22 books in 21 days: my reading/writing retreat reviews/thoughts/reflections

2015 reading/writing retreat book thoughts/responses/reviews for the 22 books i’ve read this year:

1. herland, charlotte perkins gilman
this book is a collection of fascinating concepts embedded in dated writing that was hard to read at moments, particularly around race. the central concepts around what a society of only women would be like, what a mothering-based society would look like, are really quite lovely. it’s a quick read, i would recommend to folks looking at feminism and parenting in sci fi, to mothers.

2, 3, 4. saga volumes 1-3, fiona staples and brian k vaughan
this graphic novel may actually be the best thing i have ever encountered. the writing is gorgeous and visceral and hilarious, the visuals are emotive and stunning. i was moved to laughter and tears multiple times. i couldn’t put it down and i wanted to know that all of these complex characters were going to be ok. magnificent way of casting the world in a war vs peace question without feeling boring or earnest. can’t wait for more.

5. the secret history of las vegas, chris abani
subtle, strange, poetic. a good mystery with skilled reveals. particularly of interest for those considered freaks and outcasts by mainstream society – how is that condition, that distance from the center, survived, navigated? abani is a masterful writer, he creates a situation where you wouldn’t want to be in this world, but you can’t not see it.

6. a book of common prayer, joan didion
this book makes me want to release a particular little keening moan. didion writes about grief and pain in the most exquisite precise way. this story is very small and personal and a little mysterious…i can’t exactly put my finger on what she was telling us about other than heartache. but it’s enough. apparently it’s about to be a movie with the redhead from mad men – i anticipate.

7. chronicle of a death foretold, gabriel garcia marquez
garcia marquez could write about sitting on a toilet for 100 pages and i would be stunned by the beauty of it. this is a story of a murder, where the murderers are known, and the motive, and everything. but the exploration is around how the whole town handles it both before and after. his writing is poetic and objective and casts judgment without any accusation, simply with the information he offers.

8, 9. fifty shades trilogy (darker, and freed), e.l. james
i just had to know: what was the big deal about these books? as someone who doesn’t really read romance novels, there was a certain thrusting loin quality, where every brush of the knuckle against sensitive skin blooms an orgasm that felt beyond ridiculous. but what i was left with was a lot of discomfort, not from the kind of sex, but from the abusive relationship between this virgin and a possessive, traumatized, controlling man. i was glad to see the presentation of bdsm agreements and communication around sex that gets explored here. but the way sex was used to connect with someone so emotionally volatile and manipulative made me want to sit down with this girl and do some life coaching and mediation. i’m sure someone good has already written about this somewhere, but i hadn’t seen it. i kept rooting for her to put her foot down and say no, you can’t treat me this way. alas, they would instead fall into romantic throes again because she bit her lip and his manhood was involved. yay for bondage and consensual play, but all thumbs down for the presentation of this as any model of a sexy relationship.

10. positron episodes 1-3, margaret atwood
this is a hilarious dystopian future series. i didn’t realize it was an unfinished series when i started or i probably would have waited til it was done. but it’s funny enough, though not her best, not on par with the maddaddam trilogy. she is skilled and cynical, she makes me actually laugh out loud, and the idea is a brilliant critique of the modern prison system.

11. the blind assassin, margaret atwood
a tragedy, written in slow full detail. very different, sadder and more earthbound than anything else i’ve read of atwood’s work. this is a great family drama, and it’s quite cinematic. there is sci-fi in here but its tucked inside a world war 2 era tragedy that builds up to be very specifically of it’s time, the kind of tragedy that can only emerge out of deep shame and politeness.

12. kafka on the shore, haruki murakami
ahhhh. this book had so much magic, so many of the right fundamental questions, so much good taboo and sensuality…it is a perfect book, each character unlikely and compelling, the mysteries pulling you forward. there is a section of this story that actually feels impossible – an act of sexual violence that is somehow made part of the journey through innocence, that i have to note as a survivor, and also say i never thought anyone could write such a scene in a way that still felt safe, tender, forgivable and humane. the whole thing is brilliance. the story is paced perfectly, and there are things like having half of a shadow, or talking with cats, that make total sense here. i want to read a lot more of his work.

13. at night we walk in circles, daniel alarcon
this story really echoed garcia marquez’s chronicle of a death foretold in it’s pace, in telling of how scandal and love and youth happen in a small place, or in this case a series of small places where people are trying to make meaning of their lives. i love how daniel writes, and i love what feels like looking behind a curtain at the friendships and society of men, the immense quiet suffering, confusion and pride.

14. killing moon (dreamblood), n.k. jemisin
n.k. writes fantasies where the darkest skinned people are the divine presence, where romance is queer and crosses gender, sexuality, ability and species. there is tension, longing, principle, power play. she easily evokes and drops us into worlds that are fully formed and believable, and then she focuses in on tender interpersonal dynamics. this book really examines death – seeing it as something not to be feared, as a possible transition into ecstasy that i found very compelling.

15. the salt eaters, toni cade bambara
this book is difficult! there isn’t something clear to grab onto and hold as you enter the heart of this healing, and i found myself having to approach it as a spiritual journey rather than a narrative as i was moved, confused, annoyed, touched, witnessed and worked. i am grateful toni opened herself up to this one, and i know this isn’t my last time reading it.

16. americanah, chimimanda ngozi adichie
ahhhhhh. ah ah ahhhh. i saved this book for near the end of my trip because i had great expectations and i wanted to savor the anticipation. adichie delivers. she writes this book about all of these normal things – love, family, friendship, growing up, figuring out who you are and want to be – and she makes it all feel honest and meaningful. what is it like to be aware of yourself being difficult, or being silent in the face of injustice, or walking away from love? how many of us are moved by forces we can’t quite put our finger on, between choices that don’t offer clear and easy next steps? when i finished this book i hugged it, literally, with gratitude.

16. this is how you lose her, junot diaz
yunior! this book felt like it flew past, the voice moving so quickly, so of the world junot is documenting, that i wanted to make myself read it slower, but i couldn’t. i appreciate what feels like a shamelessness in this, the exposure of how straight men learn to speak to each other and think to themselves about women. and how much these women with their fears and care and needs actually mean to the men, in spite of the training to disregard love, to be greedy. i wanted it to go on.

17. how to slowly kill yourself and others in america, kiese laymon
i wrote some about how this book effected me in my delirious travel posting. i think kiese is writing a very particular voice that feels like the open vein of this political moment, wonderful and accessible and also hard to read. i love his southern black boy stance, i love reading him be vulnerable about what he has lost in trying to be tough, i love his relationship with his mama and the women who love him, i love that this collection of essays is designed to be read in one sitting – even though i took a break in the middle to have a spiritual enlightenment moment – and i love that it feels like there is so much more to come from him.

18. y the last man volume 1, brian k vaughan
after falling hard for saga people kept mentioning this work to me and it’s fantastic – the premise is like herland, a world of women, and the experience of a man/men traversing that world. vaughn writes characters you want to kick it with, want to kick the asses of, and want to see win at life. can’t wait to read more.

19. motherless brooklyn, jonathan lethem
this book was a find on the shelf where i was staying once i ran out of books. i grabbed it because it had incredible reviews, and i found it an interesting book – the lead character is a detective who lives with tourette’s and the most fascinating part of the book by far is being inside his tourette’s ticking mind – the self awareness of control and lack of control. made me think how much i take for granted the relationship between my mind and my body. the detective story was fine, but the journey into the protagonist’s brain was the reason to read this book. i’m excited to see ed norton take this on for film.

20. lion’s blood, steven barnes
wow. i wanted to read this book because i had heard about how steven flipped white supremacy in his head to the degree that in the book hard times are called ‘pale times’…i wanted to see this flip. this book is well researched and deeply plausible, and it really pushes the mind to see how clearly white supremacy works, where it is embedded and assumed. there was a point where i was reading and wanting to close the book because the account was so traumatizing, and then had to release a good cry because…that’s my lineage. this is a powerful, innovative and thorough alternate history.

21. healing sex, staci k haines
this book is so necessary. staci is my teacher in my somatics and social justice path, and i have been needing and fearing this book for a few years. i worked through it one chapter at a time and there was so much smart, nonjudgmental, ambitious and practical wisdom in here…i feel like i grew up a few years in my journey of sexual health and power with this book. i recommend it to anyone and everyone who has sex.

22. soul talk: the new spirituality of african american women, akasha gloria hull
this book, prescribed to me by dr alexis pauline gumbs, also got touched on in my delirious post, but i want to add that i thought it was brave of akasha to name that the book was a spiritual journey in and of itself, in addition to being a whisper across spirit between these women of the 80s and those of us reading and learning from their words today. this book is full of vulnerability, and not trying to condense or synthesize black creative and spiritual brilliance, but letting it be ethereal and precise and emotional and mystical. she helped me read the salt eaters, and moving through it one chapter at a time, it put me in contact with my ancestors in a way that feels precious and right.

being so utterly alive. or, a visceral release of grief. or, from delirium.

I wrote this yesterday after a sleepless night of creative output that led to a spiritual breakthrough. I considered not sharing it. It is my voice from delirium, not neat or polished. And it is an intimate movement of grief in my life, and it feels like a particularly open me, and a special, necessary moment to share, for y’all who have been with me this far.

Gratitude.

I recommend putting on the song Glosoli while you read this…not yet but when I cue you. Demand it even.

Today I had the moment I came on this retreat for.

To be there with me you have to time travel, to first know I didn’t sleep last night. The words came to me, flooded me around five pm and just didn’t stop.

No, further back – I’ve been working all along, editing my novel (!) (which by the way is hard! because the characters have a lot to say about themselves and really want to negotiate in this process) and putting down other snippets of words as poems, short stories, drawing characters and pregnant women in magical forests as per usual (I have a vast collection of colorful drawings of pregnant and/or alien women in nature, just my goddess thing I suppose.)

And I’ve been reading…professionally, a book a day at least. Fiction I fly through, nonfiction I have to dose myself, a chapter every day or so. Reading writers who make me laugh and rage and moan or sigh with pleasure and realize I should give up and then remind me to just be myself, to bring my whole self to the page.

I’ve been immersed in Soul Talk, from Akasha Gloria Hull (on recommendation from sister teacher Alexis Pauline Gumbs), a stunning exploration of black women’s writing and spirituality in the 80s, full of interviews with Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton and so many others, which I will do a full review of in a couple days. But for now just know that one thing she talks about is black women intentionally communicating with spirit, ancestors. And I decided to try it here in a few ways over the past weeks.

Yesterday I tried the pendant. I have this pendant I bought last year because my friend Mia had one and it seemed like some good clear magic. But as I often do, I carried the magic around faithfully, everywhere, and didn’t quite practice it.

I pulled it out yesterday afternoon and started asking hesitant questions in a doubtful tone. When the pendant started swinging and I couldn’t tell how, I asked better questions. Eventually I was in tears of clarity and gratitude, both for what I was learning, and for who was teaching me. More on that when I write my autobiography in fifty years.

So then the words came, because the ones I really wanted were backed up behind those questions and tears. They been there just waiting. They came through me, prolifically. I kept sitting back and thinking whew, good. Then the next words would come and I’d adjust on the hard little chair and keep going.

I needed and need this kind of writing.

Mexico holds me just right. In 2012 I wrote for eight hours straight in the sun, no food or bathroom breaks, after a sleepless night. I’ve been longing for that torrential downpour again, and here it was. When the words for one thing ended, I turned to the art supplies, and later to poetry, and then more stories, all in that dusky zone between confessional and fantasy and future memoir that I call my fiction.

At exactly 8pm, an innocent seeming courtyard enclosed in white pillars next door turned into a NY errybody-come-thru club and started blaring the loudest music I’ve ever heard outside of the Outkast show in Rotterdam, and in that case it was partially because we were right in front of the speakers. Not being anywhere near yesterday’s speakers, I initially felt a pure and total wow of respect for the volume.

The music was fascinating, literally every genre I can name and several I can’t, in no clusters or order I could follow. It felt like there were 500 musical desires there and the dj was just playing them in the order they were requested. But somehow the shit sounded great, and the crowd was going wild no matter what song came on. And I felt blessed because yay, I have a soundtrack for this explosion of writing.

At around 2am, I’m still writing on the balcony, on my little glowing device, in the dark, when the music stops. I felt pretty complete with my creative outburst, still soft and wide from the magic pendant experience. I started to get ready for bed.

Stopped is the wrong word however. It was merely a pause, possibly because the police came by? I think they then stayed to kick it based on the yelling, but I can’t be sure since, in spite of several half-ass efforts and lots of good incentives (see: five trips to mexico in three years), yo still no habla nor comprende most of le espanol, feel me. Point being, all of that other music, the Rihanna salsa Elvis merengue Kanye square dance Goethe/Kimbra waltz pachata James Brown bagpipe Queen Jay Z Beyonce Air Supply part?

That was just the buildup.

At 2:20am began the coherent part of the night – three hours of what struck my ears as nonstop German street fair techno (see: my entire childhood). Each song would seem to be the last song, and then the dj would do the soccer scream and drop the beat harder and the crowd would flail in vocalized bliss.

Blasting.

Sleep was not an option, because I personally can’t sleep when my body is being vibrated with such gusto at the cellular level. I was even somewhat concerned that my heart’s rhythm might get thrown off beat by the other, deeper sound.

So…I kept writing. I lay in bed and thought and wrote and drew and thought and wrote some more. In spite of the unusual soundtrack, and the realization that no sleep meant I couldn’t scuba dive today as planned – I felt happy.

The spark is why I’m here, and I was on internal and externally-fueled fire.

When the party ended around 5am, I tried again to sleep…but then the roosters started. There’s also a cat who somehow knows I have the capacity to be swayed by sounds of woe, so she comes and weeps outside my window around six each morning, but she also knows I’m allergic to her so she compassionately runs away when I try to give her milk. Or maybe cause it’s rice milk?

Regardless, it was daytime.

I got up, stretched, trying to remember the last time I wrote all night. It’s been long enough that I can’t remember it.

I made a remarkable Spanish omelet for breakfast, did my little rituals, canceled my dive because it seems dangerous to risk napping 90 feet under the ocean’s surface, and then decided to come to the beach and read Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I also brought Soul Talk to finish.

Soul Talk ended beautifully, in the sunlight, sand between my toes. Topless but, you know, on my tummy cause they ain’t necessarily ready for alla dis. I felt of a lineage in a way I think every creator needs, regularly.

Then clouds covered the sun, the wind brought in a bit of cool air, and I picked up Kiese’s book. I stayed at the beach because even with the clouds, it’s warm and beautiful and not winter. Also Sunday is the best, the beach fills up with local families, so many kids.

So, we have caught up with: my moment. (Cue music.)

I’m halfway through the book, which is filling me with such immense tenderness. Kiese’s writing is ferocious, he comes in fists up but he’s punching mirrors and letting us witness and also demanding we not lie, even as readers. I’ll review it when I finish it but it’s already black excellence/a classic/must read/brilliance.

I have my Falsetto Season Spotify mix on, which I hold as basically the best thing I accomplished in 2014. And Glosoli comes on as I reach page 97, finishing a chapter. And I look over at the ocean all pretty and dark and choppy, there’s some seagulls flying over, and I think: Iceland has made really good music for being on Mexican beach.

And before I can look back at my page a soccer ball rolls in front of me. The kid who grabs it and says ‘pardon’ shyly to me is one of the most handsome children I’ve ever seen. I realize that he’s Finn, my nephew, in a few years – lanky and intelligent in the eyes and not concerned with his beauty. In that moment I feel towards him what I feel towards Finn, a total may-you-have-all-of-the-things love.

Then he is kicking the ball back to the group and I set the book down and really look at these boys. They are all Finn, all bright and fast and easily beautiful and incredible at soccer. Beloved.

The sun moves out from behind the clouds in a glorious big reveal which brings an energetic burst of glee up and down the beach, and the song is building, and the moment becomes cinematic. And as the moment is happening I know it’s cinematic, part of my brain is already writing it down, complex meta awareness. And often I scold that part, like just Be here. But I am a goddamn writer and that is exactly how I Be anywhere and that little thought made me laugh.

I look left and there are little spirit twins of Siobhan and Mairead, my nieces, a princess running fast and fearless with her hair flying out behind her like a kite of curls, and her androgynous sibling trying to keep up, baby fat thighs on fleek. Their young parents sit on a blanket laughing and touching each other, overtly loving. I see my sisters and their beloveds and my parents in them.

And then with the sun turning everyone to shimmery gold and caramel,
and the music twisting up into throes of ecstatic beauty,
and the people running in and out of the waves,
and this dope crone rocking her wrinkles in a bikini showing how to age flawlessly,
and an older couple leaning on each other in the shadow of a beach wall that look like my landlords in their sweet comfortable knowing togetherness,
and the tooth free man approaching with the guitar who periodically ogles my beach décolletage and says ay que linda while offering to sing me a love song,
and the dogs, especially the three legged lassie look alike, running ahead of their humans and getting called back and returning with reckless devotion,
and the littlest ones righteously terrified of the waves but also needing to touch their toes in,
I realized (again but anew) how deeply connected and miraculous existence is, how beautiful it is to be awake to the ways humans love and care for and play with and grow each other.

We are connected in that we love. Love is the common form of our best ‘being human’ (the essential focus of Kiese’s book and perfect way to explain this thing).

And as the song peaks and tears are coming to my eyes, I look back at the sea, turned by the sun into a rolling rainbow of turquoise and light refraction. And, of course, just then, a flock of over thirty massive pelicans are taking to the sky from the water’s surface, moving into emergent formation, my life’s obsession.

And the grief moves through me.

Not out, but through, filling me up with it’s own powerful and life affirming force. We grieve because of this, all of this simple and overwhelming love and beauty, which resides in the small work of being humans on a fragile and resilient and perfect and changing planet.

The tears are brief, because whoever in the universe keeps track of tears knows I have been crying. These tears were joyful, and gave way to long deep shameless orgasmic laughter.

I’m sleep deprived because I’m creatively spent, and I’m whole because I have loved and lost and learned so much, and I’m here.

Right now.

And everyone I love who has died, and those who loved in ways that led to my existence, my ancestor-strangers, they’re all also here, right now. They are with, of, in me. The way water is ocean, mist, fog, diaphanous cloud, nourishing cloud, rain, river, ice and all? We are like that, we are all here, in and with and of each other.

And I laugh too because I’m not high, not drunk, not hungry, not distracted, not preaching, not aiming for brilliance, not longing for anyone or anything, not giving or taking anything, not doing anything at all, just being. At peace with who and what and where and how I am, we are – the living.

Being so utterly alive.

***

Bonus time travel round – I’ve been letting words come through without my rearranging them while I’m here, asking the ocean to tell me stories and truths. (Purple Rain and Cavalier played as I typed this up if you want to stick with my soundtrack journey)

This piece – not poem, not unpoem – came out the other day, two days before my magic moment, maybe three, and it feels part of it:

The first lie you were taught is I love you
That love happens outside the heart
Extended in an open palm to another
Between the naked flesh of frantic bodies pulsing blood and shivers
In the intense eye looking at you with wet hunger
In the soft swell of the breast feeding your wordless mouth

This lie has weight, put in your young hands
‘Take this and protect it
And also give it away’

You feel it become fire and pass it quickly
Not knowing how to hold it when it comes back impenetrable rock
You feel it slipping away like salt sea water
Cup your hands together tighter
Pushing all the air
hushed into your crisp lungs

Now I’ll tell you the truth

I love myself

Everything good flows from that being the truth
That you can be beloved every moment – every moment
And nothing heavy can cling to you
And your sweet body will open up with the laughter of being alone in an infant world
And the hands and the eyes of others will be mirrors that show you the galaxies
And there will be so much of the miracle of yourself
That you will sizzle and spark, root and flow
And always know
The true love

(Sing yourself all of those love songs honey
Know deeply how it feels to fall madly in love with you
Then you will see, every time it happens
That it is moon love from everyone else
and it can move the tides in your heart
But my darling it is your love
that is the light)

***

Now, back to crying with Kiese. Love y’all.