Ambiguous Adventure (Kane)

Less a novel than a philosophical dialogue, this is still an engaging and thoughtful read. It is the story of Samba, a person divided – between religion and science, between knowledge and faith, between black and white, between the colonizer and the colonized, between body and soul, between two teachers, etc.. And Samba knows of these dichotomies and struggles to reconcile them. As he says, “I have become the two” (135).

As I mentioned, there is a lot of dialogue (often abstract) and sometimes it is difficult to track the speaker. Katherine Woods is an effective translator. These exchanges sound, for the most part, natural rather than didactic.

There is a lyrical section at the beginning of Part I, Chapter 5 that is emblematic of these dichotomies. Aside from those few pages, the writing doesn’t really sparkle; it is the ideas that will cause you to stop and think.


As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth (Perkins)

This is an odd exercise. I can’t figure out what Perkins is up to here. If it’s a coming-of-age story (as the ending suggests), it doesn’t work as we don’t really get the before picture of Ry.

There are images and perspective shifts that come across as gimmicks. In principle, I don’t have a problem with either, but they have to add something to the story.

The movement between Ry and the self-proclaimed omniscient narrator is shaky. Ry’s character is not credible. For a while, he seems quite young, but then suddenly he announces that he has a learning permit.

Overall, the plot just doesn’t hold up. I didn’t believe it. Perhaps that’s deliberate – that Perkins is after something more than realism here – but I couldn’t track it. I just think this one is a mess.

Nightwoods (Frazier)

I don’t understand why Frazier hasn’t gotten more acclaim for his follow-up efforts after Cold Mountain. Yes, that is a remarkable book. I even liked the movie. (I know you didn’t like the ending, Mom.). I found Thirteen Moons to be original and evocative. Frazier moves forward in time with Nightwoods, though he stays in North Carolina. He sets himself for a cliche trap (grumpy loner is forced to take on two troubled children for reasons I don’t want to spoil), but never resorts to the predictable transformations. This is a small town; the characters (and I include the setting) are few, and they all matter. The ending is suspenseful and true. Frazier wastes no words, and his sentences are a delight to read.

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (Hirsch)

I once waited in line, a long line, to get Willie Mays to autograph a book, and I remember being struck by the strictness of his requirements and the general perception that he was a grumpy guy. Hirsch goes a long way to explain why he was often perceived that way.

This was a fun read, as Hirsch weaved in and out of ballparks and into Willie’s personal life (and how it did and did not intersect with contemporary life). I learned more about stories I already knew – the Shot Heard Around the World, the Catch, the fight between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro. I learned about Willie’s life in the Negro Leagues, his attention to his personal finances, his problematic first marriage, as well as the criticism he received from Jackie Robinson (who does not come off well here) among others about not being more vocal during the Civil Rights era.

On the front cover and in the author’s note, much is made of the fact that this is an authorized biography. More than a few times – the dispute with Robinson, his relationship with Barry Bonds, his general sense of loyalty – I wondered if that got in Hirsch’s way, if he felt obliged to gloss over certain things or provide a rationale for behavior that at the time and in retrospect does not necessarily come off well.

Still, this was a great and apparently much-needed biography. Hirsch writes about baseball well – with the passion of a true fan. Now if the Twins could only be half so inspiring!

By Nightfall (Cunningham)

This was an awesome audiobook experience. If you’ve never heard Hugh Dancy’s voice (he’s great in The Big C), you have to find a way to do it. He’s a perfect match for Cunningham’s material.

And Cunningham has just nailed it here. His language is precise, and he has absolutely captured the internal and external world of his protagonist, Peter Harris. The opening scene, in the taxi, is pure genius. I will likely buy the book just so I can read it again.

Aside from an inclination (like Sam Mendes in American Beauty) to imbue a drifting plastic bag with far too much significance, I have nothing but praise for this book. For a few minutes, I thought maybe Cunningham had let it run too long, but then he provided an ending, then had me keeping the car on in a parking lot just so I could hear the rest.

The word that stood out for me most in this book was evanescence. It captures perfectly what Cunningham is doing here as he applies to relationships (between lovers, siblings, parents & children), art, and life. “This is the world,” Cunningham says and Dancy reads with the simplicity it demands. “You live in it.”

Brilliant, brilliant book.

Evidence of the Journey (Sneeden)

Sneeden’s poems are taut; there are absolutely no extra words. Every word is precisely placed, every line broken purposefully. It took me a short while to find my stride in this collection, but when I got to “Estuarine” (I could shun the perfunctory / metaphors of collision), I was hooked. Other highlights include “Interior with a Violin Case,” “Muse as Critic,” “Continuing Demands,” and “Eeling.” “Easter” exudes tension between the generations as an extended family travels to church. What are the “offerings before the arguments”? The (grand)children?

Late in the collection, Sneeden’s attention turns to his father, and the poems, no less tense, are, in the true sense of the word, heartbreaking. In “The Eyes of the Scallops,” he says, “[W]e worked / beyond this world’s vague and broken shells.” The prize of the collection is in Part IV, the title poem. The stanza about the performance of The Women of Troy (and the double casting) will stay with me always.

The Lynchings in Duluth (Fedo)

As a relative newcomer to Minnesota, I know little about its history. I observed a class in which the teacher was comparing the mob behavior in To Kill a Mockingbird and the mob behavior in his horrific case. I found Fedo’s book on a trip to Duluth, and it is extremely well-written. Fedo has done his homework and created an excellent example of narrative non-fiction that demonstrates how the post-WW1 white Duluth community, thanks to what was almost certainly an outright lie, went from being individuals to an extremely dangerous mob. Fedo believes that the healing has begun. Has it?