[ music / memoir ]
What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal
By Laina Dawes
The metal music world is dominated by white men. Unquestionably racist (Burzum) and violently sexist (Cannibal Corpse) bands might be in the minority, but these oppressive values permeate the spaces where metal happens. Sometimes they are enforced subtly (a hateful gaze); other times, criminally (a physical beating). But even if they exist unconsciously, the roots and expression of such values deserve to be illuminated, critiqued and challenged.
Laina Dawes, a black Canadian woman who has been deeply involved with the metal community as both fan and journalist for several years, has done just that in What Are You Doing Here? (Dec. 25, 224 pp., Bazillion Points).
Through dozens of interviews with metalhead women (fans, musicians and various industry people), Dawes offers a vivid glimpse into the scene’s racist and sexist guts. From the concert halls dominated by aggressive white men, to the metal magazines and websites that deleteriously sexualize or blatantly ignore female artists, to the homes of black kids whose love of metal led their parents to question their “blackness,” the book carefully navigates the multiple levels of power that produce and reproduce white masculinity in the metal world.
The book works best when Dawes gets personal. The sections where she discusses her own attraction to metal — an attraction that began at a young age — read like a wonderfully intimate memoir revealing the evolution of her listening practices. When she delves into the intersections where her simultaneous desire for and repulsion from metal collide — when she realizes that the same angry, underdog music that would seem to empower a marginal voice like hers is actually policed by institutions and discourses that effectively suppress her voice — critical insight abounds. Though focused on metal, these insights are relevant to anyone interested in how racism and sexism can impact any micro-community. —Elliott Sharp
[ historical fiction ]
The Casual Vacancy
By J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling has earned the right to do pretty much whatever she wants with words. She has, after all, proven that she can please a very large crowd; the lady should be entitled to please herself. And if The Casual Vacancy (Sept. 27, 512 pp., Little, Brown), a self-consciously Victorian-style social-problem novel about the untimely death of a parish councillor and the personal and political vacuum that his death leaves behind, is what pleases her, then her impulse to try something new is at least understandable, and probably even worth praising.
Still, when Rowling’s narrator peeks into her characters’ heads and finds a pair of plotters “contemplating the casual vacancy” — that is, the Council chair vacated by the late Barry Fairbrother — “not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities,” it’s hard to figure out exactly who’s being tipped a wink. Even as the novel pursues a clutch of storylines around the very provincial fictional village of Pagford, Rowling unveils dark secrets — drug abuse, domestic abuse, snobbery, lust — that tar virtually all of her characters, turning them into caricatures and grotesques. But even with these hidden impulses, Vacancy rehearses familiar themes: the compromises of adulthood, the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, the unbridgeable gap between the worlds of teenaged boys and men.
The most interesting thing in Rowling’s performance is not the unavoidable echoes of Hogwarts or the way she negotiates a setting so resolutely unmagical: It’s the way her particular style — with its periodic clumsiness, involved backstories and willingness to use the omniscient narrator to amplify moral or emotional exposition — exposes the workings of an earthbound, realist literary novel as no less rule-bound than fairy-tale fantasy. If Vacancy’s overwhelming air of worthiness isn’t enough to animate its pages, you can hardly fault its creator for not working hard. —Justin Bauer
[ short stories ]
Tenth of December
By George Saunders
George Saunders’ fourth short-story collection will likely feel a bit déjà vu-ish to anyone who’s had a New Yorker subscription in the past few years — versions of seven of the 10 stories have appeared in the magazine’s fiction section since 2007, the other three in Harper’s and McSweeney’s. Maybe for this reason, Tenth of December (Jan. 8, 272 pp., Random House) feels less cohesive than his previous collections, like a collection of singles rather than an album. (Admittedly, as Saunders and the New Yorker have basically been besties for a decade, many stories from his previous collections were published there first, too.)
But though “less cohesive” sounds like a criticism, it’s the opposite. In his previous collections, the stories seemed tied together at the brain, like the poor unfortunates in one of the best stories in December. Here, it’s as if the lines connecting them have been let out a bit, giving each story freedom to wander off in different directions.
Many of the protagonists of Saunders’ earlier collections could be described as variations on a certain guy: male, adult, middle class, a reasonable person, loves his family. But the Saunders Guy usually lives in a surreal near-future America, with some aspects of modern society — behavioral drugs, the shrinkage of jobs with dignity and the middle class, advertisement oversaturation — extrapolated right to the bottom of the slippery slope. The Saunders Guy often works at an absurd, demeaning job (sometimes at a theme park) to support his family, and is frequently punished by society for doing the decent thing. The occasional streak of joy tends to spring from hope for the next generation — the Saunders Guy himself is damned, and he accepts it.
This is not to oversimplify, nor to suggest that these stories are simple bummers, because they’re not — the bleakness is balanced by Saunders’ ungodly funny imagination and way with words. Still, it was a surprise that December opens not with the voice of a Saunders Guy, but the internal monologue of a charming, optimistic teenage girl. “There’s nothing … wrong with her?” was my thought after a few pages, waiting for her ballet steps to give way to something ugly. But though “Victory Lap” does have some ugly events, there isn’t anything wrong with her. And, like several of the stories in December, the story ends with a distinct feeling of salvation, not damnation.
Along with the bubbly teenager, the voices in this collection include two mothers, kids and, yeah, a few Saunders Guys. The most familiar-feeling one works in a Medieval Times-esque amusement park, and if the new element of improv-enhancing drug KnightLyfe and its effects on the story’s punctuation weren’t so goddamn funny, “My Chivalric Fiasco” would feel like a bit of a retread of “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia,” the theme-park-set title stories of Saunders’ first two collections.
But even if some of the characters feel a little familiar, where Saunders takes them feels very different. Many, though not all, of their stories end with that sense of salvation present in “Victory Lap.” It’s as if Saunders is finally OK with letting at least some of his characters do the right thing and get away with it. —Emily Guendelsberger
[ fiction ]
By Benjamin Nugent
Infidelity drives the plot of many a mediocre story, but these tawdry tales seldom lead to serious consideration of what fidelity means to those involved in, and affected by, illicit relationships. Good Kids (Jan. 8, 224 pp., Scribner), the first novel by the author of memoir American Nerd, plunges us into the issue immediately, as narrator Josh and high-school classmate Khadijah spy on his political-science-professor dad and her art-historian mom canoodling in their suburban Massachusetts natural-foods store. Khadijah is the awkward Josh’s first love — unbeknownst to her — but the ensuing fracturing of families sends her far away.
That’s in 1994; it’s 2007 before Josh meets Khadijah again, but her presence hovers over his meandering life as a one-hit-wonder musician in Los Angeles. As teenagers bonded in dismay and horror at their parents’ infidelity, the two swore that they’ll never cheat on anyone, and Josh has been doggedly keeping his word ever since. But then the two meet again as adults, both engaged to other people.
Fascinating modern families and believable characters emerge from Nugent’s brisk, lively prose, transcending the typical will-they-or-won’t-they, who-will-they-end-up-with? limitations of stories about affairs. The span of time reveals growth, which cannot be achieved without pain and loss, in an intimate and humorous style that smoothly integrates larger musings about white guilt, modern music and TV, parenting, nature vs. nurture and loyalty in an unpretentious, undidactic way that invites genuine empathy. As Josh candidly explains, it’s “that seeing-one’s-own-ass-cheeks sensation of I am as soft and ridiculous as everybody else.” —Mark Cofta
[ short stories ]
By Alice Munro
Alice Munro’s short stories (the 81-year-old author writes in that form almost exclusively) are nontricky, unflashy and completely masterful, and this collection is no exception. While Munro’s plots seem quiet, they’re highly eventful in the way our lives are — the emotional tumblings, the harsh self-evaluations, the terribly bad decisions that we secretly don’t believe were all that bad, really.
Over her long career, Munro has always been particularly insightful about how we see what we want to see in other people. In one story in her latest, Dear Life (Nov. 13, 336 pp. Knopf), a mother, noticing her young daughter acting differently since the arrival of two more babies, prods the 7-year-old narrator about whether she loves her new infant siblings. “Quickly I said yes. She said, ‘Truly?’ She wasn’t going to stop till I said truly, so I said it.” The only acceptable answer to the question is provided. Even a 7-year-old can see that.
Such efforts to shape or misread the feelings of others are not grand delusions but small distortions, ones that accumulate so that you look up one day, feel estranged and just walk out the door. Or not — in Munro’s writing, one character’s impulsive decision to start anew seems as momentous as another’s clear-eyed acceptance of things as they are in their limited, diminished state.
Because Munro’s stories, for all their small, incisive details, almost inevitably spiral out at some point to show the long perspective, where “leave” and “stay” each have their own startling repercussions. “It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was OK in that time and what was not,” Munro writes in the opening story, “To Reach Japan,” about a young mother who thinks of herself as too careful in her emotions and yet, over the course of the story, makes two incredibly rash decisions. While Munro usually sets her stories in Canadian towns that are small, cramped and conservative, the emotions involved are anything but. We get access to the potential disruption and hurt her characters sometimes hold in and sometimes let out — things Munro unfailingly renders in surprising and wrenching ways. —Theresa Everline
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