Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book Review: Smash Cut

A few years ago, I read a really interesting book about the AIDS epidemic. And then I watched We Were Here, a documentary by David Weissman, about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco (it's available via streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend it, but watch with a box of Kleenex at your side). And then I read And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Gary Shilts. And then, because I still hadn't exhausted my interest in the subject, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. All of these stories, while about a sad, scary time period in America, just fascinate me. I feel like society has so much to learn from its initial response to the crisis, and I'm glad that although AIDS is no longer the huge, unknown, alarmist news topics it once was, that people are still writing about its impact on their lives. This is exactly what Brad Gooch tackles in Smash Cut.

Brad Gooch arrived in New York in the 1970s, eager for artistic and personal freedom. Smash Cut is his bold and intimate memoir of this exhilarating time and place, complete with its cast of wild bohemians, celebrities, and budding artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, William Burroughs, and Madonna. At its center is his love affair with film director Howard Brookner, recreated from fragments of memory and a crosshatch of conflicting emotions, from innocent romance to bleak despair.

Gooch and Brookner’s intense relationship is challenged by sex and drugs, and by a culture of extreme experimentation. As both men try to reconcile love and fidelity with the irresistible desire to sample the legendary abandon of the era, they live together and apart. Gooch works briefly as a model in Milan, then returns to the city and discovers his vocation as a writer.

Brookner falls ill with a mysterious virus that soon has a terrifying name: AIDS. And the story, and life in the city, is suddenly overshadowed by this new plague that will ravage a generation and transform the creative world. Gooch charts the progress of Brookner through his illness, and writes unforgettably about endings: of a great talent, a passionate love affair, and an incandescent era.

A smash cut is a technique in film where one scene abruptly cuts to another without transition, usually meant to startle the audience. Giving his book this title only further emphasizes what a shock the emergence of a terrifying disease--one that strikes, among many others, his former partner--must have been to Gooch and the rest of the gay bohemian crowd of New York City in the 1980s. Drawing from memories and letters he revisits, with beautiful writing and breathtaking emotion, his relationship with Brookner through the end of Brookner's life.

Although the bulk of the book focuses on Gooch's relationship with Brookner, it also touches on the bohemian arts scene of New York City in the 1970s and 80s and Gooch's experience as a model in Italy, and features cameos by a range of eccentric individuals, from Andy Warhol to Susan Sontag. While it definitely doesn't have a happy ending per se, the book is beautifully written (Gooch has a PhD from Columbia and is currently a professor of literature) and definitely worth a read.

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: Welcome to Braggsville

When I first moved to Chicago back in August of 2008, I felt very Texan. People kept telling me "You sure don't seem very southern!" but I absolutely felt like the outsider. Honestly though I really enjoyed both being somewhere different and being from somewhere different. These days, having left Texas over six years ago, I think of myself as fairly acclimated to the north. Every once in a while though, I'll say something that makes everyone else in the room come to a complete stop, and I'll realize that yep, things are pretty different south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A recent example is when I was telling a group of friends that my high school's biggest rival school flew a confederate flag and had as their official school mascot the "rebel." A quick Google search revealed that this was not completely banned until 2012. The school still plays "Dixie" as their fight song. All of this is to say that when I read the description for Welcome to Braggsville, I could more than relate, and I knew I had to read this book.

Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D’aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley. Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large hyperliberal pond. Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of “Berzerkeley,” the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place, until one disastrous party brings him three idiosyncratic best friends: Louis, a “kung fu comedian” from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder from Iowa claiming Native roots; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago. They dub themselves the “4 Little Indians.”

But everything changes in the group’s alternative history class, when D’aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, recently rebranded “Patriot Days.” His announcement is met with righteous indignation and inspires Candice to suggest a “performative intervention” to protest the reenactment. Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the 4 Little Indians descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious at first but has devastating consequences.

Although the satire in this book was spot-on and I can appreciate what Johnson was aiming for, the writing style was pretty hard to get used to. It's written in stream of consciousness, a lot of the punctuation is absent, and the point of view of the story switches with no warning. Once I pushed past those issues, the story arc was fairly interesting, and definitely picked up the pace once D'aron has met and assembled his motley crew and they arrive in Braggsville. Unfortunately the other characters didn't seem as fully formed to me, more "types" the author felt he had to fill. Overall, if you're not into alternative writing styles (and I'm not, although I appreciate how difficult it can be to write in that style, and do it well), you might have a hard time pushing past the noise of the style and enjoying this book. If that's your bag, this is the book for you.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Review: Girl Runner

It's no secret that running is a big part of my life, and I can't fathom living in a time when it wasn't acceptable for women to race or even run. What would my outlet have been if it wasn't running? That's a scary thought. All that said, I realize the struggle is ongoing for women's sports to get as much attention as men's do. When TLC Book Tours asked me if I wanted to review Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder, how could I say no?

An unforgettable novel about competition, ambition, and a woman’s struggle to earn a place in a man’s world, Girl Runner is the story of 1928 Olympic gold medalist Aganetha Smart. Will Aganetha’s undeniable talent help her to outrun the social conventions of her time, or the burden of her family’s secrets?

As a young runner, Aganetha Smart defied everyone’s expectations to win a gold medal for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. It was a revolutionary victory, because these were the first Games in which women could compete in track events—and they did so despite opposition. But now Aganetha is in a nursing home, and nobody realizes that the frail centenarian was once a bold pioneer.

When two young strangers appear asking to interview Aganetha for their documentary about female athletes, she readily agrees. Despite her frailty, she yearns for adventure and escape, and though her achievement may have been forgotten by history, her memories of chasing gold in Amsterdam remain sharp. But that triumph is only one thread in the rich tapestry of her life. Her remarkable story is colored by tragedy as well as joy, and as much as Aganetha tries, she cannot outrun her past.

Part historical page-turner, part contemporary mystery, Girl Runner peels back the layers of time to reveal how Aganetha’s amazing gift helped her break away from a family haunted by betrayals and sorrow. But as the pieces of her life take shape, it becomes clear that the power of blood ties does not diminish through the years, and that these filmmakers may not be who they claim to be...

The book has a nonlinear structure, with lots of flashbacks (that aren't in chronological order themselves) and I'm not going to lie: I had a hard time following along. If the author's intent was for it to be disorienting, she succeeded. That complaint aside, this book was a good read. The parts of it that were about running and the Olympics were fascinating (to me, at least, but I'm the kind of person who finds books about marathon training interesting), but it was also a great portrait of the whole life of an individual. Sure, people are famous for the 5, 10, maybe 15 years during which they're a professional athlete, but there is so much more to a life than that. Aganetha is famous for a short period of time for her running, but as her flashbacks reveal, there is much more to her life than her talent for running.

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.