BOOK REVIEW: Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. A secret society of unlikely scholars and Afrogeeks

Big MachineBig Machine by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Lois Lenski, the John Steinbeck of children’s literature: regional tales of diversity and classism

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.

Lois Lenski
Lois Lenski

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.

Blurbs for my forthcoming novel Bereft!

I got the go-ahead from the publisher to post these blurbs for BEREFT.

“Gidney has crafted a beautifully assured and insightful debut novel detailing the heightened surreality and emotionalism of teenage life. This book is full of heartbreak, humor, and most importantly a deep humane sense of empathy.”—William Johnson, editor, Lambda Literary Review and publisher of Mary Literary Quarterly

“Craig Gidney’s debut novel, Bereft, shows the vicious and often violent underside of junior high with boys being boys: hurting each other every way they can to see who survives and who doesn’t. Gidney gets it right–the sexual tensions, bullying, surprising friendships. Rafe is a character everyone can relate to.” –Greg Herren, 2011 Moonbeam Award Gold Medal recipient for Sleeping Angel
The publication has been slightly delayed–expect to see it in mid to late February.

FROM WHERE WE SIT Wins a Moonbeam Award!

The YA anthology from Tiny Satchel Press, FROM WHERE WE SIT: Black Writers Write Black Youth (ed. Victoria A. Brownworth) won a 2012 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, which celebrates Youthful Curiosity, Discovery and Learning through Books and Learning.The book won the Silver medal in the Young Adult Fiction – Historical/ Cultural Category. (My stories, “Circus Boy Without A Safety Net” and “Bereft” are featured in this book).

Congratulations to Tiny Satchel Press, Victoria A. Brownworth, and all the other authors!

New Release: The First Time I Heard…Cocteau Twins

Editor and author extraordinaire Scott Heim invited me to contribute an essay to the book THE FIRST TIME I HEARD…COCTEAU TWINS, which is a part of a series about music geekery, written both by writers and musicians.

I’m chuffed to appear in the book with David Narcizo (Throwing Muses); Ian Masters (Pale Saints); pianist and Cocteau Twins collaborator Harold Budd; band collaborator and live guitarist Lincoln Fong; Pete Fijalkowski (Adorable); Anka Wolbert (Clan of Xymox); Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak (Mercury Rev); Meredith Meyer; Mark Van Hoen (Locust, Seefeel); Paul Anderson (Tram); Paul Elam (Fieldhead); Rebecca Coseboom (Halou, Stripmall Architecture); Michael Cottone (The Green Kingdom); Sarah Jaffe; Antony Ryan (Isan); Dean Garcia (Curve); Kurt Feldman (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart); Erik Blood; Annie Barker; John Loring (Fleeting Joys); Guy Fixsen (Laika and co-engineer for My Bloody Valentine); Emily Elhaj (Implodes); Carlo Van Putten (The Convent, White Rose Transmission); Eric Quach (thisquietarmy); Ryan Policky (A Shoreline Dream); Matthew Kelly (The Autumns); Steve Elkins (The Autumns); Ryan Lum (Lovespirals); Michael Savage (The Fauns); Amman Abbasi (The Abbasi Brothers); Eric Loveland Heath; Ben Mullins (Midwest Product); Keith Canisius; Michael McCabe and David Read (Coldharbourstores); and writers like Emily Franklin,  Alistair McCartney; Tony Leuzzi; and Sommer Browning.

It’s an ebook, available both on Kindle and Nook, and soon to appear in iBooks….

Best Gay Stories 2009

Author Tom Cardamone gave a terrific review of Sea, Swallow Me on In his words:

Anyone who caught Kara Walker’s retrospective at the Whitney was immediately challenged to think about race and art. Her surreal silhouettes carved meaning out of every room. Regardless if the viewer came away with a positive or negative impression, it was obvious that existing concepts had been broken, challenged, expanded and, as someone who was blown away by the show, I would add rightfully so. I discovered the same powerful intonations within Craig Gidney’s collection, Sea, Swallow Me and Other Stories.
In the opening tale, The Safety of Thorns, the trappings of the plantation meld into the realm of myth and discovery with strong poetic imagery, yet the characters rise from up off the page with a stark realism. A slave boy is given a powerful elixir by a devil, but still has to find the strength he needs to grapple with reality from within. Equally impressive stories follow. It would be easy for the casual reader/reviewer to exclaim delight at discovering a gay black writer introducing gay black characters into the otherwise lamely heterosexual elf-white worlds of fantasy, but I found the author’s pallet much more assured than that; like Walker, his art is not only arresting, subversive and naturally erotic, it stretches boundaries and genuinely puts the speculative back in speculative fiction. Importantly, the stories are as engaging as challenging; no one will close the book thinking they’ve been slipped a thesis a’ la latter-day Delany.
The three best stories, the aforementioned The Safety of Thorns, the titular Sea, Swallow Me, and A Bird of Ice, respectively open, support the middle, and (nearly) close the book. Sea, Swallow Me allows the reader to swim within some spectacular writing and nearly drown in a feeling of otherness. A Bird of Ice takes place within the snowy confines of an ancient Japanese monastery. A young monk is courted by a member of the fairy folk and ends up confronting much more than the homoerotic awakenings of adolescence. Not that the remaining stories are by any means filler. The few pieces I suspected of being early work still possessed all of the strengths exhibited in the best work. All offered a diversity of setting and theme, making the book one of constant exploration. In fact, when not paying close enough attention while reading the story Strange Alphabets, I thought I’d caught the author making that obnoxious freshman blunder of naming a character after a beloved writer: Rimbaud. I was genuinely thrilled to realize my mistake as the story concerns the train-bound sexual (and quite sticky at that) adventures of the actual poet, a nice historical twist, which, like the exceptionally short Magpie Sisters, keeps the book off-balance. Meaning it surprises. This is not your comfortable Renaissance Fair of modern fantasy and that’s a good thing. Hell, it’s startlingly refreshing.
Fantasy is seriously lacking in gay fiction written by gay men. Funny, that in writing this review I was initially hesitant to bring up race, for fear that by implication I would give potential readers the impression that in some way the polemic (as if that’s somehow inherent to discussions of equality) shapes or invades these stories. Not so. The artist Kara Walker deftly works in black and white with obvious, evocative success. Craig Gidney wields a vivid rainbow of promise.

A quick note: Cardamone’s forthcoming book of speculative fiction, Pumpkin Teeth, is simply brilliant. I highly recommend it!

Finally, one of my pieces, Strange Alphabets, will be featured in the forthcoming Best Gay Stories 2009, ed. Steve Berman.

Best Gay Stories 2009

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