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April Book Club

May 3, 2011

These were the books I powered through in April.

After being told by every blog and magazine that I should rush out and read Little Bee by Chris Cleave immediately for the past year or so, I finally succumbed when my roommate handed me her copy in the beginning of the month. Not even halfway through the book, it confirmed why I had been so hesitant to jump on the bandwagon in the first place. Before I slam what is apparently a widely beloved book, I will say that there were some really moving, poignant scenes littered throughout the book, especially in the first half. Now that that’s out of the way…

First of all, I hated the way Chris Cleave and his publicist duped the reader into thinking this is some grand, suspenseful mystery by refusing to reveal any of the plot of this “special story” in the blurb, and by stringing the reader along for a hundred pages by having the characters constantly reference “that time on the beach” and how it irreperably changed all their lives without actually telling us what happened. Once you find out what did happen (two white tourists to Nigeria are faced with the harsh realities of a country at civil war, fueled by oil) it is shocking, but once you get over the brutality of the scene you’re left wondering what point there was in keeping it a mystery. The answer? It’s a cheap trick to get you invested in a book that has little payoff after that.

The biggest problem I had with Little Bee, though, was that I was all too aware of the author while I was reading. As in, I knew that a white British man was writing from the perspective of a woman and a sixteen year-old Nigerian girl. Now, I have little patience for white-privilege-shaming when its written by someone who’s more deserving (coughJuntoDiazcough), but I especially get pissed off when some white guy is trying to write a moralistic tale with a similar message. Not to mention that this often times ends up in creating a totally racist characterization of Little Bee.  I also have little patience for creating a hierarchy for suffering, and while Little Bee has objectively experienced worse than Sarah, the other lead role, I hated how he constantly belittled Sarah’s suffering, who has gone through some pretty terrible things herself. Take, for example, the scene where she instinctively goes to call her husband, who killed himself the day before and she feels it is her fault, after she hears word that her son is in trouble at school. She breaks down at the thought of having to delete her husband from her phone, and it is a heartbreaking scene for a moment that then goes on to be overshadowed by Little Bee reflecting how she never had cell phones in her village and how she wished she could have a problem relating to a cell phone. Oh my god. That’s not the point.

I’ll save you the complaints on how the characters are totally inconsistent and how I ended up having little sympathy for anyone, and skip to the ending. Obviously, I won’t give anything away, but this was the most unsatisfying ending ever. I gave up on this book shortly after The Big Reveal, but I held out because I had slim hopes for the exploration of the relationship between Little Bee and Sarah. But for the next 150 pages or so, it just kind of prattled on without a point or any saving grace. I was reminded, in fact, of cartoons of bees and their wayward dotting lines illustrating their path.

And then it’s like, all of a sudden, Cleave remembered that he had to at some point stop preaching and finish the “story” so he created a totally lame premise that made me freaking hate the little kid, who had been annoying rather than endearing throughout the entire book, and then faded out mid-scene, leaving me with little to no clue about what actually happened. I was actually glaring at the book for the last few chapters. My only motivation for continuing to read was “Come on, it has to get better than this.” No. It doesn’t.

I think that Cleave should’ve just written a few newspaper articles in his day job to discuss oil wars in Africa and the immigration problems in England, because that is clearly all he wanted to do, and he didn’t achieve anything by forcing a novel around it that he was not qualified to write. Maybe this would have a larger impact on someone living inside a suburbia bubble all their lives, but for most Readers it is not worth the time.

Thankfully, my bitterness was relieved when I finally got my copy of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg from the library after having a hold on it for months. This memoir of a Harvard grad who winds up as the librarian of the Boston prison after a few years of writing obituaries is a real treat. Not only is it an interesting look into a world few people are familiar with from a perspective that’s even more rare, but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.  And, as a side note, that cover is one of the best designed covers I have ever seen.

The prison library, as Steinberg reminds us again and again, is not just a place for prisoners to find a good book to read. It is a place to socialize, send notes (or “kites”), plot one’s future or escape, seek therapy or, occasionally, attack. As he mans his post, Steinberg bears witness to the inner workings of prison life, a culture that is as diverse as the people who pass through it. He becomes involved in a female prisoner’s quest to reunite with her son, who’s also imprisoned at the same facility. He edits a pimp’s manuscript for his memoirs, and helps a con man create a cooking show for when he gets out. The cast of minor characters is really what makes this story great, especially as he explores how he becomes more and more emotionally involved with them, and the consequences of doing so.

Another aspect of Running that I really enjoyed is how Steinberg manages to interject commentary on his Orthodox background, and how that intersects with his life as a prison librarian surprisingly often. One particularly memorable scene is a conversation with a few prisoners who reveal how much respect they have for Orthodox Jews and how the Hasidim are, as they put it, “the ultimate gang.” You know what? They make a good point. The only complaint I have for Running is its problems with organization, or the lack thereof. I didn’t even realize, at first, that it wasn’t in a chronological time frame. It hits you about halfway in, when he jumps back into a character’s story that you already know is dead. From then on, it was difficult to follow and I kept getting the characters and their individual stories confused. You know how he gets fired a few chapters in, and the ending picks up on a story that happened a third of the way back. I think he may have been trying to organize his stories by theme, but even that wasn’t totally solid. I would’ve enjoyed a more straightforward narrative more, or at least following each character’s story through to the end in the same order. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Running. It will make you love books all over again.

Lately, my life has been chock full of drag queens and S&M (for reasons, I assure you, that have nothing to do with my private life), and  I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell perfectly combined the two into one juicy, highly entertaining memoir. Recommended to me by a friend as we were preparing to go to a drag show, I Am Not Myself chronicles a year in the life of Aqua, one of the most famous drag queens of the nineties as drag was making a name for itself in the spotlight.

A few months after moving to New York, living the life of an ad art director by day and a drag queen by night, Purcell meets his new boyfriend, a high-end male escort specializing in S&M, and moves into his penthouse in the Upper East Side. Purcell is a raging alcoholic, Jack’s habit of pretending to smoke crack with his customers is rapidly becoming a habit of his own. As with all stories based around the party scene, the memoir at first carries you on a high of the thrill of Purcell’s life. He gets paid to go clubbing, he’s beloved on the drag circuit, he lives for free in a gorgeous apartment with a gorgeous boyfriend in a chicly  twisted – but happy- relationship. His foibles are told with a Texts From Last Night point of view, laughing at how silly things can get when you’re shit-faced and your partner’s job often involves orgies and hog-tied men in your living room. You’re laughing with him, constantly, and enjoying being taken along for the ride.

And then, shit happens.  Purcell faces the fact that drinking bottles of liquor until you’re blacked out every night is not exactly healthy. Jack’s occasional crack-smoking becomes a habit, and then an addiction, and then a divide. Their relationship and separate lives, which seemed so modern and fun mere pages ago, are now deeply broken and depressing. (The impressive thing about this is that the details of their lives barely change. Purcell masterfully switches the point of view and emotional slant in a seamless, realistic depiction of character development and, well, growing up.) You knew this was coming from the opening scene, a flash-forward to when Jack is crouching over Purcell in their bed, poised to stab him to death after coming back from disappearing into an eight-day binge, but it still shocks you. Purcell and Jack’s descent is heartbreaking and, in the context of a drag queen’s memoir, surprisingly poignant with an emotional depth. I wasn’t prepared to be holding back tears in public while reading the same book that informed me how it is, exactly, that drag queens tuck. It’s a heavy conclusion, with only a hint of a happy ending yet to come, but if you’re prepared not to live in the limelight forever, it’s definitely worth the trip to get there.

The main thing I found missing from I Am Not Myself is a bit of insight into what got Purcell into drag. I think it’s a question everyone wants answered when learning about a subversive topic such as drag, but his story is noticeably lacking in why or how he chose to go down that route. Purcell skillfully talks about what it’s like to be a drag queen on a superficial level, but he rarely explores it with any psychological depth, which would have been intriguing.

For a peek into a world you couldn’t imagine inhabiting and an astute exploration of gay culture and addiction, all with a lot of laughs along the way,  I Am Not Myself  is a must-read.

I enjoyed reading the preview of Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl by Stacy Pershall on Amazon so, despite my reservations with memoirs about mental illness, I decided to give it a shot. The prologue had promise, but I gave up after a few chapters. Instead of giving any evidence to being this so-called “strange girl,” Pershall just kept on insisting “No, really, I swear. I’m strange. I’m like, SO WEIRD. I promise.” When her disjointed ho-hum examples of her “strange” behavior included throwing up after eating rabbit and dressing up like Shroeder for her mom, and the only triggers mentioned so far were her mother’s miscarriage and standard schoolyard bullying, I threw in the towel. I just wasn’t buying it. Sorry, Stacy.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 5, 2011 2:11 am

    I totally agree with you on Little Bee. Thanks for the book recommendations! =)

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