Archive for February, 2021

Review: The Office of Historical Corrections

Saturday, February 27th, 2021

Happenstance led me to this collection of Danielle Evans’s writing and I’m happy it did. She writes impeccably in service of her characters. Those characters are stressed by an unfair society to the breaking point and laid open for us.

When I write these I sometimes wind up struck by an analogy to another writer, unfair as that is. And Evans is so strong a writer and so distinct that it is a crutch for me. My crutch here is T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Like Boyle, Evans has a knack for putting characters into some of the most unusual circumstances from today’s headlines and making the progression to that state so consistent, simple, and logical that I found myself looking around and surprised at my location. She deploys twin strengths of choosing those circumstances so well and creating such realistic characters that this reader found himself enlightened repeatedly.

Her writing is quite powerful, but completely in service of character and theme. The few writerly flourishes that do appear assure me that this is a choice, and I admire it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Fearless Jones

Sunday, February 21st, 2021

I think of Walter Mosley as being famous for his mystery and crime work, so it may be surprising that Fearless Jones is the first work of his I’ve read from that genre. I have heard parts of a few radio adaptations, so I knew some of what to expect.

The writing is excellent, which will surprise no one who has read Mosley before. He is a master of so many forms that he seems at his best in one of his favorite genres. I’m not enough of a mystery fan to comment on how he might be tracking or playing with the conventions of the genre. Even without knowing any of them the complex plot was easy to follow and if I were trying to solve the puzzle, I would have had no complaints.

When I do read mysteries, I read them for the characters, settings, and writing. Mosely’s writing is sublime. His characters are deftly drawn, deep, and believable. He can give a surface impression of a person with a few lines , and does. But even incidental characters who recur display their inner lives through small moments. It makes the story so much more immersive for me, and I imagine that for the puzzle solvers this can only help when looking for motives. His main characters show themselves in more detail and are a delight to get to know in both their beauty and their failings.

The immersion continues in the richness of the setting. That setting is one near and dear to my heart: historical Los Angeles. That I love the place does not blind me to its flaws, and Mosley takes a historical perspective – no year is given but it feels late 1950’s or early 1960’s to me – that throws those flaws into clear relief. He brings out the vibrancy of LA’s poorer communities, making it clear how people in them lived. That includes the ways that people and police treat them. It’s easy to paint broadly there, but Mosley brings out how the treatment varies and how the people doing it mitigate or intensify the unfairness. And the poor communities also vary.

Absent the puzzle, Fearless was about the precariousness of life at the edges of society and how the communities living on the edge come together to meet those threats. Early in the story, the protagonist (Paris Minton) loses basically everything he has because of he’s unwillingly dragged into a violent criminal contest. He quickly realizes he cannot fight this alone and connects with other in his world with the talents and hearts that can help him. These allies never seem like plot conventions that conveniently appear; they are fixtures in Paris’s life that he has a history with. Some owe him favors and some he has to convince. No one comes out and says anything like “this could happen to any of us,” but there are moments where I feel that shared understanding. It’s a warm feeling.

Fearless is also a thriller, and a compelling one. The pages flew by, and I was always eager to see what happened next. Even if you don’t care about character definition or historical LA, this book is great fun.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Queens of Animation

Saturday, February 13th, 2021

I’m not a big fan of Disney animation. It’s not that I dislike it, just that I’m more of a Warner Bros. cartoon and Pixar and Miyazaki long form animation fan. And now Disney owns and promotes all both of the long form choices, so Disney seems to recognize their values. And there’s plenty of Disney animation I love and respect. But I’m not invested in the art to the same level and I don’t know the history in any detail.

For me, Queens of Animation was a snappy and scholarly introduction to Disney creative history through the lens of women’s contributions. That history is remarkable. The depth of creative and editorial investment, as well as the early personal guidance from Walt himself, surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have, though, given the beauty of the animation and the quality of the storytelling.

Nathalia Holt is not the first to publish a Disney history, of course, nor is she the most scholarly or comprehensive. She is the among the first, if not the first, to delve into the contributions of women to that legacy. Considering the quality of those contributions, that’s a terrible gap to have endured this long. This is a worthy bridge over the gap.

Holt illuminates these women and the place completely. Both the humanity and creativity of these people comes through clearly. She also brings the environment alive well, showing the power and pain generated by the studio. It’s gripping reading.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Calypso

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

I’ve read an awful lot of David Sedaris‘s writing over the years, but I was pretty slow to pick up Calypso. It’s a collection of his personal essays – most about his family – a common format for him. He has a history of honest, moving, and funny essay collections that have largely made his name.

When I encapsulated Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls I said his writing doesn’t change much. Calypso contradicts that. Sedaris writes like a more introspective and melancholy man here. Given that he’s talking about the suicide of an estranged family member and the decline of his father’s health, it’s hard to take that as a surprise.

While his tone and topics are more sober, his writing remains effortlessly impressive. The essays are beautifully built and honestly resonant. Despite the somewhat dark topics, I didn’t find the essays depressing.

Strongly Recommended.