Thursday, April 14, 2016

New Kids on the Block's Hangin' Tough by Rebecca Wallwork (to be released 4/21/2016)



Odd, perhaps, to see a review from a 45-year-old man for a book such as this, but I'll offer my defense, should it seem necessary: at age 19, during the same year that the New Kids on the Block became famous with Hangin' Tough, I was beginning my journey out of the closet.  I was the same age as Jordan Knight, on whom I was seriously crushing.  I fell in love with these guys, knowing full well how cheesy their act was, and reveling in the shock people felt when I told them that I, a college-radio DJ into everything from Black Flag to Sonic Youth to Public Enemy to...well, hey, my tastes were quite broad.

Therefore, I figure, given how I wasn't able to explore my relationship stuff back in my early adolescence, there must have been some of that energy still going on for me.  I also learned that my very broad taste in music is tied to my complicated personality, but no need to get into that here.

I call it a defense jokingly, of course.  I'm not really shamed by it or embarrassed. I wouldn't have stooped to calling myself a "Blockhead," because I've always (perhaps to my detriment) resisted tribalism, especially silliness such as that.  I was even a more devoted Iron Maiden fan (kind of still am) but I never wanted to be called an "Iron."  Or whatever.

I bring all of this up because the most interesting part of this book is the cognitive science aspect of it, how music can have a dopamine-release effect on us humans, and how emotional things which happen when we are young teens are amplified for various reasons, and hence when we hear the songs we loved at that age we react more strongly than we might as an adult to a new song we hear and like.

We also get a bit of history of the band's development and of Maurice Starr, the band's genius founder and director, plus some quick fan-type reactions to the songs on the album and some discussion of fan/band relational reactions. 

I'm not sure we get a proper analysis of the music on the album, but that's okay.  It was an enjoyable enough read, if not entirely well-focused.  My three-star rating could be 3.5 just because I still have a bit of that fanboy in me, and no, I'm not embarrassed about it.

(With gratitude to the publisher and NetGalley for providing an ARC for this review.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Guapa by Saleem Haddad (2016)


I'm thinking about this book and my frustrating experience reading it, and it's difficult for me to shape a review for it. I guess I'll just plunge forward.

Strengths:
Saleem Haddad is very skilled in painting a scene's setting. My brain had no trouble filling in the details as Haddad provided everything necessary while never getting boring in his descriptions. In slums, checkpoints, fancy hotels, apartments, dorm rooms, campuses, diners, bars...I never once had trouble, and I have extreme respect for this skill.

Also, the sensual scenes between Rasa and Taymour were just lovely, leaving me wanting more. I mean seriously, but enough said there.

So what we have in Guapa is a story of injustices, power struggles between people, intolerance, governmental abuses, family tragedy, and the confusion of growing up different.

A very worthy endeavor.

We're served a journey in Rasa's mind, a journey in which he philosophizes and rages (though also illuminates with some very nice anecdotes throughout). At times, at least for me, I need to retrace steps to remember where the novel was in its present-time, which wasn't a problem, but it's also not ideal in the flow of reading to be right at a crucial point of action or dialogue but first get moved into another flashback. Lots of good material in the flashbacks but the execution felt messy and even sometimes muddled.

By the end I was quite weary of an endless parade of one-dimensional characters who served as examples of the types of attitudes Rasa encounters in his living. One horrible person after another, often delivering a self-righteous speech with very little context to trigger it. Many unresolved threads (Like I said, the book was frustrating for me) and a melodramatic, unsatisfying ending.

Saleem Haddad is an incredibly strong writer, and I'm hoping his follow-up is more successful than Guapa.

With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this book.
The Other Catholics: Remaking America's Largest Religion by Julie Byrne, (Columbia University Press, to be published 5/24/2016)


My own spiritual journey has gone all over the religious map, but my childhood was within the framework, if loosely, of the Roman Catholic church.  I was baptized as an infant, we went to church weekly, and I went to catechism (CCD) classes most of my young life.  In 8th grade I attended a Roman Catholic school for one year.  In my 20s I felt called to become a priest in that church, though I didn't get very far along that path.

One of, if not THE, most important message of this book: "Catholic" is not - NOT - shorthand for "Roman Catholic."  Some use it that way, and it's important to realize that for the sake of communication.  However, while Roman Catholicism implies Catholicism, Catholicism does not imply Romanness.

This is huge.  Even if we don't change our word usage, the meaning is vital.

"Other Catholics" refers, here, to all the Catholics who do not claim Romanism.  Specifically, this simply means they are not answerable to the Pope.  These churches span the ideological, theological, and political spectra.  They can be very strict theologically or quite syncretic, bringing in various mystical truths from a variety of seemingly disparate traditions (they aren't THAT disparate, but opinions will vary).

Julie Byrne's primary focus is on the more liberal churches because, as she clarifies, these are the ones with the most influence really, the change-makers.  Frankly, I'm glad, because they are also the more interesting in my opinion (and I don't merely lean Liberal...I own property there, so I'm biased).

Even more specifically, Byrne centers her social study on the Antioch church, founded by Herman Spruit with roots traced all the way back to the Reformation.  Through this lens, we get a nice journey through religious history, and so at least for me, one of my passion pairings, history and religion, was feed generously.  I really enjoyed this book.

At a personal level, in reading the book, I feel inspired to re-integrate Christianity into my spiritual path.  This includes Catholicism itself.  The ritual, the sacraments, the holy orders therein.  A Christianity which allows me the freedom, without outside pressure, of exploration within and without the specific traditions.  A Christianity in which my mother or my sister could become a priest or a bishop should they feel called to do so.  A Christianity wherein my queerness is not only accepted, but is exhalted in the celebration of marriage, should I feel called (and partnered) to accept it.

The weaknesses are minor: there were many repetitions of stories, and redundant re-uses of examples, which I felt grew tiresome at times.  But this is easily forgivable, given how the complicated history is navigated here.  This is a solid four-star book, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the topic.

My gratitude to the publisher and to NetGalley for allowing me to read an ARC of this book.  It is forthcoming, and I have already pre-ordered a copy for my personal library.
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