Reviews: a great gothic novella for Halloween and much much more

The Blind Light by Stuart Evers. 2/5
I almost gave up on this, and am still not sure I shouldn’t have. This is a novel about time and trust and the slow building and erosion of that trust. Two men serve together and learn how to use each other, calling it friendship, and this using leads to betrayal. Their wives remain married to the men for protection and for stability–another kind of use. Their children learn to use and not use their parents, each other, friends. Ultimately, this is a dark and cynical novel, slow and often dull, with little to redeem it for the reader.

The Removed by Brandon Hobson. 5/5
The Removed is an incredible book, a book full of honesty and pain and the ethic of keeping on. It’s about dispossession and racism, and about youth and age in dialogue with one another. It’s got passages of sweeping magnificence and as mundane as describing litter, and it ‘s all woven together masterfully in a story that will resonate with me for a long time. The characters are real and flawed and their hopes are true and painful: there’s the daughter who lies to conceal her hurt and history, the gentle and awkward foster child, the wife watching her husband’s dementia whittle him away, the son who has to confront his fears and self-loathing. I felt for all of these characters, and I think other readers will feel for them too. This would be a great book for discussing along with a history of the Cherokee, US colonialism, and race in America today.

Thinking Again by Jan Morris. 2/5
There’s a point near the end of this book where Morris makes a comment along the lines of “perhaps I’ll regret this book” and yes, I think she will. Or maybe not: who knows? The book is a compilation of diary entries and, poorly edited, reads like someone found scraps of said entries blowing in the wind and tried to fix them all together. Morris’s trademark raconteur personal is on display, but often ill-advisiedly, and her tone, once a quasi-acceptable one (albeit given to imperialist apologizing), now feels ignorantly out of touch and lacking in compassion. But did Morris ever exhibit compassion before? I re-read some of her work after reading this, and realized that no, she’s always been brutal and has always written from her position of great privilege and dismissing those she’s deemed beneath her. So perhaps it isn’t so much that Morris will regret this book, but that I regret having read it.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht. 1/5
Oh my goodness was this dull and trite, and no amount of cute literary or pop culture jokes (like a character name Jeremy Brett and so many more) was going to help it. What we have here is a space opera that includes every trope and character type including the kitchen sink all packed into what I think the author wanted to be a fast and catchy romp. But it’s dragged down by all of the extraneous references and stock characters, and there’s not enough originality to get it off the ground.

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah. 4/5
This is a fascinating book about religion and community, telling the story of how one young woman finds comfort in religion and meaning in her life as she becomes a steadfast believer. Young Afaf sees her father become pious and her mother become cynical and depressed after the disappearance of Afaf’s older sister. And loose ends, Afaf first attends prayer services with her father and finds that the local religious community offers a version of the family support she craves. Years later, though, Afaf’s religion is exactly what causes a white man to target the girls’ school she runs, where he kills 14 students before encountering Afaf. The characters and their beliefs and struggles and actions feel very real, and I think this book could help teach tolerance and understanding between people of different faiths. I hope it gets picked up by book clubs and school reads.

Dangerous Women by Hope Adams. 4/5
This is a well-written and compelling historicization of an actual trip made by women convicted of crimes in England and transported to Australia, with a good solid murder mystery thrown in. The author does a good job of describing the difficulties of life for women at the time and how gendered laws and social conventions frequently forced them into crimes both small and large in order to survive. The account of women sewing on board made me look up the real quilt that was made–it is stunning. All in all, a good historical mystery.

Khalil by Yasmina Khadra. 5/5
Khalil takes the reader on a journey into understanding religious radicalization and the path out of it, documenting a young man’s fears and desires and his search for meaning in a world where few human lives are attributed with it. I want everyone to read this book, to try to understand what happens when religion is used for violence and violence becomes the only way someone can achieve recognition or–as many feel–can achieve something important. Khalil is every boy raised by and with violence and in poverty and without education, every young man who finds solace in a form of belief that includes the tenet that to act for the religion equals love from that religion’s god, and, perhaps more importantly, that god’s living representatives.

High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann. 5/5
This is a beautiful and intense meditation on grief and emotional trauma, full of difficult and brutal imagery and at the same time tenderness. Kampmann takes on troubled psyches and regrets amid fields of climate change and poverty; intimacy and distancing; and the value of life and labor. Waclaw’s journey from oil rig to oil rig and city to city illustrates the fragility of the world and of the individual within it. A harrowing, stunning read.

Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart. 5/5
The adventures of the Kopp sisters continue in a fascinating and fun new book. I’m usually leery of epistolary novels, but author Amy Stewart has proven that they don’t have to be stodgy–this one is lively and I Ioved reading Norma’s and Fleurette’s voices. Each Kopp is doing her bit for the war–Norma in France with pigeons, Fleurette touring military bases, and Constance working for what will become the FBI, recruiting and managing smart women as part of her work in seeking out domestic sabotage and other threats. It helps to have read previous Kopp sisters novels before reading this one, but don’t despair–if you haven’t yet, you’re in for a treat.

Portrait of Peril by Laura Joh Rowland. 1/5
I’d hoped that this series had improved since I read from it last, but no: the protagonist continues to be a shallow and often rather dim and conservative person, despite her continual protesting to the contrary. A main character goes missing, but you hardly notice, because his presence is never terribly interesting–he’s window-dressing made to make the books seem inclusive and their characters open-minded. People talk in exclamations and make dramatic statements, then never follow up, and in the end, I couldn’t care much about who did what when and to whom.

Winter Honeymoon: Stories by Jacob M. Appel. 4/5
Compelling stories about families, loss of control, generational relationships, and living through crises in America. Well-written, with interesting characters and dilemmas, all meant to make the reader think and remember and relate.

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken. 3/5
A collection of stories, many of them interlinked, in which characters confront the awkward truths of their lives, their relationships, and their desires. While some of the pieces featuring recurring characters become repetitive, there are also small gems in the collection, focusing on parenthood, marriage, and existential crisis.

A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León. 4/5
This is a great example of how what seems to be genre fiction–in this case, a thriller–can also serve as social commentary and education. Yolanda, an FBI agent, goes undercover with a Black organization that is seeking justice for the damage done to its community by a local industrial giant. The more she involves herself with the group, the more aware she becomes of why we need Black Lives Matter and other groups working for change.

The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths by Olivier Barde-Cabucon. 1/5
A Baroque mystery set among the powerful of pre-revolutionary France, this novel offers numerous famous and original characters, all of whom are unfortunately rather two-dimensional and boring. While the murder mystery at the heart of the book is is fairly well-constructed, the amount of extra baggage this novel carries weighs it down with gratuitous and over-written subplots and side plots. The Inspector himself is an incompetent and gullible figure with little internal interest–he’s perhaps the most cardboard of the characters. Numerous spies twirl in the orbit of the court, making for threads begun and not really ended; women are objects, even to characters who consider themselves above such considerations; and the entire novel is slow and ornamented to the point of ridiculousness.

Stel Parad by Lisa Menzel. 4/5
This is a dazzling and rich novel that careens from fever-dreams to police drama to exploration of spiritualities and beliefs in min-19th century America. It’s a novel to be read slowly and more than once, as multiple readings provide new insights into all of the connections the author makes across the novel’s many narrators and events.

The (Other) You by Joyce Carol Oates.2/5
A collection in which the inner lives of all of the characters are revealed to be miserable in the face of aging, full of regrets, secretly hating their friends and partners, and ready to die. Many of these intertwined stories ponder about paths not take, decisions that might have been made differently, and in each case, we read the flailings of disintegrating memory and hallucinations, bitterness and anger, and the desire to remain young and in control. AS a meditation on age, these are dark tales, but they are even darker if we consider them at all honest appraisals of humankind.

The Haunting of Beatrix Greene by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, Vicky Alvear Shecter. 4/5
This is a great little horror novel/ghost story in the tradition of M. R. James and all other things gothic. The characters and places are nicely detailed with depth and interest, and the hauntings have excellent layers and causes that the authors reveal slowly and deliciously. I’m not sure why the authors title it like a TV series (Season 1, Episode 1 and so on), but it’s true that it would make a great mini-series.

“Strawberry Man” on WPRB

On October 14, 7-10 am EST, tune in to Marvin Rosen’s Classical Discoveries radio show on WPRB to hear Arwen Myers  sing “Strawberry Man” by Lisa Neher and me!

My lyrics:

“Strawberry Man”
The Strawberry Man
and his little pinto pony
Sweetness, slaked
in the city street

If you’d like to perform the piece, you can buy a digital download  (in multiple keys, even!) from Lisa’s site.  I’d love for this to become part of singers’ repertoires.

The Protectress cover is here!

Medusa was raped.
Medusa was not raped.
Medusa was given rohypnol.
Medusa lured Poseidon from the sea with a bed of seaweed soaked in salt water.
She became pregnant.
She did not become pregnant.
She became pregnant and used her knowledge of the medicinal arts to end her pregnancy.
She became pregnant and gave the resulting child to Poseidon to raise.
She gave the child to her own parents, Phorcys and Ceto.
She and her sisters raised the child, who then became a sculptor, a psychoanalyst, a designer of prosthetics.
Her body after death produced a winged horse and a golden giant.
Her body after death wept from its palms and the tears mixed with earth to create a golem.
Her body after death was dressed by Versace and laid in a bronze tomb in Buenos Aires.

Medusa angered Athena.
Athena was jealous.
Athena was not a feminist.
Athena was a prude.
It did not matter to Athena what actually happened to Medusa.
Athena was required to take action by a committee.
Athena was wise but had already had to deal with mansplaining gods that night.
Athena was a slut-shaming bitch.
Medusa was made an example of through the great wrath of a goddess warrior.

In the long nights, a mortal woman made immortal because of her story ran
from a temple, from a cave, from Kisthene’s dreadful plain eeking blindness, baldness, rebirth
with her sisters.

So many stories. Let us begin anew.

Out January 2022 from Unsolicited Press.

Book cover image showing a dark-skinned woman wearing a gold gilt helmet with gold and green snakes coming out of the top. The text reads: Protectress. Kendra Preston Leonard."

Using Your “Research Pantry”

Yesterday I presented a workshop called “Using Your ‘Research Pantry'” at the joint meeting of TMLA and AMS-SW. You can now download the slides and my speaking notes for it here from Humanities CORE.

Here’s the abstract:

What’s in your research “pantry”? What topics, materials, and data are already on your shelves or in your files, just waiting to become papers, presentations, or articles? The pandemic may have stopped many of us from some of our usual research, library, and archival work, but there is still a lot we can do using materials and information we have and maybe haven’t even thought about. This 1-hour workshop will focus on how we—musicologists, librarians, everyone—can continue or develop research projects working with sources that are immediately available. We’ll discuss taking stock of what we have and how to generate project ideas from those materials; how to work with new and emerging online networks to access archival materials when we can’t travel to the archive; consider how to use recent classroom experiences and data in developing pedagogy- and learning-centered studies; and talk about how librarians and teaching faculty can collaborate on projects that require their specialized skills and training. Participants are encouraged to bring questions, ideas, and projects to discuss. We’ll end with a moderated group discussion to help foster connections and brainstorm further possibilities of using what’s in your research pantry.

Writing with Ghosts–Date Changed

CLASS MOVED: This will now take place December 5 and December 12, from 2-3:30 Central. Sign up at via Writespace! 

History surrounds us and makes our world what it is. Every object, every sidewalk, every house or jail or meeting spot is dappled with layers of stories, events, and emotions. In this class, we’ll explore using history in writing, whether you’re interested in historical novels, writing a family history, or creating an epic poem about a famous—or notorious–event. We’ll talk about how to find inspiration in history and historical materials; research the past for your work and keep track of what you find; approach writing about the past in terms of language, like using slang and speaking conventions of different time periods; and develop new or on-going projects that beckon the ghosts of the past into our words.

(About) Artist’s Statements

I’ve needed to write an artist’s statement for a while, but it’s been difficult. It’s easy for me to list my accomplishments as facts, turning lines on my CV into sentences. But despite writing about personal things in my poetry, I haven’t been comfortable writing a full statement about what I believe about creating art. ThenI was confronted with the need for an artist’s statement for a project proposal. Here’s what I wrote. What should I add? What should I take away? I know the statement will be fluid, and change over time.

Artist Statement

I come to poetry from a background of music performance and scholarship and the study and love of literature. I believe in the philosophy of tikkun olam, “repair of the world,” and I believe that through art, I can leave the world a better place that it was when I arrived. Inspired by history, language, and the mythopoeic, I create works that address social justice issues, particularly those involving women; the environment; and the nature of compassion.

My work includes poems, lyrics, libretti, and plays. In my poetry, I’m interested in how language works in creating a story or a moment. I consider word histories, regionalisms, and slang, and often use wordplay. I use words taken from an influential source or write using a meter from such a source. In my poem “Re-Writing King Lear in a time of Pandemic,” for example, I use almost exclusively words from Shakespeare’s play and those that can be anagrammed from “King Lear” and “Covid.” I’m interested in the scientific names for plants and creatures, and use these in writing about the environment. I use place-names from history and folklore in poetry about race, destruction, and erasure. I match cadences and rhythms to the sounds the objects I write about make. I think of language and sound as a sandbox for me to work in, in all of my writing, and I create connections between words and images and meanings in ways that communicate with a wide range of readers and listeners.

In writing text that will be sung, I tell stories about women; about prejudice; about resilience; and about my own lived experiences. I work to create texts that singers will want to sing, both from technical and artistic perspectives, and texts that lend themselves well to the medium of vocal music and opera. I think about diction and pronunciation and phrasing and where singers will need to breathe. I craft lyrics that fit the requirements of a piece: short, regular lines for young singers, texts that offer opportunities for virtuoso passages or extended techniques for more experienced performers. I work closely with composers and performers throughout the process of creating new works that will be set to music, re-writing and changing elements as the piece demands.

My playwriting also engages with women’s issues, exploring the place and rights of women in society, how women are viewed by men, and the concept of the monstrous feminine. I’m influenced in all of my work by feminist authors and visual artists, like Marcin Nagraba and Agnieszka Osipa, whose Pagan Poetry photograph series inspired my song cycle From Wild Sleeping Waters; by writers who are creative and intelligent in their use of language, like Helen Macdonald and Paul Kingsnorth; and writers who work with important issues through highly imaginative frameworks, like Maria Headley Dahvana, Margaret Killjoy, and R. B. Lemberg.

Tomorrow: Spooky Songs for Singing

Tomorrow, tune in to Facebook live 1 12:30 PST/2:30 CST as my collaborator composer Lisa Neher and Jessica Saunders of Saunders Voice Studio introduce a new set of songs for young singers!

The songs will be published through Lisa’s company, and will include sheet music and accompaniment sound files, so your singers can practice at home and perform online.

I loved writing the lyrics for these three songs! “The Ghost of the Wych Elm,” based very loosely on a real-life mystery, asks if you’ve seen this sad ghost, out in the woods and searching for her hand and her name. In “Werewolf Song,” singers get to howl and growl as they turn into werewolves and chase more mundane critters through the streets. Finally, you’re invited to join zombies, mummies, and more at “The Witches’ Party,” full of spooky fun.

Reviews: Black Futures, The Photographer of Mauthausen, and more

Half Life by Jillian Cantor. 1/5
I really wish people writing about music and musicians had actual musicians read their work before publishing it. Most orchestras don’t call the pianist the “principal piano,” and being the pianist for an orchestra does not mean playing non-stop piano concertos with said orchestra. Not every piece is a “song.” Not every musician has or needs perfect pitch, and having it doesn’t automatically make you a good musician.

Now that I have that off my chest: this novel fictionalizes the life of Marie Curie and, in parallel, imagines a life for her–as Marya–had she not gone to Paris to study when she did. The author is clearly trying to create numerous parallels between these two lives, including having Marie’s sister Helena marry Jacques Curie in the version where Marya stays in Poland. Because of this very tight connection between the parallel worlds, though, the story is restricted in imagination and originality. The storytelling is a bit heavy-handed: it’s obvious from the start that Marya’s husband will cheat on her with Leokadia; that Marya will return to him; that Marya and Pierre Curie will feel attracted to one another; that the real-life affair between Marie and Paul Langevin will be mirrored by Pierre and Jeanne Langevin; and so on. Ultimately, the novel is a bit of a slog with few rewards.

The Photographer of Mauthausen written by Salva Rubio; drawn by Pedro J. Colombo; colored by Aintzane Landa. 5/5
This is an outstanding graphic novel about the power of testimony and the forms that testimony can take. Crafted with detail and attention and compellingly written, this book is an important contribution to literature about resistance and organization in WWII concentration camps, as well as an illustration on the need for historical accuracy, evidence, and documentation. This should not only be very well-received among regular graphic novel readers, but also those interested in WWII, the history of photography and journalism, and current activism. There’s some swearing and of course images of the atrocities of Mauthausen, but I’d recommend this nonetheless for readers ages 12 and up. I’d love to see it taught in schools and chosen by book clubs for meaningful discussion.

The Ravine by Wendy Lower. 2/5
This memoir follows the work of the author in seeking out more information about a devastating photograph of the murder of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War. The author’s explanations and descriptions of the war and its various entities is often simplistic, and while her writing about the power of photography and its use during the war and after is more engaging and informative, she remains at a distance in the narrative, even as she sifts fragments of human bone from a mass grave. The writing is often stilted and in the passive voice. I don’t know if this is to make the work seem more scholarly–it is non-fiction, but not scholarly at all–or because of her own lack of ease with the subject matter. Unfortunately, the book ends with tepid platitudes and is, as a whole, unsatisfying.

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser. 1/5
In this fairy tale, when a middle-aged woman is left by her husband, she discovers that she has inherited a house and its valuable contents in Scotland from a distant family member. Off she goes, Cinderella to the ball! Once in the house, she makes friends in the town and begins a friendship with the local bookseller, who happens to be rich and handsome, albeit emotionally very, very screwed up. The heroine wins him over and makes him want to be a better person, although why, I don’t know–he’s emotionally abusive and violent at times. But it’s a fairy tale, so apparently that doesn’t matter. And he promises to be better. Then he gets into a fistfight with his brother, but the heroine helps t hem reconcile. Did I mention it’s a fairy tale? In the end, everyone is happy. There’s a token Sassy Black Friend and Devoted Lesbian Couple, in place apparently to make the story more diverse than it really is: it’s about white, financially comfortable people having mid-life crises and overlooking really serious issues in other people in order to convince themselves that they are still sexy, still desirable, still valuable in a society that values those attributes. It was all kind of sad to read.

Black Futures by Kimberly Drew; Jenna Wortham. 4/5
An excellent collection of writing and art by Black artists on topics ranging from reparations to BLM to food cultures to music. This will be especially valuable for educational use and reading groups.

The Project by Courtney Summers. 2/5
A thriller about cults and belonging, in which the protagonist is an easily-swayed and not terribly smart young woman seeking her sister. A lot of plot elements don’t make a lot of sense, and the denouement was predictable. A round of developmental editing would have helped round out the characters more and made the author consider certain plot choices that seem arbitrary or irrelevant.

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day. 1/5
In a dystopian world where children are trained to become astronauts in their teens, protagonist June is a precocious, self-centered, thoughtless child who grows into a hubristic, self-centered, thoughtless, and reckless adult. Driven to show that she is always, always right and better, June rejects the critical necessity of teamwork in engineering in order to follow her own agenda, leading to the ends of others’ careers and health. In addition to having one of the least sympathetic narrators I’ve ever read, this book offers a view of engineering and science that is completely antithetical to the way those things should work. Engineers are unethical, withholding vital information; they keep deadly secrets in space; they behave like children. Perhaps this is intended as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let the cult of genius aggrandize itself unchecked, but I think the author genuinely thinks this is all heroic or realistic or something. Want good books about women in space? Go read The Calculating Stars and its sequels instead.

Riddle Field by Derek Thomas Dew. 1/5
While I appreciate that this collection of prose poems and poems may have been cathartic for the author, it’s not very good writing. There’s an overflowing of constant flowery language and a sense of desperation in trying to create images, and ultimately not much of it coheres. There is so much repetition that words and phrases become less effective and meaningful and turn into a drone to be ignored. I wish the author had gone a few rounds with an editor–or, if they did, had been able and willing to edit to develop a more honed work.

The Radium Girls: Young Readers’ Edition by Kate Moore. 1/5
To begin with, while newspapers of the times may have called the women who used radioactive paint to paint clock dials “radium girls,” we now live in a time when we should be calling them women, because they were. Many may have been young, yes, but they were still working women who don’t deserve to be remembered with the belittling name of “girls.” Moore used “girls” in her original edition of this book and does so even more in this “young readers’ edition,” and it’s disrespectful and infuriating.

I’ve read the non-young-readers’ edition of this book, and came away from this edition confused as to who the author and publisher think the young readers’ edition is for. The regular edition is perfectly fine for average readers ages 13 or so and up, and this young readers’ edition lifts whole passages out of it without change. At the at the same time, this new edition includes new text that is astonishingly condescending to readers of, say, 8 and older. So the target audience for this is very unclear. The cutesy material added to dial down the ages for the marketing of the book is pretty horrifying given the seriousness of the topic.

As in the original edition, too, the author spends a lot of time detailing how pretty the dial-painters were, as if their beauty is what made it so awful that they died in the ways that that did, rather than the fact that they were human beings who were routinely lied to in their workplaces. Whether their hairstyles were “cute” or their smiles “shy” is objectifying and irrelevant.

Finally, the writing just isn’t very good. It’s often repetitive and full of tired phrases and cliches, and not terribly compelling. The author introduces errors of scientific fact as well. I can’t in any good faith recommend this book or its original edition because of these myriad issues.

Olav Audunssøn by Sigrid Undset. 2/5
After reading the translator’s outstanding introduction to this I thought I’d be in for a treat, but alas the repetition and unending grinding of slow-moving plot points and relationships didn’t keep my attention.