Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Cock Up

What the fuck even is this?

I just read a review of D. Watkins's new book The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir in the New York Times Book Review. The reviewer is a guy named Jason Parham, senior editor at a magazine called The Fader. And it is one of the worst reviews I have ever read - not bad in the sense that it excoriates the book, but bad as in I finished the review thinking that the reviewer probably liked the book? but might not have thought it was well-written? but I couldn't tell? And somehow he manages to be patronizing even while expressing solidarity with the author.

So let's back up. I should start by saying that I don't know Dwight Watkins, although our paths have crossed. I have a definite memory of meeting him. Maybe it was back when I helped run a coffee shop in SoWeBo, an arty neighborhood embedded within a crack neighborhood. It might have been at the library. I'll be honest - what I really remember is not wanting to read his stuff. Because of the jobs I have had, people sometimes tend to assume that I am into angry poetry and gut-wrenching personal narrative. But I mostly read children's books and sci-fi, and before that I mostly read about diseases.

But Watkins is from Baltimore, and the book is about growing up here, choosing the drug trade over college, then rejecting the drug trade in favor of becoming an educator. And I do know Baltimore. I did live in neighborhoods where I observed the drug trade out my window and on my stoop, and I work with young men incarcerated for playing their part in the business they grew up around.

The DEA raiding the crackhouse next door to the coffee house,
shot from my apartment upstairs.
The other thing I know about is reviewing books, and this review is absolutely mystifying.

We start with two paragraphs of the familiar refrain "Baltimore I Love You But You're Breaking My Heart," referencing Nina Simone's 1978 album "Baltimore," Freddie Gray, and "The Wire." Yup, that's where D. Watkins lives. In case the title "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir" was confusing to you.

Then three paragraphs of summary. Three paragraphs - that's a column and then some. I often find NYT reviews to be heavy on summary, so maybe that's an editorial guideline.

And then finally we get to criticism. And here my real problems begin. "I could have written at length about Watkins's lean, casual prose and how it was difficult to sustain throughout... but I would have missed the book's larger aim." What is that? Is he saying, 'Don't think I didn't notice this flaw, and I'm going to mention it because you might have a problem with it - but I'm not going to give evidence of it, and by the way if it bothers you, you're missing the point.'

That's not the way to do that. Good books with important 'larger aims' can have flaws, and it does not take away from those aims to actually give examples of the flaws and let the reader decide whether the flaws will distract from the reading. But the above sentence, along with an earlier drive-by slap: "Beyond identifying some of the book's technical faults..." gives the impression that the book is poorly written. But important! But poorly written. What does this guy think he's reviewing, a slave narrative? Dwight Watkins has two masters' degrees, including an MFA. If there are problems with the prose, critique the man like you would any literary author.

"I never set out to be a part of that life," Parham quotes, "but that never stopped that life from setting out to be a part of me." I mean, I'm no expert, but in my opinion that is in fact EXCELLENT prose.

And then there's this: "And because storytelling can function as catharsis for black writers, there is a measure of value in the book's publication... Words, for me and, I assume, for Watkins, are a means to personal deliverance." I must be misinterpreting this. Because it looks to me that Parham is saying that the value in publishing this book is the catharsis it brings about for Dwight Watkins.

I just want to know if the book is readable, accessible, and well-paced. I'd like to get copies for some of the incarcerated dads I work with at the county detention center, who, if they see themselves on the page, see themselves glamorized in thug life fiction or villainized in everything else.

Parham takes "other reviewers" to task, supposing that they might stick labels on the story or its prose (hey, here's an idea, guy - wait to make such accusations AFTER someone has actually done such things), and says "that would have misinterpreted his testimony, offering a shallow and one-sided distortion." Instead, Parham suggests that we, "as readers and as critics, mine deeper." This is where he offers that dig at Watkins's difficulty sustaining his "lean, casual prose," and I think he means that we are to look past the writing in order to discern "Watkins's belief in the telling of black stories, in their ugliness and their beauty."

Oh man. That is the best you can do? Cataloging this memoir under a hashtag? Like #blackstoriesmatter? Two sentences are quoted in the final paragraph of the review: "I was depressed with my friends and the decisions they were making. I couldn't do anything to save any of them." So shut up, reviewer. You are not doing any favors for a book that looks, in fact, very good.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Women: suck it up

So I was lying in bed the other day really not wanting to get up, and Morning Edition was playing on my husband's LEGO clock radio, and Steve Innskeep and Mara Liasson were talking about the Republican primaries. As if there's anything else to talk about, like, say, that Thurgood Marshall's elementary school caught on fire this week and Dilma Rousseff might get impeached.

Here's an excerpt:

INSKEEP: Has Trump's trouble in the last week or two caused any change in the sentiments in upstate New York?
BRIAN MANN (North Country Public Radio): I kind of expected to hear that, maybe hear some of his supporters here in New York kind of edging toward the door. But as I talked to my neighbors and people around upstate, I just didn't hear that. I reached out last night via Skype to Sue MacNeil. She works at a local hospital, and she's chair of the Republican Party in Fulton County, N.Y., a few hours west of here. And she told me, you know, that people who are put off by Donald Trump's coarse talk, especially about women - she says they're just wimps.
SUE MACNEIL: If you can't stand the heat, then gosh darn it, get out of the gosh-darned kitchen. I grew up with two older brothers. And I learned a lot from the family that I grew up with. And if I couldn't take it, then that was my problem. And talk about political correctness. Women, suck it up.

Needless to say, THAT got me right out of bed. I mean, I was either going to get out of bed and put some pants on or roll over and pull the covers up and hope for death. And Sue MacNeil has been ringing in my ears ever since.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Your Neighborhood Librarian Cooks a Meal

My son needs to bake a pie for his 8th grade class's Pie Auction. 

Why this strikes me as like the last and final blow, the pinnacle, the ultimate "we've got to have WHAT by Monday?!" in ten years of "Students must have X by Monday" - paint smocks, comfortably a dozen batches of cookies and cupcakes, multiple tri-fold presentation boards, a clipboard, camping equipment, and costumes representing John Wilkes Booth, Ravi Shankar, a tropical fish, and British composer Henry Purcell - I can't really say.

But it irritates the shit out of me. Maybe it's because I can't bake a piecrust myself.

Anyway, the Pie Auction is described as a hallowed tradition of this private school that the boys have been attending for middle school, middle school representing for me the three years in a young person's life that most closely resemble hell, and so we paid good cash money to put them somewhere with 275 years of experience keeping kids basically on the rails. (*ignoring ignoring ignoring my friends who went there themselves and their fond memories of skipping class to smoke cigarettes at the Dunkin Donuts or pot down at the creek*) (*that was high school anyway, they assure me*)

And the flyer for the Pie Auction allows for "savory pies." Which is good, because my 8th grader is a savory guy. Ha. Ugh. Anyway, he's better with meat than with desserts. Hm. That's also kind of ugh. Here's a story:

We're sitting at dinner one night maybe 6 or 7 years ago, Ez was about 6 and Milo maybe 8. The subject of pie comes up, who knows how. Ezra asks, "What actually IS a pie? How do you make it?"

I start to answer. "You roll out dough flat and put it in a round pan..."

And then Milo chimes in. He's like me - he likes to have the answer to things, and is generally unconcerned with the limits of his own knowledge or authority on the subject at hand. "And then you put in the filling - the meat or jelly - and then more dough on top."

Bob and I looked at him. "Meat and jelly?" Bob asked.

I turned to Ezra. "Please keep in mind that your brother has never made a pie."

"He may have never eaten one," added Bob. "Or seen one on TV," I said.

So this is going to go well.

Monday, April 13, 2015

On weak solvents and the wrath of Achilles

I was sitting on my neighbor's deck the other day, celebrating Greek Easter by eathing beautifully dyed and oiled hard-boiled eggs while the kids searched for plastic eggs full of candy.

I guess you dye 'em with beets, or onion skins, or the blood of the risen Christ or something. I love shit like that. Tradition! Anyway, as I sat in this weekend's ridiculously beautiful sunshine peeling my universal symbol of life and potential, I dropped the shell over the deck rail and into the yard.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

We Drink With Characters: Special Guest Alex London on THE ADVIL CALENDAR 2014

One of the nice things about taking a more laissez-faire approach to the holidays this year is that we've spent our after-kid-bedtime hours at leisure, and not wrapping or baking or cleaning or shopping online. Although I'll admit to a bitty little studio6 fetish this year. Everybody's getting a t-shirt for Christmas even though we're not really doing presents.

Some of our leisure time has been spent watching TV. It's pretty weird how, in the past year or two or three, TV has become something that people are not ashamed about. But people are very particular. Everyone has their own preferred cocktail of drama and humor and hot people, and we quiz our friends to learn where any recommended show falls on that scatter plot. Arrow? Not funny enough, I'm told. Downton? Hardly anybody gets their shirt off. So let's do it...


Friday, December 19, 2014

Drinking by the book: Advil Calendar 2014 BLACK VODKA HELICOPTERS Edition with SPECIAL GUEST Blythe Woolston

This is my autograph book. Yes I know nobody has an autograph book anymore, but just call me Anne Shirley, and shut up. Or don't. Don't call me Anne Shirley. In fact, I'll kill anyone who calls me Anne Shirley. I've never even read Anne of Green Gables and I would never wear my hair like that.

But as atavistic as it is, it's mine, and I love it, and it is packed with stories. The first story being of course, "Why do you use a 1904 drinks manual as an autograph book?"

This little book was a gift from my friend Paula, who knows that How We Used to Drink is almost as interesting to me as When Am I Going to Get My Next Drink. She gave it to me as we were on our way to a book festival. I admired the book and thanked her for the thoughtful gift and slipped it in my blazer pocket, on its way to a place of honor on my shelf of bartending books.

Next evening, wearing the same jacket, I traveled to Washington D.C.'s Politics and Prose to see a bunch of picture book authors talk about their work. There was a signing line, but since this was a bookstore event, you were supposed to buy the books you wanted signed,'m kind of a brat and I'm cheap and besides I already owned copies of most of those books at home.

So I pulled "How to Mix Drinks" out of my pocket and asked the authors to sign that. It was fun! Children's book authors are cheeky:

"Drink more." Mac Barnett
"Drink often!" Laura Vaccaro Seeger
At the NCTE convention this year, Jory John (All My Friends Are Dead) added "Drink hard!"

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advil Calendar 2014 EXCITING GUEST WEEK Telekinetic Teenager Edition with David Lubar

Stalking out of Target today at 9:23 a.m., my bag full of oxycodone, sunscreen, MAD Magazine, and "concert attire," I realized what had so far been missing from my holiday.

Rage. Barely contained, dry-eyed, crackling, hair-on-end rage.

I mean, I had this year pretty much wired. I hadn't overcommitted to writing assignments, everyone had already been sick and gotten over it, and best of all, I had booked - and paid for - a trip to TROPICAL PARADISE for my family and my parents, hoping to escape the traditional drama and anxiety that is part and festively-wrapped fucking parcel of this season of gifts.

I don't mean to show off, but look:

This is the house we rented in Curacao. That couch is crying out for me, a cocktail, and a book.

No wonder my customary December slow burn was barely at a simmer. I was cool - I have been lazing through December devoid of the usual stress. Not anymore, baby. It's happened:


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

You're Invited to a Cocktail Party On the Pirate Ship Revenge: Advil Calendar Year IV EXCITING GUEST WEEK Day III: Caroline Carlson!

I love looking out the window this time of year. The pissing-down rain, the 100% cloud cover hovering just above the chimneys... it's 2:30 in the afternoon and already the streetlights are on. Some poor schlub just passed by on a bicycle. It's like Dickens out there.

#paradise #tattoo #shin. AKA OW.
No wonder the British were in such a sweat to run and go colonize Trinidad or collect beetles in Sri Lanka. I'm taking off for sunnier climes myself. Conned my whole family into swapping wrapping and baking for lounging and collecting shells this year.

The joy I feel at not having to rearrange the whole house to accommodate a dead tree cannot be expressed in mere words. You must imagine a physical explosion of elation that incorporates the entire A to Z of Dance punctuated by frozen moments of Broadway weeping. Clasped hands and all.

But until then, it's still streaming ashwater gray outside. We gotta get out of here. Let's make like Baronet Joseph Banks ("Father of Australia," breadfruit enthusiast) and get on a damn boat to anywhere else. Welcome to...


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Getting Lit in KidLit: ADVIL CALENDAR 2014 - Sydney Taylor Edition with Exciting Guest Laurel Snyder!

It's important to me, as a bloody bloody atheist, to honor holiday claptrap in all its varied flavors and denominations. Claptrap all around! I love claptrap! Livens up the place. If all of us were nonbelievers like me, life would be so dull! We'd have no SantaCon, no fabulous book-themed bat mitvahs. The market for candles would dwindle to those people who want their powder room to smell like cookies. Well. The market for candles would dwindle to those people who put a toilet in a closet and then call it a "powder room."

And my drive home from work would become a whole lot less jaw-dropping. Never change, Parkville.

In the past, Your Neighborhood Librarian has celebrated the Festival of Lights (which started yesterday) with as many Hanukkah-themed schnepsels as I could find. There aren't many.

Laurel Snyder, author of imaginative, heartfelt middle grade novels and more picture books than you were quite aware of, tried to help me with that Hanukkah post but eventually threw up her hands and suggested we just pass around a bottle of Scotch. So this year I asked her an easier question, "Which character of YOURS would you want to drink with?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Return to Litte Tavern on the Prairie: The Advil Calendar 2014 WEEK TWO - Week of EXCITING GUESTS! Day One: Adam Rex

Hi there. It's Monday! We're halfway through December and true to rum-soaked form, Your Neighborhood Librarian finally has her crap together enough to start posting the Advil Calendar with some regularity. You're going to want to tune in to this, because I have a whole week of Exciting Guests to help us get squishy for the holidays. Exciting Guests!

What kind of Exciting Guests could Your Neighborhood Librarian possibly drum up? Will we hear from celebrity chefs turned novelists? Rock stars turned novelists? NASA techs turned novelists?

NO. EVEN BETTER: find a barstool and buckle up, because ain't nobody drink like an author of books for children drinks. I have authors of YA sci-fi, picture books, time travel adventure (time travel is SO HOT right now take my word for it), pirate adventure, and whatever you'd call that dizzying unquantifiable marvelousness that Blythe Woolston writes. That's right. Its...