Harlem is Nowhere (Rhodes-Pitts)

If I had to place this book on a store’s shelves, I’m not sure where I’d put it. Is it Rhodes-Pitts memoir of her time living in Harlem? Is it a memoir of a place? Is it a book-length essay?

I’m not too concerned about genre and was generally willing to drift along with Rhodes-Pitts’ musings. But I wonder if she ever decided what kind of book she wanted to write. The book lacks focus.

Rhodes-Pitts also needs to hone her essay skills. The community is rich with anecdotes, history, politics, etc., and she seems to recognize the details that are worthy of mention. I often found myself wondering what a writer with a more precise and pointed style could have done with her notes.

The book certainly gave me a great deal to think about. Rhodes-Pitts is definitely an author to watch. I give her a great deal of credit for coming up with this idea. Apparently, it’s the first of a trilogy about places. I will look forward to the next two (Haiti, the American South).

Since I’ve read so much about Harlem, I’ve always wanted to visit. Rhodes-Pitts is a great tour guide, but I also feel (as a white person) like her books is as close as she thinks I should get.


Hand Me Down World (Jones)

I am a HUGE fan of Jones’ Mister Pip, so I was looking forward to this one. It’s an interesting experiment – a report on the life of a woman from the perspective of the people she meets. Then, at the end, the protagonist is allowed to speak. To Jones’ credit, he didn’t resort to any kind of shocking revelation. Ines, the protagonist, voices her perception of those who have spoken about her. And, because I read reviews, I knew that was coming. There is one more voice after hers. That came as a surprise, but a welcome one.

We are invited throughout to consider the notion of point of view, including our own. What assumptions do the characters make about Ines? What assumptions do we make? And there’s an underlying tension throughout the book about how skin color plays into those assumptions.

Still, I wanted more from Ines when she finally spoke – less narrative (after all, we know the plot) and more depth or even anger. Much has happened to her.

Jones’ writing is gentle, though the metaphors can be heavy-handed at times. The main characters are sharply drawn. In the end, I’d call this book an ambitious, worthwhile and flawed experiment.

The Hobbit (Tolkien)

The goal was to read it in time for the movie, as I’d done with the Lord of the Rings  trilogy, finishing one of those during the previews to the film version. Alas, I didn’t make it. But the book will always be a great memory for me since I read the entire thing out loud to our children. Though reading it in bits and pieces meant I sometimes lost the plot a bit, I delighted in Tolkien’s ambitious and complex sentences and cherished the questions the children would ask as well as when they’d urge me to keep reading. (Then again, maybe they just wanted to stay up later.)

So now I will see the movie. And now I understand the Lord of the Rings trilogy a bit better.

Alice in Wonderland next, I think.

The Heather Blazing (Toibin)

This book creeps up on you. It is a masterpiece of self-control and characters who, at times, show too much self-control for the sake of protecting or preserving relationships. But, to borrow a phrase (in honor of Chinua Achebe), “things fall apart” – lives, marriages, countries, one man’s notion of justice, and land. The image of a man, having lost the front of his house to coastal erosion, sitting in his living room and reading the paper is haunting. And Toibin knows just how to handle it. He does not comment on it or turn it into some sociological point; instead, he allows us (and the protagonist) to observe it. Then we all move on. Though we can move on. Though “[t]he County Council had put more huge boulders just below the cliff in an effort to ward off the sea” (203), Toibin makes it clear that there is no warding off the sea. And what does that idea have to do with the book’s final image?

There is an essential sadness in this book – about doing the best we can and that not being enough and how that can have an impact on all of those around us. This sadness does not rely on one scene or one character. Toibin is too subtle for that. This is a story that manages to be both gentle and devastating.

1491 (Mann)

This is a puzzling book. Mann seems to have written it to dispel misconceptions about the perception of pre-Columbus America and Native Americans. (Mann’s first appendix explains how he came to choose that term.) If that is indeed his goal, it’s a worthy one. Dispelling misconceptions is one of the primary goals of education – an education, Mann sporadically points out, that is dominated by oversimplified and sometimes wrong portraits that textbooks paint. But his reliance on archaeology is often puzzling. He depends on it at times, but is just as quick to point out when the research has revealed something new or when various archaeologists have arrived at very different conclusions. So how can we know what’s reliable? Other times, he seems to argue or accept arguments from nothing. There were, in one example, no pigeon bones in a mound, so the pigeon count could not have been as high as some claim. Other times, he’ll close sections that contain mixed views with sentences that start with phrases like, “It seems reasonable to infer. . .”

In the end, this book made me wonder what purpose archaeology serves. There are a few tentative claims that we would do well to learn from how Native Americans interacted with their environment. (And that they interacted represents one of the myths, the pristine myth, that wants to eradicate.)

My suggestion? Go to the bookstore or library and read pages 373-375. The rest is pretty much details. That section starts with this passage (emphasis in the original):

European and U.S. environmentalists argue that the forest [in Brazil] should never be cut down or used – it should remain, as far as possible, a land without people. In an ecological version of therapeutic nihilism, they want to leave the river basin to its own devices. Brazilians I have encountered are usually less than enthusiastic about this proposal. Yes, yes, we are in favor of the environment, they say. But we also have many millions of desperately poor people here. To develop your economy, you leveled your forests and carpeted the land with strip malls. If you want more forest, why don’t you tear down some of your strip malls and plant trees? Yes, yes, we are in favor of helping the poor, environmentalists respond. But if you cut down the tropical forest, you won’t be creating wealth. Instead you will only destroy the soil. Turning Amazonia into a wasteland will help nobody.

These dialogues of the deaf have occurred so often that the participants can almost recite their lines by rote.

“In an ecological version of therapeutic nihilism?” You have to giggle a bit at that language, don’t you?


The Prisoner of Heaven (Zafon)

The first book in this trilogy, The Shadow of the Wind, came out of nowhere and was such an incredible surprise. The labyrinthian nature of the plot matched Zafon’s sentences and his description of the city he so clearly cherishes, Barcelona. The writing was dense and the atmosphere thick. I loved it and recommended it often. I picked up The Angel’s Game as soon as it came out in hardback. I found it disappointing, a kind of re-tread. The writing is still there, but the zest, the originality, the historical commentary – they’d all lost their edge. So The Prisoner of Heaven waited until it was in paperback. As with many third books, it has to finish some stories, to tie up some loose ends. In this way, it succeeds. But  this is a tale, a yarn even, well-told, but signifying. . .

I know little about Franco and Spain during the war. Is there more here than I can glean? Perhaps.

We’ll see what Zafon turns to next. A book like this, a good book, is still better than most people’s most ambitious efforts. It’s no accident that the plot, in at least two ways, pays tribute to The Count of Monte Cristo.

So this, unlike the overrated The Girl. . . trio, is a trilogy worth finishing. Zafon can tell a good old-fashioned story. And credit once again should go to Lucia Graves for another fluid and lively translation.

The Bone People (Hulme)

I was drawn to this book both because it is a Booker Prize winner and because it is set in New Zealand. I was charmed by the author in her introductory comment about “standards in a non-standard book.” In it, she reports that “consensus on small points of punctuation never was reached” and that she likes “oddities.”

The book is certainly an oddity. Though it’s over 500 pages, it can be summarized pretty quickly. 3 unlikely people come together because of unlikely circumstances and break apart because of predictable and unfortunate ones, and then find their way back to each other.

These three characters all have their secrets that inform who they’ve become and, to Hulme’s credit, she does not feel the need to explain them away or to become too psychological.

The various settings, especially Kerewin’s tower, are evocative and purposeful. The fading Maori culture is an ever present shadow hanging over both the place and the people.

And Hulme’s right about the oddities. They are diverse, and they are interesting. She’s ignored some classic conventions and created a new kind of language, an appropriate move for this particular story as language is one of its regular motifs. I wish she’d written more than just one novel.