This book is a collection of short stories set in Houston, Texas. About half of them are from the perspective of one character, a queer Black man who remains unnamed until the end of the book. The others are from various other perspectives, mostly men of color in and around Houston, dealing with sexuality, racism, family dynamics, and gentrification. There’s also a lot of meditation on toxic masculinity and finding one’s voice as a queer man of color.
Sadly, I did not connect with this book. It took me about two months to get through it, considering that each time I picked it up I didn’t really find the stories very memorable. This is not to speak ill of the writing, which is actually pretty good and reminded me a lot of Junot Diaz’ early work (not “Oscar Wao” but his first work, “Drown”). What killed it for me was that a lot of the stories had abrupt endings. You know what I mean: you’re reading along and building up into a solid narrative and then a paragraph appears and the story ends in a few lines. I get that that’s a stylistic choice, but it’s annoying as hell and doesn’t allow much for good storytelling. Also a problem was the ‘distance’ between the characters, a kinda ‘dead’ space in between what’s explicitly told and what’s abstract that never really allows you to connect with the people here, even if you wanted to.
This is the author’s first book, so I won’t harp on its flaws too much. Bryan Washington definitely has potential, and I look forward to his full-length novel that will be coming out this fall.
Review for “Magnetized: Conversations with a Serial Killer” by Carlos Busqued (2020)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Over several days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1982, a nineteen-year-old teenager named Ricardo Melogno murdered four taxi drivers. He took no money from his victims, and, once he encountered each man, knew that he was going to murder them. When asked why he did it, he claimed that he had no idea of what drove him to murder four people. Thus is the beginning of “Magnetized,” a compilation of hours of interviews with Melogno completed by the author that explores his life, crimes, and his current state of mind.
For those who enjoy true crime (as I do), this book is fascinating. Melogno recalls how he spent most of his childhood and adolescence completely detached from reality, in a kind of dissociative state. It is this same state in which he shot four taxi drivers on four separate days over a one week period. Once incarcerated, he is taken to a mental hospital, where his diagnosis is a complete mystery to the experts there (schizophrenia? psychosis? personality disorder?) and he stays heavily drugged. Years later with his criminal sentence complete, he is still not a free man. He is still in state custody, even though his sentence has long passed. Why? Because his doctors and the courts still feel he is a danger to society. Not surprisingly, Melogno agrees. The book ends with the suggestion that even Melogno is not sure that he won’t kill again.
Although this book tells the story of a killer, I never got the sense that empathy for Melogno was the aim here. Rather, the question the author seems to be raising is about the ethical treatment of those who society has labeled ‘monsters.’ There is no doubt that the state has the responsibility to protect citizens from dangerous people, but is it really ethical to keep a person in custody once their sentence is served? Where do the lines of criminal behavior and mental illness cross, and how to treat (or punish) those who have crossed it? What, if anything, is society’s obligation to those like Melogno? I struggled with these questions and many more. A tough read, but I completely got this book.
Review for “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride (2020)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This story literally begins with a bang: in 1969 in a housing project in South Brooklyn, a somewhat senile, hooch-drinking deacon nicknamed Sportcoat wanders into the local courtyard and shoots the neighborhood drug dealer with an old pistol point-blank, in front of dozens of people. After establishing this shocking act of violence, James McBride explores how Sportcoat’s action came to be, as well as the lives and the dynamic of an entire community of Black and brown people under the rule of a local mobster, a lonely crime boss with a mysterious past.
There’s a wide assortment of characters here and you might even lose track: there’s Sportcoat’s friend, an affable man named Hot Sausage, Sportcoat’s dead wife, Hettie, with whom he regularly communicates, salsa musicians, capers involving missing church Christmas money, mountains of delicious cheese, even a cadre of red Colombian jungle ants. It’s a lot for a book to handle, and about halfway in my weariness in keeping up with everything began to kick in with me skipping over pages at a time. McBride is a great writer, however, so I was compelled to stay until the end. “Deacon King Kong” isn’t the best book of the year, but it’s definitely an interesting read.
To get into the any more specifics of this book would ruin it, so I’ll leave this review with a solid four stars.
Review for “Love Warrior” by Glennon Doyle Melton (2016)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
I went into this not knowing anything about the author, her blog, or any of her previous writings. I had no idea of its connection to Oprah’s Book Club either, as that info was not in the e-book edition I read. Honestly, I just picked this up because I like reading memoirs. Lo and behold, within about 15 pages, I deeply regretted my decision.
This is the first book in a long time where my dislike for the author became a 10 out of 10 immediately and it remained that way for the entirety of the novel. In the first 20 pages of the book, Glennon Doyle Melton describes how her then-high school boyfriend was accused of rape by another classmate. She then writes:
I ask him about the rape and he laughs and tells me the accusation isn’t true. I do not break up with him. My friends and I handle this by agreeing publicly that the girl who accused Joe of rape was drunk, stupid, jealous, and lying.
It gets worse. A few sentences later:
A few weeks later I run into the victim in the locker room of my mother’s gym. As we pass each other, I hold my head high. She lowers hers and looks away. I feel an electric sense of defiance and victory.
Are you serious? Ms. Melton, you are an absolute BITCH. Yeah, I said it.
Although Ms. Melton does ‘change’ her life, it’s only after 240 pages of crappy writing and self indulgent whining. Sure, she discusses challenges that women face: body image issues, infidelity, and mommy fatigue, but it’s exhausting, tedious, and very very boring. She berates her husband for being a porn addict but fails to see until much much later that she is not a nice person either, her addictions in this case happen to be food and drama. She also talks quite a bit about the ‘scandal’ her marital separation caused in her church and in her community, with people everywhere giving her unsolicited advice. Umm…well didn’t you tell them all about it in your Christian mommy blog, Ms. Messy Boots? If you don’t want to hear other people’s opinions about your business, then a good suggestion is to keep that business to yourself.
Also: I felt bad for her kids, particularly in several passages in which she’s very blunt in her feelings about their father. I understand that being cheated on sucks, but creating a living record of you bad-mouthing their dad during a rough patch in your marriage for millions to read about for all posterity can’t be a healthy way to deal with your anger.
I can imagine that there are legions of women out there who are living in similar situations, trapped in their middle class homes with their bad ass kids in a sexless marriage and reading these words from a “Christian mom blogger” (umm, her words) is comforting to them. I can also imagine a roomful of these aforementioned women in a room together somewhere, having paid for one day what I spent on my entire grad school tuition to hear Ms. Melton tell them more about her “love warrior” journey. But we all have a sob story, and anyone can sit down and write theirs and get it published. This is one such case. For me this book is nothing special, as there’s no sense of objectivity between the author and the words on the page. This book is a hot ass mess, a phone call from a long winded friend who calls you nightly at 2 am and all you want is for her to stfu so you can go back to sleep. Ugh.
Review for “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” (2020)
Rating: 3 out 5 stars
This book follows seven citizens of Baltimore in the five days of rioting following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. There are a wide variety of perspectives here: the activist sister of a victim of police violence, a white female public defender, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, a young Black male protester, the husband of the local district attorney, the owner of a popular skating rink, a Black police lieutenant, etc.
Although I understand the inclusion and the purpose of the multiple perspectives; it’s not executed very well here. The chapters are short and there’s never enough plot build-up to form any kind of cohesive narrative. The tone of this book is emotionless and flat, there’s no nuance that separates one voice from the other besides the label of each speaker at the beginning of each section. Wes Moore does give some background in the opening pages on the ways in which racism, poor public policies, and bad policing ultimately led to the chaos that erupted in Baltimore, but he relies on too much blank space to tell this story. There’s little sense of the atmosphere of anger that started the protests in the first place.
All in all, I feel like this could have been a news article. The author takes the subject of a complex city with very complex problems and paints it with too broad of a brush. Better books on Baltimore include “The Corner” and “Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets” by David Simon.