'Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest' by Hanif Abdurraqib

Review #125

I can’t remember the last time a book seemed to transport me literally through space and time, but I was taken back to my senior year of high school in 1993 by this Sunday’s selection, ‘Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest’ by Hanif Abdurraqib:

Back then, I listened to a lot of rap music, particularly driving around my hometown, White Plains, in my Army green 1969 Plymouth. Brian or Armand or Wolf would be in the passenger seat controlling the tape deck, deciding whether we listened to a mixtape from Doo Wop and the Bounce Squad, or something dubbed off WBAI’s ‘Underground Railroad’ show, or new releases from Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, Nas, or, more often than not:

Tribe’s second album, ‘The Low End Theory,’ was always in heavy rotation. And I have a hazy memory of when I heard Tribe’s third album, ‘Midnight Marauders,’ for the first time after it was released in late 1993. Brian and I drove down Central Avenue to Nobody Beats the Wiz in Yonkers to get it most likely, and then we probably cruised around lower Westchester listening to it. Here’s a reenactment of us enjoying ‘Award Tour’:

I remember that we both thought the album was something special; completely new and original, as if it came to us from the future where music was more sophisticated and awesome. Thanks to poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib’s 206-page love letter to Tribe and to that era, I was able to relive this moment where I heard great music for the first time with my best friend. It made me experience the meaning of this Japanese word:

Most writing about music is bad, and I hate it. It just doesn’t work when a music critic tries to describe what a song sounds like. And when songs are mentioned in a novel, it feels awkward. It makes me crazy when Haruki Murakami does this; it feels like he’s doing more to show off his musical taste than to advance the story. The only writers I’ve found who understand how to write about music are Lester Bangs and Hanif Abdurraqib, because they get it. They understand that the way to write about music is to hardly write about it at all, to focus instead on the emotions and memories songs evoke, and to connect music to moments that are bigger than the songs themselves. Abdurraqib does this brilliantly and beautifully in ‘Go Ahead in the Rain.’ The book traces A Tribe Called Quest’s lineage, and that of rap music generally, back through the history of the black experience in America starting with slavery, as you’ll see in the excerpt below. Also contained here is the backstory about how Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi came together, how they crafted their three iconic albums, how things started to fall apart on the two albums before their breakup, and how they reunited for one last hurrah before tragedy struck. Woven in are Abdurraqib’s personal recollections of first encountering and falling in love with Tribe’s music, often told as letters written to members of the group. The book also includes fascinating details and haunting anecdotes from history and current events. The origin story of Jet magazine is included here. As is a retelling of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man who sold CDs outside a grocery store in Louisiana. There’s also the story about the love between Leonard Cohen and Marianne, who inspired several of his songs. Trump’s election appears, too. In his back-cover blurb, writer Rembert Browne describes best how Abdurraqib connects all these disparate elements: ‘Go Ahead in the Rain reminds anyone fortunate enough to receive its pages that being black in America is to be part of a lineage, that no one person’s story exists in a vacuum, and that, like Hanif with Phife and Ali and Q and Jarobi, connective tissue exists all around us, invisible to the indifferent and brightly illuminated to the curious.’ I learned so much from this book. For example, I never knew that Phife’s mother was a poet. It was a treat to read her work here. Also, I never knew how Otis Redding died. I will be thinking about how a member of the Bar-Kays, who was the sole survivor of the plane crash into a lake that killed Redding and his other bandmates, could only watch, clinging to a seat cushion and unable to swim, as the wreckage pulled them beneath the waves. Thinking about that again, I’m like:

‘Go Ahead in the Rain’ had been on my reading list for a while, but I didn’t pick it up until I visited Nate, one of my best friends from college, in Cincinnati right before Christmas. Nate and I connected over A Tribe Called Quest and early 90s hip-hop when we first met in the dorm, and he had the book on the nightstand in his guest bedroom. I took that as a cosmic sign, so I went on an excursion to the local indie book store up the street from his house and bought it. It’s a wonderful book. It’s an ode to a great band that may be a little too loving and uncritical. But, more importantly, it reminds us how music connects us to friends, to memories and to history. You should all read this book.

How it begins:

In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it. When slaves were carried to America, stolen from places like West Africa and the greater Congo River, with them came a musical tradition. The tradition, generally rooted in one-line melodies and call-and-response, existed to allow the rhythms within the music to reflect African speech patterns—in part so that everyone who had a voice could join in on the music making, which made music a community act instead of an exclusive one.

Once in America, where the slaves were sent to work in America’s South, this ethos was blended with the harmonic style of the Baptist church. Black slaves learned hymns, blended them with their own musical stylings that had been passed down through generations, and thus, the spiritual was born. In the early nineteenth century, free black musicians began picking up and playing European stringed instruments, particularly violin. It started as a joke—to mimic European dance music during black cakewalk dances. But even the mimicry sounded sweet, and so the children of slaves made what sweet sounds they could and stole a small and precious thing after having a large and precious history stolen from them.

But before this, when slaves were first brought to North America in the early 1600s, slaves from the West African coast would use drums to communicate with each other, sending rhythmic messages that could not be decoded by Europeans. In this way, slaves, whose family members were often held captive in different spaces, could still enter into distant but meaningful conversations with one another. In 1740, the slave codes were enacted, first in South Carolina. Among other things, drums were outlawed for all slaves. Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 reads: “And … it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain … Negroes and other slaves … [from the] using or keeping of drums, horns, or other loud instruments, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”

My rating:

‘Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest’ by Hanif Abdurraqib was published by University of Texas Press in 2019. 206 pages. $16.95 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ohio.


More things worth your time:

  • Read this: The Guardian has an interesting piece about how Amazon tracks what you’re reading, when you’re reading, and for how long, on its Kindle devices.

  • Read this, too: This weekend, I flipped through some recent editions of the New York Times Book Review and came across this interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I love her quote: ‘Looking back, I started out feeling reading was an escape, then a chore, then a habit, then a luxury. Only now I’ve realized what a necessity it is, and how easily it’s taken for granted.’ And I also read this interview with Laurie Anderson. In it, she says: ‘Books are the way the dead talk to the living.’

  • Do this: Strand Book Store is hosting a panel discussion on the life of Zora Neale Hurston on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. to coincide with the new release of two of her works: ‘I Love Myself When I am Laughing’ and ‘Hitting a Straight Lick.’ The panel features Rachel Cargle, Mahogany L. Browne, Morgan Jerkins and Jamia Wilson. Click here for more information.


In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston. Also in the queue are ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ by Oyinkan Braithwaite, ‘The Book of X’ by Sarah Rose Etter and ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #124 featured ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

Please click the heart button above if you enjoyed this newsletter. You can also share it with a friend:

Share Books on GIF

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,

MPV

With GIFs from @parkerjackson and others via Giphy.com.

'The Great Believers' by Rebecca Makkai

Review #124

This beautiful and heartbreaking book completely bummed me out. Seriously, I headed to the bar around the corner for a drink after I finished this Sunday’s selection, ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai:

This novel, which was a National Book Award finalist, opens in 1985 during the AIDS crisis in Chicago. We meet the two protagonists at a memorial service for Nico, a gay man killed by the disease. Yale is one of Nico’s close friends. Fiona is Nico’s younger sister and, although she is a reappearing character in Yale’s timeline, her story is primarily set in Paris in 2015. As their point-of-view chapters alternate, we see Yale work to bring a big art donation to a gallery at Northwestern University, where he works. The paintings are being donated by Nora, Fiona’s elderly aunt, who studied to be an artist in Paris before and after World War I, and who rubbed elbows with Modigliani and other artists of that era, and collected some of their works. The donation is complicated by Nora’s family, who instead want to cash in on the collection’s value. In Fiona’s chapters, we see her searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, who has fled from a cult and moved to Paris with her toddler-aged child. As both timelines progress, they recreate Chicago in the late 80s and early 90s as AIDS ravages that city’s gay community in Boystown, and Yale and Fiona lose friends, lovers and acquaintances one by one, like:

Makkai did a good job recalling the tremendous fear and ignorance surrounding AIDS and homosexuality during the Reagan era. We see the tell-tale purple lesions, the indifference from the federal government and the health-care industry to fighting the disease, and the consequences of unprotected sex. And we also see the discrimination gay men faced from society and their own families. Nico’s family, for example, excludes his gay friends and his partner, Terrence, from his funeral in an attempt to deny they even exist. Yale gives Fiona power of attorney over his medical care after his parents have little to do with him. As I was finishing this book, the ‘American Dirt’ controversy about cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping in that new novel was playing out online. (If you’re not familiar with the issue, the Los Angeles Times has a good writeup here.) I wondered if there was a similar issue with ‘The Great Believers.’ Makkai addresses the issue in her acknowledgements, where she writes: ‘This project was undertaken with a great deal of ongoing thought and conversation about the line between allyship and appropriation—a line that might feel different to different readers. It is my great hope that this book will lead the curious to read direct, personal accounts of the AIDS crisis—and that any places where I’ve gotten the details wrong might inspire people to tell their own stories.’ She discusses the issue at greater length in Lit Hub. I couldn’t find any commentary from gay men about it, but Chicago’s LGBTQ publication Windy City Times gave it a positive review. Shoot me an email if you disagree, but it seems to me that this book is not coming from a place of appropriation, but rather one of empathy and:

I don’t want to give away too much about the book, but I want to point out a few minor details that have personal significance. One is a passing mention of the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It’s run by a man who has the same name I do. I want to meet him one day and try his cheese. Another is a cameo by DePaul University, which late in the book provides Yale needed employment and health insurance. Donna went to DePaul, and its alumni network has made me feel more welcome than my own alma mater, Boston College. Lastly, there is a fleeting reference to Caravaggio’s painting of St. Jerome. It’s a painting I think about a lot, and I have a framed postcard of it on my nightstand. In it, St. Jerome is hard at work; I believe he’s translating the Bible into Latin. On his desk is a skull, a memento mori. Caravaggio is reminding us that even though we work hard and feed our passions, death awaits. Makkai’s book offers a similar message. The great believers, I think, are all of us who believe that time is on our side, and that in life it’s possible to attain things that are real and permanent. In the book, Yale believes he can find love, companionship and stability even as his world falls apart. Fiona believes she can fix her relationship with Claire by being present in her life. We all need this kind of optimism in order to get out of bed in the morning, because the reality is far too sad to think about. Our lives—and those of our friends and loved ones—are far from permanent. As I write this, the world is mourning the loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and several others who were killed in a helicopter crash. It’s a painful reminder that we are all teetering on the brink, like:

Near the end of the book, Fiona and Claire attend a photography exhibit for one of Fiona’s old friends from Chicago named Richard. He survived the AIDS crisis and documented it with photos and home movies. The images on display are of young men full of life, many of whom are now dead. Richard says to Claire the line that sent me to the bar: ‘You’re not always advancing. I know it feels that way now, but it’s fragile. You might look back in fifty years and say, That was the last good time.’ After reading that, I was like:

It may not seem like it from this review, but ‘The Great Believers’ does contain moments of joy and humor. For example, I loved that Nico’s scarf kept popping up here and there to provide comfort. I also loved Yale’s bittersweet triumph in fulfilling Nora’s request to have her artwork displayed in a certain way. Makkai’s book is beautifully written, and I flew through it. It tells an important story, and I recommend it to you all. Though it can be a bummer, it should also inspire us to continue to live, to strive and to believe.

How it begins:

Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?”

Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”

The closer they got to Richard’s house, the more friends they spotted heading the same way. Some were dressed nicely, as if this were the funeral itself; others wore jeans, leather jackets.

It must only be relatives up at the church, the parents’ friends, the priest. If there were sandwiches laid out in some reception room, most were going to waste.

Yale found the bulletin from last night’s vigil in his pocket and folded it into something resembling the cootie catchers his childhood friends used to make on buses—the ones that told your fortune (“Famous!” or “Murdered!”) when you opened a flap. This one had no flaps, but each quadrant bore words, some upside down, all truncated by the folds: “Father George H. Whitb”; “beloved son, brother, rest in”; “All things bright and”; “in lieu of flowers, donatio.” All of which, Yale supposed, did tell Nico’s fortune. Nico had been bright and beautiful. Flowers would do no good.

My rating:

‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai was published by Viking in 2018 and Penguin Books in 2019. 418 pages. $16 at Books Are Magic.


More things worth your time:

  • Read this: Some of you may have seen the controversy playing out across social media over Jeanine Cummins’s new novel, ‘American Dirt.’ At issue is whether Cummins stereotypes and appropriates the struggle of Mexican immigrants amid the current border crisis. (Also at play is whether Cummins and her publisher, Flatiron, are just plain tacky and clueless as evidenced by barbed-wire-decorated floral centerpieces at her book party and her matching fingernails.) Myriam Gurba’s piece from December, ‘Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,’ on Tropics of Meta is absolutely searing. The piece includes a review Gurba wrote for another publication that was killed because an editor thought it lacked ‘something redeeming’ about ‘American Dirt.’ It also has this great line: ‘Dirt is a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle and while some white critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice.’

  • Look at this: Mast Books recently featured this image on its Instagram feed of an ‘extremely rare’ Keith Haring flyer, in English and Spanish, created in 1989 to raise awareness of an AIDS hotline in New York City. The price was not included in the post.

  • Do this: Author Paul Yoon launches his new novel ‘Run Me to Earth’ on Thursday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m., with a conversation with Hernán Díaz at Greenlight Bookstore. Yoon’s book is about ‘three children orphaned in 1960s Laos, doing what is necessary to survive perilous times.’ Many of you will remember that I reviewed Díaz’s wonderful book ‘In the Distance’ late last year.


In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘Go Ahead in the Rain’ by Hanif Abdurraqib. Also in the queue are ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann and ‘The Simple Past’ by Driss Chraïbi, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #123 featured ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

Please click the heart button above if you enjoyed this newsletter. You can also share it with a friend:

Share Books on GIF

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,

MPV

With GIFs from Giphy.com.

'Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City' by Matthew Desmond

Review #123

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2020 is off to a good start for you all. I’m kicking off this election year with some nonfiction, and I plan to sprinkle in more true stories over the coming months to help everyone be as informed as possible when they vote. This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, and if you ever felt any sympathy for your landlord, this intense and immersive look at urban poverty will kill it completely. Seriously, you will put your rent money into escrow forever after reading this Sunday’s selection, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond:

Sociologist Matthew Desmond spent months living among poor families and individuals in the segregated neighborhoods of Milwaukee, observing and recording their day-to-day lives as they struggle, often unsuccessfully, to make rent, keep their possessions and stay in their homes. We see Scott, a former nurse brought low by opioid addiction. We see Lamar, who tries to get by doing apartment repairs after losing his lower legs to frostbite. We see Arleen, who calls more than 90 landlords to find a new home for her and her two boys after being evicted. We see Crystal, whose inability to control her anger and her finances keeps her bouncing between homeless shelters and the streets. We also see the landlords: Sharrena, who owns several apartment buildings throughout a poor black neighborhood, and Tobin, who owns a trailer park inhabited by poor whites. They’re doing just fine, by the way, vacationing in Jamaica and driving Cadillacs while their tenants deal with the poor plumbing, mold, vermin and the various other calamities that befall poorly maintained real estate. Desmond’s narrative puts in sharp relief the opposing interests of tenant and landlord—the former wants the best living conditions possible for the cheapest rent, while the latter is seemingly indifferent to living conditions so long as they maximize profits—while also tracing the history of renting in America back through the era of white flight, through the Great Migration, through slavery all the way to English colonialism. No matter the era, the relationship is the same:

Desmond maintains a matter-of-fact tone throughout, whether he’s describing how rents can gobble up to 80 percent of a person’s income or how Crystal had to move after she pushed someone through a window. It’s as if he’s saying ‘it is what it is’ and:

But with every page, I was saying:

If ‘Evicted’ doesn’t turn you against unfettered capitalism, or at least make you wildly angry, then I don’t know what to tell you. It asks us how we can be such a rich country and allow people to live in squalor. Sure, some could say that the people in Desmond’s book have themselves to blame for their situations. No one forced them to do drugs, or have children with deadbeat men who abandoned them. But it’s more complex than that. Of course, there’s racism and class prejudice at work, but Desmond also outlines the structural problems these folks face. The deck is stacked against them in institutions that are supposed to help, such as housing court, social services and the police. In a sequence that has stuck with me, a tenant considers calling 911 when she hears her upstairs neighbor being beaten by her boyfriend. Desmond uses her hesitation to describe how the Milwaukee Police Department will go after landlords where tenants place too many 911 calls. A common landlord solution is simply to evict the tenants who call the police. Having an eviction on your record makes it more difficult to find a new home, so in the end, calling the police to help your neighbor can instead put you on the street. As I said before:

A home is an essential part of the American Dream. Stable housing helps determine where we can work, where our kids go to school, how much money we can spend on food, transportation, clothing, and other necessities or luxuries, and so on. It makes our communities safer and more vibrant. It also helps us determine our identities, and our feelings of self worth. Another thing that will stick with me is the determination of the people in this book to persevere, despite all their problems and bad luck. Many of their stories are as inspiring as they are cautionary. Too many of us are one paycheck away from getting one of these:

Desmond concludes his book with a chapter on how he conducted his research; the most fascinating part was how he, as a white social scientist from Harvard, had to learn how to check his privilege and adjust his reactions to things to put people at ease and open up. (He also had to develop his skills at spades, which is my all-time favorite card game.) Similarly, we readers are forced to ask ourselves how best to adjust our country to make sure it isn’t a place that traps people in poverty and undermines the American Dream. Desmond offers solutions to this crisis, from housing vouchers to rent protection laws. (He holds up New York City as a paragon of tenant protections. If that’s the case, then we all are in real trouble.) I have no idea whether any of his proposals would work, but I think everyone should read this book, and every politician should be forced to answer to it paragraph by paragraph.

How it begins:

Jori and his cousin were cutting up, tossing snowballs at passing cars. From Jori’s street corner on Milwaukee’s near South Side, cars driving on Sixth Street passed squat duplexes with porch steps ending at a sidewalk edged in dandelions. Those heading north approached the Basilica of St. Josaphat, whose crowning dome looked to Jori like a giant overturned plunger. It was January of 2008, and the city was experiencing the snowiest winter on record. Every so often, a car turned off Sixth Street to navigate Arthur Avenue, hemmed in by the snow, and that’s when the boys would take aim. Jori packed a tight one and let it fly. The car jerked to a stop, and a man jumped out. The boys ran inside and locked the door to the apartment where Jori lived with his mother, Arleen, and younger brother, Jafaris. The lock was cheap, and the man broke down the door with a few hard-heeled kicks. He left before anything else happened. When the landlord found out about the door, she decided to evict Arleen and her boys. They had been there eight months.

The day Arleen and her boys had to be out was cold. But if she waited any longer, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of boot-footed movers, and a folded judge’s order saying that her house was no longer hers. She would be given two options: truck or curb. “Truck” would mean that her things would be loaded into an eighteen-footer and later checked into bonded storage. She could get everything back after paying $350. Arleen didn’t have $350, so she would have opted for “curb,” which would mean watching the movers pile everything onto the sidewalk. Her mattresses. A floor-model television. Her copy of Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline. Her nice glass dining table and the lace tablecloth that fit just-so. Silk plants. Bibles. The meat cuts in the freezer. The shower curtain. Jafaris’s asthma machine.

Arleen took her sons—Jori was thirteen, Jafaris was five—to a homeless shelter, which everyone called the Lodge so you could tell your kids, “We’re staying at the Lodge tonight,” like it was a motel. The two-story stucco building could have passed for one, except for all the Salvation Army signs. Arleen stayed in the 120-bed shelter until April, when she found a house on Nineteenth and Hampton, in the predominantly black inner city, on Milwaukee’s North Side, not far from her childhood home. It had thick trim around the windows and doors and was once Kendal green, but the paint had faded and chipped so much over the years that the bare wood siding was now exposed, making the house look camouflaged. At one point someone had started repainting the house plain white but had given up mid-brushstroke, leaving more than half unfinished. There was often no water in the house, and Jori had to bucket out what was in the toilet. But Arleen loved that it was spacious and set apart from other houses. “It was quiet,” she remembered. “And five-twenty-five for a whole house, two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. It was my favorite place.”

My rating:

‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond was published by Crown in 2016 and by Broadway Books in 2017. 422 pages, including notes, index and reader’s guide. $17 at Harvard Book Store.


More things worth your time:

  • Read this: For a look at how landlords and government officials in another city are using the law to disrupt communities, particularly communities of color, check out ‘Seizure City: The city of Los Angeles is cleaning house before the 2028 Olympics. Who’s cashing in and who’s being swept under the rug?’ by J. Brian Charles in Playboy. Among the many important points raised in the piece, Charles (a close friend of mine since childhood) shows how Los Angeles is using nuisance abatement laws and measures enacted to fight gang activity to evict low-income tenants to make way for market-rate housing and new developments.

  • Read this, too: Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of ‘Prozac Nation,’ died this week after a battle with breast cancer. This column by Ginia Bellafante in The New York Times, ‘Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Illusion of Gen-X Success,’ talks about how rising rent in New York City is crushing the creative class of Wurtzel’s generation and hastening the expansion of well-heeled ‘Influencers.’ This line grabbed me: ‘What seemed striking was the disparity between her self-perception as an outlier—someone who had proudly refused to build a middle-aged life around the bourgeois goal posts of home-ownership, Viking appliances and managed investment accounts—and the reality of how elusive that kind of stability had become to a whole generation of her gifted, imaginative peers.’ Another note: Wurtzel’s landlord tried to evict her, despite her stage 4 cancer, in order to raise the rent 25 percent.

  • Look at this: A first edition of the English translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Poor Folk’ from 1894 is on sale at Left Bank Books. The novel is ‘centered on the lives of two cousins struggling to free themselves of crushing poverty.’ It costs $900.


In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai. Also in the queue are ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann, ‘Go Ahead in the Rain’ by Hanif Abdurraqib and ‘The Simple Past’ by Driss Chraïbi, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #122 featured ‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

Please click the heart button above if you enjoyed this newsletter. You can also share it with a friend:

Share Books on GIF

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,

MPV

With GIFs from Giphy.com.

'The Heart' by Maylis de Kerangal

Review #122

Before we begin the final review of 2019, I just want to take a moment to thank you all for supporting Books on GIF. This little newsletter continues to grow (20 percent above my subscriber goal this year!) because of readers like you who want to find new and different voices in the book world. Thank you for subscribing! Thank you for telling a friend about BoG! Thank you for following me on social media! Thank you for your positive energy and feedback!

Have you ever been on a quest to find a book, plumbing the depths of used bookstores until you find it? For reasons I don’t remember, I spent the past few years on the hunt for this Sunday’s selection, ‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal:

I found it recently while wandering the back-most aisle at the Strand, and I was super excited to fulfill my quest and to review it. But then I started to read it, and I was like:

This was not what I had expected. But I couldn’t remember what I expected or where I had first heard of this novel, or why I wanted to read it so badly. I fell asleep a lot, to be honest. Maybe it was the stress of the holidays. Maybe it was year-end fatigue. Either way, I had to force myself to finish this book in time for today’s newsletter. ‘The Heart’ tells the story of the death of Simon Limbres, a vibrant teenage surfer in France who’s killed in a car crash (he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt), and how his organs will be harvested so others may live. De Kerangal employs a unique and interesting way of telling a story. There’s really no central protagonist. Rather, the specter of death, and the myriad events and reactions it sets in motion, form the through-line of the narrative. We briefly meet Simon before he goes through the windshield. The story turns to focus on his grieving parents, and then the doctors and nurses who attend to them and to Simon’s body, before moving on to more doctors who will perform the organ removals and transplants, and finally the woman who will receive Simon’s heart. Along the way, we get snippets of each character’s backstory (one doctor, for example, is an accomplished singer and goes on a side quest to purchase a goldfinch in Algeria) as well as a primer on their function in the medical world (I had no idea all the steps and people involved in organ donation). As a reader, I felt as if I were a ghost who happened to be floating through the hospital while this story is happening, pausing briefly to watch this person or that and examine their lives unbound from the continuity of time, like:

I was going to say this is a good book to read if you’re thinking of becoming an organ donor. But then again, maybe not. Maybe it’s better to leave such things as an abstract concept instead of the detailed process that unfolds here. Even so, there is some beautiful writing in this book, in addition to the interesting story form. But otherwise, I’d say you can skip ‘The Heart.’

How it begins:

The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived—the black box of a twenty-year-old body—the thing is that nobody really knows it; only a moving image created by an ultrasound could echo its sound and shape, could make visible the joy that dilates it and the sadness that tightens it; only the paper trace of an electrocardiogram, set in motion at the very beginning, could draw the shape, describe the exertion, the quickening emotion, the prodigious energy needed to contract almost a hundred thousand times a day, to pump nearly ten pints of blood every minute, yes, only that graph could tell a story, by outlining the life of ebbs and flows, of gates and valves, a life of beats—for, while Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is too much even for the machines, no one could claim to really know it, and that night, the starless and bone-splittingly cold night on the estuary and in the Pays de Caux, as a lightless swell rolled all along the cliffs, as the continental shelf retreated, revealing its geological bands, there could be heard the regular rhythm of a resting organ, a muscle that was slowly recharging, a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute, and a cell-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits on the touchscreen—05:50—and suddenly everything raced out of control.

My rating:

‘The Heart’ (Réparer les vivants) by Maylis de Kerangal was published by Éditions Gallimard in 2014. It was published by Picador in 2016. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. 242 pages. $8 at Strand Book Store.


More things worth your time:

  • Read this: BOMB magazine has a unique look back at this past decade in literature that features interesting original stories and recollections from notable authors, including Ottessa Moshfegh, Courtney Maum and Lidia Yuknavitch.

  • Do this: KGB Bar’s Red Room is hosting a night of short fiction, prose and poetry on Friday, Jan. 3, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. The event features such writers as Melissa Ragsly, Maureen Langloss, Dina Relies, Leonora Desar, Julia Coursey, Kate Wiset, Carla Meyers, Christopher Gonzalez, Sara Lippmann and Kim Chinquee. There is no cover, but there is a two-drink minimum.

  • Read this, too: Donna and I recently saw ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ the musical based on Alanis Morissette’s classic album from the mid-1990s. The show is fantastic, and we recommend it to you all. I hadn’t listened to the album in years, but I was struck by how relevant and fresh the songs remain. In discussing this with my friend, Carla, she recommended I read this piece in The New York Times about Morissette and the show. The most breathtaking moment of the musical comes during the powerful rendition of ‘You Oughta Know.’ I have never seen an audience stop a show for a standing ovation before. (I don’t even think that happened when I saw ‘Hamilton.’) Apparently it happens often, including when Rachel Syme saw it for her Times piece. I loved the way she describes it: ‘We were all cheering for [singer Lauren] Patten, who had wrung out her guts onstage, and we were cheering for Morissette, who created a song we have been humming for much of our lives. But also, I thought, as I glanced around the audience, many of us were also clapping for our younger selves, when we first blasted “Jagged Little Pill” in our bedrooms. As we sat down again, I thought I could hear a sigh of tenderness pass through the room, for the people that we used to be.’


In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘Evicted’ by Matthew Desmond. Also in the queue are ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann, ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai and ‘Go Ahead in the Rain’ by Hanif Abdurraqib, among others.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #121 featured ‘Sexographies’ by Gabriela Wiener.

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

If you enjoyed this review, please click the heart button at the top. You can also share this post with a friend:

Share Books on GIF

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,

MPV

With GIFs from Giphy.com.

'Sexographies' by Gabriela Wiener

Review #121

This intense and fascinating collection of essays and first-person reportage by Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener is not for the prudish or easily scandalized. Even I was taken aback (in a good way) by ‘Sexographies’:

Wiener examines and participates in the lives of those who ‘live on the fringe of convention,’ as she writes in the opening piece where she spends the night in the harem of an outspoken polygamist who fled persecution in Chile to settle in Peru. Many of her stories involve sex, as the book’s title suggests; sometimes she observes and sometimes she partakes. For example, she tries out a Barcelona swingers club with her boyfriend, gets hands-on sexual instruction from a therapist who dresses like a ninja and receives advice (and pain) from a dominatrix. But she also takes us on journeys into dark worlds we probably wouldn’t otherwise see. In one story, she ventures through a Dante’s ‘Inferno’-esque prison in Lima to interview tattoo artists. In another she follows transgender Peruvian immigrants living in Paris. Many of them resort to prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne park to survive. And there were also interesting pieces about motherhood, death, trying ayahuasca (which sounds awful) and the literary legacy of Isabel Allende (whose books I should read). With every piece, I was like:

The most provocative thing about Wiener’s work is how she eschews the typical journalist-as-observer approach to reporting and immerses herself physically, emotionally and spiritually into her stories. I agree with what Janna from the Strand Book Store’s marketing department wrote about the book on the staff recommendation shelf: Wiener ‘refuses to examine others’ lives in a removed or self-superior way, causing her own life to be transformed through her interactions.’ In doing this, Wiener dispels a great deal of taboo surrounding sex work, gender and sexuality. She also becomes a proxy for the reader, standing in for us in places and situations we might never experience and forcing us to ask ourselves:

It’s fascinating work from which I think American journalists could learn a lot. And normal people, too. If the subject matter doesn’t scare you off, you should read this book.

How it begins:

If Badani were an electrical appliance, he would be one that chops, dices, and shreds his interlocutor at a thousand revolutions per second. When he speaks—or rather when he soliloquizes—he smooths out his mustache with a delicate movement of his thumb and index finger. Erecting an argument or even just assembling a phrase in his presence is impossible. Badani senses your intentions, anticipates your answers, reads your facial expressions, and is wary of your words. It would be foolish to expect any less from him—a man who is a polygamist, tech expert, zealous anti-Catholic, sexual erudite, and devotee of the concept of freedom, which he understands as the liberty to choose one’s own shackles. Badani is also addicted to etymology. “Family,” he says, “comes from the Latin famulus, which means ‘slave.’” He has six of them.

Since his life came into the public eye, Ricardo Badani has elicited the hatred of many. He’s been denounced as a misogynist and a homophobe, with good reason: his archaic worldview advocates for a return to the time of alpha males and female acolytes. He hasn’t varied or nuanced his discourse in the slightest throughout the years. I, on the other hand, have become more radical, especially when it comes to feminism. I’ve never ceased to disagree with him—not back then, and definitely not now.

But his story continues to fascinate me for many reasons; not the least of them being his defiant choice to live on the fringe of convention, always challenging any sort of restraint.

My rating:

‘Sexographies’ (Sexografías) by Gabriela Wiener was published by Restless Books in 2018. Translated from the Spanish by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock. 226 pages. $16.19 at Strand Book Store.


More things worth your time:

  • Read this: My reading list has expanded after NBC News published a roundup of ‘The best Latino books, according to Latinx writers.’ Tons of great looking novels, memoirs and poetry collections here. I’m most looking forward to reading Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir ‘In the Dream House’ (I reviewed her short story collection ‘Her Body And Other Parties’ last year), Angie Cruz’s novel ‘Dominicana’ and Jennine Capó Crucet’s essay collection ‘My Time Among the Whites.’

  • Read this, too: ‘Italy always had great women writers,’ author Nadia Terranova says in this piece in The New York Times. ‘The truly new thing is that, for the first time, they’re getting recognition.’ The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels has elevated other contemporary Italian women authors, as well as those of the past such as Natalia Ginzburg (I reviewed ‘The Dry Heart’ last month), in what the article calls ‘The Ferrante Effect.’ Many books listed here are being added to my list, including Ginzburg’s ‘Family Lexicon’ (a classic) and ‘The Girl With the Leica’ by Helena Janeczek (the first woman to win Italy’s top literary prize in 15 years).

  • Also, read this: The Guardian’s piece ‘Without women the novel would die: discuss’ examines how the act of a woman reading fiction in public, or at all, still somehow engenders criticism and disdain. This, despite the fact that women ‘account for 80% of sales in the UK, US and Canadian fiction markets – far more women than men are literary festivalgoers, library members, audio book readers, literary bloggers, and members of literary societies and evening classes.’

  • Lastly, read this: If you read anything about ‘Star Wars’ this week (other than my reviews of ‘Ahsoka’ and ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’), be sure to check out this story in The Wall Street Journal that takes you inside the marriage of Disney and Lucasfilm. The two bits that struck me: 1) Russian internet trolls have weaponized angry fanboys, and 2) The story arc between ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’ was disjointed because the companies never mapped out where the final trilogy in the so-called ‘Skywalker Saga’ would go.

Thanks for the shoutout!


In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal. Also in the queue are ‘The Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann, ‘Evicted’ by Matthew Desmond and ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai, among others.

In case you missed it: The last edition of Books on GIF featured ‘8 Novels to Give as Holiday Gifts This Year.’

Shoot me an email if there’s a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want reviewed.

If you enjoyed this review, please click the heart button at the top. You can also share this post with a friend:

Share Books on GIF

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,

MPV

With GIFs from Giphy.com.

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