Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine9781555976903

publication date: 2014
pages: 169
ISBN: 978-1-55597-690-3

Citizen was a collection of free form prose poetry and visual imagery that documented the black experience, especially when bounded by the white experience. The book was split into seven parts, which centered on loosely related topics. Generally, these topics were: personal experiences of racism, Serena Williams’s experience as a powerful black female tennis player, and violence against black people in the news.

The most effective parts for me were Rankine’s depictions of the subtle and relentless racism encountered by black Americans in everyday life. The pieces were written in second person and were usually vivid and intimate. Here was an example:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Here was another very short passage:

And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.

The descriptions of the violence against black people were also effective, although they were more confusing and less striking than the more intimate verses. However, the pieces about Serena Williams really fell flat for me; maybe because they weren’t written from Serena’s perspective but instead from a spectator’s perspective.

The book also contained images of artworks. Some of these were more potent or useful than others. The cover image was probably the most powerful: it was a stark black sweatshirt hood.

The book captured aspects of life that many Americans don’t have cause to confront with very often. Although it was uneven, when it worked it really worked.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New Yorker
The Guardian
Slate

Gliese 581

Gliese 581: The Departure by Christine Shuck51r-xcqauvl-_sy346_

publication date: 2016
pages: 183

This SF novel was set in a world 100 years in the future: a world where interstellar space travel was possible and humans colonized the Moon and Mars to deal with crowding on Earth. The book focused on three main plots: a grotesque and devastating plague on Earth, a one-way manned space mission to star system Gliese 581 for the purpose of colonization, and a mysterious, violent incident on board the Gliese 581 spaceship that threatened the entire crew.

One of the best parts of the book was the characters. Shuck introduced varied and multifaceted characters, from a bitter grandmother, to a gay Chinese man with a conservative family, to a medical examiner with a penchant for pedophilia.

The book also created good mystery and suspense. Shuck used flashbacks to weave the three story lines together, which was especially effective when the frantic and tense pace of one story line was interrupted by a more leisurely, but informative, plot point. Shuck also developed a good mystery surrounding the violence on the Gliese 581 spaceship. I found myself searching for clues about the identity and motive of the perpetrator.

Also effective was Shuck’s descriptions of the plague on Earth. She did not shy from graphically depicting what was happening to the human body and mind as the virus made its way through the victim. The passages certainly set me off my lunch.

However, there were a lot of problems with the book. It was unpolished, with a lot of small errors. There were, for example, missing pronouns, rough tense changes, and haphazard comma usage. This all made for garbled or confusing writing, at times. There were also some inconsistencies. Like sometimes people would use paper all the time and other times characters were made fun of for even having paper and not a computer. Or like one character who was described as being a manipulative philanderer, but whenever we witnessed him with a woman he was nothing but kind and unpresumptuous.

Shuck’s writing could also be very preachy. The entire plot seemed crafted to get us to eat less. She also had an obvious opinion about the current agricultural economy:

EcoNu’s test pigs were showing shockingly low reproductive rates. This didn’t sit well with Edith. Nor did the smug speculation that this was a winning strategy. It smacked too much of Monsanto’s death grip on the corn economy early in the century.

Or there was this rant, which came out of nowhere:

Shortly before The Collapse, there had been strong militarization of police in and around major cities. This was done primarily under the guise of the War on Drugs, something that had been abandoned when the country collapsed into civil war, and later not taken up again due to its deeply unpopular legacy. The War on Drugs was now akin to human rights violations in American cultural memory.

These rants and garbled writing hindered an imaginative SF book with complex characters and a serviceable plot:

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Poets of the Dead Society
Amazon
goodreads

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness9780062415639

publication date: 2015
pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0-06-240316-2

After reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series a few years ago, I’ve been casually following him as an author. When I saw his newish book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, I was excited to pick it up. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations I had after Chaos Walking.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here followed Mikey, a normal guy who just wanted to graduate high school with his friends and the love of his life. The book explicitly contrasted Mikey and his group with the “indie kids” – you know the ones: they’re always too cool for prom or trendy clothes and they always find trouble. Usually the trouble came in the form of vampires, but sometimes also zombies or spirits or the like. This time the trouble came in the form of “the Immortals.” Every chapter of the book started with a description of what was happening with the indie kids as Mikey was living his unremarkable life. For example:

Chapter the Third, in which indie kid Finn’s body is discovered; Satchel – who once dated Finn – asks Dylan and a second indie kid also called Finn to skip school and help her talk to her alcoholic uncle, who is the lead police officer investigating the death; meanwhile, the Messenger, inside a new Vessel, is already among them, preparing the way for the arrival of the Immortals.

I thought this was a fun plot device. As the Bella Swans and the Harry Potters of the world go around fighting evil and their demons, we shouldn’t forget the ordinary people. As the title of the book made clear: the rest of us just live here. However, the book did not follow its own conceit. Instead of following a group of kids who were only tangentially or passively related to the indie kids’ action, Ness created characters that consistently were in the thick of things. It’s almost as though they were “indie kids” themselves.

Everything about this book was OK. The plot was fine, the characters were fine, the writing was fine, and the ending was fine. I laughed a few times but I also rolled my eyes a lot, in frustration or derision. The characters were supposed to be average, but in actuality one was part-god, one had a state senator as a parent, and most were involved in a love quadrangle. All of them were these “indie kids” that Ness had tried to ignore.

I kept comparing it to Rainbow Rowell, and especially Carry On. Carry On and The Rest of Us Just Live Here were published around the same time but, unfortunately, Rowell did a better job. She crafted a better anti-Chosen One story, with better characters and a better message. She even had better parenthetical asides!

If you liked Chaos Walking, you won’t necessarily like this book – it was very different. However, if you like contemporary YA you’ll probably like this just fine.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

The Guardian
Teen Librarian Tool Box
New York Times

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