Review: Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Genre: YA contemporary/mystery

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication date: October 10, 2017

Synopsis:

echo after echoDebuting on the New York stage, Zara is unprepared—for Eli, the girl who makes the world glow; for Leopold, the director who wants perfection; and for death in the theater.

Zara Evans has come to the Aurelia Theater, home to the visionary director Leopold Henneman, to play her dream role in Echo and Ariston, the Greek tragedy that taught her everything she knows about love. When the director asks Zara to promise that she will have no outside commitments, no distractions, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s hard not to be distracted when there’s a death at the theater—and then another—especially when Zara doesn’t know if they’re accidents, or murder, or a curse that always comes in threes. It’s hard not to be distracted when assistant lighting director Eli Vasquez, a girl made of tattoos and abrupt laughs and every form of light, looks at Zara. It’s hard not to fall in love. In heart-achingly beautiful prose, Amy Rose Capetta has spun a mystery and a love story into an impossible, inevitable whole—and cast lantern light on two girls, finding each other on a stage set for tragedy.

**I received an eARC copy of this from Negalley in exchange for an honest review.**

I excitedly requested Echo After Echo because I’d been looking forward to it; I’ve gotten into theater a lot lately (though not quite in an actor way) and haven’t seen many fictional books about drama kids, which hasn’t been helpful since I’m currently trying to capture some of that community in my own writing. Furthermore, a female/female love story featuring a bi girl always perks my interest.

So, I had the contemporary mindset going in, the genre I read mostly. But oh man, is this a mystery story, and a good one. The atmosphere is creepy from the beginning–I mean, Zara finds a dead body when she first arrives at the theater! And almost everyone in the theater is weird and mysterious–or, at least, not very friendly at first, including the creepy famous director, Leopold, who can get away with way too much power abuse because he’s “brilliant.” He also has visions, and coupled with the theater’s curse, I wondered if there was something supernatural going on. But because of Zara and Eli’s budding relationship, the mystery doesn’t take the forefront in the middle, so it doesn’t drag or rely solely on its (well-constructed) plot, constantly asking you to question it. And then they seem to figure it out, but…it isn’t what it seems. Which was AMAZING because I did not expect the level of complexity to the mystery in a book I regarded as a contemporary–and that more or less tricks you into believing you’re reading one in the middle.

But aside from the mystery, Zara/Eli is written with great amounts of suspense and swoon, keeping them apart for just the right time to keep the page turning without growing exhausting. It’s established early on that Zara and Eli like girls (though Eli doesn’t know Eli does for a while), and that Zara’s dated and kissed boys, too. So this wasn’t a discovery story in that respect, which tend to dominate LGBTQ stories (albeit for a reason–but it’s not the be-all-end-all). Yet, Zara isn’t completely figured out yet; she tries to come out to her family and also says “I’m bisexual” when she’s absolutely sure. THE WORD! It used the word, even when it was easy to infer! (Bi people always have to come out over and over again, or else they’re assumed to be either gay or straight.) Also, isn’t it great there’s queer representation in different genres (mystery in this case) from the usual contemporaries?

Echo After Echo is written in third person omniscient, with different chapters centering on different characters, although certainly Zara is focused on the most. This allowed for plenty of insight into the other characters’ psyches, preventing them from being weird types. Additionally, I just really liked the writing–there were quite a few turns of phrases I highlighted. (I would give examples, but ARCs are not final so we can’t quote from them!)

The theater was a refreshing (albeit dark and mysterious setting); it was nice seeing a YA book where the teenage characters are not in high school. Zara did apply to colleges to attend after she finishes her run in the play, and certainly not everyone can be a working artist at the age, but it was a great glimpse into that life.

I honestly have few negative things to say. I began to wish Adrien had more depth than the shallowness and awareness of fan-pleasing you’d expect from a young, hot male movie star, but then I was pleasantly surprised with more backstory and comments on how he stumbled into the business and how fame affected his life and relationships.

Now I need to get a finished, physical copy for my future classroom…

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Review: Kid Authors: True Tales of Childhood from Great Writers

Author: David Stabler

Illustrator: Doogie Horner

Genre: nonfiction

Publisher: Quirk Books

Publication Date: October 10, 2017

Synopsis:

kid authorsThe series that includes Kid Presidents, Kid Artists, and Kid Athletes now chronicles the lives of Kid Authors! Here are true tales of famous writers, from long before they were famous–or even old enough to drive. Did you know:
– Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain) loved to skip school and make mischief, with his best friend Tom, of course!
– A young J. R. R. Tolkien was bitten by a huge tarantula–or as he called it, -a spider as big as a dragon.-
– Toddler Zora Neale Hurston took her first steps when a wild hog entered her house and started chasing her!
The diverse and inclusive cast includes Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, J. K. Rowling, Langston Hughes, Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll, Stan Lee, and many more.

**I received an eARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.**

Kid Authors is a new middle grade (on the lower end of that spectrum, I would say) nonfiction book from Quirk Books in their series of fun stories about famous people when they were younger. Written by David Stabler, the book has many delightful color illustrations by Doogie Horner.

The book covers a diverse selection of authors, although most of them would be familiar to children, and they are mostly American. Some of the stories were more focused on specific events than others, which made them stronger in my opinion, and almost all related back to how they became authors. I found Sherman Alexie’s really interesting, and I didn’t know that Edgar Allen Poe was a foster child! Unfortunately, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s was not much new if you’re familiar with the Little House series.

A paragraph in Langston Hughes’s chapter really stood out to me: he was voted class poet in eighth grade unanimously, but he had not written a poem yet, at least outside of his mind. So he went and started writing to prove himself. That’s like some predestination craziness.

One thing I was a little surprised with was the use of “Indians” to refer to Native Americans all the time. It made sense in the Laura Ingalls Wilder story because of the time period, and there’s a great illustration of an exasperated Native American frustrated about how they’d left for a little and suddenly some settlers moved in. But otherwise, I was surprised they didn’t use Native Americans as well, as it is so much more accurate and I think that’s important in a children’s book.

There are also little facts about other authors’ childhoods in the back, which were pretty fun. The best one was absolutely Earnest Hemingway, that All-American Man, who was dressed in his older sister’s clothes until he was 5 and his mother said he was her daughter “Ernestine”!!!

This is definitely something great to have in the classroom!

Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Genre: YA speculative fiction/contemporary (feels more like the latter than a SFF story)

Publisher: Harper Teen

Release Date: September 5, 2017 (see what they did there??)

Synopsis:

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

they both die at the end

So this book snuck up on me a little. I’d loved Adam Silvera’s previous two books, but while More Happy Than Not floored me with its plot twists and construction and History is All You Left Me grabbed my interest with its topics on breakups and OCD, I wasn’t as interested in the concept of They Both Die at the End, so I was a little nervous. I’d seen a couple of great reviews and a couple of mixed ones. But then I got to the end, and I’m having troubling coming up with much negative to say about it.

While They Both Die at the End clearly has some sci-fi elements, it reads more like a contemporary, interesting in exploring the “what-if” situation with a realistic story. And yet, the impact Death-Cast has had on the world isn’t ignored–there’s a whole industry out there trying to make money by making the lives of the soon-to-die (called “Deckers”) better, and books, TV, and other stories now have Death-Cast as a plot point. A lot of it serves as commentary for how death is handled on social media, which is something I’ve had to think about recently. Most chapters are told from either Rufus’s or Mateo’s POVs (which are very distinctive), but there are glimpses of other people affected, most of which cross paths somewhere with Rufus and Mateo. Even though it all takes place in a day, there’s so much ground covered that it doesn’t feel rushed or stretched.

We all like to proclaim how emotional Adam Silvera’s books make us, but I’m not sure we give him enough credit for his plotting. More Happy Than Not has a plot twist that reveals so many little details planted beforehand, and They Both Die at the End reminded me of that careful structure. There are a lot of details–especially from the other POV chapters as I mentioned earlier–that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. And how they actually die isn’t quite what you expect.

Even though, yes, they both die at the end, the knowledge of the fact and how it is handled prevents this from being a “bury your gays” scenario. Like History is All You Left Me is about break-ups and grief with a m/m couple, this is a high-concept story about family and friendship and love that also happens to feature two boys. It’s not a “what is it like to be a guy or bi guy?” story. So, as I’m sure you’ve expected, there is a bit of a romance–but it’s a slow-burn, and even though this takes place over just one day, there’s friendship first. Lots of talking about deep, philosophical issues (I mean, what else would you do when your impending death is certain and foretold?) and their lives. Mateo and Rufus are very different characters, but they have plenty of heart and love for their family and friends. It’s cute and tender and pure.

Another thing I appreciated: Mateo likes music and has several songs that he has attachments to, and most of them were the kind of music I listen to, as well, so I had a deeper understanding of their relevancy, even though important lyrics are included. In particular: “One Song Glory” from Rent (regret and last wishes when death is close), “American Pie” (eight-minute epic about an untimely death, anti-60s sentiment aside), and “You’re Song” by Elton John (such a unique choice for a contemporary for its love and friendship song). I was geeking out a bit, I admit.

Review: Kaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell

Kaleidoscope Song

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: September 19, 2017

kaleidoscope songSouth Africa is loud. Listen. Do you hear the song and dance of it? The chorus of Khayelitsha life? Every voice is different, its pitch and tone and intonation as distinct as the words we choose and how we wrap our mouths around them. But everybody has a voice, and everybody sings…

Fifteen year old Neo loves music, it punctuates her life and shapes the way she views the world. A life in radio is all she’s ever wanted.
When Umzi Radio broadcasts live in a nearby bar Neo can’t resist. She sneaks out to see them, and she falls in love, with music, and the night, but also with a girl: Tale has a voice like coffee poured into a bright steel mug, and she commands the stage.

It isn’t normal. Isn’t right. Neo knows that she’s supposed to go to school and get a real job and find a nice young boy to settle down with. It’s written everywhere – in childhood games, and playground questions, in the textbooks, in her parents’ faces. But Tale and music are underneath her skin, and try as she might, she can’t stop thinking about them.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Synopsis:

brown girl dreaming.jpgJacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir-in-verse by Jacqueline Woodson, was released in 2014 and showered with awards including a Newbery Honor and National Book Award. So naturally, I wanted to read this as a part of exploring middle grade and for reading more books by and about African-Americans this year.

Woodson covers her early childhood and adolescence in the book, and in that short span of time she has plenty of history and perspective to cover. She’s a black girl born during the Civil Rights movement to a Southern mother but a proud Northern father who divorce when she is a baby. She’s raised in the South with her grandparents, but then her mother leaves for New York, and she and her brother and sister are raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses by their grandmother. When her mother comes back to take them to move to New York (Brooklyn), they continue the practice, and they experience the contrasts between the North and the South through constant visits. Later, she becomes very aware of the 1970s movements that surround her, particularly feminism. Plus, there are quite a few references to the music of the times, which I enjoyed.

As much of the book covers a time when Woodson was quite young and naturally doesn’t remember everything, the verse form allows her to imagine her family at moments she would not be able to see or remember. It’s a creative blend of memoir, hope, and commentary. I also loved to see Jacqueline’s growing love for writing and poetry. Her older sister was the quick-learning, book-smart one, so she felt like she disappointed teachers, but she begins to find her own voice and it’s lovely.

I sometimes struggle with free-verse book form–I think I like single poems more, and particularly poetry that experiments with form, sound, rhythm, rhyme. I like longer “single” poems, and in a lot of popular collections they are quite short and structurally simple. (And just to clarify, I’m not saying those collections aren’t poetry. I just don’t enjoy them or get as much out of them.) But Woodson here has some longer lines and variations in her poems, and the style works very well for that blend of what she remembers and what she imagines.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a great book for the upper elementary and above, especially if you’re interested in writing, poetry, African-American history and perspectives, Jehovah’s Witnesses experiences, or are just a fan of Jacqueline Woodson in general. I’m interested in reading her latest, Another Brooklyn, although that one is a fictional novel for adults. As some of her life in Brooklyn in the ’70s is chronicled in Brown Girl Dreaming, it will be interesting to see how her life influenced that story.

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Genre: middle grade, surrealism/absurdism(?)

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

marvin gardens.jpgObe Devlin has problems. His family’s farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn’t like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his house, in the last wild patch left, picking up litter and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog, or maybe a small boar. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags… No one has ever seen a creature like this before, because there’s never been a creature like this before. The animal–Marvin Gardens–soon becomes Obe’s best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

In her most personal novel yet, Printz Honor Award winner Amy Sarig King tells the story of a friendship that could actually save the world.

Amy Sarig King is better known as A.S. King, one of my favorite YA authors. This is her middle grade debut, so naturally I was doubly intrigued to not only read it but to see how she would write for a different audience. I admit it took me a bit to get into, and like all her books it’s not going to appeal to the mainstream, but it definitely won me over by the end.

Me and Marvin Gardens is your boy-and-a-dog story except the “dog” in question is a completely unknown and strange but friendly creature who eats plastic and poops brightly-colored toxic waste. Yes, you read that right. This is a book about environmentalism, as Obe picks trash out of the creek, ponders pollution facts his cool science teacher writes on the board every day, and has watched his family’s land be turned into a housing development. The changing of the Earth with time was distilled to a microcosm perfectly in this setting. It also has a lot to explore about toxic masculinity, as Obe’s father reminds him frequently that boys don’t cry, and Obe’s former friend has turned against him to fit into the meaner crowd of boys who make a list of girls to kiss without their consent (and the book has a GREAT discussion on this with Obe, his sister, and their parents).

So, yes, this doesn’t have the pacing of your usual middle grade. Obe’s a very internal character and the conflict with Marvin Gardens (the nickname for the creature) and the neighborhood builds slowly. And yet, King has unquestionably tailored her style to suit middle grade. There’s still the surrealism/abusrdism (I don’t know what to call it because unlike some of her others this isn’t magical realism, as Marvin is definitely not treated as a normal thing in the world), but it’s much more linear than her other narratives. Obe occasionally reflects on what it was like 100 years ago when his family began to lose the land, preserving King’s narrative style of having excerpts in different styles from the main narrative–but again, it’s more approachable.

Another delightful aspect of Me and Marvin Gardens is the friendship. Obe grows closer with his friend and bus seat-mate, Annie, as she lets him in one what’s been going on, defends her against his ex-friend’s nonconsensual kiss, and brings her to his creek for her to collect rocks (she wants to be a geologist) and, eventually, to meet Marvin. They get teased a little bit, but their bond remains platonic, which is refreshing. (YA does tend to pair characters more than middle grade, but often MG will feature budding relationships.)

I also really loved the ending, which isn’t a surprise if you know me. I don’t want to spoil it, but it does involve a positive view of teaching as a profession!

As always, I’m looking forward to what A.S. King comes up with next.

Braced by Alyson Gerber

Braced by Alyson Gerber

Genre: middle grade contemporary

Release date: March 28, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic

Synopsis:

bracedThe first contemporary novel about a disorder that bends the lives of ten percent of all teenagers: scoliosis.

Rachel Brooks is excited for the new school year. She’s finally earned a place as a forward on her soccer team. Her best friends make everything fun. And she really likes Tate, and she’s pretty sure he likes her back. After one last appointment with her scoliosis doctor, this will be her best year yet.

Then the doctor delivers some terrible news: The sideways curve in Rachel’s spine has gotten worse, and she needs to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day. The brace wraps her in hard plastic from shoulder blades to hips. It changes how her clothes fit, how she kicks a ball, and how everyone sees her — even her friends and Tate. But as Rachel confronts all the challenges the brace presents, the biggest change of all may lie in how she sees herself.

Written by a debut author who wore a brace of her own, Braced is the inspiring, heartfelt story of a girl learning to manage the many curves life throws her way.

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Pride Month(ish) Wrap-Up

So I’m late to this because I’ve been working a lot. I’ve added the “ish” because the first two books here I read in May, but since they were also Pride themed I decided to include them, especially since I haven’t talked about them yet, either!

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon coverYes, I finally got around to this, and it was one of those books I read in just a couple of days on my Kindle. Simon is about the titular character who communicates through email with another boy known as “Blue” who goes to his high school but whose identity is unknown. This becomes discovered, however, by one of Simon’s classmates who uses the information to blackmail Simon if he doesn’t try to get this classmate together with his friend Abby. What makes it such a quick and enthralling read is that it functions as a personal mystery with a lot of cute moments.

I especially appreciated the discussion of coming out, because it’s a much more nuanced thing that it sounds like. Simon is worried his parents are going to make a bigger deal out of it than it should be. Is coming out still necessary–and should it be? Also, outing people is TERRIBLE.

I also read Albertalli’s second novel (and companion to Simon), The Upside of Unrequited, but I’m not including it as a separate entry because, as many pointed out during Pride month, that while there are many queer characters, the main characters are cis and heterosexual. I didn’t like it as much as Simon. I really appreciated the many discussions in it, though, from sexuality to anxiety (the routine of taking pills in the morning!).

We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

we are the antsThis book is by no means for everyone, but it struck a chord with me. It follows Henry, a teen who happens to be occasionally abducted by aliens who tell him the date of the end of the world but give him the option to save it if he presses a button. The thing is, he’s not sure he wants to press the button. He’s also dealing with the suicide of his boyfriend, relentless bullying at school, friendships both old and new, and his family’s various struggles.

This was a welcome antidote to all the discussion about 13 Reasons Why (which I talked about here, and which Hutchinson has talked about himself), because while it is about guilt, Henry eventually realizes there’s really no one to blame–not to mention his own Henry sees the other characters and his relationship to them as increasingly more complex. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the grandmother with Alzheimer’s, as an ailing grandmother with memory difficulties is something I’ve been going through for a while, and Ms. Faraci who was a great teacher ally.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

color purpleHere’s a classic I’ve known I need to read since the 2016 Tony Awards (this performance, wow!), and it applies to both Pride month reading as well as my African American reading goals. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while now, but I was worried that it would be too heavy and complex reading while I was still doing my school readings. It’s true that it’s written in dialect from an under-educated woman (in the form of letters to God…well, mostly, but I won’t spoil it), but once you figure out who everyone is, it reads quite quickly. Plus, I really appreciated the writing and voice.

The Color Purple is Celie’s story as she struggles to find herself in rural Georgia in the 1930s amidst physical and sexual abuse from her father, her sister Nettie’s disappearance, and an unhappy marriage. She meets a singer, Shug Avery, who becomes more than just a friend. I shipped them SO MUCH and it’s beautiful. Also, the discussion of female sexuality was frank and included more than your typical book–even those published nowadays.

I haven’t seen the movie, directed by Spielberg and starring Oprah, but I did listen to the musical cast album and quite liked it. The OBC includes LaChanze as Celie, who I already loved from If/Then (which I talked about here), and Renee Elise Goldsberry (aka Angelica Schuyler) as Nettie.

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

star crossedThis is a middle grade book about a girl discovering her bisexuality while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet for the eighth grade play with a really pretty girl. Some of the discussion surrounding this book (including a time Dee was asked not to speak of the subject matter at a school visit) sparked a very personal post about the role of LGBTQ+ books for kids and in schools, and now I’ve finally read it.

It is, indeed, adorable, and I was totally rooting for Mattie and Gemma. It’s also a love letter to Shakespeare and theater nerds, which I very much appreciated. Heck, I think I understand Romeo and Juliet better now than when I saw a production of it over 4 years ago. I also really appreciated that the teacher was a major character and portrayed positively and mechanistically…yay for English teachers! (I mean, I’m going to be one, I’m kind of biased.

I do wish the word “bisexual” was used, though, as it certainly seemed within the characters’ vocabulary. One student gets called out (by the teacher!) for using “gay” as a negative descriptor, and Mattie wonders if liking Gemma means she’s a lesbian at one point, though she late tells her friends that it doesn’t change the fact she likes guys, too–but that’s it. And that rang a bit strange. Everything else, relationship-wise (crushes are a big deal!), was perfect for the target age group.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

if i was your girl.jpgThis book is about a trans girl, Amanda, starting her life anew post-transition when she moves in with her father in a different town, and refreshingly it’s a trans book also written by a trans person. Unfortunately, major houses publish seldom few of these. Russo highlights aspects of the experience I hadn’t given as much thought to before–how, yes, awareness that one is trans and maybe “found out” occupies Amanda’s thoughts, but so does avoiding sexual harassment and other misogyny and specifically transmisogyny. And while she had gone through the ringer and continues to have some struggles, she’s allowed to be a regular teen, too, and start a happy relationship. Because even if you’re marginalized, you’re entitled to happiness in stories.

There is a major bisexual character and I’m not sure how I feel about that representation (as someone also bi). She was great for a while but then took a huge left turn. I don’t want to majorly spoil things, but there is something HUGE and terrible that happens at the end (which is why people need to stop saying this book is too happy??). And while it’s true that this horrible thing happens, and it’s good to show that not all LGB people are good trans allies, the bi character’s problem throughout the story result from her sexual attractions and desire for people, and having her being the most sexually active character was just kind of a stereotype I’m tired of? As is her being [SPOILERS] a backstabber. Especially with her being the ONLY bi character. So…alas, I’m conflicted and was a little disappointed

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

anglesinamerica-poster-09e5123a460579745d30d01cd781ea0aI’ve been reading more and more plays lately because I’m on quite the theater kick (both musical and not), so naturally Angels in America was on my list, and it was especially on my list for Pride month. (Note: I read the omnibus edition published in conjunction with HBO’s 2003 movie/miniseries. I know they were revised several times, especially Part 2, and I think I read the latest versions.)

Angels in America is one of those things that’s difficult to describe…yes, it is a two-part play that, in total, often runs close to 8 hours. It’s set in New York during the mid-80s height of the AIDS crisis. There’s Prior Walter, diagnosed and health deteriorating in the hospital, visited by his ancestors and an Angel. His lover, Louis, is terrified and leaves him. Roy Cohn, a real person (now starring in thinkpieces about how he was Trump’s lawyer), is dying from AIDS but is deeply closeted as he equates homosexuals with a lower class with no influence. Oh, and he’s haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenburg, who he sent to the electric chair. There’s Joe, a Mormon, struggling with his sexuality while his wife, Harper (my dream role; she gets some fantastic monologues), is agoraphobic and addicted to Valium. She spends quite a bit of time in a probably hallucinated Antarctica and meets Prior in one of her hallucinations and one of his dreams. And the 8 principal actors play all of the minor parts, too, adding parallels between characters and some female drag roles. So…it’s epic, it’s weird, it’s moving, and it’s funny at points. Part 2 might overstay its welcome and gets much more ephemeral, but the fact the Angels were present and spoke in verse reminded me a lot of Shakespeare and his supernatural-tinged plays (like Macbeth and The Tempest). It’s very theatrical, and that’s what I loved about it.

I’m also attending the National Theatre Live recordings in (movie) theatres. Part 1 has aired so far and it was AMAZING–like I knew the dialgoue was great from reading it, but seeing it acted out with amazing performances? Even better. Plus, there were great effects and lighting for the more magical elements, and there’s a scene between Joe/Harper and Louis/Prior that takes place simultaneously, resulting in a lot of parallels and phenomenal coordination that you don’t completely get from just reading the play. Unfortunately my theater had a sound problem (a loud feedback noise) possibly from the file itself, but they were able to fix it, though they just had to stop and start a couple of times. When there wasn’t that sound, though, I was utterly engrossed, and I’m excited to watch the second part this Thursday.

African-American Literature Wrap-Up #1.5: Giovanni’s Room + Moonlight

I’m calling this one #1.5 because a) the book features white characters but James Baldwin is addressing a different aspect of his identity, namely homosexuality, and b) Moonlight is a film. Nevertheless, considering they’re both written by black gay men, this seemed like the perfect pairing for a post (and it happened that I was finishing up Giovanni’s Room the same weekend that I saw Moonlight).

Giovanni’s Room

giovanniThis book. It’s a new favorite, because the writing was lovely and captured so many conflicting feelings.

I suppose it’s the brief story of David, an American in Paris (much like how Baldwin exiled himself to Europe), and his love affair with Italian expat Giovanni. Except it’s told from the point-of-view of a present-day David, post-relationship, guity over Giovanni’s impending guillotine fate and engaged to a woman named Hella. This book was published in 1956 and has a very intimate (albeit more emotionally than anything) gay sex scene on page 6. James Baldwin literally changed publishers because his old one was like “hey, we thought you were a Harlem Renaissance writer–this is going to alienate your African-American fanbase!” Which, yes, all the characters are white and are in Europe, but there were gay African-Americans, too. (Though unfortunately they’re not as represented–why was part of why Moonlight was so important.)

It doesn’t have the happy ending so rarely afforded to LGBT characters (though David doesn’t die, either), but it’s not a punishment–it’s a statement about society. David’s so caught up in the 1950s American world of suburban family conformity, homosexuality as mental illness and a crime (the Lavendar Scare) that he can’t commit himself to Giovanni or accept his sexuality. This perspective also means that he has internalized prejudices and occasionally makes homophobic comments–including some really awful transphobic ones, as a head’s-up if you’re particularly affected by that.

Sidenote: I also appreciated that Hella, though not as prominent as some of the other characters, was vivid in herself. There’s this part near the end where David’s hugging her but knows he isn’t in love with her (as much as he wishes he could be to make his life easier) and I got so darn emotional because I’ve been there, I’ve been on the receiving end of that hug.

If you’re looking for older LGBT literature, you can’t miss this. And if you like James Baldwin’s writing but haven’t read this yet, check it out. Now I’ve got to read some other Baldwin because I love his writing style.

Moonlight

moonlightCan we talk about this without talking about the Oscars? Maybe, but look, I’m still really upset that I was so tired and annoyed Moonlight didn’t win Best Director that I shut off the TV after they said “La La Land” for Best Picture. Then I was staying up much later than expected trying to understand what had happened through Twitter and upset that I missed it. I knew Warren Beatty looked confused when he looked in the envelope! And all the online clips seem to cut off after the Oscar was handed to Moonlight so I haven’t seen whatever speeches were given, unfortunately.

Okay, got that out of my system. As I mentioned above, I thought this should have won Best Director (though in retrospect, the decision looks more like a consolation prize for La La Land, I guess). That’s because this film is SO MUCH about the visual experience. It’s all about putting you in the head of the main character (Chiron, called Little, Chiron, and Black in the three acts of the film, respectively), whether that’s extreme shaky-cam as he runs away from bullies, stone silence during tense moments, or water bobbing over camera as he’s learning to swim. It’s really hard to watch in parts, while other segments are touching or fraught with sexual tension or pain. (I haven’t seen La La Land yet, but from what I know about it there’s at least one easy case to be made for this as Best Picture, and that’s because the former borrows a lot of techniques from old Hollywood films as an homage while this tries to do something unique at every turn.)

There were also so many little details that weren’t called attention to but, nevertheless, the camera lingered long enough for you to understand, like Black’s license plate in the final act, or the  crown on his dashboard that draws a parallel between him and another important character. (Best Supporting Actor winner) Mahershala Ali’s character is missing in the second act, and only a passing line will tell you why, though you can understand how that happened to him.

I know I’m not telling much of the plot here, but this isn’t about plot, necessarily–it’s the experience. See it. Feel all of the things.

African-American Literature Wrap-Up #1: Native Son, Quicksand, Their Eyes Were Watching God + 13th

I haven’t been blogging too much about books because, well, I confess I haven’t read a book outside of class at all this year quite yet! I have, however, read A LOT of books for class, and so while I haven’t read any yet on my list of Africa-American novels, I HAVE read books for class that fit into that category. And since I’m learning a lot of the historical context surrounding these works, I’ve got quite a bit to say that’s, IMO, more interesting than a standard review (which is why I don’t usually review books I read for school, or classics in general).

Plus, I also watched the documentary 13th, and it only seems appropriate to talk about that here as well.

Native Son by Richard Wright

native son.jpgRecently in development for a film, Richard Wright’s Native Son has been a successful installment in African-American literature since its publication and selection for the Book of the Month Club in 1940. It’s the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American youth who, essentially, accidentally kills a white girl and everything points back to the institutionalized racism that put him in this position. A tense cover-up and hide-out from the police follows, laced with commentary about racist yellow journalism and the communist movement, and then there’s the famous lengthy trial where it’s about something bigger than Bigger. (That’s actually almost a direct quote, I think.)

Native Son can be frustrating in a couple of ways. One, you’d think the institutional problems it discusses wouldn’t be as relevant 70 years later, but sadly they are. As much as the last part of the book turns into an essay sometimes, it’s definitely an in-depth exploration and a worthy perspective to read; I definitely feel like I learned something. Secondly–and I admit this is a lot due to the essay prompt I had to write for it and Wright’s comments on Zora Neale Hurston, which I’ll talk about below–the writing style tends to use the same words over and over again (fear, hot, cold, taut, etc) and leave little question to what these motifs mean. I don’t mind its tendency to hammer its point home; I wonder if white readers (or editors/publishers, for that matter) in the 1940s would have given it much of a chance if it didn’t explain (telling, not showing) exactly what and why Bigger was feeling. For me, it made the reading and analyzing of it a little frustrating, and the pace could be bumpy at times with digressions. Nevertheless, I’m giving historical context the better of the doubt here, and this is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the social realism tradition of African-American literature.

Quicksand by Nella Larson

nella larson
Nella Larson

Nella Larson was a Harlem Renaissance writer who was mixed-race, which led her to feel like she didn’t fit into black or white communities, and the same is true of her protagonist Helga Crane in Quicksand. She’s  a teacher in a Booker T. Washington-style school with a lot of pressure to be the best (oh man did I relate to that from my charter high school days, minus the racial elements) who decides she’ll be happier if she leaves, so she does. But visiting her uncle doesn’t quite work out and she struggles to get a job, so she eventually moves to Harlem. It’s fine for a while, but then she feels like she doesn’t quite fit into the black community, so she takes an opportunity to visit her mother’s family in Copenhagen where she thinks there won’t be a constant discussion of the “race problem.” This is okay for a while, but she’s constantly fetishized that she yearns to return back to America. This cycle does end, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s…not particularly fun.

Naturally, Quicksand can be frustrating and disappointing, and that’s entirely the point. She’s trapped in-between and…well, slowly sinking downward like she’s stuck in quicksand. I learned quite a lot about biracial life in this particular time and place–which, let’s be honest, isn’t something we tend to think about with black history. I also liked Larson’s writing–it’s simplistic but gives Helga a strong voice within third-person narrative–and appreciated how Helga was not necessarily “likable.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

their eyes were watching godI never read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, but I know it’s commonly read in high schools across the country. It was surprising to me, then, to learn about its history. Zora Neale Hurston and her work didn’t achieve much acclaim and recognition in her life, and we can more or less credit Alice Walker (The Color Purple) for rediscovering her work in the 1970s. I read this after Quicksand in a different class than I read Native Son in, but Richard Wright came up because he (as well as contemporary Alain Locke) criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God when it came out–comparing it to racist characitures found in minestral shows, comparing her “sentimentality” to African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, and saying “her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Woah, right?

In defense of Wright, he and Locke were part of the movement within African-American literature at the time to “uplift the race,” which focused on writing social realism (which is what it sounds like–realist literature with a social purpose) often focusing on representations of middle and upper-class African-Americans in literature. In other words, they didn’t think Hurston’s focus on the black “folk” (working-class) in America were helpful. The thing is 1) Hurston’s writing very much from her perspective as an anthropologist and folklorist, so she captures very real dialect and lifestyles and also has some uniquely beautiful writing and 2) there is social commentary. It may not be as on-the-nose as Native Son, but the core of this novel as about taking matters into one’s hands to find happiness, which leads Janie to multiple marriages to find fulfilling love and feel like an equal to her partner. I can’t help but feel Wright and Locke missed these feminist themes to claim there was no social commentary, which is just frustrating.

So that’s the context I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in, and I can’t separate that context from the novel and how I retroactively felt about Native Son. Such happens when one is studying literature sometimes. Nevertheless, Hurston’s writing is lovely and Janie’s journey poignant and inspiring. The story leads to this climax that I didn’t expect, and then a slow-burn sad things happens, and then an even bigger climax I really was not expecting.

Bonus: 13th

13thDuring this time I read these books, I also watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix on a whim. I don’t voluntarily watch many documentaries and my interest in this came from DuVernay directing the new Wrinkle in Time adaptation (which I am so! excited! for!) and its critical buzz surrounding Oscar season. After hearing what it was about, I knew I’d learn something from it.

Saying this doc is about the prison-industrial complex or the rise of Black Lives Matter doesn’t cover the amazing breadth this 100-minute documentary has, though. Nor is it about the 13th amendment–it focuses instead on a specific, surprising clause and how that has eerily continued throughout history. I’m not going to give much away because I think you should WATCH THIS, but the connections it makes between language and media (topical rap songs provide transitions, for instance, and Birth of a Nation also plays a terrifying role) and the politics of Nixon through Clinton in particular are mind-blowing. As much as I thought I knew about this topic and history, I definitely did not see the full picture, and that’s what this film succeeds in. It made me realize how important the big picture is, and I felt more confident in standing up for that when a conversation gets focused on micro-details that miss the point of a controversy.