The specter of AIDS haunts this star-studded, themed collection which is set in the early 80s, just at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. The cast includes Keith Haring, Sylvester, the Reagans, Jackie O, and Little Edie Beale. The settings veer from New York Bathhouses to the Castro to Fire Island to the White House. The brief book exudes a unique mixture of camp and nostalagia, shot through with a prophetic melancholy.
Robert Levy’s supernatural thriller debut, THE GLITTERING WORLD is a sinister reinterpretation of the changeling child myth set in the ruins of a remote Canadian artist’s community. Levy is trained as a psychologist, and this insight into various mental states and disorders underpins the tightly-drawn character portraits. The story is told from four distinct view points, and the grounding in the ‘real’ world (hippy artist’s communes, 90s-era club scene, the professional lives of chefs and a working psychiatrist) makes the intrusion of the counterfactual more chilling.
Levy’s novel reminds me, tonally, of the movie UNDER THE SKIN. The works share themes of otherness—true otherness (think of Starfish Aliens)— existential despair and both works use the landscape-as-character (the highlands of Scotland in UTS, the Canadian wilderness in TGW) effectively.
Highly recommended for fans of Elizabeth Hand and Holly Black (in her dark lyrical mode).
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is an ambitious horror novel about secret societies with subtextual issues about race and class that is full of laugh aloud moments. It’s a sort of tonal patchwork of A Confederacy of Dunces, The DaVinci Code and The Intuitionist.
Ricky Rice is a bus station janitor who receives a mysterious summons to someplace in remote Vermont. Because he’s an itinerant ex-junky, he uses the free bus ticket and arrives at the Washburn Library along with other African Americans misfits and petty criminals who all seem to have turning points of Epiphany buried deep in their checkered pasts. They are branded collectively as the Unlikely Scholars and charged with collecting and cataloging reports of esoteric phenomena. After a period lasting perhaps a year, Rice manages to crack the code, and is sent on a quest to Northern California to track down a heretical Unlikely Scholar.
The wild plot, full of incident and conspiracy and supernatural occurrences is as expertly paced as a Stephen King novel. But it was the narration and characters that kept me glued. Rice tells his story in the first person, full of quips and asides about lower class African American life that ring true. The repartee between Rice and his partner the Gray Lady (aka Adele Henry) zings like the best of Nick and Nora. The scenes of horror and degradation, both personal and environmental, are chilling. It’s a pleasure to read this kind of fiction with such well-realized characters that you don’t often see on the printed page.
Ultimately, I don’t think Big Machine succeeds as well as Lavalle’s most recent novel, The Devil in Silver. The ambition and scope of the plot gets the better of him. But it’s a fun ride, full of beautiful writing.
Strawberry Girl was the first novel I read by children’s book author and illustrator Lois Lenski (October 14, 1893 – September 11, 1974). I read the book in the fifth grade in secret, because with its pink cover, not to mention title, was girly. At the time, I was in the process of reading books that had the Newbery Award, regardless of content. There were some duds in that bunch. For instance, I could not get into Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting, due to the archaic language and the fact that there was a stereotypical black character.
Strawberry Girl’s synopsis sounded girly, too. According to the back cover blurb, Birdie Boyer is a plucky ten-year old heroine in turn of the century Florida who oversees a crop of strawberries in the hopes of winning some Four H-styled prize. The actual story is somewhat darker. It’s about a Hatfield vs McCoyesque feud between the Boyer’s neighbors, who are in reality, squatters. The father, in particular, is a drunken lout with rage issues. The mother is not much better. The Boyers, by contrast, are one class above them, and while not educated, per se, have strong bourgeois values and a Puritan work ethic. The neighbors don’t resort to violence. Instead, they use criminal mischief, such as ignoring property boundaries and destroying crops. The neighbor’s son is the lone good egg in the family, and with the help of Birdie, tames his wild streak. The families enter into an uneasy truce, thanks to the friendship between the two kids. The story is accompanied by the author’s stark, black-and-white illustrations that have the austere quality of folk art.
I ended up reading other Lenski books that year. Her regional series followed the lives of children in various US locales. Most of the scenarios dealt with poverty in some form or another. Appalachia is explored in Blue Ridge Billy. Judy’s Journey is about migrant workers. She even dealt with racism in a book that I only heard about, entitled Mama Hattie’s Girl, which features an all-African American (or in the parlance of the time, Negro) cast. Yet another novel is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lenski was prolific, writing and illustrating many picture books, historical novels and even songbooks. Her focus on poverty and effects on children make her a kind of children’s lit version of John Steinbeck.
Much of her work is out of print. This past summer, I volunteered for my local library (MLK Public Library here in DC), and I had the pleasure of working with the Rare Children’s Book Collection. Many Lenski works are housed in there.
It’s a shame that more of her stuff isn’t in print. Her focus on the vulnerable left an impresseion my young mind, and made me empathetic and curious about the lives of others.