The Rescue Artist (Dolnick)

I enjoyed this one a lot. It focuses on Charley Hill, a Scotland Yard art cop, and his efforts to recover Munch’s “The Scream.” Dolnick keeps the momentum of the search going with occasional digressions into Hill’s background and other thefts. But he never digresses for long and just tells a good, true tale about the recovery of the painting. There’s enough detail, but Dolnick never gets bogged down. In fact, I would guess that someone out there owns the movie rights. . .

Thrown in the Throat (Garcia)

Something from Milkweed Press blurbed by Kazim Ali, Danez Smith and Eduardo C. Corral? I was sure I had a winner. Maybe I do, but, as seems to be happening to me lately, I just didn’t get it. So this is not me saying anything negative about this collection. This one’s on me. I just didn’t get it.

rooftops of tehran (Seraji)

I was rooting for it. I wanted to like and even did for a while. Then it became too melodramatic and increasingly hard to take as credible. It has too much of the movie-of-the-week feel to it, and the prose is overblown. As the book wore on, Seraji, for all of the broadly drawn and didactic commentary he seemed to be offering about everyone and everything else, seemed oblivious to how he was resorting to quite so many masculine cliches.

Sugar + Rum (Unsworth)

I am a big fan of Unsworth’s work. To the extent that I accept the notion of ‘historical fiction’ as a genre, he is my favorite writer in this genre. Still, this one was not the best. It felt like something he wrote while he was researching the much better Sacred Hunger. Still, his prose is always affecting and he makes me think. This time, he prompted me to think about the stories we create in our heads about our own lives and how difficult it can/must be to discover an ending. Still, when the main character of a novel is a writer, it’s hard for me to get lost in it. I am always aware that I am part of a self-conscious construction and biographical interpretations dominate my thinking. If you’re looking to try an Unsworth, try Morality Play or Sacred Hunger.

Finna (Marshall)

I don’t think this book was for me. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. It’s just to say that I don’t think I am a member of Marshall’s ideal audience. I can acknowledge the skill, and there were a few poems, like “which art? which fact?” and “Finna” that I think I understood a bit, but mostly, I felt like an outsider looking in – aware that there were treasures to be found and equally aware that I lacked the tools – and the requisite race – to access them.

Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Kaplan)

I found this book as I was searching for ways to re-invigorate my teaching of The Stranger. It was a quick read and useful in terms of understanding Camus’ influences and the impact that World War II had on even getting the book published. It’s kind of amazing that it emerged at all. It’s a quick read. Kaplan has done her homework and is not ponderous about it. I wasn’t willing to get too caught up in all of the intellectual entanglements surrounding the book – is it existentialist? is it absurd? But those pieces are there too if you want them.

Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape (Shehadeh)

“Remember the joy” was one my takeaways from a summer workshop. I took this to mean that we should not only study and teach the struggles of a particular group of people, but we should also celebrate the joy. I chose this book because I thought Shehadeh would give me a greater appreciation of Palestine by guiding me on his walks through it. He does that, to be sure. He evokes a tremendously beautiful and powerful landscape, but it was probably naive of me to think that any discussion of Palestinian land would not be accompanied by an account of how it has changed because of Israeli settlements. It has become dangerous and, in at least one case, illegal, for him to take the kinds of walks he enjoys. It is disheartening to follow Shehadeh’s loss of faith in his legal efforts to stop Israel from “legally” seizing more land, but it’s more than understandable. The system, at least as he paints it, is very much rigged, and his legal work seemingly ends up helping to legitimize the land seizures. I hadn’t really thought of how much the increasing number of settlements would have to be accompanied by intensive road building, and how the constant construction is not only taking land from the Palestinians, but is also damaging the land and the ecosystems of what remains.

This book was published in 2007. I wonder how many of these walks he and his fellow Palestinians can still take.

Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Brown)

I used to work at a school that gave a lot of awards. Our awards assembly rivaled the Oscars. Throughout the year, each senior gave a speech at an assembly, and so naturally, there was an award for Best Speech. Over the years, I became concerned that the Speech teacher was choosing the awards based on the personal and emotional content of the speeches and not really considering whether they were good speeches.

This brings me to the decision by the Anisfield-Wolf committee to give this book an award for nonfiction. When Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. blurb the book and call it “brilliant” and “groundbreaking,” it is not really for me to question the contributions that Brown has made to our study of history. I trust them. Here’s the issue, though. I don’t think this is a very well-written book, at least for someone outside of academia. Having read the 250 pages slowly and carefully, I can’t really articulate Brown’s thesis. If this is it – “The relative obscurity of the Coromantee wars in the historiography of early America and the Atlantic world is also due to the reluctance to acknowledge slave revolt as an act of war” – then the problem is that Brown’s narrative has gone in so many directions and moved so often from the broad to the specific, that I don’t think he’s made his case. When he does narrow in on his argument, the verbs – as they sometimes have to in these cases – become conditional (“would have been,” “most likely knew,” etc.). I was fully ready to embrace slave revolt as an act of war, but was left wading through minute details of the conflict in Jamaica to guess why this could possibly matter. I have some ideas now, but they are largely my own inferences rather than anything Brown puts forward. I really couldn’t follow what he thought was significant about the argument he made and was often more intrigued by details he quickly passed over than others that, for some reason, merited paragraphs.

I hope Brown does get an opportunity to visit Cleveland. Perhaps his oral presentation of the book’s themes will be clearer to me than the book itself. This book certainly meets two of the three standards laid out on the award’s website. It contributes to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of cultural diversity. It is not, in my mind, an outstanding work and that ought to be the first consideration before the judges turn to the other two.

Does a book need to be accessible to the “lay” reader of history in order to be considered an outstanding work? I think so. If it’s not, then it really can’t do much to contribute to our understanding of racism or our appreciation of cultural diversity.

Stateway’s Garden (Drain)

Sandra Cisneros blurbs this book, and it’s easy to see why. These are interconnected stories about growing up in a Chicago housing project, and Drain, clearly a young writer, shows some impressive nuance with a few of the juxtapositions of stories. I also appreciated when he recognized that plots do not necessarily have to be led by a great deal of action. A young man drags his younger brother along in order to knock on his girlfriend’s door in order to have a difficult conversation with her. We see the build up on each side of the door but Drain wisely ends the story when the door is finally opened. Too often, though, he resorts to familiar tropes and those stories are forgotten as soon as the page is turned. He has an eye and an ear for detail, though sometimes struggles to convey the physicality of a scene. He’s a promising writer, to be sure, and presents a strong sense of place. I’ll be interested to read what he comes up with next.

Transcendent Kingdom (Gyasi)

Two books in a row about characters who have to take care of their mothers. (I read this before Shuggie Bain.) There’s no sophomore slump here. Gyasi has written a self-consciously transparently deliberate novel that asks some of the most profound questions about what it means to be alive. I ached and cheered for everyone involved and felt rewarded by the ending. Really enjoyed this.