Best of Summer Reading, Part 1

A quick round-up of my 5-star books for the summer so far:

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.

Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.

This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.

Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. 5/5
Uncrowned Queen is an excellent biography of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and a savvy political figure active in the Wars of the Roses. Thoroughly researched, the book is an entertaining and detailed read, and Tallis does a great job of making all of the often complicated bloodlines and inheritances clear and relevant. Readers interested in the Tudors and their history will enjoy this account of Margaret’s careful planning and plots to install her son on the throne, as well as the detail Tallis provides on Margaret’s estates, clothes, and jewelry, all managed and and used for specific purposes to secure her life, that of her her heir, and her freedom and positions over the course of her life.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. 5/5
This is a luminous book, a guide to Macdonald’s life and ways of thinking, and, along, the way, a meditation on birds and nature and change and cows and falcons and deer. I can’t wait to be able to give this book to people who love words and nature and will savor every poetic phrase and observation.

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa. 5/5
A stunning and magnificent book about World War II in Japan and America that everyone should read. Serizawa’s writing is beautiful, brash, and wholly enthralling as she charts the emotions and reactions and relationships that touch on one Japanese family over many generations. Serizawa’s tiny details, a sense or proportion, and the ability to write unflinchingly about horror and trauma make this book outstanding.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
A gorgeous Gothic novel full of the traditional elements of the genre, expertly handled and made interesting and new again. Moreno-Garcia gives readers a lot of hints throughout, but while they were obvious it never felt too heavy-handed. Her use of characters who can communicate in both English and Spanish, keeping non-Spanish speakers from understanding, was a good device, but could have been more powerful if she’d replaced Spanish with an indigenous language to further emphasize difference and the eugenicist beliefs of certain characters. The novel serves as a fantastic allegory for colonization and corruption.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna. 5/5
This is a wonderful book about the power of women and allyship and playing the long game to achieve something truly spectacular. Young women, ostracized from their communities, are trained as warriors….but when the biggest battle comes, there is a startling and liberating secret that has to come out. I loved this book, which draws from West African myth and lore, has well-developed and diverse characters, and is masterpiece of layered stories and motivations.

Devolution by Max Brooks. 5/5
Having taken on zombies in World War Z, Max Brooks now tackles Bigfoot/Sasquatch in his new novel. Like World War Z, Devolution is structured as a journalistic account, using interviews, diaries, and other materials from the world of the novel to create a fast-paced and compelling thriller about one so-called utopia and how its residents handle the arrival of aggressive and hungry Sasquatch after Mount Rainier erupts. The characters are deftly created, and I appreciated the fact that women were the main characters and leaders of the group. Anyone who has enjoyed Brooks’s other work, likes dystopias or apocalyptic settings, or likes tales of the unknown will get a kick out of this fun and clever book.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek. 5/5
An astonishing and brilliant book intended to–and effective at–capturing the world and language of late 14th-century England. A former priest, an archer, and a noblewoman on the run find themselves traveling together to Calais in a time of plague, war, and uncertainty. Exploring social mores, religious belief, gender, sexuality, politics, and more, Meek creates a wondrous tale of resistance and persistence.

Premiere of Fire and Dust

Get your tickets now to the NEO Voice Festival, being held online July 24-25, 2020, to hear the premiere performance of Stephen Vincent Casellas‘s settings of two my poems in his new work “Fire and Dust” for soprano, piano, and fixed electronics. Here is the text:

“Isolation and Old Observance”
Mind your fire at home,
so come May it will burn in the fields.
Watch for the dawn through the window,
as the Bede searched for her in his books.
Make three joyful leaps alone,
to have dancing together this summer.
Apart on the land, feed the hares their crops,
apples in sun on the cross-quarter day.

“Ossuary Garden”
under artfully arranged brambles bodies
each creates cathedrals of ribs where
the grubs may take communion,
where each offers vertebral apartments
for beetles, side by side by side,
or feeds the ever-growing rosebush

beneath, tunneling, building, knocking down
like the sea to sandcastles the once-cat
feeding the ever-growing rosebush

gone-hound enriching the violets and weeds
feeding the ever-growing rosebush

Download The Conservatoire Américain: a History for free

Today the Fontainebleau Associations held a lovely Zoom reunion. It was really nice to see so many people I knew, who I’d met as students or faculty or when I was doing research on and interviews for my history of the Conservatoire Américain. That book, The Conservatoire Américain: a History, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2007 and is now available as a free download from Humanities Commons CORE.

Book reviews: In the Neighborhood of True and more

Interstellar Flight Magazine Best of Year One by Edited by Holly Lyn Walrath. 3/5
Interstellar is a new speculative publication, and this collection gathers numerous pieces from their first year in operation. It’s a bit of a mix, quality-wise. While the interviews are great, some of the essays could have used more polishing prior to their initial publication; others require more contextualization for inclusion as stand-alone pieces here. As the magazine continues, I’d like to see more collections like this, but less of the unedited fan appreciation essays and more pieces that are a little deeper, more thoughtful, and more nuanced.

Enemy Rising by C. J. Fisher. 1/5
This is one of those books that has an interesting idea that is full of potential–zombies in an alternate-universe Colonial India–but needs a lot more work before going out into the world. The dialogue is just not good: it changes tone frequently, is full of random emotional changes, and is stilted and tells too much. Overall, it needs more showing and less telling, and each chapter could benefit from outlining for clarity and plot. followed by rewriting. I’d love for this to get a big developmental edit and a copyedit–there are punctuation issues galore–before being published. I can read the book it could become in this version, but it needs a lot of work to get there.

After Sundown by Mark Morris (Editor). 2/5
This collection of horror is a mixed bag. A few pieces stood out as truly excellent, among them “Swanskin” by Alison Littlewood and Simon Bestwick’s M. R. Jamesian “We All Come Home.” Other authors had good ideas but couldn’t figure out quite what to do with them, as evinced in C. J. Tudor’s “Butterfly Island,” in which the ending feels unsatisfactory. I was horrified and appalled, though, by Michael Marshall Smith’s “It Doesn’t Feel Right,” which uses stereotyped symptoms of autism to represent monstrosity among children. I am autistic, and I strongly recommend that this chapter be removed from the volume. It is exactly the kind of misrepresentation that so many of us in the SFF community are working against. Otherwise, it’s a fine if not stellar collection.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. 2/5
I think this book is intended to be heartwarming, the kind of book people love because it has quirky characters who have seemingly overcome impossible conditions and survived if not triumphed nonetheless. But I found it an enormously sad book, peopled with individuals whose decisions, not always based on reason, led them into misery. The author’s use of trauma as a plot device isn’t uncommon, but I don’t think it’s handled well here, especially in regard to the PTSD suffered by a minor character whose role, quite honestly, does nothing to serve the book and could be removed. While the characters’ adventures and development was good , I never found their ultimate relationship of close friends convincing, at least not on the part of the Miss Benson of the title, and I found the conclusion of Enid’s story to be a convenient cop-out along the lines of “and then I woke up!”

Interviewing the Dead by David Field. 2/5
In this mystery, a Wesleyan clergyman and two scientists team up to solve a mystery involving apparent apparitions and deaths in London. While the mystery itself is interesting, the characters are a bit over the top in terms of speech and action and never quite come together as realistic, remaining stereotypes throughout. A romance between the clergyman and one of the scientists feels forced and unnecessary.

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.

Book reviews: super awesome #OwnVoices lit and more

Here at Dawn by Beau Taplin. 1/5
Inspirational and instructional poetry in the vein of advice from people who have never experienced severe depression, who think that everyone believes in god, and that their own experiences and slight reworkings of cliched phrases are valuable. The prose poem about sex could have been lifted from a bad Cosmo column from the 1980s, the constant “pick yourself up/change you life/embrace joy” maxims are tired and wearying, and the language is pedestrian, with sentiment off in the maudlin woods far too often to entrance.

The Skylark’s Song by J.M. Frey. 1/5
An uncomfortably romanticized account of a woman’s relationships with men, both supposed friends and enemies, who assume that bodies and physical actions can and should be traded for other favors or help, and an even more romanticized example of how Stockholm Syndrome might develop between a captor and a prisoner. The book does demonstrate how women can be pushed into such trading and psychological states. In more specifics, the novel recreates the French-German part of WWII in a fantasy world with names borrowed from Canadian place names, albeit without doing the work of acknowledging the origins or settler-colonialist histories of them. The author may be enthusiastic about steampunk and having written the book on a bet, but neither is to be celebrated in this poorly thought-out pastiche.

Daughters of Darkness by Sally Spencer. 1/5
A PI-centered mystery novel, this book is an excellent example for English instructors who tell students to “show, not tell” in their writing: this book is 100% about telling and not showing, and as a result is boring and plodding.

The House on Widows Hill by Simon R. Green. 1/5
This is a locked-room murder mystery, with the added quirks of the narrator being an alien and the setting a supposedly haunted house. The mystery of the murder is predictable and easy and pointless, while the haunted house part serves to propel–possibly? in a tiny way?–the narrator’s multi-book arc about finding more of his own kind. The characters are flat and ridiculously, badly gendered, the narrator himself is an unappealing, condescending jerk, and the entire book is mostly banal talk and little action.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg. 4/5
A collection of sometimes intertwined stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is poetic, a book for which slow reading is necessary and worthwhile. Van den Berg’s deft writing is for savoring and rereading on the page in order to fully appreciate the craft. The plots, such as they are, are nebulous and unresolved, and the characters equally wispy, their motivations unclear, their specific experiences undetailed to a point of dissatisfaction. But the themes of each piece are powerful and ever-present: violence, homelessness, power; this amalgamation of the concrete and the unsettling is what makes these stories succeed, both individually, and with their occasional linkages.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang. 4/5
Bestiary is a raw and unflinching examination of parental violence and psychological warfare, the fighting of self against history and trauma, and the ways in which co-dependency becomes anger and hatred and inability to live at ease. It tells intergenerational stories of fact mingled with folklore, blended with history and escapism. Throughout there is beautiful writing and heart-breaking writing and writing about disgust and disgusting things, and at times I wasn’t sure if this rollercoaster would make me feel exhilarated or make me nauseated, but I persevered, and found the experience worthwhile.

The Night Witches by By Garth Ennis and Russ Braun. 2/5
This graphic novel about the Soviet Union’s legendary “Night Witches”–crack aviators who fought against Germany in the Second World War–follows several women who join, train, and fight. Written and drawn in a traditional, fairly realistic style, the content will be difficult for some readers. There’s a military leader forcing one of his men to rape a woman, suicide, a medic biting through a man’s arm to try to save him, the eating of a dog,
It’s a very “talky” comic, with a lot of telling and less showing: panels are often crowded with speech balloons to the detriment of allowing the art to function as an equal. And the book engages in the use of fake Cyrillic lettering, an annoying affectation. The dialogue often includes slang from British culture, which makes it seem less realistic and jarring in context. The Afterword to the book is perhaps its greatest strength, offering readers information on the history of the Night Witches and air warfare, although readers should be warned that it glorifies such warfare.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley. 2/5
In this non-fiction work, author Stanley chronicles the life of a Japanese woman in the 1800s based on the woman’s voluminous correspondence with her family members. But the book focuses on standard descriptions of places and events, and there’s actually very little material that quotes these letters directly. The result is a book that drags and is full of historical material that I could read in any book about Japan during this time. The author missed a big opportunity in not letting her subject’s own voice lead the narrative.

A History of Magic, Witchcraft, and the Occult. 5/5
A lavishly illustrated introduction to magic and ritual around the world, this volume provides historical context and information for those seeking basic information, and offers details of documents, objects, and art depicting magic for those interested in more detail or visual inspiration. Accessible and informative commentary accompanies each image and provides an overview of various topics in the history of magic.

A Choir of Crows by Candace Robb. 2/5
A new installment in a series set in medieval York featuring the town’s clergy and an investigator and his family. A slow and cliched start that never really picked up made this a bit of a slog. Readers of earlier books in the series might enjoy it more, but I found the characters a bit dull and the dialogue uneven in its approach to seeming both from a different time and still contemporary.

Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.

Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.

This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.

The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson. 4/5
An eminently readable and detailed book about four men involved with the development of the OSS/CIA at the end of the second World War and through the first decade of the Cold War. Anderson includes information about specific operations and spies, the tradecraft of the day, and the interaction between the CIA and the politicians who worked with or against it. Anderson is careful to remind readers about who’s who as the telling of this history becomes more complex, always making sure that his writing is clear and easy to follow. Limited in its focus by design, it’s a good read for those interested in this point in world history or the art of spying in general.

Bernard of Clairvaux by Brian Patrick McGuire. 4/5
This is a very personal book about Bernard of Clairvaux, his time period and politics, and the author’s relationship with Bernard as a historical figure. Clearly written and designed for general audiences, this biography delves into church factions, warring kings and dukes, and complex social issues with elegance and ease. It’s a great introduction to the medieval in Western Europe and its influential figures.

A Demon-Haunted Land by Monica Black. 4/5
This excellent study of belief in faith healing and witchcraft in the immediate post-WWII era in Germany is a fascinating read complete with intrigue, denazification, schemers, and thousands of people desperate to believe in anything to get past war injuries, trauma, and guilt. Relying on primary sources and previous scholarship, Black crafts a detailed account of the postwar psyche, seeking to heal from the past even as many used wartime connections and power to create new opportunities for themselves. Written in an accessible manner for general readers, this would be terrific for book club or similar read-and-discuss forum.

CFP: AMS-Southwest and Texas Music Library Association

The Joint Program Committee for the American Musicological Society Southwest Chapter and the Texas Music Library Association is accepting proposals for presentations to be given at our 2020 joint fall chapter meeting. The virtual meeting will take place as several sessions between Thursday, September 24 and Saturday, September 26, 2020.We welcome presentations about topics in musicology, music librarianship and related areas, with inclusion for diverse perspectives. Some proposed themes include, but are not limited to:

  • Research methods during a pandemic—beyond traditional online resources
  • Career challenges—tenure, and promotion, and instruction during a pandemic
  • Student centric programming—career tips, research tips, research support

We are offering a variety in programming formats and seek presenters for the following suggested areas:

  • A session for lightning talks (10 minutes or less)
  • Roundtable sessions
  • Workshops (60–90 minutes)
  • Lecture presentations (20 minutes)
  • Pre-arranged panel

Proposals may be submitted through our online Google form. Please include your presentation title, 250 word abstract, and names/email for all presenters. The application form is available at: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf74q5RiPeq00UQvsd0jb3s25ZlBlPskM5mZb6CHDr_n_jvxw/viewform?usp=sf_link.

The deadline for proposals is Friday, July 10, 2020. Presenters will be notified of their status by Friday, July 24, 2020. Questions about the application process may be sent to Kendra Preston Leonard at kendraprestonleonard [at] gmail [dot] com.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely, Brian Anderson (University of North Texas)
Blaine Brubaker (University of North Texas)
Stacey Jocoy (Texas Tech University)
Kendra Preston Leonard (Silent Film Sound & Music Archive)
Pamela Pagels (Southern Methodist University)
Virginia Whealton (Texas Tech University)