The Wrecking Light (Robertson)

Whereas a lot of poets (at least the ones I read) will take a small moment or detail and use it as a spring board for a larger idea, Robertson stays in the moment and allows any larger thoughts to emerge subtly, particularly when he’s (re)writing myths.

His imagery is beautiful. Consider this opening, from “Signs on a White Field” –

The sun’s hinge on the burnt horizon / has woken the sealed lake, / leaving a sleeve of sound.

Enjoy it.

Incognegro (Johnson)

From its very first image, Johnson’s graphic novel grabs you. And I would emphasize both of the words – graphic and novel. There are a handful of images that are pretty tough to look at, but Johnson is not tackling an easy topic here – lynching. I think it deserves to be called a novel because there is, in my limited experience with the genre, a tremendous amount of plot.

There are several places where the art (provided by Warren Pleece) and language work together to create powerful art (18-19). And the line, “Just because I play the fool sometimes doesn’t mean I am one” (37, emphasis his) is challenging to unpack. And there’s an exchange between a mother and child (103) that sets you moving in one direction in the first frame and then explodes your hopes in the next.

This is a well-put together piece. The characters are well-drawn. I was impressed by Johnson’s characterization of the sheriff, among others.

Read it. Be ready, but read it (including the author’s note).

These Dreams of You (Erickson)

I found this title on a list of Best American Literature books. Among the predictable other choices, this is the only one I’d never encountered – I’d not heard of either the title or the author. Surprised (and amused that this title is published by Europa Editions), I picked it up.

And I’m glad I did. It’s an amazing book – for several reasons.

It’s remarkably new, or is it modern? I thought more time would be needed before someone could write a meaningful novel that includes Obama’s election, but here it is. Erickson is strangely coy with names. In fact, I knew enough to know that Bob was someone, so I checked a review to find out who he is. I wish I hadn’t. I would have figured it out a few pages later.

It’s also modern because it focuses on a family facing foreclosure and the details and humiliations involved.

I don’t think I’m doing the book justice yet.

Erickson’s protagonist thinks hard about race, about why he and his wife have adopted an Ethiopian child, about why he’s creating a character who is black, about the meaning of Obama’s election, etc..

I read in the review I should not have consulted and in a review of another book somewhere in this blogosphere I’m still exploring a concern about the way author’s use coincidences. I just finished teaching A Tale of Two Cities in class, and wasn’t he the master of coincidence? So when is a coincidence contrived and when does it work for the novel?

The so-called coincidences work here, I think, because they support the amazing structure of the novel. It’s so interwoven it would require a visual aid to explain it. That’s not to say it’s confusing, just as tightly plotted as it is fragmented. Each section is no longer than a few pages. Many are just a few paragraphs. There are no chapter breaks.

Still, there are parts that made me wonder – that the protagonist and his wife have named their own child Parker (after the musician), that the somewhat-too-wise Sheba (the adopted child) seems to have music coming from her. (Erickson does make that name, bestowed on her by the protagonist and his wife, mean something.)

Erickson’s writing is as elegant as his plotting. He takes it up a notch with the section that focuses on Bob, and I expected a let down. I didn’t think he could sustain it. He does.

The ending is beautiful, on par, in my mind, with the end of Gatsby. It’s not as hypnotic as Fitzgerald’s prose, but that wouldn’t suit this prose. The last two paragraphs are great; they are music. But the last sentence, a stunning 16 lines in all (including a haunting lack of a capital letter) just blew me away.

Cleveland (Pekar)

I figured that in order to learn more about my soon-to-be hometown, I should start with one of its most notable citizens. I liked Pekar’s solid introduction to the history of the place interweaved with his own story. It’s amazing how much of a voice comes through even with so few words on so few pages. Of course, Joseph Remnant’s images help and I did see American Splendor. I love the way Pekar moves back and forth in time and that he’s not nearly as gloomy as his reputation and appearance suggest. The last three images of the book are beautiful.

There is one wince-worthy moment. When Pekar talks about some of the people he met at the VA who became characters in his stories, Toby, a white man (based on the pictures), is identified as a “Genuine Nerd.” His race is not mentioned. Mr. Boats, obviously a black man (again, based on the picture), is identified as a “lively and intelligent black man.” Why?

A minor moment in what is otherwise about to be the travel guide for my new hometown. First step: Find out whether the huge ‘Free’ stamp on 106 is real!

And read the introduction by Alan Moore and the good-bye by Jimi Izrael that frame the book. Fitting tributes.

Submergence (Ledgard)

J.M. Ledgard is, according to the bio on the back of his book, “a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies and a political and war correspondent for the Economist. He lives and works in Africa.” So, he seems to have the credibility necessary to write a story set in Somalia and among jihadist fighters. Or at least this is one strand. The other is the story of Danielle Flinders (with whom James More, the British spy being held captive in Somalia, had an intense and short relationship) who seeks to dive to the deepest part of the ocean floor to see what lives in that in the deepest of the deep, the Hadal (the resemblance to Hades is relevant).

Ledgard’s writing is elliptical and evocative. This is a book that is less about plot than it is about meandering memories. At times, Ledgard can lay the symbolism on a bit thick, but he offers great questions about frontiers, about water, and about the future.

Though I don’t understand all of the vocabulary here, this is one of my favorite passages:

The exaflap is the next step in the history of computing: one quintillion calculations a second. Then the zetraflop, yottaflop, and the xeraflop.  The goal is nothing less than to slow down time and colonize it. Of course, a petaflop computer uses more electricity than the power grid of an African city. Then there is the problem of asking useful questions of it.

Carry the One (Anshaw)

Anshaw first came to my attention because one of her stories is in the Best Stories of 2012 collection. This novel demonstrated to me that the story was no fluke. She writes with penetrating insight and brings characters to life with subtle strokes. The premise here works well – a moment of accidental (?) violence that reverberates throughout the lives of all involved. Anshaw shares time well. There are three siblings and at least two of them could be considered the main character. The third might be one as well, but since he is less an actor than one who is acted upon (and that’s part of his problem), he recedes a bit, which is fine.

One of the characters has a fair amount of sex. At times, it felt gratuitous, but I think I came to see it as her reaction to the incident that serves as a catalyst for the plot. Each of the siblings picks up a kind of obsession. This is just one of hers.

I definitely recommend this one and will investigate some of Anshaw’s other work.

Kind One (Hunt)

I swung and missed at this one. There is a key early detail that I just missed, and it had a big impact on how I read the rest of the book. I don’t think I missed it because I wasn’t paying attention (though I do wonder what missing it says about me – I’m trying to avoid spoilers here). I think I missed it because Hunt’s writing is so understated. There is work for the reader to do here. And because I missed the detail, I was frustrated by what Hunt was asking of me. In retrospect, though, I can see what a powerful situation he created and how well his structure and style supports his meaning, as I understand it, only now.

So, I’ll read it again.