Sing, Unburied, Sing (Ward)

I was going to wait for the paperback, but then it won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, I couldn’t wait any longer. And for 130 pages, this National Book Award Winner is a very good book. And then on p. 131, it became a great one, one of my favorite books of all time. I think what amazes me about Ward, both here and in Salvage the Bones is the way her writing comes off as so straightforward (Ernest Gaines is like this too), but once you begin to peel even one layer off, the nuance and complexity of both her form (the pacing, the journey and the architecture of this novel are incredible) and content are astonishing. And after just one read, and reading as a Northern, city-based, white male, I am sure I only got a limited sense of the story, but despite the current urgency of the challenges Ward’s characters face here, I finished the novel with a remarkable sense of hope. I also admire the way Ward creates flawed characters, but does not blame them for their flaws. There are no angels here, but there are no devils either. Or maybe there are, but not in the way we expect. (I am trying to avoid spoilers here.) Flirtations with the supernatural in fiction often put me on guard; here, I believed.

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Prison Industrial Complex Explodes (Eng)

Though it’s classified as poetry, I think this book is everything. It’s also everything we need to make its own headline as title come true. Eng has questions, political, personal, social, judicial – and they are rarely her own. And the responses she provides and / or are provided for her demonstrate that we’re asking the wrong friggin’ questions.

It’s funny, though. Canada has been getting a lot of great press lately, due mostly to the charisma and somewhat to the policies of Justin Trudeau. I know he’s made some dubious and destructive choices about the environment. I’d love for him to respond Eng’s book. And I’d love for someone to create an American version.

 

Read about it for yourself.

Voyage of the Sable Venus (Lewis)

I wish the Epilogue, entitled “Boarding the Voyage,” had been a Prologue. I think I would have understood Lewis’ project better. Her comments about art at the margins put the center of her project and her book in focus in a way they weren’t for me when I read them the first time. The Mothers and “Beauty’s Nest” are remarkable, but what’s most remarkable is the kind of art project that is the focus of the book. And to appreciate that, I think you need to read the Epilogue first.

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Danticat)

I know it’s not the cheeriest of titles, but I would read anything Danticat wrote. This is part of Graywolf’s ‘The Art of’ series (edited by Charles Baxter). The books are meant to explore a particular and perhaps neglected aspect of creative writing.

While Danticat does reflect on how some writers have presented death (her comments on Beloved made me want to read it again), she ends up, I think, writing about her experiences with death, both after the earthquake in Haiti and in her own life. I am not sure that I walked away from this book with a greater knowledge of how to write about death, but more with the Miller-ian command that “attention must be paid.” Specific attention, that is. And Danticat is one of our finest observers.

Thirteen Ways of Looking (McCann)

The novella, “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” is just astonishing. It is one of the most tightly crafted, thoughtful and original pieces I’ve ever read. The comparison between writing poetry and detective work that opens in chapter V is both gorgeous and true. When the story came together for me, I wanted to applaud. To accomplish such a thing so elegantly and in such an understated manner deserves a standing ovation. The other three stories in the collection are strong, especially “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” Still, it is the novella, a perfect complement to the Stevens poem that will stay with me always. If you’ve read other McCann books, you’ll relish this one, too. If you haven’t, this is a great place to begin.

 

Colum McCann’s site

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Young)

I admit that I winced a bit when I saw the last two words of Young’s title. I worried that potential readers would dismiss the book as too much of the moment, as too much of a reaction to the current occupant of the White House. By the end, though, I saw the phrase ‘fake news’ not as an attention-getting ripped from the headlines phrase, but as an integral part of Young’s argument that we are in danger of becoming “as fictional as the world [we’ve] created” (341).

As Young, whose poetry skills are constantly and appropriately on display here, moves through examples like P.T. Barnum (and having just watched The Greatest Showman, this was an interesting companion piece) to  Stephen Glass, he develops the case that there is more to these examples than just people under pressure taking shortcuts to fame. He takes a careful look at what people steal, how they present it, and what this pattern reveals about our thoughts (and I mean both those of the Phonies – and the Holden Caufield piece is addressed here – and those of the audience) about race. I think Young would agree with Simon & Garfunkel that “after changes upon changes we are more or less the same” with respect to race.

Another interesting coincidence was to encounter a classic case of invention in The Washington Post (one I remember from growing up) around the same time that I watched The Post. Young gives Ben Bradlee credit for writing well about the experience.

Having enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine and been befuddled by his subsequent admission that he invented quotations for Bob Dylan, I was sorry to see Young limit himself to taking potshots at Lehrer. I would have loved to see him unpack what happened there.

I admired Young’s writing throughout. And I appreciated his honesty about his decision to include a section on Rachel Dolezal. But he had his kind of revenge in how he chose to present his thoughts on her fraud. She merits only notes, not polished prose.

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking of one of my students. When asked on a form whom she admired, she wrote, “Beyonce.” That was all well and good. But when asked why, she wrote, “Because she’s famous.” This latter response is, I think, representative of what Young fears.

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.