Whereabouts (Lahiri)

Lahiri’s writing seems to have taken a turn. She seems less interested in plot. At first, I was not sure I was going to keep up with her. A Lahiri release used to be event. But I skipped In Other Words and was set to let this one pass before I found a used copy. This is less of a story than a series of vignettes about a place. I felt my skepticism dissipating as I read. Together, the moments were adding up to a kind of story. Lahiri has always been a kind of minimalist, and she’s stripped things to the bone here. She still writes amazing sentences. When describing the father of the protagonist, she writes, “But one can’t ask the sea to never swell into rage.” I had to pause after that one.

So she may have fallen off of my hardback list. Nevertheless, I will follow Lahiri as her writing evolves. I’ll even read In Other Words as I wait for what’s next.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town (Alexander)

This is an outstanding and outstandingly sad analysis of Lancaster, Ohio and what happens not when its main industry shuts down, but when it becomes entangled in the financial machinations of those who put profit over people. Granted, I didn’t always follow Alexander’s accounts of the various corporate moves (my fault, not Alexander’s), but the narrative holds without it. I got the main point. I was perhaps like the citizens of Lancaster, in that there seemed to be a general lack of understanding of what, specifically, was happening at the glass company that is at the center of this book. They did recognize, however, and Alexander makes this achingly clear, that none of what was happening was good for the town or the people in it. This is great reporting from Alexander. I am already looking forward to his newest one about the inner workings of a hospital, also in Ohio.

John Henry Days (Whitehead)

The man was a genius even before The Underground Railroad made us realize he was a genius. Whether his prose is general – as at the party or the fair – or specific (consider the disposal of the ashes) – his writing is propulsive. This is a story of the John Henry Days, a celebration prompted by the release of a stamp and witnessed by the free-lance writers who descend upon this small West Virginia town. But that overly simplified summary suggests that this story goes in a straight line, which is far from the truth. There is the narrative with John Henry himself. There is the man who has collected enough John Henry memoroabilia (he thinks) to open a museum in his home that no one visits. There is the wife of the husband and wife motel owners who is convinced there is a ghost. There is J, who is trying to set a record for consecutive events. And there’s a gun.

I kept getting the image of a kaleidoscope here, one that’s centered on this stamp comemmoration, but also spins off in the direction of race and culture, among other directions.

Strongly recommended, especially if, like me, you are waiting for Whitehead’s newest book to come out in paperback.

Red Sorghum (Yan)

This is a hypnotic book. I think I definitely fell under the swap of the sorghum flowers. That said, I didn’t understand Yan’s non-linear approach. I mean, I get flashbacks, but the moving and back and forth seemed to rob his lovely prose and plot of their momentum. I can’t imagine how this all got untangled to become a movie.

The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventures, and the Dawn of Empire (Ronald)

Another book read so I can be prepared to help a student. I was really resistant at the beginning, as it was tough to follow all of the political and social introgue in Elizabeth’s court as well as in Europe in general. Once Ronald got more of a narrative going, I began to enjoy and understand things a bit more. Still, I’m glad not to have to be quizzed on this one. There were a few main takeaways for me, but I’m going to have to let the student make sure she gets the details right.

One annoying thing: Every time Ronald mentioned money, she would give, parenthetically, the equivalent in punds and dollars at the time of publication. I suspect it was an editorial decision. I found it very disruptive.

Another Brooklyn (Woodson)

I know a big deal was made in reviews that Woodson had written a novel for adults. Based on my reading of her young adult novels, I didn’t have any doubts that she had it in her, and she proved me absolutely right. This still has some of th elements of a young adult novel; it is a coming-of-age story. But both its details and its suggestive and lyrical prose are aimed at more experienced readers. I found this absolutely mesmerizing. A quick read and well worth it. I hope she has more in store for an adult audience.

Harvest (Crace)

I read another of Crace’s books, years ago, and remembered not caring for it too much. Nevertheless, I decided to give this Man Booker Prize Finalist a shot. It’s extremely well-plotted and precise. The world building is excellent, the characters believable, the atmosphere somewhere between bucolic and dystopian creepy. The time period is never announced which is partly responsible for making this feel like something M. Night Shyamalan would use as the basis for a movie. I was satisfied with it until, I kid you not, the very last word – why is it plural? I don’t want to include any spoilers, but the plural word jarred me from that nice feeling of finishing a story well-told.

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (Habiby)

This book, translated by S.K. Jayyusi and T. LeGassick, completely eluded me. I could tell it was an allegory and at times a satire. And I am somewhat familiar with Habiby’s subject matter. But with chapters like “Saeed Claims to Have Met Creatures from Outer Space,” I was lost from the beginning. I kept thinking that I’d be able to put together some thoughts if I read more.

Didn’t work.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (Anderson)

I knew nothing about the Mau Mau rebellion or civil war or whatever, after reading this book, you think the right term is. And I knew even less about the British colonial rule in Kenya. Even if he does go too deep into the weeds at times, Anderson makes this account both thorough and compelling. He’s done his homework and knows the primary sources. If you want to know, this one will do the trick.