Book Reviews

The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 8.51.38 AMApologies to Nick Lowe (and, of course, Elvis Costello), but as I walk through this wicked world searching for light in the darkness of insanity, I do, in fact, ask myself if all hope is lost. So much anger, so much arguing, so much partisanship in all corners of the globe. It all makes me wonder why we all can’t just get along — or at least try to find some common ground once in a while.

Fortunately, a new children’s book by Scot Sax offers hope. In The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee, the title characters start off as rivals — each insect revels in ruining picnics and camping trips, but when they meet, they immediately see each other as rivals. Ultimately, though, they come to a realization that theirs is a rivalry based on trivial differences, and with a bit of soul-searching (not to mention some Googling), they eventually figure out that what they have in common is far greater than any trivial differences that might arise between them. And in the end (spoiler alert!), love trumps hate.

With charming illustrations by Molly Reynolds, The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee offers young readers an important lesson on appreciating differences and building friendships — not to mention some interesting information on bees and mosquitoes. It’s a welcome addition to any child’s library — and I can think of plenty of adults who can stand to read it, too!

Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-8-53-21-amIn Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television, Tom Powers examines Doctor Who, Torchwood, Red Dwarf, and Blakes 7. As the book’s title suggests, in addition to genre, one thing Powers sees as the common thread shared by the programs in question is that their heroes’ various journeys of self-discovery have as much to do with their sense of gender identity as they do with defeating threats from the near and far reaches of the universe. What’s more, Powers also argues that each show’s fan base has, over the years and to one extent or another, encouraged BBC production teams  to explore sexuality in ways that are both subtle and overt.

Specifically, Powers coins the term Continuum of Nostalgic Continuity to describe the complex relationships among television programs, their producers, and their viewers. Within this continuum, some fans demand that their favorite characters adhere to norms and mythologies established by early or classic iterations of the shows in which they appear, while more progressive fans imagine alternate realities for their heroes via various forms of fan fiction, cosplay, and speculative quasi-academic criticism of the shows they love. Caught in the middle are the shows’ producers who, in Powers’ estimation, walk a fine line between envisioning brave new futures for their respective shows and keeping the old guard happy. Or, in Powers’ words, the book explores the ways in which producers and fans are “continually engaged in an ongoing act of media synergy and conflict that distinctively shapes and stalls their gendered heroic SF mythologies.”

While a working knowledge of social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau will certainly help readers make their way through Gender and the Quest, Powers is at pains to explain key concepts clearly and succinctly throughout his analysis. Additionally, his own apparent love for the programs in questions (early on he describes himself as an “aca-fan,” i.e., an academic who is also a fan, and therefore not entirely objective about his chosen object of study) does not blind Powers to the fact that many of his readers may not be overly familiar with the more obscure elements of the programs in question, particularly with respect to Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf.  Indeed, Powers comes off as most engaged with his material when he’s guiding readers through key moments of each show’s history, both onscreen and behind the scenes.

All told, Gender and the Quest is a thoughtful examination of the ways in which individuals and systems interact with each other to bring about change that applies not only to television but to society writ large. Ultimately, we are all simultaneously producers and consumers of culture in one way or another, Powers suggests, and in our roles as both, we shape the world we live in — even if we do so at a glacial pace.

And Party Every Day

300Anyone familiar with the KISS anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” will immediately guess how Larry Harris came up with the title for And Party Every Day, a memoir that focuses on his the years he spent working for his cousin Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records in the 1970s. What they may not realize, however, is that KISS was only one act in the veritable circus of stars that called Casablanca home during the entertainment company’s golden age — Donna Summer, the Village People, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic chief among them. Throughout the book, Harris details the wild risks that Bogart took in order to put his company on the map, and though his high esteem of the record exec’s business acumen in the early days of the company is clear, the author also offers a realistic critique of the choices that eventually led to Casablanca’s downfall. Taking a chance on KISS, for example, showed great foresight, as did signing a wide range of disco acts before the genre really took off. By way of contrast, putting out four simultaneous solo albums by the members of KISS and continuing to sign disco acts after the genre had peeked were a sign that things were starting to go south for the company.

Anyone with an interest in the music and culture of the 1970s will find something to enjoy in this memoir — so much so that if the creators of the recent HBO series Vinyl had based the show more concretely on Harris’s book, it might have been a hit. Indeed the yawning chasm between that series and And Party Every Day suggests that when it comes to the record industry, truth will always be stranger, not to mention more entertaining, than fiction.

 

One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Murder by Jane Liddle – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

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Murder is a collection of succinct and dynamite flash fiction that stylishly focuses on the topic of, well, murder. The fast-paced stories range from 40-500 words, and collectively feel like a meal of amuse-bouches. Jane Liddle breathes life into a story in less than a single page, and often, a single sentence, creating an unparalleled literary density:

The student studied the man with the Bluetooth and decided he would be the one he pushed because he figured no one good would miss him. 

The juvenile delinquent grew from a juvenile delinquent to an adult delinquent. He did not last long as an adult delinquent.

The rioter had adrenaline and anger on his side while the teenager had only fear. The rioter swung his bat as if the teenager’s head were a fastball.

Liddle presents the overarching theme of murder through an eclectic mix of scenarios. Many murderous acts are driven by a combination of insecurity and self-hatred within the minds and hearts of cold-blooded killers. We are exposed to mass shootings, sociopaths swinging baseball bats or burning victims alive, to other incidents ranging from assisted suicide, negligent parenting, or freak accidents such as being trampled by a Black Friday-like herd.

After a while, page after page of killing sprees feel overdone, but perhaps this is Liddle’s intent: to prove just how desensitized society has become with violent video games, films, and real life headlines of humanitarian crises, atrocities, and war. Furthermore, justice for the criminals often flounders, and provides little closure to victims and their families. Many of the guilty respond to their sentencing with apathy, and carry on with their bland lives, whether free or jailed, and reflect little on the consequences of their actions:

He went to prison for life, which turned out to be only four more years, so his gamble paid off, or didn’t pay off, depending how you look at it.

The scoundrel didn’t intend to kill him, but wasn’t sad that he did. Men like that were not to be trusted. The scoundrel got three years in prison for manslaughter, but was out in one.

Liddle christens each criminal subject with derogatory names such as the “weasel,” the “idiot,” the “degenerate,” and the “scoundrel,” which double as the story title. Doing so evokes distance between the reader and criminal, in the way that news stories avoid releasing full names and instead rely on descriptions such as “male in his 30s.”

These violent narratives often feel pulled from the headlines and embellished with literary backstory. Each boasts a, “who’s tragic demise will encounter next?” and although one may assume this collection may only contribute to society’s desensitization to murder, these stories examine just how fragile life is, how easily one can become snarled in a situation where human life is extinguished. Whether the act is conscious and committed with intent (shoving someone in front of a train or taking someone out with a shotgun) or subconscious and committed without (a prank gone wrong), no matter the case, lives are irreparably altered. 

Available for purchase in an array of fun colors through 421 Atlanta

Released March 29th, 2016

68 pages 

Bookmarked: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 4.13.14 PMThe Bookmarked series, in case you were wondering, is a new line of books from IG Publishing in which lesser-known authors meditate on the impact that various works of literature by better-known authors have had an impact on their lives. Tackling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the second volume of the series, Curtis Smith takes a cue from the subject of his investigation and offers what might best be termed an “unstuck in time” reading of the novel. Bouncing from point to point and theme to theme throughout Vonnegut’s novel gives Smith the opportunity to touche on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ayn Rand, Genghis Khan, SpongeBob SquarePants, PTSD, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the ancient Stoic theory of Ekpyrosis, which holds that the universe is destined to be consumed in flames only to recreate itself from the ashes. Yet even as Smith’s musings careen from one topic to the next, he never loses sight of the thread that holds them all together. Indeed, if the central question of Vonnegut’s novel was how to write about a massacre, the central question of Smith’s extended essay is how to write about a book about a massacre. The big difference, of course, is that where Vonnegut could only conclude that there’s nothing sensible to say about a massacre — nothing, that is, beyond the plaintive Poo-tee-weet? of singing birds — Smith finds that there’s plenty to say not only about Vonnegut’s novel in particular, but also about writing in general, and its place in our efforts to make sense of the chaotic world around us. We are capable of great savagery, it turns out, but our saving grace is that we’re ultimately a kind, compassionate, caring species. So, yes, we are doomed time and again to witness and sadly participate in conflagrations large and small, but we’re also party to the kindness and curiosity that allow for new life to emerge from the destruction we wreak. In this engaging take on Vonnegut’s classic anti-iceberg novel, Smith comes down solidly on the side of humanity, for better and for worse.

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.