Chris Tomlinson covered conflict, including apartheid in Africa, for 11 years. Then the great-great-grandson of Texas slaveholders realized he needed to write a book about his family's history.
Phyllis Schlafly is best known for her successful 1973 campaign to stop the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Host Michel Martin speaks to the conservative activist about her life and career.
Also: North Carolina Poet Laureate Valerie Macon resigns; David Orr on James Franco's poetry.
Greg Iles sets his thrillers in the antebellum river city of Natchez, Miss. His latest book, Natchez Burning, pulls from true stories of the racial violence that gripped the state 50 years ago.
When the subject of race comes up in his MFA writing workshop, author Matthew Salesses says, it usually feels traumatic — a burden personal to writers of color.
Relationships, friendships, fleeting acquaintanceships, sexual encounters–throughout Casey Plett’s debut short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, none end in a way that’s neat or satisfying. Shards of them–of the tiniest moment of letdown, words unsaid, a fumbled revelation–become lodged deep in the protagonist until they work themselves up to the surface again, often coming out sideways. The pain and the lessons cycle through heartache, awareness, perhaps something resembling peace, until the next encounter that sets off the balance again. Stumbling towards love–from others, from the self–is a messy affair for the twenty-something not-children yet not-quite-adults of Plett’s worlds.
These protagonists are all transgender women. This seems important to say–for, indeed, it’s part of the triumph of this book–and yet secondary, at least in the sense that this detail is not the shaping factor in many of the characters’ most affecting bonds. Sure, we see glimpses of that common narrative that tells us a woman’s trans status is the deciding factor to whether her family, friends, or lovers remain in her life. But those concerns are largely a backdrop that fades as the women make their lives anew, with hiccuping levels of success and relapse into old ties.
Then again, the fact that these women–Sophie, Lisa, Lizzy, Adrienne, Carla, Zoe, and an equal number unnamed–are trans is everything. It’s an awareness constantly running through their minds, and sometimes doubled in presence by a string of witty comebacks and what-ifs playing on a parallel mental tape. They can’t escape their trans-ness, and they’re not trying to. They’re trying to find connection and meaning, much like the other young adults that surround them in the bars, apartments, and house parties they filter through. Their gender transitions have impact, but not always as much, or in the ways, they’re expecting; more often than not, being trans draws others to them: other trans women, trans and cis lovers, trans and cis friends. Sometimes the bonds are volatile; sometimes they’re gross or wayward or draining; but sometimes they’re sweet and tender, affirming and sexy.
Of all the book’s various pairings, perhaps none are as brilliant and devastating as that between one woman, Adrienne, and her cat Glenn in the story “Portland, Oregon.” Here, Plett addresses the ever-present themes of connection, isolation, and betrayal, and asks the reader to ponder what keeps people together despite the ways that they fail each other. Yes, “people” — for although Glenn is a cat, the reader is given access to his inner life, which resembles that of a middle-aged man; we truly believe that Adrienne has access to it as well, in that peculiar way that a deeply invested pet owner seems able to converse with her animals. Adrienne is alone but for Glenn, and her economic circumstances (revealed fuzzily, as they would be through a feline medium) keep her in a job where she must be ready to chauffeur escorts at all hours of the day and night. Time loses meaning, and with it her obligations to feed and nurture her sole companion.
The microcosmic “Portland, Oregon,” however, is an anomaly for Plett’s collection. Most of her stories draw on open locations and their unbounded, yet ultimately predictable, potentials. Restaurants and bookstores and concerts are featured, sure–but also, more interestingly, hallways, sidewalks, and living rooms where a different stranger may crash on the couch any given night. These are spaces where urban twenty-somethings meet in chance encounters that send them off on unseen trajectories bound to be uniquely thrilling and disappointing. There’s a heady sprinkling of sexual hook-ups (the beautiful: “How Old Are You Anyway?,” “Lizzy and Annie,” and the ugly: “Other Women”), defining encounters with friends (the good: “Winning” and the bad: “Not Bleak,” “Other Women”), and times where women are surrounded by a sea of eyes but feel utterly unseen (“Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success,” “A Carried Ocean Breeze”).
And there are moments that deftly complicate the utopian vision of leaving one’s limited home life for the city to remake oneself amongst other young adults on similarly liberating paths. It’s a vision that will resonate with a lot of queer readers who make homes away from “blood” family, among their “chosen” family, but who find that there is betrayal to be found in new friendships and complex, redemptive negotiations left to be had with birth families. This uneasiness permeates Plett’s writing, coming through in dark humor and strange coping mechanisms, characters sitting with discomfort or lashing out, and sometimes in a curious second-person listing format, where narrators write “how-to” guides to themselves to get through social gauntlets of intense scrutiny, like buying a first dress or meeting up with an ex (“Twenty Hot Tips to Shopping Success,” “How to Stay Friends”).
A Safe Girl to Love is a collection full of rough edges. Eleven times, the reader is dropped into a trans woman’s life, witnesses pivotal moments, and is whisked out. The head may nod; it may and reel. The protagonist is so right-on; the next moment she’s gone. And the meaning, the profundity may come in flashes throughout, or perhaps long afterwards when–to use a favorite image of Plett’s that pops up throughout the book–a captivating tall girl passes you on the sidewalk.
A Safe Girl to Love
By Casey Plett
Hardcover, 9781627290067, 216 pp.
‘State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties’ by Judith G. Poucher
I approached Judith G. Poucher’s State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties with a degree of skepticism. It wasn’t long ago that I reviewed Stacy Braukman’s masterful Communists and Perverts Under the Palms (2012), also about the Johns Committee, and I had my doubts that a second book in three years would reveal much more necessary information about the post-McCarthy witch-hunts that the committee launched in Florida. Fortunately, Poucher has found a different approach to the material, emphasizing the contributions of five individuals who, when confronted by the committee, fought back through lawsuits, cleverly combative testimony, and, in the case of gay individuals, refusing to name names.
Through this Profiles in Courage-style individualistic approach, Poucher provides a concise and readable history of the committee’s activities. Founded in 1957 and named after its guiding force, Florida state senator Charley Johns, the Johns Committee’s initial intent was to slow down or halt integration efforts following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. To this end, the group engaged in extensive harassment of the NAACP, attempting to force chapters to disband, often by alleging that they had illegally sponsored lawsuits from individuals seeking integration. When the NAACP and those testifying on its behalf proved formidable opponents, the Johns Committee justified its existence by redirecting its attention to alleged Communist influences, progressive professors, and especially gay and lesbian teachers.
Although the Johns Committee was continually renewed every two years by the Florida legislature until its rather spectacular demise in 1965, and it damaged or destroyed many gay and lesbian lives in Florida as a byproduct of its efforts, it had little success in achieving its larger goals. f Poucher can be said to have a thesis, it is that the strength of individuals, what she calls (after a quote from Andrew Jackson) “majorities of one,” is crucial to defending social causes in the face of state oppression.
This conclusion may seem a bit wan, especially when considered next to the strength of Braukman’s revelatory arguments about the Johns Committee’s foreshadowing the rise of the modern Moral Majority/Christian fundamentalist Right. But Poucher certainly supports her conclusion with five well-balanced stories of individual champions against Charley Johns and his investigators. Beginning with Virgil Hawkins, who battled everyone from the legislature to the Florida court system (where Florida Supreme Court justices turned their backs to the lawyer arguing for Hawkins) for admission to the University of Florida’s law school), Poucher presents a diverse cast of men and women battling for civil liberties. These include Hawkins, looking to integrate Florida’s universities; Ruth Perry, a white librarian active in the NAACP who fought off death threats from White Citizens Councils and helped prevent the Johns Committee from accessing NAACP membership rolls; and Margaret Fisher, a teacher and administrator at the University of South Florida whose intentionally meandering, obfuscating testimony resisted Johns Committee lawyers’ assault on academic freedom.
Poucher also tells the stories, perhaps of most interest to gays and lesbians, of G.G. Mock, a lesbian who, despite incarceration, refused all attempts to name other lesbians, including the schoolteacher she was dating, and Sig Diettrich, a married University of Florida professor who refused to name his male sexual partners—including the man who gave Diettrich up to investigators—despite humiliating private interrogation and the impending loss of his career. All five survived their encounters with the Johns Committee, going on to private and professional successes. All fives’ stories serve as odes to maintaining honor and idealism while facing the intensity of official oppression.
Since it is unlikely that many readers will attempt both Poucher and Braukman’s books (although they should), the question becomes: if choosing only one, should it be State of Defiance or Communists and Perverts under the Palms? Both do an admirable job of concisely telling the story of the Johns Committee. Both evaluate its overall effects, although Braukman goes into more detail. I think gay and lesbian readers will find Braukman’s book more rewarding, as she foregrounds the Johns Committee’s assault on gay and lesbian teachers, and spends much more time discussing “the Purple Report,” a Johns Committee publication intended to spur public outrage against homosexuals that was instead denounced as pornography and helped destroy the Johns Committee’s mandate. Readers who prefer biographical portraits or are looking for inspirational storytelling may prefer Poucher. If only all such revealing historical events received the attention of two worthy books.
State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties
by Judith G. Poucher
University Press of Florida
Hardcover, 9780813049939, 218 pp.
"There's nothing scarier than the neighbors," says Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero. His latest zombie tale is a comic book set in New York City called The Empire of the Dead.
Author Douglas Coupland tells NPR's Arun Rath that he's not exactly sure how the lead character of his new novel entered his mind. (This story originally aired on Morning Edition on April 19, 2014.)
Kara Walker—the protagonist of Abdi Nazemian’s first novel The Walk-in Closet—is ready for a new life. And she’s not exactly picky. On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, still reeling from an old break-up and stuck in a dead-end Hollywood job, Kara is ready to make some compromises if it means she’ll experience something close enough to happiness. But close enough, we learn, is intolerably far from the real thing.
Leila and Hossein Ebadi are a leading family in “Tehrangeles,” a contemporary milieu in Los Angeles inhabited by Iranians who immigrated to America after the shah’s overthrow in 1979. They seem to have it all—wealth, glamour, grandiloquent Nowruz parties, and the latest spring/summer ensembles from Prada. Of course, it’s not that the Ebadis don’t have problems; they’ve simply reached a bearable peace with their problems by never talking about them. Everyone is working to “maintain the façade,” including the Ebadis’ younger son Babak, who goes by “Bobby” and is Kara’s best friend.
Although Bobby spends most of his free time online pursuing hook-ups with men he never wants to see again, he still lets his parents pretend his relationship with Kara is a romantic one. In fact, as of late the Ebadis have been pressuring Bobby and Kara to move into a house, get married, and pop out some adorable grandkids. So Kara is faced with an odd decision. “There were two options that seemed available for my life,” she thinks early in the novel, “become a fabulous Persian wife or become one of the girls.” Kara debates marrying her closeted gay friend because even though it won’t be the life she really wants, it will be something and at this point she’s almost ready to settle.
The characters in The Walk-in Closet are fairly certain happiness exists but they struggle to believe it’s attainable for them. They worry they have too much baggage, too much hurt inside their hearts and too many eccentricities. Plus, ask anyone: It’s nearly impossible to meet decent guys in LA. So Kara, Bobby, and their friends try to satisfy themselves with tapas, expensive outerwear, and the internet.
As Bobby becomes more immersed in ManHunt and hook-up apps, Kara thinks: “It was sad watching him enter a solitary existence, but then it also made me feel all the more needed.” This is a touching reflection that reveals the co-dependency inherent to their relationship. For Kara to maintain her current way of life, where her rent and spa treatments are paid for by the Ebadis, she needs Bobby to stay in the closet, just as he needs to her to help facilitate the increasingly extravagant lie they’re perpetuating. Soon Kara posts on Craigslist too. “What about me?” she wonders. “Am I invisible? I am flesh and blood, I am a woman who needs to be held, who needs the touch of a man at least once every eighteen months.”
Nazemian is at his best exploring the relationships between Kara and Bobby and the studs they meet online. Meaningless sex is where the suffocating pressures of desire and loneliness intersect. Nazemian skillfully conveys both the fun of hooking-up and the deeper emotions Bobby and Kara seek to conceal with it.
A pleasant satire typical of fiction set in LA balances out these more emotionally complex encounters. Pilates, pop music, the movie industry, and microwaveable enchiladas are all the butt of jokes the characters bounce off each other. Nazemian’s dialogue is delightful, trendy, and full of one-liners. While reflecting about an afternoon at the gym, for instance, Kara tells Bobby: “I lied to the treadmill. Remember that day I was running next to Hot Tattooed Guy? I had to punch in my age, and I lied. To a treadmill.” The best scenes in The Walk-in Closet are elaborate set-pieces centered around this fascinating, increasingly zany dialogue—including a frat party Kara attends with her actress friend while they’re both high on GHB and an awkward lunch at Il Forniao with Kara, Bobby, and their moms.
However, the pacing of some scenes gets dragged down by Nazemian’s tendency to over-explain. Instead of allowing the dialogue to flow and letting the reader make sense of the intricacies of the characters’ exchanges, Nazemian regularly pauses mid-conversation to insert back-story, moderately relevant anecdotes, and totally unnecessary reminders. While such digressions could be employed occasionally to add complexity to seemingly banal banter, they occur with such frequency, especially in the first half of the novel, that Nazemian’s fantastic dialogue is sometimes overshadowed by paragraphs of exposition. It’s well-written exposition to be sure, but there’s way too much of it.
As the novel progresses, we learn more about the Ebadi family and how history—both at its most global and its most personal—has shaped their lives. We are also drawn into a mystery. Thanks to her Craigslist post, Kara meets a man who works as an international journalist for CNN. While Bobby tells Kara never to meet the same trick twice, Kara can’t help it and quickly develops a strange relationship with this intriguing fellow who’s staying at the Four Seasons and whom she knows only as “Kevin.”
Throughout The Walk-in Closet, Nazemian explores the ongoing conflict between desperation and hope—which Kara calls “such an overrated commodity.” We see how the little lies that might’ve initially seemed harmless can get compounded to nearly ruin lives. The truth, we learn, won’t save Kara and the people she loves, but it will allow them to escape the gilded cages they’ve built for each other and themselves. While Nazemian’s novel has some definite flaws, it is an intelligent, moving portrait of a family caught between its past and its future, between the happiness all the characters seek and the grand, unsustainable facade blocking their path.
The Walk-in Closet
By Abdi Nazemian
Curtis Brown Unlimted
Paperback, 9780615988689, 274 pp.
If you're looking for a cracking summer read, NPR's Madhulika Sikka says you absolutely must pick up Michael Koryta's thrill-a-minute new novel about a teenager on the run in the Montana woods.
Italian professor Joseph Luzzi's new memoir digs into the divisions in Italian society: north and south, poor and rich, and the question of his own complicated identity as an Italian American.
Marja Mills spent more than a year living next door to reclusive author Harper Lee and her sister. She documents that time in The Mockingbird Next Door. But Lee says she never authorized the book.
As part of our summer Book Your Trip series, Petra Mayer delves into the mysteries of time travel: how do authors make it work? What's the appeal? And should you kill Hitler, if you get the chance?
Liaquat Ahamed's new book looks at one the world's most powerful international institutions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author talks with NPR's Scott Simon about Money and Tough Love: On Tour with the IMF.
It's the book critic's eternal dilemma: how do you fit all that reading into your daily life? Juan Vidal has an unusual solution: he gets his reading done in bars, preferably dark bars at mid-day.
Chuck Klosterman explores society's modern understanding of villainy in I Wear The Black Hat. It appears at No. 12.
At No. 5, Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train follows a foster child as she befriends an elderly woman and helps her solve a mystery from her past.
At No. 4, Diane Muldrow's Everything I Need To Know I Learned From A Little Golden Book combines lighthearted advice with illustrations from 60 favorite children's books.
California, Edan Lepucki's debut novel, follows a young, pregnant couple struggling to survive after the apocalypse. It debuts at No. 4.