Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Glory, by NoViolet Bulawayo

Viking, 2022
403 pp


"Even the sticks and stones will tell you that an animal can't just preach change without embodying it themselves, and that that change has to begin at the top and then trickle down to the rest of the masses." 

The setting of this novel is the fictional country of Jidada, which is actually a stand-in for Zimbabwe, the home country of author NoViolet Bulawayo.  As she stated in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, on November 14th of 2017, she awoke to the news that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had been ousted in a coup:
"There was so much celebration, just the joy of seeing the dictatorship come to an end the way it did. It was complicated, though, because we knew his deputy was going to take over. But we hoped against hope that we had a turned a corner." 

She decided that she would go back to Zimbabwe; she also wondered if it was time for her to write a "nonfiction book about this moment, 'too unbelievable to ignore.' "  Once there though, she saw firsthand how "the sense of hope turned very quickly into disappointment and devastation,"  and  thought perhaps the book she should write should be more along the lines of a "modern-day parable of Zimbabwe."  This is that book, and the players are all animals.  Before I actually bought this novel, I had decided to give it a pass, thinking that it seemed like it might be a case of Animal Farm redux.  But my curiosity got the better of me, and as it happens, I was completely wrong.    In fact, at some point close to the beginning of this story, author NoViolet Bulawayo reminds her readers that this is definitely not that -- as Dr Sweet Mother,  the wife of the president of Jidada says while addressing a crowd from the podium, 

"This is not an animal farm but Jidada with a -da and another -da!"

 A modern-day parable indeed, Glory takes as its subject the end of the long reign of Jidada's president, the  "Father of the Nation" or "The Old Horse" (who actually is a horse here),  and the rise to power  and rule of his vice president, Tuvius Delight Shasha, aka Tuvy (also a horse) when The Old Horse is ousted.  Knowing that his life is in danger after several attempts at killing him, Tuvy leaves the country after a meeting with the generals who fear that Dr. Sweet Mother will try to steal power for herself and want him to take his place in the Seat of Power.   The Jidadans are also ready for something different -- as they said, they
"...couldn't meet the dawn carrying the sad, terrible baggage of that awful past, no; it absolutely had to find us on a brand-new page and proper ready for a fresh start, best foot forward, no less."
 Upon his return once the Father of the Nation is gone, he promises the Jidadans a "New Dispensation,"   telling them that God has saved him to put him at the helm of a New Jidada
"this country's long, long, long terribly dark night has indeed ended and we now perch on the wings of a brand new dawn..." 
However, as the Jidadans will discover, the New Jidada seems much like the old one, complete with oppression, corruption on a huge scale, disappearances and violence:
"...the children of the nation found themselves standing hungry and thirsty and hopeless and penniless in the queues, tholukuthi Tuvy's eyes watching them from old election posters that promised a new and better Jidada they now understood, with a heartbreaking knowledge, would never come, was never meant to come."
As the Jidadans said, "... it was what, it was the worst of times, it was the worstest of times."  

 The word "tholukuthi" appears numerous times throughout this book, translating into something like "I find that" or "it's the case that..." or something along those lines.  The author also talks about the "sticks and stones" that "will tell you" something,  and I'm thinking that these phrases reflect the storytelling traditions and folklore of her culture.   

It's in writing about the "daily lives of a population in upheaval" (as the dustjacket blurb notes) that the author shines here, capturing the hopes, the cynicism and the strong opinions of the people via their thoughts, their interactions, Tweets, WhatsApp posts etc.  Glory expresses their frustrations and their fears, but also their resilience and their hopes.    Her use of animals instead of people, she explains in that same LA Times interview mentioned earlier,  afforded her "a sense of freedom" that she didn't believe would be "possible otherwise."   I thought it was a bold move and a good one as well, and even without human actors, she manages to get a number of ideas across, most importantly, the need for political, government and social reforms as well as the need to document your history before someone changes it.   On the downside it can be repetitive, it is a bit overlong, and there are times when it just gets a bit boggy, but looking at the bigger picture, Glory is a fine novel, one that is so very timely given what's happening in our world today.   There's so much more to this book than I can capture in such a brief space, but truly, it's one very much worth your time, energy and attention.    

Just as an FYI,  you don't need to know about Mugabe or his successor Mnangagwa,  but it is actually somewhat helpful if you can read about it ahead of time.  Here's a link to an article from The Atlantic that might be useful (it's actually Mugabe's obituary but it tells you what you need to know).  

It does take some patience, but I definitely and highly recommend this novel.  

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka


Sort of Books, 2022
385 pp


Not too far into the first chapter I realized that this book and I were going to get along just fine, and I was right.  To put it bluntly, I effing loved this book and have been telling everyone about it. 

  The author sets his story in 1990, and as it opens,  the main character Maali Almeida wakes up (as he believes)  "hungover" to find himself in an "endless waiting room" not knowing how he got there.  He is sure that he's hallucinating, having a "trippy dream" from the "silly pills" given to him by his friend Jaki, but he's actually awoken in the afterlife where he is standing in a queue.  Evidently it is as completely disorganized as any typical earthly bureaucracy, with plenty of people complaining and the office "short-staffed and looking for volunteers."   The woman who seems to be checking him in hands him a dried printed palm leaf, telling him that he needs to get his ears checked, his "deaths counted," his "sins coded" and his "moons registered," and that he (along with everyone else coming in that day) has "seven moons."  Here seven moons equates to seven days, rather than the typically-understood idea of moons as months;  Almeida is also handed a checklist of things to be taken care of before he can enter "The Light," which is, as the woman notes, "Whatever You Need It To Be."  That is the short answer; later he will learn that all who come here to "wander the In Between" have his or her allotted moons "To recall past lives. And then, to forget."  For some remaining in the In Between, however, "forgetting cures nothing," believing that "Wrongs must be remembered."  

Very briefly, largely because I'm so behind here,  in 1990, Sri Lankans were in the thick of that country's civil war which had begun in 1983 and didn't end until 2009.   It was a violent, horrific time, with death squads everywhere and scores of people being murdered or disappeared, many never to surface again.  Maali  Almeida is a photographer who had a complicated life, as noted at the beginning when he talks about what his business card might have said about him:  "Maali Almeida: Photographer.  Gambler. Slut."  He had lost lots of money at the casinos, was (as quoted in the dustjacket blurb) a sort of outcast "closet gay"  in love with his friend DD (although he sleeps around on his many travels) and more importantly,  he  had been witness to the terror and the carnage through his work as a fixer for various groups including politicians, army officers, NGOs, the press, and other dubious clients. He figured that by working on all sides, he would be seen as favoring none of them, a strategy that in hindsight, obviously didn't work out well for him. He had also taken a number of photographs that as he had once told his friends, could "topple the government," now sitting in envelopes in a box under his bed.  These photos are incriminating to the point that if seen, "this country will burn again," but he had hoped that by making them public they might bring some sort of accountability and judgment, especially against those who participated in the 1983 massacres and other atrocities, or quite possibly even end the conflict.   Part of what Maali needs  to accomplish during his seven-moon span  is to somehow have his closest friends DD and Jaki   take out and exhibit these photos publicly, but there are certain constraints in place that make it difficult for him to make contact directly with the living, so he has to learn to rely on the dead (and in one case, a creepy medium linking both worlds) to help him in his task.   But that's not all -- he also wants to solve the mystery of his own death.  As time starts to tick down,  another mission is added to this lineup -- he will somehow need to protect his friends who, in the aftermath of Maali's photos, get caught up in a chain of events putting their lives in jeopardy.

This is a book I just could not stop reading, and the way the author structured his story I thought was absolute genius.  It is a mix of historical fiction, humor and political satire in which the author not only exposes the horrors of these dark years, but also through the many ghosts with whom Maali Almeida speaks, imagines what those who died during this conflict might say if only they had a voice, making me  wish that the book's original title, Chats With the Dead would have been retained.  It is also part ghost story and part whodunit, for me an unbeatable combination.  As seen in both the afterlife and in earthly life, the novel also speaks to those in positions of power who put their own self interests ahead of everything else, making it a timely read for sure. It's one of the most original books I've had the pleasure to have read in a long while, and most certainly a book I can recommend.  

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley


Knopf, 2022
271 pp


Nightcrawling is author Leila Mottley's novel debut,  a book she started writing in her teens, set in Oakland, California.   At seventeen, she says in the Author's Note at the end of the novel, she was contemplating what it meant to be "vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen," and that she wanted to write a story that "would reflect the fear and danger that comes with black womanhood and the adultification of black girls..."  Her main character is Kiara Johnson, and the novel begins with a rent hike, all too common these days. 


 It was already difficult enough for Kiara to pay rent because she doesn't have a steady job; it's not as if she doesn't try to find one but potential employers are "so hung on the high school dropout shit" that nothing ever pans out for her.  She grabs a couple of shifts here and there at a liquor store, which helps keep her family afloat, but with a double raise in the rent, what she makes is just not enough.    She has a brother, Marcus, but he'd quit his job and now spends his time recording rap ("spitting rhymes in a studio") with the hope that someday he'll make it big like their Uncle Ty, who is now living in Los Angeles in a mansion and driving a Maserati, having left family behind.  On hearing the news of the rent hike, Marcus asks for just one more month, but what Kiara sees is "half a dozen SoundCloud tracks and no paycheck," while he waits for things to change.   Kiara's father, who had joined the Black Panthers, had been arrested, imprisoned and released, but sadly succumbed to cancer; her mother is also out of the picture.  "Adultification" indeed -- it seems that the family's survival now  depends on Kiara, who has also taken it upon herself to see to a neighbor's little boy since the mom is too whacked on drugs to care about him.  

An encounter at a strip club where one of her friends works  leaves Kiara with money in her pockets, and realizing that whether or not she consents, since her body is going to be used, she decides that maybe sex work could be a solution to her immediate problems.  Another prostitute suggests she get someone to watch out for her, but first she tries to get on with a few escort agencies, frustrated when each time she is told to call back when she's legal.  Finally,  as she says,  "I have a body and a family that needs me, so I resigned to what I have to do to keep us whole, back on this blue street," and "nightcrawling" becomes what she does. 

One of her clients decides that he doesn't need a room or a car to do business, which Kiara doesn't like, but the sex happens anyway outside against a building.   It's then that Kiara has her first encounter with the police, who shoo him off and put Kiara in their car, one of them telling her that prostitution is illegal and he has to take her in.  As one cop begins driving, the other is on her in the back.  This is only the first encounter she will have with the police, and she says nothing to anyone; soon she is pretty much on call with several members of the force, identified only by badge number, never a name.  But when one of the cops later commits suicide, her involvement is about to become a huge story, especially since the cop left behind a letter saying what he had done.   The pressure is on for Kiara at this point, as the policemen begin to hassle her about keeping quiet about the rest of them.  The harassment escalates when a grand jury is formed to hear the case, and the fallout lands squarely on the people Kiara cares about the most.  

It didn't take long at all for me to be sucked into this story; later  I discovered that the author had been inspired by a real-life case of an (at first) underage sex worker that had the same sort of encounters with some policemen in Oakland in 2016.  I have to give the author major points for not just rehashing that event but coming up with her own take, which gets into the life of this girl who has to grow up all too soon and take her family's survival on her shoulders.    At some point though I started wondering why Kiara or her brother never applied for some sort of help from various agencies, from the state or even better, from organizations like People's Breakfast Oakland (especially since her dad was a former Black Panther!) or the East Oakland Collective,  and that led me to question whether or not the author did enough research that might have made this story more realistic.    As just another example of the inconsistencies that exist in the latter part of this novel, how in the heck would Kiara have known or even cared about Pinterest (as in the remark she made about her attorney's office space looking like it came "straight from Pinterest"), especially since she tells us early on that she has no access to internet?   There were other things like this as well and after a while they just started to grate.  And speaking of her attorney, she came across flat as a character here and not very believable as an advocate.   For me, the book started strong, but as it progressed it just made me frustrated.  

I look at reviews all across the internet and everyone is just loving this book, so once again it's a case of maybe it's just me.   I realize it's her first novel, that she's young and talented, but for me it's a case of not exhibiting enough real-world knowledge and the need for more consistency that would have better tightened things up throughout the story that soured my reading experience.  Loved the story; it's the execution here that caused issues for me. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

All The Rivers Flow Into The Sea, by Khanh Ha


EastOver Press, 2022
197 pp


It is always such a pleasure to read Khanh Ha's work, and his latest,  All The Rivers Flow Into the Sea is no exception.  It is a collection of short stories which, as the back-cover blurb notes, "brings to readers a unique sense of love and passion alongside tragedy and darker themes of peril."  Here the author examines a cast of various characters who somehow manage to retain a sense of humanity while surrounded by trauma.  For some it is life lived during the Vietnam War; for others it is either some sort of a connection to that war that continues to remain long after the conflict ended or who are just trying to stay afloat on a daily basis, doing what they must to continue to survive or to help others in their time of need.  In each story, life comes under siege in some fashion; the book as a whole highlights the sense of just how interconnected these lives and stories have come to be.  

These are not simply tales of war though; although the war and its aftermath are prominent here, the author also infuses the history and culture of Vietnam into each story, along with his beautiful rendering of the landscape and the environment itself.  In  "The Yin-Yang Market," for example, a young Vietnamese woman who had been adopted by an American woman as a child returns to the Mekong Delta and reveals some of her childhood memories to the innkeeper, centered around the orphanage where she stayed and the nuns who took care of her.  One of these tales involves a visit to a market just past midnight on the fifth of the Lunar New Year, where all transactions are done in the dark, something she was told she would "never again see anything like"  after leaving Vietnam.   "The Girl on the Bridge" is harrowing in the telling, as a young man relates his family's story  to a girl while waiting for help pinned underneath an iron brace on a bridge bombed by the Americans.  It showcases the horrors of the Northern Land Reform, but on the flip side, it also reveals both  the beauty and the sustenance that nature and the land can provide despite the politics and the pain.   In some cases, encounters during wartime, as in the titular story at the end, come down to the risks involved in survival during the most difficult and most dangerous of situations.  "All the Rivers Flow Into the Sea" is one of the most poignant stories in this book, one that left me thinking about what would come next in the life of the young girl who seems to finally find the answers to her hopes in an American man, only to have them suddenly taken away. 

All the Rivers Flow Into the Sea is a gorgeous book that anyone even remotely interested in Vietnam should read;  it is a fine addition to the small library of this author's books now sitting on my shelves, asking the question of what it truly means to be human and examining the very essence of humanity under great stress. It also seems to ask for reader empathy, and that I have plenty of for the people who populate this book.   I am grateful to the author for my copy and I wish him all the best. 

One more thing:  I am grateful to Teddy Rose for being included on the tour of this book; if you would like to see what others thought of it the link is here

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Trees, by Percival Everett

"History is a motherfucker." 

Graywolf Press, 2021
308 pp


Another novel from this year's Booker Prize longlist, but I first read it a year ago during my nothing-good-is-happening-in-my-life  funk so once again,  because of its inclusion on the longlist, it was a reminder that  I owed it to myself to do a second read.  Hell of a great book, for sure.  

The novel begins in "what might have been loosely considered a suburb, perhaps even called a neighborhood" by the name of Small Change,  just outside the  town of Money, Mississippi. Wheat Bryant,his wife Charlene and their four children  live in one of the  "small collection of vinyl-sided, split-level ranch and shotgun houses," and at present there is a small family gathering going on.   Wheat's widowed mother Carolyn (Granny C) lives there as well, tooling around the yard in her "wide-tired" electric buggy that had originally come from Sam's Club.  Times are hard -- Wheat is sort of permanently in between jobs after having fallen asleep at the wheel and nearly driving his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge.  Rescue came, but so did the press, capturing "some forty empty cans of Falstaff beer spilling from the cab and raining into the current below."  Also at this small gathering is Wheat's cousin Junior Junior Milam.  Granny C is staring off into space, thinking about something that had happened in the past, a lie she'd told "all them years back."  She had "wronged" someone, and knows that "like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around."  She doesn't know the half of it, nor does she know how prophetic her words will turn out to be.  

The troubles begin when Deputy Sheriff Delroy Digby takes a call directing him to the home of Junior Junior, where his wife Daisy had just returned from a "big swap meet" in the parking lot of Sam's Club. On her return she'd discovered a horrific sight -- her husband was dead, beaten to a pulp and left with barbed wire wrapped around his neck; pants undone and his scrotum missing.  Digby and another cop also find a dead African-American man wearing a dark blue suit, face beaten, his neck scarred "seemingly stitched together," the missing body parts in his hand.  Both bodies are taken to the morgue, but the body of the African-American man has gone missing.   The story goes viral after the local paper ran a picture of the missing corpse's face; it was picked up by wire services, cable news and the internet, and the mayor is not happy.  It seems that people in the capitol don't trust the local boys to take care of things, and have sent two detectives (both African-American)  from the MBI to investigate.  
As one of these men jokingly (but seriously, really) notes, they had joined the police ranks "so that Whitey wouldn't be the only one in the room with a gun."  As one might suppose, their presence is unwelcome in Money both by the police and the racist locals.   The body is eventually found, this time at Wheat's house, where Wheat has also been murdered in much the same way as Junior Junior with the same African-American man in the room.  The detectives from the MBI are told that their help is no longer needed, since the locals have found the body, but it goes missing yet again only to be found at another murder scene.   As the detectives start considering what the hell is going on, at first they make jokes about it, with one of the detectives positing that some of the local "peckerwoods" might be behind it, or that it might  be "some kind of Black ninja ... like Bruce Lee or some shit.  Jamal Lee swinging lengths of barbed wire in Money, Mississippi," but as the death toll rises and reports come in from across the country of the same sort of killings,  they realize that there's a hell of lot more going on than meets the eye.   

While all of this may seem like a lead up to a crime novel about a serial killer, that's not what's happening here at all.  Anyone who is familiar with civil rights history should have glommed on to the fact that Money, Mississippi was the site of the horrific violence perpetrated on young Emmett Till who was killed for whistling at a white woman outside of Bryant's Store in 1955.  In The Trees the past catches up with the present, and payment comes due for the horrors of the past, especially lynchings, which one character, a 105-year old root doctor named Mama Z, has spent her life recording and keeping archives beginning with the murder of her father.  As she says at one point, "History is a motherfucker" and here she speaks truth.  The question becomes one of how to tell this story which brings to the forefront our nation's inability to confront its racist, violent past  so the author brings together a number of genres in doing so.   He begins with humor,  stereotyping the southern white characters as ignorant rednecks, "peckerwoods," etc., and while the laughs pile up, at the same time the crime story slowly moves into what seems to be a revenge thriller before taking a supernatural turn.   It's one of those novels where the humor belies the seriousness of what the author is saying, and I think it's fair to say that even though I laughed out loud in parts, neither the tragedy nor the lesson were lost on me at all.  

 The second reading with a clearer head made me love it even more than the first time; it is farcical and absurdist, at times slapsticky but deadly sincere in its seriousness. As one of the dead Black characters in the novel notes, "I'm gonna die now, for a while. But I'll be back. We'll all be back."  And indeed they will --  to mete out punishment or justice where there was none before.   This awesome satire flips the white narrative about race in America completely on its head, and it is a beyond-brilliant story told by a master of his craft, one  I can and do recommend it to everyone.  Sadly, the people who really should  read it and glean something from it probably won't or will miss the point entirely.  

bottom line:  READ THIS BOOK!

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Case Study, by Graeme Macrae Burnet


Saraband, 2021
278 pp


I bought Case Study long before the announcement that it had been selected for this year's Booker Prize longlist,  and like the vast majority of books that come into this house, I  shelved it and promptly moved on to something else.  That was October of last year; last week's above-mentioned announcement reminded me that it has just been sitting there and maybe it was time to read it, not because it landed on the longlist but because I've really enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet's previous novels.  As was the case in those books, Case Study blurs the lines between fact and fiction, so much so this time around that I found myself spending way too much time doing google searches while reading.    

Set in 1960s England, Case Study unfolds in two parallel narratives, beginning with the author's ("GMB") receipt of an email from a Martin Grey in Clacton-on-Sea.     As revealed in the Preface, in Glasgow's  "notoriously chaotic Voltaire and Rousseau bookshop," "GMB" had run across a copy of a book written by Collins Braithwaite, who'd made an impression as "something of an enfant terrible" among those in the "so-called anti-psychiatry movement" of the 1960s.  The book, Untherapy, described by GMB as "salacious, iconoclastic and compelling," collected case studies;  Grey's email turned what was at first an interest in Braithwaite on GMB's part into a "properly aroused" curiosity.   Grey explained that he had learned about GMB's interest in Braithwaite after reading a blog post GMB had written;  he then claimed to have come into possession of a series of notebooks written by his cousin containing "certain allegations about Braithwaite" that GMB might like to read. At first refusing, GMB ultimately accepted the offer and the notebooks were sent to him.  He was still not convinced,  but after expressing his skepticism to Grey, he decided that since the notebooks "dovetailed" with his own research "it seemed too apposite to resist."  The result is Case Study, which alternates between the content of the notebooks and GMB's biography of Collins Braithwaite.   

The author of the notebooks, as GMB discovers, is a young, unnamed woman whose sister Veronica, she was convinced, committed suicide two years earlier  after several sessions with Braithwaite.  After having seen the psychologist on television and reading the newspapers the day after that were "filled with condemnation of Dr. Braithwaite's behavior," she bought and read a copy of his  book Untherapy. Obviously the names of his patients had been changed, but she discovered more than one link between a particular "Dorothy" and her sister. After also reading Braithwaite's Kill Your Self, she said, the name of the book had "chilled" her, and by then her interest in this man and his connection to her sister's death had been fully piqued.  She'd thought she might go to the police, but realizing she had nothing to offer them, she decided instead to go directly to  Braithwaite himself.   As she says at one point, "Suicides make Miss Marples of us all," and eager to learn more about Braithwaite, her sister and the method "in Dr. Braithwaite's apparent madness,"  she decided that the only way to find out more about this man was to make an appointment with him.   Realizing she can't go in as Veronica's sister, she took on another persona, an alter-ego if you will --  Rebecca Smyth --  who is quite literally everything our unnamed notebook writer is not and has gone forth with her mission in a quite naïve fashion, not knowing quite what to expect.   

The biographical sections are done almost in documentary style; from the outset we know that GMB has done a lot of research about Braithwaite, and while he "cannot attest" to the truth of the notebooks' contents, which may be, as he says,
"... no more than the flight of fancy of a young woman with self-confessed literary ambitions, and who, by the evidence of her own words, was in a troubled state of mind,"

he takes no chances with his subject, going on to make a "more detailed study of Braithwaite's work" along with conducting interviews with people (some of them from real life)  known to have some sort of connection with him.    Arthur Collins Braithwaite grew up in a working-class family in the North, his mother having abandoned the family when he was still a young boy.  His father, an ironmonger, had decided that his sons would follow him into the family business, but even at an early age Arthur had been determined to go his own way.  After World War II he  studied at Oxford, but was unable to fit in "among the Eton and Harrow boys" and was failing miserably at his studies in Philosophy.   He moved on to France, but it was back in England while working at  Netley at a place "accommodating psychologically scarred veterans," where he met R.D. Laing, a psychologist from Scotland, who "made a lasting impression" on Braithwaite.  Back at Oxford to study psychology at the age of twenty-eight, he slowly began  to find himself "at the centre of things" holding regular meetings in his room ("The Wagstaff Club") where he managed to gather "fawning acolytes" of both sexes; it is here, I think, where we begin to understand just what a narcissistic ass this guy has become, not only in terms of his inflated sense of his own intellectual prowess, but also in his relationships with women.  After graduating with a Ph.D, and without going into any kind of great detail here, he  eventually wrote his Kill Your Self ,  not a smash hit at the time of its publication but a book that would go on to "be soon found in the back pocket of every student and bar-room philosopher."  Braithwaite also  gained a measure of notoriety and a regular clientele after attending a party where actor Dirk Bogarde  was a guest -- this  "unqualified charlatan "was soon getting calls from actors and people connected to the movie and theater business, as well as "cavalcade of beautiful girls and bohemians." He rode this wave for a while, his ego and wallet being fed by these people and his rise to fame.  

The notebooks detail Rebecca's sessions with Braithwaite and also delve into this woman's "real" backstory and current situation; the question eventually becomes one of how far we can trust what she's written. There is an ongoing sort of tension set up between her accounts and the biographical side of things and to be honest,  the more I learned about Braithwaite the more I began to fear for Rebecca, with good reason.  

I've left everything purposely vague here, since anything more would spoil the reading experience (and it is an experience, for sure) but alongside the story, as the dustjacket cover notes reveal, the author brings out themes dealing with "the nature of sanity, identity and truth itself."  More importantly, the idea of what actually constitutes a self runs throughout the book, with ongoing references to topics including doppelgangers and the notion of private vs. public persona.  Despite the seriousness of these ideas, there are also some wickedly funny moments to be found here, and the ending found in the postscript  was for me one of those rare out-loud "wtf" moments.   I had great fun with this book, especially in trying to figure out what was real and what was fiction, which wasn't always easy, but this is the sort of out-there novel I tend to enjoy.   Confession time: I admit that it wasn't too long into the book that I started googling Collins Braithwaite, and from what other readers have to say about this book, I wasn't alone.  Case Study is cleverly constructed, very well written, and for me, insightful, but above all it was highly entertaining.  It's a book I can certainly recommend with no hesitation.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree

 "A border, gentlemen, is for crossing." 

Tilted Axis Press, 2021; originally published as Ret Samadhi (2018)
translated by Daisy Rockwell
739 pp


It was the first paragraph that sold me on this story, which is highly unusual but it's what happened.  Here the author  reveals that "this particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please," but even more to the point, that 
"The story's path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.  It will emerge from within a volcano, swelling silently as the past boils forth into the present, bringing steam, embers and smoke."
I sat back, reread at that initial paragraph and guessed right away that I had here in my hands something completely and refreshingly different.  Evidently I wasn't alone -- at the website for the International Booker Prize, the blurb for this book states that the author's "light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful -- and utterly original."  And while the word "playful" fits, this novel takes a rather serious and surprising turn in its last section, making this book a most welcome addition to the world of Partition literature, described here as having 
"helped generations to make sense of a period in the subcontinent's history that is quite difficult to fathom in its entirety."  
Tomb of Sand is, as translator Daisy Rockwell notes in her "Translator's Note," 
"a tale woven of many threads, encompassing modern urban life, ancient history, folklore, feminism, global warming, Buddhism and much more."

It is all that and more; it is also hands down one of the best books of my reading year so far and sadly, I would not have known about it except that it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize which it would go on to win, deservedly so in my opinion.  I can honestly say I've never read anything quite like it.  

An older, eighty-year old woman  (known mainly as Ma)  who is a mother, grandmother and now a widow, becomes seriously depressed at the death of her husband and decides that she will not be getting up.  Wrapping herself in a quilt, she remains in her room in her son's Bade's house, with her "back to the world, as though dead"  ignoring the rest of the family's pleas for her to get up.   She had, it seems,
"grown tired of breathing for them, feeling their feelings, bearing their desires, carrying their animosities. She was tired of all of them and she wanted to glide into the wall with a tremor ..."
Things begin to change though first with the arrival of a cane brought by one of Bade's children, known as Overseas Son, a CEO of the overseas branch of the company for whom he works.  At first, his grandmother remained unimpressed; but one day her other grandson Sid comes in to her room and sees her holding the cane "at a ninety-degree angle, eyes closed, still as a statue, looking every inch an otherworldly idol."  On the verge of laughing at this sight,  Sid hears his grandmother declare "I am the Wishing Tree," which, while she continues to remain in bed, has the effect of bringing into the house a host of people hoping that she'll grant their wishes. It isn't too long afterwards that "poof, she'd disappeared into thin air," and this is where the story truly takes off, as she is sought and found and returns not to her son's house, but to that of her daughter Beti.   It isn't long until Beti notices the reversal in their roles wherein "Beti became the mother and made Ma the daughter," and while Ma's presence tends to upset Beti's independent lifestyle, Beti also sees that it's a good arrangement.  As she notes, "When Ma came to my home she began to dream new dreams."   

One of the frequent guests at Beti's apartment is Rosie Bua, a hijra (often described as  "third gender"), who is very close to Ma with whom she shares  (unknown until further on in the story) a history.   One of Rosie's plans was to someday travel to Pakistan; when tragedy strikes, Ma decides that she will go for Rosie, dragging Beti and an old Buddha statue that his been in her family for years along with her on a trip that is plagued by problems almost right away.  

It is a gorgeous book, not only brilliantly written by its author but also brilliantly and skillfully translated by Daisy Rockwell, who says in her "Translator's Notes" that "to the translator, Tomb of Sand is a love letter to the Hindi language."  Noting that the author is fluent in English, she also says that Shree chose to write in her "mother tongue," relishing the "sound of words, and how they echo one another, frequently showcasing their dhwani," described as "an echo, a vibration a resonance."  It can be
"deliberate and playful, as in double entrendre and punning, an accidental mishmash of sameness, or a mythical reverberation."

Admittedly I didn't get all of the references and spent much time with my tablet on my lap while reading, but really, it just didn't matter to me -- I absolutely loved this book.  It is a great example of what a writer can do not just with story but also with language and storytelling;  above all it is a book about borders, physical and otherwise.  "A Border," as Ma says to a group of men in Pakistan, "is for crossing" and it is just a joy to read about how many borders this woman (and other people as well)  refuses to be confined or defined by as she comes into her own.  As the back-cover blurb notes, it is a "timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders."  There is so much happening in this book that makes it pretty impossible to encompass in a brief post, but it is rare that I find something like this novel which, despite the tragedies here, is so very life affirming in so many different ways.  If you need the quick story fix you won't find it here; I'd recommend it to those readers who are willing to take a chance on something very different than the norm.  I feel so lucky having made my way through these pages; it's a novel I will never, ever forget.  

a quick BTW:  I've recently read that Tomb of Sand will be available in the US as of 2023, but I bought my copies (yes, I made an error and ended up with two)  from Tilted Axis Press and having forgotten I'd done that, I turned to Waterstones in the UK.   I'm beyond happy I bought my book when I did.  

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro


Charco Press, 2021
originally published as Elena sabe
translated by Frances Riddle
152 pp

(read earlier, in March)

  I bought Elena Knows last July, set it aside, and just recently took it off its shelf when I learned it is one of the books on this year's International Booker longlist.  The fact that it went on to make the shortlist was no surprise to me --  I'm a huge fan of Claudia Piñeiro's novels; I think I've read each one that's been translated into English and they've all been excellent.   I've also become a huge fan of Charco Press, a small publisher with a track record of great books, and Elena Knows is no exception.   

Elena's daughter Rita died on a rainy afternoon, found by some boys sent by the priest to ring the bells ahead of the 7:00 mass.  Her body was hanging by a rope in the belfry; her death declared a suicide.  But Elena knows that her daughter would never take herself to the church while it was raining; if she was there, she thinks, it must be that someone had "dragged her there, dead or alive."  No one will listen to her, not the coroner, not the police inspector, and not the priest, but she knows Rita would never have killed herself.  After all, "No one knows as much about her daughter as she does."  It had to be murder, but Elena knows she could never prove it on her own.

 The reason Elena can't do anything more about her murder theory is that she suffers from advanced Parkinson's, which she calls her "fucking whore illness," or "Herself," a disease that severely limits Elena's movements but not her mind, so 
"Even if she uses all the tricks in the book, she won't be able to uncover the truth unless she recruits another body to help her."
Believing that a woman named Isabel, whom she hasn't seen for twenty years but feels that she is someone who "feels the need to repay a debt" is the right person to help her discover the truth about Rita's death, Elena sets off across the city of Buenos Aires to find her.   The novel is divided into three sections, each corresponding to the timing of Elena's meds; she only has a certain amount of time during which her pills allow her legs to function.  Elena's life is measured in this way; not in hours but in intervals of medication.   Beginning with her second pill of the day, the story  captures Elena's difficult, painful but determined journey to find Isabel, while  flashbacks reveal her somewhat conflicted relationship with her daughter as well as the burdens not only of the disease on Elena, but also those taken on by caregivers.   As Elena faces the difficulties in navigating the streets of Buenos Aires (which are explained in  detail), we also learn just how difficult it is to navigate those bureaucratic agencies meant to help someone in Elena's condition.  While the going seems slow in spots, it's the final section that packs the major punch as Elena and Isabel finally meet and Elena comes to realize exactly what it is she doesn't know. 

Throughout the story, of course, it's also impossible not to ponder the mystery of Rita's death in the back of your mind.  As Dr. Fiona Mackintosh of University of Edinburgh notes in her Afterword to this book, Elena is presented as a very unlikely "elderly detective-heroine,"  an 
"objectionable and outspoken woman suffering advanced Parkinson's who stubbornly persists against the odds in investigating the death of her own daughter."
Yet as is the case in the other books I've read by Piñeiro, crime fiction is the vehicle by which the author makes astute observations on society, and in this book she raises, again quoting Mackintosh, issues that are "universal, timely and complex," including "the obstacles of a woman's right to control her own body, the myths and realities surrounding motherhood, the mental and physical constraints on women's daily routines, and the increasing challenges of an ill and ageing body."   In point of fact, bodies loom large in this novel.  There is much, much more of course, but I don't want to give anything away that might constitute a spoiler.  Let's just say that in a very big way, this book is definitely timely, and I'll go out on a limb to say that it's a necessary read, especially given what's happening here in the US at the moment.  An absolutely powerful story that overpowered me and made me cry (I'm sure because of the excellent translation by Frances Riddle), I would recommend this book to anyone.  I do hope Charco Press will bring more of this author's books into translation -- she is absolutely one of my favorite writers and has been for a long time. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Dirty Bird Blues, by Clarence Major


Penguin, 2022
originally published 1996
376 pp


"Blues done saved as many lives as church songs." 

I'm not exactly sure where I first heard about Dirty Bird Blues, but I think it was this year's inclusion in the long-established collection of Penguin Classics that sold me.  According to Penguin's website, their classics collections
"represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines,"  
and are also meant to "guide you through a reader's odyssey."  This latest addition to the series is by Clarence Major, about whom John Beckman has provided a brief biography as part of  his introduction to Dirty Bird Blues;  I also went to BlackPast for more info about this author.  He's published nine novels, two short fiction volumes and sixteen poetry collections; he is also "an accomplished visual artist."    About this book, Beckman quotes Major as saying that it is "another kind of experiment, this time with the language of the blues," to which Beckman adds that the novel is "powered by realism, and its experiments only enhance the effect."   It's also a novel I read twice; the second time through only boosted my admiration of this story in which a young, conflicted musician must reckon not only with balancing his artistic life with family responsibilities, but also must navigate a racist society while learning how to deal with problems of his own making.  

Chicago, Christmas 1949, and twenty-five year old  Manfred (Man) Banks is trying to climb into a window which gets stuck and then "Suddenly this big boom."  He's been shot, but thanks to the "good liquor coating him" he feels nothing.  Shot a second time, he makes his way to the black hospital where he's listed as a "charity case" before his treatment, after which he is then questioned and harassed by two black cops. The man who shot him is a preacher with whom Man's wife Cleo and their baby daughter Karina has been living for a while after Cleo left him. Cleo's leaving was apparently by mutual agreement -- they "couldn't keep food in the cupboard, couldn't feed the baby, refrigerator empty. " All of this, Cleo reminds him later, was too hard on their baby; Eddie, the man she's with now, "is good to her, she gets everything she needs."  She and Man still love each other; she wants him to "grow up" and to put her and the baby before his drinking;  he  wants to make it as a musician, not an easy task in Chicago, where as his fellow musician/friend/drinking/carousing partner Solly Thigpen notes, "it's hard to get anybody to pay any tention to you in a big town."  Realizing that he can't pull another stunt like he did,  understanding that "I got to walk straight fore I can fly," and knowing that  he wants Cleo back, Man decides to take his sister up on her offer for him to come to Omaha where he can stay with her family until he gets on his feet.  

A new start?  Certainly it's a new city; Man plays his music and sings at a local neighborhood joint called The Palace where he leaves the crowd "begging for more" and gets offered a part-time gig; he lands a day job and in anticipation  of Cleo joining him, finds an apartment for his family.  He's still hitting the Old Crow (the "Dirty Bird" of the title) pretty regularly, yet as happy as he is to be with Cleo when she comes to town,  
"already this new sense of responsibility he was feeling toward Cleo and Karina shook him. It felt like chains."

Then, when his best bud follows him to Omaha from Chicago, she warns him against 

"all that stuff with Solly again, all that drinking and staying out all hours and stuff, falling in drunk,"
and reminds him that she'd come out there because he'd "agreed to act right."   But Man  enjoys hanging out with the very irresponsible Solly with whom he feels no need to "grow up."    He finds himself in a sort of inner conflict between the two; one would think that some compromise seems to be in order but it doesn't seem to be in the cards on Man's part.   On top of his other ongoing problems (especially the racial issues that he finds himself falling victim to)  and his troubled past, this conflict will (quoting the back cover blurb)  soon lead him into a "nightmarish descent into his own troubled depths."  

The story's a good one, and yet the joy of reading  is found less in the plot than in the "language of the blues" the author employs throughout.  "Singing," we are told at the beginning, was Man's "way of talking out this furious, crazy thing in him that made him glide, leap, holler, and scream as if over treetops without even moving," and the blues, as he says, "done saved as many lives as church songs."  His lyrics and his often-surrealistic dreams offer not only a look into Man's troubled psyche, but also, as the book description notes, "keep bringing him back to face himself."  As Yusef Komunyakaa notes so eloquently in the foreward he's written for Dirty Bird Blues,  
"Man isn't merely a bluesman, but he is an artist, always engaged, like a John Coltrane -- not satisfied with the mere fingering of the elemental strings of his existence but determined to see into the mystery of his being, as well as gaze up at the sky or seek out a woman's eyes."
What is also really interesting and noteworthy is how the author sets up both Man and Solly as near-mirror images of each other -- I won't say more but it works so very nicely as the book moves toward its ending.    

I read Dirty Bird Blues as part of Black History month, a fine choice and it's a novel that has stuck with me since finishing it both in terms of content and especially because of the writing. Clearly Major is a gifted, out-of-the-box writer, and it didn't take long before I was completely immersed and entranced.  I can definitely recommend it.