Kintu (Makumbi)

Sometimes, while waiting for an author to produce his (and in this case, I am waiting for one of my favorite male authors, not just choosing a sexist pronoun), I will read something that the author recommends. Besides, the details I could glean from this one intrigued me. It was published in Kenya in 2014. Why did it take three years to be published in the United States? Also, I am constantly searching for international fiction from places I know little about, and my knowledge of Uganda pretty much begins and ends with Forest Whitaker. Finally, it is blurbed by another I am waiting for, Maaza Mengiste. (If you haven’t read Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, you need to.)

And from beginning to end, this is a magnificent epic, truly a tale of a sin of the father, one that resonates throughout the history of a family, a history that intersects with Amin, the introduction of AIDS, the influence of Christianity and the creeping Westernization of society. Makumbi works well on her large canvas. If I got lost, it was only because I could have used a family tree, though the convoluted nature of this particular family tree is part of the consequences of the sin of the father, so maybe it wouldn’t have helped. Makumbi is equally adept at working the more detailed level – a description of a swarm of bees, for example, is as haunting as it is important.

So when Aaron Bady says it is “the great Ugandan novel you didn’t know you were waiting for” and Maaza Mengiste says it is “told in gripping language that continually surprises,” well, I agree with both of them.


The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Howe)

I’ve never liked the word ‘quotidian.’ It seems like such a fancy word to describe the ordinary. And besides, are we really to keep celebrating poets for writing about ordinary things? I know at one point, that was quite a big step, but now?

In any event, this collection did not knock me out. Most of the poems seem slight, with maybe one or two lines each that seem to merit a pause for attention to both craft and content. There are a few interesting examples of poems that prompted me to wonder – in a good way – about what was left out. Aside from “The Star Market” and “Sometimes the Moon Sat in the Well at Night,” there are no real keepers here.

Game of Thrones (Martin)

I was challenged to read it, so I read it. All 806 pages and 5 lines on p. 807. And, to be honest, it wasn’t as terrible as I expected. It’s very visual. There are moments I’ll remember. Generally, though, I found it full of stereotypes, predictable plots, misogyny and cluttered with unnecessary amounts of detail. For most of it, I was just plain bored. I haven’t watched the TV show; nor do I intend to. And I’m not going to read any of the sequels. It was all just mediocre, and when Martin ran out of angles for his mortals to consider, he resorted to the supernatural. And it was all a path to set up for a sequel, which is not a move I admire. Books ought to be able to stand on their own. Overall? Yawn.

Death in the Haymarket (Green)

This book, the second one of Green’s that I’ve read (The Devil is Here in These Hills), is both exhaustive and exhausting. It seems like Green knows he has one shot at his topics, and so he doesn’t want to leave anything out. His books could use a bit more of a narrative drive.

As in The Devil, Green makes no effort to disguise the fact that he’s on the side of labor. He introduces us to the night of the Haymarket Riot, then steps back for a while to place it in context. Once the trial is over, he moves forward to the short and long-term consequences of the riot and the “deliberate amnesia” we have when it comes to thinking about it.

I wonder what Green, as well as the Haymarket 8, would make of the labor situation these days.

News of the World (Jiles)

This is a terrific book, Jiles writes in this laconic and evocative way that matches her Western genre. The way she can summon characters and conflicts with just a few brush strokes is just remarkable. This book is short and it should be. Still, it’s a distinctly American story, not just because of the journey motif, but also because of the setting. This is the South just after the Civil War and it is a place still trying to make sense of and to itself. Jiles’ messenger motif suits her story and is definitely thought-provoking. I am going to find her earlier books.

Paulette Jiles’ site

Dawn (Butler)

Okay, I’m going to go ahead and say it. I don’t think Butler is a great writer. I find her prose, particularly her dialogue, contrived and clunky. There’s even a moment in this novel, the first of the trilogy called Lilith’s Brood, that made me wonder if she knows that. She has her protagonist, the not-so-subtly named Lilith, ask another character, “Do you really talk like that?” I find myself here – and with the two other Butler novels I’ve read – wanting to ask the same thing. (I do wonder if any of her books have been adapted for the stage. I think they could be adapted successfully.)

She doesn’t seem quite concerned with gaps in the plot either. Her books, to me, read like drafts of books – attempts to get ideas out and, especially here because sequels clearly were planned, to get from Point A to Point B.

Still, her ideas, her concepts are ambitious and original. And there is just enough plot to keep this one from falling into the genre of books by writers who really want to write philosophy or commentary, but instead, dress their bromides up with a frivolous plot. (Yann Martel, I’m talking to you.)

I get the Futurism part here. Her utopia / dystopia set-up is excellent and enticing. I may continue the trilogy. And I have been struck by the number of female authors who are finding a home in this genre. But I didn’t get, at least not beyond the superficial level, the “Afro” part of Afro-Futurism. As a white male, somewhat distracted by the less than electrifying prose, I may have missed things. A few references are made to Lilith’s skin tone but beyond that? Again, Butler’s concept of a bold female of color, one who is a leader, who is physically active and open sexually, may have come across as revolutionary in 2000 when this was first published. Is there more? Is there more in the next two parts of the trilogy? Was that enough? Is that enough?

Tunsiya / Amrikiya (Chatti)

Leila Chatti, recently named the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow and Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center, promises to be an exciting addition to Cleveland’s literary scene for the two years of her fellowship. Her most recent book concerns itself, as the title indicates, with her dual identity. ‘Amrikiya’ is Arabic for an American female. ‘Tunsiya’ is Arabic for female Tunisian. Chatti grew up in Michigan and holds dual citizenship. In an era when few of us could have found Tunisia on a map before Arab Spring, her Tuisian voice is most welcome.

But she cannot just be reduced to a token representative of a particular culture. Her words may come across as gentle, but her insights and technique are quite pointed. In “When I Tell My Father I Might Begin To Pray Again,” she writes

If there exists / in my blood a map, it is one I kee / folded for dear // of where it does not lead. God, / I want so badly to speak // with you

Note the line breaks. She also demonstrates her skill with lines in the absolutely heartbreaking “Motherland.” The opening lines –

What kind of world we leave / for our mothers?

and the closing –

“no one’s leaving the world / to anyone yet.”

Perfect. Now remember the title.

Both “What do Arabs Think of Ghosts?” and “Upon Realizing There are Ghosts in the Water” are haunting. From the former –

Death grows here. . . I don’t know the names / of the dead accumulating like snowflakes, so many / the news talks about them as if they are one thing, / amound of indisinguishable parts.

The magic she makes in this 33-page collection is just remarkable. I look forward to what she produces while she’s here.

Anisfield-Wolf’s press release about Chatti’s appointment

Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center

Chatti’s site