Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Everywhere You Don't Belong, by Gabriel Bump


9781616208790
Algonquin, 2019
advance reading copy (thank you!!)


When I began reading this novel, I was sort of taken aback at the simplicity of it all and I was a bit on the iffy side, but the truth is that the further I got into it the more I realized that it's not simple at all -- it is intelligent and works at a level of complexity I hadn't quite anticipated. 

I suppose it is what most people are calling  it, a coming-of-age story, following Claude McKay Love beginning with childhood growing up in an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His life is a series of people leaving, with his parents taking off first, followed here and there by his friends. The only solid thing in Claude's life is his grandmother, who along with her live-in friend Paul, brings him up as best as she can, which isn't always easy.  Although his grandmother believes that Claude is "not a follower" but will eventually become "his own man,"  by the time middle school rolls around she and Paul also see that he is "sentimental, no backbone, adrift, unspectacular."  He is not good at sports like his friends and is the kind of kid who at a lunchtime assembly at school sits in the back "behind band kids and the science club." He is an empathetic sort of kid, who cares about his friends, who cries when he sees an injured squirrel; he suffers through periods of depression, and has been called "soft" more than once.   This "unspectacular" boy, however, not only has to make his way through being abandoned, but also through other challenges that present themselves in various forms.  Everywhere You Don't Belong chronicles not only how he weathers these storms and survives and what he learns about himself in the process,   but also highlights the people in his life who help provide love, friendship, and a measure of stability as he's doing so.

What makes this somewhat atypical of a standard coming-of-age tale is in the way the author also examines different forms of oppression,  racism and ideology that find their way into Claude's life, as well as how he copes with it all.   I don't want to spoil things for potential readers but a pivotal point in this novel is a riot in his neighborhood (mentioned in the blurb so not a spoiler) caused by the wrongful killing by the police of a young African-American boy which, in the long run not only highlights ideological divisions among the people there but causes him to question his life in South Shore.   As he is finishing high school, he has decided to get out of what he calls "the toxic bubble" in which he feels trapped, believing that "the rest of the world isn't like this."  Once he's moved on to college in Missouri, leaving behind his home, friends, family and everything he's known, his past comes back to him in a very big and unexpected way.  However, he also comes to an even greater awareness from his experiences in both Chicago and Missouri, one which I'll leave readers to discover on their own. 

Do not let the simplicity of the prose or the style fool you. And think out of the box when you get to the end, which seems both simplistic and unrealistic, but the author is making a point here.  While there are a number of funny moments where I couldn't help but laugh, Everywhere You Don't Belong is a serious novel telling a serious story that needs to be heard.  Very highly recommended, and Mr. Bump should be congratulated for a first novel very well done.

***

There is an excellent interview with Gabriel Bump which I read after finishing this book at Electric Lit that opened my eyes wide, but do not read it until after you've turned the last page and closed the cover. Spoilers abound so beware. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Ashenden, by W. Somerset Maugham




9780099289708
Vintage UK, 2000
originally published 1928
332 pp

paperback

In the preface to Ashenden,  Maugham wastes no time in revealing that this book is "founded on my experiences in the Intelligence Department during the war, but rearranged for the purposes of fiction."  He later goes on to say that

"the work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable,"

and that is exactly what Maugham does here.

Ashenden was first recruited by a man known only as "the Colonel" or "R,"  whom he had met at a party, who later in a private meeting noted Ashenden's "particular qualifications for the secret service."  His knowledge of different languages was a plus, as was the fact that he was a writer, allowing him the perfect cover -- traveling to a neutral country to work on his latest project, as he was already known for his plays.  Once he takes on his duties in intelligence Ashenden's "official existence," as we learn, is "as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's," but the work he does is  "evidently necessary."  He knows that he functions as a "tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine," in which he "never had the advantage of seeing a completed action," most of the time not knowing "what his own doings led to."  His main job is to keep an eye on things, listen, and report back to his superiors.  Over the course of this book he will find himself involved with a unique array of people, including a strange general known as the Hairless Mexican whose destiny is often told in the cards, an elderly British chaperone to two princesses, an Italian music-hall dancer in love with a seriously-dangerous Indian agitator and "fanatic," and a talkative American who "would not listen to reason."  Love and betrayal weave their way through these stories, and while some are a bit on the entertaining side,  it is impossible not to be absolutely devastated at the outcomes of a few of the others.   What Ashenden has to do is often not pretty, but he never fails in his duty, despite what he feels toward "the bigwigs," who
"shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour."
 Ashenden is a fine book, filled with stories which Maugham handled with a mix of deadly earnest and levity.   It is definitely not the edge-of-your-seat stuff of later spy thrillers in which the work of intelligence gathering often becomes life-threatening business, although Maugham makes crystal clear that there are risks involved in what Ashenden does.  While his work is "evidently necessary," there is another side to it that comes with very human consequences, which are played out again and again throughout this novel.  By the way, feel free to argue that it is not actually a novel -- we'll just agree to disagree on that point.

So very highly recommended -- I loved this book. 

What an excellent start to the new reading year!

drawing the line in 2020: make more book space!

In a perfect world, my home bookshelves would be neatly organized, every book in its place, but I don't live in a perfect world.  Instead of this



from Bookbub
I have this



and that's just one wall of three in that room, with the other bookshelves in other rooms looking much the same.  I'm sure that if went through them book by book, I'd even find duplicates.  Who knows -- maybe even triplicates.   I cringe now whenever a book arrives by mail because there is absolutely no room to put it -- just this morning my husband asked me if I wanted to go to one of my favorite bookstores when we're down south of here on Friday and for the first time I actually had to say no.  


This year it's time to draw the line and to actually read the books I already own and to clear up this mess. I'll be back at the end of December with another photo to see how I've done.    

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Suicide Woods, by Benjamin Percy

9781644450062
Graywolf Press, 2019
193 pp

paperback


"No one would a done a thing like that on purpose. It's against nature." 



Another of my most anticipated books for this year, I'm happy to say that Benjamin Percy's Suicide Woods didn't let me down.  I worry sometimes that something I'm really looking forward to reading is going to just tank, but any fear on that score was swept aside once I started reading this book.   It is a collection of ten short stories, well, actually, nine short stories and one nearly novella-length tale at the end; it's also a book that actually lives up to the blurb by author Luis Alberto Urrea, who  says right there on the front cover for all to see that it
"deals in a shivery fear, a dreamlike unease, a sense of eldritch hallucinations creeping toward us."
Never a truer word spoken.    Word of warning: if you're not inclined toward the weird, eerie, or sometimes downright creepy,  pass. This is not the book for you.  On with the show.

It's always a good sign, I think, when a collection of stories like this opens with one that sets the tone and acts a sort of teaser for what to expect throughout the rest of the book; this one certainly passes that test with flying colors.  The first story, "The Cold Boy" begins with a description of the forest as "hardwood," where the sycamore and oak trees would be completely bare if not for the hundreds of crows, "huddled like little men in black jackets."  The sounds they make create "rusty voices" that are audible a quarter of a mile away where a man named Ray stands on a frozen pond in the middle of a Minnesota cornfield, where there are "two sets of footprints, yet he is alone on the ice." First of all, when crows make an early appearance in a story, things rarely turn out for the best since everyone knows that the crow is a harbinger of doom; then, of course,  there's the immediate question of why there are two sets of footprints if Ray is out there by himself.    At this point, which is just two paragraphs in, the sense of something ominous starts making itself known in my blood, creeping under my skin as if to mirror the feeling of cold that rises and creeps up Ray's legs and into his chest, where his "heart feels frosted with tiny white crystals."  And after we realize what's going on here (which I won't divulge), Percy makes a shift into the realm of the unexpected, throwing his readers (well, me anyway) completely into off-kilter mode, where, quite honestly, I stayed throughout the entire book.   At the same time, there's more to this collection opener than just the eeriness and the unsettling creep factor; for me it begins a clear line of thought running from this first story through the last, in which attempts to alter or conquer nature, both human and otherwise, turn into the stuff of nightmares.

I don't want to go through each story in the book;   while there were only a few that left me with what I call FTG (Failure to Grab) syndrome, only natural for me in the case of an anthology of stories, for the most part I was beyond impressed.  The best stories for me included "The Cold Boy," "Heart of a Bear," and "The Balloon," while the absolute chart toppers were the titular and breathtaking "Suicide Woods," which made me put the book down for a few hours before returning to it and "The Uncharted," a story I visualized while reading much more than any of the others in the collection.  Both of these were superb, and not only because of their eerieness and the fact that they both completely messed with my head.   "The Dummy," "Dial Tone" and most especially "Writs of Possession" all resonate in our current social/political/economic climate, with the latter being one of the saddest stories I've ever read in my life while certainly one of the best written of the bunch.  The blogger at Minnesota Monthly reviewing this book quotes Percy as saying about the writing of this story that "It's like I took this larger portrait of America and dropped it, and it shattered," and after I read that statement, I realized how perfectly it describes what he's done here.

If you are a reader who prefers uplifting, follow-the-dotted-line sort of stories or  stories full of nice nice and happy endings, or who demands fully fleshed-out characters in your reading, move along.  That sort of thing you just won't find here.  It's going to appeal more to those people who enjoy books along the lines of what I call "strange with purpose," where thinking is required,  which is pretty much the bread and butter of my fiction reading these days.  It is unforgettable, really, and I can certainly recommend it.



Friday, October 11, 2019

The Good People, by Hannah Kent

9781447233350
Picador, 2017
384 pp

hardcover


"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it." 




As with this author's fine novel Burial Rites, The Good People is based on real events, this time from  nineteenth-century Ireland.  In 2011,  Kent (as she described at Lit Hub in 2017)  came upon  an article from the Morning Post reporting on the Tralee assizes of 1826 which mentioned
"the trial of 'Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age' indicted for a serious crime 'committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition.' "

Finding little else about Ann Roche, she went on to write Burial Rites, and then came back to find out more about her elusive subject in 2015.  Back to the microfilm she went, and finally discovered another article, one that mentioned two more women associated with Roche, Honora Leahy and Mary Clifford.   The Good People brings the three together in a story that  kept me up until 3:30 a.m. when I had to stop just for the sake of actually sleeping for a few hours two days ago.  I am still thinking about it; I'm still haunted by it.

Nora Leahy has recently lost her daughter, and now she's lost her husband.  After the new priest visits her and reluctantly prays for him ("the sacraments are for the living and cannot avail the dead"), the house fills with neighbors.  Martin's body is turned on the bed, "so as to avert further misfortune," and Nora's nephew Daniel, who had witnessed Martin's death at the "crossroads next to the the blacksmith's," reveals that as he and another man, Peter O'Connor, were taking the body to the Leahy's home, they had seen lights ... "Coming from where the fairies do be, down by the Piper's Grave." Peter confirms Daniel's story, commenting that
"You mark my words, there'll be another death in this family before long... First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company.  And if the Good People have a hand in it ... well." 
In just a few pages then,  we discover that the people of this small village live in a world where the Church and superstition live side by side; where fairies, aka the Good People, are believed to exist as  more than just fodder for storytelling.

The gathering is interrupted with the arrival of  Nance Roche, who has come for the keening, a practice that is frowned upon by the priest.   She is a woman who is known for her cures, whose job is to see to "the daily blights and bruises of the living."  She is an herbalist, but also has what she refers to as "the knowledge," and lives in a small cabin "between mountain and wood and river" where she's been for the last twenty years:
"...she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood.  She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars.  She was a pagan chorus. An older song."
 and she is known to some as "Nance of the Fairies."  Whether her "gift" is, as one character notes, "God-given or a token from the Good People," no one knows, and it is not for them to know.  All she will say is "Twas them that gave me the knowledge to cure folk and bring the fairy dart out of them..."

Grieving for the loss of her daughter and now her husband, Nora now finds herself alone to take care of her grandson, young Micheál, whose condition has caused him to change from a happy, healthy infant to one who, according to Nora, is "ill-formed" and now unrecognizable from the baby he was.  For her, he is "burdensome" and she needs help during her grief, so she hires fourteen year-old Mary Clifford who needs the job to help support her starving family.   Although Mary develops a sort of bond with  Micheál, it doesn't take long for her to catch the women's gossip at the well, referring to Micheál as the "blasted cratur" and "changeling" that has caused all of the ills of the village; and indeed, things are getting pretty bad there.  Nora's grief has taken over her life, there is no help coming from either the priest or the doctor, so she begins to believe that there may just be something in what they're saying -- that her grandson is a changeling, but what does she need to do to get her real grandson back? 

With the same sort of claustrophobic atmosphere so excellently evoked in Burial Rites, The Good People delves into the story of these three women; it also looks at the conflicts between religion and superstition, medicine and traditional folk healing, and the forces of the time that come together to precipitate the events in this novel.   I think though that  one of the characters here points to the heart of it all when she says that
"There's queer things happening up the mountains if you believe half of what goes round. And they're after finding patterns in it all. They're after finding reason for it."  
I so very highly recommend this book.  Beware -- it will haunt you.




Saturday, September 28, 2019

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah

9781982110338
Scribner, 2019
303 pp

hardcover

Without wasting time, the author reveals right out of the gate what we are about to read:

"This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land." 
As our narrator reveals, this is a story that "has been told many times before, but always as the story of the Doctor."  This time around, however, those whose voices have not been heard have their say about their roles in Dr. Livingstone's "last journey" from Chitambo to Bagamoyo, a place whose "very name means to lay to rest the burden of your heart."   It was a journey of over 1500 miles and 285 days, as revealed via two narratives: first that of Halima, Livingstone's cook, followed by an account kept in a diary by Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave who had been taken in and educated by missionaries early in his life. 

 As we are told before the first chapter even begins,
"On the long and perilous journey to bring him home, ten of our party lost their lives. There are no stones to mark the places where they rest, no epitaphs to announce their deaths. And when we who remain follow where they led, no pilgrims will come to show their children where we lie. But out of that great and troubling darkness came shining light. Our sacrifice burnished the glory of his life."
 With only minor complaints, overall it is a fine novel, and some of the comparisons to Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account made by readers is not too far off the mark here (although I liked Out of Darkness Shining Light more), as her book also put the voices of those who followed in the shadows of more famous historical figures front and center.  I love this sort of thing, really, when done well.  Halima's account begins prior to Livingstone's death at Chitambo and ended all too soon for this reader; Wainwright's rather stifled, pious journal entries purposefully read like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, as he intends his diary for future publication.  Both, however, reveal that outside of  the singular cause of delivering Livingstone's remains to the coast, within the group there were conflicts based on ethnic and religious divisions, jealousies,  and much more.  The members of the caravan also faced hardships including disease, hunger, superstition from outsiders, fear of being captured by slavers and other horrors.  Throughout the book there are also ongoing questions about Livingstone's own relationship with slavery, and colonialism is put under the microscope here.  Wainwright's account of himself, his worldview, and his desire to be ordained in order to save his fellow Africans stands out as just one example, and his self-serving narrative  is often giggleworthy and eyebrow raising as we see him sometimes justifying what he does through the filter of his Christian beliefs.

Once I picked it up, that was it; any moment away from this book was spent thinking how quickly I could get back to it.  This novel was on the list of my own ten most anticipated books for the remainder of 2019 and I was not at all disappointed.  Recommended mainly for readers of historical fiction done well.  There's so much bad historical fiction out there, so it was a pleasure to read something so well researched and well written.






Monday, September 16, 2019

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

9781101870600
Pantheon, 2019
274 pp
translated by Stephen Snyder

hardcover

It wasn't too long after starting this book before I noticed something strange about it.  By page 98, it hit me that for a story  labeled as "Orwellian,"  it was written in a surprisingly quiet tone.  Without discounting the bizarre events recounted in this book, the understated style alone was actually disturbing in its own right, and I experienced a sort of weird off-kilteredness throughout the story.

As the novel opens, the narrator finds herself wondering
"what was disappeared first -- among all the things that have vanished from the island."
A curious beginning, and by the time you reach the ending, it becomes all that much more curious given the fact that the novel is written in the first person.  (Cryptic I know, but cryptic in terms of this novel seems par for the course.)    I said somewhere that the book has a surreal feel to it, and I don't use the term lightly here.

Our narrator also recalls a conversation she had with her mother as a child, in which she was told that
"...that's just the way it is on this island. Things go disappearing, one by one..."
Continuing, her mother tells her that losing a memory "doesn't hurt," that
"One morning you'll simply wake up and it will be over, before you've even realized. Lying still, eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air, you'll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you'll know that you've lost something, that something has disappeared from the island."
As just one example of things that were "disappeared from the island" among many,  her mother explains to her about perfume:
"In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It's not sold anywhere, and no one wants it. It was disappeared the autumn of the year that your father and I were married. We gathered on the banks of the river with our perfume. Then we opened the bottles and poured out their contents, watching the perfume dissolve in the water like some worthless liquid. Some girls held the bottles up to their noses one last time -- but the ability to smell the perfume had already faded, along with all memory of what it had meant.  The river reeked for two or three days afterward, and some fish died. But no one seemed to notice. You see, the very idea of 'perfume' had been disappeared from their heads." 
At some point things get "back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it is that disappeared." 

One never knows what will disappear next -- various types of food, birds, hats, roses, photos, etc., --  but not all people lose the memories of what was, however, and to ensure that their dictates are followed, the Memory Police try to round up these people and take them away to some unknown location, the fate of the narrator's mother.   They are "men who are determined to see things disappear,"  and
"from their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable.  So they force it to disappear with their own hands."
 The narrator is a novelist, despite the fact that on the island, few people seem to have need for novels; interspersed throughout her story are pieces of the unsettling but telling story she is currently writing.  She works closely with her editor known only as R, and as the blurb notes, she discovers that because he is one of the people whose memories haven't disappeared, he is at risk of being taken away by the Memory Police.  She hits on a plan to hide him, and builds a secret space in her home where he can live in relative safety.  In the meantime, things on the island continue to disappear ...

  As author Silvia Moreno-Garcia says in her NPR review of this novel,
"If you view The Memory Police as one big, fat metaphor for state control -- and I'm sure many people will see it as that -- you'll probably find more pleasure in it than if you attempt to consider it in other terms."
While the Orwellian tag is beyond appropriate (I was downright haunted by the thought of what the Memory Police might cause to disappear next, and also by the matter of  complicity) there is most certainly much more going on here in terms of  isolation, memory, loss, and the self.  In this world, to forget is to survive,  but at what cost?


While I was at first curious about the island's backstory, hoping it would be explained, eventually  it just became easier to  accept that things are the way they are here, making the reading of this book much more of an experience in the long run.   I finished it well over a week ago one morning about 2 a.m., laid there thinking about it for another two hours, and it hasn't left my head yet.   It is one of the strangest books I've read, but honestly, for me, that's part of the appeal.

Recommended with the caveat that this is a novel that will likely leave readers with more questions than answers;  there is no explanation as to the why of things, described here as "the laws of the island;"  they just are.  It also has an ending that  might just leave people scratching their heads with a big WHAT? standing out in their minds, as so many readers have noted.   While it may not be everyone's cup of tea, I loved this book; then again, I'm very much drawn to novels that I've labeled "strange with purpose," so I'm not surprised.


****

real reviews
Silvia Moreno-Garcia,  NPR
Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today