Review: The House of Impossible Beauties

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Rating for "The House of Impossible Beauties" by Joseph Cassara (2018)
Rating: 4.5 stars

Aye, this book will simultaneously soothe your heart and break it into a million pieces.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” is a fictionalized account of the House of Xtravaganza, the first legendary all-Latinx ballroom house immortalized in the seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. We follow a cast of gay and trans women performers on the Harlem ball circuit as they escape abusive homes, love and lose one another, and deal with the devastation of the early AIDS epidemic. Some of the characters are instantly recognizable from the the film (Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza, for starters) while others appear to be composites of other known characters in the film.

I loved the beginning of this book, which starts in 1979. Angel is a young Puerto Rican teen who realizes that she is transgender. She feuds often with her mother, who refuses to accept her for who she is. She is taken under the tutelage of a well-known local drag queen, Dorian, and later falls in love with Hector, a dancer. Hector eventually recruits Angel to start their own house in the ballroom scene and the iconic House of Xtravaganza is born. Back stories are also given for other house members–Venus Xtravaganza, a trans girl who escapes a miserable home life, Juanito, an abused gay teen with a knack for sewing beautiful clothes, and Daniel, a banjee boy with major issues.

While the beginning of the book pulses with energy, the middle of it is terribly dull, veering dangerously close to misery porn territory. There is no way this should be so, given the vibrant real-life characters that this book is based on. I also have issue with the fact that, other than one scene in the middle of the book, we never actually SEE the inside of a ball. This is unacceptable. For a book that claims to be so much about the key people of this particular fashion and dance era, shouldn’t we be at the ball with them too? I’m outraged.

*flips hair*

If you’re familiar with Paris is Burning, then you know that most of the individuals featured in it are now deceased–mostly casualties of the AIDS epidemic, and, in one case, murder. Thankfully the author handles this and other subjects surrounding them with care and a compassionate heart, which shows in the writing.

Also: to those who haven’t seen the documentary Paris is Burning, please do. It’s on Netflix and YouTube, the last time I checked. Whether or not you see it before reading this book is your choice, but I think that the film serves as a good companion piece to this novel. The film grounds you in the knowledge and illuminates the characters of the ballroom scene, while the book gives you the back story of their lives.

Needless to say, I love this subject too much to give it a bad rating. 4.5 stars, dahlings

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Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

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Review for "The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story" by Douglas Preston (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you like pulpy, Indiana Jones-ish kind of stories, then this book will probably appeal to you.

“The Lost City of the Monkey God” is about a 2015 expedition of researchers to the Mosquitia region of the Honduran rainforest, a remote, inhospitable jungle landscape where the legendary La Cuidad Blanca (or “White City”) was known to exist. The author participated first hand in the expedition, writing and documenting the story of the team.

The first third of the book is all about previous expeditions to the area and why the White City has remained undiscovered for so long. This section is not very interesting and reads like a textbook. I can understand why it’s included here, but I skimmed through most of this. It gets more interesting in the middle portion, which is about the expedition itself, including finding the White City and the team’s handling of the numerous dangers of the region (poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, dangerous drug cartels, etc). The last section of the book is about leishmaniasis, a face-eating parasitic disease that Preston and several of the members of the team contracted while in the jungle. It’s really gross, but I guess it makes great fodder for those who believe that curses follow ancient things and the people who disturb them. Oooh.

Since this expedition has been made public, there’s been extensive debate among scientists and archaeologists over whether or not the discovery made by this team is actually the legendary White City or not. First, the very existence of a “White City” is a myth–and one that’s been debunked by scientists. Second, there are many locations already marked on maps of the region as having archaeological ruins. How do we know that this is one is the fabled White City? Third, there were no actual archaeologists on the team making this ‘discovery,’ though it is mentioned that they “worked with” them. Well ok. Fourth, most of the team’s claims of finding the White City go back to images they discovered on LiDAR (a remote sensor that surveys the land with lasers). While no one is debating that there is indeed Something in the area resembling ancient architecture–is this Something really a new discovery? Is it really the legendary “White City”? For all we know, this could be a known (and previously) excavated site.

Preston does address some of these arguments here, but I don’t think his critique goes deep enough. He makes it plain that this is his story and he’s sticking to it. Given the shouts of foul from the scientific community, however, you have to ask what this book’s real knowledge contribution is. Even after reading this, I’m not sure. Whatever it’s trying to tell me, I’m not convinced either.

There’s some really cool venom-spitting snake stories in here though. Three stars.

Review: Freshwater

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Review for "Freshwater" by Akwaeke Emezi (to be published on 13 February 2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow.

I have no better way to start this review, so I’ll say it again: Wow.

Reading a novel like “Freshwater” was a completely new experience for me. To step into its pages was to venture into a beautifully strange, dark world, the realm of something amazing: ancient gods, beauty, life, death. “Freshwater” is also the world of a young woman’s troubled mind.

Ada, whose life is the focus of the story, is just one of the characters here. She is conjured through her father’s prayers and born into a middle-class Nigerian family with “one foot on the other side.” Early on, you come to realize that the ‘side’ is the spiritual realm and the ‘foot’ that the author is referring to is a pathway through which primordial gods freely enter and inhabit Ada’s physical body. Much of the story is narrated by these gods, who are birthed and rebirthed several times and call themselves “we” throughout the novel. Also present in Ada’s body are two distinct spirits: Asughara and Saint Vincent, the former being the more powerful of the two. As Ada grows older, Asughara begins to control more of her actions and her voice fades into the background. Very little of the book is narrated by Ada, she lives instead through a smaller, fractured self.

The spirits that inhabit Ada’s body desire to pass back over to the other side–the only limitation being that they are attached to Ada’s physical self. As the book progresses, Asughara, Saint Vincent, and the “we” become protectors to Ada, taking over when the current situation and/or the people in her life are too much for her to handle. They also push her to dangerous extremes. I loved the way in which this book completely detaches you from what you think you know about mental illness and cleverly uses spirituality to frame the narrative instead. Through Ada’s ‘spirits’ multiple themes are explored: racism, addiction, self-mutilation, gender nonconformity, and religion, among others.

There is a brutalness in this writing that comes through in the multi-layered narration the author has chosen for this book. In the end, this is a book about coming into one’s own voice, despite what that voice says and how many lives it has lead in the past.

This is not light reading, folks. Come to this novel prepared to underline passages, expand your mind, and think outside of the box. When I arrived at the end of this book, I realized that there was nothing I had previously read that I could rightfully compare this to. “Freshwater” stands on its own as a creative work that is uniquely beautiful. It fights labels and categories, it truly stands in a genre by itself.

Five stars.

[Note: An advance electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Grove Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Have Been On My TBR the Longest and I Still Haven’t Read

Beloved readers: it’s bad to have book ADD. I’m on about a dozen publisher and upcoming book mailing lists (Buzzfeed, NetGalley, Kirkus, Electric Lit, Signature) so I get the word on books that are coming out months before they hit the stores. I’m also constantly in the library, looking, searching. The books I don’t pick up on my visits there I often add to my TBR pile to come back and get at a later time. Then there are the books that you come across on your Goodreads recommendations late at night, thinking: damn that sounds interesting, so I add those too. Before you know it, you’re like me and you’ve got 609 books in your queue list. I am also no respecter of order–if I really like a book I read it right then, forget the books in the back that have been stuck there, waiting for years to be read.

So this Tuesday, I’m giving ya’ll a glimpse into the books that have been in my TBR pile the longest. I’ve been on Goodreads since 2008, so we can assume that they’ve been there for at least 10 years (or longer, depending on if the actual copy is sitting on my shelf at home).

  1. Midwives, Chris Bohjalian
  2. The Farming of Bones, Edwidge Danticat
  3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  4. Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom
  5. The Age of Shiva, Manil Suri
  6. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi
  7. Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams
  8. All Over Creation, Ruth L. Ozeki
  9. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
  10. You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon

And btw, add me on Goodreads, beloveds. Till next time…

Review: Green

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Review for "Green" by Sam Graham-Felsen (2018)

Rating: none

No rating. I DNF’d this. I just couldn’t take the main character anymore. And it’s totally not the character’s fault, he’s a 12 year old boy. The tragedy of this one is 100% on the author.

David Greenfeld is a white, middle class kid living in Boston in 1992. His Jewish, hippie parents are gentrifiers, living comfortably on the borders of a mostly Black housing project. They decide that Dave should go to the local middle school instead of a private school to be exposed to all of life’s “perspectives.” Dave explains all of this in the first few pages of the book, and I admit that his POV interested me immediately.

As far as Dave himself goes, he is socially inept, attempting to survive in a school environment where he is an outsider. His younger brother does not talk (there’s a strong suggestion that he’s on the autism spectrum) and his parents refuse to buy him the latest clothes. He succeeds in getting his Mom to buy him a trendy Charlotte Hornets tracksuit, only to get robbed near his neighborhood. He’s teased about the robbery at school. He eventually takes up with a black student named Marlon, and they bond over their nerdiness and love of the Boston Celtics. Both want to get into prep school. Dave learns, however, that race and class are far more powerful forces in his friend and his own life than he imagined.

So let’s get to why I DNF’d this. THE LANGUAGE. Dave speaks with a over the top, 90’s hip hop slang that’s reminiscent of corny minstrel movies such as “Malibu’s Most Wanted.” Clothes are “gear,” items are “rocked,” shit is “wack,” girls are “shorties,” and so on. It’s all over the book, even Dave’s thoughts are presented this way. It has no authenticity whatsoever. I was in the 8th grade in ’92 and I don’t remember the slang we used being as pervasive as this book makes it out to be, to the point to where it was in every. single. line. of our speech. I can certainly understand what the author was TRYING to do by showing us that Dave is trying too hard by performing what he thinks is a display of “blackness,” if you will, but it’s just too much. At first I skimmed, then I stopped reading after 200 pages. Plus it wasn’t like there was anything happening anyway (plotwise, that is) to compel me to read any further.

Also, even though this book is about a 12-year-old boy, it is not a YA book. You’ve been forewarned.

This could have been one of the most important books of 2018 had it not been for technicalities, namely, its language execution. Read at your own risk.