Freedom Summer (Watson)

Bruce Watson’s book, subtitled The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, is a remarkable accomplishment. His premise – that the summer that Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were killed – represents a high point in citizen-led democracy stands up well. There are names we know throughout the book (it is the rare author who can criticize MLK, Jr. – once wrongly, I thought), but Watson’s story is of those whose names remain unknown to many – Fannie Lou Hamer, for example. I knew of Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, but nothing of his work before that.

At times, Watson’s tribute seems too glowing, but it’s hard to argue with it. What these people did, both white and black, both young and old, is astonishing. Is Obama’s election only possible because of their work? Watson doesn’t spend much time drawing that line, but if John Lewis believes it is so, I’m ready to believe it.

Watson is a great storyteller. If at times the prose shows tinges of purple, that’s okay. These were people working for high stakes and broad ideals. It’s hard not to get swept away. It’s equally hard to think of where these kinds of people are today.

As good a writer as Watson is, he often defers to the words of those who were there, even anonymous ones. One woman, apologizing on behalf of the state of Mississippi, wrote to the Goodmans: “Who are these fiends and where do they live who could come out of the darkness and kill?” (133).

All of those who involved in Freedom Summer clearly believed Faulkner’s lines from Intruder in the Dust:

“Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: our picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.”

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Everything in this Country Must (McCann)

If writing is, as I’m becoming increasingly convinced it is, writing one good sentence that makes the reader want to read the one after that, then McCann has to be considered a master. This odd little collection (I think it must be British; there’s not a price in dollars on the back) features 2 great short stories and one longer one. (Or is it, at 102 pages, a novella? I’ve never really understood what qualifies something as a novella.) They are Irish stories about the Troubles. These are not stories about those who are on the proverbial front lines of the struggle between Northern Ireland and England. They are, instead, stories of those who suffer as a result of what goes on there.

All three stories are so well-crafted, but the longest piece – “Hunger Strike” – is most exquisite. Though I loved Let the Great World Spin and Zoli, I think his plotting is tighter here.

Some sample sentences from “Hunger Strike” –

The protagonist wears “a shirt of aloneness” (45).

“He thought God must have been a sly and complicated bastard to give people different words for normal things” (66).

“Her feet left prints where she walked and the grass bent back as if it held the memory of her and all the places she had been” (85).

“[H]e wondered to himself if he was two different people within just one word, both a boy and a man” (87-88).

Slow Lightning (Corral)

I read about this collection in an interview with Junot Diaz, and since I’ll read anything he writes and he takes so long between books, I figured I’d read this one. It’s hard to articulate what’s present in this collection, but there’s definitely a strong, electric voice. As with Diaz’s work, it would help to know some Spanish (which I don’t), but it’s not absolutely necessary. “The Blindfold” is one of my favorites.

Some other samples (and I can’t do his spacing justice):

From “Watermark” –

Not cathedrals / but presence. / The first man she saw naked / was the rain. The dark of her knees / a watermark. . . If I dream I’m cupping her face / with my hands, I wake up holding / the skull of a wolf.

From “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” –

He learned English / by listening to the radio. The first four words / he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth: / Percolate.

From “My Hands are My Heart” –

20. He believes a pomegranate is a thesaurus.

21. Each seed a synonym for the color red.

From “Temple in a Teapot” –

to soothe her broken heart / she burned the photos and letters, / kept an adjective / as a memento

From “To a Jornalero Cleaning Out My Neighbor’s Garage” –

Sometimes in order to say a word / it’s necessary / to spit it out.

From “To a Mojado Who Died Crossing the Desert” –

Sometimes a gust of snow / floats across the water / as gracefully as a bride.

I have a feeling this collection is going to become quite well-worn as I read it again and again.

The Buddha in the Attic (Otsuka)

I admit it. I picked this book because of the sticker. Not the gold one that said Pen / Faulkner Award for Fiction, but the red one that said ‘Buy 2, Get the 3rd Free.’ I really wanted two other books on the table, and this filled out the order.

I forgot all about the other two the minute I started reading, or rather inhaling (I finished its 129 pages all in one day), this book.

This is the most stylistically powerful and purposeful book I’ve read since Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Otsuka’s bold choice to write the whole book (!) in first person plural was remarkably risky and it works wonderfully. You would think you wouldn’t be able to get an understanding of character that way, but you’d be wrong and you’d missing part of Otsuka’s point. This is the story of a group of women, Japanese women who took a boat from Japan to San Francisco to become “picture brides.” It is also the story, for Japanese internment and its impact on individuals and their families.

Otsuka makes one last stylistic choice in the last chapter, and it, too, is perfect.

This is now on my list of favorites. I can’t wait to read her earlier book, When the Emperor Was Divine.

Even the title is great. The image that it refers to will stay with me.

11/22/63 (King)

I’ve never read a Stephen King novel before. I listened to and enjoyed The Green Mile as much for the project itself as its execution (pun intended). I read King’s non-fiction book, On Writing, and enjoyed his voice and his insights. I’m not sure what drew me to this one. I’m not really a fan of time travel stories. Perhaps it was because I do believe that something fundamental changed in this country after JFK was killed.

King breaks one of the central rules (as I understand them) of anything in the neighborhood of science fiction. He creates a new world, but has his characters be deliberately fuzzy about the rules. At first, this seemed lazy, like King knew the questions, but didn’t want to bother answering them. By the end, though, it was clear that he’d created that haziness on purpose. His characters really didn’t understand the rules and they acted accordingly.

The construction of this book is remarkable. And self-conscious. King’s protagonist (perhaps too quick to turn into an action hero) notes the frequent parallels. The past is not only “obdurate”; it also harmonizes. The research is here, but never overwhelming.

King makes another regrettable choice — his main character is an English teacher. Often a cliche, over 800 pages, its impact kind of washes out. That he is not an historian matters, but why couldn’t he be a science teacher? Books that feature English teachers are filled with too many literary allusions, even for my tastes.

Some may claim that King has Peter Jackson syndrome – that the book has three endings. They might be right, but I don’t think it’s because King wasn’t sure how to end it, but that the first two were a set-up for the third. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) The middle ‘ending’ seems surprisingly cursory and relies a surprising amount on dialogue for exposition.

It’s a good, quick (really) read. King does believe in the principle he has his main character espouse – just tell what happens, and then what happens next. Does he rely on the coy ending a bit too much? Probably, but it’s not a huge distraction.

Exile (Ejersbo)

I took a break from 11/22/63 to get this particular book out of my life. The cover declares that it is “a cult bestseller.” The author died young (at 40), and I wonder how much that had to do with the notoriety of this, the first of a trilogy (none of which were published during his lifetime).

There’s nothing particularly profound about this tale of the privileged living in Africa and trying to navigate being in a kind of (wait for it) exile. The main character, Samantha, is just absurd. Her aggressive sexuality comes off as more than a little slimy in the hands of this male writer.

Ejersbo’s occasional attempts to dabble with real issues come off as incredibly clumsy (and, one hopes, poorly translated), especially since they surrounded by racist, misogynist absurdities.

Why did I finish it? I have a hard time putting books down, and I guess I held out some hope that Ejersbo might find his way to a point. If he was aiming for an account of the existentialist ennui of the privileged class, he missed. By a lot.

Shadow of Heaven (Voigt)

A poet / teacher I know recommended her and this collection’s got one of those shiny symbols on it (National Book Award Finalist), so I took a chance on it. These poems are not the stuff that stirs one’s soul – at least not mine. A few too many poems about dogs and flowers, with an occasional stunner, like “What I Remember of Larry’s Dream of Yeats.”

Not a keeper.