. She included several anecdotes about recognizable people whose families were part of the Great Migration, such as Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, and Michelle Obama. Also, her exceptional analysis of her three main case studies, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was somehow both reverent and uncompromising. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people. Her discussion at that point had turned less from the broad sketch of the Great Migration to a detailed portrait of her aging migrants. She surprisingly spent her last chapters presenting the indignities and dignity that can be found in old age.

For how good the book was, it was not without flaw. Conspicuously, it suffered from a fault that is seemingly written into every nonfiction writer’s contract: repetitiveness. I don’t know if nonfiction books are usually written as separate articles or thesis papers, or if editors just don’t think readers can keep up, but they are repetitive. Likewise, the chapters had inconsistent formats and typography. More troubling, two or three of her statistics seemed unsound. For example, this statement, which supposedly showed that Southern black migrants had more education than the northern white population:

In Philadelphia, for instance, some thirty-nine percent of the blacks who had migrated from towns or cities had graduated from high school, compared with thirty-three percent of the native whites.

I find that statistic troubling because it didn’t demonstrate as much as she claimed. What if only 1% of Southern blacks moving to Philadelphia migrated from towns or cities and the rest of the migrants hadn’t graduated high school? That would mean 1/3 of a percent of the migrating people graduated from high school, which would support an opposite conclusion than Wilkerson’s.

Those data-based issues were few and far between. Largely, The Warmth of Other Suns is a rich and informative book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
AARP
LA Times

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

publication date: 1971
pages: 175
ISBN: 0-380-79185-4

The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction classic, had me hooked from the first haunted sentence:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.

With that line, Le Guin began an exploration of the mind’s ability to change the world and humanity’s capacity for power. The book, set in Portland in the very near future, followed George Orr, a troubled young man who was mandated to visit psychiatrist William Haber. While visiting Dr. Haber, Orr confessed that he believes his dreams have the ability to actually change reality. The remainder of the book focused on Dr. Haber’s attempts to “cure” Orr, often with disastrous results.

The plot of The Lathe of Heaven was the focal point. Le Guin created an imaginative future touched with just enough realism to be compelling. Her plot, although implausible, did not seem impossible. Le Guin used her plot, which was infused with a sense of dread throughout, to reflect on man’s foibles.

Because this was a science fiction book, which usually concentrate on plot or message, I was surprised by how satisfying Le Guin’s characters were. Her characters were well-crafted and beautifully explained. Here is her account of Heather LeLache:

Why hadn’t she been a detective instead of a goddam stupid third-class civil rights lawyer? She hated the law. It took an aggressive, assertive personality. She didn’t have it. She had a sneaky, sly, shy, squamous personality. She had French diseases of the soul.

There were only a few problems I had with the book. First, my edition, a 1997 Avon Books Trade printing, was riddled with spelling errors. There were so many errors I started to wonder if that was part of the book. Second, the pacing lagged slightly in the second half the book. The third and biggest problem I had with the book was Le Guin’s scattered bouts of preachiness. For example, this statement, which seemingly was placed in the book for no other purpose than its message:

The insistent permissiveness of the late Twentieth Century had produced fully as much sex-guilt and sex-fear in its heirs as had the insistent repressiveness of the late Nineteenth Century.

Despite these minor flaws, The Lathe of Heaven is a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book:

SF Signal
Pop Mythology
The Canary

Y: The Last Man – Unmanned

Y: The Last Man “Unmanned” by Brian K. Vaughan

publication date: 2003
pages: 127
ISBN: 1-56389-980-9

Y: The Last Man is a comic book series following Yorick Brown, a regular guy who just happens to be the last man on Earth. “Unmanned” is the first collection in the series and it encompasses issues 1 through 5. “Unmanned” begins with a normal day: Yorick talking with his girlfriend, war in the Middle East, a young woman in labor. However, after only a few pages, the scenes alter horrifically: all the men are suddenly and inexplicably dead. All the men except Yorick and his monkey Ampersand.

I’ve read only a few comic books and I’ve never finished a series. So I wouldn’t say I am familiar with the style. But “Unmanned” had me hooked from the very first grim and compelling page. The story was interesting and original, which Vaughan and his team took fully advantage of. “Unmanned” explored many issues and oddities concerning gender and power. For example, in one scene the wives of several politicians storm the White House with guns and armored vehicles. While this is happening, Yorick is saying what we’re all thinking: “Are you serious? After all the men died, I thought you guys would be holding hands down at the United Nations or something. When the hell did women get so petty and … and power-hungry?” Y: The Last Man suggests the answer to that question: maybe all humans have the capacity to be petty and power-hungry, just as all humans have the capacity to be gentle and mothering.

Aside from any message Vaughan was trying to send, Y: The Last Man was an exciting read with potent and emotive illustrations. There was a great panel when Yorick is told his father is, in fact, dead. The illustration conveyed the hope Yorick was feeling and how quickly it turned to despair.

The comic also contained humor and lightheartedness, including romance. The only area I thought the series faltered was fight scenes. None of those scenes had any action, movement, or thrill. However, that is not a large portion of “Unmanned” and the rest was compelling.

I would recommend Y: The Last Man to diehard comic readers (although, if you are a diehard, you’ve probably read it already) and to comic newbies.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

A.V. Club
Comic Vine
Pop Critics