Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

Jackaby

Jackaby by William Ritter9781616203535

publication date: 2014
pages: 209
ISBN: 978-1-61620-353-5

William Ritter took several successful formulas – a Sherlock-esque antisocial detective, a supernatural mystery, a steam punky female narrator – and spliced them together to form Jackaby.

The book followed Abigail Rook as she arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. Abigail stumbled upon Jackaby, an eccentric detective of the occult, and began work for him as his assistant. The two quickly (unnervingly quickly) encountered a murder that needed solving. Abigail and Jackaby worked together, along with a police officer, a banshee, and a ghost, to solve the case.

In general, I found the whole book to be quite tedious. Jackaby was almost a straight rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, except he argued for the metaphysical and not against it. As an example, here was Jackaby convincing a police officer to take them further into a crime scene, which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen in every Sherlock ever:

“Wait,” said Charlie, following. “I told the inspector [Marlowe] I would take you out of the building.”

“And so you shall,” Jackaby called over his shoulder. “Expertly, I imagine, and to the letter of the instruction. However, I don’t recall Marlowe giving any specific directions about time, nor about the route we take, so let’s have a quick chat with someone odd, first, shall we? I do love odd. Ah, here we are!”

I also solved the case 1/3 through the book and figured out the red herring about 2/3 of the way through. That’s not me bragging, because I’m not the type to “figure out” books while I read them. That’s me showing how transparent the plot was.

The writing was also tiresome. Ritter attempted to falsely insert drama and interest. Here was a small example, as both Abigail and Jackaby were walking from Jackaby’s office to the post office to work on the case:

My stomach was growling audibly as Jackaby paid the vendor for two steamy meat pies. . . .

“So, what we know thus far,” Jackaby said suddenly, as if the ongoing conversation in his head had bubbled over and simply poured out his mouth, “is our culprit left poor Mr. Bragg with a wicked chest wound and a grieving girlfriend, and he made off with a good deal of the fellow’s blood. . . .”

Ritter was obviously trying to create tension by having what Jackaby did be “sudden,” but I honestly do not know how Jackaby could have started that conversation any less suddenly. Was he supposed to say: “Alright, I’m going to talk about the case now, it’s coming up, just about to talk about it. Are you ready? Here we go. . .”

The unoriginal characters, thin plot, and simplistic writing meant that I had almost no emotional investment in the book.

The book wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Ritter did have some imaginative beasties and fantastical creatures. And there was one part of the book that I actively liked, when Abigail and Jackaby were questioning a woman:

[Hatun said,] “Oh no. been keeping to myself, kept my shawl on all tight all night, didn’t want anyone finding me after what I saw.”

“You were hiding in your shawl?” I asked.

Hatun gave the pale blue knit shawl around her shoulders an affectionate tug. “Only street folk can see me in this, beggars and homeless, like. Never had much cause to watch out for them – they’re good souls, the most of ‘em. For everyone else – well, it doesn’t make me invisible or nothing, just impossible to notice.” She smiled proudly.

Jackaby and I exchanged glances.

“Erm, I found you,” said my colleague.

Hatun gave him a knowing wink. “You don’t exactly follow the rules when it comes to finding things, though, now do you, Detective?”

I thought that passage was an effective commentary on how we can overlook the homeless and downtrodden.

If someone was intensely interested in this genre, I would recommend this book, because it followed the mold closely. For the rest of us, I thought the book had:

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book:

Nerdist
teenreads
Cuddle Buggery

Dark Rain

Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story by Mat Johnson & Simon Gane9781401221607

publication date: 2010
pages: 160
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2160-7

In this brooding and bleak graphic novel, Johnson and Gane explored the condition of New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The book followed two men, Emmit and Dabny, as they were sucked into New Orleans right after the levees broke. Both men were looking for a second chance after getting caught in the legal system and meeting each other in a halfway house in Houston. After hearing about the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Emmit crafted a dubious plan to get into the city and get some extra cash. The book also introduced Sarah, a young woman who attempted to wait out the storm in her neighborhood and ended up needing rescue.

Although the book revolved around Emmit’s Robin Hood-esque scheme and Sarah’s attempt to escape the destruction of New Orleans, the real story was about what was happening in New Orleans after the hurricane. Johnson and Gane examined many aspects of the hurricane, often through a socio-political lens. 80% of the city was flooded. Over 1400 people died in the aftermath of the storm, many from drowning. Refugees were corralled into holding centers at the Super Dome and the Convention Center. People were stopped from moving around the region, either by other counties’ police forces or by the hundreds of private mercenaries throughout the city.

As in many graphic novels, the illustrations in Dark Rain were heavily stylized. Most of the book was black, gray, and blue, which made for flat and dispiriting pictures. I didn’t think the style was very good. The panels were sometimes confusing and the images were too cartoonish to show much emotion. There were a few great images though, including a two-page image when Sarah looked out over the flooding of the city for the first time. The characters and plot weren’t that great either. The characters were often cliché and the plot, when it wasn’t confusing, was predictable.

The main reason to read this book isn’t for the drawings, or the plot, or the characters. Instead, the book explored the real tragedies that occurred after the hurricane and the racially-motivated responses to the aftermath.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Crave
popmatters

Disrupted

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons9780316306089

publication date: 2016
pages: 258
ISBN: 978-0-346-30608-9

Currently, the author Dan Lyons writes for the HBO show Silicon Valley. Five years ago Lyons was the technology editor at Newsweek. For a few years in between, Lyons worked at Boston tech start-up HubSpot. Disrupted chronicled that time.

At one point during the book, Lyons stated that the main purpose of Disrupted was to be funny and provide some entertainment for the reader. There were certainly many parts that were funny, especially because this was all presumably an accurate representation of what actually happened to Lyons while he worked at HubSpot. The book was full of so much corporatespeak and other business world gems. For example, here was Lyons’s explanation of the explicit and written “culture code” of HubSpot:

The culture code asks, “What does it mean to be HubSpotty?” and then defines the meaning of that term explaining a concept that Dharmesh [a cofounder] called HEART, an acronym that stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. These are the traits that HubSpotters must possess in order to be successful. The ultimate HubSpotter is someone who can “make magic” while embodying all five traits of HEART.

There was also this example of one of Lyons’s coworkers:

[She] calls herself a member of the management team even though she has no one reporting to her. “I manage a team of one,” she tells us one day in a department meeting, and by one she is referring to herself.

Sometimes the corporatespeak went beyond eccentricity and self-aggrandizement and became sinister. Whenever someone quit or got fired, management at HubSpot always referred to it as “graduation:”

In my first month at HubSpot I’ve witnessed several graduations, just in the marketing department. . . . Somehow [the employee’s] boss will have arranged his disappearance without anyone knowing about it. . . . Nobody ever talks about the people who graduate, and nobody ever mentions how weird it is to call it “graduation.”

Although Lyons’s writing was often entertaining or enlightening, it was obvious that much of the book was written to give Lyons closure and vindication for working at a place he didn’t understand and hated and that sometimes treated him poorly. Many passages in the book contained personal screeds against HubSpot and the people who worked there.

This defensive and judgmental tone pervaded the book. Here were Lyons’s initial impressions of the people he worked for:

Nine months ago I was the technology editor of Newsweek. In that job I did not even notice people like Zack, or Wingman, or even Cranium. They are the kind of people whose calls I would not return, whose emails I deleted without opening. Even [the founders] were such small fry that I probably would not have taken the time to meet them for coffee, and I certainly would not have written about them. And Zack? Good grief. He’s five years out of college . . . .

The book was interesting and informative, but the whole thing was colored by the author’s screechy and judgmental tone.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Fortune
New York Times
Venture Beat

I Think You’re Totally Wrong

9780385351942I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell

publication date: 2015
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-385-35194-2

I Think You’re Totally Wrong was just two dudes arguing. Literally. The book was an edited transcript of Shields and Powell’s discussions on a three-day weekend they took for the explicit purpose of arguing with each other. As Shields said about midway through the book: “It’s an ancient form: two white guys bullshitting.” You might be wondering, as I was, did we really need to rehash this old song and dance again? Well I’ll tell you: I loved it.

I had not read these two authors before, but they obviously followed literary and political news and trends. They also did not shy from being brutally honest with each other and with themselves. This meant that I Think You’re Totally Wrong was a voyeuristic Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but for those of us in the “Oh, I don’t have a TV” faction.

Here’s an example of them not holding anything back from each other, in a typically literary way:

CALEB: There’s something appealing in an artist who turns toward contradictions, a troubled and tormented artist who seeks pain. There’s mystique, validity, even credibility. You may disagree, but one thing I’ve observed in your writing is that you seem like you almost wish you had suffered more than you actually have.
DAVID: Then you’re a really bad reader and know nothing about my life.

ZING.

And then sometimes Caleb would just get drunk and talk nonsense:

CALEB: I’ve gotta good sense of direction because of my Oriental background.
DAVID: You’re “Oriental”?
CALEB: I was born in Taiwan. I can orient. The shadows speak to the sun, the sun speaks to the shadows, and the sun and the shadows speak to you.

This all added up to a book that talked about a lot of important things: suffering, Art v. Life, morality — but was really about the main foundation of life: two people talking to each other. These were two people willing to be vulnerable and say their truth, even if it was contradictory or unpopular. For example:

CALEB: There are inferior and superior cultures.
DAVID: Wow. You’re saying that as a fact?
CALEB: It is a fact.
DAVID: I basically agree, but I don’t think you’re supposed to say that. . . .
CALEB: Asians and Africans are equal, but their cultures can’t be. No cultures are. Cultures evolve; politics changes. In India and China, men outnumber women by large margins in some regions because of gender-selective abortion . . . In some cultures, you’re not a woman until your aunt slices your clit off.

As I mentioned above, some might find this book annoying because of it’s myopic premise, but I thought it was funny, endearing, tense, and real.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Boston Globe
Huffington Post
The Stranger

The Witches

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff9780316200608

publication date: 2015
pages: 498 (including notes, index, etc.)
ISBN: 978-0-316-20060-8

In The Witches, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff presented a picture of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. She mainly focused on the events of 1692, although she included a little background information and some of the shame-faced aftermath.

In and around Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, more than 100 people were jailed for witchcraft, over half of which confessed. Ultimately, 20 people were executed. The accusations began with four teenage women, who were afflicted with seizures and other maladies. The young women accused several, some of which accused several more, who in turn accused several more – until, in the fall of 1692, some 120 were accused. If an accused witch confessed, the courts were more lenient. Of all the accused who went to trial, only one had confessed to witchcraft – the rest denied until the end. By October of that year, 20 had been executed and the sitting governor of Massachusetts, astonished by the proceedings, dismissed the witchcraft court from any further trials. The trials picked back up again in 1693, but at that point the fervor had died down and the accused were found not guilty or were pardoned.

This book was incredibly well-researched and detailed. Schiff obviously spent time investigating primary sources and reading secondary sources. She included many incidents and episodes from that time period.

However, the book was muddled by Schiff’s tone and writing style. First, she wrote as though the accusations were truth, which she plopped down in the middle of discussions about the trials or about the village. That led to surreal and confusing passages.

Additionally, Schiff wrote in a very convoluted way. Here’s one of the more tiresome sentences:

And if you intended to live in a state of nerve-racking insecurity, in expectation of ambush and meteorological rebuke – on the watch for every brand of intruder, from the “ravening wolves of heresy” to the “wild boars of tyranny,” as a 1694 narrative had it – seventeenth-century Massachusetts, that rude and howling wilderness, was the place for you.

Further, she wrote in a sarcastic style, as though the whole episode was one big joke that the Puritans weren’t in on. For instance, after a short discussion about the torture that certain accused were subjected to, she included this (lame) joke:

Had [accused] Proctor attended the [witchcraft] hearings he might have commented on a different brand of torture: The authorities pummeled the Andover facts into shape.

I hate to cry “Too soon!” about torture and death that occurred over 300 years ago, but these were still peoples’ lives!

For anyone interested in this topic, I would recommend this book because it contained a lot of information. However, as an entertaining or thought-provoking read, The Witches left much to be desired.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
The Guardian

Not Easily Broken

Not Easily Broken by T.D. Jakes9780446693844

publication date: 2006
pages: 245
ISBN: 978-0-446-57677-2

In Not Easily Broken, T.D. Jakes used a fictional story to give advice about marriage, love, and relationship problems – all with a Christian foundation.

In the book, Clarice and David’s marital problems were thrown in stark relief when Clarice was in a car accident that left Clarice homebound with a broken leg. Clarice’s incapacitating injury heightened the tension between her and her husband. David often felt unloved and unneeded and Clarice felt pressured to forsake her career to be a wife and mother. Neither took the time to communicate with or understand each other anymore.

Jakes did a great job of showing the little slights and snubs that can accumulate in a relationship and translate into resentment and apathy. For example, when David made dinner after coming home to his wife:

Dave thought about eating on the couch next to his wife, but he decided to sit at the kitchen counter instead. He was tired; he didn’t need the burden of [Clarice’s] silence to go with his supper.

Another example from Clarice’s perspective:

Sometimes, as [Clarice] watched TV on the couch and David rustled around in the kitchen or sat in his recliner and leafed through a magazine, she thought about saying something to him. She thought about stepping onto the shaky ground of her own uncertainties, of opening herself up to him for a discussion of what might be happening to their marriage and what might be done about it.

The book generally presented a picture of two regular people who didn’t know how to save their marriage. Sometimes, however, Jakes fell back on odd clichés or stereotypes. For example, two women who were competing for the same man accidentally ran into each other at a hair salon and proceeded to have a haircut duel, with each woman getting a more and more obnoxious haircut.

Jakes also relied heavily on Christian themes and bible scripture. That’s not really meaningful to me, but I also didn’t find it too obtrusive.

For some people, the bible verses and discussions of God as a pillar and a foundation would alienate and repulse. I personally didn’t find them too bad. And it isn’t often one finds a book about an everyday troubled marriage that isn’t also trying to tell a grandiose story about living in 19th century Russia or the tragedy of the American suburbs. For those and other reasons, I thought the book was:

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

BlackNews.com
Amazon
Goodreads