Sunday, April 10, 2022

BOOKS! (Lot + Seven Days in June)

I've found it! I've found my favorite book of 2022 (so far)! Obviously it's still relatively early, but if my current favorite is any indication of what's to come for me reading-wise this year, then I'm excited! I would've written this review in March before the month ended, but I needed more time to digest my new fave on my own. It's been two weeks since I finished it, and I still think about it every day. Now I'm ready to write, so for my April review, I'm examining the two books that my mom gave me for my birthday in December which I read in their entirety last month. First, a collection of stories about a young gay Afro-Latino man coming of age as Houston gentrifies around him. And then, a romance novel (my newly-crowned fave of 2022) about two Black, thirty-something, wounded authors who get an unexpected second chance to renew a fling they had in high school.
 
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington
 
As a December baby whose mom is still gracious enough to ask me for wish lists, I put my birthday and Christmas wants on the same list every year, and I leave it up to Ma to decide what to give me and when. I was so amused and impressed by the humor, casual style of writing, and attention to detail that Bryan Washington demonstrated in his novel Memorial (one of my 2020 presents), that I just knew I had to go back and read his first book too. Ma granted my wish, and that's how I ended up receiving Lot when I did. Both Memorial and Lot are set in Houston, Texas, where Bryan Washington is from. I also couldn't help but notice that, just like in Memorial, the dialogue in Lot is not denoted by any quotation marks whatsoever.
 
Lot contains 13 stories, each set in a different area of Houston, and beginning with the first one ("Lockwood") every other story is about Nicolás, a.k.a Nic—who remains an unnamed narrator until the last three pages of the book—and his dysfunctional family. Said family is a mixed one (his mom's Black from Louisiana, his dad's Latino) living above the restaurant they run in the East End, and Nic is the youngest child after his drug-dealing brother and frequently-absent sister. Like multiple other male characters in Lot, Nic is gay and begins exploring his sexuality from a young age, and the homophobia within both of his cultures makes it so that only his sister acknowledges his gayness without vitriol or denial. Nic's dad, an abusive cheater, eventually abandons the family, leaving his mom to hold down their restaurant with her sons' assistance. Eventually Nic is the only one left to help her, and after rising living costs force his weary mom to close the business and sell their property to a predatory realtor before returning to Louisiana, Nic remains in the family home all by himself. In fact, he's one of the few holdouts; many of the neighbors he grew up around have also been priced out by this point. Which begs the question that's posed to Nic by numerous people: why doesn't he just leave, and what's keeping him in Houston when there's nothing left for him there? He doesn't have an answer, at least not one he's willing to articulate. Until he realizes at the end of Lot that he's the last remnant of his family's presence in Houston, and once he leaves, their presence will be fully erased. Sometimes it's hard to leave even when you really want to, and Nic doesn't even want to leave that badly. So he stays.
 
Besides Nic's ongoing personal and family sagas, the other stories in Lot focus on other characters who each inhabit their own pocket of the city. It feels strange to say that I have "favorites" from this book, because every story deals with loss caused by significant life changespersonal loss due to tragedy, community loss due to gentrification, loss due to growing up and the inevitable passage of time, etc.which isn't enjoyable to think about. But there are three stories that I find to be the most memorable; I'll put it that way. First is "Alief", a darkly comedic tale where an affair between a married Jamaican immigrant named Aja and her white American neighbor named James results in James being murdered by Aja's husband Paul when other neighbors in the apartment complex inform Paul about the affair, presumably for entertainment's sake. (Because it's clearly not out of a sense of justice or believing that Paul needed to know the truth.) "Alief" stood out to me from its title alone because I recognized it as the neighborhood that rapper Tobe Nwigwe is from. 

Then there's "Shepherd", where a Jamaican and Black American family welcome their erudite 30-something cousin Gloria, a sex worker and bibliophile who left Jamaica after the recent death of her baby and needs a place to recover. Gloria and Chris, the closeted teenage son of the family, connect over their respective brokenness, but (trigger warning: molestation/child sexual abuse) in an illicit and unacceptable way. And I have to say, I'm still scratching my head over that incident. To Washington's credit, he does warn readers early on in the story (through Chris's narration, looking back on it as a grown man) that the incident will be happening, referring to it in a paragraph about the unpredictability of people and how you usually can't detect the "wildness" within them until it's too late. But the mention of molestation almost seems hypothetical, like a sick joke... until you get to the end of "Shepherd" and realize it's definitely not. So on the one hand, I knew to expect it, but I just didn't understand why it occurred. For most of the story we are made to feel empathetic for Gloria, or at least that's how I felt. Life has dealt her a harsh hand, her brilliance has been overlooked by people her whole life, she knows what it's like to need care and escape... and then she does what she does to Chris. It seems like that's her twisted way of comforting her young cousin, but it still feels so abrupt and out of place to me. Like what is that moment supposed to mean? I still don't know.

The other story that still stands out to me is "Waugh", a reversal of fortune between two sex workers named Rod and Poke. Rod has formed a crew with five other male sex workers, taking them off the street and providing stable living conditions so long as they abide by his apartment rules, and he has a soft spot for Poke, his friend as well as the youngest and most recent addition to the bunch. But when the crew kicks Rod out of his own home for breaking one of his own rules (contracting HIV), Poke, who's found love with one of his wealthy clients, is in a position to help Rod for a change. Unfortunately, that doesn't go the way Poke hopes it will. As devastating as "Waugh" is on multiple levels, I appreciate its focus on sex work and homelessness, and on the idea that even if you have the sincere desire and the means to do so, sometimes you can swoop in to try and save somebody and they'll refuse to accept it due to their own sense of pride and dignity. Sometimes it's too late for the help you offer to truly solve anything.
 
All in all, I don't love Lot but I do greatly respect it. On a personal level I connected much more with Memorial, and I'm sure Lot would have resonated with me much more if I had any significant familiarity with Houston and its cultural geography. It definitely feels like a book that was written by a Houstonian for fellow Houstonians. Nonetheless, if you like story collections, want to read about Black/Brown/immigrant/queer communities, are curious about Houston and the gentrification thereof, are a sucker for family drama and neighborhood gossip, or simply want to read more of Bryan Washington's work, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"I'd never in my life seen an actual whore (according to Nikki), a night worker (my father), or a calf in the wilderness (who else), so I looked her in the eyes for the thing that made it so; but all I saw was just some lady" (46).
 
"Eventually, I  finally asked her what she got out of reading these books by old dead men, what the words on the page had to do with her. The kind of question an idiot asks. But she took it seriously, she pursed her lips. 
It's just another way to talk to the dead, she said.
It's another way to make a way, she said" (54). 
 
"Actually, she said, no. You don't have to tell me. You tell yourself why it is that you're staying, said Ma. When you figure it out, you keep it to yourself... But it's a reason you'll have to live with, she says. Even if it's nothing. And that is something you'll have to live with, too" (215). 

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

I'm finally realizing that bookstagram and the marketing sorcery of the publishing industry are working on me like they're supposed to. Can you imagine that? I am not, in fact, as impervious a consumer as I believed myself to be! But in this instance, I'm not even mad! Seven Days in June was released in June 2021 and seemed to be everywhere throughout last year; whatever my usual book-related haunts on the internet were, there SDIJ was too. From what I could tell, it met all of my current romance novel criteria: two Black leads, multiple sex scenes, and a hook that makes the story impossible for me to pass up. Writers falling for each other? Another exquisitely-written story about artists finding both love and their creative spark, that could potentially blow me away just like If I Don't Have You did? Sign me up! However, since I didn't grow up with hardcovers basically being $30, and something in the cheapo part of me feels wrong paying that much for just one book... I foisted the cost onto my mom by putting it on my wish list. I was fully prepared to wait a year and get the much cheaper paperback version myself, but thanks to her I didn't have to. Thanks, Ma! 

So that means I've had this gem in my possession since December, right? And now I feel ridiculous for waiting until March to read it! By the time I finally did crack it open, I didn't bother re-reading the synopsis on the inner jacket to refresh my memory, I just dove right in. I'd remembered Jessica P. Pryde (YGA #82 and Black Love Matters) telling me months ago that Seven Days in June dealt with "very hard" topics, and I was expecting the novel to be dark. (Perhaps it actually is, and my threshold for heavy themes is just high enough that none of it feels "hard" to me. More on that later.) So color me surprised to begin reading and find myself smiling from page to page, because the book was so funny! Genuinely funny, and not trying too hard to be so! I'd also remembered that the plot involved a couple falling in love, not seeing each other for over a decade, and then falling in love again, but I hadn't realized that the story wouldn't go in strictly linear order. The book opens in 2019, introducing us to Eva Mercy (real name Genevieve Mercier) and Shane Hall during the rekindling phase of their relationship 15 years after they last saw each other at 17 years old. They unexpectedly share the stage at a Brooklyn-based panel event for Black authors, and the novel shifts between past and present to fill in the gaps of their complicated history. 
 
Although Eva is firmly settled with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Brooklyn and the popularity of her books has faded from mainstream appeal to niche fandom, while Shane's star continues to rise even as he avoids public appearances and takes short-term private school English teaching positions to fund his purposely-transient lifestyle, the pair actually has a lot in common. Both are now 32 years old. Both never knew their fathers. Both have illnesses that make them feel abnormal (chronic migraines for her, alcoholism for him). Both are authors who unexpectedly achieved massive success in their late teens/early twenties and are now at a crossroads in their careers. (Should Eva let producers whitewash the movie adaptation of her Black vampire erotica series so she can have continued financial stability? Is it worth it for her to meet the deadline for her next book in said erotica series that she's tired of writing, or should she focus on her dream book about her imperfect and indomitable Creole foremothers? Shane wrote all four of his bestsellers while he was drunk; can he even write anymore now that he's sober?) Both also used to self-harm in their youth. Speaking of which, Eva and Shane first met as 12th graders in Washington, D.C., where they interacted with each other for all of a week in June 2004. Shane was selling drugs at the time, and a fight at school led him and Eva to hide out for days in a mansion that one of his clients gave him access to. They spent that week doing drugs, sleeping, cuddling, having sex, committing petty crimes, and bonding over shared secrets until Eva's mom eventually showed up and Shane—who'd promised never to abandon Eva—was nowhere to be found. Or at least, that's how Eva remembers things.
 
Despite never seeing each other after their teenage tryst, it's clear that these lovers wrote their breakthrough books about each other. "Sebastian", the hot, bronze-eyed Black vampire who's the male love interest in all 14 books of Eva's Cursed series, is based on Shane. "Eight", the depressed young Black girl from the hood who's the main character in all four of Shane's novels, is based on Eva. They were each other's inspirationsmuses, if you willand they used their books to communicate with each other through years of separation whether they realized it or not. In June 2019, when Eva's bougie, lovingly-nosy mother hen of a book editor (Cece) ropes her into being a panelist at the aforementioned book event in Brooklyn, Shane shows up and tries to be low-key until Cece forces him to come on stage. After the initial shock from that encounter wears off, Eva tries to rush Shane out of New York (and out of her life forever), and Shane is likely to leave soon anyway. But when Audre gets in trouble at her fancy private school and the only way to maintain her enrollment is for Eva to convince THE famous Shane Hall to teach English there during the next school year, Shane suddenly has a reason to stay in New York. More importantly, he and Eva have an excuse to reconnect over the week that follows (even as Eva's reluctant to hope that their relationship will last this time). So the title Seven Days in June refers to their intense, messy, undeniable interactions as both teens in 2004 and as slightly more mature adults in 2019. Perspectives alternate by chapter (or even within the same chapter) between Eva, Shane, Audre, Cece, Eva's mother Lizette, and even Shane's young mentee Ty, but the vast majority of the book is written from Eva and Shane's perspective, and overall Eva gets more attention than Shane.

I've just now finished summarizing this novel, so I guess I don't have room to gush over all the ways that it melted my heart and injected hope and laughter into my spirit. (Is that gross? Maybe I'll regret writing something so mushy later, but it's true for me in this moment.) I will say that SDIJ has too many excellent one-liners to count, and they took me down every single time. Eva and Shane's first time getting it on post-reunion is technically in public, in an unlocked room of an art installation/nap station for adults, which I thought was super inventive on Tia Williams's part. And I was pretty much set on adoring SDIJ forever once I learned that Eva has had incurable chronic migraines since childhood, just like me! Perhaps it's weird to be excited about seeing myself represented in that way, but excitement is what I genuinely felt because I never expected to have something so specific in common with a romance novel heroine. Although, as I mentioned in my examination of the character Hisako in 'Fishbowl Wives', my migraines are mild and very livable, only occasionally worsening due to certain triggers like alcohol, crying too hard, going too long without eating, PMS, wearing my headscarf or sleep cap on too tight at night, and so on. In contrast, Eva has "violent" migraine attacks (just like Hisako) that are only temporarily lessened by pain relief injections and weed gummies. She frequently calls hers an invisible disability—because no one can detect it just by looking at her, and because she refuses to tell anyone about it—and she envies "normal" people whose lives aren't ruled by pain.
 
Taking all of that into consideration, I guess in many ways Seven Days in June could be considered heavy or triggering. However, because I related personally to some of the darkest of Eva and Shane's respective issues, I didn't feel burdened by any of it. I just felt like I was along for an awesome, sarcastic, swoon-worthy ride. And I appreciate that their relationship isn't resolved in just that week of them getting to know each other again; they break up after Shane unintentionally flakes on Eva and Audre, Eva spends the summer researching her family in Louisiana and re-initiating contact with Shane, Shane goes to group therapy and starts coaching youth basketball while house-sitting for Eva in Brooklyn, and in the end Cece finds a way to corral them back together in Atlanta. I'd assumed that they both would rediscover their writing mojo along the way, but that only proves true for Eva. Shane, on the other hand, focuses on upholding his sobriety, mourning the loss of a loved one, and scaling back to be an actual mentor to his mentees rather than trying to be their savior. If you are interested in second chance love stories, have had a difficult childhood and/or neglectful parents, want something that pokes fun at the Black arts scene (especially the literary scene) in NYC without being mean-spirited, prefer steamy sex scenes, have familial roots (and secrets) in the South, or want to know whether Eva or Shane is "the turtle", then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"Hell yes, I'm mad. 'Cause I care. It took fortunes made and lost, one tarot-card reader, and too much AA for me to be evolved enough to say those words. I care about things... Look, I'm admitting that I care about awards. What do you care about?" (42).
 
"The world was too loud for little-boy Shane. What he didn't know was that he was training himself to be a deeply empathetic writer—understanding nuanced emotion, spying humanity in unexpected places, seeing past the obvious. He was taking notes for his future self, who would write it all down. Every fucking thing he saw" (116).
 
"But she'd never wanted kids. Books were her kids. They cuddled up with her at night, kept her warm, quieted her thoughts when her marriage seemed thin, her life choices felt pointless, or her job seemed stagnant... She was happy not to feel anything super deeply. The top level of life was enough for her. The beginning of the night, when there was the buzzing possibility of intrigue and drama... Long ago, she'd learned that life could be bitterly disappointing if allowed. There were blows and stumbles, but your job was to stay interested in the world" (196).
 
"I wanna be everything. Wanna be the reason you light up. I wanna make you laugh, make you moan, make you safe. I want to be the thought that lulls you to sleep. The memory that gets you off. I wanna be where all your paths end. I wanna do everything you do to me" (241). 

"I thought I couldn't be a successful person if I had demons. But what fully realized person doesn't? Women are expected to absorb traumas both subtle and loud and move on. Shoulder the weight of the world. But when the world fucks with us, the worst thing we can do is bury it. Embracing it makes us strong enough to fuck the world right back" (305).

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