Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The David Bowie Project, The Good: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

One of the struggles of reading someone else's favorite books is that you are bound to run into an entry or two (or twelve) that you hate (see my previous post). However, at their best, these lists can lead you to literary gems that, for one reason or another, you missed.  Such was the case with Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I had heard wonderful things about Oscar Wao for years, but I had never made an earnest effort to read it.  To be honest, I was put off by the "science fiction nerd" motif. I wasn't convinced that I would be able to pick up on all of the references; my Dungeons and Dragons knowledge begins and ends with Stranger Things.  While these references pulled me out of my reading on occasion, as did the colloquial use of Spanish, but I soon discovered The Annotated Oscar Wao and was able to cross-reference my reading with the explanatory notes on the site.

Oscar Wao tells the story of a first-generation Dominican-American name Oscar de Leon who is perennially unlucky in love.  Oscar is too fat, too interested in science fiction, and too intensely devoted to girls who are out of his league.

The novel isn't just about Oscar's romantic woes. Instead, Oscar's failures with the opposite sex become the point of contrast that reveals the immigration narrative of the Cabral-de Leon family.  Through a series of flashbacks, we realize that failed relationships, and their violent fallout, plague the Cabral-de Leon clan.  In many ways, the waxing and waning of the novel's romantic relationship mirror the tumultuous course of twentieth century Dominican History.

Beyond the strength of its symbolism, the novel's chatty narrative-- peppered with allusions to classic nerd culture, "Spanglish," and a litany of  expository footnotes-- is intoxicating, like an animated conversation with an old friend.

Though, as its title suggests, the novel doesn't offer its readers any happy endings, it does in fact leave us with a story that is both wondrous and, sadly, too brief.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The David Bowie Project, The Bad: In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan

Short stories aren't a genre that I typically gravitate towards. Because I teach English, I have used a lot of short stories (and story segments) in the classroom over the years; so, I tend to shy away from the genre in my recreational reading.  However, with the spate of "Try a Story" tags that have gone around BookTube once or thrice in the past few months, I decided to try out a few collections a whirl, one of which was on the list of David Bowie's 100 Favorite Books that I am working through this year.

Like a lot of people, I was assigned McEwan's Atonement in college and gateway-read some of his other novels . . . but was never overly enchanted with his work.  To be perfectly frank, I quickly bored of reading about middle aged men who encounter a "nasty surprise."  It's not a surprise if the reader knows it's coming bruh . . .

Anyhoo, I picked up this tome with measured expectations.  I mean, the Thin White Duke loved it and I loved the TWD, so why wouldn't I love this collection, right?  Riiiight? Wrong.  So much NOPE.  It was terrible.

Originally published in 1978, each of the seven stories from In Between the Sheets was McEwan's first short story collection.  In the first selection, "Pornography," a hapless, two-timing newsagent meets his match in a pair of avenging nurses.  "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" the characters have contemptuous relationships with non-human partners.  With other stories, McEwan explores the hazards of romantic entanglements after an apocalyptic event ("Two Fragments") and amongst a coterie of deranged Los Angelenos ("Psychopolis").

Despite these intriguing premises,  In Between the Sheets doesn't deliver.  The stories are poorly structured, ending either at climactic moments or well past the point of resolution.  Why leave your readers mired in exposition with no payoff?  Or make your reader slog through pointless minutiae that clutters the narrative?  It would seem that, at this early point in his career anyway, McEwan had less control over the short story format, or his later aptitude for revealing a *nasty twist*.

Forty years on, In Between the Sheets's depiction of *modern* sexuality reads as dated.  All but one of the relationships in the collection are heterosexual in nature.  Even those sexual encounters that are not explicitly heteronormative in nature are implicitly in character.  For instance, in "Dead as They Come," the narrator forms an obsessive relationship with a mannequin that is eerily reminiscent of the circumscribed existence of ornamental "kept women."

Similarly, in "Reflections of a Kept Ape," a bestial relationship between the titular character and a successful female author is characterized as decidedly, if not unhappily, heterosexual.  The "ape" is a "toy boy" who grows weary of his emotionless mistress.  It is only through a literal reading of the story's title that one begins to see the tale as an examination of a bestiality through the subjectivity of the beast.  In both "Reflections of a Kept Ape" as well as "Dead as They Come," individuals who are supported by their partner are either inanimate objects or (at best?) exploited pets.

The one queer relationship in the collection, found in the titular story, is between two young women, one of whom is a little person.  This lesbian relationship, however, is almost entirely filtered through the subjectivity of one of the girls's father who is uneasy about his daughter's burgeoning desires and his own failed marriage.  The girl's relationship seems to exist not for its own sake, but as a reflection of the father's discomfort with his own sexual abilities.  In this way, the young women's relationship is characterized by its freakishness, just as the relationships in "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" are played for their freakishness.  Pathologizing queer love, juxtaposing queer relationships with bestiality and objectophilia is deeply offensive and reflective of an outmoded way of thinking.

So, so, problematic.

Suffice it to say, In Between the Sheets is not the best place to start with McEwan.  Rather, in my case, it may well be my last.
Thursday, March 9, 2017

Monthly Wrap Up: February 2017

It’s that time again.  Time to take a deep dive into what I read during the previous month.  Overall, I am pleased with my February reading. I read broadly and managed to finish at least one book a week; so, I am on pace to meet or exceed my goal of reading fifty books this year.

How I Read

Here is how the month broke down for me statistically:

  • I read four books
    • One ebook,
    • One print book, and
    • Two audiobooks
  • I read a total of 1103 pages
    • This averages out to approximately 276 pages per book
  • The average rating for my February reads was a four
    • I read one five star book,
    • Two four star books, and
    • One three star book

What I Read

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood [ebook; 4/5 ]: This is another volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a project that sees bestselling contemporary authors re-imaging some of the Bard’s seminal works.  Hag-Seed was my first Atwood novel (though I own four) and my second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (last year I read Anne Tyler’s middling Vinegar Girl, a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew) and, if my experience with Hag-Seed is indicative of Atwood’s other works, I am excited to dive deeper into her bibliography.  

If you are unfamiliar with Hag-Seed’s premise, the novel re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Atwood’s version of events Prospero becomes Felix, the deposed artistic director of an Ontario theater festival, forced to eek out a humble existence teaching theater under an alias at a local prison.  When the usurper who fired Felix, now Cultural Minister, plans to visit the prison, a pretense for shutting down the education program, Felix uses the opportunity to stage the ultimate revenge: a production of The Tempest.

Overall, I loved Hag-Seed and found the story easy to read and deeply engrossing.  Readers who may feel overwhelmed by starting elsewhere in Atwood’s bibliography may find, like, that Hag-Seed is an easier entry point into her work.  However, I would warn potential readers that it (obviously) helps to have read The Tempest before Hag-Seed.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman [audiobook; 4/5]: My first audiobook read of the month was Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  I love the Netflix show based on this book; however, I approached the text with some trepidation.  You see, Piper is my least favorite character on the show and this book is told entirely from Piper’s perspective.  Thankfully, the real Piper is a far cry from her television incarnation.  
In the series, Piper is frequently taken to task for her false bravado, half-hearted attempts at connecting with inmates of color, and her general “basic white girl” in a prison jumpsuit aesthetic.  The most compelling part of Orange is the New Black (the series) is the complex lives and backstories of the non-Piper inmates at the fictional Litchfield prison.  

While the real Piper is more self-aware and likable than her fictional counterpart, the reader isn’t given insight into the lives or experiences of the other inmates, really as you should expect from a first person narrative.  Nonetheless, Piper comes across as having genuine empathy for her fellow inmates and their personal circumstances; Kerman manages to both recognize her own socio-economic privileges while, simultaneously, acknowledge the systemic obstacles her peers encounter.  Rather than simply identifying these obstacles and moving on to the next anecdote, Kerman contextualizes these challenges-- namely mandatory sentencing laws and how they have an inordinately punitive impact on communities of color-- and explicitly advocates for them to be changed.  

At it’s core, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a story about one woman’s embarrassing, emotionally exhausting, and often dehumanizing experience in the corrections system and how, with a support system that is atypical of most offenders, is able to both survive and agitate for change. Indeed, since her incarceration, Kerman (in addition to writing her memoir) has worked extensively with nonprofits regarding human rights for incarcerated persons as well as against mandatory minimum sentencing.  

Because of my affection for the show, I started my look at the American prison system with Orange is the New Black; however, I am not going to stop here.  In the coming months, I am planning to continue my reading and documentary with a particular focus on how incarceration impacts communities of color.  I think my next prison-related read will be George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye.  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain [print; 3/5]: There really isn’t much to say about Tom Sawyer that really hasn’t been said before.  It’s a classic of children’s literature.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a better book.  I had to read Tom Sawyer  for work.  It’s a good ‘un, but not a personal favorite.  

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates [audiobook; 5/5]: Hands down, this is one of the most important books I have ever read (well, listened to, really).  For a long time, I flirted with the idea of reading Between the World and Me but ultimately read other things because I was put off by the hype Coates’ essay collection has received.  Last month, following  through on my commitment to read more diversely and to take a deep dive into own-voices narratives, I listed to the audiobook and was enthralled.

Between the World and Me is structured as a prolonged letter from Coates to his then fifteen year old son, written in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri.  In unflinching language, but in the loving tone of a distraught father, Coates addresses the corporal reality of being an African-American man (or woman, really; see the Sandra Bland case) in America, namely that, at any time and for almost any reason, you can be killed and your death will go unpunished.  If you consider yourself an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement,  if you are curious about the sentiments behind the movement, or if you are one of those white people who shakes police officers’ hands at the end of a protest march, read Between the World and Me.

What did you read in February?  Do you have any own voices or prison memoirs to suggest?  Let me know on Twitter @thelexicondev.
Saturday, March 4, 2017

Bookish Haul: January and February 2017

There is something about buying a new book after a stressful day that makes my kneading anxiety tolerable.  Well, Xanax helps, too, but pill bottles can't double as charming decor pieces.  But I digress . . .

In January and February, fueled a paralyzing pre-and-post-inauguration anxiety, I purchased a bunch of books-- like a sheeeat ton-- to make myself feel better.  To my credit, these purchases all work towards my 2017 reading goals and, in many cases, support the work of persons of color.  Y'know, if you are going to spend a chunk of your paycheck on something you should make your purchases meaningful ones, right?    Right.

The One That Will Consume My Summer.  A few months ago, my mother picked up two hardback first edition volumes of  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago at a library book sale . . . volumes I and III. I recently was able to find a volume II of the same set good condition on Amazon.  I plan to tuck into the series during the summer months.  Nothing screams summer quite like a detailed history history of the gulag system.

The Public Intellectual We Need Right Now.  In January, as part of my David Bowie project, I read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, a slim nonfiction volume from the famed writer and public intellectual.  The following month, I went to see Raoul Peck's stirring Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro.  Both experiences spurred me into buying copies of Baldwin's debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, the famed essay collection Notes of a Native Son, and picked up the companion nonfiction collection-by-way-of-pastiche to I Am Not Your Negro-- I'll have a post about both the film and the collection up later this month.

When You Want to Contextualize Your Activism. I've already been involved in a few non-violent protests since the election, so I feel like I am starting to "get the hang of it."  That being said, and me being nerdy, I felt like I needed to explore protest movements from the past to better understand my own activism, especially since we seem to be fighting the same socio-cultural battles that activists were trying to address forty years ago.  The first avenue I wanted to explore was the work (for better or worse) of The Weather Underground.  I had seen the 2002 documentary about the group years ago and had read some of the scholarship of one of their members, Bill Ayers (he's an educational theorist), when I was in grad school.  Bargain maven that I am, I purchased two used copies of Ayer's activist memoirs-- Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an American Dissident and Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident-- for a song on Amazon.  And now the Feds are probably watching . . .

Where to Start When You Want to Develop a Nuanced Understanding. Much as been made of the violent crime rate in America's cities by politicians and the press.  Before taking a deep dive into the literature on the intersection of race, violence, and law enforcement I wanted to get a general overview of the nuanced topic.  In came Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy.  The book follows the predominantly white homicide detectives who are tasked with closing cases in predominately African-American South Central Los Angeles.  From what I have been able to gather the book takes a nuanced look at the institutionalized racism that has engendered distrust between the police and community they have been sworn to protect while also highlights the dedication of detectives who want to close cases but are often stymied by a lack of resources and a lack of community cooperation.

Contemporary Own-Voices Literary Classics: In my last Amazon order, I picked up copies of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for my Bowie  project and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah because I am the last person in the world who hasn't read it.  Both works are contemporary classics and are own-voices narratives . . .  which ticks almost all of my boxes!

The Month I Went "Overboard" with Book of the Month Club. In January, I skipped a month from BMC because none of the selections spoke to me.  In February, on the other hand, I not only picked up Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, a novel about Koreans living in Japan, I also added Zadie Smith's Swing Time and Kathleen Collins's short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? to my box.  I may have also gone cray this month, too.

So, my bedside table is now a mountain range of books, but . . .

Monday, February 6, 2017

Un-Haul 2017: January

This year, I am going to make a conscious effort to "un-haul" books that I have read and, for one reason or another, not loved.  I have limited space and life is too short to hoard books you don't love.  Every month, I am going to cull my shelves of recent disliked reads and dusty, unloved books and pass them along to friends, colleagues, or charity shops.  This month, I have four books that I am waving goodbye to.

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russel-- I and enjoyed this book about Danish culture last year; I liked it, but I didn't love it.  Despite all of the hygge hype recently, I didn't see myself re-reading this one.  So, I happily passed this one along to a nesting colleague.

The Girls by Emma Cline-- Arguably one of the worst books I read last year was Emma Cline's over-hyped debut, The Girls.  The book is marketed as a fictionalized version of the Manson Family's exploits from the point of view of a teenaged girl.  As someone who (if you haven't already noticed based on my favorite podcasts) LOVES true crime stories, this one fell terribly flat.  It was over-written and  . . . boring.  Don't believe the hype on this one, folks: you'd be better off listening to the "Charles Manson's Hollywood" series of You Must Remember This.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hillary Mantel-- I purchased this one for a song from Book Outlet late last year on a whim.  Given the title, I had hoped (deep in my fenian heart) that this was an alternative history where The Iron Lady got what she deserved.  No such luck (not really, not to the degree that you'd hope).  Instead, this is a collection of off-putting short stories; to be frank, you'd be better off reading one of Mantel's Thomas Cromwell doorstops.

Nicotine by Nell Zink-- I reviewed this odious little novel earlier this year.  Suffice it to say, it's well written, but terribly offensive.

Now that I have un-hauled them here, it's off to the Salvation Army with these.  If nothing else, my disappointing reads can help fund important humanitarian work . . . and give space for new books.

Read.  Resist.  Repeat.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

My Favorite Podcasts: January 2017

More than a year ago, I shared some of the podcasts that I enjoyed listening to at the time.  Now, several months on, my subscription list looks radically different; so, I thought I would update everyone on what I am listening to.

For the most part, I listen to podcasts while I am correcting student work, writing blog posts, or cooking using the podcast app on my iPhone.  After years of teaching, I find it difficult to work in silence-- even if I am doing a simple manual task--and podcast fill the quiet space and manage to both entertain and educate me in the process.

Here are five podcasts that I am currently loving.

My Favorite Murder

Full disclosure: My Favorite Murder is my favorite podcast.  I can, in no way, do its awesomeness justice in a short paragraph, but . . . here it goes: My Favorite Murder is a comedy podcast hosted by actresses/ comedians/ television personalities/ amazing lady people Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.  In each episode, the two discuss true crime cases that have peaked their interest; episodes unfold like a conversation between two friends that is fueled by a late-night trip down the Wikipedia rabbit hole.  MFM also has an active fandom (Murderinos, UNITE!), a mascot (Elvis, the crosseyed siamese cat), and a bevvy of catch-phrases.  If, like me, you LOVE Forensic Files but are also afraid of life, you will love MFM, too.  Newcomers to the podcast should start from episode one and work their way forward; believe, you'll get caught up sooner than you think

The Last Podcast on the Left

Along the similar lines as My Favorite Murder, The Last Podcast on the Left is a horror/ comedy podcast that explores true crime, the paranormal, and just about any weird topic you can imagine. Hosts Ben Kissel, Marus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski approach heavy topics (serial killers, Japanese death cults) with black humor and a surprising amount of credible researched.  I am particularly fond of listening to The Last Podcast on the Left when I am grading papers.  You'd be shocked at how many unit exams you can grade while listening to Henry Zebrowski do a Richard Chase impression.  If you're new to the show, it's a good idea to pick the true crime topic that interests you most and start there.


Are you starting to sense a theme?  Crimetown is another podcast that I have binge-listen to.  The show, which is hosted by Marc Smerling (Capturing the Friedmans, 2003) and Zac Stuart-Pontier (The Jinx, 2015), follows the crime culture in a specific city each season.  This season, Crimetown is focusing on Providence, Rhode Island and how organized crime infiltrated all levels of government, particularly during the mayorship of Vincent "Buddy" Cianci. If you are interested in the opperation of organized crime in America or American political theater, Crimetown is up your street.  Because the show unfolds like a mini-series (duh, it's from the people who did The Jinx), new listeners should start the series from the beginning.

You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This is a podcast devoted to the dark historical recesses of Hollywood's first century.  Host Karina Longworth does a deep-dive each season into a new area of Hollywood's forgotten past.  In 2016, Longworth explored the life of Joan Crawford ("Six Degrees of Joan Crawford") and as well as the exploits of the Manson Family ("Charles Manson's Hollywood").  Each series is expertly researched and compellingly presented.  I would recommend newbies explore You Must Remember This's back catalogue of episodes and explore a topic that interests them most (btw, "Six Degrees of Joan Crawford" is AHMAZING).


For my last podcast recommendation (and binge-listen love), I had to return to another true-crime show: Stranglers.  The show, presented and produced by Portland Helmich, is a deep-dive into the Boston Strangler case.  While many people erroneously believe that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, a serial killer/ killers responsible for the murder of nineteen women between 1962 and 1964, there is reason to believe that multiple killers were operating in the area and attempting to make their attacks look as though they were the work of a single killer. Helmich approaches the case from multiple view points and interviews individuals who investigated, reported, or were involved in the case.  I would recommend new listers start Stranglers from the beginning because, as with Crimetown, the series evolves over time.

So, these are some of my favorite Podcasts at the moment.  What are you listening to?  Let me know on Twitter @thelexicondev.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What You Aren't Going to See in 2017

I apologize for posting a day late; I had an event yesterday evening at work and didn’t get home till after eight o’clock.  Sometimes commitments in my day-to-day world make it difficult to stick to my blogging schedule . . . which I promise I am trying to keep in 2017!  This week will be slightly different as a result; instead of posting on my normal Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will be posting on Wednesday and Friday. 

Today, I wanted to speak with my readers frankly about what you are not going to be seeing on the lexicon devil in 2017, namely any book or audiobook that is published by Simon & Schuster or any of its imprints, which I will list at the end of this post. 

Late last year, it emerged that Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions had signed a book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos, the technology editor of the right-wing blog, Breitbart.  If Yiannopoulos’s name sounds familiar, it is probably for one of his attention-grabbing, social media hate campaigns against, among others, Ghostbusters and SNL actress Leslie Jones, trans peoplefeminists, females who express an opinion country to his own, and (despite having Jewish heritage, my his own admission) has expressed anti-Semitic opinions, as well as an opposition to gay rights . . . though he is gay himself (?).  It should be noted that Yiannopoulos’s campaign against Jones got him kicked off of Twitter.  The man has been a central figure in the Internet’s culture war for a several years and, to put it mildly, has become the locus of all opinions I find hateful and loathsome in the world. 

In a free society, people I disagree with (however strongly) have a right to express their views, insofar as they don’t incite violence or violate the ability of individuals to live their lives without harassment or fear. 

Simon & Schuster has a right to sign Yiannopoulos.  He has a right to write a book.  Consumers have a right to purchase his book, if they so choose.  

I, for one, will not.  As someone who buys and reads a lot of books (I read 75 books last year; the average American reads an average of 12 books a year), I will not be supporting Mr. Yiannopoulos’s book.  Similarly, when it comes time to purchase and review books for the lexicon devil, I will not be featuring works published by any of Simon & Schuster’s imprints.  Part of freedom of speech and freedom of expression is the ability to protest those institutions and individuals whose actions stand in contrast to your ethical beliefs.  I find Mr. Yiannopoulos’s publicly stated opinions and actions to be offensive. 

the lexicon devil is my hobby, my pet project, the corner of the internet where I am able to share what I am passionate about with people who share my interests.  Hate speech, its practitioners, and those organizations that capitalize on the inflammatory language of these individuals will not have a spot on this blog.  End of story. Following the example of the Chicago Review of Books, I will no longer be buying, reviewing, or otherwise publicizing works published Simon & Schuster or any of its imprints, which are, for reference:

  • Atria
  • Emily Bestler Books
  • Enliven
  • Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Free Press
  • Gallery
  • Howard
  • Jeter Publishing
  • North Star Way
  • Pocket
  • Pocket Star
  • Scout Press
  • Scribner
  • Threshold
  • Touchstone
  • Aladdin
  • Antheneum
  • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Beach Lane Books
  • Little Simon
  • Margaret K. McElderry
  • Paula Wiseman Books
  • Saga Press
  • Salaam Reads
  • Simon Pulse
  • Simon Spotlight
  • Pimsleur
  • Simon & Schuster Audio

That is all.

Read. Resist.  Repeat.