Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus This strange and absorbing fiction from Nobel Prize winner Coetzee has a post-apocalyptic feel. We meet a five-year-old boy, David, and a man, Simón, who have been given names as part of their relocation from where and to where, we never learn. We know only that they are refugees and that they stayed some time in a camp called Belstar where they learned Spanish in preparation for their move by boat to Novilla. People in Novilla can’t remember the past and appear to have no curiosity about it. They are kind, generous even, but appear emotionally and physically anesthetized.

The young boy David has lost his documents on the boat from Belstar so Simón determines to help him find his mother (“I will know her when I see her”). One day Simón finds a woman and offers the boy to her. She is not perfect: she has strange child-rearing techniques and is too liberal, but under the guidance of both Simón and Inès the mother, David grows a year older, learns to read, and enters school.

At this point we start to realize vivid parallels with the life of Jesus Christ as told in the Bible, for the boy begins to seem extraordinary in his grasp of or rejection of the written word, the number system, philosophical arguments, perhaps even commonly accepted ‘truth’ itself.

This slim novel demonstrates Coetzee’s mastery. The novel is both gripping and involving: who among us does not have firm child-rearing opinions? We are curious about the place David and Simón have landed and sympathize with Simón’s half-remembered passion for something outside the ordinary. The novel is almost completely dialog and yet we have a sense of the landscape, the people, and the dilemma they face. Coetzee raises important religious, philosophical, and ethical questions that have been debated over the ages but he dresses it in simple allegory rich with allusions.

From within the story we might recognize pieces of a worldview, perhaps a statement about the world today, another place where history is irrelevant.
"'I have not let go of the idea of history,' says Simón, 'the idea of change without beginning or end.' [Simón is then challenged by his workmates. Climate is acknowledged, but history is not:] 'Consider now history,' counters Eugenio. 'If history, like climate, were a higher reality, then history would have manifestations which we would be able to feel through our senses.' He looks around. 'Which of us has ever had his cap blown off by history?'"

What is Coetzee really telling us? That Jesus is a myth created by ideas, ideas from a childlike sensibility?
"‘Forgetting takes time,’ says Elena. ‘Once you have properly forgotten, your sense of insecurity will recede and everything will become much easier…Children live in the present, not the past. Why not take your lead from them? Instead of waiting to be transfigured, why not try to be like a child again?’"
Consider again Paul Murray's, author of Skippy Dies, extensive rant against today's "kidult."

Simón, the man who still remembers remembering, who remembers passion, wanting, and something more, finds himself explaining to David the meaning of a book and is caught in his own explanation: “you don’t need love if you have faith.” Ah, so.

This is a book one reads quickly and ruminates long. Remember Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil? It is an opening to the soul of an author. “Why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else?”

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews

It feels a privilege to read this acutely observed and deeply felt memoir by a thoughtful, literate, conservation-minded ranch hand in southwest Montana. He worked the Sun Ranch in the upper Madison River Valley of southwestern Montana only one year but did enough thinking for far more than that. In his early twenties, Andrews had experience working summers on a ranch outside of Billings, Montana, and was ready when he saw an advertisement for a six-month position as a Grazing Coordinator and Livestock Manager at the Sun Ranch.

Sun Ranch was centered in an important wildlife corridor in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wolves had been reintroduced to the area, and there were large populations of elk as well as grizzlies, lynx, mountain lion, and wolverines. The idea was to integrate ranching into a functional natural ecosystem.

I have mixed feelings about cattle ranching in the west and Andrews does, too: “Often, I was tempted to construe ranching as nothing more than a protracted act of violence.” The fences needed to manage cattle are barriers to free-ranging wild herds, and cattle, managed properly or not, can cause enormous damage to a fragile landscape. But Andrews allows us to consider all this while he shares with us reminiscences that hallow our history in the west: he was a cowboy in the modern day.
“Day followed wild day, and over time amounted to a process of seasonal change. Immersion in that constant cycling was the ranch hand’s highest privilege.”

Wolves play an important part in this narrative. Since reintroduction, they had settled in the Madison River Valley, and one pack in particular, The Wedge Pack, lived above the ranch.
”The Wedge Pack, like most others, was a family unit centered on a single breeding pair. Aerial surveys had reported that two consecutive litters of pups had been successfully raised in the foothills and steep valleys behind the Sun…The ranch had been lucky last year. The wolves had stuck to killing elk, and the cattle had come home fat at the end of the summer.”

But the summer of 2006 was different, and the wolves changed up their diet to include Angus beef rather than just elk. Damage to the herd was responded to in the time-honored way: with a rifle. The revenge-killing of an alpha male wolf seemed to cut both ways for Andrews. Concerned with preservation of the wilderness and wildness of the area, he deplored the necessity of killing the predators in the ecosystem but recognized the necessity for it. “Like the Wedge Pack, we did our best to make a living from a hard place.”

Andrews is a wild thing also, like those wolves he talks about.
”Every night, at or after sunset, I ran the benches and hills of the Sun Ranch. I’ll admit I was looking for trouble. When I saw deer or elk from a long way off, I tried to sneak up on them. Using the features of the land—little dips and swales I had never noticed before—I did my best to get close.

It was wicked, feral fun. I drew near herds of deer, elk, and antelope, sometimes crawling on my hands and knees to stay hidden in the sage and grass. When the animals saw or smelled me, I sprinted toward them, scattering them to the horizon. They always left me in the dust, alone and smiling under a many-colored sky.

I chased everything I could—coyotes, jackrabbits, and a badger who unexpectedly turned to fight. Once, in a moment of extremely poor judgment, I ran a black bear up Moose Creek and then looked over my shoulder all the way back down. There was never any malice in it, only simple joy. I loved to feel the wind, lay claim to my landscape by crossing it, and watch the deer outpace me before disappearing in the rising night.”

Andrews managed to find a job that ordered the priorities in his life: he could be in places and do things he really enjoyed and that matter to him and the larger world. He stepped away from the noise of our everyday lives to observe, think, and write. “I am living at the center of my heart’s geography.” We are lucky he took the time to share his findings and remind us of cowboys and the wildlife corridors left in our hearts.

Marcie Stillman conducts a KUOW radio interview with Bryce Andrews that allows us to understand his motivations: “I was my best self when I was working out-of-doors.” “That landscape had beauty and brutality as its two defining qualities.”

The publisher's website has two short videos of Bryce Andrews talking about his work and his reading. I received a galley of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mystery Girl by David Gordon

Mystery Girl: A Novel Gordon has written two novels that I know about. In each the main character is a failed or failing novelist with characteristics that range from gullible to gleefully, monstrously domineering. What am I supposed to think? About halfway through this second novel, [stomping about in rubber boots] deep in descriptions of satanic porn films, I get the distinct impression I am in some kind of weird therapy session—but not for me.
”In A Difficulty in The Path of Psycho-Analysis (1917). Freud introduces the concept of the Third Wound to describe the repeated assaults that scientific knowledge had inflicted on human conceit: first, Copernicus discovered that the sun does not revolve around the earth and that man is not in fact the true center of the universe. The second blow was delivered by Darwin: man is not set apart from the animals, not formed by a creator in His image, but is in fact a creature among others, a variation on a theme, and no longer the center of life on earth either. The final, vanquishing blow, was of course Freud’s own: his discovery of the unconscious—that immense internal sea, full of fears and wishes, memories and fantasies, whose depths remain largely unsounded—revealed the truth, that our inner world is as alien as the universe without.”
Amen to that.

Gordon could probably write anything he wanted but he decided to write a mystery novel centered on a beautiful, sexy, and mysterious mixed-race woman who, after copulating with our narrator, disappears. I am not kidding. I am not going to tell you what to think about that, but he does spend much of the book alternately dreaming about her and looking for her. Along the way we get deep in [his subconscious] Black Arts films and murders and arson.

And oh, by the way, his wife is also beautiful, sexy, mysterious, and mixed race, and she has disappeared also. And no wonder. Our failed novelist, whose taste in literature has devolved to the “funny, violent, dirty, and fast…[of] crime novels, newspaper, fashion magazines, comics and porn” serves only as breeding material but not as provider or protector. It seems he doesn’t have the goods to hold onto a wench of her proportions.

“Why can’t you write normal stories, that people want to read?” queries one of the several mixed-race babes that our unpublished novelist fantasizes about: “Why not write regular realistic stories?” Ah, but life is not realistic, our novelist argues. “Does your life have a plot?” Does time shift and “does the past erupt into the present?” Good point.

But the argument continues, this time from another character: “Let’s face it. No one was ever going to read [your novels.] People need hope and comfort. Real stories that give them a sense of meaning. Boring books like yours just upset and confuse people…” The novelist concedes this character critic has a point, but concludes that one has “to do something to fill one’s time on this planet,” and since he would not do well doing anything else, some “suicidal car salesman or lonely oncologist…would come across something I wrote in a dusty, bankrupt used bookshop, and recognize the message I left just for them…”

Well, maybe not just for me, but I get the gist. And I like it. I like him. I like this writing. He’s crazy, and funny, and has some very strange tastes in movies, but sitting in on a therapy session with him, just me and the page, is a little like watching a peep show of the human heart…its weird desires and fears. We have here a man, a novelist, at his most vulnerable. He is published but not yet “successful” in the commercial sense. And he insists on telling us how it feels. It sounds pretty realistic to me.

Keep your eyes on David Gordon. He is sui generis.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

The Serialist by David Gordon

Here’s something I haven’t done before: read two books by the same author one after another. I’d never heard of David Gordon until I came across a very funny essay by him in the NY Times Magazine one Sunday this January. In the essay he explains that his debut novel was mostly ignored in the U.S. but was widely admired in Japan, where he won three literary prizes and sold the film rights. Gordon, bewildered and mute in a country where he didn't speak the language, was hosted in Tokyo when the film came out and ushered about by adoring fans.

Gordon’s main character, Harry Bloch, is the quintessential hack writer: he did his research into what kind of fiction is selling at the bookstore chains and decided to incorporate those elements in the writing he did for different publications. Vampires and werewolves. Serial Killers. True Crime. Mystery. Urban. Soft Porn. Whatever. He’s got it all going, with ideas to spare. He even created new names and faces (!) for each authorial persona.

Harry Bloch is contacted by a serial killer, Darian, to be the ghost writer of his story before Darian is executed. Bloch acquires a teenaged “agent” and, after meeting some of the relatives of the murdered victims of his serial killer, acquires a friend and lover called Dani.

Interspersed throughout this story of the process of ghost-writing are examples of some of the work Bloch had been doing to keep food on the table. It is here we encounter vampires and soft-porn, keeping readers laughing and awake to the author’s next move. Bloch also addresses the reader directly, making them complicit in his writing: He suggests that he is trying to “establish the intimacy of first-person voice, so you’ll follow me anywhere,” and “I don’t know about you, but I hate coming to the end of a mystery.” Throughout the novel he prods us: we readers “should have figured it out by now” because he “gave us enough clues.”

In the final pages, Gordon/Bloch gives us some of his philosophy about writing and life, which is: it’s not the beginning or the end of a novel (or life) that is most difficult. It is the middle. And I guess that flies in the face of most author interviews I have read, but it may be true in the case of real life. We’ll see.

Gordon reminds me a little of Jess Walter, endlessly inventive, determined to appeal, and laughing with (at?) us the same time. And he is really funny. But Gordon has an edge that bleeds.

I had to read Gordon’s second novel, Mystery Girl to see if Gordon betrays my confidence as he did in The Serialist, and if his sense of humor still keeps me rapt. Review here.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler

The Hot CountryOlen Butler tries something unique with this wartime spy novel set in Veracruz, Mexico in 1914. World War I was beginning in Europe, Mexico was in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, the United States occupied Veracruz after a diplomatic dispute, and Germans used money and influence to encourage the Mexican government to respond militarily to the U.S. Reporting on all this was “Kit” Christopher Marlowe, newspaper journalist and son of an aging Hollywood actress.

Using a style made famous by Humphrey Bogart in ”Treasure of Sierra Madre” and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, this noir novel follows Kit as he digs for stories in the German connection. He ends up meeting Pancho Villa and falling for a beautiful and talented muchacha but the story only seems to be getting going when this episode ends. With so much political intrigue in Mexico in the early twentieth century, it’s ripe for novelistic exploitation. This series could live a long life.

I listened to the HighBridge audio of this book, read by Ray Chase. Chase does a wonderful job of speaking Chandler-ese with a Bogart swagger, and accelerating with the action so that some chapters of fighting and tension raced. The Kit character is a likeable one, but in the beginning his journalistic seen-it-all irony and sarcasm made it difficult for me to sympathize and identify with him. The story itself was intriguing enough to pull us along until we could see Kit’s other talents.

Kit’s other skills involve the other meaning of “Marlowe,” which would be a reference to the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. He can fight and he can act, all of which he needs before the end of the novel. There is character development to spare here, which is why I imagine it to the first of a series. Olen Butler has chosen his area well, as it is underserved in the literary mystery series market and there is as much intrigue as in any major port during wartime.

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At the Shores by Thomas Rogers

At the Shores

The northern state border of Indiana doesn’t nestle in the arms of Lake Michigan but kisses its bottom curve. And what a kiss it is. “High dune, grass covered, tree crowned” shoreline stretches for miles along the wave-torn lake and it is here that the story of Jerry Engels, adolescent, unfolds.

This coming-of-age story was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1980, but a few years ago it was revived by Other Press and now has just been re-released by Open Road Media in ebook format. Thomas Rogers died at age 79 in 2007.

It is 1950s Midwest. Jerry Engels is White, Protestant, and the son of a Standard Oil executive. His girlfriend, Rosalind, is an heiress and outclasses him a little. Since his early days Jerry enjoyed the company and caresses of his sister, his mother, and his classmates and always felt girls were more interesting and intriguing than boys. An unreflective young man, he has many friends, and his body and urges develop faster than his restraint.

I always felt there was a class of men who operated primarily on orders from their genitals and this book gives us a good example. The time, style, and world created here are reminiscent of John Updike—when White men ruled the world and their desires were the most important thing in it.

Rogers captures something fast in this novel, in both senses of the word. There is something edgy, forward, illicit in the dreams and actions of young Jerry, as well as something lasting and built into our culture: the unconscious privilege of a White man well born. I will not deny a certain impatience with the circuitous, faulty, and deafening logic of a young man ruled by his hormones. But it is as clear a picture of teenaged confusion and angst as we may find without the further complications wiser eyes may bring to a summer idyll. My parents would have said Jerry wasn’t busy enough.

Any joy I felt came from Rogers’ pitch-perfect description of the lake and its beauty, back when summer vacations were just that. Rogers is at his most eloquent when describing the Lake Michigan shoreline—the clarity of the water, the softness and heat of the sand, the nature of the waves, the intensity of the changing skies.
”Pale blue in the calm mornings, cloud darkened in the afternoons, wind roughened and white-capped during storms, the lake was always awaiting him…the sandbars below developed unexpected pockets…through the clear water…against the fine sand on the [sunlit] bottom…[where] only minnows and silver perch and a turtle [could be seen].
This might just be the perfect summer read. Imagine discovering this on the shelves of some summer house cooling in the dark shade of fragrant pines. It might cause one to break out the watercolors.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson

This remarkably assured debut novel by Tasmanian author Rohan Wilson is a grim but evocative retelling of the clearing of Van Diemen’s Land for white settlers. Darkly imagined and unblinkingly told, the story features Black Bill, a black man raised white, as a key figure in the 'roving party' that travels the countryside seeking to capture or kill aborigines in the area that came to be called Tasmania. Black Bill is also called The Vandemonian. 'Vandemonian' is a term white settlers of Van Dieman’s Land called themselves.

Leading the roving party is John Batman, a well-known historical figure born in Sydney of British parents and who settled in Tasmania’s northeast. Batman led roving parties over a period of years during the ‘Black Wars’ (1828-1832) that is the subject of this novel. The roving party has two more black scouts, both from Parramatta near Sydney, who join for payment. Much of the rest of the group are poor damned men, recently released white convicts who seek government pardons or land grants for their efforts. There is a young boy, too, who follows, watches, and learns.

Wilson balances on a knife’s edge in re-creating the real life that fills this story, rounding out his two main characters by instilling in them a steely-eyed savagery, an ability to coldly reason and plot their advantages, and a blessed and unexpected charity. Rich language and complex characterizations make this tragedy the marvel it is, and Wilson is positively Shakespearean in adding comic relief with the occasional buffoonery of some of the rovers.

The raid depicted in this novel is a recorded event that took place in September 1829. Batman led an attack on a large group of Plindermairhemener clan aborigines who were headed by the witch Manalargena.
"Foremost among that singular horde was Manalargena who carried across his shoulder a waddy shaped from blackwood and stained with the filth of war…his wife had ochred his hair into long ringlets as precise as woven rope…the beard on his chin was matted, and the lank twists as red as a rooster’s wattle jiggled as he walked about…"

On this raid, Batman takes hostage a young mother and her child. He sends the mother off to the penal colony down south while he keeping the child in his own household. But it is Black Bill we watch with such terrible intensity throughout the novel, praying that his motivation becomes, if not acceptable, at least understandable. He knows Manalargena, and hosted his band at his home.

Riveting though the story may be, it is the clear and gorgeous prose and rich imagining that held me. Wilson captured the sense and sound and feel of the men as they trekked through snow and rain, trailing the aborigines as they fled the bloodthirst.
"The men had their ears bent listening to Bill's tale and when he paused to take a sip of his tea they also raised their mugs and drank. The Vandemonian flicked a finger at the billycan in the fire for another serving and the boy obliged by lifting it away with a stick and pouring using his sleeve tugged over his fingers against the burning handle. With a fresh steaming mug in his hands Bill went on and the men listened now like he was giving scripture."
There is no apology in this work: we feel transported to a different time. Whatever dislocation non-Australians might feel with the language, the weapons, the plants and animals unique to the continent ‘down under’, one knows in one’s heart and gut the bald truth of the white man’s sense of ‘manifest destiny’: What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine. That each of our continents experienced it makes this terrible tale no less potent.

Originally published by Allen & Unwin in Australia in 2011, this book won the Vogel Literary Award there in that year. It has also won the 2013 Tasmania Literary Award Margaret Scott Prize, and the 2012 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the numerous other awards. It deserves all this attention for as a debut this is an extraordinary achievement. For more history of the time and place recorded in this fiction, see this Wikipedia entry for Ben Lomond Mountain in northeast Tasmania.

It turns out that Black Bill was real, too. His name was William Ponsonby. Rohan Wilson shares with us the experience of writing his first novel and winning the Vogel Prize. His writing schedule and methods are revealed here in an interview.

This book is being released in the United States in February 2014 by Soho Publishing and is available for pre-order. I was given a copy in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East This book would be a perfect semester-long study for young bucks with an interest in foreign affairs and a willingness to test themselves with knotty problems and harsh realities. Coming into the information with clear eyes and no prior understanding of the histories we have undergone in the past one hundred years, youths that imagine patterning themselves on the legendary stoic T.E. Lawrence will have an education.

Anderson had much primary material at his disposal to create this dense wartime history of The Middle East full of schemes and counter-schemes, spies and double agents, treachery unbound and heroism unheralded. There might be just too much information for me here: I am Swift’s Gulliver, on my back, securely bound with threads of information, staring unblinkingly at the sky and wondering still about Lawrence. The subtitle of the book is perhaps a truer picture of the contents than the title, and the two could be reversed.

Anderson does a masterly job of marshaling the material and propelling the narrative with quotes from the players themselves. One becomes familiar with the skill and treachery of many men besides that of the enigmatic Lawrence. Lawrence is a device: a way into the material and circumscribing it fore and aft. Lawrence had been used before for such ends and at one time he would have been interested to read this many-faceted story of the times in which he lived and how it played out.
Anderson writes: “Since late 1916, Lawrence had waged a quiet war against his own government, and now he had lost. What would soon become clear, however, was that he intended to continue that fight off the battlefield, in the conference halls and meeting rooms of peacetime Paris. He may have asked to leave Damascus out of exhaustion, but it was also to prepare for the next round in the struggle for Arab independence.”
If Lawrence had been given more credence at the Paris Peace Conference instead of stripped of his credentials, things may have been different in the present-day Middle East, though perhaps not much better. Lawrence worked out an agreement for the administration of an Arab-Jewish state in Palestine with then Prince Faisal ibn-Hussein of Syria and British Zionist Chaim Weizmann but the plan was scuttled by the British and French, who had earlier agreed to split the Middle East between them. “…Great Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes-Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse; how much worse was evidenced by the myriad fires that had spread across the region almost immediately.”

An alternative history with Lawrence’s involvement after the war, had he not suffered from PTSD, changed his name (twice), retreated to a lonely Indian outpost as a low-ranking British army private, and then died from a motorcycle accident in 1935, would be most interesting. But the Lawrence of the First World War had died shortly after that war, though the man himself lived another seventeen years:
Anderson: ”In Arabia, Lawrence had exerted life-and-death control over thousands, and had cobbled together a cause and an army as he went along. All the while, he had been tormented by a sense of his own fraudulence, the awareness that the men who fought and died at his side were almost certain to be betrayed in the end. As he would suggest in Seven Pillars, and state quote explicitly in letters to friends, after Arabia he never wanted to be in a position of responsibility again: ’The Arabs are like a page I have turned over, and sequels are rotten things.’
Lawrence in Arabia
The 1962 David Lean/Peter O’Toole movie is surprisingly thorough and captured many key events featuring Lawrence recounted here, though emphases and characterizations were tailored to the screen and the sensibilities of the time. With Anderson’s help, we understand the larger context of competing national interests and how the shaping of the Middle East had less to do with T.E. Lawrence, Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn, Chaim Weizmann, and William Yale than with Mark Sykes, François Georges-Picot, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau. The whole globe was watching the unfolding events in the Middle East and everyone had different desires. The event-makers, in the end, did not have the effect of those who watched.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

I wonder now if I will ever see the title of a new book by Jesmyn Ward that does not thrill me at the same time it fills me with trepidation. Ward’s talent is such that we read what she writes even when we do not want to. Her despair and distress cuts like a blade. She wants it to hurt. So that we know. And we do, now. Has there ever been anyone who could tell this story in this way?

”I never knew Demond when he was younger. I came to know him as an adult, when he was old enough to have sharp smile lines and the thin skin at his temples was threaded through with veins. The skull beneath looked hard…'You should write about my life,' Demond said…I heard this often at home. Most of the men in my life thought their stories, whether they were drug dealers or straight-laced, were worthy of being written about…Now, as I write these stories, I see the truth in their claims...'I don’t write real-life stuff,' I said.”

That was then. Ward writes real-life stuff, in such a way that we come away changed, knowing.
”This is where the past and the future meet…This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer I will spend with my brother, [Josh]. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”
But even she admits it is hard to know, really know people. But she may come closer than anyone else has. Closer than anyone else has bothered to.
“I know that sense of despair. I know that when [Roland] looked down at his copper hands and in the mirror, at his dark eyes and his freckles and his even mouth, that he thought it would be better if he were dead, because then all of it, every bit of it, would stop. The endless struggle with his girlfriend, the drugs that lit his darkness, the degradations that come from a life of poverty exacerbated by maleness and Blackness and fatherlessness in the South—being stopped and searched by the police, going to a high school where no one really cared if he graduated and went to college, the dashed dreams of being a pilot or a doctor or whatever it was he wanted, realizing the promises that had been made to him at All God’s Creatures day camp were empty and he didn’t have a world and a heaven of options—all of these things would cease.”

Five deaths in five years. Young black men with a life expectancy of 23 years. Families with a shifting sense of belonging, sometimes including the community, sometimes losing members, fathers and brothers especially, to other families. The lowering heat of a muggy, buggy Mississippi night with dampness on the window crank and seats of an eighties-model gray-blue Cutlass. Drug selling as last-ditch income production. Casual racism, "I don’t believe in the mixing of the races”, thrown out with lacerating results.
“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”
Ah. So she is like us after all. Just like us. I expect she knows now that despair and loneliness knows not race nor income level. None of us is spared that at least. But the other, well...I'm glad she told us. I believe it makes a difference.

I came away with a vivid sense of the terrible burden of anger, frustration, and loneliness that Ward carried. I hope she does not carry it still, but only picks it up again now and again to try it on and to see it does not fit her anymore.

You may find that, having bared all, Ward intrigues more than ever. Here she talks about the writing of her memoir. Jesmimi is her blog which she doesn’t update very often, or perhaps only when she’s stuck.

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend Lila and Elena, two childhood friends in a neighborhood of 1950s Naples, both wear the moniker “my brilliant friend,” but there is no question which of the two Ferrante meant. Elena continues her schooling through high school in this first installment of the trilogy of novels Ferrante has written about the two, while Lila, incandescent Lila, is held back from further schooling by her family claiming they cannot afford it. We ache for her.

Ferrante captures the uncertainty and confusion of youth through the voice and perspective of Elena. But what we really want is what everyone wants—the thoughts and voice of Lila. We can’t get enough of her, even when we only see her from a distance. We long to know what she thinks. We know, just like Elena does, that Elena is only a conduit, pretty and clever, but a poor substitute for the real thing. If we could only get to Lila, all will become clear. Lila radiates something like unfiltered truth, understanding, knowledge. Her opinions are the ones that matter. But even then, we wonder if we would be accepted into her inner circle. Elena is our conduit.

Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels feel especially real when describing the resentments and jockeying for influence among the boys seeking favors of Elena and Lila, and the confusions these two radiate when considering the options left open to them in a culture not known to value contributions from the female sex beyond housekeeping and baby-making. We yearn to know, too, the thoughts and desires of the parents of Lila and Elena—to know if they are being fairly portrayed by Elena or if there is something more going on which she does not have the understanding yet to relate.

By the end of this, Book I of L’amica genial, we get the uncomfortable feeling that we are on the edge of something unknown, that life will play out for these two much like it does for us: we grasp in the dark for something we cannot see, and hope that it will bring what we imagine, not knowing if the direction is the right one. This marvelous recreation of two lives in a poor neighborhood of Naples a long time ago draws us in completely and involves in in a way that only great literature can.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Readers of this blog are treated to two reviews for this book, one by guest blogger, Zak, who won the giveaway for this title, and one by myself. Zak gives a well-rounded account of the novel and with our two reactions, you get a good idea of how the novel reads.

ZAK: Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc is a welcome insider’s tale about West Africa and West African émigrés to the US. The setting is specific to southeastern Nigeria, and in some ways the book could be considered a pastiche following the descendants of the people in Things Fall Apart, but most of its themes are universal enough to reveal essential truths all readers should be able to relate to.

The story follows the flailing attempts at success by a New York cab driver from Nigeria named Ikechukwu “Ike” Uzondu. A decade after graduating from Amherst with a degree in economics, Ike is an educated man stuck in a blue-collar job he considers beneath him. Even while in college in the US, he seems to have clung to the delusion that America is a place where immigrants are greeted at the airport with duffle bags full of cash, a Hollywood star for a spouse, and the keys to a mansion with a fully stocked six-car garage. In the shock that followed his eventual disillusionment, Ike allowed himself to be repeatedly conned, bullied, and beaten down. He is on the cusp of middle age with nothing to show for a decade of work except an empty apartment, incipient alcoholism, and a growing gambling problem. (See, the themes DO work for any culture!) Well, he actually does have a lot of generous, gregarious friends who try to reach out to help him and a family back home, but his priorities are for wealth and status, and people are just tools to reaching those ideals. When Ike discovers an ongoing fad among the super-rich for buying up “primitive” idols from foreign cultures, he concocts a scheme to return to his village in Nigeria and steal the image of the local war god; Ngene, which has been in his family’s care for generations; and then to sell it to a gallery owner for a king’s ransom.

So, Ike is not a particularly sympathetic character, and aside from a few good friends in NYC, we don’t encounter many through the rest of the book. The trip home to his village is like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street recast in contemporary Nigeria; portrayed as a nation of ignoramuses ruled by the vulgar; where the credulous are fleeced by the marginally more clever; a place where there is no ladder to climb; where police exist only to remind people how small and powerless they are; and where every encounter with authority is an exercise in humiliation, prostration, and potential danger. (To be fair NYC is shown in largely the same light.) Is this the whole story of Nigeria? No. But there’s enough truth in the presentation of what life is like for many people living in countries with weak institutions and limited recourse to legal protection to believe that Ndibe knows what he’s talking about.

The only wholly likeable characters are Ike’s grandmother and his old uncle, Osuakwu, who is the custodian of the local god whom Ike plans to steal. Ndibe thankfully resisted any urge to paint the traditionalist Osuakwu as a saint or mystic—the men who gather daily in the shrine with Osuakwu tell crude jokes and pursue petty rivalries—but Ndibe convincingly implies the constancy of their traditional values has let them retain something most of those around them have lost: their sanity. This may include Ike.

The weak point in the book is Ike himself. He is not a hero or even an antihero. We know he was talented enough to win what must have been a coveted scholarship to come study in America, but he shows few hints of any talent or drive other than his attempt to rip off his relatives. Even his “plan” for getting the god isn’t very clever. He is mostly shown as weak-willed, or at least someone whose will has failed him at critical moments in his life. When he’s not crumbling before his bullying wife or a slick art dealer, he’s making inappropriate stands against the wrong people (his religiously deranged mother) at the wrong time (customs agents at the Lagos airport.) If he were a complete loser, he wouldn’t have had such engaging friends, but whatever charms he used to win them over in the first place are never shown, and I felt not so much that I couldn’t relate to Ike as much as he seemed a hollow shell.

The main character’s limited appeal notwithstanding, I’d recommend Foreign Gods, Inc to anyone looking to understand a little more of the African, post-colonial, or immigrant experiences. There were some very interesting parallels between the families “left behind” in this book and those in Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, in that those who stayed behind in the old country have absolutely no sympathy or any idea that they should perhaps have sympathy for those who emigrated. It's also very amusing that Nigerians apparently send those same ridiculous emails to each other, not just to foreigners! The language in the book is also great, and I especially like the way Ndibe shows how academic jargon is its own kind of pidgin, but one that expresses class identity more than actual content. This is often a very funny book, but ultimately more bitter than sweet in its outlook.

------------Now, this is my take on this second novel of Ndibe's-----------------

TRISH: This picaresque bildungsroman, spiked with folktales, horrors, and gorgons aplenty, features a young man seeking his fortune in an un-fortun-ate world. The young man discovers instead his own base nature. To be honest, I thought this was going to be a funny, light-hearted read. I have grown accustomed to comic novels that harbor hideous truths. But Ndibe does something entirely different with this fiction. He uses a nineteenth or early twentieth-century sensibility and style in this novel with some success, and creates a tragi-comic naïf for whom we reserve a special pity. Only the time frame of the novel and its actual language are modern: the rest is as old as man himself.

Ike (pronounced Ee-kay) is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. Although he attended a fancy New England college and graduated magna cum laude in economics, his thick Nigerian accent bars him from landing a job in his field. He struggles to find paying employment, finally landing a job as a taxicab driver. At the same time he searches for a wife to give him the infamous green card legal status he requires for higher paying low-level jobs for which he is (over)qualified.

This lacerating novel peels back the veneer to uncover the reality of immigrant life in the United States and in the home country for an educated man. Ike struggles mightily to rustle up the needed cash to return home in response to repeated requests by his family, but he also uses his visit to Nigeria to steal the effigy of a deity from his native village to sell on the New York art market. With this, he plans to vanish his financial woes and make his fortune.

Whirled about and confused in the maelstrom of humanity on two continents, Ike resembles a modern Don Quixote, though he seeks the good life promised by America rather than the chivalry, human goodness, and true love sought by Quixote. Like Quixote, Ike comes to his senses occasionally, only to sink back into a feverish belief that his dreams will come true. Comic elements abound (two bribe-taking customs sessions, a visit to a corrupt politician’s home, an interview with a Nigerian Christian pastor, as well as the absurdity of a high-end art market for religious deities), and although we are ready to laugh through much of the book, we come to realize this horrible dream is really true, and Ike is desperately spiraling out of control into the black hole of penury and despair.

Foreign Gods reads like a big short story, partly because of the ending, and partly because the time frame is short. We have character development but not resolution. We grow to like, if not admire, the character of Ike. He is more acted upon than actor, since he can’t seem to come to grips with the world in which he lives. He is perhaps not very clever, despite his degree, for he is guilty of the basest naiveté when it comes to his get-rich-quick plan. He is a good man at heart, but we onlookers know that will probably not be enough to get him through.

And if our reactions are not enough, here is Janet Maslin's take at the New York Times. This book was sent to me by Soho Crime in return for an honest review.

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