February Checkpoint #TBR2022RBR

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

Welcome to our second checkpoint for this year’s TBR Pile Challenge! It looks like some of you are off to a rip-roaring start! Way to go! As for me? I’m basically right on track, having completed two of my reads & reviews while being about halfway through list selection number three (A People’s History of the United States).

Progress: 2 of 12 Completed

So far, I’ve read and reviewed 2 of my 12 required books. I do plan to start Book 3 very soon, but more importantly, I need to get some reviews written and posted! I’ve got a couple of recent reads, like Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible and Rainbow Rowell’s Anyway the Wind Blows, sitting here on my desk staring at me with judgmental furor. (To be fair, I don’t review every book I read, anymore, so I may or may not even do these.) To be honest, I’ve pivoted to only reading books that I can rave about, as time is short and I don’t particularly believe in posting negative reviews (I just post the stars to Goodreads.)

I still plan to read all 14 of the books on my list this year, the main 12 plus my 2 alternates, so I’m glad to be at least “on track” with one a month. Summer usually leaves me extra time, so I can catch up on alternates then. That said, I have quite a few very long books on my list this year, one of which I’ve been working on for a few weeks already, so maybe I shouldn’t get too cocky.

Books read:

How are you doing?

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Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!

MINI-CHALLENGE WINNER #1

Congratulations to Michelle of True Book Addict, who is the winner of our very first mini-challenge! Michelle will receive a book of her choice from The Book Depository ($15 USD or less).

We will have another mini-challenge in April but keep reading and posting your reviews. Remember that every completed review for your challenge list’s books that is linked up in our widget counts as an entry into the final prize at the end of the year!

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

Cover image for poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press 2012). Man sitting on sofa; he has one arm tattooed; he's wearing shorts and a traditional native headdress.

Natalie Diaz is a poet I’ve followed on social media for a long time. I appreciate her presence and the genuine, earthy things she shares online, as well as all her thoughts on poetry. We’re also from the same region of the United States, which is relatively sparsely populated and so often tight knit when it comes to things like artists and writers. When My Brother Was an Aztec, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012, is her first collection, and what a stunner!

Copper Canyon is one of the poetry publishers I respect most. I can’t remember a single time I’ve purchased one of their titles and been disappointed; in fact, I’m usually blown away. And this experience was no different. What Diaz does in these poems is breathtaking, especially the honest, bare-knuckle way she tackles family issues like drug addiction. The way she melds the commonplace with the mythological is difficult to describe. In one poem, Diaz’s speaker describes her brother in a dementia-like state, paranoid and delusional, rifling through their parents’ house stealing all the lightbulbs and taking apart anything remotely electrical. In other, she shows us in heartbreaking detail how their mother and father have apparently resigned themselves to their fate. The speaker looks at her father like a willing Sisyphus, perpetually punishing himself through repeated interactions, failed ones, with his own son.

One of the things I loved most about this collection is when Natalie Diaz writes back to earlier and canonical poets, like Walt Whitman, as she does in “Reservation Grass.” This clear response to Leaves of Grass is both clever and haunting in form and purpose, mimicking as it does Whitman’s universalizing listing, yet illustrating the clear division in their lived experiences and promise. The speaker writes, “The shards of glass grow men bunched together—multitudes—men larger / than weeds and Whitmans, leaning against the sides of houses / . . . upon dirt not lawn” (30).

Her musings on family are just as searing and insightful as her poetic dueling with American master poets, and somehow just as universal despite their being first-person accounts. When she describes in “Why I Hate Raisins,” a memory with her mother, their hunger, and how she only came to understand selflessness versus selfishness as an adult, when it was too late, is piercing. That same sting of epiphany is present in so many of her poems, perhaps especially “No More Cake Here,” which appears to start off as a eulogy but eventually turns into a wish, and a loss.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and am glad, through my #TBR2022RBR challenge, that I finally got to read it.

Postcard Poems by Jeanne Griggs

Cover image for Postcard Poems by Jeanne Griggs (Broadstone 2021).

I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Postcard Poems by Jeanne Griggs. Poetry has been my genre of interest for the last few years, and my primary focus in terms of my own writing. The approach Griggs takes in her collection is both unique and accessible, and it gives readers a lot to love.

Initially upon receiving the book, I admit that my first reaction was, “Gah!” This is because the book is irregularly formatted, something I tend to avoid when purchasing because I’m so obsessive about the way books fit on my shelves. This means I’m probably missing out on a lot of excellent material, of course. Postcard Poems has reminded me to stop being so uptight about physical fit because I might be missing out on great content that fits absolutely. Here’s what I mean.

Griggs’ collection did two things for me immediately as a reader. First, it reminded me of how dearly I love epistles of any type. I love letter writing and postcards. It saddens me that no one does it anymore. I tried rather desperately throughout the pandemic to get people to “pen pal” with me, but with very little success. Postcard Poems reminded me why I love the practice so much and gave me the opportunity to feel like I was part of Griggs’ epistolary explorations. Each page is designed like a postcard addressed to various friends and family members. It was a delight to feel like I was getting to know not just the poems’ speaker, but also the recipients, especially those whose names appeared more frequently. I also know or have visited some of the locations involved, and this added to the nostalgia of the theme. But it’s not just the design approach that I enjoyed.

The poems themselves are also inviting. They are wholly accessible and contemporary but written by someone who is deeply observant. The poems create a sense of being-in-the-moment for her addressees. In this way they are both conversational and ekphrastic. The entire exercise seems like a reminder to put down your phone (and its camera) and to instead be in the moment; to see what is important about the place you’re in, or the people you’re with, or the things you’re feeling as you’re feeling them. And then tell someone, but only one someone. It’s this focus on both subject and audience that I found most exceptional in Griggs’ collection. It’s something to admire and emulate in real life, not just creative writing.

Three poems stood out to me for the way they express the heart of the collection and for their individual successes. These are “Note on a Postcard of Cypress Gardens,” “Note on a Postcard of the Kenyon Bookstore,” and “A Postcard of Magritte’s The Therapeutist.” All these poems succeed in achieving the purpose as I understood it (expressed above), but each does it in a way I found singularly successful.

In “Cypress Gardens,” the speaker laments the loss of wonder in childhood that gives way to the realities of danger as we age, the true circumstances of life we eventually can’t help but face, and the profound sadness we feel when we witness those we love transitioning in this way. In “Kenyon Bookstore,” the focus turns slightly from the observed to the observer. A similar disillusionment is felt, but it’s not the speaker watching her child’s perspective change; instead, the speaker, as grown adult and mother, must face another disturbing fact of life, that no one else cares as much as we thought, or hoped, they would. Lastly, in “The Therapeutist,” Griggs’ speaker takes this theme of loss and focuses it on memory and the body. It’s one of the most powerful confluences in the collection and comes across in the most striking imagery, as when the speaker writes, “I pull my blankets over the two / white ghosts in the birdcage / of my ribs and go forth / into the cold spring of another year” (40).

Many of the poems seem to strike melancholy notes, but there is in fact a deeply rooted hopefulness in each and throughout, which the final line above, concluding such a painful poem, demonstrates with remarkable clarity. Postcard Poems’ shining quality might indeed be just that; that it can carry such weight through a genre intended to be so light. The juxtaposition is a joy, even on the heaviest pages.

You can learn more about Postcard Poems and its author, Jeanne Griggs, here.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Cover image of the novel These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Psychological thriller? Dark academia? Queer stereotyping? Whatever way we choose to categorize Micah Nemerever’s These Violent Delights, it’s fair to say, simply, this book was unputdownable! Many are comparing it to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but I’m not sure where that comes from except for the general similarities in gay protagonists and the presence of domestic violence/partner abuse. However, even that latter comparison is questionable.

I’m not sure where to begin with this novel. It’s uncomfortable. It’s complicated. And so much of the story is left beneath the surface. The primary complaint I’ve read about this one, via Goodreads reviews, is that it’s often (almost always) impossible to understand how these two main characters, Paul and Julian, feel about each other. I will admit to being frustrated by this as well, although I do think it’s partly explainable through analysis of their relationship. Paul and Julian, too, are unsure about how they feel or how their relationship is supposed to work. Slowly, we begin to understand that Julian is less unsure, but we get much of our view through a third-person narrator who is typically closer to Paul’s perspective, and Paul is an absolute mess. It’s impossible to understand anything clearly if we’re seeing it through his eyes.

The plot itself is a rather simple one. Paul and Julian both come from broken families, though Paul himself seems to be psychologically damaged in a way that is separate from his family life. He is a murderous individual and these tendencies can’t be explained away by his father’s death or his mother’s absence. Julian, on the other hand, has two overbearing parents who want to control his life and set him on a path he has no interest in. In Paul, he finds someone he thinks is strong and who can help him, Julian, break free. To achieve that, though, he seems to accept that he’ll need to become a kind of physical outlet for Paul and to lead Paul to his ultimate satisfaction: getting away with murder. To me, Julian is easier to empathize with, particularly as the story unfolds, because despite appearances, it’s his feelings that seem most genuine and human, and his motives that seem explainable. He is emotionally damaged, and he is desperate, but he is not a maniac. That said, he does enable a maniac, and how can we forgive this?

I’m always concerned with gay storylines that seem to reinforce typical queer literature stereotypes and dangerous tropes, like glorifying violence or explaining homosexuality as mental illness, etc. These Violent Delights gets uncomfortably close to this, but the story is unique enough, in my opinion, and contemporary enough, to succeed anyway. In my mind, it’s wholly possible to interchange characters of other sexes or genders, or sexualities, and still see how this story could unfold this way. While I wish there was a little bit more to love in one or both of these characters, and at least some joy to be found somewhere in the story, I have to admit that that simply wasn’t the point of this one, and it’s no use being annoyed that the protagonists are so melodramatic or the plot so dark, when both of those are what makes the story what it is and was meant to be. Ultimately, the novel is a success because it is what it is what it intended to be and achieves what it sets out to do.

Also, the final line is devastating.

You Can’t Take It with You by George S. Kaufman

Cover image for Frank Capra's film, You Can't Take It with You, starring James Stewart.

George S. Kaufman’s post-Depression comedy, You Can’t Take It with You, is in many ways the perfect three act play.

The first act is a simple and direct introduction to the characters and the major conflict/event. There’s a Romeo & Juliet tale playing out between a young woman from a bizarre, poor family and a young man from an extremely wealthy family. While the two groups don’t necessarily hate each other in Montague-Capulet rivalry, there certainly seems to be enough of a difference between them to make Alice & Tony’s future doubtful.

Act two is the longest of the three and it is in this one where most of the drama in this comedy plays out. We get to know each of the diverse characters a little better and gain more insight into why Alice and Tony’s relationship was probably doomed from the start.

Finally, act three is a sprightly and rather delightful dénouement, much shorter than its preceding act and much more satisfying. It’s well suited to a traditional comedy of romance.

While the structure of the play is textbook, the play itself is a bit out of time. It doesn’t quite work for contemporary audiences. The primary issue or conflict is Alice’s supposedly strange family, but to be honest, it’s hard to find them anything other than a tiny bit quirky by today’s standards. That’s the rub, of course. There’s no choice but to read this by today’s standards; if we transport ourselves in time and read these characters the way a 1930s audience would, then the shock and hilarity is much more pointed. In that way, the play could be easily adapted to the modern stage by reimagining Sycamores and casting them in such a way that would make them outlandish by contemporary perception. In other words, not much needs to be changed to make this one work, and that’s probably because it’s a tale as old as time.

Other notes of interest are the minor conflicts of identity faced by Tony’s father, the hedge fund manager, and the commentary on marital relations, government mismanagement, themes of independence, and philosophical musings on the meaning of life and happiness. The long waited for title phrase, spoken by the Sycamore patriarch, comes right at the end of the play, where it packs the most punch. While I didn’t find much to immerse myself in for most of the play, I ultimately appreciated where it goes in the end, even if we see it coming.

Now, I’ve only recently learned that Frank Capra adapted this play to film, starring James Stewart, and I have to say, that definitely gets my attention! (Oscars for best picture and best director? Sign me up!)