The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, Chine from the Bottom Up (Yiwu, trans. by Huang)

You will meet a remarkable collection of people in this collection of Liao Yowu’s interviews, including Yiwu himself. I had to laugh a few times at his bluntness. Despite his tone with some of his subjects, they kept talking to him. And these accounts, I suspect, are not ones that the official China would want you to hear. You will meet Corpse Walkers. You will meet Falun Gong practitioners. (I knew they were persecuted, but I never really knew why.) You will meet an earthquake survivor. There’s plenty to learn here, but more than once I wondered about the absence of fact-checking or even footnotes. I also wondered about the absence of an editor. It reads like a collection of interviews. There’s no rhyme or reason to their order and little explanation as to why certain subjects were selected or included. Consequently, while particular interviews have a tremendous amount of power, the collection as a whole drifts. I’m sure I don’t appreciate the work it must have taken to get just this much accomplished. I hope the next time someone presents Yiwu’s work, they do so more thoughtfully and thoroughly.


The Time of Our Singing (Powers)

Considering the fact that he just won the Pulitzer, it’s hard to say that Richard Powers flies under the radar; he just flies under my radar. This is the third book of his that I’ve read, and I’ve only now decided that I really, really like his work. This one is a sprawling epic that goes from Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March just shy of 60 years later. But with the father’s conception of time, there is no way this book could go in order and it doesn’t. Everything here is mixed (up), including the protagonist, the child of a white German Jew and a black singer whose prospects for a career drift away because of the challenges of an interracial marriage. The story moves in and around history, including the creation and use of the atomic bomb and the Rodney King riots, and those two events do much to alter the lives of the families of the unlikely couple. Powers’ sentences are art; he invents not just language but syntax. And Powers defies the stereotypical difficulties of writing about music. His words sing, just like the protagonist and his older brother.

Wade in the Water (Smith)

Anisfield-Wolf award winning poet and current Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith has produced another remarkable collection. From the title poem, with its religious connotations to her found poem based on the Declaration of Independence, Smith distills a world, and a G-d, I can believe in. Her angels are “grizzled, in leather biker gear” and G-d drives a jeep. She has such reverence for the world that she abhors what we do it in poems like beautiful and brutal, “The World is Your Younger Sister.” Our largely masculine aggressiveness in the world takes a slightly funny turn at the end of “A Man’s World” and a harrowing one at the end of “New Road Station.”

I must admit that when I heard she was selected to be Poet Laureate during our current administration, I wondered if / that she’d take the job. Now I am glad she did. Her words are my kind of salvation.

Bad Boys, Bad Times: The Cleveland Indians and Baseball in the Prewar Years, 1937-1941 (Longert)

This is the second Longert book I’ve read, and I enjoy his passion for the game and for the Indians. He chose a remarkable era to capture as the imminence of the war hung over the country and the game. The development of the minor league system and Commissioner Landis’ attempts to control it are particularly interesting here. But it’s Bob Feller and the gang who really steal the show. For Cleveland baseball fans only.

American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear (Beydoun)

From the powerful cover to the very last page, this is a clear, powerful and persuasive book. Beydoun makes a thorough case for the origins and self-perpetuating nature of private, structural and dialectical Islamophobia. He uses personal stories, particular incidents ( several related to the terrorist attacks in 2001), legislation and popular culture to make his argument. I found myself wincing with self-awareness more than a few times – my ignorance about where Muslims are, the way I conflate Muslims and Arabs, the term ‘Middle East,’ my inability to distinguish between different groups (and my apparent unwillingness to learn), my lack of recognition about intersectionality (the section on Muhammad Ali is absolutely on point) and my lack of recognition when it comes to movies. I also wondered about the role of education here. There are certain court cases that are always studied in school, but they relate to African-Americans or, maybe, Japanese-Americans. Beydoun includes several that should be part of the curriculum. I think this stems from the way diversity is often presented as a binary (at times, by me). In other words, diversity = black and white. I’ve been thinking about the word ‘diversity.’ “Di” means two. Maybe we should try ‘multiversity.’ This binary is also a problem with the simplistic narrative Americans seem to covet and politicians seem to manipulate. When the Berlin Wall fell, the US needed a new enemy, and so we created a monolith where none actually existed. Consequently, fear of Communism became replaced by Islamophobia well before the 2001 attacks. This is a very good and very necessary book.

This Darkness Mine (McGinnis)

This book is not for the faint of heart. And if you read it, you’ll see why that’s a particularly apt choice of words. I admit that at first I thought it was crass and predictable. Well, it definitely was not predictable and I shifted from crass to explicit (language, images). McGinnis has done her homework here. If too much is showing or there is a bit too much obvious symbolism, if you can deal with, to borrow a word from the title, the ‘darkness,’ then you’ll probably be eager to keep turning the pages. There are a few nice details here – the chair that’s pushed away from the dinner table so frequently that it’s left a mark on the wall – that suggest there’s a subtler writer in there somewhere. The decision to have Sasha find the key photograph so quickly was strangely amateurish, though.

The Perfect Nanny (Slimani)

You’ve heard this story before. Or at least you think you’ve heard this story. The hand that rocks the cradle and all of that. But there is a quiet layer of incredibly well-rendered tension that underlies this whole story and lifts this novel above the predictably ordinariness of something like The Girl on the Train and more into the neighborhood of what Hitchcock might be doing were he still with us today.

Louise is the nanny and Louise has a past, one that Slimani slowly reveals to us, not because she’s attempting a magic trick, but because the information that comes out is the information that relates to what’s happening in the story. It may sound simple, but it’s hard to pull off. The flashbacks she provides actually matter. They are fragmented and sometimes from another perspective, but they matter. As a reader, your loyalties will shift all over the place during this novel. Slimani will keep you off balance, not because of the plot – we know the ending at the beginning – but in terms of whose eyes we are using to see and, admit it, to judge the characters.

There is much about the main characters, the ones who hire Louise, that made me think of the couple from Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child. As a reader, we are compelled to ask. Do they somehow deserve what happens?

The theme of immigration, both legal and illegal, simmers beneath this plot as well. The “nanny market” at the local park is presented in an apparently casual manner, but everything is there. Who is ‘legal’? Who makes for an attractive candidate? In what way(s) are those who do the hiring complicit in the struggles of immigrants? In what way are even the children, who in later years don’t seem to or won’t admit to recognizing their nannies, complicit in the struggles of the immigrant population? And what, if any additional responsibility, do those who are hyphenates (the mother here is French-Moroccan) have to pay more attention? Everyone in this book, including the landlord who has missed two of his belt loops, is looking to take advantage of someone with less power. And the only ones without any sustained power, the children, are the ones who suffer the most.

Slimani has also created an image and symbol that will remain seared in my brain forever. You may never eat chicken again.