Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: I Want to Show You More

I Want to Show You More I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I consider myself a fairly harsh critic of short stories, because so often they conclude and leave me feeling disoriented or dissatisfied. In this collection, Quatro delivers 15 short stories that are not only complete within themselves, but they do what only the best short story collections can do: they demonstrate that they belong together. Some characters recur, but so do some themes and some key symbolic elements, all transformed and yet recognizable as fragile ties that link back to prior stories or wind forward into later ones. In this way, I'm glad I read the collection in order, because only when I was a few stories in did I start to recognize the ways in which they were all linked. A mother, a lover, running, survival, dependency, independence . . . these are just some elements Quatro renders with the searing truth and emotional vividness that can only be achieved by the best sort of short story collection.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Self-gentrifying (AKA moving)

Sometimes, it's the little things that improve the quality of life. Sometimes it's the big things. And sometimes, it's a mixture of both. When you move, it's definitely a mixture of both.

The big thing
This week, we (R___ and I) moved apartments. We didn't go any farther than across the street, but it's worth noting that the building we moved into didn't exist three years ago (at which time we couldn't have afforded a building like this anyway).

It has been seven years since either of us moved, so I will now proceed on to . . .

The little things
In no particular order, here is a list of what excites me about this new apartment. By the end of the list, it should be fairly clear why we decided to move.
  • A bedroom door that closes
  • A bathroom door that closes (and locks)
  • Closets
  • Window screens that don't have fist-sized holes in them
  • Kitchen counters
  • Air conditioning
  • A roof that doesn't leak
  • A shower that doesn't leak
  • Hall lights that are actually on when it's dark outside
  • A shower drain that does what it's supposed to (i.e., drain water)
  • A doorman who can accept packages (i.e., prevent other people from stealing said packages)
  • Laundry machines that are less than half a mile away
  • Did I mention air conditioning?
Some of these are pretty basic standard of living things, or at least 21st century, first-world-country, middle-class standard of living things. But some items I intentionally kept off the list because I'm slightly ashamed to be excited about them. Like the size of the apartment. And the fact that it has a dish washer. And the roof deck (which has a grill on it!).

Is it okay to be excited about these perks (which I didn't ask for and certainly don't "need")? Do I actually deserve them? I want to say "yes, of course I deserve nice things," and "screw anyone who claims otherwise," but then I pass a woman camped out on the PATH train steps whose shoes are missing part of their soles and who asks me for a dollar every morning, and I have to wonder Should I really be allowed to live so comfortably? I don't have an answer, but in today's political and economic climate, it's the sort of issue I think about more and more.

At least now I can do my thinking from the comfort of an air-conditioned apartment. As someone wise may or may not have once said: may my thoughts be clearer and my cold showers fewer. Sometimes it really is the little things.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Review: Difficult Women

Difficult Women Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautifully written collection of short stories about exactly what the title proposes: difficult women. Or, in the post Hillary Clinton era, Nasty Women. Women who are troubled and troubling. Women who are not supermoms, or supermodels, or perfect wives, or "cool girls."

To anyone who appreciates good writing about flawed characters, this collection is for you. However, I must offer a warning: it is dark. The subject matter is not uplifting, and there really is no reprieve to the heaviness of the content. The only way I'd recommend improving a collection like this is, honestly, to structure the stories to give it some rise and fall. Let some of the pieces be shorter and brighter, maybe add some comic relief in between the soul-twisters and the stories that make us cringe.

Nevertheless, an excellent collection. I hope to return to it again, as an older woman, and get something completely different out of the reading. I don't think I'll be disappointed.

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Review: All the Rage

All the Rage All the Rage by Courtney Summers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not feel the rage.

I wanted to. And I felt plenty of other things. Annoyance. Boredom. Exasperation. But not rage. Well, except for when I reread the book jacket. I am enraged that any publisher would allow such a misleading description be written on a book. Kellan--the very first character we meet in the book description--does not ever show up in the book! So for anyone who was interested in the dynamic between a rape victim and the perpetrator, forget it. All the Rage is honestly a book about bullying, plain and simple. And not even a very good one, in my opinion, because the main character, teenage loner Romy, is so unredeemable.

Romy starts miserable and stays miserable. We might be able to empathize with her if we could get any real backstory to offset what a drag she is . . . but nope. (Allegedly she used to be part of the "in" crowd, before she tried to report being raped, but we never see much evidence of this, or of the person she used to be.) We might be able to root for her if she were nice and/or honest to anyone, ever . . . but nope. She shuts out everyone who tries to be nice to her (her mom, the black love interest Leon, who I'll get back to), and us, the reader, too. Which makes her boring and unsympathetic (except for the fact that she was raped, obviously, but fictional rape victim, sorry to say, does not automatically make an interesting character).

Speaking of boring, the love interest, Leon, is boring. He has zero dimensions outside of a) being black, and b) being interested in Romy. The race element is completely ignored for 99% of the book, which I find a horrific oversight on the part of both the author and her editor. In such a small town of petty--presumably white--people, I feel like his being black should be a HUGE DEAL. But Romy never really thinks about it, and no one ever reacts to his presence (minus one tiny scene that is really just a plot device to get them to fight), and so he might as well have been one more bland white character as far as this book is concerned. Then, as for liking Romy, I sincerely don't understand why he has any feelings for her, other than possible physical attraction (which seems unlikely, since she takes such pains to cover herself up and keep from attracting sexual attention--apart from the statement lipstick and nail polish of course).

The most interesting character, in my opinion, is Romy's stepfather Todd. He has a disability that keeps him from being able to work, and yet he does his best to live a normal life and maintain his dignity as a man despite people accusing him of being useless. He tries to be a good husband and father, both roles which he is taking over from another man. These, again, are huge topics that would warrant their entire own novel to explore sufficiently (and, of course All the Rage doesn't have the capacity to do it). Nevertheless, I found him to be the realest character in the book, and I hope someone does write about this sort of character. I'd be very interested in reading such a novel.

I haven't even gotten to the plot, but I think my point has been made. Without a protagonist you can root for in some way, and without a relatively nuanced cast of characters to support that protagonist, any novel will fall short. Also, just to be clear, I am not questioning the importance of talking about rape in this review; it is a serious topic and it deserves to be dealt with in an impactful, tasteful, engaging manner. I simply do not feel that, as a YA novel, All the Rage did it justice.

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